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February 8, 2010

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Roughing it to find real beauty far away from Angkor Wat

BUS trips, motorbike adventures and hikes. When you travel in Cambodia, you need more than a pair of sturdy shoes and a guidebook. You also need determination, persistence and a discerning eye that can discover the real beauty.

Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its national pride Angkor Wat. Far more than that, indeed.

This Southeast Asian country can be an adventurer's paradise, if you are tough enough, physically and mentally.

Leave behind touristy Siem Reap where the magnificent Angkor temples are and venture further to the far-flung areas and mountains, and you will find nature and history telling a different story.

That amazing story, however, comes at a cost - most of the inspired temples, lost to all but the intrepid for decades, are tucked away well off the beaten track; some so far away that there's hardly a road you can track.

Prasat Preah Vihear (Preah Vihear Temple), in northwestern Cambodia's Preah Vihear Province, is a sublime spot but is only for those with a serious thirst for adventure. The vast area borders Thailand and Laos to the north, much of it heavily forested and extremely remote.

It's all about location, location, location - a mountain temple perched precariously atop a cliff-face on the Thai border.

In this tough but rewarding two-day trip on rough, dusty roads, you will see the real life of ordinary Cambodians - harsh, bitter yet vibrant.

My pilgrimage began with a two-and-a-half-hour bus trip from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng, a transfer where I stopped over to get fully prepared for the next day's odyssey.

For almost a decade this small town was the ultimate Khmer Rouge stronghold: home to Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ta Mok, among the most notorious leaders of Democratic Kampuchea.

Today Anlong Veng is a poor, dusty place with little going for it except the nearby Choam-Choam Srawngam border crossing, which takes you to a pretty isolated part of Thailand. The average visitor will find little to see or do here, but for those with a keen interest in contemporary Cambodian history, some Khmer Rouge sites are an important - if troubling and enigmatic - part of the picture, through which you can feel the pain and tears the people once suffered.

On a peaceful lakeside site, Ta Mok's house (admission US$2) is a Spartan structure with a bunker in the basement, five childish wall murals downstairs and three more murals upstairs, including a map and an idyllic wildlife scene. About the only furnishings that weren't looted are the floor tiles - on these very bits of ceramic, the men who killed 1.7 million Cambodians used to plan offensives, pass death sentences, and joke with friends.

From the turnoff to Ta Mok's house, my local driver/guide Noon (who speaks English) drove a further 7 kilometers north to Tumnup Leu, where a right turn and 400 meters brought me to Ta Mok's grave.

"Mind your feet and closely follow me, if you don't want to lose any part of your body," Noon warns, referring to a nearby minefield.

The tomb has no name or inscription of any sort, but this doesn't seem to bother the locals who stop by to light incense sticks and - in a bizarre new local tradition - hope his ghost grants them a winning lottery number.

The real challenge presented itself when early next morning we hit the road heading to Prasat Preah Vihear. The transport situation was as dire as the state of the dirt road, with through-traffic virtually nonexistent.

Before getting started, Noon suggested I wear a mask. I didn't put it on until half an hour later when the dust and dirt were everywhere in the air.

For the next two and a half hours, my eyes didn't open for even a minute. The dust went all the way through the mask - into my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. My hair became sticky, face turned brownish, hands got dark. Even worse, my clothes, trousers, scarf, bag - everything exposed - were covered all over with thick dust.

I became a "dust girl."

When we finally reached the foot of the mountain after the non-stop bumpy journey, Noon and I changed to a bigger, more powerful motorbike (rental US$5) for a hair-raising, 20-minute ride up gradients of up to 40 percent.

I held on tight to Noon to keep from falling off. My heart was racing.

But the moment I got off the motorbike, stood on the mountain top, and took in the panorama, I felt that all the hardship paid off. I was overwhelmed by the satisfaction of knowing that I had completed a modern-day pilgrimage almost the equal of one undertaken at the height of the Angkorian empire.

The views are breathtaking: lowland Cambodia, 550 meters below, stretching as far as the eye can see, with the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen looming in the distance.

For generations, Prasat Preah Vihear has been a source of tension between Cambodia and Thailand.

During my recent visit soldiers holding rifles were everywhere: patrolling or standing guard right on the border or around the temple. Flags of both the United Nations and Cambodia flapped high in the wind.

"Just two weeks ago, there was a big fight right here on the border," Noon told me.

That's maybe why very few people want to come here - even if they want, they are most likely to think twice, for the journey and for their own safety.

"You are the only tourist here in two weeks," said one stationed soldier among a group who gathered around looking in curiosity and surprise at me. "Very few people come here, not to mention women; you are probably the first one.

"The whole journey up here is very hard, not everyone can make it, you are very brave and strong-willed," he added.

The most dramatically situated of all the Angkorian monuments, 800-meter-long Prasat Preah Vihear (admission US$5) perches high atop the south-facing cliff face of the Dangkrek Mountains.

The height of Angkorian architectural audacity, its foundation stones stretch to the edge of a precipitous cliff. Breathe in the views as they are simply enormous.

Prasat Preah Vihear, an important place of pilgrimage during the Angkorian period, was built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs, one of them being Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, which is also why in some aspects this mountain-top temple is similar to the "mother of all temples" in Siem Reap.

Like other temple-mountains from this period, it was designed to represent Mt Meru and was dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva.

Start a visit at the monumental stairway, if possible from the bottom (near the market and the crossing from Thailand). As you walk south, you come to four cruciform gopuras (sanctuaries), decorated with a profusion of exquisite carvings and separated by esplanades up to 350 meters long.

At the entrance to the Gopura of the Third Level, look for an early rendering of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a theme later depicted awesomely at Angkor Wat. The Central Sanctuary and its associated structures and galleries, in a remarkably good state of repair, are right at the edge of the cliff, which affords stupendous views of Cambodia's northern plains.

Completing my pilgrimage with a deep breath, I looked into the distance, feeling my body and soul never before so closely connected.


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