CYCLING CAMBODIA (3)
(1336 km - 23 days)
10 July - Maung Khong , Lao – Strung Treng, Cambodia – 100 km
“I feel quite emotional leaving Lao,” Tania said as we continue south to the Lao/Cambodian border. It was a short ride to the Lao checkpoint, where we were charged $2 each to leave Lao, which I think is going straight into the border official’s pockets. We, however, claimed poverty, and after a long wait, our passports were stamped, and we scurried off to the Cambodian border where we were charged $1 each for not having a yellow vaccination card. Then it was off to the small blue building where we were charged $35 for a Cambodian visa (which should have cost us only $30). By then, we were too tired to argue and paid the money, got the stamp, and headed for Strung Treng, the next town indicated on the map.
It was a lovely ride through the most rural of the countryside, and although a dirt road, the road was good with a few small stores where we could get water. Fortunately, Tania could change her last Lao kip at a petrol station, providing us with enough local currency to buy water along the way. Once in Strung Treng, we first looked for an ATM and found that we could only draw US$ and not Cambodian Riel, always a good indication that we were going to get ripped off. There was not much we could do but draw a few dollars and then went in search of a guesthouse, of which there were plenty around the lively market area. We were starving, as usual, and could not wait to find a room and head off to the market. When booking in, we were told that there was no water in the hotel. There was not much we could do but pack up and go in search of another place to stay.
11 July Strung Treng – Kratie – 140 km
We knew it was a long distance to Kratie, but we were later than usual in leaving. We first wanted to change our dollars to riel and then popped into the pharmacy. We stopped a few times for pictures, and after 30 kilometres, I realised we better step on it if we wanted to make Kratie before nightfall. We put our heads down and kept a steady pace, past pajama-clad women and steamed duck eggs piled high at roadside stalls, past wooden houses on stilts where the entire family seemingly spend their days in hammocks. Friendly kids shouted “hello” from behind the banana plants, and locals invited us to share their meals, but there was no wasting time as we headed into a slight headwind. The going was made even slower by roadworks and the occasional thunderstorms.
Still, we kept going; caps pulled low down, we headed into the weather until we reached the turnoff for Kratie. The heavens opened up, and we were forced to take shelter until the storm passed. By the time the weather cleared, it was already dark, and we made slow progress into Kratie, trying as best we could to avoid the potholes and puddles. We found a lovely hotel right on the river and were more than happy to unload our sopping wet gear and head straight for the shower. That was a rather long day on the road.
12 July - Kratie
In bucketing rain, we set off by boat up the Mekong River to see if we could spot the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins. Great was our excitement when we eventually spotted them. It is said that, genetically, these dolphins are closely related to the killer whale (orca). How interesting! Although sometimes called the Irrawaddy river dolphin, I understand that it is not a true river dolphin, but an oceanic dolphin that lives in brackish water near coasts, river mouths and in estuaries. By now it has established subpopulations in freshwater rivers, including the Ganges and the Mekong. These dolphins are rather vulnerable as the worldwide population appears to be over just 7,000. Another interesting fact is that they are nearly blind. They have very small eyes and even lack lenses and can do little more than distinguish light and dark. What a fascinating world!
13 July - Krati – Strung Trang - 89 km
The previous night we decided to take the river trail instead of the main road. What a good decision it was! It was a most magnificent day with perfect weather, fantastic scenery, friendly people, interesting food, and unparalleled views of the Mekong.
We cycled past houses precariously balanced on stilts on the banks of the river, making one wonder how long they could still last. It was an incredibly rural area, and people still farmed in the old ways using oxcarts with wooden wheels; kids skipped to school in typical childlike fashion and ladies on bicycles sold fresh produce door-to-door. What an eye-opener this area was. Rice was dried on the road, and ugly bare-necked chickens darted across the road. We passed numerous rivers where fishermen were hard at work bringing in the catch using all conceivable ways and means.
Tiny kids shouted “Hello!” from their stilted houses, and one wondered how it was possible that they didn’t fall down the rickety stairs. It was an area where water was still obtained from a communal well and where roadside stalls sold bananas wrapped in coconut sticky rice cooked in banana leaves. We stopped for the most delicious sugarcane juice after which we slowly made our way to the ferry, which took us across the river to Strung Trang, where we spent the night.
