Nepal – Thailand – Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia, and our seventh suspension failure between us to date. Still, I can think of worse places to be holed up awaiting the arrival of a replacement rear shock from the UK for Danny’s bike. He removed the shock on Sunday to replace the same bush that had collapsed on my bike during the Rally Raid, only to find the ‘U’ bracket had snapped. Even if a ‘local’ repair had been possible, it couldn’t be trusted to last through the month ahead in Laos. Danny’s family sprang into action and his dad rummaged through his garage to locate Danny’s original (OE) BMW suspension unit (shock) which his sister had collected by DHL on Tuesday. At 1000 this morning (Friday) the red & yellow DHL man walked into our guesthouse brandishing Danny’s shock. It left us asking the question ‘Are we really that far from home…?’
We followed the signs through what appeared to be the grounds of a private school and down to the river. Arriving at what we thought to be a dead end we spoke to a soldier on guard who pointed to a narrow road running across the top of a weir. Barely wide enough for a small car we slowly made our way along the road, squeezing between the oncoming rickshaws and the steel railings. At the far side the road dropped away to the border barrier.
The guards in immigration tried it on with the old ‘you have to pay 50 rupees each for the book to be filled in’ but we’d heard it all before. All it took was asking for a receipt and they dropped the subject. Twenty yards away at the customs office we were invited in, given water and asked how we enjoyed India before having our Carnets processed swiftly and efficiently; not a sentence normally associated with India.
The gravel track led to the Nepalese border approximately 1km away. Here a bamboo pole across the road, counterbalanced by an old car tyre full of bricks marked the border.
We shelled out US$30 each for 30 day visas before having our Carnets processed in the little hut adjacent to the barrier.
Setting off on a 150km at three in the afternoon is not something we’d have contemplated in India but the virtually straight and empty Mahindra highway allowed us to achieve an average speed unseen since Iran. Rounding a bend to see a straight, flat empty road stretching to the horizon is not what usually floats the boat of a motorcyclist but we were grateful of the rest and the opportunity to look around and absorb the countryside surrounding us.
We shared the road with more cattle, sheep and goats than other vehicles as herds and flocks were moved from one grazing area to another. Buffalo worked the fields surrounding grass roofed mud huts, fronted by immaculately kept courtyards. I think we’ll like Nepal.
How then did we come not to…?
Perhaps it was the introduction of compulsory trekking guides at $10 a day (introduced during our trek so not affecting us) that adds approx $100-$250 to the price of WALKING in the Annapurna. This has effectively priced the average backpacker out of the market – the very people that have kept the trekking industry alive whilst Nepal was on the international ‘no go’ list. Perhaps it is the Maoists who have turned into the corrupt extorters they set out to dethrone. Perhaps it’s the extent of the dual pricing that charges foreigners up to six times that of a local. Perhaps it’s the foreigners’ entry fee for Durbar Sq, Kathmandu where the police only stop white people or perhaps it’s the touts of Kathmandu who drove us into giving everyone the brush off knowing that every conversation would lead to trying to sell us everything from girls to drugs.
Whatever it was we were disappointed. Not since Turkey had we felt like this.
Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad…
Banbassa – Thakurdwara
A 150km ride took us to Ambassa where collection of houses surrounded an archway across a gravel track that led to Thakurdwara village and Bardi National Park, 13km away.
The accommodation touts appeared from everywhere but knowing where we wanted to stay we ignored them. A glance in the mirrors revealed we were being pursued by several motorcycles. This was no problem until one overtook me dangerously on the inside riding through a small hamlet. A few words over the Autocom and we decided to ‘dust’ them off. Riding side-by-side we accelerated to 90km/h creating a seemingly impenetrable dust cloud. Entering the next village we slowed to a safe pace but come the village end so we saw headlights begin to penetrate the dust; so we did the same again!
