12/04/17 – Kampong Cham: A Swarm in the Watch Tower

No bridge for you!

About a week ago in Pakse I woke up and went, “damn, I’ve been away from home for three months”. A quarter of a year. I did my Masters abroad in London, so it’s not like I’m not used to this, but three months is a while to be on the move. Through Laos and on the bus into Cambodia I’ve talked to people who’ve been traveling for upwards of four months, and while that was the dream when I was young – backpacking Southeast Asia for one, long trip and then starting whatever “life” was meant to be – working in this region of the world for at least as long as my PhD has let me abandon that dream and do it in chunks. Out of the original country list I’d planned around 2nd Year at Queen’s with a couple of friends (the route being India-Nepal-Burma-Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-China-Malaysia-Singapore-Indonesia-Australia) I’ve actually ended up going to exactly half of them, and Laos wasn’t even on the list. One couple I met was going the other way and working their way to the Taj Mahal from Auckland, but had stopped off in Vietnam and simply “gotten lost”. Having only meant to spend ten days there on their way to Cambodia, they spent the entirety of their 28-day visa around Hoi An and Sapa (see my next entry on the ill-prepared ass-hats who can’t afford to do that and still do).

Still, I’ve gone to three countries in that quarter-year span, and while two of them are work-related, I definitely made the best of my time traveling in China towards Rongxian while building some 3D models along the way and visiting a segment of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang that no one ever sees. Who said you can’t combine work and play?

It was supposed to be 200 RMB per person to see four caves…apparently the security guard was as interested as we were so we saw them all.

Take, for example, the two days I spent in Kampong Cham, a sleepy city on the edge of the Mekong known for…being on the edge of the Mekong. I’m back in Siem Reap now after taking a two-day trip to Phnom Penh to visit some friends and get my luggage compensation sorted out with Korean Air ($490 USD for about $700 worth of clothes and 13+ years of memories shared with the contents of a lost suitcase – thanks, Beijing Airport!), but Kampong Cham was a fun end to an unexpectedly unique Visa-Cation.

Kampong Cham: Mekong Mekong Mekong!!!

The main draw for tourists to Kampong Cham is the city’s place as a potential day-long rest stop between Kratie, a River Dolphin paradise, and Phnom Penh, which is…Phnom Penh – go there! But there are some sites in the area, and I was specifically there to see Wat Nokor, a 10th century Khmer temple converted in the mid-16th century for Theravada Buddhist worship with a fancy little stupa constructed on top of the central wat. It’s located about five minutes outside central Kampong Cham, and I rented a scooter to get there for $6, which is the cheapest I’ve spent on anything to get me from Point A to Point B (including tuk-tuks to Angkor Thom and back) since I arrived in Cambodia more than nine weeks ago. I’ve got no photos to share motorbike-wise besides the one I posted in my last entry, so enjoy some of Wat Nokor:

The prasat of Wat Nokor – more on that below.
One of the odd things about Wat Nokor is that a few supporting shrines face west while the temple faces east. I assume our friend Vishnu here is responsible for that.
Buddha riding off from his father’s palace to be an ascetic. Does anyone else think that Buddha was kind of a dick to abandon his wife and child in search of his own enlightenment?

Wat Nokor is an interesting place, and walking around it was definitely the highlight of my day. There’s evidence of nearly every single era of Khmer architecture and statuary, and inscriptions elsewhere note that Wat Nokor was the primary religious centre of the southeastern Khmer Empire over multiple Khmer dynasties. It even has an inscription of its own, dated to 1566, when a local official plopped a conical stupa on the the top of the central prasat.

Hey, nice hat!

The prasat now has one of the oldest “modern period” buildings attached to it, a vihara or prayer-hall.

Like nearly every religious building in Cambodia with a ceiling, the story of the Ramakien, the Theravada Khmer version of the Ramayana, is painted on the ceiling and walls in panels.

The post-Angkorian/Cambodian Middle Period (1431 – 1863 CE) construction was my main draw there, but I also wanted to walk around the modern complex, a huge area with a thriving modern monastery (probably quite similar to the one built in wood that functioned during the 16th – 19th centuries), to see whether Wat Nokor had a Buddhist Terrace to go along with the stupa and the Theravada conversion.

It’s a bit of a swamp in the chronologically older parts, but those stupas are only a corner of the largest Cambodian cemetery I’ve ever seen.

Interestingly enough, there was, but it had no sima stones. There’s a good reason, though: it was decommissioned. Now, a plaster image house sits on top, and directly beside it is the new ordination hall.

