121 miles, 13 mph average29 Feb 08Day 1
Eastern Thailand


As ever in hot climates an early start was essential, but by the time I had packed and hit the road it was already light, already warm and there was already too much traffic for my liking. That is to say there was traffic, if I had my way there would be none. As if by magic my wishes were granted - after about 20 miles, I read a short cut on the map and wound down a palm fringed country lane with hardly a living soul about. This was flat, paddy field country; peaceful and serene. Occasionally a stork would swoop overhead or a herd of docile cattle might amble across the road. I came across a rather mangy puppy, sat right in the middle of the road. He was painfully thin but seemed happy and playful enough so I tore him off a chunk of energy bar, hoping that some karmic forces might save me from the kind of attacks I'd suffered from dogs further south in Thailand.




Once back on the main road it was an endless monotony of rubber tree plantations and fields of sugar cane. A brief highlight came when I pulled in at a monastery where two monks wanted to shake hands in a rapper style they must have picked up from the TV. I'd been making good time when before midday a hot wind picked up from the east and gained in strength all afternoon making the ride feel like a steady climb. I'd put the first 50 miles in without a stop but now my breaks had to become more frequent as it was a constant effort to move forwards like swimming against the tide. I was glad to make Aranyaprathet by late afternoon and rode down a few more miles to check the border crossing in preparation for the next day.



Cambodia
58 miles, 12 mph average30 Feb 08Day 2
Poipet - Siem Reap


I'd read that the border didn't open until 7.30 am so I had time for a decent breakfast before picking my way through the chaotic throng of people setting up stalls in the border market. Even though I arrived in good time, a long queue had already formed and we each took it in turns to have our papers and visas checked and rechecked before being photographed and charged US$20 for no apparent reason. An hour later I was in Cambodia, almost wishing that I wasn't.

The stark contrast between Cambodia's poverty and neighbouring Thailand's relative wealth was immediate and shocking. Rotting rubbish lined the streets and the foul stench of decay hung in the fetid air. Anarchic, noisy, filthy. Pickup trucks that would make TV's Top Gear Toyota look pristine fought for space with overloaded lorries, whilst beat up mopeds wound, three or even four-up, in between. Some wagons were drawn by horse, some by hand, a good many of the vehicles were a Frankensteinian mongrel of spare parts, it was like Max Mad meets the Wacky Races. Occasionally a brand new pickup or a 4x4 Lexus would blast through the melee sending all and sundry in its wake. It was evident that most of the money in Cambodia was held by a wealthy and powerful minority. Such was the eclectic standard of driving that I was at least two miles out of town before I realised that, being in a one time French colony, I was supposed to be riding on the right!

Poipet, aptly nicknamed toi-let has an edgy, wild-west atmosphere. To western eyes it was barely recognisable as a town. The only industry seemed to be based around gambling and whoring. A sign outside one seedy casino warned against entering whilst carrying automatic weapons, grenades or rocket launchers. Pistols and revolvers it seemed were OK. On the front desk of a hotel / bar were two signs side by side; the first gave notice that child prostitutes were banned, the second that the vile practice of eating durian fruit indoors was also prohibited.




Having made the outskirts of town without being shot or pimped (or forced to eat durian), I stopped at a food stand to check that I was on the right road for Siem Reap and the capital Phnom Penh as the road seemed to have disintegrated and being the main trade route to Thailand I thought I must have lost my way. Sadly I was wrong; I was on the main road. What would barely pass back home as a farm track, just hard packed earth with a gravel surface, was their equivalent of the M4. Every vehicle that passed me kicked up a choking dust cloud or showered me with loose stones. I started to pick my way along but couldn't get any pace or rhythm as the bike rattled and shook over the disparate surface. Every few miles I had to stop to fix another puncture, although if I was lucky I broke down outside a branch of Kwik-Fit or a local petrol station. My brain was boiling and my spirits shattered. It was clear I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere.

After Sisophon I thought that the road might improve but as well as dust and flying stones, random potholes big enough to swallow a car, pock-marked the route. It was mid afternoon, red-hot and time to give up. I flagged down the next ramshackle bus that trundled by. The driver and conductor could not have been more delighted to help and the bike was loaded up between some missing seats, followed by one sad, sweaty and slightly soiled Englishman, much to the amusement of the passengers - almost exclusively middle-aged women. In between fits of laughter they cackled and chirped away offering me pieces of fruit or bamboo stuffed with steamed rice, and I hoped not to cause any offence by declining all offers.

Time to sit back and watch the scenery go by. Flat, torpid plains, the land seemed so barren and arid in contrast to the well-irrigated fertile fields of Thailand just fifty or so miles west. The roadside remained littered with plastic detritus and ragged kids sifted through it hoping to find something that might be recycled for a pittance. Two boys, who couldn't have been older than six or seven, had been dredging for snails to sell from their makeshift wagon. According to UN statistics, three quarters of the population survive on less than US$2 per day. Every settlement looked haggard and poverty stricken. The Cambodian Riel is so weak and volatile that American Dollars are used for all but the smallest transactions. To put things in perspective, outside of the three major cities (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville) there are no ATMs and no hospitals. There are no McDonalds anywhere in Cambodia.

