Thursday, January 1, 2015

Time to start northward again--Siem Reap to Stung Treng (via the New Road)

This too was started  in Kulen, Cambodia, late in the evening on December 30, 2014. Here's how that version started:  "It is cool for here right now, late evening, which is to say, it's a marvelous temperature, the wind has fallen off , and it's lovely.  The locals think it's quite cold, and that's fine too.  There are stars out overhead, the brighter ones.  The dimmer stars are overwhelmed by the light of a dubious gibbous moon.  I'm not sure if it's waxing or waning. . .hence dubious, though it has to be one or the other eh?"  (That was supposed to be funny, laugh for the man. . .)  

Kulen is an easy (as in "marvelous road" easy) 120 km from Siem Reap on  Highway 64.  I know that now, but the morning starting out I was just reading the script from Google maps, wanting to find out if it's always fouled up out in the sticks.  So far the score is Earth 2, Google none.  But it's still early days.  Suffice it to say that I wandered around for about 50 km this morning, first trying to follow Google out into the puckerbrush (as before, the route finder insisted I was doing well right up to the moment the single track trail I was following ran off over the edge of the world).  After I gave up on Google and poked around on my own for a bit, including chasing off down a magnificent newly paved and lighted road that lead to. . .the Apsara Authority Headquarters. . .and stopped.  There was a fine little lunch stand there and a really helpful gentleman who sketched a sort of hieroglyphic map for me in the back of my diary.  In the end I actually ended up going clear back into Siem Reap (hold your applause please, until the presenter has finished his. . .er. . .confession).  

So here's how it went:  I left town, following directions, turned north (good choice) and made the next two turns Google asked for.  The third turn couldn't be right, it was the single track trail over the edge.  So I went left instead of right, on a fine looking road that did not suit Google at all.  The gps duly noted that I'd deliberately ignored instructions and began registering distance off track.  I followed the new road on the tiny touch screen for a ways, and it really was going nowhere we needed.  Two bad choices.  Great.  Standing there, in the weeds by the side of the road with $8.50 worth of minutes and 3G kilobytes available, I did an internet search.  No kidding. (clap if you're impressed!)  I found the van company that has pioneered service between Stung Treng and Siem Reap and their offices were in Siem Reap and they had a map to their location on the website and I knew how to get there.  I went.  The office lady was brilliant but not really personally familiar with the route, but she kept me busy until the boss came back from lunch and gave me the details I needed.  Actually, he effectively wrote out a route and marked up my old map to show the new road and told me I could easily make Kulen before dark.  If you ever need a van ride to or from Siem Reap, check out Asia Van Transfer www.asiavantransfer.com. They were a great help to me and are getting rave reviews on line.  

Update. . .it's now New Year's day, I'm ready to leave Stung Treng in the morning and this is finally ready for you.  Laos here we come. . .

 I've completed the exploratory trip across the north of Cambodia.  The route runs through a number of small villages, most of which hardly show on a map.  Kulen, my overnight stop en route is one that shows.  Preah Vihear City definitely shows, it's a busy place.  That's the Western name. . .the locals call it T'baeng Menchey, but it's the capital of Preah Vihear province so. . .that's how it shows on the donated highway signs.   But there are very many more small towns and villages and wide spots in the road with a cafe or a mechanic's shop and a few dozen kids.   

It was a lovely ride, a road to dream of.  Actually, it's just one of the roads you dream of.  This road is the one you specifically dream of when you're breathing dust and desperately trying to avoid hurting the motorbike (or your sit bones) and somehow not end up as a splut on a truck bumper on the horrible potholed road surface that is too often the normal state of affairs in this part of the world.   The road is essentially straight and level. . .you don't actually make a diary entry for every turn or hill, but they're uncommon enough to make note of.  More important, for most of 300 km there's hardly a single break in the asphalt.  It's definitely not the road you dream of when you're wishing for mountains. . .we may find that one up ahead in Laos (which is just a bit further up the road now).

Since I left Siem Reap the second time so late in the day, I just made Kulen in the last bit of full daylight.  There was another, even smaller little place 22 km before Kulen, with two rather sad guest houses, but I wasn't sure I wanted to be picky that late in the afternoon, so I stopped to see.  After testing the mattress (amazingly lumpy and hard) and eyeballing the toilet (?) at the end of the hall (?) on the second (creaky) wooden floor of the better looking place, I re-checked the distance left to run to Kulen (which I was thinking of as a significantly larger place) and decided I'd make it and so perhaps missed an even more interesting experience.  But Kulen was wonderful in a funny way.  I rode clear through the village without spotting the (one) guest house, but stopped and drank a bottle of water and got directions back to the far end of town (four blocks?) and sure enough, I'd blown right by a perfectly nice place on the corner by the round about.  The room was plain and small and sort of peach colored, but the mattress was dandy and the pillow close to perfect.  The toilet was in the room right enough, but it was a squat type thing, something I don't love.  Oh well, all else was fine, the price was $5 which was fine and the family was friendly, though a white guy was definitely not their normal clientele.  The young son of the family had me sign the register, a hand lined spiral notebook.  The column headings were all in Khmer script anyway, so it was just guesswork.  (Ed note: something just ran down my glasses. . .wonder who he was and where he went)    I'm pretty sure I got my name in the right column, but the youngster couldn't make me understand what all else was wanted.  In the end I gave them my street address and the USA and he bought it.  There were no other western names in the book.  

