Why Cambodia? That’s the question you might ask when, like me, you come to Asia to forget all about bikes! With barely the time to disembark at Phnom Penh or to be conned by my taxi driver, I find myself talking bikes in a sleazy dive. A group of biking nuts from various horizons seem to have made a date to go and battle it out on the dirt tracks. After several beers I let myself be persuaded – against my better judgment – that I had the right degree of technical skill and that a few hair-raising moments and 1,400 km of dirt track were the price to pay to visit the forgotten temples, accessible only by motorbike. Leave aside all your old misgivings about Cambodia, the war is over, the Khmer Rouge have been reborn as cops, there are hardly any landmines left and the Cambodians love biking! So step on it!
With the monks’ blessing
I join Ben Laffer (an Australian giant) and Zeman McCreadie (his London acolyte), the two brains behind Angkor Dirt Bike Tours, the next day at the Caltex service station in the centre of Phnom Penh. Already, at least 60 bikers are assembled, along with the local TV and the support of crackling loudspeakers. A major event. They are surrounded by “moto-dops”, the moped taxis come to drool over the dirt bikes, which have nothing to learn from our own machines back home: Suzuki 400 DR-Z, Honda XR 650 and 400, 1254 and 205 CR… The twenty-odd Khmers taking part are on a roll, some of them sporting wigs, others religiously shining up their bikes. The rest have come from Australia, France and in some cases the US, including Eric from Texas, who will put on the biggest show – and endure the most spectacular tumbles – along the course. In addition, three monks have come to give their blessing to the rally: in total silence, the assembly receive the prayers intended to protect us from the worst accidents… I suppose.
As soon as the race has started, the horde pours into the streets of the Cambodian capital , which had no real need of these madmen whose wheelies simply add to the traffic chaos! After a lap of honour taking in the silver pagoda, the banks of the Mekong and the Vat Phnom (first monument to the founding of Phnom Penh), we set off for the north of the country and more than 300 km of dodgy tarmac, with its taciturn cows and unpredictable chickens. I take my seat in the support vehicle, a patched-up old Toyota. Once we leave the city, the Cambodian countryside is immediately more welcoming, simpler, more authentic. The children go to school in blue uniforms with white shirts, singing along the way. Innumerable roadside stalls serve anything you could possible imagine, from Coke to razors via grilled spiders. But night falls fast and the old Toyota’s soldering is showing its wear. It’s pitch dark when we arrive in T’beng Meanchey, straight north and in the middle of the country. The bikers have already eaten and are preparing for the next day, which will be relatively tough going.
At five in the morning, the first bikes are warming up. The wake-up call is pretty rough: a two-stroke exhaust pipe blasting into your ear… The ride across the vast desert plains, scattered with a few palm trees and pines (deforestation is a threat to the ecological balance here) in the dawn light offers a hint of immortality. You wonder how the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge could have come about in such a fantastic haven of peace. Here and there, hamlets of about ten houses are built out of palms on stilts according to timeless ritual. The sandy track is not to everyone’s taste.
The Cambodians take the lead while the laggards struggle through a cloud of dust. Alain, a French cameraman, gets the worst of it several times a day. After 70 km of potholed tracks with crevices big enough to swallow our Toyota, we arrive at a site unknown to tourist groups: Koh Ker, a temple complex located 50 km to the north of Angkor. The only access is the way we came, paying a heavy price in terms of mechanical and mental stress. As to our physical state, few are able to stay awake in the evening to sample the joys of camping Australian-style, i.e. a blend of smoke bombs, whisky and other substances. The road back to T’beng Meanchey will be al the more difficult for some…
No falling off
By the time we set of for day four, men and machines have suffered. Jason has had to weld together the rear end of his rented Honda 250 XLR with the help of a local artisan. “It’s amazing what they manage to do. No bike is ever really written off here.”
A ride with a mission
Every year the Angkor Dirt Bike Tours raid includes a humanitarian mission. After providing, during the four previous rallies, training in dealing with snake bites (and distributing antidotes) and dietary problems with Unicef, this year emphasis was placed on AIDS (distribution and demonstrations of condoms) and malaria (distribution of pre-treated mosquito nets). Doctors from the WHO and the National Malaria Center joined the caravan as it passed through the furthest-flung villages. For example, at Koh Ker, where there is an abandoned temple far off the tourist track and which was the object of a report in the National Geographic Magazine, the inhabitants at last had a visit from doctors. An event that had not occurred for many months and which was to spur on local opinion in favour of seeking government help.
