Cambodia on a Motorcycle — Off-Road Driving On The River Banks of The Mekong
* This story has been published in Transcendental Journeys – A Visionary Quest for Freedom.
Kim had short blond hair, blue eyes, and an incredibly pretty face. Her body was shaped like a cat’s, slim and tight. She had never traveled in a third world country and I was an experienced traveler in South East Asia. We knew each other from San Francisco and I offered to introduce her to that exotic world, to teach her how to get around. I expected her arrival any day and we intended to fly from Thailand to Phnom Penh, which is the capital city of Cambodia. I first saw Kim at the airport where I picked her up. Her smile made her teeth shine! We spent three days in Thailand, where we got our Cambodian visas. As soon as we arrived in Phnom Penh I rented a 250cc professional Japanese motocross bike with which we intended to travel through Cambodia together. Kim did not know how to drive a bike, but she trusted me enough to sit on the back of mine.
We first drove to a town that had a beach on the map, but when we got there, all we found were colonial buildings with bullet holes in the walls! There was one small little beach with so many picnicking Cambodians on it that we did not fancy swimming there, so we kept on driving westwards along the coast to a place called Sihanoukville. Along the way, we stopped in an extremely strange village where locals invited us to drink beer with them. When I videotaped a scene, I filmed kids burning American Dollar bills in the fire, which must have been realistic-looking photocopies! Sihanoukville is a port town and we looked for a hotel to stay, but couldn’t find any. Eventually, we settled for a little hut in a park where we strung up our hammocks and crashed for the night.
The next morning, we went to check out the market where we found some great food! The Cambodian noodle soup is especially delicious and the soy milk is freshly made every day. I would often drink coconut milk and eat baked sweet potato patties in the mornings. After satisfying our hunger, we explored the area around town and to our surprise we found some beautiful, clean, and empty beaches with white sand and turquoise water. We also discovered unpopulated beaches with the motorcycle around Sihanoukville, where we spent the next few days of our trip. Romance blossomed for us when we stayed in a nice, reasonable, bungalow. We watched sunsets and swam in the warm ocean. We enjoyed the many smiling Cambodian faces as the only tourists.
The many danger stories that circulated amongst international travelers about this unique South East Asian country served as a great tool to keep foreigners out of Cambodia (back then). The country was indeed still feeling the after effects of a terrible war that had just ended three years prior to us visiting, but we felt safe nonetheless. After getting to know each other much better, we left the ocean and traveled on high-speed-drives at around a hundred and twenty kilometers per hour on paved roads with cows, dogs, and whatever else, randomly crossing it. The road led northeast through the heart of darkness, Phnom Penh, towards a place called Kampong Cham. It is situated on the Mekong River and its many French colonial-style buildings are typical of Cambodian cities. That first stop on the Mekong was the beginning of an incredible journey!
We did not know if we could trust a small road on the map we wanted to take and after an hour of driving, it turned into a dirt road. Eventually, we did not have a road to follow any longer, just a direction and the intention of keeping the Mekong on our left! We were soon driving through farmer’s fields. We drove 80 km like that on a sandy path winding itself through fields! Once we were on it, we had no alternative but to follow the road through to the end. This path and the sound of our motorbike’s engine were the only music in our ears for the next few days.
We began to see the astonishing beauty of this Asian River and the people living near, or even on it. Our increasing back and shoulder pain kept reminding us that we had bodies to enjoy life with. We had to pray hard that we wouldn’t accidentally drive into a land mine. That was a real danger when driving off-road in Cambodia! We also got stuck in the mud when our bike’s chain broke. Fortunately, the combination of my basic mechanical skills and tools provided by the locals transformed our breakdown situation into a pleasant getting-to-know Cambodian people experience. To communicate with locals required very good skills in gestures and mimics. Nobody understood a word of English and we did not speak Cambodian or French. Thankfully, I am pretty darn good in using hand movements and facial expressions to transmit humorous clear, non-verbal, basic information to any healthy human being.
When we bathed naked in the blue-green waters of the Mekong and sunbathed nude on the sandy riverbanks, we certainly enjoyed its beauty. The Mekong provides a habitat for many fish and bird species and the local people could not live the way they do if they were next to a polluted river. We did not expect this important Asian River to be so clean. The locals fish in it and they also harvest seaweed that they dry and eat, which tastes delicious. It is apparently also very nutritious! The Cambodians grow vegetables on the riverbanks and they keep domesticated animals, but we were told about an insect plague that had destroyed most of the rice-crops. People had to find other sources for food and the bottom line was that there was not enough to eat for everyone. Some people were starving!
After driving all day through the craziest conditions on a non-existent road that demanded my best motocross skills, we finally arrived in a little town only otherwise reachable by boat. Of course, there was no hotel or other accommodations, which I had already anticipated before our arrival. We had no blankets with us since we could take very little luggage, but we had always wanted to experience staying in a Buddhist temple, so we pulled into the next Pagoda that was just as pretty as all the numerous temples we had seen along the way. Our plan was to string up a hammock and see what happens. After we parked the bike, we heard chanting and decided to check it out.