Following signs to Bardia Jungle Cottage, we turned off the main track and followed a pathway alongside a stream where two of the motorcycles followed us. It transpired that these two worked for our chosen accommodation and were in fact the owners’ son and the head guide who we would come to spend two days in the jungle with. They looked as though they’d been hosed down and rolled in wholemeal flour. Danny and I were trying to be apologetic but I don’t think we came across too sincerely; we were after all, pissing ourselves laughing.
Bardia National Park
We took a day off prior to spending two days trekking in the National Park. We’d ridden 995km from Shimla on mostly twisting alpine roads and now, back in the lowlands for the first time since Islamabad, the heat was having its effect on us.
During our two days in the jungle we saw six rhinosauras, wild boar and numerous monkeys. A deer carcass lay in the tall grass but was remarkably complete save for the lack of blood. Our guide explained that when a tiger killed a deer it would first drink the blood and then return the following day to eat. This of course begged the question ‘What are we doing here then!?’
Thinking the rhino we were tracking was about to turn on us we all scrambled up the nearest tree where we got bitten and stung by some particularly vicious ants. It was, of course, preferable to being impaled on a rhino horn.
At our guesthouse we met Mike, a young English lad on a ‘Research year out’ from his Zoology degree. He was here working for the WWF (no not wrestling) studying Human/Elephant conflict and we were fascinated by his stories, facts and figures and by some of the reasons behind such conflicts and the efforts to reduce them. Later, in Kathmandu, we would come to read about a rampaging bull elephant that terrorised a local village for several days, killing twelve villagers before finally being (sadly) shot dead.
Mike however was at a loose end. His immediate boss, her boss and many others had been killed in a recent helicopter crash in a mountainous region of Nepal that claimed the lives of many WWF and local officials. We had read about it in Manali and so many of you may be aware of it.
Back on the bikes we took what appeared to be the obvious route to Lumbini (Budda’s birthplace). The road gradually deteriorated into a gravel track, then narrowed, threw in a smattering of potholes before finally turning into sand and disappearing into the river – great! Fifty metres up stream we spotted the ‘ferry’. A giant rowing boat shaped vessel sporting a level deck which was punted across the river by two ‘Gondoliers’.
Whilst unloading the bikes I heard a ‘thud’ and turned around just in time to watch my crash helmet roll into the river – nice. After carrying all our gear aboard, three locals wheeled each bike across the gang plank and onto the boat.
At the opposite side we encountered our first (of many) case of greed. Having been told by a local guy that it cost 20 Rupees(R) to cross we were taken aback when we were asked for R5000! It had taken some effort on their part to load the bikes on but we felt that R50 each (2.5x the going rate) was a fair price and so that was what we paid. It was a good job we didn’t need to make a fast getaway as Danny felt the need to drop his bike in the deep soft sand three times whilst riding away from the riverbank.
Lumbini was a curious place. Famous as the birthplace of Budda it attracted much attention from the Buddhist world. Various nations from around the globe had built (or were building) temples centred round a central canal. When finished I envisage a Buddhist ‘Las Vegas’ with ‘The Strip’ being replaced by the canal and the hotel/casinos by the temples in a kind of ‘my temple’s bigger/more bling than yours’ – a touch cynical perhaps but I couldn’t help but notice the likeness.
The Snowland Hotel in Pokhara presented us with hot water and a bed EACH for the first time in too long. Pokhara is touristville which isn’t always a bad thing; especially when you’ve been on the road for a while. We wasted no time in indulging and tucked into Steak and Chips followed by Apple Crumble and Custard – our first ‘western’ food since Vinny and Gills in Islamabad. Nobody does ‘pudding’ like the English!
Our main reason for coming here was to go trekking. Having eaten far too much curry and drunk far too much beer in India we were in need of some exercise and the Annapurna Circuit was just the place. Known for its ‘Tea House’ trekking there is no need to carry food or tents as the village’s en-route have all the supplies, food and accommodation required.
Opting against the 20-24 day full circuit we decided instead to fly to Jomsom, trek up to Muktineth over two days and then back to Pokhara (10 days total).
