Daytrips: Ompe PhnomMarch 8, 2005
Kompong Speu is neglected in terms of tourism. Most people pass through on their way to more famous sites around the country. But it possesses a surprising array of travel opportunities. Kirirom National Park is situated in the southwest; the soaring spires of the old capital, Phnom Udong, are in the northeast; and the tallest mountain in the country, Phnom Aoral, straddles the meeting point of Kompong Speu, Kompong Chhnang, and Pursat provinces. Our destination on one bright morning is slightly more obscure: the little riverside picnic spot and killing field, Ompe Phnom.
We head down the Russian Blvd., past the Waterpark and Pochentong Airport, to the city limits of Phnom Penh. The street is lined with fruit sellers, the big abandoned club called Dragon World, and a medley of local shophouses. There is a large grassy traffic circle on the outskirts of the city where the road splits and goes left towards Kampot and right toward Kompong Som. We veer to the left and head toward Kompong Speu town, forty-eight kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh, on the smooth asphalt of National Hwy # 4.
The scenery en route is familiar to many who have done the ride to Kompong Som. There are wide brown fields scorched by the dryseason sun, vast stretches of arid scrubland, and a large, marshy lake shortly before you enter the provincial capital. The town itself is easy to miss: it is actually a loose collection of villages, which is why it feels so spread out, with the main one being Borey Kamakar.
Just before we enter the main part of town, we take a left turn onto a small paved road across from a large yellowish school building whose front is lined with a few sugarcane juice vendors under big shade trees. Less than two kilometres down the road, we veer right at a second fork. There is a big banner over the road, and a sign at the intersection with the highway, but both contain only Khmer script. This fact alone attests to the rarity of foreign visitors to this little town.
Being a weekday, there is no one on duty at the small wooden ticket seller?s desk. We drive straight into the area. There is a sandy road that loops around the grounds. We follow it until we come back out at the desk, taking in some flower gardens, large gnarled trees, and a curious collection of painted concrete giraffes, elephants, tigers, horses, and other animals.
There is a steep, eroded cliff directly ahead of the ticket booth. Atop the cliff is a long row of wooden huts. When the women who work there hear our engine, they rush out and try to wave us into their places. All of the huts are the same: log frames with woven palm leaf roofs. Inside each one is a wooden platform with a bright red mat on which to sit. The women offer to cook us chicken and rice, and they bring out small plastic buckets with chunks of ice and little trays with cans of soda and bottles of water.
I take the towel of my bag, wrap it around my waist, and change into my swimming trunks. There is a stone stairway on the far end of the beach, but I climb down a path on the cliff, to a wide beach of mixed sand and crushed stone. The intense sunlight has made the beach so hot that I dash to the river on burning feet.
The water is greenish and slow-moving at this time of year. But I feel refreshed as I wade out to my waist, and feel cool mud squishing between my toes, and dunk my head in the water and throw it back with a spray of shimmering droplets. Looking around, I see an old woman upstream doing her laundry, six children splashing naked by some rocks downstream, and, three boys across the river with black metal mesh baskets, taken from the fronts of small motorbikes, sifting through the sand to find the small shellfish that locals salt and set out to dry in the sun before they are eaten.
I wait for my girl and her young brother to change and shuffle down the cliff. The area is nice to cool down and splash around and joke with friends. We place bets on who can skip a stone the most times, and who can hold his or her head under the longest, and who can run the furthest on the hot sand. But the sun is intense, and my girl fears nothing more than a tan, so we climb the stairs and return to the hut to sit down, have another drink, and chat for an hour. We buy a bag of thin, sweet, crispy, baked snacks from a persistent little girl and munch on them as we sip our drinks. I lay back, with a towel rolled up under my head, and doze while we chat.
Later, we walk down the row of huts to a concrete arch and a long suspension bridge over the river. At this time of year, it would be a simple task to cross on foot, and you could even do it without getting wet. But there is still an old woman sitting on a plastic chair under the arch who collects small fees and gives out yellow tickets to use the bridge.
We bounce and sway on the cracked wooden footboards as we cross. As we reach the opposite side, I see a hill to the left with a simple temple on top, a collection of wooden houses and temples to the right, and a stand of trees and a row of sugar cane juice vendors directly ahead. Before we even set foot on the bank, four old ladies with tin bowls containing bushels of small bananas surround us.
There is a big group of monkeys that roams over the area and swim in the river, and we buy a few bushels so my girl and her little brother can feed the monkeys. They come running when they see anyone new crossing the bridge and talking to the old ladies. They perch on the rocks that cover the cliff on this side of the river and stare at us with eager expressions. They take the fruit easily, without snatching it from your hand, as though they are used to receiving these little treats. The big, fat ones rush in hooting and swatting at the smaller ones until they get their fill.
We walk to the right through the grounds of the wat. There is a large collection of huts where the monks live and several small buildings with shrines and lovely murals depicting Buddhist scenes. Finally, we come to a little clearing, with a twelve-foot tall shrine with glass sides.
The shrine is divided into two parts. The top one contains skulls, many with rough holes, indicating that the poor people were bludgeoned to death according to the preferred method of execution at killing fields all over the country. The bottom section contains three walls displaying stacks of leg and arm bones and one wall displaying heaps of rotten clothes found on the victims.
The site is a short drive from Phnom Penh, easily accessible as an afternoon jaunt, and combines the seemingly irreconcilable elements that perplex so many people who live in Cambodia: the easy-going, pleasure-loving character of the locals and the brutal, blood-soaked nature of their recent history.
[Note on prices. Admission: Free on weekdays. Hut: 3000 riel. Canned drinks: 3000 riel. Ice: 500 riel. Bridge: 500 riel.]