And the dream of exploring Cambodia on a motorbike came through!
All thanks to a lucky find, a road trip companion that was worth at least 10, in terms of entertainment, practical knowledge, and light spirits! (I recommend you follow his travels too! @ thesearch101.wordpress.com )
He was looking for a motorbike travel companion, after a month traveling more or less solo, and I was looking for a little push in the decision to take on the road on two wheels…the suggestion was to meet in Phnom Penh, get to know each other and exchange travel plans, and then make the final decision as to whether we’d join forces…but my mind had long been made up!
The first couple of days in Phnom Penh were all about starting to get acquainted with the country and my new travel companion…and, of course, to get me a nice ride! Within 24hs of landing, I had found her…my beautiful Selma: a Chinese copy of the ancient-by-now-out-of-production Honda Win, first sold in Vietnam, and with several thousands kilometers on her back, many of which carrying other adventurous travelers. At least with the last owner, she had already been through all of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. And now she was going to show me around!
The first day of riding started way into the afternoon, because my buddy Tiago had to retrieve his Laos visa first. As we set out to leave the hostel, my dear Selma refused to start! Tiago patiently turned back to see what was wrong (a pattern which repeated itself several times during our ten days together, #blesshisheart), and kindly offered to drive Selma out of the city, while I rode on his bike, La Poderosa (#chegoeseast). Lucky that he dealt with Selma’s initial complaints, since the road out of Phnom Pen was hell, by far the worst of the whole trip! There were road works for 10km or more, all the traffic stuck on one or the other lane, and to try and get ahead we had to wiggle our way through and go up and down steps between the old untarred road and the tarred road in the process of being built…what a start!
We reached Kampong Chhnang as it was getting dark, and immediately found ourselves in the non-touristy life of the country. Nothing exciting, in reality, but definitely refreshing from the tourist trap that is downtown Phnom Penh!
Glad that both Selma and I had made it in one piece for the first 90kms (Tiago and I switched bikes again after we reached the better road out of town), we settled for a good nights rest, as the next day we had almost 200kms awaiting us till Battambang!
Unfortunately, the next day Tiago wakes up with a bad tummy…nonetheless, he bravely rode north, even taking the time to stop to visit a floating village, where we were greeted by shrieking kids, as well as mistakenly trying to stop for some refreshments at a funeral – #cultureclash. The next couple of stops were for fueling up the bikes or our (mine, mainly) tummies, and were slightly extended because Tiago felt like, and I quote, “I am going to die”. He was in fact pale as a ghost, so much so that the rural family from whom we bought our lunch (and who refused to understand that we didn’t want any meat in our soups!) told him to lie down on one of their hammocks. After an hour or so of rest for lunch, the brave warrior got on his bike again, and we set off. Needless to say that reaching Battambang a couple of hours later was a massive relief for both of us.
This quiet, pretty town was more of a rest (recovery, in Tiago’s case) than anything breathtaking, although we did have a couple of nice visits: in the morning to a bamboo train – “train” being a complete understatement, while the name should rather be The Most Unsafe Bamboo Rollercoaster in the World, given that it was a platform made from bamboo sticks, with an engine on one end, simply laid on two sets of wheels…which sped through the most rattly, least aligned train tracks either of us had ever seen! Still, we met a nice Englishman who got excited about hearing of our motorbike trip, and told us about his tour of southern India on a Royal Einfield, and plans to buy a bike in India and try to cross half of Asia and the whole of Europe all the way back to the UK. Pretty damn awesome.
The killing cave was our afternoon trip, and I believe the name says it all. We had a little adventurous fun climbing down into a couple of caves, wary of the bats overhead, whose noises strongly suggested they would soon wake up. And so they did, and once we came down from the hill after watching the sunset, we sat at a local bar and enjoyed a beer and a chat with the bar owners while we watched hundreds of bats flying out of the caves into the darkness of the night arriving.
