Asian Motorcycle Adventures

This motorcycle tour article has appeared in ASIAN AUTO vol. 26, #2, Dec. 1999, & BACKROADS, Sept. 1999. The Ancient Khmer Road is, right as you read this, getting beat to hell and will not be passable for much longer unless drastic steps are taken, which is unlikely because Cambodia is nigh near bankrupt. So if you want to visit by motorcycle what is probably the most astounding place on Earth you better come quick.

Hilltop view of the Royal Kymer Road

There’s a road in Southeast Asia that’s a thousand years old and looks every day of it. All those centuries, and a few recent decades of war and rebellion thrown in, have not treated it kindly. It can best be described as the longest, straightest, and skinniest motocross track in the world–163 kilometers of craters, holes, ditches, mud, slime, water, and broken-down bridges. When I decided to give this road a whirl, a rugged off-road motorcycle became my vehicle of choice.

The road I refer to is the Ancient Khmer Road, and it runs from the eastern border of Thailand right into the historic Cambodian capital of Angkor Wat. Now that Cambodia is finally at peace after thirty years of the most horrid history any nation has ever endured, tourists are returning to the country and the Khmer Road is once again open to cross-border traffic.

Pictorial info sign about what to do if you discover a landmine.

Recently, direct international flights have started to Angkor Wat. So the only real reason for using the Ancient Khmer Road is to say you have driven there. But before I could witness this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site, first I had to get my motorcycle into Cambodia, and secondly, I had to survive the drive.

The Thai Custom officer did a triple-take when I told him I was driving to Cambodia; so few vehicles even attempt this journey that no one in the Custom House even knew how to handle the paperwork and I had to teach them how.

Things were far simpler on the Cambodian side because there wasn’t any paperwork at all. My answer was negative when queried by the Chief of Customs if I “parle vous Franc?s”. Unable to establish any meaningful communications he simply waved me through and bid me, “Adieu Monsieur”, which I took to mean, “Good luck Charley!”.

The first 49 kilometers to Sis?ph?n, the only town along the way worth a mention, afforded no unreasonable challenges for machine or rider. Immediately after that, conditions got very, very sloppy. The Royal Khmer Road is raised a mere four feet above a plain of rice paddies extending to the horizon in every direction, and the road absorbs all that water like a sponge. The current wet season was making the slippery conditions even worse, plus it started raining.

The deeper depressions on Cambodia Route 6, as it is optimistically designated on maps, are filled with thick, oozing mud. With my feet on my foot pegs, this slop reached my boot tops. At the nadir of a mere average-sized crater, an observer standing on level ground just might be able to see my helmet poking out. I wasn’t the only road-user that day, and the few others in my sight were bobbing and weaving like boats at anchor in a stormy bay. It was hard enough to walk on this surface, let alone ride over it.

Angkor Wat.

The sparse traffic plying this torture track falls into four distinct categories of vehicles, and family sedans are not one of them.

Smallest are the bicyclists?locals traveling between neighboring villages or working in the rice paddies. When they come to a particularly nasty road section, they simply hop off and walk their bikes across.

Next size up are those ubiquitous little Asian step-through motorbikes. On my serious dirt bike, it was most discouraging to be humping along at a speed barely above a crawl and be passed by a Honda Dream carrying two passengers and cargo. I attribute this insult, not to a lack of driving skills, but to my extreme driving caution, because one fall into a mud bath would turn my professional camera gear into extremely expensive paperweights.

Monk sitting on motorcycle in front of carved wall.

The third type of vehicles battling the Khmer Road are a small fleet of beat-up 4WD pick-ups that act as buses and haul goods and people between the Thai border and Siem Reap, the town that lodges, feeds, and services all of Angkor’s visitors.

The final class of road users, actually road destroyers, are huge, overloaded 10-wheel lorries pulling equally huge, overloaded trailers. They grind their way forward at a snail’s pace, while churning the road into even more of a quagmire. I shudder to think what the Khmer Road will look like in another years’ time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is grinded right back down into the rice paddies, erasing in one year what has survived for nearly one thousand.

Motorcycle in Angkor in front of giant buttress root.

