June 16, 2014 by melcogger
Cambodia. One of the poorest nations in the world, where locals live in extreme poverty with low prospects of employment, yet, one of the friendliest and welcoming people we have met on our journey through South East Asia.
According to the Corruptions Perception Index, Cambodia ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. We had a little taste of this while crossing over the border from Laos. We had done our homework and we knew what we were in for at the border crossing. All travelers are charged a ‘stamping out fee’ (to get out of Laos) and a ‘stamping in fee’ (to enter into Cambodia) at a cost of $4 each. What disturbed us more was that this additional bogus charge was being sent straight to the mafia, thereby indirectly supporting human and drug trafficking. As we still had 80km to cycle on our first day, we decided that we would spend a maximum of half an hour standing firmly against corruption before paying whatever was necessary to get through the border. Jonty would do all the talking. Well, turns out $4 became $9 when the officials were delighted at the fact that we had lost our exit form. The plan was simple. Stay calm, keep asking for the stamp politely and repeat until we reach success. Jonty’s calm facade and refusal to pay any fee enraged the officials to a point where they threw our passports out of the window and into the dirt. 15 minutes later of “please stamp”…”no you pay”, Jonty still held his cool when they tried to shut the window on his hand. Eventually, we were ‘let off’ by paying $1 each. A small victory. By this time we were so tired that we did not even complain when we had to fork out $25 each for a visa instead of $20. We were in Cambodia and we wanted to get the hell away from that border crossing.
Our first town was Stung Treng. Nothing special or anything particularly fascinating happened at this point except the discovery that crisp clean US dollars come out of the ATM’s in Cambodia. In addition to this discovery, we also found that the women in Cambodia find it quite acceptable to go about their daily activities in full cotton pajamas. I guess I see their logic, cotton pajamas are simply the perfect attire for hot sunny weather, with matching pants and tops covered in teddy bears and hearts which keeps your skin protected from the sun, what more could you ask for in an outfit?
From Stung Treng we embarked on a 400km journey along the Mekong Discovery Trail, an Eco tourism cycling trail aimed at bringing foreigners to lesser known and poorer parts of Cambodia to create responsible and sustainable tourism through cycling and organized home stays to create employment. The trail hugs the Mekong River all the way to Phnom Penh, going through villages and dirt roads while avoiding the main highways. A real treat we thought.
Our first day of cycling along the trail turned out to be 90km rather than the intended 60km on pleasant dirt roads (we took a wrong turn). Since we had not planned on an additional 30km that day, our drawn out picnic in the woods delayed our arrival at Koh Khnaer just before nightfall. Although the ‘trail’ is suppose to be straight forward, there were no signposts or markers for 90km. We had no idea where the organized homestays were and there were no signs on arrival at a small random fishing village. However, as two tired Barangs (foreigners) cycling into a nothing town, the locals knew just what to do with us and signaled us to the first homestay. We stayed with a family who was not really interested in getting to know us, but put us in a bed and gave us a simple dinner, breakfast and packed lunch for the next day for $20. The homestay felt very awkward as the family did not eat with us, had their own meal (which looked much better than our eggs and rice) and insisted that we sit on chairs while they all sat on the floor. It kind of felt like an organized human zoo where foreigners pay to watch locals live ordinary lives. We had our worst nights sleep, with no fan, it was boiling hot, and the monks down the road had gotten hold of a speaker phone and chanted prayers all through the night. The chanting continued until we left the next day.
