Guest post from Group 23 volunteer Anand, about taking the road less travelled in Takeo Province.
“Are we going the right way?”
So many travel adventures begin with the utterance of these seemingly innocent words. If I’d have known what would happen over the next few hours at that point, I probably would have taken out life insurance, worn a life jacket and told my family that I love them. But I”ll get to that. Jelle, Jo, Mike and I were sat around a table at a restaurant in a quaint little town by a river, bisected by a national highway. The plan was to take our bikes down to the southern coastal beach resort town of Sihanoukville via National Highway 3 as a holiday from our regular our lives in which we pretended to be English teachers and drank a lot of beer. It was halfway through my huge pile of pork and rice that I paused and asked the fateful question.
“Well,” Mike responded, “the sun is still to our left, so we must be.”
We all nodded absently, as if that reasoning actually made sense. Jelle then remembered a gift that a student had given him – a road map of Cambodia. Sporting a grin that said “Don’t worry guys, I”ll sort this out,” he unfolded the ridiculously large piece of paper and asked the restaurant staff to point out where we were. For 10 minutes they studied the map, their fingers hovering disturbingly far from our intended route of National Highway 3. Finally they all smiled and stabbed the map with their fingers. We were … at the border with Vietnam?
“Surely,” my mind chuckled nervously, “they dont understand English maps.”
Just then a white minivan sped by. It belonged to a casino. A Vietnamese-owned casino. Across the road another restaurant served rice noodles in soup. In a coincidence too good to be true, three women in conical straw hats walked past. Bewildered and increasingly concerned, we walked out of the restaurant and peered down the road. The guards at the Cambodian Immigration post peered back.
Sh*t. This wasn’t part of the plan. I swore I would never return to Vietnam yet here I was eating breakfast barely 100 metres from the border. Further, I was further from the beach than when we set off from Phnom Penh. God. Damn. It.
Returning to the restaurant we evaluated our options after consulting the map – something we perhaps should have done several hours before. 1. Return to Phnom Penh, take the correct highway and continue to Sihanoukville. Estimated time; 12 hours. 2. Attempt to cross an area marked on the map as “flood plain” to make it to the provincial administrative outpost of Angkor Borei. From there, a network of roads described by the map as “Seasonally Open Tracks” could take us back to our intended highway. Estimated time; anywhere from 6 hours to 2 months. Pride goes before a fall, they say, and not wanting to admit defeat and return to Phnom Penh, we decided to proceed with option 2. Then, I cursed the proverb as the driving conditions would make a fall over the following few hours extremely likely. We all did dramatic, sweeping U-turns at the border gate and sped back the way we came.
So here was the deal. We were on National Highway 2. We wanted to be on National Highway 3. The two roads ran more or less parallel to each other, but with no marked road between them. Instead, a floodplain extended from National Highway 2 to Angkor Borei. From Angkor Borei there were marked paths via which we could eventually make it to National Highway 3. Without any real plans, the general idea was just to turn left off National Highway 2 and see what happened. The roads started as nicely maintained dirt tracks but soon deteriorated into rutted, muddy heavy machinery tracks. I”ll never forget the image of Jelle, easing his bike into a huge tyre rut, 4 metres long, almost a metre deep and about as wide as his motorbike. This lead to the hilarious sight of Jelle, sitting on the seat of his bike, but with his legs splayed outwards, resting on either side of the rut, which was higher than his hips.
Soon the machinery tracks gave way to dried out rice paddies. In photographs, rice paddies look like serene, peaceful areas, but at ground level they are bumpy, rutted, motorbike destruction mechanisms. I spent so long in first gear that the bike seemed to be actually questioning me. Every rev seemed to ask “What did I ever do to you?,” in that whiny voice that only Japanese motorbikes seem to possess. Some areas of the rice paddies were slightly more worn than others and, presuming these to be paths, we followed them. Whenever the paths forked, we consulted our landmarks – a large hill and a pair of monasteries. Worryingly, no matter how far we drove, we never seemed to get closer to or further away from either landmark.
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Eventually, a number of these paths converged to deposit us at a wood and plastic structure where two men stood, smiling and smoking cigarettes. To say that their purpose for being there was unclear would be an understatement. They provided us with confirmation that we were heading in the right direction and even gave us rudimentary directions on the tracks that would lead us to Angkor Borei. Then, for some reason, one of the men produced a pair of binoculars and pointed out Angkor Borei. We all nodded enthusiastically despite seeing only trees.
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The path, better formed this time, meandered along beside a brown stream, intermittently plunging violently downwards to allow a tributary to access the stream. The routine went something like this, get up to third gear for approximately 5 seconds. See a drop ahead. Scream “F*****CK!” into your helmet, downshift violently and skid to a halt to inspect the difficulty of the terrain. Gingerly descend in first before shifting your weight back and fully opening the throttle to ascend the 45 degree slope. Repeat.
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At one stage, the routine failed me. The base of the ravine was covered in straw and as such the front wheel got horrendously stuck. No amount of revving, cursing or muttered prayers would move it. The four of us lifted the front wheel and literally carried it up the hill. It was completely covered in dust and mud and the engine had set fire to some of the straw. I was reminded of a conversation a few months back at the motorbike shop.
“So,” the lady at the shop had asked,” are you going to take the bike outside Phnom Penh?”
“No,” I said. Whoops.
The further we rode, the more bewildered villagers became whenever we asked about Angkor Borei. A few times the question lead to a 5 minute spiel in which the Khmer word for water, tuk, was mentioned a few hundred times. Eventually we spotted a truck ambling along in the distance. Leaving the “track” we bashed along more dry rice fields, operating under the assumption that where there was a truck, there was a road. And where there was a road, there had to be Angkor Borei. Genius reasoning.
