Bicycle vacation Cambodia
Cycling from Bangkok
to Saigon I
Bicycling on dusty roads with potholes large enough to sleep in, along rice fields and villages without running water, where a battery provides electricity for the huts. There is a lot more to see in Cambodia than the touristic highlights of temples and palaces in Angkor near Siem Reap or those in Phnom Penh: cows and buffaloes in fields, chickens (in bunches of 20) and pigs on moped back seats. The most exhausting part: waving and answering the "hello" greetings everywhere.
Travelogue & photos:
Gerrie & Aart Dijkzeul
It's a huge change from the cold in The Netherlands to the heat in Bangkok. And it's not just the temperature. It's a completely different world. Life is lived mainly outdoors, in the streets. It's crowded, messy, but at the same time laid back and harmonious.
We visit the Grand Palace. A group of temples and palaces in Disney-World style. Colorful and exotic looking. Many Buddhists come here to worship the Emerald Bhudda (a jade statue) with all kinds of rituals. They bless themselves with a lotus flower dipped in water; they burn incense and make offerings of lotus flowers.
After two days, we load our bikes on a van, which takes us 100 km eastward. We have to get used to bicycling in these temperatures. Our Thai hasn't improved since the last time we were in this region. The same goes for the English of the local population. We talk with our hands and feet. The dishes we order this way, sometimes turn out better than expected, sometimes they don't. This afternoon we had liver noodle soup. I like liver, but not prepared this way.
The stalls along the road, where we buy food and drinks, don't look like much; but the people who work there are very friendly. Yesterday, an elderly couple who own a food stall, joined us. We told them that we're bicycling to Cambodia and Vietnam. In three words and a few gestures.
The couple responded with a story of at least ten minutes, in which we every now and then recognized the words Cambodia and Vietnam. Afterwards, the man picked the best watermelon for us from a stack of hundred. It turned out to be delicious.
Very early today we bicycle to the Cambodian border. At the border crossing, a large crowd moves toward Thailand, with handcarts, mopeds and baskets hanging from yokes. They are on the way to a big Thai market to sell their merchandise.
We feel as if it's 1890
When a truck overtakes us, the view is less than 10 meters
Once in Cambodia, we immediately are in a different world. We feel as if it's 1890. There is hardly any infrastructure. The houses and huts are austere; no running water and no public electricity grid. Electricity, when needed, is provided by batteries, which are charged at shops with generators. Food is kept cool in a box with large chuncks of ice. Only cities have a public electricity grid.
The first part of the road is paved with extreme cobblestones. We can't bicycle here. Fortunately there is a narrow strip of sand along the road. Later the road is unpaved. Traffic speeds by, leaving behind large clouds of dust.
Sisophon, where we spend our first night, is filthy and dusty. The streets are unpaved; garbage is not collected. It is blown in all directions by the wind or used as fuel. When we have a bowl of soup at a stall, the owner immediately joins us. He tells us about his country. He lived through many political upheavals and still remembers French rule. Initially we speak English; later, it turns out that French is his second language, so we continue our conversation in French.
This morning we get on our bikes early. The road is even dustier than yesterday. When a truck overtakes us, the view is diminished to only ten meters. Oncoming traffic warns us by honking loudly. Many of the cars that pass, are pick-up trucks, carrying 15-20 people in the back. Sometimes those people are sitting on stacks of cargo. Their heads are covered against the dust.
Before we arrive at our destination for today - Siem Reap - we clean ourselves thoroughly and remove at least a centimeter-thick layer of dust from our bodies. Just like other times when we stop, we attract a lot of attention.
We admire the temples and palaces in Angkor
Finding a hotel in Siem Reap is not a problem. There are hundreds. From posh palaces to simple guesthouses. This is because of the famous temples and palaces of Angkor.
It is a pleasant town after the "hardships" of the countryside. There are some remnants of French colonialism, menus with English translation and even café au lait. And there are tourists everywhere. Mostly Japanese, Koreans and a few lost Europeans. Relatively many beggars. Usually they are people who lost one or more limbs. They are victims of the many landmines which were placed in the 1970s and 1980s.
For two days we admire the temples and palaces of Angkor; some ar dilapidated, some have been restored. They are scattered over an area of 15 square kilometers and date from the heyday of Khmer culture, the 9th through 13th centuries.
It's all breathtaking. It's hard to compare with other sights we have seen. It's very large and the architecture is completely different from what we know in Europe. Everything is built in massive, decorated stone.
On the second day we see the sun rise at 6:30 AM behind Angkor Wat, a temple compound measuring over a square km.
Via Battambang to Phnom Penh
I doubt that there are traffic rules here
Next day, a boat takes us from Siem Reap to Battambang. It's a beautiful trip. The first part over a lake and then about 30 km on a river. On the river's estuary lie some floating villages.
Farther upstream we see more solitary boats and huts on the banks. Often they are just four poles with a straw roof.
Battambang is a nice province town with a fine hotel. Traffic is an experience by itself. Many mopeds and - just before school begins - bicycles. Few cars. I doubt that there are traffic rules here. Everybody just moves. No one stops. They just drive around each other. This is also the way to cross the street. Don't wait until someone stops, but just walk to the other side and try to avoid bumping into others.
