#22 Takeo, Kampot, and climbing Bokor Hill

In Phenom Penh my plan was to shoot through directly from Ta Khmau to Kampot but given the recent episode of food and water shooting through me, thought it wise to break the trip in two. So, that left a relatively straightforward 65km day of cycling Sunday to the provincial capital Takeo, and the Daunkeo2 hotel which turned out to be a perfect place to sleep under air-con during the hottest part of the day, before rolling around town later that afternoon when cooler to explore.

On Monday I cycled the remaining 87km to Kampot, a riverside town with lovely sunsets and more crumbling French architecture.

And today I climbed a hill. Bokor Hill. To Bokor Hill Station. I opted out of a steep hill climb earlier in the trip, taking a tuk tuk and motorbike from Sra’em to Preah Vineah Temple and wanted to make an effort to tackle this one. It was heavy going, climbing over 1000 metres in around 30km. Much of that was in the first 20km, with some up mixed in with some down after reaching the summit and a welcoming giant female Buddha. The people via the above hyperlink do a much better job of explaining the site than I could, so I will leave you with what I can provide and they can’t, photos from today.

#21 Something else to tick off the list

It’s one I could have done without, but feel fortunate that I’ve made it this far into the trip without prior incident. Fingers crossed it won’t happen again though. Not fun.

I’ve just had my first night of the dreaded D&V.

I went back to the restaurant I had fried rice for lunch and do-it-yourself style BBQ for (Christmas) dinner the day before, and a lovely fish soup with plain rice earlier that day. The family that owns what translates to “Family BBQ” have been great to talk to, especially the owner’s brother who was in town for a short holiday, Kim Eng, an IT worker in Phnom Penh. He helped me compile a list of common dishes that I can order at similar eateries for the rest of my trip.

This time I had spicy chicken and rice, and afterwards a free dish of duck salad, prepared for me to say something like, thank you for entertaining us over the last couple of days, you seem like a nice guy, thanks for the stickers you gave the kids, and good luck for the rest of your trip.

I think that was the one that did it. Lots of leafy greens, and the meat too a funny texture, now I reflect on it. It couldn’t have been duck. More like seafood. Calamari?

In any case, I went to bed feeling very full and woke at around 2.00am with a need to rush to the toilet. I then spent the next five hours between the bathroom and the bed, experiencing what can be best described as violent expulsions of diarrhea and vomiting. Drink plenty of water, is the advice. My body rejected it within minutes of swallowing and I felt truly flushed out!

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that when I stopped drinking I stopped expelling, and I was able to take some Tinidazole antibiotics.

I was able to communicate to the hotel I wanted some fresh sheets and the bathroom cleaned. I was able to put on a brave face and convince mum I was doing just fine. “You look pale”, she commented. I felt pale.

I persisted with the cricket and finally got a radio stream where I could listen to Australia make quick runs against India as I rested. And before too long I was able to retain water, and even consume my normal breakfast, shake. Yum.

My 24-hour bug lasted 12 hours. I’ve slept for much of today and am feeling better, regrouping for a ride tomorrow.

#20 Getting out of the city

I guess every trip is different, and everybody has their own holiday preferences depending on expectations and experiences, but for me I couldn’t wait to get out of Phnom Penh. It just wasn’t congruent with what this trip has been about. It’s fast-paced, in your face, hello mister tuk tuk? Moto? Cars and traffic, backpackers acting like they want to reek havoc. It just wasn’t my scene. As I said in a reply to one of Jenny’s comments, my “destination” in this trip has been the ride from town to town. That’s been the best part. My “journey” is what I’ve had to endure after I’ve parked my bike at the end of each day. And this was compounded in Cambodia’s capital. I was so used to being kind, and accepting the kindness of strangers that I wasn’t prepared for the in your face, manipulate as much as you can attitude of the country’s biggest city. It was full-on. And I didn’t like it.

