George, Rach and Alex with bikes at Bayon

Siem Reap and Angkar Wat

So, technically the cycling finished in Siem Reap, but of course we’re not ones to just stop riding our bikes!

We book a three day ticket for Angkor Wat ($80), and take a tuk-tuk on the first day to see some truly incredible sites on the longer ‘grand tour’ route (over 50km), including Preah Khan.

On day two though, we decide to take the bikes. Rachel and I are accompanied by our friends George and Alex, who were riding cranky old hire bikes and aren’t quite as confident on the Cambodian roads as we now are, but nevertheless they embrace the challenge with enthusiasm, especially given the heat.

The smaller ‘inner tour’ is definitely do-able by bike, but it’s still over 30km round trip (depending on the exact route you take) and, given the heat of the day and the extra energy you use clambering around the ruins, it’s a pretty demanding ride overall.

We don’t get going until about 9am, which is a bit too late because it’s already so hot by this time. Ideally, you’d want to be on the road by 6.30 or 7am so you have a bit of relative cool and shade on the ride out to your first temple, which will be at least 12km away, depending on which one you choose. An early start will also mean you get more interesting light and shade at the temples than if you’re there with the sun directly overhead.

Our first stop is Ta Prohm, also known as the Jungle Temple or ‘the one with all the trees growing out of it’. It truly is an amazing sight, as huge Silk Cotton trees do battle with the ancient ruins. There’s also a lot of restoration work going on during our visit, which raises some interesting questions in the debate around preservation and restoration Versus letting nature take its course. Currently, there’s a bit of both going on here!

After this, we cycle past Ta Keo and into the Angkor Thom citadel, heading to Bayon. There really is something thrilling about cycling around Angkor, under the ancient archways, over moats, and through the jungle, monkeys casually hanging around right by you as you ride. You also start to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, as the distances are much larger than you notice while being driven around by a tuk-tuk or minivan.

There are other advantages to having a bike at Angkor. For one, you can quickly cycle away from the funny vendors as they yell ‘hello, ladeee, buy something!’ at you from 100 yards away.

Cycling around Bayon is a fantastic experience. It’s surrounded by a big ‘ring road’ (effectively making it a traffic island!) so you can do a full 360 degree ride around it, just for the hell of it. Can there be a more unusual, spectacular or awe-inspiring little ride?!?

After a long lunch during the heat of the day, we leave the bikes and explore a bit of the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace on foot, including a close-up inspection of some intricate, really well preserved stone carvings, before riding back into town at a snail’s pace – it really is hot – as local school kids overtake us! Well, it’s not like it’s a race.

After this, the only option to cool down is a dip in the pool at Alex and George’s hotel, and a can of Angkar beer, obviously.

So, overall, if you have a three day ticket for Angkor, definitely do at least one day by bike. You’ll appreciate its majesty even more, and feel a little bit smug that you can go where you want, when you want.

We were a little worried about leaving our bikes outside the temples while we explored. Would there be a safe place to lock them? Would they attract attention? The reality is that this place is patrolled and policed perhaps more than anywhere in Cambodia, and your bike will be safe as houses (or should that be temples?) here.

Our time in Siem Reap is really enjoyable; it’s the most touristy place we’ve visited since Bangkok, but this does mean there are plenty of good food, drink and shopping options, and we pretty much exhaust them during our 6 night stay. We stay at the friendly, family-run Angkor Wonder guesthouse, which is in a great location near Pub Street and offers comfortable $8 private rooms.

One of the highlights, away from Angkar Wat, is doing a Backstreet Academy half day course in bag making. By the end we’re the proud owners of tote bags made of recycled rice and cement sacks, and we also enjoy the interaction with our expert tutor and translator.

Siem Reap is obviously not without its problems – the hidden underage sex trade is said to thrive here, fuelled by the demands of Western tourists – but, on the surface at least, it is very tourist friendly.

