Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sisophon, West Cambodia: Our man in Sisophon!

My bung arm – Part 2

I sleep until the late afternoon and then climb under the shower, careful not to get my bandaged arm wet. There’s a stretch of blood seeping through the cotton and running from the elbow down to the middle forearm, and I pose manfully in front of the mirror. It’s looking very Arnie. Man, seh ich gut aus! Lookin’ good!

The arm is still swollen – this afternoon’s estimate: 35% above normal - and paining, so I throw down some more anti-inflammatory pills and a couple of Panadol. I’ll swear I need anti-biotics, but doctor knows best, probably.

Having a medical problem in Cambodia is disquieting.

If it gets really bad, and they need to cart you off, who will know where you are? Who will record your last words, and relay them on to family and friends? And who’s gonna collect the body?

Nobody, that’s who.

And what’s the home town priest going to say at your belated funeral?

"We don’t know what (insert your name here)’s last words were, or his thoughts, but I’m sure they were with his family and friends, and he was grateful for your love and caring during his short but troubled life."

"But, friends," he continues, "at least he died doing what he loved best, may he rest in peace!"

Which of course you won’t, ‘cos you didn’t die doing what you loved best, you died in stark terror at the hospital, and with a great and abiding sense of abandonment.

And do they use adequate ice at the morgue? Probably not, so if there is a viewing of the body at home, it won’t be much.

But they do have plastic bags. Asians love plastic bags, and they’ll be able to wrap you in one, no problem.

Scene: Le Pines Crematorium, on a cold, grey, drizzly Melbourne day. Aunty Kylie and Uncle Max peer in to the coffin.
"What a lovely green plastic bag!" says Kylie.
"Yes, I’m sure he’s happy in there!" replies Max.

It’s Cambodia, friends, and it’s very poor and understaffed, and things go wrong out here, things that shouldn’t normally go wrong.

But so be it.

Right now I need the warmth of companionship and maybe some cheese, so I’m off to Klaus's place for dinner.

I cycle out of the guest house and on to the road.

This is Highway 6, which leads east out of Sisophon all the way through Siem Reap and on to Phnom Penh. It’s just on dusk, and as I gaze westwards in to the sun, the dust over the road is a great orange halo, dirty and opaque.

And it reminds me of the first time I stood on this same spot, way back in 1998.


It was my first time in Cambodia.

I’d ridden to Sisophon from Poipet, on the Thai border, a couple of days before, and was about to push further along Highway 6 in to the Cambodian heartland. The ride in from Poipet had been extraodinarily good, but I was still apprehensive. There were so many unknowns.

At that time, Cambodia was just emerging out of almost 20 years of serious, and sometimes bloody troubles post the Khmer Rouge takeover of 1975 and the Vietnamese invasion in 1978/79. It had been a tumultuous period of civil unrest, political upheavels and lawlessness as the country struggled to it’s feet.

By 1997 the country was still a mess, but at least they weren’t shooting people in the back streets of Phnom Penh anymore. And apparently the countryside was safe enough to venture out in to, as long as you took adequate precautions, according to my (hopefully) well informed connections.

And I was ready to believe them.

Cambodia was a cyclist’s dream. New territory and virgin roads. Throw in a unique culture, an exotic past and a reputation, despite the mind-boggling terror of the Khmer Rouge, of easy going hospitality. It doesn’t come much better.

But how much remained? How dangerous was it to cycle through? Was this adventure or folly?

I’d read of a Canadian who’d cycled from Poipet to Phnom Penh and got there in one piece, sometime in 1996. As far as I knew, he was the one cyclist who’d made it all the way through, so I tried to track him down, but failed.

I felt confident enough I’d get through in one piece also, but I would have liked some reliable road information.

I put some postings on the web-board and got a few replies. A couple of motorcyclists sent me some pictures and gave me a basic run-down. The roads were pretty rough, but do-able.

And I disregarded, as you do, most of the alarmist e-blowings of the back-packers who’d been through on pick-ups; ‘You’ll never make it!’, ‘The roads are diabolical!’, ‘Forget it!’

OK, what to do?

In January of 1998 I flew in to Bangkok, and stayed with some Thai friends out by the docks. The Thais, being Thai, were singularly appalled that I was going to Cambodia, and on a bike? Are you mad?

They dropped me at Hualampong Station (Bangkok Central) before dawn one Saturday morning, and even after I’d loaded the bike on to the train and was standing around saying last goodbyes, they were begging me to reconsider.

‘If you stay with us, Felix, we can go on a picnic!’ they said.

As the train began to pull out of the station, Kip, the youngest, and about 10 at the time, called out that she’d pray for me.

