Cambodia

Corruption, pyjamas, dust and a lot of sugar cane

Us and Cambodia didn’t have the best of starts… We hadn’t even officially set foot in the country and we were already having a bit of a fall out….

For most EU citizens there are two visa options you can choose from: apply for an e-visa beforehand or to show up at the border and ask for a visa on arrival. Given our desire to travel as cheaply as possible and that the first option made our pockets a bit lighter, we obviously went for the second one. Luckily however, we did do our homework and informed ourselves of the required documents and the expected visa price. This however did not tally with what we were told at the border…

When we – two clearly looking like foreigners – approached the border, we were asked if we already had a visa. Since we said we didn’t, we were immediately pointed to a door, to which, unlike the other ones around us, no-one was queuing for, and said we would have to go there. Shortly after, and although there was the usual window hatch through which one usually takes care of such official affairs, we were invited inside and asked to sit down and close the door. And so began the fallout.

The border guards took our paperwork and asked for 50% more than the price of the visa… Unfortunately for them, we had our homework in order. When we protested, we got a discount on our overpriced visa and were asked only an extra 25% since we had printed photos with us (although in fact they were not needed). Our continued refusal and insistence that the price was lower resulted in us leaving the room, saying we would call our consulate, in an attempt to make them forfeit their extortion attempts.(After the glitch of the honey incident in Georgia, Sarah takes shit from noone)

We did not call any consulate, but we did pick up the phone to find a confirmation of the real price. What they perhaps hadn’t expected was that we had already a Cambodia SIM card, given to us by Thjis and Nienke, who we had met shortly before we left Thailand (LINK?!).

It was also clear to us why we were invited to a room, away from everyone’s eyes. So instead of going to the same office, we joined the queue that everyone else was taking, to make a bit of the fuss they most likely were trying to avoid. Seeing us getting closer to the front of the line, we were called back to the window of the extortion room and told “OK OK”, and given the visas at the official price. The first bump on the Cambodian road was overcome.

We had heard before of the Cambodian border’s reputation, so in fact it didn’t come as a shock, but it was still not the best way to be welcomed into a country at the start of what would be nearly a month-long relationship. Truth be said, we were later told that, when hired as a border guard, the paycheck is miserable low, already being expected that you will extort your remaining pay and naturally give half to your boss.

Truth be said also, that we quickly managed to put away the unwelcome cloud above our heads, when, as soon we finally entered the country, we were received with so many friendly and smiling hellos of almost everyone we crossed paths with.

We were sticking to our holiday spirit and heading to a beach we saw marked shortly after the border, only a few kms detour away. After contemplating a stunning sunset (SouthEast Asia was without a doubt the place where we witnessed the most impressive sunrises and sunsets of the whole trip), we managed to find a hidden corner not so far from the beach. This turned out to be a bit of problem, because we spent most of the night listening to the ever so constant karaoke being blasted away by many loudspeakers at the nearby beach huts. How they love karaoke in these parts of the world…

This was also the first camping spot where we tried out our mosquito-net tent combo. With the tent inner doors open we looped the mosquito-net between the inner and the outer making a makeshift mosquito mesh door to our tent. We finally had found a way we could sleep without drowning in our own sweat, while still being able to keep the many bugs and creatures around outside of our tent.

We were heading towards Kampot, in the hope of some deserved rest days. The tales of a much appreciated swimming pool in one of the hostels draw us to yet another town, at this time still quite oblivious as to quite how much time we would end up spending there.

And apparently we weren’t the only ones heading that way. I was a bit ahead and when I stopped for a sip of water and to wait for Sarah to catch up, instead of Sarah, a cyclist with a bikepacking setup, also wrenched in sweat, appeared and jokingly said that Sarah had told him that she had had enough of the heat and was going back to Portugal. Nothing I wouldn’t believe but the joke expression on his face was clear.

