Around the world by bike
(902km - 30days)
21 May – Koh Kong
I stayed in Koh Kong for the day as I had some catching up to do. It was a relaxing day and I did very little except for the laundry and updating my photos and diary for Thailand.
22 May – Koh Kong – Botum Sakor – 103km
Shortly after leaving, I started climbing out of the river valley and over the Cardamom Mountains. I knew that I was in for a hilly ride, so I huffed and puffed my way up the mountain. The sun was baking down, and sweat ran down my face, arms, and legs and into my sandals, which made my feet slip out of them. I hate it when that happens. However, I kept a slow and steady pace and eventually reached the first highpoint.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw dark clouds gathering. Soon after, the rain came bucketing down. The pouring rain made for very hazardous downhill cycling as I could hardly see where I was going. Nonetheless, I donned the raincoat, and with the plastic coat flapping in the wind, I sped downhill at breakneck speed while praying that I would not hit a pothole or an oil patch. Road repairs must have had taken place recently, and by then, the loose gravel had worked its way to the side of the road. It was an accident waiting to happen, I thought. It was, therefore, not long before I saw a taxi laying in the ditch, making me even more determined to avoid it.
The day was marred by crawling uphill, speeding downhill, crossing a river, and then doing the same again on the other side. There was not much in the way of facilities along the road but, fortunately, enough roadside stalls where I could fill up with water.
Toward the end of the day, there was one more hill to climb; the road wound its way up the mountain, and every time I looked up, there was one more corner to round (by this time, I was in no mood for playing games with myself). I put my head down, thinking maybe the next one would be the last one!
I was more than happy to see the tell-tale tower at the top of the hill, typically marking the highpoint, and soon I could see the valley down below. In Botum Sakor, I found a $6 room and a plate of food and was more than happy to park until the morning.
23 May Botum Sakor – Otres Beach – 135 km
It was a much easier day on the road, although the terrain was not completely flat. It drizzled throughout the day, a blessing in disguise, actually, as it kept me nice and cool. I felt strangely at home as I cycled past the familiar humble wooden houses on stilts, grazing buffalo, scrawny cows, and pyjama-clad women on cycles peddling their wares.
Once I reached Route 4, the main road between Phnom Penh and Sihanouk, my ride became a complete nightmare. The road is terribly narrow and ever so busy with no space for trucks, oncoming traffic, and me. It was best for me to cycle on the dirt section next to the road, but this was one muddy mess with all the rain. It made for slow going and difficult cycling. By the time I reached Otres, the bike, the panniers, and I were covered in mud.
I went in search of Shelly, whom I had met in Bangkok, and who had invited me to stay with her once I reach Otres. I was surprised to find a huge plate of curry and rice waiting for me. I had a quick shower and then took a walk down the road to the shop where I met more of her amazing friends. There are just the most interesting of people staying in Otres.
The following day, we chilled out, and I met up with Rad, whom I met in Hanoi the previous year. It is indeed a small world. Shelly has been living in Otres for the past five years and knows just about everyone in the village. Her house is a bohemian and social place where there is a constant coming and going of friends. Needless to say, we consumed a few beers, and I did none of the things I planned.
Otres village is one-of-a-kind and has become the go-to place for Westerners who have given up conforming to the pressures of Western society. This is truly the home of the stray cats, and this is where they come to live and play. It makes for a fascinating mix of people from all over the world with the most out-of-the-box ideas and thoughts. I love each and every one of them for who they are and what they stand for. Otres is like the Wild West of Southeast Asia. There is no building code and no health inspectors. Drugs are semi-legal, and there appears to be no rules of any sort. The electricity is iffy, and the water pressure non-existent. It is a hippie haven where people party throughout the night, cook what they please, and build whatever they dream up—all making for a community where many a traveller has come for a day or two but stayed for a year or three.
Monsoon season in Otres is one muddy mess as there are very few paved roads in the village. Life seems to go past in a psychedelic haze for most people as they move from the jungle parties to Neverland. This super relaxed hostel is where people hang out, but it is not a place to stay unless you do drugs or want to party through the night.
I handed in my laundry, but nothing happens very fast in Otres, and although I was told it would be ready in the morning, there was no laundry in sight. I am getting used to the lazy life in Otres and just hanging around and going with the flow. That said, I'd better start moving along before I, too, get stuck.
28 May Otres – Kampot – 100km
Time came for me to say goodbye to the lovely people of Otres and continue my journey. I waited for the rain to subside and then headed in the direction of Kampot, said to be the home of the best pepper in the world. It was an easy cycle, except for some road works in places. Monsoon season and roadworks do not go well with cycle touring. There was no real reason to stop along the way except for a few pictures as I crossed the rivers with its houses on stilts. It’s very much life on the river in Cambodia both for transport and for fishing.
