The border crossing back to Cambodia is nice and easy and pretty soon we’re all back in the bus and the journey goes on in the direction of Phnom Penh.
I look out the bus window and cannot believe how quiet it is here on the streets. Again and again I nudge Kev and keep pointing out that everywhere is so quiet and empty.
Our plan for the onward journey is to take the connecting bus to Sihanoukville to meet up with Arnie there who is here for his 2 months winter vacation to recover from his busy bone
shaking job as a motorcycle courier in London. It sure is nicer to miss the cold wet time in London and instead to soak up some heat on the beach here. Arnie has also kindly brought us a few
spare parts and customs documents for Liza and after 2 busy months with the old Honda Win in hectic Vietnam we could use a break from the adventure. Johan has also decided to relax here for a few
days with us before going back to Siem Reap and our own bikes which we have to make fit again for the long journey that lies ahead of us.
However, before we get to spread the battered bones on the beach they get properly shaken in the Cambodian " luxury buses ". From the border , we are brought to Phnom Penh where we are going to take the bus to Sihanoukville . Although the company advertises free WiFi and the access key is also well displayed on the bus, but the modem has probably been battered to death and now we have to watch the soul destroying Cambodian soap operas alternating with karaoke music films in endless loops which after a while start sabotaging my will to live.
I am overjoyed when we finally arrive in Phnom Pen and realize that I actually find the traffic here very tame after 2 months in Vietnam. The connecting bus is late and then proceeds in circles through the capital to fill every available space.
There is no point in looking for a wifi connection here and instead we have the choice of either the little confidence-inspiring views on the driving skills of our obviously night blind bus driver (we are sitting right behind him) or to follow soaps, and Karaoke on the screen above him.
The dinner break after 4 hours of being rattled down the road we use to finally make contact with Arnie and figure out where we are going to spend the night. In a fit of euphoria I write to him that we will be arriving soon, but unfortunately I have completely misjudged the situation - the bus stops now every 5 minutes for individual passengers to let them out in drips and drops and it takes a further 4 hours until we finally reach our destination in the middle of the night. We are looking for a tuktuk, show the driver the address that Arnie has sent us and soon we are on a slow bumpy ride with our pile of luggage to our stay for outrageously overpriced $ 5.
In the hotel they are a bit confused our room was booked by another person not identical with the ones who claim to rightfully stay there! He can at least find the booking after a while and even the name Holford pops up . An employee is sent to check the room and he comes back with the message that it is either inhabited or has not been cleaned and after 14 hours in different buses with soap operas and karaoke softening our brains our nerves at their end - the patience cracks and we get slightly annoyed . Several times the poor receptionist tries to reach Arnie and soothe us at the same time until at last he is lucky, because Arnie calls back and explains that the case of beer was deposited in the fridge by him as a welcome present for us. The poor guy that had it all cleared out (and has perhaps also been looking forward to a cold beer) must now carry everything back into the room .
Happy to be finally at our destination we head straight out to find something to eat at a street stall because our meal break in the bus we had used for smoking to soothe our frayed nerves and for email communication). On the way back to the hotel I put my foot almost on a scorpion - the last second I see the beast and because I cannot believe my eyes I ask the others what this was and get the answer - exactly what you think!
Back in the room we hit the cool beer : cheers to the foresight of the noble donor ! After a while Arnie comes by to welcome us and in next to no time the beer is gone - I think most of it is already evaporated in the unfamiliar heat!
The next 6 days are spent with Arnie in Sihanoukville - the El Arenal of Cambodia. It is a bit quieter though - at least the corner in which we are stationed - we are slowly but surely too old for the party zone : Been there, done it and bought the T -shirt.
