Was is Boris Johnson or someone else that got (rightly) ridiculed for being photographed cycling, whilst his ministerial car followed him at a snail’s pace just a few metres behind. Anyway, I never expected to find myself in a similarly farcical position, and yet here I am and yes I did!
So today, we were united with our bikes! First though, up for breakfast. I was woken at some gawdforsaken hour by what I presume was wedding celebrations underway. Slumber has not been a notable part of this trip to date. Oh well, sleep will have to come later. I was worried I’d be late for our breakfast rendezvous, but beat my travel companion to the foyer. He emerged later, reporting he knew I was already up, as apparently I’d trailed a whole heap of sand from my bedroom door all the way down the four flights of stairs. How popular will I be with the housekeeping team. On the plus side, as I initially picked up the wrong key, it may well be they blame him not me, and besides, we are checking out today!
We went down to the same restaurant as before for our breakfast. I still can’t quite fathom why there is nowhere else to eat in this town or at the hotel itself. In fact, it worked out fine. The staff had good English, and I had an unexpectedly good breakfast of muesli, fruit and yoghurt. We did have to sit in the dark though, illumination is not considered either a necessity or an asset here apparently. We asked about our lunch boxes, but in an unexpected display of anticipatory efficiency, these had already been given to our tour guide by some sort of osmosis apparently, as we didn’t witness it in action!
AT 8.30, we went outside the hotel and got our bikes. Mine is exceedingly shiny and red (no it isn’t orange, orange is, well orange colour and this is clearly not). They may well have been brand new. We were offered helmets, but I declined, wondering as I did so if this was reckless and hypocritical or just inevitable given the heat. I am aware of my inconsistency around this – I wouldn’t dream of getting on a horse or a motorbike without one) but I suppose it’s a consequence of learning to ride a bike as a child when helmets were not even conceived of, let alone a thing. I know though, that the ‘well, it never did me any harm as a kid’ defence is pathetic, pitiful and hardly the point. What we got away with in the past isn’t necessarily a road map for the future.
My camera is water-logged, it ‘works’ but the view finder and therefore all pictures are entirely obscured by mist. I have therefore had to delegate and outsource photographic duties to my co-traveler. Fortunately, he excelled himself early on, by initiating this group shot pre-departure. What a fine trio we are indeed! We even seem to be inadvertently colour coordinated, very his and hers, which doesn’t really help the ‘we are not a couple’ mantra we have to keep wheeling out whenever sleeping arrangements are being negotiated.
So we wobbled off uncertainly, for less than 100 metres to be honest. First stop was the market which was only round the corner. Our guide optimistically pedaled right into the throng, shaking us off almost immediately as I haven’t quite got the hang of pushing everyone out of my way as I pass. We were on a mission to buy fruit, but I suppose it was also an opportunity to experience the fun of the market from within. And it is fun and it was an experience.
It turned out that taking a whole trio of bikes into a heaving market with closely packed stalls is not entirely practical. Note to self, push bikes are not a good accessory or accompaniment on such occasions. YOu can’t ‘breathe in’ to get past obstacles when you have a push bike, though I would swear some of the motorbikes do. You should see the spaces they manoeuvre through, managing to negotiate the whole of that labyrinthal space at relative speed without stopping let alone getting off. I spent most of this excursion giving apologetic and embarrassed smiles in all directions accompanied by a shamed-shrug. I was aware of getting precariously close to piles of carefully (and seemingly precariously) balanced displays of fruit, and I’m sure I must have squelched on a few toe as I passed. I was frankly astonished at how tolerant the local people seemed to be of my general ineptitude. I guess my body language made it clear that it was skill in manoeuvering my bike rather than manners that I was lacking. At one point I thought I’d blocked in an old man completely as I was caught up in a grid lock that I could not negotiate as I watched my guide disappearing into the throng way ahead of me. It turned out that he was just gazing at my wheels with admiration. He muttered something, smiled and gave the bike what I took to be an appreciative and approving flick with his fingers before side-stepping my obstruction and vanishing into the crowds himself. That’s OK then.
