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Banteay Chmar: Staying in a Stilt Home

Where on earth is Banteay Chmar?

The great thing about being around a ton of tourists and expatriate workers is that if you need something, it becomes exponentially easier to find it. In this case, we were in a bar called “Angkor What?” on Pub Street in Siem Reap when we met a really kind lad from Belgium who was working there as a waiter. He asked us what we were doing next, and I told him that I was picking out places on the map where there were huge swaths of green and few towns. After Angkor Wat, I decided I wanted a little more of a secluded adventure. I asked this young fellow if he heard of this place or that place. He said, no, but his girlfriend had been in country for a long time. She recommended a couple places, including Banteay Chmar, a very secluded northern village with another 12th century wat.

We left Siem Reap at about 7 AM to head to Banteay Chmar, which lies about 200 Km to the northwest. The ride was relatively uneventful, but there were a couple highlights, particularly when we saw all the school children on their motorbikes headed to class. Imagine streams of thousands of children between the ages of eight and thirteen taking over the streets, swarming and buzzing like a particularly densely packed and loud swarm of bees! And then, you look a little closer and these little ones are wearing their school uniforms as they ride like bikers going to the big Harley rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Mind you, I take these kids a lot more seriously than so many American “bikers” who truck their bike between towns so they can ride to the bar from the hotel. These little kids, like most Cambodians, really do “live to ride, ride to live.” Little motorbikes are integral to life here. Cars are in the periphery in this country.

I wished so badly to pull over and capture the shot of all the little boys and girls riding in their school uniforms, but sometimes I make choices about safety first in spite of the fact that it pains me to deprive my dear few readers of visual images. Nonetheless, it just wasn’t safe to pull over.  And so we motored on until both Shalma and I decided we were hungry. Cambodia isn’t littered with familiar places to eat, so you are always kind of rolling the dice. As we came into one tiny village I saw a man with a sandwich cart attached to the side of his bicycle. I pulled in front of him, waved him down, and we ordered a couple of the typical Cambodian sandwiches, which seem to include a combination of a uniquely Southeast Asian version of paté and bits of pig snout. the sandwiches cost us about 35 cents each.

Shalma has a lot of trouble with the bits of pig, and to a degree I do too. I don’t like eating the unclean animal, and I certainly hate eating anything as smart as a dog. If I had my way, I would probably be a vegan. I tried it once, and it really didn’t work for me, and so here I am bathing in my own hypocrisy. For Shalma, it is a little different; coming from Iran, pork is haram (unsanctioned, unclean, etc.) under Islam. She isn’t religious, but the culture that she grew up in kept her from developing a taste for pork. Having said that, her mom told me that they have cousins in Iran who hunt and eat the plentiful wild boar there. Anyway, the point I am making is that we are kind of eating what is available to us. A lot of times, it isn’t exactly our first choice, and I think vegetarians would suffer greatly in certain parts of Cambodia. I cannot imagine how a vegan would survive outside of larger cities like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.

After our breakfast sandwich we continued, but I still hadn’t had coffee and it was making me a wee bit grumpy. We stopped in another small village just as the monks were coming around doing prayers and collecting offerings. I had a cup of Khmer coffee with sweet condensed milk, gave the monks some dough, and was ready to hit the road. Shalma pointed out that the locals seemed rather amused that I gave offerings to the monk. I actually didn’t notice their reactions at all. I may have tuned it out. At this point I have been in enough remote villages that I am kind of used to the curiosity. Most tourists are traveling by busses, all of which pretty much stop in the same spots. On a motorbike, we go on roads and stop at places where the busses do not go. Needless to say, I stand out in these places for my size, blond hair, blue eyes, and tattoos. Fortunately, Khmer people are relatively discreet about checking you out. Shalma sees it more than I do.

As we continued north on the last leg of our journey (it was a little over 3 hours), the landscape became incredibly rural. The rice paddies were still in place, but now they were joined by other plants, especially cassava (another staple crop). The land became more rugged and the road rougher, although still paved. Cars and motorbikes gave way to women and men herding cattle and water buffalo down an elevated road. In no time at all, we were the only ones on the road who were neither cow nor master. The people and villages became fewer. And then we turned into this small village, and we were at our destination. To be honest, we actually didn’t know we had arrived because there isn’t much there, but then we began seeing the remains of an ancient temple.

There is a moat with ancient sculpted rail of men or deities pulling some kind of rope. I don’t know what this means, only that it is a common theme in the entrance to ancient Khmer temples.

