Click here to see the map of our route through Cambodia  

Audrey writes:

So, what new, interesting and exciting things awaited us in Cambodia? What would the roads be like, the people, the culture, the food? Let another motorcycle world travel adventure begin...

On March 22nd, 2013, the border crossing was upon us and after we had our temperature taken in our ears to ensure that we had no strange Laotian fevers, we went to find customs and immigration. The bored officials must get a big kick out of us clueless tourists, wandering around, trying to guess which building we go to next, no signs in English anywhere, just a vague wave shooing us away from them to somewhere else. We eventually found the offices we needed, and, eventually, in the right order. Then they asked for $25 U.S. each for a one-month visa and Lonely Planet had said to make sure that we only pay $20 and no more.  Ekke said that he had only paid $20 when he entered Cambodia from Vietnam only a week or two ago. Oh well. Sometimes you just don't feel like arguing about it. We rode out of the border compound, wondering if all the paperwork was completed, but no-one chased after us as we rode away.

The imaginary line that is a border is a strange thing. There was such a different feeling about Cambodia immediately upon crossing that line, but it was hard to put my finger on what it was. Perhaps it was the houses, which all looked a bit rundown, or maybe it was the charred forests, recently slashed and burned to make way for more farmland. Most people were dressed in modern 'Western' clothing but we did see a few ladies dressed in traditional pyjamas. The city of Stung Treng was definitely a little 'rough around the edges', with crumbling sidewalks and buildings and garbage everywhere. The Gold River Inn was very simple, but clean, thank goodness, with the amazingly soft, fluffy towels of Ekke's dreams. We found Ponika's restaurant for lunch and just after we ordered, some movement caught my eye. I saw two little beady eyes peeking out from behind a flower pot - a rat! I ate my lunch with my feet up the whole time.

Slash and burn farmland greets us in Cambodia

A lot of women in Cambodia seemed to be wearing pyjamas

With no breakfast available at the hotel, we found the most promising choice for food in a rundown little cafe that served baguettes and eggs leaving us suitably fortified to tackle whatever Cambodia threw at us that day. And not a rat in sight. The ride south was quite pleasant on a good road, past stilt houses and small farms. Something drying on the warm pavement on the side of the road caught our eye. It looked like some sort of root vegetable, white in colour and cut into small chunks, but we never did find out what it was. A few potholes appeared and slowed us down, and then the potholes got bigger and soon there was nothing but gravel with a bit of intermittent pavement. The dust layers on our bikes and motorcycle jackets reminded me of our rides through the desert and we coughed and choked our way through it for a few hours. Most of the morning was spent standing up on the footpegs to stabilize the bikes in the unpredictable terrain, leaving me quite exhausted. The town of Kratie was a welcome sight, and we got some juice and 'nut' mix (I think they were dried chick peas) at a local mini-mart to recharge our batteries. The landscape changed further down the Mekong, becoming wonderfully lush and green, with tall stilt houses tucked in behind banana plants and palm trees, the good road winding gently past. But with good roads come higher speeds and much of the afternoon was spent swerving for oncoming vehicles to avoid head-on collisions. The road narrowed for construction, leaving only our lane open, but oncoming traffic just kept coming as if it was their lane. A huge bus, going way too fast, forced Ekke off the road onto the gravel, missing him and his bike by centimetres. Scary. Drivers here were definitely a lot more aggressive than in gentle Laos. What a relief to make it to Kompong Cham and the Monorom 2 VIP hotel. This hotel room definitely gets our 'Ugliest Hotel-Room Furniture' award, and you'll understand why when you see the photo. After something to eat, we tried to go for a walk to get some exercise, but the oppressive 38 C heat sent us scrambling back to the relief of the lovely air conditioning of the ugly hotel room.

