13 June 2009

CYCLING CAMBODIA - Sisophon to Phnom Penh

26 May - Thailand - Cambodia - 56km

Cambodia conjured up images of famine and mass killings and I was eager to see what it would hold for us – hopefully none of the above. After a lazy start, we cycled to the border via the border market. The market is a large area with over 3000 shops selling everything imaginable. Most of the goods seem to come from Cambodia in a steady stream through the border post, being pushed or pulled on numerous heavily loaded hand-drawn cart

First, we had to get a visa, which involved filling in a form and providing a photo, and then it was the “swine flu” checkpoint where our ears were probed again and our temperatures recorded.

Once in Cambodia we knew straight away that we were out of the well organized “Thailand. Thing”, where it’s a bit more chaotic (more what I’d become used to in recent times), They also drive on the right hand side of the road (the first time since Iran - a new thing to get used to). The Cambodians also seem very friendly and calls of “hello” could be heard from behind the banana trees as we cycled past.

Once we reached the first town, we settled for a room in order to sass out our new environment, change money, and get a new sim card. We found a room on stilts for $2 - a bit rickety, and one could see right through the floor boards, but it was a roof over our heads. Things also appeared cheaper than in Thailand. The Cambodian Riel is not very strong and R1 = about 500 riel. Alternatively, 1$ = 4 160 riel. Credit cards get you dollars at the ATM (which can be changed in the bank or on the street for Riel). At the markets, interesting enough, they quoted in Thai Bhat, dollars and Riels.

Here, like in Thailand, everything comes with a straw, even a tin of beer!

27 May - Sisophon - Siem Reap - 108km

I love being in a new country, everything is different, the food, language, culture and countryside. They seem to grow a lot of rice in this region and cows have a more worried expression than in India (they’re not that holy here).

The road between the border and Siem Reap is brand new (in fact they were still busy painting the lines) so we peddled along quite happily, past wooden houses on stilts, temples and rice paddies. We were passed by motorcycles with up to 3 pigs tied on the back, children on bicycles and motorbikes with trailers piled high with goods.

Once again, we were lucky to escape the rain and were safely in our room at Mommy’s Guest House before the rain came down. There we also met a long-term cycling couple from the UK who have been on the road from London for about a year.

28 May - Siem Reap - Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, now a UNESCO World heritage site, with its 1000 year old temples, was a pleasant surprise to me. I spent the entire day cycling around the ruins and feasting my eyes on these magnificent structures. Cambodia is a lush and wooded country and the buildings are constantly under threat of being taken back by nature. It was one of those days that I wished I had a good camera!

29 May - Siem Reap – Battambang - By boat

I decided to take the boat (bike and all) across the lake to Battambang and Ernest decided to remain on that side of the lake and take the road down to Phnom Penh (the capital). I would then proceed along the road on the opposite side of the lake. I left at 6h00 to get the boat at the floating village of Chong Kneas (about 13km) south of Siem Reap at 7h00. These villages move as the lake rises or recedes depending on the dry or wet season. The trip took 8 hours and although fascinating, I was pleased to reach Battambang.

These villages are complete floating towns with schools, restaurants and police posts. Some are built on barges, some on rafts and some on stilts. Needless to say, the only means of transport is a dugout canoe, and every household seems to have two or more. One can see small children rowing to school, women rowing along selling their fruit and veg from house to house and barges going to the market laden with coconuts and bananas. What a colorful site it was. I found a room at the Royal Hotel for 3$.

30 May - Battambang – Pursat - App - 110km

Cambodia, so far, has been fairly flat and a great place to cycle. Once again, I escaped the rain, although I could see it from time to time - sometimes on my left, sometimes on my right and sometimes dead in front. I shared the road with monks on foot, other cyclists, ox drawn carts and plenty of motorcycles loaded with the entire family.

Cambodia is by far the country that has surprised me the most. Mostly because I knew nothing of the country and secondly because I never expected the cities to be so developed. The cities have all the modern cons, fancy hotels and well-developed tourist infrastructures. The countryside is however still very rural with very primitive ways of farming.

31 May - Pursat – Kampong Chnang - 95km

Another great, great day. Shortly after I left town I turned off the highway and found the famed Bamboo train. - more a trolley than a train. With loads of locals and their goods, we sped off bobbing and swaying down the warped tracks and over rickety bridges, in a southerly direction. It’s a slow process, as once another trolley comes from the front, we all had to get off and the trolley lifted off the tracks to allow the other one to pass. Then we all got back on again just to get off a little while later. At around 11h00 I got off and decided to head back to the main road again. This involved a 30km cycle along a rutted and potholed dirt track.

Now I can truly say, “they do eat snakes”, they were selling fried snakes at a roadside stall. I did not try the snake but tried the bread roll with ice cream and condensed milk with a touch of sugar sprinkled on top! How’s that for a sugar fix!

On arrival at Kampong Chnang, I found a guesthouse where I met John and Rosie form New Zealand, whose son is currently working in Cambodia. After a beer, we went to one of the local restaurants (a great change from my normal instant noodles in my room).

1 June Kampong Chnang – Phnom Penh (the capital) - 93km

I cycled past small rural villages, rice paddies and sugar palm trees. The countryside was dotted with stupas and temples. Along the roadside, one could also see the famed Ondong Rossey pottery. I passed ox carts laden with pottery, obviously heading for the bigger markets.

Again I shared the road with merchants on bicycles, carting their wares to the villages. Gone were the days of Thailand’s fancy petrol stations (with 7-Eleven shops) along the road, but there were plenty small stalls selling petrol by the liter (in coke bottles), or in a big drum with a hand pump. Here one could also get refreshments i.e. water and cold drinks.

Once in the city I headed for “backpackerville”, an area with cheap guesthouses on the lake. These rickety wooden structures are built on stilts over the lake and not only provide a good sunset but also a cool breeze coming of the lake.

There was no shortage of eateries and one could pick and choose from Thai, Vietnamese, Italian and India, although these are fairly expensive, I could not resist the Indian restaurant and had my fill before retiring.

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