We were approached by a group of 6 friends who were looking to do a private week long motorcycle tour of Cambodia in November. They were looking for something a bit different and so we organised a trip with XR250s and a bit of adventure involved.
Below is the fourth of the e-mails that were sent back from the trip. Words courtesy of Damien Atkinson and photos courtesy of Victor Kalinowski. More updates to follow
Its 5am here in some village near the Laos border. Gary is soundly asleep upstairs but I have come down to the foyer. Our guides are asleep by the blaring television but there is also internet access which of course I am using.
We stayed at Stung Treng last night as you know. And then we spent most of the day riding. It was nearly all red dirt which suited most of us because we had all learnt to ride on red dirt in Western Queensland – keep moving, don’t swerve, accelerate out of sand, use the brake sparingly. The country was still very open, or else rainforest, so you felt like you were north of Port Douglas – but without the kangaroos. We started the day with a ferry ride from Stung Treng. They are always quite an event. The ferry or barge will be short and rectangular, and we have to ride our bikes on and then line them up neatly so that other people can fit. Then there will be a host of scooters and the odd car that comes on, and people work together to make sure no space is wasted. There is usually a bunch of pigs, or some chooks tied together, or a buddhist monk having a cigarette which adds some colour.
The ferry men are charging more than usual because there is an enormous bridge being built, apparently on Japanese money, and then the ferry will be superfluous. Zamen says foreign governments tend to impose economic conditions on aid, so they get back $10 for ever $1 they put in. But of course the ferry men are still losing a big income because of the bridge. Gary says they will “get over it”. He loves a corny pun. Sometimes I envy the Cambodians their lack of English!
I met a couple of Australians just after I sent you the last email. We probably see no more than 6 tourists a day, because most of the track is so hard to get to. The area we are in now is particularly remote because the road was only built in the last couple of years and, before that, you needed to come by boat. So this is a big town, but there’s not a history of travelling. Anyway, I was walking back from the dodgy little room full of children that came close to being an internet cafe when I saw a couple of older guys and nodded to them, and they said gidday in very broad accents. It turned out that they were from Victoria and come here each year to train Cambodian fire fighters. I asked them if they teach administration or fire fighting skills, and they got very excited and said that they are senior officials in Victoria, dealing with complaints about job conditions etc, but here they show Cambodians how to use the tools. Right now, you wouldn’t think that there is much use for that. We went to a waterfall yesterday in the jungle that was just pounding down, and everything is shows signs that the 1 in 100 year monsoon has been through only two weeks ago.
But Zamen says that, when it stops raining, as it seems to, it doesn’t rain again for months, and then everything gets extremely dry. Which must make it very hard to organise a country. Zamen explained how the Angkor people were only able to build a huge empire from about 900AD because they learnt how to cope with the wet season. They developed a rice that could grow faster than the rainwater, and that allowed their population to flourish.
The Victorians wanted to know if we had organised our trip after watching Blokesworld, but I told them we had not seen that particular episode…
Anyway, back to the ferry. There are so many scooters. People use them, like we saw in Palermo, to carry whole families. But they also use them to take enormous loads of wood, or attach them to trailers, etc. Zamen says that there is one particular scooter, the Honda C90, now known as the Honda Dream, which has changed the face of the world. It has no clutch, and a really simple throttle, and goes and goes. I must say that, apart from giving a few blokes like Kev OBrien some fleeting pleasure, I didn’t really think the scooter had a big impact on Australia, but Zamen points out that the postie bike was an early generation of the C90.
We rode to a point on the Laos border where the 4000 islands start, on the other side of the Mekong. There was a little outpost there and a tiny little hut that overlooked the water. They had dried stingray available to eat, but they were really smelly and sharp, and I couldn’t even imagine how you approached it. It did start me regretting that I had not eaten the enormous fried spiders we were offered, but that seems to be local to only one area of Cambodia and the boys say we can have another go when we head back to Phnom Penh. Zamen told us that an awful lot of smuggling goes on at the border (which looked extremely “porous” as they say) and the boys noticed that the lady in the hut looked really poor except she was wearing lots of gold, and had a fancy handbag. There was some knowing discussion about her being a smuggler but maybe she just prioritises differently.
You really can’t buy almost anything here. There are these big markets, but when you look around in each village, people seem only to be selling scooters, mobile phones, plumbing attachments, and some plastic toys. So much plastic. There is always a huge food market, and the fruit looks good, but the meat section is just awful. There are butchered ducks and chickens and all kinds of fish (but mostly catfish), and its all out in the sun with flies everywhere. It certainly makes you careful about where you eat.
We had lunch at beautful village yesterday called Kompong Siraw. The homes were all clean and squared away, and there were a couple of restaurants that were cantilevered over the water (which must have been a little inlet on the Mekong), and looked across to wealthy houses on the Laos side. It felt a little like being on Gilligan’s Island, with lots of bamboo and fruit chopping going on. The serene effect was only slightly ruined by a flat screen tv which competed with the Mekong for attention as it played Thai soap operas. Tommy, our Cambodian guide was chuffed with himself because the people there spoke Laos, but he could manage that. He had spent 2 months there with his Australian girlfriend, who is an aid worker. The food was, for the first time, really good, but Tommy points out that it was Laos cooking. I suspect that the Cambodians don’t have such a serious culinary tradition, and I have been thinking that, there must be 100 Vietnamese restaurants in Brisbane but maybe one from Cambodia/Campuchea. Anyway, as you can imagine, I am finding the food much better than edible, and that’s not going to affect my holiday.
You can apparently pop across the river to Laos and stay the day and no one really minds. Which sounded a little interesting, if only to say you did it, but I figured there’s enough going on without risking an international incident. Plus we are five Australians on Honda 250’s, passing out little toy koalas to village kids as we go. I don’t reckon that would be very hard to track!
We are in Angkor Wat tomorrow, the world’s greatest archaelogical site, particularly exciting for us since until now it has not been a focus. Its apparently 30 km in a circuit. So we need to just choose a couple of temples and visit them. We are going to visit Geraldine Cox’s orphanage, Sunrise, at about 9 am, but start at the temples from dawn. The boys have been talking about the wars here, and how they used the AK 47, and wondering if there are still any around. Zamen says that there was an amnesty (presumably when the UN came here in about 1998) but there are still a few guns around. He and the Cambodian boys said they could line us up to shoot one in Siem Reap. They reckon they could organise a grenade launcher if we wanted, and for a little extra money, the Japanese tourists get a cow they can aim at. We explained that ethically we did not want to have a part in shooting cows for fun. So we will just have a go at the AK47 on the rifle range. L and A will be relieved to know that the farmers who let you use the grenade launcher also own the cows, and they apparently adjust the sites to make sure they never get hit. Anyway, ancient temples, orphanage, AK47’s, it will be another day of exotic challenge.
Have to go now. Victor has come down to the foyer and we are meeting in 30 minutes, in all our riding gear, so we can have breakfast and keep going. The gear that G P let me borrow is fantastic. The armour is especially good. The other fellas had jackets but they got too hot and they took them off. But the armour is really light and I have been able to keep wearing it. Dad sent me a text I received in Singapore, encouraging me to “avoid exuberance” and I think that is particularly poignant now we are settling in. But I’m keeping the advice front of mind!
. If you are interested in riding in Cambodia, we have another trip starting in February which can be viewed here – http://www.compassexpeditions.com/tour/short-adventures/complete-cambodia/