I spent Christmas morning visiting the Pol Pot genocide museum, and then uploaded camera photos on the hostel computer which, by the way, can be seen by clicking on the Flickr stream to the left of this post (photos are not labeled but those that are followings progress should be able to guess where they were all taken, chronological order helps, any questions let me know). I then cycled out of the city. Tonight I’m in a satellite town, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, feeling more myself. As you leave the city people increasingly say hello as you pass by, children start giggling at the site of a foreigner cycling past on a bike, and you experience genuine warmth and hospitality.

I’m at a lovely guesthouse, the Morehaheng which doesn’t appear on any Google search you may do, but is located here, if interested

And I’ve just had a lovely ‘Christmas dinner’ at the restaurant across the road. A do-it-yourself BBQ. Beef steak strips, liver, heart(!), squid, and prawns (which helped me feel at home). And beer on tap which despite being basically sober since Siem Reap, I partook in. Beautiful food, and friendly owners.

#19 And on to Phnom Penh

I’m without the aid of Sam’s Christmas present and what has been my main navigational aide of the trip for this leg. Despite attempts to fix it on the hotel lobby computer, located behind the desk not in front of, my Garmin navigation device, so good at pointing me in the right direction, is not working. For some reason, and I tried to cover them all, it simply wouldn’t recognise the routes I’d pre-planned. It didn’t really affect things too much as it was a straight forward ride, although I did miss a couple of the smaller lanes I was aiming for.

Another early start to catch scenes of sunrise over the Mekong. The beginning bit was special, passing though agriculture. The first couple of people I stopped to say “Sewer stay” to were ploughing using bullocks, the next were walking though the corn fields and using a sickle to cut those stalks with fully grown crops.

Morning-tea is beef noodles again. There are a couple of river crossings on the way, a mix of good and bad roads and then some super smooth highway coming into Phnom Penh.

Check into a rundown guesthouse, The Gecko for $10 but decide on being a true backpacker the day after and transfer to the Lovely Jubbly Villas. It’s dorm style but much newer with a nice vibe and a pool to chillax in and refresh before the next ride.

Merry Christmas to Granny and the Creamers, Oma and the Wissinks, friends, and the odd person that reads this that is neither. You’re not odd for reading this mind you, that would be a bad way to promote site traffic.

Missing Sam, family, and the traditional Dutch Christmas Eve buffet dinner.

Love, Simon

#18 Site-seeing in Kampong Cham

A great sleep at the Reasmey Cheanich Hotel (Fan, $8). It’s in a quiet part of town so no early morning prayers from loud speakers (or crows from roosters) to be heard. Despite having multiple reviews on TripAdvisor it’s a brand new hotel and actually, not even officially open. That comes on Dec 27.

I spend the day visiting two of the local attractions. First up, the old French lookout tower. I’m surprised to find that it’s free, although it’s a precarious structure and climb to the top, steep stairs and no additional safety features. Half the stairs have two railings to cling on to, the other half have one and you find yourself gripping the steps in front of you for support.

After the tower I make my way to the bamboo bridge. It’s an amazing structure that provides access in the dry season to what looks like a sandbar on a map but is actually a sizable island with plenty of houses, shops, fields of crops and fruit, a school and a wat. In the wet season the river washes it away and access is only possible by boat. When the river drops again, the bridge is rebuilt using bamboo and bits metal wire to keep things together.

The island itself is an amazing place to explore, and even better if you get off the main roads and look for the smaller tracks. I had a great time exploring, taking photos and yes, interacting with the locals. Today’s highlight was a group of children playing marbles. Their version was to pick up your marble, place it on a finger, bend the figure back and catapult it into another’s marble. It looked fun enough but I told them I knew a thing or two about marbles and asked them to pay attention. I carved a circle into the dirt and moved ten paces away marking the distance with another line in the dirt. “Here’s how it works” I said. “You take your marble and you throw it towards the circle trying to get as close to it as possible”. Not speaking any English it really was a case of actions speaking louder than words. “Then, you use you thumb to hold back a finger and try and flick your marble into the circle. Lowest score wins. Ready? Let’s do this”. We played a few games, increased the distance to the ‘hole’ and played a few more. I’d like to think they were grateful for the instruction, and that they will now go around and teach the other kids on the island this strange new game, referencing the strange man from Oar-stra-lee who made them laugh by repeatedly, at the youngest one’s request, reenacting how the scabs on knees came from falling off the bike complete with screaming in agony. This bit was the funniest.

