Tomb Rider.doc

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:: part one::

(Photos and story by Goba)

WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT CAMBODIA?

PROBABLY VERY LITTLE LIKE MYSELF BEFORE I HEADED OFF ON A 12-DAY, 2100-KILOMETRE TRAIL BIKE ADVENTURE AROUND A COUNTRY THAT STILL HAS AN ESTIMATED SIX MILLION LANDMINES YET TO BE DE-MINED, MYSTICAL ANCIENT TEMPLES, REMOTE HILL-TREE VILLAGES, BLOOD-STAINED MEMORIES OF DAYS RULED BY POL POT AND THE KHMER ROUGE, TERRIBLE ROADS, EXTREME POVERTY, BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, ALL OF WHICH IS BEST DISCOVERED BY RIDING A MOTORCYCLE.

Cambodia has a population of around 12 million and covers an area of 181,000 square kilometres, nestled in between Vietnam on the eastern side, Thailand on the West, Laos to the North, and with the Gulf of Thailand stretching across a few hundred kilometres of coastline to the south.

It’s a country that has suffered greatly in the past and sadly is remembered mostly for one of the most terrible events in the history of the world, being the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror from ’75 to ’78 led by dictator Pol Pot.

During this period Khmer Rouge proceeded to destroy every part of past and present Khmer society. Anyone with an education or a link to the government was murdered. People wearing eyeglasses were considered educated, therefore dangerous and executed. People able to speak a foreign language were considered to be enemies of the state and executed, after torture. It is estimated that more than two million Cambodians from a population of eight million at the time died from execution, starvation, or disease, which affected an entire generation for years to come.

For me, it’s hard to believe that this only took place 30 years ago, when my biggest problem was fixing a flat tyre on my BMX, or upset because I didn’t get to watch my favourite T.V. channel or get enough ice-cream from dessert. We are very, very lucky in Australia and this is rammed home hard core once you’ve visited a country with such history as Cambodia. Having a general understanding of this history beforehand made my time in Cambodia one with much compassion for the people and one of feeling great privilege for being able to explore their land with ease while many of them till struggle to survive, can’t read, and haven’t got clean drinking water, but continue to carry on smiling with no expectations for the hours ahead.

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{Landmines}

“Now there’s landmine signs up ahead on the left so whatever you do don’t veer off the trail as the last thing I need is someone running over one of those buggers. And wait here for the next rider to come and tell him to pass the warning on to the next,” yelled Ben to me through his helmet before screaming off ahead into the darkness on his Honda CRM 250.

Still getting over my sickness I’d already had a prick of a day when my left peg hit a hidden tree stump at 80 kilometres an hour and sent me cartwheeling through the air to a thump and the bike landing on top of me. At the time all I could think about was my seven grand worth camera gear being completely stuffed, but thankfully it was OK as it was tightly secure in a sturdy bag strapped to my waist and escaped the impact. My wrist didn’t though, and sprained as it was I rode several kilometres one-handed until it loosened up enough to grip the bar. With this in mind and the fact that it was dark and one of the longest days of riding so far on tour, passing landmine filled areas with 70 per cent control had me a little concerned. Especially when I passed the first signs on the left and decided to keep to the right side to be safe and all of the sudden looking ahead a few metres to see more signs appear on the right. To top this off the 4WD-type trails were filled with the deepest sand yet, which sent my concentration levels to new highs.

I was the one who put my hand up for the adventure though, and later talking to Ben about the landmines he informed me that the signs don’t necessarily mean there’s definitely landmines there. It’s just land and that hasn’t been checked as yet, but in saying this it’s still quite possible some could be in the area. He also said that more people die from trying to pull the landmines apart for the metal and explosives because there’s good money to be made, and that more people die from snake bites in the rainy season than the mines, which are designed to only injure and not kill.

{Temples}

One of the things I looked forward to most before embarking on this adventure was visiting many ancient temples that Cambodia is famous for. And as the tour made its way to the fast-evolving tourist destination of Siem Reap in the north-west, where Angelina Jolie strutted her stuff filming Tomb Raiders at the infamous Angkor Wat temple, we were lucky enough to visit and camp at the remote Preah Khan ruins 150 kilometres west of Siem Reap that are only accessible by motorcycle or 4WD.

