Penh - In/Around the capital of Cambodia
-- Story by Erin --
May 22nd: Phnom Penh is such an interesting
place. We spent the first couple of days exploring the city; it's markets, roads,
food, etc. Our friend Darrel was a wealth of information on the recent history of
the country (he and his wife had arrived in P.P. a short time before the coup
attempt in 1997), and recommended things to do and see.
Unlike Vientiane in Laos (also a former French
colony), Phnom Penh has many remnants of French architecture still in wonderful
condition. Its waterfront area at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and the Tonle
Sap rivers is beautifully landscaped and very conducive to a long stroll. Across the
street from this promenade is a long stretch of restaurants, mostly catering to western
tourists. One of these restaurants is the Foreign Correspondents Club where you can
lounge around in comfy leather chairs under a fan sipping cocktails while you watch the
sun set across the river. Although there are more tourists than foreign
correspondents hanging out here now, the place still has a certain feel about it.
Currently there is a very graphic and interesting exhibit of previously unpublished photos
of the day Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and the days that followed shortly there
after. The photographer is the same guy that was portrayed in the movie "The
Killing Fields". Unfortunately, at present I can't remember his name. He
still lives in P.P.; I don't think he ever left. (There are several expats in
P.P. who are veterans of war and who will likely never leave it.) I'm not sure
that these photographs will ever be displayed outside of Cambodia. If you want to
travel to Cambodia (and we highly suggest you do!) rent the movie "The Killing
Fields" as it will give you some perspective of what these people went through, and
why perhaps it is taking so long to recover.
From the History section of my Lonely Planet
guidebook: The Khmer Rouge was (and still is) a rebel group led by the infamous Pol
Pot (died in 1998). Their goal was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist,
peasant-dominated, agrarian society. In April of 1975 Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer
Rouge (2 weeks before the fall of Saigon). For the next 4 years the country
experienced one of the most brutal attempts at restructuring a society ever undertaken.
As many as 2 million Cambodians died during this time. If you were educated,
spoke a foreign language or even wore glasses you were branded a "parasite" and
tortured and executed. At the end of 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the
KR. The KR escaped to the jungles and maintained a guerrilla war throughout the
1980's against opposing forces financed by China, Thailand, and the USA. In 1991 a
peace treaty was finally signed. Although their power was slowly diminishing the KR
still managed to control the gem and logging industry for much of the 1990's. This
helped to finance their activities. The KR is still out there in the countryside of
Cambodia, which definitely lends an air of danger when travelling around.
Another interesting place we visited in Phnom Penh was the Tuol Sleng
Museum. This was a former high school that was converted to a security prison by Pol
Pot's KR forces. Renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21) it became the largest torture and
detention center in the country. Almost everyone who was detained here was later
sent to extermination camps. It looks like a miniature version of a Nazi
concentration camp. No one was immune to interrogation during that time.
People of all ages (including babies and old people), all social classes, and all ethnic
classes made the horrific trip through the prison. It's really an emotional place to
visit. The hardest thing to realize it that it all happened so recently.
After a few days in P.P. we headed south for
the beach area of Sihanoukville. The road there is probably the best road in all of
Cambodia! It's perfectly paved, with a properly paved shoulder, painted lines down
the middle and best of all-----no potholes! Sihanoukville is Cambodia's only
seaport, and not very big at that. It's set out on a small peninsula with several
beaches around it. This place was so quite when we were there. You could walk
the beach all day and not see another foreign tourist. There are a few guesthouses
to stay in and you can get reasonable meals in town. If you're looking to really get
away from it all, this is the place! Unfortunately I got sick each night after
dinner (probably the heavily fried food) and we decided to cut our visit short and return
to P.P. after only a couple of days.
While we had headed off to Sihanoukville, Benka
headed to the Vietnamese border. Our plan was to enter Vietnam, visit Saigon (Ho Chi
Minh City), travel north along the coast to Hanoi, and exit Vietnam into Laos. Benka
had to be back in Bangkok in early June, so she hurried off ahead of us. When we
returned to P.P. she was back at Darrel and Susan's house after being rejected at the
border! This was disconcerting to say the least. We knew that the Vietnamese
border guards were fickle about letting people enter the country on bikes bigger than
175cc's (laws in these countries can sometimes be bent), but we fully expected Benka to
make it in. We know a handful of riders who were successful getting their bikes
into Vietnam (more recently through Laos). Anyway, we immediately called the travel
agent that was processing our Vietnam and Laos visas to ask him to put it on hold.
Our bad luck, he had already processed them (3 days earlier than expected) and they were
in our passports! The cost...$146 for both of us ($35 for Vietnam and $38 for Laos
each!) We stayed in P.P. another few days to decide what to do, go to the Vietnam
border and chance it or just return the same way we entered into Cambodia (the rains had
started and we were getting nervous about the condition of the roads).
<Chris> On Saturday, May 27th, I was a
referee for the Indochina Rugby Cup 2000, between the national teams of Vientiane (Laos),
Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Hanoi (Vietnam), and Saigon (Vietnam). I am a certified
referee in the states, which means I read the rulebook and passed the exam :-)
It was a great day, and we had a blast -- followed by many beers, good food,
and singing! I hope to do some more in OZ and NZ.
Notice how the referee does a
good job of staying out of the way!
Phnom Penh players cheer their
team in the 1st match victory over Hanoi
<Chris> Sunday morning,
7:00AM: Tired from the previous day's activities, I rolled out of bed and Darrel
rode me to a shop where I rented a Honda 250cc BAJA (same as Darrel's) for the day for a
mere $7. Darrel has been exploring the area for a few years, and the two of us spent
the day charging through the fields, back roads, forests, and
untainted villages of the countryside. It was so different to ride such a light bike
on the dirt/mud trails. Rather than pounding heavily through ditches, we jumped
them at speeds normally saved for paved roads! Darrel took me to villages that never
get foreign visitors, and it was a great experience for all of us. The only downside
(for me) was using the kick-start. It usually took a half-dozen attempts, and the
locals thought I looked pretty funny. Later in the day, I learned to just let one of
the local young men do it -- They thought it was a kick (ha, ha), and I didn't waste any
of my rapidly depleting energy. Darrel and I returned to P.P. just as darkness fell.
We showered, ate, and went right to sleep -- What a day!!!!
Taking a break in the woods, just before
encountering a HUGE mud patch. I couldn't get the kick-start going, and neither
could my new friends.
<back to Erin> After 3 or
so days in P.P. we decided it was worth a try to get into Vietnam.
We had paid for the visas already so we figured "what the hell". Our
friend Daniel, who had successfully entered Vietnam through the Cambodia/Vietnam border on
his bike (similar to Chris') in March, sent us email copies of his stamped carnet and
documents from the border. We hoped we could use them as proof that big bikes
can get in with proper paperwork. The road to the border can be described as the
good, the bad and the ugly. It starts out paved and in good shape, then gets a bit
rough as you spend most of the time dodging big potholes. It ends with road
construction that is either one big dust bowl when its dry or one big mud pit if its wet.
Luckily for us it was dry the day we drove there. It took us only three and a
half hours to ride the 150kms, including a break for lunch. We got to the border
about 12:30 in the afternoon. We asked the border guards on the Cambodian side if
they would let us pass without stamping us out. They smiled and said yes.
(They obviously thought we would be back shortly after our unsuccessful attempt.)
We pulled up on our bikes and entered the
immigration and customs building on the Vietnamese side. Everyone was smiling and
friendly. We put on our most friendly faces and started to go through the process.
Immigration stamped us in---no problem, Quarantine inspected our health
certificates---no problem, then Customs looked at our carnets----oh, there may be a
problem. The customs official took our carnets and left the building to seek advice
from, presumably, a higher authority. He returned about 45 minutes later, smiled and
then said he was sorry but he could not let us in with our motorbikes. This is when
Chris and his superb salesmanship swung into action. He went directly to the top
person in charge and started the sales pitch. This went on for about an hour. Money was
offered (a small amount really) and the official acted offended to have been offered a
bribe. Chris quickly apologized and asked if there was anything he could do to help
the process. No, no the man said its just the rules. Then Chris followed the
man into a back room where there was a small "party" going on. Other
customs officials poured him a beer, and then another. Everyone was smoking and
Chris offered them cigarettes (we don't smoke but its a good idea to carry cigarettes with
you in these countries to use as the occasional bribe.)
After awhile he left the party with the
original customs guy. One last effort was made by Chris to offer something to entice
them (i.e. more money.) This time the official basically said it would take more
money than what we offered to let us pass. What would that be? $50?
$100? That was too much for our budget to handle. At last, after 4 long hours,
we had to acknowledge our defeat. We drove back through the Cambodian side and waved
at the border officials. They waved and smiled back to us.
A bit dejected we drove back to the first big
town on the Cambodian side, found a room for the night with safe parking for the bikes.
The guesthouse was a new house with a big, open entrance to the front of the house.
