“Don’t go there! You’ll get robbed! Locals are unfriendly and aggressive!” This is more or less how people described Cambodia to us throughout our trip in South East Asia. Although it was never first-hand experiences but “someone I know told me” stories, we did approach the country on our last day in Laos feeling slightly concerned about the upcoming three weeks…

First we had to cross the border. Our friends Kate and Jason, who had entered the country at the same crossing a few days earlier, had warned us that we might have a few bribes to pay in order to get through. They also warned us that the scruffier we looked, the less we’d probably have to pay. We saw a rather grand looking building as we approached the border-point but soon realised that it was under construction and that the actual customs were situated behind the building in shabby-looking little houses. As expected the Laos border guard requested a two dollar fee for a stamp in each passport, which we managed to reduce to one dollar only. That money naturally went straight in his pocket and there was nothing we could do about it if we wanted our exit stamp, or even our passport back… We then had to pay a dollar each for a bogus temperature check on the Cambodian side but surprisingly the customs officer stamped our passports without a second glance and we were free to enter Cambodia. Maybe wearing our dirtiest and smelliest cycling gear was worth it after all!

CambodiaFirst kilometres in Cambodia. We have the road to ourselves

We cycle most of the day with Gunther, a German cycle-tourist who had been just ahead of us in the queue at the border, until we reached the town of Stung Treng. It was while having lunch in a street-side restaurant with Gunther that we discovered iced-coffee for the first time. Instead of hot coffee, Gunther had mistakenly been served a weird looking beverage, white at the bottom, brown in the middle and a layer of ice on top. Angela and I tried it and fell in love with it directly! Not too strong, rather sweet and very refreshing. It was soon to become our drink of choice whenever we stopped for a short break. We said goodbye to Gunther, for whom the 86km of the morning had just been a warm up (he averaged about 150km a day) and spent the rest of the day walking around town. The next dot on the map, Kratie, was 150km away with absolutely nothing in-between. With our camping gear already waiting for us in the southern hemisphere and not feeling like sleeping under the mosquito-net by the side of the road, we found and booked a minibus that was heading that way early in the morning the next day. In a typical South East Asian tradition, the guy at our hotel had promised that our 12-seater van was going to be empty but of course it ended up transporting about 17 people… We arrived in Kratie around noon, grabbed a quick lunch and iced-coffee and hopped on our bikes to cover some more ground in the afternoon. We followed the Mekong on a quiet and beautiful road, crossing many small villages and enjoying the imposing Buddhist temples and lush green rice plantations. After a night in Chhlong we pushed on towards Kampong Cham following the river again and along the way came across an unexpected sight in the centre of villages… Mosques! We hadn’t seen any in many months and observing the local women and men wearing the hijab and the Taqiyah reminded us of our time cycling in Turkey and Central Asia. We were presently in a region inhabited by the Cham people, an ethnic group descendant of the lost Champa Empire and a Muslim minority in a country where 96% of the population is Buddhist.

CambodiaWorking in the rice fields

CambodiaIced-coffee, our favorite drink!

CambodiaMosques in villages

CambodiaMuslim girls in a Cambodian village

Upon arriving in Kampong Cham we found a room in a hotel full of NGO workers and set off to explore the pleasant streets of the city. The most interesting place to check out in a South East Asian city, if you want to observe the locals and taste local dishes, is always the central market. It is loud and dirty, full of life, odours, colours and strange things. The market in Kampong Cham was no different and after practising our bargaining skills to buy some dry banana chips for the road we left the centre in the search of a quiet place to eat. We passed the new two-lane bridge and walked into an empty looking restaurant, but the lady working there told us that there were no menus in English. Somehow we didn’t feel like playing the “point your finger at a random line on the local menu and wait and see what you’ve actually ordered” game that night so we turned around and started heading back out again. At this point a Cambodian man hailed us over to his table and kindly invited us for one or two beers. “Why not?” we both thought, “let’s stay here for ten minutes and enjoy the free drinks!”. It turns out that the man was the owner of the restaurant and quite a prominent man in the city. We were introduced to the other people around the table, local tradesmen, politicians and the police chef. We sat quietly and watched. Two hours later, our bellies full of food (including a bird embryo, a delicacy that Cambodians love to eat and which I obviously had to try), drunk as never before on this trip, we were telling stories in almost perfect Khmer, while the restaurant owner cracked jokes about his ruthless wife, calling her a tigress while imitating an angry cat…