For those of you who read chapter one you would have seen a rider entering through the gateway to the ancient ruins, which is where we camped in a timber shelter. Preah Khan means sacred sword, which usually refers to the sword of a king or god, and is a complex of ancient temples and structures of the supporting city that surrounded them. The first sighting of these ruins and large temples leave you in total awe and amazement of how they were built so incredibly close to 1000 years ago. I felt blessed to be able to spend a few hours climbing through the ruins checking out the delicate carvings in stone that resembled Buddha and Hindu faces and goddess-like forms. And even more so because there wasn’t a tourist in sight, unlike the thousands that swarmed through Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples when we visited them during our next stop.

{Last Men Standing}

We started the tour with a total of 21 riders. We lost one the end of the first day because he couldn’t keep the pace. A few left halfway through and took the shorter route back to Siem Reap due to fatigue or they’d had enough. The doc also left us at this point to fulfil another mission. Another three riders had planned to finish up at Seam Reap before the tour started, which left us with 14 riders to tackle the final stage over the Cardamon Mountains through the south-western region of Cambodia.

Ben was feeling a little uneasy that he still had so many riders left. He is very proud that on the most Extreme Rally Tours the majority don’t make it past Siem Reap, which is by far the

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{Just Go With The Flow}

“Ok, now listen carefully guys,” Ben yelled out to 20 of us as we rushed around packing the final things into our backpacks, while also checking we had our goggles, gloves and helmets ready to go out front of the Flamingo Hotel.

It was early morning and the street was already buzzing with the sounds of mopeds by the thousands, manoeuvring along the dirty streets piloted by locals with no helmets and up to three passengers squashed on the seat tightly behind.

“The first 50 kilometres or so leaving the city can be quite dangerous, so make sure you stick together as much as possible. Be aware of the chaos that is the traffic around you, don’t do anything stupid, and most importance: it’s best to just go with the flow!”

“Oh, an when we hit the main road at the end of this street we have to turn left, and as there’s so many of us, trying to cross through the oncoming traffic (they drive on the opposite side of the road) to turn could be difficult, so just follow me against the flow staying to the left until a gap appears and then we’ll cross over and blend in with the rest.”

Ben said all this confidently, while myself and the other riders I hadn’t had much time getting acquainted with (from countries such as Australia, England, America, Tanzania and Finland) adjusted our views on road rules and thought about the dangers that awaited us while riding in what already seemed to us a country not so big on law. I kissed goodbye the comforts of the Flamingo Hotel – hot shower, working TV, clean air-conditioned room, and fresh towel twisted the throttle on my hired Honda Baja XR250. This was to be the machine I put my trust in to hold together for one more exciting journey across Cambodia – towards my first main-road crossing.

My previous day’s experience as passenger on the moto-taxi gave me some degree of confidence on the roads as I made my first turn left to face what seemed as endless flow of overloaded buses, trucks, cars, vans, taxis, mopeds with sometimes a pig or what seems a months’ worth supplies strapped across the back, cyclos and bicycles, people pushing food stands looking like custom-made wheel barrows. For them, it was a day like every other day. For me, it was the first leg of an adventure of a lifetime.

Up ahead a gap appeared and Ben took the first swerve across to join the flow of traffic on the right hand side, and like sheep the 19 riders including myself followed across in autopilot, making the transition with only a few close calls. By the time we’d successfully passed through four roundabouts, three intersections, four sets of traffic lights, and passed 100 vehicles my senses were red-lining and my mind was starting to get used to processing the data happening around me the way it was. I was happy to hit the main road away from the city and into more rural areas, which still kept you on your toes as there was same full-on traffic, cars overtaking coming towards you every chance they could, kids playing on the side of the road to watch for, pigs and cows making the odd stroll across when they felt like it, and an unusual series of light, misty showers that was considered strange for what was the dry season.

Jay, one of the Aussie riders, was the only victim on our departure when he tried to overtake a bus on the footpath side of the road, and just as he thought things were going well a moped rider decided he wanted to pull over and did, which sent Jay into panic, brakes locked up and sliding down the wet road. In the process he was not injured, luckily, but he later found his Army pants pocket split open and his wallet with passport, money and credit card was gone and probably well run over by now or in someone else’s happy hands.

