Route: Poipet - Sisophon - Siem Reap - Samroung - O smach - Surin - Roi Et - Khon Kaen - Udon Thani - Nong Khai
Distance cycled: 14,250 kms
We left our hotel in Aranyaprathet and cycled 6 kms to the Cambodian border. We hadn’t been looking forward to this, our first of many land crossings. Having researched the crossing I discovered it had the worst reputation possible. Corruption amounting to daylight robbery was rife amongst the immigration officials and the town of Poipet on the Cambodian side was considered the cesspit of Cambodia, a haven for thieves and con artists. This is unfortunate of course as this place, we soon found out, does not reflect the rest of Cambodia. However this border crossing is so stressful, infuriating and often intimidating that some less hardy travellers head straight back to the Thailand entry gate, without giving the rest of Cambodia a chance.
However, forewarned is forearmed. As soon as we arrived, some guy tried to usher us towards an official looking office. This was scam number 1. It’s not the official entry gate, just some guys working privately trying to sell you an overpriced visa. They tell you blatant lies about how the visa costs more if you don’t buy it in Bangkok etc etc . Total nonsense. We told them we were not interested and tried to get them to tell us where the official gate was . At the gate, we waited in a queue and were stamped out of Thailand. We then went to another building to buy our visa. We had been chatting with a couple of German guys who’d also done their homework and knew about all the scams. The most popular one is telling tourists they need an international vaccination certificate. Many naive tourists panic as they have no such certificate but are soon relieved to hear that they can buy one from the border control officials for a few hundred baht. This is all bullshit of course as no such certificate is required. The other way they make their money is by saying that you can’t pay the official fee of $20 but instead must pay 1000 baht, giving them a tidy profit. Again, all bullshit. The fee is $20, end of story.
|We got a flattie outside these guys house. Everyone was keen to help|
We were lucky as the German guys went in before us and stood their ground, making it clear that they were paying $20 and no more. The officials then saw them talking to us outside and so didn’t even try it on with us, saving us the confrontation. It’s very rare apparently to pay only $20 but we did it. They were so rude to us as they knew we wouldn’t be paying for tonights whisky. You’re not getting penny one from us. This abuse of power needs to be stopped as it puts people off coming to Cambodia, a country which badly needs money from tourism. It states clearly on a sign on the wall in the border control office that the visa fee is $20 yet they still have the audacity to demand more. However if you point to the sign and say “the fee is $20”, you have made them lose face in public. They will then go in a childish huff and make you wait but ultimately they have to let you through. They only make their money as most people don’t have the balls to stand up to them. Their attitude sucks and we found them rude, arrogant and lazy. The poor people of Cambodia are fighting for survival whilst this lot sit on their arses raking in the cash. Margo and Ben say, stand up to these guys, don’t pay them a penny extra. You can then use the money you’ve saved to give to hungry Cambodian children or the thousands of limbless landmine victims who receive no help from the state whatsoever and have to rely on begging for their survival.
As always, the first few days in a new country are difficult as you try to get to grips with the language, cost of living, road conditions, new food etc. We are now cycling on the right for the first time on the trip. Again,we had to learn some of the language quickly as not many people speak English here or, it would appear, French. I had really hoped that in this one-time French colonial country that French would be a common second language but so far “Vous parlez francais?” gets me nothing more than a confused expression. Food seems to be similar to that of the Thais with an interesting and welcome addition to the menu: freshly baked baguettes! We’ve missed bread on our travels but thanks to the French, filled baguettes are available on every street corner. The fillings can be a bit dubious though.
|Don't think I can't see you in there|
Before we left Poipet we returned to the cafe we were at the day before. A lovely young lad of around 13 spoke some English so I asked him if he would translate some phrases for me. 15 minutes later I had a good list of Khmer expressions and I thanked him for his help by giving him a dollar. He was absolutely delighted. It was a good exchange.
