22 May, 2010
Kampot, Cambodia

The car is sitting impatiently behind the oncoming truck, flicking its headlights and honking its horn. Chris zooms past. Nicole zooms past. Just as I go past, however, the driver decides he can’t possibly wait one more second for me to pass, and has to overtake the truck now, right now, squeezing in between the two of us and leaving about an inch of clearance as I rush past in the opposite direction. “Jesus Christ, buddy!” I yell, not that he can hear me, instinctively veering towards the shoulder of the road and gearing down. I look up to see Nicole and Chris far ahead of me, and give the bike some more throttle to catch up, weaving through scooters, bicycles, ox-carts and four-wheel drives.

It’s thirty kilometres back to town. The road is narrow, slick with water from the thunderstorm that just passed, and lined with muddy puddles on either side. I’m wearing shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt, with no safety gear except a helmet. I have less than two days’ experience riding a motorcycle. And I’m becoming very much aware that the drivers of larger vehicles don’t give a flying fuck whether I live or die. This is the most dangerous thing I’ve done in a very long time.

But I’m having an absolute blast.

Three days ago, Chris and I were sitting in our windowless hotel room in Phnom Penh. We were sick to death of South-East Asia, sick of the poverty, sick of the filth, sick of the heat, sick of the boredom. We’d applied for our Chinese visas, and had nothing left to do except sit around waiting for them to clear, dreaming of Himalayan mountain vistas and high altitude temperatures.

The problem was that Cambodia doesn’t border China, and the only flights to southern China were expensively routed through Beijing. We’d resolved to go via Laos, since Vietnam doesn’t issue arrival visas, and to spend no time trying to see the country – just burn through it and get into China as fast as possible.

“Dude,” Chris said, as I was sitting on my bed writing emails and he was sitting on his looking at our Cambodia guidebook, “Laos is pretty big.”

“Yeah,’ I said, “but not the bit we’re going through.” Laos has a panhandle, like an upturned Oklahoma.

“Yeah we are.”

“What? No we’re not. We go to the northern border of Cambodia and that puts us in the bulging bit of Laos.”

“No, no it doesn’t. It puts us at the very southern part of Laos.”

I moved over to his bed and looked at the map. He was right. We’d have to travel through the whole panhandle plus the bulge.

“It also says,” he pointed out, “that most roads are unsealed, so it takes forever to get anywhere, and the only way to travel is by minibus.”

Both of us were quiet for a moment. I knew that, like me, Chris was reliving the agonising four-hour minbus ride from Siem Reap, crammed in between a bunch of fat Australian sex tourists.

“We can probably do it in about a week…” I said dubiously.

Chris’ eyes had flicked to the right, to the long and curving shape of Vietnam. “We could go through Vietnam,” he said. “It’s more modern. They’ve got that railway going up the whole length of the country.”

“We’d have to wait here again to get visas.”

“We can just get rush service. It’ll be cheaper than living costs for three days.”

“Alright,” I said. “Yeah. We’ll go through Vietnam.”

“Actually…” Chris said slowly. “If we’re going to go through Vietnam, why don’t we do it on bikes?”

This was how we ended up in Kampot. I didn’t know how to ride a manual motorcycle, and there was no chance in hell I would learn in the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh, so we researched a quieter country town to go to. Kampot was perfect: it’s relatively nearby, it’s next to Bokor Mountain (which was something I wanted to see anyway), and basically the only activity listed on its Wikitravel article is renting motorcycles. We booked a bus ticket, picked up our passports from the Chinese embassy, dropped them off at the Vietnamese embassy (where the guard out the front tried to scam us into applying for visas through him, for an extra five bucks), and then headed off for a weekend in Kampot.

It’s a nice little town. Don’t believe Lonely Planet when they tell you it’s full of “charming French colonial architecture,” but it is (relatively) clean, and quiet, and friendly, and still large enough to have a few Western amenities around. The day after we arrived, we located a rental shop run by a chain-smoking Cambodian man who rented us an XR250 for ten dollars. I rode pillion while Chris took us around town, looking for a quiet spot for me to practice. Eventually we found a vacant lot along the riverside with plenty of space for turning and getting up to speed. So I spent an hour or two practicing the gear changes, and braking, and taking off, while Chris stood in the sun with his arm shading his eyes, calling out help and advice.

