Prasat Bat Chum temple ruins is a bit tricky to get to but it wasn’t as difficult as some make it. This temple is one of the least visited structures on the small circuit – the most popular itinerary taken by vast majority of visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park – due to its location (slightly off the paved road through Angkor), size, insignificance and great state of ruin.
To get to Bat Chum, I left Prasat Kravan and followed the road north, towards Sras Srang royal bath lake and grand Banteay Kdei temple. The turn-off with the dirt road leading to Bat Chum has an arrow sign letting you know that this is the right turn you need to take to get to the ruins. It is proceeded by a small, detached police station and has a wooden shack on the corner selling stuff for the locals. Banteay Kdei temple is only a short ride from there so if you see an ancient wall with the gate crowned by a tower with four faces on your left, you’ll know you had missed the turn off.
After the turn off to the right, I rode a bit down the dirt road, then turned left and later left again. The road eventually lead me to Bat Chum but because it was unpaved, it could be a bit challenging when taken after heavy rain. Luckily for me, three days of intense sunshine with no rain kept the dirt road dry and dusty, which is easier to ride on than wet and dirty.
What I found when I got to Prasat Bat Chum were three hills of brick that were once towers sticking out of the ground. All three towers sit on the same platform and face east. At the time of my visit (September 2009), the northern tower (prasat) was surrounded with scaffolding implying that it’s undergoing restoration works, but there were no workers in vicinity (hopefully there are some international workers involved). Three kids from a nearby village kept me company while I was exploring the temple, persistently insisting on giving them a “dolla” each.
Kavindrarimathana, an educated minister of then king Rajendravarman believed to have been responsible for the design of East Mebon, Sras Srang and (possibly) Pre Rup also designed Bat Chum and had the praise of his work inscribed on the temple’s door jambs. Kavindrarimathana remains the only Khmer architect involved with design of ancient Angkor temples whose name is known. Even though Khmer kingdom was dominated by Hinduism when Bat Chum was constructed (mid 10th century) the temple was built to be a Buddhist temple (Kavindrarimathana was a Buddhist) which makes it not only one of the oldest, but also most unique.
An enclosure wall and a moat that once surrounded Prasat Bat Chum are in such desolate state, you have to focus to see where they once laid. Stone lions guard the entrance to the central tower with two of them seated at the bottom of the staircase, but only one out of two that used to be on top is still there. The doorway of the main prasat is crowned with a lintel that contains nicely preserved (or restored?) carvings. Given the advanced state of ruin the rest of the temple is in, this lintel as well as the octagonal colonettes on the sides of the doorway are in an intricately good shape.
As an interesting fact, the inscriptions found on Bat Chum’s door jambs also allegedly contain ancient “No Parking Here” signs requesting the elephant owners to keep their beasts away from dykes to prevent their damage.
Considering how crime ridden Cambodia really is, it’s hard to imagine that tourists and expats could be exposed to a danger that’s far more serious than violent crime. Yet it’s true. Traffic safety issues are so severe in Cambodia, they put country’s violent crime to shame. And that’s something that’s not to be taken lightly. Afterall, Cambodia is one of the most violent countries in the world, a country in which mob killings and political violence gain epic proportions. Just imagine how dangerous Cambodia’s traffic must be if it’s even deadlier than their ongoing genocide.
One of the reasons contributing to an extremely dangerous traffic situation in Cambodia are unqualified and uneducated drivers. Thousands of motorcycles are operated by children as young as 10 years old. Proper driver’s education doesn’t exist in Cambodia and since traffic laws are both non existent and not enforced, nobody even tries to get educated and become a safe driver.