Trekking in the Annapurna
Flying in a narrow void below the storm clouds but above the valley tops we threaded our way turbulently alongside the 8000m Annapurna range to the spectacularly located Jomson airport. Only able to fly until mid morning due to the winds that race down the valley thereafter, it was fascinating to see the 20 seater turned around so quickly. As everything you could imagine (inc a tractor tyre!) was unloaded and loaded onto the plane, so the flight crew quickly shovelled down their breakfasts whilst squatting on the runway.
At 3700m our first few nights in the unheated lodges were cold. We were glad we’d taken our sleeping bags with us although even these didn’t help when the wind whistled through the first floor toilet with all its’ panes of glass missing!
Our first night was spent in the tiny town of Kagbeni; a maze of cobbled streets and alleyways shared by children and livestock. Without the electrical cables strung throughout the town it would be hard to imagine we were still in the same century.
In Muktinath we couldn’t resist a visit to the ‘Bob Marley Café’. Danny tried the ‘Marley tea’ which seemed to consist of hot water with a Marujana leaf dunked in it. More importantly it looked and tasted like the water strained off boiled peas. My culinary choice for the day came that evening in the form of Yak steak. It should really have been Yak burger and reminded me of Pakistani ‘Chapli’ kebabs we ate in Chitral when I was violently sick – just the kind of thought we all love to come to mind when we’re eating.
What staggered us the most here were the incredible loads carried by the Sherpas. Everything from restaurant supplies to trekkers rucksacks were piled high. One Sherpa would carry at least two and sometimes three fully loaded rucksacks at a time with nothing but a head strap to support the load. Good footwear was essential and they all sported a good pair of flip flops!
Marpha was a particularly nice town and so we spent two nights there and had a day off. It was a good job we did. Having met Ally(star), a 23yr old English backpacker, we drank too much, stayed out too late and had to climb over the wall to get back into our hotel.
Thanks to the obvious trail and the abundance of ‘tea houses’ this is probably as easy as trekking gets. It wasn’t until the penultimate days’ 1600m ascent from Tatopani to Ghorepani and the finals days’ descent of tens of thousands of incredibly engineered stone steps to Nayapull that we had to exert ourselves; the final descent being particularly tough on the knees and calves.
Upon our return to Pokhara we once again overindulged in our favourite steakhouse before crashing out. For the next few days our calves throbbed and we waddled round like a couple of Thunderbird puppets. We spent our time socialising with the many people we’d met whilst trekking and it wasn’t long before Klaudia, closely followed by Damon, rolled into town.
Before leaving town, Ally sent us an e-mail offering his advice on travelling through Cambodia. I quote “When taking Cambodian Crack Whores back to your room; remember to lock your shit up!” It transpires that a CCW had spiked his drink and robbed him blind. However, she had had the decency to place his cameras memory card in his (empty) wallet when she stole it so he claimed to hold her no malice!
Pokhara – Kathmandu
We finally managed to drag ourselves away from Pokhara and head for Kathmandu. It should have been a straightforward 200km ride and it was until exiting a corner, Danny lost all drive as all the teeth on his front sprocket finally gave up and fell off. Luckily we were both still carrying the 16t sprockets we’d changed back in Peshawar and within 50mins we were riding again.
In Kathmandu we wove our way through the narrow, busy streets of Thamel eventually finding Hotel Encounter as recommended by Rachel, a Canadian teacher we’d met trekking.
Our main reason for coming to Kathmandu was to leave – the Indian sub-continent that is. With Burma (Myanmar) being off limits to overland travellers our only route to Thailand was to airfreight from Kathmandu to Bangkok.
A quick visit to the Thai embassy saw us issued with 60 day visas and Nepal Airlines offered the cheapest ticket for each of us at $250. With us sorted it was time to make arrangements for the bikes. Nils, one of ‘Ze Germans’, had shipped from here the previous week and sent us a detailed e-mail of who/what/where/when which was a great help – cheers Nils.
We by-passed the shipping agents and went straight to a carpenter where we arranged for two crates to be made and delivered to the Air Cargo terminal in a weeks time.
On November 20th we rode to the Air Cargo terminal where we were joined by Kevin, a fellow overlander from Canada riding a BMW R80GS. After disconnecting the batteries, draining the fuel and deflating the tyres as per regulations we removed the screens, front wheels and handlebars in order to fit the bikes into our tight fitting crates.
Both Customs and Drug Squad had a look through our kit before the crates were nailed closed and a team of men dragged them across the warehouse and lifted them onto the x-ray machine, off the other side, across the inner warehouse, onto the weighing scales and finally off the other side – there was no forklift and each crate weighed 340kg!
Pic – X-ray?
We paid Prem, our Nepalese ‘fixer’, a pre-arranged sum and he in turn paid all those involved from customs to handlers. All we had to do then was take a taxi to the Thai Air Cargo office with our customs form and pay the $860 for shipping both bikes. They flew the following day.
We probably missed a lot of what there is to see in and around Kathmandu but with our minds focussed on shipping the bikes and our growing dislike of Nepal we really weren’t that fussed. We were ready to say goodbye to the Indian sub-continent and start afresh in South-east Asia.
Mike (from Bardia), Rachel (trekking), Klaudia, Kevin and Bernie* all passed through Kathmandu as we awaited our departure date of 22nd November – making it a rather sociable time.
*Another Canadian, we’d met in in Pokhara. A fifty year old self-confessed hippy, he is a Kayak instructor, paragliding pilot, backcountry skier/snowboarder, surfer and mountain biker. As short as Danny and I but built like a brick shithouse he is also very funny. We’ll catch up with him again when we eventually get to Canada.
THAILAND – Pt 1
Thailand… what a shock to the system. After spending the best part of two days trying to get our bikes out of Thai Air Cargo we finally rolled out of the airport and into the Bangkok traffic at around 9pm. But hang on, everyone’s got lights on….they’re all driving on the correct side of the road…they’re indicating to turn… all these cars in front have stopped at the traffic lights…I’m sure the guy in front just looked in his mirror…
We think we’re dreaming. We’ve not witnessed driving this disciplined since Western Europe. It’s all a pleasant surprise. Then we realise nobody’s using their horn…eh?…no horn? Now I don’t wear out a pair of gloves in a seasons’ enduro competition, but despite being in pretty good condition generally my left glove has a hole in the thumb thanks to the sub-continent (for all you non-motorcyclists, that’s what you press the horn with).
Despite being extremely busy the ride into the city is ok. Only my dead battery is causing us problems as the bike keeps cutting out. Several times we have to dig out the bike-to-bike jump lead to spark her up again.
Our intended accommodation got poo pooed when the owner declared ‘No more bikes’ after Nils (allegedly) made a mess in the courtyard changing his oil – ‘kin Germans!
We struggled to find somewhere cheap that afforded safe parking for the bikes but eventually settled in Mini House, just off the pedestrianised area behind Khao San Road.
It was a pokey, hot room but the bikes were safe and the Thai lady who ran it was great – apart from being a Liverpool fan (Danny’s words – what would I know!?)
Mini House proved to be a huge reunion and we stayed much longer than planned. First Kevin (Berreta) the Canadian (BMW R80GS) arrived. We’d crated our bikes together in Kathmandu and so knew he was only a few days behind us. Then Maarten and Ilse arrived (the Dutchies we met in Srinigar) riding their Africa Twin or B.O.B as it’s known (Beast of Burden). Then finally TNT arrived – stressed – discovering that travelling with your dog but without your own transport (left jeep in Nepal for return home) was one big ball ache.
We narrowly missed a reunion with Vinny & Gill (Islamabad). It turns out they’d spotted Paul (Ze German) walking down the street during a recent trip to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia and he told them we were in Bangkok. I read their e-mail three hours too late to meet them at the airport as they passed through. As TNT were with us it would have made for a great and unexpected meeting.
We drank beer, told stories, drank more beer, told taller stories and so time raced by. I spent a few days helping Maarten service his bike and replace a few parts. It’s a ‘chuffin Honda – whether that tells you I like Maarten & Ilse or whether they have particularly good persuasive skills, I’m not really sure…
We serviced our own bikes, fitted new front tyres and I got a new battery (weyhey!!) Everything we needed came from BKK Motorcycles, a BMW dealer that looks like any you’d find in the UK and run by extremely friendly, helpful staff.
Gradually we all went our separate ways. Nils to the north and TNT to the south whilst we headed west, closely followed by the Dutchies.
Synonymous with the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, Kanchanaburis’ main draw is the infamous ‘Death Railway’ which you can still ride to Nam Tok.
Hoping to get a feel for the countryside that 100,000 men died cutting a railway through, we climbed aboard the train only to have our plans scuppered by two carriage loads of Scouts and Girl guides and two more full of school kids – nice.
The return trip was far more peaceful and allowed us to see the massive wooden structures that support the railway along the riverside.
The peace didn’t last long. Sitting on the floating restaurant at our guesthouse we soon witnessed the spectacle that is ‘River Karaoke’. Now, to try and put this into perspective, imagine a floating bar/disco the size of a double width houseboat. This is then towed up and down the river by a tug boat; the ‘Ministry of Sound’ size speakers wilting the trees as they passed – nobody escaped.
But who is entertained by such torture? The Japanese of course! We on the other hand couldn’t listen to one more rendition of ‘Blidge over tlubbled water’ – the irony was not lost on us.
We caught up with the Dutch hippies who were staying at fellow Dutchman, Maarten Munniks’ house, just outside town and rode to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum together. Well I say together but B.O.B does tend to creep along and so we met up there later.
That night we camped at Pha Dat Waterfalls. Toilets, showers and dinner prepared by Maarten made for a pleasant return to life in the outdoors.
The following day presented a smooth, empty road that wound its way alongside Khao Laem Reservoir to the small town of Sangkhlaburi. It was the first time we’d been able to ‘ride’ our bikes in months and we revelled in it.
Sited at the head of the reservoir this small market town is the last stop before ascending the Three Pagodas Pass to Burma. Maarten Munnik had recommended ‘P’ Guesthouse with its tiered gardens stretching down to the waters edge. Pitching our tents on the bottommost tier we strolled to the end of the pontoon and dived in to the bath temperature water. In the evenings we’d walk the 2km into town and eat at the night market before tucking into our regular desert of ‘Cookies & Cream’ Cornetto from the 7/11.
The Dutchies & I crossed the wooden bridge to the Mon village of Ban Waeng Ka. Said to be the longest hand-built wooden bridge in the world it is currently in its’ third incarnation; its predecessors having being washed away by storms. The local monk responsible for building the bridge had recently died and in accordance with Buddhist tradition the 49 days of celebrating the ‘life of’ before the spirit leaves this world was well underway. Locals flocked to temple of Wat Wiwekaram with gifts of food and money for the spirits journey.
Once again the days passed by very quickly and soon it was time to return South East and think about Christmas.
Having been spoilt by the hospitality of Maarten Munnik and his Thai wife, Tip; we all returned to stay with them again. Maarten had spent several years doing a trip similar to ours. He met Tip in Bangkok and then returned 2 years later – having ridden from Chile to Alaska – and married her. They move to Bolivia in February.
Maarten and Tip took us on a bike tour of local attractions which included the biggest tree either of us had ever seen. The branches were 2ft in diameter!
OK, OK, OK…. But we had to see for ourselves…
We had to pay up front for our hotel. 500 Bht per night for two. 200 each more if you want hookers! Hookers! How blatant is this place going to be when the hotel manageress tells you that!
Despite paying for three nights and without getting a refund, we left. It was the seediest place either of us had ever been… and Danny’s been to some seedy places…
As two blokes walking around together we felt as though everyone was looking at us and thinking ‘Yeah… I know what you two are here for’; even during the day.