Arnie comes in the morning to our Guesthouse to take us to his favourite breakfast places and we usually end up at the Victory beach - our house beach - one of the many beaches in and around Sihanoukville and I think it is the quietest and most relaxing one. We have looked at a few of the others and everywhere else are more people and from each beach hut comes a different music. One is often approached by beggars who have lost their legs through land mines, the backpacker beach is full of disgruntled young people who tick off their program and constantly someone wants to sell you something ( bracelets , fruit, joints , massage) What is extremely noticeable in this most touristy of all Cambodian places is that the locals do not laugh here with us and joke –as was the case in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap - the young girls here are very tarted up and many of them are in search of a rich pale-face and all others are in their own way trying to somehow get their hands on the popular dollar. Once I was actually approached by a waiter and asked if I could adopt him, he sees no future for himself in his country and wants to work in Germany , and if possible also to study there and he does not even know, what language is spoken in Germany . I tell him that I find his question very brave but apart from the fact that I do not know whether one can so easily adopt a 23- year-old man back home it will ( hopefully) be a long time before we are back there .. I cannot blame them all for trying though - they get one day a month free if they're lucky, work long days for $ 150 a month (not enough to live and too much to die ) and all the tourists spoil the prices for the locals too. The older western men look for a pretty Asian girl which hopefully will look after them when they are getting to the point that they actually need the old people's home and that in a country which is cheap for us and one even saves heating costs. This, too, I cannot judge badly , it's a trade that benefits all sides.
So we spend a lot of time in "our" beach hut which we enjoy but unfortunately won’t be there much longer. They have already put up a site fence here and a nice piece of sandy beach will fall victim to a casino. Something that is in my view extremely stupid - the tourists which are going to a casino consist usually of busloads of Chinese who spill out of their bus into the casino to spend their time there without paying attention to the environment ( the casino could therefore just as well be standing next to a junkyard and so turn worthless land into a gold mine ) and then they climb into their buses again and drive on. It is not as if Cambodia has many sandy beaches - the largest part of the bit of coast is gravel beach and this is precisely the reason why Sihanoukville has made it to the Cambodian tourism map and now they dig themselves little by little into a hole that benefits few and will for certain kill this local community.
What the heck - we can not make the world better so we enjoy it while we still have the chance and enjoy breakfast under the palm trees. Again and again I bring my computer to the beach , it could well be the muse kisses me and I might even write a bit on the blog. The water here is so beautifully blue and clear and it cools a little and so it lures me always away from the horrible task of scribbling . We are no longer used to the warm temperatures and need to acclimatize. After a swim and a bit of Thailand blog we decide that it's time to spend the hottest part of the day indoors so we ride to the town center where we want to be pampered with a seeing hands massage. The Seeing Hands are an organization where blind people are given training and a fair workplace which is a great opportunity for people with disabilities here. For $ 6 you get a one-hour full body massage and I talk Kevin into getting a massage, because he has problems with his back and shoulders since Christmas already and it is for a good cause too - I'd rather support such projects , than buying something of children that should better go to school .. the massage is not for the squeamish , but even Kevin feels better afterwards .
Although we spend most of the time on the beach in the 6 days we are here we also make time to let Arnie show us around somewhat. We look at the temple... then drive along the coast back to the beach hut where we treat ourselves with a cold beer to a romantic sunset. Sometimes we go to the center in the evening , dine out and make a sightseeing tour of the party district . This really is not our world but you have to have seen it, and that is enough.
Arnie is a star, he knows everyone and everything here and he can tell us where we can do the laundry, rent a scooter, eat well and cheap and we have a fun time that like all good times flies by and before we realize it we are already sitting in the bus again waiting to be reunited with our beloved mopeds at last.
After being thrown about from morning to night in a climate supercooled , overcrowded rattling bus from Sihanoukville via Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and then having to search for an accommodation in the middle of the night our first thought is only one: We can pick up our Liza from her 2 month beauty sleep . Finally, finally ...... finally! Last night before going to bed I have sent a message to Heng, and so right after opening my eyes in the morning I check whether he has answered me - He HAS . He asks us to get in touch with him when we get up and we decide to quickly have breakfast and then we still need to get a present for the kids and a bottle of whiskey for Heng as a thank you for keeping our bikes safe for us. For Heng's wife we bought a beautiful scarf in Vietnam, which is now being fished out of the depths of the luggage then we make our way towards the market in the hope of finding everything there.