The next leg of the trail was to the largest island on the Mekong River, Koh Rougniv, apparently a more ‘organized’ part of the trail with alleged blue markers ready to direct us for 40km. Travelers are advised to hire a guide for this island as many people had tagged it as ‘unnavigatable’. Being the independent, intrepid and poor tour cyclists we are, we of course were going to be doing it solo, saving an additional $40 for more important things like food and shelter. Besides, 40km is a piece of cake before tea time. Ready with 10 litres of water and a packed lunch, we loaded our bikes onto a small fishing boat for $2.50 to the island where locals directed us to the “start”. Well, there was no “start”, just a couple of paths crisscrossing in different directions, left right and center. There were some locals about doing their morning chores who kindly pointed us in the right direction. After about 10 minutes, all civilization left us, and we were completely alone in a forest, hardly seeing any of the alleged blue markers. The ground was powdery sand and almost impassable by bicycle. Huge sighs of frustration and heaving and swearing came through the forests, originating from us. We had to push our fully loaded bicycles in the hot sun which made us wonder what on earth we were thinking. But there was no going back now, we were in too deep.
Ordinarily when a hiker or a cyclist is met with a crossroads of paths, a blue marker would indeed be helpful to point us in the right direction. Nope, no need for blue markers here seems to be the motto of the Mekong Discovery Trail. So we did it the new age ‘old fashioned’ way by pulling out a compass (an app on the Ipad that uses the shadow of the sun for direction) and headed south. The first 20km was described on the map as ‘advantageous’. Well, I’m not sure what was advantageous about it, it was certainly disadvantageous being stuck on an island with no one around, on sand that could not be cycled and tree routes ready to puncture our tyres. We are pretty sure they meant adventurous, but we kept on remarking “what do they mean by advantageous?”, if only it was advantageous, it would have been a lot more fun. To make matters worse, some local had gotten hold of a can of blue spray paint, the exact same color as the blue markers and had mapped out a whole new route with arrows drawn on trees. We thought, well, maybe the trail operators are doing upgrades and we should just follow these blue signs. We did follow the blue signs. For a long time. Which eventually turned out to be a personalized route to a dead end to the river. We considered flagging down a boat and giving up at this point, but with no boats in sight, we continued south. These stupid markers has completely thrown us off track.
We had not seen a blue marker for hours. We were running out of water, but we kept heading south until we met another crossroads (yet again, no blue markers) and our compass app did not work anymore as the sun was directly above us. We stopped at an abandoned hut for our depressing cold rice lunch. We were so mad and upset about the trail. How on earth can they let foreigners lose in jungles and forests to die without food or water or even a coke (I guess they do advise you to take a guide). Once in a while, I mean, a very long while, we would hear a motorbike in the distance, and we would take turns to sprint back to the road and ask for directions. However, no one seemed willing to help us as they acted as if they had never heard of our destination – it did not help that we could not pronounce Koh Phdao, literally pronounced ‘crocodile’. Eventually we figured out where south was again and continued only 100meters from our cycling breakdown to find the alluring and mysterious blue marker, only the ninth one we had seen in 30km. We had finally passed the “advantageous” cycling route. We reached the village of Koh Phdao (‘crocodile’?) on the south of the island in the late afternoon. A journey of 40km usually takes us less than two hours, but on this island it took us 8 hours, and apparently we were not even lost. Well done to my husband who instinctively used his bearded instincts to make our way out of the jungle.
The 18 homestays were very well organized with markers at every house who offered accommodation and a chef that catered to all the foreigners in the village. A simple room made of curtains was made for us with a mosquito net and mattress on the floor in a large wooden house on stilts. All the houses in Cambodia are built on stilts to cater for the flooding during the rainy season (June!). We paid $3 each to stay the night and another $3 each for dinner which came at exactly 7pm on a motorbike equipped with two ladies who laid out a mat and cutlery and watched us eat and waited for us to nod affimingly that it was good. We paid another $5 to take a boat out to see the rare Irwaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River, a truly special experience considering that we were more than 600km away from the sea.
We had a short ride to Kratie, where we checked into a guesthouse and took a rest day. It was this day that the heat really got to me, and while eating my tofu burger I burst into tears because I was just so hot that it was depressing me. A silly low point, but I have never experienced such heat in my life. The real feel index had been reaching 49 degrees Celsius consistently for the past week and I had suffered from heat exhaustion twice. It did not help that our room felt like a hot box with a tin roof. We felt really homesick at this point thinking of the winter month of June back home where we would usually be donning scarves and winter boots by now.
