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Mis-Adventure Cambodia:

Discovering Cambodia by crashing into it

April 2001

Motorbiking across Cambodia - seems like everybody's getting into the act now. A whole guidebook was published recently geared towards this activity (and the assumption you have an odometer that works - last we checked there were only four motorbikes in Cambodia with this function - the author of the book, a Phnom Penh expat who likes counting down from eleven, some Khmer guy who thinks his bike goes faster with a working odometer, and yours truly).

A motorbike really is a great way to get around the country given the appalling state of many of Cambodia's roads (though to somebody's credit, many are getting some kind of upgrade now) and contrary to what one may assume, you do not have to be an experienced rider to navigate most of these roads. This past April I undertook a four-day seven-hundred-fifty-kilometer ride and I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Some argue I still don't.

First, I needed a bike. Having recently moved to Siem Reap, buying one was the obvious choice. I would shop carefully I told myself. I then bought the first 250cc enduro bike that was offered to me - a 1992 Honda XLR. Prior to this purchase, other than a few spins around town on a Honda Dream, I had never driven a motorbike. But already knowing how to operate a clutch on a car there really wasn't anything to learn. A few laps around Siem Reap's Olympic Stadium is all it took to get the hang of the thing. Though there was the matter of spending ten minutes trying to kick-start the bike - much to the amusement of the dozen or so Khmer teenagers watching nearby (actually, almost everything we foreigners do seems to provide amusement for the locals).

Two weeks later - Khmer New Year. I needed to get some photos of the Cardamom Mountains for another travel mag. A four-day journey was planned - Siem Reap to Sisophon to Battambang to Pailin down into the mountains for the day, back to Battambang and the above in reverse, and squeezing in somewhere a side jaunt to Banteay Chhmar.

Still a very inexperienced biker, I needed a guide (and good medical insurance). Enter Al the Chef. Pay all his expenses and he'd lead me away or astray as the case may be. And I needed equipment. Driving around town without a helmet may not be the smartest thing to do but to venture into the countryside without one would be downright idiotic. Enter Karl the Consulate Warden. Proving what a caring friend he is, he hands me his helmet, "bring it back with so much as a scratch and you owe me two hundred bloody dollars."

On the road and heading west on Highway 6 we weren't even a kilometer out from Siem Reap when we came upon the aftermath of a bad wreck. Some luckless Khmer motodop was lying on the road, a thick mass of blood oozing from the back of his head. Not an encouraging omen.

The trip to Sisophon was a breeze. The highway reconstruction had begun and much of the road had already been widened, packed, and graded. We made it in under two hours. One piece of useful advice I was given before leaving, which I will pass on to you, is about bridges. Slow down for them - always. How slow? Slow enough to stop before it's too late. Too late is when you and your bike are at the bottom of a fifteen-foot ravine. Most bridges do not reveal their true nature until the last moment - newly reconstructed with strong supports and generous amounts of cement with full UN funding or two rickety old boards placed by a man named Vann who charges 500 riels for crossing. Some bridges require dismounting and walking your bike, while some bridges are best avoided altogether.

As we had planned to spend the night in Sisophon and it was only lunchtime, a trip up to Banteay Chhmar was in order. We had heard the road was fairly easy. A few kilometers north of town I sought to avoid a large puddle by riding up on a small ridge to the side of the road. On the ridge a small bump sent bike and rider face and tailpipe first into the largest puddle in the province. I tried to excuse this as a test to determine the amphibious capabilities of a Honda XLR but it didn't work. Al stood there shaking his head, trying to suppress a laugh (or tears, it was difficult to tell). Trying to save some face I ask Al, "That was a tricky bump or, or, or am I wanker?" Well, we westerners don't concern ourselves much with face so Al promptly and emphatically replied, "You're a wanker."

Problem. Bike won't start. Muddy water is not the manufacturer's recommended motor oil. Al took off to get a pick-up truck and I stood around scratching my head and ass. Eventually we got a ride back to town and the motorbike shop spent an hour diddling with the bike before deciding that they couldn't do anything about it. Another shop got the bike running in seconds and neither Al nor myself have a clue as to what they did.

But so much for Banteay Chhmar. By this time it was too late to make the trip, so back to the hotel to change into clean, or in my case, dry clothes.

Second day, destination Pailin. I did pretty well on this stretch. The road to Battambang is for the most part, quite good. Attaining speeds of 110 km/h were possible, but whether advisable or not is another matter. But while the road to Battambang may be a snap, the road to Pailin sucks.

[photo right: Kids and mines, what a great combination! Northern Cardamom mountain range.]

It starts with an hour or two of broken tarmac which is a nightmare on your arms, followed by a never-ending line of five-foot long, two-foot deep potholes that can actually be a bit of fun once you get the rhythm of it - this assumes the potholes do their part by remaining reasonably uniform in their size. Potholes have no sense of uniformity. Finally, about fifteen kilometers from Pailin the road turns into freshly laid gravel that I comfortably cruised on at about seventy to eighty km/h. And the scenery starts to get very nice around here, too. The only challenge was just outside Pailin where the bridge was out, necessitating a ride through a river. By sheer luck, I got across without a problem. The fact that on the return I managed to find the deepest section of river and stall out in it only proves just how much luck was involved on the first pass.

