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Arriving in Cambodia
My early morning border crossing didn’t quite transpire as I’d hoped. First I realized that the only currency I had was Thai Baht, and so was in rather desperate need of some US Dollars. Apparently I could change them at the border, but this seemed like a sure rip-off, so I waited until 9am to find an open bank in Aranyaprathet. It took even longer to find one that actually had US dollars, but eventually the transaction was completed and I made the 6km to the border in no time at all. I won’t bore you with the details of the actual events that occurred once there, but suffice to say the corruption once rife at the Poipet crossing seems to have been mostly snuffed out. However the various stages of red tape were typically frustrating, never more so than when the Cambodian official lost my entry card under a pile of other papers and made me wait an age to fill out a new one. No complaints though – these things are par for the course and I was happy to have avoided all but the essential bribes required.
I pedaled hard and fast through Poipet. The culture change from Thailand was immediately tangible – desperation and poverty clung to the town. It was dusty, dirty and seedy. Innumerable shady characters watched the tourists coming through with sharp eyes, and I felt that the quicker I was away from the place the better. Luckily, with 10km I’d left any sign of it behind, and making sure to stay on the right hand side of the road (as opposed to the left in Thailand) I found myself back in the wilderness. Still unerringly flat, the land around me stretch for miles in every direction with only a hint of vegetation. Gone were the 7/11 stores and gas stations every few miles – here only roadside shacks occupied the highway. There was a definite sense that the people here were really poor, and struggling much more than the Thais. I was gawped at with much greater surprise, which to begin with was rather off-putting. However after stopping to load up on water and snacks I realized that the Cambodians have a sense of warmth and kindness that must be experienced to be believed. The quizzical look on faces would turn into a huge beaming smile as soon as I greeted them, and despite the language barrier (at this stage I spoke not a single word of Khmer) we would mime conversations endlessly until I had to leave.
I spent my first night in the country at the only guesthouse left in Kralanh. More a gathering of stalls around a crossroads than a town, the one brick building in the area offered rooms for the night and a small restaurant. It cost $8 which was hugely expensive for me, and apparently due to the high cost of electricity so far from any larger settlements. It seems to make sense, and dinner was included so I settled down and watch small town Cambodian life occur up and down the street till the sun went down. I felt safe and comfortable here, yet there was a niggling sense of despair. My understanding of the governmental system here is very lacking, but it appears that it is a country in desperate need of direction and guidance in order to move forward.
Christmas Morning on the road
Be that as it may, it was Christmas Eve, and I was in bed by 7.30pm. Any romance of the occasion was lost on me – exhausted by the heat and still trying to get a handle on this new country. I slept 10 hours solidly, and pedaled out on Christmas morning just as the town began to rise from slumber. The sun peaked above the horizon in front of me being that I was riding due East, and gradually bicycles, motorbikes and cars began to move on the highway. I stopped 10km out to have a quick snack, and watched farmers tend to their livestock. Cambodians on their way to work or school would stop and exchange a few words with me. It is of course a Buddhist country and so Christmas is not celebrated, but I felt a magic this morning quite unlike any 25th December I have had before. Still wondering at the beauty of it all, and quite what these hard-working people must make of my life compared to theirs, I rode into Siem Reap just after 10.30am.
My very pleasant guesthouse
What a way to bring it all crashing down. Huge hotels exploded out of the ground and covered acres of land, ballooning up stories and stories high. Soon both sides of the street were lined with them, and the shacks disappeared to be replaced by manicured driveways which were populated by extremely expensive cars. Siem Reap exists almost entirely to serve the complex of temples around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and indeed the majority of visitors to Cambodia will stop only here and perhaps Phnom Penh. I found a quiet guesthouse for $4 near the centre of the city, and made myself comfortable. It was Christmas Day, and I had crossed from rural wonderland into dollar-fueled atrocity. Or so I felt. That said, I made myself the worst kind of hypocrite by indulging in all on offer. I bought cold drinks, sat in comfortable chairs and chatted to loved one back home via the Internet. And I had a great time.