Three hours later (and four dollars lighter) I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia's second city and rode out to get a first glimpse of the Angkor Wat temples before sunset.



Cambodia
2 March 08Day 3
Angkor Wat


Angkor was once the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire that stretched its influence over most of what we now call South East Asia and survived five centuries from 800 AD. Whilst the remains of the metropolis covers 200 square kilometres, the central district contains about 70 temples, tombs and ruins, amongst which Angkor Wat is the world's single largest religious complex.

Having risen early I headed out to the temples. I needed a guide and didn't fancy the restrictions of an organised tour so after some negotiations I secured the services of Mr Voranni. Voranni was a tourist Police officer who was happy to supplement his income after paying off the chap in the ticket booth who had introduced him and bribed his superior officer into allowing him a couple of hours off duty.

We crossed the moat that is symbolic of the cosmic ocean and followed the causeway to get my first real view of the central sanctuary with its five-towered structure representing the sacred Hindu mountain Meru. The outer walls representing the edges of the world were decorated with intricate carvings, many of Apsaras - celestial dancing girls said to be indicative of a warm welcome. The walls were galleried containing many statues both Hindu and Buddhist. Some of the finer statues and all of the literature from the libraries had been plundered over the centuries, but considering Cambodia's turbulent history the whole site is in remarkable condition. The stonework is covered in black lichen but this, Voranni explained, had been proven to be a preservative and any attempts to remove it had resulted in rapid erosion.

(Google Maps satellite shot here.)

After receiving an entertaining commentary on the history of the temples, I pressed Voranni for more information about his personal and family life. He was one of five siblings who had been the only one chosen to receive an education; hence it befell him to support his elderly mother and his brothers and sisters. The prospect of marriage and raising a family was economically unviable for him even though he was now 35 years old. His story was typical of so many. His father had been recruited by the Khmer Rouge, when it was a fledgling political party, fighting for the rights of the workers. When Pol Pot seized power it was fight for him or be killed, or more likely have your family brutally killed as punishment. Voranni's father was later killed fighting the Vietnamese when they overthrew the communists in 1979. Voranni's eldest brother had survived the fighting but had been forced to commit atrocities as a child soldier. He had subsequently suffered mental illness until his suicide two years ago.

A few miles north is the great city of Angkor Thom with the Bayon at its centre. It is also surrounded by a moat and its bridge is guarded by rows of gods. Virtually all of the 54 towers are topped by enigmatic heads representing the omniscient god Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara facing in four directions. The bas-reliefs here showed detailed scenes of battles, Royalty and everyday life.



Cambodia
163 miles, 16 mph average3 March 08Day 4
Cardamom Mountains


Having taken the soft option of a taxi ride back to the Thai border I set off before dawn to head into the mountains. As the road was impassable by road bike in Cambodia, I followed the border south on the Thai side.

The Cardamom Mountain region in the far west of Cambodia and forming the border is said to be the last true wilderness remaining in mainland Southeast Asia. Ignored for decades due to war, this remote region has an exceptional degree of biological diversity, including many globally threatened species such as the Indo-Chinese tiger, Asian elephant, and Siamese crocodile.

At various points along the road an army guard was set-up as emigration from Cambodia to Thailand is a very attractive option to many Cambodians as an escape from poverty. At the sight of the first roadblock I was daunted, as I'd heard tales of travellers in remote places being stopped and extorted at gunpoint at such places. Having said that, these must be the world's friendliest border guards, each giving me a jolly wave as I rode by. One such post had tables and parasols set up outside such that I genuinely believed it to be a coffee shop. After having pulled up a chair in the shade and looked to make an order, I realised my mistake and made profuse apologies to the officer (who spoke excellent English) who then insisted that I stop and rest a while. Iced water was brought out by the sergeant followed by what has to be the best cup of strong black coffee I have ever tasted.

The hills formed one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and were thus inaccessible. Even after the Vietnamese invasion, the area remained notoriously dangerous until the late 1990's, occupied with communist supporters and peppered with land mines. Throughout Cambodia I saw land mine victims with mangled or missing limbs struggling to rebuild their lives. In the four year's of Pol Pot's brutal regime nearly a third of the population were slaughtered. The inaccessibility of the hills, however, has helped to preserve the area and the mountains now form an endangered eco region.

Further to the south I skirted the edges of the Khao Sabap National Park, rich in rainforest and wildlife. Its also in this region and around Chanthaburi that gemstones and in particular rubies have been mined since the 15th century. This far south eastern corner is also one of the only parts of Thailand ever to succumb to colonial rule when the French laid seige in 1893. The land was then 'swapped' for Thai owned territories in Loas and Cambodia in 1904.



Cambodia
4 March 08Day 5
Koh Chang


After a long hard ride the day before I had been looking forward to resting up on Koh Chang for a day before bussing back to Bangkok. I can imagine that perhaps ten years ago it was an idyllic island paradise, but in my opinion its now been overdeveloped and ruined. I rode about halfway round the mountainous island in search of solitude but to no avail, however I was rewarded with a some cracking views and a reasonably quiet beach on which I rounded off my trip.



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