Cambodia and its lost Cities

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.  –  Mark Twain

The first night in Cambodia I spent in Kep. It’s a small coast town in the south of the country. The village itself is not very spectacular but a good place to chill. The next day I had planned to make a day trip to the Bokor National Park. While the new road to the hill station raised my heartbeat, the road between Kep and Kampot is currently more of a dusty section in very bad condition. But as life goes, exactly here I had the chance to stop a bit longer in the evening …

In the early 1920s the French established Bokor Hill Station atop Phnom Bokor, known for its magnificent views of the coastline of Cambodia. The entire little mountain village, including the Catholic church, was abandoned in the 1970s when Khmer Rouge forces infiltrated the area. The deserted church is located aside the road and nowadays only the wind whistles through the empty house of God. Only the wind? The church was not as abandoned as it initially seemed. Amidst neglected walls daubed with graffiti there was a statue of Mary, decorated with fresh wild flowers. It was a special kind of a surprise … and in fact, a place to pause.

On my way back I had the pleasure of riding this dusty stretch between Kampot and Kep once again. Did I ever mention what the most frequently used indicator of my on-board computer is? It’s the tire pressure monitoring system. Whenever I hit deep holes, hard edges or bigger stones, I have instinctively a quick look at the display to check the pressure. I find it still amazing what these tires can put away without getting damaged.

With the first set of tires I had no problems at all, but since I had mounted the second pair in Kyrgyzstan, I had constantly to deal with pressure loss. This is not to say it was necessarily a problem of the tires itself. It might have been linked to the way the tires where mounted. Nevertheless, it was a daily nuisance and I usually had to increase my tire pressure every second or third day. On the Torugart pass from Kyrgyzstan to China my front tire lost within an hour so much pressure that it triggered the warning light and if this happens you better have the right equipment on board to fix the problem on the spot.

But we were talking about the dusty road between Kampot and Kep, right? By now I had developed a habit of checking my tire pressure now and then. So I had a more casual look at the display … WHAT THE HECK! Within the last 10 minutes my rear tire must have lost 0.5 bar. The indication was clear … and each further mile cost me around 0.1 bar. Congratulations! This was the road you dream of to fix a puncture. Each passing car makes you hold your breath for a few seconds since you can’t see anything except dust.

I slowed my pace to find a halfway decent spot at the side of the road to have a look at the damage. What a nice task for a sunny evening. It was the first flat tire since I kicked off my journey end of April. My GS comes with tubeless tires and I had a corresponding repair kit with me. Well, to be correct, I had two different sets with me by now. One system, which I had acquired at home and which was in my opinion not very convincing and a set I bought from BigJim before we parted ways and he flew back to the UK. His system was much smarter, but unfortunately not available in Germany. A sharp piece of metal had drilled it’s way into the side of my rear tire. I gave my set a brief and fair chance to prove it’s capability … but that’s about it. Compared to the “Tire Plugger,” which I got from Jim, my system was not user friendly at all.

But there was a second damage I had discovered earlier and which worried me much more. It was a 3-4 cm large crack. I had a close look at this one too and when putting a little pressure on the damaged area, you could clearly hear the air escaping. I wasn’t really sure if my plugs would be able to get this cut fixed, but I had no great alternatives anyway. The last 14,000 km had clearly left their marks and my rear tire in particular showed dozens of small cuts and very little profile. Traction on greasy or muddy ground was no longer existing.

Due to the problems I was facing with my tires, I intended to get a brand new set in Phnom Penh. After three days, however, I had to realize that I will not find what I was looking for in Cambodia’s capital. I knew you could easily get the right tires for my bike in Thailand. However, as it turned out, Cambodia imported tires from Japan, the US, Malaysia … but not from Thailand. Huhh? Thailand would be the closest country to order from. Bangkok was just 700 kilometres away from Phnom Penh. I asked in half a dozen stores, if anyone could order a set of tires from Thailand. No chance. I guess the relationship between Cambodia and Thailand is not entirely saturated by deep friendship and harmony …

Conclusion of my little survey: My tires had to stick with me for another 3,000 km … in other words, they still would have to get me through Cambodia and Laos. New ones were only waiting in Bangkok.

The Temples of Angkor

From Phnom Penh I made my way to Siem Reap, a place to which I had been looking for a long time. But where to begin with when talking about Angkor? In a world of inflated superlatives, where everything seems to be “very interesting”, “awesome” or “incredible”, it is difficult to find the right words to describe something which is indeed exceptional.

Angkor is for sure one of the most impressive ancient sites of the world. The Lonely Planet compares the Temples of Angkor with the epic proportions of the Great Wall, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids. I can not tell whether the comparison is entirely justified, but I can assure you I am not easily to be impressed…

Angkor Wat from a distance didn’t seem to be that monumental. But after I had spent several hours in the temple complex, climbing over stone staircases, strolling through the walkways, courtyards and different buildings and finally ascended the main tower of the temple, I must admit that Angkor Wat is one of the most impressive, man-made architectural masterpieces in history.

Angkor is a region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th centuries. Angkor Wat is only one – albeit the largest – temple within the complex. There are a number of other temples, which are no less impressive in their own way. Angkor Thom, the Great City has the largest share of the temple complex in terms of area, is flanked by a broad moat and walls, eight meters high. One of the most famous temples inside these walls is the Bayon with a multitude of serene and massive stone faces.

And then there is Ta Prohm, a few kilometres northeast of Angkor Wat. Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found. The photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it quite popular …

The entire complex at Angkor is simply enormous and the superlatives don’t do it justice. This is supposed to be the world’s largest religious building, a multitude of temples and a vast, long-abandoned walled city that was arguable Southeast Asia’s first metropolis, long before Bangkok and Singapore got in on the action.

I spent two days inside the temple area, watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat and the sunset from Phnom Bakheng and once again I had to realize that there were powerful kingdoms and empires about which I only did know very little or nothing at all …

The last night in the country I spent in Ban Lung, in the northeast of Cambodia. I reached the little town in the early evening, but it was still enough time to have a swim in the nearby lake and to join a chat with the locals. The lake is actually a volcano crater filled with exceptionally clean and clear water, surrounded by dark-green jungle. It was a well chosen location for my last evening.

The next morning I was on my way to Laos …