Monday, February 11, 2008

Back-country adventures in Cambodia, Part Three

I was standing beneath a canopy of bright stars, with blackness and dead silence all about me. Pushing the bike up the incline of the road would soon exhaust me. I tried to convince myself that there might be a little village over the next rise.

As my eyes adjusted I could make out tiny lights; faint blue lights hung on the land between the road and the trees. There were shacks out there! They were using LED lamps, probably hooked up to car batteries. I pushed the bike to the side of the road and located a path down through the field. "Soo-sa-day!" I called, shouting hello in Khmer. "Soo-sa-day!"

I heard a door open and someone started walking toward me carrying a small flashlight. I greeted the young man then pantomimed riding a motorbike and the engine dying. He looked at the bike with concern. I then pantomimed sleeping and pointed to his shack. He nodded his head, smiling broadly, and gestured toward his home. He helped me pull the bike down the path. As we approached the shack he called to someone inside. I parked the bike and unpacked my gear. My host helped me up the short ladder steps.

The interior was about four meters on each side with floors and walls made of bamboo slats. The roof was lined with palm fronds and tarpaulins. The interior looked as much like a small warehouse as it did a home. There was no furniture to speak of, but mats, small stacks of clothes and bedding, sacks of grain, tools, etc. In the back I could see a small extension with the fire pit and water bucket. On the center column was a small shrine and an LED lamp lighting the scene. As I entered my host's wife and child greeted me. It was rather obvious that they were not prepared for company, but I was made to feel welcome. My host introduced his wife, daughter and newborn baby girl.

My hosts and rescuers.
The first order of business was to get prepared for bed. I pulled out a clean t-shirt and shorts as well as my toothbrush, tooth paste and soap. My host led me back outside and guided me along another path to the well. He dropped a bucket down and pulled up enough water to get clean. It was too cool for a bucket shower so I washed as best I could, changed clothes and we went back inside.

They laid out a straw mat near the door for me to sleep. When I sat down, the little girl came over and sat in front of me and just stared. I started rooting through my bag pulled out some candy. The parents gave them to the child who ate them with much delight. I realized I also had some nail color and gave that to her mom, who turned it over to her daughter.

Talking was all but impossible. I did my best to pantomime my journey and augmented the tale with images from my camera. I opened my pocket PC and showed them some more photos from my other trips. I asked them about the various things I saw in the hut. There were bags of rice or some other sort of grain. Some was for eating, some for planting. I did mange to learn that a truck would come by the next morning around 7:30. Before it got too late, a blanket was brought out for me and we settled in to sleep.

The next morning I was up before sunrise and went out to look around. The hut was sitting in a cleared area that had numerous young trees, bushes and other plants. I could imagine they had a pretty good subsistence farm but couldn't imagine how they might earn cash. Perhaps my host worked somewhere locally. I could see evidence of other huts further down the road. Wisps of cooking fire smoke emanated from a few of them. My hosts were rousing and everyone was now getting up. I learned that we were joined in the night by my host's younger brother. Some how he got in without waking me. He came out and I introduced myself. He was fascinated by the bike.

The shack is about 25 meters from the road.
After getting cleaned up, I packed my bags and pushed the bike back up to the road. I stood there looking into the distance and wondering if the truck would come early. I had a lot of time, so I headed back to the hut to pose the family for a photo.

Family photo time!
Back up the road, some of the locals came out to see the stranger and hear the story about how he wandered in during the night. They talked among themselves then stood on the side of the road. I wasn't sure if they were waiting for something or just entertained by the foreigner in their midst. Occasionally a scooter would come by and sometimes stop to talk to the people on the road with me. Everyone wanted to know what I was doing there, but no one spoke English.

Waiting for the truck.

When the truck appeared on the horizon, plenty of locals had come out to the side of the road. I was assuming the truck would be a 3/4 ton truck or larger vehicle. It was a little Toyota pickup. As it slowed down, I was horrified to see that it was packed with people, bags of rice, and equipment. There was no way they'd be able to get my bike in the back and would probably push the little engine just to take me on as a passenger. Would I have to wait until a larger truck appeared?

The little truck pulled over and my host explained the situation to the driver. He came over and drew a figure in the dusty road; he wanted twenty dollars to take me to town. That was pretty expensive. I looked at huge load on the truck, thought about how they'd have to unload the vehicle, take me and the bike to town then come back to pick up the goods. I grimaced and agreed to the amount stated. I could have haggled, but eager to get going.
The guys started rearranging the bags on the truck while pulling out ropes and tie-downs. Before I knew what was happening they hoisted the bike up on top of the bags of rice and strapped it down on all sides. It looked like the whole thing would roll over on the first turn. Yikes!

