It was your standard Johnny Vagabond adventure: half-assed, last-minute, and over-budget. I’d tried once before to ride the remote Western coast of the Mekong, but had been turned back by rain. I’d let the idea go, but then overheard two Dutch women talking about how they’d absolutely loved it, so I decided to stay an extra day and try again.
I was up and ready to roll by 7am. Renting a $6 scooter from the Balcony Hotel where I was staying and checking emails, site stats, and such ate up a good hour — I finally headed out around 8am. About five kilometers out of town, I found the turn-off to the ferry — the ferry landing itself was just a flat sandy spot on the river’s edge. After a 30 minute wait, the ferry showed up, packed with people, scooters, stacks of supplies, and a single car.
I was the only barang aboard, but no one really seemed to pay me too much attention — the Khmer are a shy and polite people. The ferry filled quickly with people on scooters or afoot — it was a lively scene, with young men joking and teasing each other while the women chatted on the other side of the ferry. The ride across took no more than fifteen minutes and we were soon deposited on the far shore, where we had to ride up the steep sandy bank.
Despite the fact that the east side of the river is very undeveloped, it’s a lovely ride. The touristed loop is unpaved, but well-graded. Few, if any, of the houses here have electricity or running water. Water comes from community wells or from rain that is funneled into large ceramic jars that sit by the side of the house. As I passed one thatched-roof hut after another, I saw women stoking breakfast fires on their front porches, men sawing wood or patching fishing nets, and children playing, enjoying their Sunday morning.
The poverty here is deep, obvious, and a bit overwhelming, but I’ve never met happier people. As I said, the Khmers are shy, but the slightest nod or wave brought wide smiles to their faces. The route I was following is fairly well-tread by foreigners but it’s the low season and people seemed genuinely delighted to see my pale, sunburned face.
The children were the most fun — they’d wave and say “hello”, quickly followed by “bye-bye” and a fit of giggles. Within 20 minutes, I was nearly hoarse from replying back to everyone.
At times, the road turned rough and required navigating over ramshackle bridges that would certainly not pass safety guidelines back home. The first time I came to such a crossing, I was trying to record video of the ride, with a camera in my left hand, and had to cross the bridge with just one hand on the the throttle — nearly bouncing out of the saddle.
As I rode on, I passed several large temples, but they were quiet and deserted. The entire length of the road was lined with small huts on both sides. The road here is their lifeline — many do not have motorbikes and have to rely on bicycles or carts to get around. Vendors tour up and down the road on bicycles or motos, selling everything from vegetables to plastic pans. I even saw a woman with a traveling fashion shop: a moto towing a small covered wagon, decorated with dresses, purses and hats. I didn’t see a dressing room.
I was having such a good time that I really wasn’t paying attention at all to how far I’d traveled. There was supposed to be a ferry to take me back across the river, but I never saw it. I did notice, however, that the road was rapidly becoming narrower and the rickety bridges were becoming more and more… well… rickety.
About this time, I realized that the friendly waves and shouts of “hello” had thinned and that people were much more likely to just goggle outright at me, as if they’d never seen a 200+ pound white guy on a scooter before. Perhaps I had gone too far?
Before I could ponder this too deeply, I hit a patch of thick, red mud and nearly dropped the bike. I was certain I was about to go down at one point and cranked the throttle in a panic, powering my way out of the mud with a fairly impressive rooster-tail spray. The mud continued for over a kilometer. A heavy rain started two minutes later, washing the mud off and banishing my camera to my backpack.
I’d been stopping and asking local Khmers about the ferry for an hour now, but they didn’t speak a lick of English and just pointed me onwards to be rid of me (though always with a smile). The bridges were becoming sketchier and sketchier, the road was down to a single muddy track, and I was quickly realizing that I was pretty much screwed.
And then I found this bridge. Or, I should say, “bridge”. It was deceptive: at first, it seemed to be just another run-down crossing, but once I was on it and committed, I discovered that it had a huge dip in the middle and was –apparently– held together with nothing but bailing wire and hope. I had just enough time to shout “Sweet, Holy Jesus!” before I was barreling down the steep, wet incline and powering up the other side. Moments like this really bring out the religion in a man.
A couple of kilometers onward, I stopped to ask directions again. Every question I put forward was met with a laugh — no one spoke a word of English. While I was buying a bottle of water, someone waved me over and pointed to a small marker that pointed back the way I’d come. “Ferry,” she said. Going back to the ferry would mean crossing back over the Bridge of Death and then riding onward, where the continuing rain was making a mockery of an already-dodgy track. Awesome.
But, she explained, right across the road was a landing for a “big boat” that would take me across the river to the town of Sambor — this was all communicated via sign language and my own wishful thinking. All I had to do was ride my scooter down this incredibly steep, sandy hill and a boat would whisk me away to the far shore. Who could ask for more than that?
I hopped on the scooter and made my way down the hill in what I would best describe as a barely-controlled slide. At the bottom of the hill, I had to swerve hard to the left to avoid falling into a ditch. Treating the poor scooter like a dirt bike, I finally reached the river shore and found the boat, but it was empty — there was no one around.
After waiting 30 minutes in the broiling sun, a man arrived on a moto and picked up a can of gas from the boat. He asked me “Sambor?”. When I said “Yes. When you leave?” he just laughed and rode back up the hill. Note to self: learn to speak Khmer.
Another 30 minutes passed and a small boat pulled up and dropped off a young Cambodian woman. After she left, the pilot explained (via gestures, body language, and pidgin English) that the big boat would not leave with less than eight passengers. I could be stuck here for hours.
But he was willing to take me and my moto across the river for only $4. The only other option was the Bridge of Death and 50 kilometers of potential mud. $4 sounded pretty reasonable to me.
“Really?” I asked. “My moto on your [tiny-ass] boat?”
He raised an eyebrow and gave me that look that said “yeah, I do this all the time, barang“. I gave him the money and we got busy loading the bike onto the boat. There’s a trick to lifting a scooter: the weight is all up front, so you grab the foot peg and the handlebars. Once he explained this to me, we got it in the boat pretty easily. Well, fairly-easily — I think I pulled something in my back and am now slightly cross-eyed.
The ride across the Mekong was a dream. The boat road so low in the water that I could lay my arm on the rail and drag my hand in the cool water. The pilot gave me a stool to sit on, but the legs were literally only two inches tall, so I didn’t bother. Ten minutes later, we were on the other bank.
The pilot waited patiently for me to take a photo of the bike on the boat, then we lifted it out and rolled it to shore. I thanked him profusely, then rode up the bank in search of the main road. It turned out to be paved with rubble and after an hour of kidney-jolting riding, I pulled up to the hotel and staggered to the cafe — a full seven hours after I had left for my three hour ride. I was tired and sunburned and my ass was killing me.
“You want iced coffee?” the waiter asked. My usual drink of choice.
“No, give me a cold beer, please. It’s been one hell of a day.”