I am the original 'Uneasy Rider' .. not especially blessed with much natural motorcycling talent, nor am I a particularly courageous motorcycle rider.
Nevertheless I went 'Right Way Round' New Zealand (at least twice) followed by a wonderful ride around Australia.

Then it was up to southeast Asia, around Indo-China, across southern Central Asia to the Middle East, Asia Minor .. and finally into Europe.

Right Way Round - all the way home .. from New Zealand to England, 2-up on a Honda Transalp.

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PROGRESS SO FAR - Distance covered across Western Europe: 6,411 km [3,984 miles] - as at Thursday, October-22nd, 2015

Thursday, 25 April 2013

South to 'Kambuja'

or .. 'The Kingdom of Cambodia' as it is now known.

So what does the name 'Cambodia' invoke in your mind?
Perhaps these might be on your list:
  • The Ancient Khmer Empire
  • The Fabulous Temple of Angkor Wat (The Eighth Wonder of the World)
  • Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror
  • Carpet bombing by the USA
  • The Killing Fields
  • 'Kampuchea'
We were about to discover and see a few of these historic wonders, and some of the incredibly brutal scars .. first hand.

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Monday, 15th April

But first we had to leave Laos - and 'run the gauntlet' for nearly 500 km [over 300 mi] through a nation gone absolutely crazy!

Background:

About those celebrations I mentioned earlier:

The Songkran Festival is celebrated during the 13th - 15th April as the traditional New Year's event for many countries throughout Southeast Asia, including Laos. And we found ourselves right in the middle of it all!

The celebrations centre around splashing water, by any means .. and plastering wet talcum powder on the faces of anyone/everyone passing-by. These tradition activities are used during the Festival to [eh-hem] 'pay respect' and wish everyone good luck. In recent years, however, it has evolved into a wild, all-out nationwide water fight.

The revelry and the 'rules of engagement' can be dangerous - especially on the roads - and particularly if you’re riding a motorcycle. I copped a couple of full buckets-worth, smack in the face, as did Ellen. Mental notes were quickly made to close our visors down when riding through the scores of hosepipe, bucket and water pistol/rifle-carrying street gangs.

But despite all this we zoomed down Route 13 to our next stopover; Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) where we intended staying for at least a couple of nights. It was a very fast ride and we covered the distance quickly. I swear we went airborne at least once as I hurtled the bike over a humpback bridge or two. Classic rear wheel first landings though. The Isle of Man TT racecourse .. here I come!

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By 5:00pm we were crossing the Mekong to Don Khong Island - Si Phan Don's (4,000 Islands) largest island - on a makeshift raft.

Disembarkation. Our intended hotel is just 3.8 km [2.5 mi] up the track from this point.

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Our hotel's veranda restaurant, where we ate all our meals during our two-day stopover on 4,000 Islands. 

[Panorama - click to enlarge] ..  a wide view of the Mighty Mekong, from the veranda at breakfast time, with an ambient temperature of 27°C [81°F] - circa 8:00am.

Apart from the usual chill-and-look there's nothing much to do on, in-and-around 4K Islands .. but that's the whole point, isn't it?

We experienced five power outages altogether during our time on Don Khong, mostly caused by the spectacular electrical storms happening at the time. Imagine looking-out over the Mekong at night-time, a beer or a G&T in hand .. and watching the whole vista light-up, just like day, for seconds at a time by cloud-to-cloud sheet flashes, and dazzling cloud-to-ground lightning bolts. An epic show of the  forces of nature at work.
 
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Wednesday, 17th

Getting back to the mainland ..

.. again on a home-made raft consisting of three leaking canoes, all held together with a deck of dubiously sturdy wooden planks:


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Back on Laos' main R13 trunk road for the very last time, heading south. We turned-off and rode a little west, just a short distance of no more than a couple of kilometres, to see the Khone Phapheng Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia.

