Any-given trip will involve it’s fair share of problems. Aside from occasional bike hiccups, my month in Vietnam was a smooth ride, travel and experience-wise. Well, Cambodia has thrown me a few curveballs so far. In a span of four days, I was forced to pay off traffic police on two, separate occasions — first, it was $20 at a morning checkpoint in Sihanoukville for failing to drive with a license, and then it was $10 for unintentionally driving the wrong way on a one-way street in Phnom Penh. (ADVICE: if you see a checkpoint, quickly speed by while smiling and waving hello as if you don’t understand their motion to stop. In my personal experience, as well as fellow bikers’, the police won’t bother to pursue you.)
Koh Rong aside, the corrupt officials, pervasive littering, and outrageous prices in tourist zones have put a damper on my Cambodia impression, a week in. And considering almost a million ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia (mostly in floating villages, as they lack property rights), the differences between the bordering countries are striking. The geography is mostly flat with palms dotting landscapes of dried-out, rice paddies, and grazing cattle. The dry season makes for desert-like conditions.
I took NH4 to the capital to brave Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”. The Tuol Sleng Museum (a former high school turned into the infamous S-21 prison) and Killing Fields of Choeung Ek (most of the S-21 prisoners were executed here, 14 km outside of Phnom Penh) will turn your stomach. I met one of the prison’s few survivors, who was spared because he was a skilled machinist and shares his experiences in Khmer. Choeung EK is a quiet, serene location if you can look past the 8,000-skull memorial and bone fragments that litter the mass graves where victims were buried. I could only bare one day in the refuse-laden streets of the former “Pearl of Asia” (I drove past the Royal Palace, but I lacked the desire to go in as I wanted to get out).
I made my way west on NH5 to Battabang, stopping halfway to share a boat tour ($10 per hour) of Kompong Luong, a Vietnamese floating village close to the village of Krakor on the Tonlé Sap Lake. Afterwards, I had a cheap, delicious meal of — wait for it — fried insects and rice! Before dusk fell, I had arrived in Battabang, which is a breath of fresh air from Phnom Penh. It’s a lovely, idyllic, riverside town with well-preserved, French-period architecture. I wanted to catch the renowned boat trip to Siem Reap, but opted not to as the operators wanted to charge me double the $25 ticket price because of my bike. So I stayed a couple nights, enjoying the riverside promenade and local ambience, especially the lack of tourist touts.
The Battabang highlights included: the bamboo train (it’s definitely touristy, but the 7-km, bumpy ride on one of the few remaining French tracks is totally worth the $5), the bat show at Phnom Sampeau (after you wander around the Buddhist temples and Killing Caves at the mountain summit with excellent views of the countryside, you can behold a nightly phenomenon: thousands of bats fly out of a massive cave, forming a snaking river in the sky that lasts for 30 minutes!), and be sure to watch a $10 Phare Ponleu Selpak circus (think Cirque du Soleil, but with disadvantaged children).