This is a guest post [dictated but not read] by our good friend, confidant, and general sage Michael Berner; a travel buddy who lacked the chutzpah (read: cash) to make the RTW leap.
Pack Rat Syndrome and Bangkok [Actually] Dangerous
5 minutes into a 12 hour flight to Tokyo, cordial seatmate introductions have been made, casual conversations re: jobs, economy, reason for travel ensue, and no sooner than that 6th minute, still in conversation, I find myself searching the plane like a NY rat scouring for scraps. That’s right friends, Pack Rat Syndrome (PSS) has set in. A few minutes ago I lived a comfortable life with all the Western amenities I could ask for. Now I find myself eyeing suspiciously and with intent the blanket gift wrapped (saran wrapped) for the flight, noting that this would make great ground cover for a night slept on the concrete parking lot in the Suvarnabhumi airport. The lifeless pillow turns into the saving grace on a 10 hour bus ride to the Cambodian ‘Wild Wild East’ county of Montilkiri. The crackers become the pour mans Antacid, when the third bowl of Cartilage soup doesn’t quite settle with your unaccustomed stomach. I think your getting the idea. Needless to say I packed on a couple KG’s of items that may come into use on my two week journey through Cambodia.
I arrived in Bangkok, the city of Angels, technically called Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasi (Look it up, it’s in the Guinness book of World Records) 22 hours later. This is a thriving city, a popular starting off point for those craving the “seclusion” of the Phuket from Leo’s film The Beach (no more my friends). From the moment I landed I felt like I was going to be mugged…maybe it was me brushing off the rust from a 2 year travel hiatus, maybe it as the inherent danger of that city. Let’s just say I came out unscathed, faring better than certain friends I know. I will say the backpacker strip of Khao San is a sight to see (and to overindulge in)…but I digress.
Shirtless pushups and a Tragedy not to be Forgotten
Phnum Penh isn’t a conventionally pretty city, to that fact; it’s not even that unconventionally pretty. It can be summed up as “a lot of things are going on here”. Let me explain. I arrived in Phnum Penh the morning of Sunday, March 8. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I hopped my first Tuk Tuk where I promptly felt like an out of place tourist taking a carriage ride in the middle of the day by myself. That quickly faded as I realized this city is overrun (literally) with Tuk Tuk’s and scooters and random cows and kids and a complete and utter lack of organized traffic patterns (more on that later).
15 minutes later I pull up to Guest House #11 (or was it #9, or #10 . .. we stayed at all 3 over the course of the trip, each slightly less
comfortable than the prior). I was greeted graciously by the staff who marked me immediately as the third roommate. We walked down the long, narrow corridor, and my kind friend decided to show me to the room first. Now let me preface this with the fact that I have not seen Nick or Allen in months . . .our only form of communication in planning this trip was quick short emails once in a while (Destination: Cambodia was initially Destination: Tanzania, Destination: Nepal, Destination: Cashmere, Destination: wherever Nick and Allen happened to be). Either way, I was excited to see my friends. What I was not excited about is walking into our small room, only to find it 90 degrees and Ron, shirtless on the ground doing pushups. Three pushups later, Ron finally realized I was standing there and graciously cut his workout short. In search of Nick, we find him completely zoned out watching some pirated movie amongst a quality selection of the world’s finest drug induced hippies (Nick was not, might I add), each person’s dreads longer and mangier than the next’s. We decide to find a bar and catch up.
(Change of Grammatical Person)
Beers and noodles ensue, noodles and beer continue and we find ourselves thoroughly enjoying yet not fully remembering our first night (as a group mind you, Nick and Allen had been there two days prior). We awake with an adventurous spirit yet lacking the full capacity to fulfill our plans. Nevertheless we head for the Royal Palace. In typical fashion, we spend no less than 30 seconds enjoying the palace (from outside the gates, and for one rea$on or another, we decided again$t entering). We should note the stark contrast between the utter poverty throughout the 3 million population in Phnum Penh compared to the utter opulence of the Royal Palace and surrounding residences is eye opening. There clearly is a disparity between the rich (often corrupt) and poor that we truly have never seen before.
Removing ourselves from the grandiose, we decide to head to more sights, in particular S21 and the Killing Fields. For those unfamiliar,
the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 killed nearly 21% of the population; led by the ruthless and utterly heartless Pol Pot (Brother #1 of the Khmer Rouge). S21 was locally known as konlaenh choul min dael chenh – “the place where people go in but never come out”, a former high school turned torture den where 17,000 entered, but only a handful ever left. A somber experience. We followed this with the Killing Fields, a mass murder site for the Khmer Rouge, where those not conforming to the insanely rigid policies of Pol Pot were led to their death. If you have not seen it yet, we recommend watching the movie The Killing Fields.