Of course, I also had to stop along the way for one of Cambodia’s legendary snacks, the Nompang (baguette) filled with all kinds of strange things. It was a large portion, so I found myself a nice spot along the way where I could sit and watch the people working in the rice fields, while eating half my Nompang, keeping the other half for when I’m done cycling. In Kampot, I found a $5 room at Uptown Guesthouse, which I though a bargain as it was a ground floor room with a bathroom and mosquito net.
29 May - Kampot
I took a walk around town and visited the local market. What a lovely little place Kampot is. With its decaying old French colonial buildings and its riverside setting, it makes for a great place to wander. There is a strange and contrasting mix of the ever present “Happy Pizza” joints and French-style coffee shops on the one hand, and the local food stalls and markets, on the other.
The French baguette is known as a Nompang, and if not eaten with spicy sliced pork, pate, pickled carrots, papaya, coriander, and cucumber, it is eaten with condensed milk. I much prefer the spicy version, but if one can eat a doughnut with a chocolate filling, why not bread with condensed milk?
So often I see words misspelled, but one can’t blame anyone in Cambodia for getting the spelling wrong as the Latin alphabet means as little to them as the Abugida script means to me.
Eventually, I ended up back at Uptown where I was staying and hopped on the bicycle and cycled out to inspect the local caves. The ride there was more interesting than the caves themselves. Ladies on bicycles with woven baskets were returning home from selling their wares at the morning market. They were jovial and friendly, laughing and talking and I thought: What a difference from the Western world where people with stoic faces sit in the morning traffic. It’s a completely different world here, and a completely different set of rules apply. Equally jovial men on motorbikes were on their way to the market with a squealing pig tied on the back. School kids on bicycles ambled along, and small kids shouted, “Hello farang!” from their stilted homes. All this never cease to amaze me.
30 May - Kampot to Roadside Guesthouse – 110 km
It was a lovely day on the bicycle as I slowly made my way north in the direction of Phnom Penh. The sky was a lovely blue, the rice paddies full of water after the monsoon rains, water buffalo were waddling and cows were crazing. All in all, a perfect day. I’m sure this is what people refer to when they say, “I was in my happy place”. It was rural Cambodia at its very best. Roadside markets sold interesting things, small dirt roads led off the main road to mysterious villages, just the various forms of transport provided enough entertainment for the day.
I passed jovial monks on their food rounds, friendly ladies selling watermelons, colourful temples and small kids returning home from school, clinging nervously to each other when they see this strange-looking woman on a bicycle. Ladies at the meat stalls, laughingly pointing at a buffalo’s penis. Gosh, they really do eat the entire animal.
It looked like a storm was brewing. A strong wind suddenly picked up, dark clouds gathered and big rain drops started falling. I quickly ducked into the next best roadside guesthouse. I think they saw me coming as I was charged $7 (which I thought was a bit steep) but they did cook me a lovely Cambodian meal (rice with stir fried pork and ginger, topped with a fried egg and some fiery chilies) for only $1.50. I bought myself a beer from the corner stall for 1500 Riel ($1 – 4000R). All in all, an inexpensive day.
31 May - 14 June - Roadside Guesthouse – Phnom Penh – 40 km
It was a short ride into Phnom Penh and busy from the start. It’s never an easy task getting in and out of Phnom Penh and the going was slow and the traffic hectic. Once again, I was amazed at all one can hook up to a motorcycle. Astonishing really, what a motorcycle can handle.
I slowly made my way to what used to be the traditional backpacker’s area of “Boeng Kak”. The lake that made the area popular was sold and then filled in, causing the demise of the area. I still headed there as there are still one or two super-budget places remaining. I like the back streets with its street art and its weird and lovely “long-termers” hanging about. I opted for Grand View Guesthouse, which has not got a grand view and I doubt if it ever had. It was, however, super cheap at $5 a night. I straightaway met some lovely people and out of the 15 people sitting around that evening we were from 13 different countries!
The next day I did a few necessary things and also took my small Panasonic Lumix camera in for repair. It was a waiting game to see when the camera will be ready and in the meantime, I thought it handy to apply for my Chinese visa, seeing that I was waiting for the camera in any case. Again, it seemed that I was going to be in Phnom Penh much longer than anticipated.
The Cambodian elections are coming up and I was once again astounded at how much money gets spent on elections. The Cambodian People’s Party (the ruling party) appears to be well supported even in the face of widespread corruption. While hundreds and thousands of people took to the streets today, to show their support for their respective parties, the ordinary man in the street still pushed his cart along, hoping to sell enough to feed his or her family. It is an interesting country indeed as so many people live in squalor while the Cambodian Mafia drives around in Rolls Royce’s.
Eventually, I had everything done, from fixing the camera to getting both the Chinese Visa and the 3-month Thai Visa. The Thai Visa is not as easy to get in Phnom Penh as it used to be. Once one has more than three or so Thailand stamps in the passport (unclear how many) you are required to go to the Embassy in person, armed with an application form, a flight ticket out of the country, as well as bank statements.