When we got to the chanting monks, we listened to their mantras while watching the red fire ball descend. Everyone seemed highly interested in us. An English-speaking person was called via walky-talky. Suddenly and miraculously, we had a translator who informed us that 33 monks were doing a three-day fasting silent meditation. When I answered that we had planned to sleep in a hammock in a near-by tree, we were invited to stay with the monks inside the monastery. We learned that their point of fasting was to refrain from eating meat, so we were also offered the special fasting food that greatly suited us vegetarians. For a little while, it seemed like, we were the main attraction in town, probably because we were some of the only Westerners that had ever stayed in that area. A monk that was participating in the meditation gave me a note that I still keep to this day. In it, he asked me to meet him after the silence so that he could practice his English with somebody who actually speaks it. Unfortunately, our travel agenda did not permit us to stay that long and I never got to speak with him.
Kim felt somewhat overwhelmed by the welcoming hospitality and the kindness of these people. It was not the first time she had met Cambodian people. When she was a child growing up in Boston, some Cambodian refugees had joined her class, but they had faced strong racial tensions there, which was a very different reaction than we received. We felt so welcomed in their beautiful homeland and I wondered why human beings are capable of such cruelty and so much kindness? Cambodia is a perfect example of how perversely crazy some human beings can become and how compassionately kind admirable examples of our species are. I have observed that the way we are conditioned and taught as children and even adults, creates who we become! The monks are lovely people that follow the rules of a monastic order and the moral and ethical principles derived from the teachings of the Buddha. They emphasize calming the passions of the mind and deepening prayer through meditation to enter states of supreme awareness and relaxation. The continuous practice potentially leads them back to their natural state of happiness.
The people in this monastery did not go to sleep before 2:00 am that night, when we could finally close our eyes and rest on the wooden patio floor. The roosters crowed around 4.30 am, which also happens to be the time the monks woke up to a symphony of howling dogs and screaming geese! We enjoyed the Cambodian noodle soup in the monastery — my favored — after watching an outstanding sunrise and proceeded on our journey. We left also a donation with the monks. Eventually, we approached our final destination “The Hundred-Pillar Pagoda.” But before we could get there, we had to recover from the torturous dirt cross bike-ride of the previous days and relax for a little while, in Kratié. This was another town on the Mekong where local culture was centered on karaoke singing and movie watching.
Our journey through this amazing country that seemed like one big lotus pond with many temples, villagers who love to play pool, men wearing army clothes, and kids that are born free spirits and left that way by their parents, had to come to an end. There was just one remaining hurdle for us to jump over. After we visited the Hundred-Pillar Pagoda we had to deliver the motorbike back to Phnom Penh and according to local travel agents, we had two options to do that. One possibility was to drive fast for two days through arduous roads that would be especially difficult, because we would have to cross large guerilla-controlled territories occupied by the Khmer Rouge, the brutal and fanatic communists responsible for murdering and torturing millions of innocent intelligent people. Anyone we asked about this road seriously advised against it, saying that being violently killed was the very likely outcome when going this way. The second option was to go back the way we came, via the Mekong’s riverbanks, which we really could not imagine! Our bodies still felt so painful from the motocross trip we had just completed, and we simply did not have the time it would take to go this way. I thought to myself, and seriously hoped, there must be another option!
As a harbor town on Asia’s seventh largest river, Kratié has the Mekong flowing through it. The city is built up very high above its river banks and we went to the harbor to see if any boats could take us, and the motorbike, back to the capital, but no large cargo ships were departing any time soon. Small speedboats however, traveled the Mekong daily. We could see these boats in the river far down below from where we were. The only way to get there was through very steep steps of about 45 degrees and I estimated the distance to be more than a hundred meters to reach the river shore. When I spoke to the boat captains, they said it was possible to bring the bike on the boat. To travel to Phnom Penh would then be an option in under two hours! This definitely was the best and only way for us to get back, but our bike first needed to be loaded onto the boat. Some locals approached us, offering to carry the bike for a horrendous sum of money, but by this point, we both felt pretty cool.
We had just been to places no white people had apparently gone before. Wherever we drove, locals and especially children, came running out of their houses to wave and scream at us! This was an incredible feeling! We felt like road stars! Cambodians love motocross and so do I! As a teenager, I grew up on an East German motocross track, where I had learned to drive on my Simson Enduro! I thus assessed the situation and yes, the stairs were dangerously steep. They reminded me of the pyramids at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, but I had gone down steeper hills before, when learning how to drive. I turned on the engine of that great Japanese bike and the luggage-carrying locals cut their price for carrying the bike onto the boat in half. The Cambodians down at the boat screamed, “Do it!” as I slowly started to drive down, step by step. I was trying hard not to lose control of the bike, which would start tumbling down the stairs and certainly be ruined, if that were to happen. A few steps went fine like that, so I started to get comfortable with it, but then the engine stopped! I had no control without a running engine and was forced to stop to restart the bike half way down the steps again. Fortunately, the motorcycle had a starter button, otherwise I would have been in serious trouble. I managed to start it again and continue. When I arrived safely all the way down to the bottom of the steps there was the Mekong ahead of me, but no dock.
The boats were anchored inside the waters of the river, and the only connection to the land was a tiny wooden board. Locals came running back to me, increasing their prices for carrying the bike again. They had realized that especially now, when I was on the bottom of the stairs and there was certainly no way back up, that someone had to carry this bike aboard. For a moment, I looked at my options. Then I turned on the engine again. Swiftly, I lifted up the bike on the back-wheel and drove it straight across the tiny little board. I jumped off it at the end and landed perfectly situated in the middle of the little boat. Instantly, a group of screaming Cambodian men came running at me, nearly freaking out! They all wanted to shake my hand, and those who had tried to make a fortune by carrying my bike, looked pretty disappointed. Kim just shook her head, laughing!
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