With a few days left in Kratie and nothing particular to do, I decided I needed an “adventure” and rented a moto (“motorcycle”) to just drive aimlessly and see what would happen.
I told the hotel that I might or might not be back that night but would return their moto the next day.
For this adventure, I packed a camera, a compass, detailed maps, a GPS, a flashlight, an alarm clock, a calculator, my address book and my appointment calendar. In case I got bored, I had a few books, some games, and dozens of music CDs. Fortunately, all of those things are just apps in my smart phone adding nothing to its weight of a few ounces. A $10 SIM card purchase enabled it to have email, text messaging and web browsing. And, it's a phone, too! Aint technology great!
My favorite story from travel books is what Phileas Fogg packed when he left for his trip “Around the World in 80 Days”, namely a clean shirt and a bag full of money. I came close to that. Besides my smart phone, I packed a change of underwear, a toothbrush, and about $400 in cash. It all fit neatly in a small pack that I strapped to the moto.
I had no idea where I was going or where I'd be sleeping that night. I just started driving south. I had not been on the other side of the Mekong, so that might be something to try.
I headed south looking for a bridge over the Mekong. I went further. Still no bridge. A few hours later, I was still hugging the river's edge but no bridge. Now I know why they use ferries around here. There is no other way to cross the river.
My only real requirement on this adventure was to either find a place to sleep or return to Kratie. But, whichever I did, I would need to do so before sunset. First, I didn't want to drive on unfamiliar, unlit, unpaved roads in the dark. Second, although I'm taking medicine against malaria, it isn't 100% effective. Third, there is no vaccine or medicine against dengue fever which is also transmitted by mosquitoes here. So, I had to keep moving until I was indoors.
I consulted Google maps, extrapolated from how long it took me to drive the first 22 miles and determined that I should be able to reach Kampong Cham (about 100 miles) before dark. That's a large city so it definitely will have hotels. And, the maps clearly show a bridge across the Mekong there. That became my mission.
If it's the only road within 50 miles and connects dozens of villages, you'd think most of it would be paved. Right? I kept thinking: maybe there's a paved road nearby. Nope. Maybe this road will be paved after another 10 or 20 miles. Nope. Maybe I'm on the wrong road.
Many sections of the road were “single track” meaning that the useable section was two feet wide or less. There were frequent potholes, dips, bumps, and washouts. Fortunately, my half-century of riding bicycles off-road translated well to the moto. This turned out to be essentially a cross-country bicycle ride but with unlimited acceleration. I was rarely above 2nd gear (out of 4) and never hit full throttle.
Something that I hadn't counted on was that Google maps worked almost everywhere along my route. They don't all have electricity. They don't all have indoor plumbing. They don't have paved roads. But, they do have 5 bars of cell phone coverage with data capabilities. I don't get 5 bars in my condo back home. Strange world!
Google maps kept assuring me that, yes, I was on the one and only road within 50 miles. So, I kept going. The road would get better then worse. I eventually discovered a pattern. It got better whenever it approached a village then got worse. Obviously, the locals drive to the ferry and then go up or down the river by boat. Clearly, the locals don't attempt to drive this whole road.
In some of the villages, everyone stopped whatever they were doing and watched as I went by. Obviously, they don't see many foreigners here. Occasionally, the small children would see me and run crying to the mothers. Clearly, sane tourists don't do this sort of thing. (But, that's never stopped me before.)
It was now about 3pm. I hadn't seen a non-Cambodian since I had left Kratie at 8am. I had only seen one guesthouse and it was now many miles behind me. I had two hours of daylight left and an estimated one hour's driving needed to get there. No more rest breaks!
The road started splitting into two or more unpaved roads. Most forks in the road had no signs at all. Those that did have signs were in Khmer and were of no help to me. Worse, when there was a arrow sign, it typically pointed to a side road leading to a temple or dead-ending in a tiny village. Similarly, the wider of the two roads usually lead to a neighboring village not downriver. The road less traveled was often the correct one for getting to Kampong Cham.
After one of the forks, I was suspicious that I had made the wrong choice. I was now fairly close to my destination so I figured that the locals would know which road went there. I approached some boys and said, “Kampong Cham”. With hand motions, they indicated that I should go back to the fork in the road and take the other fork (as I had suspected).
This became my pattern. Whenever there was a fork in the road, I would say “Kampong Cham” to the next person I saw. He/she would either point in the direction that I was going or would point back toward the fork in the road.
After one of these forks, when I thought I had picked the right one, a man on the side of the road called out “Kampong Cham?”. I did an immediate U-turn and went back to him. He pointed back to the fork in the road. I guess he figured that this foreigner was trying to get to the city not his village.
This process continued for about two hours until I finally spotted a paved road ahead. When I got to the paved road, it turned out to be right at the bridge leading across the Mekong into Kampong Cham.
After 100 miles of dirt roads and 9 hours of hard driving, I came out 200 feet from my target. Success!
After a nice hot shower and a good night's sleep I headed back to Kratie.
Since I'd had my fill of dirt roads by now, I decided to take the long way back (200 miles) on National Highway 7. I knew from my guidebooks that the few National Highways were all new and all paved.
The trip back was uneventful except for a flat tire. I limped to a nearby restaurant (these occur every few hundred feet along the highway). They sent a boy out to look at it and he fixed it like a pro. He took out the tube (without removing the wheel from the bike), found the leak, patched it, checked for more leaks, reinstalled and inflated it. I couldn't have done it that fast even with the right tools.
When he was all done, I asked what the charge was. He indicated a zero with his fingers and smiled. I like to “practice random acts of kindness” and I like to reward good intentions. So, I handed him $20. Then, as he realized what was happening, his smile got much bigger. He probably has never had that much money in his hands in his life.