I was faced with three choices. I could 1) wait a few days for Joe's motorcycle to get fixed, 2) head back the way we came, or 3) tackle the "Death Highway" alone. I wasn't keen on waiting because I'd grown tired of the small Cambodian town of Ban Lung where we had spent the last few days exploring. Nor was I keen on heading back on the boring dusty road that brought us to the town. That left me with one choice: the "Death Highway."
First, let me explain how I came to this crossroad. I'd spent a few weeks traveling around Bali and Java where it rained almost every day. As much as I like rain, I was feeling a bit fungal and longed for someplace dry. I knew just the place; I hopped a plane in Jakarta and flew to Phenom Penh, Cambodia.
I'd planned to spend about a week in Cambodia; a few days in the capital and a few days exploring the temples of Angkor. When I arrived, the first thing I did was call my expatriate photographer pal, Joe Garrison. He told me he was taking the next week off to do a motorbike trip and asked me to join him. I was hesitant because that would cut into my travel time. I was also concerned that this meant hiring a bike much larger than the scooters to which I had become accustomed. He explained that a new road into the North East had just opened. The region would soon change as trucks and tourists had greater access to the country. I realized that I would not again have an opportunity to explore this part of Cambodia with an experienced guide. I agreed to accompany Joe. We would travel with a few other intrepid explorers, but Joe suggested that, as photographers, we would go our own way when photo opportunities presented themselves.
|Planning the route on the pool table of a local bar.|
What belongings I could take had to fit on the small rack at the back of the bike. This required traveling light as part of my luggage included some spare parts for the motorcycle. With a solid breakfast in our bellies, we were on the road North by mid morning. I'd spent the day before getting used to the big bike. I'd only ridden an off-road motorcycle once before and found it surprisingly easy to handle.
In preparation for the road, I purchased a pair of riding goggles in the market. I put them on as we headed down the dusty highway leading out of Phenom Penh. As we passed through out first dust cloud, I realized that the goggles only served to funnel the wind and dust straight into my tear ducts. I pulled them off and jammed my sunglasses tightly against my eye sockets. I was just in time, too, a moment later I took a large dragon fly right between the eyes. Had he been flying a couple of inches lower, I'd be pulling bug parts from between my teeth.
Joe pulled off the road at a river crossing where we met up with four other riders with whom we'd be traveling. We maneuvered onto the ferry with the various cars, trucks pedestrians and motor scooters and chatted as we crossed the river. They were all seasoned Cambodian explorers, so when the ferry operator tried to overcharge us, these guys were having none of it. They managed to keep the operator honest and we paid a dollar each. They told tales of being ripped off by ferries, of pilots threatening to turn the boat around if the foreigners did not pay double or triple the going rates and bikers calling their bluff. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
|Crowded ferry boat|
We met up with the rest of our group at Kampong Cham, a large town on the Mekong just north of Phenom Penh. We pulled in to an expat run restaurant just ahead of a motorcycle tour group of Eastern European men and women decked out in matching riding gear. Our dishevelled crew looked like a bunch of bums by comparison. We spent a few minutes watching the fishermen on the river before making our way to our next destination, Krachi. As before, Joe and I hung back, planning to catch up later. We drove along the river road and I gawked at the sights.
We came to a temple complex spread over the top of a hill where we met one of our riding companions. He explained the rest of the group would continue on to the ferry and Krachi while Joe and I explored the monastery.
|The view from the hilltop|
Joe was concerned that I might be upset that we were not on the right road. "We're still in South East Asia, right?" I asked? He nodded, giving me a peculiar look. "Then I'm happy" I said with a dusty grin. I was exploring curious back roads, visiting villages that rarely see westerners and trying to talk to locals who probably never heard English before. I had plenty of laughs trying to use pantomime where Joe's Khmer failed us. I was actually having a blast.
|Turn the crank and crush the sugar cane to a juicy pulp|
When night falls in rural Cambodia, it is dark ... very, dark. Our headlights didn't really light our way so much as they revealed thick clouds of dust before us. Occasionally we'd pass huts with a faint blue glow, locals watching TV powered by car batteries. Finally, out of literally nowhere, we rolled past a huge party. Music blared over the rumble of our bikes, light exploded from the darkness. A crowd was gathered beneath a canopy. "Wedding!" Joe shouted. I looked back, longing for light and revelry and maybe even cold drinks. Joe spotted a familiar SUV, one of the vehicles operated by the mine clearance crews. This was a good sign, oddly enough. They tended to sleep in what passes for normal accommodations in Cambodia.
Joe spoke to one of the locals. Here was the town with the ferry, which was closed for the night as it happens, and there was a guest house down the road. We pulled up and ordered two rooms for about three dollars each. His room had electricity, I had a candle.
After getting cleaned up, we sat out front and chatted with the adults, who eventually wandered away. We had fun entertaining the kids, however.
|Joe entertains the kids with their photos|
The party was in full swing. A live band dominated one corner of the lawn, dancers performed a traditional circle dance in front of the stage while everyone else stood on a sort of grandstand opposite. We tried to spot the bride and groom. We soon learned that this was not a wedding celebration, but a sort of Cambodian independence day. We were soon introduced to the local head man. I gathered that he was the Cambodian equivalent of a congressman. His teenage son spoke English and acted as interpreter. We sat at the head table and were introduced to the chief of police and the top businessmen of the area. As unworthy as we were, we were indeed honored.
|My new best friend, the local chief|
Joe alerted me that we'd probably be expected to stay until the wee hours of the morning unless we extricated ourselves. We told our host that we were having a marvelous time but after a long day on the bikes we were ready to pass out and we had to get up extra early and we were so happy we could join in the celebrations and were so pleased to have met so many fine people, etc., etc. We managed to get back to our rooms and I fell quickly asleep.
