Sorry this has taken a long time to write up, but it doesn’t FEEL like it’s been a long time. Six days later, my chest still hurts, my hands are still partly numb, and I’m still wiped out. This isn’t beautifully written – I just wanted to get the photos up, mainly, so you can see them.
I can sum up the tour in two words:
It was part holy: Mr Rong, my guide from Cambodia Motorbike Adventures in Siem Reap (which, total recommendation), took me to more than a dozen temples and holy sites. During all the time I’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia, I’ve never been particularly interested in temples. But Mr R has a passion for them, and for Khmer history, and now that I understand them a little better, I see them differently.
And it was part OH SHIT!
Mr Po, the guy who runs CMA, understood exactly what I wanted: practice on the bike while seeing the Cambodian countryside. CMA runs a lot of hardcore tours for dirt bikers and experienced riders, but Po came up with this six-day tour just for me: low miles, a lot of breaks to see sights, and a lot of different riding environments and road surfaces to keep me interested and give me good practice on the bike.
Mr Rong took good care of me; I always felt he was watching out for me, making sure I was safe and had everything I needed. But he also didn’t coddle me. (Maybe he thought he was, but it didn’t feel like it to me!) We’d come to something like a bridge, a creek, or gravel, and he would tell me what I needed to know about riding on it, in one terse sentence. Then we were off. There was no, like, “This is too hard for you, you’re just a beginner, I’ll take the bike across for you” (until later, which I’ll get to). He seemed to have total confidence that I would manage.
That is, unless he hated me.
I hope he didn’t hate me.
I’ll run through it day by day. I took photos on my Android, and he took them on his old iPhone, hence the different qualities.
Oh: before we left on the six-day tour, I had two sessions on the bike. First, a short lesson followed by a half-day tour in the Siem Reap environs. We went to a playing field and Po had me make small circles and then big circles with the bike for maybe 40 minutes, until I stopped feeling like I was going to die.
Then Mr Rong took me around on dirt roads and we visited villages to the north and east of the city. I saw basket makers, stone carvers, metal smiths, and people who produced palm sugar and rice wine. It seemed every family had one or more side hustles going, in addition to growing rice. Some grew vegetables or raised pigs, some sold handicrafts, one made stone carvings to order. Mr Rong said those who only grew rice had very little money and a hard life. But success with the side hustles depends on proximity to markets – so location makes a big difference in people’s standard of living.
When we stopped for lunch, we could hear a kind of chanting coming from a house a hundred meters away. Mr Rong said that was where the Magic Man lived, and we were hearing his chanting in an ancient language. A few years ago, Mr Rong was injured when a client crashed his dirt bike. Rong said his lower leg was rotated with respect to the upper, and the kneecap was out of place. He went to the hospital and the doctor told him he would need surgery and would have to stop work for three and a half months to recuperate. He couldn’t do that; his family would have had no income. So instead of surgery, Mr Rong went to the Magic Man. He said the Magic Man first set the bones (ow), and then he chanted over the leg and used a powder made from ground seashells (the same powder the old ladies use with betel). Mr Rong had to go back twice more. He said in a week he was walking again, and now he can run. Spirit-facilitated healing.
The second pre-tour day, we visited a floating village on Tonle Sap. I believe I wrote about this before. In a fascinating natural phenomenon, the Tonle Sap lake rises tens of feet during the wet season, covering probably more than twice its dry-season area. These floating villages don’t actually float, but the houses are built on stilts about twenty feet high. In the dry season, which is when I was there, they’re way up overhead and people have to use stairs to get up and down. In the wet season, the lake surface reaches their floors. We had lunch at a place on the lake, where it “floats” – or possibly really floats; I didn’t ask – year round.
So, with a day and a half of real-world practice, on 4 February I set out on my little 125cc Honda Dream, following Mr Rong.
Not much riding, which was good. We stopped at lots of temples on the way out of Siem Reap.
