Cambodia by motorcycle, part 2

Check out Part 1 of David’s trip in Cambodia.

The adage is true: It’s the humidity, not the heat. By early afternoon, we were spent and motored back to our hotel for a swim and a pledge to return for a final temple visit. Sandy, still was battling jet lag, soon decided to spend the afternoon lounging at the hotel pool, leaving me on my own for the evening.

Around 5:30 p.m. my BMW and I left for one last loop of the 12th century temples. This time I rode without my jacket so I could enjoy the cool evening breeze. I spent an hour on a slow, 20-mile ride circling the temples coated in the late-day light. The traffic was sparse, the air cool. Khmer families were picnicking. Tourists too were taking a final look, but I was the only one on a motorcycle.

Tourism is growing in Cambodia but most visitors only visit Siem Reap. Outside of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and a few luxury resorts along the Gulf of Thailand, tourism in other parts of Cambodia remains rudimentary. Our decision to go off-the-beaten path would bring us rewards and a few unexpected challenges.

Leaving Siem Reap the next morning, our plan was to ride 130 miles northeast toward the Thai border and find Preah Vihear Temple, a remote and therefore lightly-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unlike the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Route 67 was nearly desolate as we passed occasional stands selling gasoline in plastic liter water bottles or hand-cranked from a 55-gallon drum. This ride was relaxing. We traced the western-most edge of the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, created to protect the forest against illegal logging, which has eradicated 60% of Cambodia’s forest cover since 1993.

Gassing up was always a challenge. The oversized fuel tank on my R 100 GS/PD gave me a range of about 250 miles; but the little tank on Sandy’s rented Honda Baja 250 limited her to 100 miles. Occasionally Sandy would run out of fuel, so she would just jump on the back of my bike and within a few minutes we’d buy a liter of gas in a plastic bottle, shuttle back to her bike, and quickly be riding again.

As we were eating up miles, I often longed for a break at an American-style gas station to fill our tanks, grab a coffee, sit for a made-to-order sandwich and use a clean bathroom. This concept hasn’t arrived in Cambodia. We’d spot a sign on the horizon for Total or Sodimex, the most common gas stations in Cambodia, and slow down only to realize all we would find was a single pump, a few cans of oil and a refrigerator with cold water.

Soon the Dangrek Mountains towered ahead, topped by Preah Vihear. We reached the tourist center at the base of the mountain around 1 p.m. The entrance fee is $10 for foreigners, and you still must find a way to navigate the mountain road to the temple. You can pay $25 for a roundtrip ride in the back of a pickup truck or pay $5 for a ride on the back of a moto. Drivers pleaded with us not to go on our motorcycles. It was too treacherous, they said. The first two miles of the road to the temple are well-paved and hilly, according to our map, but the final quarter mile was a shockingly steep, straight shot up the mountain nearing a 20% grade on a pitted gravel road. If these smaller motos can do it with a passenger, we reasoned, my powerful R 100 should have no problem. I gunned the throttle, leaned my torso along the tank to lower my center of gravity and went for it. My rear tire spit out a few rocks, found traction, and I scooted up for an exhilarating, slightly harrowing ride. Whew. Sandy went next. She too survived. We needed food to calm our racing hearts.

At the mountain top, we sat on plastic stools at a low table and ordered up cold coconuts to go with our fried noodles. We were the only tourists. As we ate the vendors, all women with small children in tow, failed to coax us into buying T-shirts emblazoned with “I HEART Cambodia” along with keychains and cotton pants with elephant prints.

Refreshed again, we began to explore the well-preserved stone precipices built between the ninth and 11th centuries. The temple, with its massive stone staircases and pathways, were well maintained as we darted through a true labyrinth of reinforced passageways connected to a few dilapidated structures. Inside the complex were monks who would bless you for a $1 donation.

