Cambodia Retrospective: It was okay : Bikepacking in Cambodia
Dates: December 18, 2018 – January 10, 2019
Location: 4000 Islands, Laos to Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Distance: 736 km cycled, many kilometers by bus and ferry
Photos by Brittany
Downloadable GPS track for this section is at the bottom of this post.
My Dad is one of the many proponents of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything”. Maybe I can say I was channeling that mantra as I maintained radio silence for our 24 day stretch in Cambodia. We had a great break from biking when friends from Canada visited, but that was location independent. When it comes to Cambodia as a cycling destination, it’s flat and boring, crazy hot, and has dangerous drivers.
It started off on the wrong foot as we crossed at the Stung Treng crossing, the most recent addition to the e-visa program. At the border we had the pleasure of bribing two different border guards. One just to tell us which building to go to, and the other to actually stamp the passport. They don’t really care that you know the “fees” are a lie but you’re kind of at their mercy once they insist.
Across the border we started noticing the evidence of Cambodia’s love affair with fire pretty quickly. The ground was blackened and scorched and before we reached the first town, we rode through the smoke and heat of an ongoing burn. These fires became a familiar sight, often unaccompanied by anyone even pretending to supervise.
From the border we cycled down to the city of Stung Treng by crossing a big, beautiful bridge over the Se Kong river, just as it reaches its confluence with the Mekong. For the next three days we did our best to follow the defunct “Mekong Discovery Trail”. The trail was a tourism initiative started with the support of the Dutch government that envisioned a network of trails for biking and kayaking along a 180 km stretch of the river. As far as we can tell, funding ran out in 2012 and large segments of the trail are now rarely travelled.
One exception is the island of Koh Preah, only 30 or 40 km south of Stung Treng. The town on the west side of the island still has a robust homestay network where different families take turns hosting. The success of this village is likely due to the outgoing and english-speaking school teacher that can spot you coming into town from the classroom window and has no qualms with skipping out on teaching to get you set up before returning to the school.
We spent one night here and can now understand how people can sleep in this climate. When we camp we are so hot that sleep seems impossible. In the nearly windowless, stilted houses, the air stays relatively cool through the day and since the entire floorplan can be used for sleeping at night, you can spread out from your neighbours a bit and get some air flow.
The day after Koh Preah we took the return ferry back to the mainland but here the trail’s discontinuity means you need to ride 20 km east to the highway, 18 km south, then 13 km west back to the river bank. The original trail plan was to take another ferry to a long island (more than 40 km) and ride its length on meandering tracks through the forest. There is no regular ferry at the north end, so we asked around to get a local boat to take us across.
Finding your way from the north end of the island to the south, where there is a village and a return ferry, can be a nightmare. Since people live along the banks, they mostly use boats to get around. The middle of the island is just a choose-your-own-adventure on the spider’s web of rutty tracks through the sand. You try your best to follow with frequent GPS checks just to see if your direction of travel is generally right. The sand also meant frequent hops off the bike to push. Progress was slow and we decided to make our only camp in all of Cambodia.
We hadn’t seen anyone in hours (but we had seen a section of the forest on fire) and we had come across a flat area that seemed decent for a tent. We yearned to swim but despite being on an island, we were smack in the middle and a few kilometers from the bank through the bush in the best case so we couldn’t wash or cool off. We cooked in the shade wearing only our underwear (or less) but the beads of sweat refused to budge in the still air. An outdoor viewing of the Jungle Book while day turned to night, and we crawled into the tent for a night of tossing and turning rather than sleep.
A long morning on gradually improving tracks brought us to Koh Phdao at the south of the island. We were fed up with the heat and wanted to get to the mainland ASAP so we didn’t stop and made our way directly to the ferry where Brittany did her best not to throw up as we waited for the overpacked ferry to move out and maybe catch a little breeze. Her best was good enough. On the mainland we managed to get our claws in some iced coffee and a bit of good humour returned. With grim housing options in town (Sambour) we dug deep to ride to the terminus of the Mekong Discovery Trail: Kratie.
The town of Kratie is littered with restaurants and hotels whose branding is tied to the existence of the Irrawaddy dolphin. Though apparently not a “true” river dolphin, a subpopulation lives in this ~200 km stretch of the Mekong from the 4000 Islands in Laos to Kratie. The bad news is that there are fewer than 100 dolphins left and one of the biggest threats to the dolphins is tourism. Boat tours are advertised everywhere but the dolphins are shy of boats and adopt avoidance tactics that generally disrupt their normal lives. I thought it was a weird boast when a tour operator told me the number of dolphins in Cambodia (around 90) and how it was more than Laos. Far bigger threats are fishing (both fishing with explosives and entanglement) and dams but we can’t do anything for that. We hoped to spot them from the shore at some point but were unlucky in this regard.
From Kratie all thoughts turned towards our imminent meetup with friends from Vancouver in Siem Reap, about 400 km ride away. The ride started out great with one last stretch of red dirt for 50 km and a nice little break where a family picked us milk fruit and also had to teach us what parts you eat. The flesh is delicious and filling but the milky juice leaves a residue like a skin on your lips which you can peel off after.
Once we got back on paved roads, and now that the river was in the rearview, the riding became repetitive and forgettable. The theme was heat, dangerous drivers, and old yellow rice paddies. We were scrimping a bit and forgoing AC in the hotels since it literally doubles the price (from about $6US to $12US) but also caused a lot more poor quality nights. Due to the large floodplains around Cambodia’s central lake, there are few alternate routes to the highway that make any sense. We did manage a few little detours that took us into the countryside but only for 15 km at a time.
On one adventurous detour, we followed a small road on the map over rickety scooter bridges and tiny towns but which terminated at a pond. We couldn’t see any way around it and were just beginning to backtrack when a local guy walked up who spoke a bit of English. We told him we were trying to get back to the highway. He picked up Brittany’s bike and walked through the pond with us in tow. On the far side, around some bushes, the track picked up again and we were able to get out to the highway without a punishing retracing.
We arrived in Siem Reap a day earlier than Alex and Nikki so we got a headstart on our vacation vacation by getting a hotel with a pool and eating real wood-fired pizza. Our days in Siem Reap were filled with shopping in a real grocery store, making pasta (rare) to welcome our friends with, and swimming in the pool. The third day was New Year’s Eve and the four of us rose at 4:30 a.m. to start our day of sightseeing the huge complexes of temples and ancient town sites north of the city. We watched the sun rise from Bakheng, continued to the “Tomb Raider” temple (Ta Prohm), onwards to Bayon and Baphuon at Angkor Thom, before finishing at the main event: Angkot Wat.
From Siem Reap we travelled by bus for a long day to Sihanoukville: the armpit of the country located on the sea side. Before reaching town, we first witnessed the bus company empty the toilet holding tank onto a parking lot in Phnom Penh before hosing it off (seemed like standard practice), saw a bus driver run and jump into a bus that was starting to roll away without the brakes on, and survived a harrowing trip with an insane bus driver who only calmed down after three separate people told him that we preferred to live. His best move was choosing the dirt shoulder of the oncoming lane as his passing lane in an attempt to jump by a handful of trucks.
Sihanoukville itself is one big construction site, and where there aren’t pits or scaffolding, there are casinos. We arrived in the evening so had to spend one night in town before we could take a ferry to Koh Rong Samloem: one of the islands in an archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. The islands are the stunning beaches, blue water, and jungle that you expect in the tropics. We saw one wild macaque and lots of birds and lizards, while also experiencing the edge of Tropical Storm Pabuk which left 30 000 people in evacuation centers in the much harder hit Thailand. The storm brought wind and rain to our island, with waves large enough to lap up against the foundation of the cottage we rented.
We stayed three nights during which time the supply boats were unable to make their daily journey. That meant by the last evening food options were slim everywhere on the island. Not a big deal but it was funny to notice that the dish Brittany kept ordering suddenly lacked pineapples, which had been a main focus the day before.
Leaving the island and catching the bus to Phnom Penh was another exercise in willing ourselves to be calm as schedules fell apart and aggressive driving remained the norm, but we arrived in one piece for one last day in the capital. The four of us toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields just south of the city. I’m not well-equipped to comment on this period of Cambodia’s history, but the museums are extremely well-organized and the audio guides and photos are graphic and affecting. There was a sombre mood in the tuk-tuk as we considered what it means to have more than a fifth of a country’s population die in under four years.
That night we had to say goodbye to Alex and Nikki as they were taking off to India the following morning. We were back on our own but eager to ride again. We returned to Siem Reap by bus and retrieved our bikes from storage. Since the area north of Siem Reap is very quiet, we chose to do a big day of 127 km to Anlong Veng where we knew there were some guesthouses. This is the town Pol Pot lived in in the late 90’s before dying in April 1998, the night it was announced the Khmer Rouge planned to turn him over to an international tribunal.
500 meters from the Thai border we pulled over to the small site where he was cremated unceremoniously. No one else was around and the signs are old and faded. I think we both felt a bit disgusted before remounting our bikes, crossing the street (they drive on the left in Thailand), and exiting Cambodia. At this small crossing, things were smooth and no extra fees were demanded – a nice treat on our way out the door.
10 Riding Days
Very flat, very hot at midday, dirt is smooth and not washboard. Paved roads are generally better than Laos but traffic is more dangerous. For some reason the tracks from the last day aren’t showing up on the map but you can hover over the elevation plot to trace the route.