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{Why Cambodia?}

It’s not the rented Honda Baja 1992 model XR250 with the lounge-chair seat, flogged suspension tired engine and steel tank, or the cheap beers, food and pretty women that drew you to join a tour in a place like Cambodia. It’s more the longing for a pure adventure that will remain with you until the day you die. I consider myself the adventurous type, but after meeting and talking to Ben Laffer from Angkor Dirt Bike Tours (the man responsible for guiding us through the jungles and landmine-filled areas of Cambodia) I quickly realised I’ve got a long way to go before reaching the larger than life “Indian Jones” type character he is.

Ben first visited Cambodia while travelling through Asia in 1993 and instantly fell in love with the place. Friends had told him how exciting it was and that there was a lot of chaos, no law, and few roads, which meant there were a lot of trails to explore. He recalls his first exploration in Cambodia as if it were yesterday. As we waited at Phnom Penh airport for the remaining riders for the 2005 Annual Extremely Rally Tour, he also talked me through the whole lot more over a drink while the locals scurried around us guiding the many tourists to their destinations.

“I decided to go and explore the countryside by bike with few locals and at the time the security situation wasn’t that great with bandits and Khmer Rouge guys roaming around the place,” he began.

“We’d heard a few new logging road being cut through the forest to a placed called Mondulkiri in the north-west so we thought we’d check it out. It took a group of five of us two days to arrive at the point where the logging crew, and (as it turned out) a bunch of military police were, and we didn’t want to stop as we knew they would send us back, so we decided to run the gauntlet and we veered off to a small trail off the main track. We continued along the trail for about four kilometres and came across another bunch of military police who had rocket launchers and AK47’s, and by this stage there was no turning back and no way we wanted to stop to talk to these boys, so we kept on going and then came to a junction, which had a choice of three ways to go”

I sipped my drink and let him continue, oblivious to the airport noise around me. “We went down the first dirt road, which was obviously a road to enable the bulldozers access to pull out more trees, and it came to and end after a few kilometres. We then tried the next two roads to find they were the same, but as I was riding back out to the junction from the third road I came around the corner to fine two of my friends spread-eagled on the ground, helmets off, with guns to the back of their heads. I still remember clearly coming around that corner seeing them in this situation and then looking up at this small guy with a moustache and pistol standing on the back of a jeep firing round after round into the air. You could see the shells dropping to the ground, and I thought to myself, I’m not gonna try and run this one!”

Bloody hell, “What was I about to be in for?” I thought to myself as Ben continued. “I got off my bike and got to the ground quickly spread-eagled as well, and before too long the rest of our crew had turned up and joined us fearing for our lives. The keys were taken from our bikes and put on trucks, as were we, and then taken back to their camp in the jungle. I have to point out that around and this time in Cambodia, there were still foreigners being killed in the area, so you can imagine we weren’t too impressed with the situation.”

“But then back at the camp things amazingly turned our way for the better when it turned out one that one of Khmer riders with us knew one of the guys across the table we were sitting at, and before we knew it cold beers all-around, which was a huge relief for us all. The following day, once things had cooled down with the military police, we tried to make our way through to Mondulkiri, but had no hope as the loggers in the area were scared we were journalists documenting what was illegal logging, which pretty much put an end to the first ride that we did.”

{Why create a tour?}

It wasn’t until 1998, five years later, that Ben actually got his Cambodian trail-bike tours underway with partner Zeman McCreadie. By this stage the Khmer Rouge had fled to Anlong Veng on the Thai border. Their leader, Pol Pot, was dead from natural causes (old age, and it is now possible to visit his grave and former house/bunker), and the security situation was settled enough to operate in certain parts of the country.

Ben pointed out that it was still dangerous to leave the city at night because you would certainly be robbed or worse. This, plus being bored, was one of the main reasons he was keen to start the tours, escaping by bike during the day to the safer regions.

“To go anywhere at the time you’d have to leave first ting in the morning to have enough time for a return trip, as the taxis won’t go anywhere at night. Bust as the security situation improved two years later the tourists started pouring into the country and by this stage I had my tours well organised. I could also speak the language well enough to communicate with the locals in remote villages and towns we visited, which is essential for buying supplies, fuel, food and getting rough directions,” he explained.

