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Saturday 19th January: Chheb Chas to Strung Treng: 86km and 300m of climbing

Today we reached the mighty Mekong after 3 days of travelling across northern Cambodia. The Mekong is a massive river which runs for 4,350km from the Tibetan Plateau, through large parts of China and Laos and into the sea in Vietnam. It provides water for cultivation in the areas it passes and defines the geography and politics of its entire length. So getting to see and experience the Mekong was a key part of our Cambodian trip.

We woke before dawn, packed and breakfasted on porridge and bananas, and then left the guest house which will always be remembered in my mind by the massive bed in which we slept – totally out of proportion to the room. It must have been made with the idea of families sleeping together in a single bed.
The air was cool as we gradually climbed out of the town, with a morning haze in the air. The cause was land burning, which is a farming practice here even though attempts are being made (unsuccessfully as it seems) to stop it. Farmers burn off the vegetation to create an ash surface for the next year’s crops. The climate change effects of this practice are not great, and it is not needed. But it takes a long time to change established practices in an agrarian economy. The result was that we were cycling through thin clouds of smoke, with the occasional fire still smouldering. It was atmospheric in a strange way.

The vegetation changed markedly as we went. Sections would be uncultivated scrubland with some forestry, but then we would enter a cultivated area with tended fields and more houses. There were the usual hoards of small children everywhere, all shouting “hello” or “goodbye” as we passed – often at the some time. There were lots of smiles here. Cambodian men, women and children smile easily and often and, when they do, their whole face lights up. It would be easy to characterise this as a “happy” nation which was at ease with itself, but the truth is far more complex. But there is an element of this at the surface, even if there are huge depths to the national psyche which tell a different story.

We pressed on across the changing landscape and bought breakfast from a passing motorbike seller. There were huge numbers of men and women on motorbikes with a box on the back containing fruit, vegetables and meat. The boxes have spikes on the top, from which are hung plastic bags with all manner of other goodies. There must be a production line somewhere which produces all these, sells them to the bikers who then work as travelling shopkeepers to sell them on to local people. This may explain why there are so few proper food stalls outside the main towns. They are not needed because the food comes along by a stream of motorbikes. Then, as they go along, the travelling sellers sound their horns to alert the women of the villages on the road (and the customers always seem to be women) to buy their goods.

By 11am the sun had got up and it was heating up, but we were approaching our destination. We went around the final bend and then saw the majesty of this iconic river. It was about 1km wide at the point where the “China-Cambodia Friendship Bridge” spanned the waters. Another example of Chinese economic power – I do not doubt that the friendship has strings attached but, at least for the moment, is good for Cambodia.

The town of Strung Treng is at the confluence of 2 rivers, the Mekong and the Tonle San. The tributary, the Tonle San, comes from the East and rises in the Vietnamese/Laos mountains. But this stage it is about 500m wide and is a major river in its own right.

We found a guest house and booked in, and then wandered around this busy town. We found a mellow chap who spoke English softly. He runs tourism on the Mekong through a community based tourism project. We signed up to do half a day kayaking on the Mekong in 2 days time, hopefully to see the fresh water dolphins who live in the river.
Then we met a lovely Dutch cycling couple (yes another Dutch couple) who were coming south from Laos. We had a lovely evening with them, comparing notes and reflecting on the joys, frustrations and choices we make to travel this way. So many of the things they said accorded with our own views – but we accept that we are in a minority!

Friday 18th January. Sayrang to Chheab. 112km and 250m of climbing.

I was rather dreading today. I was exhausted yesterday and was not relishing another day of heat and headwind (we have chosen the wrong direction to travel as the prevailing wind seems to be NE). As it turned out it was a much more manageable and surprisingly pleasant day – although still long.

Up with the larks (or Cambodian equivalent) we were ready to go just as the sun was rising. It was blissfully cool (18 degrees) and a beautiful sunrise (maybe not as photogenic as over the Angkor temples but shared only with each other as we cruised the first km on a gentle downhill – perfect). It was slightly more overcast and the coolness persisted – it made so much difference and we completed the first 55km of the day in about 3 hrs (ie by 9.30am!) with barely a stop. The wind was there and persistent but we were going more due east than north east and that slight side on wind also made a huge difference. Wherever there was water there was greenery and pleasant villages. This road 300km across the north of Cambodia is newly paved but still has very little traffic so great for cycling.

