Kompong (or Kampong) Thom sits on National Route Six about halfway between Cambodia's two most popular tourist attractions; Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient city of Angkor, and the capital, Phnom Penh. All the road traffic between these two points on the eastern side of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) passes through the town, and most of it seems to stop at the Arunras Hotel.
Every day there’s a line of buses of various makes, models, vintages, and ownership, parked nose in or parallel to the hotel’s curved doorstep, it being on the corner of the main road and the curiously named Democrat Street. Curious because as an observation, I always find it interesting that countries with little in the way of actual working democracy, tend to name all manner of things after the concept, though little in practice exists. Such are these things around here.
For one of the largest buildings in town, the Arunras has one of the smallest lobby areas for a hotel that I’ve come across. It can be crowded with barely half-a-dozen people there, including the desk staff. The buses stop to give the passengers some grub, or for a pit stop depending on what time of day or night they’re passing through. For a place many stop but few take the time to stay; things are a-changing. For a byway on the highway, Kompong Thom is starting to step out of the shadows of Cambodia’s other tourist destinations.
In Khmer “Kompong” means town or city on the river, and “Thom” is big or grand. Previously the province was named Kompong Pous Thom (the grand city or port of the Great Snakes) given that local legend had it a pair of great snakes lived in a nearby cave. During the colonial period the French divided Cambodia (or Cambodge as they called it) into provinces for administrative purposes, and shortened the name, as European colonialists cutting a swathe across local mores were apt to do.
The town is the capital of the eponymous province, Cambodia's second largest by area, and one of nine provinces bordered by the Tonle Sap River, which flows from the Great Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, to intersect the Mekong and the Bassac rivers at Phnom Penh. The river flows normally north-to-south, except for the wet season in Cambodia from May until November, when the Mekong turns into the world’s fourth largest river by volume and reverses the smaller river’s flow – up-river.
Kompong Thom is flat as Cambodia mainly is, and in the rainy season a luminous green in the bright sunshine covers the rice fields for miles and it’s wet, with water everywhere. In places, you can’t tell where the natural waterways end and where seasonal flooding begins. The local economy is fishing, farming, weaving, palm sugar, cashews and increasingly, tourism.
The green flatness of the rice crop on the landscape can be picturesque. The flatness is interspersed with stands of sugar palms lining the edge of the paddies. Everywhere can be seen on display the design and colours of traditional Cambodian houses. Built on stilts, usually of dark wood, and sometimes tweaked with colourful trimmings like window frames, doors, steps, sun blinds often featuring Angkor Wat, roof shapes and various materials depending on the wealth of the owners. I’m reminded of some vast billiard table stretching to the horizon in every direction, as far as the eye can see. The rainy season is a good time to visit if you can.
Travel in the countryside can be an eye opener and potentially lethal, given local driving habits. Patients discharged from hospital on motorbikes with full intravenous drips, overladen trucks with a crew of labourers sat on top of the load, livestock wandering across roads, children on bicycles intermixed with dubious overtaking manoeuvres can make for perilous company, motorcycle riders texting or talking on the phone with the handset jammed between helmet and ear. There are entire families on bikes. Then at this time of year the drying of rice by the roadside or, in places, on the road itself, meaning riding on the shoulder of the highway leads to potential injury, or loss of some of the season’s crops.
Then there are the surreal sights, a convoy of Harley-Davidsons travelling north, the riders in full leathers in tropical heat, pass a tractor going the other way carrying two passengers one of whom was asleep in a hammock next to the driver.
One of the great sights worth visiting Kompong Thom for is the UNESCO listed World Heritage Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk archaeological site about 35kms northeast of town, or Sambor for short. For more than 1400 years the ancient capital city known as Ishanabora has remained hidden in the forest. The original name of Sambo Prey Kuk is derived from the ancient Khmer “Samphubora” or the place of Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, and from that is Ishanabora.
The temples, some 257 at the last count, cover a plateau 5kms by some 6kms near the Steung Sen River, a major tributary of the Tonle Sap. They’re in three main groupings; North (Prasat Sambor) comprising 11 sanctuaries or groups of temples and ramparts, Central (Prasat Tor) with 18 temples and ramparts one over 300m in length, and South (Prasat Yeay Poeun) with 22 sanctuaries, and linked by paths. The main entrance road passes by the northern group.
Surrounded by forest, the ancient temples of Sambor Prei Kuk have long remained a mystery. Researchers know they date from about 550 to 640 AD, though the area is not widely studied and so the ancient brick temples have given up few secrets regarding their origins. It is know they are dedicated to Shiva, God of the Brahmanism religion. In parts their façade has fallen away, some restoration work has been done, though crudely with concrete conspicuously inserted as key supports. The area, lacking in the tourist throng, is relatively clean and quiet, a relief if you’ve spent any time at Angkor, the noisy neighbour.
The temples were part of the Chenla Kingdom, which preceded the Khmer Empire based to the north at Angkor. Chenla succeeded the Kingdom of Funan, though dates are uncertain. What is known is both Chenla and Funan were thought loose confederations, and linked to the Mekong Delta and to trade with China. Chenla may have had ties with Sumatra, and is thought to have co-existed for a time after the founding of the Khmer Empire under Jayavarama II, widely regarded as the founder of the Khmer Empire.
