Cambodia Daytrips: LovekApril 14, 2005
A small blue sign sits to the right side of the road bearing the words Traleng Keng Pagoda. Next to it is a large concrete archway, covered in elaborate designs and flowing Khmer script, over a narrow road leading through the scorched scrubland that is all that remains of Cambodia’s sixteenth century administrative capital, Lovek.
The area, an hour north of Phnom Penh, past Oudong town, just inside the border of Kompong Chhnang province, is steeped in history. To escape the Siamese menace, King Ang Chan established Lovek on the banks of the Tonle Sap River in 1553.
The city was well situated to benefit from maritime commerce via the Mekong Delta, which afforded easy access to the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, with their Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Portuguese, Spanish, and Arab traders.
The area’s prosperity, however, was short-lived. The Siamese attempted to conquer Lovek in 1587. This first effort failed, but they tried again in 1594. The Cambodian King Sattha surrounded himself with Spanish and Portuguese mercenaries and pleaded for support from the Portuguese at Malacca and the Spanish at Manila.
Help came too late as the forces of Siamese King Nareseun, or Phra Naret, besieged the city, starved it of supplies, and forced a surrender that banished King Sattha to Laos and imposed Siamese control over much of Cambodia. The capital was moved to Oudong in 1618.
Today, there is very little evidence of all this history. There were at one time more than one hundred twenty temples in the area. The years of fighting between Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge destroyed them. Today, all that remains of Lovek are earthworks and scattered fragments of temples. Yet, time has left layers of history here in this remote corner of the Cambodian countryside.
The narrow road past the archway is paved and smooth. White cows slumber in the shade of a line of big, old trees. The fields in the distance have been burned to a shade of light brown.
To the left, we pass a series of abandoned buildings. They were the barracks used for Lon Nol’s troops in their doomed struggle against the Khmer Rouge. A bit further is a functioning military checkpoint. We double back and ride across a field to the old barracks.
The buildings are dilapidated. Their white walls are smashed and pocked with bullet holes. The sound of my motorbike’s engine echoes eerily against the high ceiling as we enter one of the barracks. The floor is strewn with rubble. There is a thatch hut built by squatters in the corner. Naked children scurry around cracked pillars.
Back on the road, there are large earthwork ramparts to the right. There appears to be a vast moat or basin constructed during the Lovek era. A raised road leads back to a sandy clearing with an unfinished modern temple.
Further on and to the left is another modern temple, Wat Vihear Kuk. The name means literally ‘The Prison Temple.’ Yet, it seems that it was never actually used as a prison. The reason for the name, therefore, remains enigmatic. But the temple site is interesting for the same reason as most other temples in the area: fragments of ancient temples, mostly laterite blocks, dot the nearby fields.
We arrive at a crossroads with two archways. Next to the side of the road is a statue of a cow housed in a little shrine. The story of this cow, Preah Ko, is one of the most famous in Cambodian folklore. Worshiped by the Khmers, this magical cow was forced to take refuge from attacking Siamese troops in a thorny thicket. When the crafty Siamese threw silver coins into the thicket, the Khmers slashed the branches to get at the money. Their foolish greed exposed Preah Ko to the Siamese, who captured him and carted him back to Siam.
The road curving to the right at the crossroads is paved, while the one straight ahead is rough and sandy. We drive down the dirt road, weaving through deep sand, to a little village of wooden houses. My companion, a plump Khmer girl, adopts a tone of bitter resignation, ”You always like the beach road.” Past the village, there is a river with a bridge leading through Peam Lovek to the Tonle Sap River.
Back at the crossroads, we take the paved fork. The pavement soon ends, and we ride past marshes on a sandy embankment. The area’s feature temple is directly ahead, Traleng Keng. We stop before the temple’s unfinished archway where a woman sits beside a wooden table with an orange cooler containing chilled drinks. We eat some small mangoes and drink cool cans of soymilk.
We drive around the grounds in the shade of tall trees with arching branches. There are several temples scattered around the area. All have been painted a soft yellow tone and have colourful murals on their walls. Looking closely, we can see that the temples have been built on laterite bases.
We park the bike and walk down raised stone pathways into the gated areas of the temples. There are lovely trees with purple, red, and orange flowers. Situated behind the temples are several ponds, said to give bathers good luck, with groups of black-skinned boys splashing in the pale green water.
We ride back out onto the road and continue until we pass through a thicket of gnarled trees into dry scrubland. The narrow, sandy trail leads to a strange series of temples and shrines. The most striking in a bizarre collection of statues is a giant blue crocodile, with a yellow monk sitting cross-legged on his back, which represents a story in which a magician’s apprentice was accidentally transformed.
A bit further is Prasat Sosar 120. Only the six fantastic four-faced heads on its top redeem the artless grey body of this temple. They are reminiscent of the renowned faces at Bayon, Banteay Chhmar, and Bakhan, except they look like they were created by children, beady eyed, thin lipped, and flat featured.
Squatting concrete soldiers with closed eyes and yellow faces guard the stairway into the temple. Inside, the walls are adorned with beautiful paintings of Cambodian folklore, in simple blue lines. There is a large sitting Buddha, who looks like an emaciated Khmer man, with thick red lips.
The strangest part about the temple, however, is its concrete pillars, set at weird angles, and painted to look like bamboo trees. The pillars are numbered, and there is said to be exactly 120. Behind the temple, there is a mound that is supposedly the burial site for one of the kings of Lovek.
We sit in the scrubland, behind one of the temples, in the shade of a big tree, and listen to the sound of the breeze in the branches. Squirrels scurry up and down the trees. White cows meander through the distant fields. Ancient laterite blocks are strewn over the ground. My companion explains how to cook the leaves of the tree for soup.
Back on National Hwy # 5, we head back towards Phnom Penh, through Oudong, to the turnoff to Batdoeung. There is a dirt road to the right that leads past a marsh where men stand up as they paddle their wooden boats and clumps of water lilies brighten the banks.
At the end of the road, there is another temple complex, Wat Prang. The point of interest here is a small knoll with a decayed temple, Kompeu Baran. This temple consists of several layers of construction, and no one seems to know the story of its origin. A wooden ladder gives way to cracked concrete stairs halfway to the top. There are several shrines, which some have suggested are Vietnamese, and some mossy brick walls that could be much older.
Back out on the main road, we continue a short distance to another dirt trail leading to Vaing Chas, or ‘Old Palace.’ A large concrete wall surrounds the area, and its iron gates are chained shut. We drive around until we find a side gate that has been left unlocked and drive inside. There is a primary school on the grounds, one of the many Hun Sen schools built in the provinces, and a series of modern temples.
The temples are beautiful, but not old enough to be of much interest. Today, the most exciting thing there is a collection of small cast iron cannons set into the side of a small mound with their barrels pointing upward. They are supposed to be a legacy from the French.
Having travelled through five hundred years of history in a little under four hours, we turn back to the highway and speed past dry grasslands, with Phnom Oudong faintly outlined against the raw blue sky in the distance, and arrive back in less than an hour to the bustling city streets of modern Phnom Penh.