So we reached the provincial capital Preah Vihear for second breakfast and came across a surprisingly fancy restaurant which did us fantastic omelettes (not on the menu but they were happy to rustle them up for us). Coffee not so good – they use condensed milk in coffee, which is pretty disgusting (to us) – must remember to ask for black coffee next time.

We were therefore well rested and after a foray into the local market for fruit, veg and cake we were ready to tackle the next 55km – we knew there was little between Preah Vihear and the next place where there were any guesthouses. This was an area of much more scrubland. Preah Vihear province is the poorest in Cambodia. We passed numerous wooden shacks on stilts (as almost all Cambodian houses are) – no running water or electricity, although all had neatly swept surrounding. Children were clean and all looked well nourished so not abject poverty but what looked like a very limited life. There was evidence of dry paddy fields waiting for the rainy season but it was not clear how people subsisted in the dry season. We saw quite a few pigs scuttling around the shacks – and quite a few legs akimbo and definitely dead on the back of motorbikes, presumable being taken to the market.

One of the joys of Cambodia is that every single child (and quite a few adults) shouts “hello’ and waves in great excitement as we go by. They are full of cheeky smiles. Many pedal battered old bikes to and from school and they love it when we overtake them. Of course the occasional bravado boy tries to keep up for a short while, whooping and smiling. You can’t help but be cheered up. Often a chorus of disembodied ‘hellos’ emerge from somewhere unidentified so a general wave back is in order.

A massive new factory – built in the middle of nowhere. There must be a reason but we couldn’t guess it!

Another feature that we come across several times a day are Cambodian weddings – these consist of a decorated large tent (marquee-like) and amplified music booming out at top volume. You can literally hear it kms away. We feel we can hum along quite effectively now…even David’s voice seems well suited to the rather wailing tones! We think that some of the more mournful wailing might be funerals but difficult to tell!

So although the flat landscape is not particularly scenic there is usually plenty to see and observe to keep the kilometers ticking by. The afternoon did heat up, the wind did get stronger (still mostly ‘slightly side’) and we did get tired but we rolled into the little town (more a large village) of Chheab (yes it is double ‘h’) a little before 3. 2 guest houses were marked (our new find is the app map.me that is particularly good at marking hotels and guesthouses in places that will never reach a guide book) but we were dubious about how basic they might be (one we had looked at yesterday was only 5 dollars but very grim, luckily there was a smarter one up the road). As it was there the first one we came across was a large brick building (wooden ones quaint but let in all the mossies) with large rooms and even en suite facilities. 10 dollars or 15 with air con…..no contest – we always go for the air con if available (feeling slightly guilty about the environment but we rest and sleep so much better in the this humid heat).

After a shower (cold but wonderful) we strolled round town. This took approximately 5 minutes to see the full extent but it had an impressive Buddhist temple in the middle (no photos as had not taken camera or phones with us, not expecting to see anything). In that time we did see about 5 phone shops. As in India nearly every village has a mobile phone mast (or 2 or 3) and connectivity is as much as an obsession as it is for us. It was a small, ordinary little Cambodian town in the middle of nowhere – we certainly feel off the beaten track (although we did see one Australian cyclist today going the other way today towards Siem Reap so we are not totally unique).

Thursday 17 January: 108km and 300m of climbing

Today was back on the bikes – after all this is supposed to be a bike tour! But after 3 days off we felt both ready and a bit sluggish. We started going through Siem Reap city – now the second largest city in Cambodia. There is far more here than tourism, but tourism is the glue that holds the place together. The sun was just rising as we went towards the East, and we rather enjoyed seeing the day starting for all the locals.

W

e ambled out on the main road to Phnom Penh, with motor bikes, motos, cars and lorries. After about 20km we veered off to a minor road and then picked our way across country for the next 20km or so. It was a mixture of roads with large potholes and dirt tracks. Bernie’s bar bag gave up to an extent – bad design – and we swapped. It is now held on by a bungee cord but this arrangement may not last. One to take up with Wiggle and see if we can get a new one in Phnon Penh.