The ninety-kilometer stretch from Sis?ph?n to Siem Reap took me four-and-a-half hours of driving. Including frequent rest stops, from the Thai border I arrived in Siem Reap in a pounding thunderstorm, 7 hours after my start. This Khmer Road was the worst road I ever drove on that dared call itself a road.

After the usual checking-in questions at Mom’s Guesthouse (how can you not trust a place with a name like that), Mom asked me if I saw any bandits on the drive in. Only then did I begin to learn that the Khmer Road is not considered the safest of thoroughfares.

Riding through a gate in Angkor Thom.

Siem Reap is as deep inside of Southeast Asia as you can possibly go, being 170 kilometers from Laos, 285 from Vietnam, and 105 from the northern border of Thailand. It is a funny kind of town, full of contradictions.

Blacksmithing and wagon wheel makers are still essential industries. Yet you can check your email and dine on a fine bowl of fettuccini Alfredo while watching live NBA playoffs over satellite TV. Thankfully, there are no 7-11’s, McDonalds, or golf courses, yet.

Siem Reap is at the very beginning stages of tourism development. Most lodging choices are of the guesthouse variety, with room rates in the single digits. The Raffles group from Singapore, however, has opened a US$300+ per night, five-star hotel, complete with whimsically costumed doormen wearing outrageous chapeaus.

Giant tree growing on an antiquity.

Siem Reap is a wonderful place to spend some time, and the shopping for local crafts and antiques is exceptional. But with Angkor Wat just down the block, peace reigning in the country, direct flights from several Asian capitals, tourists flocking in, and talk about a complete overhaul of the Khmer Road, Siem Reap won’t stay this way for long.

It’s impossible to describe Angkor in a single word. I need at least two–mind boggling. Most people assume, as I did, that Angkor Wat is one huge temple complex. Wrong! It is 296 temples and shrines spread across several hundred square kilometers of countryside. A drive just around the main conglomeration of antiquities is a 40-kilometer circuit.

Riding across a shaky bridge.

A few structures are built of brick but most are constructed from stone blocks, whose every square inch is exquisitely carved, front and back, with fantastic scenes from Khmer mythology, religion, history, and every-day life. Fabulous statuary hewn from rock, much of it gigantic in proportion, adorn the temples and the esplanades leading into them.

Dates of construction range from the late ninth-century through the thirteenth-century AD, a period spanning 39 Khmer kings. Each monarch tried outdoing his predecessors by erecting even more elaborate and splendid structures. These edifices honor either themselves, a god, or an ancestor. Several emperors built complete cities of stone, miles in circumference.

There has never been another building spree like this in the history of humankind. The manpower and wealth that it took to erect these edifices was staggering. The Khmers were able to amass such riches because they were the first Southeast Asian culture to master the technology of water. With this skill, they were able to blunt the effects of both the dry and rainy seasons, and withstand the brunt of periodic droughts and floods that decimated other cultures. So protected, they grew massive amounts of rice and other crops, the excess of which was tradable, and the Khmer kings became rich beyond compare.

Visiting the Bakong Antiquity.

As amazing as the temples are, the interplay between Angkor and nature is even more mesmerizing. In the 1400’s, Angkor was abandoned, and the surrounding jungle started to creep back in slowly but incessantly. For over 400 years Angkor slumbered undisturbed, ample time for gigantic trees to sprout from the temple roofs and courtyards, for roots to imprison entire walls and gates.

In some places, the jungle won the battle of stone using weapons like rain and lichens and falling trees to topple the rock. At other sites, Angkor won; some structures were built so solidly that the dense flora was never able to gain a stranglehold.

Some Angkor temples are nearly fully restored. Others are undergoing restoration and can be viewed in various stages of this process. Mercifully, some of the temples and complexes have been left totally untouched, giving the visitor a chance to explore the site just like the first Western adventurers who “rediscovered” Angkor back in the mid-1800’s.

When my film ran out on my ninth glorious day, it was time to leave Angkor. But this time I didn’t ride back to Thailand. Instead I bought the two front seats in a pick-up for $16 and loaded my bike into the back bed. In air-conditioned semi-comfort, with my film and cameras resting safely on my lap, I was chauffeured back to Thailand. I had already conquered the ancient Khmer Road. No need to do it twice.

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