Cambodia 1 - land of many smiles

Since we 've organized an e- visa for Cambodia in Thailand we have to use the border crossing at Poipet - the only border crossing in this region which is equipped for this type of visa . I 've never seen such a busy border. It is teeming with people some just needing a a new visa for Thailand and therefore just exiting and reentering the country. Then there are a lot of Thai who want to visit the casinos which cluster between the borders – gambling is banned in Thailand  but this does not suppress the love of Asians for doing so and so they come here just to indulge the vice. Then there's the cross-border traffic of goods : It is fascinating what is conveyed here on mopeds, bicycles and handcarts and other vehicles back and forth from one country to the other. Our entry formalities are done quite fast, but Johan has to go back to the Thai border again because they have stamped the wrong passport. So Kev and I wait for Johan to have everything put in the right place and we do so in the midst of the two borders. We have plenty of time to watch the bustling traffic with Muse.  One pair is particularly interesting - they carry something very heavy and wet ( it drips out of the basket ) from Cambodia to Thailand. One is sitting on a bike but the load seems to be so heavy that he can’t get it going on his own – therefore his pal helps him by giving him a good push until the bike has enough momentum for the other to keep pedaling, and then he runs back to his scooter races behind his pal and then pushes him with his foot on the bum and engine power to the other side - in this fashion they zoom past us in a continuous back and forth.
After everything is sorted for Johan’s entry to everyone's satisfaction and after having actually already crossed the border we have to make a stop at the customs building for importing the vehicles legally. Johan needs a stamp in his carnet and we do not have one - ours will arrive with Arnie in January as we have been told by the ADAC that we won’t need one before Malaisia and while Johan’s papers are done in seconds  we have problems now. They don’t want to let our vehicle into the country without Carnet and after 3 hours filled with suggestions and discussions, we are not making any progress . In the end we have two options: a) we leave our vehicle in the customs parking lot and drive to Pnomh Penh to get there appropriate forms - a process that takes two weeks , according to the admittedly rather friendly customs officials or b)  use a travel agency at the border who claims to be able to get the papers faster, but for 9000 baht ( $ 250 ! ) but they will still need one week for it. After I made it clear that we would rather go back to Thailand again then pay $ 250 for the entry of our motorcycle and also the two gentlemen from the customs authority want to go home as closing time is approaching they decide to turn a blind eye and let us enter the country without any papers. We are being told that should we run into problems in the country however, we are on our own as they don’t know a thing about it - ok let’s do this and hope for the best .
By now it is too late to continue to drive and so we find a place to stay for the night in Poipet
The next morning we get up early because we have to go to PhnomPenh - Johan is already very excited - his girlfriend whom he has not seen for almost 5 months arrives here today and will spend 2 weeks with us to tour the country. So we have to find our way through the city look for an accommodation and sort everything so that Johan can go to the airport to pick her up .

We drive through a landscape which resembles what I had imagined Southeast Asia to look like : Rice fields , lots of water,  houses on stilts, many coconut palms and water buffalo.
Everywhere we see laughing people waving and pippin at us - of course we stand out with our big bikes amongst all the small scooters and even if there are many unusual vehicles here and many of them are three-wheeled  they still have never seen an outfit  like our Liza here - and then the giant tank! When we stop to fill up at the petrol station, the two girls at the pumps just can’t believe it- 50 liters ....!
Mopeds here are all quite small with a tank that holds up to 3 liters and they buy their fuel in bottles on small stalls on the roadside, which they then empty  into their tanks with a funnel.

I have already decided that I like this country very much.
