A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia

Phnom Pehn to Battambang

sunny

Throughout our two months cycling in Vietnam we travelled without a guidebook and as a result stayed in some quite quirky and often totally random spots. We resolved to do the same through Cambodia and stay off the path laid down by the Lonely Planet for travellers to follow. There have, however, been a few moments during our trip when, with hindsight we realised, that having a guidebook would have been pretty useful particularly to ensure that we didn't have a nightmare staying in the wrong part of town in a big city. Phnom Pehn was one of those times.

Rob travelled through Phnom Pehn in 2000, only a few years after Cambodia opened up its doors to tourists. He described a laid back city with a few restaurants and guesthouses but nothing too hectic. When we arrived after our longest cycle of the trip so far we tipped up on the riverfront to find somewhere to stay. It was an absolute circus. Tourists heaved and swelled through the streets, pouring out of bars that boasted five hour happy hours on cocktails and the eateries competed to serve the most western food with every market covered from oversized signs exclaiming 'WE HAVE VEGEMITE' to placate the Aussies and others going for the classic but effective promise of a 'full English breakfast'. It was all a bit overwhelming as only 30 kms out of Phnom Pehn where we had just cycled the villagers were living in abject poverty but the pizzeria next to our guesthouse was charging London prices. So we discovered we were in the most touristy part of Phnom Pehn and we could have saved ourselves a night at the circus with a guidebook but never-mind. So we were in a quandary. On one hand we wanted to be out of the tourist bubble but on the other we were having massive cravings for cheese and ice cream. We gave in to temptation and committed ourselves to wholeheartedly addressing our dairy deficit to make up for not a whiff of cheese or dairy ice cream since we have been cycling in Asia. Bliss - or at least it was until Rob woke up at 2 in the morning with crippling acid indigestion which lasted an incredible 5 days! One day on the riverfront circus was enough having satiated our food cravings so we moved away from the madding crowd in the morning to stay closer to the market and explore Phnom Pehn.

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While we have been cycling through Asia we have been immersing ourselves in literature set in Indochina and we have become slightly obsessed about reading texts in context. An absolutely cracking read is 'Highways to a War' by Christopher Koch much of which is set in Cambodia and Phnom Pehn. Having visualised french infused culture and architecture combined with asian hustle and bustle I was fairly underwhelmed. The markets were not a patch on the ones we have seen in Vietnam and although it was quite busy and energetic it lacked the charm and atmosphere of cities like Hanoi. So an extra day to rest our legs and explore some of the sights felt like enough time in Phnom Pehn. After umming and ahhing about our route through Cambodia we decided against going to Angkor Wat. This was partly because of timing as we were on a bit of a countdown to get to our friends' wedding in Malaysia and this detour would add days and kilometres on when we had precious few to spare. But the idea of battling for a peek at the temples amidst swathes of tourists in oppressive heat was also a turn off so we opted for a diagonal line through the middle of the country which looked like the quickest way to get to Bangkok.

One of the most noticeable changes cycling from Vietnam to Cambodia was the remoteness of the sparsely populated villages. In Vietnam we didn't really need to plan where we were going to stay - we would just tip up at the closest village we could get to before dark. In Cambodia the only places (it seemed) that we were able to stay were those represented by big dots and bold print on our maps - so largish cities or towns. Happily these were all roughly 100km or less from each other so with good roads easily do-able in a day.
First stop Kompang Chhnang. without trying to sound as though we are looking for things to complain about, after 40km it started to feel a bit tedious as the roads were too smooth and too flat! Our rout was going to take us along the main state highway all the way to Kompang Chhnang and beyond, right to the border with Thailand. Although the road was smooth it was fairly busy with the bland scenery that usually accompanies main roads. Our trusty GPS took us on a detour through villages that made us feel as though we were in the heart of rural Cambodia just 40km outside Phnom Pehn. I tried to video some of this but it is quite an abrupt bit of filming due to bumpy roads and fear of running over village dogs while I was cycling one-handed!

