Friday 25th March
Five months ago, we sat in the living room of my parents’ house and planned our South East Asian route. From Bangkok, we decided that we would head north first, to make the most of the cool season, and to challenge ourselves with mountains before we got too lazy. Then we would turn east and travel down the coast, to benefit from the cool sea breezes and be on the right side of the prevailing wind. It was a good plan, but it had a weak link: we would have to head south and inland just as the hot season really got going.
A couple of months back we had been told that there were big roadworks between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which made cycling really difficult.
For these two reasons, I had been spending some time looking at a map of Cambodia, willing there to be a better route to Siem Reap than National Highway 6. I researched taking a boat, cycling a much longer route along NH5 and even skipping Phnom Penh and going over the Cardamom Mountains in the south west. For one reason or another all of these options seemed like a worse choice for us.
Finally, without much enthusiasm I accepted that our best choice was NH6.
The roofs of roadside stalls were built with these palm leaves.
While the landscape was dull, the people were fun! Lots of waves, big smiles and greetings kept us from sinking into a stupor as we pedalled. When we stopped to buy a drink at stalls or petrol stations, chairs would often be set out for us, and questions would be asked in English or Khmer. Cambodian people are really making me love Cambodia.
By midday we arrived in the attractively-named(!) Skun. I had read that the best-looking restaurants are out of town, so we stopped near them in a decent place called the Phnom Meas Hotel ($15 for an air conditioned room – we are living it up these days!).
Skun has an interesting local speciality, which I was (sort of) interested to try. It’s spider.
We found these beauties at a small marketplace near our hotel. As soon as I saw them I got the heebeegeebies and started saying “Oh my god” and giggling like an insane person.
The woman at the stall took one and put it into my hand. It was about as long as my palm, and I could see the hairs on its back!
“2000 riel for one,” she told us.
It was almost certainly a tourist-inflated price, but seeing as it was still only 35p we happily paid and left with our spider in a little plastic bag.
After the obligatory spider-eating poses were completed we each nibbled on a leg (Eric suggested recreating a certain famous scene from Lady and the Tramp) before gaining confidence and going in for the full chomp. Eric had the top half, I had the bottom half.
It was dry and crispy, with a salty, shrimpy taste, which I think came more from the seasoning than the spider. It took me quite a long time to chew the abdomen, and I was quite glad once I managed to swallow it. But basically once it was eaten, I concluded that it was really not a big deal.
I also concluded that I now never had to eat a spider ever again.
Saturday 26th March
Still full of delicious spider, we just had one small leftover banana for breakfast. It was in fact too hot for us to feel hungry. All day, we only wanted water and fizzy drinks.
Today’s sights from the road…
A traditional ceremony for a young boy and a young girl. They are dressed in ornate clothing and are flanked by the villages’ inhabitants, who are carrying offerings. As we passed, somebody started banging a gong.
We also passed by a few weddings, which looked quite western, with marquees, chairs with a cover and bow over them, and people in suits and dresses. There was always insanely loud Cambodian music blasting out.
We thought we were drinking lots, but it was still not enough. By the time we reached the Seng Chhen Horn Guesthouse both of us had headaches and felt exhausted. (I would really recommend this guesthouse by the way, it’s a nice place and the staff are excellent. $8 for a room with a fan.)
After dragging ourselves to the bakery next door for lunch, we passed out in our room. I woke up at 3.30PM still trying to fend off a headache and generally feeling rough.
I would have quite liked to just lie in bed and drink water, but there are some interesting ruins called the Sambor Prey Kuk Temples nearby that I didn’t want to miss. I had heard about them from Bethy, who I met with in Phnom Penh.
Eric was even more tired than I was, so I left him napping and arranged some transport with the hotel staff ($15 there and back in a tuk-tuk, and $3 entry to the ruins). I was going quite late in the day, but would still be able to make it to the main sites.
As it was getting late he offered to drive me from site to site, and even gave me a pretty decent guided tour.
The temples are spread out within a forest, and were built by various Angkor kings between the fifth and seventh century (before Angkor Wat). The Angkor empire was once very powerful, and controlled almost all of South East Asia.
This was the most amazing temple. It was completely covered in a strangler tree.
Socktin also showed me a pond that used to be full, but was now more of a puddle. He said that in the last few years the rain has hardly come, the heat has risen and the farmers find it harder to grow their crops. A few months ago a park ranger in the north of Thailand told us a similar thing: it hasn’t rained for five years in some areas surrounding Chiang Mai, the river is getting lower and farmers may have to stop growing rice and start producing something less water-dependent. Is South East Asia getting hotter and dryer?
We took the scenic route back, passing through small villages as dusk fell. There were plenty of kids playing and quite a few people cycling along holding a chubby baby in one arm.
After many thanks to Socktin I got back to the hotel room, tried my best to force down some food, showered and slept.
Sunday 27th March
While at the bakery we met a Taiwanese cycle tourist who was travelling in the opposite direction. During the usual information swap he gave us some welcome news: the road condition from here to Siem Reap was good. We’d been waiting for the terrible road works we’d been warned about to appear, but it looked like they were all over, and we were the lucky ones who got a nice new road to cycle on!
With a decent breakfast and more stops for drinks we were in much better shape, and reached our target – Kampong Kdei – before midday. We had a look at the Ngov Peang guesthouse, but found the room on offer to be quite depressing. It was early and we were feeling good, so we decided to push on to Siem Reap.
Stopping at a nearby petrol station, we bought cookies and drinks, and then used the wifi to book ourselves a nice guesthouse in Siem Reap. Now we were committed to getting there.
The scenery has been pretty dull and same-y, but it has given us a chance to see what rural Cambodian houses look like.
Because Cambodia has such a small population, houses can be spread out from each other, and my guess would be that people essentially build them where they like in rural areas. They are typically on stilts and made of wood, with a wide yard and a surrounding stick fence. They are also often surrounded by lots of trees, and always look slightly unique.
Today we would be smashing our cycle touring personal best of 79 miles. We actually made this distance on our third day, cycling from Alton to Eastbourne. On that day we were inexperienced, pulling a lot of unnecessary weight and navigating a fairly complex route with a few hills thrown in. It had taken us 12 very hard hours in the saddle.
Today we were carrying a lot less and just had to keep plodding down one straight, flat road. Aside from the heat, the situation was right for us to wrack up a lot of miles.
The last fifteen miles were hard, but we were proud to finally break the 100 mile mark… and really glad to arrive at our lovely air conditioned room in Siem Reap! We’d started at 7AM and finished at 3.30PM. We were very tired. The only thing that could make us drag ourselves from our room was the thought of dinner.
(While we were eating at this restaurant the couple next to us told another person: “Yeah, we’ve had a really long journey today.” You should have seen Eric’s face!)