The cacophony in the border town of Poipet in Cambodia was an explosion, even after the busy, bustling Thai town on the other side. Swarms of mopeds and tuk tuks are engaged in a constant drag race to wherever they’re going, and the lack of space they leave is a shock after the politeness of Thailand. The road is in good condition though, and that is a small mercy as the wind we’ve wrestled most of our cycling days is blasting us full force in the face from the moment we set out.
We started off riding highway 6 towards the south east, punctuated by stops for sightseeing and exploring. It was one long slog that felt Sisyphean thanks to a headwind that became almost unmanageable. I’m sick of writing about it, sick of complaining about it and sick of cycling into it. After a day that felt like a week we arrived in Siem Reap, a laid back town with the ancient wonders of Angkor Wat close by. We were surprised by how busy it was (though apparently it really isn’t compared to pre Covid,) as all of the tourist areas we’ve been to in South East Asia have been eerily quiet. The mix of nationalities was different too: Thailand had overwhelmingly German visitors, and Laos overwhelmingly French, but here there were also lots of Brits and Americans.
We celebrated our arrival with beers and a curry, and met Thamarai Srinivasarao who cycled round the world in the mid 80s, along with his best friend. God only knows what the roads were like then. He has since travelled the world several times without a bike, campaigning for nuclear disarmament and raising awareness of environmental issues. Originally from India he has now settled in Siem Reap, luckily for us. An amazing and humble guy, with lots of incredible stories and pictures of his journeys; it was a huge honour to meet him.
The following day was what we really came here for, and what everyone comes here for. The twelfth century temple complex of Angkor Wat is a few kilometres from Siem Reap, and is spread across more than 400 acres. Cycling is probably the best way to see it, so that’s handy. The main temple, Bayon and Tha Prohm (from Tomb Raider) are pretty cool, but we found the smaller, less visited temples more enjoyable just because they weren’t busy. We only got a one day pass to the historical park, because after that and adding in the national parks and museums, it gets pretty expensive. So we cheaped out on temples and saved more for beer. And luckily Siem Reap doesn’t have a shortage of that.
Leaving Siem Reap we made our way north to a homestay, stopping off at a couple of sites on the way. First up a butterfly sanctuary. We were the only ones there, which was brilliant for us but a bit of a shame for the sanctuary. We got to see butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, and hatched butterflies released. The staff then invited us to join them at lunch. A few kilometres down the road was a landmine museum, set up by the hero Aki Ra, a former child soldier (amongst other things,) who has dedicated his civilian life to ridding Cambodia of landmines (with his bare hands to start with) and providing a home, medical care and an education to children who have been injured by them. Aki Ra’s story is better told in his own words though: https://www.cambodianselfhelpdemining.org/aki-ras-story/
The ride to the north was through gorgeous scenery, and from the homestay we intended to take a day off and ride up a mountain in a national park to get even better views, and visit a pagoda and a Hindu temple. The way to these things was down an unpaved track, which started off difficult but doable before we got stuck in drifts of sand with no end to that in sight. We abandoned the idea and headed off to a wildlife centre instead. On the road there we saw a huge white and red crane. The guide asked us if we’d seen such a bird on our ride in, and it turned out that she had escaped although she returned to be fed later.
Back down south and back to the relentless route 5. There is no shoulder, often no road markings at all, and motorists here tend to all drive like they are 18 year olds who have just passed their tests. The road surface and other conditions don’t slow them down at all, and it was hairy at times with vehicles hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road as they crazily overtake each other. A snake slithered onto the road in front of Richard and somehow made it across alive. I only saw it from a distance, but Richard claimed it was four foot long which should be taken with a pinch of salt. Every day we’ve passed chalk outlines on the road, a couple next to smashed up bikes and lorries and some of them splatter rather than human-shaped. If it wasn’t for the friendliness of the Cambodian people it would be a miserable ride along this road. Most of the times we’ve stopped at a local petrol station or at a drink stall we’ve been offered seats in the shade, and it’s pretty normal here for people to approach us and ask where we’re from and where we’re heading. But the uplifting highlight are the school kids. Cambodians must be hard at it every night, because I have never seen so many children anywhere. Every few miles we pass hundreds of kids walking to school, most of them excitedly shout “hello” and wave. Here and there is a different wrinkle, like a good morning or a high five.
