Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Wise Owl of Cambodia

We packed our tents, loaded up the bikes and left Pak Bong for Khong Jiem on Highway 2368, our destination a small village called Ban Tamui, to meet up with Rak Thai that runs a project there called ''Uncle Hoo: The Wise Owl.''

The project was conceived to bring knowledge to children who lived in far away places, restricting their access to broad education. Uncle Hoo was actually a real person named Khun Prateep who drove around in a minivan loaded with books and various other educational materials _ somewhat a moving library.

He would drive into town, unload his van and set up various learning stations. Khun Preteep, along with volunteers, would then guide children from one station to the next _ each station focusing on one particular subject _ global warming, irrigation, fishing and ecosystem stations, to name a few.

As always, Rak Thai/CARE's goal was to educate people to be self-sufficient. In the case of Uncle Hoo, he was literally bringing knowledge to the people on four wheels.

The next day we rode 350km from Khong Jiem to Chong Chom in Surin Province, crossing the border into Cambodia at O Smach. From there it was a short ride to the town of Anlong Veng.

One of the things that worried me most preparing for this trip was to make sure we had proper registration papers for our bikes. We had a tight filming schedule and couldn't afford to have a major hick-up; not being able to cross the border would have been a big problem. We got to the Chong Chom/O Smach border and got through the Thai side easily.

However, on the Cambodian side one of our vehicle's registration number did not match the paper work (due to a typo) and we were not able to cross the border with it. We fixed the problem by having one of the driver's drive the 4-wheel car back to Bangkok, while the crew would ride in our Cambodian guide's truck. After being held up for about three hours at the border checkpoint we crossed into Cambodia and continued to Anlong Veng.

On the ride I desperately needed to relieve myself so I stopped by the road and started heading for the bushes. As I was walking our guide yelled telling me to come back right away _ he said they were many unexploded landmines and it's still highly dangerous in this area. I got back on my bike and decided instead to hold my bladder until we hit Anlong Veng.

Anlong Veng was a former Khmer Rouge stronghold and home to Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok, some of the most notorious leaders of Democratic Kampuchea. Until falling to government forces in 1998, Anlong Veng was considered a very dangerous place that almost every traveller chose to by-pass _ Chong Chom, where we entered, was just recently declared an international border crossing.

Most travellers who came to Anlong Veng were interested in history of the Khmer Rouge, especially that of Pol Pot. For us we were just passing by on our way south to Siem Reap.

The following morning we left Anlong Veng travelling 170km on the main Highway NH67 to Siem Reap. However, calling the NH67 a major highway is preposterous since it was one of the worst I had ridden on this whole trip.

The road was only recently bulldozed through the jungles and the entire route was either under repair or construction _ basically 90% of the time we where riding on red dirt.

There was red dust in the air and half the time you couldn't see where you were heading. I was driving along at about 90km/h with dust in the air and all of a sudden the dirt road turned into sand causing my bike to wobble and me falling off.

I had promised myself that I would not fall again after my accident on the Pink Route in Tak at the start of this tour, so I was quite disappointed with myself. Hui got off his bike and laughed his guts off _ I thought to myself what's so funny about it.

He took a picture of me and my entire body was covered in red dirt _ it looked like I had just ridden out of hell with some monster breathing down my neck. I gathered all my belongings (which had fallen off the bike), checked that my bike was okay and we continued our journey to Siem Reap.

Somehow our guide had gotten a good deal and booked us into a nice four-star hotel. Walking through the lobby, Hui and I looked completely out of place and everyone was looking at me, pointing and laughing. With the film crew behind us I told tourists in the lobby we were at Angkor filming Tomb Raider 3 _ I thought some of them actually believed me! I got into my hotel room, spent an hour in the shower and laid on the bed _ falling asleep within a few minutes.

Once in Siem Reap you can't resist visiting its famous temples so the following day we headed for Angkor. Personally I prefer Ta Prohm to Angkor Wat. Unlike the other temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm was literally swallowed up by the surrounding jungle, giving it a truly mystical feel.

There's something poetic about the place, a duality between something man-made versus nature, stones versus trees _ intertwining together to create something that was truly unique and surreal.

Cambodians have weathered years of bloodshed under one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever seen _ Ta Prohm and the other temples of Angkor remind them that they are descendent of the mighty Khmer Empire, something for them to be proud of.

Almost every Cambodian I met lost half their family during the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. What impressed me most was despite all the hardship they've been through, they still remain some of the friendliest people I had ever met _ always willing to help with a smile on their face.

Next week we continue our Journey to Kompong Thom and on to Phnom Penh where we come upon atrocious remnants of the Pol Pot regime. At the same time we also see the brighter side of Phnom Penh _ one of Indochina's loveliest French-built cities.

z Dreamchaser II airs on Channel 3 every Monday at midnight. To find out more, visit the web site

zAn objective of the TV show is to raise funds for the Raks Thai Foundation/CARE. Donations can be made to account number 056-239616-7 of the Siam Commercial Bank's Aree Samphan branch.

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