14/3/15: to Chhlong, 31km, av 16.9km/hr, max 23.6km/hr, time on bikes: 1hr 52 mins
15/3/15: to Stung Trong, 54.5km, av. 16, max 22.8km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 23 mins
16/3/15: to Kompong Cham, 32km (+8km exploring KC), av. 13.9km/hr, max 39km/hr, time on bikes: 2hr 52 mins
The next section of the route (and on to Phnom Penh) is one we’re not sure how best to break up, or even which route to take. Since it’s so flat and the roads are, generally, pretty good, you could feasibly make it from Kratie to Kompong Cham in a single, very long day. If you did though, you’d have to whiz along what is perhaps one of the most friendly roads we’ve cycled on so far. In the end, we take our time and do it in three, partly because Rach is feeling a bit poorly, so we need to take it easy.
We spend the morning in Kratie with vague plans to visit Ph Prek Chik island, where “students, couples, tourists and people” are being encouraged to plant a tree, as part of their ‘One Tourist, One Tree’ campaign. We make it down to the ferry with our bikes but, realising that the ferry won’t leave until it’s full and that this could take some time, we (by which I mean “I”) carry the bikes back up the 100 or so steps, since we don’t think we’ll have time to get over to the island, plant a tree, add an inscription to it (we can only speculate on what this might have been…) AND get back in time to check out of the Silver Dolphin by noon.
Instead, we laze around and have a very long, slow lunch, to take the heat out of the day, and then set off on a slow afternoon riverside cycle to Chhlong (aka Sshlonnng if you have a juvenile sense of humour). The road, marked route 308 on maps.me and our paper map, follows the river, and is really part of the busier Route 73. Although interesting, it’s nothing compared to the next bit, so we’d advise you to step on the gas here as it gets much better after Chhlong.
Because Rach is feeling a bit poorly so we overnight in Chhlong at the first guesthouse we come to, which turns out to be a bit of a schoolboy error; despite being about 5 metres from the river, the ‘Mekong View’ has no rooms with a river view and the garden, if you can call it that, is overgrown and full or rubbish. Information from Kratie about ‘what tourists want’ hasn’t quite filtered through to this town yet, it would seem. We try to find some food at about 6.30pm but there is literally nowhere to eat. We wander the main road in dusty darkness (there are local power cuts) as fires smoulder and dogs bark aggressively at us, and end up having an emergency baguette for dinner – mine with gray mystery meat, Rach’s with nothing in it at all.
Our $5 room is basic to say the least – we don’t even bother asking the funny little French-speaking madame owner about wifi – but at least the bed is relatively comfortable. We sleep OK but are woken at 4am when some metal slide doors (which had actually been locking us in all night) are noisily unchained and a motorbike eventually revs off. Then, for the next two hours, a mixture of babies crying and various people shouting, coughing, wretching and hawking up keeps us wide awake. We can’t get out of that place soon enough!
As we ride, we quickly discover we should have gone on a couple more km to get to the town proper, where there are at least two more guesthouses (one advertising free wifi) and, perhaps, some evening food options if you’re lucky.
At this point, Route 73 heads south while Route 308 goes west, hugging the Mekong, and shit gets real, man. This stretch of road is a delight to cycle; some of the warmest, friendliest people we’ve met – a colourful mix of Buddhists in their PJs and Muslims in their veils – and there’s so much village life and activity to see and get involved in. Oh, and a road surface to die for. Or, as Rach puts it, “I’d like to snog whoever built this road!” We take it easy, stopping every few km to take pictures, eat a banana, buy a sugar cane juice, or learn about jack fruits. If you’re cycling this way too, definitely don’t rush it!
At the ferry crossing for Stung Trong we have a decision to make. Route 308 does continue on the east side of the river, down towards Kompong Cham (where the huge Kizuna bridge crosses the Mekong), or you can get the ferry across via an unmarked right turn (you may need your GPS turned on to find it) and then head down via Stung Trong on Route 223 (222 on maps.me). We choose the latter as it looks to be a bit more direct. Plus, we’ve heard the 308 gets a little sketchier, and we’re in need of another overnight stop (R still isn’t feeling great).
The ferry across old Meaky, as we now call her, is easy and cheap (3,000 R, less than $1), and Stung Trong is a marked improvement on Chhlong. It enjoys a pleasant riverside location, has a few more food options and an OK guesthouse with $5 rooms plus cockroaches thrown in for free!
The next day’s ride down to Kompong/Kampong Cham isn’t particularly eventful but continues in much the same way, with a decent road surface, very little traffic, sweltering heat (38c) and yet more friendly locals to shout hello at. We breakfast on delicious roadside rice and bean treats, known as Krolan; they come served in a bamboo tube sealed with a piece of coconut shell (which acts like a cork) and taste delicious. Also, for once, they come packaged by nature rather than several plastic bags, as is normally the case in SE Asia. If you pass some women selling this on the road, buy several, as we haven’t seen any more since!
KC is apparently the third biggest city in Cambodia, although it doesn’t feel like it. There’s definitely a bit more choice in terms of food, accommodation and shopping though, and there are also several ATMs and plenty of Berangs, after not seeing any at all for two days. We head to the riverside and, too hot to be bothered to look at lots of different places, check in to the widely recommended Mekong Sunrise, where just $8 gets you a big room, hot water, wifi and a sort-of view of the Mekong, as the friendly little man who runs it is keen to point out.
Later in the day we check out some of the awesome sculptures in a large riverside wat garden, and then ride on the bamboo bridge (south of the Kizuna bridge), which is re-built after every wet season. It’s an incredible structure, maybe 500m long and capable of carrying cars as well as bikes and motorbikes. Cycling on it is kind of like cycling through sand, as the surface makes a strange swishy sound and gives way a little as you move over it. Fun!
We eat a very tasty evening meal at Smile, a popular riverside restaurant which trains disadvantaged kids, and then have an early-ish night, ahead of tomorrow’s BIG ride into Phnom Penh…