Pitfalls on the road to Siem Reap

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).

From resort island to beach bum island

Unless I wanted to pay a fine for overstaying my 30-day visa, I had to say goodbye to Vietnam after spending three nights on Phu Quoc. I used the Ha Tien border crossing to ride into Cambodia. I had no problem getting my bike through the checkpoint (make sure you get the exit paper from the Vietnam side and the entry paper from the Cambodia side). After a quick night in Kampot (come to this charming town to relax) and Sihanoukville (nicknamed “Snookyville” so you get the drift), I took a fast ferry to Koh Rong. (UPDATE: the hit TV series, “Survivor”, took over the island in March to shoot it’s next two seasons.)

The tiny island is a tropical paradise — thatched-roof bungalows on powder-white, fine sand, right by crystal-clear water. I splurged on a $50 beachfront bungalow and feasted on cheap, fresh seafood. The little village of Koh Tui conjures an image of a castaway, pirate port with backpackers and hippies plying the beach instead. There’s only primitive infrastructure — no roads (I left my bike in Snookyville), no hot water (not that you need it), no cellphone reception, barely any wifi, and limited hours of electricity. This beach utopia is off the grid, to say the least. The thought of opening a bare-bones bungalow resort for $40-50k has it’s appeal, especially before future plans to transform the mellow, backpacker scene into a huge, eco-tourism, luxury resort take hold. Enjoy the beach bum life there while you still can!

The highlight was a $7 boat trip to snorkel, fish, and catch a sunset on Long Beach, while feasting on the fish everyone (group of 8) caught but me. We later snorkeled at night to see the bioluminescent plankton. It felt like I was swimming through the universe with hundreds of stars all around me!

Extreme ends: Saigon to Phu Quoc

As Ha Tien and mainland Vietnam slowly slip out of view, the car ferry takes me closer to Phu Quoc Island, where I’ll spend my last three days in Vietnam. A month is not nearly enough time for this beautiful country. It took two days of driving to reach the seaside border town of Ha Tien from Saigon. My wallet and senses could only handle two nights in Ho Chi Minh City, which is quite different from the capital – more modern, more skyscrapers, more lights, more energy, and more attractive girls (namely prostitutes). I was propositioned left and right for girls, drugs, and massages in the backpacker ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao. My most heart-breaking experience occurred at the War Remnants Museum – I teared up at the sight of the extensive collection of American War photos, depicting the collateral damage from relentless bombing and Agent Orange (Dioxin). Sadly, the aftermath is still felt over 40 years later. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel or be welcomed in a land that my country literally wiped off the map. Bomb craters are still visible, amputees are a common sight, but since my interaction with the locals has been limited to mostly the younger generation, I haven’t felt any animosity when I mention I’m American. The Vietnamese I’ve met at guesthouses, restaurants, and bars, and I’ve passed in villages have been extremely friendly, and more than anything, just want to practice speaking English.

Considering Vietnam has more than 2,000 miles of coastline, it’s strange that Phu Quoc, on the southern tip of the country in the Gulf of Thailand, is my first taste of a Vietnamese beach. It doesn’t have world-class sand and it’s more developed than I’d prefer, but it’s a nice change from the mountains. I did two fun dives, relaxed on Long Beach, found a pristine “secret” beach on the north shore (an ex-pat living on the island gave me directions ), and ate some great seafood at the night market.

Coastal detour before Dalat

I’m sitting on a bench, overlooking Truc Lom Reservoir, at Truc Lam Pagoda in Dalat. This former French Colonial highland retreat is Vietnam’s main coffee growing region. With a hilltop location, I have commanding views of pine-covered mountains. It’s easy to forget I’m still in Vietnam as Western tourists walk by. The cooler climate and setting are more on par with the foothills of the French Alps.

The monastery grounds are peaceful and serene. Chirping birds, occasional bell tolls (and distant saw buzzing) are heard as I reflect. The last three days since Hoi An have been a blur – over 700km were covered. My visa expires in just over a week so I had to push it a bit. I detoured from the HCM Highway to spend three nights on the central coast with the Quebec couple. On the first night, we took our bikes to Mr. Minh’s shop in Hue for a tune-up. I needed $40 in repairs and he kept to his word by covering the cost. We drove by the Imperial Enclosure, the capital of the Nguyen emperors, on the way to Hoi An via a scenic coastal byway. Hoi An, which boasts French Colonial architecture and cobbled streets, was a bit of a letdown as it was over-run by tourists and most of the buildings sported a monotonous, yellow paint job.

