Exploring Cambodia

Lara Croft the Tomb Raider, roaring through the jungle to a mysterious temple in her silver Land Rover – that’s the image many of us have of Cambodia. Either that, or vague memories from the Khmer Rouge genocides of the 1970s. Whichever, it’s not usually one of those places one associates with overland travel.

Paddy fields, central Cambodia

                It was with excitement, then, that I arranged to go visit my American friend Kurt who had recently moved there to the capital Phnom Penh, and made plans with him to explore Cambodia offroad. Kurt and I had lived in the same area of Cairo, and then he had been transferred with work commitments to Cambodia so he took Penny, his Egypt-rebuilt Defender 110, with him. Penny is a 1990 4 cylinder petrol and Kurt’s intention is to drop a big V8 into her when he imports her finally into the US, but she has to be ‘original spec’ for the US Customs to allow her importation, so for the moment she has to labour along with the older engine.

                We planned to travel through large chunks of Cambodia in Penny, and we were also able to borrow a Defender 130 Tdci Workshop unit from the very supportive local main dealer, RMA Land Rover. RMA’s General Manager in Phnom Penh is the excellent Paul Varley, who absolutely went the extra mile in helping us. Paul was itching to come into the jungles with us – but sadly work commitments stopped that plan. The third vehicle in our convoy was the wagon of Jason Thatcher, a Defender 110-driving ball of cheerful energy from Australia, a buddy of Kurt’s who runs Cambodia Motorcycle Tours, and who volunteered to be our guide.

Left to right…. our borrowed 130, Kurt’s 110 “Penny” and Jason’s 110

                My arrival in-country was timed with the start of the monsoon season, and having just come from Cairo I was wearing desert boots – not a good start. However a visit to Phnom Penh’s Teuk Thla market, site of a dozen manufacturers of military equipment, kitted me out with jungle boots, poncho and half a dozen other handy bits of jungle kit. We threw piles of kit into the three Land Rovers and headed out. First on the plan was a long muddy offroad traverse through a rice-growing region to the southwest of Phnom Penh, moving through swampy, jungle environments to an inhabited strip on the coast and the fishing villages of Kep and Kampot.

The 130 Workshop Unit provided 24 hour roadside assistance…..

                Running out of Phnom Penh on Highway 3 we soon turned off the main drag and down a network of minor roads that turned into gravel and then dirt, a bit like green lanes in the remote areas of Britain. The fun started when the route turned along a washed out river bed, which wound its way into the jungle in front of us. Jason’s 110 acted as pathfinder and crawled carefully through the washouts, gulleys and axle twisters, and the 130 followed. The delivery-mileage Tdci engine delivered surprising amounts of torque, and, shod with Michelin XZLs as she was, the truck sailed across the obstacles, though the longer wheelbase and low-hanging towbar caused some interest. Penny brought up the rear – on Cooper 285 mud-terrain tyres and with a 2” suspension lift she coped the easiest with the mud crawling, despite her tiny engine. A bemused sun bear watched us in amazement from the jungle edge as we carefully guided the trucks along the washed out gorge. The country then turned properly wet and we forded small rivers and edged along between paddy fields on tracks usually used by buffalo cart and motorbike. Sometimes we had to drive through the rice paddies themselves but we were very mindful that these were people’s livelihoods so we trod carefully – and in fact the locals seemed very pleased to see us.

River crossings were frequent

                Jason uses the profits of his motorcycle tours businesses in Cambodia and Vietnam to fund a scheme where he donates housing to the poorest of the poor in the region – locals who make a living by scrounging from rubbish tips and survive on much less than a dollar a day. When he has found a deserving family he will use his Defender to deliver a flat-packed house, essentially an insulated stormproof cube ten feet square, and this will replace their rattan-and-palmleaf hooch that wouldn’t survive the next tropical storm. Our intention on the trip was to visit some of the families who had recently received such aid, and check on their progress. Travelling with Jason was his New Yorker mate Rudi, a paramedic. The well-established and brilliant system was that Jason would make sure everything was ok with the housing whilst Rudi set up an impromptu field clinic and dished out advice and medicines to local tribespeople – all thanks to the hardworking Defender. Jason’s scheme welcomes donations and sponsorship – surf to http://www.globalvillagehousing.com

Setting up a medical drop-in clinic in a small village

                Emerging from the jungles onto the coastal strip we ate at a tiny crab shack (called “Holy Crab!”) on the beach at Kep, and then made an overnight bivouac nearby. The next few days saw more of the same, culminating in a climb up nearby Bokor mountain to the ghostly colonial-era villas on the summit, once the site of a 1920s French hill station, now abandoned to the mists and the jungle. Nearby is a derelict casino, again dating from the prewar years. Lizards and spiders scampered into the shadows and bats flitted across staircases as we walked through deserted hallways, once lit by chandeliers and now the homes for dozens of species of animal.