“A few things about Cambodia that set it apart from the other countries at the time were that there were minimal main roads, no names on any roads, and no-one knew which roads were open or where they went, so years of exploring the roads and trails gave me the upper hand with leading tours around the country. Like most of my friends here we came to Cambodia for a four-week holiday, feel in love with the country and stayed for 10 years. The place is so laid back and relaxed, though I’ve had guns put to my head more times than I care to remember it suits my adventurous nature and I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the world I’d like to do organised trail rides, especially now times have changed, and since 2000 the security situation has vastly improved and is no longer an issue.”

{The tours themselves}

“They can be pretty hard core at times,” Ben reckons. “It’s an endurance thing, and if you go out there with a ‘balls to the wall’ type attitude you ain’t going to last very long. The days are hot, and mostly very long and testing, with sandy trails that test even the best riders. And it’s not like we’re staying in air-conditioned motels with hot-water showers every night: sometimes we camp where we pull up in the middle of the jungle.”

“I make it very clear to any rider wanting to join the tour that they need to be a decent rider with a good amount of off-road experience under their belts, because if we get to the remote areas where there’s no way out except to ride you need to be up for the mission.”

“Plus there’s the change of terrain from rocky, sandy hard-packed and rutted, out hills to deal with along the way as well. I feel any rider hasn’t been totally honest about their ability and isn’t up for the harder stages after the first day or two I always have to redirect them on easier roads to towns to wait for us, as it’s not only dangerous for their safety, but a drag for the remainder of the tour.”

“I divide my tours into three different categories – taking into mind that I try and stay away from the complete novice riders as I believe that’s only asking for trouble, especially in this country where you don’t have the luxury of back-up vehicles and hospitals within close proximity. But in saying that, riders that want a relaxing tour with time to hang out at beaches, visit waterfalls and the like can come on the tour where we stay on the more flat-type roads down along the coast and stay in nice motels every night. This tour is very mild and you could bring your girlfriend along if you wanted to.”

“The next step up is where we go off the main roads more to visit several of the ancient temples in the northern areas of Cambodia and very popular Angkor Wat temples around Siem Reap, which I still consider a very basic ride. Then there’s what I call the more extreme rides up to 12 days like this one where we cover a large amount of kilometres and get to take in more of Cambodia’s countryside, remote villages, temples, and jungle areas. Basically I can work these rides around what the customer wants to see, such as the gem mines in Pailin, hill tribes in Rattanakiri, waterfalls in Mondulkiri, the casino on the Thai border near Koh Kong, etc.”

Ben likes to show his customers a great time from the word go, and as soon as the remaining few arrived he piled them into a van and took them out to shood AK47s at local range before gearing up for a night on the town to set the mood for the tour ahead. With the temperature sitting around 30 degrees I opted for a taxi ride to the Flamingo hotel in downtown Phom Penh where I unloaded my gear and checked out the local markets and tourist attractions while I had the chance.

Besides the Cambodian Reil, the American dollar is most commonly used around three of them was enough to hire me a Cyclo (three wheeled moto-taxi) for the afternoon. It was actually a good idea as it gave me a great insight into how the traffic flows. Basically, you don’t stop for anyone unless it’s a truck, bus, or anything larger than you for that matter. Just don’t look for the gap and turn the throttle was my first tip. Don’t worry about looking over your shoulder when turning was another, whoever is behind will just dodge you when you start turning.

Before I even got to throw a leg over my own motorcycle my mind was churning over on the first day with thoughts like – “This place is crazy, how am I going to survive on the roads for over 2100 kilometres, do I really need to eat from one of those road side food stands, what’s the go with dried fish with the flies swarming all around display in the open, and the skinned chickens and other strange-looking things hanging up, and shit, there’s another mozzie, gotta watch those as there’s no way I’m going home with malaria…” it’s kind of funny how the conditioned mind reacts to new environments.

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{Taste Of More To Come}

A huge, cruisy 385 kilometres was covered on the first day to a town called Sen Monorom, north-east of Phnom Penh, on mostly tar and dirt main roads. It took me a while to adjust to the amount of people and goods that can be loaded into and on top of a van, bus or truck that I passed frequently. Once there’s no room left inside its pile up the roof racks, or every inch of the back of a pick-up. I figured a repairing axles business would be successful in Cambodia.

