Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Truly an Adventure Ride to Beng Melea

The next day we got up, had breakfast downstairs, and rode out to see the temples at Koh Ker and Beng Melea. Koh Ker was supposedly one of the most difficult temples to get to until they recently built a toll road to it. Since it's only about 80 miles from Siem Reap, we figured it would be a nice, easy destination for a day trip, with a stop to see the temple at Beng Melea on the way. 

Our GPS map of the region did not show Koh Ker, so we consulted our map, which is apparently older than the road we were looking for. We knew from our reading that we should turn onto the new road at the town of Dam Dek, and that it is approximately 10 miles from Siem Reap. We rode east, toward Dam Dek, but never saw any signs for it. At about the 10 mile mark, we found a very new looking highway that would take us north, with signs for Anlong Veng. Knowing that's north of where we were, and that we needed to go north and east, we made the turn. We rode, and rode some more (about 20 miles) through the dried out countryside, without seeing any signs for Beng Melea or Koh Ker. Beginning to get concerned that we were not on the right road, I beeped my horn and signaled for Colin to pull over. “Are you sure we're on the right road?” I asked him. He shrugged, smiled, and said he didn't know. He consulted the GPS again and saw that we were due west of Beng Melea by about 15 miles.

Cambodia "Highway" 67
It also showed that the road we were on was Highway 67, and that about seven miles south, we could take Highway 66 to Beng Melea. We made a U-turn, headed back south, and shortly found ourselves on “Highway” 66. The road started out promisingly enough, it was two lanes wide and was hard-packed dirt and gravel. The hard-pack did not last long. We soon found ourselves on a road that continued to narrow, and the road surface was now largely two to three-inch deep sand. We slithered and snaked our way down the road and then came to an area of deep mud in the middle of a field. 

We continued on, and a short while later, we came to a very rudimentary bridge that crossed a narrow stream. The bridge surface was only inches above the water, and it was made out of scrap lumber and half-rounds of trees. Since Re's lighter, I sent her across first. At least we wouldn't have far to fall. Prior to this bridge, there had been tire tracks left by four-wheeled vehicles, but after this bridge, there were only motorcycle tracks in the dirt. The highway also narrowed to a single lane and wound its way through people's fields, past their houses, and occasionally, through the trees. We weren't making very good time as we bumped and bounced our way over the sometimes hard ground and slid our way through the sand washes. 

In the trees, we came upon another bridge that was a little scarier than the last one. It was made entirely of half-rounds of trees, but the ravine that it spanned was eight to nine-feet deep. This time, I elected to go first, and when I pulled out onto the center board, I was dismayed when the board flexed downward under my weight. But, I hate to backtrack, so over it I went. Of course, it held. I am sure that dozens of motorbikes cross it every day. Maybe a mile farther, we came across a small pond where the road should be. Not sure that we wanted to tackle this on our little bikes, we backtracked to see if there was an alternate route. No luck, there were streams on either side of the road, so we either had to go through, or we had to backtrack all the way back to Highway 67. 

I may have mentioned my aversion to backtracking. We scouted the water and could see that there were some motorbike tire tracks in the mud, but we could not tell how deep the muddy water was in the center. The right shoreline looked like our best opportunity, but it was choked with trees, brush, and some prickly vines. I walked out part way and removed some of the dead branches that hung into the water while the mud sucked my boots in. The water didn't appear deeper than ten inches or so near the shore, so we decided to go for it.

 After giving Re a quick pep talk about water crossings, I jumped on my mighty Symba and crawled toward the water. For the first 15 or 20 feet, I was able to stay reasonably close to the shoreline but then had to steer into deeper water to avoid some tree limbs sticking out from the shore. I didn't stop to measure the water depth, but I did hear the eerie sound of my exhaust system being completely submerged. I leaned back in toward the shore and promptly got hung up on a tree limb. The limb was about 1.5 inches across and had either been broken or cut off. It was stiff enough to stop my forward momentum, and as a result, my front wheel sank farther into the mud. I stayed on the gas the entire time, as I reached over with my left hand to move the branch. Re said the rooster tail was impressive, but that she had stopped taking pictures in anticipation of having to help me unstick my bike. Once I was free of the branch, I was able to drive the remaining ten feet up onto drier land. Before Re made her attempt, I fought my way back to the offending limb on foot and pulled it out of the way. That seemed to help, as Re made it through without bogging down or having to detour into the deeper water. Once she was on drier land, we assessed the next obstacle. 

Between us and the road was a muddy area approximately ten feet wide, with a small stream running through it. My attempt was unsuccessful and my rear wheel got stuck in the stream channel. I tried to power my way out, but instead, sank the rear wheel up to the swingarm in the mud. I got off to assess the situation and had to laugh when I saw my bike standing on its own and the stream running through my rear wheel. Re lent a hand, and we were able to pick up the back end enough to shove it onto firmer ground. The ground was too muddy for me to risk getting back onto the bike, so instead, I started it up and walked it to terra firma. When it was time for Re to try, I walked behind her bike and was able to help lift the rear wheel through the stream and muddiest areas. 

After another relatively dry and sandy section, we came to another shallow water crossing, and Re decided to show me how it is done. We continued down the single-track road and came to another muddy area with a number of streams running through. We picked the driest and shallowest areas we could, and made it through with no problems. 