Cambodian Traffic Laws
There allegedly are some traffic laws in Cambodia but the enforcement is not a priority of the government which is too focused on securing their position by removing everyone in their path. The police occasionally go out to give fines – when they need an extra cash in their own pockets – but that doesn’t mean anyone in Cambodia gives a crap about the rules. They like to fine foreigners because foreigners don’t know regular traffic fines are about 3,000 Riel (roughly $0.75) and ask for $20 or so. If it ever happens to you, make sure you request a “sombot” which is a Khmer word for “receipt”. Traffic infractions in Cambodia have fixed fines so asking for a receipt may prevent the police from extorting outrageous amounts of money from you.
Speaking of traffic laws – at the time of this post, there has been no traffic law in Cambodia outlawing drunk driving. Not surprisingly, DUI is one of the main reasons for grisly ends to many traffic accidents.
What Side Do Cambodians Drive On?
Officially, Cambodians should drive on the right – same as in the USA, Canada or mainland Europe, but as with other traffic regulations, this requirement is not enforced and is as such completely ignored. You will have all sorts of vehicles coming at you from all sides, joining the traffic by riding in opposite direction, reversing into the traffic, ignoring red lights or stop signs, never ever yielding to anyone whose vehicle is smaller than theirs. The video below contains a footage of a motorcyclist riding in the opposite direction and a Cambodian cop being a complete waste of space:
Cambodian traffic situation can best be described as a complete traffic anarchy. Nobody follows any rules, everybody does what the hell they want even though nobody actually knows what the hell they are doing. And as could be expected from an anarchy – the bigger a vehicle you drive, the more arrogant you get while on the road. As it is with carrying and flashing guns, driving and purposefully oppressing all other traffic participants, including the pedestrians is nothing more than an attempt to compensate for inadequacies and insecurities.
As soon as Cambodians get off their vehicles, they become pedestrians and will have to dodge all the vehicles which will never make any attempt to slow down or stir away for someone smaller in size. Hence when they get back in their vehicle, the feeling of being oppressed goes away and now it’s them who become the oppressors. The full circle gets closed.
There are a few pedestrian crossings (zebras) here and there on the roads with busy traffic to presumably allow the pedestrians to cross the street. I don’t know who came with an idea of painting the zebras on the road as it’s been nothing but a complete and utter waste of paint. As a pedestrian, you can wait as long as you want for someone to stop and let you cross – afterall you are on a cross walk – but no one ever will. Ever. No Cambodian will ever stop for a pedestrian. Not even in your wildest dream. They need to compensate for their insecurities and yielding to a pedestrian when you are on a motorcycle or inside a car simply diminishes their egos.
I first noticed the inability to cross the street on my first ever walk through Siem Reap right after I had landed in Cambodia. I stood at the pedestrian crossing for a good while, I stepped down on the road to make it absolutely clear that I am intending to cross the road on that cross walk, I even made a step forward in an attempt to move across thinking that once I start moving along the zebra, the drivers would stop but even though everyone could see me, nobody stopped. As a matter of fact, nobody even as little as slowed down. Not a slightest attempt to allow me to get through. Complete arrogance and ignorance which was also doubled by local’s mean-spirited nature who had a good laugh watching me stuck, unable to cross because nobody would respect the crosswalk.
Shockingly, as if no respect towards pedestrians by the drivers was not enough, Cambodians also like to park their cars and motorcycles on the sidewalks making it impossible to use them for walking. As a pedestrian, you will spend more time walking on the roads, than on the sidewalks because sidewalks are simply blocked off by rudely parked vehicles of all sorts. But then by having to walk on the road you will be subjected to rude, disrespectful drivers and moto riders swerving through the traffic from all directions, putting you directly in harm’s way.
The danger doesn’t stop there, though. Remember those cars and motorcycles parked all over the sidewalks preventing you from walking somewhat separated from extremely dangerous roads? Well, with so many vehicles blocking up the sidewalk, every time you go for a walk, you will have dozens of them backing off into the traffic on the road, literally reversing right into you, who has to walk along the side of the road because sidewalks are blocked off. Nobody will wink an eye if a pedestrian or a bicyclist is behind them, they will continue reversing, until they either ran you over, or you jumped off to save your life.