I woke as the sun cleared the horizon, shining beams through the slatted window. Joe had been up for some time, had some tea and had wandered the town a bit. We took our time and visited the market, a favorite photographic destination.
|The Khmer head scarf is the Cambodian equivalent of denim jeans, everyone seems to wear it.|
|A vendor in a market stall calls out to potential customers.|
|Little riel fish are a mainstay in the local diet.|
|Wood planks are typically finished by hand.|
|A local kid stands beside the modern Khmer version of the gypsy tinker's cart.|
|Nets on these booms sweep the tiny riel out of the river.|
|The mechanic lights a fire on my inner-tube to repair the hole.|
|Delightfully decrepit Kratie.|
When Joe came to a stop, I told him what happened. He shrugged and told me to get over it. The country was littered with dogs and most of them were strays. They got hit by cars and trucks all the time. No one would miss that dog. I felt better, but not much.
We continued on through the day. A few hours before sunset we arrived at the Mekong river town of Stueng Traeng. Joe called to get the location of the rest of the group and we met up with them near the river. Cans of beer were distributed and gratefully consumed. One of the guys saw the bandanna on my head and just about had a conniption. He forgot to bring his and begged me to sell him mine. Now, I love bandannas and have amassed quite a collection on my travels. On this trip I was carrying three favorites. After spending the evening with this fellow, I realized he was a really great guy and gave him my third bandanna. He was overjoyed. You can buy a lot of things in Cambodia, but good bandannas are not one of them.
That evening we went to an out-of-the-way Khmer restaurant that was basically the front porch of a house. My bandanna buddy insisted we try the beef in pepper sauce. This consisted of thin strips of fried beef you dip into a mixture of black pepper and lime. We ended up ordering two more rounds of the stuff it was so delicious. I spent the rest of my time in Cambodia looking for that dish.
When we checked into the hotel earlier, I asked the staff if I they could clean and polish my leather boots. I'd purchased them just before my trip and I wanted to take good care of them. The staff agreed to do a good job. When I returned to the hotel that night, they brought out my boots. They were wet. They had not been polished, they had been washed with detergent, the residue of which was still on the leather. I cringed but hid my disappointment. It only then occurred to me that most of these people had never even seen a pair of boots, let alone know how to treat them. Just about everyone in that town wore flip flops.
|The clean and comfy Strung Treng Guest House (on the right) displaying the typical Cambodian architecture.|
|With planks running four across, this was the easiest bridge we crossed.|
|The view from the hotel.|
|A hill tribe woman with her bracelets.|
|Locally made gold necklace and gemstones.|
|Sunset on a back road in the town.|
|A gem-smith picks through his collection of small stones.|
|Polishing a large gem on a hand-cranked lathe.|
|One of the more impressive falls consists of a series of cascades.|
|Hill tribe women and children stand in a rubber tree grove.|
|Typical hill tribe village dwellings.|
|This curious structure is where a bridegroom sleeps prior to his wedding.|
|This is where his bride sleeps (note that Joe really isn't eleven feet tall, that hut is really small)|
|The Cambodian equivalent of an afternoon highball on the veranda.|
The people around me laughed and the old man insisted I drink more. They watched as the level in the neck of the jar went down. I gave them a big smile and made yummy sounds of approval. They clapped and pulled me over to another guy and his jar of wine. I took a sip and gave a thumbs up sign of approval; they encouraged me to take another pull at the reed straw.
It appeared that I had become the informal judge of a rice wine contest. They dragged me from one jar to another. I sampled each and made various gestures about how good the wine was. It wasn't the sort of stuff I could enjoy by itself, but in the party atmosphere, it was quite good. I noticed that Joe had managed to avoid the proceedings.
We did our best to communicate with them, but Joe knew the score from his long experience in the country. We were about to be shaken down. One of the guys explained that the big part was a housewarming. We were expected to contribute. I don't know how much they were looking for, but I figured five bucks should be more than enough. Of course the guy to whom I gave the money made a sour face, but I just smiled back. They were getting a bit drunk and rowdy so Joe suggested we take our leave. I happened to have a full bag of candy in my bag and pulled it out to distribute to the kids who had gathered. I knew this would be difficult to manage, so I handed the bag to one of the older women to distribute. In the mayhem that ensued, we got on our bikes and waved goodbye.
The one souvenir I was determined to procure was a hill tribe basket. I was just as determined not to buy it from a market vendor, but from one of the hill folk directly. I wanted a basket that had some wear, some history, some character—and I wanted to support one of the villagers who trekked in every morning to sell their meager produce in the market.
|Once the sale was settled, she was willing to be photographed.|
After a few days of being in the town, I was keen to leave. My trip would soon come to an end and I really wanted to see some more of the country before heading back to Bangkok. Joe suggested we might try the so called "Death Highway" route south from Ban Lung to Saen Monouram. The dreadful name, he explained is a bit of misnomer because no one (that we know of) has died on it. Nor is it a highway. Or even a road, to be honest. It's more of a path. And not really much of a path, either. Oh, and it's not really marked.
End of part one. Click here for part two.