From Kampong Cham we had the choice between following the main road west then south towards Phnom Penh or trying our luck on the shorter but more remote route along the Mekong. We chose the second option and for about 15km thought we had made the right choice. The road was quiet and the tarmac smooth, but it quickly turned into a road to hell! For about 35km we feared for our bikes and bones, swerving around massive potholes while clouds of dust filled our lungs. In some areas that had been affected by the recent floods the road had altogether disappeared and we had to ride on tiny mud-paths on either side. This was worse than “the loop” in Laos and even worse than the most remote and abandoned roads in Central Asia… On the other hand there were no cars to worry about, the locals were as friendly as ever and the dirt track took us past little stands selling what looked like burnt tubes. Intrigued and curious, we stopped and were told that they were Kao Lam, bamboo filled with a mixture of white or black sticky rice, beans and coconut milk and baked in an open fire. They were delicious and from that point on we made a habit of buying a few for lunch on the road every time we saw them. We eventually arrived in Phnom Penh, filthy and tired, and were welcomed by Bauke and Elske, two wonderful Warmshowers hosts from Holland, in the centre of the Cambodian capital. Their apartment felt like home right away and their tips on what to see and do in the city were great. During our week-long break exploring the city on foot, we visited the Royal Palace, went swimming, had our bikes checked at a local cycle-shop, tried many restaurants and ate lots of ice-creams.

CambodiaThose lumps in the middle were what was left of the road…

CambodiaDust, and lots of it!

Cambodia

CambodiaKids in Cambodia were always so cheerful and happy to see cyclists

CambodiaRoyal Palace in Phnom Penh

Our exploration of the city led us one day to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school turned into the infamous S21 security prison during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late seventies. I had heard of that tragic part of Cambodian history when I was younger but never bothered learning more about it until we travelled through the country. When they seized power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge and their leader Pol Pot decided to depopulate all Cambodian cities and send their inhabitants to collective farms where they were overworked and treated as slaves. In an attempt to impose equality on all through a classless society, the communist regime abolished the currency, outlawed all religions, closed schools, factories and banks and hunted down soldiers and members of the old regime as well as any academics or intellectuals who might undermine Pol Pot’s actions. More than 17000 of them were sent to S21 and tortured there, and only seven are known to have survived. I would describe walking around the bare rooms of the museum as a necessary but unpleasant experience… The small cells, torture instruments, skulls, crude photos and painting on the walls are a shocking visual reminder of what took place during those years, far worse than I had been picturing in my head while reading up on the subject. Makes you wonder why it took so long to actually condemn and punish the perpetrators of this genocide…

CambodiaBauke and Elske, and wonderful hosts in Phnom Penh

Feeling fresh and rested after that break in Phnom Penh, we were eager to get back on our bikes and head west towards Siem Reap. We had a week before my friend and future best-man Iain joined us there so we decided to take the route south of the Tonle Sap Lake to Battambang. We left early in the morning to avoid the heavy traffic of the capital and were soon on a quiet road in the countryside. That first day of ridding was the smelliest and dirtiest one of the whole trip. Small rubbish dumps by the road on the outskirts of towns and villages are a common sight in South East Asia, but that day beat anything that we had seen so far. Garbage piles were spread almost continuously on either side of the road for over 30km. The acrid odour was strong and had no doubt worsen after the floods that had affected the area. Protecting the environment is probably quite low on the list of things to worry about in people’s minds, and on many occasions we saw locals just chucking wrappers or bottles on the floors or in rivers. Pity. We covered the 300km to Battambang in three days, spending a night in Kampong Chnang then one in Pursat. True to our habits we spent each evening walking around each town, inspecting the markets and tasting different dishes in small restaurants or food-stalls. Pursat was particularly memorable for its laid-back atmosphere and the most delicious fruit shake I have ever tasted and Battambang for its colonial architecture and its evening open-air aerobics classes. Early in the morning of our third day in Battambang we went on board a boat to Siem Reap, along the Sangkae River and the Tonle Sap Lake. The journey was long but the boat passed through many floating villages hidden in the swamps surrounding the big lake. These villages are quite remarkable really, in the way that they have all the buildings that you’d expect to find in a normal village, shops, a school, a temple, a post office etc., but all these are on water and the villagers, who make a living out of whatever industry the lake provides, have to use boats to get around… As we passed through the floating houses, a boat would come up to our side, pick some bags up and drop some new ones off, probably packages to be delivered to the next village…