14 July Strung Trang – Kampong Thom – 97 km
At short notice, we changed plans and headed for Kampong Thom instead of Kampong Cham. We headed slightly west (inland); again, it was a most satisfying ride past vast rice fields, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a rather unvisited area, and kids took a few steps back in utter surprise on seeing us. Even the local dogs scurried away without even so much as a bark. We cycled past vast rubber plantations and cassava fields until we finally reached Highway 6.
Still, it was a rather rural area where stilted houses were surrounded by palm and banana trees, each with a stack of hay in the front yard and cows grazing somewhere close by. It seemed that each house had a “bug catching” device, consisting of a plastic dam and fluorescent light for attracting the bug at night. We could tell that we were reaching the ancient Khmer stronghold as there were already signs of old ruins to be seen next to the road. Finally, we cycled past the dust-covered statue makers, hard at work making statues for the many temples in Cambodia.
15 July – Kampong Thom – Kampong Kdei – 89 km
On a day in which one could easily say that not much was happening, we stood in awe as we watched monks in colourful robes collecting food. We stared at women ploughing the fields with an old-fashioned ox-cart and were once again amazed at the friendly people we met along the way. It was Friday and, obviously, market day as we passed traders with carts piled high with beautiful wooden furniture and woven baskets. We also passed motorbikes piled equally high, some with live chickens and others with pigs.
We cycled past the ever-present wooden houses on stilts and overtook kids going to and from school. Their balance on bicycles is truly extraordinary, and it is not unusual to see even the smallest kid giving his friend a lift on his tiny bike. For the first time in ages, we met another cyclist along the way. We chatted for a while and then continued on our way. We stopped for watermelon and later for coconut juice, both were refreshing and, as always, made us the centre of attraction! We continued to Kampong Kdei where we found, surprisingly enough, quite a comfortable guest house for such a small village.
16 July - Kampong Kdei – Siem Reap – 64 km
On leaving Kampong Kdei, we had to cycle through the market, something that is always a novelty, both for the traders and for us. Soon after leaving, we stopped at the Kampong Kdei Bridge, an ancient bridge built between the 11th and 12th centuries. It used to be the longest cobblestone-arched bridge in the world. The bridge is still in very good condition and used to form part of Highway 6 until 2006; the highway was since diverted but the bridge is still used by bicycles and motorbikes.
We slowly made our way to Siem Reap, sharing the road with herds of cattle and traders selling all conceivable kinds of goods. We passed school kids going to or coming from school and this on a Saturday! Again, the road was lined with stalls selling rice cooked in bamboo or fruit and vegetables. Around 15 kilometres from Siem Reap, we could already see some of the old temple ruins. We made a quick stop and then headed into Siem Reap to find a room for the night. The plan was to stay three nights as we had a rather large amount of things to sort out.
Later that evening, we took a walk to the night market and on the way popped into the camera store to see if they could fix my camera lens. I really hope they can as it is my favourite lens.
17-18 July - Siem Reap
We spent two full days in Siem Reap. Tania went to visit Angor, and I did as little as possible, except doing the usual laundry, repacking and restocking of things. I did manage to take the bike for a service and was delighted to find the bill a mere $3! What a bargain that was! I also managed to take my lens to the camera shop and was equally delighted that they could fix it, this time, however, it was a bit pricier at $60 but still a bargain if compared to a new one. The most exciting thing I did was to watch the circus, which turned out an absolute delight! I was thoroughly impressed with the way they used the small space available to them and how entertaining they were. It was an evening well spent.
19 July Siem Reap – Battambang – by boat
We took the boat across the Tonle Sap Lake to Battambang, an interesting, albeit long day. The trip took us past numerous floating villages, complete with the police station, political party office, restaurants and schools. It is very much like a traditional village, just that everything is floating on water and where kids can seemingly steer a boat before they can walk.
The most worrying sight was the crocodile farm; just imagine one of those getting into the rivers where these people live, bath and work! Although interesting, we were all happy to get off the boat as those benches became fairly hard, even for a seasoned cyclist!!! Our boat was rather old and broke down twice along the way; the fact that I spotted empty beer cans under the driver’s seat did not instill any confidence in the driver either.
Nevertheless, we made Battambang safely where there were loads of accommodation, and it was easy to find a room for the night. The night market was a lively place to find a meal and 2.5 street provided plenty of pubs where one could have a cold beer.
20 July - Battambang – Pursat - 118 km (app 8 km by trolly)
We followed small roads to where we could board the fascinating “bamboo train”, not that it was a train at all! It was, in fact, a trolley that wobbled along a narrow track through the forest; what a fun thing to do! We did not go very far and got off again at the next “station” from where we had to find our way back to the main road.