The next day we were ready to head to Siem Reap, and planned a couple of pit stops to see nearby temples. Little did we know, that day we’d already start feeling like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft! The first temple had that Tomb Raider feel, and there we met a veeeeeery tall German man (who defined our bikes as “little”, but of course he is 2.05m tall, which makes you wonder what would be a “normal sized” bike for him), who told us that he had visited a crocodile farm nearby, and of course Indiana…ehm, Tiago couldn’t resist! Never having even heard of a crocodile farm in my life, I was quite intrigued to see the place. Of course, seeing animals in captivity is never pleasing (for me, at least), especially when for a small price you get to hold one of their babies – yes, I held a baby crocodile, his skin was super cold, a feeling I had never felt, but the poor little guy was also growling in anger, so overall it didn’t feel too good. But the little boy in Tiago was really happy, so I guess it was not a bad detour. Especially since it led us back to a decent road, as opposed to the muddy untarred road we had planned to take (by “we” I of course mean Tiago, who I lazily left in charge of most planning efforts throughout our time together) to reach the highway from the temple!
Siem Reap was way more of a tourist trap than I could have ever imagined: enough to say that it’s main touristy street is called “Pub Street”. Thousands of tourists, hundreds of bars and street vendors for both food and drinks, music blasting out of every inch of road, fish that munch on dead skin from tired feet, and of course deep fried bugs and small animals (think tarantulas and snakes) for the tourists to try on dares. We actually saw one British guy trying a tarantula, but he only ate half (the vendor was quite content with finishing off his snack), then made a massive scene of spitting it out, so not very impressive overall. For two days, Tiago dwelled on whether he’d try a deep fried snake (I already knew my adventurous palate could not go that far), then gave up.
I in fact could not wait to get away from that kind of atmosphere, and was extremely happy when the time came to see the Angkor temples, the real reason tourists come to Siem Reap. We attempted to catch the sunset there on the day before our visit, but were too late to reach a temple before the sun went down. However, we did identify a minor temple (minor in comparison to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but still pretty impressive with its 50-m height and veeeery steep steps) and decided we’d come and watch the sunrise here the next day. And so it was, that we started our visit of one of the most touristy places in the world (as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) completely alone, at the top of a very high temple (#punintended), in complete peace and quiet! As the day went on, and probably due to the order in which we tackled the temples, the place got more and more crowded.
By the time we reached Angkor Wat, our second last stop, we were very tired and not too patient with the hoards of tourists posing here and there (most of the time, HERE) for a million pictures. The sights were all impressive nonetheless, for me especially those where the jungle had taken over these man-made miracles, with trees towering over the walls, encroaching them in their long, powerful roots (enter Lara Croft – funny side note, Lara Croft…ehm Angelina Jolie was actually there the same day, for the premiere of the film about the Khmer Rouge era that she directed, “First They Killed My Father”, a true story).
That evening we half-willingly tried to catch a Couchsurfing meet-up, but didn’t try too hard, and then just ended up sharing a happy pizza, and hitting the hay pretty early.
We wrapped up our stay in Siem Reap with a lazy day, each planning our onward travel, as our paths would soon split, hanging out on hammocks by an Angkor man-made lake, then joining some expats living in Siem Reap for a Turkish dinner. We were ready to move on.
The two-day ride to Preah Vihar City and then Stung Treng was long and dry. Both of these cities seem to exist only for passersby, and it really was impressive to see how much you can perceive this when you are in transit cities. Nothing much happening, little, if any, choice of entertainment (although we did find a pretty kick-ass terrace belonging to a local bar/eatery and chilled there at sunset), few options for accommodation, and just overall…dryness. Except for the night in Stung Treng when there was a pretty heavy rainstorm!
Our last evening together we spent lazying at sunset, with a couple of beers and a bit of meditation, by the Mekong (an absolutely amazing find was the Mekong Bird Resort, had there been more time it would have been great to stay in their huts overlooking the river). Here, Tiago got a feel of what was expecting him on the other side of the Lao border, at 4,000 Islands, and I made up my mind to leave the Mekong behind, certain that I’ll have another chance to explore the Mekong trail, and head into the “Wild East”. And what a great decision that was!