We cycled away from Poipet. The roads were in good condition and the driving out of town didn’t trouble us at all. Cambodia however has a problem with silt which builds up at the side of the road and turns into a mudfest after the rain .It didn’t take long to get out into the countryside as we followed the main road to Siem Reap. Within minutes we could see that the country of Cambodia was a very special place. We cycled through poor villages where children and adults ran out to greet us and shout hello. The cambodian smile is heart warming to say the least and we spent the rest of the day grinning from ear to ear as we pedalled along. The friendliness and sincerity of these people is amazing. We fell in love with the country instantly and felt a million miles away from the unsavoury border town we’d left only a few hours ago. By the end of day 1 Cambodia had overtaken Malaysia as favourite country so far.
We had learned how to ask for fried rice so had that for our first couple of meals to save confusion. At many roadside eateries there are just a few big pots of stews and curries. We just pick one, get some rice and hope for the best. With every meal, jasmine tea is served free of charge. It’s great for rehydrating. Our meals cost a dollar each. The road to Siem Reap was completely flat and we enjoyed the ride cruising along at over 20 kms/h. We had never smiled so much. The children(and there are a lot of them) are very special. We stayed near Sisophon at the end of day 2 and found a nice guest house for $6. The people who ran it were extremely welcoming and it was clear they appreciated the money. Also, after the hovel we spent the previous night in, this place felt like the Hilton.
|We were never once chased by a Cambodidog.|
|Arriving in Siem Reap, a welcoming sight|
|The fun attaction in question was a choice of 3 films: A history of genocide, a documentary about landmine victims and Snake ecological disaster. Hilarious.|
Wherever you go in Siem Reap, you have to deal with child beggars. It’s pretty much constant but you must be patient with them. For us, it was the first time we’d really came across this. We helped some kids by buying them a meal(although some of them are definetely "at it") or would sometimes give a little money to the landmine victims. Some of the kids have taken to selling postcards and books which is considered more dignified than outright begging.
|Ear plugs at the ready, she's here|
Then, on Saturday morning, there was a knock at the door followed by some familiar high-pitched screaming. We opened the door to our good friends Michala and Andy who we hadn’t seen in almost a year and gave them a big hug. These two were moving from the UK over to New Zealand for a year and thought it would be rude not to pop in and see us en route. A few hours later as we sat eating dinner together it felt like we’d never been apart. Siem Reap was, it turned out, a good place to have a break with friends and we got the holiday off to a fine start sampling several Angkor beers for 32p a pint.
|Air con, free crisps and 32p pints. Life in Siem Reap is pretty jammy for us Westerners|
|"We come bearing gifts" cried the generous swines. A new saddle, gloves and shorts.|
A highlight of Siem Reap was our trip to the world famous Angkor Wat. At $20 for a one day pass it was an expensive outing but worth it. We set off early in the morning and cycled 10 kms up to the first temple, Angkor Wat itself. Angkor Wat was an ancient city built around the year 1200 and covers a huge area of the countryside to the North of Siem Reap. Angkor Wat temple itself is considered by most to be the most impressive of these ancient structures however for us, it was no match for the last temple we visited, Ta Prohm. Here, the jungle is reclaiming its rightful place and is slowly consuming the entire temple. Like something from Lord of the Rings, it is a spellbinding place and best appreciated in the fading light of dusk when we had the whole place to ourselves. The Bayon was also an impressive temple, the amazing detail of which can be appreciated from the outside.
|He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!|
|Angkor Wat(scaffolding spoilt it a bit)|
|One of the hundreds of giant faces on the Bayon|
|Meg - a gem|
|Not another bloody temple|
But these photos show just how amazing Ta Prohm was.................
|Peek-a-boo! The two little heads bottom right show the massive proportions of this tree|
One day the four of us cycled to Tonle Sap lake. It turned out to be a really nice day out which gave Mic and Andy a taste for the Cambodian countryside. They loved cycling through little villages on dirt roads, amazed by the overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met. As the rain came down in torrents, we laughed at the naked children dancing in puddles and laughing their heads off. We sheltered in a little restaurant where the locals were really friendly and welcomed us. It was great for Mic and Andy to see Cambodia beyond Siem Reap. Out in the countryside, no-one has ever asked us for money.