We turned south again and headed in the direction of the capital, Phnom Penh. As always in Cambodia, it was a beautiful ride past friendly kids, small villages, and the ever-present rice fields. We passed traders loaded with pottery and others with pigs in woven baskets on the backs of motorbikes. We passed colourful trucks, some poorly loaded, and we debated whether they would make their destination; my money was on them not making it! Towards the end of the day, we could see the weather coming in and were gunning it to Pursat to escape the approaching storm. We made it just in time and were hardly in our room before the storm hit. We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, and once again, the food was delicious.
21 July - Purst – Kampong Chhnang – 96 km
“This is Cambodia, baby,” Tania exclaimed with a smile as we headed out of town in a cloud of smoke from the morning traffic. We joined motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, busses and water buffalo and headed further south, past the ever-present steamed pau stalls. It was a rather pleasant day, and we could not help but stop at the watermelon cart and devour a whole one. Neither could we cycle past the ice-cream man selling the unique Cambodian ice cream, which they serve on bread and drizzle with condensed milk. We were on the conservative side and only had a cone. We also bought a piece of dried buffalo meat, which we hoped to eat at supper without getting sick.
There were plenty of interesting stalls along the way, but we stopped short of buying the fermented ant and ant larvae mix. The weirdest thing on this day must surely have been what we now call the flying snakes. They seemed to fall from the sky and once on the ground wriggle away into the long grass. I didn’t want one of those falling on me! We subsequently found that they are indeed called flying snakes, how weird!
22 July - Kompong Chhnang – Phnom Penh - 93 km
What a totally fascinating world it is! One can be excused for thinking, “Nine years on the road, there can't be much more interesting things to see”. How wrong that would be!
We cycled along, past more beautiful rural and ornate monasteries, past families working in the fields planting rice together, and past “petrol stations” where fuel is pumped by hand out of a drum or sold by the litre in Coke bottles. We passed slaughtered animals hanging from branches; what kind of animal that was is still a mystery. We saw motorbikes and small trucks piled high with chickens; obviously, headed for the market. We watched farmers walking their cattle through rivers, and we ate watermelon at a roadside stall. We desperately tried to make conversation, but the English language is not understood in Cambodia.
Eventually, we cycled into busy, crazy Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh conjures up romantic and exotic images, but a Friday afternoon is not the best time to cycle into any city, and Phnom Penh was no exception. It was busy and dusty from ongoing road works. We ducked and dived roadside stalls and markets which spilled onto the road. Finally, we reached the city centre and a guesthouse that looked good enough to stay a week! It was time to explore, and we headed straight for the riverfront and the night market.
We also stayed the following day and did the usual things one does in Phnom Pehn, including visiting the depressing Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum. I popped in at the Canon store as I was not happy with the repair work they did on my lens in Siem Riep. The verdict was not good and confirmed what I already knew. The focus was off and the lens could only be calibrated in Singapore. Oh well, guess I will pack the lens away until I reach Bangkok and see if maybe they can do it there.
I also applied for a 2-month Thai visa as I was not sure exactly where I was heading after Tania flies back home on 8 August. The most exciting thing we did was to buy Tania a tent, as we have decided to camp as much as possible for the remainder of her time in Southeast Asia.
24 July - Phnom Penh – Takeo - 77 km
Leaving Phnom Penh was never an easy task (traffic wise), and although it was Sunday morning, the roads were chock-a-block with all kinds of vehicles. We tried the best we could to avoid them all. While stuck in the morning traffic, we were passed by flatbed tuk-tuks loaded with elderly, toothless women in big hats and by trucks loaded high with hay and whoever needed a lift on top of the hay. Friendly commuters laughed and waved, and Tania once again exclaimed, smiling, “This is Cambodia, baby!”
After what felt like hours, we cleared the city limits and headed for the nearby Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center (PTWRC). The centre was established in 1995 and covers an area of over 6,000 acres of protected, regenerating forest. The centre is run by the Cambodian Forestry Administration in partnership with a non-profit environmental organisation called Wildlife Alliance. PTWRC currently houses over 1,200 rescued animals from 102 species, including endangered Asian elephants, tigers, pileated gibbons, Siamese crocodiles, Malayan sun bears, among many others. As this is what Tania does at home, we had to stop and take a look.