The highlight was My Son, an ancient Cham temple complex, now in ruins thanks in part to American bombing. I hooked back to the HCM Highway and left my wonderful travel companions behind as I was in a hurry to make it to Cambodia. The scenic road continued to amaze until Kon Tum when human development increasingly appeared along with potholes and road repair projects. Star took a beating, especially when I wiped out for the first time on an embankment of loose sand. No serious consequences occurred, but it was a reminder to take it slow!

Dalat is a breath of fresh air. It’s got an interesting, creative vibe, wonderful scenery, and great coffee. I tried ca phe chon (weasel shit coffee) for the first time! Yes, it doesn’t sound appetizing when you consider that the coffee beans were picked from the feces of wild cats, but the taste is smooth, not bitter, and slightly sweet! And it’s the most expensive coffee in the world (I wanted to buy some as a souvenir, but the $10-a-gram price tag was out of my budget). I stayed in a dorm room at Wolfpack Hostel for two nights. The $3 communal dinners were the main draw. Aside from Truc Lam Pagoda, I also checked out Linh Phuoc Pagoda (the unique mosaic design is awesome!), learned about the silk weaving process at Cuong Hoan Silk Factory, visited Elephant Falls, hiked to the top of Lang Biang Peak (2,167m), and briefly eyed Crazy House on my way to Ho Chi Minh City.

Riding the Ho Chi Minh Highway

I didn’t bring in 2015 the way I desired. I parted ways with the Quebec couple after five days together – they followed the coast south, I returned to Hanoi to party. To sum up my NYE, I witnessed a Vietnamese man nearly kill another man by kicking him in the neck following a minor motorbike accident (the victim lay motionless for five minutes while blood oozed from his mouth), I danced mostly by myself at a club in the Old Quarter, while groups of friends around me counted down the last seconds of the year, and I finished the night with a rather unhappy ending at a massage parlor. While 2014 ended with a whimper, 2015 began with a bang. I spent the first night of the new year at a park lodge in Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first national park. The kicker: I had the place all to myself! I was completely surrounded by lush, green karst formations, served a huge dinner befit for a king, and it was perfect aside from a nearby wedding that was blaring awful dance music. The Ho Chi Minh Road was also a welcome change from chaotic Hanoi and congested Highway 1. It’s a recently-constructed, two-lane road that follows Vietnam’s backbone from Hanoi to Saigon. It makes for terrific motorbiking! No wonder it’s considered one of Asia’s most scenic byways. Karst peaks rise from rice paddy fields. Farmers tend their fields with water buffaloes. Herders guid goats and cattle across the road. Laborers load bamboo onto trucks, cut bamboo, or lay it on the side of the road to dry. My favorite part? Most children and many adults wave or shout “hello” as I slowly pass through villages, constructed of concrete, bricks, bamboo, corrugated metal, and thatched roofs. And I can stop and go as I please with my bike.

It’s simply fascinating to watch people do their simple craft, which required hard work and dedication. For example, my bike broke down 60km from Pho Chau on my way to the world’s largest cave system – Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. My mechanic easily disassembled my motor, replaced a broken piston, and welded a new bolt to secure my engine better. It took one hour and cost $15. I observed with interest and it gave me a new level of appreciation for my brother’s mechanical talent. After the repair, Star (yep, that’s her nickname) ran like a charm. The next day, I rolled into the cave park with the company of the Quebec couple, who spotted me snapping photos on the side of the road!

We spent 2 days touring Phong Nha Ke bang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. As each of the major caves has an entrance fee, we opted for Dark Cave. Unfortunately, the package entrance fee was a mixed bag. A tour guide is necessary to enter the cave, which is fine, but I didn’t care for the zip line entrance, being herded through like cattle, and the short kayak ride at the end. It was too kitsch. Although, playing in the mud bath inside the cave was highly entertaining!

We had two choices upon leaving the cave park, heading south: take the well-traveled eastern route of the HCM Highway or the extremely remote western section. We topped our tanks (and put extra gas in empty water bottles), filled our camel backs, and made the 260-km journey to Khe Sanh, using the western route. For most of the way, it was just us, the road, and endless switchbacks through jungle-clad mountains. Aside from a few ethnic villages, there was no human development. If you want picture postcard perfect Vietnam without the tourists, this slice of road is for you.