Asia LP: Track 4 (Cambodia)

Some lessons of Cambodia are learned the hard way

Our iPhone and wallet were stolen on our second day in Phnom Penh. Mere hours earlier we’d been sitting with Dutch expats Elske and Bauke, not really heeding their warnings to be hyper-vigilant about our possessions. Without meaning any disrespect for their experiences, we unfortunately just treated them with gentle disbelief (one of their friends had been dragged from her motorbike by the strap of her shoulder bag and was lucky to have escaped with some skin in tact). In a silly, inexperienced way, we felt immune to this kind of terrible (and surely rare!) behaviour; as though through simply being our Alleykat selves we would not be targeted. How wrong we were.

Phnom Penh is rather beautiful at night, don’t you think?

The event itself was not particularly spectacular; Alee popped his hand into his shoulder bag and retrieved the wallet (containing cash and our iPhone 5 zipped up neatly inside). No sooner than had he procured the nondescript item was it whipped out of his hand by a dastardly, cowardly arsehole on a motorbike. Kat had inadvertently watched the whole thing, aghast, the three seconds it took for this thief’s swift pluck seemed to drag on endlessly while simultaneously being squeezed into an infinitesimal time sequence. There was nothing to do but be stupefied, his deft hand an indicator that he had definitely done this before.

We tore down the street after this jerk, yelling and carrying on like idiots, our noisy Birkenstocks slapping our feet more softly than we’d like to have struck his face. Of course he didn’t know we’d only really just purchased that phone, of course he didn’t realise that we’re strapped for cash and living from day to day on our bike, of course it was merely an unfortunate act of opportunistic thievery. But this doesn’t make it any easier to accept, nor does it relieve any of the constant re-living and what-iffing done in the aftermath.

Once we’d got back to the guesthouse we went and made a police report with another guest who just had her whole bag (with everything that she needed to travel) cut from her shoulders. How pale our experience seems in comparison, a mere blanching of the face. Another guest-houser had been held up at knife point and knew a decent handful of friends who’d also been accosted in this violent manner.

You’ll be glad to know our assailant didn’t use a knife, however, it isn’t uncommon for Cambodian thieves to shoot to kill if the spoils are deemed rewarding enough; a sinister side of the city and one that is insidious for Cambodians and foreign visitors alike. We made a police report and our best attempts to forget the event were employed from the next morning, which we dedicated as our last in the city.

A quick turn around

Riding out of Phnom Penh was stressful; we were convinced anything could happen. Kat was eyeing everyone who was wearing a pale blue shirt and riding a motorbike and Alee was keen to put head-down-bum-up and speed out of there as quick as possible. Once out of the city, it was easy to forget the sickly feeling that had lined our guts on the way out, the relentless chirps of ‘hello!’ and ‘hi’ and ‘what is you name?!’ formed a warm, if slightly irritating background noise. We were forced to react positively, and hence we began to feel much more positive ourselves.

Our first night was spent in a nice cheap place we rolled into along a sandy corridor of a tiny village. With a huge room we expected a rather huge price but no, $5 (or $2.50 each) was the meagre price tag. We had mango trees in the garden and the eclipsing privacy only a backyard can provide. Unfortunately, we were not quite far enough from the town centre and could hear the wedding festivities ALL night. This is a Cambodian tradition, perhaps originally done at a noise level to bring in the whole town, but now the pure distorted high-octane “music” of the wedding soundtrack is nothing more than painful. If we could hear every melody, harmony and bass beat from a kilometre away, what must it be doing to the guests at the wedding?!

Standing in front of one of the THOUSANDS of temples we’d seen on the road from Phnom Penh to Battambong.

A delicious dinner awaited us in metal pots á la Cambodian bain maries – curries, stews and fruity vegetable soups were on offer to go with our overflowing servings of fluffy white rice. This serving style is tradition in every town along the Mekong, perhaps all over Cambodia, where food is homecooked and lovingly prepared in two or three sessions during the day and plonked unceremoniously in shiney stainless steel pots out the front of even the smallest restaurant. The riding was more of the same, most of it into a slight headwind, slightly tiring but easy enough. We met a man named Dara, a doctor in Phnom Penh, whose land we’d rolled onto, unable to ignore the Aussie appeal of a grey-green avenue of eucalyptus trees. Dara told us about his daughters and son, their successful university studies, and how they love this gum-spotted chunk of land as much as he does.

Australia or Cambodia? We can’t really tell!