Shalma and I rode the xr into the temple grounds. The administration of the temple is an informal operation, to say the least. There is  indeed someone there to take money in the odd chance a foreigner comes along, which isn’t incredibly often. I paid two dollars after Shalma and I entered. We were both very excited to see this place and almost had forgotten that we had not secured a place to stay for the night. When we pulled around the temple we saw two young Western-looking fellows who were eyeballing us. They seemed genuinely surprised to see us. They turned out to be volunteers from Spain, and they were helping to clean up the grounds by pulling weeds an such . I asked them if there was any place to stay around there, and they told me there was. They were finishing work for the day and told me that they would lead me somewhere to acquire lodging. Shalma decided to stay and hang out at the temple while I took care of the formalities.

At this point, I thought maybe we would be staying in perhaps the one tiny bed-and-breakfast in that town. It turns out, there is no bed-and-breakfast there. The Spanish lads took me to the village community center. There I learned that all the tourism in Banteay Chmar is community-based. There are no hotels; you stay in traditional Khmer stilt houses with a local family. Most of the homes are down a rough dirt road. They are packed together in almost a random order. The homes are simple, made of very plain wooden slats. There are no glass windows, only open windows with shutters you can close in case of a storm.

Above you can see a couple pictures of our room. In order to maintain community-based tourism they offer mosquito nets, which are are better than gold when you’re a delicious foreigner. I am still waiting to see if I contracted malaria on this trip, but I am hoping the precautions will save me.

After securing our room for $7, plus another $4 per person for our dinners that night, I made my way back to Shalma at the temple. She was sitting there and managing to have a leisurely conversation with the men who were working on the grounds. When left to her own devices, Shalma will charm and make polite conversation with just about anyone, even people who speak almost no English. She has some fantastic qualities, and that is one of my favorites!

There is a small stand within the temple grounds that sells food and beverages. Shalma and I decided to get something to drink before exploring. This was the perfect opportunity to have a beer in the jungle, and I couldn’t resist it. Shalma had a Coca-Cola, and we shared some water. After sitting there for a while, another foreigner arrived. He started talking to the numerous children in Khmer and ordered some satay skewers and hard boiled eggs in the local language as well. We were impressed by his linguistic skills. He struck up a conversation with us, and we discovered he is French and called Paul. He told us that he runs a local silk production place that empowers women and invited us to take a tour the next day. We had a nice conversation with him, and he gave us some tips about local places to explore.

Shalma and I headed into the temple. I turned to take a picture of her, and right then a little guy jumped into the picture with her. I see serious issues with people who go into the Peace Corps (or similar missions) and end up spending the entire time using children as photo ops, props, and tourist attractions. I reluctantly post these pictures as I do not wish to be exploitative. In this case, however, they kind of rushed the photo, so I am including the picture. Otherwise, you would see no pictures of children posted by me.


These little guys photobombed us, then they became our tour guides

The little kids seemed pretty excited to see Shalma and really wanted to impress her. They, using makeshift sign language, asked us if we wanted to see three big things in the temple. We agreed, and we were off to explore this space. These are the best tour guides you could ever ask for, and probably the best in all of Cambodia. Where is their Trip Advisor page? They reminded me of when I was a little guy; I had explored all the wild spaces around my home and knew the area better than any adult. I am positive these little fellas are the foremost experts on temple topography. They took us through tunnels and through small areas of the collapsed ruins, and they even showed me some kind of giant chameleon lizard. Below is a gallery of pictures from the temple. Note how the jungle has reclaimed so much of this once-civilized space.

The kids did a fantastic job, and they were hilarious with their antics the entire time. They would try to impress Shalma by breaking twigs over their forearms as a show of strength. They seemed very keen on showing her how fast they could run down a mound of giant stones or how far they could jump from one stone to another. Periodically, they would also tackle one another. There was a point when one boy was on standing on another boy’s shoulders to pick a bit of fruit. Then, a third boy kicked the child on the bottom, and they all came tumbling down with a great roar of laughter!

Our little tour guides showed us every nook of this temple complex. Shalma suggested that we buy the four of them a soda for their trouble. I was concerned that maybe it would be against their parents’ wishes, but then remembered I am not in the US. Just as she was saying this, another two boys joined the group, and the roughhousing intensified. Shalma said, “Buy sodas only for our original four boys!” She didn’t mean it in a bad way, she just had developed such an affection, and the new boys were indeed interlopers. But I said, “You cannot do that with boys; I will buy all of them a soda.”