That little Toyota could haul a lot of cargo.

I thanked my host one more time and discretely handed him a folded five dollar bill. He waved his hands in refusal. I knew damn well he could use the money but didn't want him to lose face by my insistence (especially when his neighbors where there). I pointed to his daughter then pointed to the money. The message was "this is for your daughter." He bowed as he shook my hand and accepted the donation.

The truck driver offered me a place in the cab to sit. It was packed like a sardine can. I declined, choosing to ride on top with the other male passengers. I was really disappointed that I was not riding the bike on this particular road. We passed through some very interesting landscapes and some very curious villages with conical huts.
We pulled into the town and my bike was hauled down. I pushed it to the repair shop and explained, in pantomime again, what happened. The guys talked among themselves, poked at the bike, dismantled parts of it and otherwise ignored me. I figured that they needed to spend a bit of time with the patient, leaving me to wander off and explore. I pondered over how much it would cost to get the bike sent back to Phenom Penh.

Downtown Saen Monouram.

I went to a cell phone shop and called Joe. I had promised to call him when I arrived and he was curious why I hadn't called the night before. He figured I could look after myself, though. I explained the situation and he laughed saying an adventure is what you make of it. We agree to meet in Phenom Penh in a few days.

An hour or so later, after some breakfast noodles, I returned to the shop to see my bike just sitting there. It wasn't dismantled. This was either very good news or very bad news. It took a few minutes of pantomime with the mechanics to figure out that the bike was OK and that the cost was less than the ride into town. I packed my kit, rode around a bit and headed out.

Joe figured the trip from Ban Lung to Saen Monourom was just shy of 200km, making it a day trip for an experienced rider. That it took me the better part of 24 hours made it quite the adventure, but I still had to make the 400km ride back to Phenom Penh. My adventure was not quite over.

At this point, it's probably worth mentioning that I was slightly handicapped on this whole trip. My speedometer didn't work. That meant that my odometer didn't work. That's why I had such a hard time figuring out if I'd made it to Kaoh Nhek. I didn't worry about it when I was with Joe because he knew how fast we were going and far we had gone. He also had something else I didn't have, a map.

I had to make my way back to Phenom Penh using dead reckoning. As I left Saen Monouram, I knew I had to go West and there was only one road west. I figured that so long as I stayed on the main road it would lead to Rome, or Phenom Penh as the case may be. I wasn't sure if I'd make it to the capital before nightfall, but knew I could make it to the little crossroads town of Snuol, near the border of Vietnam.

The province of Mondelkeri is made up of steep hills. On the first large hill out of town I ran across a curious sight, a small pine forest. It was just sitting there, apparently planted, nowhere near the tropical jungle trees. It made me think of North Carolina except, for the view. As I continued, I encountered numerous large earth hauling trucks. It was obvious construction of some sort was going on, but I saw no other evidence of it.

The roads were generally pretty good, but I soon found myself heading down a steep hill with two huge ruts running down the middle. The large vehicles had been used during the rainy season and had left deep furrows in the dirt road. It was into this disastrous groove the bike slipped. Normally, if I became slightly unbalanced, I would simply turn the bike in that direction and I'd be OK. However, with the front and back tires firmly entrenched I was unable to steer! To make matters worse, a large truck was coming toward me and the driver had done his best to get plenty of momentum for the uphill run. It was at this unhappy moment that I discovered that my back brakes didn't work.

It's possible that the brakes broke when I hit the ground hard the day before, or maybe when the guys were loading or unloading the bike or maybe the guys at the repair shop managed to damage it unwittingly. That didn't matter much at the moment as I had about thirty seconds to get out of the way of the truck and keep the bike upright. My adventure on the dam the day before was a terrifying three seconds in which I had to act instinctively and hope for the best. This new terror was dragged out long enough that I could enjoy weighing the consequences of every decision I could make.

If I used the front brake too hard, I might lock the wheel and flip the bike, but more likely the back end would swerve and knock me over ... in front of the oncoming truck. Even pumping the front brake would reduce my control. Turning the wheel to pull out of the rut was out of the question; doing so would simply wedge the wheel against the side and the bike would drop in the opposite direction. I maintained my balance by holding my feet out and kicking down into the dirt. That meant I couldn't use my foot to quickly shift into a lower gear. I could always attempt a controlled fall but skidding and rolling across the dirt and gravel in shorts and t-shirt was not the least bit appealing. Of course, if I didn't take the dive right away I might end up tumbling straight into, or under, the truck.

I worked the front brake and scanned the rut to see if there was somewhere I could break free. Ahead I saw a large stone. I could launch the front wheel off the rock and jump over the edge of the rut. It almost worked. I got the front wheel on the road but I was starting to lean the back toward the damned rut. The only way to prevent a dirt dive was to steer back into the trap I had nearly escaped.

