It has been a long trip from Bangkok with many towns, markets, historical sites and national parks visited along the route. We are so happy we decided to start this trip towards Cambodia. We are even happier we decided to rent a car to do it. The more we drive to the east of Thailand the less tourist we see around and English becomes an unknown language, back to the old good hand signals. It would have been very hard and definitely time consuming to take public transportation. There is still an unanswered question: driving to Cambodia through the border.
The photography guide to the ancient Khmer Thailand-Cambodia highway – Map data ® Google.com
We decide to stop in Nang Rong, an easy town not too far away from the Cambodian border. Plenty of accommodation options and great restaurants around, all at an incredible cheap price (compared to the rest of Thailand). From here we can visit two of the most important Khmer areas and one controversial temple, Ta Moan, situated in nobody’s land, right on the border dispute, where fights between Cambodia and Thailand just ended (we were assured!). Nang Rong is also a good place to organise VISA and border formalities.
Phanom Rung Historical Park
Just 35Km from Nang Ron, it is an easy drive that takes less than an hour. Phanom Rung is a complex of Khmer buildings, situated on top of an extinct volcano. It is a beautiful area planned by the Khmer architects with a main entrance and a very long bridge that takes visitors to the building section. It really resembles the main temple in Angkor Wat. Of all the Khmer sites we have being visiting, this is the better preserved one, with maintenance work still around, although not really noticeable. Tourists are everywhere, however mostly from local schools and close-by towns, not many western people.
Being on top of an extinct volcano means that there is vantage point with a good view of the valley around. You need to walk quite a bit because it is on the back of the main temple, the most distant point from the entrance. Disappointed to discover it is close due to maintenance work!
A great area to visit in the late afternoon as the closing time is almost at sunset, with a perfect light for the last photos
Muang Tam – The sanctuary
Yes, also the Khmer had sanctuaries and Muang Tam is a great example of them. Built over 1000 years ago it is still in great conditions, especially considering the limited funding they receive for maintenance.
The main temple is situated in a man made island. We always try to visit temples in the last two hours before they close, almost at sunset. This has few benefits as avoiding the hot hours of the day, having a good light for photography and less tourists around which usually go to the historical sites in the morning. Today we have Muang Tam almost for ourselves, beautiful!
It is so quite that we can close ours eyes and be transported back to the 10th century
Ta Moan – the border dispute
This is one of the most incredible and freakish experiences I would (not) suggest to everybody. To arrive here you need luck and a good GPS system.
Although the dispute over the border is officially ended and Ta Moan is now part of Cambodia, in reality both the Thai and the Cambodian armies are still here, literally elbow to elbow with weapons in hand. To access we need to leave our passport at the Thai Army check point but no stamps or official papers in return, just a number as at the cloakroom. Once in we are escorted to the main temple area and we are left there to wonder around, with eyes of both armies after us. We are never alone
Yes, we are both a bit nervous, if only for the fact that this is nobody’s land and we have no passports with us. Is it worth a visit? Hard to say, there are few benefits as lack of tourists, in fact we are the only ones here (scary). Somehow I feel like I am living a unique experience which goes beyond the tourist or traveller experience. Far from Indiana Jones but away also from Kho Samui, Bangkok or Ayutthaya, all beautiful places to visit, however typical places on many people’s to-do-list. Yeah, I know, it is an experience we could pay literally with blood but still I am happy I have done it. Would I suggest it? Not to everybody, at least now you know you are taking a big risk.
Time to move on, have a sleep and organise the last leg of the trip, drive through the border and make it to Angkor Wat by car. Is it possible? We shall see
Travel Photography tips
- January to March are the driest months and you will have the best sunset and sunrises
- visit Phanom Rung and Muang Tam very late in the afternoon, almost wait for the security to kick you out. You will get the best colours as they tend to close very late, almost at sunset.
- walk to the back of the Phanom Rung main temple, where the toilets are. You will have a beautiful view of the valley, perfect place for some landscape photography (you will be facing west)
- use the Muang Tam sanctuary reflection in the ponds for some interesting photography
- take a mirror less or small camera at Ta Moan and you will be able to make some unique photos including both armies in this nobody’s land. I had the DSLR and they stopped me whenever I was including soldiers, maybe thinking I was a Time journalist LOL
- do not visit Ta Moan in the afternoon. It may be not ideal for photography but you do not want to risk to drive in the dark. It is already complicated to find your way around during the day
- check the map for the three sites to visit
Map with top sites to visit