The video below shows how sidewalks in Phnom Penh are full of rudely parked cars and motorcycles giving pedestrians absolutely no chance to walk separated from dangerous traffic on the roads:
Riding a Bicycle in Cambodia
Oh boy. I bought a mountain bike when I got to Cambodia to have my own, independent means of transportation and while it means slightly more respect than walking, it surely doesn’t raise it by much. You get buses plowing it down the middle of the narrow road at full speed with zero respect for bicycles. Unwilling to stick to their side of the road, as a bicyclist you are left with mere inches of room and a choice to make – do I kill myself by throwing myself into a ditch at full speed or by staying on the road to let the gust of air created by the speeding bus throw me there?
Unlike it is in Vietnam, when you take a moto ride in Cambodia, the driver will not provide you with a helmet. That slaps the whole road safety right in the face and makes you extremely prone to serious injury. While it is allegedly required by the law for the drivers to wear a helmet, not everybody does and if they do, they are the only ones on the motorcycle wearing one.
You will see entire families, sometimes with as many as 7 members packed up on a scooter whistling away down the muddy roads. For the most part, there is either nobody with a helmet on it, or only the driver has one, the other passengers are without. It’s a massacre in the making.
Cambodians love honking horns. It has everything to do with compensating for their insecurities. Once they sit behind the wheel of a vehicle, they feel empowered and spend their entire time honking horns to let everyone know they are coming. Whether there is a reason to honk a horn or not, they do. The blaring of horns is a constant on Cambodian roads. Check out the horn crazy Cambodians in a video below:
Cambodia’s traffic safety issues are a serious threat to the safety of tourists visiting the country. While Cambodia is exceptionally dangerous for tourists because of its out of control crime, vast majority of tourists stays out of crime’s way by using organized tours and not venturing off the beaten touristy tracks and places. However, even if you’re one of the many who will be spared from becoming victims of Cambodian violent culture, you will not be able to avoid the dangers of Cambodia’s traffic. A combination of drunk driving, speeding and lack of safety helmets, doubled with severe disrespect for other traffic participants with nobody following any traffic rules makes Cambodian roads the most dangerous place you could find yourself in.
This was the day I was waiting for. I took time to get acclimatized in Cambodia, to get familiar with the way the country works, to hook myself with my own, independent means of transportation and to wait out the rain so I make the most out of my visit to Angkor Archaeological Area. And now here I was – riding away to buy my 7 day pass and see Angkor Wat with my own eyes at last.
The road to Angkor Wat gets interesting right after you have passed the ticketing office. Trees that line the road are marked with name plates at the base of each tree. This educational effort is repeated and present along the roads of most of Angkor Archaeological Park. The plates offer the Cambodian name of the tree, as well as English and Latin names.
As I rode further, I came to my first T intersection. I already knew I was gonna go left because that’s where the nearest, but also the largest and the most popular temple is – Angkor Wat. I was gonna do the clockwise circle starting from the left so I can cover the most famous and interesting temples first. This way if I end up with some extra time left, I can return to these temples and explore some more.
Interestingly enough, as got close to that T intersection, I noticed a couple of friendly monkeys on a side of the road. Since the only live monkey I have seen before (at the Damnak Wat Temple) was a bit shy a ran away, I wanted to take this opportunity and snap some pictures of these few that seemed to be the opposite of shy.
I really couldn’t wait to see Angkor Wat and I knew I was really darn close, but I was intrigued by the monkeys so I got off my bike, pulled the camera out and got ready to snap a few. What happened next got me by surprise, though. The fact that I pulled over and stopped must have been seen as an opportunity by the monkeys because within seconds from dismounting my bike, I found myself surrounded by dozens of them that showed no shame and went right towards me and my bike.