|No shoes, no pedals but still lovin his bike|
|Andy called this look "geography teacher on a field trip".|
|These two were a couple of little comedians and no mistake|
It would be a long time before we saw our friends again so it meant a lot to us that they came to visit. We had spent an amazing week with them, another highlight of our trip. Seeing friends from home is great but also leaves us feeling unsettled for a couple of days as we readjust to life back on the road on our own again. As we waved them off on the morning of their departure, we went straight back to bed, not quite ready to head off into the wilds of Northern Cambodia for at least another day. Better off in here under the covers methinks. However, departure was imminent. We’d been here long enough. As we went back to bed that morning we looked in at their now empty room and felt a twinge of sadness. Love you guys, happy New Zealand!
|Hiding from the rain|
|Okay, now back to work|
By the end of day 1 we had covered 70 kms which is a good distance on a dirt road with a headwind. We asked if we could camp in a family’s garden. Our tent spot was facing right onto the road and before long a 20 strong crowd had formed to watch us put up our tent. It was clear they had never seen the like and watched us for almost half an hour until their curiosity had been satisfied. The family we stayed with were lovely but equally as intrigued by us. Hopefully they made a bit of extra cash at their roadside stall catering for the onlookers! The father, although we couldn’t speak with him, seemed highly impressed by our stove and lifestyle . His 18 year old daughter spoke the tiniest bit of English which was enough to get us through the night. We made tea on the stove for everyone and enjoyed each others company in relative silence. The coming of night gave us the privacy we had been craving all day and we retired to the tent.
We stopped at a roadside stall and bought some stale cakes. A crowd of 10 or so kids came to watch us so we bought another bag of cakes and dished them out. They liked this. Hopefully, if they never meet another barang they’ll remember the cakes positively at least. We arrived in the town of Samroung, the only town of any size in Oddar Meanchey province. Having said that, it’s a real end of the road town without much appeal. Sadly, this province is the most heavily mined in Cambodia and here, an average of 1 person per day is killed or injured. The mine situation up here is so bad we daren’t even go to the side of the road to answer the call of nature. We’d rather lose our modesty than a leg.
We booked into the only hotel in town to wash the filth of our dusty bodies. It was surprisingly clean and comfortable. For those interested in the history of the Khmer Rouge this area may have a lot to offer. Near here, you can visit Pol Pot’s house and hideout as well as meeting places of Khmer Rouge officials and radio outposts. Otherwise, there is nothing up here for tourists. Heading out in search of food in these backwater towns can be tough sometimes as anonymity is not an option. We grabbed some food and retired to the hotel room to eat. Staying in an empty hotel in a town like this can be quite a lonely experience and it’s at times like these you feel very far from home. Sometimes it all feels quite surreal and dreamlike.
|Samroung Hotel - classy|
Next day we ate in a restaurant next to the hotel. The lady serving gave us a huge bowl of rice each as she knew we were cycling to O Smach. We saw a softer side to Samaroung and a couple of locals were keen to talk to us. The condition of the road deteriorated on this last stretch to the border as we cycled through extremely remote countryside. 5 miles from the border we laughed at the road ahead of us. This steep uphill climb resembled a good downhill section of Glentress. It was good fun though and the locals were mightily impressed with our riding. At the top of the Dangreak mountain range which separates Cambodia and Thailand we checked into the Chay Ya hotel. Once again, it was clean and comfortable and only $5. I cycled out to get some food and found everyone in the village delightful. They were very curious but friendly and respectful which is typical of the khmer people.
|The road leading to the Cambodian border. Could do with an upgrade.|
We hadn't planned on going back to Thailand so it was a bit of a surprise to find ourselves back there. It was always our intention to leave Cambodia via the Laos border in the South and cycle the country South to North. However, the Seven/Eleven do cheese and ham toasties and we weren't sure if we could get them in Laos. In actual fact, we had a date with a friend in Vientiane(the capital of Laos) on the 14th and would be pushing it to get there on time going via Laos. So we ended up crossing through North Eastern Thailand. (Have a look at “where are we now” to see our route – Thailand is a funny shape!) It was almost fate that we ended up back in Thailand. We'd left last time with a slightly bitter taste in our mouths and wanted to leave this time with a more positive view of the country. The people of Isan(North East Thailand) showed us what Thailand is really about.
