Monday, 18 November 2013

Same Same, but BETTER

Just because this blog is called Borneo 4X4 Adventures, and I am from Borneo, and I believe with full bias that Borneo is the best 4X4 playground in the world, does not mean it is the only playground. Cambodia is a wonderful country that has survived a tragic past and risen to become a lovely place to visit, with fun-loving people whose warmth, hospitality and kindness are not surpassed in any of the many countries I have visited. This is an account of my second visit in 2009, as a guest of RM Asia, the Ford importers and distributors for Cambodia.

THE party was in full swing, and I could not remember the last time I had so much fun. What made the mirth and merriment even more memorable was that I was having such a good time without understanding a single word of the lyrics being belted out with gusto by the band.
But help is always at hand in this friendly land of ready smiles, and I soon found out that the song then playing was about how “it’s good to be alive”, sung heartily in the Cambodian language, or Khmer.
Sipping a cold beer and occasionally joining in the impromptu line dancing, it was readily apparent that my new friends, many of whom I had met for the first time that day, were truly enjoying the simple pleasures of life – good music, good company and dance. What more could anyone want?
This might sound naïve, even child-like, in many other places but I was atop a rocky hill near a town called Pailin, Cambodia.
Here, in the last bastion of the dreaded Khmer Rouge, memories are still vivid from the years of horrors known to the rest of the world as the Killing Fields. Many of my fellow revellers that night had lived through the terrible “three years, eight months, and 20 days” of Pol Pot’s murderous regime. To them, being alive is reason enough for celebration.
The younger ones – anyone aged 30 and below – would have been born after the country’s emancipation from terror by current premier Hun Sen and his Vietnamese allies in 1979 but every Cambodian child is well aware of the country’s recent history.
So, life is good, and it’s good to be alive, and that’s as good a reason as any to party!
With a live band, professional sound stage and speakers and fireworks, this elaborate production was certainly turning out to be unlike any camping trip I’ve ever been on.