Our goal is the village of Chep, 100 km away, lost in the middle of impenetrable scrub. It’s as if the organisers expect us to work miracles. I borrow a 250 XLR from a participant too exhausted to go on. After a few km on a broad track, we fork off on to a little pathway that seems only to be used by villagers on foot! I have a nagging doubt under my helmet: what if I had actually set off with real madmen whose idea of fun was to end up totally lost in the middle of nowhere? Every ford has me worrying that my engine will be drowned or that I’ll go head over heels in the mud with all my cameras. There’s no margin of error. But it happens anyway. A touch too much acceleration coming out of a ford on the slippery clay and the frail XLR shoots out of my hands and back for a swim in the river…My comrades take this as a cue to make fun of my gangling form on the – after all – relatively modest machine! Oh well, my backside is bruised less than my pride. At a bend, we bump into a group of dealers…in bikes. Busy putting together frames, their machine guns resting on a tree, they hardly notice us.
Vuthy, our Cambodian playboy, insists on showing off with his 400 XR. After a few fruitless attempts, he manages to crash into a tree after bouncing off a stump hidden in the grass. A spot of DIY to straighten out the handlebars and put the headlights back, and we set off again, more calmly this time. Mistakes can cost you dear here: the nearest respectable hospitals are in…Bangkok! We arrive in the village of Chep at sundown. Children run behind the bikes and even as us to do wheelies shouting “Moto-ho”, but my old XLR refuses. We set up our hammocks under one of the houses on stilts – a stone’s throw from the chicken range. A serious miscalculation. Khmer roosters don’t wear watches and wake us up at 3 or 4 in the morning. Grrr. Our evening in the village is a chance to attend a local festivity, to a background of Thai soap operas on TV and Khmer music. Young girls perform the traditional dance while the boys watch in silence.
Once again, it’s hard to get up in the morning. The villagers come to bid us farewell and a concert of roaring engines and wheelies marks our departure from this fantastic place. The 80 km of red, sandy tracks are not always a gift. The fastest among us make light work of the ruts and crevices while the less bold have to take a more tactical approach. Our Toyota, for example, has given way to a Russian army 6×6. It is the least we need to get through the vast stretches of mud where, despite our winch and the efforts of the crew, we are stuck for more than an hour. The bikers have nothing to celebrate either: the slowest end up on their backs in three feet of sludge. But these are minor details in the overall adventure. When we reach the banks of the Mekong, we now have to load the bikes on to little boats to reach the town of Stung Treng. This seems a hair-raising balancing act, but the crossing is in fact more picturesque than perilous.
To get to Bang Long, capital of the province of Ratanakiri, the ride is more relaxed. The track, churned up as usual, nevertheless allows us occasional bursts of speed. Only temporarily though, as there are frequent bridges which would be just fine if all the planks were still in place… I take my seat in the cab of a pick-up truck, as the last twelve places on the rear are already occupied. When we arrive in this town at the end of the earth, red dust has invaded the whole of the cab. After a day off, we set off for the waterfalls and zirconium mines. The tracks are narrower still and our Khmer friends’ sense of orientation is a precious asset.
Close to the Vietnamese border we meet a group of young dealers looking for spoils. A touch of diplomacy and a handful of cigarettes, and we’re the best of friends! On the way back we discover the mines of semi-precious stones. Working like slaves, the diggers don’t blink at tunnelling 40-foot shafts no wider than one man and plunging into the ground to seek out the precious pebbles. But this is just a glimpse. For the boldest among us and this time by boat, Pierre-Yves Clais, a Frenchman living in Banlung, takes us to meet the Tampoun and Phum peoples.
Apocalypse Now rides again
But our departure for the province of Mondulkiri is organised. The twenty-odd bikes that remain set off for river Sre Pok, which is in theory where Apocalypse Now was filmed. This time we have to load – and unload! – our bikes into minuscule boats… A strong stomach and good balance are needed. The tracks and the jungle close in on us as we advance into the region. The 250 XLR starts showing signs of fatigue but it’s too late.
After several tumbles (those overgrown tree stumps again) the group decides to halt for the night. Our improvised camp site and the limited comforts of our hammocks are not enough to set us up for the next day, which is ghastly: terror-stricken on our bikes and thinking of nothing but a hot bath. This way madness lies. More than 80km of dirt tracks, impassable for anyone but trial specialists, to reach Sen Monorom – too late in the day, too tired to bother with elephant rides, our backsides couldn’t stand it. The tourist visit will have to wait until the next time, when I’ve perfected my survival techniques on two wheels. A whole day’s sleep proves more than useful before we mount our bikes again to return to Phnom Penh… 380 km away.
Originally published in French. My uncle very kindly did this unofficial translation for us.