81km, av. 18.3km/hr, max 30.5km/hr, time on bikes: 4hr 15 mins
A big day ahead on the bikes doesn’t get off to the greatest start when, at around 8am, I attempt to put some air into our tyres; they’ve not had any since Luang Prabang, about two months ago. I top up my front tyre no problem but, for reasons that remains unknown, when I attempt to do Rachel’s all I manage to do is let all the air out, and then am unable to put any back in. In short, I give her a flat tire. Damn these stupid Presta valves!
The clock is ticking, the sun is getting hotter by the minute, and it’s looking a bit desperate. Remembering that I’d seen a bike mechanic sign at a place down the road, I head out with the stricken wheel. Fortunately, there’s a bike hire place even closer to where we’re staying. Even though all the bikes the guy rents out have fat tires and fat valves, by a stroke of luck he has a valve adapter, as well as a motorised pump. Within seconds, he’s fixed the problem and, for 5,000 kip, he’s happy to pump up our remaining three tires too. Life saver!
After this scare (although I am now slightly concerned about what we’ll do if we have a genuine puncture out in the middle of nowhere) we go on our merry way, chartering a boat (man, I’ve always wanted to use that phrase!) for the princely sum of 70,000 kip to take us from the French Bridge back to Ban Nakasang.
After a noodle soup breakfast on the mainland, we start cycling. It’s 19km to the border, on a smooth, very quiet road. Unfortunately, just as we approach the border crossing we are overtaken by a huge bus full of, it turns out, fairly obnoxious backpackers, which makes our passage through just that little bit longer and more tedious as we wait for them to argue over the fees. Yes, we have to pay $2 each to the Laos guards to leave the country, yes, we pay a $1 fee for a ‘medical’ on the Cambodian side, and yes, we have to pay $35 each for our tourist visa. All told, it’s an expensive business, but we’re eventually through in about 45 minutes. And then we’re in Cambodia… and it looks just like Laos!
Within moments we’ve come across another cycle tourist, Andrew, who’s on a slightly longer jaunt than us (10 months and counting). He’s making his route up as he goes along, and sends us on our way with a couple of bananas each. Good guy!
The first few km of cycling in Cambodia aren’t hugely exciting (it’s hot, dusty, bone dry and there’s not much to look at) but at least it’s flat. We take our first noodle stop at the point where Route 7 joins the road from Siem Hong and starts to head south.
From here on to Stung Treng there’s really very little by way of food and no accommodation, just a few places to get drinks every few km. And a good job too as it’s boiling hot by now and we’re down to our last water bottle. We stop at one little place and buy four small bottles of water, gulping down one each in almost one go.
Up until this point, we’ve just about got by without buying lots of bottled water (and causing lots of plastic waste) thanks to our Camelpack UV water filter, which makes most tap water safe to drink. It’s a really cool piece of kit which has probably already paid for itself, as well as saved all those plastic bottles. It’s only in Cambodia that we’re starting to drink more than we can easily carry, and we’re also a bit more dubious about the state of tap water here more generally.
The road is also far from perfect, with patches where the surface has completely worn away, and clouds of dust thrown up by the occasional passing vehicle. All told, it’s not the greatest day’s riding, but it’s flat and the km’s click by quickly. The Cambodian people are also pretty vocal in their support for us, with a lot of friendly smiles and yells of ‘helllooo’. The eventual reward is a bridge with fine views over The Sekong before we approach civilisation in the form of Stung Treng. This is a relatively large place, with a few accommodation options, and banners declaring the importance of tourism and keeping the city clean (litter is a problem here just as it is in Laos and Vietnam).
We head for Ton Le, a lovely looking guesthouse overlooking the river, where the staff are disadvantaged teens being taught the skills necessary for working in the tourism sector. They are founded on sustainable eco-tourism principles, and are keen to point out that the teak furniture in the building is very old and nothing to do with them, honest! For $8 we get a lovely room, Battanbang, overlooking the river, hot water and wifi. We also take advantage of the $6.50 three course set menu prepared by the students (pictured), and dine in style for once. After today’s ride we didn’t have the energy to head into town for food, and felt like we deserved a bit of luxury!
Our next destination, Kratie, is 140km away, with no tangible accommodation options along the way. We’ve also read that a large part of this road is (still!) under construction, so we decide the only option is a bus. Ton Le book a minivan for us which arrives promptly at 11am, and then spends a good 15 minutes attaching our bikes to the back of the van. They look precarious and I feel sad to see the bikes being pulled this way and that, but eventually they are secured and we drive off. We then do a tour of the town, picking up more and more people virtually from their front door (why people can’t just go to a bus station?!) Just when you think there’s no more room, a mum and her two pyjama-clad kids squeeze on. By about midday we are finally making progress.
The road is OK to start with, but soon those pesky roadworks appear and they continue for a good 30-40km. Some of the road is covered in small stones and I wince as I hear them pinging off the bike frames… our poor bikes. Unfortunately though, it’s the only feasible way to cover this stretch, unless you’re a complete sadomasochist cycling nut. Which we’re not.
When we get to Kratie there’s a bit of “confusion” over the price. We think we were quoted $5 each plus $5 for the bikes (total, $15) by Ton Le, but the driver thinks it should be $5 each and $5 for each bike. Stupidly, I hand over $20 expecting to get change, but the driver has other ideas. Not great considering the state of the bikes after their ordeal hanging off the back of the minivan for three hours, and definitely the first time we’ve been charged the same price per bike as per person! Watch out for this if you’re taking a bike by minivan. We’re left to hose our bikes down, lick our self-inflicted financial wounds, and roll into town.
Once on the Mekong riverfront (which kind of feels like being at the seaside) we see signs for the first ever Kratie River Festival, taking place this weekend. How exciting, er, possibly! It seems the festival is aimed at promoting tourism, especially river tourism, while also raising awareness of, and protecting, the Mekong river dolphins. Whether these aims are mutually compatible is a moot point, especially when one of the festival activities is extra boat tours to see the dolphins! But at least they’re thinking about sustainable tourism and encouraging respect for the natural world. It definitely feels like there’s a distinct lack of awareness about or appreciation of the natural world here, with people casually throwing plastic litter into the Mekong as a matter of habit. (Obviously, this may sound patronising and/or rich coming from someone who lives in a country that is hardly perfect when it comes to littering, polution, or protecting its best environental habitats.)
One thing tourism authorities would certainly do well to develop is the Mekong River Trail, which we got excited about when we first learned of it in Lonely Planet. Alas, information about the Trail is now pretty scant, even the website no longer exists. We dreamt of cycling along the river from Stung Treng to Kratie but it just doesn’t seem possible right now (hence the minivan).
The festival activities themselves are pretty limited, but it’s pleasant enough to wander the streets, sample some of the local food (and beer), and just watch life as it flows past our street-side table at the Silver Dolphin Guesthouse.