We stopped off in the middle of the day to use a cash machine, and since the shadow of the bank offered the only shade we could find, we stood around rehydrating. The bank manager came out and walked towards us, and I thought she was going to ask why we were lingering around outside a bank, but she asked us about our trip and if we would like to come and sit inside where there was air conditioning, or if she could get chairs for us in the shade if we’d rather stay out. People here are so very friendly. I mean, people are remarkably friendly everywhere in SE Asia, but in Cambodia people have been much less reserved. We are usually asked a lot about where we’re going, but people often also talk about themselves, their families, work and businesses. That unprompted sharing is unusual compared to surrounding countries.
After a very long and hot day we arrived in a town and picked one of two similar looking guesthouses. The room hadn’t been cleaned in years, which isn’t that unusual here, but this one had a resident family of lizards and all of the mess that comes with that. There didn’t seem to be many places in town to eat, but we found a shack type place nearby with pictures of food, and a woman ushered us in and motioned for us to sit down. She brought over some tea and was indicating for us to wait as she didn’t speak English. About 10 minutes later a young guy turned up and scrolled through his phone to show us the dish they served. He pointed to each individual element and told me “Rice. Egg. Cow” repeating this several times to make sure I understood. He then sat next to Richard and showed him the picture, telling him several times again: Rice. Egg. Cow. We both agreed that we would eat Rice Egg Cow. While we waited he kept apologising for his lack of English, fetching us water, showing us photos of other people who had eaten Rice Egg Cow there and taking ours to add to the collection. He was very proud to present Rice Egg Cow when it was ready. It is the national dish of Cambodia called Lok Lak, and is essentially stir fried beef in an oyster and garlic sauce, accompanied by rice, and sometimes a fried egg when it’s extra special. We ate it quite a bit in Cambodia, but this one was the best we had.
Rice Egg Cow
Back into our room for the night with the lizards and their shit, a loud piercing noise started directly outside our window. It then stopped for a few seconds but started again outside our door on the other side of the room. I asked Richard if I should go out and investigate and he replied “Yes, but then I’m not letting you back in,” so I left it and it continued to keep us awake for most of the night.
Since we had decided to skip Vietnam for the time being, with the intention of going there in a few months, we wanted to swing back round and head for Thailand without encountering Phnom Penh. We spent a day on dirt roads to catch a ferry from Kampong Leaeng which would steer us clear of the capital, and even though the dust kicked up by other vehicles was a pain, it was great to get off the main road and a bit more into rural Cambodia. The wind was in our favour, which was almost too good to be true, and the ferry was running and didn’t sink.
I am happy with Rice Egg Cow for breakfast, but the guesthouse we stayed in offered eggs, baguette and tomatoes, which I understand are a luxury now. The ultimate luxury for us was having the wind at our backs for the next three days, something which hadn’t happened before on our journey so far. Route 6, which runs south of the giant Tonle Sap lake, is in great condition compared to the one we’d been riding on the other side, which meant we were able to fly along and do long distances. They are even widening the road to make it two lanes each way, which is nice I guess, but all it means is that people will overtake six abreast rather than three.
We took a day off in the town of Battambang, which is a bit like a mini Siem Reap with slightly less to do. The family who owned the guesthouse we stayed in were some of the friendliest people we met, and gave us each a cotton headscarf to wear when cycling so we can keep the sun and dust off.
We’d been in Cambodia for less than three weeks, but it seemed at least twice as long. The cycling was punctuated with a bit of sightseeing, and we’ve taken some diversions onto small roads to break up the monotony of the main highways, but it still seemed endless. And now, with not many border crossings out of the country, and not many roads, we headed to the same town we stayed in on our first night in Cambodia. We rolled into Sisophon in the blazing heat, and the lady at the hotel we stayed in last time recognised us and brought us some cold water while she made sure there was a ground floor room ready that we could just wheel our bikes into. It’s a town with a lively night market and a central park with lots of food stalls and bars. The Cambodian riel is completely worthless and impossible to exchange outside of the country, so we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves that we were able to spend what we had left almost completely. Our calculations would be brilliant, unless we got turned away at the border.
I have been worried about this border crossing for a few days. Only two entries to Thailand are allowed by land in a calendar year, to prevent border runs. Technically we should be fine, because although we have already been twice, for the first one we arrived in November 2022. It only takes someone to interpret “calendar year” differently though and we are screwed. Exiting Cambodia was straightforward, as expected. There was a massive queue to get into Thailand though, allowing my anxiety to build, and as we saw other foreigners get turned away I was becoming fairly nervous. And sure enough, though I was stamped in without query, I could see that Richard had a problem and could hear slight panic in his voice as he explained what he thought “calendar year” meant to the border guard. Luckily, after going through his passport and taking notes, she finally agreed that he had one more stay allowed and we were freely back in Thailand again, a place that is feeling a bit like home.
A playlist for the ride: