No Tuk Tuk today
Nine days on a sidecar tour with Corner Adventures in Cambodia.
The first thing I hear after leaving the arrivals area of the international airport Siem Reap in Cambodia is the question: ”you need tuk-tuk?”. A tuk-tuk ist the South East Asian variant of Central European taxis, often a 125cc scooter with a trailer for passenger transportation or a trike with an open cabin. Definitely a vehicle that would give every German vehicle engineer a heart attack.
Since Willem, our tour guide and the co-owner of Corner Adventures, picks me up at the airport with a Jialing combo, I don’t need a tuk-tuk. With Willem on the driver’s seat, Gerrit, a participant from Hannover, in the sidecar, and myself on the pillion, the three of us leave with our luggage for our hotel.
As it is already dark and Gerrit and me are weary to the bone, we decide to round off the evening comfortably after checking in at the hotel by enjoying some tasty Cambodian beers in one of the small sidewalk restaurants, which can be found at every turn.
I could start getting used to the prices, a beer costs 0,75$, a helping of fried rice 1,25$. During the next days we will learn that even in the smallest village US dollars are accepted as payment, and only rarely I see the Cambodian currency Riel in the form of change.
Gerrit and me use the next morning for a stroll through the city. He turns out to be a good bargainer, a virtue I’m entirely lacking. Nevertheless I am quite satisfied with my purchases for my wife and daughter.
We are exploring on foot, and at every turn we hear the already familiar ”you need tuk-tuk?”. No – we do not need a tuk-tuk for our little stroll, it is perfectly walkable.
In the afternoon we meet up with Willem again. It’s time for our first trip to get familiar with our bikes, which will take us to a small temple complex outside of Siem Reap. Gerrit is a combo driver as well, so either of us is assigned a Jialing combo, while Willem prefers a solo Jialing bike. He rides ahead and is soon out of sight, but he waits for us whenever a change of course is necessary. This is how he will handle it during the entire journey.
It is an advantage, as every participant can set their own pace, but there are also disadvantages, which we will learn about later, especially in Phnom Penh. It is exhausting to find our way in the unfamiliar Asian traffic; if, on top of this, you also have to look out for your tour guide, in some cases it gets rather messy. Fortunately Willem wears a acidic yellow helmet, which can be spotted from quite a distance.
Relatively soon we leave the urban traffic of Siem Reap behind, and just as soon the surfaced road ends and we continue our trip on red sand slopes. As I am forming the tail, red dust covers me and penetrates into every chink, so my motto of the day is ”eat my dust”.
With 40HP and 600cc single-cylinder engines the Jialing combos are sufficiently motorized for these roads, as you can’t go faster than 60 km/h without straining the material anyway. On surfaced roads, up to 100 km/h are achievable, but I avoid going faster, even though it would be possible, because it makes the motor sound quite agonized. Maybe I’m just too sensitive.
After arriving at the temple complex we decide to have a little walk. Since the temple is located on a hill it provides a good view on the otherwise flat surrounding land around Siem Reap.
The combos are pleasant to ride, although the reverse gear takes some getting used to. All four forward gears are shifted upwards, while the reverse gear is shifted downwards after pulling a bowden cable in idle mode.
The sidecar’s wheel follows the steering through cable control, which makes driving very convenient and provides the combo with very indulgent driving quality. A rise of the sidecar’s wheel during right-hand bends has to be downright provoked; in fast driven left-hand bends the typical affinity to lean towards the right is almost not existent.
After making ourselves familiar with the combos this way, we ramble about Siem Reap in the evening and are pleasantly surprised. In the Pub Street open bars and restaurants string together towards the street, music comes up from everywhere, on the Night Market souvenir shops and massage parlours adjoin. Besides the already familiar question ”you need tuk-tuk?” we now hear more often ”you want massage?” as well. The many fish basins alongside the walkways take some getting used to, here ”Dr. Fish” offers to gently nibble the scarf-skin off your feet by the fish living in the basins.
The next morning we ride our combos to Angkor Wat, but are not allowed to pass, as of late only Cambodian vehicles are allowed within the complex and our combos have Chinese license plates. On the spur of the moment we drive back to our hotel, park our combos and take two tuk-tuks back to Angkor Wat.
The famous temple complex is impressive, however it is flooded by tourists. The farther we walk in, the quieter it gets. Afterwards we are glad we left our combos at the hotel. Two hours in the blazing sun at about 30° while wearing motorcycle clothing would have been quite unpleasant.
