Riel-y dusty cycling in Cambodia

Leaving Bangkok we had acquired a third wheel to our group – Greg, who we first met in California and then saw again in New Zealand. He had been cycling in Thailand and also planned to go to Cambodia so we joined forces and two became three. Riding out of Bangkok was as horrible as riding in, but not for as long. We we keen to get there as fast as possible so took a direct route, following flat, quiet highways for two days to the Cambodia border. It wasn’t particularly interesting, although on the second day we stopped early as a storm was forecast, we could see it coming as we pedalled madly back to the hotel after lunch and as we were riding a lightening strike hit a lamppost at the side of the road. We don’t mind a bit of rain (though can also often be found sheltering from it) but lightening is pretty scary so we were pleased to have stopped early and have plenty of time for speed scrabble. This was Gregs stag do so we even had an extra mango and went wild.

Leaving Bangkok

If crossing from Malaysia to Thailand was like Switzerland to Italy, Thailand to Cambodia was like Montenegro to Albania. It was like entering a new world. A crazy, noisy, dusty one. We rode up to the border past a queue of big trucks that was at least 2km long, and were stamped out of Thailand along with people pushing hand carts packed as high as possible with goods. When I think of no mans land – the piece of land between exiting one country and entering another – I often imagine a barren, empty wasteland. And I’m sure that what it is usually like. It was in Europe anyway. But not here. As soon as you are out of Thailand the craziness begins. People are selling things from the back of motorbikes, tuk tuk drivers touting for custom, the road was packed with traffic and people. Throw in the complication that Thailand drive on the left and Cambodia on the right and you have 500m of chaos. Getting into Cambodia was fairly straightforward, we already bought visas online to save one of my few free passport pages so we just had to queue with the bus passengers to be stamped in. Strangely many of them seemed to be slipping notes over the desk with their passports and then giggling when they exited the building – maybe it’s some kind of “backpacker must do” in SE Asia to give a bribe but we didn’t bother and all was fine.

No photos inside no mans land, but I took a sneaky one


I stood with the bikes while Debs and Greg went to sort SIM cards which took at least as long as the immigration process. In that time I saw a load of cows crossing the road between traffic, a side road that was actually a river so people were wading or driving through, lots of litter, and a lady carrying several trays of eggs balanced on her head. Kids came up to the bikes and played with the flags. It was just after lunch by now and it was extremely hot, the riding wasn’t too nice as the road was dusty and trucks would spit a nice mixture of exhaust fumes and dust as they sped past. The landscape was much more barren than Thailand, no trees, so no shade, which seemed to add to the heat. We stopped at one place for a fizzy drink but could only see beer or water. It was great to see schoolkids riding home on bikes. One size bike fits all in Cambodia, so there were some small kids on really big bikes. The other great thing was how excited every child seemed to be to see us. Every single one would shout hello and wave, sometimes we couldn’t even see them so just had to shout back in a general direction. Kids here seemed to have the biggest grins ever, their whole faces beamed as they waved.

Sharing the road

We made it 50km to the next big town, Sisophan, checked into a guesthouse for the princely sum of $10 for an en suite air con room, and walked to the night market. We soon discovered that the people of Sisophan do not walk. We were the only ones trying to dodge the mopeds. Getting our first meal was a bit of a challenge, we found a stall with vegetables on display, asked for vegetables, and were told no. The same happened at the next one, but we were pointed next door. First we were offered beer, but then finally got a yes for vegetables. As the cooking started Debs had her usual peanut panic (they like to sneak them into dishes in Asia), went over to check there were no nuts going in and was asked “do you want cigarettes?” Wherever food is served, even if it’s the smallest cart, there’ll be cigarettes for sale too.

Impressive temple entrances

It took a while to get to grips with the money in Cambodia. The official currency is the riel but dollars are also accepted and commonly used for anything over $5. So if you buy anything for less than a dollar, you use riel, anything over a dollar you can use either, or a combination if you wish. Equally you might get your change in either or both. It’s 4000 riel to the dollar, so if something is $1.50, and you pay with $2, you’ll get 2000 riel change. If you pay with $5 you’ll get either $3 and 2000 riel or 14000 riel or something in between. It is very confusing and impressive how well everyone here knows their 4000 times table. I still didn’t really get it when we left the country. It does mean that for ease, a lot of things seem to be $1, which makes a fried noodle and egg dinner from a food cart a great deal.