15 June - Phnom Penh – Kampong Chhnang – 97 km
Most people, when returning home after a holiday, will say, “There’s no place like home”. I feel the same way when I get back on the bike after a long layoff. There’s no place like the open road! I hardly stopped to take any pictures. I just enjoyed the scenery and interesting roadside stalls. I stopped for coconut juice and sugarcane juice, marvelled at all of the interesting goods for sale along the way and watched farmers bathe their cattle in the rivers. I smiled at the familiar “Hellos” from kids along the way and waved at surprised old ladies as I cycled passed. It was good to be back on the bike. In Kampong Chhnang, I found a $5 room at Ly Hour Guest House, making it an easy decision to overnight there.
16 June Kampong Chhnang – Pursat – 96 km
Yesterday’s euphoria disappeared somewhere along the bumpy road, and it left me slightly irritated at the end of the day. Nevertheless, it was not a bad day on the road. It was blistering hot as I passed the Andoung Russey pottery factory and I saw plenty of heavily laden carts taking the produce to the market. The recent rains were good for the rice farmers, and the rice paddies looked a lovely green. Most are still in beds and will be replanted at a later stage.
I passed people selling fermented veggies and artists making Buddha statues for the temples. The road was busy and narrow, and I spent most of the day cycling on the dirt section next to the road. I was happy to reach Pursat, and although it was still early, I called it a day, and found a room at the Phnom Pech Hotel for $6. Although a nice room, it was a rather hot one and the wobbly ceiling fan did little to cool me down. At least I could see the sun set over another day in Cambodia.
17 June Pursat – Battambang – 107 km
Each day I am astounded at what I see and just what a different world it is out here. People do things in totally different ways, and we all make do with what we have. We eat what is available and plant what the soil and the weather allows. Most of all, it is the different forms of transport that remain fascinating no matter how long I am in Cambodia and I have a new-found respect for motorbikes.
Cup noodles are maybe not the best supper when cycling, and I started feeling hungry along the way. To the amazement of the roadside stall owner, I stopped and pointed to the soup! It was delicious but my every mouthful was watched with great interest.
Again, I reached my destination early and found a good room at the Royal Hotel in Battambang. The room was $7, but there was a jacuzzi and bar/restaurant on the roof which made it worth the $7!
Battambang is a lovely town with many old and interesting buildings. It also has a lively market and relaxed riverside location. I took a walk around town and bought a baguette from a lady with a shoulder pole, and I did not question the ingredients as I was hungry. There are times when it’s better not to know!
It was such a lovely place that I stayed one more day and did little else but relax by the jacuzzi.
19 June – Battambang – Poi Pet – 114 km
The stretch of road between Battambang and the Thai/Cambodian border is not very exciting, and I was thinking of taking an alternative route.
Before I could turn off, I ran into a wedding procession, a fascinating piece of Cambodian culture. I found the following on the internet: “A traditional Khmer wedding is one of the most joyous occasions for a Khmer family and typically lasts from three days to an entire week. It is a grand affair, full of color and festivity, as well as steeped in tradition. Family, friends, and other members of the community come together to share in the celebration. Musicians play throughout the day on traditional instruments, and the couple is dressed like royalty. The bride may change her outfit several times in one day. If the wedding were a weeklong affair, she could declare the color of her dress each day and the guests would dress only in that color.
Unlike most Western weddings, guests are usually highly animated during the ceremonies, with elders typically explaining the significance of the various customs to the younger generation. Please feel free to turn to a neighbour if you should have questions or comments about what is occurring. You may also stand up and leave the room if you need to stretch your legs. Guests freely move in and out during ceremonies, which is not considered rude. At the beginning of the day, the bride customarily waits at her parent’s house while the groom gathers a procession of his family and friends. The procession symbolizes the journey of the prince Preah Thong to meet his bride, the princess Neang Neak. The groom’s procession approaches the bride’s home, bearing wrapped platters of gifts, usually fruits and Khmer desserts, and is led by a band of musicians and singers.
Traditionally, the mai ba (a well-respected member of the bride’s family who serves as its representative) comes out to greet the procession. The different number of fruits and desserts are counted – the more, the better. If found to be satisfactory, the mai ba and ma ha (representative for the groom’s party) run through a humorous verbal parlay which ends with the groom and the rest of the procession being invited into the bride’s home.”
The road was crowded with the usual weird and wonderful modes of transport. I stopped for coconut juice and met another cyclist along the way. Husan is from Turkey and plans to cycle for a year. We chatted for a while and then set off in our respective directions again.
Roadside stalls were selling the ever-popular rice cooked in bamboo and sausages – which I think were made from buffalo meat – drying in the sun. I snapped a last few pics of Cambodian kids yelling with pleasure before I reached the border town of Poi Pet. I decided to stay there for the night and cross into Thailand in the morning. I still had a few Cambodian Riel to spend, LOL.
I found a room at the Phnom Pich Guesthouse, right on the main road, for $7. No matter how much I travel, some things will always surprise me. I was, clearly, the only one not using the communal comb and sandals.