Saturday, 14 September 2013

Suffering Under The Sun.

Sen Monorom was the target after some much-needed rest in Ban Lung, some 114 miles to the south. I'd heard many things about the road to Sen Monrom, in particular its difficulty. I was relishing this after my experiences on the road from Siem Pang to Pakalan, only feeling a little apprehensive.

The route started promisingly. A local chap told me to head for the nearby waterfalls at Ka Chang before picking up the ox cart track to Sen Monorom. The waterfalls were pretty and the track promising, with a small creek and lots of rocks and dirt for the XR250 to play on.

Something went wrong however, and I soon ended up on what was very clearly a highway build in progress, with workmen, earth-movers and building materials littering the edge of the road, while road signs in Chinese characters and Chinese plant machinery made clear the influence of the regional superpower in Cambodia. In places the track would regress to sandy, wet and muddy tracks, but on the whole I was on a graded, unsealed road. Frustrated as I was by this, I suppose that it turned out to be a good thing, in light of what was to come.



Coming along the road, it became apparent that certain sections had not been finished and drainage systems unfinished. As a result, detours through drainage channels and rice paddies were necessary, not normally a problem, it seemed, given the tracks. However, some of the channels were filled with water, shallow in some places, deep in others and, sometimes, covering treacherously sticky mud below.



Having become stuck at the entrance to one detour (needing the help of passing soldiers to get myself out of a pickle) and becoming tired, disaster occurred innocuously some ten miles later, when a detour through a wet paddy field was needed. The route was clear, with a well-worn track leading into the trees, but I managed to get my bike bogged again. It was around midday and I suddenly felt zapped. I removed my helmet but it did no good; I felt cold, clammy, weak and faint. I could barely move the bike.

I sat on the ground, having set the bike on its side stand, sheltering from the sun, under which I was suffering. I felt terrible and questioned the whole (as it seemed at the time) foolish venture, having quaffed the rest of my water. In time, two gentlemen on a scooter came past and took pity, with one of them helping me to push the bike off the muddy paddy and leaving me in the shade of the trees, gratefully accepting an unexpected two dollars from me for his help.

I could hear voices in the trees and pushed the bike further into a small clearing, where a house stood. The inhabitants were lazing in hammocks about the place and gestured for me to sit down. "Koh Nhek! Koh Nhek! Koh Nhek!" I exclaimed frantically; they laughed and pointed further down the road. I sat awhile, politely refusing tea and in the end having to lie down for half an hour, which made me feel marginally better. After some tea and listening to their joking about my appeals for Koh Nhek with other Khmer travellers, I set off again, still feeling distinctly iffy. That feeling subsided after I drank some grape juice in Koh Nhek. How strange; low blood sugar and a touch of dehydration, perhaps?

Certainly not feeling like I did.

The ride from Koh Nhek was distinctly more straightforward, save for a hill outside Sen Monorom which resembled a water slide covered in mud, so difficult it was to ascend. I watched four wheel drives and earth movers sliding back down the hill before giving it a go myself, making it up to the top with only one fall. I reached Sen Monorom in the dark and took the first accommodation I found: an avocado farm.


Monday, 24 June 2013

"He didn't offer you his wife?"

I was awoken the next morning by my two English-speaking friends from the night before, who said goodbye and wished me well on the trip to Ban Lung, which I would finally reach today. I myself then said my farewells to my surrogate family, who smiled and waved as I sped off down the gravel road.

After the thrills of the day before, the road to Ban Lung from Pakalan (spelling now ascertained) was pleasantly flat, wide and easy, with little to cause any problems, the odd pothole or rut aside. All very simple and the ride is broken up by a river crossing.



After a largely uneventful and nondescript ride, I reached Ban Lung, which had become something of a Holy Grail after the previous day's travails. I had decided on Terres Rouges, a pretty luxurious place for the area.



After settling in and disposing of my muddy clothing, I returned to the reception to ask for a pharmacy in order to treat my engine burn. In the reception was the enigmatic owner, Pierre-Yves, a former French paratrooper who has settled in Ratanakiri and, judging by what would follow, knows the area well.