We get out of the country by a Nattakan pre-booked coach ($28 each), which takes you direct from Siem Reap to Bangkok on the same vehicle, removing the hassle of having to swap buses at the border, or having to pay for the bikes twice. They cost an extra $10 each, and we have to take the front wheels off, but getting them onto the coach is no hassle, and the journey is pretty straightforward.

We cover the 100km or so back past Sisophon, that took us a day to ride, in about 90 minutes. It’s pretty fun spotting the places we stopped for lunch and iced sugar cane juice drinks as we whiz by in air-conditioned luxury, and we arrive in traffic-choked Bangkok around 4pm. As usual, the bus station we’re deposited at is about 8km from the city centre (standard Asia), so it’s time to get back on the bikes again…

man stands between two people in puppet costumes

29/3/15: Sisophon to Siem Reap

103.5 km, average 18.4km/hr, max 34.2km/hr, time on bikes: 5hr 36 mins
Tour total: 2,391 km

After three months on the road, it’s our last proper day of cycle touring! So sad, but so true. Best get on with it then, egh?

It’s also promises to be a long day – it’s at least 100km to Siem Reap – and it’s hotter here than anything we’ve so far experienced.

We’re up earlyish and, after a (final?) noodle soup breakfast (definitely not as good here as in Laos or Vietnam, sorry Cambodia!), we’re on the road just after 8am. The road surface is great and traffic is pretty light – mostly minivans ferrying tourists across the border from Thailand to Siem Reap, making amusing farty noises as they speed past us over the rumble strips.

We cruise the first 30km at well over 20km/hr, and don’t stop at all until 35km. Cloudy skies produce a few rain drops but nothing more (how have we managed to get away with three months cycling and not being rained on once?!) and the sun doesn’t really get to work until about 10.30am, at which point The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun is played, obviously. It’s mostly pancake flat but there are a couple of small hills along the way, giving us a bit of downhill fun and a short break from the general flatness of it all.

The Band Game help us through the next 10km and pretty soon we’ve hit the 50km mark. I lose after STUPIDLY playing ‘”Echobelly” twice, and this is after I let Rach have “Your Mum” which, if it isn’t a band name it really should be, she argues, forcibly.

Then it’s time for the first of three sugar cane juice stops. While we’re deliriously crunching the ice in our teeth, the ice man pulls up for a delivery. He slides these huge blocks out of the lorry and deposits them in a shaded spot, and then covers each slab in sawdust. Er, hygienic! Ah well, we’ve been (mostly) OK so far, presumably they hose them down again before use, or something.

We have a mediocre, inadequate lunch of squashed baguettes, laughing cow and crisps, in some shade by the roadside at about 58km, and then, with nothing better to do, proceed into the heat of the day. The next 20km are pretty punishing; it’s too hot, our suncream is useless, and, unexpectedly at about 72km, roadworks appear out nowhere and the next 3-4km are on dirt, battling a lot of dust. Luckily, it’s only temporary, and the perfect road surface returns almost immediately. Baffling Cambodge!

From there on in, we’re counting down the km’s until we finally arrive, tired, red and salty-skinned, into Siem Reap at about 4pm. The place looks like fun, but our first priority is to find our pre-booked accommodation, Angkor Wonder (every place has Angkor in the name!) and shower. Here, $8 buys a comfy bed, cold water shower and OK wifi.

We celebrate the official end of tour with a TWO course meal (yeah, look impressed!) at a lovely veggie place called The Peace Cafe, and then round off the evening with a couple of drinks at Beatnik cafe, which plays James followed by Rammstein. Totally beatnik, maaan. Rachel is even permitted a glass of wine for the occassion.

So, it feels kinda weird to have reached the end of our first cycle tour. We did it! 2,391km (including day trips), with no accidents, incidents or even punctures. Seems pretty incredible that two complete novices managed it with so few problems. Maybe there’s a lesson in here somewhere… if we can do it then, seriously, anyone can do it too!

