Gorgeous gorges and monstrous mountains

March 19 – 23, 2013 – After a nice afternoon in the best hotel in town and some fights at the breakfast buffet the next morning with a tour group of French retirees who couldn’t stop talking French to everybody we left relaxed knowing we only had about 50km to cycle. (I overheard a French conversation about the butter that was just finished. One of the ladies complained to one of her ‘colleagues’ that she told the waitress about the butter, but she would only speak Chinese or some other strange language….Good, morning, Vietnam!).

Leaving Pleiku or 'concrete city'

Leaving Pleiku or ‘concrete city’

The landscape on the Ho-Chi-Minh highway didn’t really improve, we were still cycling through deforested undulating area on awful streets as the full 50km were under construction, hence another dust-swallowing ride next to trucks, buses and motorbikes. Besides we passed a lot of pubescent teenagers either walking or cycling to or from school, the girls giggling as soon as they saw us and the boys playing the cool ones by throwing stones at me or having much fun by first smiling nicely and as soon as I am next to them yelling ‘hello’ that I almost fall from my bike. Extremely funny!

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Some roadside business

Some roadside business

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Just before lunch time we arrived in Kon Tum, another laid-back town with not much to see other than two old wooden churches and some minority villages and we decided to stay two nights as the room would be two Dollars cheaper :-). Are we getting lazy?!? The guesthouse we stayed at was a nice relaxed place in the city center with a pleasant garden and a bitch of an owner. We were told we would get breakfast, but the next morning the staff didn’t turn up and there wasn’t any breakfast. Which would not have been a big deal as we were allowed to bring in our own food. But when we saw that the bitch of an owner spoon-fed her three little dogs we first couldn’t believe our eyes and then got really annoyed.

Later that morning we cycled through some of the minority villages, which have at their centre a longhouse known as a rong. Built on sturdy stilts with a platform and entrance at either end, or sometimes in the middle, the interior is generally made of split bamboo and protected by a towering thatched roof, usually about 15m high. The rong is used as a venue for festivals and village meetings and as a village court at which anyone found guilty of a tribal offence has to ritually kill a pig and a chicken, and must apologize in front of the village.

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This kid just jumped on my bike and showed me the way to his school

This kid just jumped on my bike and showed me the way to his school

After the refuelling-stops in Pleiku and Kon Tum we were ready and keen again to go on a longer and more challenging trip. We actually never really know how far we will cycle as the maps (both our paper map and google maps) are extremely inaccurate and there are discrepancies of as much as 60km in just one day! Today’s route had been really scenic on hilly roads (we were still in the central highlands) with an ever-changing landscape, scary suspension bridges we thankfully did not have to use, low traffic, nice villages with nice people and RAIN, just three kilometers before we arrived! It would pour down so heavily that we sought shelter at a small shop selling drinks and some other necessities. Our bikes were parked in some kind of a shed and we – dripping-wet – were offered hot tea and the usual mini-chairs inside. While sitting there and waiting for the rain to stop a few men were busy in the back of the house with some pigs, which made an awful lot of noise. We first thought they might slaughter them and hoped for not having to witness the process when two men suddenly passed, shouldering a huge pink pig upside down in an iron cage which didn’t give the poor pig any room to move. It was placed behind a motorbike and shortly after we left about 15 minutes later the motorbike passed with two huge pigs on the back, still alive but as silent as the moon, as we would say in German. At chilly temperatures of only slightly above 20 degrees we found a nice and clean guesthouse in Dak Glei, took a real shower – this time with soap – ate the usual rice with meat and vegetables and went to bed shattered as we had cycled 117km on heavily undulating roads.

Mid-morning photo fun

Mid-morning photo fun

A typical countryside lunch with rice, soup, meat, fish, vegetables and green tea

A typical countryside lunch with rice, soup, meat, fish, vegetables and green tea

 

Some other pigs on their way to the butcher

Some other pigs on their way to the butcher

Would you dare?

Would you dare?

And we didn’t know that the real challenge was yet to come. The further we went into the central highlands, the more deserted, the more scenic and beautiful the landscape became. While still a lot of buses overtook us the day before, there were almost none the following day: The day we passed two passes of more than 1,000m altitude. Holy Moly, what a ride! At times the roads were so steep that we didn’t manage to cycle, but had to push the bikes. I can tell you that’s no fun at all. The sweat dripped from our bodies as if we had just come out of the shower and more than once I had to tell myself: ‘We chose cycling over backpacking, we chose the difficult ‘off the beaten track route’ so don’t complain and enjoy the scenery’. I’ve been also thinking a lot about how we could reduce the weight we are carrying on our bikes as we currently don’t need our tent nor our cooking stuff, which is a lot of weight, but so far we haven’t come to a solution and just keep on carrying.

