Cambodia day 1 - Angkor Wat
Out of Siem Reap next to the river, partnered by motorbikes and cars, flat flat flat. Walls appeared on the left out of the trees and as we turned left an intricately carved entrance gate appeared. Named Victory gate, it's one of the gateways into the city of Angkor Thom. With its smiling Buddha faces it was a sign of things to come. The whole complex had been rediscovered in 1860 by the French, though as our guide was at pains to point out, not forgotten by the locals. They had taken it upon themselves to clear away at the jungle to expose the temples. One was left alone so Taprohm was the first to explore. Built in 1186 its walls and buildings were covered in fromage trees (spung in Cambodian) The roots engulfing the walls were striking as their white trunks soared skywards. Next was Bayon in Angkor Thom, 54 towers were originally built and many remained, each tower had a huge Buddha face on its 4 sides, an amazing sight. We finished the day at Angkor Wat, built in 1113 it is the iconic temple in the whole complex. Surrounded by a hand dug moat it is the largest religious temple complex in the world. Intricate carvings adorned the walls as we headed for the highest point. Ridiculously steep stairs marked our ascent into heaven for the central sanctuary where you could walk around the galleries that only important monks and kings in the past were allowed access. Heading back to Siem Reap, we passed more temples and exploration of each was possible and of all the modes of transport available the humble bicycle was the way to fully appreciate this World Heritage Site.
Day 3 – Bantrey Srei
Away at 0800, we followed the river northwards jousting with the motorbikes. Road junctions don't have a give way system as such, more a case of look for a gap and go. The only rule is don't go backwards as everyone anticipates where you are going. The road was flat as we headed east along a dirt road, manageable with narrow tyres as we traversed the fields and raised houses either side. Raised for flooding, cooling as the air would rise through, to also keep animals underneath, but most important to hang the hammock. As we were still within Angkor Wat park, the obligatory temple rose up on the right. Easily spotted by the minibuses and motorbikes, it was confirmed by squealing children hawking T-Shirts, scarves and at this site small woven birds. Into the temple grounds where Sonny explained that they weren't quite sure who built it. However with 7 tiers it was a little replica of Angkor Wat and must have been for an elderly relative as there were no stories in the building to climb. Guarded by lions with enormous bottoms we entered. Pride of place in the centre was a tomb with a small exit hole at the bottom to let the juices run out as they kept the body for a few months with Royalty before cremation, so that they could celebrate his life. Jo summed up Banteay Samre temple as much nicer than Angkor Wat, less crowds and she's right. We finished with the English tradition tea in the cafe opposite.It was 36 degrees now as we cycled a long flat road and folks were getting tired, so lunch in the tourist cafe at Bantreay Srei was a relief. I tried the vegetable and green grass soup, delicious. The temple was amazing, fabulous detailed carvings in the sandstone, the walls were smothered with them. Red coloured was the best, yellow the worse. The return took in the landmine museum, thousands of tonnes of munitions had been dropped by the USA and 30 years ago landmines were everywhere. Designed to maim rather than kill (An injured soldier is more difficult than a dead one) they are still injuring people today. Set up by a former child soldier he'd removed nearly 10000 mines and munitions.
Day 4 Battambang
Setting if at 0730 we headed south towards the ferry that would take us to Battambang. The port was a single entrance with a steep descent to the waiting boats. Long and thin they had 2 rows of seats and a fibreglass roof. Bikes stowed atop we headed out into Lake Tonle Sap via a narrow piece of river to emerge into the most enormous water mass. Here floating were houses, bars and even a Catholic church. Leaving this behind we ploughed a lonely furrow across the lake, a 90 minute trip that saw me on the roof and everyone else trying on cycling tops which Channy had brought along. Into the river to Battanbang and river life in action. 'It's the best time to see this now' smiled Channy as during the rainy season all the houses were pulled high out of the water. The result was a line of floating houses either side of all different types ranging from homesteads to a bar with 4 pool tables, what the rule was for boat wash, I can only guess. The place had a vague fishy smell which wasn't surprising really as every conceivable method had been employed to catch them; net throwing, traps laid along the edge even electrocution but the most dramatic were nets suspended from a bamboo frame. At 4 metres across these were lowered in and out by a cantilever device, akin to a giant claw dipping into the water, it lifted the net funneled any fish into a central bucket. We saw maybe 50 of these in action and not one seemed to catch anything, even though they used nets to herd the fish in, so you were left to wander if there were any fish left. At halfway we stopped at a floating shack for tea and pineapple and watched as the seriously overloaded public boat draw in. Leaning at 10 degrees it was stuffed with tourists both inside and on the roof and could only hope that something didn't happen to make them all rush to one side. Food was farmed on the water too. Not just fish but pigs and crocodiles!! Further up stream, it was getting shallower and narrower and several times we had to pushed of the bank or off the bottom, but after 7 hours we arrived in Battangbang to cycle the short 500 metres to the hotel. An evening meal at a restaurant training street children to cook. The food was fabulous, Thai green curries, dumplings, marinated chicken, Cambodian cuisine is pretty tasty.