The noisy town of Pasat, where the rubbish billowed inside with the red dust, was our home for an evening, lullabyed to sleep by the talk-back TV babbling, and a screaching, glass-tinkling car crash out the front. It was here that we first ate delicious Cambodian desserts – beans, candied fruits and tapioca pearls spilled over sticky rice and doused in a healthy glob of sweetened condensed milk, yum.

Drafting, for those of you who aren’t either mad or cyclists in general, is coasting behind another vehicle, usually larger than your own, for a wonderfully free ride. We enjoy smashing along behind hulking vehicles such as trucks or tractors because it’s fun, TanNayNay is heavy, and sometimes avoiding a headwind is all you want to do. A slight headwind which had already plagued us each day had continued to niggle us, so along the way we were drafting a truck, smashing out 45kms/h and feeling pretty clever about it, really.

Drafting behind a slow moving truck; sometimes a good idea.

Bang BANG (he shot me down…oh, no, that was a pothole!)

A clever, well-guided swerve to a stop and the realisation that our truck-drafting antics had got us a double pinch flat after riding straight over a half metre pothole. We were surrounded by locals, their children, and their chickens while Alee turned TanNayNay on her back and she wiggled her wheel-less pegs in the air while he did two tube changes in record time. Just out of Battambang was an inviting little town, where the street food – of which we bought four serves in one afternoon – was perfect the first day but strangely impossible to find the next! The side-of-the-road shop had simply shut and we couldn’t be sure where it had gone, or if it was real! The sleepy town was nice and quiet, and had internet, so we stayed two nights and enjoyed our peace and net. On our final 50km into Battambang, we were back up to our old antics, and made 20 of those kilometres disappear in two separate stints behind a tractor, which got us to the outskirts fast…

However, on those dusty outskirts of Battambang our third puncture in two days happened – and Al almost cried about it. From two point seven kilometres out, we pushed the bike to the conveniently located hostel ‘Here Be Dragons’ and got ourselves the first installation of what would prove to be a continuous supply of delectable food.

All’s fair in love and reservations

The show at Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School was due to start at 7pm, the crowd around us buzzing in anticipation and knowledge that we were all in on something just a bit special. There was some dishonest seat stealing as the numbers of audience members far outstuffed the rather small pillow of the circus tent, clearly repeat visitors knew where the best seats in the house were. The Phare Ponleu Selpak school – educative and artistic in equal measures – provides an entire support system for kids who are ‘at risk’. Despite challenges in their early years, the resilient kids are acrobats, musicians and artisits who not only dazzle audiences every few evenings but gather vocational training, using their muscle-bound appendages and colourful tutus to make the world a better place. The students who performed the show aptly named ‘Stolen Bicycle’ were wonderful acrobats, despite the obvious grating effect that the topic of thievery had on us, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Some serious talent shown at the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus.

Jon and Mike

‘Bike tourer!’ Alee indicated loudly and we proceed to chase down a fellow riding a well-loved steel frame with a pannier on its rack – clearly identifiable as a cycle touring comrade. We were feeling the love from the circus and upon cycling a few kilometres together, wanted to share it around a bit so all three invited one another to dinner. Jon, cycling from London to London via the world, invited us to his new ‘local haunt’ Ambrosia Cafe for dinner – from there a special love affair ensued. We three stuck together like creeper and vines on a sturdy tree named world bike travel.

The next day was Valentine’s Day which we naturally spent together in a platonic ménage à trois. Our three grew to four with the addition of Peace Corps member Mike, with whom we rode our bikes to the Killing Caves at Phnom Sampeau. Before setting out to climb this small steep hill, equally as steeped in history as slope, we visited Mike’s incredibly kind host family.

Alleykat with Mike’s host-father and Jon.

The Peace Corps is a rather revolutionary deployment of Americans all around the globe – the “corps” (who are strictly non-army personelle, but instead are non-battle minded people, often people-loving in fact) help out in whatever way they can, wherever they end up. The members we’ve met, dotted around the globe, have informed us that there isn’t much of a choice where you’ll end up, but there’s certainly the choice to join and indeed what to do once you’re out there. We half-jokingly think of the Peace Corps as a vacuum cleaner, where American politics make situations worse around the world, and then the Peace Corps come in, moving the bad dirt away and replacing it with their clean kindness.

Mike teaches English to Cambodian primary school teachers – a worthy cause indeed – and perhaps just as valuably, spends most, if not all of his mornings baking amazing sweet and savoury treats for Ambrosia Cafe, free of charge. The members of the Peace Corps we’ve met thus far are all of this same cookie-cutter mould; a hugely big-hearted, interested in people and in making a positive difference somehow.

The Killing Caves

At Phnom Sampeau, the Killing Caves are as morbid as they sound. Nowadays, they echo with atrocities past; a cage filled with human bones sits as a deathly marker of what dispair these caves have known. During the period of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, people were imprisoned in these caves as well as killed – the bloodshed ran rivers from the steep heights of the top of the hill, where people were bludgeoned close to death and tossed, falling like so many bags of bones and memories from the sky.

It may look rather morbid, but this picture shows exactly why the Killing Caves are named what they are.

The regime murdered both indiscriminately and descriminantly, average citizens, intellectuals and people who opposed the oppressive rule of Pol Pot. After wandering around in the falling light, we found a place filled with complete silence by wandering down some stairs Mike had never noticed before in his five previous visits. On our way out we greeted monks incorrectly and watched monkeys frolic and demonstrate their humanness, and could indeed have watched on indefinitely. However, the caves are also home to millions of bats and given we’re all animal enthusiasts and Jon has in fact completed studies on bats (or Microciroptera), we spent time with locals and tourists alike staring up, mouths agape at the horizontal waterfall of black wings tracing a rippling shadow, a wave across the sky.

Suitably awed, vegetarian dumplings at Mike’s favourite Chinese restaurant seemed the only way to continue the entertainment. That evening, on wings of our own, Jon and Alleykat talked the evening away in the sky loft of Here Be Dragons, best Valentines Day ever.

As happens in a cycle tourer’s life, the time had come to move; it wasn’t us who needed to push on but our new best friend Jon, who posed for a good number of photographs with his fans before rolling out towards the Thai border.

Norry: The Little Simple Train Who Could…

On one of the lazy mornings that ensued, we met and proceeded to hang our with Maren from Germany and some of her newly-met friends from Austria and banded together to ride the bamboo train. Our timing was fortuitous, we rode TanNayNay beside the Germanic crew in a tuktuk and almost literally bumped into two French world bike tourers Sylvie and Hubert. These wonderful two we’d already been in internet contact with, but hadn’t physically connected with; there is as always something special about connecting with fellow bike tourers.

To our right sat a stange collection of bogie Louvres, flat bamboo stips and wheel bases, what could this junk be and where was our train? The bits and bobs of course were the train! The bamboo train, or ‘Norry’ the name they’re known as by the locals, is a bit of a touristic turn on a historical reality; they have been used on and off by Cambodians (and nations variously residing inside her borders) for the last forty years. They’ve been used to carry food and water, ammunition and of course to catapult people from on place to another using nothing more than a truly rudimentary collection of parts – a collection which does not include brakes of any kind!

It’s a rather simple system, whereby the timber groove sits directly on bearings attached to the axles.

The tracks must have been laid by a blind person, or at the very least, someone rather in a hurry (apparently French Colonial settlers!). We click-clacked along, getting thrown off balance every now and again by the two inch gap heights between the lengths of track beneath our wheels.

The tracks aren’t known for being straight!

Rather bothersomly, at the other end awaiting our arrival were the vendors, hawking their goods. We didn’t expect it and in rather first-world-problem fashion were a little irritated by the constant pressing of little hand-made goods or calls of attraction and compliment from very young Cambodian children who really should have been at school. It’s one of those problems you face as a tourist; becoming part of the problem and not the solution when you give money to beggars (read more here) but is it ok to give little children money in exchange for good they’re selling on behalf of their families? It’s hardly better but difficult to know what to do. Alleykat’s solution has thus far to say ‘no thank you’ in the native tongue and try not to interact wherever possible. The better thing to do would perhaps be, in the case of beggars, to offer to buy them a meal or some raw foodstuff like rice instead of simply popping that cash in their hand, but it’s an ongoing mental and emotional tussle.

Before our scheduled departure for Sisophon the next morning, Alee drilled a larger hole for the rim, as tubes with a French valve are in short supply in Cambodia. After dinner together with Sylvie and Hubert, where our foursome got to know eachother a little better, we made some more new friends in the form of Canadians Kieve and her girlfriend Kayla.

Two Tandems on the Road

All too soon 6am rolled around and our wheels revolved towards Sylvie and Hubert’s hostel! Instead of cooking our standard porridge, breakfast on the road was agreed upon as the quicker option – the bakery around the corner was staffed by a lovely young woman who spoke very good English, citing her English-school running sister as the only reason, however, us monolinguists know very well just how tough it is to learn a new language without tenacity and serious brains!

Sylvie and Hubert riding their Hase Pino semi-recumbent tandem.

We again suffered a case of the flats… with no spare tubes on two separate occasions! After the second flat-on-a-newly-installed tube happened three kilometres from the first, we waved the very kind French couple onwards and spent a good amount of time changing rim tape and tubes. Luckily, only forty minutes down the road we caught up with Sylvie and Hubert and ride the rest of the 70 kilometres together, sharing four ways the semi-gentle burden of the sunshine.

Inspiring the Inspiring Youth

Sylvie and Hubert are humanitarians, deeply interested and invested in the people of the world around them. While riding the bamboo train with them, they’d mentioned an orphanage-come-school they’d organised to visit just up the road in Sisophon, and this was a reason we decided to ride with them; they’d done all the leg work organising the visit, all we had to do was turn up, meet the kids and give a short talk about riding, about meeting amazing people and about following your dreams.

Alee talking to the children at Enfants D’Mekong orphanage.

The children at Enfants D’Mekong were vibrant, resilient and gorgeous. The majority came from difficult backgrounds; some had been beaten so badly they’d been forcibly removed from their families, others’ parents abused substances like drugs or alcohol, others were orphaned in further terrible circumstances. You wouldn’t know their horrific histories from talking with them however, and the school wasn’t morbid or depressing, instead it was set amongst gum trees and native forest land, beautiful big grounds and large buildings to accommodate the hundreds of blossoming students and their blooming futures.

Our First Tailwind in Months

We were on our way, nice and early, or at least those were our intentions; the 6:30am start somehow turned into a 7:45am start plus a whole host of unusual bakery breakfast foods under our belts (including sweet garlic sponge cake – not as bad as it sounds – and some kind of fruity chocolatey rocky-road – far worse than it sounds!) we finally left Sisophon behind us. Our new French friends had plans to catch the famed ferry from Battambang to Siem Riep and so had retraced their tyre tracks, it seemed the 120km ahead of us would be completed alone… or would it?

Blazing along the highway, with our first tailwind in months jollily buffeting our progress, Alee spied what looked like a couple of bike tourers ahead. It soon conspired to be just one also rather speedy tourer (overtaking a motorcycle, the pretend second tourer), named Tim Davies. Hailing from Manchester, you couldn’t recognise any of the pale, English rose about him – Tim was leathery brown and devilishly quick, his accent thicker than his sinewy thighs and a heart of bike-touring gold beating a wild pattern of freedom beneath his protruding ribs. Instantly our world biking antics and trifecta love of deep conversations on the state of the world, a dispair about current politics and the discovery we’d three all made about the nature of bike touring life brought us together in a triangulated pedal-pushing bond. The kilometres slipped by, the mercury steadily rose, and our conversations ran rivers around our salty bodies. The first 55 or 60 kilometres was bliss; buffeting tailwind and early enough to keep away some of the oppressive heat, but soon, the wind turned on us, blowing fierce raspberries in our faces and forcing a renewed effort against its might. We were crystallised with salt and felt ever more excited about our imminent arrival in Siem Reap. Once reached, exceptional Indian food, cold showers and a good lie down was what most of the rest of the day consisted of, it felt well deserved.

Angkor Wat?

We spoke to the owner of our hotel about the bike plan of action for visiting the temples; he had had many cycle tourists stay with him and knew the self-mobile routes would be our preference. We brought a rather European packed lunch of raw veggies, pesto and crusty bread rolls and set off to see some of the wats (temples). We spent a lot of time people watching, roaming the ruins and breathing in the peace around us.

The first two days at the temples we wandered with eyes unblinking, drinking in the beauty, the detail, the symbiotic relationship between the arms, legs and trunks of the trees and the crumbling stone kingdom of Angkor. The love and the connexions built so firmly before our eyes is one that must be seen. In one eyeful, it is possible to watch the story of the building and its loving embrace with the towering pale tree around it. Hundreds of years ago a bird planted a seed, significance unbeknownst to it, with a simple emptying of the day’s foraging. From there, a succession of tendrils extended carefully, tracing tender lines along structural ridges, working its way into and smoothing the cracks appearing in the building’s face. From there, the tree child became raucous teenager, busting its rock-hearted parent open and playing among the ruins. Soon, the two developed a deep love and reliance on one another, indeed in its current state one shouldn’t survive without the other.

The twelve million tourists who visit each year are privvy to this deeply ingrained relationship between plant and palace, but slowly their infamous bonds are literally being broken – cut away – and the temples are being propped up by man-made steel branches and rebuilt with the same careful eye for detail but without the unconditional love needed. Alleykat were definitely in two minds about it; of course on the one hand this action is going to save the temples, allow generations of people to come and visit Angkor, however, there’s magic lost without those destructively loving embraces of the trees around their mother temples. Indeed, once humans are gone from the planet, Mother Nature will have her way once more.

