The layer #1 of my elaborate 4-tier cycling tan acquired over the last few days looks the most ridiculous and is starting to itch. It reaches half way up my calves and the tonal difference is striking from line to line so I am destined to wear long trousers until time and shedding take care of this issue. My facial extremity, which receives many compliments from the local (envious) button-nosed population and is perhaps my most aerodynamic feature, is peeling and so is my forehead. Note to self: factor 10 will not do next time. There is an upside to getting burned on the first day though – you know exactly where to apply your sunscreen the next day before setting off…..
Let me tell you a tale of a two wheeled adventure into the heart of Cambodia, a tale of forgotten villages, red dirt roads, endless blue sky with fluffy clouds and the most vibrant shades of green you could ever lay your eyes upon. And hills, there are hills too.
Cycling and photography is the perfect marriage of two things I love dearly, so when Adam – the boss Grasshopper – asked me to join for a part of their 12 day tour from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville I was over the moon. I would be cycling from Kampong Thom to Kep with a group of five Australians, guide Untac (yes, that’s right), mechanic Vichet and driver called Sokha. I would cover their journey in series of photographs.
The group’s adventure started in Siem Reap with some of the local touring classics and I would join them few days later in the regional town of Kampong Thom which is a city marked as a mere toilet stop for many travelling between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. I have since changed my mind on this destination and decided that it needs further exploration. Beside the pre-Angkorian ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk and away from the main dusty road lies a peaceful and picturesque area surrounding the river and when the stay is as comfortable as in Sambor Village there is no reason to leave in a hurry.
With all my items containing at least some percentage of Lycra packed and my bicycle already on the way to our meeting destination I am headed on national route #6 – the pride of the nation (insert a healthy dollop of sarcasm here) - towards Kampong Thom. While my group is arriving from Beng Mealea by bicycle I am allowed to cheat in a taxi.
Later the same day, arriving with a bang (and thunder and lightning) are my Aussies, covered in half of Cambodia’s dirt mixed nicely with thickly applied sunscreen. Their faces are lined with a few creases of experience and long sunny days of the southern hemisphere. Despite the age difference between us they will give me a good run for my money in the coming days.
The afternoon storm eventually passes, we enjoy our dinner of Khmer “pick and mix” and I have just enough energy to float in the pool, listen to the frog concerto in B moll and catch enough sleep to give me power to get up early and start my part of this adventure.
The morning dawns crisp with wispy clouds and fog hanging just above the surface of the river. I am clad in my newly acquired Grasshopper Adventures jersey, breakfast down and ready to go. The beauty of this trip is having our dedicated support team and our van; our lifeline with all our luggage, cold water, cold towels, food, energy drinks and seats for those who can’t ride for whatever reason. The van comes in very handy when some stretches of the road would be downright unpleasant to cover on two wheels – national route #6 is a prime example. Trucks blaring past, the once-was-tarmac in places resembling the surface of the moon and tons of dust would make travelling by bicycle …. well, dangerous. Leaving Kampong Thom in our van we get to wake up properly, chat a little and prepare mentally for the day’s cycle which is according to Untac, whom I have in my head renamed to Lean Mean Cycling Machine, mere 85km. Fine by me. I have my camera bag ready, cold water and electrolytes full to the brim and it’s time to go. The team offloads the bicycles from the trailer, Vichet checks everybody’s machine to make sure things have not moved out of place during transfer, tires are pumped up and we are off.
Cow jam is what we encounter first, in fact several of them. In the middle of the fields on dirt roads it’s time for the villagers to take their cattle out to pastures and the amusement is mutual. This is the official start of the friendly “hello, hello, hello!!! trail” and also our first (and thankfully last) place of accident. Gary, no doubt mesmerized by the local moo-traffic ends up close and personal with the dirt, surprising not just us behind him but also himself. “How did this happen?” The first aid/mechanic team is at hand in no time, stream of blood from Gary’s grazed knee is washed, wound cleaned up, disinfected and bandaged. The two cycling nurses – Jo and Lou – are impressed and there is no need for them to step in. Gary receives little sympathy from his wife Lou, brushes himself off and disappears in the dust; there will be no amputations today.
We pick up speed and hurl along, passing countless villages where children hang in doorways and around houses by the dozen, screaming hello hello hello million times over, waving and jumping about excitedly. Cambodian children are beautiful and super cute and this comes out of the mouth of somebody who wasn’t handed much maternal instinct when they were giving it away. Even half a decade in the Kingdom doesn’t make me immune to the cheeky giggles of those pretty faces and I can’t help but shout my “hello” right back at them, waving as we cycle past. In certain parts I am sure we are providing a source of entertainment for all generations and for couple of days at least they will have something to talk about. With our bikes, outfits and helmets we must look like aliens to many.
It’s the perfect time of year to be exploring the countryside. The driest, dustiest months have thankfully passed and it’s now time to get serious with rice growing again, the afternoon monsoon rains have softened the soil and young emerald shoots of the nation’s staple are ready to be replanted in abundant tufts. I admire the resistance and stamina of those bent bodies creating dark silhouettes against the sun reflecting in the soaked fields. The colour of young rice shoots is so vibrant that processing photographs of them often requires to de-saturate the image to make it believable. It’s a juicy eye tonic and my favourite colour of all.
We reach a milestone the first day when the view of the mighty Mekong, the colour of cappuccino and swollen with seasonal rains, opens before us. By then I am already known as the filthiest rider with half of Cambodia’s dirt caked on my shins and the master of flat tires as in the space of about 10 minutes I manage to destroy two inner tubes. The unexpected stops are welcome by everyone and we get to rest in shade while Vichet performs his art of changing my inner tube in the matter of three minutes tops. The talents of our mechanic and the rest of the team go beyond their job titles. Together they form an efficient catering team able to set up a feast in the middle of nowhere and replenish our wavering energy levels. We feast on crispy bread rolls, tuna spreads, boiled eggs, freshly cut vegetables and buckets of fruits, all purchased locally. Long before our alarms go off each day the boys set out to the markets and buy the daily supplies, check our bicycles and only when all is ready to go they have breakfast themselves. We could not be in better hands.
Our destination is Kompong Cham where we will spend the night. The name of this province suggests that we are in a part of Cambodia where many people are of the Cham descent and indeed the difference is striking when we suddenly ride into villages where men wear their traditional Muslim taquiah, women cover their heads with colourful scarves and herds of goats cross our path, bells ringing. The city of Kompong Cham is undergoing a riverfront face lift but there is a breezy friendly feel with promise of a brighter future. The Japanese funded Kizuna bridge is the most prominent landmark of the city and at length of 1500m it was the longest bridge built in Cambodia until Koh Kong Province constructed their own monster exceeding the length of Kizuno by 400m in 2002.
The next day is the hardest day of the trip, at least that’s what my sore bum and feet are telling me. We ride on more sealed roads with more traffic, the day is hot and a vision of padded cycling shorts is appearing in front of my eyes. I have been tough up till now. I don’t find much energy any more to wave at the children but their hellos are coming in abundance ceaselessly still. We come across some interesting stops and the refreshment is always welcome by everyone. We see mountains of chilies drying alongside the road, watch locals betting on Thai kick boxing match, taste freshly pressed sugar cane juice, John resists the temptation of having a haircut locally and proceeds to learn how to shave ice the traditional way instead to great amusement of all onlookers who always gather wherever we stop. Kaylene takes advantage of the support van as her anti-malaria pills do not agree with her but gives us her support all the way.
Our arrival in Phnom Penh requires a ferry crossing. We are approaching the city with Armageddon sky looming above and the wind is picking up. We have about eight minutes to find shelter before heavens open. As if by magic Untac pulls off the road straight under a Khmer house on stilts where we are accepted with smiles by a friendly family. We watch the children play in puddles, our bikes are getting a well needed wash and the day’s cycle is over. We are only a few kilometers short of the day’s target, all loaded up, cross the river and welcome the sight of our accommodation with a sigh of relief.
Sunday marks the day of rest for my group but there is not rest for the wicked so I get to join a day tour with Grasshopper Adventures’ Phnom Penh branch and explore the Silk Island on the Mekong. It’s a gentle outing and I keep my joints moving in anticipation of the next day’s trip when I will come to my adventure’s end in Kep and will say goodbye to my sturdy Aussies.
The last day is my favourite by far. The topography changes as we head south, hills start to appear, we ride through rice fields and fields of swaying corn, on fast smooth(ish) red dirt roads, it’s relatively cool and I only hit the bumps and dips in the road when my eyes wonder off into the distance feasting on the stunning views all around me. We climb several hills and are rewarded with great expanding vistas and long effortless downhill rides which turn me into a happy cyclist once again, not only because my bum is now padded but also because it is great to be alive! The countryside is busy with farmers planting rice, oxen turning soil with equipment we consider should belong to museums and it doesn't get more off the beaten track than this. Only occasionally we come across the loud affair of village wedding set ups and I am glad to know that my cycling companions share the same view on this matter of excessive decibels. If we could we would ride through with our fingers blocking our ears.
Then we are in Kep. The coastal town once so prominent with holidaying cream of Khmer society is brushing the dust off its facades and the smooth three-lane highway we are now riding on reveals great expectations for this small seaside town. Kep is nestled among forested hills and the town beachfront now has a fresh layer of imported golden sand. It’s windy and the seas are rough so I resist dipping in, instead I pedal on in the strong head wind glad that we are home for the night.
My hotel room is adorned by a pile of what resembles radioactive waste and I already pity my laundry lady, in fact, there is no way I can give this load to her, it is going to be a bucket attack and elbow grease when I get home. But now it’s time for a drink on the pier in the Sailing Club off the Knai Bang Chatt Resort where my fellow cyclists are staying before we hit the Crab Market for some tasty fresh seafood dinner. Then sleep.
I get hugs goodbye, we go our separate ways. They continue on to Sihanoukville and I head back to Phnom Penh to fly home that is Siem Reap.
Same time next week, Adam?
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.