I guess the question now is, what next? Back to life, back to reality? What if this is only the beginning, and not the end? Imagine being one of those guys who’s been on the road for, like, three years! So many questions, so few answers…

It’s not quite the end though; the majesty and mystery of Angkor Wat still awaits, before we bus back to Bangkok and then fly home, calling in on Beijing for a couple of days along the way.

It’s not quite the end for the blog either; we’ll add some more posts about what we learnt along the way, what was useful and what wasn’t, vital statistics, packing advice and perhaps a summary of the trip as a whole. And hopefully there’ll be more bicyclating adventures to be had in the not to distant future…  🙂

Thanks for reading, and shout if you have any questions or want any advice on cycling in this part of the world!

Two people on bicycles

28/3/15: Battambang to Sisophon

68.5km, av. 19.3km/hr, max 25.6 km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 32 mins

It’s our penultimate day on the road, but it’s perhaps one of the least memorable. We expected it to be hot, flat, busy and a bit dreary, and so it proved. A day to just grind out a result, as it were. It’s no coincide that today we record our best ever average speed, a heady 19.3km/hr!

We get off to a relatively early start (10am!) after a brilliant breakfast at Woodhouse – seriously, they do the most filling, tastiest banana pancakes in all of Cambodia. Then we’re on the road… the same road… all day….

The first 25 km or so on Highway 5, to a place called Kouk Kdouch, are among the hairiest we’ve experienced. The road is relatively narrow but the traffic quite fast moving; a couple of buses and lorries pass by us uncomfortably close. Fortunately, at the Kouk Kdouch junction, much of the heavy traffic heads west and the rest of the journey is less busy, and on a slightly wider road with more hard shoulder. The road surface is good with, wait for it, no roadworks all day!!

We lunch on noodle soup as usual, along with our first ever taste of soursop juice (very refreshing over ice!), and are sustained by at least one sugar cane juice stop. There are far fewer places to stop compared to most other roads we’ve been on in Cambodia, and when we do come across a town, it seems ghostly quiet. This, we realise, is because everyone’s at a wedding.

It’s Saturday, or ‘Weddingday’ as it’s known locally; there’s at least one wedding taking place in pretty much every town we pass through. Sometimes there are multiple weddings and they’re having a sort of wedding-off battle, based on who can play the most crackly, incomprehensible music out of a knackered PA system at the loudest volume. By cycling past different stages of the ceremonies at different times of the day we reckon we can put them all together in our heads and experience a whole wedding!

Other than weddings, the most exciting thing that happens is that we spot TWO signs warning of hills, but then there aren’t really any hills at all! That’s crazy Cambodge for ya. So, no real highlights to write home about but job done.

We roll into Sisophon (known locally as Banteay Meanchey) around 3pm and take a no frills, no windows room at Taing Chivorn guesthouse (on Highway 6 heading towards Siem Reap) for $6, then chill (or rather, sweat) until food time. There’s a big place a few doors down with an English menu so we eat well there, then it’s early night ahead of the final day’s ride, into Siem Reap.

Bats flying out of a cave against a blue sky

Bats about Battambang

So, we decide to take the bus to Battenbang as we’re both still not feeling 100% and, to be perfectly honest, the thought of two more days of riding on National Highway 5 across the flat, parched landscape doesn’t massively appeal. The plan in our heads now is to bus it to Battenbang, then chill out there for a few days and fully recover, before a final two days of riding into Siem Reap, rather than taking either bus or boat for this final stretch.

Taking the bus to Battembang is relatively straightforward. We have breakfast at the same place we dined last night, where, from our streetside table, we observe a guy whose job it is to flag down the coaches as they pass through, and bundle people on. After breakfast we cross over to the spot just outside the big Acleda Bank sign and, after a bit of negotiation, agree a fee of $20 for two people and two bikes (nominally, $6 per person and $4 per bike). It’s a bit steep but we feel it’s within the realms of a reasonable price.