So, Kulen:  You might spell it Kulean also, and it's pronounced "Coo-LEAN" or maybe "Coo LEE-un" or something close to that.  It's an L shaped place, there's a 4-way roundabout at the corner, with the other two roads running off to other related hamlets, and the right turn heading off down Hwy 64 through the center of Kulen.  There is the one guest house, several homes doing duty at various times of day as restaurants, several (3?  4?) mobile phone shops (mostly selling dumb phones by golly), a seamstress, a pretty extensive market area on a pair of streets off the highway (and thus made of red dirt and somewhat rutted, but easy enough to ride or walk through).  I ended up walking the whole length of the place for supper, but I think I was too hasty.  I thought there were only 2 restaurants in town, one other and the place I ate my rice porridge and slivered chicken and what passed for a sweet dessert. . .odd stuff, but with coconut milk on top and tasty enough, with a gummy chewy texture.  Pretty good really!  However, on the walk back through the dark to the guest house it became apparent that half the homes along the highway opened up as restaurants of some sort as soon as the sun went down.  Some of them smelled really good, but I was too full, even to try a grilled quail, sort of a one-piece miniature chicken.  H'mm.  I think I may have been a little hasty, but it was fine and there was some pleasant conversation with a young man (the owner's son?) who had moved back from Phnom Penh to marry and help with the family business.  

I wrote a while and read a bit and went to bed early for my recent schedule. . .shortly before 11:00.    

Morning in Kulen was cool to the point of cold until the sun was well up, but it was hot before noon. I went out walking and looking for breakfast and this time did very well indeed.  I stopped in the first open place I came to shortly after 6:00 and was offered a choice of noodles or rice, in either case served with grilled meat and stewed vegetables. I went for the rice and a big glass of sweet milky coffee with finely crushed ice and a pot of hot tea. . .for. . .er. . .two dollars, and the cook and her helper (her husband I think) were extremely pleasant.  The place was just a tin roof lean to off the front of their home, dirt floor, charcoal fire, an orange plastic cooler for the ice and big heavy tables (the solid wood slabs are 4" thick and the things weigh a ton or something close). . .and an older TV showing a local news program, which was being broadly ignored.  

It was only a short walk from breakfast into the heart of the two market streets, so I walked through slowly and pestered people one way or another.  There was absolutely no English I could find, but there was a great abundance of produce, meat and fish on offer and a lot of people coming and going.   The consumer goods were mostly household supplies, plastic basins and bowls and silverware, all sorts of shampoo and soap in the little tin foil  packets, brushes and baskets. . .mostly imported things, not local manufacture.  There were several stalls with a good selection of new clothing, some of it pretty fancy  Not surprisingly, a lot of people stared at me, but most smiled or waved back and nobody seemed to mind my camera out and about.

Thus to the guest house past loading trucks and tractors headed for the woods and work in general, motorbikes being washed, trucks being repaired, vans loading people and "stuff" for a trip up or down the highway. . .a busy little town!  

The ride the second day (New Year's Eve) was just as fine. . .mostly flat ground and straight smooth roadway.  Ir should have been a 3 or 3.5 hour run if I'd been moving but I was constantly stopping for photos of one sort or another.  Sad note. ..my long time camera and companion of many thousands of kilometers of riding and many more thousands of photos . .laid a large egg half way through the day.  Oh sigh.  Well, I've been lugging three cameras along on this ride, so the next best got moved onto the camera belt and we'll carry on.  It does pretty well in good light and has a very long zoom and a gps, so it might all be fine.  The image quality isn't quite up to what I'm used to, but hopefully you'll not notice here on the blog.  I may be able to get the good old camera repaired in Vientiane or Luang Prabang and almost for sure in Hanoi, but by then of course it will be too late for this trip.  

So I rode through the day stopping constantly and often doubling back after thinking a minute ". . .I really do want that photo. . ."  I've enough now to give you a short photo-article on building a timber framed home the Khmer way. . .watch this space! 

Since the day was essentially nothing but the easy hum of the motorbike across the face of the land and the stops for photos I'll quit talking about it and show you the colors:

Leaving Siem Reap, this was the view from the fourth floor breakfast place, two floors up from the room.  The Siem Reap River flowing to your right (barely perceptible here, but obvious farther out of town)

Fooling around at a motorbike dealer's--backed the little horse up to a couple of tuks to see how she'd look.  These tuks are $800 apiece, ready to roll, and quite nice, though not the snazziest paint job!

National Road 64, past Dam Dek, headed north to Kulen.  You can yearn for a road like this when you're eating dust and desperate to keep your bike in  one piece among the chuck holes.  

Kulen at night.  No street lights, but everyone with something to sell runs a wire out to their stand and hangs a compact fluorescent on it. . .works pretty well really.