They showed me a large beehive and then said they had to go.

A nice day for a ride.

#16 Stung Treng to Kratie

I didn’t do much on my day off. After checking into the May Li Mu Met guesthouse, offering river views from a balcony on the third floor, for $7. I did some washing, and some reading, and generally chilled out.

I had a walk around town and found a guy who said he could “fix” the screen on my phone for $35 that day or “replace” it for $65 when he could get the part in, tomorrow. I told him that was no good, that I was planning on leaving the town by 6:00am. He spoke English well and despite running an unorganized stall in the middle of a dark, claustrophobic market (you can picture it, right?) and a small feeling of unease, I left my phone with him asking him to fix it and said I would be back when requested, at 5:30pm.

I found a place for lunch, and perhaps giving the ok to go ahead before asking for the price cost me a buck (or two really) more than it should of, $3 for basic fried rice.

My mind was on my phone and I dropped into the stall after lunch to check in. I felt much better finding him working on it, phone in pieces, the 5:30pm collection time still standing.

I walked to the river and asked how much a coconut was “tur lie bon marn?”, “something something something” came the reply. Excellent. I nodded and took a seat.

I paid with a large note and got a little in change. Turned out I had agreed to pay $3 for a coconut juice. Right, must be a little more diligent. I hadn’t bothered much to date, most of the folk I’d met hadn’t taken advantage of me. My fault of course, not theirs. Mr. Turley and grade 12 economics came to mind. ‘Caveat emptor’, let the buyer beware. Indeed. It works out well as a memory aid for me. Not tur lee bon marn, instead tur lie bon marn.

I sat for another hour after paying reading my kindle, making the most of the setting.

Hotel. Then back to the phone shop before dinner. There was a problem. He couldn’t fix it. A new screen was required. The good news was the delivery of the required screen was coming tonight, at 7:00pm, and that it would only cost $50. He said he thought he could drop the phone off at my hotel by 8:00pm. Crumbs, I thought.

Dinner. Shower. Bags packed for early start. Down in the lobby by 7:30pm to read while I waited. At 9:30pm I’d had enough and decided to go to bed, consoling myself that an extra night to sort things out wouldn’t be a big deal. A knock on the door at 10:00pm and it’s him. A sigh of relief. I offer an extra $10 but he doesn’t take it.

Broken sleep thinking about the next day’s journey. 5:00am alarm and I’m up. It was dark.

The timer starts at 5:52am and I’m energised to be on the road so early. Beautiful to watch the sun rise, and a great morning of cycling with my first cloudy day, a big difference maker.

Now the road from Stung Treng is an interesting one. Built by the Chinese only a few years ago it has fallen apart about as fast as the plastic toys you got/give for Christmas. After 30kms of beautiful riding the surface turns to broken bitumen and dirt and you spend 60 of the next 90 kilometers with minivans, trucks and 4WDs tearing along at breakneck speed sending dust everywhere.

I really feel for the folk that live by the side of this road. Sure, it will be nice when it’s done but imagine having your home and roadside stall here. Not pleasant for them, and not inviting for passers by.

I stop and chat to some men doing roadworks. Chinese. They tell me that yesterday they laid this section (a kilometer??) only to test it today and find it wasn’t up to standard. So they were pulling it all up and trying again. Nice going fellas.

On a better section I flag down a motorbike carrying food. I hadn’t seen them until today and was curious what I might find. There were all sorts of goodies in plastic bags. I take some fried banana, fried something else, sticky rice and a rice-based desert, all for 200riel (50c).

I find my shortcut, shown here by the yellow line heading towards to river and am thankful I am on another road. It’s bumpy tarmac, but it’s better than gravel.

Instead of heading south I head north for 10kms to see the 108 column Wat Moi Roi. Being the Aussie that I am and remembering holidays as a child near Coffs Harbour’s big banana I couldn’t resist making he detour to see Cambodia’s biggest wat.

I took off my shoes and hat, made a small donation, sat on my legs with my toes pointing away from the Buddhas just like Moo had taught me, and said a prayer.

