Sunday, 24 February 2008

Tei Teuk Pous: Cambodia's finest?

Cambodia's only hot springs site: naturally not, developed not.

Well, the title to this entry is a bit unfair, considering this is the only place in Cambodia with a hot spring. It must be the finest! Still the title is true, but possibly a bit misleading ....

Before rating the site based on my visit of last week another hot issue concerning this entry concerns the name of the springs. It's been mentioned to as
Phnom Te, Tai Teuk Pous, Ta Te Teuk Pus (Cambodia Life), Te Teuk Pus, and probably a couple more variations on the preceding. Matt Jacobsen's 2007 Ultimate Cambodia guide (arguably the best guide, of and off the tourist trails in Cambodia) gives his own solution: he simply refers to it as 'Ancient hot springs'!
However here at Soaking in Southeast Asia we've decided on
Tei Teuk Pous which is the name on the prominent signboard announcing your impending arrival at the site. Then again it's not 100% sure that there is no typo error on that signboard, but we have to start somewhere.

The road travelled
Considering Cambodia has only just the one hot spring, you would imagine that it's not so hard to find. To a certain degree that's correct, finding it is not too difficult, getting there is entirely different story. Located in Kampong Speu province, the springs are to be found in Aural (or Oral) district of this province. Considering it's not directly on the tourist trail, it can be excused that the tiny district headquarters (otherwise known as Sangkea Satob) fails to direct you in the right direction. Then again if you know there's only 1 roundabout in the district and you need to go west, these clues should be sufficient to guide you onwards to the hot springs which are roughly 10km south of Sangkea Satob's roundabout.

Imminent arrival, one signboard (hot water) the other: Tei Teuk Pous Ecotourism

As you have been traveling on poor roads (or very poor roads) for over two hours, you must be getting exhilarated by finally arriving at the hot springs themselves, however, if it wasn't for a signboard you probably would have just driven past.

The springs themselves
In all honesty, for a hot spring, it's a bit disappointing. As you can see from the photo, the two signboards give an indication as to which direction the springs are to be found. There's a makeshift temple between the road and the springs, which are 50 m further away. Some development has taken place, I'll get to that later and some is still impending (considering the amount of heaped gravel lying close by). The springs lie on the edge of a swampy area. Development has lead to a 50 cm high wall around the springs, the top of which is level to the surrounding ground. Some of the springs within this 10m in diameter box have been cemented in, no idea why. The pond overflows at a couple of places and a stream carries this hot overflow away in the direction of the swamp. From the barrier wall, steel rods protrude upwards, indicating that there are plans to raise the wall higher so as to create a pond with a larger capacity. Where most of the water overflows steel pipes with valves lie roughly 50 cm above the water. Could it be that after the wall has been raised, these would be then used to allow water to enter the steel pipes? Possibly. And where do the steel pipes go to?

The springs themselves, the only way is up?

Before I answer that, I could additionally highlight that there used to be a separate system with wooden boxes (for bathing purposes?). There's a sitting Buddha statue, though it's significance eludes me. But what is pretty clear is that the site is neither natural anymore nor open to bathing. I do take off my shoes and let my feet dangle in the hot stream, but is that the satisfaction for this day-long trip?

Well, aside from satisfying my curiosity there is still the issue of the steel pipes. The steel pipes follow the stream for a while but where the stream makes a turn the pipes continue straight in and through a forest of sorts.
I return to the springs themselves get on my motorbike and travel 500m back where a straight and broad road (complete with gutters) heads to a building, which on closer inspection is a gate /entrance. Parked the motor again and on foot through the gate. The buildings are all of recent date though for possibly a year or so it seems to have been deserted. Beyond the gate, small wooden structures can be seen which are meant to be bathing houses. Each have been stylishly designed, with doors and a small shelter. Unsheltered to the sky, are a squarish tubs roughly 1 by 1m, 50-70 cm in depth. On the sides of the tubs not connected to the shelter there is trellis, possibly to give some privacy for bathers. All in all, these would provide a better soaking experience than many I have observed in Thailand.

Soaking huts: spread out

There are roughly about twenty of these structures, some larger than others. Beyond these are changing rooms (with lots of cow shit!), an intended restaurant with deck and separate picnic tables with shade covering. This all backs onto the swamp with the hot stream in the foreground. In the distance one can still observe the hot springs.

The place is eerie silent, if it were not for the abundant bird life. Overall the surroundings (here and back at the springs) were alive with birds: swallows, bee-eaters, a coucal, a pair of pied starlings, babblers and more. If not for the hot springs, the site is certainly interesting for bird-watching!
Though the buildings are certainly not overgrown, no recent evidence of human occupation can be seen. Already a huge tree has come crushing down and blocking a couple paths.

More on the hot springs' development
Apparently, the 'ecotourism' of the signboard site refers to these new structures. A 2006 article on the Lutheran World Foundation's (LWF) development work nearby the hot springs describes the following:

'But the community fears that the underground water [of a deep well] will be exhausted in future if the golf courses, being developed by two foreign-owned companies, become operational. The construction of golf courses and hotels near the village, in the guise of eco-tourism is ongoing. "We know that these companies will be using much more water than we do," the villagers lament. "Our deep wells might dry up."