We spent a good few hours and then continued down the road past the most interesting roadside stalls and past fields with scrawny looking cattle. The roadside stalls, once again, did not disappoint, and we found the most interesting fruit as well as BBQ frogs, cockroaches, and crickets! Eventually, we reached Takao and asked if we could camp at the monastery. They were very kind and even suggested we sleep in the temple. We were more than happy for the bucket of water for a shower and the electrical point for charging whatever needed charging.
25 July - Takao – Roadside camping – 104 km
We waved goodbye to the monks and continued on our way past luminous green rice paddies and piles of coconuts watched over by owners lazily swinging in hammocks. We passed duck stalls where they were not only selling BBQ duck but also the ducks' eggs, intestines, and heads. Nothing goes to waste. It was, however, the eggs that intrigued us most.
The closer we got to the coast, the hillier it became, and it was awesome to see the mountains again. Soon it started bucketing down, and we had to find shelter in a hurry. Fortunately, there was a convenient restaurant next to the road for us to take shelter. Shortly after leaving, I had a flat tyre (oh, how I miss my Schwalbe tyres), but, fortunately, it did not take long to fix, and we were on our merry way again.
We continued on past Kampot, and after about 15 kilometres, we spotted a sign saying “Café & Camping,” a rather foreign concept for Cambodia. What we did find were Destan Kilic and Eyup Kostan, both from Turkey. They also travelled by bicycle but sold their bikes in Iran and are now travelling around Southeast Asia. In the meantime, they rented a plot with a basic house and are busy making a short movie of their adventures. While doing so, they offer camping and coffee to passers-by. (www.welcomebyebye.net)
26 July - Roadside camping - Sihanoukville – 85 km
It was a day marred by malfunctions as, firstly, Tania’s $20 tent did not make it through the night, and she woke to a rather flat tent. It was a great disappointment as we dearly wanted to camp for the last stretch of the journey. After a cup of coffee, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts and headed for the town of Sihanoukville, where I wanted to catch a bus back to Phnom Penh to collect my passport and Thai visa.
What a different day it was again! We cycled past oyster farms and small fishing villages where fishing boats were lining the shore, fluorescent green rice fields, and countrywomen guarding their one and only cow. After my second flat tyre, I realised that it was not the usual puncture; my cheap tyre had a big tear in it. I fixed the leak and then taped up the tyre, which lasted to the next town, where I, once again, bought a $5 tyre.
Along the way, my sandal broke and flopped like an old rag while the rain came bucketing down. We headed over the hills into the town of Sihanoukville, and what a touristy town it turned out to be. We managed to find a decent room, had a shower, repacked our bags, and tried to fix Tania's tent poles the best we could, but sadly, our efforts came to nothing. I did, however, manage to buy some super glue to fix my sandal, hopefully with more success than the tent poles.
27 July - Sihanoukville - Phnom Phenh (by bus)
I was up at the crack of dawn to catch the bus to Phnom Phenh to pick up my passport and Thai visa. The bus took approximately four hours and once there I took Tania’s tent back to the shop we bought it and they refunded me $15 which I thought was pretty decent of them. I also popped in at the Giant Store, bought a new tyre, a new tube and a new pair of gloves.
Then it was off to the visa agent where I discovered that the visa will only be ready at 17h00. I spent the rest of my time at the local mall like a true expat! At just after 17h00 I picked up my visa and took a tuk-tuk back to the central market where I hoped to still be in time for a bus back to Sihanoukville. On arrival, I found that the bus had already left and on the back of a motorbike we gave chase and stopped the bus just a few kilometres down the road.
28 July - Sihanoukville – Sre Ambel – 98 km
We woke to bucketing rain and waited for an hour or two for it to subside. Although the rain subsided, it continued to drizzle throughout the day as we headed back to Veal Renh where we turned off and headed in the direction of Thailand.
Tania did not feel too well and felt lethargic as we slowly headed in the direction of the border which was still a good few days’ cycling away. Towards the end of the day it started bucketing down and we took cover. As soon as it subsided, we hit the road again but soon the heavens opened up and as soon as we spotted a petrol station with a good cover we asked if we could camp. The staff was ever so friendly and allowed us to camp at the rear of the station under a lovely canopy that had lights as well as electrical points.
29 July - Sre Ambel – Andoung Tuek – 43 km
There’s no sleeping late when one camps at a gas station - LOL. We packed up and although Tania was still not feeling 100%, we continued to Andoung Tuek where we met up with the Phipot River.
