A few things will let you know you’ve entered Cambodia; the Wild West of South-East Asia. It may be the sight of one car towing another using an extension cord, the animal-powered carts, the various improvised vehicles that are basically just 4 wheels and an engine or the absolutely terrible excuse for a road that all of these things inhabit. Off the “road,” it may be the fact that petrol can only be bought from 2L coke bottles, the rustic wooden shacks or the extreme poverty and subsequent desperation of the Cambodian people.
For me, it was all of these things, but above all it was Cambodia’s National Highway Number 5. Forget everything I’ve ever said about tough rides, they were all a piece of cake compared to this.
I’d heard a lot about Cambodia’s roads before arriving, but deep down I thought it’d be ok, just a little bumpy. I half-right, it was bumpy, but by no means a little. For anyone who would like to replicate the experience, you’ll need one vibrating recliner, a motorbike engine, a bike seat, a friend and a bag of sand. First, replace the recliner’s standard motor with the motorbike engine but give it a few tweaks so that it cuts out and goes into overdrive at random intervals. Now attach the bike seat to the recliner and sit on it for 4 hours while your friend throws handfuls of sand in your face. Alternatively you can hire a jackhammer from Kennards and sit on that.
Adding to this utterly painful, bone-rattling, bike-shattering experience were the Cambodian drivers. It seems that in this part of Asia, might has the right. Regardless of the situation on the road, one must yield to any vehicle above them in the pecking order, the top spot of which is shared by trucks and buses. I’m one level above pedestrians and dogs and two above windshield-splattered insects.
Any passing manoeuvre is signalled by a long drawn out honking of the horn, the kind that we in the west have grown accustomed to expecting to precede the sound of crumpled metal. Some cars seemingly have their horns connected to their accelerators and hearing this bear down on me from behind as I hug the shoulder is unsettling, to say the least.
This style of “driving” certainly comes as a shock to the system and requires undivided attention, but one quickly adjusts where there is the very real consequence of death if they do not. An oncoming car will happily run me off the road if I’m in the way of their passing manoeuvre and if I happen to have a lapse in concentration at that moment, they will have left themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to do except honk. And they’ll still be honking while I’m buying an admission ticket from St Peter. Terrible drivers.
My apologies to Sydney drivers for referring to you as the worst on the planet. You’re still pretty bad, but you’ve got a long way to fall before you match the Cambodians.
Following Highway 5 is Highway 6, which leads to Siem Reap, home of the great temples of Angkor. Different number, same road, upon which I had no intention of continuing travelling especially after heavy overnight rainfall, which converts the nation from dustbowl to mudbath. Instead I headed south on a paved road, which was still probably the second worst of the tour but compared to the previous day, it felt as though it was built by the hand of God Himself.
It was on this leg that I was first exposed to what I’ve dubbed ‘The Great Cambodian Stare,’ not that I believe the trait to be exclusive to Cambodia.
I’ve experienced some pretty intense staring right throughout this tour as you’d expect when a 6ft tall white guy with a mop-head is riding a fully-loaded bicycle through remote parts of the developing world, but the Cambodians have taken it to the next level.
In my quest for privacy, I decided to stop in at a deserted ‘petrol in a bottle’ stall for lunch. How naïve of me, this is Asia, nothing is deserted. Before I had the chance to lay down my bicycle and remove my helmet, at least 10 people had found themselves prime sitting positions and 20 eyes were fixed on me. They remained that way for the next half hour, transfixed and seemingly enthralled by my every bite. Once again, unsettling to say the least.
This was by no means a one off either. It happens everywhere, every day. It’s happening right now! It can be frustrating as there are times when I long to be anonymous again, but I guess it’s what they call ‘2-way tourism.’
After a couple of days of R&R in the town of Battambang, I took a boat across the magnificent Tonle Sap Lake to Siem Reap. Along the way, I was given an up close and personal view of the water-dependant lifestyles of many Cambodians as we passed through extremely remote communities. The people were housed in floating abodes, some of which looked very cosy complete with front balcony, pet dog and ever-naked children. These communities were literally surrounded by water meaning their only connection to the outside world was through the river system. It was amazing to witness a lifestyle so far removed from that of the conventional.
On my first night in the slightly chaotic town of Siem Reap, I was exposed to the “postcard kids” as I sat down to dinner. A charming little fella asks me where I’m from.
“Australia,” I say.
“Canberra. Kangaroo. John Howard.” He replies in rapid fire.
He then proceeds relentlessly to try and sell me postcards, bracelets, fridge magnets and a strange little whistle, but I wasn’t having a bar of it. Then he said he had a proposition for me, “We play noughts and crosses. If I win, you have to buy 5 postcards from me. If you win, you get for free and if it’s a draw, I leave you alone.”
