Arriving in Cambodia was like a breath of fresh air. After the built-up-stuff-going-on-everywhere-scooters-blasting-horns-trucks-rattling-past-too-close-intensity of Vietnam, the expansive, wide open spaces of southern Cambodia were a joy.
At this point in my journey I had to choose whether to loop back north into Laos and onwards into the Yunnan Province of China, then across to Thailand or to cross Cambodia and proceed directly to Thailand and eventually Myanmar and India. I weighed the decision for sometime as I progressed south in Vietnam; I asked my friend Peter and others that had visited Laos; I considered the fact that Johnny would be flying out in the next few weeks. Laos and China or Thailand and Myanmar?
My first port of call in Cambodge was the beach resort of Kep. Famed for its crab market and beaches, it felt like a good place to chill out for a day or two. While in Kep I met with my old school friend Tom and his wonderful bride-to-be, Sammy. Another of those fortunate coincidences where timings worked out just right. Sadly though Sammy was feeling a little under the weather having caught a bug on a Thai party island some days before, so no huge night out, but Tom and I did get to walk a lap of the national park. This chance meeting was the beginning of a very sociable couple of weeks.
After 16,000 ish kilometres the original wheelset of my Dawes Ultra Galaxy were beginning to creak. I had a new pair coming out with Johnny but not for a few weeks. I’d replaced the spokes snapped in the north of Vietnam but still the wheels felt loose and a long way from true; there really was nothing for it but to carry on with all due care and attention and pray for decent surfaces. From Kep I cycled (carefully) to Kampot. It was a national holiday so it was exceptionally busy in Kep with families enjoying picnics at the beach. Monkeys were wreaking havoc stealing coconuts whenever they spied a chance. This was the first time I’d seen one in the wild – cheekier than I ever imagined. In Kampot I stayed in a bamboo shack with my writer friend Eve. We met in Kep and decided to spend a few days together. Ten days later we were still hanging out in the Cambodian capital.
During my time in Phnom Penh the Show Box became a regular haunt, with free beer from six to seven it seemed rude not to visit most days. On the first of my Friday evenings sat at one of the small tables at the front of the bar I got into a deep and meaningful conversation with an Aussie bloke called Robert. We’d both had a few beers (it was getting on for eleven o’clock) and I recall uttering the line “I’m just making the journey I feel I’ve got to make”. At this Robert fairly spat beer over the table, scarcely containing his mirth, repeating the phrase loudly, slowly, over and over making certain that he’d heard correctly. He had. It was time to go home. I was drunk.
Suitably lubricated I finally made a decision on my direction of travel. Seasonally, logistically and electorally the choice became obvious. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National Democratic Party had won a landslide victory in the historic Myanmar elections. This would be a Burmese Odyssey. It would be easy for John to fly into Bangkok and the weather favoured an Indian winter. After a bit of research on the web I found that securing a six month Indian visa in Phnom Penh was a reasonably safe bet (Bangkok and Yangon being in no way reliable and prone to issuing just three month stays which since the visa starts from date of issue wouldn’t do). I filled out the forms online with accompanying hard copies, took 50x50mm photos, paid the $143 fee and submitted my application. A week later I was the proud recipient of a six month visa- the race was now on to cross Thailand and Myanmar in a timely manner to secure four out of the six months available.
While in Phnom Penh I visited the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison museum. Before I visited Cambodia I knew little of its history and harrowing recent past. For that reason I will refrain from drawing any lofty conclusion or giving overly detailed comment, all I will say is that these two visits were heavy duty history lessons. The audiotour of the killing fields was particularly disturbing; the bit where the narrator explains how small children and babies were smashed against a huge tree and thrown into a mass grave was too much to bear; such brutal genocide committed against its own people, the unique mark of true insanity.
A night with Buddha
I left Phnom Penh feeling refreshed, the extended rest and hearty duck soup with dumplings had a powerful rejuvenating effect; so much so that the day I left I couldn’t resist calling in for one final fix of goodness at Chinese Noodle and Dumpling – my new favourite restaurant – however at ten thirty am this perhaps not the ideal meal to start the day. Twenty km’s in I stopped for a coconut and a quick snooze in a hammock… I woke startled at 3pm to a wildly amused Cambodian lady trimming sugar cane. I paid up and cracked on.
On my way to Siem Reap to visit the temple ruins of Angkor Wat I slept in a Buddhist temple. I’d put in a pretty solid day along an uninspiring, barely surfaced road, realising as I went that camping options were few. I’d read that it was possible to seek refuge with monks in this situation so I thought I’d give it a try. I rolled carefully into the temple complex and was shown to the top monk. I asked for somewhere to put up my tent and was promptly ushered to take a shower and then shown into the ornate pagoda. Cooking my pasta surrounded by the painted teachings adorning the walls was quite surreal. It was a privilege to spend the night with Buddha.
The final stretch into Siem Reap is something special. The trees are wonderfully majestic, they offer a sense of the ancientness of the area. The road is surrounded by magnificent forest for many miles on both sides. It’s a wonderful, magical place to cycle; you can feel the energy in the trees as you glide by; I loved this road more than any other in the country.
On my second day at Angkor I met a fellow World Cyclist; Niko, was nearing the end of his South East Asian stage, about to cross to Australia. We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing our respective journeys and taking photos of each other posing at temples. By three o’clock we decided we deserved a beer. We sat down outside the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple with an ice cold one and watched the busy tourists hustle each other for the best position for photographs. The competitive scrabble to get an angle can descend to blows rather quickly. Lara Croft didn’t have a selfie stick or one of those huge lense cameras that Japanese tourists seem to favour but if she had, there’s a fight I’d like to see: Lara Vs Angkor Wat tourist head to head.
Angkor Wat was quite simply epic. A vast monument that defies comprehension. Three days to see it all isn’t really enough but it’s still more than I could take. Perhaps spreading the days over a week, rather than back to back, would make the visits more bearable but like so many tourists I eventually became templed out. That said, if you like ruins, you’ll love Angkor Wat.