Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cambodia - Dirt bikes and landmines

The day after Stephanie gave me the dirtbike idea I cycled over to Hidden Cambodia, the only place I could find on the web that had anything to do with renting scramblers. Unfortunately my worst fears were realised when I found that the hiring of bikes by tourists has apparently been made illegal around Siem Reap. Not a total shock as I have seen what western tourists are like on bikes in this area, especially considering they only need to provide cash and presenting a licence is rarely mentioned. Luckily I was guided to speak to Lis Seng of Cambodia Dirtbikes who recently parted ways with Hidden Cambodia and is starting up his own similar business. After a short chat he agreed to loan me a bike for four days (They were needed back for a booked outing) at a reasonable $25 per day. Off I put-putted with my new toy and a huge grin to get used to the traffic - It is insane here, people drive on both sides of the road and bigger vehicles assume right of way no matter the circumstances).

That evening I eventually found Stephanie to advise her that the original idea of a week or more on the back roads of Cambodia were off the cards but if she was interested a three day tour of some significant sights could be done. We agreed to meet at seven the next morning to sort out the bikes and head to Koh Ker. It took about two hours to get everything sorted out including buying some bungees at the market and Stephanie getting a little practise before we left, but soon we were on the open road heading east. At DamDaek we turned off the main road and found our first dirt track, an orangey gravel road in rather good condition apart from the odd surprise rut or bump. We were making good time and stopped about halfway where there is a temple complex called Beng Melea and had some food at the stalls there.

By 3pm we were on our way again to Koh Ker but knew it would be too late to see anything so on arrival it was time to find a guesthouse. Nobody spoke English here which was great fun as neither of us speak Khmer (apart from saying hello, yes, no and thankyou) but eventually we found there was a place in the village run by a very jolly Khmer lady who kept laughing at/with us! She pointed us to a food place - food sounds a bit like nyum if I heard right, very appropriate! - and with full bellies it was time to sleep by 9pm.

We were up by six and after a breakfast of rice, motored over to the Koh Ker ruins. The place was littered with signs every kilometre advising us that we were passing through cleared minefields! After an hour exploring the temples in the area we set off for Tbeang Meanchey, our halfway point on the route to Kampong Thom. We had been enjoying the road, which was now tarmac again, for about two hours when we heard the first rumbles of thunder. The storms here tend to come in really fast and we knew it might be time to consider a lunch break. We pushed on to get as far as we could but within about twenty minutes the sky had darkened and the heavens opens. It was a particularly heavy shower with fat drops of water that sting the lips and hands. We pushed on for half an hour and luckily the rain subsided so we were almost dry by the next stop for a stretch. We were getting puzzled as we should have hit Tbeang Meanchey by then but locals kept pointing down
the road indicating that we should continue so onwards we went. The road was heading south by now and in the early afternoon turned back into a dusty orange dirt track. We had given up hope of ever finding the town we wanted but signs indicating the distance to Kampong Thom showed we were heading the right way and I for one was thoroughly enjoying the road. It was then that the second rains hit and these ones were bad - the road turned quite muddy with deep orange puddles whose depth was impossible to gauge unless you happened to go through them. We stopped for petrol and a chance to wring out our soggy socks and ended up staying at a food stall for about an hour while waiting for the weather to break. Eventually it did and we were finally on the road again. Our final hurdle was some roadworks which had turned into proper mud but once over that we were soon back on tarmac and managed to get to Kampong Thom as the sun went down. We found a hotel for a reasonable price and although the rooms felt like ovens, managed to snatch some sleep.

Up at six am again the next day, and relieved to survive possibly my most uncomfortable night's sleep ever we decided to check out Santeuk Mountain. It was a beautiful place, a monastery at the top of the only hill in the area, littered with sculptures and rock carvings. Very peaceful and a photographer's dream. Once we were done there came the run back to Siem Reap, for once nice and uneventful with a decent surface all the way home. Once we had dropped off the bikes, Lis Seng told me the German guy who was coming wanted to go to a nearby waterfall at Phnom Kulen in a couple of days in case I wanted to go as it would be cheap. This run involved some more involved offroading but having had a taste of such fun my affirmative answer was only seconds in coming.

After a day of absolutely nothing - many coffees, cigarettes and general mooching around town - we were back at the workshop, this time with a couple more local guys on bikes, Cristoph from Germany and Lis Seng on one of the CR250s. Within minutes of heading out of town we were on tiny rutted tracks charging past villages as the kids fairly flew out of the doorways to catch a glimpse of the group of lunatics screaming past! It was all very exciting but hard work to keep up with the more experienced bikers in the group especially when we hit the sandy part. At this stage I lost my nerve and had to drop to more comfortable speeds until the road firmed up again. I have no problem with the back tyre squirming around all over the place but when it is my front tyre - well, all I can say is, No thanks! I was advised by Cristoph that the front wheel jumps around less if you go faster so I guess I need some practise for that kind of surface :)

Phnom Kulen was beautiful, a peaceful waterfall up a steep hill which was almost deserted. We swam in the pool under the falls and as we were drying off, some monks turned up for a swim too. One of the younger ones was very chatty and wanted to practise his English so we talked a while after which I headed off to get some food before the run back. Overall, the day was exhilarating and I think it may be time for me to give up race bikes in exchange for their slower but more versatile little brothers. The route back was an absolute blast and we finished off with a few cans of beer at the workshop after which I went to pack my stuff for the night bus to Phnom Pen and my flight back to Bangkok.

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