The story of how I ended up dancing around a campfire near the Cambodian border with Thailand began back in 2002, when several unfamiliar faces showed up for one of the Ford Lanun Darat 4X4 adventures that were my favourite outdoor pursuit. They were officials from various Ford distributors from other countries.
Seng Voeung
One of them, Seng Voeung from R.M. Asia Ltd, the Cambodian Ford distributors, told us that he had come to Malaysia to learn from us how to organise 4X4 events, camping, and so on, with the aim of doing something similar for his customers.
Five years passed without any news from him, until mid-2007, when Voeung showed up again for another Lanun Darat trip, and again expressing a desire to learn from us how these things are done. This time, he brought along three of his colleagues, who did not say much but took plenty of notes.
So, when invited to join them for their very own Ford Adventure, there was no second thought.
Upon arrival in Phnom Penh for the first time, initial impressions were mixed. Traffic seemed chaotic as expected (from reading and TV), with many beat-up jalopies and motorcycle-towed rickshaws which they call “tuk-tuk” like in Thailand.
But, there were also a surprisingly number of large modern 4X4s like the latest Toyota Landcruisers, Prados and even quite a few bling-bling Hummers.
Fossil fuel-burning vehicles with four, three and two wheels competed noisily for space with pedal power, with everyone honking madly to announce their presence and intentions.
The biggest surprise was the staggering scale of the event that our Cambodian friends had put together, far exceeding anything we had in Malaysia, despite having done it much longer.
One example was that, on our 4X4 outings, we had always tried to help the less fortunate rural folk, such as the orang asli, living in the areas that we visited by giving them some used clothes and a bit of rice and other foodstuff.
The Cambodians took this idea of charity to a whole new level by bringing along about 10 tonnes of rice, as well as thousands of bottles of soy sauce, fish gravy and bags of salt, all to be distributed to the villagers living near where we were to camp.
And, while the Ranger is the most popular Ford model sold there as it is in Malaysia, they also have customers who showed up for the adventure with huge US-specs F-150s, and the even bigger F-250 pick-ups! These humongous trucks certainly came in handy for hauling all that rice and sauces.
Hitting the road, wide-eyed Malaysians will notice the wide variety of vehicles – maybe conveyances might be a more accurate term to describe them – that Cambodians press into service as transport.
Motorbikes (kapcais) rule everywhere, carrying entire families or towing trailers or lugging logs or pigs, Toyota Camrys converted into pick-ups and loaded up to 3m high, tractors, bullock carts … if it has wheels, there is a use for it.
Safety standards are somewhat different in a country that has had to struggle with the millions of landmines so people riding atop vans without handholds do not attract a second glance.
Once out of the hustle and bustle of cities like Phnom Penh and the must-visit Siem Reap of Angkor Wat fame, the countryside is a picturesque procession of padi fields as far as the eye can see, and various cottage industries.
Depending on which part of the country you’re in, roads can be good, like the old trunk road from KL to Ipoh, or bumpy and dusty. One unpaved stretch that I drove on was wide and straight but very dusty and had so many potholes that were so big that they ought to be called craters, which in turn have potholes in them.
Generous aid from donor nations like Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union means many civil works programmes, including road construction, are under way so these dusty adventures may not be around much longer.
One horror stretch I had heard much about – between touristy Siem Reap and the Thai border town of Poipet – is now a smooth sealed road on which traffic zooms along at up to 100km/h so the stories you hear from people who have visited as recently as three or four years ago may no longer paint an accurate picture.
Heading west from Siem Reap, our convoy of about 50 Ford trucks and SUVs quickly reached Banteay Meanchey, a big town about 45km from the Thai border, turned left and head south to Battambang, a charming town that still boasts French architecture left over from the colonial days.
After a sumptuous lunch of Cambodian delicacies – much like Thai cuisine but subtly different, and with red ants – we hit the dustiest 80km I’ve ever driven on, with visibility down to about a car length in parts.
Plants, shops and houses lining the road are all coated with a thick layer of orange dust whereas trees and padi fields just 100m on either side are a lush green. But here, too, the road is being progressively tarred over so progress is coming.
Arriving with relief at Pailin late in the afternoon, our Cambodians invite us to make thanksgiving offerings at a pretty Buddhist temple, where a welcoming committee put on a musical and dance reception worthy of VIPs.
Then, it was a short bumpy drive to the campsite, which I was to discover only later was a bare hill because it had been stripped off all vegetation by miners scouring the slopes for diamonds!  Wish I had picked up a pebble or two.
Pailin used to be famous for its gems, the mining of which brought fabulous wealth to the area and also financed the Khmer Rouge’s struggle against government forces until peace came several years ago.
Although our Cambodian friends are all very positive about the future, memories of the past are never far away, with grim reminders like the mine that blew up an overloaded truck and killed three Pailin locals last year, just 30km from our campsite.
Mine clearing teams have been active in the area and much of the land has been declared safe but, according to the locals, the fatal explosion occurred at a place that many cars had travelled over frequently.
It happened to be a massive anti-tank mine that was set to be detonated by a weight heavier than most civilian vehicles, and even though many Cambodian cars are routinely overloaded, but the unfortunate vehicle was overloaded just that bit too much.
Unlike Malaysian-style camping where we would find a scenic spot near a clean river or stream to set up our tents, the Cambodian way is to find a wide expanse of ground that affords everyone plenty of space – and a great view – while necessities like water and toilets, complete with plumbing, would be brought in or built for the camp. A local fire engine was even commandeered to supply the water tanks!
After dancing the night away, the expedition would set out the next day to visit nearby attractions like spectacular waterfalls, but only after handing over the tones of goodies to the grateful local folk.
A visit to Cambodia, especially a driving holiday like Ford Adventure, is a feast of interesting experiences for the various senses, with so many exotic places and sights to see, and “interesting” food to eat.
But the enduring memory that one takes away is the incredible warmth and friendliness of the people, those we now call our friends as well as their other countrymen whom we came into contact with for just brief moments.
As a country whose economy depends heavily on tourism, there are naturally parts that are touristy – especially around the must-see wonder that is Angkor – but what’s a holiday without some souvenirs?
My favourite memento was the T-shirt that says “Same Same”, a phrase often heard at markets where tourists haggle with traders. On the back, it reads: “But Different”. That sums up my Cambodian experience – in many ways, same same (like, say, Thailand), and yet, in a special way, very different.

More photos here ...