But the countryside route was slow but delightful. This is a prosperous area, with irrigated fields and diversity of crops. There are lots of people living here, all of whom waved and shouted “hello” as we passed. We were also conscious that this was a major military area in the war to liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Land mines were planted all over the country but especially in this area. 20,000 Cambodians have been killed by land mines since the war ended and thousands more have lost limbs, hearing or suffered other trauma. So the idyllic countryside we looked over as we cycled continues to hold hidden terrors.
Eventually we re-joined a properly paved road. We had done about 40km and it was now about 10.30am and starting to heat up, and the wind was getting up.

The pattern of the days is that it is delightful cycling before about 10.30, with manageable temperatures and little wind. Then, as the heat develops, so the wind gets up. It does not matter which direction we travel; the wind is invariably against us. The next 20km were slightly uphill, against the wind and on bumpy tarmac. All in all, pretty tough going as the temperature climbed to 38 degrees. So we felt it was time for some “kulture” and, in this part of the world, that can only mean another ruined temple. This one was at Beng Mealea. We got our tickets and then ambled onto the site.

This was a contemporary temple to Angkor Wat but not as large (but then nothing is as large as AW). It had been wholly consumed by the jungle but was partially recovered and partially restored. But there were still huge piles of bricks everywhere waiting for an archaeologist to play detective to fit the blocks back together. Seeing temples in this partially unrestored state demonstrates the skill, ingenuity and patience needed to be an archaeologist – as well as the considerable external resources needed for any serious level of restoration work!

There were a few large groups of Chinese tourists in the site, all looking carefully for the best place to get photographed. We saw a documentary on a Chinese Wedding when we were at home – which suggested that the wedding photographers expected to take about 10,000 pictures on the day of the wedding. This group seemed to be up for the “photograph everything – with you in it” challenge. It was almost as interesting looking at them as seeing the ruins; they were all so carefully and beautifully attired, something of a contrast to us (but then they had not been cycling in near 40 degree heat).
There was enough of the temple still standing to show that it would have been magnificent when it was fully functioning. Equally, with it half taken over by the jungle, it was pretty impressive.
After the temple we refiled water bottles and cycled on but holed up for lunch after another 10km. This was home made noodles and cabbage, cooked at a wayside stall, with some “knock your head off” sauce as an accompaniment. The lady who was cooking was jolly and looked at us with a mixture of pity and amusement – not a bad combination in the circumstances. We saw the locals laddling on the “KYHO” sauce as if it was ketchup. We could only mange a tiny amount of the sauce. It cost $1 between the 2 of us for lunch – which seemed to be the standard price. Not surprising that many people here eat all their meals from street stalls as opposed to cooking themselves at all.

After lunch the wind remained strong (and against us), the road rose gently, fell a bit, rose a bit more and the scenery became more like semi-desert scrubland. We plodded on but it was tough. I would not say we did not enjoy it but the achievement may have been better than the immediate experience.
Eventually we rolled into the small town with squiggly writing (small so dubious translation but possibly “Srayong”) where we knew there were guest houses. There are some temples 10km off the main road but, to be honest, we are a little templed-out at the moment so may give them a miss. This is the first of 3 days going East across the north of Cambodia to attempt to reach the valley which contains the River Mekong, before we plan to go south to Phnom Penh and then to Vietnam. However there are a few miles to pedal before then!

Wednesday 16th January 2019. Angkor Wat Temples

Third day off the bikes today but a day of serious sight seeing at Cambodia’s biggest draw – the Angkor Wat temples. Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious structure in the world but the whole area consists of numerous temples dating from about 950 to 1200, being the height of the Khmer empire. 2 million visit each year so we knew it would be a real tourist honey trap.

The guide books rate going to see the sunrise over the temples but we decided we did not want to share the sunrise with thousands of others and left our little apartment as it got light. It was about 10km to the site via the ticket office. We arrived as many were leaving to have their breakfast after seeing the sunrise so our first couple of hours looking round the magnificence of Angkor Wat was cool and not too busy. Our previous temple visits had layered in quite a lot of knowledge and history already so we did not feel we were starting from scratch and just tried to take in the building and carvings.