Never a dull moment

The next day was another early start for the hot 100km ride to Siem Reap. Our main reason for visiting Cambodia was to see the Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, probably our only ‘must-see’ sight in Asia. The highway remained hot and dusty but the waves and hellos continued. It’s hard to get bored here even on a highway because there is so much going on alongside it. It’s not like riding on the A1. This is the only road in this area so people live by it, trade by it, go to school on it, travel on it by whatever means. You’d hear a slow moving vehicle behind and wait to see what overtook you, or more interestingly, what it was carrying. These guys deserve and award for innovation in what can be carried just using a motorbike. Trucks went past piled high with mattresses, tables, melons, people, live pigs, you name it, it can be carried. People would sit on the top of whatever was being carried on the back. Families squeezed onto mopeds. With that and all the waving, and being alert for cows or goats wandering across the road, the miles flew by.


Approaching Siem Reap, everything changed. Posh hotels started emerging, the litter decreased, and we joined a well kept road with a line of trees in the middle. This was clearly a place designed for people to come and spend money, and it couldn’t look less like the Cambodia we had spent the last two days riding through. Kids stopped shouting and waving. Western chain restaurants, coffee shops, and nice bars lined the roads in. It was all quite surreal. It seemed like it had just been transplanted into its surroundings, a bit like when you drive into Las Vegas. We spent a day relaxing and wandering around the sights, of which there are practically none, because people come here to go to Angkor Wat. We actually got a bit uncomfortable being surrounded by all of this money in a country where so many people live in poverty. Even in Siem Riep there are people so thin they can hardly move, laying down opposite a coffee shop where a cappuccino costs enough to feed a family for a day. I don’t know what the answer is as the town and Angkor Wat brings in a huge amount of money but it just made us very uncomfortable. And we were of course a part of it – we were there to visit the temples and we also bought postcards and fruit shakes. We even went to a (non-fancy) coffee kiosk, where Debs was surprised to be offered breast milk in her coffee. I suggested it was more likely to be fresh milk. Panic over. This place isn’t that weird.

Angkor Wat at sunset

The next morning we joined the hoards of people at the main Angkor Wat temple for sunrise. It was a special sight, only slightly tarnished by the number of tourists sitting on areas you are not supposed to, brandishing selfie sticks and complaining loudly about how tired they are after flying in from Chang Mai the day before. We found Angkor Wat the least impressive temple to actually walk round, and soon moved on to Ta Phrom, the temple that has been left to be consumed by trees and was used in the film Tomb Raider. Seeing the trees simultaneously push apart and hold together walls and other parts of the temple was amazing. It made it more atmospheric, and it was hard not to be impressed at the power of nature to overtake the buildings. Having the bikes was great as we could just ride around between the temples, we also visited the other of the ‘top 3’, Bayon, and stopped at a few smaller ones that were just by the side of the road – we usually had these to ourselves. The heat got up and we realised how much harder it is to wander around than ride a bike in the afternoon sun so by 2 o’clock we were templed out and went back for a nap. It’s also very tiring being shouted at “hey, lady, buy trousers? Drink? Scarf?” and fending off the very cute but incredibly resilient children who surround you and try to sell you things. It’s so sad, these kids should be at school, and the first English they have been taught is how to ask for money. One was so small she couldn’t even form the words properly but she was saying “two for one dollar, three for one dollar” by using the same tone and rhythm as the (slightly) bigger kids. Anyone who manages to wander around from sunrise to sunset on the same day deserves a medal.

Angkor Wat at sunrise
Bayon. Spot the faces…
Looking down from Baphoun
Ta Phrom

Three became two again the next day as Greg carried on east towards Phnom Penh and we turned north to return to Thailand. After about 10km of Siem Reap outskirts we were back into small villages and children were back to smiling and shouting “hello” rather than “dollar”. We stopped for second breakfast at a table full of army men who gestured we sat down. Two of whatever they are having please, and we got two bowls of noodle soup. On the table were a few colanders with flowers in, nice table decoration we thought. There we were eating our soup when one of the military men came over and strongly suggested that the flowers were to go in the soup. Not wanting to argue with a man with a gun, Debs threw in a few stalks, only to be told (despite us not understanding the words, the meaning was clear) that the petals were the best bit. So in they went. I somehow got away with eating regular non-floral soup.

No those flowers are not a table decoration…

That day we passed through the most basic villages we had seen yet, and it was sad to see people living in such conditions. Wooden shacks were built on stilts, with streams of sewage and litter running underneath. There were many foreign aid signs. Kids were not at school. But the people kept smiling and waving. Our final destination was Anlong Veng, close to the border with Thailand, and winner of the most dusty town we visited award.

Basic wooden homes
Dusty Anlong Veng

A final dinner of fried noodles, vegetables and fried egg on top for $1 – we had grown used to these in our short time in Cambodia – fuelled us for a mean climb up to the border the next morning. Having ridden practically flat roads our whole time in Asia this was quite the challenge and we were dripping with sweat when we reached the very odd border town of Choam which was practically deserted apart from a few food and drink stalls. We spent our remaining riels on our first sugar cane juice, made by squeezing sugar cane through a mangle type piece of machinery. Leaving Cambodia couldn’t have been more different than entering – there was nobody else at the border so the Cambodian officer took his time inspecting every page of my passport at least three times before finally waving us through. Cambodia had been fun, but the thought of having trees to shade under and not being covered in dust every time a vehicle went past pleased us immensely.

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Cycling from the beach to Bangkok

Bangkok was 700kms away from Phra Thong. We thought it was about time we did some “proper riding” – covered some distance in the direction of home rather than just cruising around – so gave ourselves until the following Sunday to get there. Sundays are good days to arrive in cities by bike. Not that this made any difference with Bangkok as it turned out, but it was worth a try. 700km in 8 days would be tough in the heat, especially given that our average over the past few weeks had been around 50/day, but we were up for the challenge. 


The first couple of days helped, as the spacing of the big towns made our first two rides 110 and then 125km. After lifting the bikes and luggage off Mr Choi’s boat, getting some breakfast at the marina and being pointed and laughed at by a small Thai child it was 9am before we hit the road proper, and already el scorchio. It was an uneventful sweaty highway ride to Ranong, though the traffic was light. Finding food that evening was a bit more of a challenge than usual as the Ranong speciality seemed to be all-you-can-eat buffets, outside Asia we would jump at the chance of this for around £5 but when you can get a large, decent meal for £1 the buffet seemed pricey. We ended up at our usual favourite plastic table and chair type restaurant full of groups of Thais enjoying their Saturday night, not for the first time we walked in and sat down and watched the ladies working there look at each other in a “no, you go and talk to them” way, mentally playing a game of paper, scissors stone to see who has to go and try to understand what the white people want. The loser came over and helpfully showed us some pictures. We are fine with pictures, although a few chilli symbols to denote spice level might help.


We knew the 125km ride to Chumphon would be hilly as well as long, crossing the country from west coast to east coast (Thailand is very narrow at this point so it is not as impressive as it sounds. In fact it’s about 12km at its narrowest so it’s not impressive at all). The road skirts the Thai/Myanmar border for a while, so we could gaze over in a “look but don’t touch” way that seemed strange after cycling in Europe and crossing from country to country often without even realising. Most of the hills were early on in the day when it was still cool (which means 25 degrees here) so were easy enough other than the fact that Debs’ front derailleur didn’t like changing down to the lowest gear so she kept having to get off and do it by hand. After weeks of flat riding this was annoying timing. We hadn’t been kind to the bikes recently with all the boats and beaches, and we vowed to give them a good clean to get off the salt and sand. There wasn’t much to see other than a decent waterfall right by the road, we passed signs to other waterfalls but these are now one thing we do not detour to see – without wishing to sound like Tony, we’ve seen loads, and it takes something big to impress us now. Oh there was something to see, pork bun alley. It’s fascinating here how you can pass stands and stands of vendors selling exactly the same thing at exactly the same price, presumably due to availability of produce. We’ve ridden past pineapple alley, watermelon alley, dried fish in baskets alley, kite alley, large ornamental rooster alley, salt alley (see below), but pork bun alley might have been the most impressive. We passed maybe 45 of exactly the same stalls on both sides of the road selling steamed pork buns, easily identifiable by the massive steamers (and the identical red signs). There’s no diversification in product or pricing. How they can all make any money we have no idea. Do locals have their favourite stand? How do they choose? We picked one at random and ate 5 between us, that will have tasted exactly the same as their business rivals next door. 


