Kracheh, Cambodia. Wednesday 20th June, 2018.
Consorting with elephants is wonderful, but I was there to ride my bike, so that’s what I did. Heading down to Kracheh involved a very nice countryside ride, with the road meandering through hills, valleys, woods and farmland. This seemed to be an area for growing pepper, a staple produce of Cambodia. Having arrived at the hostel I ate lunch before heading out again to look at a couple of local sights. I was now right alongside the Mekong River, often alliteratively referred to as ‘Mighty’. It was at least a kilometre wide here, and fast flowing too. ‘Mighty’ seemed a very apt description.
I rode up the riverside road, threading my way through the puddles and rough patches, until I came to the village wherein lay the Phnom Sombok Temple. Yes I know, I was supposed to have had my fill of temples, but this one was a more modern Buddhist building, with some interesting artwork. I climbed up the one hundred or so steps, rather oddly lined with lifelike models of monks, to see the main building. Buddhists don’t really go on about heaven and hell very much but the artwork here countered that theory. The walls and ceilings were covered in drawings of all the nasty things that will happen to you when you die if you haven’t been a good person. Fortunately there were also some representing the nice things too, just to give you encouragement. They’re almost cartoonish in style but also very graphic. The photos give you the idea. Up yet more steps were some other buildings, and at the highest level was a nice little temple, with a couple of very high flagpoles outside. I was accompanied by a family of monkeys as I climbed up, possibly believing I might be about to provide them with lunch. Not a chance!
Back down at the bike I put on my riding jacket then noticed that my gloves, which I’d left in my crash helmet where it hung from the handlebars, were now sitting on the handlebars themselves. And my crash helmet wasn’t there! I looked around for it, my face wearing that puzzled expression that seems to appear at times like this, and my first suspicion was that some little monkey had taken it. I even climbed back up most of the first set of steps in case it had been dropped by the wayside, but I quickly realised that a monkey wouldn’t have carefully removed the gloves first. The culprit was clearly a more advanced kind of ape. Back with the bike once more, I was just about to get on it to leave when I spotted a young lad, on his bike, by the car park entrance. And he was wearing my helmet! I shouted at him but he turned around and rode off down the lane. By the time I’d started my bike and given chase he’d reached the main road and was out of sight. I cruised up and down, hoping to see him lurking, or my helmet hanging off a parked bike, but it was a forlorn hope. Everyone I passed was grinning, as if they were in on the joke, but I knew this wasn’t the case. They were just surprised to see a westerner riding up and down with no crash helmet and for no apparent reason. I gave up on my search and headed back into town, thoroughly fed up at my financial loss, as well as that to my peace of mind. Leaving my riding gear on the bike might seem to be a foolish thing to do, but it’s common practice in this part of the world, and is definitely more convenient. I called into a couple of bike shops and located a new helmet but didn’t buy one straight away. I mentioned two sights I wanted to visit. The second was further upriver, the Irriwaddy Dolphins. These are one of only three species of freshwater Dolphin and live in this stretch of the Mekong. With no crash helmet I’d decided it would be foolish to risk the ride.
Next morning I rode up through the village again, hoping to see my helmet but wasn’t surprised at being disappointed. I bought a new one at a shop for not many dollars, made from best Thai plastic, with intentions of getting a better one when I had a chance. The odd thing here was that most of the helmets on sale were size XL. I know, for sure, that Khmer heads are not all the same size and are not extra large either. I concluded it’s just retailers’ convenience. Asian people seem to be unaware that a badly fitting crash helmet is almost as bad as not wearing one at all. But given that they’re only worn to satisfy the demands of the police, or to keep the sun off, rather than for safety, it wasn’t much of a surprise. The sights and delights of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, were beckoning so I headed off southwards, shiny new crash helmet on my head. If nothing else, it looked good.
It was late morning before I left on a 370kms ride that should have only taken a few hours. And yet I didn’t arrive at the hostel until 8pm. Why? Bike problems, of course. The fuelling started playing up again and I had to stop a few times. But there was a silver lining to this cloud in the end. I finally managed to pin down what was wrong with the bike. It had ground to a halt – again – at about 3.30. I decided to check the fuel supply to the injector. I took off the pipe, cranked the engine and got a small dribble of fuel, and then nothing. I checked the wiring and pipes but no faults could be seen. Clearly it was the fuel pump itself that was at fault. That made sense, given the symptoms. I think I’d been in denial about it, firstly because a new one cost so much money (£250), secondly because I’d missed out on the opportunity to get one sent out to Thailand along with the other parts I’d ordered while in Thailand. What exactly was wrong with the pump I really can’t say. Maybe just worn out. More likely an internal blockage caused by dirt or rust, due to bad fuel. Despite the cost of getting a new one sent out, I was at least pleased to know exactly what it was. And then it began to hurl rain out of the sky. Luckily I could take shelter in a shop across the road for the next hour, until the rain stopped and I could carry on. The bike ran perfectly for the next 100kms or so, until I got into the city, where it played up again. It took another hour to reach the hostel. I was fed up!