We took the little guys to the food and beverage stand, and they each picked out a soda. The lady who operated the establishment yelled at them to not take advantage by getting the most expensive stuff. All the boys walked away with a can of Sprite and gave us a thank you in Khmer. They climbed up onto a large rock within sight, sat down and enjoyed the familiar ritual that men have after a job well done. Shalma pointed out, “Boys are exactly the same wherever you go. They play, try to impress girls, and then kick back and have a beer, or in this case, soda.” Seeing the boys on the rock was so very familiar to me and filled me with thoughts and memories that harken back to my own childhood. I realized how few children I have had in my life, but also how sweet such similar childhood times were with friends. Being a little boy can be a truly exciting and satisfying experience.

A Little More Exploring

The gentleman we met, Paul, also informed us of a few other places around the area to check out. There is actually a very small 12th century temple right inside the village. The main temple that I wrote about above was for the king and the monks, but the small one was for the people. It is actually almost difficult to find even though it is right inside the village. You have to take kind of a small diagonal turn to get to it, and it is hidden in some mangroves. Below are a few pictures.

The ancient Khmer were really into moats. I mean, can you blame them? Moats are magnificent! The problem is that they chose the land by its proximity to water. Instead of building on bedrock and creating an aqueduct to move the water in, they just built where the water happened to already be. This is why so many of the ancient sites are crumbling: squishy ground. I would hazard a guess that these aren’t the safest places to explore, but that is kind of where the wonder lies, and Cambodia is The Kingdom of Wonder, after all.

Paul also told us of a Khmer Rouge water project that is just a few kilometers up the road and requires some off-roading skill. I, of course, jumped at the chance. It turns out that the Khmer Rouge did in fact have some effective public works projects, and this reservoir is one of them. It is a fantastic place to watch the sunset. Below are a few pictures we took there right before the storms came.


The Food in Banteay Chmar and Punching A Wasp In the Face

We had lunch at the market in Banteay Chmar. It was some kind of Vietnamese dish, a cross between a crepe and an omelette with some kind of mysterious meat folded inside. It was delicious, and I think they cost about 25 cents a piece. After lunch, I had a wasp hovering around me, and I am weirdly afraid of them. You see, I know people who have never been stung by anything in their lives. I, on the other hand, have been stung by just about everything: honey bees, wasps, scorpions, and all kinds of things with stingers. So I freaked out a little bit and started flailing wildly and punched the wasp right in his goddamn wasp eyeball. This got a hearty laugh from half the village. Even Shalma was pointing and laughing.

We took a little walk around the market to see where food comes from. The market is tight and dark with various materials draped across the top. It is hot, and there is an open sewer running trough it with a few boards over the top. Meat is hanging in the heat all day and covered with flies. Every once in a while the woman tending the stalls will take a swipe toward the flies with a leafy twig. Ultimately, this is little more than an exercise in futility. Needless to say, there is more than a few health hazards going on in the market. However, Shalma and I suffered no discomfort from our time there.

That night for dinner, our hosts served us an amazing meal with some type of omelette, a beef stew (with delicious tomatoes, mangoes, and pineapples in it), and fresh steamed rice. They also gave us watermelon, which is actually the most dangerous fruit to eat anywhere. People rarely wash the outsides, and the fruit’s natural lack of acidity and high sugar content make it the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, especially without refrigeration. Still, Shalma and I ate every last bite and had no problem with any of the food. It was incredibly delicious.

Toilets and Mosquitos 

In order to facilitate and promote community-based tourism, some NGOs helped make the home stays more comfortable for Westerners. The local Khmer are not spraying themselves with deet and sleeping under mosquito nets, but as mentioned above, our bed had a totally effective net. In the middle of the night, however, when I had to pee, I was required to leave the relative safety of the net. I can tell you, although I was doused with mosquito repellent, they swarmed me and sunk their little mosquito beaks into me like I was a fine pan-seared foie gras served with a nice Sauternes. I am still totally paranoid about catching malaria, seriously. It is the night mosquitos that carry the parasite.

The toilets were perfectly Western toilets, only without the handle to flush them. This is not uncommon here in Cambodia. In this case, there is a drain pipe that catches rain water and channels it into a tub in the bathroom. One is required to take a wee bucket of water and pour it into the toilet in order to flush. It works but takes a little more time, which allows the local mosquitos to enjoy a delightful feast.