The Police Escort and The Crash Heard ‘Round Cambodia
After partaking in most of what Phnum Penh has to offer, it was time to get a move on. Now if you know us at all, you understand that this does not involved jumping on a tour bus, taking a nice, cushy trip around the country. In order to add a little spice to this trip, we opted for a more unconventional method of getting around: Dirt Bikes. Sounds great, but the one kink in the idea is that Nick and Allen have never driven Manual 2-wheeled vehicles; the only experience we’ve had with Allen on two wheels involve a crash in Santorini that nearly got him run over/killed. So before we headed cross country, we opted for a few hours of training.
The National Sports Complex, best known for being built for the ‘All Asian Games’ which never happened, proved to be a fine place for Nick and Allen to learn. Little did we know, Cambodian Military Police had the exact same idea (although they were training to guards foreign dignitaries and we were training to not crash – didn’t work). We’ll tell you that 3 hours later, a burnt-to-the-ground clutch, and slightly bruised yet somehow more confident ego’s, we were ready to hit the road.
We left on our first trek, desperate to leave Phnum Penh and thankful to have done so alive. Traffic in that city is unlike any you could possible imagine:
Drivers Quiz: Your going 86km and your only familiar with mph, you are behind a motorbike with 50 chickens dangling off the side, a group of cows is 200 m head crossing the road, 400 M ahead there are 3 trucks oncoming, one Camry passing and 30 scooters on both sides of the road, 10 of which are housing squealing pigs, 3 of which have king size beds on the back, and all but 1 contain 3+ people each. It’s a dirt road with no distinguishing dividing lines, 3 kids are awkwardly close to running across the street and your blinker doesn’t work. You need to pass for no other reason than to hit 90km . . . what do you do!?
That scenario was our life every minute. You could not imagine more stressful yet simultaneously exhilarating driving, where every time you passed a car/moto/cow, you put your life at the mercy of your 2-wheeled skills and the ability for others to get the hell outta your way!
This continued as is for an hour and half. Our second pit stop was at a beautiful Buddhist Temple in a non descript town. Allen and Mike stopped first, followed soon thereafter by Nick. By all accounts Nick looked pretty badass. He pulled up rocking his motorcycle, skid to a slick stop, and then once he hit the deadly speed of 0 km, promptly fell over. Yep friends, it was graceful. Nick fell right over. He was ok and all, but his bike incurred the first of what would be many breaks. ..Nick broke his clutch. At this point we thought we were screwed. We were in a small town that spoke no English, 2 hours outside of Phnum Penh, with a repair that could quite possibly require a fancy big city mechanic (how little we knew). We walk our bikes into the town, and find the mechanic by walking up to various locals, clutch in hand, pointing back and forth between the clutch, our bikes, then made a defeated smile and shrugged our shoulders. Our clear proficiency in linguistic interpretations led us straight to the town mechanic (after 5 previous stops). No joke, in 5 minutes, Nicks clutch was fixed, we had a crowd of no less than 50 locals surrounding us (poking and prodding included), and after paying $5 for parts and labor, we are as good as new and on our way.
Now I would love to say that this was our only incident on the trip out East. Nevertheless, I cannot. 3 hours outside of the capital, and 2 hours from our destination lays a waterfall 5 clicks off the beaten track. A dirt road that meanders through tiny villages and thick
forests. Mike thoroughly enjoyed this section, taking advantage of the off-road adventure and the fact that dirt inherently causes the bike to slide (a fact he probably should have conveyed during his training session hours earlier). After a decently tricky bit, Mike and Nick looked in their rear view mirrors and saw a cloud of dust and a group of locals running towards Allen. Bringing their bikes around, they pull up and find Allen sufficiently dazed, thoroughly dirty, and beginning to bleed from shoulder to foot. He touches his appendages to make sure none are broken, and fortunately all are intact. After we confirm that his only injury is a bruised ego and some decent road rash, we start to find the situation pretty funny. Allen has every local woman trying to rub all types of foreign ointments on him, attempting to clean up his blood stained cloths and wipe the mud from his body. This goes on for about 10 minutes as Allen repeatedly tries to tell these locals in English (they don’t speak it), that he doesn’t need their creams and in fact will be just fine. We bow, they bow, they laugh, at us, and we thank god that Allen’s bike starts up.
Koh Rung but it Feels Koh Right
Out dirt bike trip was taking us to the west coast of Cambodia to Sihanoukville, a place of white sand beaches and untouched tropical islands. After 4 days in Phnum Penh, the idea of some beach time and, well, frankly no Phnum Penh was incentive enough for us to push through the last hundred km. We pulled up to Sihanoukville, and itching for some western comforts, stayed at the Monkey Republic, a place owed by 4 Brits and populated by no less than 30 likeminded and equally white individuals. While the first 30 minutes were fun, we promptly realized that this town was not for us.