It is already disgustingly hot and we are no longer accustomed to the sultry heat. The market is lively and crowded and there is fish next to fruit and footwear. Household items, clothes , souvenirs , meat and poultry and just about everything you can imagine is being sold here. I buy a cleaver in household goods but apart from that I can find nothing of what we are looking for. In daylight, the city looks somehow completely different and although we have been here 2 times before we are quite disoriented. Eventually everything is found - in a mini market there's the whiskey and a few shops further we can buy badminton sets for the children. We make our way back and have a quick breakfast on the roadside, then we head back to the guesthouse where we call Heng . He's only at home today – then away for 4 days with a motorcycle tour (he is a tour guide among other things) . This of course suits us very well and we get ourselves a tuk-tuk and are confident we will find Hengs place easily . It is two months since we were there and we made only one trip there by ourselves when we took the bikes for storage but we are pretty sure that we find it again. We have no address we can specify so we guide the Tuktuk driver according to our memories Although in the general right direction we send the poor guy round in circles a bit,. In the end we find it and there stand our bikes - packed and fenced up in the yard. This feels like Christmas. We would love to plunge in and immediately unwrap our presents but neither Heng nor his wife are there - only the children. As well-behaved hosts they ask us into the house and serve us some water and then we wait impatiently. Heng's wife comes over briefly and makes us understand that she has to work and gives us Heng on the phone. He explaines that he had to leave and says that he will take another half hour, but why do not we get the bikes out by ourselves – this is what we have been waiting for and immediately the men take down the fence . Covers off ...... UUps I cannot remember that we have left our good girls behind so dirty !
Liza has dripped quite a patch of oil and has also obviously leaked battery acid. The cables are corroded in places and of course there is not a single spark left in the battery. Kevin tries in a fit of megalomania to kick start a one liter boxer engine with a heavy flywheel after two months of not running in Birkenstock sandals (the fact that there will be not even be enough power in the battery to cause a spark completely left aside now)! Apart from a kick back in the shins from the kick starter and a thick bruise this does nothing at all ..... and I said…..... Kev… I said .... don’t do dat !
After some skull scratching - we decide to take everything apart, we'll definitely need to somehow organize a new battery. Johan has naturally been able to start his Suzuki with one and a half presses of a button .
After a while, Heng arrives and suggests to try and take the battery from one of his bikes, so we can at least get to the city where we can try to find a more fitting battery for us. It is hard to believe but with that tiny battery our good old rubber cow actually starts,. We distribute our gifts, Heng invites us for dinner and because Kevin with his Birkenstock sandals cannot change gear I have the honor to ride her for the first time after the long rest . Although I was mostly chauffeured in recent months, it feels like coming home . We stop briefly at the first tire repair place and pump the wheels up and then I navigate through the Asian traffic. You seem to learn even from watching and so I feel, contrary to expectations quite safe , even though I 'm taking more time than Johan , who shoots off like a bat out of hell – swerving and visibly enjoying himself.
In the battery shop they look at us perplexed and shake their head: No have! I do not believe it! After some thinking and arguing back and forth we figure that there is a battery in stock which is similar in size and with some slight modifications and with different connectors (which they have in stock) we can wangle something. The new battery is about 1 cm higher has the same Voltage but slightly different Amps ! We fiddle about, fit new clips and the battery even fits with half an inch of space under the seat – perfect!
Now everything is sorted . Happily, we are on our way to our guest house where I got an email from Heng that he has to cancel the date for the evening – no problem – we’ll just have to celebrate on our own in the city.
In the center the party rages (all the tourists are on Pub Street ) we just find a small quiet pub with modestly priced food and 50 cent draught and celebrate with a few beers and a tasty meal, that we have our bikes back and running again .
Back at the Guest House we decide to call our parents. With Skype it works usually quite good , however , the Internet is rather slow here and we have some problems with the connection, but in Waldaubach all seems currently to be going well and both we and my parents are pleased that we can have a chat to each other for once .