Drying vegetables (?) along the roadside



Prime river front real estate

Walking around Kompong Cham we came upon a dangerous elephant

Travelling salesmen in their trucks camp for the night in Kompong Cham

And we spend the night in a hotel room with the most overwrought furniture

After attempting to make it to Phnom Penh the next day, March 24th, on smaller, more interesting roads, we had to give up because the construction zones made our route impassable. There was no rhyme or reason as to why the left lane was open or why it was our lane open and never very clear which lane to ride on to make it through. At one point there was a huge pile of dirt in the middle and we chose to ride on the right side of the road to get around it. The road became really rough and Ekke was able to ride over the top of the dirt pile to the other side of the road but I stopped to take a picture and missed my chance. As I rode further ahead I came nose-to-nose with a big dirt-grinding machine and it was a bit iffy as to whether it would stop or not. The driver didn't run me over, thank goodness, and after I shook my head indicating that I had nowhere for me and my bike to go but forward, he actually backed up! I was able to find a track over the mound of dirt and congratulated myself on playing chicken, and surviving, for the second time, with a vehicle way bigger than mine (The first time was 'Audrey vs. Bus' in Laos). We pulled over to the side of the road in a shady spot for a well-deserved water break. A young girl riding a scooter stopped beside us to say hello and to practise her English. She was in grade 12 and lived in a village a few minutes up the road and we chatted for quite some time, with her doing most of the chatting. She really wanted us to visit her home, and pleaded with us to come, but we couldn't afford the time and gave her a Canada pin and then went on our way. A missed opportunity, yes, but we didn't want to face riding in Cambodia after dark.

Checking out of the Monorom 2 VIP hotel

What could go wrong?

The main highway was no better than the smaller roads, all construction for most of the way to the city. Why a 100 kilometre stretch of road would all be torn up at the same time confounded me. Couldn't they just rip up and fix one part at a time? It was just a huge dust bowl, and I felt badly for the people in houses and businesses that lined the road. The ankle-deep layer of dust hid huge potholes, and when I hit them at higher speeds I was concerned that I would have another wheel rim-bending incident like in Mongolia. But, we made it through unscathed except for maybe a new coating of dust in our lungs. Ekke spied a dust-covered cooler and umbrella in front of a small shack on the side of the road and we stopped to buy a drink. Plastic chairs were produced for us, and the family seemed quite surprised that tourists would stop at their little place of business. The kids were very shy when we tried to speak with them, but they eventually squeaked out a few 'hellos'. With a bit of miming, the father was able to ask where we were from, and with more miming and the sharing of the map on my saddlebag we were able to explain our journey.

Stopping for a drink in another construction zone

Using the map on the saddlebag to explain our trip

It was with great anticipation that we arrived in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, but riding through a run-down industrial area made it a bit anti-climactic. Ekke found his way through the busy city using the GPS and we only had to do one u-turn, but it was an exciting one. Just as Ekke put on his left turn signal and began his u-turn, a scooter suddenly tried to pass him on the left, nearly running into the side of his bike, with both bikes coming to a screeching halt. Close call. The appearance of the city improved as we rode in closer to the centre and our chosen hotel, the Blue Lime. A sign on the door announced that sex tourism was not allowed. Okay. As we dragged our dust-covered bodies through the lovely lobby, we looked out into a sunbed-lined courtyard and saw a shimmering blue swimming pool shaded by palm trees. It was like an oasis in the desert. But then we got some bad news. The hotel was fully booked. What? This never happened to us and we were floored. The staff recommended another hotel, and after partaking in their delicious passion-fruit welcome-drink, we sadly shuffled out the door, looking longingly back at the cool swimming pool. It was a few blocks to the Tea Garden Hotel, which was no Blue Lime, but it would do. The pool was a welcome sight, but was quite tiny and warmish from the sun beating down on it. Oh, the hardships we must endure.