The border crossing from O Smach was completely hassle-free and the border control guys on both sides were delightful, asking us about our trip, wishing us well and giving Ben's thigh muscles a squeeze for good measure. As we cycled down the road towards the city of Surin 70 kms away, we felt great. Thailand felt very familiar. The most important thing for us right now was we were moving again, motoring towards home in the right direction. We pulled in at the side of the road to look at a map. On seeing us, a guy leapt out of his hammock and came over to greet us. He was infact a policeman on duty! Enthusiastically, he invited us over to fill up our bottles with cold water and help ourselves to free coffee in the station. What a guy! He practised his English with us and sent us on our way with a thermamug, more sachets of coffee and most importantly, his details incase we needed "a friend in the police”. This hopefully would not come in handy but was a very good contact to have. We have met a few Thai policeman and they have all been helpful and extremely friendly . As we cycled along, we could see immediately that the people here were awesome. Everyone greeted us with a lovely Thai smile and a hello or a sawadee. We were in grave danger of catching another bout of the medical condition known as “waver's wrist”, a disease common in many South-East Asian countries.
|The road on the Thai side|
Also, on our first day back in Thailand, we met this guy walking down the road...........
We were able to meet him up close and give him a good stroke. His size was overwhelming and as Ben got up close and personal, I found myself gently pulling his arm, making sure he stayed clear of those massive feet.We trusted the elephant though and the friendly man on his back. His trunk had a life of it's own and he used it to explore our faces and armpits. What a beautiful creature. There are hundreds of working elephants in Thailand and we have seen several others during our time here.
|At the same time each night, this other couple joins us for a bit of cycling|
We arrived in Surin and checked into the “New Hotel”. The lonely planet was right to point out the irony of this name as it's anything but it had character though that's for sure. 200 rooms over 4 floors in a style similar to the hotel in “The Shining”. The rooms though were clean, the staff friendly and they had free wi-fi. It was also the cheapest hotel we'd found in Thailand, a total bargain at 130 baht. As it was cheap and cheerful, we stayed 2 days to get the blog updated.
The next day we set off and had a break 50 kms later. Although we were sticking to the main roads, the riding was great and the people continued to inspire us. We pulled into a cafe where a gaggle of women came over to ask us about our trip. We ordered some delicious food from them and when we went to pay, they refused the money. A first for Asia! They asked us where we were staying tonight and we told them we were looking for a Buddhist temple to sleep in. However, a couple of the ladies said “hotel, free” and beckoned us to follow them on their scooter. 10 minutes later we were in an air-conditioned chalet round the corner paid for by The Golden Girls. They had also left us 4 bags of shopping from the Seven/Eleven. We thanked them profusely and before leaving they invited us round for a free breakfast at the cafe in the morning. Next morning's breakfast turned into a roman banquet as more and more plates of food were brought out from the kitchen and put on our table. We ate till fit to burst and then we were brought a packed-lunch of rice, omelette and chicken and basil. This random act of kindness was completely unexpected but is one of the great things about travelling: you never know what will happen next.
As we cycled to Roi-Et the next day, we watched water buffaloes wallowing in the mud and people at work in the paddy fields. The pace of life here is very relaxed and everyone smiles from the heart. We went straight to Wat Buripham(Buripham temple) and asked if we could stay the night there. All the young monks came over to check us out but a lot of them were too shy to talk to us. However, some of the bolder ones came over to chat and we managed to piece a conversation together in bad English and bad Thai. Then a couple of the older monks showed us into a private room with air-con. The chatty, young monks followed us in there but the older monks ushered them out to give us some privacy. The monks had made it clear that we were welcome to stay there for free however we wanted to leave an offering. One of the monks took Ben into the temple where he left 100 baht in the donation box. Before we were left we were given a photo of the 60 metre high Buddha which towers over the temple.In Thailand, most young males will become a monk at some point in their lives. Some for only a month, some will dedicate their whole lives to it. Hopefully, becoming a monk is an enriching experience for young Thai males which will give them the guidance they need to live a good life. We were told also that sometimes older people become ordained as they will not be a “burden on their family' if they are living in the temple.
