July 9, 2014 by melcogger
We last left off with a broken bicycle after a long and hard day. We were stuck in Kampong Cham – about 100km shy of completing the Mekong Discovery Trail – and unable to continue cycling without a back derailer for Melissa’s bicycle. The only place we could get this component was in the capital Phnom Pen, so we reluctantly bought tickets through our guesthouse owner, witnessed our precious bikes tied to the back of the minibus with string and headed off. We resolutely hate taking public transport. Partly because we feel it’s copping out and the stress and extra expense of the bicycles makes us rue the entire experience. But on some occasions there are simply no other alternatives. Our experience with public transport from two previous trips in Eastern and Southern Africa taught us that the back seats are prime location. In Africa 15 seater taxis are filled to the brim with up to 25 people, most of them congregating near the front and hanging out of the door, clinging onto other passengers who are clinging onto various things inside the minibus. With such experience it’s no wonder we get nervous about public transport. There weren’t many passengers onboard so we had the entire back seat to ourselves. Under no illusions that this would continue for much longer, Melissa took full advantage and stretched herself out. We knew sooner or later someone would reign on our parade but low and behold no one did. Perhaps it’s because we are tourists or maybe we paid extra for the seats (hope not!) but whatever it was we enjoyed the minibus ride to Phnom Pen.
We had bicycle business to attend to in Phnom Pen. Both our bicycles were tinkered with and we bought new handlebar panniers – our previous makeshift ones having fallen apart and were barely holding on by cable ties (for the uneducated: handlebar panniers are useful because they hold all your valuables in plain site while cycling and can be taken off easily when you need to shop). The bicycle shop didn’t have the attachment for the derailler to Melissa’s bike but after a quick search around the shop, they returned with a brand new children’s mountain bike, took off the correct attachment, showed it to me and said that he would sell it for $12. I don’t think another bicycle shop would have been willing to do that, especially from a new bike. Apart from ‘work’ admin we were still on our Indian food craze and had located every restaurant in the city to try out. Turns out that it was slightly more pricy than in Laos but we did manage a few meals. We also visited the genocide museum – a frightfully harrowing experience. In the late 1970s the Khmer Rouge regime used a school to systematically torture and terrorize dissidents of the regime. Most, if not all, of the charges were either trumped up or baseless. The narratives of the detainees reveal that crimes were admitted to regardless of fault merely because death was the easier option. Old classrooms (some still with chalk boards) were converted into torture rooms and 2×1 meter prison cells. It was hard to do anything after being there for 3 hours. One tourist was even siting outside in tears traumatized by the torture tools, graphic pictures of mutilated bodies and countless human skulls on display.
Another harsh reality of Cambodia is the use of child labour and there were countless times when we saw young children, perhaps 12 years onwards working on road construction, agricultural farming or in the family business. However, as we’ve experienced cycling in all the countries we have visited so far, the children do no hesitate to show their excitement at the two ‘Barang’ (foreigners) on bicycles passing through their villages. Many children jump at the opportunity to shout “hello, what is your name and where do you come from?” as we whizz past without any opportunity to respond. More disturbing is the sexual exploitation of children with many peodophiles coming into the country solely for sex tourism. In almost all the tourist towns we visited there were posters promoting the protection of children against prostitution and NGOs working hard to convict sex offenders to extradite them. If any our our legal buddies feel like getting off the grid for a while in Cambodia there are NGOs to work with like APLE (Action Pour Les Enfants – action for the children) that extradite and convict these sick bastards.
Each day while in Phnom Pen we set out either for business related errands or leisure on foot. Like any major SE Asian city or town tuk-tuk drivers will constantly ask if you want a lift. There’re probably quite cheap too and many tourists and locals alike travel by this means. However we simply smile and wave every time. Many of the tuk-tuk drivers would laugh and say: ‘genocide museum? Haha, still 7kms. Good luck’. Having cycled nearly 4000kms our walking muscles took some strain but we were fit enough and managed a good 20km each day.
We had been very curious to know how much weight we’ve lost so far but had few opportunities to see the effects other than having to hold up our pants and finding unique ways of keeping our swimming costumes on in the waves. While walking one day we happened upon a midget / dwarf / small person (not sure what’s PC – no jokes) carrying a scale. We paid him a few Cambodian Riel (R2) and hopped on. We’ve lost a combined total of 18kgs! That’s two small children we’ve seemed to have lost. I’ve said it once before and I’ll say it again: if you love to eat yet hate the consequences, tour cycle.
