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A Trip to Cambodia’s International Buddhist Center

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The trip starts as many trips start in Asia, I need to find an excuse to rent a dirt bike. Rather than ask the people working at our hostel about the tourist destinations, I open Google Maps and look at the area surrounding Phnom Penh. After five minutes I find the International Buddhist Center. After seven minutes I’m positive that it’s worth checking out.

Joanna says it sounds cool, and we decide to make it a picnic. I go to the lobby and have the guy behind the desk summon me a dirt bike. Then we start looking for a place to get picnic food. Finding a sandwich shop in Asia is like trying to peel an onion with a chopstick, and we go through all of the brochures to find one place that looks decent. We change, then meet the dirt bike man in the lobby. He confiscates my passport in exchange for the keys, and I pay him with a crisp $20 bill.

Google Maps has given me the suggestion that the Buddhist Center isn’t that far away from our hostel. If you measure it strictly in terms of miles or kilometers, this is true. However, there was something else that was going to make this the most harrowing experience on a motorcycle that I would ever have. Something fluid like a river, loud like a hornet’s nest, and with an unpleasant aftertaste of insanity.

Don’t Mind the Sidewalk

The first twenty minutes is intense but I adjust quickly. We’re still in the city, the road resembles a road, and the traffic law atrocities being committed aren’t enough to summon the UN Peacekeepers. Our dirt bike is an older make but it’s built like a tank. It has a deep guttural exhaust sound that lets everyone know we have a full size 250cc engine. Since me and Joanna weigh no more than a single fat American, we make good time.

Driving towards the outskirts the city falls down around us. The buildings become more squat and their outsides more tarnished. Even these crusty looking apartments look nice compared to what comes next; the one room thatch houses built of materials assorted and unknown. These buildings give a good idea of how most people live in Cambodia, and I stare at them whenever I feel like I can spare a second. I think that every American who likes to complain about minor trivialities should be forced to live here for a week.

Potholes begin to appear. They give our road, ostensibly named Highway 1, the appearance of the pockmarked face of an acne afflicted teenager. In addition, the boundaries separating the road, from everything that is not the road, become a matter of interpretation. As soon as traffic begins to bunch, schools of scooters drive off onto the area where a sidewalk should be. They leave tiny rooster tails behind them as they plow through dust and gravel. Like a sardine I follow the crowd. Even with the dirt bike it’s difficult driving, and it’s a testament to the skill of the Cambodians that they’re able to handle this jarring terrain on tiny scooters with basketball sized tires.

Getting further outside of Phnom Penh, in the area that would be the suburbs in an American city, the traffic grows more gnarly. We’re forced to ride within several inches of semis and dump trucks who I assume are all piloted by sociopaths. I don’t imagine that any of these drivers would lose sleep over grinding a couple of people into the road. We’re so close that I can brush my shoulder against massive tires.

However, of more pressing concern is the engine. The only thing keeping it from boiling alive is cool air rushing past. At the moment it’s 90 degrees outside, we’re driving 10 mph in a low gear, and I can feel the heat from the gasoline explosions spreading through our seat and into my jeans. Setting aside my initial thought that these old bikes are built like Scottish fortresses, I begin to wonder how reliable they really are.

Follow the Leader

Fifteen minutes of hell and then we’re through the worst of it. The traffic has thinned from brain aneurysm to the relatively comfortable level of extremely stressful. We’re just starting to regularly reach speeds of 20mph when I feel that something isn’t right. The steering feels mushy and the engine is working overtime to maintain our speed. I look down and see that the front tire is half flat. Well past the city, we’re on a dirt highway that looks like it belongs in Africa. We have about $25, our cellphones can’t make calls, and I’m not prepared to handle this. A quarter mile down the road and the tire is done.

We get off and I’m emotionally wrecked. Driving through torrents of terrorist traffic for the last hour has left me functioning at the level of a five year old who hasn’t had his nap. I feel like throwing the dirt bike in the a ditch and drinking six beers in short succession.

Joanna takes over.

In places like Cambodia and Vietnam you’ll notice that on the side of the road, every half mile or so, there’s a small garage. We find one almost immediately and through vigorous sign language we learn that they don’t do tire repairs. However, they do let us use their cellphone. I call the English speaking guy at the rental shop, who asks where we are.

