Date:†††† Wed, 28 Dec 2005

To:†††††††† touring@phred.org

From:††† ďMichael AyersĒ <michael@terminalia.org>

Subject: Gondwana - A Khmer Khristmas in Cambodia

 

Suor S'dei Phreds,

 

As Iím writing most of this post, itís December 25th and Iím in Kratie, Cambodia, a relaxed little provincial capital in the northeastern part of the country on the bank of the great Mekong River. Itís another day and a half yet to go in this country, which is a fantastic place for touring and full of surprises.

However, I almost didnít make it to Cambodia at all, and the whole endeavor nearly came to a screeching halt, due to one of the most idiotic blunders Iíve made in a long time.

I have always kept all of my valuable itemsówhich in this case consisted of my camera, handheld pc, passport and other documents, and the big wad of cash I had just withdrawn as the next few weeks were to be mostly in a no-ATM zoneóin my handlebar bag, which is either securely attached to my bars when Iím riding or somehow held by me when Iím not.This has always worked perfectly for me throughout 12 years of touring, though in all that time I never did what I was to do on my last day in Thailand. Anxious to reach the border town of Aranya Prathet in order to exchange money before the bank closed (which, I was told, happened at 6 PM) I had been riding hard all day. Then, after stopping for a drink and a popsicle with a few hours of daylight left, I mindlessly stood up and rode off, leaving my handlebar bag next to where I had been sitting.

I had always assumed that if I ever did that, I would simply glance down before long and notice the absence of the big green and black object that was normally right in front of my face. Not this time, however, as my mind was occupied thinking about entering a new country and beacause there was nothing interesting to photograph along the way. I cruised along obliviously for 22 km until I reached Aranya Prathet, where I reached for the bag and instantly knew that I could have a huge problem.

Sprinting back over that 22 km, which was not much fun, as I had already ridden 158 more that day, I kept thinking how much of a pain it was going to be to deal with the loss of all of those things. I had extra credit/ATM cards and a back-up copy of all, except the most recent three days worth, of my Asian photographs kept in my rear pannier, so I would have been mostly ok, but there was no way I would have been able to go forward at all, let alone cross the border the next day as planned. It was mildly reassuring that I thought I knew exactly where I left the bag, right outside a 7-11 store, by the payphones, where I had been sitting, and that the area around the phones contained a lot of other junk just lying around. So I was hopeful that with the bags now beat-up looking appearance, that no one would notice it.

As I rode up, feeling very winded, I did not immediately see it there, which nearly caused me to panic, but after looking a little more closely, there it was, right next to the feet of a man using the phone. 100% of the contents intact. Whew! Yes, the Thai people are good ones indeed. Of course, when I finally returned to Aranya Prathet, at 5:52 PM, I discovered that the bank had actually closed at 3:30. Sigh.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand, Cambodia. Iíve had a wonderful time here as the county is filled with examples of both ancient and modern cultures, not to mention amazingly friendly people.

As to practical aspects, the country is another easy touring location, though some facets have been easier than others. While Malaysia and Thailand were spending the 1980ís and 90ís ďdevelopingĒ and being labeled ďAsian TigersĒ by the growth-at-any-cost school of economists, Cambodia was struggling to emerge from 30 years of war, which included 4 years of bombing by the United States, four more years of the Kampuchean Holocaust at the hands of Pol Potís Khmer Rouge, an invasion by Vietnam to oust that brutal regime, and a lingering civil war, which finally fizzled out when Pol Pot died in 1998. Undeniably, this was one of the most tragic and senseless episodes that any society has had to undergo in recent memory, and one of the side effects was that there has yet to be any penetration of the darker side of the so-called modern world into Cambodia. There are no freeways, no fast-food outlets on every corner, and the whole country is built on a human scale and life seems to move at a slower, though often disorganized, pace. Those are some of the aspects that move a place to the top of my list of favorites.

