I wanted to spend a little more time in the southern part of Isan (Northeastern Thailand) and see more of the area before leaving. I didn’t want my entire knowledge of southern Isan to be Surin and the Elephant Round-up, as great as I think each is. So, I planned a day trip to a ruined temple just across the border in Cambodia. To get there from Surin I’d take a train a couple hours east to Si Saket, then a bus a couple hours south to Kantharalak then a motor bike taxi about 30 minutes to get to the Cambodian border. Then I’d walk across the boarder and enter the temple complex.
It was all planned out and for the most part went according to plan… I did however have a less than pleasant bus ride… About half way through my bowels started not feeling so well… I hadn’t had much stomach trouble since I got here, just a little and it’d never been a problem. Now however I had major gas pains and really would have liked some quality time on a nice western toilet. Unfortunately there isn’t much in between Si Saket and Kathrakalek. The bus stops are simple shade structures next to rice fields and that’s it. I started thinking about just jumping off the bus at the next stop and squatting in a rice field… then just hoping the next bus (in about an hour) would let me on. I had all sorts of crazy thoughts… all were fairly embarrassing. The cold sweets, the dry skin and goose bumps, the stabbing pains would come in waves. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore I’d get a few minutes of relative comfort… then it would start again. Somehow, and I don’t actually know “how” I did it, but made it to the bus station in Kathanralek. I quickly exit the bus and was glad to quickly find a rest room. I ran inside and had I not been in such dire need probably would have taken a moment to be horrified to be confronted with my first non-flushing squat toilet without a sprayer. You see, I don’t mind squat toilets, I don’t mind non-flushing toilets, I don’t mind toilets that have a sprayer (for washing your butt) but don’t have toilet paper… but this was just a nasty squat toilet, a large bucket of water and a small bucket to scoop water out of the big bucket… that’s it. I didn’t really have time to think about it, so I did my business and used the facilities exactly as a local would… and from now I will forever appreciate why in many countries (including Thailand) you don’t use your left hand for anything… anything else that is.
With business taken care of I set about finding a ride to Prah Wihan. It was too late in the day to get a Songtaew, so it was going to be a moto-taxi ride. He wanted 10 Baht per Kilometer, for a 36 km trip, or 360. Not bad for round trip actually. I bargained him down to 330, which seemed fair enough and off we went.
It’s not a cheap trip by Thailand standards, at least not for foreigners who in addition to the transport costs are charged an outrageously inflated fee to enter Thai National Parks. You see the only way to access the temple is by a road running through a Thai National Park. In one of the more atrocious cases of being legally ripped off, the fee to enter the Thai National park is now 400 Baht for foreigners, not outrageous by US standards, but considering Thai’s pay 20 or 40 Baht it’s a bit exploitive. Even more so in this case since 99% of the people entering the park are not doing so to see anything inside the Thai National Park, but rather just to reach Prah Wihan in Cambodia. Cambodia charges you 5 Baht to cross the border for the day (no visas needed). Then at the entry to Prah Wihan you’re charged 200 Baht to enter the complex. So Thailand is now charging double what Cambodia is charging to see Cambodia’s temple. It is bizarre that Cambodia charges 5 baht at the border then another 200 Baht after you’ve walked the 500 meters to the temple entrance.
One of the reasons for all this bizarrness is because of Prah Wihan’s history. The temple complex was long claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia. The world court finally awarded it to Cambodia, I forget exactly when but it was fairly recent. Considering there is literally no way to get a motorized vehicle (not even a off-road motorcycle) to it from the Cambodian side, it seems an odd out come, but what would I know. I do suppose with lots of whacking through jungle you might find a path from the plains below up the cliffs the temple sits on, but it’d be lots of whacking through jungle to get down there…
As one approaches the complex you are reminded by many… many… signs to stay on established paths and not to wander do to land mines. Ahhh… the wonders legacies of war. 40 years later and people and cows and dogs and whatever might wander into the jungle are still getting killed. The temple area has been cleared of land mines but there are many paths leading away from the temple towards the small villages setup around it that do have mine fields surrounding them.
As with most tourist attractions there are plenty of adults and kids hawking tourist stuff: water, beer, cigarettes, post cards, handicrafts, etc… Which is nice just in case you needed a beer and a smoke while you hiked around the temples steep steps.
Mid-way through the temple complex while exploring a sunken water reservoir just off the main tourist path, I caught a glimpse of a rainbow in the distance. A little girl who’d been following me as I strolled off the main path was standing nearby. I called her over to point towards the rainbow, but she just kept telling me that what I was looking at was “three countries, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia”. Which she had a postcard of that she wanted to sell me. I tried the Thai word for rainbow, but I’m not sure she ever quite understood. As I wandered further into the ruined temple complex she followed me and point out many of the sights. It was actually nice to have her as a guide since on my own I wouldn’t have noticed a few of a things she pointed out. However, I also felt a bit rushed since I wanted to just sit and enjoy while she was eagerly pointing me to the next thing to see. At the end of the complex is a cliff dropping at least 1500 feet to plains below. On the plains I could see several villages dotting the area, and I was really left wondering how anyone could get from there to where I was now standing. I sat on the edge of cliff meditating for a few minutes, while the young girl sat next to me shielding herself from the sun and probably wondering why I was just sitting in the hot sun… When I got up she lead me through a small opening to a ledge just below the edge of the cliff. Here there were prayer flags and hundreds of sticks stuck into every crack. The sticks are like prayers holding up the slowly crumbling temple and cliffs. At least that’s what I assume. Here she also offered to take a picture of me. I was a bit nervous about putting my big heavy camera in her hands and she was a bit confused why she couldn’t see me on the LCD screen (SLR cameras don’t work that way), but in the end she took a pretty darn good picture of me. She showed me one last thing, a bunker built beside the temple and a large gun aimed back towards Thailand, just another reminder how many battles between all sides had been fought from this lofty perch. I left the temple complex right as it was closing.
When I got back to the boarder I was pleased to find my moto taxi still waiting for me. I’d been there longer than I thought though and it hadn’t occurred to me I’d need to catch the last bus back to Si Saket if I wanted to make it back to Surin. The moto driver pointed out we need to hurry if I was going to catch the last bus. I got lucky… first my moto driver was an excellent driver, he carefully slowled or avoided every bump in the road like he’d driven the route hundreds of times (which he probably had) and second he had a very fast motorbike. I know we got passed by a few cars, but we passed every motorbike and several cars on the road. He was flying. He got me back literally as the last bus was pulling out of it’s stall. He honked for them to wait for me, which they did. I over paid him with 400THB. More than even his original asking price of 360 and well more than the 330 we’d agreed on. I told him it was in appreciation of his speed and good driving and then ran and hoped on the waiting bus. The ride back to Si Saket and the train ride back to Surin was mostly uneventful. Pretty, but uneventful. When I got back to Surin I was happy to see it sleepy and quiet like it was the first time I arrived, all but a few tourists were long gone, and only a few local elephants remained as well.