It was then I had my first real moment of panic. Not the sort that paralyses you, but just that little squirt of dish-washing detergent that spins around your belly and reminds you that you may be going down the plug-hole. Sheese! Kids!

So off I rattled towards Cambodia.

One hundred kilometres out of Bangkok we hit the smoke. It was paddy burning time, and the dense smoke from the fields blew in from the south and swirled around the carriage. It was gritty and hot, and threw the carriage in to an eerie half-light for most of the journey. It was like heading to Sleepy Hollow.

I’d never been to Aranyaprathet (Aran) before, on the Thai side of the border, and didn’t know what to expect. Border towns the world over are crazy places. Too much flow-through traffic, too many drugs, too many girls, too much of everything that’s transient.

During the 1980s, Aran was at the centre of a mess of Cambodian refugee camps, home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Khmers who had poured out of Cambodia ahead of the invading Vietnamese army and after the breakdown of Khmer Rouge rule.

The Khmer Rouge had been routed from Cambodia proper, but still operated with impunity along the Thai border, protected by the Thai military and a complex anti-Vietnamese political nexus involving the United States and other Western governments.

The graft within the camps was monumental, and Aran was dangerous and unsettled. NGO friends who had worked there told alarming stories of human rights abuse and blatant corruption.

The train arrived at Aran just after 1 PM, and I got down, collected my bike and set off for town. The Cambodian border is about 6 kilometres down the road, but I was advised to spend the night in Aran and cross in to Cambodia at Poipet in the morning.

‘Poipot is dangerous at night, Felix’ an NGO friend told me, sternly, ‘and you might get mugged!’

OK, I hate getting mugged, especially on my first day in-country. It colours the whole trip a dank shade of grey, and I much prefer blue.

I checked in to a cheap hotel and took a ride around town. Boy, for a former bad-arse burg, Aran sure looked quiet and sleepy. I rode down a couple of back-streets, curious to find the wrong end of town, but no, no smell of sleaze, no wind of corruption. The wrong end didn’t seem to exist.

By my reckoning, Aran had turned in to the most boring border town on the planet, which is something, but not what you’d call interesting. Tomorrow I was definitely heading across to dark and mysterious Cambodia, muggings or no muggings. Forget Aran.

At 7 AM the next morning I was winging down the paved road towards the border. If you cycle down that stretch today there’s a few guest houses and restaurants, and it’s quiet and sedate, but in ’98 it was sparse stretch, with nothing but a run of make-shift camping gear stores. ‘Don’t they have hotels in Cambodia?’ I wondered.

Take a right off the highway, go through the enormous Thai duty free market and you’re at the border.

And here I got my first look at the Cambodians. There was a torrent of them pouring across the border, entering Thailand on day passes. They were pushing carts, carrying large sacks and to a person, dressed in rags. I had never seen a more dishevelled bunch. Christ!

The Thai guy at immigration stamped my passport, looked dubiously at the bike and waved a finger vaguely in the direction of Cambodia.

‘You bicycle?’ he asked, incredulously.

Now, as all of you who cycle will know, this is the time when you stand up straight, look your interrogator in the eye and say, ‘Yep, only way to go, mate!’

And contained within this neat, little reply is a deep hell-hole of thoughts and prejudices: I’m a cyclist! And you're not!I’m a risk-taker! And you’re a marshmellow.Which makes me the Alpha male/female around here and you’re aways back somewhere in the middle of the Greek alphabet, maybe Mu or a Rho.

Ah, vanity. It’s so addictive.

But as I stood at Thai immigration, with the river of shabby Cambodians jostling behind me, I felt another squirt of detergent in my belly, and I nearly asked him, ‘You don’t think it’s a good idea, Sir?’, before I checked myself and just nodded.

His eyebrows went up to the middle of his forehead and he opened his mouth and started laughing. ‘Chog-dee!’, he said, which is Thai for ‘good luck!’ Oh, dear.

And so I left the relative hilarity of Thailand.

I walked over to the white fibro sheds with the nice, new, plastic Cambodian flags dangling in the wind, and got my passport stamped at Cambodian immigration. The immigration guy was not too concerned about anything. He smiled, said ‘Welcome!’ and waved me on. Excellent.

I then went over to customs. The customs officer spotted the bike, frowned, and came out of his office to take a closer look.

‘OK, here we go!’ I thought, ‘There’s about to be an argument about whether I can take the bike in or not, and lots of forms to fill in in triplicate, and money may need to change hands. Great!

’‘You go bicycle?’ he asked, looking down at the bike and running his hand across my back pannier.

‘Yes, sir, I do. I-go-Per-nom-pen-bi-cycle!’ I said, and pointed confidently down the road.