|The 60 metre high Buddha at Roi-Et|
Our departure from Roi-Et was delayed by a two-hour downpour which was not such a bad thing as we got to meet Mike. This friendly American now running a cafe in Roi-et invited us in for free tea and coffee and a chat. It was the sort of nice morning that we would often have in Oz and NZ before getting on the road. Roi-Et seemed like a really nice town where we could have spent another day.
Our delay meant we couldn't make it to Khon Kaen so we stopped halfway at Maha Sakarham, a nice University town. Ben was poorly so checked into a hotel. That night, we went out to the market and got a huge bowl of Tom Yam soup and 2 bowls of rice for 50 baht(1 pound!).No-one here has overcharged us infact if anything, we're being undercharged most of the time. We also had tea and coffeee in a bag. Instead of plastic cups, the Thais have drinks in a little plastic bag tied at the top with a straw in it. I want all my tea in a bag now. Speaking of bags, Thailand shops dish them out like there's no tomorrow. Everything goes in a plastic bag, sometimes two then people come out of the shop, take their single item out of the bag and put it in the bin. It's madness I tell you! Shopkeepers find it hilarious if you bring your own bag to reuse. One thing that is well recycled here though is plastic bottles. People collect them out of bins and get cash for them at recycling plants. This is good for us as we know the 6 or so water bottles we get through a day are not going to landfill.
Next day we did a long ride of 100 kms, deciding to bypass the busy city of Khon Kaen. It was a good ride on quieter roads where we got to meet friendly locals. We spent the night in another temple. There seemed to be only a couple of monks living here as the temple was in a quiet village. We were shown an undercover area where we could put our mozzie net up. Luckily there was also a sturdy wooden table which we could sleep on to keep us off the ground. The monk who helped us was a man of few words and left us to our own devices. During the night there was an almighty thunder storm. Lightening lit up the elaborate temple like something from a horror movie, an amazing sight. Men seemed to come in and out of a little room to chat with the monks which kept me awake for a while. All in all it was a sleepless night so the last thing I needed was a 5.30am wake up call. As dawn was breaking, an elderly monk came over and stood right by us. It was clear he was keen to chat despite our being asleep. After 10 minutes, we resigned ourselves to having to get up. Cycling at this time in the morning is great but in our case doesn't happen very often. We packed up and offered our new friend some rambutans before we left. I now leave it to Ben to pass things to the monks as they are not meant to receive things from a female. It had been a tough night and I wondered how far my 2 hour kip would get me.
However, by the end of the day we found ourselves in the big city of Udon Thani over 100 kms away. It had been a difficult ride at some points during which I thought I might nod off mid pedal stroke. An hour long siesta mid afternoon definetely helped us get through the day. In Thailand you can find a roadside shelter every kilometre or so which is great for taking a rest .In need of a good nights sleep, we opted for a cheap hotel instead of a temple. The shabby Puttarag Hotel cost only 160 baht. Udon Thani is a lively place and a popular destination for sex tourists(generally guys my Dad's age with 20 year old girls). Some of these guys definitely have a look of shame in their eyes as they walk down the street hand in hand with a girl young enough to be their daughter. The night market was amazing and I brought Ben back all sorts of nice treats.
|Across the Mekong to Laos|
|This Dutch couple, having seen the light are now continuing their travels on 2 wheels|
|The sculpture park, Nong Khai|
And so we cycled off towards the Thai-Lao friendship bridge and waved goodbye to Thailand as we crossed over into country number 8.We have been in Laos for a week now and all is well. In 300 kms we'll be in China, half way home. Next blog to follow very soon.