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The Phnom Penh I enjoyed
Just as quickly as Phnom Penh had become a haven of relaxation, it changed to a prison from which I longed to escape. Two days into the New Year, I got sick – something I had mercifully avoided during my whole time cycling. Now it had caught me. I lay feverish and weak in my windowless room for 3 days. Kindly friends came to check on me, but in time had to depart on their own journeys and I was left to stare into the green void of my lime coloured walls. I hated that colour, and I especially hated the little pictures of fruit stuck to the wall in attempted decoration. Twice I thought of shouting at the watermelon, the leader of the glittery sticker gang, but couldn’t muster the energy.
Kevin and Lars pour over the map
I couldn’t bear it any longer, and with the fever dropping to a more manageable level I heaved myself out of bed on the fourth day and back onto my bike. I had eaten only one meal in over 36 hours and that hadn’t exactly been a success. Joining Kevin and Lars on their last night in the city we went to a pizza joint, where Kevin and I thought fit to order the Phnom Penh Happy Pizza.
‘How happy you want it?’ asked the waiter.
‘Eh…’ We looked at each other.
‘Regular happy?’ I offered. Was he going to make a face on it with toppings? Lars looked at us in pity, and leaned towards us. ‘He means how much marijuana do you want on it!’ ‘Really?!’ I ask, very much not expecting this. The waiter nods enthusiastically. Kevin is just as perplexed as I, and we hastily change our orders. Vegetarian will do just fine.
A 'moment' on the road in Phnom Penh
Nonetheless, my stubbornness won out, and by 6.30am I was back on the saddle and into the heaving throng of Phnom Penh’s morning traffic. Within 5 kilometres of leaving my guesthouse I had seen two accidents, the second quite serious with two motos colliding head on, and had missed my turn off for the bridge. I somehow got turned around on the riverside road and joined the crush heading back into the city. The first 30km I rode on pure adrenalin before reality inevitably caught up with my struggling body. Legs turned pedals on pure memory alone, and I blanked out thoughts of what would happen if I fainted on this road. Forcing down some peanuts, the least offensive food I could think of for my system, I mechanically moved forwards. I knew this road – I’d ridden the 80km section from Skun to Phnom Penh on my way south – but going north in such a dire state made it seem a different beast. The slightest of inclines grew to enormous peaks; the greeting of roadside children pierced my skull so hard I had to shut my eyes. At 2pm I wobbled into Skun, checked into the first guesthouse and collapsed on the bed. I felt…better? Yes, better – perhaps cycling 80km was not the wise thing to do, but certainly getting out of the airless room in Phnom Penh was necessary. A few hours later I managed some rice, and slept soundly for 14 hours.
The Mekong Hotel
There is never a better morning to wake upon that that which follows a period of ailment. I bounced out of bed and greeted all I met with a disposition much too cheery for 5.30am. They looked at me warily – crazy foreigner. Scoffing banana chips, I pedaled merrily towards Kampong Cham. It was only 50km – I’d planned to reach it in one day from Phnom Penh before the illness struck. My stay there was spent completing recovery –eating fried eggs at the café, lying on my huge bed in the grand Mekong Hotel, and walking the streets once more enjoying the sights and sounds of a provincial market. Time in the city was good to me – I met a French family pedaling around SE Asia and home schooling their two young children on the way. I also ran into a Belgian rider touring on a Santos bike. We exchanged stories of how our trusty steeds had flawlessly carried us over many kilometers, complaining much less than us. The Mekong Hotel was expensive by my budgeting - $7 – but certainly the grandest accommodation where I have yet had the pleasure of laying my head. Sitting imperiously on the banks of the Mekong, the inside appears even bigger than the formidable exterior. Corridors stretch seeming for miles, and a walk from one end to the other might constitute a reasonable afternoon stroll.