The Khone Falls are the primary reason why the Mekong River is not fully navigable from its Cambodian delta --> right up into China. The Falls have therefore kept the ocean-going cargo fleets from spoiling the Mekong's natural beauty, which can't be all bad, surely?

10 km [6¼ mi] - 10 minutes - further down the road we were obliged to pay bribes of US$2 each to the corrupt officials on both sides of the border just to get the appropriate stamps in our passports. The high cost of ink nowadays, eh?!

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Thursday, 18th

We had arrived in Cambodia, which has had a pretty bad run of luck for the last half-millennium or so. Ever since the fall of Angkor in the 15th Century, the once mighty Khmer Empire has been plundered by all its neighbours .. and then, the absolute mother of all nightmares actually came true - it was colonized by the French in the 19th century. Sacré Bleu!

In the 1970s Cambodia had the sh!t bombed out of it by the US Air Force .. before plunging back into the horrors of civil war under the Khmer Rouge's incredibly brutal reign of terror. And now ..
.. to cap it all, a couple of old British farts had invaded from the north - just to critique the locally brewed beverages. Could it ever get worse for Cambodia?!

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From Ellen's journal: click on this link → Vietnam

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For a few years I subscribed to National Geographic and received their magazines every month.

Back in 2009, NG's July edition really captured my imagination: The leading article was entitled, "Angkor - Why an Ancient Civilisation Collapsed." I kept the magazine, and all its associated pull-out reference maps at the top of the pile. This one never made it to my dentist's surgery's waiting room.

I promised myself back in the summer of '09 that if the chance ever came my way to explore the Temples of Angkor, then I would grab it with both hands. I really wanted to see the unofficial 8th wonder of the world. It never occurred to me that one day nearly four years later I would do so; better still, ride there on a motorcycle, all the way from New Zealand. This fabulous trip-of-a-lifetime really is making dreams come true.

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We rode the near 600 km [c. 373 mi] journey from the Laos/Cambodia border to Siem Reap in two stages, stopping over in the Mekong Riverside Cambodian township of Kratie along the way. The Mekong is one hellofa river, that’s for sure.

Finishing the ride at the Lotus Lodge. The pool is what lured us into staying at this particular establishment in Siem Reap. Not a bad choice as it turned out.

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Saturday, 20th

Divining Angkor

Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. The Khmer kingdom lasted from the ninth to the 15th centuries, and at its height dominated a wide swath of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east. The scale of the temples and shrines of Angkor erected by the Khmer during this period rivalled the pyramids of Egypt.

We were about to see some of what remains with the help and guidance of our very own tuk tuk driver ..

.. Mr 10133, wearing his Lucky helmet.

My first observation, as we spluttered down the wide tree-flanked avenues into the archaeological site, was how emaculately well-maintained it all is; quite unlike, and totally out of keeping with the rest of the country.

TIP:  Before you visit this world famous heritage site - make sure your camera battery is freshly charged!

First visit – The Buddhist Temple of Bayon, which incorporates elements of Hindu cosmology.

Dating from the 12th century, Bayon is the spectacular central temple of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The complex is located just to the north - about 3 km - from the more widely known Angkor Wat temple.

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Constructed in the form of a perfect square, the sides of which run exactly north to south and east to west.


Bayon remains a place of worship. Buddhists and Hindus still come to here to pray.

Every tower has a smiling face. There are 216 images all told. This curious smiling face, has been dubbed by some the "Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia."

Combined profile visage.

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Next stop by tuk tuk - The Temple of Ta Prohm

In its own unique way, despite the creeping lichens (indeed, perhaps because of nature's slow but sure invasion) Ta Prohm is an absolutely beautiful temple ..

.. with its crooks and nannies ..

.. and corridors to explore.

When the French discovered Ta Prohm in late nineteenth century it was decided not to conduct a full-scale restoration due to the fact that giant trees, such as ficus and silk trees, were so merged with the ancient walls that eventually they became whole.

Gnarly strangler figs .. really are devouring the ruins, once home to hundreds of monks.