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A break between two passes and a wonderful Vietnamese couple who shared their snacks with us

A break between two passes and a wonderful Vietnamese couple who shared their snacks with us

Two kilometers before arriving in the next village and after having mastered the two passes just before lunch my back wheel suddenly made strange noises. Click – clack – click – clack, but I couldn’t see anything when I stopped the first time. So I went on, but the noise got louder and I had a feeling already. So I checked a second time to confirm my thoughts, one of my spokes broke. Shute. This meant we would not be able to continue after lunch. So we just cycled into the village, ate, looked for a guesthouse and while handyman Johan repaired my bike in no time, I did some laundry and grocery shopping to be able to leave early the next morning.

We had a long day ahead, that’s the only thing we knew. We had to cycle far beyond 100km, as per our different map guesses about 120km. We did not know how many ascents and descents we had to overcome, we did not know how many times we had to stop for taking pictures and we had no clue about the road condition. But it turned out to become another fabulous day on the road. The first 60km we rode through the jungle, real jungle with huge trees, ferns and Tarzan-like liana all around us. Not only did we smell the jungle, we could hear it as well: birds and insects competing with each other in deafening concerts. The area was deserted with hardly any villages for about 60km and we were glad we had enough water with us. We passed waterfalls, cycled along gorgeous gorges and a river at times several hundred meters below the road and admired 2,000m high mountains covered in clouds and mystique fog.

Can you hear the jungle?

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The afternoon continued less scenic as we started our descent eastwards to reach Hoi An at the sea. And as always after lunch, we had to climb. Thirty. Sweaty. Boiling. Minutes. With the sun at its peak, no shade, and a full tummy. And an immediate reward: as we were now cycling through pineapple plantations and it is pineapple season, and every 50 meters women sold the sweet fruits, we allowed ourselves a desert: one pineapple each, fresh from the field, and nicely cleaned and ready to eat.

And in theory the second part of the day might have been a piece of cake as we from now on only rode downwards, BUT the wind picked up, and guess what, Petrus decided to let the wind blow from the east for a change. Yeah! Right into our faces so our sweat would immediately dry! Double yeah! And on top we rode through Death Valley, with hardly any villages but one after the other cemetery. I lost count of it, but without exaggerating there were no two kilometers without one. For about 40km.

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Isn't she gorgeous as well?

Isn’t she gorgeous as well?

Despite the mountains and the elements we happily arrived before dusk at Hoi An. That day we cycled 133km with almost eight hours in the saddle. We were looking forward to some relaxing days on the beach and great food, as we read that Hoi An is the place to get the best Vietnamese food.

Bon appétit!

For those who are interested in seeing more photos of our trip, we’ve created our own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/BaerbelandJohan) where you’ll find more recent status updates and many more pictures. 

 

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Final thoughts and facts on Cambodia

First of all – we had a fantastic time in Cambodia and loved most about it and were really sad to say goodbye. We spent 24 days in the country, cycled 1,139 km, were 68 hours in the saddle and saw most of its hot spots.

Cambodia is 1.5 times the size of England of which 5% is covered by water of the Tonle Sap lake. It has a population of 15 million of which 90% are Khmer and the average annual income is just 610 USD which makes Cambodia one of the poorest countries worldwide. Sadly, the average life expectancy is only 61 years.

Below is a random collection of some Cambodian peculiarities we found noteworthy, funny or just interesting.

Pyjamas: I still cannot get over the pyjama fashion, it is just hilarious seeing women in my age wearing red, yellow or baby-blue outfits with teddy-bear, flower or comic prints. Admittedly, I am also a bit jealous as it is the most comfy outfit I can think of. And nobody sees if you have a few kilo too much on your hips (you won’t even feel it yourself as the pyjama grows with you :)).

She is selling mangos

She is selling mangos

Language: Khmer is a language hard to learn. In the little more than three weeks we just managed to say ‘Akon’ (thank you), and that’s about it. In the main tourist areas people speak English very well, however most of the times with an accent we really needed to get used to as they cannot pronounce the ‘S’ at the end of a sentence and as commonly known for Asians, they use the ‘L’ for an ‘R’. When we first arrived we had no clue when a waiter asked us if we would like to have “Li” with our food, he of course meant ‘rice’. Or if we would like to have ‘I’ in our drink. On some menus they also write an ‘L’ instead of the ‘R’, we once could have bought Malbollo (yes, cigarettes are on the menu and you can buy them separately or by package).