Welcome/good bye drink while programming the GPS for the Tea Garden Hotel

Moving hotels the next day, back to the Blue Lime, was a possibility, but we decided that it would just break up our day too much. Upon further inspection we found that the Tea Garden Hotel had some nice features, like a buffet breakfast with made-to-order omelettes, and some inviting sofas beside a water-lily pond. A $2 tuktuk ride to the palace took about five minutes, and we arrived just as the temperature was reaching the high 30's. The palace was breathtaking, all gold and marble, and inside crystal chandeliers hung from a ceiling painted with murals. A walk through a garden with colourful flowering trees offered some shady relief from the sun beating down, and the path took us to the Silver Pagoda. Lonely Planet had said something about silver tiles, and I assumed they would be on the roof, or the side of the structure, but we saw nothing resembling silver. After removing our shoes, we joined the hoards of tourists for a wander around the inside of the pagoda. A life-sized golden Buddha covered in diamonds was the big draw, and it really sparkled. As we walked out, we saw some tourists studying what appeared to be the old linoleum floor. Or maybe they were just trying to get some airflow from a nearby fan. Disappointed that we had not seen any silver in the Silver Pagoda, we sat in the shade and studied Lonely Planet. We learned that the silver tiles, weighing 1 kilogram each, covered the entire interior of the pagoda, on the floor. We had another peek inside and indeed, there were silver tiles there, but they needed a good polish so they didn't look so much like old linoleum.

Relaxing in the tea garden

Gardens of the palace





Monkeys provide entertainment at the palace walls

Revitalized by a cold drink at Dairy Queen (really, Dairy Queen in Cambodia) we decided to tackle the National Museum, hoping that it would be air conditioned.  No such luck, but the terracotta structure was open and airy, and we didn't suffer from the heat too much. The building itself looked like a temple, with peaked roofs topped with pointed spires and a flower garden in a central courtyard. We spent a long time wandering among the statues, dating from prehistoric times to the Khmer Empire period, both Hindu and Buddhist. Many came from Angkor Wat. It was lovely. For lunch we chose the Foreign Corespondent's Club, a former haven for journalists from the chaos of Pol Pot's regime. Now it is a swanky bar overlooking the beautifully redeveloped Tonle Sap Riverfront. Phnom Penh was really starting to grow on us. We enjoyed a walk back to our hotel, and finishing our sight-seeing day in the mid-afternoon was a good idea as temperatures climbed even higher. A wonderful chicken and broccoli dinner at the hotel that night was finished off with some sticky rice crème brûlée, blue in colour from some leaf used to flavour it.

Outside the national (not air conditioned) museum

Delicious Cambodian food (Fish and chips is Cambodian right?)

Another hot, sunny day greeted us and it made it hard to face the idea of putting on any protective motorcycle clothing for a trip out to Choeung Ek, so we decided to take a tuktuk. We had met a very friendly driver the day before, Paul, and he offered to take us the 28 kilometres there and back again for $15. Our tuktuk wove in and out of the traffic chaos of Phnom Penh, and with several near misses and potential accidents later we were at the historic site. The Choeung Ek Genocide Center is more commonly known as 'The Killing Fields'. Prisoners from the Tuol Sleng prison in the city were taken here for execution, and the fields have remained as a memorial to those who perished. Free audio-guides with information about the genocide were given to us at the entrance, and we must have spent at least 2 hours wandering around mass grave pits, listening to the stories in survivor's own voices on the audio-guide. A memorial stupa contained 8000 human skulls, evidence of what happened here. Paul waited for us, then took us to the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. In the time of the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot rallied the peasants to turn against city dwellers, sending them to forced labour camps or to prisons. Professionals like doctors, lawyers and teachers, anyone wearing glasses or who spoke a different language, artists, or anyone with 'clean' hands were rounded up and made to confess to crimes they did not commit. The prison, now a museum, had a photograph of every single person that was detained there, 17 000 of them, with many signed confessions on display. It was a pretty intense morning, difficult to get our head around how all of this could have happened. How could the Cambodians that survived have ever recovered?

Letting someone else do the driving

Paul navigates his way through the Phnom Penh traffic

The Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields has 8,000 human skulls


Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh

The walls were covered in photos of those imprisoned here


Walking around Phnom Penh at the riverfront


Police bike stands at the ready

We were ready to go by 7:00 am the next day, March 27th, so we would avoid the intense heat of the afternoon. Our ride out was fairly uneventful, now that we were used to scooters and bicyclists riding the wrong way toward us and cars ignoring the traffic signals and coming way too close. We had to back track over some of the dusty construction work, and it didn't seem so bad first thing in the morning. The ride to Sambor was quite pleasant, and when we stopped for a cold drink at a small cafe, several huge tour buses zoomed by, all going to Angkor. And so it begins (ie. mass tourism). A little boy stopped by our cafe table to say hello, curious about us western tourists. An early arrival at our hotel in Sambor was a blessing and, after dropping our luggage off in our bungalow, we made good use of the huge pool by doing laps for half an hour under the shade of coconut palms, mango trees and banana plants. A small mango had fallen into the pool and it became an impromptu ball that we tossed back and forth in the wonderfully cool pool. Our plans of working on the website soon went awry, as Ekke 'discovered' a download of the Vietnam Top Gear episode on his laptop. We sat at the cafe by the pool watching Jeremy Clarkson ride a scooter in the same places Ekke had ridden, enjoying the comic antics that never disappoint in a Top Gear episode.