“I’m not really sure. Somewhere on Highway 1, outside Phnom Penh. We’ve been driving for an hour.”

This draws a moment of amused silence before he answers; “Tire repair your problem. You pay. Go to shop on road, You find shop, many shop there. You pay.”

“Ok” I reply, feeling uncharacteristically defeated. Joanna continues to lead. The mechanic who can’t fix a flat tire gestures for us to go across the road. Joanna bounces across first, and I stand with the dirt bike, waiting for a break in traffic. It feels like playing Frogger, but with higher stakes and less lives.

Tire Repair in Cambodia

By this point I would have followed Joanna if she walked off a cliff. I still feel emotionally whipped and I want the problem to be solved without having to think. I push the dirt bike into the shop on the other side of the road, and immediately there’s some confusion about whether they can fix the tire. They try to whisk us back onto the street, insisting they don’t do this kind of repair. We refuse to move, and insist right back that yes, whether they know it or not, they do. Coming to their senses, a young Cambodian boy puts the bike up on a stand. We get a pair of the plastic chairs that grow on trees in Asia, and sit down to watch as they begin the repair.

Having pulled the tire off and taken out the tube, the three young guys working on it locate the hole. They put a patch on the tube and then it’s time to secure it. What happens next would be to environmentalists what watching a chicken get it’s head cut off is to PETA supporters. The boys, none of whom could conceivably be a day over 18, take out a device that looks like a metal shot glass with a handle on it. One of them shakes a can, and then squirts a long stream of pitch black goo into the metal cup. Without delay another boy valiantly tries to set the rubbery black goo on fire. It refuses to light. He pours lighter fluid on it and tries again.

Success!

They use the heat generated from this ozone hazard to melt our patch on, while me and Joanna comment on tire repair in Cambodia. We’re not sure, but it seems like the type of thing that would cause an American mechanic to have a stroke.

Eating Lunch with the Kids

Environment be damned, we get the tire fixed! After half an hour the dirt bike is reassembled, and our young mechanics have crossed a month off of their lifespans by nonchalantly inhaling great deals of the black goo smoke.

“How much?” We ask, as I pull out my wallet.

One of the should-be-in-school mechanics holds up three fingers. It’s three dollars. He could have asked for five times as much and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I give him $6. Joanna, who is several magnitudes better at languages than me, thanks them. The tire is solid and the motor has had a chance to cool. After donning our silly helmets Joanna gives me the thumbs up, and we clamber over the trench, back into no man’s land.

The next forty-five minutes go smoothly. With only minimal backtracking we find the correct artery to take us to the Buddhist Center. The road is dusty orange, the color of sunset and nuclear war. While I don’t have the ego to believe that we’re anywhere near the first Westerners to drive down this rural dirt path, I don’t believe that it’s a daily occurrence either.

Messing with Google Maps we have some difficulty finding the Buddhist Center. So when we turn a bend and find a temple, we decide to stop and have lunch. On the right side of the road is an elementary school with dozens of cheerful kids running around and screaming. We go to the other side, and walk through a set of gates that admit us onto the grounds. Beneath several large trees are some picnic tables and we sit down to eat our Fatboy subs.

In the shade, the wilting December heat feels less intense. Further into the walled off grounds are a group of young students, dressed in the traditional orange garb of monks. They look at us eating in their cafeteria and don’t seem to think much of it. I’m struck by what it must be like to grow up here. Even though we’re only about twenty or thirty miles from downtown Phnom Penh, it might as well be a thousand. I’m sure that some, if not most, of these kids have never been more than ten miles from where they’re standing right now. While the area is beautiful it’s also very antiqued. I see little that reminds me of home, and a lot that suggests that I’m in a rural part of a country that’s on the opposite side of planet from New York.

All the Buddhas

A beautiful Buddhist school in CambodiaBefore we leave the monk school we decide to see if we can get inside the temple. It’s one of the most ornate, beautifully carved structures I’ve ever seen, and as Joanna is walking up to it I snap a picture. Unfortunately it’s locked, and we can only guess what it must look like on the inside.

