We decided to travel to Battambang (from Siem Reap) by ferry. It was an opportunity to experience some of the floating villages that are dotted around Tonlé Sap lake. Whilst we have met other touring cyclists who would feel like they are 'cheating' if they ever take an alternative form of transport, Ash and I liberated ourselves from that restrictive way of thinking long ago! We want to experience as many positive things as possible during our time away. It's not some Bear Grylls challenge....it's quite simply a really long and most excellent holiday!
The five hour journey didn't disappoint as the narrow-boat that we were crammed into, weaved it's way through the lake, river and flooded farmland. Just one week before we arrived, the streets of Battambang (and surrounding area) had been badly hit by flooding. Ten crocodiles had also escaped from a nearby farm, which would have made the situation a little more interesting! Fortunately, by the time we arrived, flood water had abated and crocodiles nowhere to be seen.
The highlight of our two day stop here was the Cambodian Cookery class that we attended. We were the only participants which made it even more special. On arrival, we were transported by motorbike to the bustling Central Market, where we bought the ingredients for the two dishes that we had chosen to prepare. Fresh vegetables, herbs, spices and fish were packed onto the bike and we headed back to the Smokin' Pot restaurant to start cooking! We prepared the Khmer classic: Fish Amok and a beef dish with basil and morning glory. Both were amazingly fragrant and tasty and we left with full bellies having enjoyed the experience massively!
From Battambang, we headed south to the capital city Phnom Penh. The three day cycle was blissfully enjoyable with flat, paved roads and plenty of friendly people greeting us with waves and smiles! On one day, we came across a (good natured) student demonstration causing a blockade on our road but, unlike the cars, we were allowed to continue amid cheers, beard stroking and I even got my bum whipped with some palm fronds...lucky me! The density of traffic increased as we approached the city and whilst it didn't detract from our enjoyment, we did meet another touring cyclist who'd earlier been knocked off his bike by a motorcyclist. We've found that cycling confidently and trying to make eye contact with fellow road users has kept us safe and our 'take-a-look' rear view mirrors help us keep an eye on approaching vehicles.
I really like Phnom Penh. It is surprisingly developed and the river front is a particularly nice place to stroll around, with an ice cold sugar cane juice in hand. There are impressive temples, museums and palaces as well as thriving markets and modern shopping malls.
Just like Laos, Cambodia has been a wonderful country to visit. The people are incredibly friendly and kind, the scenery is beautiful, the food delicious and there is are so many interesting historical sites to visit. Cambodia's recent history has been turbulent to say the least. The devastation caused by the Khmer Rouge during their 3 years, 8 months and 20 days reign of terror was something that Ash and I had little knowledge about before we arrived. We knew that 'bad stuff' had happened and Pol Pot was a pretty evil bloke, but that was (shamefully) about the depth of our understanding! We decided to educate ourselves a little and read a book called "First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung: a harrowing, real life account of the atrocities committed in Cambodia (1975 - 1979) from the perspective of a five year old girl. It's a fantastically written book, but one that will break your heart at the appalling way in which people were dehumanised and subjected to the most unimaginable conditions. It is estimated that the acts of genocide resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million people, which represents almost 25% of the entire population at the time.
Being the capital, Phnom Penh has several 'attractions' dedicated to that period. The Tuol Sleng genocide museum is one that we decided to visit. It is the site of a former security prison known as S-21, where suspected 'enemies' of the Khmer Rouge regime were interrogated, tortured and ultimately sent to the nearby 'killing fields' to their death. It was a very sobering place to visit and as we wandered through the the sparsely furnished rooms and cells, thousands of photos were on display, showing frightened and confused faces which really hit home the reality and tragic waste of life that this period of history represents.
The country is recovering and rebuilding much faster than it has taken for some of the perpetrators of the genocide to be brought to justice...of the five senior figures put to trial only as recently as 2007, only one has been sentenced to life imprisonment. One has died, one is now suffering from dementia and two are still under trial. I'm sorry, but sometimes the law is an ass! How long can it take to convict these monsters when the evidence is seemingly overwhelming?!
Education in Cambodia is developing thanks especially to a number of volunteer projects and charities. We chatted with a teacher in Battambang who had set up an English school in a rural community where career options for young people are extremely limited. We promised we'd post the information about his project in our blog, so here it is. Please take time to have a look: www.brick-for-cambodia.net.
