Off Piste In Cambodia, Phnom Kulen, Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei and Aftermath, 7th and 10th February 2001

Well piste – the road to Phnom Kulen from Siem Reap

We had arranged three days in Siem Reap/Angkor in our itinerary:

Steppes Itinerary Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001

…but as is often our wont, we had a mind to change the itinerary a bit once we got to Cambodia. After all, that’s what independent travel is all about.

We loved our time looking around the Siem Reap/Angkor sites, but two days of doing that was enough for us. Meanwhile, I had read one or two articles before we left home about sites reasonably near Siem Reap that were just starting to open up for tourism post war. We fancied exploring one or two of those.

It is normally quite easy to make such arrangements. I am very understanding that such changes are in effect requests for additional touring and I expect to pay the going rate for such additional tours.

On 5th and 6th February, I explained all that to our guide, Khouch, encouraging him to call his head office and make arrangements for us to visit some more remote sites on 7th February. Khouch was most reluctant. He seemed to think it reflected badly on him or on the itinerary that had been prepared for us in advance.

At one point, I even had to ask him to let me speak with his boss myself, directly, to explain how extremely satisfied we were and how much more extremely satisfied we would be if they would take quite a lot of money from me and arrange a more remote touring day for 7th.

In the end, of course, it was arranged. We would go to Phnom Kulen, Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei for the day.

Our photos for those first few days are in this album – click here, the first 58 being Siem Reap/Angkor 5th and 6th February, the rest being that amazing off piste touring day on 7th.

We set off later than intended, as Khouch had some difficulty getting the tickets/permits required for the trip. We also made very slow progress along the “road” (see photo above), with driver Guon (Janie called him “Goon”) managing 3 to 5 kph because he was so fearful of punctures.

Phnom Kulen Waterfall

Phnom Kulen was,  as I describe it in my log:

…a bit of a local circus with a reclining Buddha & a monk & some large stones. We go on to the waterfall where locals eat and swim…

To some extent we were in search of lingas, but needed to go on to Kbal Spean to see those. There we had to hire a local guide. The local guides are all retired/reformed Khmer Rouge geezers, who don’t speak English but that’s OK because at least Khouch can earn his corn translating for us.

Janie with our local guide at Kbal Spean

The translation is quite important. Not because we needed to be told what lingas look like, but we did need to be told to stick strictly to the path because no-one has yet got around to clearing landmines from the undergrowth either side of the path.

“If you want a pee, wait until we get back or if necessary pee on the path, but don’t wander into the bushes to have a pee anywhere around here”, translated Khouch, most usefully.

In short, off piste is only a good idea up to a point.

A safe space to see the lingas

The Khmer chaps had cleared some tracks through to see the splendid lingas, which Janie can be seen (above) observing with great interest.

Then on to Banteay Srei, a really beautiful old temple well worth exploring:

A wonderful ruined temple but all Janie cares about is feet

All the photos from that day are well worth a look – here’s the Flickr link again.

We let Khouch and Goun know that we were very happy, but somehow it seems that doubts remained at the agency about our unusual request.

For our last night in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh 10 February, we had arranged to eat at Ponlok restaurant, now defunct but described by Conde Nast Traveller as:

319-323 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh (00 855 23 212 025). For upmarket Khmer cuisine, this is one of the best places around…

I got a call from the agency saying that the manager of the agency wanted to meet us there. He was an Englishman who seemed to have been taken from central casting of a Somerset Maugham TV series. He insisted on treating us to our feast and wanted to make absolutely sure that we were happy, because we had changed our itinerary in Siem Reap and our guide was concerned that we might not be satisfied customers.

I explained that we had no complaint at all, other than mild irritation at the difficulty we had persuading Khouch that our request for flexibility was built on satisfaction rather than dissatisfaction. The manager explained that more or less all of the guides were very nervous and quite incapable of making decisions. This was probably because they were all relatively young and had all had severely traumatic childhoods. Understandable.

Hello, Mr Frog

Ponlok Restaurant along riverfront – tried soup, frogs legs in ginger, marinated pork, chicken in Cambodian spice & morning glory. Stuffed.

The other thing Janie and I remember about this meal was the noisy, dripping air conditioning unit above us, which made us feel very nervous and decreasingly hungry, while the manager chap talked for England and Cambodia at far greater length than was necessary. We’d have been happier to have paid for our own dinner and to have dined in peace, but there you go.

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