The border crossing into Cambodia at Choam was little more than a small bamboo hut with a few border guards milling around the place, chatting and laughing. We were given our arrival forms and directed to fill them out at a table and chairs where a Cambodian guy was lounging around, smoking and drinking tea. We didn’t pay him a great deal of attention as we focused on correctly filling out our forms but it was soon grabbed when he requested that we pay him the fee for our Cambodian visa. We had read a lot about the corruption that can occur at some of the more popular border crossings into Cambodia and so it was with some unease that we handed over our $40 to this random guy who just happened to be sat at the same table as us. Our unease only increased when with a small crafty smile, he swiftly deposited the cash into his tatty briefcase. Our unease about this most unofficial-looking official, however, turned out to be unjustified as he rewarded us with an official-looking visa sticker in our passport and some helpful safety advice about the road ahead.
We spent our first night in the border town of Anlong Veng. Steve and I have come to learn that border towns are strange places – places inhabited by people living on the fringes of their own society – and this place felt the strangest of them all. Some of this we put down to learning that Anlong Veng was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, home to many of the notorious leaders, including Pol Pot and that it was as late as 1998 that this area fell under government control, finally ending decades of conflict in Cambodia. The town was dusty, wild-west feeling and seemed to lack a sense of joy. Steve visited the market and unlike the vibrant, bustling centres we have been used to in Southeast Asia, he found it to be utterly miserable with extremely poor people trying to sell sad-looking, fly-covered produce.
Steve and I handle entering a new country very differently. Steve loves throwing himself in there, trying to establish the going rate for things, working out what food and drinks are available, what the people are like and the general feel for the place. I, on the other hand, much prefer to ease myself in gently. I find it slightly overwhelming when the rug of security built from what I have learnt over my time in the previous country is so roughly pulled out from under me. I am amazed at how different a country can be from its neighbour when all you are doing is stepping over a man-made line but I also feel at a loss over all the new things that I need to learn or get used to – currency, language, road standards, traffic, accommodation, food, drink, peoples’ ways, terrain. But Steve and I now recognise that it is ok that we have our different ways.
So as Steve happily explored the outside world, I holed up that first evening in the sanctitude of the guesthouse, avidly learning the words for hello, please and thank you, what customs I shouldn’t offend, places that we may pass through and having a little nap to give my brain the time to catch up and process all the day’s new sights and sounds. When we reconvened, each reporting back what we had learnt, we both felt a little more confident about the days ahead.
Setting off on our first full day of cycling in Cambodia, we were aiming to do a big 130 kms to reach the city of Siem Reap (it actually turned out to be more like 140 kms). The country is certainly very flat but this means the wind has nothing to stop it from gathering pace. Great if you have a tailwind, but not so great if you are, as we were, cycling into it. And continue to cycle into it we did throughout our whole time in Cambodia. Added to this, and I know I am not going to get any sympathy from you folks back home in the UK, the weather was intensely hot. It was reaching the late 30s/early 40s with little shade.
Following months of hot weather, my face finally gave up and started to react badly to the sun. We were getting increasingly concerned as I began to look more and more like a pork scratching. Although Steve’s beard is reaching epic proportions, it is good sun protection and I bet he will have skin like a baby’s bottom under there if and when he finally shaves it off. My attempts at cultivating such a beard failed and so I started to wrap my face in a claustrophobic scarf in order to prevent arriving home too weathered but if I do, having read and laughed at this quote by 83 year old Mavis Leyrer, I won’t feel too bad.
‘The object of life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, ‘Holy Shit, What a Ride!!!’
The good news was that stretched along the road it seemed every household had an ice cooler outside with a couple of big lumps of ice keeping a multitude of drinks semi-cool. That first day it felt like we wiped out the road’s whole water supply – we just couldn’t drink enough. Oddly, nowhere sold large bottles of water and so we had to push aside our guilt at the complete waste of plastic as we guzzled small bottle after small bottle of water.