Have a closer look at the last two translations

Have a closer look at the last two translations

Ice: People usually don’t have fridges. They buy their food fresh from the market where animals such as fish, chickens or ducks just get killed when bought. We were also told that all the other meat is always just from the day (which I still doubt, given the sometimes very stale smell on the markets). But they always have huge blocks of ice which gets delivered by small non refrigerated trucks or mopeds/motorbikes (packed in sawdust), sawn in small pieces and as per quantities needed right in front of the house. If the ice isn’t delivered directly to the house people just buy it somewhere and carry it on their bikes, motorbikes, in plastic bags and it sometimes falls on the street as it is too heavy for the bike which is one of the reasons why we always opted for warm and ice-free drinks despite the temperatures.

An ice truck

An ice truck

The early bird catches the worm: Cambodians get up very early. As soon as it is light, life is in full swing. Women sell their goods on the market, small food stalls are open to sell iced coffee, rice porridge or bread. Fantastic for us early risers, as we could always get some food in the morning. On the other hand they also go to bed early, and shortly after dusk shops are closing and roads are emptying. Handy for us once more as we could always have early dinners.

Early morning food stalls

Early morning food stalls

Women: There is a lot of respect for women which was a huge relief for me after India, where a woman is just good for doing all the work and give birth to baby-boys. In Cambodia women of course ride motorbikes, why not? They of course have a job other than caring for their children, households and husbands and they go to school as their male siblings do.

Open-air aerobics for the modern woman, in pyjamas, what else!

Open-air aerobics for the modern woman, in pyjamas, what else!

People: As much as Cambodians are emancipated they are very friendly, warm and welcoming. We did not make any bad experiences – except for the one or other bad-tempered hotel manager or disinterested shop sales person. The children are cute, funny, cheerful and seem to enjoy themselves if they are poor or rich, on a bicycle, motorbike or afoot, at school or at the playground. And the children always shouted their super enthusiastic ‘hello, hello’ to us.

Cheerful children

Cheerful children

Food: The food is OK, but there is not so much variety as there are just a few main dishes such as Lok Lak or Amok they serve, but that’s maybe just our impression and what they serve for foreigners. We ate a lot of noodle soup as well, but that’s not an original Cambodian dish. We loved their baguettes, they were huge and always freshly served, hence warm and crisp. And they had great fruit shakes, tukaluk, a bit too sweet for my taste but still good. So far Thai food still ranks first.

Who knows all the fruits?

Who knows all the fruits?

Vehicles: They have very funny tractors or trucks that almost look like self-made vehicles. They are very basic and without a cabin, you can see the engine and the driver is usually wearing a helmet. These vehicles can go very fast!

Fancy truck, fancy helmet!

Fancy truck, fancy helmet!

Roads: Good things first: they are empty and even the ‘busy’ main roads between the bigger cities are not busy and cycling is very relaxed and you can concentrate on the surroundings instead of the traffic. Traffic-wise Cambodia is made for cyclists. Roads can also be a nightmare. Especially if they consist of gravel and dust. On the upside, you get a free full body exfoliation and a day-long massage as you hobble on the way. The dust also give you a wonderful tan as the combination of sweat, sun cream and red sand make you look as if you’ve just come from a four-week beach vacation.

No, these feet are not as tanned as they look like!

No, these feet are not as tanned as they look like!

Nature and wildlife: While there is hardly any jungle left (I’m not going into this again, it is sad enough) and with it a lot of wildlife vanished, it has still some stunning landscapes left: the Mekong, the Tonle Sap lake with it’s beautiful floating villages and some remaining jungles. I would almost call it the country of the butterflies as I’ve never seen so many (different) butterflies as in Cambodia.

A Cambodian grasshopper

A Cambodian grasshopper

Monuments and architecture: Thankfully the Khmer Rouge couldn’t destroy all of the fine Khmer and other heritage such as the hundreds of Angkor temples or all the other temples and monuments across the country. We loved the wooden stilt houses. The inside is very basic with hardly any furniture, but they just look beautiful.

Countrystyle

Country style

Cleanliness: I have to admit, after India every country is clean. We were really impressed by the Cambodian’s attempt of keeping the country clean. In small street stalls we could help ourselves from sauces in clean flasks, the tables were clean and not sticky and usually every table had its own dust bin. And as far as I recall we only used our own sheets for sleeping once. There are dust bins almost everywhere, even where you don’t expect them and the best is, most of them are produced from recycled tires. Well done!