We ride into Phnom Penh and this city is chaos. Johan has entered a Guest House from our Lonely Planet into his GPS but we end up in a really pretty bad neighborhood with narrow streets , fairly dilapidated buildings ( we really are not spoiled and have to watch how we spend our cents , but here we come to our limits  on top of it all the streets get ever narrower and soon we can’t get through anymore with our outfit and the little alleys turn into mud paths - so we consult the guide again and decide to try it in another part of town. We have a street and house number but there is no clear system to go by and find places and also the traffic is pretty dense and we keep losing Johan because cars, mopeds and tuk-tuks and whatever else cavort in all directions around us But finally we get help by a few Tuktuk drivers who show us where we can find the street and then we only have to weave through the chaos . . again and again  but eventually we have made it. In this street there are actually a lot of guest houses and after we've scoured some we find one with free rooms in an affordable price range and even a parking spot for us. The rooms are small but it is clean and even has wifi - well if that is not a stroke of luck!

It's only noon and we have an accommodation and still lots of time until Johan's girlfriend arrives. So we decide to have a look around the quarter and  Kevin wants to eat a baguette from a street vendor . So we jump into the fray on foot . Crossing the street requires fearlessness and eyes on the back and front . It is very hot and stuffy and we find all sorts of strange things but no baguettes. At some point I've had enough - I am completely sweaty, hungry and just want to sit somewhere . We find a bus station-currency exchange facility- restaurant type place. The prices are slightly touristy but they also sell baguettes with fried egg and iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk - absolutely delicious.  Only that now something is upsetting my digestive system and so I leave the men behind and hurry back to our accommodation as fast as possible - funny : if you 're in a hurry and the fear of not making it to the toilet in time is greater than that of being knocked down , crossing the road suddenly works as if by magic
Johan has hired a tuktuk on the way that will bring him to the airport and then a storm starts that lasts at least 2 hours and it is pouring with rain. Only shortly before Johan and Florence  come back from the airport it stops. They both have something to eat and we all drink a few beers together and get to know each other which ends up boring poor Flo with a thousand and one travel stories  until we finally decide to all go to bed .
For the next day a big tour of the city is planned with palace, monastery, museum and memorial park of the Killing Fields – witnesses of the best and worst past of this country. We book a tuktuk for the day - I like the tuktuks here, they are beautiful - just like an old horse carriage and coupled to the back of a motorbike, but the coach feeling remains. First we go to a museum where once a killing camp of the Khmer Rouge was. At the entrance you get an audio guide , which takes you around in the selected language. It tells you the history of the area and the functions of the individual buildings and stations - the whole mixed with reports of eyewitnesses and survivors. Polpots army has managed in 4 years to slaughter one-third of the population in the most brutal not to say bestial manner. The schizophrenic philosophy that just peasants and workers are the only people that a country needs led to mass murder - first the intellectuals such as teachers , writers, scientists and doctors have been killed - the people should only consist of peasants and workers.  Cities were depopulated and people transported to the countryside where they had to do work of which they had no idea while being starved. Those who could not keep up where beaten to death using agricultural equipment like spades and hoes. The bodies were thrown into mass graves and then covered with DDT - the neurotoxin was for those who had survived the chopping blows - to everything played loud music so that the screams were drowned. What began with the great minds of the country and the city's population expanded soon to the whole country and did not halt even before the Red Khmer - true to the rule that any revolution at the end eats its own children. There are bones and clothing remnants still washed up after the rainy season and at the end of the tour is a stupa with glass walls in which the bones found here are placed for everyone to see. The country is still suffering from the consequences of this terrible time and it seems to me all the more surprising and admirable how friendly and cheerful the people here are.
After this depressing experience we need a while until we have digested the seen and then we visit the Royal Palace. Here there is the formal wear required- not wife beaters, no shorts and so a disgruntled Johan under protest has to buy a t-shirt with sleeves at the entrance, so that we can get into the palace grounds..
After visiting the palace with its beautiful gardens and wats, the general mood lifts again and our tuktuk driver makes a few detours to sights of interest with us before he brings us back to our lodgings.
After Phnom Penh we are drawn towards the north- east by the Mekong River, in Kratie there are rare river dolphins, which we to hopefully will get to see. The road - if you can call it that - consists mainly of holes and red dust - it is as fine as powder and gets into everything. For lunch we stop for a noodle soup and a cold drink at a rickety wooden shack with a dirt floor.