Mr David H. Mueller, the LWF/DWS representative in Cambodia, points out that the "ecotourism" project has also claimed the Suoy people's sacred hot springs, and disallows access to other natural resources the community has customarily relied on, especially in the most meager season for food and income'.
Matt Jaconbsen (2007) adds:
'A swank hotel and health spa was recently built to cash in on the reputed benefits of the water and is located just before one arrives at the main site'.
And one of the aforementioned sites (Phnom Te):
'Hot spring is rare is Cambodia and expected to become a big spa for health rehabilitation in the future'.
Well, a swank hotel it certainly is not, neither would I refer to the intended hot springs park (?) as a health spa. And there is certainly no evidence of golf courses.
Did the companies run out of money? Possibly. However it was always going to be a long shot, the road from the main highway is a 60 km non-black topped 'road'. Half of which is in very poor condition, another of Cambodia's so-called
dancing roads. I count myself lucky I decided to take just two-wheels, this way I can wind my way through the pot-holes. Nevertheless, it took me a little more than 2 hours to complete the 60 kms. If you are expecting scores of cars to travel up from Cambodia's bustling capital Phnom Penh to see the springs for themselves (and knock a golf ball around), well that might be a slight miscalculation!

The 'resort' entrance: a road less traveled?

What if?
However, with giving the companies the rights to develop the site, alternative small-scale development has (or is) probably not allowed. That's unfortunate, local interest in the springs would have remained strong. Certainly, Matt Jacobsen refers to the springs having significant medical / health properties:
'Cambodians far and near still make the journey in an effort to rid themselves of skin diseases and other illnesses'.
Additionally, he refers extensively to the spiritual significance for the local Suoy:
'The site is still used for religious ceremonies by the local minority Suoy people, so it is possible that knowledge and use of this site has been passed down through the centuries. It is believed that spirits reside at the hot springs and parents have been known to take their children, along with a buffalo, to the springs when the children became ill, sacrificing the buffalo to the spirits to rid the child of the illness'.
And if this is not significant enough he relates how archaeological finds have been made near the springs themselves; pieces were reckoned to have:
'very symbolic religious motives.


'Legend has it that kings came to the site to enjoy the medicinal value of the mineral water and the area may be part of an Angkor era burial mound'.
This would most probably mean that locals would continue to not only visit the site, but enhance it. Not all development is for the good. That said the structures built are certainly not swanky as mentioned but rather in keeping with the natural site itself. Unfortunately the developers have not chosen to fulfill their promise.

In the end, despite their significance for Cambodia the springs currently have little value other than for 'freaks' (I mean that positively!) such as myself: satisfying my curiosity.

More photo's of Tei Touk Pous can be found on my hot springs photo site.

[Update (March 7, 2008): An article in Asialife (March, 2008, Phnom Penh edition) on Kampong Speu province identifies the site as Teuk Phoh:
'Although not a volcanic country Cambodia boasts hot springs high in the foothills of Mount Aural. Teuk Phoh, which means emerging water in Khmer, is located on a five hectare site full of forests and red rock'.
If anything the author is misled, probably never been there. Some sentences seem to be copied from this site. The hot springs are not high up in the foothills! Nor is the site full of forests and red rock, if anything it is a swamp! The author identifies the locals as Kuoy instead of Suoy. She (Anita Surewicz) does add that:
' Washing your face with spring water is believed to bring good luck!'
End of update]

Getting There: Tei Touk Pous hot springs are located in Oral district, Kampong Speu. From Phnom Penh take highway no 4. to just beyond Kampong Speu town (nearly 50 km from the city centre). A large signboard announces the turn to Oral which is on the west side of the road. Continue along this black-topped road for two kilometers until you get to a bridge over a canal, straightaway turn toyour left and follow the canal road for about 200 m, after which it is clear that the road veers off the side of the canal. This is also the worst stretch of the road. From here it is nearly 50 km to Sangkea Satob, Oral district headquarters. The closer to Sangkea Satob the less potholes, possibly some overall kind of road reconstruction is taking place, possibly it could just as well be a dry season job, the road deteriorating after the monsoonal rains. In Sangkea Satob, go straight at the roundabout, the road narrows slightly and winds more. The landscape becomes much more forestry and you pass a couple of streams until after 10km from the roundabout the main road you've been following veers too the right and a big cement sign on your left reads 'hot water'. You have arrived!

Getting there: prepare yourself for some dusty rock 'n roll!

Soaking Experience: Well as you may have read above there's not much of a bathing culture nor facilities. Dangling your feet in the main pool would be ill-advised, too hot! Just follow the run-off of the overflow until you find a place where soaking your feet is possible and agreeable. Do not expect to soak more than your feet. Not in the near future

Overall Impression: Considering that the springs are not open for business I would not recommend anyone to specifically visit the springs, but if you need to be in the area (why?), a short stop maybe warranted.

Update. From September 2010 an article in the Phnom Penh Post (reblogged). No changes to situation described above.

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