“Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”
Little people running out to us, waving, jumping up and down, huge smiles lighting up the dusty, parched landscape.
Followed by noisy, excited laughter, gossip of what they’d said and how they’d waved to these two strangers from another world.
This was our soundtrack from thousands of children as we slowly pedalled by.
We were cycling along Route 64, a recently paved road that winds it’s way 300km across the remote north east of Cambodia from Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor temples) to Stung Treng … our gateway to Laos.
It’s a rough, rural landscape that mixes open scrubland with smallholdings growing crops – cassava, peppers, bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, coconuts.
We were rarely alone. Houses are strung out on both sides of this dusty road. As well as the children, we were greeted by women chopping cassava to dry on the roadside or by young men passing by in two-wheeled tractors.
Best of all was a father bringing a tiny child out to wave back at us and join in the fun. Or four children passing by on a motor scooter (the oldest driving but not yet a teenager) giggling “heyoooooo” in unison.
Cycling is the only way to have this kind of experience … walking is too slow, a motorbike is too fast, a car too enclosed and a bus is too busy.
There is relatively little fast moving traffic on Route 64, especially east of the Mayan looking 10th century temples at Koh Ker. Most common are hawkers on scooters pedalling vegetables, eggs, salted fish, household items, ice-cream or huge blocks of ice … each with their distinctive call sign.
Sounds like cycling heaven? Nearly, but not quite. It’s hot and dusty at this time of year and small towns that might have places to stay are spaced further apart than we would ideally like.
This meant we needed to cycle just over 100km from Siem Reap to reach Koh Ker, our first destination. Most of it was slightly uphill, which would have been fine had we not been surprised by a persistent headwind.
This wasn’t an Irish gale. It wasn’t even a stiff breeze. But it was the kind of wind that makes smoke lean sideways. Enough to make you feel that you’re pushing the air aside as you ride through it. And it never stopped!
Luckily, there were lots of places to pause and rest. Nearly every house is a shop of sorts, selling petrol in old water bottles, strange snacks and best of all … fresh coconut water. Delicious and cool, it slipped down like a reviving nectar.
Much to the locals surprise, we drank a whole coconut each, about half a litre. They had no idea how dehydrating it is to cycle into a warm wind all day. As the day wore on, our stops became more frequent … every 25km, then 15km, then struggling to make 10km.
The following day was a manageable 65km from Koh Ker to the county town of Preah Vihear. Then we faced a choice … cycle 140km to Stung Treng in one day, stay overnight at the only guesthouse in a small town called Chhaeb (Google review – “only stay there if you have to”) … or find alternative transport.
The minivans that serve as buses couldn’t squeeze us in. So without any expectations, we wandered down to the local taxi rank to see what we could find.
Leaving the next morning at sunrise in Atith’s taxi was possibly the best $30 we’d ever spent. He dropped us off a few kilometres beyond Chhaeb with a pleasant 70km still to cycle. As we put the front wheels back on our bikes in the middle of nowhere, Atith could not hide his amusement at these strangers from another world. He found the whole thing hilarious!
But it turned a tough day into a really enjoyable day.
It also shows how much we’ve changed over the years, especially Andy. We’re now more interested in the experience than the journey. And as longtime readers will know, we’ve never claimed to be real touring cyclists!
What’s in a letter?
Angkor with an ‘o’ means ‘city’ and is the name of the great civilization of the Khmer kings who ruled Cambodia from the 802 to 1432.
Angkar with an ‘a’ means ‘the organisation’ and is the name the Khmer Rouge used for its own leadership.
Angkor is the country’s national pride and celebrated everywhere, on the national flag, on money, as the leading brand of beer.
Angkar is Cambodia’s deep trauma.
We came to learn a little of both of them.
We’re not qualified to comment on the terrible atrocities the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted on the Cambodian people from 1975-79, except to say that it still feels recent and raw.
The two sites we visited were both simply and sympathetically presented. Much is left as it was found and visitors are guided by an excellent audio system that tells the story and creates an atmosphere of quiet reflection.
No-one was taking lots of photographs on the days we were there.
First to the notorious S-21 security prison. Housed in an old school at Tuol Sleng, an estimated 20,000 victims were incarcerated and brutally tortured until they made false confessions. There were only 12 known survivors each because they had a skill that was useful to their captors.
Then to Choeung Ek, one of 300 ‘Killing Fields’ spread across the country. The people in S-21 were taken here in the middle of the night for execution, made to kneel down beside an open grave and killed with a rough agricultural tool as bullets were too noisy and too precious.
Estimates vary but roughly 2 million people died, a quarter of the population.
We travelled from the 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus to avoid several days of cycling up a busy, featureless main road. This was by far the most hassle free bus journey we’ve ever made with our bikes which were safely stowed in the hold without the need for packaging or removal of wheels.
Cycling around the Angkor complex of temples was pure delight.
It’s a vast area, a city that boasted a population of around 1 million people at a time when London was a small town of 50,000. Most of them were engaged in building ever grander temples for each successive Khmer God King as they switched from Hinduism to Buddhism and back again.
The gateway to Angkor is 8km outside Siem Reap so a tour of a few temples adds up to a proper bike ride of around 50km each day.
We saved the best until last. Angkor Wat at dawn. It was genuinely a spine-tingling moment to emerge through the outer gates and see the lotus-bud towers lit from behind by the sun of a new day.
As was ascending the precipitous steps to reach the kingdom of the gods.
After 600 years, the empire of Angkar fell into decline partly as a result of over-population and deforestation. A lesson for us all today perhaps?
As we cycled away from Angkor Wat towards Stung Treng, there were many quirky things we enjoyed about rural Cambodia … such as the hawkers on motor scooters and the petrol in plastic bottles,
Here are a few more:
Every house is a shop but it’s not a shop as you know it. Customers pull up outside on their motor scooters and shout their demands to the shopkeeper. There’s no browsing and you get a very odd look if you try to go inside!
Bright coloured pyjamas are all day wear for many rural Cambodian women.
Wooden houses are built on stilts, not so much for risk of flooding but to provide a nice shady area to swing in a hammock in the heat of the day.
Baguettes are everywhere … a legacy from the French colonialists.
Instant coffee is only available as pre-mixed ‘3 in 1’ with milk powder and sugar. Yuk!
It’s another world … isn’t it!
Clare and Andy