Leaving Phnom Penh

Dusty construction for the first 50 kilometres

Green fields near the rivers

Lunch time

We get a curious visitor

Walking home from school alongside the busy highway

A cool and inviting pool



As we rode closer to Siem Riep, the highway improved immensely and we enjoyed looking at smiling kids, all happily waving at us, and two-story well-maintained wooden stilt houses along the way. Clearly this area enjoyed more prosperity than the northern areas. The city of Siem Riep was very well-kept, nicely landscaped and very touristy. It was too early to go to our hotel, so we rode over to Angkor. Our plan was to get a few photos of the motorcycles and us with Angkor Wat before the temperatures climbed too high. To ride into the temple area we had to buy a ticket, so we thought we might as well buy a three-day pass for$40 each. Our photos were taken and were printed right on our tickets. The ride along a tree-lined boulevard was so lovely, and we rode around a corner and there it was... Angkor Wat! This was huge. Yes, the temple was physically huge, with its famous towers, the largest religious structure in the world.  But the idea of being here was huge, right up there with the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or Petra. But it was too hot to just stand around and be amazed. We parked and took some photos, a German tourist obligingly taking a few shots of us and the famous wat (temple). Exploring the inside of the temple would have to wait as we thought it best to get photos of more temples in the park with the bikes while we could, so we rode around to see what we could discover, catching a bit of a welcome breeze during the ride. Our bikes were able to squeeze past a queue of vehicles waiting to get through a narrow stone gate. It was decorated with a big head statue and lined with deva (guardian) and asura (demon) statues engaged in a snake tug-of-war to cause the churning of the ocean (amazing what one learns from a guidebook). This took us into the Angkor Thom area. We parked in front of the impressive-looking temple and Ekke set up the tripod to get some photos. Our ride then took us past many smaller wats, a shimmering lake, a few monkeys, and some souvenir sellers. We stopped and bought a DVD that explained the history of the place, and a few little bronze Hindu figurines. We eventually made it to the Frangipani Hotel a few kilometres away in Siem Riep and parked the bikes in a driveway in front of the hotel. The hotel staff gave us a cold, ginger-flavoured welcome drink and greeted Ekke as if he were a long lost friend. He had stayed here one night on his ride from Vietnam to Bangkok and had been in Siem Riep for about 15 hours in total, possibly less, and every staff member recognized him. That was great fun.

Riding towards Siem Reap behind the truck delivering shiny new bicycles

No cones or flashing lights here, just a branch to warn of the blocked road

A German tourist snaps our photo in front of Angkor Wat

Boy it's getting hot in all the gear!


We inhaled the scent of fresh, white frangipani flowers in our lovely hotel room and looked down on an inviting, sparkling blue swimming pool. Umbrellas provided some very welcome shade as we lay around and read novels and motorcycle magazines - heavenly. We really wanted to see Angkor Wat at sunset so we managed to haul our lazy selves up, scooter over to the base of Phnom Bakheng Wat and walk the wooded pathway amongst hoards of other tourists. The problem was that most of these tourists were coming down from the wat, the opposite direction of the sunset-viewing area. Did we miss it? We arrived at the base of the wat at 5:29 pm. A sign indicated that entry to the wat closed at 5:30 pm. Just made it. Steep stairs took us up and the views of Angkor Wat were fantastic. But we immediately saw that low clouds were obscuring the sun and there would be no spectacular sunset at Angkor Wat that night. That's why all the tourists were retreating before sunset.

Checking into our lovely room at the Frangipani

Oh, that looks good; last one in is a rotten egg!