The deep groove flattened out ahead. This gave me a chance to ride up the side and pull back on to the smooth surface. Moments later, the truck grumbled past and I coasted to the bottom of the hill. I looked back at the truck as it ascended. The hill didn't look the least bit dangerous from the bottom and the ruts looked downright harmless. I chalked it up as another win for me and continued on up the next hill with a keen eye for road ruts.

The dusty red road carves a path through the green jungle.
Some time later I encountered road crews at work. These were a mix of Japanese engineers working with Khmers surveying the road and building bridges. Not long after I saw the first evidence of land mines. An area off the side of the road had been cleared and posted with numerous warning signs.

I found it curious that anyone would bother to put a shelter over a land mine. The site was not about to be rained on during dry season and the work crews were unlikely to bother with sand bags and sun screening when they could just dispose of the ordinance and move on. I had to conclude that this site was there for foreign dignitaries. They could look at a mine first hand and go home to tell everyone they saw a real live mine.

This mine site was too well maintained for anything but photo opportunities.
Further up the road I met guys who were actually doing something with the mines, finding them and disposing of them. I spent a few minutes watching the men in action before pulling out my camera. The commander rushed over and warned me not to take any pictures. I could not figure out why they were forbidding photos unless they just wanted to keep tourists away from the action; they were not bothered by my presence otherwise. Curious.

It's OK to shoot the signs and the field, but not the workers.
I assumed the road would get better and better as I approached Phenom Penh. However, it was actually getting narrower and more rural looking. I was pretty sure I was on the right road. I was certainly going West and there were no other roads, but I still felt uneasy. Although the road got worse, I took some comfort that I was seeing shacks and little villages now and then.

Late in the afternoon, after spending a few hours wondering if I was going the right way and how far I was from Snuol, I passed another adventurer going the other way. I recognized the fellow immediately. I met him in Stueng Traeng a few days earlier. This wild looking Swiss national would look more at home on stage performing with Metallica or Dethklok than riding a dirt bike through rural South East Asia. I spotted him again when I was in Banlung. By the time I processed all that information, I realized that I should have waved him down and asked for directions (not that there any directions other than East or West, but he'd at least know how far I was from Snuol). By now he was long past me and I gave up on the idea of catching him.

About half an hour later, as I was maneuvering around crater-size pot holes in the road, Swiss guy roared past me on his bike. I was taken by surprise and raced after him, catching up about five minutes later. I got him to pull over and we took a look at his map. He wasn't sure where we were either! He had arrived on a new road that was not on his map. We continued the direction I was going, but not riding together. He was an independent sort and went off on his own. We took turns passing each other as we sped up and slowed down. It was nice to know that another westerner was nearby should either of us run into trouble.

The road eventually crossed a larger road. We stopped and discussed the situation. I was pretty sure Snuol was to the left, he thought it was to the right or possibly straight ahead. Looking at the map, we had no idea where we were. Fortunately, there was a mechanic shop right on the corner. The people there told us that the Vietnamese border was just down the road to the left and Snuol to the right. I was tempted to go to Vietnam, seeing how close it was, but only just tempting. I said goodbye to my Swiss acquaintance and headed toward Snuol. It had taken me over three hours to make the 125km trip.

As appealing as the name may be (Snoooool!), the town was quite boring. I thought I might spend the night there, but it was simply not worth it, nor was there anything that looked like a guest house.

The market at Snoul was not particularly attractive.
I still had some daylight left and figured I could make it back to Phenom Penh even if I had to drive at night for a couple of hours. I might not have a speedometer, odometer or brakes, but by golly I had a headlight! I actually stopped and checked to see if the the light worked at this point. Murphy had been my riding partner more than once on this trip. I rode to the other side of town and found something I'd not seen in a long time.

Oh heaven, paved roads! I was able to maintain a good clip as I sped out of Snoul. I passed plenty of proper cars and trucks and was passed, in turn, by other cars who knew the road. "Oh, look, road signs!" I could see exactly how far I was from the capital and could therefore determine my speed. I would have a few hours of nighttime travel, but I'd be back in Phenom Penh having a drink and a good meal that very evening!

As I crossed an area with standing water, I started hitting bugs. A lot of bugs. A lot of big bugs. Big bugs that hurt when they hit my bare skin, particularly my face. I used my sunglasses to protect my eyes for as long as I could, then used one hand to act as a deflector while the other hand suffered the rigors of controlling the bike. It was like riding through a hail storm of crunchy arthropods. As it got darker, I hoped they would grow less numerous. They didn't.

