Discovering Cambodia by crashing into it
across Cambodia - seems like everybody's getting into the act now. A whole
guidebook was published recently geared towards this activity (and the
assumption you have an odometer that works - last we checked there were
only four motorbikes in Cambodia with this function - the author of the
book, a Phnom Penh expat who likes counting down from eleven, some Khmer
guy who thinks his bike goes faster with a working odometer, and yours
really is a great way to get around the country given the appalling state
of many of Cambodia's roads (though to somebody's credit, many are getting
some kind of upgrade now) and contrary to what one may assume, you do
not have to be an experienced rider to navigate most of these roads. This
past April I undertook a four-day seven-hundred-fifty-kilometer ride and
I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Some argue I still don't.
I needed a bike. Having recently moved to Siem Reap, buying one was the
obvious choice. I would shop carefully I told myself. I then bought the
first 250cc enduro bike that was offered to me - a 1992 Honda XLR. Prior
to this purchase, other than a few spins around town on a Honda Dream,
I had never driven a motorbike. But already knowing how to operate a clutch
on a car there really wasn't anything to learn. A few laps around Siem
Reap's Olympic Stadium is all it took to get the hang of the thing. Though
there was the matter of spending ten minutes trying to kick-start the
bike - much to the amusement of the dozen or so Khmer teenagers watching
nearby (actually, almost everything we foreigners do seems to provide
amusement for the locals).
Two weeks later - Khmer New Year. I needed to get some photos of the Cardamom Mountains for another travel mag. A four-day journey was planned - Siem Reap to Sisophon to Battambang to Pailin down into the mountains for the day, back to Battambang and the above in reverse, and squeezing in somewhere a side jaunt to Banteay Chhmar.
very inexperienced biker, I needed a guide (and good medical insurance).
Enter Al the Chef. Pay all his expenses and he'd lead me away or astray
as the case may be. And I needed equipment. Driving around town without
a helmet may not be the smartest thing to do but to venture into the countryside
without one would be downright idiotic. Enter Karl the Consulate Warden.
Proving what a caring friend he is, he hands me his helmet, "bring it
back with so much as a scratch and you owe me two hundred bloody dollars."
the road and heading west on Highway 6 we weren't even a kilometer out
from Siem Reap when we came upon the aftermath of a bad wreck. Some luckless
Khmer motodop was lying on the road, a thick mass of blood oozing from
the back of his head. Not an encouraging omen.
to Sisophon was a breeze. The highway reconstruction had begun and much
of the road had already been widened, packed, and graded. We made it in
under two hours. One piece of useful advice I was given before leaving,
which I will pass on to you, is about bridges. Slow down for them - always.
How slow? Slow enough to stop before it's too late. Too late is when you
and your bike are at the bottom of a fifteen-foot ravine. Most bridges
do not reveal their true nature until the last moment - newly reconstructed
with strong supports and generous amounts of cement with full UN funding
or two rickety old boards placed by a man named Vann who charges 500 riels
for crossing. Some bridges require dismounting and walking your bike,
while some bridges are best avoided altogether.
As we had
planned to spend the night in Sisophon and it was only lunchtime, a trip
up to Banteay Chhmar was in order. We had heard the road was fairly easy.
A few kilometers north of town I sought to avoid a large puddle by riding
up on a small ridge to the side of the road. On the ridge a small bump
sent bike and rider face and tailpipe first into the largest puddle in
the province. I tried to excuse this as a test to determine the amphibious
capabilities of a Honda XLR but it didn't work. Al stood there shaking
his head, trying to suppress a laugh (or tears, it was difficult to tell).
Trying to save some face I ask Al, "That was a tricky bump or, or, or
am I wanker?" Well, we westerners don't concern ourselves much with face
so Al promptly and emphatically replied, "You're a wanker."
Bike won't start. Muddy water is not the manufacturer's recommended motor
oil. Al took off to get a pick-up truck and I stood around scratching
my head and ass. Eventually we got a ride back to town and the motorbike
shop spent an hour diddling with the bike before deciding that they couldn't
do anything about it. Another shop got the bike running in seconds and
neither Al nor myself have a clue as to what they did.
much for Banteay Chhmar. By this time it was too late to make the trip,
so back to the hotel to change into clean, or in my case, dry clothes.
day, destination Pailin. I did pretty well on this stretch. The road to
Battambang is for the most part, quite good. Attaining speeds of 110 km/h
were possible, but whether advisable or not is another matter. But while
the road to Battambang may be a snap, the road to Pailin sucks.
right: Kids and mines, what a great combination! Northern Cardamom mountain
[photo right: Kids and mines, what a great combination! Northern Cardamom mountain range.]
with an hour or two of broken tarmac which is a nightmare on your arms,
followed by a never-ending line of five-foot long, two-foot deep potholes
that can actually be a bit of fun once you get the rhythm of it - this
assumes the potholes do their part by remaining reasonably uniform in
their size. Potholes have no sense of uniformity. Finally, about fifteen
kilometers from Pailin the road turns into freshly laid gravel that I
comfortably cruised on at about seventy to eighty km/h. And the scenery
starts to get very nice around here, too. The only challenge was just
outside Pailin where the bridge was out, necessitating a ride through
a river. By sheer luck, I got across without a problem. The fact that
on the return I managed to find the deepest section of river and stall
out in it only proves just how much luck was involved on the first pass.