Within a few minutes we’re bouncing down Highway 5 on a double decker coach, with our bikes stowed downstairs. Even though the inside of the coach is basically held together by bungee cords it’s comfortable enough. I spend much of the journey talking to my seating companion, a friendly 29 year old lad who is heading home ahead of Cambodian New Year.

We are dropped off a couple of km outside of town (standard Cambodge) which, due to the fact that I had to deflate my front tyre to take the wheel off and our bike pump is broken, means we face the minor humiliation (for cycle tourists) of having to get a $3 tuk tuk ride into town, with our bikes and luggage squeezed in alongside us! We get dropped at Hotel Royal, which other cycle bloggers have recommended, and take a good sized room with hot water, comfy bed and wifi for $10 a night. The staff here are all super friendly and helpful.

On our first day in town, we focus on relaxing and exploring Battambang, which is a sleepy little place full of interesting buildings and cute little places to eat and drink. We download an architecture walking tour from ka-tours.org and then, naturally, do the tour by bike. It uncovers some interesting spots and is well worth doing.

On our second day we are a little more adventurous, cycling out of town 5km in the morning to ride the infamous bamboo train. This is an adorable little tourist attraction that basically involves sitting on a flat pallet (or ‘Norry’) partly made of bamboo and then racing down a rickety railway track (the old line to Phnom Penh) for a few km powered by what looks and sounds like an old lawnmower engine! There’s absolutely nothing to see or do except to cling on and hope you stay on the tracks.

When something comes the other way one of you has to stop, dismantle the carriage (the pallet sits on two sets of wheels), allow the other ‘train’ to pass, and then reassemble and carry on. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and unintentionally hilarious too – you kind of expect to see Laurel & Hardy appear out of the bushes as a band strikes up some incidental music. At the end of the line there’s a small group of tourist trap stalls where you’re encouraged to part with your cash by a variety of villagers, but it’s all good natured fun; Rach buys a t-shirt for her nephew back home.

After lunch in town at a local Vegetarian-only cafe (a bit of a rarity here) we get back on the bikes to cycle to the Killing Cave and Bat Cave, about 15km south of town on a very good road. We sweat our way up the hills on foot after being told it’s too steep to cycle (we soon realise this is nonsense – we’ve tackled much worse!) and then have a good wander around the various stupas, pagodas, statues and monuments that are scattered all over the mountain. The Killing Cave is another odious reminder what the Khmer Rouge did; a grim mass grave, where the bodies of the dead were casually pushed down a shaft at the top of the cave into the pit below. There’s no audioguide or information as there is at the Killing Fields, but it’s still a powerful and poignant place.

At the top of the mountain, Phnom Sampou, we enjoy the unbroken views all the way back to Battambang. While I’m watching another tourist feed some monkeys and worrying that they’re about to swipe the food from her, a cunning little so and so goes for MY bag of dried banana, making me yelp with shock! These guys don’t miss a trick.

We head down the hill just in time to buy a cold beer and then sit back and enjoy the natural spectacle of hundreds of thousands of bats leaving their daytime roost for an evening of hunting and gathering. A noisy black trail snakes its way out of the hillside for a good 20 minutes as several dozen tourists gawp below. It’s quite a sight. To get back into town before dark we have to take our chances and cycle underneath the river of bats – I’ve never seen Rach cycle so fast! Luckily we both manage to escape the poo bombs and enjoy a great sunset ride back to Battembang.

After two enjoyable days here, we’re both feeling good and ready to push on for the final two days of riding to Siem Reap.

23-24/3/15: Phnom Penh to Kompong Chhnang, via Udong

23/3/15: 50km, av. 14.8 km/hr, max 22.6 km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 22 mins
24/3/15: 52.2km, av 17.3km/hr, max 27.7 km/hr, time on bikes: 3hrs

In our heads and in our plans, we were set to do Phnom Penh to Kompong Chhnang in a single day, straight down Highway 5. We even set the alarm for 6am. Alas, Rach still isn’t feeling great and now I have a case of the hot sweats and a sore tummy too. It’s clear there’s no way we’re going to do 100km today, so… we go back to sleep.

