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Highway 1 hedonism

T he economic stimulus pro- vided by the US lifting their trade embargo on

Vietnam is likely to lead to ever increasing volumes of traffic roaring down

Highway 1, the main route through Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh city.

 

While the majority of travelers taking the highway use it simply to get from

A to B, the route also has a lot to offer pleasure seekers. Much of the highway

is hedged by thick vegetation and dotted along it are delightful wooden

houses.

One way of exploring the highway from Phnom Penh is to catch a

shared taxi at Chba Ampou bridge at the southern junction of Monivong and

Norodom Boulevards. The taxis make the trip all the way to the Vietnamese border

though travellers can negotiate a fare for a portion of the

journey.

Drivers wait for six to eight people before heading off. If

there are too many travelling companions there is the option of buying up more

seats. I regularly pay for two seats and of course by doing so I also reduce the

time spent waiting for sufficient travellers to turn up.

The first

interesting point of interest which is worth a stop off lies 16 km from the

bridge, the riverside resort village of Kean Svey. It is a popular weekend

getaway for richer city dwellers. Access to the resort is through a dusty lane,

which passes through Wat Kean Svey.

The main attraction of the resort are

the huts lining the river bank which are a great way to idle away a day. The

huts range up in price from 2,000 riel per day. Boats are also available for

hire for those wanting to be a little more energetic. They cost 4,000 riel an

hour. The drawback with the huts is the food and drink on offer is around double

normal prices and the quality is little better than meals for sale at

street-stall.

Nevertheless, a lazy day spent at the resort is a great way

of winding down and can especially be fun for small groups.

The

tranquility of the resort is not the only attraction for many of the Cambodians,

"hostesses" are also on offer as well as food and drink. But families should not

be put off as the girls keep a discreet low profile. Travellers who do not

intend going further than Kean Svey should consider hiring out a motorcyle for

the day to make the trip.

Further on there are many small side roads

leading off from the highway. Of course it is not practical to explore more than

one or two of these. As a rule those with a stone arch at their entrance lead to

a wat, and those without head to a village..

Many colorful temples, such

as Wat Slaket, can be seen from the road. The wat just three km down the road

from Kean Svey is one of the most distinctive and beautiful the country. Wats

are often sited near picturesque areas suitable for picnics.

Further

east across the Mekong river is Neak Luong, a city flattened when an American

B-52 mistakenly dropped its load there instead of the border area with Vietnam.

Crossing the Mekong can take time, often there is a queue of vehicles

either side, especially during lunch times. I waited an hour to make the trip.

Once across, a left turn at a statue of two soldiers will take you to

Prey Veng. The right-hand fork is the continuation of Highway, heading into Svay

Rieng.

Prey Veng, is worth a visit, particularly to catch one of the

beautiful sunrises there. There's also a boat trip on the Tonle Toch river from

Peam Ro town, which lies seven km from Neak Luong towards Prey Veng. The trip

take a leisurely meander one through some classic Cambodian countryside where

king fishers are commonplace.

Three to four hours further up the same

river is the delightful village of Prek Chrey, where almost every family has a

loom and produces the most wonderful cotton and silk kramas, for less than a

dollar. A boat can be hired for about 20,000 riel for the trip.

Back on

Highway 1, about ten km towards Svay Rieng, lies is Ba Phnom mountain which

boasts ancient temples said to pre-date Angkor. The temples are six km up a side

road.

Svay Rieng itself, just over an hour's drive from the Mekong

crossing, is typical of provincial Cambodia. With the departure of the UNTAC

personnel the town has had to re-adapt economically. Restaurants which used to

cater to the UN staff have turned into video parlors, and long-stay hotels into

"love" hotels.

For example, Chhann Mony used to rent out his home in the

centre of town to UN police officers but has now turned it into a pawn shop. He

has, however, found the pickings not so rich and ironically the two cars that

used to stand outside were themselves pawned recently.

There is a

Killing Fields monument, about five km outside town at Tanor village. A graphic

sign indicates the way.

The stretch of highway which leads Bavet, the

border town, a further 42 km has a distinct change of scenery running alongside

the road. The terrain is barren with few trees. Nui Ba Den (Black Lady) mountain

in Vietnam, looms to the north. The style of houses also changes, towards the

border. Here the Vietnamese influence shows through as they are made of mud and

straw.

When crossing into Cambodia from Moc Bai on the Vietnamese side,

there are no welcome signs, only a famous cigarette billboard that says

"smoothness above all else." Actually the last leg of the trip from Phnom Penh

to the border is also quite smooth as here the road is well constructed and is

comparable with the road the Thais constructed in Battambang province.

The border is now open either side to cyclists. Two New Yorkers, Deborah

Harse and Annie G., two native New Yorkers, who cycled from Vietnam, enjoyed the

two days it took them to cover 240 kilometers from Saigon to Phnom Penh. They

broke their journey in Svai Rieng where they put up at the Kyorl Chum Toes

hotel.

Annie G., a playwrite, was so enthralled by the trip and "the

little kids who ran from the fields waving their hands and shouting hello," that

she proposes to include Cambodia in her next play.

Debenath Christian, a

French cyclist came the same the way $2000 heavier/richer after coming third in

a Vietnamese marathon. He said "The road was safe enough."

However, I

have had so many close calls in taxis and on hired motorbikes that I think of

the road as a scene out of a "Mad Max" movie. Dust flys and cars, I saw four

wrecks, get run off the road.

Khmers seem to me perfectly nice people

except behind steering wheels. Interestingly, pigs seem to command a high

respect among drivers; cars that come close to hitting people, swerve hard to

miss the four legged pedestrians.

I hope I have not explained the route

away. I doubt it, as everyone has a different Cambodian experience. Many

foreigners whose itineraries not disimilar to mine, said their trips were

fraught with danger. I suppose there is no accounting for stories.

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