When I was growing up, there were two people that got me fired up to do epic shit. It was Evel Knievel and Indiana Jones. One influenced my passion for motorcycles and the other promised adventure in exotic places with danger and treasure around every corner. You won’t see me attempting to jump the Grand Canyon anytime soon, but the lure of exotic temples being consumed by a relentless jungle was intoxicating. It was time for me to get on a motorcycle and explore Cambodia before it was erased from history from either the powers of nature or the encroachment of humans.
Timing is everything. Sena wanted us to film and test their motorcycle Bluetooth communication devices and video imaging systems that are designed to inspire the pursuit of adventure. Hell yeah, we were inspired. The team that I brought along included U.S. desert and adventure rider, Jeff James, Canadian trials and adventure rider, Colton Long, U.S world record holder and philanthropist, Danell Lynn and long time friend and Epic Nomad partner, Ken Klausen. Danell was given the rare clearance from the Guinness Book of World Records to join this wild exploration.
Since motorcycles are prohibited as a carry on for most airplanes, a little preparation would be required. Fortunately, a little research uncovered, Paeng, of Dancing Roads, a former Cambodian motor cross champion that would await our arrival and guide us through the physical and cultural landscape that is Cambodia.
The flight from San Diego to Siem Reap was going to be a long one so let me share a little background about Cambodia. It is bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest. It is primarily a Buddhist country that survives on agriculture and manufacturers thirst for cheap labor. It comes from a rich, ancient culture that houses temples renowned for being the 7th wonder of the world. Yet, like so many ancient cultures such as Pharaonic period of Egypt, you see a layered effect of what appears to the show the decline of a civilization. Deforestation, political corruption, human trafficking, pollution.
”Hurry up pilot, get me there before it is too late”
“Flight attendant, leave a few of those bottles”
What am I doing? There were so many choices. Atlantis beckoned me with promises of crystal blue waters and endless buffets. Amsterdam called me with…
Let’s just say, Amsterdam called me.
There is a treasure there in Cambodia, but I can’t see it yet.
The plane started making its descent into Siem Reap, a resort town in northwestern Cambodia, is the gateway to the Ruins of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th–15th centuries. How grand that sounds, but there are no luxury hotels, finished gardens or changing of the guard.
A step off the plane is an assault on the senses, the humid heat hits like a wall, the stench familiar to any exotic traveler is the smell of life and death of the jungle foliage and it’s human occupants and the incessant high pitch sound of Cambodia’s largest population – insects – is deafening.
Something primal was calling me but my Western filters of comfort, privilege and digital devices seemed to mute it.
Was I being offered a treasure map that I could not translate yet?
As any world traveler will recognize, the gateway to adventure must pass through a third world airport. After my passport passed through the eleventh bureaucrat’s hands, we looked at a barren luggage carousel.
“Excuse me, sir, where is our luggage?”
He replies nonchalantly, “It is not here”
“I see that, but where is our luggage?”
In the same emotionless response, he answers, “ the computer says it is on way to London,” my jaw drops, “Tel Aviv and then Sydney”. I wanted to scream, but one glance at my team members and everyone started laughing at the shear absurdity of the situation. We are on a motorcycle adventure with shorts, flip flops and no motorcycles.
Now a tourists would be yelling at every employee at the airport, cursing the travel gnome and threatening a bad Yelp review for things completely out of their control. An adventurer hops on a local conveyance in search of a cold drink and local flavor. Puttering outside the airport are ‘tuk tuks', a strange vehicle that is part motorcycle, soviet era transporter and lawn furniture. No seat belts, questionable brakes and some fluid filling the gas tank from a 2 liter soda bottle. That is the least of our worries because the road conditions are so scary that video game developers fear to copy because there would be few winners.
A drive around the hustle bustle of a city that has no order was overwhelming to start. I saw the poor and poorer. I saw skinny cattle with ribs exposed most likely due to lack of growth hormones, bathing in water only feet from children playing. I saw people eating and enjoying themselves in graveyards. I saw a city that had no public sanitation services. It was like some scary collage of life and death colliding in some Dante-esque nightmare. The most confusing sight was the looks on the people’s faces. There was a calm, dare I say, joy.
