—Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle
The first mistake was going to a tourist restaurant instead of to one of my beloved market stalls. We western types seem to be afraid of street food—in New York I would have eaten my own foot before I touched a hot dog from the Hebrew Nation pushcarts. After months in Southeast Asia I’m convinced that a woman who makes just one dish, and who takes enough pride in it to pack her little tables constantly, is less likely to serve up a plateful of dysentery than the staff in an unseen kitchen who wrestle with a huge range of unfamiliar, westernized ingredients just waiting to spoil. In this case, farang pork did me in. By the time I got to Kampot, 150km south of Phnom Penh, I needed to spend two days in a hotel room with good plumbing and enough satellite TV channels to distract me from my guts.
I also distracted myself with Dervla Murphy’s first book, Full Tilt, her tale of cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi in 1963, at the age of 31. My namesake always makes me feel very trepid. In the first chapter alone, she is attacked by a pack of starving wolves in Yugoslavia and escapes only by shooting two dead and wounding a third. A few pages later, she has to pull the gun on a Kurdish would-be rapist, and then defend herself from Azerbaijani bandits who try to steal her bicycle. On a bus in Afghanistan, a gunfight breaks out over fares and she gets hit with the butt of a shotgun, breaking three ribs. She cycles through the coldest winter of the century in Europe and through 115-degree heat in Pakistan. And she did it all with just one pair of trousers and two shirts. I had to turn back to Destiny’s Child on MTV whenever the excitement got too much for me. As bicycling Derv(a)las go, I decided, I suck.
I redeemed myself slightly by getting back on a motorbike the following day. That was the second mistake. A Honda Baja 250cc dirt bike this time, which looks cool but is hideously uncomfortable. The seat is so narrow that you have to choose which buttock to perch on it—and I am no J.Lo, especially after an involuntary week-long crash diet. But I do like the name.
“Baja,” I practiced with narrowed eyes , “Yeah, goin’ down to Baja.” The water buffaloes rolled their eyes.
Khmer Rouge activity and armed poachers kept Bokor National Park off limits until a couple of years ago. According to the Lonely Planet, “The road up to Bokor is one of Cambodia’s most exciting, but in terrible condition for the first 25km and only passable on a motorbike or in a sturdy 4WD vehicle.” Naturally, I hadn’t read this in advance. Unlike Dervla Murphy, I don’t choose roads for their excitement value, particularly when that relative term is applied in a place like Cambodia. By six kilometers in, I had forgotten all about my churning guts and was focused rigidly on my already-broken hand (a casualty of an earlier motorbike in Vietnam). Occasionally, there was a meter-long strip of asphalt, just to tease. For the rest of the way, the road was a collection of lethal, apple-sized rocks on a sandy base. The bike groaned and skidded up the twisty track, and every so often I recognized the sickening feeling of the back wheel sliding to the left while I lurched to the right. I was sweating with fear.
“I hate this,” I whined, “I want to walk.” My friend Urs, who had volunteered to drive, wasn’t having a great time either. He cut banana leaves and camouflaged the bike in the jungle growth, while I kicked rocks with my Tevas. We made a little pile of stones to mark the spot and started walking. It was 2.30, which left us plenty of time to visit the deserted hill station at the top and arrange beds at the ranger station, I thought. The third mistake.
Of course, I hadn’t looked at the guidebook. I’m too cool for that now. I didn’t realize it was twenty-two kilometers to the top on a rocky road and a very empty, churning stomach. As we climbed, the temperature dropped and the vegetation changed from coconut palms to heather and pine trees. It looked incongruously like New England or County Clare. In Southeast Asia, I’ve liked the old colonial hill stations best—Dalat in Vietnam, Kalaw in Burma—but in Bokor I was too nervous to enjoy the fresh climate and the view. The few vehicles we passed were heading down. Eventually, we stopped a Swede on a dirt bike.
“Are we far from the top?”
“Oh no, not far,” he said, perched on his bike “In maybe two kilometers you come to the first buildings. The ranger station is 10km after that.”
“Does anybody stay in the first buildings?”
“No, they’re abandoned. But it’s great up at the top. Hill station is beautiful. Have fun!”
He roared off. It was nearly sunset, too late to walk down, too late to get to the top before dark. At least there would be a full moon.
