Thursday 24th January: Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh: Flat and 102km

Today we reached a major milestone and made it to Phnom Penh. 1621km cycled so far this trip on 3 weeks of cycling. However more on our destination later. Our day started as usual with the 5.15 alarm and on the road by 6.15. We cycled out of Kampong Cham along the river road with some early morning traffic. We brought our bread and snacks from a passing motorbike man and cycled 18km to a ferry point to cross back to the east side of the Mekong. We could see the ferry coming over and chatted to a woman running a little drinks stall – well chatted might be an exaggeration but she got the gist of where we had started and where we were going and she found it all hilarious. She got quite over excited seeing the Km distance on the Garmin as if to prove we had cycled from Kampong Cham that morning.

Quite a few motorbikes, cars and lorries came off the ferry – clearly rush hour into the town. We rolled our bikes on and sat in the early morning sun, and sat…and sat. Gradually a few more people arrived and about 40 minutes later when presumably the driver thought there were enough people chuntered over to the other bank. It was still only 8.30 and we were in no hurry.

Our aim for the day was to try and take a quiet back route into Phnom Penn. Roads were marked on Google maps but we had no way of knowing whether the road was paved or not. The first few km we bumped along a hard packed dirt road and then at the next village hit some tarmac – or rather one half of a concrete road as they were still laying the other half. The road soon converted to tarmac across the whole road and we were moving along nicely, the wind still behind. We were congratulating ourselves that we had got to the road just as it had been surfaced and that it was likely to get better and better as we got towards the capital. Wrong! The road reverted back to dirt track…but even worse being prepared for the road building so rather than being hard packed it was covered in loose gravel, almost impossible on a bike. There was a small rim without gravel on the side left for bikes and motorbikes – at times only about a foot wide. We wiggled and bumped along getting covered in dust as the occasional vehicle went by. Our average speed halved and we wondered whether we would get to Phnom Penh today. Luckily it only lasted about 10km and then we were back on paved road the rest of the way. Relief!

The road hugged the Mekong passing through rural villages. Wedding tents were seen on the side of the road at frequent intervals, horses and carts with enormous loads of hay, amazing temples in small villages. Always something to see so although the cycling as again flat, flat, flat we weren’t bored.

Finally we could see Phnom Penh in the distance but we continued on the quiet bank with only a slight increase in traffic for the last few km to a ferry which took us into the heart of the city. A great way to arrive.

We went straight from the ferry to the Vietnamese embassy to sort out our visa. Suddenly we were surrounded by chaotic traffic…but by now we were quite used to things coming at us in the wrong direction – apart from that it was much like cycling in London or any large city – you have to have our wits about you. The first impression was of a clean, modern city.

We found the embassy and sorting the visa was straightforward (unlike trying to arrange an e-visa where you are only allowed particular points of entry and exit). We can pick it up tomorrow afternoon so it will be sorted before the weekend.

Then last few km to our hotel. We have treated ourselves to a bit of 4* luxury (booking.com last minute deal!) so we had flunkies opening all the doors, carrying all our (filthy) panniers and bringing us orange juice. The check in staff were rather taken aback when I said we did not have our passports because they were at the Vietnamese embassy. “how can we check you in?”. Luckily I had copies and they decided that would do.

After a long, very hot shower (what joy) and a rest we took a stroll round the locality taking in the amazing art deco building of the central market (that was packing up for the day), down to the river front along the back streets then circling back to the hotel. There were a few tourists about but this is a living thriving city with activity going on everywhere. It had a good feel.
We then counted up the km and it came to 1691km from Bangkok – so that felt as good a reason as any to have a decent meal. We went to a French Restaurant opposite the hotel which was located in an old colonial mansion with a terrace overlooking the street. There we had a fantastic meal with a bottle of wine, as well as indulging in a little people watching. Then, unused to wine, we ambled back to the hotel – still in bed by 9pm though!

Thursday 23rd January : Kratie to Kampong Cham: 126km – flat and wind assisted.

What else would a golden griffon have hanging from its beak?

Today was a lovely cycle along the river Mekong, with villages all the way, plenty of interest and timely food stops. The temperature was not too bad, the road surfaces were good and we had a following wind. Nothing is perfect but this was pretty good.

We woke with the alarm at 5.15am and were on the road by 6.30am – slightly delayed by pumping up tyres and having coffee. We were conscious that our bikes were beginning to look rather shabby after all the dust we had but, heh hoh, this was not a beauty contest. Our thoughts were dominated by my brother’s illness but he wants us to keep travelling and keep sending him updates, photos and travelling tales as they mean so much to him. So Pete, if you are reading this, we are doing so!