The architecture was similar to Angkor Wat albeit at a fraction of the size. What Preah Vihear had Angkor Wat lacked was the fabulous mountain view and the dearth of visitors. We looked for miles in every direction, spotted soaring hawks, and viewed the Thai border where both Thai and Cambodia troops are stationed to guard this demarcation point. Between 2008 and 2011, the troops occasionally exchanged gunfire as the exact border remains in dispute.

We left two hours later to find decent lodging. The closest town was about an hour’s drive, but all they had was a $15-a-night guesthouse. We decided to ride another 30 minutes to Sra’aem for the $75-a-night Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel, owned by a Cambodian general It was our only other option.

We arrived around 5 p.m. to be greeted by a pair of sculpted elephants and a concrete hotel with traditional Khmer roof—steep, wooden and covering an open-air terrace. As we dismounted, a bus filled with English-speaking tourists from Australia pulled up; they quickly overwhelmed the front desk. We were reminded again the tourism industry here is still developing. The door to my room didn’t lock, the air conditioning was quirky, and the patio doors to our rooms didn’t open. The whirlpool tub was closed for repairs and the pool had a tinge of algae. But games of pool were free and it was two-for-one happy hour. I ordered a pair of pina coladas for $5 and a greasy but filling pizza. We arrived safe, saw some great sights and were too exhausted to complain.

The next day our destination was Stung Treng, a small city along the Mekong about 30 miles south of the Laotian border. The roads were nearly deserted as we twisted and turned and sped through the villages where most people survive as sustenance farmers. We gave ourselves four hours of easy riding to cover the roughly 150 miles to Stung Treng. Poverty in Cambodia was clearly visible today. No house we passed had indoor plumbing. School-age children sold sodas, water, candy and coconuts at roadside shanties. Not everyone had electricity.

Cassava dried along the shoulder; it was destined to be packed into sacks and transported to the cities for sale. Then there were the fires. Mile upon mile of open flames abutted the pavement as farmers burned the fields after the latest harvest to quickly get their soil ready for planting.

We stopped in a small town—there were no signs so I’m not sure where—parked our bikes and walked to the local bus/minivan depot where we again ordered up cold coconuts and bowls of soup, this time with slices of pork liver, for $2. Two hours later, we crossed a bridge over the Mekong and rolled through Stung Treng. We headed out of town down a rutted, stone road to the Mekong Bird Resort, which was praised for its scenic riverside location but also noted for its spartan facilities.

We were hot and tired. The Mekong Bird Resort was a cross between a guesthouse, hostel and campground, but with chickens and pigs wandering around. On older woman who spoke no English greeted us, showing us a few cabins on stilts along the water, available for $20 per night with fan and hot water or $10 per night with just a fan. We splurged for the $20 rooms.

The website for the Bird Resort said kayaks and boats could be rented. The woman who took our $20 indicated a guide would take us on the river but no one materialized. No matter, as we were satisfied to spend the rest of the day at the outdoor restaurant/bar floating on the Mekong. We relaxed, bought a deck of cards and ordered some food and a few bottles of beer. These would be the most basic accommodations of our trip. Each room had a small deck, but the fan was creaky, and I couldn’t figure out how the on-demand hot water heater worked. No cell service or wifi here. I fell asleep underneath my mosquito net listening to the Mekong and the sound of crickets and frogs.

Over omelets the next morning, we planned the final leg of our trip to Kratie before returning to Phnom Penh. Kratie is along a stretch of the Mekong known for the Irrawaddy dolphin, a threatened species.

To reach Kratie, our route hugged the eastern bank of the Mekong. Along the shoulder were stands selling neatly stacked pallets of three-inch long fish—both dried and smoked—that are a staple of Khmer cuisine, and fresh fruit.

About 20 miles into the day’s ride, I felt a tug from the rear of my BMW. Looking over my shoulder, I discovered a weld on the rear rack had separated, and now the rack and attached hard bag were dangling, secured only with a bungee cord. I stopped to inspect the damage. I transferred some gear from the sagging hard bag to my other bag to lessen the weight, and then whipped out extra bungees to secure the rack to the bike. I would need to get it fixed. Shortly after noon we arrived at the River Dolphin Hotel in the sleepy town of Kratie. There was a quaintness to the three-story hotel. A few frogs lived in the swimming pool, and there was a nice garden and koi pond. For $30 a night, I had a firm bed, good air-conditioning, a locking door and Wi-Fi. Plus they had an on-site restaurant.

