Heart of happiness at a homestay (near Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom)

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January 27th 2013
Published: February 10th 2013
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We woke at 6.30am and headed down to breakfast at 7am. I had no appetite, but I managed a small bowl of muesli and a glass of (very) sweet fruit juice. After a final check of our packs, we jumped into our minibus at 9.30am and left Siem Reap for Sambor Prei Kuk, where we were to be accommodated with a nearby local family. We arrived in Kompong Thom (which sits approximately halfway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) at 12.30pm. We stopped at a great roadside restaurant for lunch which had five small wooden platforms (each with two hammocks, a table and a straw roof) jutting into the Stung Sen River. It was an ideal place to relax and unwind with a quick meal. I wasn’t hungry, so Ren opted for ginger and chicken fried rice. We both had Khmer iced coffees. After three hours on the minibus, it was a very refreshing break.

We jumped into our minibus and headed to Sambor Prei Kuk, where we arrived at 2pm. Sambor Prei Kuk is a cluster of 7th century Khmer brick temples scattered through beautiful dry forest surrounds (noting we were visiting during Cambodia’s dry period). The temples were built in dedication to the Hindu god Shiva, and they pre-date the Angkor temples at Siem Reap by several centuries. Our local guide (who was also our home-stay host) took us on a walking tour of two of the three main temple groups (Prasat Sambor and Prasat Tao) in the heat of the afternoon sun. It was a relaxing ramble in the leafy forest, and even the local village children that appeared at strategic places during the tour with cheap scarves were entertaining. This was travel at its best – hardly anyone else about, tranquil atmosphere, beautiful surrounds, intriguing structures, different culture. A few temples had loose bricks in precarious positions way above our heads, and I imagined the slightest pressure (such as the weight of a small bird) would dislodge them and send them hurtling down upon us. I think the heat was getting to me...

At the end of the tour we jumped back into the minibus and headed to the nearby home-stay village. When we arrived at our guide’s stilted village house, we were greeted with a pot of green tea, which was very refreshing. We dropped our day packs in the large dormitory-style room upstairs, and were suitably impressed with individual mosquito nets and brightly coloured (albeit slightly hard) cushions that doubled as pillows. The thin bed mats that lay directly on the wooden floor did not exude a high level of sleeping comfort, but we were tired from a travel day, so it hardly mattered. The room slept twelve people and was divided into four sections, each separated by brightly patterned sheets that hung from the ceiling.

Having organised our sleeping quarters, we set out on a walking tour of the village. We started out along a dusty (under construction) road that serviced the village houses, and this afforded a very up close and personal view of village life. After giving way to a farmer and his wayward cows and calves, we ambled down a narrow laneway and emerged into a large rice field that backed onto the village houses. We wandered past a dozen or so curious water buffalo before settling beside a waterhole to experience yet another amazing Cambodian sunset. Four or five local village men were fishing in the waterhole, and they appeared to be bemused (or at least amused) by our fascination with the sun and its reflection in the water they were fishing in. I remembered a local woman in Sapa telling us that she could not see beauty in the Northern Vietnamese landscape of rice fields – she could only see hard work. I think the fishermen may well have felt the same.

As the sun slipped below the horizon, we slowly made our way back to the home-stay, although this time we didn’t worry about laneways – we just cut through someone’s yard. Our host had explained the home-stay’s conjoined squat toilet and wash room before the walking tour, so I decided to wash before dinner. The wash room was a small, narrow cement room with a trough of cold water on one side. A plastic scoop was floating in the water, which you simply filled and poured over your head. It was invigorating and incredibly refreshing! I dried off and settled in at the outside dining table with a cold beer. I was feeling much better and my appetite had finally returned! Our host family was using the space underneath our sleeping quarters (which was raised on stilts) to prepare dinner. We were served chicken soup, two vegetable dishes and rice. The chicken soup was great, and it was good to be eating again. With night descending around us, we retired to our mosquito nets at 8.30pm. While the thin bed mats were not overly comfortable, we did manage to get some sleep during the night.

