PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “Look out! He’s coming right at us!” I’ve been in Cambodia’s broiling, bustling capital city for all of an hour, and already the ambassador’s “most dangerous place” warning is proving true. On the raucous main thoroughfare (picture a migration of wildebeests dressed as bikes and scooters), a careening motorcycle is headed straight at our frail, clattering tuk-tuk—and apparently our driver could not care less.
“Be careful, because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.” –Joseph Mussomeli, former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia
I duck instinctively, brace, and wince in anticipation of the implosion. “Oh, well,” I think. “At least now I’ll never have to try deep-fried tarantula.” But then I hear the bike flash past, and I feel a close blast of hot wake vortex slap against my face. Incredulous, I look over my shoulder at the fast-disappearing Suzuki. “That was close! Can you believe that idio …”
And right then my tuk-tuk crashes into the photo team’s.
This is my first afternoon here, and already I’m realizing that Cambodia is to “normal” places what “Blue Velvet” is to “National Velvet.” Of course, that’s also largely why I’ve wanted for so long to make the 8,000-plus-mile trip from Los Angeles to come here. Yes, Cambodia is widely regarded as one of Asia’s poorest and most corrupt countries. Yes, its official rules of the road appear to have been framed by a drunken theater crowd during a screening of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Yes, the place is still recovering—more than four decades later—from U.S. bombings during the Vietnam War and a communist-sponsored genocide that wiped out more than a quarter of its citizenry in the 1970s. “You sure you wouldn’t rather take a trip to Chernobyl?” said a friend. “I hear the insects there are cooked better.”
No, I want to be here. I say that, because for more than 600 years Cambodia was one of Asia’s superpowers. From A.D. 802 to 1432, the Khmer empire built the monumental Angkor temples that still stand today—“the eighth wonders of the world”—and, at their zenith, outlined a city of more than a million people (at a time when London was a scrabbling village of just 50,000). Along its southern coast, Cambodia boasts idyllic but largely unoccupied beaches ringed with palm trees and laid-back retreats. The northern cities of Siem Reap and Battambang radiate a colonial vibe from years of largely French rule (1884-1953), proffering everything from Gallic architecture to delectable blends of French and Khmer cuisines. Not to be overlooked, Cambodia is also the setting for one of my all-time favorite movies. “That’s Cambodia, captain,” says the anxious river-boat chief to his mysterious passenger Willard. “That’s classified,” comes the terse reply in “Apocalypse Now.” And now I’m actually here in that once-forbidden place.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather take a trip to Chernobyl?” said a friend. “I hear the insects there are cooked better.”
Of course, this being a journey built around driving, I have one other, highly alluring reason for traveling to this quixotic, faraway locale: Somewhere out there, I’m told, awaits one of the greatest unknown driving roads in all the world.
My chariot on this adventure is a 2016 Subaru WRX STi, a car perfect for this mission: 305-horsepower turbo flat-four for blasting around lumbering trucks and trailers on the country’s narrow rural two-lanes; advanced all-wheel drive with torque vectoring; adjustable center differential for making the most of battered dirt byways and my anticipated “dream road” alike. We’ve also swapped the STi’s standard rubber for a set of extra-rugged DMAX competition tires, as proper factory spares are all but nonexistent in a place where an STi is about as common as a flying saucer. That Subies are also tough as hell and a gas to gun hard just makes thoughts of the upcoming drive all the sweeter.
The STi offers one other advantage I didn’t expect. Says our local Cambodian guide Peterson (who speaks better English than most of the people I know back in L.A.): “Your flashy red car with the big wing … when other motorists see it, they will think you are rich. And if you’re rich, you’re probably also corrupt. That’s good. They will give you a wide berth.”
As I leave the frenzied but still relatively familiar “city life” of Phnom Penh for the unknown wilds of Cambodia’s countryside, I make a brief stop to give myself the very best chance of returning with body and Subaru in one piece. Somehow contorting myself into a laughable facsimile of cross-legged, I teeter on a mat as local Buddhist monks light candles and begin chanting for my safe passage. Apparently, ensuring the success of this ritual means showering me with generous splashes of water, flower petals, sprigs, and, by the end, grotesquely large fruits lobbed to within inches of my groin. Fortunately, my pummeling—er, blessing—comes to a premature end when the lead chanter suddenly drops his microphone to take an important cell-phone call.
Later in the day, I board a ferry to make the trek across the mighty Mekong River. I didn’t want to drive at night, but now we’re behind schedule and our destination is still hours away. Have you ever driven on a narrow two-lane in the dark with multiple big rigs coming your way—without them having any lights? Well now I have. It’s like trying to dodge the face of Hoover Dam in a fog. Apparently, drivers often don’t fix broken headlamps or running lights because, well, replacements are just too damn expensive.
The next morning, having survived my night terrors, I’m up before dawn in Siem Reap to witness something I’ve waited decades to see: sunrise over the temples of Angkor Wat. One of mankind’s greatest-ever structures, on par with the pyramids of Giza and China’s Great Wall, Angkor Wat was constructed in the 12th century and sprawls over nearly a square mile (it’s considered the world’s largest religious building); its construction is said to have employed some 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. Seeing it in person does not disappoint, especially being able to view up close the more than 3,000 apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. Remarkably, unlike some of the other nearby temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. In fact, it’s still an active temple for Buddhist monks (though it was originally built as a Hindu temple) today.
