Published: September 28th 2007September 26th 2007
On The Road
I've never looked so out of place in my life...
Thursday, September 13th - Monday, September 17th
As I sat quietly, filling out the application form for my Cambodian visa, I was patting myself on the back for making it to the border. My already inflated ego was given another boost when I saw a group of grumpy looking Westerner's pulling up in a van, complaining about the bus service, the visa scams, the constant shaving of dollars from their pockets, and the twelve hour ride they still had to face to get to Siem Reap, where another roundful of of capitalizing agents would be waiting for them with smiles. I half wanted to tell the poor souls that the key to all that troubled them came in the form of two-wheeled, self-propelled form of transportation, but felt it smarter to keep this delightful little secret between me and fellow cycling tourers the world round.
Wheeling my bike through the towering gate welcoming me to the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the dusty border town of Poipet, alongside scores of tired and beatdown looking Khmer's pulling their ox-carts home for the day, I was a grinning fool eager to tackle the road ahead.
Taking a quick tour of the
A dirty ol' town...
main street I rode proudly down the road when an onslaught of hardened ruts and sharp rocks delivered a fatal blow to my back tire - my first flat, five minutes into the country. I stood roadside, the dust already starting to stick to my sweat soaked body, shifting and looking around awkwardly, wondering what to do next as the same group of tourists, looking contended and dozy like one would after a large turkey dinner, sped past in their air-conditioned bus on the way to Siem Reap. In this buddhist country I guess there is no defying Karma.
Fortunately, the mechanics here seemed to be quite handy, and if they were able to rig together some of the vehicles that I'd seen motoring themselves improbably down the road, I was sure they'd have no problem fixing a flat. In no time a friendly young man had my bike purring pretty again and I was able to escape the dust and heat, and get myself into a cool shower.
It was sitting out on an old balcony, overlooking the chaos of the main street as the sun was beginning to set that it finally hit me that I
From dust to mud...
was in Cambodia. There was no other country on my trip that I had read more about; a country still reeling from the devastating effect of Pol Pot's twisted dream of an agrarian paradise and the subsequent years of civil war and suffering.
Fellow traveler's, touched by the kindness and beauty of the Khmer people, had filled my head with tales of a strange and transfixing land that one must visit. But there were also the stories of pain still present; unexploded landmines that still litter the country, maiming and killing people everyday, the lack of clean drinking water and access to basic needs like food and medical care, and a general decadence that always seems bred through war and poverty.
In the midst of a booming tourist industry in a country still weighted heavily by the almost unrivalled horrors it has faced over the past decades, I had no idea what to expect. This both excited and frightened me. I spent the night rolling around my sweat-soaked sheets, the fan humming overhead, wondering what lie ahead.
By morning, a night of thunderstorms had turned the previous day's dusty street into one of mud and puddles. The
On The Road
A farmer and monks making their alms round..
town was already abuzz with boys and girls riding bikes cautiously down the street, naked children splashing about in the puddles, and young boys and men piling into pick-up trucks heading off to the fields. It was time to get organized.
If you look at a map of Cambodia there is an obvious lack of lines that indicate highways and roads, meaning it wasn't likely I'd be getting lost. There are two main highways in Cambodia, one north (HWY 6) and one south (HWY 5) of the Tonle Sap, a great lake providing an abundance of fish for the country. To get to Siem Reap from Poipet I would have to take highway six, a road that has gained notoriety in traveling circles as being in horrid and bone-jarring shape; a diabolical road, some say. The popular rumour (popular enough to be published in the Lonely Planet) is that a certain airline company is paying a certain government an undisclosed amount of money to keep the roads in dire shape to encourage traveler's to fly into Siem Reap, rather than tough out the roads. But I've always taken sadistic pleasure in tacklng absurd and unnecessary challenges, so after breakfast
On The Road
How many Cambodian's does it take to...?
I found myself grinning widely as I trudged though muck and mud, heading east through Cambodian countryside. It would take me three days of riding to reach Siem Reap.
The first several kilometres out of Poipet were the worst, as frequent traffic in the rainy season had created a jarring and uncontrollable mess of the road. But as the traffic slowly faded and I left the noise of the city behind I was left with a quiet countryside that would amaze and impress me until I finally reached Siem Reap.
