Getting in a scooter accident in Southeast Asia is like getting food poisoning in India: practically inevitable. If you manage to escape either fate, you are lauded as some kind of supernatural backpacking wizard.
Somehow both Kim and I managed to avoid any gastrointestinal drama for the entire ten weeks we traveled India (although I think I paid my dues with my camel mishap), but it was only a matter of five short days in SE Asia before Campbell was claimed as the next casualty in a long line of scooter victims.
The adventure kicks off in Kampot, a sleepy riverside town in southeastern Cambodia.
There’s not much to do in Kampot. Our plan was to stay only for a day in order to break up the long trip to our next destination. But since we were there, we figured we might as well see some of what the town had to offer.
Travelers we met in Siem Reap mentioned a beautiful national park, so we decided we’d spend our brief stint in Kampot outdoors. We caked on some sunscreen, donned our hiking gear, and headed out to the road to catch a tuk-tuk.
“Can you take us to Bokor National Park?”
The tuk-tuk driver looks at us like we have three heads.
“Bokor National Park?”
Again, nothing. Maybe third time’s the charm.
“Bokor Nat —”
“Yeah, yeah —” the driver cuts in. “I know Bokor. But no tuk-tuks. You rent scooters.”
We’d discussed the possibility of taking mopeds up the mountain, but we decided we’d rather hike, even if it meant gaining less altitude.
“We want to walk,“ Campbell says, indicating by moving her arms back and forth. The language barrier is sometimes a challenge here.
“No walking,” he says. “Scooters.”
“That’s okay; we don’t need scooters. Can you just take us to the park?”
“I take you to rent scooters.”
“No, no scooters. We’re going to walk.”
This charming repartee continues on for quite some time, until we get the driver to agree to take us to the foot of the mountain.
“But I think it will be big energy for you,” he shouts over his shoulder as we drive towards Bokor.
“That’s ok!” I shout back confidently. “We like exercise.”
Lesson #1: if your tuk-tuk driver is willing to pass up a pricey fare to recommend that you rent scooters instead, he’s probably suggesting that for a reason.
Fifteen minutes later we pull up to the gates of Bokor and understand what the fuss was all about. The entrance to the national park is around ten kilometers away from the foot of the mountain, and tuk-tuks aren’t allowed through the gates. It would be over an hour’s walk on the side of the highway to even get to the trailhead.
Campbell hops out to talk to the park officials while I wait with the tuk-tuk. I see her pantomime “walking” several times before she thanks them and comes back to me.
“So… the mountain doesn’t even have trails. You can only take motorcycles or cars.”
Lesson #2: “no walking” means “no walking.”
About-face: the driver takes us back to the center of town to rent scooters.
Oh well, no harm done. We did have to pay the tuk-tuk driver a considerable sum for carting us around, but I guess that’s the price of stubbornness.
A short time later we zoom back towards Bokor, this time each on our own mopeds. I feel pretty confident these days on a motorized scooter; the chaotic streets of India were a sort of trial-by-fire. Campbell is a new driver, but she’s a quick study. We rented scooters in Siem Reap and she got the hang of it in record time.
Good thing, too, because the drive up to the top of the mountain turns out to be no joke. It’s a tortuous thirty-two kilometers uphill to the summit. No wonder our driver said it would be a “big energy” for us to walk.
But scooters are really the ideal way to see the mountain anyway. There’s a sensation of being on top of the world as you ascend Bokor — you ride right into the clouds. The temperature drops, which gives the air a delectable crispness. The higher you go, the more vibrantly green the hillsides become, and occasionally you can look out over all of Kampot through the gaps in the trees. Plus, any driver who says the sharp turns don’t give you an adrenaline rush is lying to you.
At the top there’s a little waterfall —somewhat underwhelming as far as waterfalls go, but a nice reward for reaching the summit, and an equally nice respite from sitting on the bike.
After bopping around the waterfall for a bit, it’s time to start the descent.
“I’m not sure how much gas I have left,” Campbell says as she hops back on her scooter. “My fuel gauge is broken.”
“It’s all downhill anyway. I’m sure we’ll make it. Plus, we should go slowly since it’s so steep and windy.”
So, we begin to descend, Campbell in the lead. As discussed, we drive responsibly. No “live life on the edge” mentality; no racing, no cutting corners or accelerating on straightaways. We’ve heard enough scooter horror stories to deter us from playing with fire.
Lesson #3: even when you’re being careful, accidents happen. That’s why they’re called “accidents.”
We’re only a few kilometers down the mountain when Campbell takes a turn that goes horribly wrong. One second, she’s heading into the curve with complete control; the next, she’s down.
Our best guess is that the tread on her tires was worn, because the scooter literally slipped out from under her. That is, before it fell on her.
Miraculously, she’s okay. No broken bones, even though the full weight of a motorbike collapsed onto her. The skin on her limbs is certainly worse for the wear — but I’ll spare you the graphic details. Suffice it to say, she’s gushing blood from more than one place as we make the rest of our downhill journey at a glacial pace.
We get back to the hostel and start the clean-up process — disinfecting, bandaging, et cetera. The wine drinking starts somewhere around this time, too.
“So… about tomorrow…”
Our original plan was to leave Kampot bright and early the next morning to head to Chi Phat, a rural village off the beaten path where a local family would host us for a few days.
Chi Phat was to be the highlight of our Cambodia itinerary. We were very much looking forward to taking the road less traveled and having the opportunity to stay with a family. Plus, the village is both on a river and in the mountains, so there is no shortage of outdoorsy activities: kayaking, hiking, swimming — all of which we were very enthusiastic about doing.
That is, before the scooter attacked Campbell.
Lesson #4: be flexible.
There really isn’t much debate about the fact that we should change our plans. Staying in someone’s home with several gaping wounds doesn’t seem like a very nice thing to do, and even though Campbell is quite the trooper, she most certainly should not hike or kayak any time soon.
Somewhat reluctantly, Campbell agrees to forego Chi Phat.
“Where do you want to go instead?” she asks, with just a hint of glumness in her voice.
“Remember my cousin mentioning that Koh Rong was his favorite place in Cambodia? We could go there.”
Koh Rong is a small island off the coast of Cambodia. My cousin spent time there earlier this year and absolutely raved about it, but initially I wasn’t sure Campbell and I would be able to fit it into our itinerary.
But since island life as a general rule is pretty relaxed and easygoing, Koh Rong suddenly sounds like the perfect place to jumpstart Campbell’s recovery. We agree on the new plan and make arrangements to head to the island first thing in the morning.
Sure, it’s no local village — but who can be bummed about a back-up option like this?
What was originally a mere replacement for the highly-anticipated Chi Phat turns out to be a veritable island paradise. No wonder my cousin said this was his favorite place in this whole country.
The island is a 45-minute ferry off the mainland, and except for a few coastal strips, it’s largely undeveloped. You stand on the pier and can at once see both the beginning and end of the populated stretch of beach.
Now, undoubtedly, Koh Rong is geared towards tourists; almost every building on the beach is a hostel. But that makes it almost like a utopian backpacker commune. You meet people on all different kinds of journeys from all over the world. It’s so small that it almost feels like you’re hanging out with the whole island at once.
We watched gorgeous sunsets. We snorkeled and played in the ocean. We went fishing and cooked our catch right on the boat and ate it for dinner. I even swam with bioluminescent plankton! One of the coolest aquatic phenomena I’ve ever seen.
So, lesson #5: don’t let it throw you when the scooter throws you.
You never know how fabulous Plan B might be.