Silk, Empowering Women, and Building A More Fruitful Community

The next morning we decided to take Paul up on his offer to tour the silk factory, Soieries du Mékong. Click the hyperlink to find out more about the program, or just read my simplification. The organization was founded by two NGOs in order to help improve the lives of women in northern Cambodia. Anyone who has read Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or even any Marx (a rare point on which they both agree) knows that the key to societal wealth is skilled production instead of farming. The idea behind this program is to give women self-determination while making the village less dependent on cassava and rice farming, both of which can suffer the perils of bad crops and deflating market values.

Soieries du Mékong is staffed not by workers, but as Paul pointed out, by true artisans with a fine skill. The women work on beautiful grounds that are well-kept and have a huge variety of beautiful tropical fruit trees. The program solves childcare issues by encouraging women to bring their children to work when they are not in school. In essence, the program seeks to make a joyous and happy work space where women have few worries. They also only allow only a maximum of forty hours a week in order to encourage a proper work-life balance. The women are often making more than their husbands now, more than doubling household incomes. Soieries du Mékong also pays 80% of the women’s healthcare costs and has other programs to teach the women about home economics and balancing budgets. This is important in a place where people have always been poor and tend to spend every cent they get. Below I have added some  pictures of the facility.

Programs like this are important for places like rural Cambodia. They are necessary because they give things back that settler-colonialism have taken away. Typically, a society develops their own local products and economy. They make varying amounts of goods for trade and domestic consumption. Under most circumstances, societies develop and establish their own comparative advantage, wherein they figure out what they can produce the most of (at the highest quality) and focus on those products. They then seek out trade partners who have a comparative advantage in other products and establish a fruitful international economy. I am oversimplifying here, but I think you get my point.

Colonialism kills a society’s ability to prosper long after the colonists are gone. The Belgians, British, Dutch, French, etc. have essentially operated the same way all over the world. No place is the result more stark and evident that the continent of Africa, but it works the same way everywhere. When the colonists arrive, they take the people out of their traditional industries and force them into laboring to create a limited number of products that particularly appeal to Europeans. This lowers the aggregate global price for a product and allows France, for example, to acquire cheap rice from Asia or cocoa from Africa, and sell it cheaply to Switzerland or England while still making a profit.

Those people being colonized become devoid of skilled labour; they lose their trades and cannot go back to them in a post-colonial society. Making matters worse, industries have low factor mobility, meaning it is difficult for the people to move from one place to the other or one industry to the other due to lack of general skills. Obviously, the land cannot be moved either. This leaves post-colonial societies stuck making the same products for the same low earnings as they did when the Europeans ruled over them.

Colonialism abandons societies in a precarious marketplace where all the surrounding post-colonial states are laboring for the same products, not allowing for trade between states within the region. In the case of Africa, for example, there is virtually no trade between African nations. The final icing on the cake is that, in a post-colonial society that has not established its own comparative advantage and lacks diversified industry, no import substitution products are created. This means that Cambodians are stuck with cheap surplus Western clothing and goods and a marketplace that does not allow them to develop. Projects such as Soieries du Mékong are giving back something that was long taken from the Khmer people.

The community-based tourism has also been a great financial improvement for Banteay Chmar. In spite of the fact that there are few tourists there, the small amount of tourism that exists has more than tripled the aggregate income within the community. In most cities in Cambodia, it is really just the wealthy elites (including Westerners) who are making all the money from tourism. This keeps the poor nearly as poor as they were before while channeling money into the hands of a few who hoard it. This is not to say that the increased tourism has not improved lives, just that this improvement is mitigated by power structures and greed. In Banteay Chmar, we found an egalitarian system that works for the benefit of all within the community.

Thank you for reading this long blog post. Next time I will have lots of pictures of monkeys!

Motorbikes, Buddhism, The Khmer Rouge, and Odin’s Balls

The Plan

On Friday the 23rd of June I picked up my not-so-brand-new 1999 Honda xr250 from Lyda, the finest motorcycle mechanic in Phnom Penh. The following day, my lady and I had plans to ride the 144 kilometers down to the Southern coast of Cambodia to visit the beach town of Kep and nearby Kampot, home to the famous Kampot peppercorns. No, the peppercorns aren’t a Cambodian rugby team; I mean literal peppercorns. Unfortunately, Shalma and I went out with a few friends here Friday night, and I am not sure how many pints I had, but we both stayed out a little too late for an early Saturday morning departure. Nonetheless, I would not be deterred–I had a new motorbike and I needed to check things out. Ah, sweet freedom to not be at the whims of tuk tuk drivers! And so it was that we set out for a local Saturday excursion to Wat Phnom and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (AKA S21).