Having seen enough of Phnom Pen, which was a surprisingly pleasant city despite perceptions of it being crime ridden, we set off south towards the southern coastline. The first day to Takeo was fairly straight forward cycling albeit on a bumpy road with a small shoulder. On the second day to Kampot, Melissa threw in the biggest curve ball of our entire trip. It’s my twin brother’s wedding in January next year in the UK and naturally the whole family is making travel arrangements in drips and drabs. Every time we hear that another flight has been booked we think: ‘shit, what are we going to do?’ Literally out of nowhere Melissa suggests flying to Iran and cycling to Leeds for the wedding. The thought sent both of us into overdrive. Our destination had always been New Delhi but is it fixed? And are we obliged to stick to our original plan? The change of plans took us by surprise but the more we thought of it the more we became obsessed by the idea. We did the research and a number of problems were encountered: money (Europe is expensive), we would need to camp, the weather, visas for EU and UK (traveling on an SA passport is notoriously difficult). All except the visas were not insurmountable and yet it was the one obstacle that would ruin everything. We spent the next 3 days in Kampot and another 4 in Sihanoukville researching, emailing and calling embassies for guidance over some good draft beer and free peanuts provided by our guesthouse on the beach. Having R5 draft beer on hand was important whenever we met the occasional hurdle. Sihanoukville is overly touristy so we indulged heavily in burgers and chips for R10. In total we had 18 burgers between us. Now, now, don’t judge us. After lots of ups and downs we were (sadly) forced to conclude that you can’t actually get a Schengen visa and UK visa while traveling abroad (on an SA passport). If we wanted to cycle to my brother’s wedding we would have to return to SA, get the visa, fly to Iran and continue from there. This realization was our lowest point.
So back to a blog about tour cycling SE Asia: the roads in southern Cambodia were a mixed bag. We had thus far managed to avoid the major highways for all but a couple of kilometers. The last stretch before Sihanoukville was without a shoulder and en route to a major international port. We were forced off the road more than once by oncoming trucks overtaking other trucks. To make matters worse, monsoon rains had turned gravel beside the road into mud which is normally a good escape but it’s not exactly the easiest thing cycling in. It had rained solid for 10 days with heavy downpours much to the dismay of other tourists, but having experienced April and May in South East Asia, the cooler weather was a blessing for us. The huge indulgence in touristy heartland coupled with the disappointment with the SA passport meant that we needed some solid heart to heart with the road. We planned to trek the 250km to the Cambodia / Thailand border over mountainous terrain through Botum Sakor National Park in two days. Some good old tour cycling therapy would do the trick. Perhaps something beer can never achieve although some may think the jury is still out. The first day of 105km to Sre Ambel was a good ride. We took a small road out of town between fishing villages to avoid the main road which proved to be the highlight. We also reached our 4000km mark so a number of high fives were in order. It rained the entire day much to our delight and we coasted by with little difficulty. Cycling in the monsoon season is not as bad as everyone has seemed to forewarn. We like to think of it as free air-con due to the wetness and breeze when cycling.
While in Sre Ambel we bought as many sweets and sugar-related items we could in preparation for the next 145km milestone. We were so eager that we set the alarm for 4:15am, got dressed and ready in record time but still had to wait 15 minutes for the sun to rise. It was a tough day. We were going so slow that I had to stop every once and a while to check that something wasn’t inhibiting my wheels. It turned out that there was nothing inhibiting my wheels except the large uphill climbs. My odometer also broke so we had no way of knowing what our progress was. Did I mention that it was over a mountain pass? We were popping little sweets every few minutes like sugar junkies. Thank God it was overcast.
At one drinks stop, a man asked us what we were doing. When we informed him, he looked at us in a puzzled way and asked: “Why you no take moto?” In Cambodia, only poor people ride bicycles and spend the entire day in the sun either farming or doing construction. We do both (aside from farming and construction) so naturally it’s very confusing for them to see foreigners (who are supposed to be rich) riding bicycles in the hot sun. We had no answers for him. When he finally realized the extent of our travels through Asia, he then asked if were were champions. We often (although secretly) like to think that we are champions, we still didn’t understand his question. He then mentioned tv and we understood that he wanted to know if we were famous. Well of course we’re not famous but a nice thought nevertheless. He told us that this feeling was that he liked foreigners and wanted us to stay for dinner. We still had another 60km to go and we were loosing daylight, so we politely refused. He kindly gave us a 2kg bag of rambutan fruit as a parting gift and we set off feeling that much more inspired to get to the end of the day. Ironically, while chatting to my mother on Skype that night she told us that the shop manager at Pick ‘n Pay in Craighall Park had mentioned a blog about a young couple cycling through Asia. Turns out his wife has been following our blog, maybe we are famous? Ha ha. Sponsorships here we come…anything from Pick ‘n Pay?
We rested at the border town of Koh Kon for a day for no real reason at all. Didn’t do much either now come to think of it. In the final analysis, Cambodia (being a destination we never intended) was very enjoyable. The Mekong discovery trail was a little adventure and gave us great insight into small fishing villages. We saw the rare Irwaddy dolphin in its natural habitat, and broke down and put our bicycle knowledge to the test (and succeeded might I add). People were incredibly friendly and hospitable, perhaps the most so far. We had no trouble crossing the border the border into Thailand perhaps due to the massive casino on the Cambodian side that sees a lot of movement.
And that’s that – off to Thailand.
Here is a 7 minute video of Cambodia we made: