After three weeks in Laos we were happy to be moving onto another country, Cambodia – country number 18 on the trip. Although Laos was nice, we were ready for a change. After the usual border faff we had just 60km to cycle to the town of Stung Treng – the road was in good condition so the journey did not take long. It was, unfortunately rather dull – no villages and just scrubland either side. So we were happy to reach Stung Treng in time for lunch. We had heard that Cambodia was even more expensive than Laos – which we had found to be not very cheap at all – so almost didn’t bother to check the first, rather posh looking hotel that we came to. In fact it was just $15 for a really nice room with air-con, wi-fi etc. We had a bit of a lazy afternoon getting up to speed with the blog (which we had not been able to access in Laos for some reason), before going out to investigate the town. Stung Treng sits at the confluence of two rivers, and so it was nice to sit by the water’s edge having a drink as the sun went down. We saw an advert for a place that trains vulnerable youths in hospitality – apparently they have both a guesthouse and restaurant where the youths can practise their new skills, so we thought it would be good to eat there to support what is obviously a good cause. Unfortunately it is a bit out of town and when we got there it did not appear to be open, so we headed back into town to ‘Ponika’s Palace’, where we had really good fried noodles along with an absolutely amazing egg and chip butty! We also spent some time earlier in the day walking around the very busy but very smelly market, which seemed to sell just about everything you can imagine. One thing we noticed on the waterfront was a big advert with a picture of a young girl and the words ‘please help us protect our national treasures’. As in Laos and other SE Asian countries sex tourism and trafficking is a big problem, and tourists and locals are asked to report suspicious behaviour. It just seems so sad and horrifying to us that anybody could take advantage of young children in this way.
After an early night we headed down to the town pier to get a boat across the Mekong (to Thalabaravit) so we could start our journey west towards Siem Reap. Before we left the hotel we spotted a load of dirt bikes parked in the yard, and got talking to the trip organizer. The company is called Global Enduro and they run advanced dirt bike trips all over the world, including Cambodia. There were about 10 people on the trip, and almost as many support crew who travel either by bike or in one of the two Land Cruisers. The support crew includes two medics and two engineers so they are pretty well set-up in case of accidents (which apparently are quite frequent, given the tricky off-road riding they do). We subsequently looked on the website and discovered it costs almost 3,500 quid per person (including flights, accomodation and food) for a two week trip in Cambodia, so all that support clearly comes at a cost. Not for us but no doubt great if that is your thing and you can afford it! Anyway it turned out we would be following the same route that day, although we were setting off earlier, so we said we would see them on the road later.
We had to wait a while for a boat as we had just missed one, and then on the other side we decided to have a quick noodle and ice-coffee break, so by the time we got going it was almost 8am. Still, we were only planning on going 100km or so to Mlu Prey or Chep so we weren’t too worried. The road in that direction is in the process of being turned from a narrow dirt track into a proper road capable of taking 4-wheel vehicles, and was at the stage of being wide and flat but not tarmacced. Unfortunately, for some reason, a whole load of water had been dumped on the first 3km of road just before we got there. The surface was hence like wet clay – ok for motorised vehicles, but we swiftly found our wheels covered in so much mud that the wheels wound not turn and they had to be dragged through the mud – very slow and frustrating. To top it off, when Pete’s wheel first jammed he slipped over and ended up a bit bruised and covered in mud. Not much fun. To our great relief the road soon dried out and we were able to cycle on, although we were frequently covered in great plumes of red dust thrown up by lorries passing us ferrying road materials back and forth. Yuck yuck yuck! All in all we had not covered much ground, and looked a bit of a state, when the dirt bike group caught up with us just before the village of Sam Ang.
Shortly after meeting the dirt bike riders the road forked, with the new road turning sharply north. We had been warned by Gerrard, a French cyclist we had met in Vietnam and Laos, and who had done this route just a week before us, that we should continue straight on, although the road became much narrower. We did just that and soon found ourselves cycling along a lovely path through a forest. Quite amusing that this is marked as ‘highway 214’ on our map but in reality is not wide enough for anything other than mopeds or bikes! Shortly afterwards Pete got a puncture so with a sigh we set about fixing it. Just as we were about to start pumping the tyre back up some locals on mopeds stopped and insisted on pumping the tyre up for us! Just one of many gestures of kindness we were to experience in Cambodia. The road was quite remote, with few habitations along the way, and it was very hot, so we were relieved when we reached the relatively large village of Chep. We stopped at the first small shop we saw, assuming they would have drinks for sale, but in fact they didn’t, but they kindly gave us some cold tea to drink – very refreshing. We stopped a bit further down the road when we saw a stall with a blender and some fruits on it – our guesswork proved correct and we were rewarded with some fantastic, and dead cheap, fruit smoothies. The guy running the stall spoke good English and told us it was only 50km to Tbeng Meanchey, the next big town. Our map made it look more like 70-80km, so we had not planned to go that far. However, it was only 2.30pm, and we knew we would be relying on a homestay in Mlu Prey or Chep as there are no hotels, unlike in Tbeng Meanchey where there are several. Figuring we could quite easily cover 50km before the sun went down at 5.30, we decided to push on to Tbeng Meanchey. The road had widened out and was flat and very fast, despite being unsealed. With just a couple of short breaks for the wonderful ice drinks they serve around here (shaved ice that is made from a block of ice kept in a coolbox, using a colourful ice shaving machine, served with condensed milk and a fruit syup. A bit like icecream but drinkable). This whole area does not have electricity and is quite cut off generally so cold bottled drinks are not generally available. On our way we went over a number of newly constructed bridges that are a big improvement on the bridges we saw earlier in the day, which frequently consisted of some dodgy-looking planks with holes in between. The rivers they covered were just about dry, but it is easy to imagine how difficult it must be to get around in the wet season when the roads are nothing but mud and the rivers are raging torrents. No doubt life will be quite different here when the road is complete and access so much easier.
Dusk was falling as we reached the outskirts of Tbeng Meanchey, where the road suddenly became very bad indeed and we had to take a ferry just to cross a small (20m or so) river. The ferryman must have a rather dull job going back and forth across that all day! It was dark by the time we got into town but it didn’t take us long to locate a cheap guesthouse where we enjoyed a cold shower (normal in these parts where they are too poor even to have solar heaters like in many parts of the world). Cold showers don’t bother Christine when we have been so hot all day – in fact they are quite pleasurable – but Pete really likes a good hot scrub so always complains bitterly when we end up with a cold shower!
We went out for dinner shortly afterwards, and quickly bumped into the Global Enduro group – who were quite surprised to see us, especially as they had only got in an hour or so before we did! Just goes to show that when you want to, and when the roads are bad, bicycle can be a relatively quick way of getting around. For dinner we opted for the safe-but-boring egg fried rice option at a local restaurant. It was a good portion, but we were still hungry, so asked for seconds. The staff were quite bemused by this request, thinking we must just want a second drink or something. Eventually they understood but returned with our second portion in take-away boxes; presumably they thought it was either for someone else, or maybe for lunch the next day – surely we couldn’t eat that much by ourselves in one night?! We were quite happy to take the food away and eat it in our hotel room in front of the TV!
Our plan for the next day was to spend the morning covering the 70km to the temples at Koh Ker, which we intended to visit in the afternoon. We left early as usual but had some problems finding our way out of town. After 30 mins of circles and asking lots of people we eventually found ourselves on the right road. It’s funny, but people there don’t seem to know their surroundings very well – we had to ask again and again how to get to Koh Ker, although it is a main road that goes there. And nobody seemed to know how far it is. It really seems that people don’t travel in this part of the world. Once again we found ourselves on another road that was under construction, with half of it paved but for some mysterious reason covered with obstructions such as branches to stop people travelling on it. So all traffic is relegated to the unsealed half of the road, which is of course too narrow for two-way traffic, meaning that oncoming traffic has to slow down and squeeze past each other. Thankfully the road wasn’t too busy and we were able to make reasonable progress. The road soon improved so it was tarmacced in both directions, so we soon reached the town of Kulen, 40km away. We stopped for our favourite drink of iced coffee before carrying on to Koh Ker. The final 30km felt slow as the road deteriorated again, and there was no breeze so it was very hot and sticky. Still, we were into Koh Ker by 11am. After a cold drink we checked into the guesthouse recommended to us by Gerrard and had a bit of a rest before a nice big lunch – once again we each had two plates of egg-fried rice! We waited until about 3pm, when it was a bit cooler, before going to see the temples. They felt quite remote, and had only a few visitors, so we quite enjoyed cycling around. The health and safety police clearly haven’t been here as there were was masonry everywhere looking like it was about to fall down, not to mention big bits of stone to trip over. A pleasant way to spend a couple of hours though.
The Global Enduro people had also ended up in the same place, although admittedly after a bit of a detour to visit Prasat Preah Vihear, which we hadn’t done, and they kindly invited us over to their guesthouse to have dinner with the group. Unfortunately they were staying out by the temples, about 1km from the village where we were staying. There were no street lights of course, and our bike light really needs some new batteries as it is a bit weak at the moment, so we made somewhat slow progress over in the dark. It was a nice evening though, we certainly enjoyed finding out more about how the company operates and where they go. Most of the people on the trip seemed pretty adventurous and widely-travelled, including one guy that had travelled around the world on a motorbike in just three months (for charity) a few years ago. Interesting people. Making our way back to our guesthouse was even more unnerving than the way there, as it was properly dark and as we walked along we heard dogs howling in every direction – spooky! We were very relieved when just outside of the village a kind local saw us walking, jumped on his moped and drove slowly behind us, lighting our way all the way back! Very kind and most appreciated.
Our destination for the next day was Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, where we planned to spend a couple of days. The distance was almost 130km so as usual we set off as the sun was rising, and made fast progress. We really do love being up at that time of day as the light is lovely, the temperature is pleasant, and it is very interesting to see the world coming to life. The locals obviously think the same way as they get up at this time too. The first 50km or so felt quite remote as there were few villages, but the road was good and as we approached Siem Reap the number of people and habitations rose sharply. Cycling through one village we were pleasantly surprised to notice a smart sign by the side of the road thanking the villagers of Orston, Notts, for their generous donation of a well for the village. Seeing as everybody in Cambodia had been so nice and friendly to us, it was really nice to see some people from our country helping to improve living conditions here. We took a photo of the sign and subsequently emailed it Orston Parish Council, who passed it onto the original fundraiser – a gap-year student, who, together with her mother who had come out to visit her, had, like us, been so touched by the kindness and the gentleness of the people here that they decided to do some fundraising back at home for the area. They managed to raise an impressive 4000 pounds, which paid for 4 new wells and a reservoir, thus dramatically improving the lives of quite a few people in one go. Good work!
Once we passed Boeng Mealea temples (which we didn’t visit as a few people had told us they were too ruined to be of any great interest) everything suddenly became much more touristy, with buses and tuk-tuks ferrying tourists about almost everywhere we looked. Still we enjoyed the last 70km as we passed through some interesting villages and enjoyed yet another nice meal of noodles and ice coffee. One of the good things about Cambodia is that， unlike in Laos or Vietnam， we really did not often feel that we were overcharged， even in the area around Siem Reap which is so full of tourists。 This is despite the fact that the people here are poorer than in Laos or Vietnam， and could really get away with charging more. Taking into account this lack of ‘tourist premium’we overall found Cambodia to be cheaper than Laos， even in the more touristy areas such as the centre of Siem Reap where things are inevitably more expensive than elsewhere.