I asked for a pharmacy, at which Pierre-Yves asked what the problem was. I showed him my leg and he immediately treated it with iodine and hydrogen peroxide. He asked where I had come from and was surprised to hear that I'd come from Siem Pang via Pakalan. He was even more surprised to hear that I didn't have a GPS or map of any significance, politely calling me brave and asking where I'd stayed. I explained what had happened and his reply was, "So the man of the house did not offer you his wife?"

I was flabbergasted and asked him to repeat his question, which he did. When I asked him to explain, he casually said that he had been to remote villages in the region where, as part of the hospitality, this had been offered. Although he hadn't partaken, he said that I'd been lucky not to have had the offer made, for it spared me an awkward refusal!

Ban Lung itself is a classic town in the middle of nowhere, with little to detain passers by. Motorcycle spares can be obtained in town (useful) and the market is quite large (useful). There's also Boeng Yeak Loam, a pretty lake about 5km out of town, and some waterfalls a little closer. The pace of life is, therefore, quite slow, until tempers flare...



I witnessed this first hand while photographing the sunset. Two motorcycles, one carrying three young men, the other two, collided in the slightest fashion. Both braking, one jumped off each in confrontation. This quickly escalated into a scuffle, ending with the young man from the three-man bike striking the other youth with his belt, causing him to bleed profusely from his head. The three then made a swift escape, leaving their adversaries to make angry 'phone calls before speeding off, presumably in pursuit of vengeance.


It had been a pleasant, restful stay in Ban Lung. Now for the road to Sen Monorom...


Monday, 3 June 2013

Alone in the Dark.

George had stressed that Ban Lung was easily in reach of Stung Treng, so an early start pointed to a productive day. Bidding him goodbye, I set off in the direction of Siem Pang.

It was a beautiful day, with the countryside (flat and devoid of trees) resplendent in the sunshine and roads still largely empty. I decided to take a detour to O'Sveay, a village by the Mekong, which lay at the end of a rough, 20km dirt track. This was fun, with the exception of my smashing my face into my handlebars while hitting a hidden and significant dip, leaving me wondering how my nose wasn't broken or my teeth smashed.



O'Sveay was extremely tranquil and affords some nice views of the Mekong. The village itself is composed largely of timber stilted huts and is very sleepy; the inhabitants smiled a lot and those villager with whom I spoke were friendly and helpful. The place was obviously muted from the previous day's celebrations and I didn't linger long, mindful of the need to reach Ban Lung.





From O'Sveay, the route to Siem Pang is straightforward and not particularly stimulating. I was, therefore, relieved to reach my immediate stopping to take a photograph or two and swig some water. As it happened, this wasn't all I swigged.

The local pagoda was rocking with the sound of music and it was clear that the local people were enjoying more of the now-familiar Khmer New Year celebrations. Noticing my curiosity, a nearby gentleman waved me into the pagoda, bike and all, where I was greeted immediately with beer by two young men and exhorted to dance. Not wishing to appear rude, I graciously accepted and joined the festivities.



One of the young men, called Pisey, spoke excellent English and took great pleasure in introducing me to assembled young men. The scene was an interesting one, with a group of young men dancing in the sun and drinking beer, while children looked on from the shade of a colourful ceremonial gazebo and the monks from their quarters. Now and then, other people would arrive on motorcycles, bearing crates of beer and, sometimes, mineral water. The children occasionally danced, as did the women who arrived a little later.





There was much merriment but soon it was time to go, despite the protestations of a number of the assembled revellers, who said that I should get a room in the village and stay the night. I politely refused, even when Pisey said that, due to the recent rain, the road to Ban Lung after the river was wet and that I'd be better off taking it on the following day. My rationale was that it could also rain that night and become wetter, so I decided against staying. Pisey took me to his house for tea and water before guding me to the ferry and waving goodbye. Mistake: ignoring local advice.



Pisey (greenish shirt) and friends.
I should have realised that this idea of mine was ill-starred when I dropped the bike on the ramp onto the ferry, denting the tank quite severely and bending the headlight to the left, but I nonetheless went on. Coming off the ferry, the road was no longer a road, merely a mud/sand track of inconsiderable width. It was clear that the rain had indeed messed up the road, for puddles abounded and the various detours came in handy. I, however, soon became complacent and after ploughing my bike into quite wet-looking mud, became stuck for the best part of half an hour, finally managing to haul the bike out of the mud and get it started again.



After this, I was more judicious but still had to take the bike through considerable wet, muddy patches. In the absence of traffic of any volume, save for the odd pair of scooters, care was needed. I began to progress quite well, slowing only for the dry sandy patches which were a little treacherous, tipping me off on one occasion. This was unfortunate, with my left leg trapped beneath the bike and my right sitting on the engine. I only noticed about ten minutes later that my leg was smouldering, where the engine had burned through my trousers and into my immobile leg. The pain was surprisingly small, presumably because nerve endings had been destroyed.

It took weeks to heal.
The track was, however, great fun, despite the odd tip and the loss of my front brake lever after one such fall. It twisted, turned, had a great variation in surface and gave the feeling of real adventure. Villagers along the way seemed very surprised to see foreigners, waving or just staring as I went by and finding it hilarious when I hesitated before safely negotiating a river crossing.

Not a river crossing.
The sun was dipping in the sky but I wasn't concerned, seemingly oblivious to the time I had spent in Siem Pang and thinking that I had a good few hours of light yet. I was stopped along the way by an impromptu party in the forest held by local villagers, who, after extracting a donation from me, told me that I was heading towards Ban Lung and didn't express any doubts about time, so I pressed on, not that I had much choice.



After a couple of hours, however, I was still very much in the bush and it was twilight. The sun had virtually sunk, I was hungry and thirsty and there were no real signs of civilisation. I met a couple of dead ends and then took the widest-looking track, since lorry tyre tracks suggested a route to civilisation. Within half an hour, it was pitch black and I had lost this track.

Twilight in the bush.
Sitting there on the bike in the dark, I cursed myself for ignoring Pisey. I could have been back in Siem Pang dancing "Gangnam Style" and sipping weak Cambodian beer among a posse sweaty, happy men. Horrific as that sounds, it seemed much better than being stuck in the jungle, hungry, thirsty and soaked in a combination of my own sweat, blood and various types of mud, with only insects and ponderous, death-bearing oxen (hitting one would have ended me, I suspect). I wasn't even on a track at this point, simply riding my bike through the undergrowth between the trees.

Then, through the trees, there was literally a glimmer of hope. I glimpsed a couple of lights and could hear the faint beat of house music. Was this Ban Lung? Who cared? I fired up the engine and charged through the trees, branches deflecting off my helmet as I went. I stopped at intervals, listening to see if the music was becoming louder, which it was. After repeating this process of frenzied acceleration through the undergrowth and desperate listening for music, I eventually came to what I thought was a massive clearing. I could see the lights on the other side and could hear music but there was no sign of a track. I looked around for the best part of thirty minutes, realising after nearly disappearing down a deep, empty ditch that I had to tread carefully. I finally realised that I was in a dry paddy field complex and decided, in my desperate state, to ride over it.

This was quite easy and I soon reached some houses, still none the wiser as to how I ought to proceed. I came tearing into an enclosure of some sort, where a young man started in surprise as he saw a barang on a motorcycle come from nowhere. I was clearly in someone's garden and he politely pointed in the direction I ought to take. I finally came onto the main street of a village and stopped at the nearest place which looked like a shop.

"Ban Lung! Ban Lung!" I exclaimed. The lady looked puzzled, thrusting a bottle of water at me. Her husband came as she cleaned the table. "No Ban Lung," he said, pointing down the road. After around twenty minutes of me asking for Ban Lung and him saying that it was down the road, the man's wife appeared with a young man. He turned out to be a teacher and quickly cleared up the issue.

"You are not in Ban Lung. Ban Lung is far and it is late; there are no ferries now. You must stay here."
"Are there guesthouses?"
"No."

I stood there, filthy, weary and stupefied. Where was I? What had happened?

After a conversation between he and the lady, the young man said, "The lady will look after you. She will put a hammock on her house and give you some food. After you eat, come to the house where I am staying for a shower. I think that she said that; they don't speak Khmer so good [sic] here." He walked off and the lady beckoned me to the dinner table, where she served vegetables and rice with a hot sauce and tea. I didn't know what the vegetable was and I didn't care; nor was I bothered about whether the tea had been made with boiled water. I ate and ate, to the delight of the woman.

It was now shower time, so I proceeded to the house over the road, where my helper was residing. Towel under arm and shower gel in hand, this was going to be good, very good. "Hello," he said. "You want your shower?" "Yes, please!" "Okay, take off your clothes."