He looked up with a large grin, and said, ‘Oh, very good! Very good! Welcome to you!’, and reached over and patted my elbow.

‘Well, thanks a lot!’ I said. ‘It’s good to be here!’

He waved me off, shouting out ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ as I wheeled the bike under the enormous Khmer Gate that marks the border.

OK, excellent, bored immigration guy, and friendly customs guy, now what?

Take a look around!

I’d been cycling in Asia on and off for years, but nothing prepared me for Poipet. It was total rag and bone chaos, and brown. Everything was brown; the people, the roads, the houses, the air. On first glance, it looked like my kinda town.

But would I be mugged? Would I be engulfed by hordes of beggars, would I have children thrust at me by distraught mothers begging me to give their off-spring better lives, or maybe led off by underpaid government soldiers and relieved of everything but my bike-shorts, or worse?

But no, nobody besides the friendly customs guy had paid me any interest. I seemed to be in the eye of a storm. All around me there was movement. People whirled and dust skitted, but where I stood there was only me. Strange.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, there were mountians of Cambodian horror tales circulating in the media. Stories of guns, robberies, land-mines, the Khmer Rouge and rogue government soldiers, and I had read everything I could, including every book entitled: First they killed my mother, then my father etc, and there were a few.

And it was also only a few years since Brian Wilson, an Australian tourist and his two companions had been pulled off a train by the Khmer Rouge in Takeo Province, south of Phnom Penh, and subsequently abducted and shot. The video images that came to light during and after the ordeal were ghastly and unforgettable.

The case had received enormous publicity in Australia and around the world, and had coloured many peoples attitude to Cambodia.

And the late Princess Diana flying out from the UK and standing around in a Cambodian mine field, looking vulnerable and pretty, didn’t help much.

When I had first announced I was going, most of my friends were alarmed. "You gotta be kidding, Feel!" was the common response.

One friend, prone to excited outbursts, asked if I’d finally gone insane. ‘Why don’t you just go up to Queensland and ride around there?’ he continued.


But I'm wary of the so-called good advice most people hand out. It's well meaning, but often uninformed.

The fact was, by 1998, the word on the ground was that it was OK to travel through the Cambodian countryside, as long as you took some precautions;

1. Be off the roads by 4 PM, because after dark bandits come out. OK, as long as you’ve got a watch, what’s the problem?
2. If you come to a road-block of any sort, be friendly and pay up. A few bucks was the recommended price. I structured a few extra bucks in to my budget.
3. There’s a lot of mines, but most of them are marked. And if you don’t wander off the main roads and tracks, you’ll be sweet. OK, just walk/ride where everybody else is walking/riding. This one looks like a percentage play. No sweat.

As I happily explained to my excitable friend, once you break these things down in to their component parts, and deal with each issue separately, things don’t seem half as bad.

'Almost good, in fact!’ I added, brightly.

But as I stood near the Khmer Gate at Poipet, and gazed around, I wasn’t so sure.

I secured my panniers, checked my money belt and camera, climbed on the bike, and pedalled off down the road. I took a left towards the Poipet market and stopped in a small café, ordering some noodles and tea.

I ate slowly, and sipped on my drink. I wanted to get a feel for the place. I wanted to see how the locals were behaving before I headed out down the highway to Sisophon, some 50 kilometres away.

And surprisingly, despite my doubts, the locals were behaving just fine, and best of all, at least in my little corner of Cambodia, nobody was getting abducted, or blown up. In fact, quite the opposite.

The waitress in the café was doing her best to understand my embrionic Khmer, and the rest of the patrons were nodding, smiling and encouraging me to eat. Excellent.

The road out of Poipet to Sisophon was as rough as bags; bumpy, pot-holed and garbage strewn. The traffic was thin, but there was a small cavalcade of home-made vehicles and motor-bikes with trailors full of people, and the dust was behemoth.

Dust, dust every where. Across the paddies, over the road, and inside my eyes and panniers, and cycling down the highway was a total sensual experience. Visceral, pungent, gritty and unknown.

I stopped at a small bamboo drink stand some 10 kilometres out of Poipet. There was a family of Khmers living in a small wooden shed beside a large Bodhi tree selling Coke and ice. I got off the bike, and wandered slowly over, not yet sure of the correct approach and not yet sure of the Cambodian response to the lone barung on the bike.

But it was friendly and relaxed, and so unexpectedly welcoming, that after I’d drunk my Coke, I wandered out on to the road and took a few deep breaths. I had to shake the fear, it was getting in the way.

About 20 kilometres up the road I came to my first road-block. I could see it from a few kilometres away, and despite the good start to the day, it put the wind up me. Friendly Khmers selling Coke and ice is one thing, but soldiers manning a road block in the middle of the countryside is another question.

