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 sixth 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 the last day and we are on the move but I thought I’d fire off a final email to complete the set. We left the Moon Boutique in Siem Reap at about 6.30am. We had been out the night before to a very fancy restaurant called Abacus there, that mostly seems to be visited by ex-pats. It seemed kind of crazy-brave to set up a top shelf french restaurant in a third world town but Zaman was friends with the owner, Pasquale, and he fussed over us with the menu. They had steak, lamb shanks, deer, etc, flown in from various countries, but I tried the Red Mullet, on the basis that we’re supposed to be doing local things. It sounded a little special when Pasquale pronounced mullet in his French accent, but it still tasted ordinary even with all the exotic French sauces around it. I think mullet only belongs at the bottom of a crab dilly, and even then you only need the head.
The ride was by far the biggest of the trip, as you know. Three hundred kilometres in one day. Noosa and back, as Gary said. That doesn’t sound far but we have been travelling on side-roads, and this was on the main highway, straight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and we were all a little apprehensive. Victor was catching a plane back because he couldn’t ride with his broken scaphoid, but even flying Mekong Air, or whatever it was called, seemed to have its dangers.
We are here in Phnom Penh now, of course, and it all went well. The ride out of Siem Reap was very beautiful – rice paddies, huge tracts of flowering water lillies, water buffalo in harness, street vendors selling bunches of dried lotus flowers and fish by the road, the smell of sugar cane and smoke, the gigantic wind-mill palm trees, and dusty towns with Honda Dreams’ going every which way. We have taken so many photos and I have written a bit but it is really hard to communicate the smells of Cambodia. There are some familiar ones like frangipani and jasmine, and poultry, but sometimes you’d swear you can smell frankincense and some things you just can’t identify. Someone needs to invent an “olfactamera” to record fragrance. Zaman showed us some jars that he said are used to gather a fluid that carries the essences of perfumes around. Its very lucrative to gather because its used in Muslim countries where alcohol is banned. It reminded me of Seamus talking about his grandfather who would say “that beer is so expensive, you could drink perfume for less”.
We stopped by the side of the road to watch what people were doing at the stalls. It turned out that they were making something equivalent to rice bubbles. There was a long wooden pole about 10 feet long. At one end, two girls about 9 and 11 would stand on the pole and then get off so that it see-sawed. At the other end, the pole had a prod attached to it which would dip into a hole in the ground. At that end, a little boy, about 7, had a pot of raw rice that was being pounded flat by the prod. Each time the pole went up in the air, he would duck in and give the rice a stir before the prod came down. He was a little distracted by us turning up and it seemed a real possibility that he would lose concentration and get his hand caught, but he managed okay. Then the flatttened dried rice went into a wok, and the rice would pop. Then it went into little bags you could buy.
The briefing paper from Compass Expeditions said that most accidents happen on the first day or the last day. I thought that must be due to some psychological thing of people not paying attention at those times, or letting their guard down towards the end. Now, I don’t think its that mysterious. Its just that on the first and last day you have to cope with the traffic of Phnom Penh. There is a whole lot of overtaking and being overtaken going on as you come into the city, and when you get here, the traffic is so close, people could reach over and take stuff out of your pocket. Tommy the Cambodian guide has been exquisite. He stays at the back whilst Zaman is at the front and makes sure that no one has a problem. Sometimes you are riding along and you’d look across , to see Tommy just coasting along on the gravel shoulder like a boundary rider, making sure you were good. There was one point where I was riding behind this huge truck on a dirt road, and it was giving out this enormous dust cloud. I couldn’t see the point in overtaking because you didn’t know what was inside the cloud, but Tommy rode ahead and made some signal to the driver, and the fella slowed down, and Tommy beckoned me through, which was quite a service.
I was in the foyer at the Ohana Hotel at Phnom Penh when I started, but now we are at Hong Kong Airport, and I’m using one of their sexy free internet keyboards with the flat screen fixed to the wall…
We turned off on the way from Siem Reap at the truck stop with the spiders. I hadn’t quite realised but there is a restaurant and service station where we ate, and then there is a stall outside near the road, where they sell the live spiders. If you want, you can buy your live spider and take it over to the restaurant where they fry it in peanut oil. I asked the lady at the restaurant for the fried spider but she headed off to the stall, so I went with her. There was a sack of spiders and they pulled one out and put it on my shirt, but then I saw that they also had a basked of cold, cooked spiders (for about 40 cents each), and I said I’d like one of them. There was an enormous basket of cooked crickets just next to the spiders and I watched this pretty 20 year old girl, just popping a cricket in her mouth. It was like something out of Men in Black, but Tim, the support vehicle driver, said that lots of women are very keen on the spiders and the crickets, and he has to bring some home for his wife whenever he’s passing through.
