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 fifth 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
We are settled in at a fancy hotel called the Moon Boutique in Siem Reap. We have spent the day looking at temples around Angkor Wat – which is just the most majestic of about 270 temples in a 10 km radius – but now I have a chance to write.
Yesterday was a little traumatic because Victor came off his bike. We were travelling along a neat bitumen tree-lined road heading towards Siem Reap, and everything seemed good with the world, when Zaman put up his hand to signal a stop. It turned out that he had seen an old landmine field that he wanted to show us but it was a little sudden. Gary was right behind Zaman and I was behind Gary, then Richard, then Peter and then Victor. The first four of us saw Zaman put his hand up in the halt signal but Victor was just focussing on Pete’s bike and he kept going. He said he never saw Pete’s brake lights (and maybe Peter mostly used his gears to decelerate) and he ended up running into the back of Peter and dropping the bike. The support vehicle turned up quickly and took Victor into the Thai hospital in Siem Reap, along with Peter, who of course could give medical attention. In the end they gave him a cast for a broken scaphoid bone, and he was in the hotel by 6pm.
Peter said the care at the hospital was very good. The Cambodian doctor grumbled a little about how all the profits went to Thailand, but otherwise, they were able to diagnose the problem quickly with an xray and give him painkillers, a sling etc. Tomorrow is the last day of riding and Victor won’t be able to do it of course, but we will meet up in Phnom Penh. He has looked a little unhappy, walking around all day with his arm raised, like some great big hairy bear, but he has been talking about lots of things, and that will pass.
It was still a spectacular day, yesterday. We had an early breakfast in Praer Vear and set off towards Siem Reap. After about an hour, we came across our first Angkorian temple, called Koh Ker. Its a long long way from the tourist centre and we were there very early so we had it all to ourselves (except for some rather forlorn Cambodians selling trinkets by the roadside). This particular temple is buried deep in the forest with trees growing through it. It was built by an emperor with a ridiculously long Sri Lankan like name starting with a J, because he was rejected by the mainstream and “having no friend except himself” decided to go it alone. There are lots of pillars, stone carvings, etc in honour of himself and you’d swear it was where Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” except for that pesky lines at the end about the “lone and level sands, borderless and bare” that stretch far away.
As you advance through the forest, you come across this 7 tier pyramid with a stair case up the middle that reminded me of Apocalypto. Zaman says that the inside of the pyramid is hollow and that, when it was functioning, the emperor would live in there and his servants would live in the field all around. There are huge stones which have been cut with precision to make up the pyramid and people don’t seem to know how they were cut. The stone comes from Siem Reap, 80 km away, but they have worked out that it would have been transported by water. You can see from carvings in the area that they had wheels and horses, but not the supported archway, which seems an odd combination.
Zaman says that some of the carvings have been pillaged and there was a recent case where the Cambodian government successfully sued Christies for the return of some items. Which is surprising because there has been some uproar in Australia about the National Gallery buying lots of artefacts from a renowned Indian smuggler, but when the items were identified as belonging to an Indian temple, they were returned without compensation. The Koh Keh temple is in particularly good condition because the French looked after it, but also because, even when the Americans were dropping 300 bombs a day in Cambodia in the early 1970’s, trying to disrupt supplies to the Viet Cong from the Ho Ci Minh trail, they were under instructions not to bomb temples. So of course the Khmer Rouge used the temple as a fort. Zaman said the beautiful courtyard/paddock around the pyramid was laid with landmines until recently, and I took some comfort from the calf grazing randomly there. I figured that just the fact that he was whole was some confirmation that the clearing had been thorough.
Victor reckoned the Koh Ker temple was the highlight of the trip for him and it was a real pity that he had a low point so soon after. They paid a local boy to ride his bike into town, and we went to the outskirts of Siem Reap for lunch. There was some discussion about following Victor to the hospital but Zaman reckoned the doctors should be left alone to see what needed doing, which made much more sense to me. The restaurant for lunch was a taste of what was to come in terms of heavy tourism. It was a huge place under a marquis, that was part lunch venue and part furniture shop. There were tourists everywhere, there was a huge table of Cambodian police who were drinking freely and toasting liberally, and all of a sudden the waitresses were wearing Western skirts instead of the trousers we had seen in the villages. I think the single most jarring thing is that we had become very used to Cambodian people smiling at us and calling out hello, but we had to get used to Western people who just look through you. Oh, and I have to say, as does Richard, that Cambodian woodwork is appalling. In the villages along the Mekong, there were hundreds of these gigantic wooden catfish for sale, which dwarfed even my koala keyrings for uselessness. But in this furniture shop, there were enormous double beds, stools, tables, etc, all in this heavy German/Hindu style that stretched way back like some Asian bunnings. What really broke Dicky’s heart was that they all seemed made out of solid teak or mahogany.
