21st to 23rd December – Don Khone, Champasak and Pakse – Le temps de frappe la rue!!

After spending a few days (and one more than planned) relaxing on Don Khone, we were excited about getting back on the bikes and doing our first proper cycle day in Laos.
CIMG7864First things first though – we had to get off the island. We had been told there CIMG7868was a ferry at 8:15am – too late for us now hardcore dawn risers. So we got up and emerged from our Bungalow at 6:15am hoping that we could find someone to take us across. Low and behold, right in front of our Bungalow was a man sifting water out of his boat and after some kindle based communication we ascertained he could take us over to the mainland.

CIMG7872It then turned out that the boat we had stumbled upon was in fact the local “commuter” ferry and we were it’s first passengers. It did several stops around different points of the island picking up more and more people and cargo. We thought it was full after the second stop but no! They kept piling on. Eventually at the last stop they realised that if they let anyone else on the boat would probably sink. The result was that they had to leave two old ladies squatting on the shore. We felt a little guilty – our bikes and us taking up room for at least 6 locals! However, if you snooze you lose!!!

_MG_9428We made it safely over to the mainland by 7:30am and had a quick, slightly overpriced noodle soup breakfast on the beach before it was time to ‘frappe la rue‘ (our new slogan!). Having been used to the bumpy bumpy roads of Cambodia the 96km flew by on the beautiful and quiet Highway 13 (lucky for some) – even with the rolling hills.  We even found petrol stations! With toilets, food and, importantly, ice creams – something that didn’t seem to exist in Cambodia.

_MG_945896km complete we stopped for a late lunch (more noodle soup!) before we went on the hunt for guesthouses. Here we met some Spanish lesbians who had said we should head over to a lovely island 10km away, where there was a community homestay. We ummed and arred but eventually settled on a guesthouse 1km up the road (the recent memories of our _MG_9509last “island based homestay” still strong in our minds). The restaurant at the guesthouse provided us with a delicious dinner, unfortunately however Jess was still suffering intermittently from our Cambodian stomach troubles and didn’t get much sleep that night. (Not ideal when the room only comes with a “squat loo”…)

_MG_9445Luckily, as Jess was still feeling ill, we only had a short ride to Champasack the next day. This included yet another boat over the Mekong (hopefully our last for a while), and then a few kilometres to the town, where we stopped to visit the ruins of the unfortunately named ‘Wat Phu’!!! (This is funny because “Ph” is pronounced as an aspirated “P” in the transliteration from Laotian to Latin script…)

_MG_9454Jess still wasn’t feeling very well and so spent her visit napping next to the ancient ruins while Sam explored.

The guidebook had told us there was an Italian restaurant in town, so once Jess had had another nap back at the guesthouse and was feeling better, we headed there for a lovely dinner.

_MG_9463Another early rise and we were on our way to Pakse, again only a short ride away. In a way it was a bit of a shame the ride was so short because it was truly lovely scenery, the road winding it’s way between the hills, past hills and over rivers.

On our way we met 2 groups of cycle tourers. The first were 2 Aussie guys on road bikes with the smallest amount of stuff we’ve ever seen. (Not that we’re self conscious about the amount we’re carrying.) The second, an older Dutch couple, with much much more stuff than _MG_9496us, but with pristinely clean & matching bikes, panniers and outfits! Initially we assumed it must be their first day on the road (like the Aussies) however it turned out they had been cycling for 3 weeks already. How they had kept their bikes that clean we will never know since ours, (even though we had done a pretty good job (we thought) of cleaning them the day before,) still looked like they had been through several dust storms! (Not that we’re in any way self conscious of the state of our bikes of course… (mostly, the dirt doesn’t show up on Sam’s bike any way because of all the gaffer tape he’s had to used to cover up the scratches in the paint work!)…)

_MG_9484_MG_9498We made it to Pakse in good time, pausing only briefly to get a quick iced coffee (this then turned into quite a long break as the iced coffee was practically a bin bag full and it took a very long time to get through), and shaking slightly from caffeine overload, checked into a nice hotel. We then had a great Indian for lunch and spent the afternoon buying supplies for our trip onto the Bolevan Plateau._MG_9500

4000 islands to the town of Ban Nongsim where we stayed the first night.

Ban Nongsim to Champassak.

Champassak to Pakse

18th, 19th and 20th December – Stung Treng to Don Khone (4000 islands) – 92km – Greeted by the beautiful roads of Laos

It was time for us to leave Cambodia, and after the experiences of the last few days we were both quite looking forward to getting into Laos!

_MG_9282This could perhaps be why today we managed our most efficient departure yet and were on the road by 7:30am, despite having to unpick our bikes from the wedding that had grown up around them during the night. The ride up to the remote border crossing of Trapeang Kriel was pretty uneventful, being one of the most sparsely populated areas we had visited in Cambodia and we had the newly tarmacked road almost to ourselves all of_MG_9291 the way!

The border itself was a bizarre place – like the road – almost deserted! Having got away with not being overcharged for ‘overtime fees’ ‘health checks’ or ‘stamp fees’ at the Poipet border crossing into Cambodia we were hoping to repeat the experience here. Initially we got _MG_9299away with it and after politely declined the request by the Cambodian border official to pay the ‘stamping fee’ were stamped out of Cambodia & given our passports back.

Round 1 had been a knock out, and we were ready for round 2 against the Laotian immigration officials. This proved not to be so straight forward. We paid for the visas, and then when the oh-so-friendly _MG_9330man at in the both (the window for which was so low that you had to kneel down to see in) asked for his $2 ‘stamping fee’ we tried our tactic again and declined the offer. This sadly did not have the desired effect as the official simply looked bemused and our passports remain unstamped, and in his possession.

Plan B was to ask for a receipt for these $2es, but sadly the logic of this request evaporated in the face of the man’s blunt refusal. We again said we weren’t going to pay, and allowed this to sink in for about 10 minutes before _MG_9339finally pulling out Jess’s master stroke, which was to call the man a ‘f****r’. When even this failed to get our passports stamped we begun to realise that it was only a matter time, and after another 5 minutes we paid the ransom and were reunited with our confiscated documentation.

We then had the joy of passing several large shiny SUV’s on our way out, presumably paid for by the hundreds of dollars they must make each day by holding foreigners passports hostage!

Our anger didn’t last long though as we were greeted with our first Laotion road. Beautifully smooth and silk like after Cambodia! The kilometres started to fly by and we even had time to stop on the way to see the biggest waterfall in South East Asia (according to the sign), and it was pretty impressive.
_MG_9337We completed the final 10k to Nagasang, where we paused in a road side cafe to grab our first bowl of communist growl, which turned out to be a very nice noodle soup, complete with communist spoon. (We have since found _MG_9354that literally every local restaurant in southern Laos seems to serve exactly the same standard issue noodle soup. So it’s lucky that we quite like them.) We then caught a very small boat across to Don Dhet with 2 other tourists – who made the most of a unique knack for throwing their weigh around, nearly tipping us and our bikes into the Mekong!

_MG_9355Our original plan had been to stay on Don Dhet island, but after cycling around a bit and then finding the bridge to Don Khone, we decided this island looked nicer and so opted to stay here instead. As we had done our fair share of home-stays recently we decided to splash out a bit on a £15 a night plush air conditioned riverside Bungalow, complete with private balcony and hammocks overlooking the river! Guns cracked open his first Lao beer (imaginatively branded “BeerLao”) and we settled down for a few days relaxing and exploring the island!
_MG_9407_MG_9367Our first day on the island saw us visit another waterfall (after cycling around the whole island looking for it), on the way witnessing a domestic argument where things were thrown! We then got to watch a child being smacked by it’s mother (although on the plus side this had a lovely view out over the Mekong in the background)! After this we decided it was safest to retreat to the chalet to read our books and write up some blogs.
_MG_9381All very relaxing these islands…_MG_9415

15th-17th December – Kratie to Strung Treng – 52km, 45km, 63km – Death on the Mekong Discovery Trail

_MG_9158The timing of our first bought of travellers sickness couldn’t have been worse and meant that we had to delay departure for a day, and so were unable to cycle with Lara as planned.

A day behind her, we set off on the first leg of the trail, backtracking slightly and heading over the river on another ferry to the other, less visited, side of the river. Here we took a combination of motorbike trails and village roads, following the river north. About halfway along we stopped to eat some tangerines, but this was hampered slightly as we were immediately swarmed by yet another large group of children!
_MG_9177_MG_9152About 30km up the river we headed back across on a different ferry, and were joined by some pigs and a chicken being transported on motorbikes – Cambodian style! We then rode up the east side for another 15km or so on some nicely paved roads before getting our third ferry of the day onto Koh Padao, an island, which we planned to ride the length of the following day. _MG_9198

We were a little worried that the home-stays we had heard about at the South end of the island wouldn’t exist, but we needn’t have because as we got off the boat we were greeted by a sign telling us that there were in fact 11 home-stays, which apparently worked on a rotation system. At the village junction, a child pointed us down the road to_MG_9205 the left (initially we were sceptical it has to be admitted, but her dad turned up and pointed in the same direction) and we promptly found a suitable home-stay who were happy to have us for the night!

Our lovely host  greeted us as the door and we were shown to where we would be sleeping. The next challenge was working out what the washing situation was, and this _MG_9212was made harder by the fact that we had managed to find the only people in the country who’s English was actually worse than our Khmer. (Fortunately someone had provided handy communication cards, with both the English and Khmer, these would have been even more handy if the man had had his glasses and therefore been able to read them!).

T_MG_9222he bathroom consisted of a large trough of water, which  we weren’t sure whether we were supposed to get in or use to bucket wash ourselves. We improvised and did a combination of the two! We think in fact that maybe they wash themselves outside in the yard…

A delicious dinner was provided for us and then Sam spent the evening learning Khmer with our host, using the Kindle phrasebook as a translation tool! We both agreed it had been one of the best days of the trip so far… if only we had known what was in store the next day!

3 words spring to mind…. MEKONG DEATH TRAIL…

_MG_9182The bit of the Mekong Discovery Trail that every cycle tourist seems to find toughest is the 38km section that goes from the bottom Koh Padau Island to the top. Generally they have follyed in some way, forgotten they’re GPS, not had enough water, got off the ferry in the wrong place, and generally made the sort of amateur mistake that we, in our infinite and unbounded wisdom and experience would never (ever) make. (And anyway, it’s not like any one has ever posted a blog saying that they died doing the Island, so we knew we were safe…)

We’d read the warnings, we’d loaded up our GPS, anything that could hold water was filled to bursting, and we were carrying enough bread and sticky rice to refloat the Cambodia economy. With this level of preparation nothing could go wrong.

_MG_9245The first 5k flew by, through rural villages, where for the first time since arriving in Cambodia people would shout “soouh suh dai” (rather than the rather boring “hello”) as we past.

The second 5k didn’t fly, but rather bumped past, as the track got less path-like and more rutted, peaks and troughs already starting to cause an occasional hazard for us on our heavily laden bicycles. Even this though was more than cyclable, and for a while we were thinking such naive thoughts as “oh isn’t this fun” and “nice to be getting off the beaten track a bit”.

CIMG7855The first patch of sand was annoying, and we had to push our bikes for a good 200m metres before we were able to get back on them and start cycling again. This was then followed by the second patch of sand, which lasted about 3km… and then the third, which lasted about 9km… that of course doesn’t include all the little patched of sand between that would occasionally throw us from our bikes and then disappear.

We’d expected to be off the other end of the island by midday. Instead, by lunch time, we still had 16 km to do and the last time had been able to actually do any cycling seemed like a very long time ago.

_MG_9247It was Sam who, after another abortive attempt to cycle ended with him having to leap from his bike as it slipped into the sand, lost his temper first. He was still suffering rather from the food poisoning of two days before and was beginning to feel rather weak from the effort and the heat. There was little option than to carry on though, and so that’s what we did.

CIMG7861For a stretch of a good 2 km the sand disappeared (as largely did the path) and we were able to get back on the bikes and spent a relatively happy 15 minutes or so crashing through the undergrowth! This however was short lived and sand soon came back. Shortly after cracks started appearing in Jess’s psychological armour… and shortly after that Jess broke, and broke hard.

_MG_9254By 3 o’clock we still had 6k to do, the sand was back with a vengeance and we had both started hallucinating. Jess was convinced that the forest around us was full of animals, and Sam kept looking at the surrounding trees and mistaking them for Jess… Eventually things got so bad in Sam’s head that he retreated into his “happy place”, which for Sam (it turns out) is the Corinium Pub in Cirencester, where for a few blissful moments he was enjoying a cool crisp pint of Cotswold Way… until another jolt in the road cruelly brought him back to reality, and all he had to refresh him was some of our much depleted water reserves.

4 o’clock, with 3k to go the path became littered with fallen trees and bamboo meaning we had to either drag our bikes through or find a way round (whilst paying attention to avoid land mines). This slowed us down further and so it wasn’t until nearly 5 o’clock that we finally appeared at the other end of the island and in the middle of a local woman’s farms!

_MG_9264She ushered us to a fisherman’s boat who ferried us across the the river and thankfully away from the island forever! This would have been an incredibly happy occasion for us both, if it hadn’t been that the village on the shore only had one home stay, the owner of which had cottoned onto the fact that all the westerners who arrive at this village are physically and mentally empty, and probably incapable of cycling the 60k down the road to the nearest competing place to sleep. With a hand that strong the game of haggle poker that Sam played with the man was short, and rather one-sided, and so we had to pay the $20 he demanded for food & a place to sleep….

Another dawn rising in the home stay the next morning was followed by about 14km dirt road, and finally, like a holly light at the end of a very long tunnel, we emerged onto the tarmacked highway! Jess couldn’t contain her excitement:

_MG_9279We burnt up the 63k as if we were flying, arriving in our final Cambodian destination of Stung Treng shortly before lunch. We found quite a nice little hotel to shack up in for the night, and took extreme joy in the hot shower.

Day 1 (the really nice day) between Kratie and the south of the island:

Day 2 (the horrendous day) up the length of the island:

Day 3 (pretty uneventful day) from the village opposite the top of the island to Stung Treng:

12th and 13th December – Champong Cham to Chlong (90km) and Chlong to Kratie (30km) – We find a friend!

_MG_8983Sunrise from our balcony view out over the Mekong pays testament to the fact that we were now getting into the swing of early rising, and actually enjoyed getting up at 5:30am (for once)! After a quick detour via the Bamboo bridge for some last minute photos and a stop at the bakery we were on our way.

_MG_9009Although our next destination was on the other side of the river, we had heard that the best ride from here was to stay on the East and then take the ferry across. We headed along a beautiful, tree lined and mainly tarmacked (hoorah!) road winding through some more Mekong villages. Our journey was broken by a visit to a hillside Wat with wonderful views over the river, and then we hit the last section of dirt road to the town of Strong Treng, where we stopped for some food before getting the ferry across to _MG_9035the other side.

Unfortunately the road conditions on the other side of the river deteriorated somewhat and we were back to the bumpy, dusty dirt track. After _MG_9056beginning to think once again that we must be mad for riding this road, we came across Lara, an Aussie girl riding solo in the same direction. (This in no way disproved any doubts about our sanity, but at least we weren’t the only ones.)
_MG_9037_MG_9112With our team population now swelled to three we pressed on further north, and the shear combined optimism quickly improved the road surface, and sped us along. Before we knew where we were, we were in Chlong, and we knew it!

We knew it because it was almost as bad as the various blogs and web pages had said it was going to be. The first guest house started by saying that a room was 3000 RIL (60p), but this quickly _MG_9099increased to $7 (probably due to hyper-inflation). We therefore pressed on and ended up in a slightly worse, but less expensive guest house further into “town”. (In fact, this guest house has recently been ranked “worst accommodation of the trip so far” so well done Chlong!)

_MG_9132The next day was a very short one with only 30k to do before Kratie. We, worried about looking soft in front of our new team mate, clawed our way out of bed at the crack of dawn, only to find that she was only just waking up when we knocked on her door at 06:45! Which was nice. We then boxed off the 30k before 10:30, proving that cycle touring is easy!!

_MG_9137Having arrived in Kratie we then started planning our next few days cycle. Sam had for a long time been trying to convince Jess with very little success to tackle the toughest part of the Mekong Discovery trail, the dreaded Island of Koh Khnhera!

Type “Mekong Discovery Trail” into google and you get a very professional looking website giving routes up the Mekong by _MG_9071bicycle with lots of photos of happy people in exotic place (although this does something redirect to a dodgy medical drugs site instead and we haven’t been able to work out why). Scroll down a bit, and you find the next 20 or so suggestions offered by Google are pretty much all cycle blogs recounting various attempts to cycle the trail, all of which end in varying shades of disaster and strife.

_MG_9069Fortunately Lara was also keen and this spurred Jess into a new exploratory zealous.

The rest of the afternoon was therefore spent planning for “our toughest challenge yet”. We hit the town market, and picked up food, water, hammocks, meths for Lara trangia, rope, and then when all was done we stopped for a quite bite to eat in relatively nondescript tourist cafe (Star Guesthouse)…

By the time we’d got back to the hostel Sam was already feeling a bit strange, _MG_9044and he then spent the rest of the evening “shouting into the giant white telephone”. Jess, although not quite as ill as Sam, also didn’t stray far from the bathroom.

Sadly the next morning we had to say goodbye to Lara (who had not visited the cafe with us), and spent the rent of the day moaning and clutching our stomachs.

The route for Champong Cham to Chlong

and the route for Chlong to Kratie

10th and 11th December – Phnom Phen to Champong Cham – 107km – Mud, sweat and gears…

Having had a great time in Phnom Penh with Ruth, it was time for us to leave the city and head up the Mekong towards Laos and do some proper adventure cycling.

_MG_8824We knew things were going to get a bit more of a challenge and so we made a concerted effort to get up early and actually left by 7:30am – a new record for us. Good job too – as today was going to be tough! The first and easiest part of the day (by comparison) was spent navigating up out of the city and up the highway, which consisted mainly of potholes or missing parts of a very dusty road( – although they appear to be in the process of upgrading)! In fact the large sections of dirt running along one side were often easier going than the crater filled main road, because at least your chances of getting flattened were significantly reduced…

_MG_8827Fortunately we weren’t planning on being on this “highway” for all that long, as we had decided to follow the Mekong along some smaller roads… which were likely to be in even worse condition… but it would at least save us from the traffic and was sure to take us a “of the beaten track” a little.

_MG_8836To begin with the road was in fact very nicely tarmacked, and we whizzed along, catching our first glimpse of the river. The villages got more and more rural, and as they did the road got bumpier and bumpier, and the children got more and more excited to see us pass.

_MG_8844Even your average Cambodian child descends into a near frantic fit of shouting and waving when he (or she) sees a foreign cyclist go past, but on these more minor roads it was obviously a much rarer occurrence as the children here would completely loose it!

_MG_8850It can get a little tiring, waving with one hand, and ineffectually trying to avoid pot holes with the other, the whole time feigning a cheery smile and continually having to shout “Hello” in response to literally hundreds of deranged children, and eventually Jess cracked.

_MG_8859To try and put her back together we stopped at a Wat to eat our baguettes with peanut butter. A big mistake, as we were instantly surrounded by a large group of about 30 locals. To begin with they just stared, and then (when we didn’t do any thing more interesting that just sit and eat) they stared some more. Eventually Sam’s continual attempts to make small talk through the aid of the phrase book he had downloaded onto his kindle drove most of them away.

CIMG7837Only the children remained (obviously interested to know about the weather). Sam decided to give them a quick lesson in bike maintenance, helping fix the dynamo light on one child’s bike and explaining (with interactive demonstrations) various bits of bike paraphernalia (mostly that he had, and they didn’t)!

_MG_8881Even after lunch the road continued to be an undulating mess for the next 30km, and the dust and sweat muddled together to cake us in a think browny red layer of highly authentic mud.

We then arrived at a town where there was momentary period of tarmac. We stopped to get our bearings and make sure we were going the right way and almost the moment we removed a feet from the peddles a gentleman on a moped turned up, told us he was a local English teacher, and asked if we would like to see his niece’s wedding that was just down the road.

_MG_8872We were both exhausted, absolutely filthy, horribly sweaty, and nightfall was only about an hour away and we had still 10k on pot holed road to do before getting to our destination, so as you can imagine probably the very very very last thing in all the world we might want to do at this point is be shown around a local Cambodian wedding…

So we got shown round the wedding, with guests in there smart suits turning up and being greeted by incredibly done-up girls in very nice (very clean) dresses. We were shown the brides maids having there photos taken, and the band, and the food, and all the _MG_8865way people were looking at us with a very strange, almost explosive, cocktail of expressions. Fortunately after about 15 minutes were able to make our excuses (of which there were many) and leave. (Much to the relief of pretty much everyone!)

_MG_8890

 

 

_MG_8895

The road conditions then descended into a farce ones again, and didn’t improve until we were just outside the town we were aiming for. The lovely river side town of Kampong Cham.

_MG_8920Fortunately Kampong Cham has just enough attractions for us to warrant staying there a day, which was a bit of a relief because neither of us were massively keen on getting back on the bikes straight away the next day!

 

 

7th to the 9th of December – Phnom Penh – not a drop of cycling & lots of lie ins

_MG_8810For our first night in Phnom Penh Ruth took us out to a very nice Khmer restaurant. It was so nice that it didn’t even have chairs, which caused Sam’s incredible lack of flexibility some problems, but was worth if for the lovely food. The next morning (after quite a lengthy lie in) it was time to start smashing up Phnom Penh’s various sights and sounds.

_MG_8771Most of the Cambodian capitals tourist attractions seem to revolve around the assorted atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Firstly we went to the school that had been converted in a prison to hold and torture thousands of innocent people, and then it only a short tuk-tuk (in Cambodia this is the name given to a moped with a tailer you can sit in (although to be fair said tailer is normally quite nicely decorated, and ours was very comfy)) ride out of town to the (onimously titled) “Killing Fields” where 100s of thousands of people were brutally murdered… it’s laugh a minute.

(We did drive past a very promising brewery, but sadly we weren’t allowed to go and look round that because it didn’t involve enough death…)

To chear ourselves up we went for a drink.

_MG_8780After that we met back up with Ruth (who had been at work) and thanks to her expert hostessing we managed to go the entire weekend without seeing any more genocide related attractions! (Interestingly what happened in Cambodia probably shouldn’t technically be called a genocide because it was Cambodians killing Cambodians…)

_MG_8793That evening we went to a gig! Our first and definitely best gig of the trip were the brilliantly named “Cambodian Space Programme”, who were very good. The next day Ruth navigated us round the Russian Market where we were able to get all the essentials, such as postcards, poorly spelt t-shirts and pictures of Tin Tin. That evening we went to a different even nicer restaurant, then to a bar, and finally to an actual honest to goodness club!

_MG_8806All of this did absolutely no good to our newly revised body clock, and set back our early rising programme by a good few weeks. As you might expect the desire to get up at 06:30 in the morning to do a 110km cycle ride along dirt roads in the blistering heat is especially hard to come by when you have been out the night before, and so we decided to cut or losses and spend a third day in PP polishing off the final (and fortunately non-mass-homocide related) points of interest.

This meant a trip to the national museam, and the main town market (famous for it’s Art Deco arcatecture) and a supermarket (our first supermarket in many months, which rather annoyingly was playing Christmas music)._MG_8789_MG_8817For our last night in the city we should really have cooked Ruth a meal to saying thank you for her generosity… sadly what actually happened was she ended up cooking us a meal, which was delicious! We were going to watch a film and have an early night but instead spent the rest of the evening testing Jess’s powerful knowledge of capital cities, which to everyone’s surprise is actually very good!

3rd to the 6th of December – Battembang and the road to Phenom Penh (Pursat and Kampong Chhang)- 105, 93 and 96 km – Life on a Cambodian Motorway

_MG_8625Battembang is apparently famous for it’s French Colonial Architecture… obviously not famous enough for either of us to have ever heard of it, but none the less, here we were.

The day started badly when Jess ordered granola and yoghurt for breakfast, then to make matters worse there wasn’t even any granola in it!

_MG_8548Full of yoghurt we headed to the first attraction to be listed in the Lonely Planet, which is the abandoned train station. According to the literature we had picked up in the hotel the station is going to be revamped and trains will be running through here again by 2014! Quick spit shine and it’ll be as good as new…

_MG_8585Since the information we currently had about Battembang was clearly fictitious we thought we would go to the Tourist Information to see if we could pick up something a little closer to the truth. This tourist information, like (it turns out) many in Cambodia, although being technically open (in as much as the doors were open) didn’t actually have any one there for you to ask questions to except for one old woman stood round the back washing her clothes. She was able to show Jess where the toilets were, but wasn’t willing to give much away beyond that.

_MG_8559Coincidentally the next attraction on our to-do list was also train based, this time the world famous Battembang Bamboo train! If you were an estate agent trying to sell the bamboo train you’d probably describe it as “a light weight train system designed for easy dismantling to allow multi trains to run on a single section of track”, if you were any one else you’d probably describe it as “a bamboo mat sat on rollers with an outboard motor bolted to it”. Both the estate agent and the rest of the world would probably agree that it goes bloody fast!

_MG_8560Our driver seemed to have her attention split very much two ways between driving the train and sucking on her ice cream. That is until she noticed Sam’s bike horn and then it was a three way fight, with train driving loosing out significantly.

_MG_8592Normally you get the train one way, and then you get it back. We decided to take our bikes on it and then cycle back. This was a good idea, and we will defend that to the hilt, despite considering how lost we got and how long it took us. We did however manage to find a nice suspension bridge and do some river side cycling before returning to the town._MG_8619

For dinner we thought we would save some money and head to another road side eatery for dinner, although rather than the very nice one we’d stumbled into the night before we tried a new place where sadly the only option on the menu seemed to a sort of spinach and mud soup… to wash the taste of that away we had to go and have some cocktails in quite a nice bar so the plan sort of backfired…

_MG_8626Out of Battembang it was a three day cycle to Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s road network is pretty limited, and there really seemed from our map to be only one road we could take, and that was one of the large country highways. Not ideal, especially considering that our experience so far of Cambodian drivers put them on the Good Driver/Bad Driver spectrum somewhere between “boy racer” and “London cabby”. Not only are they going far too fast, but also believe that honking the horn actually provides them some benefit.

_MG_8631This mix of delightful attributes was already begin to ware us down a bit when Jess started needing the loo.

[After meeting Bod the American all those months ago one thing he said has always resonated in our minds. “If you need a bump, you can always stop in a Wat” (for the record Jessica didn’t (as Bod delightfully put it) “need a dump”, but what she did need a Wat might still be able to provide).]

_MG_8633(The population density of Cambodia is not actually that high at about 80 people per square kilometre (compared to the UK’s 255), however, all of them seem to live in huts along the main roads, so you can cycle for literally hundreds of kilometres without finding a spot secluded enough to relieve yourself. Wats have therefore sprung up all over the country to provide relief for cycle tourists.)

_MG_8640Anyway, for what ever reason we decided to stop in a Wat, and the attention we got was a little unnerving. We were stared at by the old men who were guarding the toilets, stared at by the monks from the door way of the temple, and stared at by the children that played around in the grounds. They all however kept their distance, and when we tried to point our camera at them they pretty much all ran for it!

_MG_8669Day two was from Pursat to Kampong Chhang, the driving got worse and so did the road surface so we spent most of the day trying to avoid pot holes while also trying to avoid everything else on the road. We stopped in a service station where the owner turned out not only to speak very good English, but also Japanese, Korean, French, Mandarin, Thai and of co_MG_8660urse Khmer. He told us that the reason the roads were so bad is because the Japanese hadn’t got round to redoing them yet, but if we were to come back next year they would be done… we’ll see (actually we almost certainly won’t).

_MG_8685We stopped for a nice lunch in another highway side village, and then a little bit later got stopped by a old and slightly crazy man who started talking in French to us, then ran out of French and so reverted to international sign to finish a _MG_8677sentence that we think was along the lines of “I’m going to go to that field to do my job.” The international sign he used to describe his job left some things a little unclear, with Sam convinced he was a fisher man, and Jess equally sure that he was off to bake a cake.

_MG_8691The third day of this leg would take us from Kampong Chhang into Phnom Penh.

The road surface improved a bit, and so we were able to make slightly faster progress than we had the day before. We had managed to go about 50km before Jessica dived into her handle bar bag and found that she was still carrying the room key from the hotel we had stayed in the night before… since adding an extra 100km to the trip didn’t seem very appealing we resolved to post it back to the hotel from Phnom Penh._MG_8693

_MG_8737As we got closer the capital the roads got progressively busier, still lined with houses, now mostly on stilts to keep them up above the high water-level of the wet season. We were just getting off our bikes to stop for a drink when a motorcyclist pulling a huge tailor of logs lost control in front us and the whole thing swerved into the on coming traffic, almost crushing the driver.

_MG_8751Another guy who was riding on the tailor was able to jump to safety, and then miraculously disappeared, leaving the clearly still shocked driver to deal with a car load of men who were refusing to see the funny side of the large scrape the tailor had left in the paint work of their (already extremely scratched) car. One of this group seemed to have a telephone number for some sort of emergency services because within a few minutes a guy wearing a sort of police-ish looking baseball cap appear on a moped and started spraying up the road and generally joining in making the poor motor cycle drivers day worse than it already was…

This was all relatively harrowing, and tinged with the strange feeling of guilt brought on by the fact that Sam is pretty sure the reason the motorcycle driver lost concentration is because he was staring wide eyed at the two of us as he came past…

_MG_8754Anyway, Sam’s Aunt had been thoughtful enough to put us in touch with a friend of her family’s who had very generously offered to let us stay in her flat. Ruth (our new host) had then written a very complete email telling us where to go in Phnom Penh (and how to get there) so that we could meet up with her in the short window between her finishing work and heading off again to teach English.

_MG_8761Sadly we had never seen this email and so instead stopped for a drink on literally the opposite side of town from her proposed rendezvous location. This then led to the inevitable mad dash through rush hour traffic the like of which neither of us have experience before.

Cycling through Phnom Penh is slightly more bonkers even than Bangkok. Extra hurdles included, but weren’t limited to, this man deciding that 56 seconds of red traffic light was long enough to set up a small chicken kebab shop right in front of Sam. Evidence shows that he was technically correct, although it has to be admit that he didn’t do a lot of business…_MG_8759

Routes in accending chronological order:

Battembang to Pursat

Pursat to Kampong Chhang

And Kampong Chhang to Phnom Penh

2th of December – Siem Reap to Battenbang – Very little cycling… mostly boat

_MG_8460The plan had originally been to head east out of Siem Reap and carry on down highway 6, boxing off a couple of rather dull and mostly highway based days before getting to Phnom Penh. Any idiot could tell you that this was a rubbish plan, and so after a few long meetings and intense negotiations a new, better, plan was formed.

_MG_8510The new plan, or “Plan A2″, revolved largely around a boat which goes from (near) Siem Reap, and heads south across the Tonal Sap (which is a the big lake in the middle of Cambodia) and (in theory) gets you to Cambodia’s 2nd City of Battembang. The only trouble with this obviously idyllic sounding transport option was that the hight of the lake makes quite a difference as to how far the boat can get. By the end of the wet season getting to Battembang is not a problem, by the end of the dry season the river doesn’t go anywhere near Battembang and it is (for our backpacker friends) a three hour drive through fields before you arrive in town. Of course for us this would be a very long cross country trip by bike and so we didn’t want to take too many chances

_MG_8455We asked the guy in the hotel how high the river was and he responded positively! He then preceded to “ring” the ferry company and quote a price $2 dollars higher than the ferry people had quoted us five minutes earlier when we had rung them… Either way, the reviews of the boat trip on the internet were overwhelming negative, but then since everything you read on the internet is a load of miserable nonsense written by people who have got more time than friends we decided to go for it!

This meant a) and early start as the ferry left at 7:00 and was a 13km cycle out of town, and b) finding exactly which 13km cycle out of town it was.

Good thing about lakes is they are hard to miss, and although we were worried for a few minutes that we were completely lost in fact when we carried on going the ferry port soon materialised and we managed to make it by 06:45. The ferry then waited for an hour and a half and we left at 08:15… what can you do…
_MG_8417
While waiting in port this woman (who can be seen over Jess’s right shoulder (not the miserable Australian bloke over her left)) turned up on her boat and started selling breakfast and ices drinks to the local children who swarmed to meet her. Sam was tempted to pick up something, until he saw that she was washing her utensils in the rather brown water of the lake… and so decided against it.

_MG_8428Eventually the ferry departed, and headed out towards the lake down a narrow gully between high reed beds and into a slight submerged wooded area. We stopped (or at least slowed down) to pick up a local child who seemed to be on his way to see his grandmother and we were very quickly out in the open water.

The open water didn’t last long, and soon the boat headed back into a maze channels. The land scape was pretty, if a little samey, until we came round a corner and saw the first of the floating villages. an entire town of small _MG_8454wooden houses, some on stilts, some actually floating on the water, complete with everything a town should have include schools, churches and mobile phone shops.

In each town we went through the boat would sound it’s horn and people would row out to meet it, dropping off either people or parcels to be transported.

_MG_8498A number of times the path got quite narrow, at one point one of the… lets call them boat conductors… came along the aisle asking people to sit away from the windows. People thought this was probably over caution until the first tree branch came crashing in through the front and smacked it’s way down each of the window posts… after that the aisle got quite crowded.

_MG_8528The path then widened and we got back into something that resembles a proper river, we passed more villages and floating fishing hut, but as we headed up stream slowly the water levels dropped, and the eventually there was even a river bank.