It’s really not hard at all. If you know how to ride a bicycle and how to drive a manual car, driving a motorcycle is pretty easy. After we had lunch, we drove back to the rental place to pick up another bike for Chris, then headed back to the lot for more practice. On the drive there, Chris realised his bike was in shit condition (in particular, it had a brake lever bent half out of shape) and took it back to exchange it. I rode in circles under the sweltering Cambodian sun for half an hour, assuming Chris was having a lengthy argument with the store owner.

He had been, he told me, when he returned on a marginally-less-shit bike, but he’d also been talking to an Icelandic guy. This guy said that if we wanted to talk about motorcycles, we should head to a restaurant just out of town called the Rusty Keyhole. The owner was apparently a Brit who owned four bikes, and also served the best pork ribs in the world.

I needed to practice riding in South-East Asian traffic, and finding this restaurant was a good task to have at hand, so we ventured out onto the roads. It was a little unnerving, but I manage to keep a cool head and avoid any major catastrophes. Of course, Kampot is about a thousand times quieter than Saigon will be.

We did eventually find the restaurant, and spoke to the owner, a jovial English chap named Kristian. He gave us a bit of advice about riding in Vietnam, although he’s never done it himself, and we said we’d be back later that night for dinner.

Then, while buying water from a supermarket that evening, another motorcycle drove past. A real motorcycle, not one of the tiny automatic scooters that infest South-East Asia like so many disease-ridden cockroaches. It was a KTM 950, with two ammo boxes on the side for saddlebags, adorned with stickers showing flags as far-flung as Spain and India. We’d actually been admiring it outside a riverside restaurant the previous night, but now it was driving around the roundabout and pulling up to park outside the supermarket next to us.

And then, as though we’d walked into a cliched ad or movie of some kind, the rider of this beast of a motorcycle – a machine that put our puny 250s to shame and made our testicles shrivel up – removed their helmet and revealed themselves to be a woman.

Her name is Nicole. She’s a thirty-two year old Swiss woman who rode her bike all the way from Switzerland to South-East Asia, shipping it from India to Malaysia, and she’s been on the road for eleven months. She was a goldmine of information about long-distance riding. She was also wearing Crocs, so she was basically Chris’ dream woman. We invited her to have dinner with us at the Keyhole that night, and then went to return our bikes to the store. This was disheartening, since we then had to get out to the Keyhole by paying two Cambodian men to ride us out there on the back of their scooters.

They were out of ribs, which was disappointing, but we had a great time talking to Nicole and getting all excited about our Vietnam trip, which – with my mastery of the clutch – had transformed from a nice dream into a solid reality. She mentioned that she was going riding with Kristian the next day, and as we were paying the bill he invited us along, also offering to rent us his own dirtbikes, promising they would be in good condition rather than welded together with chicken wire and old saucepans.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of Kristian and his daughter, who looks uncannily like Phoebe did when she was a chubby little baby:

Now, this is both an awkward change of subject and something I wouldn’t usually bring up in public, but I’ve resolved to keep a truthful record of our journey, and I am therefore compelled to inform you that I’ve been constipated for about a week. Yeah, didn’t see that coming. I was totally prepared to deal with traveller’s diarrhea – bought medicine and everything – but did not expect the exact opposite. I’m purging my body of enough matter so that I’m not actually swelling up like a balloon, but I have to fight for it every step of the way, and I still often feel bloated and unwell. I have no idea why – my diet is fine, and on the day we came to Kampot I ate nothing but fruit and an entire packet of digestive biscuits. I bought the bullet yesterday and purchased laxatives from a dodgy open-to-the-road pharmacist, Kampot not exactly having any reputable clinics or chemists. They were apparently packaged in France and haven’t expired yet, so I guess they’re OK.

Now, pop culture has conditioned me to believe that laxatives will produce an immediate and hilarious effect. The instructions told me to take them in the morning on an empty stomach. We were due to meet Kristian and Nicole at 10.00; I woke up at 8.30, mixed them into water and drank it. Then I waited. And waited. And waited.

Either I was sold placebos or they aren’t quite the universal solve-all I thought they were. Nothing happened, and I really wanted to go ride motorcycles with Chris, so we left. “Man, if I took laxatives I wouldn’t risk even leaving the room,” Chris marvelled as we walked down towards the riverfront.

“I don’t think they do what people think they do,” I said. “They just… ease it up a little and make it better next time.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t.”