As we leave Angkor Wat, our tuk-tuks and many others are stopped by the police, but only the occupied ones – empty tuk-tuks are allowed to pass. Later the drivers tell us with a laugh that the police took a dollar from them and so line their own pockets. Our drivers obviously accept this behaviour, they made good money out of our tour and do not begrudge the officers their little profit.
In the afternoon we go for an extensive spin in our combos around Siem Reap. Again we encounter the red dust of the unpaved roads and enjoy ourselves in a small village, where we stop for a short break. The village women are fascinated by our combos and bent to sit in the sidecars, yet they turn down our invitation for a ride and quickly bolt out again.
Once more we end our evening in the Pub Street enjoying some beers and fried rice. By now we ignore the constant ”you need tuk-tuk?” and ”you want massage?”, it‘s just part of Siem Reap, especially since the inquirers are never pushy.
Our actual tour through Cambodia starts the next morning. We load the necessary part of our luggage into our combos, the rest we leave at the hotel, to which we will return at the end of our trip. The hardest part of our journey is lying ahead – 450km from Siem Reap towards the east to Kratie at the Mekong, about 100km of that on unpaved roads.
The scenery is consistently flat, now and then we see solitary hills in the distance. Along the way we often notice the slash and burn that rids the fields of undergrowth before the next sowing. The air is heavy with smoke and at some places the fires come so close to the road that we can feel the heat of the flames. Water oxen are out to grass on the fields and wallow in big ponds.
Originally we planned to cross the Mekong by ferry, however it withdrew the service as a new bridge, built with Chinese help, makes it unprofitable. There is only a small ferry for pedestrians across a tributary of the Mekong left, too narrow for our combos. We have no choice but to unspectacularly use the new bridge.
For lunch we pause at one of the many small sidewalk restaurants. Influenced by Willem, a 24-year-old Dutchmen, who grew up and studied in China, we eat in the Asian style – we order different dishes, place them in the middle of the table and each one helps himself to what he likes. Personally I really like this kind of eating, I could get used to that. There is mainly rice, cooked or fried, fowl and soused vegetables in different variants.
At nightfall we reach Kratie, a small town famous for its freshwater dolphins, which live in the Mekong. Needless to say we see them neither that evening nor the next morning, before we set out for our journey’s next stage.
We spend the night in an excellent hotel right at the Mekong, and we have to give great credit to the staff for keeping a straight face when we enter the lobby in our dust-covered clothes.
There are far less tuk-tuks in Kratie than in Siem Reap, nevertheless the short way to the restaurant is accompanied by the all too frequent ”you need tuk-tuk?”.
The next day we travel 240km to our next destination, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. For a time we follow the Mekong before we leave the river course. On our way we see houses on stilts, which are typical for the rural areas. Chopped roots lie on the side of the road to dry, and again we pass burning fields.
Our hotel, a typical backpacker’s accommodation, is located in the centre of Phnom Penh, and it takes ages for us to reach it. Traffic can only be described as chaotic. Traffic rules, especially those regarding the proper use of the lanes, are well-meant recommendations at best, but certainly not mandatory. Therefore we are not surprised to see vehicles coming our way in our lane as we drive along the freeway-style access road to Phnom Penh.
Since it is only early afternoon I charter a tuk-tuk for 10$ and enjoy a two-hour ride around the town. Utter chaos, I am glad that I do not have to drive myself – trillions of scooters and tuk-tuks. In comparison I’d prefer 100km red dust.
Do I have to mention that after our tour here, too, I hear the question ”you need tuk-tuk?” multiple times?
The first 25km to leave Phnom Penh the next morning take us a solid hour, before we set out for Sihanoukville, 250km to the south-west at the Cambodian coast.
Sihanoukville is a backpacker’s paradise: accommodations in a bunkhouse for 2$, beer for 0,50$, the beach, the sea, a party area. Thus there are many young people with backpacks in the streets.
Our hotel offers high comfort, at least by the standards of Sihanoukville, for the rooms have ventilators and air conditioners. Unfortunately it is located in the heart of the party area, so the acoustic level is accordingly high in the two nights of our stay.
We take a day’s break. Gerrit uses the opportunity for some island-hopping on one of the many tourist boats, while I decide to relax and take a few photos at the beach.
It goes without saying that in Sihanoukville, too, the familiar ”you need tuk-tuk?” follows me everywhere.
The weather is excellent, about 30°, no clouds in the sky. December until March is the best time for travelling in Cambodia, as of April the rainy season starts. Right now in January the average temperature is 26°, the chance for rain is by a narrow margin above 0%.