Overrun with tourists and Westerners, this town lacks the beauty and isolation we were hoping for. What didn’t on the other hand was a supposed beautiful island 2 hours off the coast called Koh Rung Samloem. After an hour or two we were confirmed on a boat that would take us there, us and 6 others intrepid travelers.
We pull up and our jaws drop…this place is sheer beauty. Secluded and occupied solely by a lighthouse and 10 bungalows, we’ve finally found a place we were happy to waste a few days in. 10km long, Koh Run Samloem is occupied by no more than 200 people at any given time, 90% of which live on the secluded northern tip in a small local fishing village accessible only by boat. We spend the next two days hiking through the jungle to untouched beaches, making up beach games that would make any man envious (ex. Float a Frisbee upside down in the water, throw sand in the Frisbee, Frisbee sinks, start again). We read and we relax and we thoroughly enjoy 90 degree weather where your only responsibility is remembering to jump in the ocean after your badminton game to get ready to play volleyball.
But all good things come to an end, and we decided that the adventure should continue. We left paradise with a plan to head back towards Phnum Penh, and then up to the town of Siem Reap and the mythical Temples of Angkor
Angkor WHAT! and the St. Patty’s Black Out (not what you think)
“Angkor Wat?” Fingers point. “Angkor Wat!?” Fingers point in the opposite direction. “Donde Esta Angkor Wat!?” Wrong language. Laughter then fingers point in a third direction. Its 3 am and we have just entered in the temples of Angkor, a complex built in 800AD, completed in 1432, and subsequently forgot about until the French “rediscovered” it in the 1860’s. We came there early as we’ve heard that the sunrise of Angkor Wat is in itself one of the wonders of the world. Problem is, we can’t see ANYTHING, there are no street lights, no directional signs, and nobody else around. Its pitch black, our bikes are low on gas, and for all we know we could be 10km from
the site. Now, as luck would have it we were actually standing directly outside of the massive temple complaining that we had no idea where we were…our mistake.
We cross the 200 m long bridge – no guards – and enter the temple – no guards. We continue unencumbered through the Temple and for a few minutes think we just broke in! High fives ensue until we notice our mistake when a group of German tourists walk in 5 minutes later led in tow by their “I’m too excited for 3am” tour guide.
We’ll start with this: the sunrise of Angkor Wat is a sight to see, and we’ll recommend it to anyone heading over to that region. On the other hand, the fact that everyone and their mother knows about it, plans for it, and has a red carpet laid for their viewing, makes it a little less satisfying. We were hoping for a challenge; make us work to see something so beautiful; where is the 4 day trek followed by 1,000 step hike like Macchu Picchu; why are we not heavily breathing on the verge of collapse? Frankly, we were out late last night enjoying the sights and sounds (Angkor/Anchor beer incl.), and the only hardship was the fact that we had to wake up early. While not to downplay the experience, there is something inherently gratifying and supremely satisfying about reaching a sight or point of interest by overcoming an obstacle or achieving a goal. Nevertheless, it did not stop us from putting our helmets on, our Cambodian scarves, and taking numerous pictures jumping and dancing around the temples.
That day was spent roaming through some of the most beautiful sights we have ever seen. This is when the dirt bike really paid off; we took the big circuit around Angkor (25km), and every km or so would stop at a temple and explore all it had to offer. Words don’t do it justice so we encourage you to take a look at our pictures.
[side bar] Allen and Mike were sore, probably from the 12 hour bike trip from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap, probably from our (read: Allen’s) crash, so we opted for a traditional Cambodian massage while in Siem Reap. What we didn’t opt in for was getting massages in the same room, on the floor, literally 2 feet from each other. Now this would be awkward in any situation; what made this particularly awkward, however, was the fact that getting a Cambodian massage is akin to getting beat up by a tiny women with powerful hands for an hour. We didn’t know we could be put in such awkward positions and hear so many things crack and pop, all in the name of relief. At some points it hurt so bad we had no other options but to start cracking up . . .we were paying for this and all ($5, though). But besides the pain, we left that massage room feeling absolutely amazing.