GEtting round the market was hard. My only comfort was that I had a slight height advantage over my co-traveler. He is relatively tall by Cambodian standards, and had to reckon with the low hanging tarpaulins draped from every stall forming an improvised roof. Being of a more diminutive stature (I like to think petite rather than short-arsed) was a definite advantage. I only had to worry about what was beneath, ahead and alongside, not what was above as well. If I had, I think my brain might have imploded. That would have been messy, but probably just presented another eating opportunity for someone out there. Anyway, as it was, low-hanging swinging tarpaulins held no fear for me!
The market seemed much busier and more densely packed than when we ventured out last night, but not threatening at all, rather interesting and full of curiosities and opportunities. I learned that the building work we’ve seen underway is indeed the construction of a new market premises. But all is not as it seems. Apparently around new year the old market caught fire, but everyone assumes officially endorsed arson. As the market premises now have to be rebuilt, all the market traders have relocated outside, hence the disruption to the roads and the general chaos of the stalls. It seems that there were plans to develop the old market, but the existing traders protested. They were worried they might lose their spots, and be compelled to pay new high rents that would mean their businesses are no longer profitable. However, now there has been a fire, clearly the redevelopment will have to go ahead. I don’t know if that means the people we saw face a precarious existence or not.
The market was absolutely heaving, freshly caught fish writhed and gaped in their death throes. Bizarre looking snake fish (long and thin with attractive geometrically patterned scaled). We were advised not to take photos, as there are many native species illegally caught and traded here. Our guide said there was turtle, but I couldn’t see it. There was also a poor skinned porcupine. I didn’t even know they were native here, but I’m sure that’s what it was. It is officially illegal to trade in such animals but ‘no-one cares’ police and conservation officers will readily turn a blind eye for a fee. Even so, no-one wants their activities documented just in case the government decide to make a show of making an example of someone who maybe couldn’t pay the bribe perhaps, and use them as fodder to show the outside world how seriously they take this rape of natural resources. My speculation of course, but that’s how it seems to be. On some days you can see lizards and rare creatures for sale. It is depressing again. It does seem pretty hopeless. People have so little and the government is so corrupt, anyone fighting this exploitation of natural resources is fighting a losing battle indeed. Even so, maybe there is a crumb of hope in that more than one guide has spoken in admiring tones of the Australian environmental campaigner Alex who speaks Khmer and campaigns on a wide range of issues. I am not sure if this is in fact the spanish guy Alex Gonzalez-Davidson who was deported last year? Still, it suggests that there are people who do care, albeit they may be fighting to hold back the tide and it will not end well for them or for Cambodia alas. I hate to say it, but everything I have seen so far from the ‘pristine beaches’ which are manifestly not, to the ‘pristine jungle’ which was similarly litter filled and devoid of life makes me think it is too late for Cambodia’s ecology. It doesn’t mean people should give up the fight, but it’s sad to see. My co-traveler tells me Australians were similarly blasse twenty years ago, and there has been a sea-change in attitudes since. Well, I suppose that might offer some crumb of comfort, but for the fact that technology available now allows the pace of environmental destruction to accelerate to such an extent there will be no forest or indigenous wildlife left by the time the government and world wake up to what is going on.
So after our exploratory tour, and purchase of fruit longans mainly, we finally left Stung Treng and soon were bumping along by the river. It was so hot, and so a bit heads down through the red dusty road. I had to make a conscious effort to look up at the riverside and breathe in the view which was spectacular. The Mekong here is vast and blue – it is mud filled and brown during the wet season when it rages past silt-filled and furious.
To begin with, we made fairly good progress, friendly children came out and waved and shouted greetings as we passed by. It seems cycling foreigners are still a sufficient novelty here to be a spectacle worth running to the roadside to see. Cycling wise, apart from the initial shooting pains in my calves and screech of protest from my gristled knees it was OK. It was the rearrangement of my personal undercarriage that was the issue. To say the bike seat was excruciatingly uncomfortable doesn’t being to get to the bottom (pun intended) of how great an instrument of torture it actually was. Why bike seats are so uncomfortable I have no idea, is it really the case we can put men and women on the moon but we can’t have a comfy bike seat? Maybe the ‘there was no moon-landing’ conspiracy theorists have a point, it is incomprehensible. I spent quite a bit of time fantasising about my gel pad cycle seat which I can see in my mind’s eye on my push bike back home in Sheffield.
