Motorcycle Diaries: The Southern Coast
I always tell people that the best way to experience Cambodia is to travel like the locals do: on two wheels, whether bicycle or motorcycle. It had been months since my last moto adventure and I was itching for a getaway. With little more than a change of clothes, a map, some bread, and loads of sun lotion, Rachel and I took off for a weekend trip to explore the red dirt roads on the Southern Coast of Cambodia.
Following Route 2 southeast from Phnom Penh, we escaped the choking traffic of the city and found ourselves in the lush countryside. A stark contrast to grey and dusty Phnom Penh, Southeastern Cambodia’s endless rice fields and jagged limestone mountains are a dozen shades of green. Coconut trees, orchards, and the occasional stilted house dot the horizon, while massive clouds diffuse the sun’s rays into a rainbow of vivid colors. Of course, you can enjoy this beautiful scenery from the comfort of a seat on a bus. The primary reason for taking your own transportation, though, is freedom: freedom to explore that interesting road, freedom to stop off and climb a rock face, and best of all, freedom to interact with the local people passing by.
The further you venture, the friendlier the people seem to become. On one trip, a boy on his way to night classes spent the better part of 15 kilometers keeping pace with me to practice his English. Far from the normal “Hellowhatisyourname” English that you hear in the countryside, this ten year-old was eager to discuss Premiere League football and in particular, Wayne Rooney’s ability to put a wicked spin on the ball. On each trip, I always make a point to stop at a lone stand near the railway tracks in Banteay Meas, where an elderly woman serves up a delicious sweet waffle and is excited to converse in French (regardless of whether or not you can speak the language). As long as I smile, nod, and end the conversation with “merci” she seems delighted.
This journey was no different, although many of our interactions came less as of result of our own volition. Several passengers on passing motos pointed at us with strange looks, some laughing. We brushed these incidents off – I would also probably laugh at two dirty foreigners singing to themselves while driving 80 km/h through rice paddies. Tack on the fact that the moto’s horn (an absolutely necessary tool for driving in Asia) did not work forcing us to scream “beep” whenever passing another vehicle, and we were probably a sight to behold. Eventually, though, we realized that the pointing was not at us but rather at our back wheel. Flat tire – bummer, but at least they weren’t commenting on our singing abilities. I drove off and found a tire stand, where particularly a resourceful Cambodian (with the passive assistance of a dozen on-lookers) patched the tire using a tin can, glue, a lighter, and a bottle of water.
We arrived in Kep as giant, fluffy clouds were drifting in over the mountains. With friends, we raced up to the top of Kep Mountain to catch sunset. The view over sleepy Kep Town was beautiful – cows wandering through fields, the occasional moto transporting seafood from the crab market to the hillside restaurants, birds and bats fluttering from tree to tree. A full moon, appearing to melt over the top of Kep Mountain, helped us navigate the crude trail down the mountain to our bungalows at Vanna. As luck would have it, a group of Khmer music students were staying next door and they provided some lovely French-inspired music to complement the peaceful views (see video below).
That night we feasted on crab with Kampot pepper at Kim-Li Restaurant in the crab market. Although the price for this delicious dish has nearly doubled in the past year, no trip to Kep is complete without it. How often can you order and then watch the waitress jump into the sea in front of you to collect your fresh dinner?
Early the next morning, Rachel and I planned our route back toward Phnom Penh via a small road along the Vietnamese border. The road, little more than a line on our map, would take us past a few well-known landmarks, including the cave where two backpackers were murdered by Khmer Rouge soldiers in the 1990’s. Naturally we opted for the less morbid flooded caves and the Phnum Bayang temples.
Our hopes for a swim in the flooded caves a few kilometers outside of Kep were dashed by the lack of rainy weather needed to fill the underground pool. Fortunately, a young girl acting as our local guide showed some climbing paths up to the top of jagged limestone mountain. From the top, she pointed out the dozens of other similar rocks the dotted the flat landscape – a climber’s heaven.
We continued east toward the border, stopping in Kampong Trach for water and gas before turning off onto the potholed red dirt road called Route 113. In the town of Kaeut, we enjoyed an iced coffee with the local carpenter, who was helping to build the town’s new temple. When we told him that our next destination was Phnum Bayang – about 50 km in distance according to our map – he laughed and kindly informed us that it was at least 3-5 hours away. As it was nearly midday already, the prospect of nighttime driving was a very real possibility.
Besides the small town we stopped in, we rarely encountered another person en route to Bayang Mountain. The dirt road was surrounded by flooded rice fields and mango orchards, above which large white and blue birds glided looking for morsels of food. The road hugged the edge of numerous mountains and often disintegrated into rough gravel paths where irrigation channels passed. After about three and a half hours, we connected to Route 2 and Takeo, famous for its temple ruins and archaeological sights. As the sun started to set, our luck with the weather ran out and we spent the final two hours battling torrential rain. Luckily we had Mr. Potato with us to help us power through back to Phnom Penh.
The beautiful drive and our chance encounters along the way made up for the rather unremarkable Phnum Bayang temples. In this case the old adage rang true: more than often, traveling is about the journey and not the destination. \