Then we try to ring Kevin's father - we are quite shocked , he does not sound good and even though he has complained about health problems in recent months we are quite taken aback that now he cannot even hold the phone by his own account. He has back problems, kidney problems and now he is to receive a pacemaker too and I'm pretty sure he does not tell us everything because he does not want to worry us and suddenly exactly that has happened.
When we left we knew that there is a possibility that we would not meet everyone again after coming home , but one always hopes somehow that everything goes well. We try to comfort each other and hope that with a pacemaker everything turns out for the better. What can we do otherwise ? To fly back and see for ourselves how things are is simply not possible. We discuss our budget and after much back and forth, it is clear that it would mean the end of our trip. Before we left we had a serious conversation with Ken where he explicitly told us that he does not want us to interrupt our journey in the case of cases - he said he had made preparations and has sorted his affairs and now he reminds us of this conversation quite determinedly. Nevertheless, we are very concerned and I have to bludgeon my helper syndrome down not to storm the next plane and fly back the same day
The next few days I spent mostly at the computer while the two men pounce on the motorcycles with vigor. Firstly they are cleaned with dedication , you can hardly recognize em afterwards and then they give them the overdue service at Heng’s friends repair shop.
I 'm making pretty good progress with updating the website and after a few days , both motorcycles are fit again for the onward journey and I have posted 2 country blogs and the
Johan wanted to go directly to the border and to Bangkok from here, but when we decide to go through the Cardamom Mountains to Koh Kong next, he considers that he actually also always wanted to see that part of Cambodia and one week more or less is neither here nor there. He has also received a message from his embassy that brings him the good news that his passport is ready and waiting for him in Bangkok and now he can move on from there to India without further problems .
Together we ride to Battambang - the second largest city in the country and it feels so good to be back on our own transports. Arriving at our first destination Johan finds that he has forgotten his tent poles and pegs in Siem Reap - fortunately , because he can at least go back again the next day, while we use the unexpected break to have a closer look at this city.
Mr. Google has a few ideas of what to go and see:
there is for one the famous bamboo train , It is made of a bamboo frame on which loads, people sometimes even cattle used to be transported into remote areas on the remains of the old colonial railway. The frame can be removed from the wheels which are powered by a small tractor or motorcycle engine by a belt drive and the whole contraption must be taken from the tracks to let oncoming traffic pass, the carriage with the larger load always has the right of way . Actually, the bogie like trains were called Norries and were used mostly in the area around Battambang - left from the former Norry network is only the Bamboo train which is operated specifically for tourists - it leads out of the city on a short section of the track and to a small village. It costs 5 USD for a round trip .
Then there's the circus school which was opened for orphaned children and run by an NGO once to help these kids to deal with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge time. You can go to performances on certain days - and today would be one of those days.
also there are the bat caves at the foot of Phnom Sampeou , a single mountain from which you have a wonderful view over the otherwise flat countryside around Battambang ….and of course a number of temples in and around the city.
While we think and discuss what our budget may allow us to do almost the whole morning is gone and we finally decide - first to start with the bamboo train and then let's wait and
We are looking for a tuktuk and the nice driver has quickly put a program for us together : first bamboo train , then to Phnom Sampeou and in the end the bat cave - we should have asked him in the first place we would have been on our way much faster.
The train is not really a big attraction, but quite funny, our driver stops after the first bend but only to take his friend on and then he really gives it some welly - the rails are sometimes a bit bumpy with the quite questionable gaps between the individual pieces that make for good blows to the backbone, but it's fun. At the end of the track is a small settlement with the usual stalls – here we take a break - we treat ourselves to a cold hop drink and I let myself be persuaded to buy a Khmer hat – well - Kev has already collected enough crazy hats – so can I. On the way back we have to stop several times and lift our carriage off the rails to let the oncoming traffic pass and then the ride is over. Our tuktuk is waiting in the shadows and now we go to Phnom Sampeou - at the foot waits an army of scooter taxis to bring tourists to the summit and because the climb is very long and steep and we want to be back before sunset and in time for the bats we accept the offer . Halfway is a small temple and there a track leads to two caves which have a sad Khmer Rouge past - they were in fact used to kill people by simply throwing them down – to climb out of the caves was not possible and so the ones which were not killed by the fall simply starved to death. Skulls and bones of the victims are still to be seen in a glass sarcophagus . From here then it is one last steep bit up the hill and I have my doubts whether the scooter can do that, but it works. The view is really nice and here is another pagoda to visit .