A temple waste basket

A temple waste basket

Furniture: If it comes to furniture they are a bit odd – at least for our taste buds. There is just one style: polished hard wood. Restaurants are full with all kinds of chairs, stools, tables, cupboards and they are always exactly the same. They resemble more a furniture shop than a restaurant as the rooms are usually overloaded with furniture and you can hardly walk anymore. And don’t think you get a cushion to sit on, no way, you sit on the hard wood, and we suffered a lot with our sore bottoms, I even considered to buy a pillow, just to sit on…..

This is one of the more sparsely arranged restaurants

This is one of the more sparsely arranged restaurants

We are now the second day in Vietnam, spent the first night in an awful but expensive guesthouse, couldn’t find decent food and left without breakfast this morning, cycled on heavily undulating roads – we’re back in the mountains – and rewarded ourselves for the hard work and the bad hotel yesterday with a nice lunch and a super luxury hotel in Pleiku instead of cycling another 50km.

Good morning, Vietnam!

Gimme five on a journey along the Mekong

We spent 3.5 days in Phnom Penh to relax, to catch up on various things and to do some sightseeing and the usual shopping. All in all it was a very pleasant stay in a very rich city where you only see huge cars such as hummers, SUVs, the newest landrovers and pick up trucks and some fancy European brands. In the early evenings Cambodian women become sportive and practice open-air Aerobics at the Mekong, dressed up couples stroll along the riverfront and a few tourists observe the hustle and bustle from the many bars sipping on their happy hour drinks. We finally discovered the grilled tarantulas but were too sheepish to try one. I guess we’ll need a few more months in Asia before we’ll get really adventurous, also with the food ;-).

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Besides other monuments the most memorable was our visit to the Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng, known as the S21 prison where an estimated 20,000 people were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. The prison consists of four buildings from a former high school and the different rooms were redesigned for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture and killing after detainees confessed whatever they were accused for. It’s been a tough afternoon as they not only show the rooms but also pictures and paintings of detainees being tortured and the 14 corpses found on January 1979. These corpses were buried in the courtyard in front of one of the buildings.

A prison cell for the more privileged at the S21

A prison cell for the more privileged at the S21

On Saturday we left Phnom Penh to ride about 250km along the Mekong river and another 290km on long tarmac roads through deserted areas. You can find the detailed route and distances cycled at the bottom of this post.

The river is gigantic and the scenery just fantastic. Honestly, I don’t have the words to describe the wonderful landscape, this is something you need to soak in and enjoy yourself, which is best done on a (motor)bike, seriously. Or from a boat, but then you don’t really see the village life. The Mekong trail is a must for every cyclist or biker in Cambodia as the Mekong is only partially accessible by car. It is a very peaceful and unspoiled area. Riding through the villages and forests almost felt like a day off in a spa or a meditating experience, except for the cycling itself. Mentally this was the most enjoyable and relaxing cycling experience in Asia so far. Physically it’s a different story, these were certainly one of the more difficult days as we were often riding on very bad dirt paths, on bumpy streets, through sand and seldom on pretty good tarmac streets, the only stretches were we shared the road with a few cars and trucks.

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Some dust

Some dust…

and a little more dust!

…and a little more dust!

People on the streets and in their houses were very cheerful and would always greet us, scream their ‘hello,hello’, ‘bye-bye’ and ‘what is your name?’. Trying to answer all the calls made us say ‘hello’ thousands of times these days. Children got very excited when they saw us and performed dances, waved with both hands, jumped up and down, run towards us, screamed as hard as they could until we were out of sight, gave us a high-five and giggled until we were gone. One small boy – he was maybe seven or eight years old – rode on his motorbike next to me for about one kilometer and he almost died of laughter, I couldn’t help and just laughed with him. At one point he stopped because he couldn’t breathe anymore. I still heard him for a while. Not really sure what amused him so much, but he was a real cute. And again, not a single time we were asked for money or pens or chocolate.

Just some of the little ones cheering us up

Just some of the little ones cheering us up

Gimme five!

Gimme five!

The first three days we rode most of the time on the closest path along the river and at times I thought I am riding along the sea as the river became so wide and due to the dry season and the low water level there were huge sand banks in the river, lined by palm trees. We often rode about 100m above the water level which added to the sea experience. We both couldn’t stop grinning all day long despite the poor road conditions as we enjoyed the landscape and the people so much.

Is this the Sea?

Is this the Sea?

The first evening in Kampong Cham we met Belgian cyclist Ludo who has already been cycling 20,000 km and will be on the road for about four years. It’s been nice to exchange experiences and chat with someone who shares the same passion and we hope to meet him again somewhere in Laos.