On the way to Kratie I visited a second wat, at Phnon Sombok, this time for the view. Too many big trees to see much of the Mekong but a nice view over the fields.

Stop for some rice paper rolls at a shop street-side (3 for 2000riel), then after inhaling them wave down a mobile vendor for another round (3 smaller ones for 1500riel).

Check into the fabulous Le Tongle guesthouse have a some more food, and the it’s to bed.

The day’s stats: 168km in 11 hours 16 minutes.

#17 Kratie to Kampong Cham

Friday was another rest day. I washed the bike, chain and components and rotated the tyres after noticing the back tyre was wearing considerably faster than the front. Not surprising given that’s where the weight is, I suppose. Will they get me to HCM where I’m planning a big service or do I investigate in PP?

Roll around town for a bit, and spend some time trying to sneak some photos of women in pyjamas. It’s not as bad as it sounds! Fashion could be considered strange for anyone dropped into a totally different culture. This is one I’ve found strange. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, or what the activity is, there are Cambodian women and girls going about their day in pyjamas.

Another meal at the guesthouse and early to bed.

Up early again Saturday but for one reason or another I’m slow to get going. The big one is I can’t find my gloves. Empty everything. Can’t find them. Ask at reception. No. Dig around reception myself with a vague feeling the last time I took them off was registering. Still no. Bummer.

Lovely rural scenes heading out of Kratie.

Stop for an early bowl of noodles (plus plenty of tea) and have a nice chat to the owner, teaching each other a few new words.

The next stretch has a Muslim feel with plenty of headwear and mosques.

Despite the rapid changes that have occurred, I am constantly amazed by the simplicity of life here. There was a sculpture of an oxen pulling a cart. You look at it and think, ah back in the day, this was what it must have been like for the people here. What hard work. But down the road you see oxen pulling carts and you realise how little things have changed for some. These people have not benefited from industrialisation!

I can’t remember where I got my information from but I head towards a river crossing. It was a fun experience in itself but I think the roads were supposed to be better on the eastern bank from here to Kampong Cham. I climbed the stairs and spent the trip with the captain. He was a diminutive bloke, who wore a serious sun protecting hat. He did take it off in the end and wanted me to get a photo of him without headgear.

The western side of the Mekong had a different feel. A few small hills close to the river and houses on some seriously high poles to cope with the flooding in the rainy season.

I stopped into a BBQ eatery and had a couple of rice wine shots with the locals. I actually stopped drinking from Siem Reap (excluding one beer in Kratie). I haven’t missed it but thought I’d join in the fun here, for the experience. It really wasn’t that strong, a small buzz, unlike the Chinese version I remember drinking which was very strong!

Look out for Cambodia to do well in future volleyball tournaments. From what I’ve seen it’s clearly the most played sport here.

It was time for another refreshing coconut juice. This time just 50c.

An hour later I’ve made it to Kampong Cham and it’s wide, nicely sealed streets. Makes a change from the dusty provincial capitals I’ve stayed in over the last week!

118 kilometres in 9 hours 43.

#15 Reaching the Mekong

An early start for the longest leg of the trip so far. My 149km cycle starts at 6:22am and it isn’t until 10 hours and 45 minutes later, 5:07pm that I stop the timer. It sounds pretty grueling but really, it was fine. Leaving early helped and there were some nice breaks in the journey.

The first was a memorable lunch at a rural family’s home. It was a quarter past ten and I’d travelled perhaps 60km without stopping. The sun was up and making things more difficult, and I was hungry. I was aware that here weren’t many settlements along this road so when (another) motorbike rider slowed to chat I pounced. After the usual questions I asked whether she could recommend a restaurant. No response, perhaps restaurant wasn’t the right word given the surroundings. “I’m hungry, ohh, so hungry”, I said, rubbing my belly. “Food? Eat rice?” Now we were getting somewhere. “Would you like to come to my house?” “Well, thank you, that sounds nice”. “Follow me”. Five minutes later I was meeting her, Somali’s, mum, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece and uncle. Five minutes after that I was chowing down on some bbq fish, a gristly pork dish, a take-away dish delivered by motorbike (I think I must have taken the one Somali was going to have), and plenty of rice. All very delicious, and another example of the kindness I’ve experienced this trip.

