Riding Season Here - Hazards to Consider
November 21, 2005
by Jim CA2
I have often wondered how someone can hit a cow. You see them on the side of the road, you slow down to a crawl and pass them, resume speed. Well I know now how someone can hit a cow, but fortunately I didn’t have to experience it. Mid-October I took a group of visitors around the Tonle Sap Lake via Battambang, Sisophon, Samrong and Siem Reap and this trip was plagued with disaster and many eye opening experiences that I feel the traveler; especially the motorcyclist should be reminded of.
I had promised a customer turned friend of mine (Barry) a bike trip for three3 years and at age 72 I figured this would be one of his last opportunities to have such a trip and I would on this rare occasion play tour guide. Why not, he owns an XR 400 and an XR 200 and had done some riding through out his life. He brought over a couple of his mates, and along with a regular Phnom Penh regular the five of us set out. Battambang the first day was pretty straight forward. The road is good, not too heavily traveled and with stops at best five hours away. The trip to Battambang was fine with the exception of being an hour out of Battambang and having my question answered as to how someone can hit a cow. Out of the bushes adjacent to the right side of the road, a rogue cow bolted right in front of me. I looked right into his ribcage a meter away at 70K an hour and could almost feel the wind of his tail brushing over my head through my helmet and wondered how I missed him. My heart wasn’t beating fast, my adrenaline wasn’t pumping, I didn’t even hit the brakes. No Time for that, it happened too fast. I reflected on how I could have missed him and the consequences of hitting him. How I would have gone over the front of the bike and the damage to the bike and the damage to me, while my elbow and knee pads sat on a shelf at home. I dodged a bullet, but have had my eyes opened to one of the biggest road hazards in Cambodia. That night in the Riverside Balcony Bar in Battambang we had a few drinks, talked about this day's activities and our journey to Samrong the following day.
The best part of the trip to Samrong wouldn’t start until we left the pavement past Sisophon. Once on the dirt track we would head to Banteay Top, an ancient fortress about 7K south of Temple of Banteay Chmar and about 50K north of Sisophon. (See cover shot Bayon Pearnik June 2004 issue at www.bayonpearnik.com) The road was in pretty good condition and the scenery is gorgeous with the lines of coconut palms and as back drop to the brilliant green rice fields. Banteay Meanchey and Odar Meanchey Provinces haven’t been hit with excessive rain so the side trip to Banteay Top off of the main road wasn’t a muddy mess nor was the reservoir full of water north of the ruins. We did a quick look at the temples and I lagged behind not to get dusted while my partners raced to Banteay Chmar. I stopped to get a couple of pictures of some girls digging for snails out of the reservoir and back to the main road I spoke with some locals as to whether there were any other ruins in the area. They informed me of a site near the town of Gumun, but I found out at Banteay Chmar that this side trip would have to wait for dryer conditions.
Last year I had met Andy Brower who has a Cambodia information website and also has an interest in finding temples. He had told me about a small site behind the market adjacent to the Banteay Chmar complex. As I rolled into town, there was a blue sign that said prasat 200 meters. This wasn’t there before, but this must have been what Andy was talking about. I drove on the small path passed a couple of village houses and a cow that was straddling the path. Made a left turn over a small wooden bridge, through an opening between some trees and there it was. Ta Phrom Mok Boun (four faced Ta Phrom) a single standing Bayon looking tower with each of it four faces in excellent condition aimed at the directions of the compass. The structure was surrounded by a moat where local girls came to collect water. I snapped off a few photos then caught up with my friends that were having a cool drink at the market. I told them they should have stayed with the guide as I showed them the pics on the back of my digital camera. Talking to the vendor we found out that more temples were on each side of the complex and we went looking. On the north side we found the ruins covered in vines and not too intact, then went to the west side and couldn’t locate the ruins due to the thick foliage, so I brought my friends back to Mok Boun to the south side. Looks like another trip to the region is in store for the dry season.
Samrong was only about sixty clicks away so this would be a nice leisurely ride and at about 50K an hour we were only about an hour or so from our destination. I led the group and slowed down to point out the first land mine warning signs. Adrian the local experienced rider took the lead and headed off. I was surprised when I came upon a bridge that was in good condition as in May of 2004 it was a rickety old structure. I stopped along with Barry and his two mates and took a few pictures for comparison and a young boy had informed me that the new structure was only 3 months old. Great, I thought, progress! We caught up to Adrian who had stopped to wait for us and then took third position behind Barry who was following me. The road wasn’t in bad condition but was pitted with pot holes that we traversed. I could see in my mirrors Barry’s running lights and we were making good time as the sun began to get closer to the horizon.
