Cambodia is a beguiling country. You’re confronted with abject poverty and yet, the people are incredibly welcoming. Smiling children sprint to stand by the road and enthusiastically yell “HELLO” at the tops of their voices.
We started in Phnom Penh where we stayed two nights at the perfectly lovely La Maison d’Ambre, a relatively new hotel just a few blocks from the riverfront. Our room was quaintly called “In the Mood for Love” (we didn’t see one called “In the Mood for a Fight” but who knows?).
We ventured out to the waterfront immediately, sipping on stupidly cheap cocktails whilst watching the locals go through their aerobics routines on the riverbank. On the way back to the hotel, we passed through a local market and Gav decided, in his infinite wisdom (and with a fair slice of brazen bravado) to try some barbequed chicken. Literally, chickens were turning on a little rotisserie over some glowing coals on this guy’s cart. The smallest note we had was US$20 and the guy immediately grabbed it and bolted away. We waited and waited, wondering if we’d actually been taken for a ride (and so early in our trip!) and speculated about whether we could eat $20 worth of the chicken he’d left roasting on his cart. Eventually he came back with a fist full of change. Gav declared the chicken delicious (and suffered no ill effects!)
We had one full day in Phnom Penh and spent it being ferried around by an ever smiling tuk-tuk driver. He took us to the Russian Market where we ate bowls of noodle soup and fresh spring rolls. Then he took us to the killing fields memorial – yet another reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. The Pol Pot regime resulted in the murders of three million Cambodians, and for some of them their “crimes” were to wear glasses or have soft hands. Truly mind boggling.
Our driver then took us (well, Gav mainly) to a shooting range where he fired a heavy artillery machine gun, because he could. We had the option of going to a mountain and firing a grenade launcher for US$350. I put my foot down on that one. Sometimes, you just have to draw the line.
The next day we were up early to start the real adventure. Cycling through the Cambodian countryside on the West Tonle Sap Trail with Grasshopper Adventures. Our driver (whose name I never found out. Our guide told us it was Mr Mobitel, so that’s what we called him, although it seems unlikely it’s his real name!) drove us through the early morning rush – thankfully, I might add. I can’t imagine there is any joy in pedalling nervously through peak hour traffic belching fumes in your face. We pulled into the grounds of a quiet temple and climbed aboard our bikes for the first time.
Immediately, we were riding on quiet paths between rice paddies and fields. Locals on bicycles and scooters looked on curiously as we trundled past. We stopped for fresh coconut juice (still in the coconut, naturally) from a girl who had a small stall by the road. She hacked into the coconut with a big machete-looking knife before popping a straw into it and presenting it with a small flourish. Small children looked on with big eyes. A twenty-something guy stood tall, smiled a toothless grin and gestured to me to take his picture. We passed through villages, watched as a couple of blokes tried to fish by electrocution (a fairly ill-advised measure, I would assume), walked our bikes through a large puddle, and watched workers toiling in the rice paddies.
After a 55km ride, we reached Oudong Mountain, where we ate lunch at a local rest stop. It was a decent spread of Khmer food, lustily served up by the ever-smiling Mr Mobitel, who showed us how to use the various different condiments. The combination of salt, pepper and lime juice was unexpectedly delicious.
In typical bumbling fashion, whilst trying to take off the cycling knicks I had under my regular shorts, I managed to fling my iphone into the squat toilet. Yep. I know. And yes, I did hesitate for just a moment before fishing it out. I’m trying not to think about the grossness. Miraculously, it still works. Although I’m a bit reluctant to touch it.
After lunch, we climbed Oudong Mountain, which is actually just a hill. There are over 500 steps and monkeys eye you suspiciously as you ascend. At the top is a temple, of course, and a spectacular view of the countryside that we had just ridden through. Endless rice paddies stretching out all around us, with clusters of small houses dotted around and small plumes of smoke dancing across the horizon.
We stopped that night in Kampong Chanang. It’s really just a small provincial centre, with quite basic accommodation, but the highlight was a trip through the floating village at sunset onboard a very small local wooden boat. The locals were cooking dinner, bathing children, or relaxing in hammocks but waved and smiled as we glided by. We watched two dogs fighting in a boat, both ultimately ending up in the water and having to swim to safety. A cat slept uninterrupted on a wooden stair.
Day two of our cycling adventure saw us riding out of Kampong Chanang into the countryside. We rode along gravel roads with paddy fields and palm trees surrounding us. Cows flicked their ears disinterestedly as we pedalled past. We stopped at a village where they make pottery to watch the women whip up a pottery piggy bank in the blink of an eye. Gav had a go at the foot powered pottery wheel and failed miserably. Across the road, we watched the process of making palm sugar and tasted some out of a huge pottery storage vessel. It was almost fudge-like in its sweetness.
As we rode on, we spotted a huge pink marquee in another village. Our guide Artie asked us if we’d like to go to a wedding. WOULD WE EVER! So, feeling somewhat underdressed, we kicked off our shoes and climbed the stairs into a little bamboo house. Music was playing loudly and a crowd of family and friends watched on as the guests gave gifts of money to the couple. The bride and groom were dressed exquisitely, but looked somewhat grim. Clearly, getting married is a serious business. With much encouragement from the other guests, we stepped forward and placed our 10000 riel note (it’s about $2.50) onto the plate, posed for photos, tied a piece of red string around their wrists and flicked water over their heads with a small bamboo brush. Apparently we were wishing them good luck and prosperity. It was a truly memorable moment.
We drove the rest of the way to Battambang, before climbing back on the bikes to ride through the streets of this quaint colonial town. There is considerable French influence here, and the ride along the river was lovely. We were headed for the bamboo train, where small bamboo platforms powered by electric engines hurtle along a section of track for about 7km carrying vaguely terrified (yet exhilarated) passengers like us. Occasionally, someone would be coming the other way, which necessitated one of the bamboo platforms to be simply lifted from the tracks (which gave you a great appreciation of how flimsy the thing was).
At the end, there’s really only a collection of stalls selling pretty much the same things (we bought a t-shirt and drank from a couple of coconuts), before we piled back on our platform and hurtled back to the beginning again.
Apparently, the bamboo trains were originally used by thieves, who pushed bamboo platforms along the existing rails with poles at night and stole animals from the fields, which is genius really.
After a very pleasant ride back into Battambang, we headed out to a local restaurant for dinner. We had some delicious dishes – chicken with cashews, chilli pork and vegetables, a chicken and mint salad, a curry of some sort. It was all lovely. Until about midnight when I was violently ill. There really is nothing worse than being sick when on holidays. I suffered for about 15 horrible hours. You’ll be pleased to know there is no photographic evidence.
I skipped the riding the following morning (and judging by the pictures of Gav holding up live snakes, I’m quite glad about that) and had to haul myself together to get on the bus in the afternoon for the drive to Siem Reap. I was, to put it nicely, a little delicate.
By the time we got to Siem Reap, though, things were starting to look up. I was feeling markedly better. Our hotel was lovely. The weather was mild. The sad thing was that this was the end of this little tour. We waved goodbye to our guide Artie and our driver Mr Mobitel.
It was time for the next part of our adventure to begin.