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom is often referred to as the “monkey temple” by tuk tuk drivers. Evidently, there used to be a lot of monkeys at the temple and there still may be some now. After doing a bit of research, I learned that there were pretty aggressive monkeys there as recently as 2011, and they even had to shoot one at some point. Poor monkey! I am not sure whether there are any macaques lurking about the temple grounds these days, but I can assure you that neither Shalma nor I spotted one.

The temple is not far from our digs by the river. It is a short jaunt by motorbike, maybe five minutes at the most. We headed over there and it is quite a sight to see! It is a relatively large temple compound on a human-made hill in the middle of a roundabout.  It is a massively busy roundabout like most in this city, full of diesel-spewing busses and vehicles of all kinds, tuk tuks, 125cc motorbikes hauling flat beds full of propane tanks, and all the usual chaos of Cambodian roads.

We pulled my bike up right onto the sidewalk in front of the temple and paid our admission of a dollar each. We then proceeded by foot to the top of the hill to the main temple on the mount. There was a man selling candles, incense, and some long stemmed lotus flowers. We slipped our shoes off and stepped inside the temple. I set my five incense sticks alight on a giant candle that was over a meter high and as big around as a 4 inch toilet pipe. I planted my sticks of incense in a vase full of sand or ash and proceeded to light my candle and place it on something that looked a bit like a wooden boat.

As I was about to complete my final task of slipping my flower into the urn where all the actual Buddhists are putting their flowers (I have no idea what is going on, just following queues), I turned and saw Shalma trying to place her candle on the wooden boat thingy. As she was attempting this brave feat, a woman who was incredibly involved in praying knocked over the massive toilet-pipe candle and it nailed Shalma in the back of the foot. Remarkably, although her heel was covered in yellow candle wax that made her look like a 10th century leper, she was unharmed by the hot wax. We surmised that she was protected by her offerings to the Buddha.

From the research I have done, it appears the temple was originally built in the 14th century. It looks very old, but much of it has been rebuilt. I am not sure which parts are old or new.  I would like to also point out how lush and green the compound is. Although you are in the center of a roundabout, you really feel like you are at a temple in the middle of the jungle somewhere. Below is a gallery of photos. I have not captioned any of them because I really don’t know much about Buddhist temples. I hope to learn more as time goes on.



S21: The school turned prison and torture chamber

We left the temple with a light and airy feeling. The day was bright and sunny, and the clouds were like happy little white cotton balls smiling down on us. We went back to our little apartment by the river and sent a message to Dimitri. Hey, want to go to S21 with us? He replied that he would like to go. He lives right across the street from the former Khmer Rouge complex and yet he had never gone. We headed straight over to his place. Almost immediately the weather and mood became ominous. Fluffy clouds had turned dark and brooding. Needless to say we got drenched on the short ride over to Dimitri’s place. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t gotten lost along the way. By the time we had gotten to Dimitri’s top floor apartment the sky had gone into full-on monsoon mode.

The rain on Dimitri's Balcony

The monsoon rains on Dimitri’s balcony

We waited for the rain to quiet a bit. Dimitri made me his famously delicious Greek frappe ice coffee. We got a little hungry and had some french fries, then it was time to leave to see the prison.

I didn’t take any pictures at S21. You aren’t really supposed to, but I did see people doing it. I don’t even know where to begin with this place. It was the last stop before a paranoid and genocidal regime drove people to the killing fields to murder them. The Khmer Rouge implemented all methods of torture in this place. They would hang people by their feet until they passed out, then lower their heads into giant vats of human waste and water to revive them. Almost every one of them confessed to all manner of things. A New Zealander who was caught by the Khmer Rouge while sailing around the world even admitted to working for the CIA under orders from Colonel Sanders.

S21, a former school with a grand garden, was once the site of children playing and preparing for the excitement of their lives ahead. It is much larger than it appears in pictures or even looking down on it from Dimitri’s roof. Each building is three stories tall. The large classrooms were turned into torture chambers. Some prisoners were in shackles attached to thick rebar. They were crammed like sardines with no room to move. Others were placed into the tiniest makeshift cells that were made of either wood or brick. There was nothing but a can to defecate and piss into. If you missed and made a mess you were forced to lick it up. People were tortured throughout the night and day.