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Rambling around the site was a truly surreal experience. I had never seen anything like it before ..

.. or had I? Well, there were those photographs in that National Geographic magazine I mentioned earlier, and of course ..

 [library pic]

.. the blockbuster movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and its sequel were both filmed in and around the temple, which is where the most impressive scenes were created. Ta Prohm is, therefore, at least subliminally known to many; even to those who have never travelled to Cambodia.

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We then moved on to the unmistakable lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat - the most elaborate of the ancient city's temples, and the world's largest religious monument.



Inside the temple grounds. It's so HUGE that I couldn't position myself far enough away - I kept backing into a wall - to capture all the towers together in one photo frame.

Monks investigate the Temple's interior chambers.

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Extensive decoration throughout and along the gallery walls. Incredible bas-relief friezes running anti-clockwise for 800 metres tells the history of the Khmer People. 




The bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war.

Moving around the impressive central tower, up into which you go via some very steep steps.

Young Buddhist monks returning down from their visit to the top of the central tower, which stands 65 meters [213 ft] high.

[library pic]

An equinox occurs twice a year (around 20 March and 22 September), when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the sun; the centre of the sun being in the same plane as the equator.

On the morning of the spring equinox, the sun rises up the side of the central tower (mountain peak) of the temple and crowns its pinnacle.



We had missed that special date of course; too late by around a month.

Nevertheless, I snapped the above picture just as a passing cloud diffused the sun's rays right behind the central tower's pinnacle. This was my very own special solar moment.

Summary:
 
I must say that the Angkor Wat's balance, composition and beauty make it one of the finest monuments I have ever seen anywhere in the world. It is a hugely important monument to the people. I would go as far to say that Angkor IS Cambodia; to the extent that the country's national flag has a depiction of Angkor Wat in its centre.

So what brought on its demise 600 years ago? The 2009 National Geographic article attempts a reasonable explanation. In short, many scholars now believe that Angkor succumbed to over-population and environmental degradation, followed by a series of punishing droughts; very similar circumstances that hastened the doom of the Maya city states in Mexico and Central America centuries earlier.

Go there if you can.

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Sunday, 21st

We went to the Angkor Museum, where we received a first-class education and further insight into the history of The Angkor Temple complex; Buddhism and Hinduism and how these two great religions co-existed together, side-by-side in the Khmer Empire. I recommend a visit, perhaps even before entering the Archaeological Park. It will pay dividends during your tour of the Temples; so much so that we are seriously considering a second visit to the Park when we return to Cambodia in October.

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Monday, 22nd

The last big'ish ride of this particular 2-month leg of the journey: Siem Reap to Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, a distance of 320 km [200 mi].

Just 45 km [28 mi] north of Phnom Penh and our last re-fuelling stop.

Almost instantly we were approached by a couple of street urchins trying to flog us a bag or two of soft (and warm!) fruits, such as mango & watermelon. Not for us I'm afraid, which made them sad .. BUT hey?! .. we still had a few 'giveaways' deep down in the bottom of the rack bag, like kiddies drawing pads & crayons, blow-up globes etc. Out these came .. and within seconds we were surrounded by smiley children, plus a heavily pregnant teenager, all eager to receive whatever hand-outs were on offer. I also gave away all of the remaining small-value Cambodian currency (riel) left in my wallet - of more use to them than me.

It was a lovely twinkle in time - almost like Christmas.

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As we approached the outskirts of the city, we got caught by a thunderstorm that turned the road network into rivers. Just 10 km of the trip to go .. and we were hammered by rain; I mean it, we got a real drenching.

That night we celebrated the end of the journey by treating ourselves to an authentic Chinese feast in a local restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. Superb "Al dente" ('tender crisp') veges, but unfortunately the meat dishes tasted like sh!te. Friggin' chopsticks!

How I longed for a BK double whopper with cheese & bacon; even a finger-lickin' KFC family feast would have been just the ticket. But sadly we hadn't seen sight of any of the well-known Western fast food outlets since leaving Thailand.

