Monday, December 26, 2016


It doesn't get much more remote than this
I'm riding shotgun with my faithful driver Shanghai, heading out on another road trip across northern Cambodia. We're headed to the ancient temple of Preah Vihear, which is still a conflict zone. Local news has been dominated by a recent battle there between the Cambodian Army, and the even more powerful Thailand Army. Both countries claim the old temple.

But it's far from Anlong Veng, and first I have to get there. As soon as we leave the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, the blacktop runs out, becoming bumpy dirt road. Our ride for this long haul is Shanghai's ancient rickety ’85 Toyota Corolla. Bouncing over the ruts, I ask him if we'd be better off with another vehicle.

No problem,” Shanghai says in his heavy accent. I’m not so confident. I’ve heard some of these roads are best covered only with a 4X4.

After two hours, we swing through the junction town of Sra Em, and turn north. The countryside is flat, scattered with brush and trees. This remote region is sparsely inhabited; dotted with thatched shacks and simple stilt homes. There’s neither cell phone coverage, nor electricity. This is one of the poorest provinces of Cambodia.

Soon, it starts to rain. Shanghai has already warned that if it rains, this road gets really bad. Uh oh, I will soon find out what he means.

We start swerving, and Shanghai slows down. It’s not the ruts or potholes causing problems anymore, we're on a flat stretch. But here the road is under construction, being prepped for blacktop. Now the problem is the reddish, clayish soil. When wet, it’s like driving on snow or ice! Shanghai isn't even driving very fast, and we’re sliding and fish tailing all over the road. In all my years driving on dirt roads in poor countries, I’ve never seen anything like it!

Cambodian Army soldiers slog through the muddy road
Now I'm really worried. We pass a parked convoy of government SUV’s, and a deminer's truck. They're worried about the slick roads, so they parked their four wheel drives! And we're only in a two wheel drive, decades old Toyota Corolla. Shanghai says again, “No problem!

The rain continues, and after sliding from one side to the other down the highway for a few kilometers, the government convoy of fancy SUV’s passes us. I can see that we’re not the only ones with traction problems. Even though they have 4X4's, they’re spinning wheels and sliding all over the road just as badly as we are. Finally a white SUV swerves sharply, nearly ending up in the ditch. Everyone stops for a few minutes. The driver slowly pulls back from the edge, and we continue.

Then the rain worsens. Uh oh. As Shanghai shifts gears, the Corolla stalls. Then it won’t start!

No problem,” Shanghai says again, repeating one of his few complete English phrases. With the rain still pouring down, he gets out, pops the hood, and the trunk. I breathe a sigh of relief; he’s brought a spare battery.

But my relief doesn't last long. He hooks up the spare, and turns over the engine. It doesn’t start! That extra battery isn’t powerful enough either. Now we’re really in a fix. Those other SUV's we were tailing are now long gone. We’ll be here a while. I won't make it to Preah Vihear.

Then a white pickup stops behind us. They’re Cambodian Army! Shanghai talks to them, and they agree to give us a jump start. They pull up next to us, almost hitting our car from the slick road. Out come the jumper cables, the Toyota breathe to life, and we’re off again.

Troops on a truck head for the temple
We round a hilly curve near bridge construction, to find more ruts and puddles, and soon we’re stuck in a rut.

Uh oh,” he says. We’ve had lots of 'uh ohs' today; we’re really stuck this time. But he quickly slams into reverse and guns it. The engine whines as we inch back, wheels spinning, mud spitting in front of us. Then he slams it into first, and slowly, the Corolla climbs the small hill, up and over. I clap my hands in applause. Shanghai laughs. I love this car.

Driving on we pass Cambodian soldiers lugging heavy packs trudging along in the rain. An overloaded pickup truck passes, packed with more soldiers in combat fatigues. They are all headed for the temple. We pass several Cambodian Army bases, some with buildings, others with tents. More are under construction. I see Russian, Chinese, and US made army trucks parked in makeshift shelters. We're getting close.

I spot bunkers made of dirt and logs. I wonder why they aren’t manned, until I see signs warning of landmines. Nearby trees have red marks painted on them, another common warning for mines. There is still a lot of demining needed here.

The rain reduces to a sprinkle, and Shanghai points to a far off ridge, saying, “There it is.” A tree covered ridgeline known as the Dangkrek Mountains rises off the horizon. At the highest point, 550 meters up atop a cliff, is the Preah Vihear temple.

Arriving at my destination - the Dangrek Mountains
We arrive at the village of Kor Muy near the bottom of the mountain ridge. Kor Muy doesn’t have much to offer visitors except a few simple guesthouses and primitive restaurants. It’s a ramshackle village, built in the shadow of Preah Vihear. Shanghai says this is as far as he will go; I think he's afraid of more shooting up by the temple.

We climb out of the old Corolla, to find its silver color has turned brown. Speckles of dirt and clumps of mud cover the car from one end to the other. I'm thankful; somehow, it got me here.

Since the fire fights started between the Khmers and the Thai Army, all of the tourists and many of the villagers left. Still, the village population has increased five fold, from the arrival of Cambodian Army reinforcements.

I look up at the ridgeline, and wonder if there will be more gunfire today. Should I continue on? I've come a long way to get here, and it's a long way back. 

I'm heading up. 

(*NOTE*- This post was written several years ago when the temple conflict occurred.)