A bamboo bridge over the Mekong
While my mind was rid of all illness, a few demons still lingered in my stomach. One more easy day I convinced myself. All I wanted to do was get on my bike and ride, having felt cooped up for way too long. But another day to regain strength would only benefit me long term. So I spent the morning eating multiple breakfasts followed by the most delightful 40 kilometre cycle along the west bank of the Mekong. Half was paved, running through rural settlements and the remainder was a fine dirt; pleasant for cycling as it wound through equally friendly villages. I slept by the river, and took the morning ferry across to the east where the roads became less agreeable. 40km of rough stones, dirt and swirling dust made for painstakingly slow progress, but the scenery was certainly worth the effort. Somewhat surprisingly, this section along the banks of the Mekong is predominately Muslim – the only such area I have seen so far in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Men in prayer caps came and went from mosques, and women with covered heads shyly smiled at my unusual disruption to their little town. I was in good spirits, feeling like a victor over disease and illness. ‘Hello!’ shouted kids, on average at least once every two or three minutes during the day (as per every day.) ‘Where you go?’ ‘Where you from?’… ‘Money, dollar?’ I wasn’t thrilled with this last question when it came, but it was infrequent enough and some of the children seemed so incredibly excited to see me pedal by that I couldn’t help but smile and wave every time.
‘Hello! Whatisyourname?’ shouts a boy of about 8, although he struts like he is in his 20’s, leading a pack of similarly aged kids through a rice field.
‘Hello! I am Leon, rider of bicycles, conqueror of dirt roads, eater of banana chips!’ I roar back.
There is suddenly silence. They stop and stare, mouths agape. Perhaps I have gone too far.
I beat my chest and speed by. That’ll give them something to talk about.
More rough roads followed, now with added roadworks and as the direction veered away from the Mekong I became less thrilled with the conditions. I covered my eyes with sunglasses and used a Buff to pull over my nose and mouth, but still the dust found it’s way through. It was everywhere, and by evening I had a hacking cough. My lungs felt like I’d smoked for 20 years and I was only too happy to see the paved road leading into Kratie.
Kratie provided only one function for me – a good bed to rest up for the next day. This was the day people talked about. I have learned there are certain roads and paths, which become infamous among cyclists, and the stretch between Kratie and Stung Treng to the north is one of these. At around 145km long, it is said to be desolately empty and devoid of the usual roadside vendors hawking snacks and water. There are no guesthouses on the way, and a night in a tent would prove equally unsuitable due to the barren land all around. Riding north adds the additional challenge of a brutal headwind making speedy progress impossible.
More empty roads
For me 145km is undoubtedly quite a long day, but certainly not a distance that would put me off trying to ride it. A headwind is an annoyance for sure but if the plains of Iowa have taught me one thing it’s that nothing can ever be as tough as riding west into that wall of howling gale day after day. What worried me more was that every cyclist I had met going north was either taking a bus past the stretch, or had already done so. The only reports I’d heard of people riding it were on the Internet. It seemed like a challenge had been set, and so at 6.00 am I rode out of Kratie with darkness still resisting the approaching sun.
The Mekong ride that I enjoyed
By the time I reached Stung Treng I’d come to one conclusion. Many cyclists do not avoid this section because they don’t think they can make it – they do so because it is miserable and they want to enjoy themselves. I understand this now. I was never in any doubt that I’d get to Stung Treng, but after 9 and ¾ hours of battling wind and riding through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I wasn’t having a lot of fun. Many people take the sensible approach that there’s no point in doing it just because it is there. I think however, in a strange way, I like this, in an after-the-fact sense. The time riding was almost completely devoid of pleasure, but that evening I felt wonderful. My rice tasted better than normal and I had a sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Perhaps if I hadn’t promised myself that I would avoid public transport except in cases of dire emergency I would have considered an alternative, but I feel now that given the choice again tomorrow I would do the same. The good and easy times for me are made all the sweeter by the tough – and drinking a can of Angkor beer by the river by the light of the moon I relaxed with a deep sense of satisfaction.