Cambodia: More from the Wild East

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So, about that “Death Highway.”  Wouldn’t it have been a waste of my tent, sleeping pad, camping stove, and peanut supply not to give it a shot?  Could it really be worse than half-pushing, half-carrying my fully loaded bike through knee-deep mud and groin-deep rivers on Christmas day?  Surely not.

 

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If they can do five kilometers to school, we can do one hundred and eighty to the next town.  Right?

 

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Once again, we took our cues from the locals – if this sign didn’t stop giant logging trucks from crossing the bridge, it wasn’t going to stop us.

Random linguistic tidbit: a podcast once told me that in Abraham Lincoln’s day, they would have said “the bridge is a-building” rather than “the bridge is being built.”

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The whole “no guardrail, just pennants” thing was a bit freaky.

 

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According to Google Maps, this picture was taken inside of the “Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary.”  More like loggers’ paradise!   There was hardly any traffic between the towns except for loggers and a few stray foreigners on kickass mopeds.

 

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The first 100km or so was pretty smooth – actually, the packed dirt was easier to ride on than the cruddy asphalt over the previous 165.

 

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Pleasant on the bum, but not on the ears, eyes, or throat.  Every passing truck sent up a cloud of dust, many of whose molecules wound up entering every orifice in my face.  Two days later and I’m still expectorating.

 

 

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Don’t quite remember what I was celebrating, but it certainly wasn’t the slowly deteriorating road condition.  As we went on, the clumps and bumps got bigger and more frequent.

 

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A sweet family running a gas station in Kaoh Nhek.  Mom (teacher) and Dad (police officer) live in the capital, while their kids mind other enterprises.  They gave us cold water as soon as we pulled up and didn’t bat an eye when we started pulling vegetables out of our bags for lunch.  Even insisted we use their kitchen instead of our camping stove.  Then they sent the little boy with us on a trip to the market in search of bananas.

The dude on the left is 27, spoke good English, and told us that he had a gas station there, a rubber plantation in Snuol (200km away), and a job in Pnomh Penh (400+ km).

 

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Bless my little MSR Whisperlite!   I’ve been carrying it since day 30 or so of the trip, but hadn’t tried using it until about day 480.  Boils water in a minute, cooks rice in under 15 (of flame time), goes for weeks at a time on half a liter of gas, and makes it delectably easy to venture into No Man’s Land.

 

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I still have to work on my camping cooking repertoire, but this one wasn’t bad: rice with chopped bananas, mangos, and coconut.  Sweet, vegan, local, filling, tropical, and cheeeeaaaaap.

 

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I don’t have the photos to prove it, but Minseong and I set a new record: camping for five nights in a row!  We managed to see the sunrise and sunset every day for nearly a whole week.

 

 

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We rode through several “wildlife corridors,” “wildlife sanctuaries,” and “protected areas,” but you’d never have known it from looking at the surroundings – secondary growth trees all planted in rows with occasional clearings cut in them.  I talked to a French girl who volunteers at a gibbon protection project out here.  What she had to say was pretty sad.  The same people who protect the forests by day either poach in them at night or take bribes from those who do.  There’s so much money in it for the bad guys, and terribly little incentive, be it financial or social, for doing the right thing.

 

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Nearing the top of our first, and hopefully last, mountain in Cambodia.

 

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We were hoping to make it to town that night, but some technical difficulties (a malfunction in one of my precious Ortlieb panniers!  Who knew such a thing was possible?) slowed us down and we wound up stranded on top of the mountain just as the sun was setting.  Having already camped four nights in a row, we were our of flashlight batteries and not in a position to try the rocky 10km descent to Sen Monorom.  As always, though, the situation resolved itself for the better: some locals who happened to speak Thai gave us permission to pitch our tents in the unfinished building next to their hut.  They watched us cook a pretty lame meal of egg noodles and green beans on my stove, shared a bit of their rice whiskey with us, and then asked a silly, silly question:

 

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“Do you like beer and campfires?”

