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 ;-).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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