Motorcycle Diaries: Cambodia I

Motorcycle Diaries: Cambodia I

Saturday, March 26, 2011:

Arriving late last night to Phnom Penh we barely have the lay of the land.  Wasting no time, we headed straight for Angkor Motorcycles to rent the bike.  They have no other customers headed out on Monday, so we will be going solo.  This isn’t ideal as I have never ridden a motocross bike before and honestly am scared.  Even in the store I am thinking about walking away.  The bikes are tall and it’s not clear if I will be able to touch the ground.  Worse yet, I don’t know where I am going.  Swallowing my fear I handed over the deposit.

Sunday, March 27, 2011:

Fear outweighs the excitement.  I want to be giddy, but unknowns fill my mind: I don’t know the route, I don’t speak the language, I can’t do the simplest bike repairs, I have never ridden off-pavement before.  Yet here I am, one day…no hours…from heading out across Cambodia by motorcycle.

My mind can’t help but wonder: how did I get here?  Like many bad ideas, I can trace this one back to beer with the boys.  A very excitable Spanish friend, Xavi, and I were marooned around Bangkok for a week waiting for new passports.  He shared his stories of motorcycling Cambodia and convinced us it was the way to go.  Of course he had dirt biking experience and traveling companions.  Nonetheless, he convinced me I had to do it.  On the day before he left for India he drew a route for us.  The most interesting aspects of the map were the places there were no marked roads.  “There are roads here, trust me, you just have to ask people along the way,” Xavi assured me.

We packed a small bag to take with us for the next week or two, leaving behind the “non-essentials”.  All that matters now is that I get a good night’s sleep.

Monday, March 28, 2011:

Sooner than I wanted, it’s time to go.  We get to Angkor Motorcycles and the bike is ready.  We pick out the best fitting helmets from the collection of battered, ill-fitting, helmets.  I accept a less than perfect fitting helmet in exchange for a visor in anticipation of dirt roads.  We struggle to strap down our bag on the miniscule luggage rack, but the mechanics manage to do it.  The owner walks over and gives me a fatherly look, then says, “I think you need to take less things.”

I take the bike around the block to try it out and feel terribly unsteady in Phnom Penh rush hour traffic.  The roadways of Phnom Penh can best be described as completely free market.  A willing driver can drive any which way they dare.  Lanes, lines, directions and signs are merely suggestions.

I pick LOCAVORista up and encounter a major problem; there is not enough space on the seat for both of us.  Leaving the wife behind, though the safest option, is probably not in the cards.  We finally decide we need to pare down even further, we repack with one change of clothes each, first aid kit, rain gear, camera and computer.  This is as barebones as we can be.  Worse was that we finally figure out why our bags weigh so much; these few “essentials” are the problem.

Still in Phnom Penh, we stop at a gas station and I look at a map as the attendant fills the tank. I look back and see it is $13.  I am convinced I am being fleeced, maybe the guy didn’t reset the meter, but with no proof, I pay it.  Later I find out that gas prices have significantly increased since last time I filled a motorcycle tank in October of 2010.

After clearing the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we stop for breakfast and I don’t want to admit how much my butt hurts.  The seat is like straddling a brick wall, while having cars and buses trying to run you down.  It’s humpty dumpty with semis and I’m humpty.  It is hard to stay focused on the next 200 miles to Kratie, where we plan to spend the night, when I feel so awful.

We had been traveling for almost an hour without any idea if we were on the right road.  Finally we see our first sign with destinations on it.  Passing by at 80kph, something caught my eye: Angkor Wat was closer than Kratie.  I hit the brakes and pull a U-turn to read it.  Confronted with the reality that this mode of transportation is about as comfortable as getting flogged, I suggest we go to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat where the fact we have no gear will not be an issue.  Plus the motorcycle could be useful.  Thankfully LOCAVORista agrees.

The rest of the day is a test of will.  The highway is marked as a two-lane road, but not quite wide enough for two-way traffic.  There is a mixture of buses, semis, tractors, ox-carts and Lexus SUVs.  I have never seen so many Lexus SUVs in my life, let alone had one drive head on at me going 70+MPH while passing.  This seems to be the way of the road, buses and Lexuses clearly rule, they can drive as fast as they want, and act as though it is a two-lane one-way road.  They honk, flash their lights and make rude gestures at me for daring to drive the opposite direction, as I drive perilously close to the edge of the road.

When you are on a motorcycle, driving 60MPH and an oncoming bus gives you less than two feet of space the feeling is indescribable.  As the gust of wind catches you, you realize that no matter what, you need to hold your line.  Nothing clears the mind more than knowing if you flinch, the next thing you see will be a rural Cambodian medical center…if there is a next thing you see.

The day passes painfully slow.  We try to bear the sitting position as long as we can, but need to stretch out every 30-45 minutes.  This hurts.  When not staring down oncoming Lexuses and buses all I can think about is how stupid of an idea this was.

As I entered Siem Reap I was filled with a sense of accomplishment comparable only to finishing a marathon.  We had left Phnom Penh seven hours prior.  I am certain that I lost my ability to have children due to the seat, and my mind is numb.  When we finally found a hotel with parking I was elated.  Until I found out the final challenge, my parking spot required me to go down a short set of stairs and immediately turn right.  If I missed the turn I would run through a bamboo wall into the restaurant.  The hotel manager explained this matter-a-factly as I was laughing at the situation in my head.  I worked the bike down slowly, almost dropping it, but managed to park.  It was a time in life that I wanted a panel of judges to hold up a score for this acrobatic feat.

TO BE CONTINUED on Monday, May 2nd.  Stay tuned for articles about our time in Cambodia, Angkor Wat and more motorcycle adventures in the meantime.

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» bka :
Apr 26, 2011

oh boy, this confirms your nuts, much braver than i and have lived to tell about it!!!……i actually just put new tires on the motorcycle this weekend and drove to work today, where i am at on a monday at 5 p.m…….first happy belated birthday!!….having traveled this route by bus with terry and having the speaker with a 5# magnet fall from the roof and almost breaking her arm, i have some small clue of where you have traveled……as i remember the oxen were struggling with the sand, ruts and mazes of people, cars and busses…….. having also ridden motrocycles for 40 years i would never have done what you have done and or even dared to follow in your “ruts”…..your stories some days seem almost surreal…..incredible ankor wat photos……clearly the highlight of our limited world travels to date for us…… safe, maybe too late…..peace and love …..bka

» Cindy :
Apr 29, 2011

Enjoyed your description. Please be careful. Dad thinks this might lead to a reptile dysfunction.

» Fabian :
Apr 6, 2013


Thoroughly enjoyed the write up!

I need to ask, as I’m renting the same bike from the same company in just over a week’s time, how tall were you and were you able to touch the ground with both your feet? I’m 173 and I’m afraid I might have problems riding the bike.

Did the bikes break down at all?


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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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