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Captivating Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Angkor

 
Before we set out on the next part of our journey, let me tell you a little about what we are doing. First and foremost, we are recceing the roads to be used on next year’s Adventure Drive, checking the route I drew up on the maps back home.

For most countries we were able to obtain a range of maps, some in the UK and some locally. As expected, these were of widely varying quality and accuracy. We will in due course post a list of those we recommend.

As we go along, we are making a detailed road book, drawing Tulip diagrams of key junctions and features. We record the distance to these, using a Brantz Laser 3 tripmeter driven by the car’s electronic speedo sensor. Before the car was shipped, I calibrated this by finding a straight stretch of road and using the GPS to measure exactly 1,000 metres. This has proved more accurate than using roadside mile or kilometre posts, and we are finding that we regularly go for tens of kilometres in exact accordance with the official distances.

At the same time, we are laying a GPS track and waypoints on two separate Garmins. The first is the GPSMAP 276C which we used in India. This has a good display and is the instrument used by many of our India participants. However, its memory is limited, and we can only record a coarser version of the track, based upon about one trackpoint per kilometre, in segments of about 700km each.

We are therefore also recording to a second GPS, the GPSMAP 76CSx. Although it has a slightly smaller screen, this accepts a 2GB MicroSD memory card, which has ample capacity to store the entire route at trackpoints every 100m or so. We intend to offer both versions to participants.

One useful function of each of these GPS is the moving average speed window, as this enables us to judge what speed the participants can comfortably maintain for each stretch of route - we of course have to make frequent stops to make the road book, etc.

Inevitably, we are having to make frequent backtracks: to find a new route where our first choice is unsuitable or unpleasant or boring or does not exist; to record both options where we are offering a choice; and so on. We also have to meet and negotiate with hotel managements, local officials, our route operators, etc.

We are taking roughly two to three days to cover each day of route. It’s tiring and often frustrating, but it beats working, especially when we see on TV the pictures of wintry weather back home.

The evening before we visit Phnom Penh, we visit the Foreign Correspondents Club, a lively place full of ex-pats, where we book dinner for the event’s rest day. I recommend that groups of participants should walk back to the hotel along the riverside, throbbing with life, and enjoy one or two of the bars.
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Raffles le Royal, Phnom Penh


We did not know what to expect on the first day out of Phnom Penh. I had pencilled in a route all the way to Siem Reap which included the notorious Route 66, hairy tales of which abound on the internet. If all went well, this could be one of the most exciting days of the event, taking us on primitive jeep tracks through the rainforest to tribal settlements and great temple ruins lost in the jungle. We were not to be disappointed.

At first we took the main Route 6 close to the great Mekong river, catching glimpses through the trees. At one roadside restaurant we found locals selling great hairy spiders, alive or fried.
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Fried spiders, anyone?

Later on, we passed through a community of stonemasons and sculptors, carving Buddhas and other statuary, lined up along the roadside.
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A reclining Buddha takes shape


We made a short detour to a small temple at Kuhanokor, and another to the foot of Santuk Mountain, on which lies a famous temple complex, reached by climbing 980 steps. Yours truly opted out of this visit, grateful for the excuse that we did not have time.
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Only 980 steps to go...


Just after the small town of Kompong Thom, we left the comfortable broad asphalt of Route 6 to join a gravel highway, Route 64. The first part of this was rather slow and bumpy, but we soon turned off onto a beautifully smooth gravel byway, which took us through attractive traditional farming countryside and villages to the Sambhor complex, groups of impressive ruined Khmer temples set in attractive woodland - well worth the visit.
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Khmer temple at Sambhor


Returning to Route 64, it was fairly rough again for another 25km, until we came to a sign announcing that we were in Preah Vinear district, and lovely fast wide gravel: our moving average went from under 35 km/h to over 75 km/h.

After 40 km, another dramatic change. A small hand-painted sign to our left said “To Preah Khan Temple 33km” - the beginning of the legendary Route 66. At first, it was a reasonable narrow gravel track, but this dived off right 900m later, and we were into the real thing.

In the manner of cross-country roads in wild country in many parts of the world, Route 66 became a bewildering network of intersecting trails through the trees, crisscrossing each other. It was not always possible to see if every branch returned to the main line (not that there was a main line really), so we obeyed the dictum “follow the best”, and kept heading west.
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Getting kicks on Route 66


There were dozens of intersections as tracks divided every few yards, defying any attempt to record Tulip diagrams except where there seemed to be a definite junction. Thank heavens I was laying the GPS tracks which participants will be able to follow. For much of the time the road was rough, with some steep drops and climbs through stream gullies; at other times, there were short stretches of good fast gravel.
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Dropping down into stream gully


After about 20km, we came to a new community of traditional houses.
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New settlers’ village

Our Cambodian tour operator told us that these were squatters, who under Cambodian law would be able to claim the land after they had cleared, settled and planted it. One of these villagers, a young man on a motor bike with a charming older lady, possibly his mother, riding pillion, kindly guided us to Ta Seng village, a further 10 km. Despite their poverty, they refused any payment.
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Through wet...