Back at the dirt bike we strap helmets onto our brains. I disengage the kill switch, push the starter and the engine explodes to life. With the phone in GPS mode we conclude that it’s only a short drive to the Buddhist Center. I’m already impressed by what we’ve seen, and I wonder how our final destination could possibly top this. In retrospect, I can see that that’s like visiting a zoo, and then wondering how Africa could be any more grand.

Following the phone, we take a left onto a one lane road and the Center begins to show on the horizon. It’s big. It’s really big. It’s what the Kremlin is to the White House: freaking gigantic! Coming to stop directly in front of it we can see that it’s actually a series of distinct buildings. Each one is about the size of a soccer field, perhaps a bit smaller. They’re several stories tall and done up in brilliant colors. While each structure has the same general outline, they’re all different on the inside. Many BuddhasOne has a large Buddha sitting beneath a roof, another has a sleeping Buddha surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of small Buddhas carved of stone.

The first place we visit is my favorite. In the center of the enclosed court is a golden Buddha. Twenty feet tall and glowing with meaning. Sitting in front are several other statues, presumably the disciples of Buddha. The court yard is restricted by a large, intricately detailed wall. Like every Buddhist structure that I’ve seen, this wall is topped with sharp spikes shaped like horns. I still don’t know the significance of these sharp thorn projections, but I do know that they’re ubiquitous in Asia.

The Road Less Traveled

A large golden Buddha at the international buddhist center in Cambodia At the international Buddhist Center there are five elements instead of the usual four. Earth, wind, fire, water, and heat. As we walk further down the line of temples and shrines, I’m struck by how oppressive the heat is. It feels like a physical force that could be cut, packaged, and sold in Siberia for a profit. I feel admiration for the men and women who spent years building these incredible buildings in a pizza-oven environment.

Coming to a building at the end of the line, we find a female monk with her young son. Joanna bows, I nod, and she bows back to Joanna. Then, before we have a chance to walk around, she signals that she’d like us to follow her. We go inside a modern looking hall, climb a few steps up onto the platform, and go through a narrow door behind the stage. We ascend one staircase, and another. Then the monk opens a set of great doors and leaves us standing in a large dome above the hall. The inside is decorated like a forest, the ceiling curves away from us, and we’re alone with our thoughts.

Out of the city, away from the usual tourist traps, we’ve manged to find something totally unique. Persistence and a sense of adventure have given us an experience that few people visiting Cambodia will ever know about. While nerve racking trips like ours are best enjoyed on an irregular basis, if you travel and only go to the most trampled spots you’ll end up missing out on a lot. Throw out the Lonely Planet guides, go to Google Maps, and create your own unique adventure! That’s what the International Buddhist Center was to us, and it was responsible for a daytime full of lasting memories that will continue for a lifetime.

I Drove a Crotch Rocket Way too Fast in Thailand

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We drank Chang and played pool in Bangkok the night before we went to Koh Samui. At five the next morning we boarded a bus, switched from that to a ferry, and fourteen hours later, just as the sun was setting, we arrived in Koh Samui, Thailand. The seas were choppy, dozens of people had thrown up, and the inside of the ferry smelled like a theme park. 

 Phalarn Inn Koh SamuiDespite inaccurate directions from Google Maps, we managed to find our hostel and toss off our heavy bags. Phalarn Inn was a great place to stay, one of my favorite hostels in Southeast Asia. There was a large pool, an outdoor restaurant, and the whole place was tucked into the jungle. Every morning we woke up to the sound of hundreds of birds demanding attention.

Even though the hostel turned out to be unexpectedly amazing, there was something else that held my interest hostage. In the course of my research I discovered that you could rent a motorcycle on Koh Samui for nearly half of the price of other areas in Thailand. By this point I had rented several dirt bikes and a small, 250cc motorcycle, but I had never gotten the chance to take out a bike with a proper engine. This time, Thai Moto was going to be my accomplice in crime. The bikes were affordable, I was dying to drive something fast, and we had a reason to rent one. Driving around the island was the perfect excuse to justify the rental.

Fuckups and Misdemeanors

SongthaewAll over Thailand there are unique taxis that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They;re pickup trucks (usually red) with elevated roofs covering the beds. Not quite high enough to stand up comfortably, you have to crouch to reach your seat. There is no gate on the back of the truck, and you simply hop on after flagging him down. The Songthaew (as they’re called) follows a fixed route and is usually about a quarter of the price of a regular taxi.

Several days after arriving in Koh Samui, after I had drank too much gin and made an ass of myself in front of the other guests, we flagged down a Songthaew and rode into town. I held onto the bars on the back, perilously close to the road. In Southeast Asia there may be safety regulations in law somewhere, but the day they’re actually enforced will be the day that wealthy musicians stop doing Bolivian cocaine.

Downtown, we pounded on the roof, paid 100 Baht, and started walking towards the rental place. In this moment, I can pinpoint the precise second where I fucked up with Joanna. There were about a dozen such fuckups in the course of our five month relationship, and this was one of them.

After getting off the taxi, I hadn’t checked how long it would take to walk to the rental place. Even at 9:30 in the morning it was already approaching 90 degrees, and we were walking on the side of the road. No sidewalk, no shade.

“How much further is it?” Joanna asked me.

Zooming in and out on Google maps, taking a terrible guess, I told her twenty minutes. The problem was that I had been so caught up in my own selfish thinking, I had failed to think about what Joanna might be feeling. I have no aversion to so called death marches in the heat. Hot and sweaty, being uncomfortable, nearly getting run over by traffic multiple times, these things don’t bother me. But more sane people (like Joanna) don’t have the same reaction.

With all traces of a smile gone, she flagged down a real taxi and he drove us to the rental place. A walk which wouldn’t have taken 20 minutes, but closer to 45. We arrived, and I said thank you to the taxi driver.

“Thank you Joanna” she said to me, as she paid for the taxi. It was one of the very few times that I ever felt Joanna was truly angry with me. Like any relationship there were times we’d get upset with each other, or have disagreements, but I felt ice in her voice. If I was a hermit crab I would have retreated into my shell. To make things worse, the fucking rental place was closed. I felt like Steve Jobs when he was fired from Apple, the company that he founded. Ashamed, embarrassed, and distraught. At this point, I would have welcomed getting run over by an insane Thai driver.

Instead of being crushed, I ended up standing there lamely, like a kid who’s too scared to ask out a girl to the prom.

“I’m getting a drink” Joanna said, and went into the cafe across the street.

Before I had a chance to make a wild dash into traffic, I was surprised to see our taxi driver standing in front of the rental place and waving to me. I walked across the street to him.

“Open soon, you see. 10 they open, I know this place. You see.”

“Alright fine” I said, stress creeping into my voice, avoiding eye contact with him.

He was right though. A few minutes later a man pulled in on a bike and began to unlock the doors. Without glancing at us, he began to move the dirt bikes out in front of the building. Ignoring me, it turned out that our taxi driver was just as interested to look at the bikes as I was.

If the Bike Fits, Rent It

Ninja 650I already had a good idea of which bike I wanted. Unlike other rental agencies, Thai Moto actually had a comprehensive website which I had already spent nearly an hour browsing. I immediately gravitated towards the far corner of the shop, and there she was. A Ninja 650, black on black. 649ccs of race tuned power. Zero to sixty in under three seconds. Top speed: faster than 95% of the other shit on the road. I gingerly sat down on it, balancing it with my legs, kicking up the stand and getting a feel for the weight.

Glancing to the left I saw another bike, just as sexy, just as black. I was a kid in the candy store. The problem is that as a kid, you can pick out a couple of your favorite candies. As a semi-responsible, sort of adult, with a beautiful girlfriend who’s going to be riding on back, you only get the chance to pick out a single bike.

Finally making contact with the owner of the shop, I asked him how much the Ninja was.

“1,000 Baht” he said with a Russian accent.

“Ты говоришь по-русски? You speak Russian?” I asked him.

“Да, конечно. Я из России. Yeah, of course. I’m from Russia.”

“Круто! Я преподавал английский язык в москве восемь месяцев. Cool! I taught English in Moscow for eight months.”

A transformation came over his face. When I had first entered the shop he looked like his wife had left him. Now he was smiling and ignoring the taxi driver, who was asking stupid questions about motorcycle tires. Sensing that most two year old’s with down’s syndrome speak better Russian than me, he switched to English and showed me around.

