Posted on January 28, 2016
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Route 66. America has one and Cambodia has one too. In America it is known as The Mother Road. Rambling 2,500 miles from Chicago to L.A. it was built to give the newly mobile Americans a way to move out to the west coast. Until its construction the only way to drive from Chicago to L.A. was to take a myriad of inter-connecting roads that weren’t meant for long distance travel. You can read my old blog posts about my American Route 66 trip here.
Who would have known there is also a Route 66 in Cambodia. Seriously. But this Route 66 is not the same as its American counterpart. This route followed a canal over a thousand years ago that transported the stones needed to build Angkor Wat and other temples in the area. ‘Get your bricks on Route 66’.
Route 66. The name is the last thing the two have in common.
The canal is long gone but much of the original route is still there and it has been transformed over hundreds of years of use as Cambodia evolved. Unlike its sister road in America that had to be paved to be part of the Mother Road there was no such thing as pavement in the first millennium. Today there are small parts of the road that have been paved over but those disappear behind you in short order as you fly down the road on your moto at forty to sixty kilometers an hour.
Beginning at the temples around Angkor Wat the road heads east passing a number of temples along the way ending at Preah Kahm near Ta Seng. The distance is only one hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) but attempting the trip will take six to eight hours. I think. Don’t pack up the station wagon and take the kids out of school. This trip can not be done in a car. Not even a four-wheel drive vehicle. Google Maps clocks the trip in just under three hours. Good luck Google, I’d like to see that!
The first two-thirds is relatively easy and can be done in a car. Some of the road is narrow and sandy and some of it is paved but most of it is pretty good dirt as it slices its way through rice fields and small villages. After that the road (did I say road?) drastically changes.
Leaving the Angkor Wat Archeological Park the road heads due east in relatively good form. Small mom and pop stores/restaurants dot the area as the sandy track turns to hard packed dirt. In 3.5 kilometers the road crosses Route 67, a two-lane paved highway that runs north and south. Another 7.9 kilometers takes you through a pretty sandy narrow straightaway that is easy enough for the well trained local moto riders. For me it takes a bit longer as I slip and slide through the sand in the deep spots.
I now realize that maybe a dirt bike would be useful here, but I have what I have and it is getting the job done. I have lived half of my life and I can ignore the feelings on inadequacy as the youthful ten year olds whiz by me on their motos with two of their friends on the back. Yes, I will eat your dust. Literally.
Crossing over Route 99 I get a short stretch of asphalt where I turn off for a quick visit to the unrestored Chaw Srei Vibol Temple. This remote temple, built in the 11th century, sees few visitors due to its distance from well known Angkor Wat, Ta Promh, and Bayon. The temple is empty except for one monk who tends to the adjacent Buddhist pagoda. One of the benefits of having my own moto is that I have the opportunity to get out an explore some of the temples that the majority of visitors don’t even know exist. Some are more challenging to get to than others but this is where the journey can be as good or better than the destination. There is so much to see on the remote roads and getting lost takes me to places I otherwise would never have been able to see.
Leaving the temple I have two kilometers of asphalt followed by five kilometers or well packed dirt and then one kilometer of sandy dirt road. This brings me to a familiar intersection with some stores, a place or two to eat, and a school. This is a small village but the kids from the surrounding areas attend the school.
Less than two kilometers from the intersection is Banteay Ampil. The road looks pretty good until I run in to Lake WTF! in the middle of the road. Damn. There is no crossing this seasonal (?) body of water. It is way past the rainy season here in Cambodia and unless I have an ox cart at my disposal I am not going to make it from Point A to Point B. It looks like I need to make a little detour here.
Looking at Google maps on my phone I see there is a way around this little obstacle. The detour is about sixteen kilometers down some more dirt, asphalt, and sand. I pass a few minor water obstacles along the sandy ride. As I wind through the jungle I come to yet another larger body of water that blocks my way. I look off to my right and I see a farmer and his son off in the distance. They seem to be walking on a small path and I raise my arms in the internationally accepted symbol for what the fuck do I do now?
The man motions for me to go back and follow the small path behind me. I follow his gestures and I pass him and his son as I ride on the path that goes within a few feet of their home. My thank you in Khmer is met with smiles from both of them as I pass by on my way to the temple.
There is only a small creek that I have to ride across on this path and soon I turn down a sandy walkway leading to the jungle. As soon as I pass from open field to jungle the temple appears in front of me.
At Banteay Ampil I am unsurprisingly alone. This is one of the benefits of hard to get to temples and one of the things that makes me seek them out. I look around and try to imagine what this temple looked like a thousand years ago. If not for the trees that grew into the structures they would probably still be standing to this day.
After backtracking my way out to the asphalt I get fourteen kilometers of pavement as I head towards the more famous Being Mealea Temple. Just before the temple is the visitor center where you buy your five dollar ticket for the temple. Also here, in case you find the need, are some of the best bathrooms you will find in Cambodia. Whether or not there is a need you should stop just to get a look. Believe me, it is worth it.
Today I will not stop at Being Mealea Temple since my goal for the day still lies far ahead. Being Mealea was made famous in the Tomb Raider movie from years back and is well worth a visit. There are paved roads that get you all the way here but what fun would that be?
