5000mile mark, woopa!
Having spent a week in Bangkok attempting to gain visas for my onwards travels, I boarded my bicycle once again and pedalled my way down the east coast of Thailand towards Chanthaburri before heading north into Cambodia.
From Thailand into Cambodia
Something that particularly fascinates me when pedalling my way across a border is the immediate change in your surroundings. Aside from the change in language, currency and side of the road to cycle on, there is a noticeable change in feel. And the stark contrast between two places, separated only by a handful of officials, a couple of partitions and a man with a stamp, all seems so much more apparent when you cross that national line by bicycle. When we take a flight, or even a land vehicle abroad for holiday, travel, business etc we undoubtedly expect a cultural change at the other end, a way of life alien from ours at home. But that travel time often acts as a buffer, allowing us time to adjust and prepare for life ‘on the other side’. Furthermore, by this stage, everything about our usual routine life has probably altered; From the moment you finished work early on friday night, to that obscenely early alarm call, to that overpriced airport breakfast…everything is already out of sync with regular daily life. A cultural change is just one more on the list. However, when you cycle across a border line at a steady, sedate pace, winding your way around the vehicle barrier, respectfully nodding your head to the border police before pedalling off into a new country, all that has differed is the life and environment around you. It really makes you appreciate the reality of how much effect people have on a place, for essentially i’m on that same stretch of land I was several minutes earlier, only this side feels a world apart.
Cycling from Thailand into Cambodia was exactly this. Having left the palm fringed beaches of Thailand’s south coast before riding up across the beautiful Tuscan looking hills of Thailand’s eastern interior, one border line later, I found myself in the depths of a very rustic Cambodia. I felt like I had stepped back in time to a pre industrialised age. The roads were quiet, frequented only by the odd moped, truck or basic farming vehicle- complete with several passenger splayed across sacks of hay.The landscape was dominated by agriculture- a picture of men ploughing fields, women chopping up crops , children playing in muddy streams. The houses were small wooden shacks. Cambodia was clearly a poor country, far less developed than anywhere I had previously passed through on my trip.
Unsurprisingly, my first hours spent cycling into Cambodia were a little unnerving. My knowledge of the country was limited to that of the Khymer rouge and its ruthless power. Its dark, decadent past was never far from my thoughts. I had just entered a country characterised by mass graves, land mines, poverty, war and corruption and here I was alone, on a bicycle. Whereas Thailand and Malaysia had offered me a warm, bustling south east Asia with western style minimarts in every town, relatively good roads and a relatively stable environment, Cambodia felt quite different.
But any uneasiness I might have felt was short lived, for Cambodia is certainly my favourite country so far. There are days when Im riding my bicycle and I literally cant stop smiling because I think life is so utterly brilliant. I go to bed excited about tomorrow. I find myself googling sunrise because Im so keen to get out and explore. Cambodia dealt me plenty of these days. In fact, a good measure of how fascinated I am by a place is the quantity of photos I take and in Cambodia I could hardly put the camera away, eagerly trying to capture every moment. I felt like a small puppy let out for the first time, mesmerised by the activity around me. The miles would tumble by without a second glance. Cambodia has this rustic charm to it like no other and perhaps its the fact it hasn't succumbed to the western ways of its developing neighbours that adds to its character.
And despite the ‘poverty’ (in the monetary sense of the word), the people appear so content- you sense this easy-going, social, relaxed pace of life- always with a smile. When the work is done, much time is spent enjoying lazy afternoons lying in hammocks, spending quality time with their families. Though it might seem a basic, primitive way of life, as far as I’m aware it seems a happy one and it certainly makes you question our approach to living in the western world; desperately craving that high powered career, that six figure salary, that final spot on the highly competitive grad recruitment scheme and no doubt a lot of stress, anxiety and lack of free time to follow…As much as we might look at a less developed nations such as Cambodia with an element of sympathy, I honestly don’t know how many Cambodians would wish to trade in their lives for ours.
My route through Cambodia
Starting from the remote border town of Pailin, I cycled north before passing by the busy tourist hub of Siem Reap, just short of the world famous Angkor Wat temples. Following this, I intended to head east through the middle of the country towards the Mekong River. Had I taken this route, my stay in Cambodia would have been brief, too brief, I would have made it into Laos in under a week. But, as luck would have it, I took a wrong turn. Indeed, it turns out the there’s a mountain in the far north of the country under the same name as the city I was initially aiming for. I took the turn, half knowing this wasn't the direction I was after, but then again, Cambodia is a developing country, infrastructure is constantly being updated and road maps not always at the same pace. Thus, off I went. 3 days later, the full northern loop of Cambodia complete and I finally made it that initial town I was after….! I have no regrets though because cycling up through the Kulen national park and along the heavy escarpment separating Thailand and Cambodia was an absolute treat.
Once i had reached the Mekong river, I then pedalled north before cycling into neighbouring Laos.
Whereas in Thailand, cycling down dirt roads became more of an adventurous alternative, in Cambodia this wasn't the case for rubbly dirt tracks are the norm. Particularly, in the less developed northern region of the country, there are only a handful of paved roads, mostly connecting the key cities, the rest remain orange dusty trails, or worse, they’re in the development stages which means they’re little more than a gravelly, sooty, bumpy grey mess- Every time a truck passes you, you’re immediately engulfed in thick plumes of grey dust. Indeed, I certainly feel like I have lived and ‘breathed’ Cambodia!