Was I missing something?
The tuk tuk drivers were giving us an impromptu tour of a city they were proud to share. We needed a snack and they brought us to this dank alley where a toothless old lady was stir frying grubs, crickets and cockroaches. Was this a Cambodia prank? Their version of the Tijuana donkey painted as zebra photo scam. Insect cuisines are considered as nutritious foods by the poor in Cambodia, as a result, markets in rural areas and even in big cities have a lot of insects for sale such as bugs, spiders, cockroaches or silkworms. Fortunately, you can wash anything down with a cold beer, For some reason, beer was always to be found.
People are drawn to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, with the site measuring 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres). It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for visitors.
Words like awesome, sublime, grand, inspiring do not describe this location. Deep inside the labyrinth of these temple grounds, where the crowds have not caught up with me and the monkeys taunt me from the towers, I feel something happening. Time is distorting, sound is fading and my reverie is only disturbed by a monk chanting with a peaceful look that is ever present around with the Cambodian people.
Our temple day was not complete. The next stop was Bayon with its most distinctive feature being the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. Not to the same scale of Angkor Wat, the significance of this location is very personal to me. It is the model for the entrance to Disneyland’s Raiders of the Lost Ark ride.
Our guide tells we need to visit one more temple.
“Paeng, we’re good man. Got it. Mind blown. Let’s crack a few Angkor beers and get our party on Cam-bro-dian style.”
He would not take no for answer. He takes us to the Ko Ker temple complex. As we are making our way through the complex, the reveal is …wait for it…a seven step pyramid. Something that looked like it belonged in Mexico, not Cambodia. This pyramid is part of an even larger complex that was recently discovered by satellite buried under the all-consuming jungle.
They day is ending, my heading is swimming from the heat and beer or something yet to be revealed. The bugs are hopefully intoxicated and floating on the Angkor beer river that is flowing through my body.
A restless night was abruptly interrupted by a morning sound that was all too familiar to me. I rushed outside to witness a Cambodian miracle – our small fleet of Yamaha 250 motorcycles and luggage.
Eager to hit the road, we geared up and hopped on our bikes. The fear of Siem Reep traffic was replaced with the adrenalin coursing through our veins to hit Cambodian single track. Now let me explain Cambodian single track. It is a muddy rut filled serpentine path flanked by small huts on stilts. If that wasn’t bad enough, small children, feral dogs and man-eating chickens cross our paths endlessly oblivious to our movement. I once read that when the aboriginal people of the Americas looked out on horizon of the great sea they were completely oblivious to the ships of the impending conquerors.
Psychologist hypothesized that the aboriginal people had no context for such images therefore rendering them basically invisible. Then again those great ships didn’t have 250 ccengines whining at a high pitch. These calm inhabitants, whether it was school children or farmers waved wildly and smiled, if they bothered to look at all. I imagined that they never feared that we were invading. Quite the contrary, from the looks on their faces they realized that since they had few material items, there was nothing to steal. The wiser ones probably laughed at the crazy giant mechanized aliens from the planet Klim that were racing through life at 50 mph seeing nothing at all..
What the hell, I was in frickin’ heaven. I am with my team. The rich palate of the Cambodian countryside moved though my visor like a kaleidoscope. The challenge of a bucking motorcycles traversing through a rapidly changing environment, over bamboo bridges, banging off of berms, crossing snake filled rivers and dodging male water buffalos that weren’t sure whether to kill us or mate us had all my pleasure centers firing off like the Fourth of July.