Many headed serpents, dancing girls, lotus flowers were all motives we had seen before. We made out way up the 3 levels of the towers and up the steep stairs to the inner sanctum of the middle tower. Only limited numbers are allowed in at a time so it was peaceful with great views. Then looking around magnificent Bas Reliefs in the outer walls chronicling wars, battles, ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ and the 37 heavens and 32 hells of Hindu mythology, among other things.

Like so many of the worlds great buildings they are at the same time incredible places but also rather obscene in the extent they are usually individual vanity projects of powerful people. The stats were huge – 300,000 people worked on the construction. Over a million people living in the temple complexes and surrounding area. It probably also contributed to the demise of the empire that was already waning – imagine if those 300,000 were engaged in constructive economic activity! So there was something monstrous about the temple edifice as well as being hugely impressive.

As the day began to heat up we retreated for our second breakfast and then headed to our next area, cycling on a few km under shady avenues to Angkor Thom – in effect a walled city.

At the centre was the temple of Bayon – 54 towers with (nearly) benignly (but possibly menacingly) smiling heads looking in all 4 directions. It really was spectacular.

We were beginning to wane but thought we would try and take in one more temple before retreating back to our apartment for the afternoon. Ta Promh was billed as a shady site that was good to see in the middle of the day as it was shady.

Unfortunately a multitude of tour groups also had the same idea and the place was gridlocked! The forest has encroached here and tree roots entwine round some of the walls and the complex was full of little alley ways and corridors that were heaving with people. This as the temple used for Lara Croft – Tomb Raider but, as we had never seen the film, that did not do anything for us. We quickly had enough and departed. There is only so much you can do in one day!

You could spend days or even weeks exploring the place but we had decided on just spending the day. We felt we had built on the temples we had already seen and got a really good feel of what the region meant. So after resting until the day began to cool we did not feel an urge to try and ‘tick off’ any more temples. We did though decide that would go and see the sunset , having missed the sunrise, that was also billed a ‘must do’ in the guidebook. This was spectacularly unsuccessful! We got there just after 5.30pm, about half an hour before sunset, but the gate had just closed and everyone was being turfed out. The sun was hidden by the trees and no sunset was seen. Hey ho. Back on the bikes to pedal back into town.

We needed to go into the centre of Siem Reap to find provisions (although there are a lot of small shops they carry few provisions – crisps and snacks but little substantial). As we paused to adjust the bag, 2 cyclists passed us – “they are touring cyclists” said David (clue – dusty bikes, numerous water bottles, handlebar bags) “let’s catch them up”. We met Sam and Matt who had in fact just met themselves cycling on the road. The 4 of us therefore went of a beer (toasting our friend Pat who has a significant birthday today) and a meal on the infamous ‘Pub Street’ (in fact food was very good) and swapped travellers tales and had a very enjoyable evening.

All in all another memorable day. Back on the road tomorrow.

Tuesday 15 January: Boat from Battembang to Siem Riep: 23km cycling

(David) Today was another non-cycling day (as will be tomorrow). For those following the trip on a map, Battembang is a city about 100km South East of Siem Riep, but the road trip between the 2 cities is over 170km as there is a vast lake and wildness area between the two cities.

So we caught the boat – with our bikes nestling on the upper deck – for the 7 hour trip along the River Sangke. The dry season meant the boat did not start in Battembang but 8 km down stream. “You follow the transport” was our instructions! So we cycled at full speed to try to follow a pickup which had our panniers, travellers and their rucksacks loaded in an improbable pile. But we arrived – slightly out of breath – and so did the luggage.

The boat was shallow bottomed and had a powerful (but loud) engine. Getting it off the mudflats was the first objective – and involved almost all of the men pushing and then jumping on before it got too far off shore! But we got going about 8am.

The pictures tell the story far more than any words – but the river meandered past hundreds of tiny villages where there was real poverty. Shacks looked flimsy, made of corrugated iron, pieces of plastic and timber, and perching on stilts for the wet season at precarious angles.

This was rural Cambodia where a combination of the fish in the river and subsistence farming meant people eked out survival. But even here there were motorbikes, the occasional school and riverside shops. Some of the long, thin boats passing us had impressive motors and were travelling at a fair speed. So it looks like there is development going on, but it is starting from a low base.