Our cheery guide shot off ahead of us at a fair old lick with not a backward glance, meanwhile behind our cheery driver (who I developed a soft spot for) crawled behind us, presumably to scrape us off the road if required or carry us to our destination if we caved in under the blazing sun. I actually found it rather unnerving being tailed by a bus. It seemed bizarre and excessive but also weirdly reassuring as a buffer between us and the more maniacal traffic that frequents the roads of Cambodia.
We didn’t have all that many stops along the way to be honest. There was one early on where we could look back and see where two waterways joined (only honestly, I couldn’t really). I was also interested in the sign advising people not to use dynamite for fishing, not to block the entire water-course with their nets; not to use poison and not to use electricity either. The sign was sun-bleached and vandalised. I get the impression no-one is remotely bothered by these warnings.
Then we paused at a landing stage to eat longans. It was opposite a pagoda. Many riverside pagodas apparently have these, there is an annual festival when boats are laden with offerings and set light to, before floating away. I got the impression this is NOT the same as the water festival, but it did sound very similar so maybe I just misunderstood what was being said. Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last. Anyway, I do know we ate longans and looked at the river.
Then there was the bridge stop, which also offered up a pit stop for them as required it. Water buffalos in one direction, the Mighty Mekong in the other and red dusty road ahead and behind.
We got stories various along the way. One concerned Kem Ley – an activist who was killed in July 2016 (I think) in what was described as a robbery, only no-one believes this. He was a government critic on a range of issues so everyone assumes it was a politically motivated appearance. Our guide said that for his funeral over a million turned ou – whether or not this number is accurate is not the point, the point is that a multitude did. Others provided water and free gasoline so that people could travel. It was a nation in mourning. Later in the trip our silk island guide told how he too cried for this man. There was zero news coverage in the Cambodian Press, though it did get international coverage apparently – not that I saw it at the time, but then maybe I was too busy looking in another direction.
Tales along the way are always good. We heard of how a car driver caused a fatal accident right outside his house. The driver subsequently died, and his wife broke both her legs and many ribs. He saw it and immediately rushed to help – somehow conveying the injured people on his motorbike to the hospital. His wife implored him not to get involved, there is a fear that if you do, you will be blamed for what has happened and may even have to pay. But he said ‘I am a good person, I had to help‘ and so he did. The driver was found and had to pay $3000 in compensation but our guide felt so sorry for the woman, ‘what good is that if your husband has been killed‘. Curiously, I’m sure I have read warning to travelers too, stay away from accidents, don’t get involved, you will be stung for hospital expenses if you do (I think the inference is don’t stop if you are not involved already, clearly if you are involved in an accident then you should take responsibility, well I’d assume so anyway. Maybe from a humanity perspective that isn’t right. It is reassuring there are some good people in the world still who will get involved, even at personal risk.
Picture pause – some stops along the way:
There was the stop where we saw a guy up a ladder brandishing a machete to clear over growing vines from power lines of some sort, whilst his bored looking companion waited in the shade of a tuk tuk. What could possibly go wrong there. It was like a Cambodian version of the opening credits of Casualty! Here our driver also used his fine tool – his most prized possession I’m sure, to carve up a weird sort of fruit he’d purloined from a passing motorcyclist earlier on. A woman he used to live near to had a basket laden with them, and he charmed them off her. It was a weird white root thing, a cross between a potato and a pear to eat. OK, but I wouldn’t rush to eat one again.
To be honest the novelty of the bumpy, dusty road did start to wear off quite early on. The cycling was fine, it wasn’t my physical stamina that was the issue, it was the agony of my arse. We had the option of continuing on the dirt road, or taking a tarmac road across to the main highway, which would involve passing through some different local villages. We opted for the latter, not realising this would involve a head wind and some degree of hills (not hills in the Sheffield sense, but undulations I suppose would be fair), so the unsolicited genital rearrangements continued unabated unfortunately. Last look at the amazing river view before we changed direction (this is an illustrative not actual picture of that point by the way, I wouldn’t use if for navigational purposes).