From Chumphon we were riding up the east coast to Bangkok and got into a good rhythm of riding early, stopping for food mid-morning, snacking on whatever was available (unfortunately pork bun alley didn’t stretch this far so those were off the menu) and finishing up some point in the afternoon at a beach town. These towns were usually small and mainly frequented by Thais at the weekend so mid-week were quiet with nice, empty beaches.


 There was a definite holiday feel to our evenings that you don’t get away from the beaches, with a few Westerners on holiday drinking beer as the sun set, kids playing in the sand, locals parked up in their trucks and sitting on the beach eating a feast. As we had dinner in beach front restaurants and walked along the wide beaches it felt a bit like we were gatecrashing a different holiday every evening, having a similar experience in each town but with slightly different surroundings and people. It was easy to find small, perfectly smooth roads, often right by the sea, and even the odd cycle path. 


We had swapped west coast sunsets for east coast sunrises, which was fine with us as we could watch the sun rise over the sea as we started riding. Early morning cycling is really nice, it’s a chance to see people going about their day – people start early here and then mostly tend to be resting in hammocks by lunchtime. We shared the small roads with farmers going to work, kids riding to school on mopeds and monks doing their morning alms walk, collecting food from villagers who wait with their offerings in woven baskets. The first couple of times we rode past monks in their orange robes it was quite mesmerising but it soon became a normal part of early morning life in Thailand.


We had a great evening in Prachup Khiri Kahn as it seemed to be some kind of special event, we love a good night market and this was one of the best, there were fairground rides and everything. We had some great scenery as we rode through Sam Roi Yot National Park with its huge limestone cliffs. It’s quite amazing how you can ride through mountainous scenery like that on a totally flat road. Other than that it was just very pleasant riding. 


After the sleep, eat, ride repeat routine and not much else for a few days, we then had one day where so much happened it was hard to believe that it was all still the same day. After leaving our typical beach hut as the sun rose, we rode our 25,000th trip kilometre and then met some Malaysian cyclists who had stopped on the road by a wedding. It was 8am, and the party was in full swing. They suggested we go in and have breakfast with the guests. Even though we had only just made the most of a free toast breakfast at the hotel (8 slices each, they are only small…) we wanted to experience this and thought we could squeeze in an early second breakfast so accepted our invitation from someone who appeared to be in charge of the eating arrangements. We arrived just in time to see the bride and groom emerge from a room holding hands and having things thrown at them before going to the shrine to pray. We were very sweaty, the groom had definite beads on his forehead yet the bride looked as dry as a bone. Impressive. We were told to sit down in a marquee area and tuck in. There were two eating areas – one with people dressed smartly, and the other (where we were) with 150 seats at least where other people came and went. We were seated on a table of ladies who helpfully instructed us which order to eat things in and kept us topped up with water and coke to counter the spicy sauces. They didn’t seem to think it strange that two very sweaty women in cycling kit who couldn’t speak Thai had sat down at their table. This part of the wedding is very much a community affair, people came and had their breakfast and then went to work. A few looked to be making themselves more comfortable, particularly tables of men where the whisky bottles were already half empty. We left at 8.30am smiling at how things like this just happen out of nowhere. 