On the way to Trat I’d managed to fall off my bike. A coach, slowly overtaking a line of traffic, finally moved over allowing us to pass, but the road suddenly ended right in front of me and I just managed to scrub off most of my speed before ploughing into the deep sand and toppling over. Luckily for me I did fall, for just ahead of me the new concrete road resumed as abruptly as it had finished with a 12in step up! It wasn’t until we got to the hotel that I realised I’d lost one of my flip flops. Bummer.
Christmas, New Year and our first visitor
Seeing my sister step off the plane at Trat Airport brought tears to my eyes. It nearly didn’t happen thanks to the UK’s freak weather and the virtual closure of Heathrow Airport, but it did; and I was thankful and relieved.
Soon we were all on the ferry to the Thai island of Koh Chang for Christmas on the beach.
She soon had us laughing relaying the story of how she’d managed to arrive at Gatwick airport (she lives on Jersey) at 10pm with no ATM card, no credit card and 2 quid in her pocket. A big thanks to Stevie Marks for bailing her out.
Michele’s visit made for a dramatic escalation in the quality of our accommodation but hey… IT’S CHRISTMAS!
On Christmas morning, after feasting on the ‘all you can eat’ breakfast buffet, Michele arrived in our room bearing Christmas gifts aplenty. Amongst them were a dozen mince pies, Christmas cake, Jelly Babies and After Eight mints. Then, much to Danny’s despair, Christmas pressies were exchanged to the sound of ‘60 Christmas Hits’. Nice.
That evening as the moon kissed the horizon and the tide receded to reveal the white sandy beach so we kicked off our shoes and ate our Christmas dinner of barbequed Beef, Chicken and Baracuda. This travelling lark sucks…
Danny and I thought we were being clever by having our BMW spares sent to my sister to bring with her but we hadn’t banked on her exceeding her luggage allowance and having to post them anyway. The hotel changing its’ name added to the delivery confusion but eventually our parcel arrived along with a bill for 30% import duty! Combined with the postage it cost us more to get the parts than it did to buy them in the first place!
‘Ze Germans’ reunited and joined us on the island for New Year. Having gone their separate ways after the engine in Paul’s Yamaha finally expired in India (you may remember Danny and I fixing it in Pakistan after he threw it 150m down a cliff) they had as many stories to share with one another as we did with them.
A ‘New Year Gala Dinner’ was included in our hotel and whilst the food was plentiful the entertainment was dire. Each table had a ‘Evening Programme’ listing and we were curious as to what to expect of the ‘Lady Boy’ show scheduled for 9pm. Now bearing in mind this is a family resort, how would you explain ‘Lady Boy’ to your kids…?
As it was, they were so far behind schedule that we left and joined ‘Ze Germans’ on the beach for beer and fireworks.
Michele and I bought a Chinese lantern, lit it and watched it ascend into the night to join the hundreds more fading away into the distance.
And there it was – gone; the Christmas holiday that is. Saying an emotional goodbye to my sister at the airport I was struck by the surrealism of the moment. Our week in the air-conditioned hotel with TV, fridge and balcony overlooking the pool was over and it was time to return to normality. For Michele that meant returning to work in Jersey (as it has for the past four years); but for me it meant riding my motorbike to Cambodia…
Back on the mainland I rode into Trat to join Danny, Nils and Paul back in the world of silk sleeping bag liners (bed bug proof!), mosquito nets and a stiflingly hot room in which to sleep.
I spent the following day fitting new chain & sprockets and doing a few minor repairs before saying goodbye to ‘Ze Germans’ who were heading to Malaysia.
Having grown up with images of starving children and talk of ‘The Killing Fields’, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on television, I was aware of its’ troubled past. However, it wasn’t until years later that I saw my first photograph of Angkor Wat. It blew me away and made me aware of the countries splendid ancient past. With this in mind I knew the country would provide an emotional roller coaster.