I figured it was a fair deal and that chances were it’d be a draw and I could get on with eating my pizza. However, it seems that at that stage I’d had one too many slices at ‘Ecstatic Pizza’ which is sandwiched between ‘Happy Herb Pizza’ and ‘Happy Special Pizza’ and just down the road from ‘Angkor Happy Pizza.’ Alas, I was beaten by a 13-year old and he was $1 richer for it. Good on him.
The following 3 days were spent exploring the temples of Angkor; perhaps the most amazing historical site in SE Asia, of which the Cambodians are extremely proud. The great thing about visiting these Hindu and Buddhist temples, which are spread out over a huge area that had me cycling 50kms per day, is that apart from a few small areas which are closed off due to rehabilitation works or a danger of collapse, you are free to roam and explore these 800-1000 year old ruins at your leisure. As one loses themselves in the long winding corridors as I did quite literally on several occasions, one can’t help but marvel at the ancient architecture and stone carvings as well as imagine how awesome a game of paintball amongst the ruins would be.
The temples act as a reminder of the past greatness and prosperity of the Khmer empire. Unfortunately that prosperity does not remain today. In fact, quite the opposite and it is all too obvious as the poverty was more prominent here than anywhere else I’ve visited and the strain it places on the people living it can be seen in their faces.
To the traveller, it highlights the harsh social inequities that exist throughout the globe and one’s own fortunate place within it can be hard to justify. How do we justify working and saving for luxury items and the freedom to travel the world when these people simply work to survive? How do we justify being able to travel through these nations and experience these cultures so cheaply knowing that they have no chance of ever doing the same with ours? How do I justify the fact that the bike shorts I’m wearing are worth a quarter of a local teacher’s annual wages of that the bike I’m riding is 3 years worth?
This inescapable issue was discussed among several travellers and the consensus was that it can’t be justified. All we can do unfortunately is take the helpless approach that it’s out of our hands while hoping that by being here and contributing to the local economy, we’re doing what we can to even things up, however small that may be.
The 320 km journey to the nation’s capital of Phnom Penh began with an experience that provided the inspiration for my new video game; ‘Chaos In Cambodia.’ In the game, one has to manoeuvre a bicycle over a pitted, dusty road while avoiding countless scooters, cars, buses, tuk-tuks, bovine and horse-drawn carts as well as other bicycles, all of which have seemingly no regard for peronal of others’ safety or any kind of order such as remaining on one specific side of the road or travelling in a straight line. One must do this while also fending off various salesmen, returning friendly greetings and keeping their eyes peeled for desirable fruits for sale. The game’s slogan will be; “The only road rule is; there are no road rules.” Sequels will include ‘Madness in Mumbai’ and ‘Defying Death In Delhi.’
I was relieved to arrive in Phnom Penh after 4 days through rural Cambodia in the most brutal heat I’ve faced on the tour that tested all 3 elements of the Holy Trinity, not the Father, Son & Holy Ghost, but the Mind, Body & King Brown. In particular, the body.
I’ve been on the road for about 3 months now having travelled over 3500kms and it seems to have begun to take its toll as I’ve developed a strain in my knee, a pinched nerve in my neck and care of Cambodian roads, some saddle sores that Lance Armstrong would be proud of. My butt looks like Baghdad after a US air strike.
I shall battle on though.
I spent 5 relaxing days in the capital staying in the backpacker central that is Boeng Kak where guesthouses line the lake of the same name, providing gorgeous views from their expansive balconies. Of course, one can’t visit the city without seeing the sights associated with the genocide that occurred just 30 years ago. These include S-21; the high school that was converted into a prison and torture complex and the killing fields, where mass graves of tens of thousands of Cambodians have been found, many of whom were bludgeoned to death to save the cost of a bullet. Both sites were absolutely chilling. There is barely a Cambodian alive today that did not have at least 1 and in many cases all of their family members killed by the murderous Pol Pot regime, which is not surprising considering almost 2 million or a third of the nation’s population were killed over 4 horrific years.
A truly devastating time that never should have been allowed to happen after which the country had understandably struggled to rebuild itself.
As a final goodbye to the roads of Cambodia I decided to ride to the Vietnamese border over 40kms of what my map considered to be a ‘secondary road.’ Having seen the highways, I should’ve known better.
I made it 8 kms over a dirt strip that looked like it must have had half of the land mines used in the Vietnam War placed in it with craters big enough to swallow the King Brown and I whole. I eventually submitted, turned around, having to ride past all of the Cambodians who had laughed at me on the way for a second time and took a speedboat to Vietnam. An expensive, though wise decision.