Also a silk farm/factory:
Because it was Chinese New Year Day, we had trouble finding a restaurant that was open. This became a running joke: On Chinese New Year Day, everyone’s Chinese. So Mr Rong found a little stand where a woman was selling vegs beside her house, and he whipped up a stir-fry while the woman made rice for us.
That night we stayed at a lovely homestay where I slept like a dog despite the wedding going on down the lane.
Oh. The weddings. I haven’t told you about the weddings.
It’s wedding season in Cambodia. After the harvest, after everyone gets paid for their harvest, they have a bit of down time, and a bit of money, so this is when people get married. They hold these impressive parties. Guests have to pay to attend. Mr Rong said $15 to $20 is typical – the fee depends on the quality of the booze. It was a constant topic of conversation: how many invitations a person had received and therefore how much all this partying was going to cost them. Mr Rong had received eleven invitations in one month. If you figure a total of around $200, that’s easily a month’s pay for a Cambodian with a job.
And the parties. They start before dawn, like 4 a.m., and they go all. Day. Until midnight. They’re held under big assemblages of canopies all festooned with fluffy white and pink fabric. And there is music.
Sweet Jesus, the music.
They rent gigantic, and I mean Back to the Future size, speakers and it’s effing ear-splitting, even down the lane.
And it goes on all. Day. Long.
So as you read this and look at the photos, imagine that at least twice a day, we ride past these weddings. And a couple times a day we pass these gigantic speakers being transported on open trailers from one wedding to another.
Also imagine it’s hot.
Early, we visited Kulen Mountain, including the Thousand Lingas, the falls, the Reclining Buddha, and this sweet elephant who’s just off by himself in the jungle. There are more elephants at another place, but I didn’t have the riding chops to get to them, at the time. I do now! Mr Rong said twenty years ago he used to visit Kulen and the only way to get there was to hike in and you had to use ropes to haul yourself up. Now there’s roads and it was like the Fourth of July.
Coming down Kulen, the road was super dusty/sandy and steep and winding. I got to practice turning and braking at the same time. 😉
This kid was so mad when he saw I got a picture of him. I wanted to show you how they sell petrol.
These ladies make wall panels to sell:
This was the day of my first wooden bridge! I’d been told it’s easy to fall on (off?) bridges, so I was a tiny bit scared.
And I got my first real trail riding experience on the way to our campsite. A magical place: the king’s spiritual teacher used to come here to meditate before advising the king. It’s beautiful and serene. People visit for meditation. One guy there was camping there while he looked for magic bamboo – bamboo in shapes that would attract spirits.
On the way down the trail we met this cool lady, headed up to harvest bananas on her rad red bike:
Temples! I’m not explaining much about these places; I figure you can Google if you’re interested. I don’t recall the name of this one; I want to say it’s something like the Five Towers.
The Black Lady:
And we visited a place where there are carvings of animals all around. Mr Rong knew where they all were; even the guard on duty didn’t know about a lot of them. They’re old.
This complex served as a training center for elephants:
I don’t remember anything about this one:
Tonight we stayed at a homestay in the middle of nowhere.
I never quite figured out the living situation here; there seemed to be two families living in the house, or one living and one long-term visiting. There were one large bedroom, one small bedroom, lots of hammocks in the shade under the house, and an outdoor kitchen. They have everything they need: a solar electricity system, a water harvesting system with a big tank. There’s no toilet, but there’s acres to choose from, and a nice washing station beside the house. I was thinking, heck, I could live here.
And then Mr Rong said, Would you like to go for a swim? And my eyes popped.
They’re right next to this pretty river. The water’s cool. It felt so good. Also they’ve got a pump, which I imagine they use for irrigation.