I wanted to ask Somali so many questions. Where did she go to school? Why did she speak English so well? How did the family get its income? Where was she coming from when I met her on the road? When will her new house be built? What she will do for the rest of the day, the week? I tried phrasing these in different ways but perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t get many detailed answers. She did say that her family was poor, and that she didn’t have money for school. I suspect she was sent away to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap to work for a number of years to make money for the family, and picked up some English there. I showed photos of home which they were all very interested in, and along with 20,000riel ($5) gave away my last Australian handkerchief. It was time to say goodbye and she walked me to the road and giving the bike a push, waved as I carried on down the road.

It really was monotonous cycling. A good road, but not much to see roadside. I decided to put the headphones in and start listening to “Serial”. I won’t go into it here but I will say it’s a cracking good yarn that helped pass the time at a time when time was passing slowly.

I pressed pause at various stages, including here, having a brief chat to two Germans who, along with their Columbian dog had come from Laos and were travelling through Cambodia to Thailand.

The further I rode the more fertile the land was becoming until there it was, the mighty Mekong River.

More roadworks coming into Stung Treng slowed me but getting through town, to the river allowed for a nice cycle to the old bridge and the Mekong Bird “ecolodge”, about 5km north.

On the way I stopped to eat (and rest!) at a cafe overlooking the river. A very kind Khmer high school physics teacher, Theara (forget the h when pronouncing) not only helped me order but insisted on paying for my meal! I thanked him and offered to take him out for dinner the next night but he didn’t get in contact via email/Facebook and the name he provided for Facebook drew a blank. Shame.

I also met the other man in the photo. A kiwi called Graeme? Graham? No, Grum. Grum is on a massive cycle (they all seem to be except me!) and you can find him here, or on Facebook.

The ‘Bird’ was a funny one. With beautiful surroundings it would have been very peaceful if not for the staff playing their music loudly. It was also deserted. I met Swiss adventurer Thomas there but we were the only ones staying. It made for a strange feel. Everything set up with no customers. Only one staff member spoke any English and it was hard to get any tips for the area. I wanted to stay two nights and do some kayaking on my day off but they only had two person canoes. Perhaps if Sam had been there it would have been a different experience. In the end I only stayed one night and moved into a typical hotel/guest house in town for my second night, offering more opportunities to get involved in my surroundings.

#14 North to the Cambodian/Thailand border

Wake at 6:00am (rooster!) and with no snooze button decide to make an early start. It was a nice day for a ride, and nice to be on the bike by 7:15am. Lots of children waking to school and the commuters heading for the fields, on their farming equipment.

The road was good but the scenery fairly mundane once the below mountain range was passed. I did have a bit of an exchange with some boys on bikes. They were more confident than others I’d tried to talk English to, and we rode at the same pace for a couple of minutes chatting (me mostly chatting, them laughing), but we were able to ask each other “what’s your name?” and “where are you from?”, interestingly the latter response being “I’m from Krong Preah Vihear province”, rather than simply “Cambodia”. “How old are you?” didn’t seem to compute.

I had a great pitstop after 50kms with a welcoming family running a drinks stop store at the side of the road, a common sight. I shared photos and handed out stickers. I was going through the animals, kangaroo, koala, snake, lizard and when I got to cockatoo the mother left the table and returned with their own pet bird. Awesome. I like pet birds. I reflected on “Bill”, our families pet cockatiel, the breakfasts and other meals, the sitting in hair, the escapes. Good times. Good times.

As I’m finishing my third drink the little boy points behind me. It’s another touring cyclist! He is also staying in Sra’aem that night with plans to visit the mountain temple by tuk tuk that afternoon. He speeds off and there are vague plans to meet up later. I say goodbye to the family and jump on the bike hoping to catch him. He would have been in his mid-late forties but kept up a cracking pace. At times I would dig deep and catch a glimpse of him up ahead but that’s as close as I got. As fortune would have it, he had headed to the same stretch of guest houses where I had planned to stay (not that fortunate, only a couple of options in town!) I spotted his parked bike and checked into the same hotel. The Raksmey Sokon, fan room, wifi for $13.

