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Mission accomplished

Phnom Penh to Prek Sbav and back

The Polpot portion of our trip had been creating a pit of dread in my stomach for days. I’d imagined Phnom Penh to be this big, terrifying city with evil cab drivers, pickpockets, and pollution. Repeatedly in my head I’d seen traffic so bad that our motorbike ride out to Prek Sbav, Polpot’s birthplace, would result in a hospital bed, or worse. Mostly, I’d imagined dismemberment, an arm torn off while passing between a car and a tuk-tuk, or an ankle ground into the sidewalk, run over by a food cart. Sometimes I imagined a Justine-sandwich, squished between two trucks traveling in opposite directions as we overtook, one piled high with motorcycles, spare parts and plastic containers; the other chockablock full of furniture, with a dozen people sitting on top. Sometimes my imaginings ignored the laws of physics.

We did not meet any evil cab drivers, nor did we run into any pickpockets. In fact I rather enjoyed Phnom Penh. It is colorful, lively, and has more sidewalk space than Siem Reap. The hotels are low cost and better than the Four Seasons, everyone in the service industry speaks near-fluent English and the service here is absolutely phenomenal. Seriously amazing – best in the world. It is true that Phnom Penh is polluted and the traffic is fairly insane, but at $30 for a two hour massage I can handle sucking in a few more carcinogens. I already have emphysema, how much worse can it get?

Next morning we turned up at the bike shop (aptly named, ‘The Bike Shop’), run by a down-to-earth Belgium man named Bernie. I was shaking in fear of the journey ahead. Bernie didn’t bother giving us any safety tips, besides not to drive in rush hour (too late for that). Advice wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as Rick wouldn’t have listened. Interesting side note: Turns out I do not have an enormous man head. Rather, I have a Tiny Pin Head. It took half a dozen helmets to find one small enough to fit me. I guess this reflects the size of my brain, which must be very, very small to undertake a journey as dumb and agonizing as the one we’ve done.

Driving in Phnom Penh involves finely tuned maneuvering, sudden braking, and quick acceleration to slip through gaps in the traffic. On a scooter or dirt bike this is doable. However, of the 1.5 million motorbikes on the road in Cambodia, Rick rented the very biggest one. Twice as wide, twice as long, and three times as heavy as the average bike we were not nearly so nimble. At 8:30am it took us an hour to ride the 5km stretch to get out of Phnom Penh heading north. We dodged tiny bikes piled high with dozens of live geese, mattresses, flat screen TVs, and the occasional driver sporting an IV bag; nearly clipped ornate tuktuks with Apsara ladies bobbling on their dashboards and advertising for breast augmentation on their rear; and swerved around a man atop of a 20 foot ladder resting against nothing but sagging power lines. We repeatedly passed billboards of an obese, shirtless man with rolls of fat hanging low over his g-string, advertising 4G network; stores selling nothing but tractors, tires, or helmets; and road shops full of gold spirit houses. Eventually, after an 11 prong roundabout and no loss of limbs, we were on the open road!

The description open road is pretty liberal. We were still swerving to avoid bikes, slow cars, people, and dogs, only this time at 100kms/hr. I was very conscious of my visor-less helmet and bare sleeves. I imagined crashing, skin and bones scraping against the sealed road. The roads were brilliant, paved nearly all the way to our destination. Nevertheless, just as I was mentally congratulating us on how we’d pulled this off, forces conspired against us to make our journey not quite a slam dunk. Clouds gathered, as they do here, swollen, grey, and sullen. Lurking in wait for us. The rain hit, like hail, so painful against my bare face. We pulled over at a little coke stand to shelter. The rain cleared up after 15 minutes and we set off. At least, we would have set off if the bike had started. The engine turned once and stopped. Once, and stopped. And so on. I.e. we weren’t going anywhere soon. China wins the prize for being the only country not to break on us, what with the Ukrainian tank in Mongolia, buses losing coolant and boats sinking in Laos, and now a dead motorbike.

This was less stressful than usual, probably because it wasn’t our vehicle, we had no deadline, and we are used to mechanical failures. We weren’t counting on Rick’s phone running out of minutes, but fortunately we were passing through a town that had phone supplies and we were able to call Bernie. Bernie was cool, didn’t accuse us of being incompetent numnuts, and sent a replacement bike out for us. As we were an hour and a half away it was a bit of a wait, but a drop in the bucket compared to our nine hour breakdown in India. A crowd had gathered and, in sign language, offered to help us find a mechanic. The lovely ladies from the coke stand invited us into their hut and gave up their hammocks for us to lie in while we waited. I actually fell asleep.

We tried the engine periodically, and of course five minutes before our new bike shows up it decides to start again. We were worried Bernie would think we were stupid, doing something wrong, but when we returned he was great, and said it was electrical failure caused by the rain. Very lucky that we had pulled over, rather than this happening while barreling down the highway.

Unfortunately the new bike, a 650cc Honda Trans-Alp, was even higher than the original. This meant that Rick, being a tad vertically challenged, was on tippy-toes – not so much a problem on the highway, but challenging when maneuvering in town. Oh well, worry about that tomorrow. Polpot grew up in the middle of nowhere, no traffic congestion expected there. Off again!

And then, would you believe it: we made it!

Prek Sbav is a tiny village a few miles west of Kampong Thom – about half way between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. At least, I really, really hope it was his village, because nothing was sign-posted and if it wasn’t it was an awfully long trip for nothing. Google maps was the only place I could find a record of it. No memorial here of course. Interesting though, that Mongolia and China have monuments to celebrate what the book that was the genesis for this trip classifies as ‘world’s most evil dictators’. The drive off the beaten path from the highway to get to Prek Sbauv was lovely, with a river on one side, and skinny cows, swampy farmland and houses on stilts on the other. See the ten thousand videos I posted. Phnom Penh, the motorbike ride, and being able to find Polpot’s birthplace were the things I’d had the most foreboding about and thought were going to be the most challenging. Instead, this portion turned out to be one of the least stressful of the whole trip.

Regardless, done, done, done! We’ve covered nearly 9,000 kilometers and found the birthplaces of three tyrannical dictators and one bonus dictator. We’ve had miserable, painful, depressing, cold, wet, hot, dirty, confusing experiences. The stress has been beyond belief. We’ve traveled by Ukranian UAZ troop carrier, evil horses, obnoxious trans-Siberian sleeper train, smoke filled sleeper buses, high speed rail, subway, fast clean buses that didn’t break down, slow dirty buses that did break down, songthaews in Laos, remorques (tuktuks) in Cambodia, a ripoff rickshaw in Beijing, a golf cart in Xi’an, our feet, taxis, a motorbike, a dirt bike (Rick), a longboat in Laos, an inter-island ferry in Cambodia, airplanes, and a scooter. Was it a great experience? No, it was awful. Do I feel a sense of accomplishment? No, just profound gratitude that it’s over. Would I do it again? Not in a million years.

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