It should no longer surprise us how people in this part of the world can maximise space on vehicles to cram in as many people, personal belongings and animals as possible but we are always impressed. A new variant we saw in Cambodia was people squashed two deep jutting out from the back of an already packed mini-bus on the lowered tail-gate. All livestock seemed to be transported on the back of scooters – huge pigs lying on their backs with their trotters sticking straight into the air, knowing that they are not the little pig to get the roast beef. Ducks and chickens with their feet tied up and then hung upside down from any available space, their heads inches from the speeding road below them, some of the resigned to their fate, others straining their necks to see where they are going. It made me so uncomfortable seeing scooters pootle past with small cages with various types of pots and pans attached and four or five dogs yapping away inside. Steve made me laugh when he would assure me they were going to a new home, not into the pot.
The most bizarre livestock we saw being transported were cages of RATS! At one point I saw some guys at the side of the road transferring one set of rats from one cage to another after weighing them out. I ran over to ask if I could take a photograph. They were happy for me to do so but they really didn’t see what was so interesting about what they were doing. I did a little bit of research about these rats and found an article in the Guardian that rat meat may be a solution to the global food crisis and as beef prices are out of the reach of poor Cambodian people, demand for rat meat has dramatically increased. Spicy field rat with garlic? I still need a little convincing.
Seeing all those different foodstuffs being taken to market made me lose my appetite but Steve hadn’t. To get out of the sun, we found a place he could get something to eat. The floor of the ‘restaurant’ was just packed-dirt covered with used tissues, old bones, spit, empty drinks cans, fag ends and whatever else you would usually put in a bin. Hmmm, I was still not feeling hungry.
Steve went and pointed at a packet of instant noodles at the elderly lady who ran the joint. He came back looking all smug that he had successfully ordered a safe meal. The lady came over and presented to Steve his instant noodles after which his smug look instantly dissolved. She knew a tired cyclist needed a good meal inside them and couldn’t just eat a packet of instant noodles and so in order to jazz them up, the lady had kindly added all the choice bits of offal that she could find including a very generous helping of tripe. Yep, I still had no appetite. It was my turn to be smug that I had passed on lunch as Steve would pick up another bit of flesh and ask what I think it could possibly be. An oyster mushroom, I would encourage. With a couple of chews, no, it is definitely not a mushroom, Steve would say. He did make me proud eating the whole dish.
After a long hard day of cycling through rural Cambodia, we finally popped out in Siem Reap city and we could just melt into the background amongst the other tourists. Following our lunch experience we treated ourselves to a pizza and boy, did it taste good!
We spent a day cycling around the ancient temples of Angkor, including the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat. Cambodian people are extremely proud of the temples and rightly so. We saw only a few of them but you could quite literally spend days exploring the vast number built from the 9th to the 15th centuries when the Khmer empire was one of the greatest powers in Southeast Asia.
We did as our guidebook told us and got up nice and early to cycle to Angkor Wat for sunrise. I guess we weren’t the only ones who read that as coach after coach pulled up bringing more and more people. The temple itself was magnificent and to see it at sunrise was special but the clamour of people to get the best shot (us amongst them of course) took away some of the opportunity for quiet contemplation.
Not for the first time Steve and I laughed over the unwritten rules of taking photos at places of interest. The most important of which always seems to make sure you never get any other tourists in the photo to create the myth that you were the only people there and just happened to discover this wonderful place yourself. Despite thousands of photos in books and on the Internet shot by professional photographers, there seems to be a need in all of us amateurs to take a photo of these sights as if we can do better and as if by having the photo it proves we were there. Gradually we are becoming conscious that we don’t want to be experiencing these sights through a lens but to actually enjoy the view and contemplate its magnificence and magnitude rather than battling with other tourists for the spot to get the best shot. Having said that though, we still did take plenty of photos!
Whilst visiting the temples we bumped into Johnny and Houston. They quit their jobs in Canada and hit the road to cycle around Southeast Asia for a year before they get married. We met them the day before we headed into Cambodia and we kept leap frogging past each other for a couple of days to share the pain of headwinds and heat. It was great to meet up with them again although we couldn’t hide our envy when we found out that they had managed to find a hotel with a pool as we stood there literally dripping in sweat. We also met up with them again in Phnom Penh to share more tales and beers.
Heading out of Siem Reap, the headwinds and heat continued and without the extremely warm and friendly Cambodian people, we would have found the scenery a bit monotonous. The tens and tens of weddings we passed through the small villages were also very entertaining. With the sound systems cranked up, distorting the music terribly, and competing with the wedding four houses down the road, it was a racket!