#Chegoeseast – Riding solo
With his usual care and patience, Tiago made a million recommendations on how to get by traveling solo by motorbike. Among them was: buy a strong rope, so that if your bike breaks down, you can be towed to a mechanic. Skeptical that my Selma should let me down like that, after 800km of being an amazing ride (albeit, with a few hiccups), I of course set off without buying a rope. 80kms into my first day of riding solo, at a pit stop by a bridge over a pretty river, I had the funny realization that my lateral bike stand had fallen off somewhere along the way (the main stand had been a no-go since day one). After a short rest, I set off again, stopping at a couple of nearby mechanics to see if they could replace it, but nobody had an adequate one. No big deal, I merrily told myself, I’m sure I’ll find one in Banlung. Little did I know, I shouldn’t have laughed so early! Confidently getting close to my destination, about 30km before I notice Selma is struggling, she is losing power when in fourth gear. I start going slower, thinking I would reach my destination in one piece, but lo and behold! Shortly after passing the “20km to Banlung” sign, she just stops. And there’s no way to turn her on again. “It must be the spark plug” I tell myself, and also Tiago via whatsapp. “But how do you know?” He asks, adding “we put a new one in yesterday” (Selma had in fact suffered a bit of a full throttle issue the day before, but that seemed to have been resolved). As luck would have it, Selma stopped right across the road from a small rural house, where a smiling old woman sat in the shade of a small hut. I go over and seek refuge under her same shade, and we somehow converse about my mishap. She comes over and points at the tank, I open it to show her that there is fuel. She points in the direction towards where I’d been driving, telling me I should go there to find a mechanic. I try to ask if it is close by or far away, she signals that it is just around the bend. So I start to set off on foot, soon realizing my mistake: if I could barely make myself understood with mechanics with my bike at hand, imagine explaining with no bike around! So I go back, and try to ask her if it is close enough for me to push the bike there. That’s when she calls in my savior for the day: her son, who had been enjoying a nice afternoon nap. He spoke a little English, and told me that the mechanic was only 200m away, right after the bend. He also signaled me to hop on the bike, and pushed me far and fast enough for it to pick up speed on the slope (lucky I was at the top and not at the bottom!). So I ride on neutral round the bend, and soon find a mechanic. Except he was well into his hammock nap, and did not even stir as I tried to get his attention. Before I made a physical attempt at waking him up, my savior caught up with me on his bike, and signaled me that I should go further down, as this mechanic was not good. The one of his choice, however, said he could not fix the bike (note that at this point I was still convinced it was the spark plug). So my savior says “wait for me”. I thought he had gone to another mechanic to buy a new spark plug. Instead, he comes back a few minutes later with a rope. “I’ll tow you”, he gestured. And tow me he did, for 20kms, all the way to my destination! Being towed on a bike was a whole other experience, I must say I felt quite proud to have made it up and down hills, round bends, and even on an untarred road without falling over! He brought me to a trusted mechanic, who in an hour or so took apart my bike, got some new parts that had been damaged (don’t ask me what they were, my knowledge gap in motorbikes mechanics is still very deep), put it all back together, and off I was!
Settling down in my eco-friendly hut, with a view of cashew and rubber tree plantations, just as sunset was drawing near, was of course a massive relief. My host was kind enough to hang out with me (probably felt bad that I was all alone!) for a couple of hours, told me a lot of interesting things about his culture and the difficulties his people are currently facing, or have faced in the past, and organized for me to join a group on a jungle trek. Selma will get some well deserved rest for a couple of days.
Jungle Trek in Ratanakiri
And so the next day I joined my travel companions. A Texan guy solo traveling around the world, a German couple, and two French men in their 50s. All of these people had a wealth of travel experiences to share, positive vibes, and good spirits! So we set off all cramped up in a 4×4, to reach the river, where a boat would take us to the starting point for our trek.
The peace and quiet of the jungle soon enveloped us. The hike was demanding but not overly hard (except for those uphill parts in the blazing hot weather!), we stopped three or four times for resting (our guide especially needed rest, as he had suffered a back injury in a motorbike accident a couple of weeks earlier, but it worked out well for us to stop and catch our breath!) and having our lunch, before reaching the highlight of our destination…the waterfall! We all immediately dove in, some of us (me) then taking a doze in the sun on the warm rocks, while our guide and local guide (a surprisingly skillful 19-year-old from a local village) got to work to set up camp, and started preparing dinner (as well as fashioning cups out of bamboo, for us to share some rice wine later!).
The evening was light and pleasurable, the food delicious, and the bamboo puzzles proposed by our guide were extremely entertaining! By 9pm, however, we were all settling into our mosquito-net covered hammocks, with a view on the starry sky above – our guide rightfully called it the Thousand Star Hotel. What a dream.
The night was too warm for some, a bit chilly for others (me), but it passed in peace and quiet. The next day, after having had our breakfast and packed up our stuff we set off again into the bambooey jungle back towards the river (a longer trek would have allowed us to venture more deeply into the natural reserve, but we were all content with the two days anyways!). Those who had been slightly disappointed at the lack of wildlife sightings were rewarded with a little play time with a tarantula and its egg sack (the local guide handled this dangerous animal like it was a puppy, even allowing it to crawl all over him).