After that we ride on for several hours until just before dark and then we start looking for a place to stay. Here we notice that Kevin is no longer wearing his bum bag - after some thought we decide that he most likely has left it behind on our lunch break. The bag contains apart from our stash of dollars  all our papers - passports, bike documents , driving licenses, vaccination certificates , insurance ... etc. We have sworn not to drive in the dark  but now we just have to. The sun is already quite low and ahead lies a 2 hour drive until we get to the place of our lunch stop and then we will have to get back here again - through road works and patches of tar with deep holes and rutted roads shrouded in red dust clouds by the local traffic. All this with a defective battery and an alternator that does not produce enough charge for  lights  indicators and ignition spark at the same time. This alone is enough actually to catapult me into the vicinity of a nervous breakdown , but the concern for our passports and travel fund is far worse . The sun sets here at quickly and then it is also pretty much immediately pitch dark , many of the locals drive either with no light or with high beam on the road and we ride  as if the devil was on our tail . I keep praying to God , Allah and Buddha at the same time and when we finally arrive I 'm a quivering bundle of nerves . They immediately recognize us and the owner of the small street café  disappears into the house and comes back out with our bum bag held over his head grinning from ear to ear while we break down into jabbering wrecks. I cry like a toddler with relief while the troop of Cambodians ( guests and owners) laugh and find it all rather funny. They summon a young man who speaks some English and tells us that they had been trying to catch us with their scooter at lunch time  but against our big bikes simply had no chance. Kevin must check the contents of the bag and after we confirm that everything is in its place are all satisfied . I give them with still trembling hands $ 20 reward , which probably for these people is at least one  week's pay and we get back on track - again 2 hours through the night and I do not know who to thank now : God , Allah or Buddha! The bike wants to cut out at every stopping point when the revs are too low and so we stand with a screaming engine before the traffic lights and we hope that we can make it back safely  which we do eventually . Man - that was an excitement and Johan and Flo await us with 2 cans of ice cold beer and a serving of fried rice for everyone - those are true friends for you!
The next day we arrive in Kratie and I feel a bit under the weather - I have probably caught a flu from some tourists in Phnom Penh which they have brought with them from their cold home . While Kev and Johan organize a place to stay I take pictures of our friend the Mekong and then leave the camera bag lying on a bench as they call me across the road where they have found a guest house. It takes quite a while until I realize that the bag is missing and I  still think that I 've stuffed the bag into the large Ortlieb-sack from the sidecar and now that we are in a hurry to make it  in time for a sunset boat trip to see dolphins I do not get around to look for it .
We drive 15 km up river take a boat photo safari and try to snap the elusive animals . Johan has more luck than I do. Whenever I get a dolphin in front of the lens it takes forever until I have zoomed in and focused on them and by that time they have dived and gone again and so I end up with a few nice shots of driftwood and the sunset , but at least I have seen them .
When we return the search for the camera and bag begins - in the sack it is not and also nowhere else in the luggage nor at the bank  where I have probably left it. We ask the street vendors, in the tourist information center and the shops of the neighborhood, but without success and decide to give it a try and ask at the police station if it has been handed in on the next day.

So in the morning we head for the police station to ask if an honest finder has handed in our camera. We are being told to come back in the afternoon at 2 pm. We use the morning to  pack our bikes and then visit a turtle sanctuary and a temple next to it. After that Johan and Flo ride upfront to our next destination while we return to the police station. Here we are greeted by a disgruntled trio of highranking police officers. The whole situation  is quite difficult - they think I want to press charges and the stern looking officers sit in front of me and hand me important -looking forms to fill in – It takes ages until I get them to understand that I do not wish to file a complaint. All I want is to ask if someone has handed in the things that I have lost by my own fault - because such a thing is not uncommon in my home country. Finally, I have to actually give them in writing that I do not want to make a complaint because the loss of the things was my own mistake! Oh man, I just hope it gives them something to think about and makes them realize that other people have a better relationship with their police.
In any case, this useless action means that we again have to drive in the dark and on a track where dirt road and tar with holes alternate and we do not know where we need to go - what a wasted afternoon and now we have to hold our breath that we do not break down with total alternator and battery failure.
Stung Treng is the town where we spend this night and it is a fairly desolate dusty place with nothing to keep us here, so in the morning we just quickly organize a few doughnut like things with iced coffee fill up with petrol and we’re off to find the ferry. Here for once we have luck and arrive exactly at the right time. All we have to do is to push Liza backwards onto the boat and off we go . As always our rare contraption finds, it’s admirers which gets me talking  to a nice Canadian, who has lived here for 5 months with her husband both working for a NGO – trying to improve sanitation drinking water supplies and teaching basic hygiene to help the poor people here. She says the route to Siem Reap is quite good and we should actually get there in 8 hours. The first 30 miles are dirt road  but then it gets quite good and new tarmac with short sections of dirt road and we make better progress than we have thought . At 12o’clock  we have done half of the journey already. We go through quite a poverty-stricken area, the houses are mostly simple palm huts and even those who look to be decaying are inhabited. Cambodia still has to struggle a lot with the legacy for one of the Vietnam War  in which it was drawn by the Americans who simply bombed everything that lay in the approach paths but most of the population still suffers from the effects of civil war and mass destruction by the Khmer Rouge and still large areas are riddled with land mines. Despite the high levels of poverty  people are cheerful and above all helpful. Of the Asian countries we have seen so far this is yet for us the most sympathetic one.
At 4 clock in the afternoon we reach Siem Reap , the ancient capital of the Khmer empire with the temples of Angkor Wat  which I have been looking forwards to for a long time. First of course we have to find an affordable place here ( everywhere is full of tourists which makes this task difficult , especially since it is the peak season here at the moment - the rainy season is over and everything is  still green with halfway bearable temperatures. Thanks to Johan’s GPS we find  the backpacker district and by now I am totally shattered. My bones are  aching thanks to my cold. We wander from one guest house to the next and eventually we finally find a room for $ 10 the night and we can park our bikes in the yard. All I want now is to shower off the red dust while Johan and Flo are ready to look at Siem Reap night life. Us two oldies however have to watch the budget a bit and besides, I just want to recuperate of my cold and go to bed early so I am fit for tomorrow and the temples.
Before that we have to have a look at Johan and Flo’s new neighbors ..... in a small courtyard behind our guest house is a fenced in courtyard with 2 pools and at least 60 but Kevin estimates more than 100 giant crocodiles all in the middle of the city. The poor animals make us feel really sorry - we assume that they wait there have their skin pulled over the ears for the leather - it's a shame but I suppose farms like this one are just a matter of fact here and still better than hunting the wild crocs – it seems to be a good business as I learn that there are about 500 crocodile farms in the Siem Reap  area alone.

