Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kampong Cham and the Bamboo Bridge

wood shutters at Kampong Cham "Home Depot"
After another breakfast from the market (accompanied by an Azithromycin tablet for Colin), we headed out for a stop in Kampong Cham on our way to Phnom Penh. The journey was uneventful, very hot, and dry. I know the seasons here are hot and wet and hot and dry, and this is the hot and dry season, but everything looked incredibly parched. My bike did seem to be riding more smoothly after the sprocket change, chain adjustment, and clutch adjustment, and it was much quieter also, at least at the start of the journey. The farther we went, though, the louder it sounded and the more it started to lurch again. It was still rideable and better than before, but we will need to look for a new chain sometime very soon, since it seems that it may be the root of the problem.

We made it to Kampong Cham in the middle of the afternoon and scored another nice room overlooking the Mekong River. Colin still wasn't feeling particularly well, so once we carried our gear upstairs, I left him in the room to snooze for a while and went in search of the market. I didn't have to search hard- it was only a couple of blocks away. I love the markets in this part of the world. You wind through dark, narrow aisles of stalls selling everything from toiletries to housewares to very fancy fabrics, loose cut gemstones to machetes. The food part is typically near an entrance, and often the meat/fish is contained to one area (thankfully, since the aromas that waft from raw meat in hot weather can overwhelm the olfactory sense in short time. we try to bypass the meat when we can avoid it). I found the fresh produce right away and bought a small watermelon and some juicy feeling mangoes for later. On my way out, I happened to notice a couple of stalls which had giant plastic bags full of biscuits, crackers, and...banana chips. I went in for a closer look, and sure enough, one of the bags held those delicious, crunchy, sweet, and addictive as crack, dried banana chips. I asked “how much?” and was told, 6,000 riel (1.50USD) per KILO. I bought 1,500 riel worth and took them back to the room. Colin was awake and feeling better when I returned, so I produced the bag on banana chips.  When Colin saw it and heard the price, his response was, "that's all you bought?"   After devouring half the bag, I announced that I was going to walk back and get some more (hello, my name is Rebekah, and I have a banana chip problem). On my return to the market, I stopped to get our Swiss army knives sharpened by a man sitting on the sidewalk with a whetstone, since I basically bludgeoned our last pineapple to death with the blade. He took the knives and sharpened them in about ten minutes time, while I waited, and he only charged 50 cents for both. It didn't seem like enough, so I tipped him an extra 25 cents. I did make it back to the market before it shut down for the evening and bought another half kilo of banana chips “as a good snack for when we're riding,” (yeah, that's the ticket).

By the time I got back to the room, Colin was feeling much improved and ready for some dinner, so we went out to a place around the corner for some delicious Khmer curries. After we'd finished, he headed back to the room, and I went to a small store for some cookies on the way. Inside the shop were two large and sturdy looking cats, one sitting on the floor, the other sprawled on the counter. In our experience, it's uncommon to see cats inside businesses here, so I stopped to pet them and talk to the man behind the counter. He told me they are his cats, pointing out that they are not food (odd, but appreciated, and duly noted), and they were both about seven years old, which I imagine is fairly ancient for a cat here. 
looking at the bridge from the Kampong Cham side
The next morning, we rode for Phnom Penh, but before we left Kampong Cham, we made a stop to see the “bamboo bridge.” It is exactly what it sounds like- a bridge constructed entirely out of bamboo, and it connects the island of Koh Paen to the mainland during the dry season. In the rainy season, they disassemble the bridge and run a ferry, but once the water level drops, they rebuild the bamboo bridge again. It's a single-lane, with a couple of wide spots to pull over in case of oncoming traffic, and is about a half mile long. The surface of the bridge is made of slats of split bamboo that bounce as you ride across them. It's not exactly level, with three lengthwise supports, and the bamboo slats kind of slump between them. The sound when you are on the bridge is an interesting and scary creaky, groany, and sometimes plinking sound, like you're driving over thousands of sets of bamboo windchimes or panpipes (for all you Zamfir haters). There is no guardrail, so as you drive and the bridge bounces, you hope to not get bounced right off the edge. It was great fun! We both made it across fine, but then ran into the fare collectors, who grossly overcharged us. We paid the toll and then rode across bamboo mats that covered the sand until we reached firmer ground. I wondered as we rode on the mats if they were last year's bridge surface. Riding on them was soooo much easier than riding in deep sand. I now understand the “sand ladders” desert drivers carry in their trucks and wish there was some way to carry one myself! 

typical Khmer wooden houses
pony carts crossing the bridge
The island itself is very large. We rode for at least 10 to 15 minutes and never came to the other side, and in fact, my GPS showed a network of roads (floating magically in the water, since my map doesn't actually show the island). After riding through small towns, past a couple of wats, and through rice paddy, we turned around and headed back to the bridge. The return trip was no less nervous for me, since the right side of the bridge seemed to be even less level than the left.  I waited for a trio of pony carts carrying loads of dried tobacco to go ahead of me across the bridge, not wanting them breathing down my neck as I rode.  They appeared to be "momentum" vehicles, and I didn't want to slow them down.  Plus, the tobacco smelled good!

Safely back on dry land, we headed to Wat Nokor, which is an 11th century ruined temple made of laterite and sandstone. The construction was similar to the temples at Angkor, but these were built by Mahayana Buddhists. We pulled into Wat Nokor, parked our bikes under a big tree, and then explored the grounds on foot. A modern Buddhist temple has been built in and around the ruins, so it's a bit of an odd juxtaposition. We spent 30 minutes or so walking around and sweating our asses off. Since it was getting too hot to stand around anymore, we hopped back on the bikes and rode off in search of some air flow.


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