A short drive away, among the dozens of other temples, lies Ta Prohm, a crumbling but equally magnificent Buddhist temple built some 30 years after Angkor Wat. Now overrun by huge trees that have attached themselves to the rock, Ta Prohm is otherworldly, mysterious, straight out of a Hollywood movie. In fact, Angelina Jolie starred in scenes shot here in 2001’s “Tomb Raider.”
The driving conditions in the Cambodian countryside are not shoulder to shoulder like in Phnom Penh, but they’re still a challenge. The two-lane roads are narrow. Scooters and motorcycles go where they please, sometimes driving against traffic in the wrong lane. Pickups rumble along packed with ridiculously wide loads of lumber or palm fronds or dozens of boxes lashed together with ropework so complex that copying it would melt a Cray supercomputer. You clip a passing car or miss a turn out here, and you’re on your own. Ambulance service? Oh, of course. But right now it’s 300 miles away.
Fortunately, the STi has the muscle to rocket around slower traffic during even the smallest gaps, and it’s nothing but surefooted—even on roads that aren’t actually roads. And bless its tireless air conditioning; outside, the tropical air is 110 degrees.
You can’t come to Cambodia without facing, eventually, the grim reality of the country’s not-very-distant past. It hits home in a place called the Killing Cave. Here, during the reign of dictator Pol Pot during the mid-to-late 1970s, the communist group Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of Cambodian citizens by stabbing them in the head and pushing them over a 100-foot drop to the cave’s bottom. Elsewhere in the country it was worse. Among the dead: 80 percent of Cambodia’s teachers, 95 percent of its doctors. Some 2 million people in all, maybe even 3 million. Pol Pot called his mad scheme of intellectual culling “returning Cambodia to year zero.” Fortunately, the Vietnamese eventually stepped in and quickly drove out Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge thugs. But the horror—the horror—was already done.
I aim the STi south, away from this awful place, and instead attempt to focus on something more uplifting. I finally come to “the perfect road.”
Near the southern town of Kampot, Bokor Mountain Road is the sort of driving paradise an enthusiast usually encounters only in dreams. Built to access a huge mountaintop casino built about five years ago, Bokor is 10 miles of pristine two-lane asphalt wriggling upward through the Cambodian jungle. Best part: It’s all but empty. “But wait,” you pause. “You said the road went to a big new casino. How could it be empty?” Ah, but that’s the magic. Apparently, it’s illegal for Cambodians to gamble. But Chinese and Vietnamese customers drop in on occasion (the place is building an airstrip to accommodate them), and the casino is also allegedly a nice-looking front for—how shall I say it—various activities straight out of Don Corleone’s playbook.
But if the locals aren’t going to drive Bokor Mountain, I certainly am. For added peace of mind, our team stations rangers at the top and bottom to stop any stray traffic that might show up. So, for a half-hour at least, I have the entire road all to myself.
I mash down on the STi’s throttle and my red pony blasts upward, the 2.5-liter turbo-four raging with boost and revs, snapping off upshifts with the close-ratio six-speed manual. Tight hairpin ahead: I squeeze hard on the big, standard Brembo brakes, drop two gears with heel-toe downshifts, ease into the apex as I roll back on full power again. This is fabulous! It’s like a private racetrack with palm trees instead of Gulf Oil signs, baboons instead of track marshals. And I’m barely a quarter of the way to the top.
Frankly, the aftermarket DMAX rally tires are too good. Combined with the Subie’s sophisticated all-wheel-drive system and myriad electronic traction aids, on this perfect tarmac the tires have so much stick I can’t slide the STi at all. Oh well, more g’s for me. This is how the STi was made to be driven, in anger, full throttle through a road stage that’s as twisted and kinked as the cord of your earbuds. Upshift, gas, bang to the redline, now hard on the brakes, downshift, downshift, ease the wheel to the left, more power, full power. Grin. This Bokor Mountain Road may well be one of the world’s best-kept driving secrets. Until now, anyway.
All too soon, I reach the top and, sure enough, the sprawling parking lot at the giant casino is completely empty though the place is open. Our team proves it by going inside for lunch, probably the only time the restaurant has actually cooked food in ages. No matter, the chow is excellent, the service superb. The stoic maître d’ is actually smiling. Today he sat customers!
To wrap up my extraordinary, eye-opening journey, I arrive in the southern beachside town of Kep. The WRX STi has been a thrilling and stalwart companion—not a single misstep and, unbelievably given the Armageddon-like driving conditions, not so much as a scratch.
As the sun drops slowly into the inky blue of the Gulf of Thailand, I plunge into the hotel pool and crack open an Angkor beer. So, was the ambassador right? Did I fall in love with Cambodia? Oh, yeah. From Angkor Wat to Battambang, from a floating fishing village to this heavenly outpost on the ocean, palm trees swaying in the balmy dusk, a light rain falling, Cambodia has proven to be a place of wonders. As for my heart, it’s still intact. To that I owe the people I’ve met along the way, proud Khmer citizens who somehow find happiness and share it even after all they’ve endured, even after all they continue to endure.
Cambodia may be one of the poorest countries in Asia. But to my mind, it’s also one of the richest.
2016 Subaru WRX STi Specifications
|Engine:||2.5L turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4/305 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 290 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA Mileage:||17/23 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in|
|0-60 MPH:||4.6 sec|
|Top Speed:||159 mph|