Early Morning Angkor Wat
I spent 3 days in total in Siem Reap, the middle of which included the inevitable visit to the Angkor Complex. This is not the place to go into detail of the history, for one because I’d do a lousy job of any reasonable explanation. But it is a place that leaves you struggling for superlatives to describe it, and every scene is a picture postcard. Angkor Wat is the most famous, and hard to surpass in terms of inspiring awe. The five towers, representing the peaks of Mount Meru, are not only iconic but just as stunning to view in person. The Cambodians are fiercely proud of the temples for obvious reasons. Riding a bicycle around them is in my opinion the best way to experience the complex and by evening I had covered a good 60km. Excluding the constant requests of vendors and beggars, it really does make for a wonderous day quite unlike any other. After Angkor Wat most people, me included, move north to explore Angkor Thom, and then round a route which included anywhere up to 25 other temples. It is not embarrassing to admit to being ‘templed out’ by day’s end. I teamed up with a couple from San Francisco for the afternoon, met with for dinner with Susan and Peter, my hosts in Brisbane whose vacation serendipidously coincided with my visit. I felt a rare sense of companionship during my time having people to share experiences with.
Leaving Kampong Thom
But a lone cyclists life and budget cannot include endless days in a money-eating tourist spot, and so I made the move eastwards once more towards the capital, Phnom Penh. So rested and enthused I was to be back on my bike that by 2pm I had covered 152km kilometers and found myself in the next big city along Highway 6, Kampong Thom. The ride has been beautiful – flat as expected, but with enough variation in the scenery to keep it interesting. The children would yell their hellos (and goodbyes) from unseen spots behind trees and in far off fields, and water sellers would chatter and laugh amongst themselves at the grimy white tourist on a overloaded bike who had appeared in their midst. It was great. Kampong Thom probably offered a lot more than I explored, but I was happy to eat a hearty meal and send myself straight off to sleep by 7pm. A simple life sometimes, but a good one for sure.
The Tonle Sap River
Having covered half the distance to Phnom Penh already I needed to slow down a little if I was to keep my reputation as a ‘non-cyclist’ kind of cyclist. Can’t be getting to caught up in this kilometer-chasing frame of mind, which I do find myself slipping into quite easily. My competitive nature remains largely submerged these days, but I have to keep an eye on it once in a while. By 11.30am I arrived in Skun, a crossroads town less than 80km from the capital. I spent the afternoon drinking sweet tea and journaling, and can’t imagine what the local’s thought when I nodded off for two hours at a makeshift table in the market. That evening I met Cindy and Tamame, two solo cyclists who had teamed up in Laos and were also headed to Phnom Penh. We exchanged thoughts and impressions of Cambodia, and inevitably fell into endless conversations about the nature of bike touring. Cindy is on a 4-month ride around SE Asia and Tamame left Japan 3 years ago, covering over 30,000km since then and still having so plans to return. Both were lovely to talk to, and I realized also that they’re the first cyclists I’ve properly spent time with since New Zealand.
The next morning we rode south along increasingly busy and bumpy roads; narrow streets and growing numbers of tuk-tuks heralded our arrival in Phnom Penh. I have now been here for 3 days, and have done little more than apply for visas, sit in coffee shops and celebrate the New Year with a crew of fellow cyclists and backpackers. My drive to visit the tourist sites is zero, and I am content to spend 3 hours each morning at an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast followed by a day with my nose in a book. There are now 5 cycle tourists in the city that I know of, having added Lars from Sweden and Kevin from Ireland to my growing list of Phnom Penh acquaintances. The road is calling me – I hear it’s voice growing louder with each passing hour, but the nature of this relaxation is rare and I know at least another day will be spent exploring the nature of inactivity. There is a balance between rest and idleness, and I hope that for now at least I am tipping the scales to the correct side.