But nothing happened throughout the day. I wasn’t forced to go running into a rural Cambodian squat toilet. I might have preferred to. As it stands I think I’ll be visiting a clinic in Phnom Penh or Saigon.

That was definitelya case of TMI. I’m sorry, but I’m a noble jounalist, and no detail may be spared, however gross or uncomfortable.

Anyway, at 10.00 we all met up along the riverfront, at the former site of Kristian’s restaurant, which he now uses only for storing his bikes. We sat around for about ten minutes watching a dead dog bob up and down in the river, before he arrived and opened the shutters up to reveal his magnificent dirtbikes. These were also 250s, but bigger than the one I’d been using yesterday, and therefore more comfortable on the back and the ass. We went back to the Keyhole for breakfast, then took off into the dry rice paddies and backroads surrounding Kampot.

It was an absolutely awesome day. We rode up to a reservoir,and along a bunch of muddy off-road tracks, with red soil that reminded me of the Outback. I soon gave up on avoiding the puddles, and accepted that my shoes were going to be soaked in red mud by the end of the day.

We were overtaking scooters carrying Buddhist monks in saffron robes, school students on bicycles, ox-carts packed with bags of rice, tuk-tuks with Western tourists and motorcycles carrying crates of live chickens. We rode out to the beachside town of Kep, where longtail boats were drawn up on the muddy shoreline and shy children shook our hands.

The kids are adorable. Everywhere you ride you’ll hear one shout out “hello!” and even though you’re on a rocky trail and should really keep both hands on the handlebars, you still wave at the direction the sound came from.


Later in the day we rode up to a Buddhist shrine hidden in a mountain cave. Kristian left us there and headed back home, while we payed for a teenage girl to guide us up to the shrine. It was nice and all, but it was full of plenty of other Cambodians, one of whom tried to charge us a dollar for the “shrine entry fee, foreigners only.” He obviously hadn’t been in the tout business very long because he sucked at convincing us. We ignored him and went back down to our bikes, resolving to ride back to the Keyhole for dinner. Since the shower in our guesthouse is pretty blocked up, I was also hoping Kristian would have an outdoor hose so I could wash my shoes and socks.

As we rode back into town, we could see huge thunder clouds looming above the hills ahead of us, and it became pretty clear that we were racing against the storm. We lost. It started raining about halfway there. And when you’re riding a motorcycle, rain fucking hurts.

We pulled over into a sort of shack on the side of the road, standing under a crude patio where the resident family of Cambodians were also sheltered, staring suspiciously at us until the rain let up and we left. Thus began the long, nerve-wracking ride back into town along wet roads with insane traffic. First rule of thumb for riding in South-East Asia: give way to anything bigger than you. They don’t give a fuck. They won’t wait a few seconds for you to pass, they’ll try to overtake immediately and expect you to veer into the gravel on the side of the road. Trucks also believe that driving in the middle of the road across both lanes is their birthright. It’s a steep learning curve, but I expect Vietnam to be a vertical wall.

At around four o’clock we rolled up at the Keyhole with muddy feet, calluses on our hands and painful ass blisters, to the welcome reward of a fantastic BLT sandwich. I washed my socks and shoes as best I could underneath the outdoor tap, and marvelled at how wrinkled my feet had become after four hours encased in moisture. It was an absolutely brilliant day, the highlight of the trip so far, and I am now really fucking looking forward to Vietnam.

I think I can do it, too. The hardest part will be getting out of the traffic of Saigon. After that it’s just one long, sweet highway to Hanoi. That’s the beautiful thing about Vietnam: it’s got one big city in the north, one big city in the south, and it’s a fairly skinny country in between the two. Perfect. The only other countries I can think of that are like that are Chile (but lacking the polarised big cities) and the USA (lacking the skinniness).

Of course, we have to buy bikes, get them serviced, buy gear, buy saddlebags, figure out how to strap our bags down, learn to handle the traffic… but once we get out there, on that road, man oh man. I’ve been frustrated with Chris over the past few weeks for his insistence that motorcycles are the only decent way to travel, but now I get it. I understand. I’m dreaming of the two of us riding across the Americas from tip-to-tip in years to come. I’m dreaming of riding around Ireland with my Dad. I’m dreaming of MOTORCYCLES, VROOM VROOM!

Now if you’ll excuse me, we have to go back to the Rusty Keyhole for dinner, where the cooks have promised to set aside a pair of delicious pork ribs. Good day to you, sir!