Riding on a paved, well traveled Cambodian road at night is very different than riding on an unpaved, untraveled Cambodian road at night. I hadn't counted on the amount of traffic, but it was the oncoming headlights that nearly did me in. Drivers often kept the high beams on all the time, opposing traffic or not. Of course all that traffic kept the air moving, which picked up the dust, which blew into my eyes. I wrapped the dark portion of my Khmer scarf over my face as a dust screen. While this filtered out the fine particles and the big bugs, it also reduced my visibility somewhat. Fortunately, it was a straight road and the vehicle lights would alert me should I overtake another traveler.

Did you know that Cambodian trailers don't have lights? I found this out by nearly rear-ending a old man on a motor bike hauling an enormous trailer-load of wicker shelf units. I was speeding into the darkness—not at full speed, thankfully—when my light struck a dark shape. I squeezed the brake and prepared for impact. Fortunately, I was going slow enough, and he was going fast enough, that I did not smash into his shelves. After that I kept my speed down unless I could get in close behind a car or truck.

This should give you an idea as to the crazy stuff they haul on the back of a little motor scooter.
I kept watching the signs indicating the distance to "home." It was not encouraging. While the previous week had been hours of leisurely riding, this current situation required one hundred percent of my attention and it was, quite frankly, exhausting. As soon as I came upon a good size town, I decided to find a place to crash, figuratively of course. I found a big, clean looking, new guest house on the other side of the next town I rode through. It looked like they were getting ready to close up for the night when I arrived. The cost of the room was about five dollars. I pulled my bike into their lobby/garage with the few other scooters there and wandered down the road to stretch my legs and get something to eat.

The restaurant I found had a rather lackluster selection of prepared dishes. Lackluster was combined with tasteless as I ate the mysterious vegetables and picked at the even more mysterious meat.

Back at the guest house I asked the gaggle of staff hanging around the counter for the key to my room. It was decided that someone would show me to my room, something entirely unnecessary. Of course it was the transvestite that took the key and led the way. I've seen plenty of "ladyboys" in Thailand, but this was the first I'd seen in Cambodia. He made smalltalk as we climbed the three flights stairs to the room. I couldn't figure out why they put me in a room so far from the lobby. It wasn't like the place was full. I saw evidence of maybe only a handful of people in the place.

The room was typically small, but it had a bed and a shower and that's all I wanted. As I expected, the ladyboy offered me a massage. I declined. He was doing his best to be persuasive, but I had absolutely no interest. I bolted the door when he left and unpacked my gear. First order of business was a long hot shower.

One leg scrubbed, the other only washed.
At a few of the country guest houses I visited, I noticed a bristle brush in the shower. I always assumed it was for cleaning the shower, but I later learned their true purpose, to scrub the red Cambodian dust out of your skin. I soaped up and went to work with the brush.

Over the past few weeks I was in the sun most every day and had picked up an amazing bronze tan. However, after some work with the brush I discovered that what I really had was a coat of dust that had dyed my skin. The dust also acted as a sunscreen as I suffered not a single burn the whole trip. For comparison's sake, I thoroughly scrubbed my right leg for a before and after shot (you can even see the red marks where some of the bugs hit me).

The next day I woke early and took my time getting back to Phenom Penh. I'm glad I didn't keep going through the night because I would have missed some terrific scenery. I also had the opportunity to visit a monastery and an ancient Khmer temple along the way. I made it back to the capital around lunchtime. I checked in to my hotel, cleaned up, changed and took the bike back to the rental shop.

When I walked into the shop, the proprietor's wife greeted me. "Oh, you had a problem with the bike!" It wasn't a question, but a statement. I thought I misunderstood. "You were able to fix, yes?" OK, now how the heck did she know I had a problem and fixed it? Could the bike shop in Saen Monouram have been in contact with them? I couldn't see how. I was flabbergasted. I told her what happened to the bike and the situation with the back brake.

When I saw Joe a few days later, he solved the mystery of the clairvoyant moto-shop. It turned out that the owner happened to be visiting Banlung and ran into Joe just after I called him. Joe told the owner what happened to me. The owner then alerted his wife to expect me and the sick bike.

I'm looking forward to repeating this trip one day so I can take my time going through the "death highway" and spend a bit more time exploring. I also want to go back and visit the family that had billeted me that night and bring them some photos. It would be interesting to do the trip during the rainy season, but I'll be sure not to drag a girlfriend along on the back of the bike.

Big map of the entire adventure

1 comment:

Srini said...

Hi Jezsik,
I stumbled upon your site when looking at some information on Bagan. Since then, I've been reading your blog from time to time.
Its been wonderful reading your adventures.
If you ever go back to Cambodia, lemme know. I might just decide to join you for a dirt bike ride. Cambodia is just a short flight away from Singapore where I live.