The adventure continued on the mainland for 50km passing through small villages to a small town called Chlong. We were eagerly met by an elderly lady who said in an old frail voice “oh hello, I am so happy that you took a turn at my place”. We had to do a double take and look at each other to confirm whether we both heard English in this random town. Was there an old English lady about? She was a retired English teacher and she was keen to brush up on her English skills. She looked after us for the day and gave us an extra fan for our room, a real dream during the hot night.
We left Chlong bright and early to continue on the Mekong trail to the next town 90km away. It had rained most of the night and 29km into our ride the dirt road became thick clay mud. So much mud got stuck in our bikes that the wheels would not even turn. A local man hurried over with a stick to help scrape off all the mud and we continued on thinking we were in the clear. Then I called over to Jonty and yelled: “my lovey, my thingy is broken”
Me: “that thing at the back, it broke off, I can’t ride”
Jonty: “what thing at the back?”
Me: “the thing for my chain, it’s off”
Jonty: “no my love, it’s fine, I’m sure I can fix it, it’s probably just the chain”
Me: “no it’s not the chain, it’s broken for good”
Jonty approached with a look of horror. I’m told by my loving husband that my rear derailler had snapped off my bike and was now sitting snugly in my spokes. We had attracted about 30 curious locals and children who swarmed around to see the two Barangs in dismay. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh at this point and whether I should document the ordeal on camera, but I decided against it so that I could help Jonty fix the bike. Jonty detached my rear derailler and broke the chain so that we could at least get the derailler out of the tangled mess in my wheels. We tried to flag down a truck to take us back to Chalong, but there were so few vehicles passing us that it was a fruitless endeavor.
We had to make a plan, push the bike back to the nearest main road 10km away and hitch a ride all the way to Phnom Penh or figure something else out. The philosophy in Asia is that if there is a will there is a way. Our will was to ride on, so, Jonty removed a few chain links and made the bike a make shift fixed gear bicycle. We had a little trouble connecting the chain again, but a local mechanic assisted us with a hammer and chisel – not the usual tools for bicycle maintenance, but it worked. The chain however, bumped around a lot while on the dirt roads so we swapped bikes for the rest of the day. We had to ride a lot slower than usual to make sure that the chain did not fall off or jump around and we successfully cycled 20km to the next town, Stung Trong. The sensible thing would have been to stop at this town, but we felt strong and in high spirits, so we carried on.
Only 5 km later did the chain jump to a higher gear where the chain became so taught that it would not move. We broke the chain again, and put it back in its place, again with the help of a local man with a hammer and chisel (these guys are everywhere, just in the nick of time). We were off again and with the sun setting in the distance we were getting slightly worried. More trouble down the road with the chain and we finally gave up. We miserably pushed the bikes down a dirt road trying to flag down every vehicle that passed, but most were filled to the brim with passengers, cargo or building materials. Even motorbikes with trailers looked like an option to us. We still had another 20km to walk to town and resolved that if we hadn’t gotten a ride in another 5 km, we would do the chain fixed gear thing again. Finally after an hour of walking, a minivan stopped but did not have space for us. These kindly Khmer men spoke little English, but saw our predicament and flagged down a bakkie and explained our ordeal as best they could. We loaded our bikes onto the bakkie and waved goodbye to our saviours. We had not ridden in a vehicle for the past 3 months and we weren’t sure whether the driver was going really really fast or whether we just weren’t use to speed. I think he was really really going fast, now having had time to reflect on Khmer driving. We finally reached the charming town of Kampong Cham, checked into a guesthouse and washed the dirt off for the day.
Only a few photos to be posted as we have been absolutely rubbish at taking pics, but we have found it much more fun taking videos, which should be posted soon!