Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Backcountry adventure in Cambodia, Part Two

Joe explained that the "Death Highway" was named by a guy who decided to take the direct route between Banlung and Mondulkiri province and spent two days slogging through mud in the rainy season. That wasn't bad enough, but he brought his girlfriend on the back of the bike with him. The "death" part comes from her threats to kill him for dragging her along.

We were all set to take the trail south, but Joe's bike broke down. It was nothing major, but serious enough that it would require a couple of days to get the parts he needed. I had a severe case of itchy feet and really wanted to get moving. We discussed my chances with a few other experienced riders. They recommended I wear long pants—the road was rife with brambles—and offered tips on how to tell if I was going the right way. They figured that in the worse case scenario, I could hire a ox cart to haul the bike out if something bad happened. No one defined "bad."

The next morning, I got up a bit late, packed the bike in a hurry, my beautiful basket strapped on top of everything, and headed south to the ghost town of Lumphat. This place was once a good size town. What remains today is a working cell tower, an overgrown fountain at the intersection of the two main roads, some abandoned concrete buildings and a few wooden homes scattered about. When I stopped, many of the locals would point to the basket lashed atop my gear. Some offered to buy it from me.

My next goal was to find the river crossing. A small ferry took foot passengers and motorbikes across for a dollar. I took a well used trail leading to the river but there was no boat. In fact, I could not see how it was possible that any boat could navigate those rapids. I spent the better part of an hour asking directions and being sent back to the same spot.

There's no way a ferry is crossing here!
Finally, in desperation, I found someone who could speak a bit of English to guide me to the river crossing. It turns out it was a little further up the river than I had been searching. The ferry consisted of a wooden platform strapped atop two longboats. The crew consisted of six children, the oldest of which was probably fourteen, the youngest about four. I gave the thirteen year old captain a dollar and he started the engine for our crossing. Unfortunately, during the voyage, the laundry that the eldest girl was working on went overboard and the clothes sank before the captain could turn the craft around. Had I known they'd sink so fast, I would have gladly dove in after them. It would have been a refreshing dip at that point in my journey.

The first mate keeps a steady eye on the crew as the captain carefully navigates the treacherous waters.
On the other side, I maneuvered the bike up a steep hill and on to the dirt path that would lead me south to the village of Kaoh Nhek in the province of Mondulkiri. It was early afternoon and knew I'd have to push it to make it before dark, but I was feeling pretty confident. Then the path forked. Then the fork forked. I could see through the trees that there were actually numerous trails. Sometimes they would converge, sometimes they would just fade into the ground. The seeds of doubt were now planted and my confidence was waning. Was I on the right trail?

To my left I spotted a large open field. On the north side there were numerous wooden homes about a kilometer away. I figured it wouldn't hurt to drive by and see if I was on the right trail. Unfortunately, there were no trails leading to that village and I didn't want to cut across the rice paddy even if it was dry. I decided to keep going south and hope the trail became more distinct as I progressed.

It was somewhere near this point that I discovered why bikers hate sand. I ran into small deserts of the stuff. The front wheel would sink in, the bike would lurch forward and the rear wheel would spin and slip sideways, unable to grip the ground. I ended up having to use my feet for extra traction and balance to get through these spots, and there were a lot of them. Fortunately, the brambles I had been warned about, were not in abundance. This was good because I was still wearing shorts.

The landscape looks more like Africa than South East Asia. I half expected to see a pride of lions resting in the shade beneath some of those trees.
I had crossed the river an hour ago and had yet to see a single human being. In fact, with the exception of the houses near the rice paddy, I had seen no sign of human habitation. It was around this time that I "dropped" the bike. I was going along pretty smoothly then suddenly I was lying on my side and the bike lying on top of me. If that wasn't enough, the engine's radiator vanes were pressed tightly against my bare leg, burning my thigh. I squirmed out, assessed the damage and got the bike going again. That was the first time I'd lost control of the bike; it gave me a much greater appreciation for how heavy it was.

Eventually, I did find signs of life. A woman and two men had taken shelter from the sun beneath a large tree. I stopped to say hello and determine if I was heading in the right direction. We were unable to communicate anything meaningful about the direction I was heading, but it was clear the woman was very interested in my basket, gesturing she wanted me to give it to her. A few kilometers down the road I ran across a family in their ox cart but did not stop to chat.