We entered at Koh Kong and followed the road to Sianoukville; Cambodia’s seaside town. It was nice to get off the tarmac again and kick up some dust as we hopped our way across the four river ferries we had to catch along the way. Aside from the last ferry operator who tried to charge us four times what we paid on all the others it was a pleasant days ride. Especially as the border crossing had been by far the easiest and quickest to date. Never before had we had a customs officer look at our passports, shrug his shoulders and wave us through!
After a few days in Sianoukville where we met an Aussie couple touring SE Asia 2-up on a Buell… yes that’s right, I did say BUELL; we moved on to Kampot. En-route we detoured into Kep which was once a French colonial seaside retreat before Lon Nol kicked them out. Nowadays its’ more famous for its freshly caught crab and that was the reason for our visit – lunch.
Having ordered our $7 delight our friendly stallholder put out a couple of deckchairs under a tree on the prom and disappeared on her scooter. A little while later Danny and I were sat staring at a huge plate of whole crabs wondering how the hell we were supposed to get into one. Luckily enough a local Moto rider had spotted our plight and showed us not only how to break them open, but which parts we could and couldn’t eat. It was a longwinded, messy business and the scrap pile seemed bigger than what we’d started with. It’s not like two bike mechanics to have loads of bits left over…
Bokor Hill Station lies 42km from Kampot and is reached only after a 33km rough, jungle track that ascends 1000m. Taking centre stage amongst the eerie, abandoned buildings left by the French (Yep. Lon Nol again) the four storey moss covered hotel/casino provides spectacular views across the Gulf of Thailand. Inside, the walls are adorned with graffiti, some of which dates back to its time as a communist guerrilla stronghold.
We met a young Aussie loading his rented Honda XR250 onto a truck for the return journey. It turns out he’d only learnt to ride in Phnom Penh the previous week and had ridden up here last night – in the dark! In the process he’d managed to snap off both the clutch and brake levers.
Passing several pick-up trucks on the descent; loaded with tourists having their spines involuntarily compressed, we were once again reminded of the freedom riding a motorcycle brings.
“…it is difficult for us to determine who they are for they have the human form but their hearts are demons hearts…”
Referring to Pol Pots’ ‘clique of criminals’ who slaughtered and buried the 8965 victims of Choenung Ek; just one of some 4973 mass graves uncovered by the documentation centre.
This was our introduction to the Killing Fields Memorial, 15km south of the city, where a glass tower full of the cracked skulls of the Khmer Rouges’ victims marks one of the worlds’ most infamous mass graves.
Riding into the city a Suzuki DRZ400 appeared alongside us from a side street. Surely the coincidence was too great but no; sure enough it was Andrew, an Englishman we’d met with his Cambodian partner Hun at the Thai embassy in Kathmandu. Being on his lunch break made for brief chat but we agreed to meet later for dinner.
Having lived and worked in Cambodia for the past nine years (currently for the Danish Red Cross as a water engineer), Andrew and Hun provided a great insight into daily life and the stories and politics that simmer just below the surface.
S-21 is a name that appears on the same list as the likes of ‘Belson’ and ‘Auschwitz’.
More commonly known as the Tuol Sleng Musem (or Museum of Genocide) it is tragically tied to the Killing Fields 15km to the south.
At the time of visiting I was reading a book entitled ‘First They Killed My Father’. This helped me understand the museum better as I found it lacked a lot of relevant information but was compelling none the less. Rather than try to explain what we saw here I’ll end the topic with what I wrote in my diary at the time…
“…I cannot comprehend how it is possible to generate such hatred in one human being to allow them to inflict this suffering on another.”
It’s amazing how things move on. The regular ‘Tour’ offered by Tuk Tuk drivers, Moto riders and tour operators starts at S-21 and proceeds to the Killing Fields before finishing at the shooting range; a shooting range! Who the F*** wants to fire guns after visiting those two…? For those who do, you can fire everything from a pistol to an AK-47 or throw a hand grenade. You can even fire a RPG at a live cow if you’ve got the money!!!
