Help in Cambodia’s Jungle – Book Sample from ‘Forever Off Track’


The upcoming book Forever Off Track chronicles Karin-Marijke and Coen’s remarkable 3.5-year overland journey from Europe to Southeast Asia in a rugged Land Cruiser. Join them as they step out of their comfort zones, deal with fears, explore the beauty of the world, and embrace a life of full-time nomadism.

This story is a sample of their journey through Cambodia.

Our thus far reliable map of Cambodia lacked roads going east which, according to the owner of our guesthouse in Siem Reap, did exist. Questions for directions by naming our destination, “Kvau?” were met with bemused looks, so I searched in my phrasebook for ‘where lies’.

Pleuv na teuv Kvau?” I asked.

I had now spoken the magic words in a manner they understood. Faces lit up and villagers pointed to a path leading into the jungle. The trail was suitable for motorcycles and oxcarts but not, as we would find out, for high vehicles. We fought our way through the dry forest until we came upon a tree growing at a slant across the track. The Land Cruiser was too high to pass underneath. There were no other tracks in sight and bushwhacking was out of the question. A detour through the bush could mean a landmine blowing us to smithereens. The tree had to go.

“Better dig up the machete,” Coen said while taking off his shirt.

Having an idyllic image of untamed Asian territories full of lush jungles that we would have to hack our way through, Coen had bought a machete in Greece. However, little is undiscovered or remote in Asia. It is an overcrowded continent and the machete got buried deep in the bowels of the Land Cruiser. In Cambodia it was brought back to life and became our best friend in the days to come, felling branches we couldn’t push aside.

Coen did the felling and it was my task to stand on the hood to push thinner branches over the roof to prevent damage to the rooftop tent. Long, intertwined branches of bamboo with nasty thorns could easily rip the tent cover apart. Our team spirit was at its best during these kinds of off-road adventures and, hardships included, we loved doing this.

We zigzagged over tracks, traversed riverbeds and gambled when a constellation of sidetracks stretched in front of us. Luckily, we frequently came across passersby and the question, “Pleuv na teuv Kvau?” each time led to the same answer. It took all day to cover twenty miles and we stopped at a village before the sun set. The villagers were curious and hospitable, and invited us to sleep in their houses, but we were too battered to take up the invitation.

Instead the villagers gathered around the Land Cruiser and eyed us with interest. During the day we watched them; at camping spots they observed us. It was part of the one-sided deal of our traveling through their territories and so, tired as we were, we made an effort to exchange pleasantries.

We loved meeting people, but a lack of common language led to question-and-answer sessions that didn’t go beyond, “Where are you from?”, “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” Other travelers had told me they had no problem having in-depth conversations using sign language, but thus far I had not figured out how to discuss topics such as women’s empowerment with women who spoke no English.

After two and half years of traveling, the short pleasantries had lost their charm. We faced the growing frustration of being on the perimeter of people’s lives and not getting beyond that point. While Coen practiced his Khmer with them I cooked dinner with rice and a can of tuna.

We woke anxiously. Why hadn’t the sun driven us out of the tent? We peeked outside. The usually blue sky was hidden behind ominous clouds, ebony and gray, presaging rain, which would turn the trails into a quagmire. We jumped out of bed and hit the road. I stayed on the hood, pushing away prickly branches and Coen drove as fast as possible, searching his way through a labyrinth of jungle trails to cover as much distance as possible before things got even more difficult. I got soaked by the drizzling rain. 

There was a fallen tree ahead of us. The trunk had broken off six feet from the ground and was hanging across the path at a slant, blocking any vehicle higher than six feet from passing underneath. Coen was sweating profusely as he tried to hack through the fallen part where it was still attached to the stump. An oxcart stopped and three women got out. One of them gestured to Coen that he was cutting in the wrong spot. She took the machete out of his hand and looked at it disapprovingly. Local machetes were better than this foreign thing, her face said. In spite of that she felled the tree without effort.

We eventually reached Kvau, where we came to understand we had been directed to the shortcut. The regular road was a toll road over a smooth laterite surface. Breakfast, for which we had not allowed ourselves time, was in order. We ordered a vague, grayish-looking mash with chunks of banana, but we were famished and the dish restored us. An eroded oxcart track brought us to the temple ruin of Preah Khan and we were just in time to hide under the gopura, the entrance gate, before a two-hour downpour broke.

The aftermath of the rain provided a fresh bath in the ancient ponds lying among the historic ruins. The following morning, some excited children followed us to the food stalls where we had breakfast with a plate of fried rice and noodles. Taking a photo and showing it to them on the digital screen broke down their last reservations. Suddenly they all wanted to be in the picture, jostling each other to pose for the camera and laughing when they saw the digital result. It was a fun way to share time together.

We hit the road at our typical snail’s pace, taking in the surroundings of meadows and forests under an azure blue sky. Our feeling of perfect contentment lasted ten minutes. The track had become flooded by the previous day’s downpour. We followed trails that became increasingly narrow until we came to a jolting halt, stuck in a thick heap of sand.

Passersby helped us. Kids gathered branches to put underneath the tires while men pushed the Land Cruiser. In a joint effort we conquered the obstacle. We didn’t understand how in this seemingly empty jungle people materialized out of nowhere each time we got into trouble, as if invisible eyes were following us. 

How did we manage to exit the jungle, you may wonder. Find out in our upcoming book: Forever Off Track, about our overland journey from Europe to Southeast-Asia.

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