Riding the back roads of Cambodia
236km Phnom Penh to Kratie
Wednesday was one of those days. We woke up late, struggled to get our bags packed and after we rode away we realised that Friedel’s glasses were still at the hotel. When we remembered that our health insurance was about to expire it was the final straw. Cycling without good medical cover isn’t an option so we aborted our departure and laughed as we returned to lug all our stuff back up the stairs and check in for another night.
We were in much better shape on Thursday and even a few early showers couldn’t put us off. We cycled along the waterfront, took the Japanese bridge over the Mekong and started the journey north to Laos. Just a few years ago this route would have been a tough ride on almost entirely dirt roads. Things have improved a lot recently where Cambodian roads are concerned and our spirits were lifted when we turned off the main road and found the asphalt continuing ahead. This didn’t last long, of course, but even when the dirt road appeared it was reasonably smooth and hard packed. We rode happily along the river, through strings of villages and waving to the hordes of children who appeared out of nowhere to shout “hello” at us. Add to that the crowing roosters, squealing pigs, men watching movies at top volume in crowded cafes, the general buzz in markets, Buddhist monks chanting and Muslim calls to prayer and you’ll understand why we could call these villages just about anything but tranquil! Fascinating they certainly were but not as peaceful as you might expect for rural Cambodia. At lunch we must have been the talk of the town. No sooner had we sat down at a roadside stall when four locals arrived to stare at the strange foreigners. We never knew we were so enthralling. Maybe they were just hoping for a bite of our rice and tofu. Well, it was some of the tastiest and cheapest Cambodian food we’ve found yet. We couldn’t blame them for being envious.
After a stroll along the waterfront of Kampong Cham, a town that was a vibrant cultural centre before the Khmer Rouge destroyed it, we got a good night’s rest and set out Friday to tackle more dirt roads. First though we made a small detour to a nearby temple. We were just starting to examine the carvings on the outside walls when a scruffy man in half a police uniform told us we had to pay $2 U.S. each to see the temple. He couldn’t show us any identification or give us a ticket so we immediately suspected this was a scam. We could have pushed the issue with him but we have a very low tolerance for hassle and just left. There are always more temples down the road that we can enjoy in peace.
Just as well we didn’t spend too much energy walking around the temple since this day turned out to be more challenging than the one before with plenty of bumps, muddy roads and a ferry crossing. Actually, the word ‘ferry’ is a bit too grand a word for the aging wooden boat we used to cross the Mekong. The vessel also served as a family home for the people running the service and we were carried across the water wedged between the engine and the dirty dishes left over from breakfast.
On the other side, a small child jumped behind one of the bikes and pushed while we steered it off the rickety ramp. Kids often do this to ‘help’ and we always thank them, even though it’s more of an annoyance because it makes the bike harder to control. The father of the boy seemed to think this was a great service though and a simple ‘thank you’ in Cambodian wasn’t enough for him. He jumped in front of us demanding money and thumping on his wallet with his fist. We wished him a good day and rode off.
Happily this turned out to be an isolated attitude on the east bank of the Mekong. Like the day before we passed through a string of villages, stopping for snacks of rice steamed inside bamboo and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Everywhere we were met with smiles and sometimes a promising English student who came to practice the language. Our progress was slow, mostly because of the single track which was often rutted and sometimes just a large mud puddle. We passed a minivan stuck in the quagmire and it was a good two hours before it finally broke free and overtook us down the road.
We took on the final day into Kratie with sore muscles from the steady bumping. We were only left with 36km to cover and since the asphalt had returned late yesterday we hoped it would keep going. That illusion was soon broken by the first of three boat crossings, more ramshackle than the day before. Each time we had to take our shoes off and wade through the water to get our bikes on the boat and off again on the other side. We also crossed two sections of flooded road in our bare feet. It was messy but good fun and certainly added a touch of adventure to the trip north. How boring it must be to go from Laos to Phnom Penh on a bus that runs along the main road. We saw so many interesting things over the past three days and felt like we got a real insight into what life is like in rural Cambodia. We’d have missed it all on public transport.