There were only a handful of survivors who made it out. One of them was at the prison the day we were there. I had found myself silenced after what seemed like an eternity inside this pit that still resonated with the evil of its past. My brain seemed to have shut down because I could not process my imagination of the pain and torment that happened at this place. I know I was stone-faced. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me and I could not react. Then we walked by this old man who had survived being tortured and housed in this hell. He was selling a book on his ordeal, and as we passed him he smiled at us. I have to admit, it was his smile that finally broke me down. It was devastating to see a man who had gone through so much turn and flash a kind smile. I could hardly control my emotions. I grabbed Shalma’s hand and practically ran from that place. I never want to go back ever again.


The view of the S21 Prison complex from Dimitri’s balcony


My first bribery

On Sunday morning our plan to go south was a go. We should have packed the night before, but we neglected to do so. We meant to leave at 7 AM, but it turned out to be closer to 8 AM, right in the midst of the chaos of Phnom Penh rush hour. When I say chaos, I mean that there are few rules evident, and people seem to believe in a strict system of anarchy on the roads. I hear there is some sort of method, but so far I have seen none. This is not to say that you won’t get pulled over for a little bribery. This particular morning was my turn to pay a bribe for going the wrong way down a one way street. Mind you, it isn’t completely obvious that the street is one way since there is a constant stream of traffic flowing in both directions throughout the day.

We had gotten a little lost. Apple maps isn’t as dependable as one might imagine. I had to go a single block up the wrong way. There were plenty of other people around on scooters who suddenly did an about face. I was too slow to recognize what was happening and a young man in a blue uniform jumped right out in front of my bike with his arms out saying something in Khmer. I imagine it was the word for stop but I did not comprehend much since I was just trying to avoid mowing him over at that point. I managed to stop without hitting him and pulled my motorbike to the side of the street.

What’s up, I asked. He said “wrong way” in somewhat choppy English and motioned for me to go talk to this other guy who was dressed in the same type of uniform. Both looked like teenagers, but I assumed that the guy he motioned toward was the boss. I stepped up to him. He was slight of build and appeared to be a little nervous–not the type of police intimidation I am used to. I asked him what he wanted but he spoke seemingly no English. There was another young man operating a coffee cart and blaring some god-awful pop music out of a small radio. Shalma later informed me that this was all taking place to a Justin Bieber soundtrack, making the situation seem more absurd. The officer motioned over to have the coffee cart Belieber come and translate.

I asked the Bieber fan what the officer wanted. He said that the officer wanted five dollars because I had gone the wrong way. I told him to tell the officer that he was out of his mind and that I would give him two dollars. The officer immediately conceded and said he would take the two. I began to wonder if this was his first bribery experience too. I felt kind of bad for him since he had come down from the five dollar mark so easily. I handed him the two dollars, and then almost reflexively, I handed him another dollar as a tip. He let me go about my business and we were off to the races.

The road to Kep

It was tricky getting out of town, again with all the crazy traffic. I really need to strap my GoPro to my head one of these days and post the experience. When we finally got on the road the monsoon rains began. I had a small poncho that Dimitri gave me, but I bought another from a lady on the side of the road. Real American rain gear would be pretty heavy in this heat and humidity. Having said that, it was cooler than one might have expected and I probably could have used a little more gear. At the very least I should have worn my motocross boots instead of my Converse Chuck Taylors.

All of the roads consist of a single lane in each direction. Cars often drive with the yellow line situated in the middle of their bumper for no apparent reason. When the roads are congested it is a dangerous symphony indeed! There will be mopeds, tractors, very small busses that are loaded with people, and Toyota Hiluxes all going different speeds. All the cars act as though they are in a terrible hurry and tend to go way too fast for the conditions. Cars will pass your motorbike only inches from your shoulder at high speed. When an oncoming car goes to pass the the car in front of them, they completely ignore you if you are on a motorcycle; they simply expect you to go onto the shoulder. At one point there was a car passing a tuk tuk, and then a Toyota truck passed the car while it was in mid-overtake. They were three vehicles deep, taking up the whole road and coming in my direction!

Shalma and I motored on for hours. There was traffic the whole way. It was mentally exhausting since there isn’t a moment to put your mind at ease. It is a constant sensory extravaganza where the participator is constantly looking for the danger that is, and anticipating the danger that is very soon to be! In all of this motoring, we did take some breaks. We had a bahn mi type sandwich made on the side of the road by what was probably an eight-year-old girl, and we took a couple leg-stretching breaks as well.

