It is Russ who first christens our motley expedition as we slowly ease ourselves off our motorbikes on the banks of the Mekong river. Stiff and broken from the long day’s drive, we stretch our legs and feel our battered bodies start to come alive again. “I was thinking we should call this adventure The Sore Way Round,” Russ quips, “because, well, it is.”
It is the end of day two on our month-long motorbike tour of Cambodia, an idea first hatched over ice-cool Angkor beers back in Battambang a few days earlier. We had crossed paths with Sophia and Russ for the fourth time in almost as many days, and it seemed fated that we should continue to travel together.
I turn in my seat now as we cross the Mekong and begin to follow the water’s path from Kampong Cham towards Kratie, looking back to take a photo of our new travel companions. The early morning sun beats down upon us and the quiet streets begin to stir, waking me up with them.
Sophia and Russ crossing the Mekong river
There is an energy that courses through Cambodia unlike that of any other country I have visited. It is raw and authentic, its heart as open as the wounds of its embittered history. As our bike moves ever forward I feel myself become more open too, releasing the tension of the past eight months, watching it drift away on the warm winds as we drive.
I gaze through dust-coated sunglasses at the ever-changing landscape, as dry ochre fields evolve into lush forests and rolling hills. Vibrant green rice paddies glisten in the sun, broken only by a scattering of livestock and the occasional pop of colourful headscarves as women tend their crops.
Glimpses of family life
Tiny houses on stilts skirt the roadside. The look like they’ve been made from lollypop sticks, ramshackle and worn by time. Families congregate in their shade, swinging from hammocks beneath the floorboards while children play in the dust. They spread sheets outside to dry their harvest, the black of peppercorns, the red of chilli peppers, their musty perfume lingering long after we drive past.
Lollypop stick house
Everything seems more alive here, more visceral, and the diverse beauty of this chaotic country and her remarkable people are a fuel as vital as the petrol that courses through our engine.
We’ve been driving for over an hour when we pull over at a little shack for our first stop of the day, not to refuel, but to dismount for a while and allow the blood flow to return to our aching muscles. We pull off our helmets, our faces ruddy with the dust of the road, drawing comical stares from the young girls sorting plastic bottles behind us.
Relaxing at the bike stop
That’s kind of how it goes out here on the road. Unable to communicate in words, we smile and laugh, stumbling over the few words of Khmer we have picked up, four dirt-streaked adventurers. Always, we are welcomed. We are taken in, offered chairs, quietly giggled at.
A young boy, no older than ten, pulls up on a motorbike and stands casually as a woman fills his gas tank. He is perhaps the coolest kid I have ever seen, and he cracks a wry smile as I catch his eye, before jumping back on his bike and driving off.
The coolest kid in Cambodia
We sit for a while, taking it all in; the view, the people, our new friendship. Out here on the road, we are becoming a team, routing for each other, urging one another on. It is a camaraderie we witness daily in the people of Cambodia, and one we fall into easily.
Soon we are back on the bikes, chasing the clouds that hang heavy in the sky above us, a sky more vast than I have ever seen before. It’s another world, whole mountains and valleys of white, suspended in the ether.
We pass a bike carrying a family of four, and I watch as huge grins spread across their faces as they move behind us. We are the same, and we are different, and we smile in acknowledgement of this. I wave as the distance between us increases, and they wave back.
These beautiful but brief moments of connection are scattered along the way like breadcrumbs marking our trail, ensuring that we will never forget the path our journey takes, and letting us know that wherever this road may lead us, we will always find our way back.
Let’s just keep going
I feel as though I could follow this road forever, just leave my arms wrapped loosely around Lee, my face turned to the wild beauty all around me, and keep going. Every small encounter, every friendly face. They come together here on the road and become a tangible force that fuels my thirst for adventure. This. This is why I travel.