Other practical matters were also pleasant. Food was easy to find and prepared meals at stalls, markets, and cafes were usually quite good.Small roadside shops were plentiful, though the stocks were a little thin compared to previous weeks. No matter the source, however, food was almost always inexpensive. Also a good value were accommodations, which was a good thing, as I decided to forgo camping while in the country to avoid accidentally wandering into a mine field. Mines are sadly one of the lingering effects of the wars, but one that is slowly being dealt with.Surprisingly, at least to me, I found that English was much more widely spoken and understood than in Thailand. I would have thought that French would have been more common, given that the country was once occupied by France. However, I learned that after the restoration of the Kingdom in 01993, English became the favored second language taught in schools. Most appealing was an order of magnitude drop in the level of motorized traffic compared to Thailand and Malaysia, and with the ratios of foot traffic/bikes/animal carts/motorcycles/cars/buses/trucks much more in our favor, I was able to relax a little and interact more with people along the way. Unfortunately, what traffic there is exhibits a rather unpleasant behavior, common in many parts of the world, by thinking itís ok to zoom through a village crowded with people, animals, and bikes as fast as you like as long as you blow your horn enough times. In addition to being rather unsafe, it makes the whole area a rather noisy place.

The actual tour through the country began just a few kilometers east of Aranya Prathet at the Poi Pet border crossing, which was another surprise. In contrast to the sleepy, back-woods crossing I made from Malaysia into Thailand, this one was more hectic than any Iíve ever seen before. On the Thai side there were seemingly several hectares of outdoor pavilions selling a wide variety of goods, while on the Cambodian side there were several high-rise casinos, which was odd, I thought, given the countries recent history. Apparently, the two countries have come up with an arrangement whereby the Thais satisfy the Khmers desires for consumer goods, while the former get their adrenaline rush from losing money from pointless gaming. The actual border formalities were quite easy thanks to some friendly guys who seemed to work for the Cambodian government and made sure all the tourists made it to the right window with the proper documents.

Once in the country it was 50 km to the next town, Sisophon and another 100, mostly dirt, to my intended destination, Siem Reap. I had wanted to get there that evening so I could have three full days to explore the nearby ruins at Angkor. But, by the time I made it through the border, over the paved, but bumpy, road to Sisophon, and found some food there, it was late enough that I did not think I would make it to Siem Reap before dark. Instead, I stayed in Sisophon, which was a nice introduction to the country, as there were few tourists there.

The following day, there was only the dirt section of 80 km and another 20 on a paved road to get to Siem Reap, so I did not need to rush, and it took me about 6.5 hours (I was right, I never would have made it the previous day.) The road from the border to Siem Reap, Highway 6, is used by enough tourists that there are Web sites that report on its current conditions. Apparently, this yearís wet season was very hard on the road, and the reports said that it was worse than it has been in several years.Fortunately, the yearly repair work had just been completed, and though it was severely dusty (so was I after going through) the surface was fairly smooth.

About half way through the dirt section I came across a crew of workers clearing land mines, the only such group I saw in the country. I was quite surprised that they were doing their work right on the shoulder of Highway 6, one of the main thoroughfares of the country. Several men, all of whom wore light-blue shirts, cleared brush from the roadside with machetes, while others searched the area with metal detectors. I watched for a while and took a couple of photographs, but when the detector of the pair nearest to me started making Weeeoooweeeooooweee sounds, and they began poking in the ground with little shovels, I decided it was time to move on.

By mid-afternoon I made it to Siem Reap, which was nicer than I had expected given its role as a major tourist portal. There, I took two days to visit the splendid ruins of the many temples/cities in the Angkor area.There are numerous ancient sites from the great Khmer Kingdoms, which, from around the 8th to the 15th century, were among the most significant societies on Earth. The greatest concentration of sites, as well as the largest and best-preserved, are clustered just to the north of Siem Reap. The ornately decorated sandstone temples, which often are surrounded by grand moats and walls, cover a huge area, and it was very nice to have my own bike there with which to explore the area at my own pace. The entire area is easily rideable, with quiet flat roads running beneath tall, shade-producing jungle trees between the different sites. Nevertheless, I logged 140 km during those two days in order to see all the temples I was hoping to see. Anyone who has an interest in ancient societies should try to visit Angkor.