Entering Pailin was a minor annoyance. It was Khmer New Year after all. All throughout northwest Cambodia (perhaps it's the Thai influence) this water throwing thing is becoming as much of a sadistic (and dangerous) ritual as it is in Thailand. The fun thing for kids and teenagers to do is fill plastic bags with water and fling them as hard as possible at passing motorists. This includes motorcycles. Getting hit by one of these at high speed is akin to having Mike Tyson punch you in the face. I have seen broken windshields on cars, I have seen motorcycles crash, and while I haven't seen it first hand, apparently these bags of water lead to several deaths a year due to accidents. The Cambodian government has made a reasonably successful effort to ban waterguns in urban areas during the Khmer New Year. Could the powers-that-be extend this to a nationwide ban on the water bags? Better yet, how about next year when some fourteen-year-old punk sends a motorbike crashing, possibly fatally, into a ditch, the authorities take the brat out and publicly execute the little shit. And you probably think I'm kidding.
I digress. Pailin. Nice town, get some rubies, find the casino, the brothel village, the old tank, or just sit in the courtyard restaurant of the Hang Meas Pailin Hotel, get sloshed, and learn key motorbiking terms which are the staple of any biker's vocabulary, words like "shag" and "tart".
[photo left: The one thing I couldn't crash - an old tank sits abandoned and rusting outside of Pailin.]
Next day - into the Cardamoms. Unfortunately, weather would not be our friend today. The middle of April is supposed to be sunny and hot but this day was cool, cloudy, and drizzly. Not good for photos. But mountains are like that. We ride a few hours to the Koh Kong turn-off where I decide to write the day off as a washout. Nonetheless, the scenery is still spectacular. The road is pretty good, a few tricky spots I handled fine with one exception - one rickety wooden bridge that I probably should have walked my bike across. Well, I managed to get my front tire lodged firmly between two boards. Good thing Al is the calm, patient type as he admonishes me of how close I came to being a troll under a bridge.
[photos: left: Troll bridge? right: Entering the Cardamoms.]
close to Battambang we show a great sense of timing by reaching the Kamping
Puoy turn-off just as every Battambang resident between the ages of thirteen
and twenty-two is returning from the day's festivities at the nearby dam.
A mass confusion of motos, trucks, and flying water mixed in with that
bloody awful road, well, it was good to get back to the Teo Hotel to rest
up for the next day's second attempt at Banteay Chhmar.
Battambang, well, it has a lot of nice statues. See if you can find the
indentation of a motorcycle helmet in the base of one.
it's first off to Sisophon, dodging water bags the whole way. It seems
with each passing day of the holiday the quantity of water throwing increases.
See previous comments about public executions. You probably still think
I'm kidding. I was hit in the head by a bag while doing 100 km/h. If that
was my face or I was sans helmet you probably wouldn't be reading this.
break in Sisophon and it's off to Banteay Chhmar. Now, as I said, we had
heard the road was pretty good so it was with some surprise that we navigated
about twenty kilometers of utter crap. We finally gave up after I wrecked
pretty good from landing in a deep pothole sideways, backwards, or some
position other than the correct one - and wrecking good enough to draw
blood in several locations. And the hour was getting late. We found out
later there really is a good road to Banteay Chhmar - this just wasn't
point I had dumped my bike a few times, but neither me nor the bike was
really any worse for the wear. Sure, I was banged up a bit, but nowhere
even remotely close enough to put me off biking. I was taking it all in
stride as just part of learning to ride a bike on lousy roads.
to Sisophon, traffic is thickening and the water is flying. Accelerating
to get through the upcoming gauntlet of water bags, I'm doing in excess
of 60 km/h as a vintage moto with three riders tries to cross traffic
from the right making no allowances for the speed I'm driving. We hit.
I go flying left, my bike right. Fortunately I had enough sense to roll,
leaving me with only a badly sprained right hand and a whole fresh batch
of cuts and scrapes in all the usual places. As for the other guy, he
must have believed he did something wrong, because he took off as quickly
as he could get his bike upright. Strange - a Khmer in an accident with
a foreigner and he doesn't stick around waiting for the pay-off.
The clutch lever on my bike was broken. But a little finessing around with what was left at least made it possible to get the bike out of first gear, and you don't have to use the clutch to shift back and forth through sixth. I limped back to Siem Reap and quickly the stories of the wreckage I left behind in northwest Cambodia began to spread through watering holes across the country. Within a week the reports in Phnom Penh said some stupid Yank had crashed a dozen times, taking out eight roadside gasoline stands, seven sugar palms, six scrawny chickens, five dogs a-yapping, four grubby children, three pigs a-grunting, two dilapidated shacks (with families inside), and a partridge in a pear tree. This is not true. I didn't hit any pear trees.
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.