There was fishing with a variety of nets at all points, and also a great wealth of bird life. We saw one blue and red kingfisher but most of the birds moved too quickly to be identified, but were great to observe. At one stage we saw a “V” shaped flight of about 15 storks above – just like the red arrows. There were so excited very impressive bamboo structures holding large fishing nets with weights and pulleys to lift the nets inane out of the water. The other end was a living area, sometimes for whole families.

The water level varied and, at one point, the boat hit a sandbank. So we got into the water and pushed her off. When I say “we” I mean the collective male “we” on the boat, not the women who were not expected to get wet! It was quite fun really – especially seeing the battle of wills between the driver (who did this journey every day and thus probably knew what to do better than anyone) and the German tourist who was clearly an engineer in real life and had worked out all the angles, and gave clear Germanic instructions which everyone ignored. It as hard to know whether to laugh or push – so I did both.

Some of the “pushers” get left behind and have to swim to catch up with the boat!

There were the occasional larger settlement, and after about 3 hours we stopped at one for overpriced rice and vegetables. A captive audience the world over has no bargaining position. The crew ate for nothing!

Eventually the river got deeper and turned into reed beds, and then into open water. The crew opened the throttle and we steamed towards Siem Riep across Boeng Tonle Sab, the massive lake which leads almost down to Phnom Penh. The final few km were up the river which was full of tourist boats on day trips from Siem Riep. It was really quite congested!

The local health centre.

Arriving we felt a bit stiff, a bit weary but overall it was well worth it. We then packed up and cycled the 16km to find our accommodation – an apartment 4km outside the town. It was not “ready” when we arrived, due to us being the first people ever to use it. But at $15 a night we could hardly complain.
So we are all set to experience the largest religious space in the world tomorrow. Ankor Wat has a moat around it – which is 190m wide. It will be quite a place and something we could not miss in our travels, even though it will be mega busy and we’ll feel like processed tourists if we are not careful. However that is for tomorrow.

Monday 14th January 2019. Day off in Battembang.

We left home 2 weeks ago and have cycled for 10 consecutive days. Even though that has included some short days, that is a much longer stretch than we would normally do. But was just the way the days fell. However, we really felt we ‘deserved’ our day off and had a bit of a holiday day. Battembang (there various forms of the translation of the word) is a fairly chilled city with some old French colonial architecture and a good place to relax without being tempted to do too much….or so we thought.

We started the day with an American breakfast. Whilst we love noodles and rice, it was great to have something different. Our usual cycling breakfast is instant oat porridge with fruit – quick and easy and great for cycling, but not the same as a good cappuccino! Next we successfully booked a boat to Siem Reap with our bikes for tomorrow. That means we won’t have to cycle back the way we came along the 70km of roadworks!

We had read about a small NGO supporting women by teaching them sewing and selling handicrafts. It was on the edge of town so we took briefly to our bikes and found it tucked away at the back of a house in a little street. The choice was limited but we felt we were supporting a good cause and involved putting money straight into their hands.

In the afternoon we subjected ourselves to a full body Thai massage. OMG those women have strong hands. The hour of pummelling was about 90% on the edge of pain. Perhaps this is because our muscles were tired and overworked or maybe it is always like this because they know just how much pressure to use for maximum effect. We were in side by side beds, face down with our faces in a hole in the bed surface, and at one stage the masseurs were both sitting cross-legged on top of us, pummelling our backs whilst they chatted away with each other in Cambodian. I suspect they were talking about the weather, their children or the increasing price of noodles, but it did not appear to distract them from their task. Then into the sauna, the hot and cold tubs, the steam room and the hot and cold tubs again. By the end our muscles felt fantastic.

Our evening extravaganza was to go to the circus. Phare Ponleu Selpak is a performing arts school. The show is put on by the students a couple of times a week. It was billed somewhere as the “Cirque du Soleil’ of Cambodia.

Maybe not quite as swish and techno as that but full of exuberance and skill with traditional dancing, music on traditional instruments as well as acrobatics, juggling, incredible contortions by the girls woven into a story of village life. Great fun. A quiet day then!

Sunday 13th January : Banteay Chhmar to Battdambang : 127km and only 48m of climbing!