I looked around. I was on the street and not being invited inside, where I presumed that the shower was. The young man was smiling and gesturing, so I stripped down to my underwear, at which point I was given a sarong and told to also remove my underwear. I was now standing outside the house in a sarong, with the whole of the family watching both curiously and intently. The young man ushered me to a corner of the front yard and pulled a wooden cover off a well. He dropped the bucket in, pulled it out and filled a large a container with the water. "There!" he said, proudly. "Your shower!" He then walked off, coming back with a metal bowl for me to rinse myself. All eyes were on me as I dipped the bowl into the water and the suspense was evidently killing the family whose well I was using...then, as I drenched myself, they exploded into laughter, presumably because a barang was washing from the well. Each time I threw water over myself, the family killed themselves with laughter, until I had finished and dried myself. At this point, the young man who had been so helpful and his friend suggested that we went to the pagoda, which had saved me with its music.

On the way, the young man and his friend revealed that they were teachers at a nearby school and were only in Bac Kalang (the name of the village, spelling probably wrong) to see friends. They were called Visey (the man who'd helped me) and Sombor (spelling unclear and probably wrong), the former teaching English and the latter Biology. They asked the usual questions about what I was up to, what did I think about the Khmer people and explained that we were in a predominantly Lao village, hence why he had had a little trouble communicating with the family with whom I was staying.

At the pagoda, the scene was rather different from Siem Pang. The men were nowhere to be seen, presumably because they had had too much to drink, with only women and children present. The teenagers were sitting talking while the children danced. After a little while, the music became a lot more sedate and traditional and some women asked us to dance. I apprehensively agreed.

The dance was the Romvong. I felt like a lemon doing it, mainly because I couldn't do it well. No one really minded, so much so that I was asked to do it two more times in succession. I told Visey that I found it boring and he agreed that it was tedious, saying that we were obliged to continue because we'd been asked.

After more Romvong-ing, I was tired and returned home. Visey and Sombor said goodnight and I dropped off in the hammock. It had been some day.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

George.

On every trip I go on, there is always one thing which crops up without fail: the travel nause.

I had never heard the word 'nause' until a couple of years ago, its use being explained to me by a former England international rugby player, who used it to describe opponents who played a little dirtily and with plenty of niggle. Further inquiry revealed that it is also used to describe "annoying or cringeworthy people".

So it was that my Cambodian travel nause appeared in Stung Treng. Sitting outside my guesthouse while sipping a cold Angkor, an older man with weathered, tanned skin and a white beard approached the table.

"Looks like you've got a nice bike. I'll get a beer and join you."

Before I could reply, the man had grabbed a beer and was indeed joining me. My opinion in the matter was of no importance: the nause wanted company and, of course, I had no reason to wish for solitude.

The man introduced himself as George, a Canadian who had left Canada some years before,lived on a boat in Malaysia and had ridden up for a few weeks. I found out plenty about him, that he lived by himself, travelled a lot, rode a motorbike and knew quite a lot about engines. I listened for around twenty-five minutes to all of this, before George showed any interest in me. The nause isn't really interested in you.

I revealed that I am an Englishman living in Australia. George computed this, before saying, "Ah, yes, you Australians like to get around a bit," and, "Yes, you Australians have the boat repair gig sewn up in Phuket." I smiled and politely stated that I merely lived in Australia, but he continued asserting that I was an Australian. I didn't really get much else in, for George wanted to tell me about his bike, how easy it is to ride dirt bikes and his trip thus far. The nause doesn't listen to you.

After George's stories of his travels, which usually involved women (from exotic countries known for attractive females) whom he had allowed to slip through his fingers, he noticed my sunburn. "That looks nasty," he said. "You should do something about that." I hadn't thought of that of course, despite having been at the pharmacy and experienced Cambodian service (foreigners wait while locals are served first, even if they come in after you). The nause states the obvious.

George asked me if I had any future travel plans. I became excited and told him of my dream of motorcycling around the world on a BMW X-Challenge. He'd never heard of the bike, but still rubbished it as probably unreliable and told me that I should take a Honda instead. I pointed out that the Rotax engine was virtually indestructible, which calmed him a little but my idea was still given short shrift. Maybe he worked for Honda... The nause knows best.

