Motorbiking Around Phnom Penh

Trip Start Aug 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 15, 2005

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Up and early at 9:00 this morning, I headed downstairs to the free hot breakfast that this hotel provides. Although I've had a lot of pancakes recently, I have a hard time resisting. Pancakes seem to be the only small western item that they cook perfectly here. I headed down the street to try and figure out how to jump-start my northward journey towards Laos tomorrow. It turns out that there really is no boat up the Mekong this time of year, not because of the water level, but because tourist level is too low. I ended up paying $6 for a bus ticket to Kratie, a city about halfway between Phnom Penh and the Lao border. The price is a little high, but I could see the last few people had paid the same amount so I just took the deal. The Cambodian people are exceptionally well mannered and kind to tourists and it makes it very hard for me to not pay the price they ask, even if it is a bit high. It seems that everything in Cambodia departs near 7:00am, so every city I stop at, I will probably have to stay overnight. Past Kratie there is only Stung Treung (border town), so I should be to Laos by Wednesday at the latest. Si Phon Don (4000 islands) is my ultimate destination, and then on to Pakse.

So after getting my ticket, I walked two blocks to the Royal Palace of Cambodia, but it turns out that they close from 11:00-14:00 for lunch and I was there at 10:59. I talked to a moto driver about going out to the "Killing Fields" (Choeung Ek), a notorious extermination camp used by the Khmer Rouge. He started at $5, and I knew I could rent a bike for that price, so I argued him into 50 cents to take me to a bike rental place. The bike rental was only $4, although I ended up only keeping it for 6 hours due to my early departure tomorrow morning. The speedometer/odometer was broken, but the bike seemed to work otherwise. When I asked them for a helmet, the lady said "hmmm, I'm not sure you will want a helmet, I think it may not be a good idea", I suppose because only 2% of locals wear helmets and nearly none of the tourists do. In any case, I got one that fit. This bike came with a chain and lock to use when I parked it. Seeing as how the contract said I would pay $650 for this $100 bike if it became stolen, I was a bit concerned and resolved not to leave it alone for any length of time. After I had already paid, she suggested that the Cambodian police are "not so good" and I might be stopped by them. If so, she said I should bribe them with not more than one dollar.

Driving around the city of Phnom Penh is completely different than riding around Koh Samui. On Koh Samui, there is no traffic and at worst you have to slow down to let a couple vehicles go by. In PP, the traffic is moderately dense with little to no clarity as to what is going on at many intersections. Traffic signals seem to be mostly optional for motorbikes. As long as you don't go right when the light turns red (when the cross traffic bursts from the line) it seems that you are ok. Most of the time in the city there were other motorbikes all around me, which is good and bad. Two bikes hitting each other at 20kph is a lot less worrisome than a car hitting a bike head on at 60kph. There are only about 10 stoplights and 5 roundabouts in Phnom Penh. The rest of thet intersections are a complete free for all that I've yet to figure out. There might be 5 incoming roads to an intersection, and as you look at it, all you see is people whizzing in from and to all directions. I was immediately confused as to how people were not crashing into each other for about 3 seconds, and then I was upon it. I've found that when in doubt, hit the gas, people expect that and will avoid. Strangely, as I go through these intersections, there really aren't that many people I'm looking out for. It's hard to explain, as a whole there is a lot of cars, but in your personal space, there's very few.

Anyways, I went to the post office and bought and mailed a postcard back home for about a dollar total. I'm very curious to see the reliability of the Cambodian postal service (sorry, I mean the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications). I've mailed this letter back to the USA on 25 September. If it gets there in October, I'll be impressed. Other than myself and one other caucasian that arrived while I was there, the post office was desolate. Even though there is no delivery service, nobody even comes to check their mail here, because, well, they don't get any mail. With the email and internet service being the wave of the future, I'll be curious to see if countries without an established postal system ever develop one. It seems that Fedex/UPS/DHL could pick the slack up in the US if we were without a postal service.

I then began my 20km journey through the city and out into the countryside to the Killing Fields. The roads are quite polluted like Thailand, but it is bearable. It's usually only when someone guns past you, or you get behind a bus that you get the burning sensation in your lungs, but it soon passes. It took maybe 30 minutes of stopping and checking my map before I was sure I was on the right road out of town. GPS is such a great thing when driving a motorbike. Being able to set a waypoint at the motorbike rental place guarantees I'll be able to find it again. Even though I have no direct mapping capabilities, I can set waypoints at big places I drive past and then view my location relative to the waypoints and look at my map to gauge where I am with excellent accuracy. Also, the tracklog leaves a line of where I've been moving, so I can look at where I've been going and see what road it lines up with. The rest of the ride out was uneventful other than some bumpy dirt roads.

There isn't a lot at the killing fields really. Mostly just indentation where mass graves were exhumed. The government did built a large stupa (temple thingy) to honor those who perished. Inside it are 7 shelves filled with many of the skulls found at the site. Like most everything else in Cambodia, the land was still being literally being used by peasants who were farming or living in huts. Everything is in use in Cambodia and there's really no restriction on what can and can't be done. As long as no-one complains, its ok. While at the killing fields, I saw an enormous looking storm move over Phnom Penh and I counted my blessings that it missed me and my shelterless motorbike out in the fields. By the time I got back into town, the rain had passed. I didn't have a lot else left on my PP agenda, so I just rode around the city for a while looking at embassies, markets, shantytowns, and large modern hotels. There must be a lot of rich tourists in the dry season because these hotels looked like 5 star behemoths from my position on the street. I think a lot of places have prices like $2000-$3000 a night for their top room just so global leaders visiting Cambodia will take the bite.

I returned the bike and took a moto-taxi back to the Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda. If you can believe it, they charge you $2 (on top of the $3 admission for foreigners) to bring in a camera. Luckily my friend had gone yesterday and said there was no enforcement, so I just told the gate guy I had no camera (even though I'm carrying a stuffed backpack). The palace was an ornate building that just seemed small compared to the vast palaces at Versailles. Unlike Versailles, this one is actually still used and entry is forbidden during official functions involving the monarch. The silver pagoda is basically a small temple next door filled with various artifacts collected by the monarchs over the last couple centuries. Around it were some displays showing traditional Khmer houses and clothing. I wasn't really sure what they meant by traditional housing, as the display was just a shack on stilts, which is what all the houses in Cambodia are. I guess that's architecture here.

Dinner was one of the best I've had on this trip so far. I ordered a curry and it was not spicy at all, chock full of potatoes and other vegetables, and chicken. If you're not familiar with curry dishes, it's basically an extremely chunky soup that you ladle over your rice and eat. Mabye it was my hunger, but every bite was so good. I'd pay $2 for it any meal of the day, any day of the week.

So tomorrow I must once again rise before the sun to catch my bus out of town. I'm afraid this pattern will repeat many times this week, but what can I do, walk across the country? Not likely, not without coming down with a lot of wild diseases.
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