At the top of Phnom Bakheng Wat for sunset

Wow


After checking our guidebook for restaurant possibilities, we parked downtown and set off to find our choice for dinner. The restaurant was not there, so we wandered up a busy pedestrian street to see if we could find something else. A young couple came up to us and introduced themselves - Terri and Thomas from Austin, Texas. Thomas had observed the BMW stickers on our motorcycle helmets that we were carrying and said that we must be the riders of the BMW motorcycles parked in front of their hotel. After learning that they were motorcycle enthusiasts and had bikes back in the States, we chatted about our trip and then heard about their plans to go to Vietnam. We found ourselves sitting down to dinner together at a, coincidentally, Vietnamese restaurant. It was a lot of fun, sharing stories about motorcycle rides, and we really enjoyed their lively tales. They had clearly made travelling a part of their lives, and it was great to talk with such like-minded people. We sat down to breakfast with them at the Frangipani Hotel the next day, and they invited us to Austin to see the Moto-GP races on the new track there, Circuit of the Americas. Thomas produced a cellphone-photo of Terri standing beside Colin Edwards, a famous Moto-GP racer. Very cool.

Breakfast at the Frangipani with Thomas and Terri

Knowing from our explorations the day before that it was easy to ride around and park the bikes at the temples, we scootered over early in the morning. The sun was already beating down as we walked across the bridge to Angkor Wat, a Hindu, later Buddhist, temple built by Suryaverman II, in the 12th century AD. We thoroughly explored the huge structure. 800 metres of bas reliefs lined the walls of long hallways around the outside of the temple depicting Hindu scenes. We climbed up and down stairs, through passageways and courtyards. I was very impressed with the detail in the wat, the rugged towers, the Buddhist altars, the carved columns. Dripping with sweat after a big climb up to the top, we stopped in some shade for a drink. After recovering, somewhat, we rode to Ta Prohm and parked in the shade by the stone wall. Nature runs amok here, the roots of trees strangling sandstone blocks of the temples, and we were astonished. Every corner we came around offered some new delight, a huge tree embedded in a stone wall or roots choking stone archways. This was one of the temples where the movie, 'Tomb Raider' was filmed. One could just picture Lara Croft racing through the courtyards, under gates, swinging from jungle vines from high ceilings, pursued by the bad guys.

Walking across the bridge to Angkor Wat

Amazing reliefs


The back of Angkor Wat

What a steep climb



Riding over to Ta Prohm as the day heats up

Maybe riding naked is the way to beat the heat?

Passing through the gates at Angkor Thom

Ta Prohm is the jungle choked temple we had envisioned



Ekke gets ready for his best Tarzan swing from a vine


Before/After photo shows results of restoration work

Nice that they have a sign



Leaving Ta Prohm

Visiting two temples in the morning, with temperatures getting up into the high 30s was enough for us for one day. On the ride back into town we spied a restaurant sign at the Sofitel Hotel, and sat in the shock of their air-conditioned piano bar eating some really expensive pizza. A headline in a hotel copy of a Phnom Penh English newspaper caught my eye and I read how satellite photos showed 60% of 'protected' forest in Cambodia had been cut down. We recalled that we had seen a few fully loaded logging trucks on the roads, and fields that had once been forested. Sad.

With the heat there was nothing for it but to enjoy the pool all afternoon and then find an air-conditioned restaurant for dinner. A local hotel restaurant offered us the Cambodian food of our dreams, a set menu which included salad with fish sauce, garlic bread, corn chowder, stuffed leg of chicken with spinach and mashed potatoes. They had run out of the creme caramel for dessert so substituted deep fried ice cream. I don't actually know how authentically Cambodian it was, but it was definitely delicious.

On our last day of temple-hopping, we rode right to Angkor Thom, the mother of all temple complexes. As we parked under a shady tree and locked up our helmets, a family from Germany came over and chatted about the bikes. I love the expression on peoples' faces that inevitably comes when we explain how we flew the bikes from Canada and then rode across Russia to China. The Horizons Unlimited world map on the side of my bike was, again, a great visual aid to show the extent of our journey.

