Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Backcountry adventure in Cambodia, Part One

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
I managed to get my bike off the boat, driving up the steep bank and past a group of kids waving like maniacs. Joe and I took the rear as we planned to shoot photos along the way if anything caught our attention ... which took only a few seconds for me. We passed two huge wagons, laden with clay pots, being pulled by teams of water buffalo. I was stunned that Joe didn't stop then chased after him not to be left behind.

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
We spent about twenty minutes exploring then drove off down the road. I was a bit put off by the fact that we were heading away from the river, but Cambodian roads (and rivers for that matter) have a strange way of twisting and turning and felt we'd end up at the ferry before too long. After an hour or so, we were getting a bit suspicious and tried to ask direction. Joe knew enough Khmer to get by so we knew we wouldn't have any trouble ... except the locals never heard of Krachi. "Kratch-aye?" No. "Kratch-eye?" No. "Kratch-ah?" Nope. "Kratch-ee?" Sometimes we'd get a positive response and gestures to the West, a direction we knew was away from our destination. Joe's cell phone would not work this far from what passed for civilization, and the map was of no use as we couldn't tell where we were and the locals had never seen a map before - we were pretty much on our own

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.

After double-backing on countless roads and trails, we were ready to give up and go back to Kampong Cham, spend the night there and try again in the morning. We made it back to the monastery about an hour before dark and stopped for a rest. We examined the map but were unable to ascertain where we were. Joe wanted some sugar cane juice so I took the opportunity to try my hand at the cane press.

Turn the crank and crush the sugar cane to a juicy pulp
Joe and I stood beneath an archway looking down a road leading toward the river. "Ya know," he said, as he sipped his sugar cane juice, "I wonder where that road goes." We looked at each other for a long moment. We figured the ferry would stop at dusk so we had about an hour. We were on the road two minutes later.
We were encouraged by the fact that there were numerous motor bikes and a few cars on the road. We passed by the most interesting riverside dwellings and I longed to stop to examine them. They looked like traditional American Indian long houses except they were round instead of long, if you know what I mean. We rode on, though, in a rush to get to the ferry and other side of the river to our companions. Darkness descended like a dusty velvet curtain, but we were passing a few cars so we were sure we'd soon come across the ferry and it might still be operating.

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
I was keen to see the party. Joe wasn't so keen. He said as Westerners we would be honored guests and he'd been to too many of these events. He capitulated, we returned to our rooms to wash. Taking a bath by candlelight is wondrously romantic. Taking a shower by candlelight, where you have to hold the candle in your hand because there is no where to set it down? Not romantic. Joe was waiting for me outside by the time I was marginally clean.

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
The chief dragged us up to dance. Girls appeared from nowhere and we joined the throng circling about the lawn in front of the band. Khmer style dancing consists of couples (or clumps of people) rhythmically shuffling in a big circle making hand gestures reminiscent of hula dancers. Fortunately I'm a natural at shuffling and I picked up the finer points of the hand gesturing on a previous trip in Laos.
Joe pointed out that the "audience" on the grandstand were not really part of the celebration, but spectators. These were people invited to the party but clearly not part of the "in" crowd. We continued to dance and talk (through the chief's son) and drink. The businessmen encouraged me to ask any question. I really was at a loss. I didn't want to ask anything that could be misconstrued, particularly political ideologies. I asked as to the number one crop in the area. "Rice!" he shouted with a smile (in Khmer, of course). Wow, who would have guessed! I continued to pitch slow balls and hoped for some inspiration. The men around me wanted to know what I thought of their town. Despite the fact I hadn't actually seen the town in that pitch black darkness, I truthfully assured them I thought it was very pleasant. My whiskey glass was refilled. These guys were drinking Johnny Walker, expensive stuff.

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.
We took the small ferry across the river and headed down the dusty road. I was very pleased to encounter one of the traveling pot vendors on the road.

A local kid stands beside the modern Khmer version of the gypsy tinker's cart.
As we crossed a bridge we spotted some of the crazy bamboo crane contraptions used to catch the riel fish.

Nets on these booms sweep the tiny riel out of the river.
At one point my bike felt sluggish. I looked down and discovered my tire was flat. Joe quickly spotted a bicycle repair shop that could do the job. The fellow struggled to get the rear tire off then started up a small fire to repair the inner tube. Joe, meanwhile, examined the wheel and discovered the cause of the problem. He pulled a small bamboo spike out of the tire. I was quite surprised that it penetrated the thick off-road tire. I have new found respect for the toughest member of the grass family.