Today was a case of “getting the miles done”. It was flat but long – with a constant headwind and with the road surface being appalling for large parts of the last 70km. At one stage I remarked to Bernie that there must be an easier weight loss plan we could have followed and we both almost fell off our bikes laughing – not a great idea when there were large trucks on the road.

Anyway the day started early – earlier than we intended thanks to the “helpful” music coming from the Buddist Temple which was about 100 yards from our homestay. It belted out repeated rhythms from about 5am, making our 5.30 alarm call wholly pointless. We got up, did the last of our packing and said our goodbyes to our generous hosts.

Then, just as it was getting light, we left at 6.12am. We started by cycling on the left hand side of the road – as per Thailand and the UK – and soon realised our error when we almost crashed with a motorbike who was mega confused – our fault entirely. The air was light and calm, the morning rush hour to the fields was underway and we only stopped to take photos of the rising sun.

The next 60km were glorious – good surfaces, quiet roads and virtually no wind. We also went very, very gently downhill for 50km, starting at 90m height and ending at 15m. There were loads of people about in the small towns we passed and workers off to the fields. As we descended, the amount of water increased and paddy fields began to appear. We also noted that the ambiance took on a greater feeling of prosperity. Cambodia’s GDP has been steadily growing by between 6% and 8% per year for the past 10 years – an impressive but sustainable level of growth. 40% of the Cambodian population is aged 16 or below, so the economy needs to create lots of jobs just to meet the needs of those coming onto the labour market each year. This means there are schools and lots of young people everywhere. There are also a number of older citizens but a distinct lack of people in their 40s and 50s – due to the Pol Pot regime and the Killing Fields. So it is a country with a history of recent tragedy, but with a growing population and economy, and an obvious enthusiasm for the future.

Fellow escapees from the hot sun – sheltering under a tree

At about 10am we reached the major town of Sisophon, where we would turn East to get to Siem Riep (with the Ankor Wat temples) or go south on the road to Battambang. We knew the Battambang road would be busy, because it was one route to get to Phnom Penh but had no factored in that the whole route was in the (slow) process of being upgraded to a 2 lane motorway, but still being used as a main road. This meant the usable surface was smaller than usual, in pretty bad condition and there was a huge amount of dust from the new carriageways being laid out at the side. This is all Chinese money – part of the silk road development process – that will tie the government of Cambodia into China for the foreseeable future. The same thing is happening across Asia and Africa, Mr Trump may have his “America First” policy but China has a far more effective approach by investing in (and then owning) infrastructure for developing countries in many parts of the the world and creating long term economic ties as a consequence. China has invested more than $2billion in Cambodia in recent years, which buys a lot of new roads in this part of the world!

This is what the road was like for 70km!

The short term consequence of Chinese investment was a horrid 70km for us, but we rolled into Battdambang at about 3pm, and collapsed after a welcome shower. Then we strolled around this French colonial town for the early evening, ate and discussed life, the universe and everything. The market was colourful and had a feeling of activity that drew in locals and visitors alike – but we did not partake of the live eels that were being killed on demand – but they must have been very fresh (if fresh eels are your thing).

Live eels in the middle basket and one just being despatched off to the great eel farm in the sky!

It seems a long way away from the Brexit vote in Parliament, but the only clear thing is that Brexit-inspired chaos looks certain to continue. However, we feel well out of it here (knowing full well nothing will be any clearer when we get back at the end of February.

All dressed up – to sell vegetables!

Saturday 12th January. Samroung to Banteay Chhmar. 56km.

There were no more mishaps with our room and we slept well, waking with a 5.30 alarm. We said our good byes to our cycling compatriots and were on the road at 6.30 am. As always the early start was worth it. The town was also up an about. Children were on their way to morning school, which appeared to start at 7am.

We were turning west into the remote north east part of the country. The road was newly paved but with hardly any traffic – the odd motorbike or ‘mini tractor’ a ‘sit on mower’ type engine with a variety of trailers attached) and the very occasional car. The temperature was lovely and we climbed 1meter in the first 10km!

There was some agriculture – dormant rice paddies, many with the stubble being burnt, and cassava – and a lot of scrub land. Chopped up cassava was laid out by the side of the road to dry.