_MG_8531When the boat did finally dock it was a bit of a mad dash to get every one off and out. We waited for the rush to die down before carrying both bikes and bags up a pretty massive flight of stairs. But not as large as the stares we got from the locals when we got to the top! (Bloody good pun!)

Although the boat was pretty long (8hours) we thought it was a brilliant experience!
_MG_8536

28th of Novemeber to the 1st December – Sissofon to The Temples of Angkor – 105 km – Grid Lock in the Lost City

What’s more strange, 20 Buddhist monks riding along in the back of a pickup truck, or Jess peddling her bike along Cambodia’s highway 6. The answer, it seems, depends very much on who you ask._MG_0244

We headed out of Sissophon, and having not yet found our feet when it came to procuring snacks in Cambodia we stopped at a garage we had seen the day before. Here Jess was able to pick up some Oreos for the princely some of $3(, about twice as much as dinner the night before)…

_MG_0256We’d sort of known that Cambodia was poor before we arrived there, but being quoted the country’s GDP hadn’t really braced us for that actually meant when it came to cycling through it. Yesterday’s cycle from the boarder had shown that there weren’t anything like the number pleasant little towns in which we could stop for delightful roadside meal as we had become accustomed to in Thailand. In the first town however it was the little things that made it feel different, the flies on the food in the market, begger girl getting shoed away from the restaurant we finally found (much less of a restaurant, much more of a person’s kitchen that had spilled onto the road) and most of all the dust.

_MG_7883(As we were decanting water for the ride the next morning the same begger girl (who couldn’t have been more than 5) came up to us and held out her hands. We first gave her some money, but bizarrely this wasn’t what she wanted and instead pointed at the empty water plastic water bottles, which we were happy to hand over.)

_MG_8270On the road again, and the next striking difference between Thailand and Cambodia we noticed was the quality (and more general ambiance) of the roads. In Thailand (and for that matter Malaysia) drivers are extremely certiouse, relatively reasonably paced, and they never ever honk their horns except to say hello. Cambodians on the other hand use the horn continually as they approach (at speed) and then give it a few cautionary blasts as they depart, just to be on the safe side, which after 105k begun to grate a little.

There also appears to be some sort of national competition whereby the Cambodian who has managed to get the most mental stuff stacked stacked onto the back of his moped gets a prize, and an early contender (and to give you a feel for the sort of things were talking about) is the owner of this:_MG_0260

who has managed to squeeze two (I’d like to point out very much alive) pigs onto his bike, apparently bound upside down with rope.

_MG_7875The biggest attraction in Cambodia is far and away the lost (and then found) temples of Angkor Wat, and that was our first Cambodia tourist hotspot(, and very hot it is to).

These are such a large tourist attraction that the small city of Siem Reap, just to the south of the temple site, has now expanded exponentially to accommodate the lorry loads tourists that are bussed in every single day to see the ruins. The cycle into Siem Reap is an interesting one because there is a petrol station (here is a photo Jess dressed as a hipster at that petrol _MG_0261station) before which the residence live entirely in wood and corrugated iron huts buy the side of the main road. After this petrol station you are greeted by a huge number of gigantic and incredibly expensive looking hotels and things get more and more like Los Vagus right up until you arrive at the neon sign for “Pub Street”.

CIMG7820The Ancient City at Angkor is big. Really big, so mindbogglingly big that it would take at least two days to give it all even a cursory glance. Interestingly the price for a two day ticket is that the same as that for a three day ticket, so we were there for three…

_MG_7843The first day we explored the temples of the “big loop”, and had our first taste of the legacy of Khmer Rouge regime when we were speaking a taxi driver by one of the food stands. He had noticed our bikes and come over for a chat, telling us that when he was a kid need been a cycle taxi man, carrying his friends on the pannier rack. He finished his story by saying “of course, if the army saw me I’d have been kidnapped, so I spent most of the time hiding in the jungle.” and the smile never left his face as he said it.

_MG_7979We saw sun set from top of one of the temples, which would have been very romantic if it hadn’t been for the 87 other people who had managed to squeeze themselves up there as well.

If we had to guess at the exact number of tourists that visit Angkor every day we’d guess… err… loads, cos bits of the site were absolutely rammed. The _MG_8238temple where they filmed Tomb Raider felt like some ancient Piccadilly Circus, with queues of people lining up to have there photos taken next to one various bit of temple with a tree growing out of it or another.

_MG_8199Because of this we decided to don our (metaphorical) adventure hats (having left our real ones in the hotel room) and go clambering around some of the parts of the temples that that not been cleared. We even had our head torches and so delved into some of the darker nooks and crannies, until that is a security guard spotted us and rather than being cross at us for possibly damaging his 1000 year old masonry simply exclaimed “Danger! Snake! Eat!”

_MG_8041One of the “things to do” at Angkor is to get up uber-early and watch the sunrise over the temples. Being the conformist types that we are we decided to give this a go. Because of this sun rise experience Siem Reap is probably one of the few places in the world that has a specific “pre-dawn rush hour”, and the traffic was so bad by the time we got to the temple _MG_8063that it’s a mystery how anyone manages to get there at all. Sun rise was however very pretty, and the good thing about getting up that early is you can still be back in time for lunch even after 7 hours of temple exploration.