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92km later we rolled into Kompang Chhnang, a small untouristy town with a bustling market. Flushed with the success from our off road detour the next morning we decided to attempt to do the same to reach our next destination: Pursat. There was a 60 km stretch along the railway line marked as a thin grey line which we have worked out generally means terrible roads. The owner of the guesthouse in Kompang Chhnang also pursed his lips doubtfully when we cheerfully informed him of our plans. Rob was undeterred as he had discovered that the road that we planned to go down was on the GPS 'so we can't possibly go wrong!'. It all started off well, we got an early start - on our bikes by 7am. We enjoyed a musical interlude to our morning cycle when we stopped for a roadside drink at a shop that was manned by a guitar strumming, french ballad crooning Cambodian who serenaded us for half an hour and then sent us on his way with two ripe mangos from the tree in his garden. A couple of km later we turned off the main road onto a dirt road (but compact so very ridable) and then things started to go wrong. When we first started veering off the 'road' that was demarkated by the GPS we told ourselves that it was the GPS working off old maps (this is common) but as we went further and further off course the roads started to disintegrate and before we knew it we were pushing the bikes through impenetrable sand. This video clip is from when the road started to deteriorate, a couple of kilometres later the road disappeared altogether and we were pushing the bikes through sand dunes and bushes for two hours while the GPS taunted us stating with readings of the painfully slow pace we were pushing at. We had been going for five hours and still hadn't hit the road along the railway but we pushed on trying to jolly each other along as all we needed was a good road along the railway and we could still make the next 60km to Pursat. Then we saw the road - if you could call it that!

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A sandy track that we would be lucky to be able to cycle down at all, let alone at a decent enough speed to get to Pursat before dark.

Totally deflated we turned down the track back towards Kompang Chhnang. A long overdue lunchstop along the railway with some Chinese railway workers giving us an unexpected chance to practice our mandarin did lift our spirits a bit and we also got to see the norrie (bamboo train - Norrie is bamboo in Khmer) in action. Each train has a long frame,covered by bamboo slats that rest on 2 modified train axles with the rear one being connected to a 6HP petrol motor. This is apparently one of the main tourist attractions in Battanbang where we were heading in the next couple of days but as we watched one splutter past noisily as we slurped on our noodles we quickly decided that it would be a good one to miss.

our lunch spot where we unexpectedly get to practise our chinese!

our lunch spot where we unexpectedly get to practise our chinese!


a thick layer of red dust coats the bikes

a thick layer of red dust coats the bikes

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So finally fed and watered we set off down the dusty path we had cycled down hours earlier racing the clock to get back to Kompang Chhnang before sunset. We made it - just - 105 km later, exhausted and back where we started 11 hours earlier. Having had our fill on off road adventures we committed to sticking to the roads for the rest of our time in Cambodia. When we finally did make it to Pursat the following day we quickly worked out that it absolutely was not worth the effort, a dusty soul-less and dirty town that we quickly made tracks out of the following day to get to Battambang. We absolutely loved this city - our favourite in Cambodia which up to this point I had felt quite luke warm about, perhaps unfairly constantly (unfavourably) comparing it to Vietnam. Battambang is the gastronomic capital of Cambodia which was always going to win it points with us! We gorged on incredible fish amok (snake fish steamed in coconut milk wrapped in banana leaf) and heavenly fruit shakes. As we were not going to Angkor Wat we visited Wat Banan which apparently was influential in the design of Angkor Wat. Perched up 400 metres high on a hilltop with a punishingly steep climb it was an oasis of calm for us to relax in a hammock in the shade to escape the oppressive heat. While in Battambang we also took some wine tasting (reminiscent of our cycling in New Zealand but sadly the wine itself was not really comparable) and a mosey round an abandoned Pepsi factory. The plant was operating since 1960s.
When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, the plant abruptly closed and the former employees were sent to work in the fields.

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Although we were enjoying relaxing in Battambang we were quite worried about our plans to make it down to Langkawi for Dean & Michelle's wedding as there was serious flooding in Southern Thailand affecting the roads and the railways. Our tentative plan had been to get the train half way down Thailand and cycle the rest of the way but it looked as though that was no longer going to be feasible, however waiting around in Bangkok was not a tempting option either. Browsing for ideas on the internet we found a permaculture farm called Daruma Eco farm listed on warm showers only 100km south of Bangkok that was supportive of cyclists coming to stay and also accepted Woofers. This seemed perfect and a good place to base ourselves for a week or so to make a plan to get down to the wedding and find out a little bit about farming in the tropics. Neil, the American owner of the farm, was very flexible so we arranged to get there in the next couple of days. We set off cycling towards the border with Thailand (Poipet) with renewed enthusiasm.

Posted by mrs lewis 04:13 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

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