At one point we found ourselves gazing over rice paddies as we motored along. They are the most beautiful shades of green and the aromatic scent is reminiscent of opium incense. The green of the rice paddies is punctuated with emaciated cows and rather well-fed water buffalos. It caused me to wonder, how do the buffalos eat so well while the cows appear to be starving? The whole time I kept thinking about how much the scenery looked the way Vietnam looks in photographs and all those war movies I grew up with. Shalma later confirmed she had been thinking the same thing. After a while the road stopped and we found that we could go no farther. We had taken a wrong turn and ended up at the Vietnam border crossing. No wonder it looked so familiar…

We headed back the way we came and found our way onto the correct road. It took us five and a half hours to go on a trip that should have only been 150km. I should again stress, it is relatively difficult to go fast on these roads if you want to live, especially if it is raining. We were both ready to get off the bike and get some food and rest–me especially since my forearms were burnt to a crisp from the sun. We found our way to Kep and got into a room in a guesthouse for $15 per night. And then we tried to eat tacos, which wasn’t the best idea we had ever come up with.

After we got into the room we just kind of headed over to the first food place within sight, and that place was a taco stand. We ordered a three tacos each and I ordered a Cambodia beer. There was nothing really taco-ish about the tacos except for the shape. The worst part was the taco shell, which was really whatever fried spring rolls are wrapped in instead of a tortilla. Don’t get me wrong, I have no complaint about rice-based wrapped goods, but it sort of defies the beauty that is a taco. Needless to say, we both walked away hungry. We managed to forage some sliced mangos from a street vender and I bought some squid on a stick from another.

We were still hungry and needed a place to go. We collected ourselves and figured out that the good stuff to eat was down the road at the crab market. A friend of ours suggested going to a place called Mr. Mab’s down there. We took a tuk tuk over there and had a pretty romantic perch that sat just above the water on Mr. Mab’s back deck. The sea was in tumult due to high tides and the monsoons, so once in a while we would get hit in the face with a bit of sea water. You could hear the water rushing under the deck just inches away from our feet. The water (or whatever it carried) would hit the deck below our feet periodically. Shalma, who does not swim, found this unnerving. I, on the other hand, thought it to be utterly delightful. I asked her if she would like to sit inside anyway and she declined.

This all brings me to the Kampot peppered crab. When our plates arrived Shalma was so excited that she completely lost her fear of the sea. The dish is made up of a couple of crabs covered in a red chili sauce with green bell peppers and sprigs of green Kampot peppercorns. I have never had anything like it, and it is amazing but very messy. The peppercorns are very special. They have so much flavor. Sure, it tastes like pepper, but there is also a strong and almost astringent quality and flavor that is more similar to cloves than typical pepper. Below are some pictures of our walk around Kep. These pictures include this unique and delicious crab dish, and the squid on a stick too!


Kampot, Odin’s balls, and the Khmer Rouge–oh, and some Buddhist stuff too!

The road from Kep to Kampot is not a long one, nor is it particularly fraught with danger. However, not long after leaving I Kep I realized I wasn’t going to make it unless I covered my sunburnt arms. I didn’t have a long sleeved shirt with me so I told Shalma to keep an eye out to see what is being sold on the side of the road. She eventually tapped me to get me to pull over. Shalma said she found a yellow shirt for me. I circled back with Shalma and we found a thin yellow ladies cardigan. And of course, Shalma tried to talk me into buying it in order to save my arms from the damage. I refused, as she would have expected. Fortunately, a few kilometers down the road I found a suitable linen shirt for only $2.50. I think this shirt is going to be my friend for a long time.

When we pulled into Kampot I realized for the first time that it isn’t a beach town but a river town. It is one of those places that is a lot sleepier during the day than at night. It wasn’t immediately obvious where the best place to stay would be. As we rode my trusty xr down the riverfront road, I saw a giant Swedish flag hanging in front of a driveway. The place was called Kool Kampot and it really looked nice enough. I wanted to give Shalma a nicer place to stay than our digs from the night before, and we found a nice room there for $20 per night.

Kool Kampot is a fantastic place to stay. The rooms are spacious and clean with pleasing decor. They are also well air conditioned except for one that goes for $15 per night. There is a lovely upstairs bar that overlooks the river, and it is a fantastic place to catch the sunset. The staff is friendly and the owner Jeff is a truly kind Australian gent who goes out of his way to make sure his guests are comfortable. If you’re in Kampot it is a great place to stay.