After our day’s rest we carry on into the northwest of Cambodia, roughly in the direction of the Thai border. About 240km later we reach our destination Koh Kong. This part of the tour I like best. Contrary to the agricultural lowlands we travelled the last few days, the northwest of Cambodia comes up with undulating rain forest, with roads that run up and down and curves that live up to their name.
We spend the night in a quiet hotel at the edge of Koh Kong, right beside the Atay. I find it hard to fall asleep this night until I recognize the reason: today nobody asked ”you need tuk-tuk?”. I miss it!
The next stage of our journey brings us to Battambang, however due to the horrible road conditions in Cambodia we edge in a slight detour to Thailand beforehand. On leaving the country our tourist visas are cancelled, we’ll need to buy new ones when entering Cambodia again on the afternoon. A tourist visa amounts to 30$, evil to him who thinks evil of the fact that on reentering Cambodia we have to pay 35$.
Thailand belies my expectations. The roads are good, but we hardly see anything of the surrounding countryside, as the villages range along the roads nearly everywhere. I’m glad that our trip to Thailand ends after 210km and we reenter Cambodia.
The borderland between Thailand and Cambodia is dangerous, since this is where in the seventies the Red Khmer placed countless landmines to keep their own compatriots from fleeing to Thailand. Even today this area ranks among the regions most heavily endangered by landmines worldwide and even today every year hundreds of Cambodians fall victim to these mines.
In Battambang we spend the night in a hotel in the inner city, and finally I hear the sadly missed ”you need tuk-tuk?” again. Amazing how quickly you accustom yourself to some things.
Before we face the last 170km back to Siem Reap and so bring our journey to an end, we visit a killing field near Battambang. Here during their reign of violence the Red Khmer killed thousands of Cambodians in a natural cave system in a hill. Today it contains a memorial place for the victims and a monastry.
For a small donation an old Buddhist nun binds a red woolen thread around my wrist. I have no idea if it has any meaning, but even now it persists, six weeks after my return.
After about 40km my combo suddenly starts acting up. First it runs rough whenever I accelerate, then it floods, but starts again after some time. This repeats until finally I can’t ride on at all.
We take the combo to a scooter workshop where Willem takes apart the electronics, but even after two hours of searching, including the exchange of components between the two combos, he can’t find the problem.
We decide that I will ride with Gerrit in his sidecar while Willem organizes the combo’s transport back to Siem Reap. There the next day he finds the error, a screw of the ignition lock unloosed and caused a defective contact in the ignition lock board.
Back in Siem Reap we round off our final evening together in our favorite sidewalk restaurant. The next morning Gerrit leaves for Germany, while I stay in Siem Reap for two more days and explore the city, naturally with the attendant question: ”you need tuk-tuk?”.
Before I take a tuk-tuk to the airport, I go shopping in Siem Reap once more. A book and a bracelet for my daughter, earrings and a necklace for my wife – and for myself a T-shirt labelled: ”No tuk-tuk today and tomorrow!”.
Corner Adventures (http://www.corneradventures.com) offers guided tours with Jialing combos and solo bikes in South East Asia. Destinations are – apart from Cambodia – China, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. Altogether there are four combos and four solo bikes available.
With an area of 181.000km², Cambodia is about half as big as Germany, yet it has only a fifth of its population (14 million). The official currency is the riel, but it is no problem at all to pay with US dollars (1USD = 4.000 KHR).
For Germans entering Cambodia, a visa is required. The tourist visa, which is valid for one month, amounts to 30$. It is obtainable at the Cambodian embassy in Berlin, via internet or directly at the international airports Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as at every major checkpoint. A passport photograph is required.
The official language is Khmer, but especially in the cities you get along with English quite well.
Direct flight connections from Germany to Cambodia are hard to find, but there are alternatives, e.g. via Vietnam Airlines from Frankfurt to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). From there, several planes each day fly to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The price for a round trip amounted to 1.000€ in fall 2014.
In some parts of Cambodia malaria and dengue fever still occur, but long-sleeved clothes and bug repellant are usually enough to prevent infections. By all means you should seek medical advice in advance.
Even today, 40 years after the reign of violence of the Red Khmer, there are still mine fields which are not cleared yet, especially in the northern and northwestern regions. The tourist parts, for example the temple complex of Angkor Wat, have been cleared by now. Individual travellers should definitely inform themselves about the landmines situation before travelling to Cambodia.
For additional travel alerts and hazard notes regarding Cambodia, visit the website with travel recommendations of your Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
General information about journeys to Cambodia can be found on the internet or in classical guide books by Marco Polo or Lonely Planet.