Day 5 - Pursat
Who turned the oven on? Jo's comment on exiting the hotel. At 25 degrees and clear blue skies it should have been OK but at 34 degrees, cloud and humid, it felt pretty warm. All togged up in the latest cycling tops, folks assembled in front of the hotel for the group shot after that it was pretty straightford, out the gate turn right then left and follow this all the way to Pursat. National Highway 5 was the only way and we would be on this for 3 days. Battanbang was more prosperous than Siem Reap generating its wealth from agriculture and it took about 7km to leave its clutches and into the countryside, though as this was the highway, we never really left it. The ride was flat, very flat and getting hotter as the day progressed, however the road was in good condition thanks to loans from the Asian Bank with an unmarked shoulder. Combine this with great courtesy from trucks and cars sounding their horns meant that the only real hazard were the motorbikes coming the wrong way along the shoulder. The road had the usual mix of so many found in Asia. Hundreds of roadside stalls, plenty of cattle and children shouting hello from all directions. It did though have differences. Most highways have a petrol station every so often, this road had a modern 3 pump set up every couple of kilometers, the majority empty of anything. This may have been due to the majority of small stores selling the stuff out of 2 litre Pepsi bottles glinting yellow in the sun. The 40% poverty rate was pretty difficult to spot aside the stuffed trailers and cars with folk hanging onto all sorts of area. Channy our guide had a system and it worked well. He’d ask the bus to stop every 20km and at my bequest somewhere people could sit and we could refill on water, bananas and nuts together with anything else the location sold. We'd also obtained T Bags as I'd noticed that nobody had them and everyone loved a brew so that worked really well. As the day worked past 30km the group of 14 split into 2. The boys were at the front, in a peloton and unbelievable arrived after 5 1/2 hours at Purset having covered 108km. so they had loads of time in the pool. The rest of us pottered along. Pottering meant just that. Cycle at 14mph then stop frequently for drinks. The best of the day was a roadside stop. Its attraction was a huge woven leafed canopy and coconuts in view. We spent an hour in here hiding from the midday sun. Their specialty was to hack green coconuts down to the white flesh, with a machete leaving a white sack filled with coconut milk, which they'd freeze for passers by
Day 6 - Kampong Chhnang
Leaving the air-conditioned bliss of the room was hard as the heat hit you. Breakfast was a touch sparten for Western tastes, omelette and toast for me then. Out and left along highway 5 with 96km in store. We were in rural Cambodia, but as this was the only tarmacked road, we had little choice but to stay on it along with the buses, trucks and motorbikes. with a hard packed shoulder to use and horns to warn of approach it felt pretty safe as we trundled further south in temperatures that would touch 38 degrees. Road life is always interesting and today it was seeing just how much you could pack into a vehicle. Tailboards and roofs were for sitting and I counted 20 people get out of one landcruiser with pots, pans and a motorbike strapped to the back. We had 5 planned stops in all. In each case we took over a roadside stop, the bus driver would bring out the biscuits, nuts and bananas, ask the stop to brew water and make tea and we'd arrive to swing on the hammocks, sit on the chairs and buy any other delights. This would include rifling through the big orange bins filled with ice, water and various cans or trying the local delicacy, be this coconuts or sugar cane. It seems to work, there are literally hundreds of stops along the road and Channy tips them as well, so the local economy benefits. With a can at 50 cents US and average income at $2 a day, we are helping. Nothing of note on the route, just a hot flat road, but as we approached Kompang Chhang hills appeared to the right and there was the odd incline. We finished the day about 1530, sat under the air con and tried to stay hydrated. Dinner in the hotel was really good, Cambodian food is a revelation, stir fries with fresh veg, soups with fish and veg are the norm, but chicken fish and duck add interest and we're all getting 5 a day!!
