Angkor highways - Samrong

Discussion in 'Cambodia Motorcycle Trip Report Forums' started by JimCA2, May 26, 2004.

  1. We’ll we would take off on May 18th for 5 days from PNH to see if we could follow in the footsteps of Mr. XR 400 Don Duvall and see if we could find some of the cool bridges he got to look at. With a few old Toul Tom Pong military maps in hand and the Gecko map, Philippe the Belgian and I plotted out a ride that might be rewarding into areas we haven’t heard too much about but looked worth investigating. I wanted to seek out some of the Prasats (old temples) and Speans (Bridges) that aren’t publicized and unvisited except Don. Some dotted on the maps as ruins and some not even plotted. We were to cover an area northwest from Angkor Wat (what the maps tell us is route 81 out of Psar Pouk) weaving through the country side towards Samrong. From there we would set off west towards Sisophon, after looking around Banteay Chmar’s lesser prasat neighbors. We did find a couple Don had mentioned to us and hopefully a few are here that Don missed as I would really like to think I was traveling in the footsteps of Jayavaraman instead of Mr. Duvalls. There has been some showers to put every thing back into a green state and to offer some periodic cloud cover and an occasional cooling shower, but nothing to destroy the roads or make it a mud bath yet.
    My San Diego buddy Mark, and his friend Ed, joined us and we set out late on our motorbike journey that would take us from the start on an ancient highway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Here lie many bridges that have been used for centuries. In the town of Kouk Thlok Kraom there is one of the most notable spans. (A nice span can be also found on the route 66 between Beng Melea and Kuav) The section of road between Kampong Thom and Skun is completely paved now and concrete bridges to replace the ancient spans should be finished with in the next year. As the road is much better, so is the rate of speed by vehicles, but fortunately the abundance of cows will still keep traffic in check along the way. 100K out of PNH at the Khuhak Nokor site I got a flat but it was on the rim side of my tube. Able to get it fixed off the country road and the patch lasted the rest of the journey. He charged me 1000Riel and I paid two because he didn’t try to ding me the first time. We arrived in Siem Reap as the sun was setting but not before stopping at a half dozen small bridges and getting a few pictures on the way.
    In Siem Reap, pop in on Carl or Steven from the IVY Bar of additional insight to the area. The next day we set off for Samrong to the northwest, but not until we checked out an abandoned span high and dry at the NW corner of the West Baray. After a few missed turns and many questions to villagers, Philippe picked up a kid from the village and we were able to zero in on the bridge. Don you were meant to be taken literally as it was right off the NW corner and not the first left turn off from the NW corner. It was a land locked reef 50 meters long in the middle of the rice fields around us. After zig-zagging on levies and trails we missed the exit for NW Angkor Route (Gecko map) 202 to Samrong and wound up on the business route 6 where we were able to pick up the 202 from Psar Toul Pouk a few kilometers up the road. Needless to say we missed another span 2.5K from the first one.
    The road was a little sandy but accessible for 4 wheeled vehicles. Small concrete bridges over shadowed laterite blocks in the channels below. This was a nice ride on tree line villages along the way, with the exception my sole of my shoe blew out and it turned into a quest to find some 502 superglue. [Amazing stuff and if you are on the road and need a quick fix, its Gao (glue) Prahm roy pee (502)] A few ot miens up the road I finally got my glue and made the repairs. We were headed for Koul where Mark had seen a small Prasat 3 weeks earlier on a journey back from Thailand through Osmach. Off to our left farther up the road was construction of a new wat on a laterite base that once stood the Prasat of T’nuang. A quick investigation of the site revealed remains of brick structure on the other side of the wat. Leaving the Wat we hit a clearing and a fork in the road.
    Damn we missed the exit for Koul and went left when we should have gone right. One village later where big trucks were bringing in dirt and putting this village in the artery of bigger roads, we opted to turn around and go back to the exit, but of course not before spreading some hospitality to villagers at a house with dump truck maintenance going on in the driveway. In the village of Baeng we asked directions from an ox cart driver to ensure we were still on track. We cut west down a channel in a deep river bed. A rickety wooden bridge possibly capable of handling our bikes connected a levee; below rubble where an ancient bridge once stood. A girl of about 16 coming from the opposite direction pushed her bike loaded down with field tools up the loose dirt embankment. Twenty or more meters ahead was an identical scenario (with out the girl on bike). A carved stone lay partially buried in the sand on the Koul side of the bridge. We were close.
    After a few more kilometers, we arrived at the small Prasat of Koul. Two small stone structures with in fortress walls were playing host to a couple of trees. Roots crept down one of the structures to the ground, as a tree gained additional height, reaching for the sky above. A few photos and cuisine of baguettes a la can of tuna dip timed our departure.
    Asked a couple of curious locals if there were any more of these things around and they said yes up the road a few hundred meters. Inquiring the name of this Prasat and the next one we were given Wat Koul for both. Not too cool as I made entry for Koul 2 in the GPS, but the family sitting under the house next door pointed it out eliminating all confusion. This place was big. It stretched for a couple of 100 meters. Broken down buildings and fences capped the various mounds they were built on. Four lathed stone pieces laying on the ground. Mark said wow man look at this. What? Didn’t you see this thing 3 weeks ago? A hundred meters off the road, and possibly a chicken crossing the road could only be the reason as there were no exits here to be missed. Investigating this temple was cut shorter as we were losing daylight. We wanted to make the north major junction at Moung and get as close to Samrong as we could with out losing daylight. This was Angkor Highway Route 68. This road was better, but still very much country road. Fifty clicks from Samrong we lost daylight. Stopped in a village and contemplated the rest of our journey over a tukralok. Note, at this point, don’t try to break records getting to your destination as with out daylight, fatigue and impaired judgment you increase the chances of hitting some pretty bad obstacles.
    No moon or artificial light allowed the stars to cover the sky horizon to horizon 360 degrees. Stopping the bikes to take this in, I have never seen the big dipper so camouflaged against a sea of stars. With the North Star pegged and traveling north we pushed on knowing that there were no missed exits. A few damaged wooden bridges with planks missing sprung up out of the darkness ensuring we stopped and chose routes appropriately.
    Prior to the Samrong Traffic circle Philippe got sevah (signal) and his phone immediately started ringing. He was stopping for a brief chat and I waited at the traffic circle as the others traveled ahead. What kind of conversation is Philippe having? I think I would rather wait down the road where I passed a small drink stand staffed with a couple of cute girls but half way to the drink stand Philippe had intercepted me. I don’t think this really had any bearing on the scenario but rooms in Samrong go fast. Arriving at the guesthouse at 8:30PM I got the Masonite/plywood suite with the pad lock door in the back (ST rooms), down the corridor from the bucket showers. On the bright side, It did have a mosquito net, fan and power for my battery chargers. Two bucks.
    This was a long day. I crossed the road and had a couple a beers on the main drag. Philippe joined me later as Mark and Ed had taken off to a restaurant around the corner. I mentioned to a German guy doing some kind of relief work there, that were headed off to see find some Prasats and Speans in the country side. He was unaware of such sites and warned us of the imminent land mine danger.
    The plywood walls dividing my corridor weren’t too conducive to sleep with snoring next door, some traffic in the room next door, and the transistor radio playing at 6:30 AM from one of the hotel workers. Ok finally an earlier start.
    Loaded up with Sisophon in mind for the night we ventured south on the 68 to seek out some ancient stuff. My Toul Tom Pong military map indicated ruins starting at Ta Pen 15k south on the road we came in on. Stopping to ask a group of women selling meat at the side of the road, a woman of about 40 seem to be saying O'le Lordy, there are Prasats over there and over there. This is music to my ears. Asking names and how far up the road these sites are a curious crowd gathers around. A short 39 year old man named Jien Savuang wrapped in just a plaid krama banters in. I say, Ok you know? What are you doing this afternoon? Saving me a lot of time? Great! He says just a minute and runs off to his house to change in some more appropriate riding gear (moto dop style). He hops on the back of my bike and off into the country side we go. I am not enjoying this as I am loaded down with gear and there is sand and a few ox cart channels. At no more than 29k per hour winding out in first gear hoping not to dump my additional human cargo we start looking for sites.
    Our first one was Prasat Ampil, and no more that small brick rubble surrounded by spiny vines which would be par for the course among our following discoveries. We asked if there was any mine danger, but Savuang said Halo had been through the area. Hiking around the sites, however thoughts crossed my mind of the most important statistic….how many mines in cleared areas go off. After more sand, trees and thin stumps we pulled up to Prasat Preah Angkor a more intact larger Prasat with a pool adjacent. A place for a God King to jet off to for the weekend perhaps. Savuang didn’t know and I could only speculate. The structure and pond were constructed in larger stones and again entangled in vines.
    We were off to our first bridge Spean Meang about 10k away. This was a low structure covered with trees and overgrowth sitting in the rice fields. Time had changed the water patterns as some water pooled at the opposite end of the bridge. A man net fished in the pond. There was another bridge 1k up the road. This one was not as spectacular. The river ahead chose another path as over time. This spean could have dammed itself with earth leaving no visible arches, or was it just destroyed over time with a few exposed rocks. I didn’t bring a shovel (or a more needed machete) that day to find out. I suspect drawing a line between the two bridges would have pointed us to another one, but we moved south to join the old highway to have a glimpse at 3 bridges lined up with in 5k of each other. We would make a stop first at a leveled prasat on a mound engulfed in thorny vines.
    We drove through a nice neighborhood with grass patched lined trails, stopping two times for directions. This was a planned community laid out in a grid pattern and this is where Philippe relieved me of passenger duty. On the outskirts, Savuang exchanged words with a woman friend passing by explaining his reasons for hanging out with the Barangs that day. We took the paths into cleared out rice fields to pick up the Angkor highway again.