By now, I was tiring of this and made my excuses, saying that I was going round the corner for some dinner. George indicated that he would stay there with a beer, so I bade him goodnight. I reached the restaurant and made my order before a hand clasped my shoulder from behind. I turned around and there was George. "I decided to come join you and I brought someone." Turning to his new friend, he said, about me, "This guy is an Australian." A young Belgian man emerged from behind George and sat down opposite. My food arrived, George lit a cigarette and smoked it at the table while continuing to regale us with his tales. I found out little about the Belgian chap. The nause stays close.

The next morning, I was packing up when George came outside. "How are you?" he asked. "Fine," I replied. "I'm just packing before breakfast; do you know anywhere good?" George then recommended the market, asking if I had ever even eaten street food before (I'd described my previous travels the previous day) and recommending that I try it despite me telling him that I had eaten it very often. Sitting down at the market, I tucked into my breakfast of pork and rice, while George told me of the various bowel bacteria he had acquired from street food (giardia being prominent and frequent), the various stool samples he had given to doctors and the treatments received. All while I was eating. Nice. The nause shares everything, even when completely inappropriate.

Returning to my bike, George began to find fault:

"The chain looks dry." "I oiled it yesterday."

"The chain looks loose." "I tightened it yesterday."

"Do you know what this does?" "It's for the engine oil."

This continued for some time, with George insisting on oiling my chain, telling me that it wasn't too late: I could change my mind and ride in the opposite direction to that which I had planned with him. I sensed that his questions were intended to check that I would be okay and knew what I was doing, but it was also extremely patronising given that I wasn't a complete novice and had told him this. He clearly thought that I was hapless and destined for disaster, despite no evidence suggestive of this. I thanked him for his help before he rode off. The nause is patronising.

All in all, I'm sure that he meant well, but George was definitely my Cambodian nause. Had I been too polite? Was I uncharitable to a well-meaning chap? I asked myself those questions as I headed towards Siem Pang, with my ultimate target being Ban Lung. George told me that it would be easy. We would see.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Pharmacies, Irrawaddies, Tragedies.

Kratie was very, very quiet, largely because of the ongoing Khmer New Year celebrations. The townfolk are friendly, though, and very helpful in the event that directions are needed, as evidenced by a local tuk-tuk driver who was extremely useful in finding the things I needed.

Those things, due to my schoolboy error the day before, were sunblock and a long-sleeved, white top. I'd forgotten my sun cream and had paid for it, with my skin turning a nice shade of purple on my hands and arms, the result of being in the fierce sun for the whole of the previous day on the bike. The cover from the trees had done me little good and the pain was excruciating. Things wouldn't get much better, in truth, for many days. 

Being used to the sun and, in many instances, seeking to avoid it, Khmers aren't the greatest consumers of sunblock. In fact, in keeping with many societies around the world, both past and present, they seek whiter rather than darker skin, viewing lighter skin as a source of pride, for lighter skin is an indicator that one does not work in the fields or in another outdoor setting. So, perversely, my search yielded only whitening creams, with shop assistants perplexed as to what I actually wanted and I perplexed by the apparent desire of the Cambodian people, beautiful on the whole, to look like me. I suppose it's the same as Westerners seeking tans, but the reverse. Eventually I found some low-quality Korean sunblock, claiming to be factor fifty but also doubling as a make-up base. Hmmm.

The first stop on leaving Kratie was around ten miles north of the city, where one can view the Irrawaddy dolphins, freshwater cetaceans found here, further north at Stung Treng and in Laos (as well as in other countries in the area). Boats are easily hired and take you out to see the dolphins.

An image stolen from elsewhere: the dolphins were impossible to photograph.


Unlike sea dolphins, the Irrawaddy doesn't jump and is regarded as being considerably more timid. That said, sightings are easy near Kratie, though you'll have to be sharp to photograph them. The boatmen are very good at using the engine selectively and on a quiet day, one will have the area to oneself.



The road continues north to Stung Treng and, to be honest, it was a bit straight and boring. The journey was punctuated by random pagodas filled with swaying revellers and variably-surfaced but largely empty roads. Things, as I would find, were not quite as quiet and happy as they seemed.