The guide kept asking me if I was OK, which I was. I really couldn’t establish if this was because I am a slow cyclist; whether it is because I am old; because I am female or whether it is because I am a vegetarian and thus cannot possibly have the stamina for such exertion (see earler reference in blog post I’ve not actually written up yet). He didn’t ask my male co-traveler, but I suspect the real reason is that he still hasn’t got his name. I am variously Looosie; Juicy or Susie. My companion is referred to only indirectly or by gender. He is however younger, male and although not a carnivore and omnivore, so maybe he had no immediate cause for anxiety as far as he was concerned!
Lunch was a roadside stop, scouted out by our driver. They asked a local landowner who was repairing his nets if we could stop there and he was unconcerned. We found the shade of a shed and settled down with our mat and our lunch boxes. Very acceptable fried rice with an egg atop. It was very hot though. The shed that provided shade for us to shelter in was locked up using a bicycle chain and padlock. Genius. I mean an actual bike chain not a chain for locking your bike.
Eventually, we set off again, and another 12 km or so, past some rubber plantations took us to the end of our 40 km or so cycle ride for the day. At the rubber plants (which was also an impromptu pit stop for my male companions) we found some cushions in the back of the van, and only half jokingly contemplated whether they could be attached to our bikes for the remainder of the ride. Our guide was suspiciously confident that this can’t be done, the cushion gets in the way as you pedal. Clearly he has previously tried and failed in this arse-saving endeavour.
The shouting children syndrome was less prominent here, but still some came out. One boy in particular screamed at his friends to come join him in delighted anticipation of our passing. We felt like celebrities. Some rather limp handed high-fives were offered up, there is a training need here I feel…. This was a bit of a contrast to some areas of the islands yesterday, where blank-faced children gazed at us with slightly midwich cuckoo expressionless faces. Not hostile, but observing us dispassionately, set in neutral.
We finally got to the junction with the main highway. Now in my head I’d thought this was the planned end point. In fact, we were offered the option of continuing another few km on the main road. I didn’t fancy that option at all, partly because of the traffic, but honestly, I was a bit over the cycling per se. Not the cycling bit, but uncomfy seat bit. As there was a handy option for iced coffee by the wayside, we took up that option for the princely sum of 2000 reil apiece, whilst our guide and the driver disassembled our bikes and put them in the van.
BAck on onto the bus after our iced coffee. Our guide had bought takeaway ones for him and our driver. Our driver is great, he is very smiley and he thinks I am strong. I know this, because he told me so. He is very attentive and very smiley. He moved my bag from the back of the minivan to the front so I’d be able to access it when I boarded. I think his English is probably better than he lets on. He does not speak much, but either he anticipates my every need using some telepathic power (possible) or it is less psychic powers and more linguistic ability that means he understands everything I say. I suspect the latter!
Back in the bus, we stopped at some missile. Nope, I’m confused about its origins, but may look up at some other point in time. I did not feel a need to pose astride it, though our guide did. I too his photo for him!
As always there were sights along the way. The motorbikes in convoy with vast tree trunks balanced across the back of them defied gravity. How they could balance with such a load seesawing on the back is beyond me.
Our bus had a really heavy glass charm hanging from the rear view mirror. It swayed and clanged to an alarming degree. It’s ferocious swinging more likely to cause a distraction that would end in disaster than prevent it I would have thought…
The road changed and became single track, and then ‘suddenly’ we were at the boarding point directly opposite the 100 pillar pagoda again. We took our reassembled bikes down to the river along with our day packs with what we needed for the overnight at the homestay and we went down a steep rack of stairs onto the ferry. It was a broad flat-bottomed boat. All aboard, and then it took an hour or so to get to Crocodile island.
Honestly, I was a little on edge in case we were going to end up at the same island as last time. I don’t know why exactly, it would have been ‘fine’ but just seemed a bit stupid with all the options that Cambodia homestays have to offer.
The ride in the dropping sun was glorious. We watched riverbank scenes unfold. People washing themselves and their clothes, fishermen (they are all men) sorting nets, water buffalo making the most of the cooling water. Adults bathe somehow keeping themselves covered with sarongs or scarves. Sometimes children waved. I took my cue from them, I wouldn’t want someone to wave at me if I was having a bath. One old woman ducked under the water as we passed, her shawl billowing up around her like a turtle shell. I felt bad for being in her space and looked away. Amongst the water buffalo was one that was completely white! I wondered how it managed with its pale pink skin in all that sun. Our designated photographer did sterling work capturing scenes and gave me temporary custody of his phone too for much of the time, the white buffalo though eluded us both.