The most consistent of noises I'd hear over these days, aside from occasional motorbikes, trucks, or buses was a wave of 'hello-bye-bye's' that seemed to ring out from the most unsuspecting of places. There were tonnes of people greeting me with waves and hello's; so many, infact, that I began to suspect the farmers were working on an evil plot to distract me so that I'd eventually fall off my bike and they could point and laugh.
One of my fears in Thailand while riding was being attacked by one of the mangy dogs that were always lazing on the side of the roads. It was disconcerning
On The Road
Don't drink out of the coke bottles. This is a gas station along the way.
to hear the rumble of a large truck approaching from behind while a pack of hungry looking dogs were eyeing you just ahead. The dogs in Cambodia, though, seemed mostly old and decrepit, as if they years had taken their toll. And even if they did look relatively healthy and eager approach, the thought of having to run in the heat seemed to deter them.
The towns in which I spent my nights were largely unworthy of mention. Like the many small towns in Saskatchewan they existed only to it's inhabitants and meant little but a gas stop or bathroom break to those who passed through. But it's generally these types of towns where you meet the kindest of people. Anyone who was able to speak English was always assigned to me during my stay, forced to answer my ridiculous questions and point me in the right direction. Arriving in the guesthouses after a day of riding I would usually wander the always lively markets, eating fresh fruit and gorging on whatever meals I could find.
Author Normal Lewis, in his travels through Cambodia when it was still a part of French Indo-China noted that the Khmer's didn't
On The Road
A group of children posing for the camera..
eat at restaurants, but right down at the market or else at stalls set up outside a families living quarters. The same still seems true today, as most restaurants are nothing more than a plastic table and chair set in the shade outside a family's kitchen. Fortunately for me, most food generally sits waiting in large pots, allowing one to look at and sample the dishes before decided which meat looks most edible.
As I passed through the lives of people in these small towns and villages there was an urge to romanticize the virtuous and simple lives the people were living, with angelic young children barely dressed in ragged shirts and colourful sarongs, playing gleeful along the roads, but I knew that being a subsistence farming in a third world country was anything but ideal.
Most villages had no form of garbage disposal, meaning trash was strewn about the town everywhere, and piles of it would collect to rot under the often dilapitated stilt huts that one generally associates with poor African nations. I saw people of all ages both drinking and defecating from the same sources of water and it was obvious that there was a
On The Road
constant struggle for survival. But people seemed to go about their chores unfazed. Every morning young boys and men headed off to the fields, the women carved up vegetables and prepared to open shops, and young children were assigned to various tasks such as bathing their younger siblings or grazing the cattle along the roadside. And like in most countries that live through waves of tropical heat, the Khmer's left plenty of time for siesta's, spending afternoons lazing in hammock's and watching cars pass in the shade. Stopping for shade, food, or waiting for the occassional rain to pass, I often felt like spending the afternoon there myself, looking up at the sky and making guesses with the neighbours about how long the rain would last.
I quickly found myself falling in love with this beautiful country but the roads had started to take a toll on me. Nearing the tourist town of Siem Reap, home to the famous temples of Angkor, I finally came upon paved road. The traffic picked up, things began to look more prosporous, and it started to look as if I'd finally be re-entering civilization. My right knee had taken such a beating over
On The Road
These kids taught me how to count to ten in Khmer...
the past six days of riding that it was chore just to spin the pedals and I looked anxiously forward to a few days of rest.
After finding a cheap guesthouse in the old market area, where the backpackers congregate, I resolved to find the cheesiest bar I could and get nice and drunk. The winner turned out to be a bar appropriately named Angkor What? I sat on the barstool listening to Oasis, The Beatles and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and drank cheap draught beer until I couldn't remember where my questhouse was.
The next few days would be spent in Siem Reap, both on and off the bike, visiting the temples and catching up on some much needed rest.
Friday, September 14th -- Poipet - Sisophon
Distance - 50.86 km
Riding Time - 3:29
Avg. Speed - 14.7 km/hr
Max Speed - 21.1 km
Saturday, September 15th -- Sisophon - Kralahn
Distance - 51.18 km
Riding Time - 3:25
Avg. Speed - 14.9
Max Speed - 27.1
Sunday, September 16th -- Kralahn - Siem Reap
Distance - 66 km
Riding Time - 4:12
Avg. Speed -
On The Road
I came across a village that specialized in stone carvings. These are some of their works.
Max Speed - 28.3
Monday, September 17th -- Siem Reap
No riding today.
TOTAL KM = 521.7
There are more photos below