The highlight of the day is, however, the bat cave. We get there just in time and wait about 5 minutes until the unbelievable flight of the bats starts. We stand and watch at least a quarter of an hour clouds of bats leaving the cave - that must be trillions of them - incredible – then we drive back towards the city next to a black ribbon of bats and stop again on the way to keep watching the flight of the animals a bit longer. We have never seen such a spectacle. It takes at least an hour until all the bats have left the cave - our Tuktuk driver tells us that the local police earnes a fortune from selling the guano from the cave for 50 USD per bag .
The next day we can go on , Johan has all his bits back and we are already looking forward to seing one of the last great untouched jungles in Southeast Asia.
With the GPS we have found a shortcut that will save us 100 km . Shortly after Battambang we are on dust tracks which are quickly becoming more and more difficult . We end up on a narrow path that is riddled with deep ruts. Over and over we meet other vehicles – their drivers shaking the head making turning movements , but we are set on the idea that we’ve, got to get through here - after all, we have mastered all sorts of roads so far - we are die-hard adventurers! Navigating the deep craters turns out to be a completely new level of difficulty on the way to the off-road professional .... It is hot and humid and of course we do not have enough water with us and the little we have is pee warm. While Johan tries his luck on his DR in the deep grooves we have to watch that our 3 wheels do not get trapped in exactly these ruts, because then we have the problem that we won’t come out again. At one point we face a puddle the size of a river and try to figure out how deep the hole is and if we can get through it. A young man on a scooter arrives next to us and says we will not get any further......
then he thinks again and says, if you come through here , then there is only one more difficult place but normally only trucks and
single-track motorcycles come through . If you manage that then the rest of the route is no problem .
Well, then we just try our luck (we do not want to give up now and fight all the way back again) . The water is no real problem - we all come through relatively well – even though just about but then comes the next water hole. On the side is a narrow lane for one-wheeled vehicles but right through is not an option - we cannot even determine how deep the hole is - we try to fathom the depth with the help of a stick – well it’s too deep and we can feel a thick layer of silt on the bottom. We observe a few locals on their scooters as they are navigating along the side try to way up our options: So if we can stay right on the edge with the bike and it holds the weight and then manage to get across at a certain angle and then can shoot over the last bit without the sidecar tipping over…… it could work .....
The locals have stopped for the free show but also offer help. With three men hanging as a counterweight to the sidecar we cross the first bit then on Kevin's command they all jump off in time so that he can give it full throttle through the last mud piece – it’s unbelievable but we actually get through even if we once again need strong pushing aid on the other side to get up the rugged steep road - but this really is not so bad anymore and Johan takes the prefabricated track of the local traffic without any problem. We have to still struggle quite a while through the jungle and over rutted paths , but we are now relatively confident that we will succeed . How fortunate that we still have a bunch of bananas and a small bottle of water for everyone – we are all in need of some extra power after this tour de force and after the break we juggle the vehicles over the last piece to the nearest town - then we have smooth dirt road - no problem for wily jungle kings !
From here it's all plain sailing through the Cardamom Mountains , one of the last Asian jungles and it reveals an incredible landscape that won’t be there as such pretty soon . From all
sides it is being cut down and burned - I can understand the people though, they just want to survive (and that not even particularly well) but it
hurts to see the many fires that eat everywhere into the tropical forest.
We meet on the way the head of the National Park, who is trying to save as much as he can here but he is on a relatively lost mission with only 40 rangers. Again and again, illegal villages have to be evacuated they are springing up everywhere in the jungle and poaching is a problem as well - the Chinese pay too good for some of the wild animals that still exist here .
After 2 days we arrive at Koh Kong - a small town on the coast just before the Cambodian / Thai border, where we rest a few days and try to scour the red dust out of all our crevices, then it’s back to Thailand , where Johan and our paths will permanently part .