Pascal was heading the same way, although he planned for a stop in-between us and Kampot, on an island off the shore of Sihanoukville, the infamous town where the ferries departed from. He had also heard of the reputation of the town, overcrowded with casinos (illegal in the neighboring Thailand) and of the even worse reputation of the road leading to the town.

We would also have to do part of it and, like him, we were also quite wary of how our cycling/surviving experience would be. The road was known for an unbelievable amount of trucks, going at unbelievably dangerous speeds with an unbelievable disrespect for cyclists’ well being.

Although we were roughly sharing the same direction, it was quite clear that we didn’t share the same pace given his much lighter bikepacking setup and wisdom to ship his unnecessary winter gear ahead of him, which we were still lugging around.Pascal was in fact coming not from Europe as most cyclists we had met, but coming from the other side of the world, after having spent a year and half cycling through mountainous South American regions. Obviously we were all interested in what experiences we might have to share, so although we weren’t cycling together, we at least managed to have lunch together to get to know him and of course, extract as much information as possible about our respective pedals. We were after all, at this stage, constantly wondering between ourselves what to do next after South East Asia.

We shared a meal of the typical Cambodian pans and pots. Mystery pots, usually laid out in a line on a table at the side of the road, cooked early in the morning and sat there in the heat since then. Hungry travellers would lift the lid and peek inside each pot and choose their lunch, hopefully not letting too many flies inside in the process. The majority were meat or fish based and in this place in particular, the dosage was not so much, most certainly not a portion of a cyclist’s standard. Needless to say we didn’t become great fans of these peek-a-pot lunches, and would try and avoid them wherever we could..

Nonetheless we shared tales and experiences of each other’s trips, on our part bombarding him with questions of how long to spend in South America, which direction, which countries and what time of year etc etc, and he equivalent questions about Central Asia. After lunch we said our farewells, wondering if we would meet again. Maybe Vietnam.

We continued our pedal in the melting sun, sweating amounts of water that we struggled to replenish. The dreaded stretch of road was upon us and we were determined to go though it as quickly as possible. We decided then to have an early start the next day to try and get to Kampot in one go, in what would be the longest stretch ever. 148Km separated us and the heavenly swimming pool Thjis and Nienke had told us about and we were determined to bathe in it.

Since we wanted to start early and hopefully well rested, we decided to find a hostel in the nearby town and stock up on food so that we wouldn’t have to stop much for that the next day. There weren’t many hostel options around and we had to bargain hard for something not overpriced.

The hostel had pricey fancy looking rooms with A/C or not so fancy looking cheaper rooms with a fan. Our budgeting rules enforced the choice which now in retrospective we might reconsider. It was the cheesiest place we had slept in (so far…), to the point that we said to ourselves our parents should never see photos of this place (Hej papis! :P).

Grimey walls, dripping drains, smelly toilet hole and a collection of tiny ants walking around the place. We tried to touch as little of the contents of the room as possible, protected our food from the local fauna and covered the bed with our liners, with the certainty that they would be washed in Kampot as soon as we arrived and only laid in bed the least amount of time possible, when it was time to cave to sleep.

Before bedtime Sarah started to slam her flip flops on the wall to try at least to reduce the chances we would wake up covered in ants. And well, to vent out some of her despair with the place… The next morning, the sun was still about to rise, we quickly jumped out of bed and left the room in hopes to never sleep in such a place again (which in hindsight, we definitely failed…).

On the way we stopped to take some pictures of some curious looking water buffalos and from behind who suddenly approached us but Pascal, who we had imagined was already miles ahead of us. We then wondered where we had slept the night. Only to find out he had stayed in the same place as us, which needless to say he had also found quite unpleasant.

Best of all, he mentioned at some point in the middle of the night, as if the place wasn’t bad enough, that someone in the room next to him had started hitting the wall with something, making all sorts of noises. That someone being Sarah and her ant killing flip-flop…!  We had unknowingly been sharing rooms side-by-side! After that revelation and the good laughs that it brought us, we said each other farewells and wishes of good luck on the upcoming road, him blazing away much faster, towards the horizon.