While in Kuantan, Malaysia, I’d met a Polish guy named Peter. He was travelling around on a Malaysian bike and had made it to Phnom Penh, and was at the same hostel. Once I’d emailed the CCM factory about a new pump, we went out for a walk around and a couple of beers. The night food market sold all sorts of odd looking things, none of which tempted us. They also sold dog meat, much to my surprise. I was quite shocked, and definitely wasn’t tempted by that.
In the morning Pete and I rode over to a shop which sold good quality crash helmets. Unfortunately it was closed. We parted company and I rode out to the immigration department near the airport. I’d heard stories about how getting a visa extension took ten days to a fortnight, but in the end it was very simple. Pay $30, come back next day. Good to hear.
After a fair bit of messing about I managed to get the fuel pump ordered from CCM, with DHL due to deliver it to the hostel. It was all a bit touch and go because of confusion over the delivery address, and I was worried that it wouldn’t get sent before the weekend began. It ended up with the spares guy at CCM taking it out to the DHL depot at Manchester airport once he’d finished work. I was very grateful to him for that. On Saturday morning Peter left to try his luck with getting him and his bike into Vietnam, a notoriously difficult place to enter with a non-local vehicle. I wished him well, if for no reason other than I’d be trying it myself eventually. With parts to wait for and Peter gone, I was at at leisure to see what the city had in store.
A bit more history now, just to wrap up the Cambodia story. The Khmer Rouge, now defeated and on the run from the new government, set themselves up as rebels once more, hiding in the jungles close to the Thai border. It was during this period that most of the mines were laid in that area. It seems surprising today, but the Pol Pot regime was still recognised as the legitimate government of Cambodia, even to the extent of occupying its seat at the United Nations. Their genocidal activities became known very quickly, so why were they still given any credibility? Simply because the Vietnamese government was backed by Russia so the new Cambodian government was effectively de-legitimised. Over most of the next two decades the Khmer Rouge and its allies were slowly weakened, both militarily and politically. The Vietnamese gradually withdrew from Cambodia and by 1999 virtually all of the Khmer Rouge leaders had given themselves up. Pol Pot had died in 1998. Elections had already been held so Cambodia was, at last, free to face the challenge of recovering from its horrendous recent history. There is far more detail in this story than I’ve been able to cover here. Needless to say, there is a link to much more.
Researching this was a precursor to a couple of essential, though upsetting, visits that any visitor to the city should make. The first was to Tuol Sleng, once known as S21. This is a former high school whose buildings became one of the regime’s network of nearly two hundred prisons, where they carried out the torture of their fellow citizens. At first it would have been the ‘enemies of the revolution’, such as intellectuals, government officials and so on. But over time the victims became anyone who may have been denounced by someone as a spy, defecting soldiers, party officials who had fallen out of favour, etc. Almost anyone really. There were two buildings, with two storeys in each. The first one had been preserved as it was found and it contained cells of various sizes. There were photos, taken by the liberating Vietnamese forces, of the fourteen bodies they came across. They displayed some of the instruments of torture too. Other parts of the buildings had some photos of the victims, many of them just children. The Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy their carefully assembled records but didn’t have the time, meaning that many of the victims could be identified, along with the reasons for their incarceration. Almost none of them survived. A few of the victims were foreign, caught in the city as the Khmer Rouge took over. They were also tortured and killed. One of them, a Kiwi, kept his torturers guessing by naming his CIA contact as Colonel Sanders, or as Ronald McDonald. Effectively sticking two fingers up to their captors. I had a very good audio guide to tell many of the stories associated with this horror show. One display showed how the children were educated in the villages. Some basic literacy skills were taught but much of it was simple brainwashing and training as child soldiers. It led me to wonder how a country manages to reverse that kind of process so as to bring them back to ‘normal’.
The second visit was to The Choeung EK Genocidal Centre, otherwise known as The Killing Fields. One of around one hundred and fifty such places, this one lies about 15kms outside the city, in a small village. It is a place of complete horror, given what went on there. People were trucked in from sites such as S21 and executed. It had no other function. There were some holding sheds where the victims awaited their death. Often they’d been told they were being brought here to work or be re-educated, so weren’t expecting to die. But that is what happened, to all but a very few. They were killed at night. They were hacked or bludgeoned to death, bullets being too valuable to waste. The local villagers thought the centre was simply an army base. Loud music was played at night while the killing went on, so as to drown out the cries of the victims. They’d be forced to dig trenches or pits, then be lined up along side them and killed.
Many of them were Khmer Rouge who had been the victims of purges within the regime. Their children even babies, would be killed too. The small ones would be picked up by the legs and have their heads smashed against a tree, then be thrown into the pit alongside their parents. The thinking was that no-one should be left behind to take revenge. The executors were mostly young and mostly peasant. Over 1.3 million were killed in this way. There is a museum here, which details what happened to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge once they’d been captured, as well as giving the facts and figures. As with S21, there was also an excellent audio guide, which included several personal stories. Somehow these managed to be uplifting. The last place on the tour was a large memorial Stupa, which contained the bones of all the victims whose bodies had been dug up. Many still lie buried in the ground, a deliberate decision. Once again, how do the perpetrators ever recover from this?
These two places have an important story to tell which, to my way of thinking, contains a warning for us all today. Echoes of this kind of evil can still be heard in various parts of the world, especially with the ongoing rise of extreme nationalism.
On a much more pleasant side of the story telling spectrum lies my efforts to extract my fuel pump from the deathlike grip of the courier company and Khmer customs. I’d received an email from DHL to tell me it had arrived in Cambodia and that someone would contact me or that I should contact them. So I waited a day or two, expecting a call to tell me where to collect it. Silly boy! The email only really meant that I should contact them. So I did. They said they’d be happy to organise customs clearance for me, at a cosy of $170, plus applicable customs duty. Err, no thank you, I’ll do it myself. Once the paperwork had been organised, and after a couple of false starts, I finally found their depot, hidden down a side road near the airport, and collected the paperwork. At the customs office I was told I must use an agent and that I should approach one of those who were hanging around in the foyer. I had some luck here because I got talking to a very helpful guy who said he could do the clearance for $50, plus the customs duty, That, he said, would be about 52%, about $165. Whaaaaat! I was now getting a bit upset about it all. This guy took pity on me and explained that I could apply to the main customs office in the city centre and probably get a waiver of duty because the item was for my personal use. Best of all, he gave me a copy of letter he’d written for a previous client, which I could use as a template for writing mine. He explained to me what I needed to do and where the office was.
It was just as well he’d done this as the letter was written in extremely flowery terms which I would never have thought of using. For example, it was headed: KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA, NATIONAL RELIGION KING. The last line said: Please accept, Your Excellency, the continued assurances of my highest consideration.
I created my own version, with all the relevant information, and took it to a very smart, new office block in the city. Vattanac Tower has a very modern design and the lower floors are filled with the kind of boutique shops which I would never wish to frequent. My credit card would faint at the sight of the price tags on display. The fifth floor was much more workaday, and helpful people directed me to the right offices and the right person. I left my plea in the hands of a customs officer and returned two hours later to be told the duty had been waived. Oh joy! A smooth running bike was one step closer.
And it was here that serendipity took over for a while. I’d been gazing out of the windows of Vattanac Tower and had seen a very nice looking art deco building, which had clearly been recently smartened up. White and pale blue in colour, a check on the map showed it to be the city railway terminus. I decided to check it out and when I walked inside I could see rows of chairs laid out in the main hall, each with a bottle of water on it. “How considerate” I thought, “to give passengers water to drink while they wait for their train.” There was nobody to stop me from walking through to the platforms, one of which had a nicely old fashioned looking train carriage next to it. I took a couple of photos of it but then realised that the main action was on the next platform. A quick walk across the tracks, with nobody objecting to that, and I found myself among dozens of smartly dressed people, all sharing an air of anticipation amid a buzz of conversation. I asked a European couple what was happening, was George Clooney due in town or something? I was told that a special train was about to arrive, the first to run on the newly opened line between Phnom Penh and Pursat, in the north.
Before long a big, dirty yellow diesel locomotive arrived, hauling a long line of smart looking carriages. From the front one emerged the Minister for Transport, and after photos and a track side TV interview, he and his entourage went into the main building, thereby explaining the rows of chairs. I had a chat with a young woman journalist who told me the line had been closed since the Khmer Rouge had ripped up much of the track 45 years ago. The minister had made it his personal mission to re-open the line and soon it would link through to Thailand. The great benefit would be, along with all the usual benefits of railways, that the line would bring tourists from as far away as Singapore and other parts of the Malay Peninsular, as well as Thailand and Myanmar. No wonder everyone was so excited.
I hung around by the doorway, just near the speakers’ dais, and watched what was happening. I had no choice really because the audience sat between me and the exit back to the street. An Australian spoke first, clearly representing the company that had undertaken the work. Then the minister got up and gave a rousing speech, with plenty of colourful slides about the current state of transport and his hopes for growth. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but I got the gist of it. It all tied in with things I’d read elsewhere about Cambodia’s recent push for growth. It was good to see because this kind of investment can only benefit ordinary people.
Next morning I rode out to the airport once more, fingers firmly crossed that the bike would get me there and back (it didn’t always). I went into the customs office again and was firmly told to use one of the agents. This time the customs officer came out with me and showed me a room full of computer terminals were I needed to enter the details of my package into their system. Now I understood why an agent was required, for me at least. I can’t type Khmer! Fortunately I bumped into the same guy as yesterday, who was happy to help me. He relieved me of $50 dollars for ‘customs fees’ and I sat down to wait. Eventually he came back with my fuel pump. I gave him $20 for his help, which he’d easily earned. $70 instead of $235. That, to me, was a big win. There’s two lessons in all of this. Firstly is that it’s worth trying to get the duty waived. They can only say no. Secondly, DHL will always be keen to undertake customs clearance for you because they have a department for it, and make money out of it. So it’s best to ask about doing it yourself. There are other courier companies out there who don’t do this, so may be better to use.
While I’d been waiting around I’d made contact with a local motorcycle repairers who had a reputation for helping travellers. Dara Motorcycles (daramotorcycles.com) run a fleet of off road bikes which they use for taking keen tourists out on adventure rides. This means that not only are they used to larger bikes but that Dara speaks excellent English. He’d said I could come to his shop to do the work. Over the next couple of days I got the fuel pump fitted, serviced the bike and got some other jobs sorted out. Dara was very helpful, getting me some parts when needed and generally making my life easy. I’m delighted to say that the new pump did the trick and I’ve had no problems with the bike since. The constant nagging in my mind about reliability had been taking the edge off the enjoyment of the trip, so I was extremely pleased to be able to put that behind me.
There are two more ‘must sees’ in Phnom Penh. The first is the National Museum, mostly focussed on the country’s early history. It seems that Mahayana Buddhism arrived in the 1st century and was dominant until the 6th. It was slowly pushed out by the Hindu cult of the God King, as seen in the earlier part of the Khmer Empire, and seen in physical form at the temples of Angkor Wat. Buddhism had a revival from the 13th C onwards, but this time it was the Theravada version. The exhibits were mostly ancient statues, sections of carvings from buildings, ornaments and trinkets. The excellent audio guide enabled all of this old stone to come to life and it was a great way to get under the skin of the country.
The second essential visit was to the Grand Palace. As with that in Bangkok, this was a mixture of very grand buildings and royal temples. The buildings were, in fact, truly beautiful, with multi layered gable roofs, pillars and carvings. They were surrounded by formal gardens, filled with excellent topiary and some fascinating trees. I especially liked a fan shaped palm tree, and the Cannonball Tree. This had tendril-like twigs coming off the trunk, on the end of which were bunches of flowers where the outer green wrapping opens up to reveal a very pretty pink flower. In the section with the temple buildings I really liked the King and Queens personal Stupas, both very decorative and also very tall! But while looking up at them it wasn’t difficult to also see the heavy black clouds that had been gathering and, sure enough, just as I headed back to the hostel the heavens opened up. Fortunately there was a sheltered area just near the gate, which I shared with a crowd of delightful Chinese tourists and a couple of German women. We weren’t quite singing in the rain, but we were managing to laugh and joke with each other, our lack of common language not being a barrier. I was enjoying Phnom Penh even more now.
During several walks around the city I enjoyed looking at some of the old colonial buildings, now mostly used as government offices. Central Market was another art deco building, shaped like a six pointed star and full of traders selling jewellery, watches and similar items. Along the ‘corridors’ leading in to the centre were hundreds of stalls selling everything that markets do, and around the external perimeter were hundreds more. And that was only one of three big markets around the city centre. South East Asia’s ability to buy and sell things never ceases to amaze me. Talking of buying, I managed to get a better crash helmet from a shop recommended by Dara, and also a new cover for the bike, having lost the old one somewhere along the way. My final little bit of business was to use the visa service, run by the hostel, to get a three month visa for Vietnam.