Today the city enjoys a healthy tourist trade who, like us, enjoy the riverside cafes and restaurants in much the same way as I imagine they did in French colonial times. It’s not until you see the signs in the guesthouses saying ‘Paedophiles… Don’t take them in… Turn them in’ that you realise even today Cambodia has its sinister side.
Phnom Pehn – Battambang – Siem Reap
Away from the innumerable Toyota Land Cruisers and Mercedes of the city, the flat landscape is akin to the lowlands of Nepal – only a little richer. Wooden houses built on stilts are surrounded by small holdings. Only here people have cultivators to work the land and motorcycles with trailers for transporting goods. It’s not unusual to see a moped with three pigs trussed and strapped across the seat.
The roads are flat, straight and boring but we are entertained by the anticipation of what unusual sight the next village will bring and the music playing through our Autocom systems.
Every backpacker we’d met warned us of the road between the Thai border and Siem Reap. We joined it approximately a third of the way along at Sisophon but after Pakistan and Ladakh it was merely a little bumpy in places but VERY dusty.
In Siem Reap we easily found the highly recommended Earhwalkers Guesthouse where we could park right outside our room.
Riding towards the Ankor Complex ticket office that first night produced our second Cambodian coincidence. Noticing a large bike with a top box parked on the pavement along with a rider sporting the striped sleeved design of a BMW jacket I pulled up.
Pure shock left ‘Colesyboy’ flabbergasted and speechless. Fortunately his Danish girlfriend Fie could still speak (she’s a woman; of course she could still speak!). We’d met them in Manali, India some four months ago. Having ridden from the UK to Turkey on their BMW 1150 GS Adventerer, they’d had to fly over Iran & Pakistan thanks to the Danish ‘Allah’ cartoon fiasco.
Angkor Wat cannot be described in words… at least not by me; so I’m not even going to try – buy a book, look at the pictures or best of all go and see it for yourselves.
Angkor however, is but one of many equally majestic temples in the region that spent centuries clothed in the ever encroaching jungle vegetation. Ta Prohm for example, recently gained notoriety as the backdrop to the ‘Tomb Raider’ films.
Those who know me well will get some idea of how special it is when I tell you I got up at 0500 on three consecutive mornings to watch the sunrise in various locations.
Once again having our own transport gave us a huge advantage over the masses. By starting early it was possible to stay one step ahead of the crowds and return to the guesthouse by late morning, miss the midday sun, and then return to the temples late afternoon for three hours before sunset.
See ‘Cambodia-Angkor Temples’ Gallery for Angkor photos
We spent several evening eating out with Brian & Fie and for anyone visiting Siem Reap I can highly recommend the ‘Amok Fish’ at the Khmer Kitchen. Despite being one of the cheapest restaurants in town (main course $2-3) it serves up what we found to be the best food. Mick Jagger didn’t book an entire hotel and then come here to eat for no reason!
One evening our guesthouse laid on a barbeque and some children from a local orphanage came to perform traditional Apsara dancing. During the evening we learnt about the Sangkheum Centre and its links to the guesthouse.
Paying it a visit a few days later we were given a guided tour. Six or seven children live in each of the eight houses arranged like a miniature village. We were pleasantly surprised having gone with the preconception of a schoolhouse and courtyard style of establishment we’d seen elsewhere.
The centre places a great emphasis on education and preparing the kids for life after the age of 17. Some kids grow up here from the age of four.
Today however, was Sunday and so we had a great time playing Frisbee and football with the younger kids whist the older ones (and a fair few of the younger) clambered over our bikes trying on crash helmets and jackets. We stayed until the sun disappeared and the Mosquito’s appeared. When we left it was the kids who waved goodbye to the sad faces.
Take a few minutes to have a look at the great work of the centre at www.sangkheum.org, who knows, you might even visit there yourself one day.
If you do, be sure to stay at Earthwalkers Guesthouse www.earthwalkers.no .
Cambodia gets under your skin. The graceful charm and playful sense of humour makes the people infectious. The plight of the landmine victims will appal you and the kids… the kids will break your heart…