The following day we wanted to leave early and checked with the hotel three times if breakfast was available as early as 6.30am which they confirmed each time. You have to know that this doesn’t mean that the cook is ready to serve breakfast, this is actually the time the cook gets up and if you’re lucky he or she had set the alarm at 6.25am so you’re not talking to someone still in his pyjamas and half asleep. Again, as we wanted to leave by 7am at the latest, I was down at 6.30am sharp to order breakfast. Of course, there was no-one to be found at the restaurant. Back at the reception, they told me there would be someone coming shortly. Five minutes later a tired looking girl asked me for my order and the conversation went as follows:

She: “What you want?”

Me: “Good morning, I would like to order breakfast. What do you serve for breakfast?”

She: “Only set breakfast”, then she pointed to a little card with the following set breakfast: ‘Tea or coffee, fruit, omelet and baguette’.

Me: “Looks great, thank you. I’ll take two breakfasts with one cup of tea and one cup of coffee”, (Johan had arrived as well in the meantime).

She: “You want omelet?”

Me: “Yes, as the menu says, we would like to have all of this two times” (I pointed to the card). I also showed here two fingers to ensure she understands.

She: “One omelet?”

Me: “No, we would like to have two omelets as we are two people”. I now also pointed at Johan and used other body language to make her understand as by now I got a bit impatient.

She: “OK, one omelet, one coffee and one tea”.

In the meantime I thought maybe the omelet is huge and she thinks one person cannot eat it alone, but when it arrived about five more forths and backs and 15min later we got the smallest omelet we’ve ever had, two huge baguettes, a filthy coffee, a good cup of tea and four mini bananas. Quite disappointing for all the effort but as we were late anyway we rewarded ourselves with a cappuccino together with Ludo at another place before we hit the road at about 7.45am.

In front of the Cafe in Kampong Cham together with our new friend Ludo

In front of the Cafe in Kampong Cham together with our new friend Ludo

This cycling day was actually the most scenic of all four days and we stopped every few kilometers to take pictures. Thankfully we didn’t take the recommended route on the west bank of the Mekong, but decided to take the eastern route. The first 35km was the most picturesque landscape with great paths, huge trees and beautiful wooden stilt houses. We also noticed that every village had at least one wedding. Usually they put up a tent in front of their house, decorate it nicely and play Cambodian music as hard as possible. You know that there is a wedding either from hearing the music from kilometers away or from beautifully dressed women: one of the occasions where women don’t wear pyjamas! If there is no space in front of the house, the tent will be put up on the street and if the street is wide enough, cars and motorbikes will still be able to pass; if not, well, there’s always another road somewhere.

Even though we cycled 15km less than the previous day we arrived later in a small village, found a nice guesthouse, ate pork skewers with coleslaw and baguette filled with some unidentifiable sweet cream with the locals and went to bed early and satisfied after another great day by the Mekong.

A side-arm to the Mekong river

A side-arm to the Mekong river

Tobacco leaves getting prepared to be dried

Tobacco leaves getting prepared to be dried

Eating waffles and chatting with locals

Eating waffles and chatting with locals

A typical stilt house at the Mekong

A typical stilt house at the Mekong

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A typical drink and snack stall

A typical drink and snack stall

The next day we were on the bikes before 7am. We again couldn’t get proper breakfast that morning as we still cannot get down pork or rice soup with intestines so early in the morning and were looking forward to a breakfast feast upon our arrival, knowing Kratie was only 36km away and had a few good eateries. The road was paved all the way to Kratie, nice and quiet and we arrived at 9am to have each a huge vegetable omelet with an even bigger baguette, coffee and tea. We were happy that work was done for today. We found a room for 8USD, checked in and went to the tourist information to find out more about our next day’s route. Later in the morning we met a Swiss cycling couple and decided to have a drink with them to again exchange experiences and ended up chatting with them until late afternoon.

No, we are not two messies on bikes, this is what you get in cheap rooms with just one bed and one chair available

No, we are not two messies on bikes, this is what you get in cheap rooms with just one bed and one chair available

And then came the challenge: 145km, of which only 25km along the Mekong and then on a nasty (because hot) highway north. First time ever for me to cycle so many kilometers in one day with luggage, second time for Johan. And the weather forecast wasn’t promising either: 41 degrees and a humidity of 75%. Outch!