I found him at the attached restaurant and we made plans to visit Prasat Preah Vihear atop the Dangkrek Mountains with great views of lowland Cambodia to one side, and Thailand to the other. $20 by tuk tuk (shared), then $5 each for a motorbike ride up the mountain. It would have been possible, and enjoyable to cycle it for free (there is no cost to see temple ruins) however in the end decided the extra day would be better spent later in my journey – along the Mekong or by a beach.

At the temple I spent some time talking to a friendly monk, Sambo, and his teacher Sokunthea. Both were monks from Angkor Wat, visiting, for the day as part of a nine minibus convoy!

Dinner that night in town and early to bed.

Today I’ve made my way to Tbeng Meanchey (known by locals as Krong Preah Vihear), a provincial capital of may be but it’s still a dust bowl of a town. I had planned to go smaller roads but I’ve learned my lesson. Possible in Thailand. Not so much in Cambodia. Instead, I went back the way I came turning east to TB rather than west to Kulean.

The hotel Ben recommended was full but I found another easily, the Sen Samneg where $10 gets you the VIP room (bigger??). Basic, but the room is set back from the street I won’t be troubled by traffic noise. I hope not by roosters either.

#13 Rural northern Cambodia

I hadn’t discussed a price with my landlady but from what I read $5 was the going rate. I handed her the money as I left. I thought there was a bit of a scowl, as opposed to a warm goodbye smile. Was she expecting more? Did she need to give a referrers fee to the waiter? Or him to the original bloke? Maybe. Probably not. Doubt it. I did actually try and give my original helper $1 yesterday when he passed me on to the girl who ‘had a hotel with her sister’. He didn’t take it. But did take a stick of gum.

So back up the 10km gentle incline to Svay Leu I go, again, and on to previously unseen roads. The scenery took on an Australian feel, long grasses, eucalypts lining the road and what looked like a wattle.

I passed an outback school and stopped to say g’day. Two classes in the same shed, long wooden benches to sit, and another row slightly higher to write. Blackboards. Each teacher had a cane, for pointing at the blackboard or slapping on the desk to get attention. Sweet students, that while seemed interested in this strangers peering into their class were perhaps restrained given I was visiting mid-lesson, interrupting their rote learning. A teacher came to talk to me. I explained I was also a primary school teacher. I wrote a note with some stickers asked to take a few photos and was then on my way. If I was feeling brighter I would have asked to take over for 5 minutes. But I was still smarting a little from yesterday and in a low mood. Resilience Simon! What more can you do than pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!

My first attempt at lunch failed. Miming food I sat down at a table with the usual condiments. “No rice, soup”. “Sure, soup”, I reply rubbing my belly. “Mmmm, soup”. I could see a massive pot steaming away in the corner but after 20 minutes of close to no interaction and no food I thought perhaps something had been misinterpreted and so paid for my juice and rolled on to be next set of tables, chairs and condiments.

Great success this time. Fabulous food, chicken and rice, a side of soup and salad, and an egg for 5000 riel, $1.25. Interaction with the owners and their child, teaching words to each other. I shared my photo album and gave the toddler a mandarin. As I was leaving they handed me a big bunch of bananas, and so I dug into my goodie bag and offered the lady an Australian handkerchief as a final thanks. I was starting to feel more upbeat.

Another nice exchange a little further on. A truck carrying sweet potato/yam type vegetables passed me but before he was out of site the driver’s cap flew off. I picked it up on my way and met him as he was running back to collect it. The chap was so grateful he even tried to stick one of his yams in my bag. I laughed and shrugged my shoulders and said “I can’t, I mean I’d like to, but I don’t have a kitchen to cook it”. He laughed. I laughed some more. We both said goodbye, “Leah’s son hi!!” and I peddled on. He waved as he passed me one last time.

A marked guesthouse awaited me in Kuleaen, this time I was told it was $5. But better than last night I had a private bathroom with running water.

Another beautiful meal for dinner, beef noodle soup and ice-tea.