They hardly speak English, and we don’t speak much Khmer (yet!), but somehow we managed to chat for an hour or two…in Thai!  I have no idea why these Cambodian guys a hundred kilometers from Vietnam knew how to speak Thai.  Either way, we had some quality universal male bonding experiences.  All that was missing was the ukulele, which I begrudgingly returned to Chris before splitting up since I thought the Death Highway was going to be tough enough without an asymmetrical slab of wood messing with my balance.  I suppose I could have done a bit of a cappella but, honestly, nobody wants that.

 

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Unfortunately, Cambodia doesn’t have much in the way of bottled beer; my guess is that they’re a long way away from the sort of infrastructure that would make reusing bottles possible.  Bottles pose a serious dilemma for me – I know that they’re reusable in theory, but there’s no telling how many of them actually make it back to the factory.  Even if they do, that means there are emission-spewing trucks carrying around thousands of empty glass bottles.  And, when the trucks are delivering loads of full bottles, half of their cargo weight is glass.  Not to mention the several tons that the trucks themselves weigh.  Or the environmental effects of using so much grain (7 cups of grain per cup of beer, I’ve heard) that could otherwise go to feed the hungry.

Cans, what with their eons of waste and mountains eviscerated for materials, all for the sake of a few minutes’ worth of liquid pleasure, are, if not certainly worse, at the very least just as bad.  Particularly when I figure in the fact that the locals here make an average of $50 dollars a month, and beers cost $0.50 cents each.  Still, it’d be impolite of me not to accept, and I’d miss out on some serious universal male bonding time if I didn’t partake.  I guess I’ll just go with the flow and let the world sort itself out on this one.

 

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When we pulled up the night before, all I saw was a big concrete building with a half-finished roof.  I assumed it would do something to shelter us from the high-altitude winds.  It turned out that the back half of the building was a dirt pit six feet deep, the front half was scattered with planks and scraps of wood, and none of the windows had been installed.  Not exactly optimal, but once you’re inside the tent with your eyes closed, you can’t tell anymore.

 

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Sunrise number five.  I had been hoping our mountain perch would give us a better view, but it seems that sunrises and sunsets are better viewed from flat ground.

 

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10km left, almost all downhill!  Time to get to town, have a lukewarm shower, and try to resemble real people again.

Oh, and all that money we saved by camping?  Let’s blow it on food.

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6 Responses to Cambodia: More from the Wild East

  1. Tanya says:

    Such as sad thing about the exploitation of those “protected areas!” I hope this issue comes to light before much more damage is caused. Perhaps in your time there you can dig more into this topic. Of course, the people will need a viable alternative if a real solution is to be found…

    • Michael Roy says:

      Good point about the need for a viable alternative. I met a foreigner traveling by motorcycle the other day who said, with great disgust in his voice, “The population here at the end of the war 30 years ago was 4 million; now it’s 13.5. Someone needs to tell them either to stop having babies or to teach their babies how to care for the environment.” As if it weren’t foreign companies (mostly Chinese and Vietnamese, but with a mindset wholly western) that were doing most of the damage. The Cambodians are guilty only of taking bribes and letting it happen. But what other choice do they have? Close their borders to all their neighbors? Fail to live up to the (probably insanely rapacious) free-trade and open access provisions of IMF and other post-war loans?

      Also, only thirty years after a new government came to power, declared it “Year Zero,” and destroyed all money, bank accounts, family structure, and semblance of civil society…who can blame Cambodians for not being concerned about the distant future?

  2. Kate says:

    I hope to see you in Kravanh/Pursat soon!

  3. shelley urquhart says:

    Hey Mike,

    Catdust here from thorn tree 🙂

    have replied to your post twice but the thorn tree website seems to hate me so I have given up on it! Can’t enable private messaging and now it won’t even let me log in. Feel free to email me regarding the Myanmar/India border crossing, I hope I can be of some help!

    Shelley