In among all of this, there were some World Cup Football games to watch. I’d found a café that was showing the earlier games (bear in mind that I was six hours ahead of Russia), and another bar that stayed open for the later games. In this way I was able to watch poor old England get knocked out of the semi finals. Most pundits were saying we did very well to get as far as we did. I disagree. We should have beaten Croatia and got to the finals. The blow was only slightly lessened by the fact that the Irish Bar in which I was watching the game supplied very good fish, chips and mushy peas. Time to move on. Phnom Penh had been great fun and a positive experience in many ways. Yes, it’s dirty and busy, and crowded, but I liked it.
I was now keen to try my luck at crossing over into Vietnam. I knew I’d need luck because they are very choosy as to what bikes they allow in. ASEAN bikes have a reasonable chance, especially if they’re small ones. They have a common arrangement with Laos and Cambodia too, so my plan B was to buy a locally registered bike and use that if I couldn’t get mine in. I knew of people who’d managed to do it and I was heading for the border where an English couple on an Aussie registered Suzuki DR650 had managed to get across. En route I stopped for a few days at the town of Kampot, next to the Mekong River. It’s full of ex-pats, of various stripes, and the guesthouse I stayed at was run by an English couple. On Sundays they cook a roast dinner! I made sure I was still in town for that. The other thing of note here is the nearby Bokor Hill, on the top of which is an old French Colonial hill station. I took a ride up there one day. It was sunny at the bottom but very misty at the top. The old buildings just don’t have the same cachet when you’re peering at them through thick mist. But I enjoyed the ride nonetheless.
I headed down to the border at Prek Chak, hoping to get across. Cambodian immigration stamped me out. Over at Vietnam immigration they stamped me in. “How easy was that,” I thought. “What was all the fuss about?” I walked back out to the bike and that was when a customs officer came over and stopped me. And, after some discussion, and me showing him my carnet de passage, he told me I couldn’t bring the bike in. Damn! I went back to immigration and asked them to cancel my entry stamp. He rang up somebody but was obviously told it couldn’t be done. All he could do was to stamp me out. So my $65, three month visa lasted me about half an hour. Back over at Cambodian immigration I had to renew my visa, another $35. Ouch! One hundred dollars to get nowhere. That really hurt. I had no choice now other than to go back to Phnom Penh to get another Vietnamese visa.
After a couple of days in the capital, I headed off again. The receptionist reminded me that it was election weekend and the roads were likely to be busy. There is a general election every four years, always held on the last Sunday of July. People have to go to their home town/village to vote and they seem to make it a family occasion. As I left the city I came across a long line of cars, vans and bikes, all stationary on one side of the dual carriageway, and bedecked with flags and bunting in support of one of the political parties. It was the last day when electioneering was allowed, and they were making the most of it. Further on down the road I caught up with the hordes of people who’d left the city to head home. Three and a half of the four lanes were filled with vans, cars and bikes. Fortunately there was almost no traffic coming the other way. The cars and vans were full to bursting with people and possessions, rear doors open with people hanging on for grim death. ‘Chaos’ doesn’t begin to sum it up. Just a river of people heading down the road. I joined in the fun but eventually escaped it all.
And so began the grand tour of Cambodia/Vietnam borders. There are six of them, and I tried them all. I even went back to the first one to try again. I rode through some really nice countryside; stayed in a number of hotels of varying quality; was given lots of friendly and patient assistance by Cambodian immigration so as not to lose my visa for either country. All to no avail. Vietnamese customs would simply not let me across. After more than 2,000 kilometres of wandering around I found myself back in Phnom Penh with a decision to make. Where next?
While I was there I was contacted by Dave, my friend from Thailand, who runs the overlander base called Plodd Stop, near Pattaya. He’d been contacted by a German couple who’d been forced to fly home after the woman had been robbed of her bag and had damaged her shoulder in the process. This very unfortunate incident had happened in Phnom Penh while their camper truck was in for some repairs. Dave had volunteered to come and collect it for them, with his friend Glenn coming along for the ride. This gave me a chance to forget my troubles for a few days and we enjoyed some socialising and a river trip too. Dave and I went to collect the truck and took it back to their hotel. They were delighted when we went to the Irish bar for fish and chips, something that isn’t normally available in Thailand either. Chatting things through with them helped me reach a conclusion. I decided to forget Vietnam for now and head to Laos instead.