We woke at 5.30am and headed to the wash room at 6am for a cold shower with the plastic scoop – it was a great start to the day. We then settled down for breakfast at the home-stay’s outside table, which comprised instant coffee, baguettes, omelette and fresh bananas. It was basic but fantastic. I felt revived, refreshed and rejuvenated, which was fortunate, because we had an eight hour bus trip to Kampot ahead of us.

We woke at 6:30am on our last morning in Siem Reap. However we weren't as bright eyed and bushy tailed as we should have been. A bus load of tourists must have checked in at 1am, and they all seemed to be on our floor! The room next to us suddenly erupted in loud laughing, talking and yelling across hallways to friends. After about half an hour I knocked on the adjoining door between our rooms. The young boys quietened down for all of five minutes and then it was on again. After another half an hour, I made my first ever noise complaint call to reception. It seemed to do the trick. Andrew was still on cold and flu tablets, and the last thing I wanted was for him to have a sleepless night before a travel day.

We braved the hotel buffet at 7am and seemed to fluke a quiet pocket of time between big bus groups. I was even able to get an omelette from the egg station, despite the efforts of a women who was directly behind me – and clearly saw me waiting for the omelette – stepping around me just as the omelette was ready and holding her plate out. Ha! Nice try lady, but that was never going to happen...

We ate a leisurely breakfast and amused ourselves by watching a group of five older women stuffing piles of fried rice and fried noodles into plastic bags. They made absolutely no effort to hide their thievery!

We packed a small overnight bag for our homestay and prepared for the three and a half hour minibus journey from Siem Reap to the homestay village near Kampong Thom. Andrew slept for most of the journey, but I was too enthralled with the country we were passing through to sleep.

This journey east seemed to indicate a more populated countryside than the journey north from Phnom Penh to Battambang. There was hardly a section of the journey where the road wasn’t lined with wooden stilt houses. The stilts protect the houses from flooding, and the shade underneath the house is also very much used – there’s always a hammock or two with a sleeping child or a relaxing adult sheltering from the glaring sun. The gardens were thick with banana trees, sugar palms, coconut trees and mango trees in blossom. The houses were set back from the road, each with a pond in front of it full of lilies, lotuses, morning glory or water hyacinth plants. The rice fields behind the houses were brown and dry, awaiting the rain for their next planting. There were shallow plastic sheets filled with water to catch crickets (for that deep fried snack I love).

January is not just peak tourist season in Cambodia, it’s also peak wedding season in the rural areas. The weather is cool (relatively) and the rice farmers have down time before planting season begins. Weddings are marked by a massive pink or red cloth draped around a rectangular space, with matching dressed chairs, ribbons and balloons. They are also accompanied by loud traditional or techno/dance music. Gangnam Style was very, very popular.

At the three hour mark we pulled into a cafe. At first glance it looked like all our other road stops, but this one had a very overpriced gift shop and really clean toilets. We’d been walking around for a few minutes before we realised this was our lunch stop in Kompong Thom. We were directed to the back of the shop where a brown river fed fields around it. Overhanging the river were little stilt huts, each with a table and two hammocks. It was remarkably comfortable and relaxing. Kim, Pru and I took turns in the hammocks – I could really get used to sleeping in a hammock. Prudence has turned out to be a fantastic travelling friend, her humour had us giggling quite often. Actually all the girls are really fun to hang with, and this is another reason why travelling with an Intrepid Travel group can be so much fun. In our life back home we would have little cause to hang out with 20 year olds, and yet they are proving to be very enjoyable company.

Thyda brought us some complimentary rice flour and palm sugar cakes steamed in banana leaf, which were lusciously sticky and oozy. I’m hoping we’ll find more of these on our travels. Andrew ordered his usual Khmer iced coffee, while I ordered a small plate of ginger and chicken fried rice which was unexpectedly delicious.