Halfway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, we had our worst day for a long time. Steve woke up in the morning and said he felt slightly lightheaded and had fuzzy hearing but was good to cycle. We thought he might have an ear infection which if didn’t get better we could get checked out once we reached a proper city. On and on we cycled in the heat and gradually Steve got worse. His hearing was still funny and it was taking all his effort to focus on the road ahead. I could tell he had no energy left in his legs so I cycled as hard as I could to get us to the next town as quickly as possible. It was horrible to watch Steve getting increasingly weaker and I was scared as I didn’t know what to do. We were drinking so much water that I was pretty sure it couldn’t be dehydration and we kept taking regular breaks out of the sun.
At one point, we stopped to sit under some shade and a guy ran over to hang two hammocks for us which we really appreciated. After each break Steve would feel a little better but then not before long, he was feeling rotten again. As the day went on his eyes became more and more sunken and I have got to say I have never seen him look so unwell. Steve insisted that after this break he would be ok to get to town as it wasn’t too far now but I was frustrated as I just didn’t know what to do and knew that I should be the one taking control of the situation rather than just willing him to feel better.
Finally we reached town just as Steve looked close to passing out. We went to the first hotel we could find and moments after getting into the room he was vomiting and began to have dreadful cramps in his legs. It dawned on me that he must be suffering from heat exhaustion and although we had been drinking lots of fluids, he had had nothing to replace the salts he was profusely sweating. I felt so awful that I could have maybe prevented Steve from getting this way if I had made up an electrolyte drink for him – we had the packets. Why didn’t I just think?
That evening Steve was still rough but was feeling better after a cold bath, plenty of electrolyte drinks, massage of his legs and an air-conditioned room but having nothing left in his tank had clearly given Steve a scare. Reflecting on the events, I was mighty impressed with Steve’s strength to carry on despite feeling so unwell and I am sure that part of that was just because he didn’t want me to worry. But I am annoyed with myself that I didn’t take control of the situation when Steve was in no fit state to be making decisions. I should have considered flagging down a vehicle to get us to the next town rather than letting Steve carry on cycling. All I can say is that I have learnt an invaluable lesson and hope that next time I have the strength of character to take charge and make the right decisions.
We took the next day off so that Steve could recuperate and get his energy back. Taking a leisurely stroll around the sort of market we were used to was like a good dose of smelling salts and before long Steve felt he was good to go the next day.
The next day on the road started off gingerly but as we got into the swings of things and monitored how Steve was feeling we felt more confident. We had run out of electrolyte powder and so every pharmacy I saw I ran in to see if they had any. The language remained a barrier and sign language produced a wide range of antidotes to various ailments but none were what we wanted.
The pharmacies seemed to also act as healthcare centres and were truly depressing places. I was shocked to see very poorly people just lying on wooden beds attached to a drip with little else in terms of care. Putting people on a drip seemed to be the ubiquitous remedy to any ailment – we lost count of the number of people and children zipping along on a scooter holding a bamboo pole with an old coke bottle attached covered in a plastic bag and filled with a yellow liquid. I just couldn’t believe what we were seeing and willed that nothing serious were to happen to us here. I certainly appreciate how very lucky we are in the UK to have the healthcare system that we do.
We spent an evening in a place called Skuon also known as Spiderville thanks to its delicacy of black fried spiders the size of your hand. Before we managed to find somewhere to sleep lots of ladies approached me to see if I wanted some. I kept insisting I would once we had found a guesthouse. So you can imagine my disappointment that once we had found somewhere and had a shower and change, the ladies were no longer anywhere to be seen. Well, that was my dinner plans out of the window. We just had to settle for whatever we pointed out in one of the pots at a stall. Still not sure what it was but it was passable.
The next day we were heading to the capital, Phnom Penh. The day was hard again as the road was still being built and there was dust strongly blowing into our faces. Not only that but the road was narrow with large trucks passing with inches to spare and there were unavoidable potholes everywhere. Cycling in Cambodia wasn’t the easy ride we had thought it would be.
We stopped at a small stall to get out of the dust for a while. It was a bit of a crossroads and chaps would push each other out of the way as they legged it to the next minibus that turned up crammed with Cambodian people. We just couldn’t work out whether they wanted to get on the bus so it was first come first served or whether they were scooter taxis who would take people to the next destination along the smaller roads. Whatever they were up to they kept us highly amused with their attempts to beat the other guys to the prize.