It takes us three days to travel the 320 kilometers from Battambang to Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia). It's a beautiful bike ride. Except for 50-100 km of sand path (part of National Highway #5), it is very enjoyable.
There are rice fields almost everywhere, surrounded by banks to keep the water in. Here and there brush and scattered palm trees. The rice has been harvested; what's left, is dry stubble and a few cows and buffaloes which apparently find something edible there. They also walk on the road. When a car drives over a buffalo turd at full speed, Gerrie needs half an hour to remove the shit from her legs and bicycle bags.
Every now and then we see fields of water hyacinths, lotus flowers or just wild nature. Just before it gets light in the morning, fires are lighted in front of the huts along the way. Whole families sit around the fires, squatting on their haunches, eating breakfast.
Still early, children in school uniforms are on their way to school. Walking, bicycling or by "schoolbus": motor bikes with a meter wide and 5 meters long "trailers" with 20-25 children in them.
The huts in which people in the countryside live, are made of wood; the roof and the walls are often made of palm leaves. In many regions we cross by bike, the houses stand on poles. This is partly to avoid flooding during the wet season.
In somewhat bigger towns there is always a market. In terms of merchandise, they are not so different from the markets we have at home. But the way things are sold is quite different. Usually there are also "restaurants": a lean-to with 20 or so plastic chairs and tables.
This is also where taxis take a break. The passengers have a bite. For lack of bus connections, people use pick-up trucks as taxis. For little money one can travel long distances with 20-30 people, bags of rice, chickens, mopeds and couches in the back. We see hundreds of those every day. People are stacked like sardines and wobble on the edge of the loading platform.
It's as if all cars have cruise control. Regardless if they're on a sand road or if there are half a meter deep potholes, they keep moving at a speed of at least 80 k/p/h.
The vehicles we pass on the way are hugely different: carts pulled by buffaloes, but also luxury Toyota SUVs. The transportation of cattle is a subject all by itself. Chickens are transported by moped, alive and tied into bunches of twenty by their legs.
The same goes - albeit it in lower numbers - for pigs. We are frequently overtaken by mopeds with a couple of pigs, feet up, on the back seat. The weirdest thing we see, is a motor bike taxi with trailer, which carries ten adult pigs. They are stacked head to butt, their bellies covered with waterplants to keep them somewhat cool.
The places where we spend our nights are smallish province towns. Not a western person in sight. We can tell by the amount of attention that we draw when we pass through them on our bikes.
Wherever we stop, sit or eat, people join us. Sometimes they just want to look at us or at our bikes; sometimes they want to have a conversation in their poor English. For us, that's a great way to learn more about the country.
A provincial town, only twenty times as big
We expected Phnom Penh to be a metropolis (it has 1 million inhabitants) with office high rises and big companies. In reality it's no more than a provincial town, only twenty times as big. They don't even have a McDonalds or Burger King. So, actually, not a real city.
But it has style, here and there: avenues that still show their French origins, a wonderful river front, an Olympic stadium and beautiful temples and palaces. But when you leave the avenues, it's the same mess we saw in other towns, including unpaved roads.
Our visits to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields leave a strong impression. The tragedy that took place here during the Pol Pot regime is indescribable. Just to think that this happened only 25 years ago. Some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and people who actively supported the Pol Pot regime, are still active in national politics and society. I guess that must be the reason that the country, after many years of negotiating with the UN, still hasn't agreed to an international tribunal.
To the Vietnamese border
Allways avoid bumping into free-roaming pigs and cows
Leaving Phnom Penh, we continue our trip southward. Sihanoukville is Cambodia's beach resort. In two days we cover almost 300 km. Excellent roads and a beautiful landscape. We stay for two days in Sihanoukville. Being lazy, reading and swimming.
After those two days, we bicycle toward the Vietnamese border. The roads are quiet and the surroundings beautiful: on one side hills and mountains, on the other a transitional area toward the sea. We keep slowing down. There is so much to enjoy. Mangroves, little port towns, small-scale agriculture and here and there a village. Farmers are ploughing the land with a span of buffaloes. The rest of the family follows to sow the (oil or cashew) nuts. Kids are herding cows and meanwhile we have to pay attention all the time, to avoid bumping into free-roaming pigs and cows.
Waving and responding to people's "hello" greetings is becoming a heavy burden. We divide the surroundings into two individual areas and focus each on one. One looks right and the other left.
On the way we see a group of soldiers looking for and defusing mines on the roadsides. A few kilometers back, we had a picnic on this kind of roadside.
Our last bit of Cambodia, from Takeo to the Vietnamese border, is tough. Fifty kilometers of bumping, zigzagging, slipping and plowing. Potholes large enough to sleep in.
The motor bikes with trailers for public transportation have been replaced with pony carts. I suppose those have better shock absorbers. However, the carts lack horns. Once more we understand how incredibly poor this country is. The tragedy is that the ones who for thirty years ruined the country, were not outside powers, but political powers within the country itself.
It takes an hour to cross the border. Stamps, worried faces of men in posh uniforms when they look at our passports; and we have to buy a declaration of health. Because they are curious to find out what a couple of wacky Dutch bring on their bicycle vacation, we have to unpack all of our bags to the last item.