    The first of our 3 bridges was the smallest and was in a collapsed state. The nice thing about these ancient bridges….the century the bridge happens to collapse in will still leave a passable route above water as the size of the stones don’t have much room to settle in. The wind picked up here and a storm cloud passed to the south missing us. This was exiting, but the following to spans proved to be larger, more impressive and intact. The second bridge probably covered a pond most of its life but the lack of water this season has left it high and dry. The sun partially broke through as fast as the storm cloud had done at the previous site allowing for some decent snap shots. A few sections of railings were intact on the second bridge but possible artillery damage cut two blocks deep into two of the columns on the west side. It is hard to imagine that the builder received a bad batch of base stones. A laborer cutting massive stones day after day would have made this discovery eminent, but then again I will leave the task of surmising a grudge and finding a fossilized whip to the archeologist. The third bridge in this series was even more magnificent. You can rest assured that this thing will be standing over the pond for centuries to come. This pond was an oasis for additional vegetation that impeded any chance at getting an encompassing photograph. I climbed down a tree from the bridge to share Philippe’s vantage point on the other side of the pond. We took group shots on the bridge and Mark enlightened Savuang on the finer points of digital photography. Savuang was a pretty sharp guy as by the end of the day he had the GPS concept down as well.
    It is getting late in the afternoon and we have two sites left to squeeze in. Mark and Ed have decided to give these sites a miss and head back to Samrong. They chose Osmach as their destination for the evening and wanted to make it by sunset. Philippe and I had already decided that another night in Samrong would be fine for us provided we got back in time to get a better guesthouse.
    We cut back east and hit the main highway back to Ta Pen south of Chong Kal. Philippe, Savuang and I head south and man is it nice to be on decent hard pack again. We travel a few kilometers to a metal bridge and before crossing it, cut right down a trail. Not far from the road is Prasat Amkaul as Savuang relates it. A lone single tower with a lotus flower carved out of the top adjoins an enclosed courtyard with windows with massive stone headers on the east side wall. The back of the tower has a archway that is curved shaped despite the similar construction of the arches found on the bridges. Back to the metal bridge and southward to what has to be the god father of all the Angkor bridges.
    Driving south on the 68 we hit a jungle area and with out realizing it we were looking at tree tops and the overgrowth shrubs growing out of the edge of the road concealed the fact that we are even on a bridge. Only small sections of railing peeking out of the growth would indicate it. This Spean “Oh Jeeit” spanned 100 meters and towered 10 to 15 meters above the ground below. I looked through the bushes over the edge and can see its not a good spot for an unsuspecting motorist to careen through the bushes. Oh Sheeit! We were awestruck. Don you would have really thought we were morons if we missed this one! Waterlines on the bridge indicated the need for the height of such a structure but the magnitude to employ the bridge building techniques of ancient times makes this a remarkable wonder. Having filled one hell of a day with one site consistently out doing the next it was time to head back to Samrong and grab a decent room.
    We stopped back in Chong Kal for refreshments before taking Savuang back to Ta Pen. Once in Ta Pen we rewarded Savuang generously (10 bucks) for showing us the wonders in his back yard and mostly because with out him we would still be traversing the country side missing most of what we saw. We only covered the area partially and there is still a lot of shit to see there so another visit to Ta Pen will be in order. With a little luck Savuang will have more work, look him up (no English). About 7k up the road we got hit by our first rain. We ducked into a covered vacant roadside stand. Philippe immediately grabbed the hammock. I laid back on a wooden platform. We were soon joined by some curious children from the neighboring houses. A pick up truck full of back packers that probably got in thru Osmach drove by. Philippe and I talked about how they were going to pass right over that massive bridge and not have any idea of its existence. A big blue loaded down Russian truck passed us heading north. They’re aware of the bridge, but they must get their goods to the market. We got into Samrong before dark and checked into the Stang Toek Guesthouse for five bucks. I don’t mind two and a half times last nights price for concrete walls, bath and TV. Unnecessary AC will run another five. They were building another set of rooms above so business is good. AM construction noise is bad!!! We ate a nice dinner down the street and around the corner towards Osmach. A few drinks in the watering holes on Main Street then a much welcomed night’s sleep. We moved on to Sisophon the next day and I will follow that up in another post. Also Philllllippppe, please add some color commentary as I am sure I missed some things
  2. Jim,

    Keep the reports coming, that was a killer read. Once the next dry season kicks in I'm thinking of trying the koh kong-pailin route, any recent info there? Either that, or I need to complete the Phnom Deik to Beng Mealea Angkor highway and head up to Koh Ker. I ran into a freak monsoon in march when I spent the night in Ta Seng, had to go back to Kampong Thom via Stoeng after checking out Preah Khan. I hope to drop into PNH for a weekend in a few months.


  3. some guys I know did that ride and said it was tough. might not last another rainy season and wouldnt do it alone. some steep ridges that you have to ride on with out a place to put your feet down. a daelim or chaly might be easier. as for this last ride, a few pics at june issue. still want to get back up there as there was stuff to the east of the high way that needs to be found as well as stuff all along the north in mine country. see you in nov.

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