Much of Takeo (pronounced ta-kow) province disappears in an annual inundation by the waters of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, leaving Takeo town isolated on the shore of a vast inland sea, and outlying villages transformed into islands. As the waters recede, an ancient network of canals, which once linked the area to the trading port of Oc Eo (now a ruined site across the border in Vietnam), is revealed. These continue to be vital to local communication and trade, and getting around the area is still easiest by boat – indeed, for much of the year there is no alternative.
A key port on the trading route with Vietnam, Takeo town consists of two separate hives of activity: to the south, a dusty (or muddy, depending on the season) market and transport stop on National Route 2 – which has little to recommend it unless you want to visit one of the karaoke parlours – and to the north, a more interesting area around the lake, canal and port. The lakeside, southwest of the canal, has been given a face-lift and there is now a park with views over the marshy, lily-covered lake, which makes a pleasant spot for an early morning or sunset stroll.
Taking up a beautiful spot in the middle of the lake, the home of former Khmer Rouge chief of staff, Ta Mok, has since been turned into a police training facility. Evidently paranoid about his inhumane crimes coming back to haunt him in later life (gruesome enough to have him nicknamed “The Butcher”), Ta Mok had the house built here in 1976. Although you can’t enter the building, it is worth wandering across the bridge to stroll in the grounds.
You could also while away a little time at the port watching large wooden boats arriving from Vietnam laden with cheap terracotta tiles destined for Phnom Penh; the vessels are easily identified by the protective all-seeing eye painted on their bows. A crumbling square behind the waterfront is evidence of Takeo’s colonial past, and there’s a small market here, Psar Nat, which is busy in the early morning and late afternoon with local farmers and fisher-folk. The town’s shophouses are sadly neglected, but still retain a discernible sense of French style.
Takeo makes a good base from which to visit the only Funanese sites so far identified in Cambodia, Angkor Borei and the nearby Phnom Da; an informative museum at Angkor Borei displays artefacts and statues unearthed at both sites. Since Takeo is only two hours from Phnom Penh, it’s possible to visit these sights on a day-trip.
You can hire a boat in Takeo (about $30) and make the trip to Angkor Borei in forty minutes (the onward leg to Phnom Da takes fifteen minutes), either across open water between June and January (approximately), or by canal and river the rest of the year. There are also occasional boat taxis to Angkor Borei (4000 riel per person one way), but you’ll probably face a long wait both to go and to come back. It is really best to allow a full day if you want to do justice to both sites, though a half-day excursion is sufficient to get a feel for them.
Twenty-five kilometres from Takeo lies the pre-Angkorian site of ANGKOR BOREI. The site can be reached year-round by boat, an interesting journey through wetlands which are home to a variety of water birds, with all types of boats coming and going. The fine local museum is the main reason to come here, but you may also want to explore the excavated Funan-era archeological sites.
This pleasantly leafy town sits on the banks of the Prek Angkor, a tributary of the Bassac. The town is well known to scholars as the site where the earliest-known example of written Khmer was discovered, and archeological excavations here have identified many features of the town that once stood on the site, including a moat 22m wide, a section of high brick wall and numerous extensive water tanks. Unfortunately, there is now little to see apart from the finds in the museum.
Boats pull up on the riverside near the bridge, just downstream from which, on the same side of the river, a white colonial building surrounded by a large garden houses Angkor Borei’s well-managed museum, with a diverse collection of ceramics, beads, stone statues, carved pediments from the Funanese era and a photographic exhibition of the excavations. Some stylish sculptures of Vishnu and Shiva line the walls, but the eight-armed Vishnu surrounded by an arc is a reproduction. One of the highlights is a pediment removed from Phnom Da showing Vishnu reclining on a dragon. Aerial photos show clearly the extent of the old settlement and identify many of the features being excavated.
Ironically for a site that has given its name to a style of sculpture, the remains of the temple of Phnom Da are now rather bare, as everything of value has been removed to the museums in Phnom Penh and Angkor Borei for safekeeping. The ruins remain pretty imposing, however, constructed on top of two forty-metre-high mounds built to protect the temple from rising waters. Experts differ on the temple’s vintage, some believing that it was built in the early sixth century by Rudravarman, others that it dates from a later period, perhaps the seventh century.
Boats moor at the small village at the foot of Phnom Da, where local children will offer to show you up meandering paths to the top of the hill, passing at least three of the site’s five caves on the way. On the higher of the two mounds the ancient Prasat Phnom Da ($2) comprises a single laterite tower, visible from way off and dominating the landscape. The tower’s four doorways boast ornate sandstone columns and pediments of carved naga heads, though all but the eastern entrance are false.
On the lower hill, to the west, is a unique Hindu temple, Ashram Maha Russei, dedicated to Vishnu and built of grey laterite. Dating from the seventh century, the structure is a temple in miniature, the enclosing walls so close together that there’s barely room to squeeze between them. On the outside, a spout can still be seen poking through the wall, through which water that had been blessed by flowing over the temple’s linga would once have poured.