We rode close to the Vietnamese border, which used to be bad-arse territory a decade ago with foreigners going missing, and took the logging road from Snuol the area Ben got held up by guns in ’93. We passed through barren, rolling hills that’s part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail with no trees or vegetation in sight thanks to the chemical named Agent Orange that was dropped in the illegal bombing campaign by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Many ponds also fill the countryside in the same are due to the leftover bomb craters. I was told more bombs were dropped in the Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict that they dropped on Japan in World War II, over half a million tonnes worth! Ben told me before that tour started that he rarely ever gets a rider make it to the end of his Annual Extreme Rally Tour, which is harder that his standard tours. They either exit on the day or get injured. Ben’s proud of the fact it’s not your “run of the mill” tour. He also makes his expectations to a customer very clear before you sign up, so there’s no excuse along the way for riders not up to the task.

So with my first day completed and the sun going down my thoughts pondered on the next, which was the tour, took its first serious turn into the jungle terrain, goldmines, and the first remote villages, sketchy river crossings and late-night journeys past land-mine-filled territory. My thoughts also made me wonder whether I’d be one of the few riders to make the distance.

{CONTINUED NEXT ISSUE!}

{Things You Need To Know}

The 2006 Extreme Rally Tour will cost around US $1,400 for 12 days. This covers all costs – bike hire, main meals, accommodation fuel, but doesn’t cover your airfare to Cambodia, your entry fee to Angkor Wat (which is US $20) beer, cigarettes, massage and souvenirs, etc. Places on the tour are limited and most spots are booked at least 3-4 months in advance.

{Return airfares from Australia range from $1,200-$1500 depending on the season and airline} {Tours run from November through until March.} {Standard tours start at around US $160 a day and need to be booked at least a month in advance} {Bring U.S. currency.} {Average cost of a beer is 50c – $1 a can, food $5-$7 for Western Meal.} {Bike hire (mostly ’92 – ’98 model XR250) is included in tour cost, but an upgrade to a newer model XR250 may be available. Ask when enquiring about tour.} {Travel insurance is compulsory.} {No license necessary but you need to have good off road riding ability for the longer, more technical tours} {I didn’t take malaria tables or shots for hepatitis, typhoid, etc., and there was no problem whatsoever, especially going in the dry season where mozzies are not so common. It’s a personal decision though and it’s best to talk to Angkor Dirt Bike Tours and your local doctor at least a month prior to departing.} {Riders are required to bring correct safety gear like proper boots, helmet, pants, gloves, etc. And be prepared for change once on the tour, as in change of route if a rider is injured or time is running short. It is a group effort so a sense of humour and laid-back attitude will make your journey more fun} {Contact Ben Laffer at angkordirtbiketours@hotmail.com mobile: Aus – 0405 217 177 or 02 987 94410. Cambodia – 012 390 969. Check out the website: www.toursintheextreme.com}

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:: part two ::

{Photos and story by Goba}

THE ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME IN AN EXTRAORDINARY COUNTRY CONTINUES.

Part one of our story featured in the previous issue where we introduce Ben Laffer from “Tours In The Extreme”, and gave an insight in how he started his trail-bike tours in Cambodia, a place relatively unexplored by common tourist. The annual Extreme Rally Tour is the toughest he does, and as part two of the story unfolds you’ll realise it isn’t a ride for the faint-hearted.

{The Reality}

“Riding through deep sandy trails for kilometres on end in the hot sun is a test for any rider. Especially when you don’t have the luxury of support vehicles or emergency rescue if something goes terribly wrong. The backpack is your home and the three litres of precious water carried must be used wisely as there’s no guarantee the small villages we pass through will have supplies. It’s time to ride safe and smart as the only way out is the way you go in, by motorcycle, so treat it like your best friend. The last thing I need is to be towing or carrying someone out due to stupidity or carelessness. I’ve already mentioned that not all riders usually complete the Extreme Rally Tours due to either injury, breakdown or they’ve simply had enough, and the next 200 odd kilometres is definitely not the best place for this to happen,” were the words I roughly remember sinking in after listening to Ben over breakfast before the next leg of our Cambodian adventure got underway.

{A Touch Of Gold}

Ben gave us all white bread rolls and bananas to squeeze into our backpacks that already were filled with the essential ingredients such as a space blanket, inflatable sleeping mat, one set of clothes, torch, pocket knife, spare tube and extra water. This was to be our dinner once we found a camping spot later that night in the middle of jungle.