The first issue arose when we came to the truck. It was not on a road. It was, however, parked next to a large river. A large river which, a local family confirmed, separated us from Angkor Borei. In our excitement we had neglected to consider the fact that floodplains necessarily require rivers … otherwise they would just be plains.
We now had exactly zero options. A storm was coming, we didn’t know the way back to the highway and we sure as hell couldn’t fjord the river with motorbikes. Christ almighty, we were screwed.
The youngest son of the riverside family spoke quite good English. He offered to fetch us a boat to take us to a town called Kampong Tuol, which wasn’t on our maps, but apparently had a road. We agreed and he dashed off down the river. In the mean time, Jelle and I attempted to help the farmers unload bags of corn from the aforementioned truck. Cracking my knuckles I sauntered up to the truck, confident in my strength thanks to my 5 weekly gym workouts. Two men lifted the 1 metre by 70 centimeter bag and placed it on my left shoulder. Instantly, my entire upper body screamed. The bag would have weighed almost 100kg and I struggled mightily to move it the 3 metres from the truck to the pile. Jelle, similarly, found it very challenging. Enter the Khmer. One handed, smoking a cigarette and wearing only one thong, one of the guys effortlessly carried bag after bag, grinning. All the while Jelle and I were doubled over, panting and, yes, crying a little bit.
Eventually the boat arrived. It was old, creaky and half filled with water. But it was our only option.
“You give me money for the boat?” the boy asked earnestly.
Yes, of course. Fair’s fair after all.
“Sure, how much?” we asked.
“Hmm … five …. hundred …. dollars?” he said with a completely straight face.
We were thrown. “Umm, excuse me?”
“Five hundred dollars,” he repeated, more confidently this time.
We had a quick pow wow and determined that we literally did not have that much cash with us.
“How about, uh, twenty dollars?” I ventured, still completely thrown by the first figure.
“One hundred,” the boy countered.
“Still twenty,” I said, buoyed by his acquiescence.
“Ok, twenty five?”
Wow. Could I bargain or could I bargain? Chuffed at the $475 saving we loaded the bikes into the boat, which after a while was indistinguishable from the river as it had so much water inside it. The engine started and we were away, but not before the three crew began frantically bailing water from our literal and figurative sinking ship.
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The journey took about an hour and involved the navigation of dozens of rivers. This illustrated the sheer stupidity of attempting to cross a floodplain, on the cusp of rainy season, on motorbikes. Eventually we made it to Angkor Borei (an added and unexpected bonus) and paid the boatmen a heard-earned $25. Before we continued, however, we spent 15 excruciating minutes in the stifling heat whilst the flooded engines of our motorbikes drained onto the mould-infested sand of the riverbank.
The paved roads of Angkor Borei and the fact that, after 5 hours, I could finally use fourth gear again, elicited revs of joy from the motorbike. At the town’s edge, however, the road ended and was replaced by a bumpy, narrow track which would intermittently turn to sticky, smelly mud. It was slow and frustrating going, made worse by the fact that every 2 kilometers, Mike’s motorbike would lose a component or bag and we”d have to stop to strap it back on.
The roads gradually improved as we got closer to National Highway 3. When we finally rolled on to the smooth surface, to be greeted by a gleaming Tela Mart complete with refrigerated drinks and cans of pringles, I think I jumped for joy. The highway was excellent. Wide, double laned and with a hard shoulder. It was also incredibly smooth and it was no surprise to see a fleet of 1500cc Ducati superbikes purr sexily into the Tela Mart parking lot, ridden by perhaps some of the wealthiest Khmer around. Some of them even had pistols openly displayed in thigh holsters. Ahh, Cambodia.
The theme continued as we fanged it down the highway, being periodically overtaken by Range Rovers, Lexus LX400s and Escalades (both the SUV and Utility vaiety) some of whom sported Royal Cambodian Armed Forces license plates – a carte blanche to own any road in the country. Nevertheless, the vehicles always gave us enough distance and the conditions were so good that, even when it started to rain, we were still able to move at a very decent clip.
Eventually, 13 hours after we rolled out of Phnom Penh, we arrived in Kampot, a touristy river and mountain town in Cambodia’s south. Even though we were still 3 hours from Sihanoukville, we were completely destroyed and called it a day.
The night’s sleep was divine and although we resolved to rise at 8 and hit the road soon after, a sleep in and extremely leisurely breakfast ensured that we only rolled out of town at mid-day. Bokor Mountain sits between Kampot and Sihanoukville and the three hours we spent ascending and descending the mountain were some of the most enjoyable hours of my life. The road was perfect. The weather was pleasant. We had full gas tanks (initially anyway) and traffic was light. We flew up the mountain, cornering like Tour de France climbers and overtaking lines of SUVs stuck behind pickup trucks full of beaming monks.
The view of Kampot province from the top was phenomenal, as was the gigantic buddha statue erected at the summit for some reason. Further afield a waterfall provided us with some mild entertainment and the opportunity to get our motorbikes and ourselves completely filthy as we negotiated shin-deep mud across the road.
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Jelle and Jo, both on Jelle’s bike, arrived at the summit about 6 days after Mike and I. On the descent however, the added weight on Jelle’s bike, combined with the advice that attempting to shift up from fourth while moving puts the bike in neutral and lets one simply roll, made them hard to beat. No amount of aggressive cornering, beeping, snarling, or kicking his back wheel would make them budge.
We rolled all the way down to the valley and rejoined the highway to Sihanoukville. After short and thoroughly unenjoyable stint on the main highway to Sihanoukville, National Highway 4, we arrived in the town, from where Mike (correctly, this time) directed us to Otres beach.
A journey that was meant to take five hours ended up taking almost forty. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
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