The first buildings turned out to be abandoned villas that were once owned by King Sihanouk, part of a complex called the Black Palace. Now they were completely gutted. Everything had been stripped and sold during the famine, and only the walls and marble floor tiles were left. They were pocked with bullet holes and covered with graffiti. Even the shell, though, still looked ready for Architectural Digest—some French playboy’s villa on a mountain, with a magnificent terrace that looked all the way down to the sea. The sun was sinking behind the pines and miles away we could see little boats head out into the Gulf of Thailand for the night’s fishing.
We decided to camp for the night. I’m not a very experienced camper, and felt an abandoned palace would be a good place to start. Pleased, I immediately sat down to eat my emergency peanut and candy rations, saving the cookies for breakfast at dawn, should I live that long. The moon rose, bright enough to read by, and cast shadows against the villa walls. The largest gecko I’ve ever seen hunted by it’s light. A bullfrog croaked. It was all absurdly beautiful.
Urs made me rehearse grabbing my bag and hidng in the undergrowth if we heard people approach—rangers, bandits, or maybe armed poachers. By now I was terrified. At 8 o’clock I put on a second pair of trousers, my spare t-shirt, socks, a fleece, and a hat, and lay down under my mosquito net. The net was oddly comforting, a wispy physical barrier against the ghouls and predators that lurked in the shadows. Whenever I closed my eyes, visions danced. I knew I was a scaredy-cat, but I hadn’t known just how powerful my imagination is. Now leering, melting faces loomed, and packs of werewolves pounced, and hideous supernatural bandits poked AK-47s in my ribs. (I’d gone to the shooting gallery in Phnom Penh and now I knew exactly what an AK looked—and sounded—like.) And I wasn’t even asleep yet.
“What’s that!” I hissed maybe thirty times.
“A plastic bag. A frog. A dog in the valley. Maybe a mouse.” Urs answered patiently each time.
It rained, but I was snug in my palace and glad I’d lugged the extra clothing. I did sleep a little eventually, though I checked my watch by the light of the moon every hour or two. Khmer supernatural bandits don’t work on full moon nights, apparently, because I survived to watch the Gulf of Thailand appear from the mist at dawn. Bliss it was. Even my gut felt better after multiple self-administered doses of adrenaline. I celebrated with raisin cookies and iodine-flavored bog water.
We set off to walk the last ten klicks to the hill station. The French had built Bokor town in the 1920s, and it was abandoned first during the Indochina War and again during the Pol Pot years. When the Vietnamese invaded to overthrow the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Bokor was a key place for all sides, with its miles of visibility all the way to Vietnam. For several months, a Khmer Rouge unit holed up in the Catholic church while Vietnamese troops shot at them from the Palace Hotel half a kilometer away.
It’s an eerie and fascinating place. The few buildings left are covered with an attractive red lichen and the walls are bullet-scarred and graffitti-scrawled. One local tout, in particular, has hit on an enterprising marketing strategy—inside, the church walls are covered in a series that reads:
“Pon here with Greta. She from Sweden. 1/6/99. Pon Motorbike Taxi Kampot 695-XXX”
“Pon here with Derek. He from England. 17/7/99. Pon Motorbike Taxi Kampot 695-XXX”
On another wall: “Backpacker go home!”
The Palace Hotel at the summit is straight out of Stephen King. In the early morning the fog swirled through the ruined reception and ballroom. We climbed to the roof terrace and imagined the parties full of bored French colonials wearing white silk, and, later, the Vietnamese snipers perched behind the bar. We took pictures of bullet holes in the windows. Philistine that I am, I find modern ruins much more interesting than ancient ones. Bokor, I decided, is my Angkor.
I was sorry to leave when we started back down the track. All I’d eaten for a week was boiled rice and raisin cookies, and my dry Pot Noodles weren’t much use, so I was flagging when we got back to our palace digs an hour or so later. I was bracing myself for the remaining 20km slog back to the bike when a 4WD pulled up. It was a Khmer pharmacist in a Ministry of Health jeep, on a pleasure jaunt away from his work on an anti-TB campaign. He was incredulous that we were walking, and we decided not to mention our camping trip. He thought we were even stranger when we requested to be let out six kilometers from the base and scrabbled in the undergrowth to retrieve old Baja, but I’d gone beyond caring. My night on the mountain had calmed me to the point where I didn’t squeak on the way back down, though the road was ‘exciting’ as ever. Still, I didn’t breathe out until we were back on Highway 3 heading for Kep.
Dervla Murphy has nothing to fear from me.