Plans are revised, and we decide instead to tackle the shorter stretch to Udong. But, because we’re both feeling so lethargic, we don’t manage to set off until just after midday which, as any sensible cycle tourist will tell you, is not a good time to start riding in the Cambodian heat. Doh!

We navigate our way north out of the city easily enough, and eventually find ourselves on National Highway 5, which isn’t too bad in terms of traffic, and the surface is great. Just after the turn off for the Japanese Bridge and Highway 6, about 16km out of Phnom Penh, we stop for some rescue remedy (aka sugar cane juice and ice, this time served in a plastic bag) and some much-needed shade. This is also the junction for a smaller westbound road, the Basith Mountain Road (not sign-posted), which we decide to take, since it looks like this is the only time between PP and Battambang that there is a viable ‘back roads’ option, and also because we know we have the time to do it since we’re only going as far as Udong today.

This road heads west out into the countryside, with a big lake on the left. The road surface is variable, partly under construction, but basically OK, and traffic is light. After a few km of this we have to use GPS and maps.me to find our northbound turning onto the Udong Mountain Road as it’s also not sign-posted. (Note: don’t be worried about the ‘Mountain’ road names; the route is basically pancake flat, so although temples are built on top of these occasional hillocks, the roads tend to skirt round them).

Taking this road is a bit of a gamble, as we’ve not read about it on any other cycle blogs, but it turns out to be a fantastic little road with almost zero traffic on it, and almost non-stop friendly cries of hello and looks of genuine surprise as we cycle through. It’s just a shame that neither of us are feeling well enough to really enjoy it. Weirdly, it feels really off the beaten track here – perhaps it’s the contrast after 5 days in Phnom Penh?

The road surface starts off paved (doesn’t it always) then after about 1km gives way to a mix of red dirt track and occasional tarmac. There are potholes, but it’s by no means difficult to negotiate – at least in the dry season. You’ll also need your GPS to guide you through as there are a couple of small junctions to navigate. There are plenty of places to get food and drink along the way.

About 7km before Udong city, you pass Phnum Udong, a series of elaborate structures and statues, most at the top of a hill which neither of us have the energy to climb up. This is apparently the home of Buddhism in Cambodia, but unfortunately we just use the benches and shade as a pit stop before the final push into Udong proper. It’s a strange little place though, with hundreds of hammocks swaying idly in the breeze, a line of street sellers all selling the same-same meat on a stick, with so much left considering it’s nearly the end of the day.

We roll into Udong at about 5pm and, aware that there’s a chance all the food places might be shut by 7pm, get something to eat before finding accommodation. We take the first guest house we see, on the main highway, where $5 gets you a decent sized room, comfy bed, cold water shower and a weak wifi signal. Can’t complain.

Next day, we’re still not feeling great, but we know it’s a 50km run on highway 5 to Kompong Chhnang, so let’s just get it over and done with. We leave a bit earlier than yesterday (not hard!) and, after a noodle breakfast, make good progress in the morning, notching up just over 30km by midday. The road surface is good, although there really isn’t much to look at, and you have to stay pretty focussed on the road since there’s so much crazy stuff going on. I see  two guys falling off their scooter but they’re both OK. The way they overload their vans here is really something you have to see to believe. We see one minivan go by that has about 5 men almost pilled on top of each other, hanging on for dear life on top of excess luggage hanging out the back of it. Just insane!

We have our customary sugar cane juice stop at a particularly friendly stall and end up taking pictures of everyone. Alas, Rach then cycles off without securing her bungee cord and it gets trapped in the spokes and gears hub. We spend the next 15 minutes removing panniers, locating the tool kit and eventually untangling it. What is it with bungee cords and wheel spokes – the exact same thing happened to me while cycling in Phnom Penh just a few days earlier but luckily no damage done on either occasion.