Pulling over for a drink, I struck up conversation with a man whom I thought was the shopkeeper. This turned out not to be the case and the man was actually minding the shop for his parents. The usual questions about my background, family etc. were asked and we chatted for a little while. I asked why he wasn't at the pagoda and he suddenly looked despondent, eye-balling the ground. He said that it had been a sad day for his family, since his uncle's daughters had been in an accident. They hadn't, however, just been in an accident: they had been killed.

The angst in the man's voice became palpable and I was suddenly filled with both sorrow, pity and awkwardness in equal measure. He told me how he had witnessed the tragedy only three hours before; the girls, aged seven and eight, were crossing the road outside the pagoda when a car ploughed into them, knocking them over on the road before speeding off. The driver, presumably drunk, hadn't stopped, and the police had arrived too late to catch him. The man explained his horror at witnessing this and the little girls lying on the tarmac afterwards (I shan't go into details but they aren't pleasant). Their father had been filled with grief, having to be prevented from harming himself by the family. I sat flabbergasted, not knowing what to say, other than that I was sorry to hear this and hoped that the driver would be brought to justice. From my own point of view, my defences were raised against possible misfortune from drunken drivers.

Riding off after saying goodbye, I passed by the pagoda and saw an outline chalked out on the road where the accident had happened, with some sad faces drawn next to it. Such an image was a piteous one, while the ongoing party seemed strange in light of what had happened.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

On the Road Again.

The flight into Phnom Penh from Singapore was a smooth one and, before I knew it, I was at Lucky Lucky Motorcycles, with whom I'd arranged the hire of a Honda XR250. On arrival, the proprietor took me off to his "other shop", closed due to the Khmer New Year and the formalities passed smoothly. Giving me directions to my target, Kampong Cham, the gentleman waved me off while advising me against tackling any jungle tracks. "If anything goes wrong," he said, seriously, "you will have to leave the bike in the jungle to find help." As he was holding my deposit (my passport) at the time, I was minded to listen to him.

The bike, before hitting the trails.
The ride from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham is a simple, rather boring one. The terrain is flat, with few distinguishing features and quite a lot of dust from the road. Given that the government is conducting a wide-ranging overhaul of the country's road network at present (funded by China), roads are punctuated with chicanes and poor surfaces, which the XR250 devours with ease, enabling the rider to power along at 40 m.p.h. without feeling too unsteady. Amid the dust, however, I was intrigued by the parties I saw at every pagoda, with various Cambodian pop songs and variants of PSY's "Gangnam Style" blasting out while groups of people danced (more on this later).

The first stop came around Skun, made famous by Gordon Ramsay three years or so ago, when he came here to eat deep-fried tarantula. Said to have begun during the Khmer Rouge years, this food is popular around Skun and is eaten by locals and tourists alike. I was sure that I was in the right place, for two giant tarantula statues were outside the eatery.

A real shocker for passing arachnophobe drivers.
Before coming to Cambodia, I had engaged in the pre-trip bravado and swore that I'd eat the deep-fried arachnids. Now, having not eaten since Singapore the previous evening, I wasn't too sure and was relieved to see that they weren't on the menu. Seizing the escape route with glee, I ordered something else and told myself that I'd do it on the way back through...

The way to Kampong Cham was punctuated still further by pagoda parties and not much else, so reaching the city itself was a relief of sorts. However, due to  the Khmer New Year, the city was dead and only PSY's dulcet tones indicated any sort of life. I'd also made excellent time, reaching Kampong Cham within two hours or so, and decided to head off to Kratie along the west bank of the Mekong.



Now this was interesting. Little villages of wooden huts on stilts, random livestock (mainly pigs), dirt roads, pleasant glades and plantations, smiling children shouting greetings and, of course, Khmers in pickups and on scooters laden with crates of beer, no doubt heading for the pagodas. Some people hadn't even gone to the pagoda, instead choosing to party at home. I was greeted to the sights of folk swaying rhythmically beneath their stilt houses, smiling and red-faced. On the latter point, I had no room to talk, looking like one of Father Christmas' reindeer due to the fact that I'd forgotten my sunblock.



