The log of one man's quest for wind and sunshine


Musings on riding through Cambodia

Cambodia is mostly hot and flat.  Riding on my vintage, two-stroke, Soviet monster for hundreds of kilometers on end was less enjoyable than some of the other riding I had enjoyed in the region, and that is when Dylan proposed we go back to Phnom Penh via pickup I readily agreed.  No shenanigans though, that was my only requirement.  “Let’s pay a premium, so we get a truck all to ourselves”, I said.  We agreed and found a guy who worked at our hotel (or at least hung out at our hotel) to arrange a truck.  The very beat-up toyota showed about two hours late and a gang of Cambodians proceeded to lash our bikes on the bed.  The truck was pretty cramped, but what the heck — we’d make it for the 300 km drive that would hopefully take around 4 hours.  Our main aim was to be in Phnom Penh before sunset mostly for safety concerns brought on by some stories Dylan had heard in Thailand…something to the effect of “lots of AK 47’s still floating around”…

That didn’t end up working out.  We proceeded to cruise around Siem Reap for the remainder of the day loading more stuff onto the pickup truck including enough lumber to build a house, various pieces of  heavy machinery, an ice cream merchant’s cart (he was evidently seeking better opportunities in the capital), and a young Cambodian mother with a few of her kids. Initially I had grabbed the passenger front seat, and Dylan had the bench seat –well the seat was actually missing, but that general area at least.  Alas, this was not to last.  The driver explained in his best English that normally he gets three to four Cambodians in the backseat alone, and we hadn’t paid that much, so both of us needed to fit in the bench seat (general area).  We grudginly cooperated.  I tried to raise a stink, but that was going nowhere, and our bikes were firmly committed and underneath a metric ton of junk.  Oh well — here we go.  Two more guys squeezed in the front seat bringing the total number of passengers to about ten, and right at dusk we set of for Phnom Penh.

The ride went smoothly enough except for early on a near collision with a pedestrian. I had visions of the young mother and her offspring seated on top of the pile of junk to come flying over the front of the car during the resulting swerve at 80 km/hr.  During our first food break, the driver explained he only drove at night to avoid the police.  I guess there was after all something illegal about his rig, and there are less bribes to pay after dark.  We did make several stops in seemingly random places just to hand some cash to a police “officer” standing by the side of the road.  Our final bribe we paid as we rolled into Phnom Penh around 3 am collected by a young boy working for the police officer standing by the side of the road.  I learned during the trip that about half of what we paid to travel had actually been commission to our truck broker, and between the gasoline and the bribes, I guess the truck guy runs his business on a tight margin.

It was kinda neat rambling along the Cambodian countryside at night in slight physical discomfort, paying off cops, glimpsing into the Cambodian households lit up by the family’s solitary CFL bulb, and eating the truckstop food.  Both Dylan and I were a little apprehensive the whole time about being robbed by our friendly transporter, but in the end we got to sigh in relief when we got back on our familiar bikes near the Psar Thmey Market.

Angkor Wat

The main draw for Cambodia tourists is the Angkor Wat temple complex.   The complex is huge and covers more area than the nearby town of Siem Reap.  It’s impossible to do it all in a day, but that didn’t stop Dylan and I from trying.  The more recommended route would be to take a three or four day pass, and take a day off halfway through.  The whole experience can be a little overwhelming, and after touring for a few hours it is easy to become “templed out”.

That said, it is an amazing place and a must-see when touring SE Asia.  Dylan and I did a pretty good job beating the tourist, starting our visit the first day by visiting Ta Prohm at sunset, right before the park closes.  The following day we did a marathon run broken up by a nap in the heat of the day.  The place is photogenic beyond words, and it’s certainly not difficult to take a postcard photograph.

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Strolling through Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh sits on the West bank of the Tonlé Sap right where it merges into the Mekong.  There are no mountains nearby and the the whole area is protected from the various rivers by levees and interconnected with bridges and ferries.  When I arrived in late February the weather was hot and steamy leaving you pretty much incapacitated in the middle part of the day.  Many tourists skip Phnom Penh and beeline it to Angkor Wat — the famous temple city near Siem Reap another 300 km further into the country, but I had talked to my motorcycle travel buddy Dylan about meeting up here to join forces and explore Cambodia with our bikes.  Dylan was still in Thailand wrapping up some repairs to his Suzuki, and would have to take the long road to Phnom Penh due to a recently flared border dispute between Thailand and  Cambodia.  I decided to relax and take in the scene.

The vibe in this city is much different than Saigon where I was just before.  Even though there are several modern buildings including some skyscraper-like, things don’t look as clean and organized on the whole.  The older district is full of overpacked dirty streets with coffee houses and markets.  The Cyclo taxi is still in use by the locals (unlike Vietnam where it primarily is used for carting tourists) which speaks to the different economic situation in the two countries.  The market photos I shot primarily at the Kandal market — a very picturesque place and busy with locals buying goods around dusk.  I’m posting a lot of the Cyclo photos because I think they are fun, and it is neat they are still in use.

Many of the streets in the old district reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans with similar architecture of overhanging wrought iron balconies and terraces where one can enjoy a sweet cold ice coffee.  I bought a counterfeit copy of The Quiet American from a street peddler and spend several afternoons watching the world go by and being a flâneur along the bank of the Tonlé Sap and finally feeling like I had found the Indochina of old.

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Holiday in Kampuchea

Sidenote:  Slackage has struck with regard to my beloved travel blog.  Though I took these photos and visited these places a while ago, I intend to play some catch up and get the blog’s chronology more or less back to present time.  I actually visited Cambodia at the end of February of 2011.

I left Saigon early in the morning, having a little ice coffee before hitting the road to fight the already sweltering heat and sharpen my senses a little for the treacherous ride ahead.  When you ride in the country in Vietnam things are somewhat predictable, as well as in the core of the cities.  The main arteries leading in and out of the city, however, are deadly circuses of multi-lane traffic on roads that usually only have two lanes.  The right of strongest prevails, and my Minsk is no match for a big bus or truck barreling down on me on the last bit of road left — better to run off into the ditch and take your chances there.

My only goal for the day was to cross into Cambodia (Kampuchea in Khmer).  I read some conflicting accounts online that crossing the border was anywhere from impossible to “a breeze”, so with all my gear strapped on(including the kites and board) I rode straight to the border in the most optimistic of mindsets.  The Vietnamese border was a breeze to cross with the only harassment a chatty border official asking me about my Minsk (“Min-car goood.  How much you pay? $250?  Ooooh that’s very expensive…”).  The Cambodian official smiled a little when I already knew the correct fee ahead of time — they are infamous for making up the fees to whatever sucker price they can get, and other than a minor extortion attempt with exchange rate on the Vietnamese Dong they were correct and whisked me through.  I realized I had enough time to make Phnom Penh by daylight — a reason for excitement, for there is not much in the way of towns with lodging between the Vietnam border at Bavet and Phnom Penh city.

A few things struck me immediately after entering Cambodia — the traffic went to virtually non-existant, and Bavet is a full-on mini-Vegas of the region including its own Winn Casino (yes, spelled like that), but without the glamour and bling of the real Las Vegas.  My ride took me to the banks of the mighty Mekong river, the last barrier to cross before a leisurely 60 km to Phnom Penh.  The crossing was quite simply amazing — I was huddled next to a bunch of other scooters and motorcycles bringing whose owners were bringing their wares into the capital to sell.  The boat was a seaworthy-enough looking ferry and the ride was swift.  My main concern was the three live sows strapped to the scooter next to me, the largest of which had grown quite ornery and her bottom parts were facing me…