Proving my developing hypothesis that not all Buddhist Terraces face east, this one and the modern ubosot beside it face south.
The sima stones have been replaced by “stupa stones”, but there’s still eight of them at the cardinal and subcardinal points.

That made me realize how odd it is that fifty-four separate monuments in the Khmer capital of Angkor Thom have boundary stones when most monastic complexes only have one, no matter how large the area. None of them have been “decommissioned” or “deconsecrated” like the Buddhist Terrace here, so it makes more sense now why the one day a police officer came in after me when I walked into the jungle, the moment he saw an overturned sima stone he told me he needed to go light incense for the Buddha and ran off.

I sometimes forget the places I’m surveying are still considered holy by some, and that’s why they’re continuously repurposed into modern shrines if they’re permanently cleared. I figure if I clear any Buddhist Terraces next year I’ll have to have a monk or two come bless the site, and who knows? Maybe they’ll decide to keep one or two of them uncovered once the foliage begins to grow back and build something modern – it’s not like there’s a shortage of monks or nuns in Cambodia to fill them.

Plus it’ll give them something to do that is somewhat isolated and monastic that isn’t #monklife or #robealicious

Kampong Cham runs out of things to do relatively quickly after Wat Nokor, so I worked on Wenner-Gren (first draft has been sent to my advisor as of today!) for a few hours after being rejected at the bamboo bridge crossing to Ko Pen Island by the lack of guard.

People were coming back but no one was going to Ko Pen Island for some reason. Maybe they have a timed crossing, because there’s a hostel on the other side being advertised on the mainland.

I think I’m addicted to sunsets at this point because I wanted to catch yet another one on the Mekong. So I drove my scooter across the river to what is normally called “The French Watch Tower”. No fancy name, just “The French Watch Tower”. It’s a really cool building that reflects how far-flung the French Empire was at the turn of the 20th century – the building looks like a Maghrebi minaret – and after a quick but steep climb you get to one of the better views of the Mekong in Cambodia.

From that Moroccan part of Kampong Cham Province.
Mom, this one’s for you!
I’ll never understand how Kampong Cham and Si Phan Don (Laos) can be so close together on the same river but one is a tropical paradise and the other is “Shrubtopia”. That’s not even a biome change – that’s just poor farming!
I know the bridge is integral but imagine that view before 1994…

So after finishing up my circumambulation of the small watch tower balcony, and realizing that the rain spitting on my head meant I probably wasn’t going to get my sunset, I was ready to brave what I thought would be a slow, cautious descent. However, I wanted to take one more picture down the tower:

Ok, so look at my right shoe, then my left shoe, and then at that big black glob. That, my friends, was an oddly-placed but rather populous beehive.

And I stepped right on it the moment I finished taking that photo.

10+ stings and some frantic slapping, yelling, and waving later, I was back on the balcony. The swarm chased me to the first corner and then retreated back to the hive, but buzzed around the doorway for about ten minutes so I had to wait around, picking stingers out of various welts that had formed on my legs. At the time I had no idea whether these bees were dangerous or just annoying, so I figured: best case, I get stung a few more times, go home, and rub some afterbite on them – worst case, I should probably find the nearest hospital in a matter of minutes after I get stung a few more times. Either way, getting stung a few more times had to happen because I had to get back down the stairs. So I made a sprint past the hive, got stung at least five more times on the way down the steps (which seemed treacherous but were actually much easier going down), including one painful sting on my wrist that still hurts after four days, and got back on my scooter.

It turns out Cambodian bees aren’t dangerous at all to humans, although they’re known to be extremely territorial so me stepping on their hive (there were little dead bees embedded in my shoes for about two days) wasn’t their idea of fun. They’re also endangered because bees are considered a delicacy in Cambodia, so a honeycomb hive like this one is usually picked apart by local farmers the moment it forms. But having, “Oh shit! I have no idea whether what just stung me 15+ times is poisonous or not and I still have to get down this treacherous ladder!” go through my head wasn’t my idea of fun either. I guess we’re even then.

So to anyone who decides to go up that watchtower, the view is actually pretty spectacular but watch your step – they didn’t attack me on the way up.

This is one of the few photos I took when I was picking out stingers on the balcony. I figure our farmer-friend has an answer to bee-hives…but it might be a recipe.

Next Entry: My reaction to the “Beg-Packer” phenomenon/article as a foreign researcher in Southeast Asia.

Andrew Harris

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