As we reached the intersection where the road of doom began we quickly started to notice a buzzing of trucks. We stopped for a good amount of water and energy in the shape of pineapple, banana and nuts, so that we could pedal as fast as possible through it, stopping the very least.

The road’s reputation was obviously not unfounded. It was without a doubt the worst road we ever cycled. We were literally lucky to come out alive on the other side. Hundreds of massive large trucks together with impatient car drivers wanting to overtake them, meant we were often very closely overtaken and in some instances having to swerve off the road to not to get hit by an oncoming or passing car doing some deadly overtake. We did the 40km stretch as quickly as we could and it was with great relief that we reached the crossing where we could escape this horrible road onto a much smaller one and head towards Kampot.

Kampot had recently become a somewhat booming town, on the Cambodian scale that is. Not as overdeveloped as Sihanoukville, Kampot had become a magnet for foreigners looking for settling down in the country, wanting a somewhat hippie lifestyle. In fact, most of the people were previously living in Sihanoukville, at the time claiming the title as one of the hippiest/happiest beach town in the area. But little by little people were forced out, to give place to casinos and Chinese funded hotels and industry, moved to Kampot.

When we finally reached town, after some very long and hot 148kms, the sun had already set as we made our way to “The Playground” where we were planning to stay (and play?!). The hostel seemed very relaxed indeed, more orientated to families, with a huge colorful playground in its garden (hence the name) and more importantly, the famous swimming pool we had been craving. Little did we know how much time we would spend in its grounds.

We had decided to take the time here to plan our next moves after South East Asia. Ever since we had met up with Thijs and Nienke, there had been tale of a virus spreading through China and we had received a few concerned messages from friends and family at home. We needed time to sit down and read the news, and work out if this virus was going to be a problem.

Originally the plan had been to cross back into China from Vietnam so that we could take the ferry from Shanghai to Japan where Sarah would finally meet the family she has living there and hadn’t seen in seven(?!) years. But the recent news was indicating that going to China would not be a good idea, if indeed possible at all. Japan had already put a quarantine or ban on people entering from China, there was talk of neighbouring countries closing their land borders and foreigners were scrambling to get seats on evacuation flights to take them back home.

We had always wanted to keep this trip overland, not taking any airplane, and returning home by bicycle. With the aid of a few ferries and a very long train journey through Russia.

We also felt that South East Asia, as different and therefore interesting as it might have been so far, was not really our cup of tea. We were desperately missing the mountains, the remoteness and even the cold. We wanted a little bit more of a taste of adventure before we came back to boring old Europe. Which is not boring at all, and in fact we had some of the nicest experiences in the first part of the trip. But the feeling of traveling and adventure is quite different.

And that is why we wanted to use the Russian visa we had managed to obtain (somewhat creatively thanks to the UEFA 2020), to hop into Mongolia and have one more taste of true wilderness. Ever since the idea had come to our minds, our feet and souls were itchy to get there, back to the feeling we had had in Central Asia, with its mountains, the nomadic lives and remote lands where you could camp anywhere, always with beautiful scenery.

But then there was also this voice in our heads. It had been there for a while, perhaps since we left Portugal … The appeal to continue on East. Even though when we left we said to ourselves, and everyone else, that we were going to cycle till Vietnam, we both always knew that perhaps we would cycle further or even pedal somewhere else completely different all together. Even though it meant flying and being away from home (where is home, was not where your bikes were?!), the desire to jump onto the American continent and continue from there was undeniable. So we dwelled on that scenario…

Of course, things weren’t as simple as that…  To get to Colombia, where the seasons would be more or less right to start out South America endeavor, most flights had a stop-over either in China or the US. China was out of the equation because of (at the time…), its internal virus epidemic situation. And the US, although normally not a problem to make a stopover in, was having none of that if you had been in Iran in the last 5 years, which we obviously had. We would have to pay hundreds of dollars to  apply for a visa at an embassy which we might not even get, even if it was just a stop-over!! So if we excluded China and the US from the stopover list, all we were left with were super overpriced tickets via Canada or Ethiopia, especially when compared to the prices we would see if we otherwise flew from Spain.