Day 7 - Phnom Penh
After 2 days on the National Highway it was time for a change, so we headed out from the hotel and onto route 53 that headed to the west of the main highway, but promised to be a lot quieter. Passing a house with children underneath, Channy told me it was a school; all it was, was a couple of tables in the open space under the building. Route 53 was an improvement, almost no traffic and intermittent good views to the right. A small lake was being fished out, all I could see in a net were small slivers of silver, nothing of any size at all. The road gradually climbed which was a novelty and we stopped at a roadside stop to figure out how to fix Jacks seat bolt that had snapped. Much searching of the bus and local houses solved the problem.Through a small town and we went left along a short stretch of tarmac that turned into a dirt road. Hard packed it was good to cycle allow as the stones cracked under the wheels. Numerous children in school uniform out on bikes (are they ever in school?) We veered right and left, crossed a disused railway line until we arrived at another roadside stop with a sugar cane crusher and pints of tea. To make sugar cane juice take a metre length of sugar cane, pass it through a mangle powered by a wheel akin to a boat, then fold it, do it again, refold (it's getting harder now) and keep mangling. If you're rich, use an engine but doing it yourself adds amusement. We bore right along a wide red road, passing cars chucked up dust as we headed east to rejoin highway 5. Due to the red road we didn't have time to see the palaces at Oodonk and as we approached the outskirts of Phnom Pehn the road disintegrated into a quagmire of earth movers, workmen and dust as the highway was being re-laid. Thought had obviously gone into this a rather than do a small section at a time the authorities had chosen to simply rip up a 15 mile section 2 years ago and relay it. Stopping the coach after 5 miles, all except 7 hardy souls climbed in, whilst the rest of us dodged the traffic and potholes as we followed the river into the centre. Sonny was clearly a little nervous as for all his previous tours he simply wouldn't be doing this preferring the bus option, so he took to the front to guide us through. With a cheer from he rest we arrived, safe and sound, looking like coal miner but glad we'd done it. We dined at the restaurant opposite, lovely food and a pool that you could swim in given he choice.
Day 10 - Takao
Our morning destination was Choeung Ek Genocide Centre or as it's better known he killing fields. It was the final destination of the school turned prison that we had seen the day before. Trucks of 30 would arrive 2-3 times a week and the poor unfortunates were catalogued and ankle tied in a double walled wooden shed to be led a very short distance to kneel over a pit and basically bludgeoned to death with any implement that came to hand, from bamboo canes to wheel axles, bullets were deemed too expensive. Throughout revolutionary songs were played to drown out the cries. After 3 years an estimated 3000 people were killed here and this was only one of 300 throughout Cambodia. In the centre a memorial had been erected and within this were the skulls bones and clothing reclaimed from the burial mounds that were found later. No building survived as post Pol Pot it was all torn down for other uses. Akin to Belson it made you wonder about mans inhumanity, and clearly Khymer Rouge fighters from the East thought so too as they turned on this and 150 were beheaded and buried as an example. What made me think was the lack of retribution. The commander had been found by a journalist a few years ago and he'd be tried and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a comfy bed and good food, as our guide yesterday had said out of the corner of his mouth. Onwards and southwards, the road as being repaired and there were lovely concrete sections in between the potholes and dusty areas and gradually the traffic subsided and the views got better, so by 50km it was almost quiet. 76km later we arrived in Takao, looped around the boulevard to be greeted with green paddy fields a complete change after the dried out ones to his point.it was only 1400 so Jo and I ambled over to he corner restaurant, clambered onto a raised platform and struggled with the menu. Fortunately a visitor from Phnom Pehn had her 11 year old with her, so he translated a few things and we had delicious rice with prawny bit in it washed down with a coke. The day ended with a wander round he market. Fish in pots, eels in tin dishes it was all here, though I did feel sorry for the fish as they were tied together still alive to have their fins and noses cut of before hey had a chance to expire, guess they were fresh.
Day 10 - Kep
Set off retracing our route out of Takao. Green had finally arrived and the paddy fields were lovely next to the waterway. Turning the corner my back tyre went flat and even though I was helped by the bus driver, I lost the group. With the flat terrain loosing even a few minutes means a couple of miles of hard pedaling to catch up. Turned out I needed a day trip in the bus as felt a touch queasy this day. The last part of the ride was along the coast, marked by a huge white horse on a plinth folks headed west towards Kep on a wide red dirt road. Through a small village we passed a French bakery, now if only I was feeling better, and onto one of the new Chinese rods that ran along the seafront. We finished at the beachhouse. A really lovely accommodation building opposite a man made beach.