When I first heard the word jungle I had visions of dark, moist trails through dense forests with massive trees and vines hanging all around, but this perception quickly shifted after we let our fist stopover in Sen Monorom and headed north-west to our lunch stop at a remote gold-mining town called Me Mung that could only be accessed by 4WD or motorcycle. The terrain we covered varied from dry, slippery, downhill rocky sections through bushland similar to Australia, to open rice fields close to small villages, water crossings and the first hint of the dreaded, deep sand trails close to Me Mung.

The gold-mining town was like that of an 1800’s movie set with its old wooden huts, diesel smoke pouring out from engines, pits full of toxic water, steel cables, and shafts that run straight down through solid rock, which I was persuaded to go down, winched 250 metres in a small tin tub on rails by a thing steel cable. My head went close to touching the rock roof on several occasions, triggering slight panic, and when I reached the bottom a few minutes later I was greeted by seven workers who couldn’t speak a word of English.

The gold miners earn 15 per cent from the amount of gold dug from the mines, which is equal to a very good wage in Cambodia, but the toll of working in a dark pit with poor air flow and toxic fumes is a big price to pay. Mercury poisoning from the separation process is also common among the villagers, especially the villages downstream that cop the wash-off when the rainy season hits. I spent 20 minutes trying to communicate the workers in the cramped 10 by three feet wide pit and then caught the next tub back of daylight, which made me feel very relieved and thankful for the rare experience.

{Welcome To The Jungle}

We rode on that afternoon through more relentless dry, dusty, sandy trails well into the dark, passing through small villages with two or three huts, and not once did notice a clear sign to give direction, which is why we’d always pull up and Ben or one of the Khmer rider would confirm we were heading the correct way. As we were leaving one of the villages as local, who was clearly drunk, followed us on his moped with no helmet, loose clothes and wearing only thongs for protection. It was incredible to see how fast he rode through these deep, sandy trails that most of us were having trouble with. By the time we pulled up several hours later in the middle of nowhere at around nine, completely buggered from riding in the dark, he just kept on going to the next village which was hours away.

We’d only covered 100 odd kilometres to the camp destination, which was deep into what Ben calls “jungle territory”. Compared to the previous day’s cruisy 385 kilometres it was tough going, and hard on the bikes, which we gladly lent against the closest tree. It was then all hands on deck collecting wood for a big enough fire to last the night, as the temperature dropped right off in the early hours of the morning. Then after we ate what suppliers we had and cleared space on the sandy trail to sleep, the last thing we expected to see was a family with two ox and carts making their way through the camp in pitch-black darkness. They were taking rice to another village and travelling by night was a much cooler option. Ben had a quick chat to the father and before too long had Philippe, our motorcycle doctor on tour, treating him with some pills for a nasty skin irritation caused by worms he’s been carrying for a long time. They left into the darkness very happy, and we slipped underneath our space blankets for our first night out under the stars.

{Endurance}

Rising from a restless and nervous sleep due to the fear of mozzie and little creature bites it was time to jump back on board my Honda Baja XR 250 for another 200 kilometres of dusty, sandy trail north to a town called Ban Lung. All the riders were starting to be really tested by this stage, and it’s where the individual’s previous experience, patience and state of mind played a big factor on how they handled the terrain.

Riding through sand is hard at the best of time, and then when you add on 10 to 15 kilos of extra gear it becomes harder, especially for those like Hendi, a real estate owner from America who was hitting the off road seriously for the first time. He had plenty of dirt-road riding experience before joining the tour, but the sand was a whole new level to deal with. What Hendi did have on his side though was a very level head and strong willpower, which saw him ride at a comfortable pace, mostly sitting down, but consistent the whole way without many crashes. This not only preserved his energy, but kept him from holding up the flow of the tour. Jay on the other hand, an electrician from Sydney with also little experience, went about thing a little too aggressively and at some stretches crashed up to four times in a kilometer, which really took a toll on his patience, and body for that matter. At one point later in the tour he founded himself flying off a 15-foot high embankment, where a dirt road was being cut through, from not concentrating far enough ahead. It also didn’t help that he was racing side by side with one of the local Khmer riders who knew the territory well, and his poor old Baja 250 was definitely hating life after only a quarter of the way through the tour.