Getting to Sambor can be a mission. The choice is invariably hiring a mode of transport like a tuk-tuk with a driver. Some of the few tourists I saw at Sambor turned up in a minivan. Others came with their own drivers by SUV; whether tourists, NGO workers or diplomatic staff on a day excursion from Phnom Penh is unclear. What is clear is there are very few visitors at Sambor at any time.
Motorbikes can be hired, though not as easily or cheaply by usual Cambodian standards. The desk staff at the Arunras called a tuk-tuk driver who took me to his house several streets away, and down a pot-holed road. From the back of a garage he wheeled out a battered Honda Dream step-through manual with enough petrol to get me to the gas station and no more. I don’ think I’ve ever hired a motorbike with more than a sniff of gas in the tank.
North of town the main highway veers left, but Sambor is straight on. If you know where you’re going it’s easy enough. You go straight north on the road until the next sealed road to the right, and then follow that all the way to the entrance at the archaeological site. If you don’t know that and follow directions from the locals, you find yourself off down dirt roads, through villages; turning right here and left there, a trip twice as long. But then you get to see heaps of stuff you wouldn’t otherwise. Coming back hot and tired you just take the main drag and you're back in half the time.
Foreigners pay an “entrance fee” though to be fair, you do get a ticket. How they work out who to charge in an SUV is less clear but on a “moto” you’re fair game. It’s only $3 or so, but chances are little if any finds its way to the upkeep of the anything on site, such are other things in these parts.
Chenla-style building is distinct from Khmer; flat terracotta brick as opposed to big sandstone blocks like those at Angkor. The temples are scatted between trees on paths carefully worn. Best to follow these given Cambodia’s contamination with landmines and other unexploded ordnance. The whole place is tranquil, given how the crowds of Angkor are packed in up north. It’s relaxing, apart from being saturated in the mid-afternoon heat, which always has the effect of wearing me out. The temple-side vendors are correspondingly light on the ground, so you’re rarely accosted to buy. All up a good day out.
Halfway back from Sambor I found a local government building coloured the usual rustic red, one of hundreds across the entire country nearly all a standard design, and plonked next to a lake, looking like something off of a postcard. If it were England it’d be thatched cottage near the village green, more or less. Usually these buildings are flanked by the village health centre on one side and the police station on the other, but not this one. Everything in threes for cost effectiveness and convenience—though whose I’m not sure. I should’ve taken a photo except I’d have been wiped out by the four-wheel drive with the blacked out windows; and probably driven by someone well-connected. Such are some more things in these parts.
Whatever you do in Kompong Thom you can go back to the hotel, away from the suffocating heat. Back at the Arunras he hotel restaurant is abuzz with activity, all day and much of the night long. There are always Khmers aplenty, and nationalities from all over the globe. Hot coffee as is often the case, can be hard to find, and even if a local explains what you’re after, what appears is not what you’re after. Such are the vagaries of travel and anyway, if it was always what you got at home, you’d stay at home.
The hotel rooms are among the best value for money I’ve come across. It’s a 3-star establishment for a backpacker price, $15 a night. It was spacious. The bathroom was amazing, big enough to swing a cat. There was a balcony. The bed was kingsize. There was ample storage, desk space, and all mod-cons. I stayed there twice. Once going north from Phnom Penh and once coming back there other way. I was so impressed I took a photo of the bathroom for reference.
The town’s tourist information office is a blessing. They do meals and coffee and ice cream. It’s air-conditioning a sanctuary from the blazing central Cambodia sun. The tables are low, so you knock your knees. Perhaps they’re designed that way on purposed to make sure you leave. An American aid worker living in the town a year told me where to find motorbikes for rent. No easy task hereabouts. The centre also has glossy guidebooks expensively printed for free, a bonus. I still have one. The centre backs onto the Strung Sen River, which in the wet season fills to almost overflowing through the town centre.
There’s a market, of course. In the food section, a young boy rushed out of the family stall and yelled “yay” at me; so I yelled it back. A response that brought smiles all round. There are a number of bakeries in town. Cambodians do it well, and have taken their skills offshore when they’ve emigrated, often winning awards for their skills in their adopted countries. Sometimes they come back and set up another shop, completing the cycle.
About 1km from the river is the museum at Acha Lak village north along the main road, and worth a visit. It’s a bit of a walk in the hot sun but is full of friezes and base reliefs from Sambor and elsewhere. The building is modelled on the National Museum in Phnom Penh and recent, only inaugurated in 2010. Be warned, it‘s also full of mosquitoes, the arrival of visitors merely stirs them into action. The staff seems unaffected, or if they are, don’t show signs of resistance.
Also in Kompong Thom is Prasat Kuk Nodor, a Khmer-style temple about 80kms away along route six; Pur Vang Temple from the Chenla period, Traot Chum; the temple sanctuary of Prasat Phum Prasat, 30kms away; and Prasat Kok Rokar about 14kms away. If you don’t mind climbing 800-odd steps there also Phnom Santuk complete with reclining Buddha and assorted statues. The pagoda boasts a well where people drop coins for luck as well as a footprint of Buddha. There’re five big carvings of Buddha sleeping atop of the mountain.
On the main road to the museum is Indrisamvora Pagoda or Wat Kompong Thom the largest in town. The main building dates from the 17th century and most days you can find saffron robes drying over balconies.
What Kompong Thom does if you let it, is take you out of the well-trodden tourist path in Cambodia. The trouble with that of course, is that sooner or later everyone starts doing it. In the meantime however, it’s stepping out of the shadows into the limelight and that’s worth the effort.