One thing that had caught our attention as we had been cycling round the temple site was the huge banners for “The Angkor Wat Half Marathon”! Dosed up on adrenalin and petrol fumes we got it into our heads that this was something we should _MG_8130definitely sign up for, and even went so far as to go to the offices and talk with the director of the event to see if we could sign up late. Sadly there weren’t any spaces, as registration had closed over two weeks before, and to be honest this is probably for the best as Sam has never run more than 5.5k in his entire life (when aggregated together) and after Jess’s last half marathon she wasn’t able to walk for a week, and that was after achieving a record time of around four and half days… would have been good though…

_MG_8143Siem Reap was also the first place we had been to for a while where one _MG_8285could go “clubbing”, and so being young and party loving we headed to Pub Street to see what sort of funky shapes we could pull. The bars were exactly what you would expect (if you were expecting a sort of cross between Ibiza and the Aztec Zone of The Crystal Maze), where the highlights were the sort of terrible music you get in a terrible club and various early post pubescent travellers drawing on each other in UV pen.

_MG_8295Our iteration with these people was relatively limited, except for when one girl spotted Sam’s handle bar bag and came over to ask if he had anything with which she would be able to cut her t-shirt, because at the moment she was “very hot”. Fortunately Sam never leaves home without his Leathermans, and this was one of the more unusual tasks it has had to perform on the trip so far.

_MG_8163The only other thing worth mentioning about the Angkor Temples is that while you are there you are continually intercepted by Cambodian people of all ages trying to sell you things. The women try and sell you food, the men try and see you tourist tat, the boys try and sell you history books, the girls try and sell you drink, and the children try and sell you postcards. On the whole they are very friendly, one even gave Sam a bracelet after he tried to convince her he was Russian and was then instantly out foxed by the fact that she spoke more Russian than he did.

_MG_8223There were only two occasions when we truly upset these people (who are commonly referred to as “The Sellers”). The first was when Jess said no to a woman wanting to sell her some water, and then 10 minutes later absent mindedly bought water from the woman next door, resulting in a torrent of abuse from the first woman who apparently felt extremely _MG_8339betraid. The second was a girl trying to sell us Coke despite the fact we were already carrying a bottle of water, and after trying to convince us for about 5 minutes that Coke was better than water took such offence at Sam’s comment that coke can rot you teeth that her parting gambit to us we think was “Rots my teeth your face!”.

_MG_8353On the final day we saw yet more temples, and then found some people to give our bikes a proper clean, ready for continuing our adventure tomorrow!

27th November – Araya Prathe to Sisphon – 55 km – พบกันไหม่ Thailand and សួស្ Cambodia

The women in the Thai motel told us very certainly that the post office opened at 08:00, so it wasn’t a surprise when we spent half an hour waiting for someone to finally open the door at 08:30.

Fortunately this time was spent chatting with a French man who we suspect might not have spoken properly with another soul for some weeks, and so did have a tendency to go on a bit. Still, an interesting bloke who was very much looking forward to getting into Cambodia in the next few days so that he could have a baguette (sorry if that sounds like a stereotype, but it’s true!).

(For those unaware Cambodia used to be a French colony, meaning that like in France baguettes are prolific, and other than that it’s food is nowhere near as good as it’s north westerly neighbour…)

_MG_0209We had one final Full Thai Breakfast of various rice and noodle dishes and then headed down the highway to the border!

The Thai-Cambodia border is designed around much the same principles as the T-mobile website( i.e. deliberately confusing and absolute chaos). Literally everyone there is claiming to be the official purveyor of Cambodian visas, and despite the many warnings we had received, it tested our conviction to carry on pushing past the reams of people pointing at their presumably home made “Boarder Official” signs.

_MG_0213We might have pushed on slightly too far. Aided by a team of customs officials we were waved through and continued on our way until a man nearly dropped a road block on us and asked to see our passports. Having not been stamped out of Thailand yet,  we were waved back through in the opposite direction.

Since the road option hadn’t worked we tried to push our bikes through the pedestrian section of immigration. This meant we encountered our first turn styles of the trip, and then stood in a queue for a very long time.

A had been warned that the Cambodian boarder officials can have a tendency to add the occasional extra charge onto the price of a visa. It was in fact quite a elaborate trick as one of them had even gone so far as to write “$21 Dollres” (not that I’m one to criticise poor spelling) in biro on a piece of CIMG7815lined paper which he would show to unsuspecting foreigners as they unwittingly went about their boarder crossing. Jess’s shrewd cunning saw straight through this trick instantly, noticing the considerably more professional sign saying “$20 for tourist visa” above his head. Sam wasn’t really paying attention, couldn’t understand what the man was saying and then had already been moved on before he’d had the time to reach for his wallet… so we got away scam free!

One thing to remember when crossing international boarders is to not commit straight away to one a side of road or the other until you’re sure its the same side as everyone else is using. This was a mistake we both made and so found ourselves in the oncoming traffic for bit, having to make a  tactical dive on to the right (wrong) hand side when a space appeared.

_MG_0222The border town on the Cambodian side was even more mental than the Thai one, but we didn’t have any reason to hang around and so we dodged our way through an assortment of road blocks, tailors and live stock to make it out onto the highway.

The traffic in Cambodia is considerably more angry than that of Thai land, and so the 30kms or so on  route 5 were a little nerve racking. The continual sound of car horns pushed us on though, and we were in Sisophon in no time at all. When we got there the huge amount of dust made it feel a bit like you were in wild west, although the large number of baguette stalls did detract from the allusion. Our only mission for the afternoon was to get some Cambodian SIMs, and that was what we set about doing.

_MG_0238In Cambodia SIM card prices, rather than being based on the number of free minutes or the amount of coverage you might hope to get, are instead based entirely on the quantity of 8s there are in the telephone number. An undeniably straight forward policy, but since we had no idea that that was reason we spent quite a long time trying to ask why some SIMs were $2 and some were $50. Since we never managed to successfully convey our question we’ll never know how the girl behind the counter would have tried to sign “because it’s luckier you gormless clown.” which is a real shame.

Needless to say we finally walked away with some very unlucky telephone numbers. It turns out however that no matter how many 8s your telephone number has, you still won’t be able to receive texts from the UK…