The next morning and after careful consideration we buy a weekly ticket for the temples - which is valid for a whole month and as we want to come back here after Flo’s holidays are over we can make good use of them then. With Flo we will only have time to look at the most popular of the many temples in the huge system of Anchor Thom which is the former royal and capital city of the Khmer empire. In it’s day it is said that there have lived one million people.  Left of it are only the temples and parts of the former irrigation system as only the gods were allowed stone houses - people had to build with wood which obviously has decayed since. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is an absolute must to see even if you have to climb through the ruins with the thousands of other tourists. We make a point of seeing Ta Prohm  the temple , which the jungle reclaims and where trees  grow out and over the masonry, Wat Bayon, with the three faces that are so typical of Khmer temples. and Anchor Wat - the main temple - even at times of the Khmer Rouge , it was used and honored as it is a national symbol and found both on the flag and on the money. Anyone who has admired Lara Croft in Thomb Raider  has (mostly unknowingly) seen these temples They were used as a film set. We’re taking photos of various temples and we feel a little like the Raiders looking for the lost treasures , even if the probability of finding one is quite low (millions before us have already turned every stone)
After 3 days in Siem Reap we head across the country to the sea. The roads are bad and dusty and all full of everything from ox and carts to scooters to buses and any other contraption one can imagine. Whenever you think you have seen everything that is possible you will soon be proven wrong.  A joke that we've come up with : How many people go on a moped , in a car, in a bus or a tuktuk ? ....... Always one more! And then you want to see the loads! 5 hundred weights of rice on a scooter - 2 bags of it in the front footwell , 3 sacks on the back and the wife on top of it .... If you see only one person on the scooter = luxury , 2 persons = standard , 3 persons = normal and 4-5 persons ( sometimes plus children ) = nothing unusual. We need 2  days and overnights on the road and then spend 2 and a half days in Kep on the seaside - there is no sandy beach and luckily not many tourists , but it's still nice and finally we can eat fresh fish and crabs, and then Flo's two weeks are already coming to an end. We must go back to Phnom Penh for her flight and we all had a hectic but enjoyable time in which we have tried to see as much of this country as possible – It is incredible how fast the two weeks have flown by. But if you think about it, it is also unbelievable that we are already on the road for almost half a year! My God, where has the time gone?
We pack the bikes after breakfast and then head in the direction of Kampot because Flo wants to stock up on the market there with the world famous Kampot pepper. Finally, I am where the pepper grows  (“GO where the pepper grows” is a German expression to tell someone to go away and that very far!) The market is covered and full of interesting things and of course Flo gets her pepper and Kevin finally buys his Khmer cloth that he has wanted so long - I haggle  down the seller by 1000 riel which is more to stay in practice, because it costs only 6000 Riel  which is $ 1.5 but I have only a 5000 note. On the way out we buy some bananas and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice - which is rather tasty. I've never tried it because I thought it would taste of pure sugar, but this is not the case – somehow it tastes green and refreshing with just a slightly sweet note.
Kampot is actually quite a beautiful city, with many old houses in the French colonial style we would have surely found a nice place to stay here as well, but probably not as quiet as in Kep .

We get back on the road again towards PP - thankfully this route is mostly paved and we do  not need to swallow the fine red dust which gives me some of the finest coughing fits. On the way I get some fine views of the landscape and also some treats of the  art of Cambodian  loading skills which I sometimes even get on a photo . There are less water buffalo here but everywhere these bony cows that I have always associated with India - I wonder why they seem to like this cattle here. They seem to be no good milk cows and somehow put not much meat on either - maybe they do best with the humid heat here.
After Flo has left us , we return to Siem Reap where we spend our last 10 days in Cambodia – since we have been on the road this is the longest we have been in one place - we almost end up having a routine. In the morning we go to one of the neighboring Guest houses for breakfast and even always order the same, then one of us sticks his feet in the pool with the doctor fish and has a tickle . Then it's back to our hostel. We are planning and preparing our trip to Vietnam. Johan sorts with his friend when we drop off our bikes at his place (we unfortunately have to leave them behind because the Vietnamese do not let foreign vehicles drive through their country.) In the room I spend my time at the computer and try to figure out train connections from Saigon to Hanoi and Kevin and Johan book the bus from here to Saigon. $ 20 per person for 11 hours of driving in the night bus does not sound bad, but the train ticket from Saigon to Hanoi  will cost almost 2 million Dong - . . which is almost $ 100. For the first time I have stopped converting prices into Euros in these countries here - it is hard enough to have to permanently work with two currencies in one country. At the ATMs here you just get dollars and if something costs $ 2.5  you pay either 10 000 Riel or $ 2 and 2000 Riel and I am completely confused having to work in two different currencies so at the same time trying to work out € on top of that is definitely asking too much .... I 'm already dreading to  think about having to start learning anew again with an exchange rate of  20500 to one !
