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!

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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

 

A river, a boat and a lot of time

February 25, 2013 – To see the temples at Angkor, a UNESCO world heritage, we decide to take a boat to avoid heavy traffic on the only road around Southeast Asian‘s largest freshwater lake and to discover Cambodian life from a different perspective.

The boat leaves early and we are told the trip from Battambang via the river Stueng Sankae and the lake Tonle Sab will take about  eight hours. Our bikes are tied up on the roof of the boat together with some of our panniers as well as bags from local people mainly filled with rice, vegetables and other eatables. Carved wooden shrines ensures we’ll have a safe journey. While Johan is still busy with ensuring Smokey and Rudi (our bikes) won’t decide to go for a swim, the boat fills up with backpackers, Italians with huge and extremely unhandy suitcases, locals with hundreds of breads, dead chickens, meat and more vegetables (we should not have listened to the travel guide and take our food as there is plenty of it on board) and a mother with a baby and a toddler.

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The boat with about 25 people aboard leaves at 7am sharp, a punctuality the French must have left behind when they retreated from their former colony. Some French tourists including Johan make themselves comfortable on the roof for better views as temperatures are at chilly 25 degrees. As it is the dry time in Cambodia with little to no rain the river resembles more a ditch than anything else. The water is dirt brown and shallow which makes a smooth journey for our captain impossible.

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Our captain in action

Our captain in action

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We are slowly leaving behind still sleepy Battambang, passing small fishing boats, stilt houses built on the riverbank, people washing themselves in the river, lush green jungle, vegetable fields and rice paddies, built on the now dry and fertile riverbed, fishermen cleaning their nets and bringing in clams and fish that will be dried in the sun later on.

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After a while on the water the river gets smaller and smaller and the boat goes slower and slower with the engine getting stuck in mud frequently. Our skippers leave the boat often to push and pull it to be able to keep going. At times the winding river gets so narrow that the captain can do nothing else then stop the engine, hit the riverbank and let the skippers pull the boat into the middle of the river again. If we wouldn’t know better we would think the captain has had a few drinks too much the evening before.

The hours pass, the temperature rises and with no protective clouds people are retiring from the roof to seek relief from the sun. There is not much to do other than eating, reading, people watching, taking in picturesque surroundings and answering the many greetings and waving from children along the river. Sleeping is no option unless you are a baby or able to pass away in an already very uncomfortable sitting position.

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The baby is finally sleeping, the boat is seriously tilting to the left and the skipper starts moving luggage and people, to get back to an upright position when we stop for a break at a village with a few kiosks, pigs in stilt cages above the river, and bathing children in the river. We disembark as the little restaurant prepared appetizing fried rice and some other mouth-watering vegetables and meat dishes for the hungry travellers. This is also the time when finally the ice gets broken and people start talking to each other. Except for the bizarre Italian couple that already ensured aboard through sour looking faces and luggage built all around them that you’d better leave them alone in their misery.

A toilet stop and a few bites later we sit in the boat silently again and the captain speeds through the water as the river has finally become a river. By now floating houses and houseboats join the stilt houses as we pass along small river villages. Waterplants make the floating houses look as if being surrounded by beautiful wild gardens and only their slow up and down movements when we pass by reminds us that these houses and gardens are floating on the water. The speed wind is refreshing in the soaring heat. Fishermen bring in their morning catch, people get quiet and sleepy inside and outside the boat as it is time for a long siesta to overcome the heat.

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As the river gets even wider and villages are growing like mushrooms next to and on the river people busily get out their cameras. Johan is flirting with the toddler, it took him five hours to get her attention and more importantly her smile. Things are being shuffled around and there is a strange fidgeting on board as limbs get stiff, bottoms sore on the hard seats, my left ankle swollen like a pig’s leg for no obvious reason and minds tired of the ever repeating landscape passing by.

By the way Cambodian children are among the most beautiful in the world, that’s at least my opinion. Black eyes, black and usually wild hair, chocolate-brown skin and a well-tempered nature combined with their lovely smile as soon as they see you make them almost impossible to withstand. You just want to touch and cuddle them all the time. Every single child we pass this day is smiling and waving at us, a very heartwarming experience.

By now the boat stops frequently to deliver goods and food that has simmered in the sun all morning to remote river villages. A few hundred meters before the stop the captain blows the horn, a man on a small boat paddles towards us, the skipper unloads the goods and both boats head off in different directions.

In the meantime the temperature has risen to 35 degrees, despite the uncomfortable seats half of the tourists and locals are asleep, the slow motioned Italians observe with grim faces, the children are playing, the French backpackers are still smoking and  sunbathing on the roof, they don’t seem to notice that they’ve turned into lobsters in the meantime and Johan is looking for the right accommodation upon our arrival. A few people disembark including Johan’s new acquaintance, a few more people come on board and we are slowly but surely approaching our destination. The river is now about 100 meters wide and finally mounds into the Tonle Sap lake. Brown, shallow water until the horizon, a huge lake indeed. Everybody is awake now, except for the Italians, their open-mouthed sleeping doesn’t make them more attractive.

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Within the next hour we reach the harbor, disembark, enjoy an easy ride of about 15km into the city Siem Reap and look forward to some exciting days ahead. The  Stueng Sangkae river is neither the Amazon nor the Nile, but it is a picturesque small river worthwhile travelling and discovering and despite the long and uncomfortable journey it has been another wonderful day in Cambodia.