That this is about the most interesting thing that happens all day tells its own story! We check in at Li Hour guesthouse in Kompong Chhnang, where $5 buys a room with comfy bed, fan, cold water shower, balcony and decent wifi. The rest of the day is spent dozing and foraging for food.

We’re not sure if we’re up to a 100km ride tomorrow and are quite tempted by the bus option straight through to Battambang…

Past and present in Phnom Penh

So, we made it to Phnom Penh! The reward is a few days  in the capital to enjoy the good food, drink and culture that this fantastic, fast-changing city offers. Fortunately for us, we have two friends here, Alex and George, who act as our guides. Thanks so much guys! We secure a guesthouse, Homelands (where a decent double room with hot water and wifi costs $10 a night) just round the corner from their place, and then set about exploring the city.

On our first day we check out Wat Phnom, from which the city take its name, which is small compared to wats we’ve passed on the road, but still worth a visit, and Wat Langka, where we try our hand at playing some traditional Cambodian musical instruments. Considering what happened in this city 40 odd years ago, it’s impressive that these places have survived at all. We also look at the Royal Palace from the outside, and wander the water front.

In the evening we head to Meta House to watch some shorts and one feature length film from Laos’ emerging film scene. The quality is variable but it’s the subjects that are revealing; the changing lifestyle of an old fisherman living on 4,000 Islands, and the impossibility of love between people from different social classes living shoulder to shoulder in Vientiane.

Next day, we visit Tuol Sleng museum. This is a must, even if it’s pretty harrowing. Also known as S-21, it’s the place where many thousands of innocent people were sent to be tortured, ahead of their execution at the nearby Choeung Ek killing fields. The site is an old school, but when the Khmer Rouge took over and education was banned, it became a place of utter misery and pain.

As well as the countless testimonies of people who lived under the KR, there are also some incredible stories from survivors, and a hugely interesting special exhibition about the role of Swedish diplomats and observers who visited the country during its reign of terror, and gave their support to the regime. Somehow, the wool was pulled over their eyes as to what was really going on. Overall, the message is simple: never forget, and never let this happen again. Yet we know it has happened again since; in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia, and more recently in Syria and Nigeria.

It’s a sobering place to visit, but this shouldn’t put you off. On our way out, we briefly meet Chum Mey, one of just a handful of survivors, who saw his wife being shot dead and lost his four children too. He now spends his days at the museum, selling his book and telling his horrific story to anyone who will listen (if you saw the BBC series Mekong, it’s the same guy who Sue Perkins meets in the moving Cambodia episode).

We follow this the next day with a visit to Choeung Ek killing fields. Despite watching the incredible 1984 film The Killing Fields the night before at Flicks 2 cinema, nothing can really prepare you for it. Although there are few structures left relating to the terrible atrocities that took place here, the evidence is all around you – and under your feet. Incredibly, as you walk around the site you occasionally come across fragments of clothing and even human bones in the ground beneath your feet.

Even more disturbing is the tree against which babies heads were smashed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. It’s now adorned by peace bracelets. The memorial stupa, containing over 8,000 skulls of victims, is as poignant as it is disturbing. If it sounds like a macabre place, that’s because it is, but this shouldn’t stop you visiting, paying your respects, and learning more about this dark chapter in recent history. While it’s true that Cambodia is now moving on from its terrible recent past, we should never forget what happened here, and actively guard against it ever happening again.

Overall, Phnom Penh is a vibrant place to spend some time, especially after you’ve been out in the sticks for as long as we have! Big, sometimes smelly, always lively, and with a sense that it is going places. Eat Pad Thai with the locals at the night market and you’ll surely agree.

17/3/15: Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh

104.6km, av. 15.6km/hr, max 30.9 km/hr, time on bikes: 6hr 40 mins

Today’s the big one! If all goes to plan this will be our first 100km day, and it’s also the day we ride into Phnom Penh.

We start early, getting up in time to see the sun rise over the Mekong before enjoying a tasty omelette breakfast at our appropriately named guesthouse… Mekong Sunrise. Then we’re off. It’s 7.30am, possibly a new record for us non-morning people!