After that, it was another long stretch of lonely trail. About an hour later, I was navigating down a gully where a river might once have run, when I saw a sight for sore eyes, a motorized vehicle. A crude truck laden with supplies was making its way to the bottom of the riverbed. Through pantomime I managed to establish that I was heading in the right direction. I managed to drop the bike a few more times over the next few hours, but remained uninjured.

In the mid afternoon I rolled onto the most road-like trail I'd seen since I left Lumphat. There were houses on an open stretch of road. There was even a store where I bought a bottle of water and quaffed it in one go. I made it! Or had I? I asked the store keeper if I was in Kaoh Nhek. He shook his head and gestured to the south. Oh well, it was nice to have some water.

An unknown village on the road to Kaoh Nhek.
I had a few hours of sunlight left, so I followed the road. It led south then east. I was pretty sure it was the wrong direction, but roads around here have a tendency to change direction. As I rode by, I asked a woman "Kaoh Nhek?" pointing along the road. She nodded enthusiastically pointing in the direction I was aimed. I drove down the road to a fork and turned right. After exploring several meandering trails, I decided I took the wrong trail and doubled back. The other trail eventually led through a bamboo grove, across a steam and on to a savanna-like plain. The condition of the trail led me to suspect it was not, in fact, leading to a larger village than the one I just left.

I bet this place looks magical in the rainy season.

I followed the trail for a few kilometers before finding a couple of kids leading ox carts away from the village from which I came. When I pointed in their direction and said "Koah Nhek?" they responded with a different name. Wrong way. I rode back to the village, a very long ride. I glared at the woman who led me astray and continued into the village to get proper directions. I was also in dire need of gas.

Gas is carefully ladled into my tank.

The gas guys knew enough English to give me the right directions. I had to travel south west, not south east, just as I expected. As luck would have it, three fellows were heading in the direction of Banlung who were willing to show me the way. "Lead on, my good fellows!" They were on little scooters, but knew the road so well that I had a really tough time keeping up with them on my big off-road bike.

It's fortunate that I had guides. There was no way I would have found my way through the maze of trails. In fact, some of them led right through people's back yards (or what passed for yards in that part of the world). One of the guys dropped out as he reached his destination, but the others raced on. A couple of times they got far enough ahead of me that I had to pour on the gas to catch up to where I thought they were; they were able to race out of sight in the bush in mere seconds. I almost lost them completely when I dropped the bike heading down a dry riverbed. I had to retie my gear, restart the bike and go speeding up the trail to where I hoped to find them. I managed to catch up. I'm sure they were quite enjoying the merry chase, out pacing the big bike on their little scooters.

The most interesting part of the ride was just north of Kaoh Nhek village. I thought my guides had taken me on to an elevated road as we were riding on a long straight berm a good three meters above the plain. It wasn't wide enough to be a proper road however. I figured out what it was a few minutes later when I noticed the difference in foliage on the two sides of the berm; to my right was typical barren desert plants, to my left was green plants. The land on the left was getting more water than the land on the right. It turned out I was riding across the top of an earthen dam, an ancient Khmer barang. While it was dry, enough moisture was captured on the one side to help the plants.

The scooters were well ahead of me now. I could see them on the left, beyond a right angle bend in the earthworks. On this flat and clear road, I had the advantage and opened the throttle. I was grinning like a maniac because I had made it safely through the death highway and was within spitting distance of Kaoh Nhek with an hour of daylight to spare. I was almost there! I was making short work of the distance between me and my guides.

Then I noticed that the road ahead of me disappeared. There was a ten meter gap in the earthen berm and I was racing for it at full speed. I put on the brakes and hoped I could keep the bike pointed straight ahead without skidding. I flew off the edge and came down hard. Somehow, I managed to stay upright. The momentum carried me up the other side. As I continued on, I replayed the last few seconds of my life. "Holy flargin' snit!" I would have pulled over and allowed the shakes to subside, but my guides were pulling away and I feared that I might yet take a wrong turn. I continued after them, focused on the goal of getting back to a real road.

The dam ended as it merged into a a good looking dirt track. I tell you, after all the hours I put on that trail, I had a pretty good appreciate for dirt tracks. The trail became straighter and wider. My guides were at the end of their journey, but gave me assurances that Kaoh Nheaek was further along the road. Road indeed! For moments later, I saw regular four-wheeled vehicles parked along the side. Eventually it turned into proper graded gravel road.

