Thursday 9th December

I know, let's not talk about the weather, OK? A trip to Campuchea (Cambodia) is going ahead as planned, traversing one of the poorest areas of Thailand. The border regions used to be real bandit country a few years ago and the reward for straying from the marked paths was (and still is) the loss of limbs from the millions of landmines sown by both sides and still lying in wait for the unwary. You will see many amputees in this area, thus underlining the official warnings. Sympathy for extreme stupidity from ignorant tourists? Zero. There is a Forest Ranger checkpoint as the the border road enters a Thai National Park and our drivers have to surrender their ID to the guards - they won't get them back if the head-count out doesn't match the head-count back. We have to leave the busses at a market area and walk a couple of hundred metres where a tractor-train awaits us for a short journey downhill on a good road to the terminus hut. I suspect that this ride acts as a cut-off point for vehicular traffic to avoid smuggling of both goods and people across the border as we have already discovered that the Burmese, Laotians and Cambodians all regard Thailand as the land of opportunity. Disembarking, we make our way downhill over sheets of weathered sandstone to a metal stairway with two doorways halfway down marked "IN" and "OUT". This unguarded point is the actual entry-point into Cambodia. Next comes another market area, where we are invited to join a card school (politely declined) followed by more ticket purchases for the temple itself.

Just round the corner the temple-palace of PREAH VIHEAR lies before us. More up, than before, really. This huge edifice runs straight up the side of the mountainside, a 10 metre wide processional stairway way crowned by a small temple building far above us. At this temple another, flatter paved way leads up to the next temple where we pause to admire the King's bathing cistern, which puts me in mind of the ones found in Indian temples. It is about 7 metres deep and never dries completely so there must be a spring feeding it even at this height. A smaller Queen's bathing place is nearby through the trees. We talk to an official Cambodian guide, a charming girl whose harrowing past does not bear repeating here but is nevertheless eloquent testimony to the resiliance of the human spirit. Also a soft-drinks seller, whose lack of one leg is an uncomfortable reminder of issues referred to earlier. We sympathise and gauchely asks how on earth he manages the stairs back down? The answer is as shocking as it now is obvious.
"I don't. I live here".
"But where?" we ask.
"Here, of course. Under this tree. It is my home now", he replies without a trace of bitterness or rancour.
"Bloody hell", we think to ourselves, our Western assurance blown to the winds.
So that's another reason mais enfants why we don't complain about the weather.

Another paved way leads straight upwards, another temple and finally the last way crowned with a much larger fairly ruined building marking the summit. There are a couple of splendid colonades still standing and beyond this last building lies a flat rock sheet ending in a sheer drop thousands of feet to the plains far below, where roads and watercourses can be seen in minature dissappearing literally into the wide blue yonder. The masonry, even the fallen blocks, are richly carved and could no doubt be re-assembled given time and money now that the war is over. After all, it is the second largest complex in this part of the word after Ankor Wat, also in Cambodia. It's difficult to fully describe the ruined splendour of this ancient ceremonial meeting place of the ancient Khmer kings over 600 metres up on the very edge of the Dangrek Mountains. Begun in 889 and presumed finished around 1150, it was initially dedicated to Shiva in the form of Sikharesvara and Bhadresvara, but then rededicated to Theravada Buddhism. Naturally the video batteries die halfway up so I rely on stills for the record. It is only after you retrace your steps back down that the full scale becomes apparent. Incongruously, an abandoned field gun still trains its rusty muzzle over the cliff, while the remains of a military helicopter lie smashed and twisted on the hillside below - a reminder, if one was needed - that only a few years and 400 km separate us from the bloody and violent regime of Pol Pot in Phnom Pen to the southwest.

We retrace our steps (well done, Nigs) and head back to Ubon Ratchathani and dinner, uncomfortably aware that we have missed out lunch completely! Aha, the persuit of culture does require a little sacrifice on occasions. The main luggage and the balloons have already gone by road to Rayong - we follow tomorrow morning by air.

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