Our choice of route is to stay faithful to ol’ Meeky and follow her all the way into Phnom Penh, rather than going via Skun/Skone (boring National Highway all the way!), taking route 223 until it joins National Highway 6A. We then plan to cross the river via the bridge at the junction with National Highway 8, and tackle the approach into PP via the (hopefully) quiet National Road 380 along the eastern bank of the Mekong, before getting a ferry back across and into the city centre. Simples.

The big unknown is the state of these roads. We’ve read conflicting reports, including some quite old stuff on Mr Pumpy and Travelling Two, so it seems the only way of finding out for sure is to cycle them for ourselves.

We’re pleased to report that by and large, the roads are OK. Out of Kompong Cham, the first 6km are very good, the next 8km are a bit bad (bumpy!), then from about 12km, very good. In Peam Chi Kang we spot an unmarked guesthouse at about 23km, just before the junction with Route 70 north, should you wish to tackle the ride into PP from a little closer striking range (although if we can do 100km in a day, so can you!)

The road stays good until about 32km from Kompong Cham, at which point it goes from excellent to sandy track in just a few hundred yards. We’re not sure if we took a slight wrong turning here (there’s a small village with a couple of local roads) but we end up pedaling on a sandy track past an area that looks like it’s suffered some pretty bad river erosion; it may even be the case that part of the road has recently fallen into the river. At least one house definitely has, and others look like they’ve been abandoned.

Once past this tricky stretch, the road improves to a decent dirt track, and something magical happens. We’re cycling along, joking about the sand, when up ahead I spot an elephant ‘pon de road. Yes, an Asian Elephant right there in front of us! It’s being ridden by a man playing a flute, although it’s not clear why. The local kids (and grown ups) are pretty surprised by the appearance of this huge beast too, so it doesn’t seem like its appearance is a regular occurrence. Whatever the reason for it being there, we’re pretty chuffed to see it – and super glad we didn’t take the highway!

At about 35km the road becomes an orange/red gravel track which is fine to cycle on but makes everything, including us, brown/orange in colour. We stop for sugar cane juice and the kids look even more baffled than usual as they stare at these two strange dirty orange foreigners. The orange gravel lasts until the 50km mark, at which point it becomes a grey gravel track with loose chippings; slightly less fun to cycle on but do-able. Finally, at about 60km we stop for lunch just after a new bridge (the old one is still there too), where there are a few food places to choose from.

The place we go for has a hammock, as well as plenty of iced tea, so we enjoy some quality ‘hammock time’ before making tracks again. From here to the junction with the 6A, about 5km away, the road is fine. We join the 6A at the big petrol station (as described by other bloggers) and find that this stretch of the highway is fine. It’s still being worked on (we spot a few workers on the central reservation, although it’s hard to say what they were doing), but the road surface itself is good; it’s the anarchic traffic you have to watch out for. This is the first dual carriageway road where I’ve seen bikes, cars and even lorries not just going the wrong way down the highway, but doing this in the fast lane. It just makes no sense!

Although it’s not too busy or fast, it’s windswept and far less fun than the local roads, so we stick to our plan and leave the highway at the first opportunity we have. A newly built junction takes us off the dual carriageway and onto a big road bridge over Meeky, then we take the first right turn onto National Road 380, which is quiet and with a good surface. It takes us all the way to the ferry crossing for Phnom Penh, passing some spectacular local wats along the way.

With 99.54km on the clock, we’re on the ferry, crossing the Mekong (again!) A few minutes later, and we’ve made it into the heart of Phnom Penh, without too much in the way of stress, traffic or near misses. It’s been a long, hot ride but definitely one of the most satisfying days in the saddle so far.

14-16/3/15: Kratie to Kompong Cham via Chhlong and Stung Tron

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…

12/3/15: Nakasan (Laos) to Stung Treng (Cambodia)

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.