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From Ellen's journal: click on this link → 4 Thousand Islands and Cambodia

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Tuesday, 23rd

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

In 1975 the Tuol Sleng Primary and Tuol Svay Prey High Schools were commandeered by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), which quickly became the largest detention and torture centre in Cambodia.

The four main buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved just as they were left when the Khmer Rouge was driven out in 1979.

The total number of prisoners held in S-21 from 1975 to 1979 isn’t absolutely clear; estimates range from 12,000 to 20,000. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 detainees; all of them suspected dissidents, who were systematically interrogated under torture, and after a confession had been extracted, brutally killed.


Typical prison cells

Not enough room to swing anything .. let alone a cat.

Within the numerous former classrooms you see a steel-frame bed with no mattress, and iron tools laid out on display. These were the interrogation rooms.

Wall after wall of harrowing black-and-white portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst. Virtually all the people pictured were later tortured and killed.


Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. Within a couple of days after arrival all were taken for interrogation. The torture system was designed to make them confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors.

Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique.

For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1976, they ran out of burial spaces, so the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre - 'The Killing Fields' - fifteen kilometres from Phnom Penh.

 

Human shackles.

I really don't want to end this section of my blog on a totally depressing note by plastering it with a load of distressing photographs. But I did take a few more.

If you want to see these remaining pictures, bones and skulls included, then click on THIS LINK.






I noticed a strangely peculiar, almost sickening atmosphere permeating throughout every S-21 building, along with an institution-like smell that I just couldn't quite place.

So why did we spend a couple of hours here, when we could have taken a relaxing stroll through the gardens of the Royal Palace? Well I dunno is the honest answer, I'm still trying to work that one out .. as the visit was without queston a profoundly depressing experience; a shattering reminder of the indiscriminate horror perpetrated upon and by the Cambodian people. It's definitely not a place for the squeamish.

I like to think that the visit contributed to a deeper understanding of the country's history .. and let's face it, surely that is what all museums are supposed to do?

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Located in the centre of a roundabout intersecting Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, the 20-metre tall Independence Monument* was on our route to the Royal Palace. Unfortunately we were a little too late or too early to visit the Palace, which opens to the public between 7:30am-11:00am and 2:00pm-5:00pm. We got there about 1:15pm, during the Palace's "lunch break". Maybe we'll go back in October during proper visiting hours - who knows?    

* Built in 1958 and inaugurated in 1962 to celebrate the liberation of the country from the French who were the colonial rulers of Cambodia for almost a century, from 1863 to 1953.

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Wednesday, 24th

Motorcycle all cleaned down and safely stored by lunchtime. This leg of my Right Way Round trip is therefore over. Done and dusted. Another 7,685 Southeast Asian kilometres [4,775 miles] left behind. What a terrific ride, taking us to many wondrous sights; making some great new friends along the way, a few of which we are certain to see again within the not too distant future.

And I must mention the bike again, because as usual, it performed quite flawlessly. Never failing to start, nor miss a beat. What a remarkable piece of engineering Mr Honda-san produced back in 2005, which has since made so much possible for me. My sensational 55-horsepowered black beauty .. that has so far carried me 65,354 km [40,609 mi] along far-away roads and tracks around distant corners of the world .. and now has the next six months to rest and recuperate; whilst I go back to Cornwall again to lay my head on that old familiar pillow.

At this time of year I shall return home to apple blossom and bluebells, primroses and hazel catkins, bursting elder buds, frogspawn, bird songs and nest building .. and those cute little spring lambs prancing around in the fields and meadows, which for obvious reasons, always reminds me of freshly-dug new potatoes and mint sauce! Ah yes, you just can’t beat the springtime and the early summer months in England. 

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Before we return to Indo-China in October, we have a nice little side excursion to attend to at the end of June; namely a trip to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Followed by a dazzling cruise up to Alaska, USA  .. and doing it all in fine style.

I'm a lucky bloke.




[library pic]
 
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