As we got closer and closer to the Cardamom Mountains, the vegetation became even lusher and green. At Andoung Tuek boats were heading up river to the small village of Chi Phat located in the Cardamoms Protected area. Once home to loggers and poachers, Chi Phat is today a community-based ecotourism centre. I was impressed by how well-organised they were, and once we were off the boat, there was a tourist centre where one could choose accommodation and activities in the area. We opted for a lovely, rustic bungalow and also chose a one-and-a-half-day trek in the mountains. Supper was a dull affair of rice, boiled cabbage and goose eggs.
30 - 31 July
Cycling Cambodia continues to surprise us; it’s a place where cattle have the right of way and people still get water from a communal well. Small kids, half the size of livestock, herd them along. I thought that a rather responsible job for such tiny kids, but they appear to take on responsibility from a very young age and can seemingly ride a motorbike from the tender age of five!
Early Friday morning, we set off with a guide and cook into the fabled Cardamom Mountains. At first, we walked through a planted forest, and that was a good thing as well because no sooner than we left, my “fixed” sandal broke. We had to phone a friend of the guide to look in my panniers and bring me my sneakers by moto. It’s quite extraordinary where these people can go by “moto”. After that, it was a short walk to where we met the dense forest, a lovely area with streams and rivers and thick vegetation.
We stopped for lunch, and in no time at all, our cook had a fire going for rice and vegetables. It felt like we had hardly sat down before the food was ready. We continued walking, and along the way, we spotted some beautiful and exotic plants and insects. We also saw some real nasty-looking ones that were seemingly waiting for unsuspected hikers (like us) to pounce on!
Around 16h00, we reached our camp for the night. It was a most interesting experience as we stayed with a local farm family and hung our hammocks under their wooden house in what I would call their kitchen area. Although it is a protected area, there are still people farming along the river. We lay swaying in our hammocks while the chickens and dogs scurried about looking for something to peck on and while the family went about their business of preparing food. The most interesting thing was watching them cook, as the ingredients consisted of pumpkin flowers, grated bamboo shoots, loads of chillies, garlic, and other green grasses that we did not recognise. The resulting dish was the most delicious vegetable soup, with rice (of course).
It was fascinating to watch a slice of Cambodian life playing out right in front of our eyes. These people lived a very basic life without any luxuries, and everything was used sparingly. The fire was made with a minimum of wood; there was no electricity, running water or a toilet. Once it got dark, it was bedtime, and we crawled into our hammocks and lay listening to the sounds of the forest, a true privilege.
The following morning, we awoke to the crowing of cocks, and although it was still early, there was no sleeping late as the entire household was already up and busy preparing the fire for breakfast. We were treated to coffee (which I’m sure is a luxury) as they mostly drink a kind of weak tea. After breakfast, it was time to say goodbye to our family and head back down the hills to Chi Phat.
Again, it was a beautiful walk and such a pleasure to be in the mountains. I realised, once again, how much I enjoy walking in the forest. On our arrival in Chi Phat, we headed straight for the jetty where we hopped on a boat back to the main road. Our time was too short, and I wish I could have stayed longer in the mountains as I’m sure there is plenty more to see. Once back on the main road, we found a guesthouse and prepared for our ride over the mountains the following day. Tania was still not feeling well and suffered from stomach cramps and nausea; we could only hope that she would be feeling better in the morning.
1 August - Sre Ambel – Koh Kong – 43 km (60 km by minivan)
We were up at our regular time, but Tania was still sick and could not eat anything. She still had severe stomach cramps and a massively bloated stomach, felt nauseous, and suffered from a total lack of energy. That said, she insisted on cycling, and we slowly headed over the Cardamom mountains in the direction of the Thai border.
Despite it being rather hilly, it was a beautiful ride. After 43 kilometres, we reached another river, and where a few restaurants were scattered along the main road, we rested for a while and debated what to do next. We visited a small clinic, where the lady gave Tania two tablets and encouraged her to take a rest. After about and an hour, there was still no improvement, and we decided to take a bus to Koh Kong, where there were a hospital and accommodations. We waited and waited, but no bus came.
In the end, we managed to find a minivan on its way to Koh Kong. We loaded the bicycles, and in no time at all, we were in Koh Kong, where they dropped us right in front of the hospital. After filling in some forms, Tania was led away to see the doctor and came back with a list of medications she had to get from the pharmacy. I was very hopeful that her disease was identified and the right medication prescribed. We found a decent room right on the river and had an early night, hoping that Tania would feel better in the morning. Fingers crossed!