They let us pull our bikes right up into their living room and onto their nice tile
floor. They even pulled out planks of wood to help us go over the steps. Heck,
these people put their little Honda scooters in the living room every night, why not big
bikes like ours??? Soon after we checked in and got settled a huge thunderstorm
struck and lasted the entire night. The streets were completely flooded that night
as we ventured out to find a hot meal for dinner. We donned our yellow/orange
Gore-Tex rain gear to keep us dry and I'm sure all of the local's thought we looked like
We decided not to overnight in Phnom Penh again
as we had seen a lot of it and would be overstaying our welcome with poor Darrel and
Susan. If we could make it at least 350 kilometers to the north, past P.P. we could
do the trip to the Thai border in 2 days. We got an early start the next day and
fought our way through the mud bowl and potholes to P.P. We stopped in at Darrel's
house to see what was happening with Benka (she had taken ill before we left).
Turned out that she was feeling better and decided to get on the road early that morning
too, as the rain was really making things bad. We managed to dodge the rain the rest
of that afternoon and made it to a town called Pursat on the west side of Tonle Sap lake
(we came down to P.P. from Siem Reap on the east side) with only minor difficulties with
Don't get me wrong here, the roads are still in
horrible condition by anyone's standards, but by now we were used to them (and maybe
better riders too!) so they didn't seem as bad. Again, it rained all that evening
and into the night. We awoke that morning to find the street covered in mud.
The road to Battambang, the next big city on the route north, was a rough ride especially
since the road was still so wet from the night before. The afternoon proved to be
much better as the roads dried considerably and the pavement got better on the way to
Sisaphon. We got very good at standing on the pegs and rolling on the throttle as
the bikes banged over the ruts and potholes. It's easier on our bodies but very
hard on the bikes. We lost various bits and pieces off the bikes on this road (i.e.
a deer whistle off my bike, a can of fix-a-flat foam from Chris' bike.) My horn
broke and so did Chris' latch on his top box.
As we headed from Sisaphon to the border
(50km), the last stretch of "road", we wondered if we would think the road would
be as bad as when we first entered 2 weeks earlier. The road turned out to be
bone-dry, unlike when we first arrived, but it definitely felt worse to me since each
impact seemed to make me bottom out. I started to hear a grinding noise when exiting
from DEEP holes. Turns out my front sprocket was rapidly loosing teeth on this last
stretch of road. We ground our way to the border around 4:15 p.m. and breezed
through immigration and customs on both sides in 20 minutes. We decided to drive the
250kms to Bangkok rather than stay the night on the border. It was a long day, over
500 kilometers and 12 hours, but we made it back to Bangkok in one piece, relieved to have
successfully made it out of Cambodia without any major accidents. That night we met
up with Benka again at the hotel. She too had made it out just fine.
Friday morning, June 2nd we promptly delivered
our bikes to our friend Yut's repair shop, Dynamic Motors, and asked him to do a full
service on the bikes including repairing/replacing things broken or lost during our
adventure. We had done a lot of work in Yut's shop on previous visits, but were
exhausted from the ride back, and decided to have the bikes serviced by proper mechanics
-- especially to tighten everything back up. We stayed in Bangkok for another week
and a half while the bikes were being repaired. Back at the guesthouse,
we met Kris PanEuropean -- A friendly Belgian guy, riding his Pan European (Honda ST1100)
around the world. He's the only overlander we know doing this RTW journey without an
enduro (on road/off road) bike. He claims the bike is doing well, but after riding
some comparable roads in Laos, Kris decided not to attempt Cambodia -- He has many
kilometers to go and doesn't want to destroy the bike.
Monday morning, June 5th, 5:30am: Benka
knocked on our door to wake us, and 10 minutes later the 3 of us hauled her gear to the
airport bus stop -- she was flying back to the states for the summer to earn some money
before the next leg of her trip. We had a tired but emotional good-bye, the bus
pulled away, and we stood on the curb watching the city slowly come to life.
Later in the week, our friends Tom &
Kirstin and Liam returned from Cambodia as well. We swapped stories and some photos
-- Liam had a harrowing but funny story about his fall in a flooded rice paddy
field. Finally it was time to leave Bangkok, this time for good (or at least the
next several years!). We said goodbye to Yut and our other friends (Graham and
Daniel) in Bangkok and drove off to Ko Samui (an island on the East Coast of Thailand) on
We are currently on the island of Samui now,
relaxing in our little bungalow on the beach, surrounded by palm trees, stretched out on
our hammock, listening to the surf, working on this story, and visiting with our German
friend Ben and wife Oiy who live here. We met Ben several months ago in Chiang Mai
in the north. Ben also has traveled the globe riding his black BMW R100GS, currently
with over 350,000kms on the clock!
We leave Ko Samui on Monday, June 19th and head
for Penang in Malaysia. It will feel strange to leave Thailand as it has been so
good to us these past 3-4 months. We will miss the Thai people, all of the friends
we've made, the food, and the rich culture.