Another 40 minutes in the minibus brought us to the Sambor Prei Kuk ruins. Our guide to the temples – Mr Bunteng (he liked us to call him Mr T) – was one of those inspirational Cambodians I have written about before. He had studied under the chief archaeologist who had worked on restoring the Sambor Prei Kuk ruins, and he was very excited by his knowledge and was keen to share it. At just 32 he seemed very focussed, and was trying to encourage the rest of the village to join in his vision of what tourism could do for them.

Sambor Prei Kuk is a 7th century complex of pre-Angkorian monuments (by five centuries) of mainly red brick Hindu temples. These are small temples, and in some cases they have been reduced by nature to one room or have been overtaken by gigantic tree roots similar to Ta Prohm. There are three temple groups separated by square brick walls that are barely visible now.

We walked to two of the three complexes and saw about seven or eight temples, all of which were dedicated to Shiva. Even though some of the brick carvings are incredibly still intact, all the lingams (sacred phalluses) have unfortunately been stolen from the temples. A few sandstone yonis (sacred female representation) are still intact, saved by being too heavy to carry. The temples were quite interesting. I loved the red brick used to build the precarious looking octagonal towers, and the decoratively carved lintels over stone doorways were eye catching. The sandstone lions guarding the entrance to one of the larger temples were incredible for 7th or 8th century creations.

The temples lie scattered around a beautifully forested area with giant trees and thriving bird life. The area is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, so the jungle surrounding the temples is also protected. This gave me an indication of what the Angkor temples would have been like before mass tourism. Even after thousands of years, there is still a sense of spirituality here, or maybe I only thought so because of the quiet calmness that is in stark contrast to the Angkorian temples. We were the only tourists in the whole complex, and walking through fallen forest leaves in the late afternoon sun was just perfect. However, to keep things in perspective, this area and the surrounding countryside was ridden with landmines not that long ago. Thankfully it has now been cleared up, and the land has been parcelled off to local families.

Even in this remote location, there were a gaggle of young children laden with scarves waiting for us as the minibus pulled up. They surrounded us when we stepped off the minibus, and our guide said a few stern Khmer words to them which made the older girls roll their eyes in that way that only teenagers can. I later asked him what he said, and apparently he reminded them not to interrupt the walk around the temples that he was about to conduct. It worked. However, what this meant was that as soon as the temple tour ended and we had started walking back to the minibus, the inundation began. You know how I said that I really loved walking around the temples surrounded by the peaceful shady giant old trees? Well, that was until the children selling scarves caught up with us and followed us persistently.

If you’ve read our previous blogs, you know we don’t give money to or buy from children. I suppose everyone starts off by saying no, but then relent for whatever reason. It was a hard slog saying no, because they obviously were unsure as to whether we really meant it. However, small children pushing and pleading at you (with their tactical joking and tactical sulking) can be very off putting. Lee bought one scarf, and within minutes a very tall, grown man disappeared under about 20 or so pint-sized children. I have never seen anything like it! Mr T waded in to help, by which point the children were at fever pitch. I don’t think they took kindly to Mr T’s ‘help’. 😊

Our homestay was at the house of his mother-in-law, and Mr T was quick to reassure us that our stay was benefitting the whole village, as everything was bought locally and the money stayed in the community. When we reached our homestay, I was very happy to see that we were spending the night in one of those charming wooden stilt houses. We dropped our bags off upstairs, where one big room had been sectioned into four curtained sleeping areas. It was quite basic but very clean – a thin mat on top of a floor mat, a blanket and a small cushion for a pillow, all enclosed in a mosquito net.

We met the family, had a quick glass of green tea and then went for a walk around the village. Everyone was smiling and gawking at us with the same interest that we were gawking at them. It was a simple village, but they seemed to have everything they needed. A shared village generator provided electricity between 6pm and 10pm, while every three or four houses had access to a well which was operated by a simple hand pump. The road through the town was a dirt road that sprayed red dust onto everything with each passing truck. The once green mango and banana trees along the road were caked in multiple layers of dust, and would remain that way until the rainy season. As with many of the roads we’ve seen in Cambodia, even this road was being fixed with a large roller. Fixing badly built roads seemed to be a never ending job here. I wonder if the same company that built the roads also has the maintenance contract.

