By Vikas Bajaj
New York Times News Service
Monks take pictures of each other at Batyon, a temple at the Angkor Wat complex, in Cambodia, Jan. 26, 2011. In the last decade, Camdodia, which is perpetually referred to in guide books and travel stories as "like Thailand 10 years ago," has emerged as a popular destination for travelers who have wearied of more developed countries in Southeast Asia. (Vikas Bajaj The New York Times)
A light rain started to fall as we drove up to the entrance of Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia. Up ahead lay the decaying remnants of a French hill station where colonists used to while away their weekends when they ruled this Southeast Asian country.
But a comedy of errors ensured that we wouldn't get to see the ruins, which comprise the once-grand Bokor Palace hotel and a Romanesque Catholic church. The first obstacle we faced was a guard for a Chinese construction company that was reconstructing the road up to the old hill station, as part of a major renovation project there. Although other tourists had used the road just moments before we arrived, the guard wouldn't let us pass, nor would he tell us when the road might reopen.
A heated argument ensued between the guard and my French travel companion, Nicolas Rapp, who had been driving a dark-green 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser around the globe for the last year. After several days of traveling with him, I had realized that this was part of his strategy for dealing with difficult officials - if he argued loudly and long enough he often persuaded them to let him pass just to be rid of him.
But the guard stood his ground. As we headed back to Nicolas' car, we noticed a flat tire. No problem, he assured me, he would have it fixed in no time. But no sooner had Nicolas plugged the leak than the tube that connected his portable air compressor to the tire tore. He cut off the torn section and started again. After a minute, there was another tear. And so it went for an hour until we finally had enough pressure in the tire to drive to a gas station.
Though the afternoon was frustrating, it was also revealing. These things are bound to happen when road-tripping in a country like Cambodia, one with a limited driving culture. There's no AAA to call, and bicycles and scooters are more common than cars - something Nicolas may have gotten used to, but that required some adjustment on my part.
As chronicled on his blog, Trans World Expedition (transworldexpedition.com), Nicolas had stared down many such challenges. A bad car accident stranded him in Honduras for two weeks as that country was going through a major political crisis. In Africa, he drove in intense heat with a broken air-conditioner.
In late November, I had met up with Nicolas in Bangkok, the city where I grew up, to join him for a weeklong loop through Cambodia, a country neither of us had seen but one that I had long hoped to visit.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Cambodia was widely known as a place from which hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the killing fields of the '70s. In 1997, when I was an intern at The Associated Press' Bangkok bureau, my editors asked if I would travel to help cover a coup there. I was living with my parents that summer, and they demanded that I turn down the offer, which I did.
But in the last decade, Cambodia has emerged as a popular destination for travelers who have wearied of more developed countries in Southeast Asia. It is perpetually referred to in guide books and travel stories as "like Thailand 10 years ago."
And indeed, during our trip, I was struck by how reminiscent the country was of the Thailand of my childhood, before it was overrun with resorts, shopping malls and tour buses.
Cambodia's two-lane highways were well paved and relatively empty - the upside, perhaps, to the lack of a car culture. We most often shared the roads with those scooters and bikes. Every so often, we would spot farmers transporting rice, sugar cane and other produce on carts hitched to cows or to small diesel engines fitted with truck tires and long handlebars. The other cars on the road were mostly Land Cruisers or Lexus sport utility vehicles, most likely owned by the country's small economic elite and organizations like the United Nations, which have been helping to rebuild the country.
Some of this may soon change. Over the last few years, Cambodia, with the help of international organizations and China, has invested significantly in its roads, removing hundreds of land mines and thousands of rounds of ammunition to make way for miles of asphalt. But there is much more construction ahead and road culture is just beginning to catch up.
Sari, a driver and guide whom we met at the Angkor Wat complex our second day, said he occasionally saw European overland travelers, but that few foreigners, including the neighboring Thais, drove into and around the country.
We had another glimpse of this slow development at the Thai-Cambodian border, where we waited an hour for Cambodian customs officers to return to the office after lunch. They seemed utterly confused about the paperwork that Nicolas needed to bring his Land Cruiser into the country temporarily. He eventually took control, pointing out where they had to sign, stamp and tear the relevant documents - a successful example of his assertiveness.
Elsewhere, we were greeted warmly - sometimes with a disconcerting attentiveness. In the southern coastal town of Kep, where we spent the night after our luckless afternoon at Bokor, we camped near a family that lived in a shack on the coast. We arrived after the sun had set and quickly started popping up the tent, a clever contraption that Nicolas had affixed to the top of his car, complete with a built-in ladder. We poured ourselves generous glasses of rum with lime juice and soda to help make the warm and humid evening more bearable. Mosquitoes and flies buzzed around our electric lanterns.
As we worked, the men of the house stared at us and made comments to each other in Khmer, which neither of us understood. We tried to speak to them in English, but that proved unsuccessful.
Their vigil over us became unnerving after a while and I tried to break the ice by offering them some of the Thai-style chicken and stir-fried vegetables I had cooked on Nicolas' petroleum-powered stove. They happily accepted and took the food back to their shack; we ate at a folding table Nicolas carries in the car.
Later, the family reciprocated in their own way. In the morning, when I started to head to the public toilet a few hundred yards away, the head of the family gave me a ride on his scooter.
Almost everywhere we went, people were fascinated by Nicolas and his Land Cruiser, which he bought in Brooklyn for $6,000. When we stopped by the side of the road to heat up leftover spaghetti on our way to Phnom Penh, a group of children gathered and stared at us. When we turned around, waved and said hello, they ran away, shrieking and laughing.
Nicolas says he hit the road because the financial crisis and recession had made New York, where he had lived for almost a decade, depressing. So, he quit his job as an art director at The Associated Press and drew down his savings to finance his trip. He estimates that he will spend about $50,000 on the trip. (He will likely arrive back in New York this month after driving cross-country from Los Angeles, where he has shipped his car from Asia.)
After only a week as his travel companion, I doubted that I could do what he had done. I was already aching for the creature comforts that you have to forsake when you go on the road, especially in places like Cambodia.
I couldn't help but smile when we arrived at a small beach in Thailand 20 miles past the Cambodian border. We were greeted warmly by a family that ran a small restaurant. They showed us spots where we could camp and later in the evening they sold us beer and spicy papaya salad. Nobody eyed us suspiciously. They had seen many like us before.