I found that the more I let go of the bike while standing up through the sand the easier it got. It’s not like the old 250s have a lot power, so I just had to keep the momentum going and not back off as soon as the bike wanted to veer off in another direction. It was also important to keep the fluid up as riding up to eight hours in the hot sun dehydrated the system very fast. An hour before we arrived in ban Lung we all were rewarded with a rare dip in the water after crossing four at a time across a 100-metre-wide river on two canoes with planks across the top. This was a little freaky at first, but halfway across you realise this is just the way it’s done in Cambodia, and the locals really do know what they’re doing.

{A Turn For The Worse}

My 200-kilometre ride from Ban Lung, west to Stung Treng, and then the seven-hour boat ride up the Mekong River towards the Laos border the following day was one of the hardest mission I’ve ever encountered. The reason being is I suffered a severe bout of food poisoning from eating something as simple as pizza in Ban Lung. The food in Cambodia is generally very tasty, but the hygiene from polluted water they wash and prepare food with is a bit of a worry, especially away from the bigger cities and into the smaller towns and roadside food stalls. I could hardly throw my leg over the bike when I departed, and then laying on my back for the boat ride, which had diesel fumes wafting up my nose the whole journey, I thought my adventure was well and truly finished. I did actually have the option of missing the boat trip and catching up with the group once I felt better, but when you’re on a tour that only come around maybe once in a lifetime something inside you pushes you on trusting thing will soon improve.

And they eventually did after Philippe pumped me with several different-coloured tablets to settle my stomach. Without Philippe, who is a mad trail-bike enthusiast and a French doctor working and living in Cambodia who joins most Extreme Rally Tours, some of us would not have made the journey. Philippe also treated many of the local kids along the way with worm tablets. Over 50 per cent of Cambodian kids have worms and most families can’t afford the tablets that only cost a couply of cents to buy to fix the problem. Many of them die from dehydration after a bout of diarrhea they’ve had for only two or three days. It hits you hard when you see these living conditions firsthand, but at the same time you get a feeling of admiration to see them all so happy leading the simple life they do. I reckon it would be cool to send many of the kids in the Western world over for a week’s holiday to show them how lucky they have it. Definitely a big reality check for sure!

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{Landmines}

“Now there’s landmine signs up ahead on the left so whatever you do don’t veer off the trail as the last thing I need is someone running over one of those buggers. And wait here for the next rider to come and tell him to pass the warning on to the next,” yelled Ben to me through his helmet before screaming off ahead into the darkness on his Honda CRM 250.

Still getting over my sickness I’d already had a prick of a day when my left peg hit a hidden tree stump at 80 kilometres an hour and sent me cartwheeling through the air to a thump and the bike landing on top of me. At the time all I could think about was my seven grand worth camera gear being completely stuffed, but thankfully it was OK as it was tightly secure in a sturdy bag strapped to my waist and escaped the impact. My wrist didn’t though, and sprained as it was I rode several kilometres one-handed until it loosened up enough to grip the bar. With this in mind and the fact that it was dark and one of the longest days of riding so far on tour, passing landmine filled areas with 70 per cent control had me a little concerned. Especially when I passed the first signs on the left and decided to keep to the right side to be safe and all of a sudden looking ahead a few metres to see more signs appear on the right. To top this off the 4WD-type trails were filled with the deepest sand yet, which sent my concentration levels to new highs.

I was the one who put my hand up for the adventure though, and later talking to Ben about the landmines he informed me that the signs don’t necessarily mean there’s definitely landmines there. Its just land that hasn’t been checked as yet, but in saying this it’s still quite possible some could be in the area. He also said that more people die from trying to pull the landmines apart for the metal and explosives because there’s good money to be made, and that more people die from snake bites in the rainy season than the mines, which are designed to only injure and not kill.

{Temples}

One of the things I look forward to most before embarking on this adventure was visiting the many ancient temples that Cambodia is famous for. And as the tour made its way to the fast-evolving tourist destination of Siem Reap in the north-west, where Angelina Jolie strutted her stuff filming Tomb Raider at the infamous Angkor Wat temple, we were lucky enough to visit and camp at the remote Preah Khan ruins 150 kilometres west of Siem Reap that are only accessible by motorcycle or 4WD.