Up next was a quick two days to reach the capital, Phnom Phen. That section of the country, is quite flat, with palm-dotted rice paddies stretching off to the horizons on both sides of the road, with an essentially continuous linear village occupying the 40 meters on each side of the highway, which would have made it tough to find a camping spot if I had needed one. This consisted of a row of traditional-style wooden homes set back from the roadside by about 30 meters. Each home had a small rectangular pond between it and the highway, which appeared to be an aquatic garden containing water lilies, ducks and fish. In this area, I really had to spend a large fraction of my concentration to greet the many folks, especially the kids, who constantly ran out to welcome me.

Upon arriving in Phnom Phen, I settled in for a four-day rest and Holiday break. I intended to relax a little and take care of a few matters like getting two visas I would need in the future.As it turned out I was only able to get one. In Singapore, it was going to take 5 days to get my visa for India at the hopelessly crowded consulate, so I thought Phnom Phen might be better. Though there was no one else at the Indian Embassy in Phnom Phen when I arrived, I was told it would take 10 days for processing there. Go figure.

I normally donít like big cities when on tour, but I had a feeling that Phnom Phen would be more appealing to me, and that was indeed the case.There are no skyscrapers, and though the city is typically gritty, chaotic, noisy, and filled with motorcycles and a somewhat larger number of poorly driven cars, it was easy to stroll around to get a feel for the place. The big challenge was escaping the barrage of solicitations from various types of motorcycle taxis. Those guys will circle around anyone who dares to venture out of their room like sharks around a floundering tuna.There are a fairly large number of people hustling for handouts as well, and itís rather hard to be practical when faced with a land mine victim missing multiple limbs.

A pleasant visit was to the Royal Palace complex near where I stayed, which is quite beautiful and contains many pagodas and temples built according to typical Buddhist styles. I have no idea how the complex survived the wars, especially as the Khmer Rouge did not approve of such places. If it was heavily damaged, there must have been a intense rebuilding effort, as the palace is in excellent condition today.

An unpleasant, but moving visit was to the Kampuchean Holocaust museums.The first of these, 15 km from the center, is at the site of the actual ďKilling Fields,Ē one of several places throughout the country where ordinary people were routinely murdered and placed in mass graves. There is not a lot to see there today, except for a chilling monument which is a tall, thin pagoda containing several floors of platforms each filled with hundreds of skulls exhumed from the surrounding fields.

More depressing was the museum at the Tuol Sleng prison where victims were interviewed and then tortured before being killed. The prison was originally a high school before the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and gave it a new sinister mission. It has been kept largely just as it was when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out of the city in 01979. Walking into an unused room filled with junk, I noticed an arithmetic lesson written in chalk on the cement wall, which felt rather creepy. Even worse were the solitary wooden cells, only 6 square meters large and containing the shackles used to bind their occupants, where the prisoners waited for their sad fate, and the museums main exhibit, several large panels displaying photographs of thousands of the prisoners.

All I could see as I looked at those images were sour reflections of the happy people who constantly greeted me with bright faces and big smiles as I rode through their country. Many were only children when they were killed, some appeared to be the same age as me, but never had the chance to experience or learn a fraction of what I have been able to, which is so sad. Equally gruesome were the photographs of tortured prisoners, lying bloody and motionless. Any society that tolerates torture in its name needs to consider whether it still deserves to exist.

One of the most amazing things to me was to see how Cambodian society has snapped back so quickly from such a brutal period, now largely returned to the peaceful land that it should be. Roadside billboards can be seen with messages saying ďWe no longer need weapons,Ē and similar themes. This is one of the underlying themes of my tour, but a full disclosure of that can wait for a while.

After Phnom Phen it was a turn to the north, generally following the Mekong, though not too closely, for three and a half more days. On the way were another 300 km of dusty gravel road, the relaxed provincial towns of Kompong Cham, Kratie, and then Stung Treng, and a constant stream of friendly people to enliven my route, including a group of kids that ran out to say hello wearing bright red Santa Claus hats. A segment that was a little tiring, but nothing I could not handle.

Beyond Stung Treng was another border crossing that was a complete contrast to the previous one, and brought me into a holiday gift to myself, a new country added to my route; Laos!

But that can wait for another day.

Happy New Year to everyone out there and best of luck reaching wherever you want to go!

 

Ar Kun,

Mike

 

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The Tour of Gondwana

May 02005 - Oct 02007

http://www.terminalia.org/tour