Day 11 - Kampot
I'd suggested the previous evening that we visited Rabbit Island, after all other holiday companies flagged it in their brochures so must be good. The bus dropped us at the dock and we clambered aboard a long boat with an even longer prop shaft leading to a tiny propeller. The engines are always a source of amazement, no covers so you can see the belts spinning away as we were driven through the blue ocean waters waving at other boats doing the trip. Boat 16 arrived and we disembarked to a scene not dissimilar to a backpacker get away. The shore was lined with palm covered houses in front of which were numerous small restaurants interspersed with all a backpacker would require, a selection of massage tables, a shop that sold nothing but cigarettes and sprits with a lonely box of tea bags and of course the ubiquitous volley ball net. For some they got no further than the cafe, it was that kind of place.. For others it was a trip along he coast for a spot of exploration. The reward was a long beach lined with coconut trees and a warm warm sea. Back at the cafes we regrouped, supped a smoothie, mango was a favourite and waited the return trip, from a little spot of paradise aside the litter round the edges. Back on the bikes, we headed for Sothy's Farm, a local grower of Kampot Pepper. SE Asia and especially Vietnam who produce 37% of it is an important producer of this spice. Growing on a creeper that takes 4 years to mature and has a productive life of 20. It is farmed in shaded areas but allowing the plant to climb 3 metre high poles. Pepper is produced throughout the year, but peaks in April and each strand produces about 30 peppercorns hat are individually picked off. Typically for Cambodia, where food isn't wasted, the stalks are used for making tea. We arrived at Kampot separately, as usual I was at the back taking pictures and followed the gpx trace along the very Westernized waterfront with exercise machines and young Cambodians cruising on scooters. Channy took the rest via the scenic centre.The accommodation was a backpacker paradise. A central reception area with sofas and fans surrounded by 3 bedroomed cabins scattered along the riverside. We ate by the river to the chug of the occasional boat.
Day 12 - Sihanoukville
Final day on the road heading for Sihanoukville on the south west corner of Cambodia. Signs of the coastal network started appearing on the left side of Highway 3, where bridges crossing inlets revealed bustling harbors full of fishing boats.Onto highway 4 and the road got a little busier, however the shoulder remained wide, so if you could spot a truck all you had to do was move right. Phil and I peeled of left into a religious complex in the throws of construction. 3 years into the build and 10 to go, 2 temples were built and workmen were hewing Buddha’s out of stone with little more than chisels and angle grinders.Sonny had one final trick up his sleeve. At the base of our one and only major hill on the whole trip, we veered left onto a narrow red road that rapidly widened into a 6 laned carriageway of red dirt that the Chinese were clearing to run a new road to our destination. After a few kilometres it veered crazily right then left and it climbed steeply over a col and I wondered how future trucks would manage, but for now all we had to worry about was the digger and watering vehicle that turned the road to a sticky residue that made cycling pretty tough. Down the other side and into the resort town of Sihanoukville. It had stated as a small port town but in the past 5 years had exploded into a resort town full of bars, beaches and casinos and frankly we could have been anywhere from Spain to Greece. The day ended at the Cambodian Resort and we dined on the beach surrounded by partying gap students, fireworks and lanterns floating skywards.
Day 13/14 – Sihanoukville and Phnom Pehn
The holiday was starting to turn into a series of boat trip. The difference today was the boat was yellow rather than green. Grub introduced himself as the captain and explained that we were going to cruise across the bay for a snorkel , stop at another island for lunch and then a last snorkel before returning to the port (more like a jetty) So it was away to Deer Island, bought by the Chinese who were financing the roads. The sky was blue and we were anticipating a reef full of brightly coloured coral. Into the water for a half hour and the coral was grey and didn't look particularly healthy, however this belied the true situation as porites coral is ubiquitous here that has a stone grey appearance and the numerous fish seemed to like it. The next island was akin to the beach, 3 boats of tourists had been dropped on the white sand including one double decker affair. Most had gone for the deck chairs at 75 cents a piece and seemed to while their time away chatting or taking selfies with the occasional dip in the warm South China Sea. There was a small break so I bodysurfed, whilst others sat about in the shade or swam. Back on the boat we headed for the second snorkeling point where the coral was in slightly better shape. I chatted with Grub as we headed back to port. He had 2 jobs, by day he crewed the boat, by night he was a cashier at a local restaurant. The resort was changing. in the past few years’ islands were being leased to Russians and Chinese over 99 years and building was testament to this on the ones we passed. The sea was also rising and from the boat you could see the narrow strip of beach along the seafront development. Development was also coming. 2 families owned the majority of land behind the beach and slowly hotels were being built. The Chinese loved to gamble and this may be the future. We mused over all inclusive resorts providing nothing for the local economy and once again I realized just how good cycle touring was for the local economy, effectively drip feeding the places we passed with dollars.Our final day was re-exploring Phnom Pehn, a grand dance show and a farewell dinner.