• Saturday , 17 February 2018
On familiar ground: Cambodia

On familiar ground: Cambodia

Once upon a time you could hop a motorcycle taxi over to the Russian Market of Phnom Penh and buy marijuana by the kilo for a couple dollars. Nothing was legal or illegal, the fledgling coalition government hadn’t moved to the law enforcement arena yet and the United Nations peacekeepers didn’t give a shit. Guns were everywhere and the power rarely worked; Phnom Penh was a city perpetually in darkness. Pol Pot was alive and still with an army in the jungle and travel between Cambodian towns carried a real risk of kidnap, robbery, and possibly death. This was the Cambodia that we witnessed living in Phnom Penh throughout 1994. This “year of living dangerously” was a catalyst that would separate youth from adulthood in our lives. This experience would one day drive us to higher education, a critical worldview, and post traumatic stress that ran us off the rails for a year or two when we returned to the United States. 1994 was a year neither of us would ever change; it shaped the people we are today.

It was no wonder we felt a tingling sense of nostalgia and excitement as we crossed the Laos frontier into Cambodia. We are returning home after more than two decades.

The passenger ferry terminal has a beachside restaurant, ample motorcycle parking, and used car tires painted green and clumped into bundles. Every comfort a traveler needs. Kratie, Cambodia.

The sole deckhand on this Mekong River ferry carries her needlepoint project in a bag at her hip. As soon as the fares are collected she gets to work. Kratie, Cambodia.

Sunset over the Mekong River. Kratie, Cambodia.

Koh Trong Island is in the middle of the Mekong River directly across from downtown Kratie. The island is easy to reach by a cheap passenger ferry. Once there we rented bicycles ($2) and rode the 9km loop around the island. Koh Trong is an excellent example of rural Cambodian life and a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Kratie, Cambodia.

Thailand was still driving our schedule because we had to reenter before March 1st to avoid traveling with a guide. That left us only two weeks for Cambodia so we opted to go places we hadn’t seen before and to visit our old home town of Phnom Penh.

Traffic from the Laos border to Kratie was light and the road was a mix of tired asphalt and gravel. We were out of the mountains once we entered Cambodia and the temperature soared compared to what we had in Laos. Kratie is a quiet provincial capital on the Mekong River. We rented bicycles and explored the Koh Trong Island before heading to Phnom Penh. Cambodia, while still poor, is much more prosperous than we remember and the cyclos and kramas of decades ago had been replaced by motorcycles and baseball caps.

What started out as a little dab of red paint at the start of this trip now snakes across my pannier.

Phnom Penh was unrecognizable to us except for specific monuments like the Royal Palace and Independence Monument. The streets are paved, traffic is horrendous, shops selling everything, and new construction to the horizon. The capital is more like Bangkok than the sleepy war-starved hamlet of our memory. And, good for you Cambodia, it makes us happy that life here continues to improve. While corruption and poverty are still rife at least stability has been maintained since the UN brokered elections of the early 1990s.

One of our old friends from back in the day has recently returned to Phnom Penh. We stayed with Stef and his wife, Lanin, at their lovely house in the burbs. It was fun catching up with Stef as well as tagging along to a barbeque in the countryside with their friends. We felt immediately at ease and at home once again.

Stef and Shannon on the Phnom Penh waterfront. When we lived in Cambodia in the early 90’s Stef was there too, selling commercial fuel to The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Stef is now back living in Cambodia and we had a lovely stay with him and his wife Lanin. Phnom Penh has changed so much since we called it home, we barely recognized the place. It was nice having a local to show us around.

Mike and Stef drying off after a rainy night out. 1994, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Ma Kettle rooting for ‘taters’ in the back 40. Kampong Speu, Cambodia.

Stef and Lanin are the proud owners of an undeveloped chunk of heaven in rural Cambodia. We went with them to christen the new property with its very own container. The new steel structure will serve as the tool shed as they build their new country retreat. Kampong Speu, Cambodia.

A friendly game of bocce ball turns serious when the measuring tape comes out. Kampong Speu, Cambodia.

The tasty bits at a Cambodian barbecue look a little different than the delacacies we enjoy back home. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

After Phnom Penh we headed for the remote Cardamom Mountains for some off-road adventure. This region was off-limits to us when we lived here; the Khmer Rouge held this territory and it was not safe to visit. The roads in the Cardamom Mountains were in abysmal shape and we quickly had to find our dirt riding skills, the likes of which we haven’t needed since Nepal and India. The scenery was stunning and we were in remote areas. Food and lodging were a little tricky to source at times. Risk and or difficulty are the spices that make overlanding by motorcycle a story and not just a tourist activity.

We have seen Frank Voellm multiple times on this trip. First in Italy, twice in Turkey, and now in Cambodia. Chances are he will be in Bali when we pass through. Frank knows Sihanoukville like the back of his hand including this very tasty hot-pot seafood restaurant, all-you-can-eat made for very full bellies. Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

This young fellow was fascinated by out giant motorcycles. He is a little short to reach Zippy’s pegs but he looks right at home. Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

This dirt notch is the ferry landing. When we arrived no one was around but thankfully another rider showed up and she was able to call the boat back across with a phone call. Chi Phat, Cambodia.

A standard Cambodian road once you leave the main highway. We opted for a little dirt adventure and headed into the Cardamom Mountain in Southwestern Cambodia.

The ferry is little more than a floating wood platform with a motor attached. Once on the other side of the river we had the delicate dance of turning the bikes around and riding off. Chi Phat, Cambodia.

Chi Phat is using eco-tourism to offset the damaging practices of illegal logging and poaching. The accommodations are mainly homestay and all tourism money made by the community is pooled. Our homestay was basic but comfortable and we had plenty of room to park the bikes.

Chi Phat is located in the Southwestern part of the Cardamom Mountain range, Southeast Asia’s largest tract of contiguous rainforest. The village is spread over a wide area and main street is used by animals and people alike. Chi Phat, Cambodia.

Herding cattle by bicycle in Chi Phat.

Taking a break from the heat of the day in any shade that can be found. Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia.

Our trip through the Cardamom mountains was exhilarating but quite a challenge. The roads were in bad shape and some of the bridges were barely held together. Often the wheel ruts in the road were too deep to ride in or cross so we had to thread the needle and ride the narrow center hump between the ruts, often up and down some very steep hills.

Our last stop in Cambodia was the charming city of Battambang. Even though this is Cambodia’s second largest city the well-preserved colonial architecture, small town friendliness, and eclectic artists vibe made this a charming stop. In fact, it kinda felt like Phnom Penh did back in the day. We killed a few days here waiting for our Thailand vehicle permit to come through and while not a hub of excitement Battambang was an enjoyable place to stay.

Everyone loves to watch me work. While preparing to leave one morning I turned on the fuel petcock and noticed a small fuel leak from a loose hose fitting. A quick fix with an electrical zip-tie still drew a crowd. Battambang, Cambodia.

The day before we were to leave for Thailand an SMS text of dread and despair came from our Thai fixer. The Department of Land Transport, once again, would not have our permits ready on the agreed date. We were livid. Long story short, we paid an additional fee to expedite the permits and forced the issue, always smiling of course, until Thailand relented and we got our Thai bike permits only 24 hours late.

Stewing on the Cambodian frontier for many hours waiting for word our Thai vehicle entry permits would come through. Shannon is eating broken glass for lunch to pass the time. The permits eventually arrived but the sour taste of dealing with Thai bureaucracy is still in our mouths to this day.

Cambodia is a personal and important place for us. Two weeks may seem short but it was a long enough to feel a part of this land for a moment, once again.

Sunsets never get old and no two are ever the same. Koh Kong, Cambodia.

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