Just after the entrance to Being Mealea the road turns back to dirt and wanders through a dark forest with a couple of temples on either side of the road. These are part of the Being Mealea ticket and I won’t stop at them today. The road is very well packed dirt and soon it opens into unobstructed country. Wide, firm, open. A nice road for the next thirty kilometers.
This takes me through rice fields, small villages, family run stores, restaurants, and gas stations. I pass by oxcarts full of rice, kids on bicycles and monks collecting alms. It is a comfortable road. It is a sparsely populated road but food, gas, repairs – and most importantly help – is available.
I tend to stand out here and people seem to be able to see me coming for a kilometer down the road. Most kids will wave and say hello. Adults will look up and do a double-take when they see me. More often than not if I pass someone on the road, whether they are walking, on a bicycle, moto or ox cart, I can look in my rear view mirror and see that they turned their heads to make sure they did see what they thought they just saw.
Along this stretch of road I cross a few bridges left over from the Angkorian period. These bridges may be easy to spot with the multi-headed nagas on all four corners of the bridge or they may be nothing more than I a little hump in the road. It amazes me that these bridges have weathered through a thousand years of use and they are still standing today. Some are large and some are small.
Everything along this part of Route 66 I like. But then you hit the village of Che Cheat. This is the dividing line between tame and wild. Soon after this village the road deteriorates to muddy, water-filled bogs that may have once resembled a road. As one way became impassable they would start making a path to the left. When that filled with water they made a different path to the right. When that filled with water they gave up and built a rickety wooden bridge meant for people to walk over and maybe motorbikes.
Once I passed Che Cheat I soon realized that the easy part was behind me. This area is remote. Sometimes scary remote. I don’t know how far I can get and the further I go the better chance I have of getting lost or stuck. What if my moto breaks down? There are no villages out here. What if I fall and break my arm? What if. What if……..
At the beginning of this part of Route 66 the road turns into a quagmire of impassable paths. There is water or mud blocking just about every way through here. I get off my moto to look around on foot. No matter where I look can’t seem to find a way through here. On the way back to my moto I see a little path off to my left and as I investigate further I see there is a small bridge that should be able to hold me and my moto. Maybe this is the way? I guess there is only one way to find out.
I hop on my moto, cross the bridge and after a few left/right decisions on small dirt paths I am on what seems to be the best way to head east. I see the remnants of an old Angkoran bridge and as I am taking pictures I notice a home off to my right. Everyone is watching me as I take pictures and then they start to look a bit uncomfortable as I walk towards their home. Of course none of them speak English what so ever and anything I say just leaves them smiling. I know the next village is some forty kilometers away. I point toward the east and in a questioning tone I ask “Ta Seng?”, the name of the town. The adults smile and shake their heads yes. This is promising. Then I say ‘water?’ and point to my moto trying to ask if it is passable with my moto. They smile again and nod their heads in the affirmative. That promising feeling is starting to fade.
Do they know what I am asking? Are they just being polite? I thank them and head off east wondering what they are thinking. Do they know I am headed nowhere? Do they know I was asking about the village ahead to the east? I have no idea but I guess there is only one way to find out what is ahead.
Every few minutes I am faced with another rough area. Some of the ruts in the dirt road are almost half the length of my arm. A dirt bike would be a blessing here but again I have to make it with what I have.
The further I go the more I wonder if this is a good idea. There is always Pub Sreet. I could be sitting in a street side restaurant with a hot meal and a cold beer watching all of the tourists walk down the street. Gelato! I could be eating gelato. But no. Not me. I made a choice to explore Route 66. What’s the worst that can happen? Well I know what the worst that can happen is and that doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is how long and drawn out that process might be.
I remind myself that there is no guarantee that I can actually make it all the way to Ta Seng or Preah Kahm. For all I know I can make it just one kilometer from my destination and get shut down by a lake or other obstacle in the road with no possible passage. Then I would need to turn around and go through all of this hellish riding in reverse. No guarantees. I’ve heard that somewhere before. I think it was in a saying about life. I continue on.
About five minutes down the path I hear a noise in the distance. A mechanical noise. I am not sure what it is but as I look ahead on the path I see a tractor pulling a cart load of Cambodian people. I guess this is the local bus. I pull of to the side to let them pass and I am met with about fifteen bewildered looks. I smile and say “Sok sa bei” and they smile and shake their heads. For me this is good news. There are people out here. Somewhere out here. They came form somewhere up ahead. These tractors are much better at getting through any of the mud and they have plenty of people to help push if they get stuck.
I begin to feel a little safer as there should be a way out if something happens to me or my moto. Every twenty minutes or so I pass another tractor. Some of them carry people and others carry lumber or supplies. They are all going in the opposite direction so there has to be something ahead. I have no idea how far ahead that may be or what lies between here and there but I am determined to find out. Somewhat determined. Well maybe just curious. A little curious.
The hour is getting late and I am far from home. There is no way I could make it to Ta Seng today even if everything went completely right and the road turned to smooth asphalt. It is here that I decide to turn around knowing that someday I will return and make it all the way down this stretch of Cambodia’s Route 66.
Until that day I turn around and head west with the sun in my eyes and the dust covering me form head to toe. A shower is in my future and a trip to Pub Street. I think I deserve that hot meal and cold beer.
And a gelato.