These map stickers are available from Horizons Unlimited and are great conversation starters

Angkor Thom was built by Jayavarman VII after Angkor Wat was sacked by the Chams and what is unique is that commoners were allowed to live within the walls of the temple complex. The city is surrounded by a huge wall and moat which kept out those pesky invaders. And if that didn't work, seeing the 54 towers of Bayon temple with 216 really big carved faces on every side would surely scare anyone off. The faces were supposed to represent Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion but coincidentally bore a striking resemblance to the ruler, Jayavarman VII. The carved faces, all exactly the same, were impressive, not only by their size, but by the sheer number of them in a single temple. We climbed up stone stairs into the temple through little corridors and hidden passageways and got close-up views of the carved faces. They all had cheeky little grins that a stone carver with a good sense of humour probably added just for fun. Bas-reliefs on the outside showed everyday Cambodian life in the 12th century, mostly of farmers working in the fields.

Angkor Thom and a few of the 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara


This is not the face of Avalokiteshvara or Jayavarman VII

Locals dressed in period costume

More faces around back

And the side...

Another temple further along, Baphuon, was meant to resemble sacred Mount Meru and allowed for great views after a climb up hundreds of steep steps to the top. As we strolled through covered walkways which surrounded each level of the temple we admired the renovation work that had been done. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed the temple records and a French archaeological team that wanted to make the big pile of rocks into a temple again had a giant jigsaw puzzle on their hands. But they did a great job. I descended the steps and headed for the cool shade of a tree while Ekke stayed up. He told me later that he had found a reclining Buddha image embedded in the rock of one wall, about 60 metres long. I wasn't going back up to have a look. An outdoor cafe offered relief from the heat and we effortlessly downed a huge bottle of water. While walking out we noticed some T-shirts for sale, and Ekke found one that would fit. Looking at the tag after he bought it, he noticed that it said 'Old Navy, XXL, Maternity Wear'. Better stop eating that Cambodian fried ice-cream.

Baphuon

Can you make out the enormous reclining Buddha?

Ekke finds Cambodian clothing that fits

There were many temples in the Angkor Thom complex so we had to pick and choose and walked to the Terrace of the Leper King next, thought to be a royal crematorium. On the walk back to the bikes we saw the Terrace of the Elephants, a platform where royalty watched grand victory parades, its walls decorated with parading elephants.






Although we were physically 'done' because of the heat and all that walking, it was the final day to make use of our 3-day pass, so we decided to ride over to one more temple, Preah Kahn. It was unique because it combined Hinduism and Buddhism into one big fusion temple, with statues from both religions. While taking some photos, a member of the tourist police came over and started telling us about the statues. It was really quite good information. He also pointed out some areas that we would have missed, hidden corridors and gates. He showed us how the Buddhist entrance had doors of equal size, but the Hindu entrances of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma had successively smaller doors. We gave our impromptu tour guide a tip as we left. Since it was on our way back we did a quick trip to Neak Poan, and Lonely Planet said that if Las Vegas ever developed an Angkor theme, this should be the model for the swimming pool. A long boardwalk took us past a forest partially submerged in water, where a young boy was standing in the pond, catching snails. When we arrived at the site we saw a tiny temple, decorated with intertwined snakes, sitting in the middle of an ablution pond, flanked by statues of horses. It was a place of healing, and we both felt much better as we left the beautiful site.

On the ride we noticed this sign warning of land mines, don't go off the marked trails

Preah Kahn

Our informal guide





A young boy gathering snails just outside Neak Poan


I don't think we saw half of what Angkor and the surrounding area had to offer. There were so many more temples here and further north in the jungle. Just another of those places that we will have to return to. (While writing the Cambodia website here in Tirana, Albania I saw an article on CBC.ca that announced how evidence of a huge city around Angkor Wat had been discovered using laser technology. Neat).

One last shot at Angkor

And then it's time for reading at the pool with the iPad.  What could go wrong?

The next day, March 31st, 2013, we rode 150 kilometres to the Thai border. Getting stamped out of Cambodia was easy, and after a quick scan of our fingertips, we were done. We said goodbye to another wonderful country that exceeded all our expectations for exciting motorcycle world travel.

Traffic safety is not Job #1 in Cambodia

Chicken on the way!


Map of our route through Cambodia  
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