After a relatively uneventful first few hours in Kampot, we found ourselves on the roof bar at 4PM waiting for the bar tender to show up. The beers are a bit more expensive but cheap enough that I lost count of how many I had. Shalma was drinking soda pop until she switched to a bloody mary. We had a marvelous time and made friends with two young ladies, one American and the other Dutch. Eventually, Shalma and I both got a little hungry and set off down the road to acquire food.

We stumbled across a place called Pépé & the Viking. Evidently it is owned by two people, one French and the other Danish. One of the dishes on the menu that caught my eye was called Odin’s Balls, and it was described as frikadeller with mashed potatoes. For those who aren’t in the know, frikadeller are magical traditional Danish meat balls. They are made of a 50/50 mixture of ground pork and ground veal. They are simple to make with just a bit of egg, super finely diced onion, and some salt and pepper. In my slightly inebriated state, Odin’s balls it is!

We went in and sat at a lovely table out front. Unfortunately we sat near two American douchebags who were bragging about money and cars, but it was a lovely table nonetheless. Our food came out relatively quickly and came with a wee side of yogurt. This excited my Persian girlfriend who is keen to put yogurt on just about anything. I had never seen this dish served with yogurt and tried to tell Shalma, baby, this isn’t a bloody Kefta kebab! Mind you, it wasn’t really a true frikadeller either. They were far too small, like an Ikea meatball, and didn’t seem to have veal in them. Unfortunately, Odin doesn’t like having his balls dipped in yogurt.

Shalma and I had been eating the exact same foods over the entire day. The only time we diverged from this is when she dipped Odin’s balls in yogurt. This unsettled the gods of my ancestors and she was cursed with a foul stomach that ended up turning into something far worse. The next day we were meant to ride the motorcycle into Preah Monivong National Park together, but Shalma was not well enough to do so. Shalma told me she just had a bit of an upset stomach. She said she was fine but just really couldn’t go. Being the kind girlfriend she is, she asked me to go and promised she would be okay. I got onto my trusty steed and headed for the mountains, and what a beautiful place it is!

I headed toward the park, also called Bokor for the mountain that essentially is the park. It was about twenty minutes by motorbike from our guest house to the park’s entrance. Entrance costs a dollar and is well worth it. The minute you pull into the park you can tell you are someplace special. You take a long road in and begin climbing the hill. The roads are beautiful; the area hadn’t been paved until five or six years ago, a fact that had previously made it difficult to access.

The inaccessibility of the mountain made it a desirable place for both French colonists and the Khmer Rouge alike. Upon this mountain, which rises over 1000 meters above sea level, the French colonists built a holiday area in the 1920s called Bokor Hill Station. Many of the buildings still remain, although some have crumbled or been demolished. One can easily see why the French chose this area with its spectacular views and moderate climate compared to the rest of Cambodia. This area would later be the last holdout for the Khmer Rouge until the early 1990s. It holds a strategic military tactical position being on top of a hill with roads that are easy to protect from enemies. Two of the most important remaining structures are the Bokor Palace hotel and an old abandoned French church. The hotel was actually used as the the final headquarters for the Khmer Rouge. Long abandoned, when I was there I saw people working atop the structure, and it appears that there are plans to bring it back to life. In the gallery below I have included pictures of both the church and the hotel.

The roads going up the mountain are twisty, and the greenery is quite impressive. For a seasoned motorcyclist like myself, it was an extremely pleasant ride. They took care to bank each turn to perfection. However, one must proceed with caution. Locals driving on these roads cross far over the yellow line in turns. Some of the corners have mirrors, which is helpful, but not all of them do. Another danger is the gaggles of European and American tourists on scooters. They will rent a scooter to anyone in Cambodia. In Kampot, the going rate is $5 for 24 hours. People with no motorcycle experience often think they will be fine on a scooter because they can ride a bicycle. This is simply not the case. Tourists all over the world are regularly killed or injured from this line of thinking.

As you ascend the mountain, you come across this massive Loc Yeay Mao statue. Evidently she is an important goddess figure in Cambodian Buddhism. Near the highest point in the mountain, there is a roundabout and in one direction is Bokor Hill Station. To the right is the incredible and picturesque meditation waterfalls. Below are all the pictures from this section of my blog. I hope you enjoy them!

If you are still reading this blog post I am grateful for your attention span. Shalma is feeling better. The ride back home to Phnom Penh was much easier, and it took us only 3.5 hours. We may be going to Siem Reap for our next trip to see the famed ancient temples of Angkor Wat. It is twice as far, at about 340km. I will keep you posted!