The riverside scenes were and are completely magical. There was a weird jingling sound as we passed some parts of the bank, but this was apparently a distorted echo of the sound of our boat’s motor. It was too loud for conversation, but that was good, as you could just take it all in and marvel that we are actually here, on the Mekong, in Cambodia, not at all where I would have imagined I would ever be this time last year! I wonder where I’ll be this time next year? Probably best not to think too much, past experience suggests fortunes can go either way. Seeing into the future isn’t necessarily something to seek.
Finally we pulled up at a near vertical bank. Call me shallow, but I was quite glad that I was excused the carrying a bike up the slope duties, not so my companion, who hurt his ear til it bleed whilst trying to hoik one up onto his shoulders. Not so me.
It was not the same homestay.
The stilted house was absolutely gorgeous, the location breathtaking. We had water-buffalo paddocks to the back of the property and a river view to the front. My bedroom was gorgeous. There was an awkward moment when it appeared there was just one double mattress and one single. Our guide said this meant we too travelers would have to share. I was (for me) unusually direct. ‘We are not a couple, it is not appropriate‘. Nor is it, for all sorts of reasons, not least, I like my personal space and we’d paid a premium to ensure it for both of us. Our guide relented pretty quickly to be fair. I wondered if I was being overly assertive, but then on reflection, they wouldn’t in a million years expect a Cambodian woman to share a bed with a man who was not her husband so hey. It was agreed he would share with my co-traveler and i got the single. (Result) though in the event he too opted for his own space, taking a separate corner of the open plan room and a thin matt in preference. (Point made methinks).
The stilted house was gorgeous. The layout is now familiar, with the family portraits decorating the single room within. But this one had such amazing views and seemed especially well-kept.
After sleeping arrangements were clarified, it was time to explore and to take a dip in the Mekong. Oh my gawd. This was such a highlight. We passed through a beautifully planted garden, noting our toilet block en route, by some fishing nets and miscellaneous work gear from the family and then down to the river. The steps were disastrously crumbled, and my ascent to the river felt perilous, but it was so worth it!
I was rewarded for making the perilous descent by a sandy(ish) beach and the cooling waters of the Mekong. When I got in, I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of small fish. There is life in there yet. It was just gorgeous. We three bobbed and bathed and played dolphin related games (you had to be there) whilst the sun dropped like liquid gold down behind trees opposite. People passed on boats silhouetted against the orange and yellow backdrop. Astonishingly none stopped to photograph us bathing beauties, but some did wave. This was a memory to log and return to. Perfect moments. The current was strong, so I didn’t get out of my depth, but just bobbing up and down was all that was needed. This is the life!
So after we had bathed in the river and seen the sun down, we returned to our stilted house up the unbelievable stairway to heaven in need of repair.
A generous supper was laid out for us. A sort of weird coleslaw, rice, and some fantastic spicy mushrooms that were so good my co-traveler kept insisting were chicken, but they weren’t. Nicest thing I’ve eaten in Cambodia to be honest. That isn’t much of a compliment to be fair, but they were genuinely delicious!
This house is also a CRDT project beneficiary or participant, depending on your choice of terminology. It was all very slick. I sat cross-legged on the mat as we ate. I asked my guide if this was OK, he said it wouldn’t be OK for a Cambodian woman, but it’s OK for me because it is understood my culture is different. I don’t know though some thing might be recognised as culturally different but still found to be repugnant, funny or offensive. Peeing and spitting in the street come to mind. (I didn’t pee or spit on the dinner mat though). I noticed our woman host, ever smiling, sat with her legs bent to her side. I can’t do this in comfort, I tried for a bit, but was defeated.
We were exhausted and it was dark. I think we were all tucked up in bed by 7.00 o-clock. Today was a good day, one to bank. Thank you.
Didn’t sleep mind you, but who wants to waste an experience like this one by snoozing throughout it?