We walked down a back laneway (giving way to oncoming cows and their calves) to rice fields that were bordered by a lovely water hole filled with fishing nets. We saw cows going home for the night (some being herded, others guiding themselves home); a bullock cart that had to stop to let the stream of foreigners through; and a water buffalo who appeared to be snarling at us (we stopped dead in our tracks) but were assured by Mr T that he was merely taking in our scent! I’m still not convinced it wasn’t a threatening move on the water buffalo’s part.

The fishermen had set their nets for the night, but were still hanging around to ensure that the water buffalo didn’t wade into them. At dusk we sat on the edge of a rice field and watched a very pretty and picturesque red sunset, with the muted clinking of the bamboo cattle bells echoing over the fields which were covered in dusty pinks by the setting sun. It was almost romantic, in a muddy earth and 14 people kinda way. We walked back to the house in fast fading light via a neighbour’s backyard and past a cashew tree heavy with fruit, but unfortunately with no cashew nuts yet.

In the evening we took turns having cold showers, which involved throwing bowls of cold water over ourselves from the large concrete water trough in the bathroom, and then we made sure to re-apply a thick layer of insect repellent. By the glow of candles and starlight, we sat at a large dining table in the front yard and enjoyed a lovely dinner cooked by our host family. We started with the most delicious chicken soup with vegetables I’ve had in a very long time, probably even the best ever. I couldn’t believe the scrawny little chickens roaming around their yard could be so tasty. The stir fried cauliflower and the morning glory cooked with eggs weren’t brilliant dishes, but I think they made the dishes blander than they normally would. We had sweet green bananas for dessert. The best thing about dinner was that Andrew had his appetite back, and it was so good to see him have multiple serves of soup. It really was delicious chicken soup.

We were tucked up in bed by 8.30pm! The mats were harder on our backs that we were used to, and we all tossed and turned for a while. Once again, as we had discovered at our village stay in Thailand, village life is very noisy at night. The TVs stayed on full volume until 10pm; the dogs barked most of the night; the cat downstairs started whining like she wanted to come in; motorbikes and trucks travelled the road all night; the roosters crowed at 1am, 3:30am and then continuously between 4:30 and 6:30am. We also had creaky floorboards that announced when any of the group had to go downstairs to use the bathroom.

Needless to say, we were up bright and early at 6am. We had three-in-one coffee sachets (coffee, sugar and milk) to wake us up – if the cold shower hadn’t already done so. It was very refreshing to start the day with a cold dousing, and I think I may start doing this at home (restricted only to summer mornings of course!). The breakfast of omelette and baguettes toasted over an open fire was fresh and tasty, and by now one of the house dogs knew to settle herself at my feet at meal times. 😊

Then it was time to say goodbye to Mr T and his family and start our eight hour minibus journey to Kampot via Phnom Penh. Even though the roads were uneven, potholed and generally hard work, I still loved our road trips. If we didn’t experience all of this bus travel, we would miss out on so many local and cultural experiences of Cambodian country life. Surely that is worth surviving eight hours on a bumpy road?

See you in Kampot people!


1st June 2013

Homestay contact
Hi, may i get the contact or email of the homestay u stayed in? or how to get the contacts from internet, because I find it quite hard to get the info from net thanks a lot for ur help ya =)
1st June 2013

Re: Homestay contact
Hi Shuang - This website manages the homestays to the village we went to: http://www.samborpreikuk.com/index.php?lng=en The various lengths of stay are discussed under 'Join in Programs' on the top banner. If you click on the 'Who is Who' link, you will see a guide called Mr Tep Bun Teng - we stayed in his mother in law's house. If you have a blog, we would love to read about your experiences in Cambodia! :)
1st June 2013

Thanks so much
Thanks so much for ur help =) enlightening my trip even more ^^
21st May 2015

Re: Thanks so much

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