The road to antiquity

Here, roads are crapshoots. The main road (National Road 2) is well paved and heavily travelled, which means we were regularly passed by Dodge minivans rocketing past at 60 mph crammed to capacity with Cambodians and their associated gear (motorbikes, chickens, luggage). A half dozen or so extra fares sat atop the careening van, chatting idly and ignoring the fact that the end of their lives could be only one swerve away. There are no hand grips on the top of a minivan.

Motorbikes carrying pigs in huge baskets bumped along, and sand trucks spewed dust as they dominated the roads, often driving smack down the middle of the tarmac. There’s a weird ballet about driving in Cambodia that follows simple rules: The bigger the vehicle, the righter the way; keep a straight line; and when all else fails, duck for cover and get off the road.

Trouble is, there’s no shoulder on Cambodian highways, but pothole-strewn patches of dried mud which would pitch a motorbike and its riders into the brackish drink along the side of the road should they have the misfortune of pulling off at high speed. Our foursome – Gabi and me on one bike, fellow VIA peeps Wes and Claire on the other – stick together in a show of unity and collective defense.

Horns, buzzers and bells are information conduits as well as intimidation tools. A beep from a motorbike gently lets you know someone is coming up from behind you. A honk from a car informs that y ou should pull as far right as you can. A blast from a truck’s air horn indicates that you’re about to become roadkill.

Once behind the wheel, the affable, kindly Cambodians turn into Freddy Kruegers. They become sallow-faced assassins, spiritless bullies bent on saving 30 seconds to their destination by running you off the road, particularly if you’re a baraing on a motorbike. They sometimes do so with a smile in their inimitably Cambodian manner, but more often its a deadpan look, straight ahead, focus ed on getting to where they’re going.

The only way to survive it is to mimic them, which we do with no small measure of skill, white knuckles and all.

Having survived the roads, the temples of Chisor make the trip well worth the while, and the tension of the road soon eases as we navigate a 4k access road deep into the countryside to the foot of the hill.

A climb up 400 steps (felt much less to us, and according to step-counting maven Gabi there were no more than 200) brought us to a stunning vista overlooking flooded rice paddies and the flatlands of rural Cambodia all around. Facing eastward, the temple’s main gallery is surrounded by parti ally ruined walls of laterite, brick and sandstone. Carvings from the 11th century dot the walls throughout, and a kindly temple tender offers us incense sticks to light and offer to a statue of the Buddha in the sanctuary.

Four young boys appear and follow us throughout the temple. They smile and pose for photos, keeping a respectful distance but quickly engaging when they realize we can speak a bit of Khmer.

After winding our way through the temple and relaxing on the edge of the hill, enjoying the breeze and looking across Cambodia, we head down the hill for a lunch of fried chicken and fish, steamed rice and yummy sauces that we ordered up from a woman staffing a hang bai (small restaurant) near the temple. There are hammocks overlooking the plains, incredible fish sauce and our favorite – lime juice, salt and pepper – in which to dredge the chicken and fish. Wes gnaws first on the chicken head and then on the deep-fried claws, commenting that they are the best chicken feet he’s ever had.

The ride back to Phnom Penh is more harrowing than the trip to the temple, as we take a more direct route that is narrow, dusty and crammed with vehicles with all shapes and sizes. In my element now, I adopt the Cambodian style of mild aggression behind the wheel, all the while keeping an eye out for the inevitable Lexus SUV that will come straight at us, necessitating a quick exit to safer environs.

We survive potholes the size of wash basins, loaded trucks that seem the size of Wisconsin, even a couple of young boys on bicycles brainlessly pedaling the wrong way into traffic. They – and we – somehow survive it all, and all parties arrive dusty, tired, hot but very, very happy, owing to yet another incredible experience in the Kingdom of Wonder.