These lovelies gave me one of the highlights of the tour. We’d just arrived and I was lounging in the house. I kept hearing riotous laughter, and I wandered out to investigate. So these girls are out in the field with their uncle. He’s raking up dried cassava (very common crop). He dumps it into a huge mesh bag, and then one of the girls holds the bag up while the other uses a rake handle to pound the cassava down into the bag. It’s serious hard work, and it must be a hundred degrees F out in the field. And these girls were out there for hours. They’d been there when Mr Rong and I arrived, and they didn’t stop working until suppertime, at dusk. And they were having the best time. The rake handle would punch through the side of the bag (it didn’t matter if it did, the way the bag was built), and every time this happened the girls thought it was hilarious and they laughed and laughed. I keep thinking about those girls.
At bedtime, the family all piled into the large bedroom, except for the ones who slept in the hammocks under the house. Mr Rong hung his own hammock in the open part of the house. I got the small bedroom all to myself, and an electric fan. I felt like a princess.
That river near the house? It’s where they quarried stone for the temples. One of the guys took Mr Rong and me for a little trek down the river. They brought a slingshot but didn’t get anything.
Kids bring up the washing water for the day from the river in jugs.
The farmer showed me his stock of rice:
And a sample of his harvest:
Nice people. It’s the guy in green who cleared the land and built the house.
We set out early. Cambodians are early risers. In the villages, loudspeakers come on with music at four a.m. It’s prayer music. I don’t know whether people actually pray. At first it irritated me – it seemed overbearing – but then I came to my senses. It’s beautiful, really. Everyone waking at dawn, together, to devotional music, starting the day with it.
The plan was to get breakfast in the village, so I hadn’t had anything to eat yet. The road to the house is super sandy, so I had the throttle on to get through the sand. Throttle + curve + inexperience = oops. I was going slow but it still hurt when the handlebar poked me in the ribs. It still hurts, a week later. After that, we modified our route a bit to ride somewhat more on graded roads than had been the plan. And Mr Rong told me over and over again to just go slow. God, that man is patient.
Thirty-five meters to the top.
I got there.
And this next place, monks are erecting five thousand Buddhas. They’re planting banyan trees and jasmine. In ten, twenty years, it’ll be gorgeous.
At the same site, Buddha left a footprint. Mr Rong thinks it might be real. He’s seen others that were carved, and this one doesn’t look like them.
Today we rode to Ta Seng village and stayed at a homestay there, in the house of the village chief. For supper I had vegetable soup. The most incredible vegetable soup I’ve ever had. Took one sip of the broth and I was speechless. They have ingredients in Cambodia. Flavorings. Holy mackerel.
More early morning temple-ing.
This big Buddha was just reconstructed. It was surprising to see because it was so rare to see a complete Buddha in the temples; they’d most all been destroyed or decapitated. Also this one is gigantic.
We also saw this temple that Mr Rong said was important because it was the only one with three-headed birds …
Next, Prasat Bakan! An enormous complex that was built when Angkor had been occupied by an enemy and the Khmer moved east, near an iron deposit, to make weapons and take Angkor back. I apologize if I’m mangling the history. Maybe best if you just look at the pictures.
Mr Rong said a lot of the temples had been in better shape, despite the desecrations that took place during a change of religion a few centuries ago. But the Khmer Rouge used the temples as hiding places, and so a lot of them were bombed.
After my little incident in the sand, someone told me that sand is bad but gravel can be even worse. I was thinking, holy shit, I’m glad we don’t have to ride on gravel. Guess what. Today, the nice, wide, paved road that we were taking to give me a rest from difficult riding turned out to have been recently covered with gravel. There was a narrow path right on the edge where people had been riding scooters and had cleared it to a degree. An example of how during this tour, I got to ride on practically every conceivable surface. Harrowing, but really good practice.
But the gravel was just the beginning. If yesterday was crash day, today was adventure day. Mr Rong had modified our route to avoid a lot of jungle riding, but this kindly attempt turned out to be in vain. We started out riding on nice dirt roads through a huge rubber plantation. They were potholed (as usual) and in dappled light, which made it really hard to see the potholes until I was right on them, so I had to ride rather slow.
But then we had to go off road. This meant riding through, in, the rubber tree forest. Did you know that rubber trees are planted on hills, with deep furrows in between for drainage? They are. They also drop a lot of leaves and branches.
