Off the beaten track by scooter in Asia

Ready for a little scooter getaway off the beaten track?

Discovering the world is really great, but sometimes it takes a bit of practice.
Cambodia, Kompong Cham. This small provincial town is the third largest city in the country. It is the deepest Cambodia. The population is peasant, mostly rice farmers.
You have to rent a scooter to explore the surroundings, the banks of the Mekong, a few islands, rubber plantations, temples, rice fields.
These are usually manual scooters. Mine stalls when stationary, the speedometer and odometer are out of order, but otherwise it works well.
I am strongly advised to go by the banks of the Mekong river to visit a rather particular temple. It is the last wooden temple in Cambodia! 
It is difficult to find, it’s somewhere in the countryside.
I leave confidently, equipped with a hand-drawn map that the owner of the guesthouse graciously hands me. 

Renting a scooter and driving in Asia

In Asia, scooter rental is commonplace. You can find them everywhere and at very affordable prices. 

  • Driving and the highway code in Cambodia or Vietnam has nothing to do with Europe. It takes time to adapt and to observe the traffic before getting started.
  • Storming, pestering or insulting will not do any good. That’s the way the country works, it’s up to you to adapt to it.
  • Driving a scooter isn’t difficult but if your last experience dates back to your teenage years, it’s advisable to practise quietly on a road or a little-travelled road to regain all your reflexes.
  • As for the tank, there is nothing to be anxious about. The road is lined with Cambodian-style petrol stations : These are rudimentary stalls displaying soda bottles filled with petrol.

First step: crossing a bamboo bridge

Close to the water level, this picturesque bridge is made entirely of bamboo: the biggest ones planted with knitting needles support a whole carpet of bamboo cut in half on which you can walk.
The path leading to it is gullied by rain and the slope is steep.
From a distance, the bridge seems to be in good condition. Up close, it shakes, slams, creaks and plays the roller coaster.
It is better to hold on to the handlebars and stay in the middle. Falling into the Mekong with the bike is not included in the excursion.

A compass, a map… and a few accessories just in case, but above all, a smile!

A bit of money, a roll of toilet paper, football rangers and everything will be fine. 
The most important thing is not to be stressed, impatient or exasperated. Stay zen when the locals laugh, bent over laughing at hearing you speak their language, lost as you are, in the middle of the fields thirteen thousand kilometres from home!
In truth, they are light years away from understanding what the traveller is doing there, on his bike or scooter, in shorts, visiting an island, a temple and photographing their fields and cows. What an idea! 
What’s more, they don’t understand that you are lost. Many of them have never travelled outside their borders or their city.

Tips to ask for directions in Cambodia

Off the beaten track, no signs, no signposts to find your way around, you have to ask.
Asking Cambodian peasants for directions is not as easy as it seems. You have to respect a few basic rules.

  • Never point the direction with your finger or your arm, they will always tell you it’s the right one… with a smile.
  • Keep your hands together in a relaxed attitude. If they feel your impatience or dismay, they may respond to anything just to comfort you. Don’t forget to thank them for the info.
  • Have the name of the place you are going to with you, written in Khmer and ask about pronunciation. If you ask for “Kompong Cham”, they won’t know what you are talking about, even if it is the capital of the province and they have lived here for 12 generations. You have to respect the pronunciation. Say “Kompong Chaaaaam”, without pointing your finger, always smiling.
  • Leave equipped: a GPS can be very useful in case you don’t meet anyone. Remember to charge the battery well.
  • A basic lexicon to communicate, in the Khmer alphabet, as they often cannot read the Latin alphabet.
  • Address and telephone number of the hotel with someone to contact to get you back on track.

A positive attitude, a sincere smile opens all hearts

In the villages, the children greet strangers with thunderous “Hello”.
No tarmac road, a track washed away by the rains, with here and there deep, soft mud crevices.

After fifteen kilometres, still no temple in sight. I ask my way five or six times and each time it is the same answer: it is not very far. Each time the destination is in the opposite direction to the previous one. Each time they laugh themselves to death.

The road becomes deserted and wild. I come across a horse-drawn cart to which I very politely yield the passage, having regard for the poor emaciated beast that wears itself out under the load. The weight of the scooter at a standstill makes it slide into the muddy rut, I put my foot on the ground so as not to tip over, thus pushing my Pataugas deep into the mud.

As a result, the scooter sinks slowly into the hole. I have to get down and push. I now have both feet in the mud, it slips and skates happily in the soft earth.

Finding this temple is like looking for the Grail, the important thing is the path

Once I get out of there, I look like a pie and the scooter is ready to go in the oven.
The sun is going down on the river, it will get dark very quickly now. I am at least twenty five kilometres from the town.
The ride was longer than I expected. The temple will be closed when I get there, the deserted countryside is plunged into darkness. It’s better to go on a mop tomorrow.
On the way back, I warn a young man washing his scooter front of his house. Very kindly and for a dollar he cleans everything with the pressure washer: the legs, the trainers, the shorts and the bike. 
Soaking wet, dripping, but delighted, the villagers, curious as weasels, approach with a smile on their faces. Then the children arrive like flocks of sparrows on a piece of bread. The women and the little ones follow. They say a lot of things that I don’t understand, laughing, the babies in their arms give me astonished and fearful glances. 
It’s party time! We have to drink tea, eat something together. A “barang or farang” (French or white) that stops here is rather rare.

Exploring Cambodia is not very difficult, the people are nice and the mud is soft

It’s good to plan your itinerary and not be destitute. But the most beautiful part of the walk will be the unexpected. There will always be people to guide the lost traveller or to invite him to have a cup of tea. The men and women of the world are benevolent for the most part. You learn this best by travelling. 

When travelling, every day is a lesson

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