So I took the spider back to the boys at the restaurant and ate it. They really look just like a funnel webb spider. Thick hairy legs and a wide abdomen. You couldn’t swallow the whole thing in one go even if you wanted to. The legs were a little unwieldy, but the abdomen was chewy and tasted like dried crab . I’m hoping that I pick up some super powers, like Spiderman did, but since they are funnel-digging animals, that may only be obvious when I’m working in the garden…
We arrived at the hotel at about 2pm, and there was a lot of happiness at having finished. We had a couple of beers at a hotel called the Metro, and then changed into normal clothes. Victor and Peter were very keen to see S21 – the torture prison used by the Khmer Rouge – as well as the Killing Fields, but Zaman said that they were deeply disturbing visits and one or the other might be enough. So we went to S21 (“the genocide museum” as the gate announces), and it was too terrible to even write about here, especially when you think that it was all happening as recently as 1979, and when you learn that the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records so you can see photographs of the Khmer Rouge and their victims.
We took a tuk tuk from there to the Australian Embassy. Felicity’s friend had said, as you know, that the Embassy bar is open once a month to anyone with an Australian passport, and it was. So our passports got us through the gate, and then we walked through some corridors until we found a barbecue out the back. The building is very low and blockish, with lawns in and around, and there were a lot of blokes with beards, and women in their 30’s, drinking beer and having a sausage sizzle (its called the “Akubra Club”), which all gave the feeling that you were in Darwin. The barman was a federal policeman and he pointed out Felicity’s friend to me, and I introduced her to the boys. We had a gentle difference of opinion when we spoke about our visit to the Sunrise orphanage and I asked her if she had much to do with them. She said she was skeptical of orphanages that take in tourists and I explained that she might have misunderstood the dynamic. We weren’t there as sightseers. We had been to a fundraiser in Brisbane for Sunrise; I had emailed Geraldine to say we were coming to Cambodia and that we would be interested to see the work she does; one of the boys was already sponsoring two children and I expected the others might do the same; Sunrise made us bring our passports and fill in some forms; and in the end we mostly just saw the facilities and didn’t go into dormitories, or anything personal. Sunrise doesn’t get any support from the Cambodian Government or the Australian Government and I reckon they get the balance just right in letting people like us visit on certain terms so that they can inspire interest.
Apparently there is a small industry in Cambodia in running orphanages full of children with perfectly healthy parents, to attract donations, so maybe there is some cause for skepticism generally.
We met a fella who was explaining that the place is always just a few steps away from riot, and that Hung Sen, the Prime Minister, has a personal bodyguard of 4000 soldiers. He said that the Prime Minister’s son is in charge of the Special Forces, and that not all of the old ways have changed. We had seen the riot police doing some aggressive drills in a square, on the way to the Embassy, to that seemed very real. There were a few people who had businesses locally, and we met a young woman who was there to start up a domestic violence program. She only had a posting for three months, so the Government must be awfully optimistic about the scope of the problem!
We stayed for an hour or so, but I’m not sure that the 8 days with each other had really prepared us well for entering into well-considered discussions at the Embassy, and we went off to dinner with Zaman and the guides at a place called the Titanic. The longest chat we had with outsiders on the trip, I guess, was in Praer Vehear, where we had beers at about 6pm at a roadstall run by a family. The father spoke English quite well, and his 17 year old daughter, who was serving us, was teaching English to students, so he was very keen to have her practice. And the mother was cooking chicken kebabs, whilst the daughter served a beer called Black Panther (which was especially apposite because I had been telling Peter the story about P T that George told us). So we settled in there for a little while.
We are almost home now, and everyone is happy to be back, and especially me.
Damien’s Feedback on the trip –
“Mate, we had a fantastic trip. Zemen, Tommy, Tim and Tien were great.
Its hard to believe how much we fitted into eight days – criss-crossing the Mekong, Buddhist blessing, shooting AK47’s, drinks at the Australian Embassy, walking through Angkor Watt, visiting the S21 Genocide Museum, dodging water buffalo and brahmen on lonely tracks, lunch overlooking Laos, eating a spider, attending a silk commune, and meeting Cambodian families at roadside stalls, as well as many beers, meals and scarey motorbike experiences with mates.
Thanks for being the gateway to all of this. I can’t speak highly enough of your team over there. They always had our backs, and they took us to places we never would have gone otherwise.”
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/