The sight of the river was a very welcome one indeed, and almost all of us didn’t hesitate to jump in, and try to swim against the surprisingly strong current, while lunch was getting ready. After lunch, the boat took us a little way down the river, to visit a local village and their peculiar cemetery, before taking us back to the other side, for our drive back home.
All in all, the trek was brief but very sweet, and a wonderful chance to meet some great people, including our guides!
The next day my guesthouse host took my new American homeboy and I to three Kreung villages. We were especially interested in this tribe, after having come across a very interesting article describing unusual, yet very progressive customs of this people: every young girl, upon turning 15, gets a little hut built for her only, where she will receive the visits of similar-aged boys, to…”get acquainted”, with as many as they wish, until they choose the one to marry!
After a minor hiccup – a small fall on a very sandy uphill slope, basically because I had proudly insisted my friend should ride with me on Selma, instead of with the guide, but then couldn’t handle both of our weights on tough off-road bits! – our bravery was rewarded by falling upon a local celebration (think music blasting out of speakers, and men and women plastered on local rice wine at 11am), where the chief’s family was saying goodbye to his son as he moved to his new bride’s village. They invited us to share their drinks (which I particularly appreciated, as I was a little shaken from our fall), and exchanged small souvenirs. What a unique experience!
After that, homeboy and I headed to the crater lake, which was way more beautiful and organized than we could have imagined! Several wooden platforms allowed people to access the lake from its jungle-covered shore, there were hammocks for rent, and of course plenty of food (I tried the delicious mango with salt and chilly!) and drinks – thus we couldn’t help but enjoy a beer in the sun, after having taken a dip in the turquoise water. Some chilling and chats, to the sound of country and pop music played by a few locals who were enjoying the lake alongside us, provided perfect relaxation for the afternoon.
Elephants bathing in Mondulkiri
Off I was again, riding solo, this time south, to the junglier Mondulkiri. With 180km to go, and not wanting to stress my Selma (nor risk having her break down on me again!), I had planned to take two stops for that journey. However, the landscape had somehow become very dry again – even though I drove through two national reserves – and after the first stop, with 100km more to go, the weather also started changing…a significant wind picked up, and clouds started rolling in. Wary that I’d get caught in bad weather, I pushed Selma to complete the last 100km in one go, and she bravely did!
I settled down in the Happy Elephants Bungalows, a very cute and jungle-like set up only 5min from the centre of Sen Monorom, and dedicated my first afternoon there to just…chillaxing. I was quite tired from the ride, as I actually remained quite tense for the whole of it, probably in part due to the sandy fall the day before, or perhaps also because of the breakdown when trying to reach Banlung. As sunset approached, I picked myself up again, and went to enjoy the view over the Sea Forest from a very windy hilltop nearby, just Selma and I – and a few other tourists 🙂
The day after, I had been planning to ride to a couple of waterfalls nearby, but instead, while having my coffee in the Gecke Bar, I overheard some people were heading out on an Elephant Experience…I had seen the opportunity while glancing through the guesthouse brochure, and couldn’t resist, so I hopped on! And what an amazing experience it was!
Being able to approach elephants in their own, semi-wild environment (these elephants had been captured by local villages of the Bunong tribe, and used for working, heavy lifting and transportation – then rescued by this project, which paid their owners a salary to keep the elephants somewhat free in the jungle, without making them work), feeding them bananas and sugar cane, and then bathing them in the river! Never thought I’d enjoy so much scrubbing down such thick, wrinkly skin!
That evening I finally managed to change my flight out of Bangkok, pushing it back by 10 days, so as to be able to enjoy my ride back to Phnom Penh without haste. And what a great decision that was!
The last ride
Because after taking me on a very hilly 70km ride to and from the awesome Bousra Waterfalls – where I chilled my last day in Sen Monorom – Selma bravely took on the 210km that were separating us from our next destination: Kratie. The plan, MY plan, was to use Kratie as the basecamp to explore parts of the Mekong. Of course, Selma’s plan was another. My sturdy travel companion breezed through the first 70km from Sen Monorom, which took us through what I can’t help but describe as “Junlge Road”. Of course, this route was no longer as it had been a few years ago, literally an untarred jungle road, which only the bravest motorcyclists could undertake. Now it was tarred. But it was also literally just going through kilometers of jungle, with no villages, no rural houses, and certainly no mechanics around! And of course, it was all slopes….4th gear downhill, 3rd, sometimes 2nd, uphill, and so on…And Selma did a fantastic job of it.