Home in Kulen.  We had exactly no language in common, but got by on courtesy and pantomime.  Good friendly people, comfortable room. . .well, there's that squatting toilet.  Problematical once you get to a certain degree of stiffness.  But we managed.

Bilingual directions. . .love 'em.  Don't always have 'em.  A mobile phone helps at that point

Nice house--Kulen

And another.

River fish from the Mekong?  Probably. . .or who knows, this far from the sea and many small streams around.

I'm sure they were cut for eating, but how??  Anyway, they're pretty all coiled up in a wash tub.  

Superabundance of produce. . .good looking produce at that. . .Kulen market

Pretty lady with a lot of eggs.  They strap these egg frames to a motorbike and ride away, no boxes at all!  Kulen.

Kulen's entry in the handsome rooster contest!

Kid on bike. . .friendly. . .Kulen (the middle of nowhere)

There are three shops making and selling heavy wood furniture. . .no mother of pearl inlays, but some impressive burl wood panels filling the hearts!.

I already had my hair cut this trip. . .won't be necessary again for. . .a long time!

A five dollar room with a squat toilet. . .really perfectly nice, and nice people

The little girl climbed up on the bike, so I set her on the tank.  She bounced and smiled.  I tried to hand Mom the camera but I think she misunderstood and took the kid instead.  Darn. But then she posed for me.  Who knows??

There are any number of these tuk-truck traveling shops, with somewhat varying merchandise on board.  I spotted gas dripping off the engine and hurried to save him (and his young wife inside the cabin) from flames and worse. . .he rushed when I beckoned, but smiled and waved his hand. . .OK.  It was water, from a tank somewhere, set to dribble down over the engine.  No wonder these little 125 cc bikes can haul such a load around the country. . .water cooled.  
The new bridge over the Mekong.  Oh my gosh.  There went the ferry.  What will become of the ferry town, Stung Treng??  For now, not a lot of change, though I'll bet the ferry crew isn't impressed.

They caught me taking photos in the market in Stung Treng and lined up to pose.  There were four though and one scampered off at the last moment.  

She serves the nicest sweet things with a ladle and tongs so quick you can hardly see what bowl she's been into.  For 25 cents per bowl.  Stung Treng outside edge of the market. 

Cacti, orchids, palm trees (small ones) and house plants big enough to need their own houses.  All pulled around by a 125cc motor bike.

They were eating salted and chili powdered snails from a plastic bag when I interrupted.  I have not tried the snails and do  not plan to any time soon.  Cooked snails are enough, thank you!

Among the plastic and silk flowers in the old market, Stung Treng

More--inside market.  

Sort of edging into the papers and gift wrap department, though really there's very little departmentalization.  It does seem odd to find a row of people selling much the same stuff shoulder to shoulder, but maybe I don't recognize the subtle differences.

I'm pretty sure she said "yes, go ahead" when I asked, but then she glanced down.  The Khmer people are simply good looking, handsome guys and pretty ladies.  Fun photography.

These tuk-trucks travel far out into the countryside with essential stuff. . .plastic bowls and baskets and the like, but these people seem just to come to the center of town, opposite the market and set up for the day.  

The same exact merchandise is available inside, out of the sun, , ,maybe it's less expensive out here from the tuk-truck vendors.

Here's a salute to the trucktors that saved my bacon in Laos last year.  note the full face helmet. . .never saw that before this trip on the tuks and the open cockpit trucks.  In Cambodia at least, it seems to be the popular thing now.  Dust and bugs and the occasional flying rock must make a facce shield seem like  a good idea.


And here's Stung Treng's resident dragon (boat).  I should have known, it's in the riverside monastery on the upstream end of town.  55 feet long, about 40" wide, 12 thwarts, 22 paddlers for racing.  The ends are pieced into the structure, not just bolted on as some are. This is far and away the best dragon head I've seen on the racing canoes.  Most are much more rudimentary or even made out of sheet metal.  The canoes at Kratie, only 120 km downstream have an entirely different style of prow and  hardly any paintwork.  Gotta vote for Stung Treng on this!
Washing motorbikes at the very end of the old ferry landing.   With the new bridge open the ferry is gone and the old pier is turning into a bike and car wash spot for the whole town. . .where you can fish no less!

Somebody's optimistic, a new hotel. . .a bright red one, not open yet though.  The tuk truck with baskets and more useful housewares. . .fun to think that it's both local goods and imported plastic.  The cabin is enough for the couple to spend the night in some comfort.  If it rains though, I suppose it gets pretty crowded inside!!  That outfit travels with the same engine as my motorbike!

Plumeria. . .gosh they're lovely.

Bougainvillea, grows almost like a weed here.  When I first saw it in 1971 in Viet Nam, climbing up walls everywhere I thought it was the most beautiful sight.  Still do!  He who dies with the most Bougainvillea wins. . .h'mm.
On the family fishing boat and residence.  They were mugging the camera from 75 feet away.  The lens may be long but kids' eyes are longer (the Kong Kong River at Stung Treng).


So good night (and good bye) to Stung Treng.  I've enjoyed the little town every time I've been here, but tomorrow we leave for Lao and begin the long hike north to Hanoi.  


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