Not long after, I came to a crossroads with low buildings all around. I stopped at the corner and asked "Kaoh Nhek?" The pedestrian nodded enthusiastically pointing to the surroundings. I'd made it! I drove around a bit to see what the town looked like. Down a side road I discovered a bit of Kaoh Nhek's pre Khmer Rouge past. There were a number of abandoned buildings, including a large school complex. Some of them riddled with bullet holes.

Part of the old school complex.
There was still a some daylight left, so I rode around to see where I might stay. I knew Saen Monouram was south, but there was a brand new road leading off to the west. I was intrigued and drove a couple of kilometers to see if it went anywhere interesting. It was a beautiful gravel road, but it was not going in my direction.
Ah, what a beautiful road!
Back in Koah Nhek I stopped at the restaurant bar to see what I could eat. Nothing appealed to me. I didn't see anywhere to stay so I decided to continue on to Saen Monouran, about an hour's ride south. As I walked toward the bike, I noticed a dark stain, a pool of oil beneath the engine. "Uh-oh, that can't be good." There was a mechanics shop a hundred meters away, so I coasted the bike over and gestured to the problem.
The bike mechanics examined the engine. They shook their heads indicating there was nothing they could do. I was boned. I thought about where I could stay and how I could get the bike to Saen Monouran—or all the way back to Phenom Penh. Then I noticed the rack of oil bottles. I figured that the accident had occurred about an hour ago when I nearly bought the farm at the dam. Saen Monouran was an hour away and had decent accommodations. I could fill the bike with oil and drive until it ran out, add another liter and keep topping it up until I arrived. I bought two bottles, thought about the drive and bought a third for good measure, then bought a fourth to fill the oil pan before riding off.

The road was flat and even and broad. There was no traffic. I figured I could make the journey in an hour with a bit of determination. I opened the throttle and raced down the "highway."

Darkness descended more quickly than I had anticipated. The light on the bike was enough to show the way, however. I saw a light ahead of me and soon overtook a small truck, heavily laden with people and goods. As I ascended a hill, I noticed that the bike was struggling a bit. I eased back on the gas but knew I had to check the oil level soon. I pulled over, stopped the bike and checked the oil with my miniature flashlight. I had to check it again using the bike's lamp to be sure. The dipstick was dry. I pulled out a bottle of oil and poured it in. The bike sounded great after that and I continued. However, I was painfully aware that I'd only been on the road for fifteen minutes and I hadn't seen a single dwelling.

It wasn't long before the bike was struggling once more. I'd barely gone ten minutes. I pulled over. The oil pan was empty again. In went another bottle of oil and I drove on. Along the road ahead of me, I could see warm friendly looking lights through the trees. A place to stay? I'd stay here the night and see about getting a ride in the morning. When I came around the bend, I discovered the source of the lights. The trees were on fire.

The Khmer locals clear the land using the ol' slash and burn method. They cut the bark from the lower part of the tree, let the tree die then burn it as it stands. The road was lined with ancient trees and they were burning them down a few at a time. I wondered if this place would make a good place to sleep. The nights were cool and it would be warm there in among the burning trees. I'd be blackened with soot, but it might be better than shivering all night long.

I left the trees behind as I drove back into the enveloping darkness. The engine was struggling again. I opened my last bottle of oil. I road past another burning grove but kept going in the hope that I would find a village or a few houses in which I could seek shelter. I could feel the engine struggling. I pulled over, examined the dip stick and fed it more oil.

The truck I had overtaken earlier passed me as I stood on the road. I was tempted to wave it down, but there was no room to get me and the bike in the back. I puttered up the next hill and coasted most of the way down the other side. I scanned ahead in hope of seeing some light, a town or even burning trees for all I cared. The engine was struggling. I'd only gone a few kilometers. There was no way I'd make it to the town. My goal was to get over the next rise, but as I rode up, I knew the bike wouldn't make it. I killed the engine and coasted to a stop.

I turned off the light and was plunged into a velvet darkness. The stars were crisp and bright and outlined the horizon. As my eyes adjusted I could make out big trees a few hundred meters off the road. I stood there astride the bike and wondered what I should do next. It was quiet. I'd hoped to hear a karaoke machine in the distance, but there was nothing, not even bird songs.

End of part two. Click here for part three.

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