As the guesthouse would offer breakfast as of 6am and we discussed with them the evening before that we really needed the cook to be ready with our food that early, which they promised, we were sitting at our table at 6am to learn that there was a problem with the gas and the breakfast would take a bit longer. Good that we got up at 5am for nothing! We finally ate at 6.30am and were sitting on our bikes at 6.48am exactly. The working day had begun. The first part went very easy as we again passed through scenic villages and forests, the sky was clouded and the air stream made us think it wasn’t really that hot or humid. But as soon as we stopped we would sweat like hell and it was clear that it was very humid at still low temperatures of about 28 degrees C. After about 30km on a bumpy and narrow road we came to a junction onto the bigger highway with a shoulder and much better tarmac. For a few kilometers. Because then the tarmac was suddenly completely broken and we had to ride on an extreme stony and dusty dirt path. This went on for the next 80km with stretches riding on very smooth tarmac and stretches of horrible dirt paths. At one point I spotted a ‘road construction’ sign, but workers or machines were nowhere to see. This meant that we couldn’t really get into a good rhythm where you just ride smoothly for kilometers. Instead we rode a kilometer at a good speed of over 20km/h to break down for a few hundred meters to ride at a speed of 5 – 10km/h, to accelerate again and so on and so forth.

The scenery also changed drastically. Riding through villages the first 30 kilometers with the usual ‘hello, hello’ screams and waving from children we were now cycling through cutover land with mainly scrub and very few and small trees and very suddenly there was a strange silence. No more hellos, no nothing. There were still stilt houses along the road, but most of them looked deserted or were in a desolate state. It was clear to us that we were going through a very poor area. The silence continued for a few kilometers only and it turned out that the whole stretch of 100km is populated, if little, but there were people living, making their living from logging (sadly) and working on plantations.

Riding next to a rubber plantation and cassava which is drying on the shoulder

Riding next to a rubber plantation and cassava which is drying on the shoulder

As we learned Cambodia lost nearly 30 percent of its tropical hardwood forest cover between 2000 and 2005 and since even more has been lost. Most of the forest has been cleared to make way for plantations of rubber, cashew and cassava, all approved by government officials. From 1995 to 1999 multinational conglomerates were awarded logging concessions and used earth-moving equipment to extract massive hardwood trees from deep in the jungle, frequently destroying everything else in their path. This timber was generally shipped on to Thailand or Vietnam, to be turned into garden furniture and sold to Europe. Great, and we all have nice teak furniture in our gardens or elsewhere while there is hardly any jungle left in Cambodia. Makes me feel very bad to be honest.

On the way we saw a lot of signs in the scrub that forbid logging with big equipment, but it still looked as if nobody would really care about it. We also saw the first land mine warnings. Little red signs, that could be easily overlooked! That was scary as well.

Scary!

Scary!

Every two hours or so we had a short break at a drink stall to get some refreshments as the temperature continued to rise and the clouds disappeared in the early afternoon. Fortunately and despite the remote area we were cycling through, there were drinks and food available all along the way. We had enough food with us and just purchased some sugary snacks to keep going. Johan discovered tomato trees, which turned out to be cashew trees.

This is how cashew grows - actually looks more like a pepper than a tomato tree

This is how cashew nuts grow – actually looks more like a pepper than a tomato tree

And Johan discovered this chameleon when he went for a pee in the jungle (lesson learned: never pee without your camera)

And Johan discovered this chameleon when he went for a pee in the jungle (lesson learned: always have you camera handy!)

While the going was tough we were in really good form and surprised that we did so well – even after 100km the usual pain such as sore bottoms, aching neck whatever hadn’t kicked in yet. As always the last 10km were really painful and we thought we would never arrive. But we did by 5.30pm, shattered but proud that we managed to arrive before dusk. At dinner we sat at a table with a German weirdo. As we both were really tired we had hoped for a quick and quiet dinner but as soon as the German noticed I was German he couldn’t stop talking to me, I know more or less everything about him and his travels in southeast Asia (sigh).

Most of the following day we spent in the room, partly because we wanted to avoid meeting Mr. Germany again, and partly because I could hardly walk down the stairs as my knees and a few other muscles hurt so much. We also needed this break as the next day would become even more challenging: another long ride, this time east and even further, at least as per our map and google maps. Both were wrong, thankfully.

On the day of our second monster tour we had breakfast at a little restaurant at 5.45h and we also took six pancakes as we weren’t sure if there were restaurants on the way to feed us. We were on the bikes at 6.08am. Very early, very tired and in a very disappointing shape. The going was tough as we started uphill and it wouldn’t improve. The landscape became even more desolate with almost only scrub and a few plantations far away. We rode on brand-new ‘massage’ tarmac, that’s how I call it, as it was very rough and you felt like sitting on a massage chair all day long, which didn’t make for a smooth riding all day long. The heat was almost unbearable as there was no shade at all. At a drink stall we met ‘Jaw‘ from the James Bond movies, with his mouth full of metal teeth, more or less the only distraction that day. Towards the end of the journey we had to climb a few more hills and I doubted I would be able to make it into Banlung. But of course we managed, found a beautiful place with bungalows in a huge garden and were once more pleased with our progress.