It was as though whole jungle that surrounds the Angkor temples came alive. There must have been a monkey hiding on every branch in sight and each showed up, climbed off the trees and sprinted in my general direction. Not knowing how to safely deal with the monkey, their straightforward approach got me freaked a little. I mean, these were cute little animals, but I didn’t know how dangerous they were. Last thing I wanted would be to get bitten by one and catch some disease. What’s worse, I didn’t know how strong they were and with increasing numbers that kept showing up I would be overwhelmed quickly. I started to beck off to keep my distance.
That didn’t go over too well, though. Seeing my bicycle, bunch of monkeys jumped on it and started pulling stuff out of my camera bag that was mounted on the steering bars. I had to yell at them and run towards the bike to scare them off but they leaped off and knocked the bike over. Others got dangerously too close and started to climb me reaching for anything that had a strap or was sticking out in any fashion. At this point, I no longer saw these monkeys as some cute animals. They were some truly greedy and shameless buggers one needs to watch out for.
I got a last minute rescue when a family riding in a cab that was approaching got excited seeing all these monkey around me and wanted to experience the same. Monkeys noticed the car that just pulled over and their focus shifted from me to them. I took this opportunity and darted out of there. Monkeys are little cuties, but they are a bit unmanageable in highly touristy areas and their numbers are endless. I saw way too many of them emerge out of nowhere in seconds. It taught me a lesson and I stopped treating them like some cute kittens. Monkeys have very good control of their hands which look and work like human hands and are capable of grabbing just about anything they can carry. If they grab something and run up on a tree before you can halt them, you will have just lost it, regardless of how expensive it was. Watch over your stuff when monkeys are around. They are thieving little mischiefs.
Off I was set free from the monkeys and on the way to Angkor Wat the shapes of which I could already recognize. My heart was pumping with excitement. I’ve seen Angkor Wat in pictures countless times before and now here it is right before my eyes.
Since it was such a nice day today and I didn’t spend it exploring Angkor Wat, I thought I would use the evening to at least get a glimpse of it. I knew Angkor Wat is only some 6 kilometres from Siem Reap, so even though I didn’t have the entrance ticket for the day, I thought of taking my bike for a spin to at least see it and take pictures of it from the distance. Because it’s so close, it shouldn’t be an issue getting there within a few minutes of swift riding and even though they wouldn’t let me get close to it without a ticket, I was excited to at least get my first glimpse of it just before the sun sets for the day.
Without much hesitation, I rode off up the road that leads to Angkor Archaeological Park. I was expecting a nice day tomorrow so this would give me a better sense of how far it really is from Siem Reap.
This was the first time I rode in that direction and was surprised to see some of Siem Reap’s fines hotels along the way. I passed the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital (dedicated to Cambodia’s God King Jayavarman VII) in which cello concerts are held by Dr. Beat Richter for charitable purposes and shortly after, the buildings that lined the road disappeared and got replaced by big trees. The sense of leaving the town and entering the forest was only disturbed by a large number of locals on motorcycles and old cars driving in both directions.
I knew I couldn’t have been too far but I couldn’t see nothing for the trees were too tall. Riding was smooth because the road was well paved and there were no hills on the way. Then as I was keeping my speed I got yelled at and had to pull over. The man who was sitting on the side of the road pointed me in a direction of a building hidden in the bush of those high trees just off the main road.
I turned around and swirled off the road to approach that building only to find out that it was the entrance gateway for foreigners. The man on the road was there to halt all foreigners so only locals make it in without paying the steep entrance fee. As a foreigner, after you have paid the entrance fee, you will be let through and you will eventually get back on the same road, but you have to take a detour to go through the ticketing office first. Angkor Wat is a major Cambodian cash cow.
Sadly, no sight of any temple, any silhouette, any ruin or anything otherwise interesting can be had from riding up to that point. I don’t know what exactly I expected to see, but I didn’t get a glimpse of anything. I thought there would be a staple standing up high enough to protrude over the tops of the trees, but it wasn’t the case.