CambodiaChillin’ in Battambang

CambodiaFisherman on the Stung Sangker River

CambodiaGetting around in one of the floating villages

CambodiaBoat traffic inside a floating village

CambodiaNap time for Angela

After a seven-hour journey the boat finally dropped us off in Phnom Krom, leaving us about 10km to cycle to Siem Reap. With the re-birth of the Cambodian tourism industry in the recent years, Siem Reap has become a major dynamic tourist hub. People come here to visit the Angkor Wat temples of course, but also to enjoy the city’s vibe and night-life. Our seven nights there went by in a jiffy yet again. We spent the first couple of days walking around town and visiting the less popular parts of the Angkor complex, such as Preah Khan, Ta Som or Pre Rup. One day we attended a Cambodian cooking course and learnt how to make delicious spring rolls and Khmer chicken curry. We also had a great evening “reunion” with Sam, Francesca, Philipp and Valeska, cyclist-friends who we had met in Tajikistan and Beijing a few months back, as well as Max, an Austrian tourer who was in the city at the same time. Iain and his now fiancée Phuong arrived after four days. They had planned to visit Phuong’s family in Vietnam and we thought it would be a shame not to meet up since we were going to be so close to each other geographically, so they decided to fly to Siem Reap for a few days in order for us to spend some time together. I felt excited and impatient waiting for them and once they turned up it was great to catch up while eating local food or having our feet massaged. We even got the chance to witness a total lunar eclipse! We hired a guide to walk and talk us through the Angkor temples and left very early one day to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Walking around the temples complex is quite a fascinating experience. There are apparently over a thousand different temples on the site, spread over a thousand square meters, making it the biggest city ever to exist before the industrial revolution. We very much enjoyed the grandeur of Angkor Wat, the smiling stone-faces of Bayon and the wildness of Ta Phrom, but those temples were unbelievably busy with tourists. They are impressive and you have to see them at least once in your lifetime, but my best memories will remain those of us walking around the less famous and more tranquil temples on the outskirts of the site, getting lost in the maze of chambers and admiring the mighty trees growing over the beautifully decorated walls.

CambodiaWall relief in Angkor Wat

CambodiaTa Phrom temple

CambodiaMother Earth taking control!

CambodiaLunar eclipse in Siem Reap

CambodiaIt’s a popular sport to watch and take photos of the sunrise over Angkor Wat temple

CambodiaStone faces in Bayon temple

As much as we loved chilling out in Siem Reap, we still had to leave if we wanted to make it to Bangkok in time for Angela’s birthday. It was the middle of December already and we had four days to get there. So we packed out panniers, bought some last-minute souvenirs, had our last iced-cream, said our goodbyes to Iain and Phuong, hit the tarmac and tried to enjoy every single kilometre left in that wonderful country before reaching the Thailand border.
There we go, I said it, we LOVED Cambodia! The only thing that I can tell people about this nation is: “don’t believe all the horror stories you hear”! We had an incredible time there. People were friendly, the food was good and there are plenty of amazing sights to see. From a cyclist’s point of view, it’s the country in South East Asia where we felt the most relaxed: the roads were generally good and quiet, accommodation, markets and restaurants were always easy to find, even in the smallest of villages, kids were as adorable as in Laos and there was always a slow tractor to hold on to went you felt lazy! Oh and one last thing, did I mention the iced-coffee?

CambodiaNothing surprises us anymore in South East Asia!

CambodiaAngela resting her legs…

CambodiaA common sight in South East Asia. As long as you can tie it up, you can transport it!

More photos of our time in Cambodia can be found here!