We haven’t seen a heap of trees before the forest. But as we came into Siem Reap, the country changed dramatically so that there were rice paddies, with huge palm trees, punctuating the paddocks like giant windmills
We went to a land mine museum in the afternoon, which was very interesting. It was put together by a man who had worked for the Vietnamese Army laying mines, and now he seemed to be removing them as a private atonement. There were mines from all the different countries that had “contributed” to Cambodia’s problem – China, France, Korea, Russia, US – and some explanations on how to remove them. There were lots of photographs of the man removing mines but I gather that his methods have been refined over time. The initial ones showed him digging happily with a spade to uncover a mine but there were words underneath to explain that this did not comply with UN sanctioned methods, which are now adopted. The early photographs reminded me of the fella at Harltley’s Crocodile Farm, talking about the young fella who went into the bush to catch his first Taipan, dressed in the standard FNQ protect gear – stubbies and thongs with no shirt. Except the land mine guy didn’t get bitten.
Tommy the Cambodian guide took us to a shooting range after that. It was quite a way off road, and I thought it might be a little dodgy. But Tommy reckons its where the Cambodian Army comes to train. That seemed unlikely. There were three indoor ranges with targets but there were also clothes you could dress up in, and a very big selection of weapons. There was a bunch of sleepy blokes sort of lying around and they looked like they could perk up, but only so long as we were spending. The lead guy pushed a round of live ammunition into each of his ears by way of noise protection, and that seemed like it could go bad really quickly if he fell over.
They offered us an M16 but Richard and I explained that we had fired them in the Australian Army and we were really after a go at the AK47. He said it was US50 for a 30 round banana magazine and we tried to haggle, but he wasn’t moving. I was mindful of my discussion with Arby about the importance of banter at the sale point but the bloke wasn’t moving – and he had all the weapons. He did offer us a cheeky deal on a Chinese machine gun but we decided one magazine each should be enough. Gary had never fired anything before, though with his bald head, and a camouflage jacket, he looked a whole lot like a senior officer in the Serb army. Anyway, it all passed very quickly. Richard (who was looking like a senior figure in the Chechnyan Army) was adamant that we should be firing the AK47 as a machine gun. So Gary and I each shot about 8 single rounds on semi automatic before the guy with the bullets in his ears moved the catch to automatic, and we strafed the target (not all that accurately as it turned out). Richard did a better job, but we have done very little to increase the Cambodians view of Australian marksmanship.
As I say, we met back up with Victor and Peter when we got to the hotel. Siem Reap is a major town, so we had to get used to not being the only white people in the village. There are tourists on every corner, and a whole industry around them. You can get hamburgers, a foot massage from a tank of hungry fish, a tuk tuk, etc. We got up at 4.45 and saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat with about 6000 other people, literally. It felt a whole lot like seeing the fireworks at Disneyland. Bizarrely, nearly all of the people left straight afterwards without coming inside, so wandering around was very easy. The place was incredibly ornate. There were statues and stone wall carvings everywhere and the place is on this enormous scale, with perfect straight lines which must be hard to do without survery equipment. There were beautiful stone walkways and ponds, and towers. But we could only enjoy so much time looking and that was about two hours. We went to four temples over the morning and Leila and Arby will be impressed to know that the second last one is where they filled the Lara Croft/Tomb Raider movie. They should also know that there were heaps of monkeys and elephants all around, but we left them alone. There are lots of people who come here to explore the temples over three days but we found half a day was fine, and even then, we kind of used the last two as a backdrop to talk about other stuff (there was a short interlude where the chat on the boys trip rose above the level of the Bristol stool chart – though we have wondered…never mind…).
We visited the Sunrise orphanage this afternoon run by Geraldine Cox. It was very impressive. The deputy manager knew we were coming and she showed us around. There were Cambodian and Australian flags flying, and she said that Siem Reap is the smallest of their three orphanages so that they have 64 children living there and a bunch more on outreach programmes. We watched a bunch of 14 year old girls being trained in traditional dance for a trip to Japan, and all the children looked relaxed and well-fed. Victor has been sponsoring two children since the fundraiser in Brisbane, and I expect some of the others will join in.
That might be all for now. We are going out to a restaurant called Abacus tonight and then riding to Phnom Penh in the morning. I have a very sore backside from riding.
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/