The mechanic lights a fire on my inner-tube to repair the hole.
While we waited, I tried to hand out some of the hard candy I'd brought with me. The kids were too shy to approach, so I'd throw the candy toward them as hard as I could. It took them a few moments to realize I was trying to give them something they'd like. They'd scramble through the brush to get at my misdirected throws. They wouldn't come any closer than throwing distance, however. I doubt any of them had come so close to a Barang before.
Once the bike was fixed, we were back on the road and soon pulled into KratiƩ (Kracheh), a typical dusty downtrodden river town. Our companions would have spent the night here and headed for Stung Treng already. We had lunch and drove off on a road only recently cut through the wilderness.

Delightfully decrepit Kratie.
As I road down this wide road, racing to keep up with Joe, a dog dodged out of his path, then, looking straight at me, casually walked right in front of my speeding bike. If I swerved, I ran the risk of spilling on the loose gravel. Laying on the brakes was equally risky as I would skid and not come to a stop, so I released the throttle, held the handlebars firmly, and hoped he'd get out of the way at the last second. I closed my eyes. The bike bucked beneath me and something splattered my legs. I didn't look back. I didn't look down. Should I stop? What could I do if I did? I wondered if the dog belonged to some kid. After several minutes I got up the nerve to look down. My legs were splattered with mud.

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.
The next day Joe and I made our way to Ban Lung. The old road was in fairly good condition, but the occasional hole was disguised by the dappling effect of the bright sunlight pouring between the broad canopy of leaves overhead. I'd cruise along, avoiding the smaller ruts and then slam into a small crater. Had the bike not been so well designed, I would have been thrown off a couple of times. Crossing bridges became a challenge. They consist of a number of rough hewn logs perpendicular to the road, overlaid with a pair of long parallel planks for your wheels. The first few were easy enough, just keep up your speed and hold the bike steady. As we advanced, the game got harder when the planks got narrow or had gaps between them. Sometimes the plank would end abruptly with a hole between the perpendicular logs. Because most of the bridges were slightly raised above the road, you don't actually see these impediments; they surprise you just as you start across, when there's no time to change your mind or switch to the other plank.

With planks running four across, this was the easiest bridge we crossed.
We arrived a few hours before sunset, encrusted in road dirt. The town itself was thick in dust. We found a hotel on the main road and I took a much needed shower.

The view from the hotel.
A hill tribe woman with her bracelets.
The only way I could agree to get one of the hill people to pose for me was if I purchased something from them. I wanted one of their sturdy baskets, but the only people selling those were the town souvenir vendors. It took a while to find something I could carry with me. I found an old woman selling silvery rings that I believe were bracelets but might have just as easily been used as oversize earrings. My acquisition of two of her bracelets enabled me to capture a rather reluctant subject.

Locally made  gold necklace and gemstones.
Vendors who dealt with the few tourists in the market, were more amenable to having their photos taken. Although she doesn't seem to show it, this woman was very pleased when I asked her to model one of her fine gold necklaces sporting some of the local gemstones.
Sunset on a back road in the town.
This is a big gem area and there is plenty of evidence of this fact everywhere. Gems are sold in market stalls. Gems are cut and polished on the streets. The most common to the area is the zircon.

A gem-smith picks through his collection of small stones.

Polishing a large gem on a hand-cranked lathe.
We spent a few days exploring around the provincial capital, taking day trips to see the waterfalls and villages.

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)
After visiting a few hill tribe villages, we determined the locals wanted nothing to do with us as they kept well away. Occasionally we'd meet a group willing to chat, but "No photo!" Joe wished we could find a tribe that was willing to let us walk around and photograph them. As we were returning from a somewhat uneventful, long and dusty ride, we stopped at an intersection that wasn't on his map. I was keen to get back to the hotel and a shower, but Joe convinced me to just ride down the road a bit and see what was there.
The road ended after less than a kilometer, but we were able to navigate the short path to a rather good size village. Instead of villagers ducking into huts, they started waving and yelling hello at us. They were all gathered beneath a nearby house. I grinned at Joe as we got off the bikes and got our cameras ready. We were met and half dragged to the house, between the wooden piles holding it up. A few dozen adults and kids were gathered in the shade, away from the afternoon sun. On the ground were large earthenware jars with three-foot long straws protruding.

The Cambodian equivalent of an afternoon highball on the veranda.
One of the villagers dragged me over to an old man sitting in front of a jar. The old guy, pushed the straw at me gesturing to drink. I was really, really hesitant about this. Throwing caution to the wind, I took a tentative sip. Rice wine. Strong rice wine.

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.
My initial attempts to buy a basket were turned down, oddly enough. I finally found a young woman who did not turn me away immediately. I was quite convinced she had no idea that I was trying to buy her basket. Fortunately, a couple of locals stepped in to act as interpreter to explain my intentions before she warmed to the idea of parting with her basket. We settled on a price of about ten dollars. It was the same price as the tourist vendors, but I knew the money was going to a good cause.

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.