After the jungle bit finished, I was in a fantastic mood, the ride had been amazingly pleasurable, and I figured both of us deserved a rest. So I stopped in the first village, left Selma to rest in the shade, and I had a cold drink and a rest myself. Little did I know, Selma was not so ready to set off on the road again! All of a sudden she had no more power, I believe (I don’t know for a fact, because she of course has no speedometer functionality) we rode for the next 50km or so at about 30-35km per hour. It was a loooong ride. Not to mention the only two near accidents of my whole time with Selma – all of a sudden, as we were coasting the Vietnamese border, people’s driving became completely erratic and unpredictable, taking turns without prior notice, orrrr chasing herds of cows out of their yard, without realizing the danger that a herd of cows literally running onto the road out of nowhere represented for drivers of all sorts. All’s well that ends well, I guess. So, finally we got to the next biggish town, Snoul, where I sought the help of a mechanic. And here I completely missed two clues that should have made me suspicious: 1) the mechanic did to Selma the same thing that another mechanic had done to address the full throttle issue back in Stung Treng, before my previous break down; 2) he refused any money from me. That, I should have know, meant he hadn’t fixed the problem. But I was tired, and it was hot, and I just wanted to get away from the busy roads leading into Vietnam. So I took off.
My dear Selma had recovered her power, at least temporarily. Shortly before we reached Kratie, as it then became her style, she switched off again. And there was no turning on. With 9km to go, and sunset approaching, I set off, pushing her on the relatively flat road. A soldier stopped and offered to help me, by riding on his motorbike behind me, and pushing Selam with his foot on the exhaust pipe. Needless to say, I did not feel like that was a safe towing methodology. So after 3km, at the first gas station, I signaled him to stop, as I was really hoping it was a fuel issue – of course, it wasn’t, but by the time I verified that, my savior had already gone. So I got back to pushing.
At the entrance of Kratie, a well-meaning mechanics took me in, even though it was almost night. He and his son worked on Selma for 4 hours, only to the establish that a major piece was broken, and that they could not fix it that evening, as the shops and markets were closed. “Bring the bike back tomorrow morning”…as they refused to keep it for me, as well as didn’t really offer any help to get Selma to my hostel, I set off again on foot. At times I’d be pushing Selma, other times I’d climb on and use some slight slope to ride her in neutral…and so on, for the remaining 4km to my hostel. The next day, I arranged for a tuk tuk to carry myself and Selma back to the mechanic, who, after 3 hours, declared I should take her back to Vietnam (!!!), which is the only place they’d have the parts to fix her. I took the rest of that day to mourn my loss. From Laos, Tiago assured me in Phnom Penh they’d manage to find the parts, plus my CS host-to-be claimed that his father-in-law was the best mechanic in Phnom Penh, so I arranged for Selma (and myself) to be loaded on a bus to the capital the next day. The Mekong trail would have to wait.
And so it was, that we somehow completed the loop we had started 3 weeks earlier. Selma was in the trusted hands of our new benefactor for the next couple of days, while I half-willingly visited the city, or lazied about, between my host’s house and my preferred cafe in town (don’t miss Kenneth’s Asylum’s Waffles!).
The upside of spending more time than planned in Phnom Penh – Selma’s sale resulted to be less swift than I had optimistically predicted – was that I got to attend several Couchsurfing events in town, thus delving a little deeper into what life in the Pearl of Asia is like (primarily for expats). And I liked what I saw! Let’s hope the near future will bring me back here!
A cultural weekend in Bangkok
And thus my first South-East Asia trip was rounded up with a weekend in Bangkok. Not having managed to secure a Couchsurfing host, which I especially wanted for this city, whose touristy side I did not much care to see, I ended up in one of the hundreds of cheap hostels near Khao San Road.
The first day was of intense sightseeing: the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, and Chinatown. Overall, beautiful sights, worth the time and money. As I walked back to my hostel that evening, I allowed myself to walk through the buzzing Saturday night Khao San Road…just to be reassured that no, it was not the place for me. The next day was lazy, between prepping for my onward travel, grabbing a Thai massage, and a Québécois Poutine with a Canadian friend.
South America was now calling, and I was more than ready to head its call.