Hey, what’s that ahead – deep soft sand patches. What is that doing in a muddy jungle during rainy season? As I deftly plane through the sand as the bike begins to get squirrely, I felt, as team leader, it was a good idea to check on the rest. Colton, check…Jeff, check…Danell, check …Where the hell is Ken? A few minutes later warmed over death rolls up with steam literally coming out of his ears. He was red lining with the 102 degree heat and 100% humidity. After a quick field treatment for heat stroke, Paeng decided that it was best that he rode in the support truck with the national karaoke champion. After 15 minutes in the AC, an icy old fashioned Coke, endless snacks and a duet partner, Ken hand-picked his future trails.
We rode ahead along a small river until it opened up to a lake for lunch. Every item was locally sourced. The fish was caught upon arrival, the vegetables were grown on site and the man-eating chicken I alluded to earlier was quickly dispatched with and returned on a bed of rice. That may sound harsh but by the pace and the look of the people preparing it, it was all part of a natural process. Here’s something that is harsh. The waterfront building on stilts that we are dining on is raised for a reason and it’s not for a better view. The houses are raised due to constant flooding and to keep wild animals from carrying off their children.
Sometimes we had to travel at night. The most memorable time was travelling through a village that I will call “Bug City”, just a crickets jump from the tarantula town of Skuon. Now Bug City was interesting because as we travelled at night most of the towns were dark. However, in the distance was a brilliant neon purple city. Were we heading to the rave center of the universe or some south Asian Oz? As we neared the town, we started getting pelted by some kind of locust that increased in intensity until it felt like a hailstorm. It was a city that stretched for miles that was nothing but neon tubing, nets and houses that were occupied. Needless to say, we were the only fools out at night.
For days we journeyed between jungle and small town, rice paddy and dirt path. Some areas had never seen giant foreigners on motorcycles and others catered to the locals in the normal course of business, but welcomed as one of their own, My perspective was changing with each mile. We weren’t the thrill seekers on a self-pilgrimage. We were a travelling freak show that road through town like a comet. These people took time to talk to each other. Their speed was no faster than a five person family on a small scooter. Most of their travel distance was limited to distance that a pair of flip flops would take them. They seemed to measure their happiness, not on a happening but an acceptance of the world around them.
As we moved further from the jungle and closer to manufacturing, everything was changing. Trees were clear cut and ugly factories replaced them. Families on scooters or beast of burden were replaced by cattle trucks loaded with surgical mask wearing laborers. The smiles were disappearing.
Each mile closer to society seemed to show a darker part of this beautiful land.
As we neared the capital city of Phnom Penh where we were told we would be passing the killing fields, Choeung Ek.
These were the fields of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge, the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide The Khmer Rouge made the people of the city go out to the fields to be executed. Between the years of 1975-1979 there were nearly 2 million Cambodians murdered by Khmer Rouge.
We had to go to a darker place before we could see light again. Danell had coordinated through her Threading Hope charity to bring quilts and donation to a charity that specialized in rescuing young girls from human trafficking. Many of these missions are staffed with foreigners that have come to rescue them, protect them, teach them a trade and fight against the most darkest elements of humanity.
The last part of the trip was heavy and I needed to retreat to a place where all bikers get the best therapy. I hopped on my bike, along with my companions, and pulled down my visor into the most private of spaces that I call ‘helmet time’ It was hours before we spoke to each other while we rode along the Mekong River. My mind reflects on the movie, “Apocalypse Now” where an American officer must go deep into the jungle to capture another officer that has gone insane and worshipped as an evil demigod of a rogue army. In the movie, the trip into the jungle was metaphor for the descent into evil and insanity. Our journey discovered the opposite, the trip away from the jungle was true Paradise Lost.
We rest one day in the capital city and board the plane in that semi conscious state of an internal clock that has calibrated with the local pace.
“The lights have been turned off. You may move about the cabin”
As I reflect on this amazing journey, I discover something about my travels on a motorcycle. The farther I go away on the bike the deeper I travel inside my soul.
“Hey Brad, where is that treasure you promised? I didn’t see any golden skulls”, Ken said.
“ It was all around my friend” I pulled down my eye mask and pondered that the true treasure was the greatest of ancient spiritual cultures was forever captured in the indomitable spirit of the Cambodian people.
To watch the Youtube video