Entering Pailin was a minor annoyance. It was Khmer New Year after all. All throughout northwest Cambodia (perhaps it's the Thai influence) this water throwing thing is becoming as much of a sadistic (and dangerous) ritual as it is in Thailand. The fun thing for kids and teenagers to do is fill plastic bags with water and fling them as hard as possible at passing motorists. This includes motorcycles. Getting hit by one of these at high speed is akin to having Mike Tyson punch you in the face. I have seen broken windshields on cars, I have seen motorcycles crash, and while I haven't seen it first hand, apparently these bags of water lead to several deaths a year due to accidents. The Cambodian government has made a reasonably successful effort to ban waterguns in urban areas during the Khmer New Year. Could the powers-that-be extend this to a nationwide ban on the water bags? Better yet, how about next year when some fourteen-year-old punk sends a motorbike crashing, possibly fatally, into a ditch, the authorities take the brat out and publicly execute the little shit. And you probably think I'm kidding.

I digress. Pailin. Nice town, get some rubies, find the casino, the brothel village, the old tank, or just sit in the courtyard restaurant of the Hang Meas Pailin Hotel, get sloshed, and learn key motorbiking terms which are the staple of any biker's vocabulary, words like "shag" and "tart".

[photo left: The one thing I couldn't crash - an old tank sits abandoned and rusting outside of Pailin.]

Next day - into the Cardamoms. Unfortunately, weather would not be our friend today. The middle of April is supposed to be sunny and hot but this day was cool, cloudy, and drizzly. Not good for photos. But mountains are like that. We ride a few hours to the Koh Kong turn-off where I decide to write the day off as a washout. Nonetheless, the scenery is still spectacular. The road is pretty good, a few tricky spots I handled fine with one exception - one rickety wooden bridge that I probably should have walked my bike across. Well, I managed to get my front tire lodged firmly between two boards. Good thing Al is the calm, patient type as he admonishes me of how close I came to being a troll under a bridge.

[photos: left: Troll bridge? right: Entering the Cardamoms.]

Getting close to Battambang we show a great sense of timing by reaching the Kamping Puoy turn-off just as every Battambang resident between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two is returning from the day's festivities at the nearby dam. A mass confusion of motos, trucks, and flying water mixed in with that bloody awful road, well, it was good to get back to the Teo Hotel to rest up for the next day's second attempt at Banteay Chhmar.

As for Battambang, well, it has a lot of nice statues. See if you can find the indentation of a motorcycle helmet in the base of one.

Well rested, it's first off to Sisophon, dodging water bags the whole way. It seems with each passing day of the holiday the quantity of water throwing increases. See previous comments about public executions. You probably still think I'm kidding. I was hit in the head by a bag while doing 100 km/h. If that was my face or I was sans helmet you probably wouldn't be reading this.

A lunch break in Sisophon and it's off to Banteay Chhmar. Now, as I said, we had heard the road was pretty good so it was with some surprise that we navigated about twenty kilometers of utter crap. We finally gave up after I wrecked pretty good from landing in a deep pothole sideways, backwards, or some position other than the correct one - and wrecking good enough to draw blood in several locations. And the hour was getting late. We found out later there really is a good road to Banteay Chhmar - this just wasn't it.

By this point I had dumped my bike a few times, but neither me nor the bike was really any worse for the wear. Sure, I was banged up a bit, but nowhere even remotely close enough to put me off biking. I was taking it all in stride as just part of learning to ride a bike on lousy roads.

Returning to Sisophon, traffic is thickening and the water is flying. Accelerating to get through the upcoming gauntlet of water bags, I'm doing in excess of 60 km/h as a vintage moto with three riders tries to cross traffic from the right making no allowances for the speed I'm driving. We hit. I go flying left, my bike right. Fortunately I had enough sense to roll, leaving me with only a badly sprained right hand and a whole fresh batch of cuts and scrapes in all the usual places. As for the other guy, he must have believed he did something wrong, because he took off as quickly as he could get his bike upright. Strange - a Khmer in an accident with a foreigner and he doesn't stick around waiting for the pay-off.

The clutch lever on my bike was broken. But a little finessing around with what was left at least made it possible to get the bike out of first gear, and you don't have to use the clutch to shift back and forth through sixth. I limped back to Siem Reap and quickly the stories of the wreckage I left behind in northwest Cambodia began to spread through watering holes across the country. Within a week the reports in Phnom Penh said some stupid Yank had crashed a dozen times, taking out eight roadside gasoline stands, seven sugar palms, six scrawny chickens, five dogs a-yapping, four grubby children, three pigs a-grunting, two dilapidated shacks (with families inside), and a partridge in a pear tree. This is not true. I didn't hit any pear trees.




All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.