On we cycled but suddenly I had that dreaded deep clenching in my stomach accompanied by a cold, clammy body shiver that can mean only one thing; a most immediate need for a WC. The option of dashing into undergrowth was no longer an option in Cambodia due to the danger of unexploded landmines – a horrific leftover from the tactics used by different factions in the country’s civil war. The many people we saw throughout Cambodia who had lost limbs to landmines was a very stark warning to heed the advice not to wander off the beaten tracks.
I couldn’t grit my teeth or nip those butt cheeks any harder as we went over pothole after darn pothole. Like a shining beacon, I finally saw a petrol station and ran over to the group of petrol attendants to ask if there was a toilet. They all pointed and watched as I dashed off in that direction. Despite Steve’s best attempts at distraction, they were still watching me when I had to dash back to get my own supply of toilet roll and watched me run back again, all knowing that I knew that they knew what the problem was. Thankfully during my preoccupation Steve managed to distract everybody by giving them all a whizz round the petrol lot on the tandem.
We spent a few days in Phnom Penh but it was so hot that we could barely walk a hundred metres before we decided we had better sit down and have a cold drink.
As in Siem Reap there were lots of children charging round trying to sell tourists various knick-knacks or just begging. Having read widely about how giving these children money will keep them in a state of poverty as they lose out on their education and that they won’t keep any of the money, you still feel incredibly mean saying no to them especially when they say it is to pay for their education. However, it doesn’t take long before they are distracted from trying to sell you things when they realise you are not going to bite.
Of course these children should be at school, not losing out on their childhood walking the streets of the city but I had a feeling that they still had a bright future. They all spoke good English, had excellent banter and humour, and an array of sales patter.
One eleven-year old girl made us laugh as she tried to convince us to play a game of papers, scissors, stone and if she lost she would give us something for free, and if we lost, we had to buy something. We didn’t take her up on that. Then she called Steve Mr Christmas. Then she cracked us up with her final line when we categorically said we would not be buying anything when in an American drawl she suggested ‘Open your mind, open your wallet’. Still not buying, she happily skipped off to gamble what she had earnt elsewhere with another bunch of child street sellers. Later we saw the winner, a younger girl, confidently strutting down the road after cashing in her winnings on a soft drink. Of course, everything should be done to help these children out of the cycle of poverty but a child’s knack of creating play in all sorts of situations is to be admired.
Whilst in Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that was converted by the Khmer Rouge shortly after winning the civil war into a prison and interrogation centres known as Security Prison 21. It is estimated that 17,000 people were detained here where they were repeatedly tortured, coerced to confess to supposed crimes and to name family members as traitors who then would also be detained and tortured. Out of these 17,000, only seven survived. When burial grounds near the prison began to run out, people were transferred to Choeung Ek extermination centre, known as the Killing Fields, where they were crudely battered to death to save on ammunition and buried in mass graves.
The buildings are preserved as they were left by the Khmer Rouge when they were driven out by Vietnamese forces in 1979. To walk around the former classrooms that were converted into cramped prison and torture cells where people were shackled with barbed wire around the windows to prevent the detainees from committing suicide was a most sombering experience and life here truly unimaginable. There were scores of black and white photos lining the walls of men, women and children who were photographed on their arrival and it was painful to see the clear terror in their eyes. Photos of their lifeless bodies after dying from the brutal torture inflicted upon them was too much to bear.
Preserving places from such a dark period of history are important to ensure that the events are never forgotten and to generate debate on why such atrocities occur to prevent them from happening again. But around the world they are still occurring so we both felt we left with more questions than answers as to how neighbour can turn on neighbour and the uncomfortable realisation that the dark side of human nature lies within us all.
It wasn’t before long though that the Cambodian people reminded us of what we had witnessed during our time with them that whilst there may be a dark side there is also an indomitable spirit of love, joy, warmth, kindness and laughter that we must all strive to ensure rules.
The people of Cambodia have been through years of pain from civil war, the terror of the Khmer Rouge rule, the subsequent famine of its failed ideology and the dreadful effects of the tactic of using landmines but today it is more than its history. It is a country that is full of optimism, humour, smiles and gentleness and I wish the people all my very best wishes to continue to rebuild into a country that embodies these values.