We cycled through small villages and the occasional town. Every small village had a primary school with the larger towns also having high schools. Schooling still seems to happen on Saturdays. We brought bread and donuts from a young chap with a laden motorbike which sat in the stomach as a welcome second breakfast as we pedalled along. The traditional wooden houses on stilts were in all the villages but some now had brick built bases. No doubt many are poor but most people were well dressed and looked well fed. The villages are clean and the shops small but seemed to have basic provisions. Every town of course had a variety of mobile phone shops.

We sped through 55km on the flat and with our early start we had reached our destination, Banteay Chhmar by 10am. We had read about a community tourism project that arranged tours and local homestays and soon found their office. Although they could not arrange a tour (we had not made any advance arrangements) a helpful chap soon arranged our homestay at a house in the village. We had a bedroom in the wooden upper floor and shared a very basic bathroom with the family who lived downstairs. Mosquito net, fan and even a kettle! Perfect.

The reason for visiting Banteay Chhmar was to see some pre-Angkor ruins of a temple complex dating from 11th-13th century. After a short clean up, we decided to go straight out to the ruins before it got too hot – the temperature was already rising significantly. The site was amazing – most had fallen into ruin and overtaken by the surrounding jungle but renovation had been going on for a decade or two. We were seeing much of the place as archaeologists must have seen early sites – piles of rubble with amazing stone carving peaking out. An outer wall with incredible carvings had been painstakingly reconstructed showing stories and many armed deities. It reminded me of Mayan carvings in Mexico 1000s of miles across the world.

The inner temple complex had small parts reconstructed giving a glimpse into how incredible the place must have been in its heyday. To start we had the place virtually to ourselves as we clambered about the stones. It was helpful that we had already seen some temple complexes as it meant we could imagine the structures and layout. A really memorable visit.

B

ack at our homestay the afternoon heat was now full on. 1-3pm are meltingly hot. We lay on the bed with the fan on full blast. By 4pm it was getting pleasant enough to sit out on the balcony in the shade with some breeze. I knew it was going to be hot but had not anticipated quite how hot and with a humidity which we have not cycled in before. We will have to work out how to manage the afternoon heat – an even earlier start tomorrow! I read and David checked the bikes over, tightening up things that had worked loose on the bumpy roads and sorting a few minor things. But overall the bikes are proving to be really reliable.

By 5pm the temperature was pleasant and we took a stroll through the village and round the edge of the ruins again. We had arranged to have dinner at the CBT office (which has fans and wifi) and had a tasty meal with plenty of fresh veg (although I think they left out all the chillies of us!). Have done some more useful planning today so our Cambodian chapter is taking shape.

Friday 11 January : Prasat, Thailand to Samroung, Cambodia: 79km

Today we crossed into Cambodia, met a lovely Dutch couple who were also travelling by bike and managed to fuse a hotel’s electricity system – all in 24 hours.

We started early and were on road by 7.15am. I have now found the temperature setting on the Garmin so know it was 21C when we started (and climbed to be well into the 40s by the early afternoon). We plodded along for 30km, had some coffee and then braced ourselves for crossing the border. We had read all manner of horror stories – mostly involving the need to pay copious bribes – but actually it was efficient, we were charged $35 for the visa (which is either the right amount or only $5 over) and then crossed into Cambodia.
Cambodia is poorer than Thailand but the people are more engaging with visitors, especially those on bikes.

We got numerous waves, smiles and “hellos” from children (who we think are partially taught in English). The road surfaces was good and we dropped 100m over the first 7km – so it was a fast start to a new country. First impressions are that this is young country, with loads of children. It is dusty, developing at a great pace and has an enthusiasm that is perhaps missing in Thailand.

However 20km from the border we were feeing very hot, and needed a rest. So we stopped at a bus shelter and drank water and ate doughnuts – bought from “Tescos” or 7-11” in Thailand the day before. We carried on through this agricultural but arid scenery and stopped to take some photos.

Then, to our utter astonishment, we saw 2 other cyclists coming towards us. Wilma and Will are a Dutch couple of about our age who are on a 5 week cycling tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. They stormed up to us and were as amazed by meeting us as we were meeting them! We were both going the same way so we teamed up and chatted as we rode. The flat countryside whizzed by and we soon reached Samroung, the town where we all had marked as the end of the day’s cycle.

