May 3, 2011

Retro vehicles add interest to Cambodian trip

[Las Vegas Review Journal]

By Courtney Hansen

Flying straight west, Cambodia is about 8,000 miles from my home in Los Angeles. So, why am I in Siem Reap city in Cambodia, hanging off the back of a motorized rickshaw that's being piloted by a local man who apparently has a death wish?

Let's back up that rickshaw for a minute.

Before my wedding in March, I worked double-time to be able to take three and a half weeks off for my honeymoon in Southeast Asia. While we visited Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, I fell in love with Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Why? One reason was our adventures with local transportation. How hubby Ilya and I got around Siem Reap and toured the ancient temples of Angkor Wat created plenty of thrills and plenty of scares.

Ilya had been to Angkor Wat before and insisted that, as a tree lover and one who appreciates history and the beauty of other cultures, Cambodia was a must. My honey was right on the money.

As you might expect, Cambodia is not touristy or tainted by foreign influence of any sort. We were dropped right into the culture and the raw spirit of the land ... and it didn't hurt that we were greeted at the airport by guides from our hotel in a vintage 1960s Mercedes.

It was immaculate: shiny black and the interior was covered in fresh white linens. As a car person, you likely have an idea of how impressive this greeting really was. The driver wore a white cotton outfit, had upright posture and had his hands perfectly placed in the 10 and 2 o'clock positions on the huge steering wheel.

Cambodian villages are made up of simple, colorful and weathered -- yet charming -- stone and wood architecture while the streets are dotted with quaint and casual restaurants that are relatively absent of patrons. Our bizarre vehicular landscape with hybrids contrasted by "pleasure" sport-utes, such as Hummers, and cursing taxi drivers would likely appear just as foreign to Cambodians as their conveyances appeared to me.

People of all ages rode various vehicles -- mostly bicycles and noisy motorcycles -- to their destinations along a crowded two-lane highway. Women rode what I would consider to the very first hybrid vehicle -- the half-bike, half-motorcycle moped -- carrying baskets of fruit and sugar cane.

Few people actually wore helmets and many of the kids went without, which was a little shocking. The roads are flat and mostly straight, so they are not challenging to navigate, but the speeds are steady and there is a lot of weaving in and out of traffic.

Men rocketed the tourists around in tuk-tuks, which are basically motorcycles with carriages out back. Oh yes, the tuk-tuk experience.

The temples of Angkor Wat are a major attraction for Cambodia. They were built by Hindus in the early 12th century. Apparently, the prime time to get on the road for a visit is 5:30 a.m. to beat the rush of tourists. Go figure.

Ilya arranged it, and if we were having trouble waking up at that hour, our personal tuk-tuk driver helped get the blood flowing. He was speedy and erratic and narrowly escaped head-on collisions to get us to the spot where "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," starring Angelina Jolie, was filmed back in 2001.

This experience was somewhat amplified by the fact that I'm a terrible backseat driver. If this was an Olympic event, I would have won gold for the last three games.

Somehow, I managed to keep quiet. Perhaps it was out of sheer terror as I closed my eyes -- a lot -- and rationalized that the driver must be good at what he does or he wouldn't be alive to drive us around in the first place. Surely the hotel would only put us in the safest hands, right?

As death defying as it all seemed, I didn't see a single crash/accident/collision/mishap. And, obviously, I'm alive to recount the story.

Anyway, it was several miles on paved roads to the various temples that were spread throughout Angkor Wat. Getting close to each one meant traveling for the last quarter of a mile or so on bumpy and rutted dirt roads. I actually felt the safest on this part of the tuk-tuk journey, even while bouncing around the back of the carriage, because there was no oncoming traffic to crash into.

As we exited the tuk-tuk, we were greeted by the sight of ancient, grand, stone staircases of the temples leading up several hundred feet, just like a vision from a story book.

The ornate hallways are a sight to be behold as are the small passageways and the temples that were intertwined with massive iridescent trees that had a silver and gold sheen. In many places, the trees were actually holding the structures together. It was a phenomenal sight.

After each temple hike, we were back in the tuk-tuk carriage for an equally adventurous ride back.

Before leaving Cambodia to head home to married life, I just had to get some car photos of the Mercedes and the tuk-tuk. What to do? Coming straight out of the pool, Ilya suggested a modern swimsuit picture to heavily contrast the old-world look of the Cambodian transportation devices. So we head our mini photo shoot with four of my favorite things: my husband, Cambodia, high heels and cars.

Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is an author, the host of Spike TV's "PowerBlock," the former host of TLC's "Overhaulin' " and a writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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