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... or dry...

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...our guides showed the way


We had covered the 28 km from Route 64 to Ta Seng in 1 hour 54 minutes - probably about 1 hour 40 minutes running time, or an average of about 17 km/h (10.5 mph). Here there were stalls selling simple refreshments, and we enjoyed a couple of bananas each.

We continued the 4 km to Preah Khan temple (not to be confused with a temple near Angkor of the same name). What a fabulous experience! Although the impressive site has now been partly cleared, it still feels swallowed up by the jungle, trees growing out of the great stones which tumble in heaps from the walls and drunken arches. Sadly, much damage has boon done on recent years by looters, so there is now a permanent guard post. Nevertheless, this is a little-visited site that is an unforgettable privilege to see.
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Preah Stung ruin, Preah Khan

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Main site, Preah Khan


We had intended to continue on Route 66 due west to Angkor, but the local mine clearance crews told us that the route was currently impassable following early April rains; so we returned to Ta Seng and headed south towards Stoung and Route 6.

Let me at this point put in a word of warning about land mines. The Cambodian rainforest is still littered with them, and many people are injured each year. The land along most roads and tracks has been cleared, but we were careful to stay on the beaten track and not wander off into the bushes.

The first 35 km south from Ta Seng were again very rough and slow - there really is no easy route to Preah Khan - followed by 30 km of good gravel and another rough 3 km. The whole section takes a further four hours, and we were mightily relieved to see the lovely asphalt of Route 6, taking us swiftly and smoothly along the 95 km to Siem Reap. Anyone wanting to miss these tough roads can of course return to Route 6 from Sambhor, saving over 100 km and up to four hours.

On the way back into Siem Reap, we pass alongside the amazing 12th/13th century Khmer bridge of Prab Theus. This great structure, made from blocks of dark volcanic tufa, has 20 corbelled arches (the Khmer did not know about the keystone or Roman arch), and is 80m long, 14m wide and 9m high. Until a few years ago it carried all Route 6’s heavy traffic.
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Ancient Khmer bridge, Prab Theus

We paused along the way to sample a Cambodian delicacy, kralan. This is a bamboo tube stuffed with sticky rice mixed with coconut milk - delicious!
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Arne tries kralan

We also detoured to see two fine temples, Preah Ko and Bakong. These lie just off Route 6 about 10 km before Siem Reap, but you can only see the exteriors unless you have a ticket - and that can only be bought in the Angkor ticket office, 12 km further on!

Our final great pleasure this day was to arrive at the magnificent Grand Hotel d’Angkor, a French colonial masterpiece beautifully restored and managed by the Raffles Group. Our crews will greatly enjoy their two nights here!

Next day, refreshed, we set out to recce a route around the main temples of the fabulous Angkor complex, fully deserving of its acclamation as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Angkor temples were part of a city of 100 sq km founded in 802 as the capital of the great Khmer empire, and abandoned in 1431. The main period of construction was the 12th century. The city was rediscovered by the French in 1861.

Our group will be able to take a coach tour, or drive round in their own cars, following a 40 km Tulip route in their road book, which we spent the day creating. You can also hire a chauffeur driven car with English-speaking guide for USD 50.

Our first port of call was the ticket booth, where you all have to get out to have your photo taken and buy a ticket with it on for USD 20 per person (not included in the car hire price). The first temple on our route is the biggest, Angkor Wat. The visit here - truly worth it - takes around two hours.
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Fabulous Angkor Wat


We normally resist the blandishments of child beggars and street vendors, but we were won over by a delightful small boy here who could count up to ten in English, French, German, Spanish... and Swedish, so of course we bought his postcards.
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Polyglot postcard purveyor

 

We drove on past smaller temples and cross the causeway, lined with superb sculpted figures, into the magnificent South Gate of Angkor Thom, the capital area.

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Causeway to South Gate, Angkor Thom

The central temple here, the Bayon, is famous for its great stone faces; climb up to get a close up and a great photo.
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Bayon face

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Bayon: superb detail

Nearby is the 350m long Elephant Terrace, with its wonderful frieze. You can get elephant rides near here, too.
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Elephant rides


We continued round the rest of the site, passing other fine temples like this Preah Khan, finishing our tour at the amazing Ta Prohm. This is the famous temple that was almost literally swallowed up by the jungle, covered in great trees that have wrapped it in strangleholds of roots and branches - a must for your photos and videos.
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Trees at Ta Prohm

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Trees at Ta Prohm

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Trees at Ta Prohm

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Trees at Ta Prohm


On the way back to the hotel, we pass the modern Combatants’ Memorial, an impressive structure whose design incorporates Khmer motifs from Angkor.

In the evening, we visit another of Angkor’s temples where the Grand Hotel are setting up a special outdoor dinner and show for a visiting group. Our tour operator has suggested this for us, and it certainly looks fabulous.
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Temple dinner setting



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