After unloading our bikes, I headed into town to address the broken rack. I remembered passing a row of shops apparently dedicated to truck repairs; I hoped one also did metal fabrication. I was in luck and found a welder, showing him my rack. He knew what to do. He protected my wheel and frame with a piece of cardboard and went to work. As for himself, he wore no gloves or eye protection. In five minutes, the welds were complete, and he even ground the joints smooth. Again, we had no common language. I gave him a $10 bill, but there was confusion. At first, I thought I had not paid him enough, but then I realized he didn’t have change for the $10. The weld cost $1. After some hand gestures, I explained I wanted to pay $10. The minimum wage in Cambodia is $0.67 an hour. For all the stories you hear about foreign travelers being scammed and forced to pay “foreigner prices,” it never happened on our trip.

A few hours later, Sandy and I backtracked 10 miles out of town to a launch site along the Mekong to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. There was a half-circle of souvenir stands selling pretty much the same trinkets and T-shirts we had seen throughout our journey. I shelled out $1 for a wooden dolphin for my daughter’s backpack. We paid $10 each for our boat tickets and were urged to walk down a steep set of concrete steps to the riverbank where dozens of rickety 30-foot long-tail boats were moored. We were directed to our boat and an old Khmer man, I’d guess in his 60s, started the motor.

There are reportedly slightly more than 90 Irrawaddy dolphins, known for their pinkish color, in this part of the Mekong. Sightings are not guaranteed. They are threatened by dragnets used by local fishermen.

There may or may not have been life jackets on the boat. Two other boats were also on the river looking for the dolphins. Our pilot would drive upriver, cut his engine, and then drift and scan the dark water. As we patiently looked for the dolphins, we were amazed by the view we had of daily river life. We saw families living along the banks in small homes and on boats. You could see construction along the riverbanks, and other boats were ferrying families from one side of the river to the other. We casually scanned the river surface and then, about 75 feet away, saw two dolphins with their pinkish hue crest the water for 10 seconds and go under again. Our pilot started his motor, pushed the boat about 200 yards up the Mekong, and then cut power so we could drift. Sometimes he moved us near small rapids in the river, where our guide indicated dolphins are frequently sighted. The weather was perfect with a breeze and not too hot. We tallied about 20 dolphins in 90 minutes.

Back at the hotel we parked our motorcycles next to a red Ducati Monster whose owner, an Irishman, was changing the rear tire. He was the only other motorcycle tourist we saw on our journey. He explained he was an electrician who returns to Cambodia for vacation every winter. He stores his Ducati at a guest house in Sihanoukville, about 250 miles away along the Gulf of Thailand.

On our last night before returning to Phnom Penh, we enjoyed a dinner of pad thai and two-for-one margaritas. Sandy and I reflected on our 700-mile adventure. The tour was more stressful than we had anticipated due to erratic drivers, but the scenery—especially at places rarely visited by tourists—was more spectacular than we had hoped. The motorbikes let us beat the crowds at Angkor Wat and provided flexibility. The challenges were mitigated by the friendliness of the Khmer people.

This was adventure touring light. We had driven by walls of fire and up steep hills to visit isolated temples, we had been pampered at a top-notch, affordable hotel. Roadside repairs were a breeze and the food was accessible and interesting.

The next morning we bee-lined it to Phnom Penh. As we got closer to the capital, the rice paddies and small villages gave way to slow-moving trucks and exhaust fumes. We sweated in our heavy jackets as the temperature inched toward 100 degrees. After four hours and a final three miles of stop-and-go traffic, we were back in Phnom Penh and at my house. We peeled off our gloves, helmets, jackets and boots, and discovered the refrigerator was stocked with cold coconuts.