The road meandered around the East bank of the Mekong, sometimes next to the river and sometimes a few km away in paddy fields which were fed by river water. The road was quiet and we were overtaken by a range of vehicles – including a bullock cart with 2 huge bullocks on board, pulled by a motorbike. However the prize of the day goes to the motorbike with ice-cream side car which had a horn that was adapted to play “My heart will go on” from the movie, Titanic, at a very slow pace as if it were a funeral march. It took a long time to work out what the tune was but, of course, once it got into our heads it stayed there for much of the day! I will never hear that song again without thinking of the ice-cream salesman on the Mekong River highway.

Don’t step out of line as I am watching and listening to your every movement.

We turned off the main road to follow the river. The side road was usually one field away from the water, and was continually populated with houses for almost all of the next 40km. The houses are mostly on stilts – to protect against the flooding when the river rises in the wet season. Lucky told us yesterday that there were bad floods this year and hundreds of people had died. The Mekong in flood must be terrifying. The river has a mixed status – being both the great benefactor for this region and the cause of so many deaths.

A lady who sold us fresh peanuts

This is “Cham” territory, with a number of Cham villages. These are ethic Khymers who are mostly Muslim. There was an increase in mosques, veiled women (but very few fully covered) and men with Islamic head coverings. We stopped at a Muslim eatery for lunch and the local Imam helped us get some excellent Chicken and rice, as well as topping up our water bottles. All very friendly and – of course – our meal cost $1. Everything seems to add up to $1 – vegetables, multiple soft drinks or even a beer. It is always mysteriously $1. Whilst I am confident we are charged more than the locals, I do not resent an informal tourist surcharge. It is a way of delivering value directly into the local economy and seems to be fairly well established. We are rarely charged any more than $1, and even with the tourist surcharge, things are far more affordable for us than for the locals given their incomes. So we smile, treat the price asked as fair and pay up.

New friends along the way

We took lunch having covered 85km – not a bad morning. But we both felt slightly heavy legged and so stopped for a soft drink at about 103km. This produced one of the major amusements of the trip. The soft drink seller we stopped at had no cold drinks, but directed us to a store opposite who did. The couple who ran the store doubled up by cleaning motor bikes – with a water spray until and cleaning cloths. So we tentatively asked about this service for our bikes and – surprise, surprise – it cost $1.

Clean bikes and the bike cleaners

Fantastic value as we watched them expertly clean every part of the bikes, getting the mud, dirt and grime out of all the crevices. But they thought it was hilarious that anyone thought a bicycle was worth cleaning. This gathered quite a crowd including a lady of about our age who was fascinated by the whole process; no translation needed to understand that she wanted to know where had we come from, where were we going and when did we not have sore bums. The last question involved her feeling Bernie’s padded trousers and then carefully feeling my posterior as well – to the further huge amusement of the onlookers. She was quite a character and we were happy to play along. The sub-text was “Well they are mad of course – not only having their bikes cleaned but also cycling all this way – you think they could afford a motorbike but poor things have to cycle”.

This really cheered us up and we ambled along the last 23km, finally crossing over the river into the city of Kampong Cham at about 3pm. There was not a single hill all day and the only time we registered any height gain was to climb the few metres needed to a bridge. I have never done such a sustained flat ride with the wind behind me. Such a change from Northern Cambodia where we battled against the wind day after day. So a lovely day on the bikes – just 1 more day to reach the capital.

22nd January.  Kayaking with fresh water dolphins.

Although I am sure the monks were praying early it mercifully was not broadcast across loud speaker as with some other temples so we woke gently in our temple camp site. As I stirred outside the tent for an early morning brew at dawn, so the monks were also stoking the fire in their kitchen area and preparing breakfast. We slowly broke camp and headed off (having persuaded the monks to accept a donation) to meet our guide for our kayaking trip (booked through Cambodia Discovery Trail). This part of the Mekong is famous for a pod of rare Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins and we were hopeful of spotting them.

First they strapped our bikes and panniers onto a motorbike trailer to transport them to the finishing point so that we could continue cycling from there. Everything can be carried on a motorbike in some sort of trailer or other. The most impressive so far was a very large wooden bed!

Our guide, Lucky Kip, was a pleasant softly spoken local man whose family were fishermen and knew this bit of the river like the back of his hand. We were in a tandem kayak while he had his own single. We were soon installed and pushing off onto the mighty river. Anything else aside it was incredible kayaking across to the other side first and then drifting downstream on the swirling currents. As it is dry season the river is scattered with trees and bushes and small islands poking out of the water. During the wet season the river rises by 35m and all these are submerged. It was both peaceful and but quite scary with the power of the river. We saw cormorants and king fishers then pulled up onto a small island and swam in a small protected bay.

We then paddled through an area called the floating forest – large trees looming out of the water with elaborate root systems.

We were then on open water and into the dolphin area. We were making our way to the opposite bank when lucky suddenly stopped and paddled rapidly to the other bank with us following as fast as we could. We pulled the boats onto the bank and soon saw a couple of the dolphins coming up for air then diving down again. These dolphins are shy and easily scared off but we watched for 20 minutes or so as they rose up and down. Glimpses only each time but as there are only 80-90 left in the whole Mekong river it was a privilege to see them. The fresh water dolphins have flatter noses and larger rounder heads compared to the ocean dolphins. There were around 2000 on the river but during the starvation of the Pol Pot years the local people killed them to eat and for oil – often shooting them or dynamiting them out of the water. In spite of concerted conservation efforts their numbers are still precarious but thought to have raised to around 90 last year because of good rains. With females only giving birth every 3 years if there is a year of a lot of pollution it makes a significant difference.

While we were watching the dolphins we were also watching fishermen on small boats casting their nets and pulling them in, catching small fish. 1 kilo is 5000 rials (about 1 pound) – that’s a lot of fishing for not much money.

We then had a final hard pull directly across the river to the other bank to finish our trip. Out bikes were there waiting for us and we had just 15km along a small paved but bumpy road into the town of Kratie. We treated ourselves to a room with A/C and felt exhausted. We thought we were fit but suddenly using totally different muscles and we were wiped out again!

Kratie felt a step different from the more remote north east. More affluent, more touristy (lots of places with burgers on the menu), nearer to Pnomh Penh. It had a long and pleasant river front but to us not nearly as charming as the little villages we had seen (or are we getting ‘tourist snobby’ again). A good place to rest and do some onward planning.

Monday 21 January: Koh Preah to Sandan: 122km and 350m of climbing

One of the features of affluent, western life is the distance between individuals. We sleep in our own rooms (possibly with a partner) with thick walls between us and other members of the family. This is pretty uncommon for the rest of the world where families live on top of each other, sleep within the same area and live in far closer contact with others.

We felt this as we rose before dawn this morning, with both Sorrany and her husband and Veronica and Allessandro sleeping in the next door room (although Veronica and Allessandro were under a mosquito net which offered some demarcation). We crept about as we packed up but our efforts at being quiet in this wooden house were pretty unsuccessful. Both Sorrany and Veronica were soon up – and we had exchanges with them both before leaving. We wish Veronica and Allessandro well on their bike trip. It had not begun well but they reached the delights of Kop Preah and decided (very sensibly) to spend an extra day there).

We picked our way across the island in the early morning light. The road was loose stones and so it was hard to keep balance with any weight on the front wheel, but I managed not to fall off (just). Then, as we got to the tiny ferry we saw it had just left! But, not wishing to loose the prospect of another paying customer (and with the chance of doubling the number of passengers for this trip), it did a loop and came back to the bank to pick us up – a result that saved us a hour’s wait! So we sat as the ferry chugged across the river to the mainland.

We retraced our steps along the road going north to the temple, and then left the dirt to turn East onto a sealed road. The joy of tarmac after bumping along the dirt roads is a simple pleasure. That road took us up and over a 100m hill to join the “no7” road which was one of the main routes from Cambodia to Laos. But it was quiet! There were a few trucks but not many. Lots of minibuses use this route – stopping to pick up passengers as a substitute for buses. They were held together with string – literally – as many had parts such as exhausts kept in place by string or rope, and had motorbikes strung with rope off the back. It was not clear whether the motorbike was being transported for a passenger or was a back-up to be used to go to get help when the minibus broke down.

The road surface was initially not great and it ambled up and down for the next 20km, as the temperature gradually climbed. This is scrubland and was thinly populated – and only then along the road. I am pretty confident there is mostly uncultivated bush for miles and miles away from the road. But then the surface dramatically improved. The Chinese have built a brand new road in the last few years and we whizzed along. As the day heated up, so the wind got up but it was in our favour. So we sped along at about 22kph. The road undulated but there were no big hills and we made great progress. We got to the village where we originally planned to camp at about 11. So we changed plans, had a quick soft drink and carried on. The scrubland continued and, as if from nowhere, we met a cyclist coming the other way.

Paul is retired, lives in South Yorkshire and cycles the world when he can. We exchanged pleasantries and went our separate ways – with our southward journey being fuelled by peanut butt sandwiches. Almost as much a delight as the Chinese road.

By about 3pm we had got to the turning to bring us back to the Mekong. 14km later (and countless wave and “hello – what is your name – goodbye” from passing children) and having covered 122km, we re-joined the river at the village of Sandan. We found a small Buddhist temple and easily got permission to camp in the grounds. There were plenty of monks around but our efforts to make a contribution to the monastery were rebuffed.

Then we set up camp, brewed and ambled into town to try to buy coffee (failed as the Cambodians do not seem to drink either tea or coffee on a regular basis) and watched a spectacular sunset over the river. We cooked our one-pot meal and then ate to the background of junior monks practising their chanting. The words for the chant were on a mobile phone and the young monk was scrolling through the text on his phone as he chanted. It all felt very strange and yet very familiar at the same time.

We exchanged a few words with some of the monks who spoke a little English but the extent of their English meant it did not get beyond exploratory questions – but was till far better than our Kymer. The limited conversation made it clear that we were welcome here, and that felt good. Finally we went to bed in our tent – driven there by the mosquitos – and watched an orange moon rising in the East.

Sunday 20th January. Chilling on a Mekong Island. 38km.

Today was short on kilometers but big on ‘experiences what we have had’. I am sitting on a small inhabited island in the middle of the Mekong river in a very simple village as the sun is beginning to dip down and filter through the surrounding trees. 5* luxury it is not but 5* experience it is.

We got extremely helpful advice we got from Theara at the Cambodia Mekong Trail office in Stung Treng (if you are a traveller reading this go to http://www.cambodiamekongtrail.com and visit their office). This outfit runs tours but also feeds back into the community, they are also generous with their advice for independent travellers. We would never have found this place or known about the Homestay project without them.

As we only had a short cycle we had the luxury of a gentle start and ambled off at about 8.30. We cycled about 30km directly along the banks of the Mekong past thriving communities and lush vegetation. The first 6km were paved but then we were on dirt track, crossing numerous rickety wooden bridges. Harder work than paved roads but we were in definite ambling mode and jogged along absorbing the scenery and the joy of the wind behind us! We passed a large modern pagoda which was impressive – I wasn’t dressed for entry being in lycra shorts (and not wanting to unpack everything to cover up with my sarong) but could see most of it from the gate and listened to the tinkling bells observed by 2 small boys who were fascinated with the bikes.

A little later on there was a side turning down to the small ferry over to the Island of Koh Preah. We had a debate about whether it was the right turning. I knew for carrying on as thought it as to soon but after a killer of kms we managed to find someone who u derstood our accent as we tried to say the name of Feb island. David had beenright (just on this occasion) so we retraced our steps and found the ferry. We wheeled on and sat around for half an hour or so while a couple of other people also pitched up for the short hop across the river. There was then a few km across the island on a tricky gravelly track to the small village on the other side of the island. The village has a programme of 7 homestays that rotate visitors and we were soon directed to typical wooden house.

The house had one large main room -off this was a small bedroom where we would sleep on a mattress on the floor with mosquito net over. There were plenty of cracks between the floorboards to the area under the house below. At the back of was a small kitchen with an open fire. There was a small outside ‘privvie’ with water for a bucket shower. Pigs, chickens and dogs roamed around and there were children everywhere.
We cleaned up and rested for a bit and then strolled through the village. We felt rather like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn as were followed by hoards of children and the usual chorus of hellos.

I

t was Sunday so everyone seemed very chilled (although I suspect it is much the same every day). The village houses stretched for about 3-400m then a path petered off into scrub land. Our aim was to find a shady spot to read by the river to get some cooling breeze – we found somewhere suitable which lasted for about 15 minute before we were ‘found’ again by groups of children – the brave ones approaching to say ‘what is your name’. By and large the mothers looked young and we saw very few older people – a result of the terrible genocide of the Pol Pot era.

The afternoon was cooling a bit and we provided more local entertainment for the watching children as we brewed up a cup of tea and filtered water for all our water bottles. More reading and chilling, we felt very laid back and strolled back to the riverside again to watch the sun go down. A retired teacher who we think was the community head, came to chat with his limited English (vs our non-existent Cambodian) . We learnt a surprising amount. He was 64 and had retired as a teacher at the island school 3 years before. He had 8 children who were teachers, a nurse and son in the military. None lived on the island. I wonder if these communities will survive going forward.

We were then provided with a delicious dinner cooked by Sovanny. A last amble in the dying minutes of light as a full moon rose then when we came back to the house we found 2 Italian cyclists, Veronica and Allesandro, had just arrived. It was their first day on the bikes after a tricky time getting transport from Pnomh Penh. They had missed the turning to the little ferry like us and arrived late. They were good company as we chatted while they had another dinner provided by Sorrany.

A memorable day.

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.