Although I had stood at a Laos border crossing, close enough to Cambodia to throw a rock into it, I wasn’t allowed through with a motorbike. To continue my roadtrip, I had to make a two day, 600km detour back through Vietnam. This is the story of the last leg through Cambodia – the final three weeks of my SE Asia odyssey.
Initiaally, the roads in Cambodia were good. Maybe too good. Perhaps filling me with a false sense of security..
…because they quickly deteriorated into something that resembled a dry river bed. After two hours on this surface, the seat of my bike felt like it had been designed by the sadistic marketing team of a haemorrhoid cream.
However, the views made a bit of regional chafing bearable. Miles of lowlands filled with pepper bush plantations…
…plains of coconut palms dotted with bleached, white cattle…
…and vast wetlands tinged with the ubiquitous pink, water lilies.
After spending my first night in Ban Lung, I started the day with a reasonably modest breakfast.
And then ventured out to see the sights of the Ratanakiri region. This volcanic crater lake must be one of the most serene locations that I visited on my roadtrip. Or at least it could have been if the hawkers hadn’t followed me around trying to sell me toy rifles and electric fly swats.
Heading south, I entered the wild, thickly forested hills of Mondulkiri. It was there that I bumped into this hottie. Princess by name and nature. Initially she pretended to be shy..
…but through the morning she kept giving me ‘those’ eyes…
…and she seemed very keen for me to see that she had just had her nails done.
Things heated up with a bit of innocent foreplay…
…before we both slipped into the hot tub. She playfully spouted trunkfuls of water at me while I massaged the bristles on her wrinkly back.
From the quiet emptiness of Mondulkiri, Siem Reap was a offense to my senses with its population, noise, traffic and pollution. But, it is the access city for Angkor Wat – the unofficial ‘8th’ Wonder of the World.
The temples are vast in their scale…
…and invariably beautiful.
Three days of exploring these incredible 800-1000 year old sites left me dizzy, wondering how an ancient civilisation could possibly build such things.
Throughout, there are examples of how the power of the plant world is not to be denied. These enormous trees embrace, lift and buckle tonnes of stone.
Apparently paper beat rock even 800 years ago.
My visit to Siem Reap ended with a spectacular and inspiring dawn visit to the jewel in the crown – Angkor Wat.
Although my time in Asia was beginning to run out, I desperately wanted to explore the thickly forested, protected wilderness of the Cardamom mountains. This region in Cambodia’s south west is rugged travelling, making it one of the country’s final frontiers. Riding alone through such a large, isolated area was not without risk. A fall, a flat tyre or even a heavy shower of rain could be disastrous.
A point that became obvious once I’d had a taste of the roads. In 300km they never got any better than this.
The forest is riddled with rivers. The average standard of the bridges over them was not fantastic – hair raising at best.
After the first day of truly awful roads, I arrived at a tiny village in need of a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately I didn’t get one.
The future of this incredibly biodiverse wilderness hangs in the balance. Various corporate and foreign interests are clamouring for the opportunity to exploit the natural resources of the mountain reserves, which would transform the landscape from this..
..to this. A potentially tragic outcome, and one for which ecotourism seems to be the only feasible salvation.
The rough tracks of the Cardamom mountains left my bike and myself with a few injuries. After twenty hours of hard riding, I limped out of the protected forest on my way to Kampot. In the 1920’s the French colonials established a ‘hill station’ on the mountain 30km north west of the town. High above the surrounding plains, and shrouded in fog, sit a dozen or more abandoned buildings. The crowning glory and main drawcard is the gargantuan four story resort/ casino.
Abandoned buildings just beg for exploration. Despite that, with not a soul around, it took me a little while to pluck up the courage to go in.
900 lives were lost building the hill station and the road that accesses it.
Unfortunately, death is a regular part of life in this part of the world, and it featured heavily in my final days in the country.
From Kampot, it is only a few hours to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The scars of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime run deep through the city. The regime’s deranged and paranoid leader, Pol Pot, had a vision of a classless, agriculture based, Communist state. Over a period of four years, he exterminated anyone that threatened that ideal. Education, religion, culture and politics were abolished. Schools were closed and transformed into prisons for the interrogation and torture of his supposed enemies.
In the heart of the city, Tuol Sleng (AKA S-21) is the most notorious of these. It has now been transformed into a genocide museum.
Under conditions of severe deprivation and brutal torture, prisoners were forced to make false confessions about their fictitious crimes or alliances with the enemies of the Khmer Rouge .
Through the short years of their control, as many as 20,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and condemned in this former school.
As soon as a confession was extracted, prisoner were transported 15km away to Choeung Ek. It was here that they were summarily bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves. This site later become known as the ‘Killing Fields’. Shockingly, it is only one of more than 300 similar sites through Cambodia. It is estimated that Pol Pot disposed of 1.5 – 2 million of his fellow countrymen – almost a quarter of the population at the time.
Today it is preserved as a monument to the fallen, and a confronting lesson in the dark side of human nature.
Both Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are extremely difficult places to visit. But it is essential to make the effort.
I rode away from the horrors of the capital wondering how it is possible for a country to rebuild after such a crushing episode in history. But somehow, the Cambodians have managed it. They are honest, proud and irrepressibly optimistic people. Riding through the shimmering rice paddies on my way back to Ho Chi Minh city, I felt the weight lift from me, with each smile and wave that I was given. This was the last picture I took as I left Cambodia.
The Last Leg: 4000 islands – Ban Lung (via Vietnam detour) – Mundulkiri – Siem Reap – Cardomom Mountains – Kampot – Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh city (2700km – 3 weeks)
My arrival in HCM marked the end of the roadtrip, and my travels through south eat Asia. Over eight months and eight countries, there were countless planes, buses, ferries, taxis, tuk-tuks, hundreds of hours of hiking, and finally, 12,000km on a motorbike. It really has been an epic trip through an incredible corner of the planet. A real odyssey.
It’s been nice to have the company of friends (new and old) and family along for the ride. Thanks for your support of my midlife chrysalis.