After leaving Phnom Penh, we headed East towards the Thai border. The road was generally good, but we decided to take just two days to reach the border town of Koh Kong. The first day of 160km was actually quite easy! A constant tail wind enabled us to maintain an average speed of 20.7kph and we arrived at Srae Ambel tired but far from shattered. The second day didn't quite go according to plan! The quality of the road was variable and on one one stony section, I managed to rip a 1cm long gash in my tyre (the 'quality' CST Chinese one that we'd only replaced the Schwalbe with in Phnom Penh!) and it required plenty of gaffer tape to prevent the inner tube from escaping! We stopped for lunch and realised that the delay would mean our arrival in Koh Kong would be in darkness...not a massive problem, but certainly not ideal given the unpredictable nature of the road! We set of after eating, only to find that I had another flat tyre...in fact it was the same puncture, but we'd missed it with the previous patching job...d'oh! So, slightly flustered, we carried on along the undulating road and, as darkness fell, the heavens opened and a heavy rain storm drenched us! I actually was pretty grateful for the relief from the heat and the rain helped to wash the sweat and grime from my skin! Our headlights are pretty ineffective and with rain-splattered glasses, I was pretty much cycling blind...even more so when cars approached and their headlights turned my vision into a million bright stars! It was quite funny and every now and then, I'd hit an unexpected pot hole or come across an area of road which was a mud bath and required a dismount and careful navigation by foot! Things don't always go according to plan and you can either get frustrated and pissed off (which achieves nothing other than making you feel crappy and increasing the depth of your frown lines) or accept the things you have no power to change, smile and get on with it. I choose the latter and life is so much the better for it!
We arrived around 7pm...shattered...and checked into a guesthouse that was recommended in Lonely Planet...dumped our bags in the room and went off in search of food. We noticed that the room smelt a bit funny, but we've stayed in many rooms with odd smells over the course of this trip, so it didn't perturb us too much. On returning, I went to the bathroom to have a shower and noticed hundreds of big, juicy maggots crawling over the floor and walls. I think the smell was coming from the restaurant next door and whatever they'd left to decompose in the street was riddled with the little critters who had decided to check out our bathroom too! I know we probably smell hideous after a day cycling, but I hope we don't smell as bad as a decomposing carcass?! I was too tired to care, so simply took off my glasses so that everything became a blur and got on with cleaning myself!
The following day saw us make the short trip to the Thai border and provided us with our first view of the sea in over four months. For someone who has been lucky to live close to the seaside for all my life, it has been a massive void for me not having it at close proximity. I find the coast soothing and relaxing but at the same time energising and uplifting. Walking barefoot on a sandy beach with the sounds of the waves breaking on the shore is the single place where I am happiest and feel most at ease.
The first night, we stayed in the small fishing village of Ban Mai Rut. We were the only guests at the Mairood Resort and treated marvellously. They are used to hosting touring cyclists and were quick to fill all our water bottles with chilled water and bought us a complimentary beer to cool us down! Our bungalow, set amongst mangrove trees, was a wonderful retreat from the heat and humidity and the swimming pool did wonders for our aching leg and back muscles! Dinner and breakfast were amazingly delicious and we reluctantly left the following morning with the best possible first impression of Thailand.
In many ways, Thailand offers a level of comfort and familiarity that we have not experienced since we left Western Europe. Convenience stores (7-eleven) are everywhere, Tesco supermarkets seem equally as common and the roads are as good as anything we've experienced on this trip. Every town appears to have really thriving markets, where cheap and fresh produce is available and deliciously cheap meals are aplenty (although at times too spicy for me!). Accommodation has been reasonably priced: we have spent between 300-600 Baht (£6-£12) for a room. The upper end of the scale is usually in a seaside resort and comes with air conditioning. When it comes to food, we tend to sniff out the night markets, where a portion of food with rice will usually cost around 40 Baht (80p). On our budget, the markets are a wonderful place to eat. In some of the seaside towns that we've stayed, a simple restaurant meal will cost 150-200 baht which, whilst still cheap, is too expensive for us. Tesco is also wonderful! They sell pre-cooked rice with egg and salad for 10 baht (20p), delicious chocolate or banana loaf cakes for around 26 baht (50p) and bags of bananas for 19 baht (40p). As much as we'd like to support local traders and eat traditional Thai food all the time, our budget dictates otherwise. We don't feel that we are missing out and our bodies are grateful to be receiving more calories per day than we've been able to consume for a long time!
We are currently working our way slowly along the coast, towards Bangkok. Some of the places that we've stayed have been as picture perfect as we could have wished for: quiet sandy beaches to stroll along, warm sea to swim in, palm trees to laze beneath whilst watching fishermen working hard to supply the local restaurants. Unspoilt by noisy bars, discos or fast food outlets...perfect!
I can totally understand why people come here on holiday and never return home!
Love and hugs. X