I rolled to a stop at the wooden pole straddling the road, and wheeled the bike across to the two men in shabby army fatigues who sprang to activity at my approach. They were well armed, with machine guns slung across their shoulders and pistols in their belts.

Usual thing: They look, I smile. No sudden movements. Show passport. Give name. Where you go? Why you travel by bike?

It was brusque but not unfriendly, and it was stinking hot. One of the soldiers motioned me towards a nearby hut, asked me to take my sandals off, and then led me down a path towards a small brown pond, some 20 metres off the road.

I trotted behind him like an obedient sheep, ready to please my master, ready to obey his every command, as long as I could understand it, considering I don’t have much brain.

Was this it? Was my number up? Maybe my friends were right. And what an inglorious end, and so soon! Not even a day in-country.

He then took me by the arm and gestured for me stand with my bare feet in the water. Oh, dear, here we go, popped in the back of the head and left to rot in a fish pond.

I stood stock still, waiting for his next order.

After a few seconds, he said something in Khmer, which I didn’t get (of course), and then lent forward, looked up, and made paddling motions with his hands.

"Move your feet, you stupid barang!" he was saying in sign language, "Don’t you know it’s 40 degrees in the shade out here!"

O-Ka-ay! I ge-e-et it! He wants me to paddle about in the water!

I stomped my feet up and down and paddled for all I was worth. I splashed, I played, I made whoopee noises. I lay back on the ground and let the cool, muddy water lap all the way up to my thighs. I looked up in to sky and started laughing.

And I couldn’t stop.

By the time I got up and walked back to the bike, all three of us were giggling, and looking around at each other with that sheepish why are we laughing? look.

Cambodia, this was it. I’d arrived.

By late afternoon, as I rolled in to Sisophon, I was dusty and tired, but happy as a boy who'd just shot his father. The roads were bad, the food poor, the countryside barren, the towns derelict but the people were alive, laid back and welcoming.

What a place, what a find.

And as I stood here now, 6 years later, on the road outside my guest house in Sisophon, with my arm bandaged, and the dust kicking up down the road, I remembered this; the apprehension, the joy and the sense of wonder.

But things change. Myself, and also Cambodia.

I’d ridden so much of it in the intervening years. I’d gone down the main highways, searched out the back roads and pushed myself further and further in, but now, as I stood here and thought about it, I realised it was over.

I was no longer bolted-in. The game had been played out.

And so opens the great yawning gap. Where to now, Feel?

Well, definitely not Queensland, and I was invited to Klaus’s place for dinner around seven, so that’s a good start.

And I have time to go around to the internet café by the park and check my SPAM. There might even be a message from home, you never know.


I move in to the saddle, string my feet over the pedals, and turn the wheels.

At the internet café I get a reply from Sothy, my American-Khmer friend who lives in Chicago. She’s my Khmer background person, the one I contact when I need some specific, inside Cambodian information. I’d emailed her about my arm yesterday.

"Dear Felix," she wrote, "whatever you do, don’t go to a Cambodian doctor! Most of them are charletans and their qualifications are bogus. Get on your bik (sic.) and go to Thailand. The doctors there are much better."

O-Ka-ay! Thanks, Sot! Tell me about it!

I don’t have the courage to hit the return key and tell her I’ve already been to the Butcher of Sisophon. Best to let that one through to the keeper, I think. She’ll only get mad, and threaten to cease all communication again.

I double back to the Sokamex station, and take a left off the highway to Klaus’s place.

His house is a large colonial affair, with big verandahs running all the way around the ground floor, and a second storey that opens on to a large balcony, wide and airy.

He’s glad to see me, asks about the arm and ushers me in to the cool interior. I briefly meet his Khmer wife and mother-in-law, but they’re off to visit relatives, and won’t be back ‘til late.

We tuck in to a big Western meal of eggs, bacon, onions, German bread and cheese, and wash it down with red wine. It’s the best food I’ve had in weeks, and I savour the lot.

Klaus tells me that if my arm isn't better in a couple of days he'll give me a lift to the Thai border so I can go to the hospital in Aran.

"I need to be getting some duty-free chocolate anyway, Felix," he says.

After dinner we retire upstairs to the balcony for coffee.

It’s a hot night. Outside beyond the house-gates it’s pitch black and there’s not much noise, save for the odd bicycle rattling down the road and a couple of fruit bats winging back and forth between the trees.

I light up a joint and the Great Charlie Parker starts belting out some raw and untamed saxophone, which goes streaming over the bannister in great cascading loops, down across the lawn and out the front gate.