“So you like the Ninja. It’s a good bike. This one is nice too” he says, starting up the other sexy monster that was parked on the opposite side of the shop. “It’s got a custom exhaust kit on it and when you rev it up..” He pulled the throttle back and I thought it sounded like god speaking the ten commandments to Moses. I was tempted, but not persuaded. I had an aversion to loud motorcycles, and me and Joanna had made fun of dozens of them so far in our trip.

“It sounds great!” I said to him after he shut it off. “I like it, but I don’t think my girlfriend will. She doesn’t like loud motorcycles.”

“So you want the Ninja then?” He asks.

I look at it the way parents look at a newborn baby, and say: “Yeah, I want the Ninja.” I handed over my passport as collateral (illegal, but common practice in all of Southeast Asia), give him a thousand Baht, and carefully selected the least smelly helmet from the large rack of loaners. Mr. Russian parked the bike on the street, turned the keys over to me, and it was time to go to the cafe and make it up with Joanna.

Two and a Half Times the Fun

“Sam I’m going to kill you!” Joanna screamed into my ear, as we squeezed through a three foot gap, between a pair of dump trucks, going 85 mph. I understood how she felt. Riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the most powerless feelings in the world. You sit back there, your entire existence at the mercy of the driver. In a car there are seat belts and airbags to cushion the crash. If there’s an accident on a motorcycle, the first thing you run into is a dense piece of asphalt which is going to rip the side of your face off.

There’s a great paradox here though. The driver of a motorcycle feels just as confident in his or her abilities, as the passenger feels powerless. Tearing a narrow gap between forty thousand pounds of metal going close to 90 felt as safe as taking a sip of room temperature coffee to me. No matter that I would have been just as dead as Joanna should something have gone wrong, my experience of that second in time was totally different than hers.

The Ninja ended up being the fastest thing that I’ve ever driven in my life, and that record may stand unbroken for a long, long time. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of driving an average car. You jam your foot onto the gas pedal, what happens? It feels like pressing into a wet sponge. Even though you may have the pedal fully depressed, there seems to be a lag. It takes a moment for the engine to catch up and give you the speed that you’re looking for. Unless you drive a M4, that’s the type of throttle response most people are used to.

Now imagine this. As you push down on the pedal, the engine matches your wish. If you push hard, you take off. Push it all the way down, and you’re going 100 mph before your brain can process what’s happening. That’s what it was like to drive the Ninja. Turn the throttle and you explode forward like a bottle rocket. If you keep the throttle held down, the next thing you know you’re doing 110 and you become very aware of how mortal you are. I never took it that fast, but it would have gladly performed should I have asked.

All Good Things Come to an End

We circled the island twice and Joanna said she was going to kill me exactly three times. That’s once every two hours. Not bad considering I was having more fun than a kid in high school getting laid for the first time.

The second time around Koh Samui we stopped at one of the more pristine beaches that I’ve found in Thailand. Palm trees, tropical breeze, and a white sandbar stretching well out into the ocean. I parked the bike in the shade. We stripped down, waded out into the ocean, and lay in two inch water, with barely perceptible waves lapping up against us. Joanna’s head was resting on my stomach, and we listened as Russian tourists walked by.

Sunrise at Grandfather rock at Koh SamuiThen it was time to go. We dressed, donned our helmets, and got back onto the rocket ship. Two hours later we were back at the hostel, the bike safely parked for the night. The next morning we would drive across the island to see the sunrise at Grandfather Rock, and then I would return it to the Russian.

Faster than Superman on meth, that bike was the most exciting thing I’ve ever driven in my life. I’m a die hard motorcycle addict, and feeling the power of that engine did nothing to cure my sickness. For me, driving a motorcycle is one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world. Combine that with a stunning tropical island, an awesome girlfriend to keep me in check, and we had a hell of time. Back in the states I’ll drive my own significantly slower bike and enjoy every second of it. But as I feel the sponge throttle, there will always be the memory of letting the Ninja loose. Tearing between the dump trucks, and my amazing motorcycle candy Joanna threatening to kill me, if I didn’t do it first.