                Cambodia is still very heavily mined – a legacy of the Khmer Rouge period and the wars that came along shortly afterwards, and our exploring of the west of the country was limited by this. I’d arranged, however, to go visit the Cambodian offices of the Halo Trust, the largest de-mining organisation in the world, a British group made famous some years ago by the involvement of Princess Diana. They are based outside the town of Siem Riep in the north, so we turned the wagons away from the coast and set off on a day-long run up the centre of the country. The Halo Trust, like many other organisations, are Land Rover loyalists. They love their Defenders, which are tough, dependable workhorses that carry demining teams into some of the most inaccessible and remote areas of Cambodia. Like many of us, they view the approach of ‘Next Generation’ Defender with trepidation!

The Halo Trust demining fleet

                I spent an absorbing yet often shocking day with the Halo Trust teams. Moving amongst mined areas gave me a first hand impression of how the Defenders are used – where field or paths in an area are often sown with antipersonnel and antivehicle mines, the only access point is often the river system or the swamp area where the minelayers think nobody in their right minds would go – and that’s where the Defenders have to go, carrying a full team of demining operatives and their heavy equipment. It was an eye-opening experience and gave me huge respect for the demining teams and their hard-working Land Rovers. The trucks are feeling the pace though. Many of them are 20+ year old Tdis and they are scarred and battered from ten times a hundred missions into the punishing jungle landscape. Equally telling is the Halo teams’ need for not just personnel carrier Defenders but also ambulance variants – and some of the injuries are hellish, with the Defenders being the only vehicles that can get to the casualties. Spare parts for the Defenders are crucial – even service parts are not always easy to find, and the Trust has reached the sad state of having to cannibalise some of their Defender fleet for parts to keep the rest of the Land Rovers rolling, yet they stay loyal to the marque. They have asked for help from the UK aftersales market, for donations of service parts and consumable items. If anyone can help out, please contact them at mail@halotrust.org.

                A day with the demining teams and then I went exploring the mine-free region around Siem Riep. A thousand years ago this was the centre of the ancient Khmer culture and it’s here that you will find the famous temples that loom from the jungle like mythical beasts. The most famous is Angkor Wat, a huge structure covering an area the size of a British village and covered with intricate  (and often quite dodgy) carvings. There are many others, similarly awesome, but the one I wanted to see was Ta Prohm, around 5 miles away, which was used in the movie Tomb Raider. In the film it seems to have jungle growing into and through it like some organic thing, and sure enough in reality the roots of great trees interweave in amongst the temples as if they have somehow come to depend on each other. A monsoon came when I was scrambling round the ruins and I sheltered in amongst the ancient stones – but Angelina was not around, so there wasn’t much point in staying once the exploration had finished. Back to Siem Riep for food, and a mixture of crocodile (tough), snake (tasteless) and frog (like firm chicken) appeared on my plate that evening.

Ta Prohm temple complex

                Much of the driving at this point was on tarmac and the Tdci proved what a capable engine it is at road work – when I needed a big bootful to get round that tuk-tuk towing a huge load of farm produce, or that truck crammed with thirty workers getting home, the engine purred and rose to the challenge. More hi-tech maintenance-intensive it may be, but it’s got the horses.

                Time was pressing and eventually we had to turn the Land Rovers south and head back to Phnom Penh, travelling via the huge Tonle Sap lake where we stayed a while at the network of floating villages (dinner – stirfry water snake. Gritty, slimy and tasted of soil. Not recommended). The red mud roads and tracks were slippery from the frequent monsoon rains, but the wagons were surefooted as we rumbled back towards the city.

Stir Fry Water Snake

                Pulling the Land Rovers back into Phnom Penh I reflected on my first experience of this vibrant and friendly country. Torn apart by civil war and genocide inflicted by its own people, invaded by neighbours, cripplingly poor, yet Cambodia is still welcoming, friendly and warm of heart – I’ll definitely be back!


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