“Why you go there?” was the typical response.
After traveling in GOLD VIP Minivan comfort from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and back, it was finally time for us to get a taste of local transportation. We had seen en route to Siem Reap many minivans that were stuffed to the brim with the most ridiculous assortment of things, to the extent that there would be one or two locals clinging desperately onto mattresses or boxes as their feet dangled off the boot of the car. And so after paying 6 USD each for a ticket that actually cost 6000 riels/1.50USD (Thanks GOLD VIP..), we found ourselves part of an equation of 22 people in a 10-seater van. The bus attendant seemed to have infinite faith for the number of people that could be squeezed into some nook of the van as we stopped very frequently to pick up and drop off passengers. Quite thankfully, there was no livestock on the van, nor did anyone actually end up having to take the boot seat. The journey took approximately 1.5 hours with all the stops that we made.
While the capital (and namesake) of Kampong Speu province does not boast of majestic temples, it does have one temple with an incredible story. Built in 1958, this temple at Ampe Phnom was used as a detention center during the Khmer Rouge. As the regime was anti-religious, they apparently splashed blood on the walls of the temple to cover up the paintings of Buddha that adorn its inner walls. However, when the monks returned to the temple after the regime, they discovered that the paintings were still preserved perfectly once the blood was washed off with water. Word has it that the paintings have not been restored ever since, and if that is the case, this is nothing short of a miracle! What I also loved about the temple was the colorful statues around its perimeter. Apart from telling the story of Buddha’s life, it also features the animals from the Chinese zodiac. These were a recent addition to the temple, as you can imagine they would most definitely have been hacked away by the Khmer Rouge had they been there previously.
The killing fields in Kampong Speu are also located next to the temple, which makes it all the more likely that it was used as a detention center before the people were sent to their graves. There is a monument similar to that in Cheoung Ek, where the skulls and bones of the victims are displayed. It never fails to send shivers down my spine..
If you come by the tourist entrance (fee: 1-2 USD), you will have to cross over from Tang Tonle village to Ampe Phnom via a wooden suspension bridge over the Preaek Thnot River. Pretty precarious in my opinion, since this bridge of 70 meters is essentially wooden poles nailed to a (hopefully) very sturdy metal rope. Still, a little adrenaline never hurt no one. Visitors can also swim in the river or chill out at the villages. Be careful of the monkeys that roam the villages and the temple though!
Kampong Speu is also surrounded by several hills which provide splendid trekking options. Cycling through the villages to the mountains would be a joy as one would get to see rolling fields of gold wheat, watch the villagers go about their daily lives and spot the occasional pagoda on the hill. There are also talks of bringing dirt biking to the mountains, which would definitely be a trip for adrenaline junkies.
What has drawn an increasing number of foreigners and volunteers to Kampong Speu in the last few years is the Sao Sary Foundation, an non-profit organization that advocates change in the community and has a mission to protect children from trafficking, abuse and sexual exploitation. WB and I spent a beautiful day with them tuk-tuking through the rural communities as we learnt how how to install biosand water filters to give the villagers pure water. You can read more about our experience here. It’s definitely an organization worth checking out if you are visiting Kampong Speu!
Finally, an unfortunate video of me accidentally spilling the precious rice of the villagers while attempting to sieve it. Kids, don’t try this anywhere. Harvesting rice is extremely tough!