Then, we came to another scary, narrow bridge, but this one was actually made out of cut lumber (so it has to be better, right?). Wading in the muddy water below, were several people fishing. They seemed to find us more interesting than catching fish and stopped what they were doing to watch the two crazy farang ride across the bridge above them.

 After this last bridge, the road got even narrower, and then we came to an area of rice paddy. Just when we thought the road couldn't get any less road-like, the tire tracks we were following veered up a ramp and onto the narrow, earthen dikes that separate the paddy. The ramp up was about two feet wide,ten feet long, and rose a distance of at least four feet. I hit it first in second gear and did not make it to the top. I could feel the bike lugging and opted to roll backwards down the ramp. I kicked it into first and told Re to do the same. The ramp was tricky because from the path, you had to turn left onto the ramp, ride up the ramp, then make a slight right onto the dike. Once up on the dike, I found myself on a narrow strip of dirt approximately two feet wide and at least three feet above the surface of the surrounding fields. I stopped to watch Re not make it up the ramp. As she neared the top of the ramp, I saw her bike slow drastically. Oh no, someone forgot the first rule of motorcycling: when in doubt, gas it. Yes, I forgot Rule #1. I didn't give it enough gas, and once the bike felt unsteady, I tried to put a foot down. Unfortunately, my foot only met with...nothing. Realizing where the situation (and I) was going and that falling was, at this point, inevitable, I did my best to get out of the way of the bike. Successful in this endeavor, I fell on top of the bike and managed to escape with no bumps or bruises, other than my ego. I could see the panicked look in her eyes when she reached out with her feet and found air. Not wanting to see the inevitable outcome of Re's latest encounter with physics, I instead, found a place to put my kickstand down, shimmied off the bike, and turned to see Re standing next to her Symba. Fortunately, she was fine, and the bike was too. After taking the, “look what I did” photo, we got the bike upright and walked it up the ramp. I did my best Captain Morgan pose, with raised foot on the bike for the picture. We continued through the rice fields for another mile or so before rejoining the single track that eventually led us to the paved road near Beng Melea. 

When we arrived at the pavement, I parked my bike on the side of the road, got down on my knees, and kissed the beautiful, smooth, flat, wide, hard, gray surface! A check of the odometer and the watch revealed that it had taken us about two hours to cover the last 20 miles. It was a fun ride, but we were now both very tired and soaked to the skin. I was truly exhausted after this ride. My heart was racing, I was panting like a dog, and my clothes were completely drenched- even my riding gear was soaked from the inside. We turned north, and after about five miles of lovely pavement, we reached the tollgate that led to Koh Ker and Beng Melea. Since it was another 50 miles to Koh Ker, and it was already after noon, and since Beng Melea was only two miles away, we decided to visit it instead. We paid for the admission tickets, rode through the tollbooth, and a couple minutes later, parked our bikes at the entrance. 

Beng Melea is another Angkor-era temple complex built in the 1100s with the same layout as Angkor Wat. The temple here is massive, and while some of it remains intact, much of it is just a jumble of gigantic, carved stones. We walked around, climbed over, and took many pictures over the next two hours. By the middle of the afternoon, we were both thoroughly hot and tired, so we trudged back to the bikes, put on our still damp gear, and headed south.

This time, we took the sealed road all the way back to the pool. After soaking in the water for a while, we queued up photos to load to Smugmug and then walked out to dinner at the market. Re had amok with chicken, and I had the “Cambodian taco,” which is really more like banh xeo. The restaurant was having a special on draft Cambodia beer, so Re and I enjoyed a few before calling it a night. Between the exercise and the libations, we should sleep well tonight. 
Both of us woke up audibly groaning when the alarm went off the next morning. I, for one, felt much older than I did before yesterday's ride. Since neither of us felt much like getting back in the saddle so soon, we took the day off. When I opened the door on the bureau which held our riding gear and boots, it emitted a veritable miasma. Between the foul water and mud we trod through, and the thorough sweat soaking from the inside that our boots endured yesterday, I decided I should at least try to wash them out. After removing and washing the insoles, I filled the boots with water and a dollop of shampoo, sloshing it around and trying to work it through to the outer surface. While I was working on this, Colin removed the liners from our helmets. Once I was finished with the boots, I squished some more Flex shampoo and water through our greasy, sweaty, thoroughly nasty helmet liners to “refresh” them as well. Then, I went outside, climbed the ladder to the rooftop and set everything out to dry and air out in the sun. After that task was accomplished, we did a bit of writing before making our way out to locate some lunch. When we got downstairs, in the lobby were Allen and Maureen, the Australian couple we met when we first arrived. We sat and chatted with them for a while and then decided to go to lunch to a place they frequent. Over our meal, we learned that Allen and Maureen are working at a school and orphanage outside of Siem Reap, planting gardens and orchards to supplement the needs of the school. They are a very nice, interesting couple who have lived and traveled in many different places, and we all had a great time sharing our stories. After lunch, Allen and Maureen continued to the market, while Colin and I went back to the hotel to sit in the pool. We divided the rest of the afternoon between lounging in the sling chairs, writing, and lounging in the pool.

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