All of a sudden I lost Barry’s running lights in my rearview mirror and heard a horn blow. Something had happened. I turned around and went back to find that Barry had gone down. Adrian was tending to Barry who was lying on the ground and the bike was on its side adjacent leaking gas. Barry was conscious but knocked silly. Barry had lost balance going into one pot hole and was finished off by the following pot hole that denied him any recovery. He must have lost site of them either from the long shadows cast across the road, or his darkened visor. Scrapes on the side of his helmet indicated that he had his bell rung. His mates came up and got into their gear and got out some pain killers. Adrian and I stood the bike up to keep the carburetor from flooding. Barry had trouble standing and his shoulder was hurt. We were losing daylight and still had about 10K to get into Samrong. The pain killers were having little effect, and we had to make a move before it got dark. It was either, get Barry on the back of one of our bikes and come back for his bike or Barry would have to painfully ride into Samrong himself. It was the latter and darkness fell upon us while we slowly got closer to Samrong. Navigating in the dark we passed the police outpost and turned around to a crossroad and headed north through the dark village outskirts of this rural town. Somehow we dropped in from the north and pulled in front of the Stang Toek Guesthouse which had changed its name to the Sokha since adding more rooms and another one across the street had completed its remodel and room additions. I jumped on the last two and three rooms from each of the guesthouses and we got Barry some minor available medical attention. The woman at the local pharmacy was great in helping with what she could as Barry’s bruises began to come to the surface of his skin.
We had some decisions to make regarding Barry’s welfare. Late the next morning the woman at the pharmacy had some taxi numbers and was able to secure us a Nissan pickup truck despite the usual early departure times for taxis. This would be about fifty dollars. We got his bike loaded up and gently loaded Barry into the pickup and shipped him off to Siem Reap. The trip would be a grueling one as the road was plagued with bad bridges, a sketchy bypass bridge, and NR 6 from Kralahn (halfway point between Sisophon and Siem Reap) is in its worse condition ever inflicting more pain with every bump. Gordon at Two Dragons Guesthouse in Siem Reap was instrumental in getting Barry into a clinic where his x-rays revealed a broken collar bone and a pulled leg muscle that prevented him from walking. He remained in the clinic’s care for three nights until we shipped him off in another taxi to Phnom Penh where he spent two nights then off to Bangkok to have further checks at a hospital there. The clinic, taxis, bike repairs ran in the neighborhood of seven hundred dollars and it was amazing he was able to get into Samrong on his own. Barry did go on to get further checks in Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok and told me that a more intensive scan revealed that his pelvis was cracked in three places, two ribs had been broken and that there was fluid in his lungs.
Now that Barry was on his way, we were able to commence riding and sight seeing again. The road from Samrong to Route 6 is in pretty good condition with the exception of a few bad bridges along the way. Our journey would take us to the town of Ta Pen where I needed to deliver a stack of pictures to Savuang, a local who guided us around the area May 2004 and had shown us many ancient prasats and bridges. We lost a little time there waiting for someone to find him in the countryside net fishing, but we did get to see him and delivered his photos as well as the June 2004 issue of the Bayon Pearnik that had the article in which he was so instrumental in providing me information for.
From Ta Pen we headed south of Chong Kal where we stopped at a prasat then a 100 meter Angkorian Bridge. When I was there in May 2004 the water levels were low and the vegetation sparse, but this was not the case this trip as finding a vantage point to take a couple of pictures of the span was quite difficult. The water level was 2/3rds up the columns and the trees and vines were encroaching on the structure. Continuing south we made a brief stop at a thatched makeshift shrine covering some laterite blocks that must have had some religious significance. We then arrived at a collapsed bridge that would need reconstruction. A bypass down the embankment to two sets of paired 4x4 beams tacked together with thin boards almost floating above the water was the only way to the other side. Too wet and slippery to ride across, so we walked our bikes to ensure not losing them in the drink. This must have been tricky for the Nissan with Barry to navigate and one false move by any vehicle would cut off passage on the route. We arrived at Moung where I gave a few pictures from my May 2004 trip to a village girl. She was surprised and happy about having them. From Moung we would turn off to head to Koul to check out another temple about 10K off the main road. This was a dirt bikers dream with hills, sand, single track, ruts and large puddles to plow through. The only problem we missed a turn to Koul, and with the temple only a stones throw away, it would be saved for a later date with daylight running out. We headed back to Moung only to find a Camry off the road and into a rice paddy. Funny we didn’t pass any Camry’s on the way in but the driver said she had come in from Siem Reap on the road we apparently missed and she was on her way to Samrong. Being too closer to Moung we would take the main route to Kalahn to pick up NR 6. As I mentioned before, NR 6 the main overland route from Thailand for tourist traveling to Siem Reap is in its worse condition ever. We could only get to 39K an hour with out beating ourselves and our bikes to death. Vehicles moved even slower. Darkness once again fell upon us and the bugs and bicycle traffic was heavy as we approached the town of Pouk. Coming into Siem Reap with its big lit hotels was like the scene from Apocalypse Now when Captain Willard and company sailed in from the jungle and stumbled upon the USO show.