Christmas day was a tough day. No, not because someone at home was eating my share of the Turkey, nor because I was pining for quality christmas time with my family. Lying in hammocks perhaps. No, because I had found myself on a 40mile long track ankle deep in sand. I started the day feeling positive, I’d decided to embark on a relatively short commute to the next town along. A mornings ride. A late breakfast upon arrival perhaps? How wrong I was. I had studied the map the night before. There were two roads leading to this town, one was unnecessarily (in my opinion) long and would involve me back tracking several miles, the other albeit barely visible on the map, it looked direct. Half knowing the other road with its arrogant road number was likely to be in far better condition and probably an all round better option, I do tend to have this habit of favouring the exciting, ‘unknown’ alternatives. Perhaps a fear of boredom trumps that of rationality on occasion. Thus, armed with my trip motto- ‘I think it’ll be alright’- coined on the tough days in outback Australia, off I went.
Mile 1- The road started rubbly, this was nothing new, they always do.
Mile 5- The track narrowed with the condition of which deteriorating quite considerably-If i was initially dealing with the odd pothole, I was now navigating my way around giant land crevices.
Mile 10- Sand. In short, the combined contents of Bondi Beach and the Sahara Desert lay before me on a track no wider than about 3ft.
Mile 22- I finally make it to a secluded rural community in the midst of nowhere. They were about as surprised as to see me as I was them and I soon became the village entertainment; that being me slurping down orange juice. As I sat with them, attempting to converse, they looked confused by both my method of transport and my route, probably full well knowing that there was a pretty decent road several miles parallel to where I was. A few even made the sound of a moped, looking for a reason as to why I was pedalling? In sand? The ‘cultural difference’ couldn't even apply in this situation- no nationality voluntarily opts to pedal in sand. The physics- it just doesn’t add up. At this stage, I have to admit, as I stood there in the midday sun, sweat dripping from my entire body, a face full of orange sand, attempting to draw up an explanation for my current activity, it was hard to put across that ‘I’m living the dream’- because it has to be said, it didn't look immediately obvious.
Mile 45- Several hours later, several miles spent wading my bicycle through sand listening to the likes of Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs (it felt appropriate), I finally made it to the paved road. A few hundred metres short I could see the speeding traffic in the distance with its shiny, grey gravel. I cant quite put into word that feeling of euphoria. It felt like Christmas and come to think of it, it was.
It goes without saying that breakfast is important part of anyones days, its the kickstart we need, the difference between a useful and a useless human being and when daily life involves pedalling for 7 hours, that morning meal becomes all the more important. As I pass from one country to the next, unsurprisingly that morning meal changes. All I really want is muesli. I love muesli. But South East Asia doesn’t do muesli, thus one must constantly adapt. Little did I know what Cambodia had in store for me though; A muffin like no other- a golden nugget off goodness hidden in the depths of mundane breakfast rice and veg. I had essentially come across rocket fuel in the form of a baked good. 1 muffin down and I was flying down that road (#TheHumbleCycleTourer). In fact I was becoming heavily reliant on the morning muffin, to the stage at which upon entering a town, I found myself on high alert hunting down the muffin for tomorrows breakfast. I needed the muffin. Or did I need a muffin support group? Its unclear, since arriving in Laos I’v been forced to go cold Turkey on the muffin and life hasn't quite been the same since. I’d considered harnessing a batch onto to that back of my bicycle to carry me through my onward travels but the idea of declaring the muffin to the border officials at customs had me decide otherwise….
The Angkor Wat temples and the ticket
When one travels to Cambodia, a trip to the bustling tourist hub of Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Wat temples is almost certainly on the cards and its unsurprising once you see this magnificent sight- they really are an architectural masterpiece. Naturally though, whenever you hit the tourist trail, inevitably there are usually a few entrance fees to part with- not easy for the budget cycle tourer, particularly when my days spent riding a bicycle offer me more than enough free sights to feed my visual appetite. Nonetheless, I couldn't pass up the chance to see these temples, after all they were a ‘must see’; So there I was standing in line for my ticket, to be honest I didn't know which line to be standing in, so, being British I naturally found myself gravitating towards the longest one- we love to queue and a long queue must only be a good thing. After a long (but pleasant) wait, I had finally made it to the front. I had the correct change ready, one simple transaction and the ticket would me mine. At least thats what I thought until I acknowledged the small camera sitting on the upper left hand side of the ticket booth- aha, I knew exactly what was coming- I was going to walk away from this transaction with a ticket displaying my face, and as expected, the lady politely asked me to look into the lense of camera. Now there are some things in life that feel unnatural, however cool and casual we try and act, there are some situations that never seem to get any easier- being asked to look into a small camera, with 95 queuing onlookers judging you and your chosen snapshot expression, is one of them. Firstly, do we smile? I mean, in short its being used as a security measure, somehow smiling feels a little ‘lighthearted’ for the occasion, but if we don’t smile we come across as overly severe and I’m not sure I want my identity to be associated with that of aggression. And then, once you feel you’ve nailed the ‘happy eyes, but sensible straight faced’ facial expression, you’re then dealt another socially awkward hurdle; How long do we maintain this facial expression? How long am I required to continue staring into the lense? After all, no one has prompted me to return back to facial normality? For all you know, they took the photo on the third second and now you’re just completely creeping out the poor soul on the other end of the camera with your ‘mustn’t blink, but must look bright eyed, but must maintain professionalism’ stare. #FirstWorldProblems
So having journeyed through Cambodia, I am now mid way through Laos, where I will continue to follow the Mekong river up into Laos’ hilly north. Yet again, South East Asia has spoilt me, for what Laos lacks in curiously high energy baked goods, it certainly makes up for in scenery.