Besides the tarmac we mostly looked at this all day long

Besides the tarmac we mostly looked at this all day long

Some nicer landscape for a few hundred meters only

Some nicer landscape for a few hundred meters only

We are currently relaxing once again in Banlung before we leave Cambodia. Vietnam, we’re coming!

For those interested, below is our route and distances cycled over the last few days:

Day 1: Phnom Penh – Kampong Cham, 107km

Day 2: Kampong Cham – Chlong, 90km

Day 3: Chlong – Kratie, 36km

Day 4: Kratie – Stung Treng, 145km

Day 5: Rest day

Day 6: Stung Treng – Banlung, 143km

Where have all the spiders gone?

We spent three days and four nights in Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor and to rest as the heat and many sleepless nights are starting to take their toll.

The ancient temples were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and are scattered over some four hundred square kilometers of countryside. As they are surrounded by dense forests, villages or rice paddies, the temples still seem to be part of everyday life and don’t feel like sterile museum pieces. Given its size we visited only the most famous ones and still cycled about 40 km that day. It’s been a fascinating day having seen so many different temples of which the oldest date from 802.

Joining a few other tourists to see the temples

Joining a few other tourists to see the temples

The one and only Angkor Wat

The one and only Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

A guarded bridge

A guarded bridge

Meditating in front of the elephant gallery at Angkor Thom, the ancient city

Meditating in front of the elephant gallery at Angkor Thom, the ancient city

Man without head

Man without head

In front of the Bayon at Angkor Thom

In front of the Bayon at Angkor Thom

On our way to the next temple

On our way to the next temple

Faces are watching everywhere

Faces are watching everywhere

Ta Prohm: a temple taken over by the jungle

Ta Prohm: a temple taken over by the jungle

Jungle faces at Ta Prohm

Jungle faces at Ta Prohm

Scary roots at Ta Prohm

Scary roots at Ta Prohm

The visit of the temples followed another sleepless night as we tried to charge all our devices at the same time and short-circuited our room. We had to move to another room where we didn’t get along with the air con, hence tried to sleep in a hot and on top noisy room. The next morning we noticed that there also wasn’t electricity in our new room and we were told that earlier that morning a drunk truck driver drove into an electricity supply pillar close to the Thai border. As all electricity comes from Thailand the only source was dead, not just in our hotel or city, but in the whole Siem Reap region. No generator meant no electricity. Luckily after some hours the power came back, but again only for a couple of hours. We made use of our spare time by sewing ourselves new bike shorts. We bought both a pair of male underpants, cut out the cushions of ill-fitting shorts, fitted them into the underpants, took a test ride and went to a tailor to get them properly sewn in. Until our super expensive newly ordered bike underwear will arrive in either Cambodia or Vietnam, we now have fine self-made panties that work pretty well – Johan is just wearing normal loose-fitting short trousers with it and I my new Cambodian pajamas. Electricity would only return at midnight that day – we already slept and woke from all lights, the fan and the air con suddenly going on and the hotel staff celebrating the ‘return of the power’.

New bike underwear

New bike underwear

We left tired and too late the next morning into the direction of Phnom Penh. We didn’t take the direct route on highway number 6 but went through the countryside to be able to see another temple with the finest carvings as per our travel guide and to also to go a bit off the beaten track. I was a bit anxious as I couldn’t find the roads we wanted to take on Google maps and we also didn’t know for sure if there were guesthouses or not. Different people would tell us different things. And with the Asians you never know if it is true what they are telling you.  They usually don’t want to disappoint you or lose face and then often just say yes even though it’s a no later on.

Toddlers helping their mum to prepare food

Toddlers helping their mum to prepare food

The temple was nice and we had a great lunch there: Amok for me and Lok Lak for Johan. Amok is spinach and some other vegetables with chicken in a fresh coconut milk sauce served in a coconut and with steamed rice. Lok Lak are vegetables with beef and again, served with rice. Cambodians eat rice all day long and it is usually served from huge pots which are standing on each table. You just help yourself and eat as much as you want. That’s very convenient for us always hungry cyclists. When we left we met Arnaud, a French cyclist who is also touring in Southeast Asia and now heading towards Thailand.