 We still have a few days left on our temple ticket. While Johan decides to relax a bit and feels sorry about being on his own again Kev and I have decided to make the most of our temple ticket and to have a look at everything we have not seen before - we sweat up and down the steep stairs and on the last day we persuade Johan to come along with us one more time so he can make a few pictures from us and the bike with a Santa hat in front of palm trees and exotic temples which we want to use for Christmas Greetings We decide to pose in front of Bayon Wat which  has a few nice palm trees in the foreground. I've bought a Santa hat and reindeer antlers in Phnom Penh for this action and so we entertain the Tuktuk drivers and other tourists with our photo session . When it’s time for some Santa pics with Johan a minibus full of Chinese arrives and they just love it! Posing in silly outfits is right up their street  so they swarm all over and around Johan with their cameras and he puts on a brave face and poses patiently with all the Chinese women and his motorcycle.
Then we rush to see a temple, which we have not yet looked at . This is one that they are"just" trying to preserve in its current state , so soon we climb like curious children all over the vast ruins and take  pictures like crazy . The time flies by and we have earned a coconut . On the way back we want to snap a few sunset pictures in front of Anchor Wat where we meet a couple on a Transalp with an English number plate. The two of them have come from England via Turkey , Iran, India , Nepal and Thailand, and say that we are the first other long-term travelers, they have seen so far and so we naturally come quickly to share stories and decide to spend the evening together to go out for a meal and some beers . Since we already have spend a while in Siem Reap of course we know where the best place for this would be. So we drive back to our accommodation, then meet up and all 5 of us crush into a tuk-tuk for a night out in the city. The beer in the restaurant of our choice costs only 50 cents , so we have a fun evening with a load of nice stories.
On our next to last night in Cambodia Heng invites us for a meal - his wife equips weddings with all the trimmings  like clothing ( a Cambodian wedding couple changes during the celebration up to 10 times) , hairstyle and makeup , party services with all the food and if desired even with premises. Normally a tent is rented  but sometimes Cambodians marry here that actually live abroad and then they are in need of a  place to have the party. We feast like royalty and look at all the photos of the happy newlyweds.
The next day we take our beloved motorcycles and leave them in Heng’s care for the next two months - it somehow does hurt but they deserve a break and we get ready for the 16 hours bus ride  to Saigon.
 At midnight we are being picked up for the overnight bus . We get two small cabins that are obviously made for the small and thin Cambodians and so Kev and I cuddle in a tight cab and Johan gets one for himself - he must share it with all helmets and the hand luggage as well as the provisions for the journey.  

They have overbooked the bus however and now we are being shuffled about until Kev and Johan end up sharing one small cabin and I have a terrified looking Cambodian girl next to me. . I do know from experience that the road down to Phnom Penh is really bad. Full of roadworks and potholes so I am already dreading being thrown onto that poor girl so there is not much chance of me finding enough peace of mind to fall asleep properly. Not that I would be able to anyway – we are really being rattled to bits. After a few hours  the bus stops  it takes a while and then suddenly the attendant comes round again and asks every man out to push start the bus and after some tired pushing with no result we are being told that we will to have change busses and just as we are about to grab all our stuff  the driver has another go and the engine starts. I dose a bit but there is no chance for sleep and then my bladder starts wanting a relief. The girl next to  me is asleep so there is no way for me to get out and I just suffer quietly waiting for the morning. Finally the bus stops again and I lift the curtain to have a look where we are when I see a lot of passengers standing or squatting near the bus and that’s it – I just have to wake the girl and take my chance for relief here – well at least I have that peace afterwards. We eventually make it to Phnom Penh where we are told that we will have to change busses now. We get a new ticket and then are being ferried across the whole city, get into another bus which takes us to Saigon.

The only plus in all of this is that the bus company takes care of all the border formalities and then we are out of the country and more or less ready for a new adventure.