An hour later we passed a hill that you could walk up for good views of the coast, it looked shady so we thought it wouldn’t be too hard at that time in the morning. It wasn’t too hard, yet the humidity meant that by the time we had walked for half an hour we both looked like we had stepped right out of the shower fully clothed. Any thoughts of doing walks in the middle of the day were banished. This heat isn’t too bad for cycling as you create your own breeze, but we find walking or even standing in the full sun really uncomfortable. Back on the road we passed a park where Thailand really shows the love of its royals, with seven massive bronze statues of former kings towering over a beautifully sculptured park. We were in the Hua Hin area, a trendy beach resort for Bangkok residents and ex-pats as the royals have their summer palaces there. After riding through small, sleepy resorts with a scruffy charm, Hua Hin was a major assault on the senses – fancy malls, huge posh hotels and big highways to cater for all of the visitors. We had a great tailwind so flew through, stopping only at Tesco to stock up on a few essentials. Tesco was in one of the biggest, fanciest malls we had seen in Thailand, surrounded by Western chain restaurants and coffee bars selling food and drink at Western prices. We saw at least 8 middle-aged white men sitting on their own at a table with a beer. It’s a popular place for wealthy ex-pats to retire to, and after seeing so many beautiful, quiet places in Thailand we couldn’t help but wonder why you would want to move to what seemed to be a Western bubble that looked very little like Thailand to us. But, each to their own. 


Once past Hua Hin the coast became a bit less polished and we stopped for a late lunch at the less trendy beach town of Cha’am. There seemed to be a lot of kite sellers around, we were definitely in kite alley, but we just thought this was normal on such a windy stretch of coast. At the top part of the beach loads of cars were parked up. On investigating we found the beach to be fenced off and behind the fence, loads of huge, colourful kites in various animal shapes flying madly over the town. We had stumbled upon the Thailand International Kite Festival, music was playing and the crowds were gathering to admire the kites. It was pretty spectacular and we had a fun half an hour wandering around. We still wanted to do 100kms so rode on and found another beach town for our last night by the sea until we get back to Western Europe. We treated ourselves to a room with a view and took a walk along the beach. Were we really at a Thai wedding that morning?


From here to Bangkok was two days of increasingly busy roads. We had one morning of quiet roads left that wove through salt farms where we could watch the salt being piled up and collected and marvel at the early morning reflections on the pools. Unsurprisingly we then rode through salt alley, where stall after stall sold various sized bags of salt (all price matched of course). Then it was the highway all the way into the big smoke. It was horrible, busy, smoggy, loud and offensive for most of the way. At one point we were on a road with four lanes and a two lane frontage road on each side, so twelve lanes in total. After a night in a Bangkok satellite town (setting an alarm for 12.30am to watch Lincoln’s FA Cup match with Arsenal) we downgraded to a “smaller” six lane highway for the 40km ride to the city centre. This had a variable shoulder but it didn’t really matter because the lane closest to the outside, be it a lane or the shoulder, was a nightmare as it was used by various vehicles for driving, parking, pulling in to pick up/drop off passengers, and even for mopeds and the odd car to drive in the wrong direction so we were constantly pulling out into traffic. It was probably the worst riding we had done since Napoli and we were relieved to get to our Bangkok hotel for a couple of days off the bikes.


I’d like to say we spent our time in Bangkok wandering round the sights but apart from a morning visiting a couple of the more famous temples and taking a boat along the river, we were too tired to venture far from our hotel and it’s air conditioning unit. Bangkok was having a heatwave and wandering round was really unpleasant. Luckily we seemed to be on massage alley, there were at least ten massage parlours within a 50 metre radius so we treated ourselves to a Thai massage (only a massage) which was painful and amazing at the same time. The two women who did our massages were chatting away and laughing to each other, again we imagined the conversation as “wow have you seen these amazing leg muscles?! These girls are in great shape!” when they were probably saying “Jesus I have never known anyone to be this inflexible! And have you seen these ridiculous tan lines they have?” After an hour of being prodded, dug into with elbows, bent in ways we didn’t think we bent and being walked all over we emerged rejuvenated, more flexible (we could now lay flat on our backs with both shoulder blades on the floor, impressive huh?) and only slightly sore ready for the next leg – to Cambodia!