At the time I didn’t realize how vast Angkor Archaeological Park was. The place is massive and temples are spread across a truly huge area. There is about one more kilometre of riding after the ticket booths before you get to see the nearest temple. This of course I didn’t know but I just couldn’t wait until tomorrow and had try to get a glimpse of Angkor Wat. It didn’t work out, but it gave me a good sense of how far it is to get to Angkor Wat from my guesthouse and it wasn’t far at all. At this point I felt confident that even though I haven’t kept myself in any particularly awesome physical shape, I could do the Angkor Archaeological Area on a bike with ease.
I didn’t know where to start with my bicycle purchase so regardless of how much I have already hated Tuk Tuk drivers, I have jumped on one and asked him to take me to a bicycle shop. I primarily needed to know where the good shop is and wanted to see what they have and what the prices are like.
I was taken by the same Tuk Tuk driver who drove me to Two Dragons Guesthouse from the airport when it was raining cats and dogs. The bicycle shop he took me to was not far from the guesthouse at all. It was just up the Wat Bo street and then turn right on National Road 6. This whole area seemed vastly local, full of shops with signs in unreadable Khmer language and full of Khmer people shopping there.
We went probably only about a kilometre (likely less) down National Road #6 and stopped at the bicycle shop on the side of the road. The entire road is lined on both sides with shops of all sorts. The bicycle one we stopped at had dozens of bicycles piled up one next to another outside of the shop for easy access form the road.
I got off the Tuk Tuk and the driver offered me he would help translating since as he had claimed, none of the staff spoke any English. The offer was a kind one and I welcomed it with a smile, but unfortunately, the greed and intent to take advantage of me were the real reasons why I was offered this “help”.
I started looking at the bicycles and mostly saw second hand, bad quality bikes I thought went extinct at the end of 70’s. But not in Cambodia. These looked like overused rejects from perhaps China or maybe somewhere else. Most bikes looked in very poor shape but as I took a closer look at locals riding along the National Road 6, I noticed that this is in fact what they ride here.
My Tuk Tuk driver translated for me that these are “only” $40 each. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. Further at the back of the store, they had a few, also overused second hand bikes, but these were with gears and resembled mountain bikes, hence did not have the 70’s feel and were presumably newer. When I asked about prices for those, I was translated that they were going for about $185 each, depending on the model.
At this time I surely knew he was messing with me. First of all – I imagined what kind of mountain bike I could buy in Canadian Tire for $50. It would be a no name, not much bike, but it would still be a usable mountain bike with frontal suspension, derailleur made by Shimano and would come with 1 year warranty. And here I am, in a country which is far less expensive than Canada and they are allegedly asking $185 for a visibly inferior beater that was no longer usable for its previous owner and was replaced, discarded and somehow made its way to Cambodia. This beater would come with no warranty whatsoever, had no recognizable components on it and would require constant flow of money on maintenance to keep it going. I kept doing my math, but in no way did I see myself spending this type of inadequate money for this type of piece of crap bicycle.
I firmly assumed that the Tuk Tuk driver was abusing the fact that this is the second time I was riding with him and wrongly assumed that since this is only my second day in Cambodia, I won’t know any better and will pay vastly overquoted price. He was obviously “translating” actual quotes and bumped them up sky high to keep the difference for himself. He did not take into an account that while this is my second day in Cambodia, I am not new to budget travelling and have spent a lot of time in other third world countries. I instantly knew the “free translation service” he offered was not a service but an attempt to make money at me.
There was truly no way why a beater like that was to cost $185 and whatever was the real reason behind such high quotes, I did not see myself spending this type of money for that type of bicycle no matter what. I closed it with “I will think about it” and told the Tuk Tuk driver I would walk back to Two Dragons. I explained my reasons by saying that I wanted to go to a nearby open air market and have more look around other shops in the area.
I have come to solid conclusion that asking Tuk Tuk drivers for help translating is not the best of ideas. Unless it’s someone you know well and trust, you may be subjected to overpaying. How to deal with these situations, when you want to buy something from a store where they don’t speak English is a whole new issue I had to face.