Once in Siem Reap, we checked in on Barry periodically. While his mates took in Angkor Wat, I took a day to head up to Banteay Srey, Banteay Samre, and Bakong. I had bought a day pass but was asked if I had permission for the motorcycle from the main police station short of the ticket booth. I told the people at the gates it was mine and had my owner’s card and wasn’t looking for any more permission than the average local. They let me go and I didn’t encounter any more problems, however they are strict about anyone taking a rental bike into the park despite it being the main thoroughfare to Anlong Veng.
Siem Reap is still on the move with its many hotel, bar and restaurant construction projects. I tried new disco Zone One that had a modern night club atmosphere, but the waiters kept trying to reseat my buddy and I to another table. We weren’t having it and acted dumb at each request. We left after one beer and I don’t think I’ll be back. I thought I would check out Pub Street and after struggling to find a decent parking place, I found after walking down Pub Street, it was too “boutique” for my taste and made a break for a more down to earth, less touristed venue. Barry’s mishap ensured us a longer stay in Siem Reap, but I would have preferred one more night in Samrong.
We headed back to Phnom Penh on Sunday. We got a pretty good start and I was able to point out a few sites along the way to Barry’s mates. We made a brief stop at The Angkorian Bridge, but this wasn’t my main attraction. Last July I had stopped at a prasat at Svay Eia, and the locals on the side of NR 6 had told me of another one north of the road about 10K in. The first 5Ks on a decent dirt road was bustling with activity and the villagers were surprised to see us. A quick jog at a wat and only one more kilometer on a thin trail took us into another wat complex. Under at large tree sat a squat damaged prasat. An old monk told us that is was called Prasat Bai (three) and the two adjacent missing prasats were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Two in scripted rock tablets sheathed the doorway of the prasat. I took a few photographs and marked the site with my GPS and we headed off to Wat Prasat south of Kampong Thom. I had mentioned this temple in the August 2005 Bayon Pearnik and it made a cover appearance on the September issue. When we arrived the prasat was covered with scaffolding for restoration. The cultural minister for Kampong Thom was on site and we chatted a little about the various temples in the province. It sounds like there are plenty of sites in the province yet to be exposed to the public. Our last temple of the trip was at Kuha Nokor about 25K north of Skun just before we left Kampong Thom Province. The temple is in great condition and when ever feasible I make a visit when passing by. The care takers are nice guys and are always happy when I bring them more visitors.
Out of Skun the road has gone to hell. Cars, trucks and land cruisers swerve all over the road to avoid the ever growing pot holes. This once good stretch now adds a half hour to your travel time. Sunday evening is not the best time to arrive in Phnom Penh as well. Traffic is heavy coming in from the countryside, the restaurants at Prek Leap are busy and traffic bottle necks at large puddles and pot holes. Even after having crossed the bridge back onto Sisowath traffic is heavy and slow moving. If possible, a better alternative is to plan an earlier arrival, head for Prek Kaddam and take the ferry over the Tonle Sap and avoid Prek Leap altogether.
Back in Phnom Penh it was nice to see Barry was making some progress on his recovery and despite this trip going sour for him, he was in good spirits and already thinking about doing it again next year. I can only hope that at seventy two I am enjoying life and living it to its fullest.
Hazards and things to consider when heading out to the countryside:
Sun block for the Tropical Sun, mosquito repellant for remote jungle areas.
Travel with a partner as they are your greatest asset in getting you help.
Have a plan as to how far you will go in one day and don’t over extend yourself.
Have a map and even better take along a GPS and phone.
Travel during daylight hours. You can see your hazards, people are still out and about, and navigation is easier.
Carry a spare set of keys, inner tubes, tools, clutch and brake levers, and though it might cost more, rent the best bike you can for your money. Repairs in the sticks are a drag. Have the rental company put on rear view mirrors. Though rental companies hold passports, having one can make it easier to get med-evaced out of the country.
Be suited up in appropriate gear for the ride you are taking. Helmets, elbow and knee pads or body armor can be uncomfortable but they do serve their purpose. Eye protection for dust and especially bugs at night.
Being covered in long pants and shoes/boots are added protection from mosquitoes, and potential snake encounters. A t-shirt under a loose long sleeve shirt is effective insulation from the hot sun.
Travel well rested and fed. Accidents happen when you become tired or complacent and reaction time is diminished.
Know your road conditions. Plauv Biba bad road, Plauv la oh, good road or srool, easy. Pot holes are avoided by swerving cars. Don’t be in their paths.
Slow down for Bridges! Many are in terrible shape and some have large holes in them. Many good bridges have terrible pot holed approaches.
Cows, bikes, motorcycles, dogs, and children will run out into the road. Slow down, use caution and get to your destination in one piece.
Take along a first aid kit, appropriate medicine and travel with a bottle of water.
Land Mines. Only travel in marked well traveled paths and comply with signs indicating mine fields.
Carry enough cash to get you out of a bind.
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