So in the end, after much much much debating, writing up plans, tables, timelines and all sorts of other diagrams and decision making auxiliaries, we decided to accept that until Japan at least, we would have to pack our metal friends in boxes and fly. But then from there, we would take a ferry into Russia and hop onwards to Mongolia for a (too) few weeks, just in time to be back in Europe before our Russian “visa” expired. And then as we do, we would slowly pedal back home, just squeezing in a little nature tour of Scandinavia, a visit to our cycling Dutchies, a few weddings, a friends dot-to-dot tour in the UK, Sarah‘s family reunion in Ireland and then hop on a ferry to Spain to be back in Portugal by…. Christmas?!

Then the idea was to find work somewhere in Scandinavia for a year or two, save up some funds, and then head to Spain to begin a second bike project dream: South America. 

All the plans and dreams at a time where planning anything and making dreams reality was only going to become harder, if not impossible…

In between all the planning and deciding, we did also manage to squeeze in some visits to town, to the local market, full of vegetables, tropical fruits, and all sorts of other yukky things. And also to a few of the towns restaurants to try some local yummi food. We even found a Portuguese restaurant, with a quite characteristic Portuguese menu – mousse de chocolate and beans da horta!

As we sat in restaurants and wandered around town, we would enjoy how colorful local people pyjamas were. Yes, their pyjamas. You see, Cambodians don’t just wear them for sleeping, but to walk around the place. Full on pyjamas, with matching pants and shirt, in all sorts of patterns and colours, were worn by women, in the street. We are not sure if it so, but when we asked we were told that initially a woman would wear a pyjama outfit to indicate she was married, but it then quickly became a fashion to wear such lush colorful outfits. They were so comfy and fresh to wear I can understand why!

This all paused in with a few dips in the swimming pool of course. What was meant to be a stop of 2-3 nights, ended up being a stop of 7. The decision of our onwards journey  finally made, the bodies rested and more importantly also the mind, we set off, knowingly saying good bye to the sea once again till we reached Vietnam.

We changed our needles towards North, and started aiming back to Laos, this time entering from its very South, where we planned to reach Vietnam (I won’t dwell on this as well, but a lot of deciding was also involved as to whether to go straight into Vietnam and pedal the length of the whole country, but that would have required applying for visas and so on).

Initially we had planned to go to Phnon Phen to ask for a Chinese visa once again, but with our flights booked there was now no need to do so. So instead we had fun trying to plot a route that would allow us to go around the capital and thus avoiding some of the major roads that had a similar reputation to the road of doom we had already pedalled. The result was a cycling circuit of some very sandy roads and tracks, many ferry trips across the Mekong river and crossing several very dodgy bridges.

In the meanwhile we developed a bit of a sugar cane addiction. What clearly used to be manually driven pressing machines, but which were now run by a small motor engine, press the sugar cane stalks, which then releases its juices into a bowl. Served with large chunks of ice, which we would ask to place in the thermos we bought in China, it was the most refreshing energizing drink ever.

Midway, as in Thailand, we also slept in quite a few temples with some very mixed experiences. Sometimes completely left on our own and others with long curious conversations, for example with a 14 year old monk who seemed to be trying to get us to lend him our smartphone to watch videos on Youtube.

Our last stretch of road towards the border, was a bumpy one, as was once again our border crossing experience. Much as it started, our Cambodian relationship ended with some small sort of extortion. The same to enter Laos. This time however we were not even upset, but instead decided to have some fun and laughs with it…

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