Banteay Srei, a micro-temple of intricately carved reddish stone

Banteay Srei, a micro-temple of intricately carved reddish stone

Arnaud on his special bike

Arnaud on his special bike

Shortly after our lunch break we left the nice tarmac roads to cycle for about an hour on a very rough and stony dirt track. Maybe that’s the reason why Google couldn’t find the road…. It’s been heavy riding and after another 30 minutes or so and a look at the temperature – 40.6 degrees – we decided to have a break. We found a nice spot next to a small stall selling cold drinks and lay down for a nap. At about 2.30pm we rode on and thankfully the road improved, it was still a dirt road, but road works were going on and the road was pretty smooth but dusty. We still had about 45 km to cycle as we needed to reach the next village with hopefully a guesthouse. The landscape was extremely beautiful, green rice paddies, jungle, nice small stilt houses, red dirt roads and far away some mountains. By 6pm we reached the village and after asking a lot of people for a place to stay we finally found a guesthouse. We would spend our first night in a stilt house.

Comfy napping

Welcoming shelter at 40.6 degrees Celsius in the shadow

Our first dirt roads

Our first dirt road

Beautiful rice paddies

Beautiful rice paddies

Johan approaching the road works

Johan approaching the road works

Our cosy stilt house room at twilight

Our cosy stilt house room at twilight

While Cambodians are extremely friendly people and always try to help, they are much less willing to invite us to pitch our tent next to their houses. They would rather send us away or just tell us that they can’t help while they would laugh all the time. A sign that they feel embarrassed. And for us very frustrating as there is no way that we can pitch our tent in the forest, first because of the many undiscovered land mines and second because of all the wildlife.

As I developed a very nasty looking wound combined with a heavily swollen foot resulting from an insect bite a few days earlier we decided the next day to go back to the national highway and not do the jungle tour as we wouldn’t be able see a doctor for a few more days in case my sting wouldn’t heal. 30km later we reached the highway and directly saw a hospital. While I was terrified to go there Johan convinced me to see a doctor, which turned out to be a good idea as they properly cleaned the sting, confirmed that it wasn’t infected and told me how to treat it over the coming days. Johan the nurse is now cleaning the wound twice a day and with some gaze and tape it looks worse than it really is. It seems to heal, at least this ugly looking bubble gets smaller and my foot looks like a foot again ;-). By now a second sting develops the same way. Great :-(.

Coward Baerbel at the doctor

Coward Baerbel at the doctor

After a long cycling day along a much quieter highway than expected and on a great tarmac road we ended up in a horrible guesthouse, but we had no choice as it was the only one within 50km and it was already past 6pm, far too late anyway. There was no air con and the room temperature was at 38 degrees when we entered and later that evening, when we went to bed it was still at 36 degrees – the hottest night ever ;-). On top we had to share the bathroom with the biggest spider I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t leave my eyes from it when I took a shower, just to be sure it wouldn’t move. After dinner we asked someone to remove it – it seemed that the hotel boy had a lot of fun with pin pin (Cambodian for spider) in the bathroom.

Still some kilometers to go

Still some kilometers to pedal

Cycling with teenagers

Cycling with teenagers

Typical Cambodian houses along the highway

Typical Cambodian houses along the highway

We left early the next morning to ride about 50km against the wind along boring landscape as there were mainly dry fields, some palm trees, little other vegetation and a long straight road. We arrived in Kampong Thom just before lunch and were looking forward to an afternoon off as our bottoms were still sore.

The following day was as boring as the previous one and the only distractions were the many ‘hello’ and ‘bye-bye’ calls from far-away children. As we left very early and rode partially with the wind for once we arrived by 2pm even though we cycled more than 90km. This allowed us to choose the best guesthouse from three horrible ones in a city called Skun – famous for their dry-roasted tarantulas. I couldn’t wait to see the hawkers offering us a few as appetizers. We were told that you suck out their legs, which taste a bit like crunchy fried prawns but you should be more careful with the body as it can be unappetizingly slushy and bitter.

We locked our bikes, checked in and went to the market, anxious to see the spiders. But where were they? All we could spot were some boring pineapples, mangos, grilled insects and maggots, but not a single tarantula! Maybe it wasn’t tarantula season this time as the only ones we could see were two oversized statues in front of a restaurant the next day. The heck with it, I am sure we’ll get to see them rather sooner than later.

Another day and 75km later on dusty roads as the highway to Phnom Penh is being rebuilt we arrived at 11am, checked into a nice hotel to spend a few days in Cambodia’s capital.

Approaching Phnom Penh via the Japanese bridge

Approaching Phnom Penh via the Japanese bridge