It was time to leave Siem Reap, and to our chagrin, we realized that our schedule would leave us sleeping in Phnum Penh for another night (something we always tried to avoid). We opted for a new yet ubiquitously similar hostel called the Capitol, this time in the downtown region. Now what made this day different is the fact that we would be celebrating St. Patrick ’s Day in Cambodia. We found the one Irish pub that the capital had to offer, and began the festivities. Now if you’re reading this blog and have ever met us, you understand that the 3 of us are obsessed with Guinness. Unfortunately, Guinness is probably the most expensive drink you can get in Cambodia. Instead, we opted for $1 Achor beers and the occasional Jameson Shot (each beer also came with Irish Stew, which we ate in abundance). All was well, the crowd was picking up, and conversation was lively. Right at the apex of the party, the circuit breaker gave and ALL the lights went out. In the States, this would equal frustration and anger by the patrons, in Cambodia, a flashlight comes on and the party continues. Electricity is so poor here and unbelievably expensive, that roaming blackouts like this are not uncommon, but rather a fact of life. But after making a few great friends, the party came to an end and our next journey would begin.
“Barry Goldstein Here. What Can I do you for?”
His excitement was palpable and frankly, quite noticeable. Barry Goldstein was in love (or maybe just in need or some action!). His advances, however, were thwarted time and again by Milli Meriweather, because much to Barry’s disappointment, Milli’s life partner Sarah was close behind. Barry took this like any overly zealous young elephant male would, by coping a dejected feel every now and then hitting himself on the head with a coke can and tearing a tree out to showcase his strength. Yes, Barry was young and he had a lot to learn, but with time would learn to hit on straight female elephants (who were also not his sister, as it turns out Merri was-plot twist!). Yep, you got it folks, this is what happens when 3 guys sit around 3 elephants, with no supervision other that the 2 year old boy guarding the door to his hut. Our elephant trek was to begin and we’ve already built a back story worthy of at least half a season of CW Primetime.
A day earlier we were leaving Phnom Penh for Montilkiri province. The “Wild Wild East” as they call it, due to its remote location, it’s practically inaccessible roads, and the violent and politically unstable period it had just come out of. All that stood between us and the windswept rolling hills – evoking a strong resemblance to Wales in the summer and Tasmania in the winter (ripped from LP) – was a 10 hour bus ride.
The bikes were gone dear friends, as our bodies could not take the incredibly long and difficult trip needed in the short time we had left. The bus, however was a welcome relief, one we spent sleeping and reading; the 3 of us foreigners in the back and the 10 other locals up front, segregated still by our grade school habit of sitting In the “cool seats” (we finally made it after 25 years!!).
The road was fraught with obstacles as it literally was being built around us. The slightest rain caused a runoff that would delay traffic for hours due to flooding and in which turned the clay road to putty.
We arrived and noticed a group of backpackers wandering town, potential poachers for our hostel beds. In order to secure a spot at the Nature Lodge (a Swiss Family Robinson style Eco commune), Mike hailed a scooter, tossed the driver a buck, and sped off to get a bungalow. 2 km and a half hour later, Nick and Allen arrived as we settled in for what would be some of the most relaxing 2 days of our lives. But before the relaxation began, we needed to meet our friend Barry Goldstein.
The native tribesmen revere elephants, and have so for centuries. The animals are highly praised and equally taken care off. This isn’t Barnum and Bailey; these elephants MUST graze for 2 hours after every 2 of work. They can only work 20 days a month, and are given an all around good quality of life. We met the tribesman trough a local connection, and they were going to take us through the jungle to a remote waterfall for some cliff diving.
Note: elephant treks are cool, they make for a good story and a lasting memory. But, they are uncomfortable as all get out, and we will all probably avoid them in the future.
Nevertheless we trekked for 2 hours, with 2 grown man in a small basket on top. Every few yards the elephants would stop, grab a tree, and yank it out of the ground. “Why?” you ask. “Was this tree obstructing the trail?” No my friends, this was simply for fun, and we could find no other rhyme or reason for this act, let alone rationale for tree selection. But 2 hours later we appeared triumphantly to our destination, sore and excited to have an hour or two reprieve from the not so soothing wobble of Merri and Barry.
The next few hours were spent diving off waterfalls, enjoying our packed lunch and generally wondering if we were going to be left here to fend for ourselves (our elephants were gone and our guides were MIA). But worry aside they returned and we continued our journey home.
The following day was spent predominately in hammocks surrounded by animals and staring at the beautiful rolling hills, getting up only for meals and to find a new book as we were flying through our stocks. It was needed and a nice way for the trip to wind down.
What lie ahead was a 10 hour car ride to the capital, a flight to Bangkok where we almost got in a fight as for the umpteenth time we had to tell every other person we were not interested in Massage Boom Boom or even Massage Bam Bam, and a departure that would leave Mike heading stateside, Nick to meet up with his girlfriend Cait, and Allen on a solo journey which was as yet undefined.
If you’ve read this far, congrats!! Perhaps not many have. This is but a small recap of the events of the Great Cambodian Adventure, in which the pictures will do it far more justice then stories ever would.
If you want to reach out, you know where to get a hold of Nick and Allen. For Mike, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter @michaelberner, and FB via the same name.