Around thirty miles from Kratie and having lost sight of the river, I needed direction. Stopping for directions earlier in the day had resulted in an old man drawing a map on his hand, but this was altogether different. A party was going on on a bend, and so I slowed to ask for directions. Immediately, I was surrounded by about six bobbing, swaying, zombie-like Khmers with glazed expressions, holding out their hands in supplication as house music pounded in the background. Feeling like I had been transported into some perverse combination of Resident Evil, the Ha├žienda (Manchester's infamous nightclub of the 1990s) and some sort of pagan ritual, I hurriedly asked for directions to Kratie. Still the hands were cupped in supplication and still they bobbed and swayed. Pulling five hundred riel from my pocket and placing it in a pair of cupped hands, they all nodded and made praying gestures before pointing me straight down the road. How bizarre.

Eventually I crossed the Mekong on a little wooden ferry, perturbing locals as I sped up the sandy ramp with ease (thanks to my 250cc engine) to a freshly-hacked coconut, some non-verbal banter with a shopkeeper and a bed at the Balcony Guesthouse in Kratie.

Lifting one's shirt up to reveal the belly appears to be either a Cambodian fashion or a way to cool down.

My dinner was very much "eat-and-be-thankful", given that deliveries weren't being made due to the New Year and therefore the hotel had very little of what was on its menu...

The sun dips over a floating settlement on the Mekong.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Reflections on Vietnam and A New Adventure.

It's been quite some time since I last posted, simply because crashing back into "the real world" for the last couple of months has made me a bit lazy and removed.

The trip to Vietnam, if it wasn't apparent from my writings, was simply amazing. The motorcycle is king in that country and so it makes perfect sense to see it while riding one. The experience of being in the open air, not encased in a metal shell, gives feelings of freedom and immersion, while visibility to local people is increased infinitely, meaning that the all-round sensation is far more satisfying (except, I might add, when it rains, or when one is riding around Cao Bang Province in winter...). Having never ridden a motorcycle before this trip, I was surprised at the ease with which I managed to ride, and was amazed that I had only one accident in six weeks. Acclimatisation to Vietnamese traffic and its unwritten rules was quick and easy. My main tips:

1) Do not become complacent. This sounds like the most obvious advice going, but it's the most valuable. When one reads of accidents involving Westerners on motorbikes, there are usually three factors involved: alcohol, drugs and excessive speed, or a combination of two or more. I met harm when going too fast, many others are less lucky. Put simply, do not drink/take drugs and ride.

2) Go with the flow (quite literally). Coming to junctions can be very daunting, since giving way is not commonplace at all in Vietnam. It's actually very easy if you intend to turn right: just slow down and merge into the waves of motorbikes. Other riders will accommodate you. As for turning left, well, be a little more aggressive but make no sudden movements!

3) Riding in the dark is ill-advised but, having done it a few times, not impossible. Try to leave enough time to reach your destination before nightfall or be prepared to stop somewhere other than where you'd intended. Guesthouses are two-a-penny and reasonably priced. If you must go on, keep your wits about you, look for potholes and keep a steady, sensible speed.

Making such a journey in solitude also produced plenty of experiences which I may not have had in a group: the lone traveller is less intimidating to locals, less removed and more pitiable in the correct circumstances!

As for the country itself, I run out of superlatives. I could describe it as: beautiful, dramatic, serene, chaotic, hospitable, friendly, socialist, capitalist, traditional...the list goes on. The scenery won the day for me; the variation between the mountains of the north, the jungle of the centre and the plains of the south make for pleasantly diverse vistas and experiences, while the people also change with the scenery; hardier, more reserved (though very friendly) in the mountainous north, "softer" and far more open in the south (though, I found, not quite as friendly as up north). The natural scenery, wildlife history, cuisine, conversations with the locals and random happenings (such as being dropped 200km from one wanted) ensure that no two days are ever the same! Cursory glances at the papers and the industry of the Vietnamese people showed that Vietnam is opening up and changing, but it was re-assuring to see that this was occurring while tradition and hospitality was being maintained.

Riding a motorcycle for six weeks left an indelible mark on me and it was only a matter of time before the next adventure would present itself. Tomorrow morning, I head to Singapore, before moving on to Phnom Penh on Monday, where I will pick up a Honda XR250 and disappear into Eastern Cambodia for two weeks. It should be a blast, so stay tuned for updates, whether they be on river dolphins, rescued elephants, impassable dirt tracks, commonplace acts of hospitality or deep-fried tarantulas...