After we’d been riding through the rubber forest for a while, Mr Rong asked a worker for an update about the road we were headed for. Uh oh. Apparently someone was clearing land to farm, and they’d felled a tree across the road. Change of plans. Good news was, it wasn’t far to the next village, maybe five km. Bad news, the creek was high and we’d have to cross it.
I don’t have the heart to take you through all the convolutions of our day after that. I learned to cross creeks on a bike. There were five of them. I learned the meaning of “jungle miles.” Like country miles, but longer. It was really really hot. Every time we asked for info about the distance to the next village, it was five km away. One time, Mr Rong asked some workers about the next village, and they laughed. This was disheartening. Did I mention it was hot? We didn’t have speed to cool us off. We ran out of water.
I figure, for the rest of my life I’ll be riding Khmer style. One thing Mr Rong taught me early on: in dicey terrain, slow down and stick your feet out. I told Mr Rong that one of my friends said one should simply never remove one’s feet from the pegs except under extreme circumstances, that riding with one’s feet away from the pegs is simply not done. So today Mr Rong started taking thousands of pictures of me on various roads and trails, to attempt to illustrate to this friend that he knows shit about riding in Cambodia. So here’s a million pictures of me on the bike, and I’m pretty sure these all came from Day 5, which will give you some idea of that day.
Earlier I said Mr Rong didn’t coddle me, but here’s one place he took my bike across for me:
And the trail. For my biker friends, I will attempt to give a description. For substantial stretches in the jungle, it was a two track trail, very sandy. Often, it was like it had been Ditch Witched – I mean, both tracks quite deep, with vertical walls, and just barely wide enough for the pedals to fit. With deep sand. We rode these in first gear by putting our feet up on the sides and clawing along. There wasn’t really space in the track for our feet.
Finally we came out to a meadow, and it was pretty, and we stopped and Mr Rong went to talk to a worker and came back with the five km news. It was around five p.m. I was so tired I’d had to keep stopping because I was almost dropping the bike, I didn’t have the strength to manage steering it in the sand.
We started off again, and I tried to be strong, but around five fifteen I cried uncle. Mr Rong hid his bike in the trees and chauffered me the rest of the way. I didn’t feel bad about it. I felt like I’d left it all on the road.
There was no possible way I could have ridden what we did after that. More hellish trail, more creek crossings. That glorious bridge you see there. When we finally got to a village, there were no homes where we could stay – none of the residents had toilets, so it was considered impossible for me to stay there. We went on to the next village, and Mr Rong made arrangements with the powers that be, and I got to lodge that night with a lovely Khmer schoolteacher named Lita who now swears we are friends forever.
In the morning Mr Rong went back with a local kid and retrieved his bike. He returned ecstatic. This kid rode like a bat out of hell. Rong said this kid told him, if you ride slow on those trails, you’re in trouble. What he did, when he came to one of those Ditch Witch stretches, he would stop, set his bike up on the bank between the tracks, and ride like heck between the tracks. Mr Rong was all high on adrenalin. I was glad he got a little reward for his infinite patience with me.
Easy but long ride back to Siem Reap. To avoid both jungle riding and a lot of riding in heavy traffic, we had to take a circuitous route, south to Highway 6, northwest to Kampong Kdei (did encounter some traffic there), then northeast again along the edge of the wildlife preserve to Kwaw. Then back to town from the east, through countryside. En route, we did a little more sightseeing:
For breakfast, Mr Rong ordered for me, a Khmer dish I’d never had before – a noodle soup in coconut milk broth with shredded banana flower. It was incredible. Mr Rong said this dish is even better in his home village, that they’re known for it. I began to understand that the villages must have their individual specialties, and that that kind of culinary exploration could make for fascinating, and scrumptious, travel in itself.
But for now, I was happy to be headed home. When we reached CMA, I had one Cambodia beer in sheer gratitude, and then Mr Po drove me home to Sala Bai. I took a luscious shower and fell into bed.