It was astonishing to hear them putting forward exactly the same reasons as us for embarking on this madcap adventure. They spoke of the peace, the quiet, meeting people and seeing a country at a slow pace – all things we have tried to explain in our own words. So we are either both mad or we are onto something.

We found a hotel by the lake and then showered. A new country means a new Sim card – but at $1 it was not going to break the bank. I then spent several hours reading up on Cambodia’s past, including the Khymer Rouge period when millions died. It was more complex than I had recalled (as is always the case) but there are very few people our age since our generation lived (and died) in the terror,
We then had a pleasant meal out with Wilma and Will and learned that they tried to cycle every day in Holland, despite the winds. They were certainly faster than us and this may explain it. As we walked back music was booming across the lake and we were treated to a firework display that reflected in the lake waters – not to welcome us to Cambodia we think but probably a wedding celebration.

Then back to the hotel with its amusing signs. However the act of turning on the bedroom light fused the hotel’s system, resulted in young boys spending a long time fiddling with live electricity wires. I could not bear to watch but, having failed to mend them, we were moved to a room with functioning lights!

Thursday 10th January.  Nang Rong to Prasat via Phnom Rung Historical Park. 98km

We slept in slightly later than planned as David had an unfortunate incident with bed bugs last night when he woke up with his back covered in bites. Urghh! Luckily I had some anti-histamines to settle the itching and there was a sofa that he could decamp to and we had sleeping bag inners that we could cover ourselves up in. We had even splashed out on a 3* hotel so it just goes to show (something).

It was bright and sunny when we set off and our spirits brightened as we cycled through the morning market. All those delicious fresh herbs and spices that are a part of the cooking on display.

We had a pleasant 30km ride to the Phnom Rung Historical park, through pleasant countryside and a paved road (hurrah). At least it was pleasant until the last couple of km. Prasat Phnom Rung is an amazing Khmer Hindu temple built between the 10th and 13th centuries. It sits on top of an extinct volcano that springs out of the surrounding flat landscape. For us that meant another lung busting steep 200m climb. This time we did not have to get off and push so must be getting fitter but it still wiped us out by the time we got to the top.

A reviving cup of decent coffee and then we visited the temple. I won’t describe all the detail but the setting was fantastic, the approach was along an amazing walkway and series of steps and the stone carvings beautiful. Hopefully the photos will give some idea. The complex is one of a whole series of temples that line an ancient Khmer highway between Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Phimae a bit further north in Thailand. It gave us a taster of what is to come. I must read up about the link between Hinduism and Buddhism but the temple was reminiscent of some of the ancient temples we saw in India.

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Time for a second breakfast (omelette on rice -nicer than it sounds) and off to our second temple at the bottom of the volcano. Today the skies were clear and the sun much hotter that we have experienced so far. Prasat Muang Tam was a less visited monument in serene surroundings next to a lake. The main temple building flanked by 4 L shaped ponds guarded by 5 headed Nagas (serpents). A 100 year old mango tree gave some shade. We were now at the height of the sun (mad dogs and Englishmen etc) and melted our way round. The only leaflet we had was in Thai but the setting felt calm and evocative.

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We now had 60km to get to the next main town with some accommodation. It felt rather daunting in the heat, although bizarrely it felt less hot cycling at a nice steady pace (flat) because it generated a 20km breeze. Luckily no more hills. After 20km we dived into shade for a sticky sugary drink and after that the main bite of the sun had gone. We were back on the main road, although now much less busy, and the next 35km was rather like riding an exercise bike – just keep the legs whirring round. We even overtook a couple of very heavily laden old trucks/tractors! Tedious but the km ticked down until we reached Tescos in Prasat – yes Tesco (supermarkets as we know them have been sown up by Tesco and 7-eleven). A quick stock up of supplies then off to find a homestay we had seen on one of the hotel websites. We had decided not to book as for the last few days we have been almost the only people in the hotel so going direct meant more money for the owner. The sun was starting to fade as we rolled in – “full’ the owner said “sorry, sorry”. In fact everything looked closed up rather than full but she directed us to another hotel a couple of km away, which was perfectly fine.

98km and 2 temple visits – quite a day. Just 40km to the Cambodian border tomorrow.