For those of you who read chapter one you would have seen a rider entering through the gateway to the ancient ruins, which is where we camped in a timber shelter. Preah Khan means sacred sword, which usually refers to the sword of a king or god, and is a complex of ancient temples and structures of the supporting city that surrounded them. The first sighting of these ruins and large temples leave you in total awe and amazement of how they were built so incredibly close to 1000 years ago. I felt blessed to be able to spend a few hours climbing through the ruins checking out the delicate carvings in stone that resembled Buddha and Hindu faces and goddess-like forms. And even more so because there wasn’t a tourist in sight, unlike the thousands that swarmed through Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples when we visited them during our next stop.

{Last Men Standing}

We started the tour with a total of 21 riders. We lost one the end of the first day he couldn’t keep the pace. A few left halfway through and took the shorter rote back to Siem Reap due to fatigue or they’d had enough. The doc also left us at this point to fulfill another mission. Another three riders had planned to finish up at Siem Reap before the tour started, which left us with 14 riders to tackle the final stage over the Cardamon Mountains through the south-western region of Cambodia.

Ben was feeling a little uneasy that he still had so many riders left. He is very proud that on most Extreme Rally Tours the majority don’t make it past Siem Reap, which is by far the most comfortable stop of the tour. I had well and truly made it through my sickness and was feeling confident I’d be riding my Baja 250 all the way back the remaining 800 kilometres to the Flamingos Hotel in Phnom Penh where it all started. The long, hard-packed dusty roads full of deep potholes that led us to the gateway of the Cardamon Mountains tested our machines and us all the way, but the trusty Baja 250s that had only received one or two oil changes and a clean filter along the way somehow just kept going. This was until Ed, one of the Aussie riders, who actually had a later-model XR 250, broke down right before the mountains and had to be loaded up on a truck and transported back. This seemed to trigger others to take easy route back for fear of breaking down, which left us with only eight, and Ben feeling a little more confident that his reputation would remain.

But like all good stories should end with something out of the ordinary happened to the bad guy once we’d made spectacular journey over the mountain to Koh Kong, which was full of tricky hill climbs up deep-rutted logging roads, flowing moist trails and scary bridge crossings that were slapped together with pieces of trees that had plans 200 millimetres wide on top for you to ride across (check TBAM#4 cover). The man who lead us all the way through jungle terrain, and to remote villages that hardly ever see a white man, to hidden temples, and across rivers in canoes, blew up his engine with only 200 kilometres to go. I couldn’t help but scream with laughter as he hid behind his helmet and climed into the front of the ute, and if I remember correctly that smile stayed with me all the way back along the hazy, smoggy main roads to the Flamingos Hotel in Phnom Penh with the four remaining riders who survived the 2005 Extremely Rally Tour. Thanks Ben! Goba.

{Things you Need To Know}

The 2006 Extreme Rally Tour will cost around US $1,400 for 12 days. This covers all costs – bike hire, main meals, accommodation, fuel, but doesn’t cover your airfare to Cambodia, your entry fee to Angkore Wat (Which is US $20), beer, cigarettes, massage and souvenirs, etc. Places on the tour are limited and most spots are booked at least 3-4 month in advance.

{ Return airfares from Australia range from $1,200 – $1,500 depending on season and airline.} {Tours run from November through until March.} {Standard tours start at around US$160 a day and need to be booked at least a month in advance. } {Bring U.S. currency.} {Average cost of a beer is 50¢ – $1 a can, food $5-$7 for Western main meal.} {Bike hire (mostly an ’92-’98 model XR250) is included in tour cost, but an upgrade to a newer model XR250 may be available. Ask when enquiring about tour.} {Travel insurance is compulsory.} {No licence necessary, but you need to have good off-road riding ability for the longer, more technical tours.} {I didn’t take malaria tablets or shots for hepatitis, typhoid, etc, and there was no problem whatsoever, especially going in the dry season where mozzies are not as common. It’s a personal decision though and it’s best to talk to Angkor Dirt Bike Tours and your local doctor at least a month prior to departing .} {Riders are required to bring correct safety gear like proper boots, helmet, pants, gloves, etc. And be prepared for change once on the tour, as in change of route if a rider is injured or time is running short. It is a group effort so a sense of humour and laid-back attitude will make your journey more fun.} {Contact Ben Laffer at angkordirtbiketours@hotmail.com mobile: Aus – 0405 217 177 or 02 987 94410. Cambodia – 012 390 969. Check out the website: www.toursintheextreme.com }