‘Wats’ in Cambodia Day 129: Lions, Tigers, and Sun Bears Oh My!

On this my last full day in Phnom Penh (that is until I unfortunately have to pass through the gates of hell once more to reach the open road of Vietnam), I scored my motorbike and drove off through the usual crazy inner city traffic before I stayed course on their version of a national highway. Considering most roads out here in Asia come with all the features you want and expect out of a road (a carpet of dirt and dust loaded with landline filled strip of pot holes, jagged rocks, loose animals, etc.), the national highway out to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary wasn’t bad but if you want to compare it to Western standards, which is never a fair fight (a David vs. Goliath spar in which David has his hands tied behind his back), it would fit in quite nicely with side streets and alleys that pepper forgotten corners of cities. Either way, I kicked the manual bike into high gear knowing I needed to get as much practice as humanely possible before I claimed a bike as my own through thick and thin in Vietnam. All went as smooth as can be with the occasional launch jackhammer-style from my seat due to the typical array of road warts until I stopped at a mom and pop gas station to decide whether I had driven just a bit too far. I reached down towards the ignition to turn off my roaring motor when no key stood in sight. The bike kept running but without a key. Apparently to my dismay, the key popped out on one of those hops and now laid somewhere on that long stretch of road. I asked the one girl attendant (through the use of miming of course) if I could borrow her phone for a moment. Praise all the holy of holies that I had the number of the ironically named Lucky! Lucky! motorbike shop and explained through a series of a much needed patience filled dialogue what occurred. They sent a man to give me a new key but I would need to wait a lovely hour for him to show up even though they stretched the truth as most people do with a twenty minute estimation (as if!). After enough twiddling of my thumbs, the man arrived with a new bike and key. Sure enough the park was right around the corner. As the only white person around, I was as much of an attraction as the animals themselves. The sanctuary is actually a zoo but felt much more natural and a better habitat for the animals. I never did find a lion but I got to meet the sun bears that I purposefully came out here for. Sun bears are the smallest species of bears in the world and have their namesake printed on their upper chests: a crescent golden yellow looking very much like the sun itself. With some other visitors next to me watching the bears as well as myself, I got a bear to launch itself onto its hind legs when I raised my arms a high still quite not reaching my stature. With the limited infrastructure, I could get very close to the animals. Beyond the main route, paths delineated into the forest where more animals were held. I was in the company of several Asian bears (one sadly trudging along with an amputated leg) all to myself. Taking advantage of the moment, I got a selfie with the bear as our two heads were no more than a meter apart from each other. After chatting with the bears, I had myself encounters with tigers, elephants, humongous python snakes, yellow and black gibbons, etc. but was never able to spot the elusive pride of the land. The zoo/sanctuary had exhibits and child play areas like any zoo in the U.S. that I have ever seen but throw any American except for the rare species that I seem to have evolved from and he or she will not recognize it as the zoo each and every one of those Cambodians saw it as. In many ways, once you cut out the obvious luxurious missed such as a stand up Western toilet for example (not only am I thankful for being an American, God bless Mother Nature for making me a man for that reason alone), I kind of preferred this zoo just so I could get up close and personal with beastly creatures like tigers and bears. After leaving the sanctuary, I walked up to a temple on the hill and got blessed by a monk who could have starred in his own movie franchise remaking the Bad Santa series but of course with a man dressed in a light orange cloak. He did not fit the mold of a monk but either way repeatedly dipped his flower or leaf and whipped the excess water droplets in my face clearly more than was necessary (I wasn’t going to complain when the thermometer was hovering around 90 degrees). I rode back to Phnom Penh begrudgingly and fought through the craziness of inner city Asian traffic. To put this nice and sweetly and as simple as possible, these people are f$&@ing out of their minds. They have no concept for order and the laws of traffic. Out of side streets, people pull out onto the main road without looking twice and assume oncoming traffic is capable of predicting the future to dodge the path that everyone knew all along. Beyond that, motorcyclists ride the curb in the opposite direction just to add that extra layer of complicated madness that already circulates through the veins of a city like Phnom Penh. This doesn’t even cover the worst part of it all when you run into intersections. As for the smaller ones, it results in a cross where for the sake of everyone’s livelihoods there should be a stop sign or say I don’t know if I am jumping off the deep end with this idea but maybe a traffic light. Since an idea like that is too complicated and dare I say efficient, Asian cities have found another way to do business on the streets. This cross in traffic turns into a stop and go that could otherwise resemble a daredevil’s dream of a figure 8 race track in which no one stops. To survive as the leader of the pack, you simply need to find that gap and hit it with reckless abandon. After getting lost in the city with seemingly clear directions I went back to the confines of my air-con room to revel in the fact that tonight was (fingers crossed) my second to last night in Phnom Penh. I met the new arrivals to Phnom Penh and got some serious intel on buying a motorbike and riding said bike through Vietnam from an Aussie. Over some heavenly Indian food, he told me what to look for in a bike, what to have on hand while riding about, and simply how to dodge danger on the road. The closer I get to Vietnam, the more I look forward to exploring the country in a way I have never before. Never did I plan on tackling such a challenge and adventure but with time and experience the impossible begins to seem more possible. Once again, why not me?


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