Conversely, we had a few comical moments inside the walls of Angkor. An American woman curiously asked us whether we spoke English, not to talk with us, but to check whether we had understood their vented frustration with us being in the corner of their photograph. Al replied with all seriousness, ‘well, our first language is Australian, but we do understand some English’. The woman nodded politely, taking Al’s reply at face value, a given that Australians speak Australian, and simply went on her nosey way. In this same vein, one of the guards of the temples asked us what language we spoke and we replied ‘Australian’. He made us pause a moment to teach him our language, including ‘hello’ (g’day) ‘thank you’ (taa) and ‘goodbye’ (seeya). He practised them over a few times and smiled us into the temple’s lush gardens beyond the gate!

Occasionally we felt plunged into disparity – were we in Cambodia or Australia? The very Melbourne mix of Asian, Eurasian and tall Europeans, with English being thrown around casually by every face and age, and perhaps more strikingly, the strange feeling of being home in the Australian bush, given the sheer number of eucalypts around us, the bird calls and occasional bird who had the appearance of Frank or Charlie, our friends’ pet parrots.

We can’t decide what’s more impressive, the huge crowds or the sunrise itself!

Our third day begun with a 5:30AM departure and the sunrise at Angkor Wat, so too did 3000 other people’s day! For a while we were waiting around in the dark, perched on the outside of the lake in front of Angkor Wat with 99% of the other tourists, but made an executive decision to up-root and instead wander inside the massive stony blue Wat in front of us. Our almost private wander was cut short rather, when we found that this was the one day in seven that the 3rd tier, the highest point and only point where any view of the Angkor grounds is possible, was closed. Understandably it needs to be cleaned, but we felt a bit miffed; there isn’t a huge amount to explore on the first level. Inside, we wandered around in the semi-darkness and popped out to the rear entrance – after pausing here at the back of the wat with the stuffing let out of us somewhat.

Through the thicket of the surrounding trees we spied the sun rising as a blood red globe, it was going to be a sunrise to remember! Others clearly shared our delight and we collectively dashed back around the front side to get the “proper” view. The obligatory photo was shot, hundreds of thousands of times. The sun was sauntering saucily around Angkor Wat’s turrets, glancing out at the flock of photographic worshippers every few minutes, blushing deeply before stridently taking to the sky. Alleykat were perhaps a little underwhelmed, our advice would be to visit Angkor Wat on your second of a three-day pass and continue to be blown away by the surrounding, more intricate, more time-ravaged temples on the days either side.

Our final evening in Siem Reap was with Sylvie and Hubert, who we adored so much we couldn’t stop asking out to dinner with us! The second dinner date was held at the Friends restaurant where clever Sylvie had reserved us a table, despite the restaurant being fully booked, through her hearty determination and belief in the cause. Friends is a slowly growing group which, rather like Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurants, supports at-risk kids to find their vocation in the hospitality industry, where they learn to cook, to clean, to serve, to maitre’d and to have a solid foundation for future employment. The food was wonderful and filling, our plates and tummies were full and so were our hearts. Hubert and Sylvie continued to wow us with their relationship, their journey and their kindness.

On the (windy) Road Again

We rode off from Siem Reap in the morning to the usual chorus of children calling out their hellos and well wishes and admittedly, laughing at the extremely odd sight of two people on one bike. Kat’s back was a pain in the… back, so only 65km down the road, and after the best iced coffees we’d drunk, we met police car full of friendly policemen and decided the sign above their car for the Meybo Guesthouse was the place for us. And luckily, later that evening, despite the loud music emanating and throbbing at us from down the street, we couldn’t hear a thing from our room! The Meybo family were, as usual, extremely kind and interested in these strange two travellers.

A further 100km down the road was a strange, condensed line of a town where we decided to stay at a hotel. This one turned out to be a noisy hotel, the cars rumbling past may as well have been driving through our room, not to mention the booming blasts of truck horns! This love affair with the horn is common for most Cambodian drivers, especially those in Toyota Camrys and luxury Lexus 4x4s, who must believe that they own the roads and therefore can drive as selfishly as possible, using their horn to indicate just how far everyone should get out of their way as they zoom through.

It’s a strange culture, this ownership of the road – a simplistic one too, just blasting the horn means everyone will move out of my way, just blasting the horn means I have the right of way, just blasting the horn, as I tear through small town centres at 120km/h ensures children, parents, animals and other vehicles will not stray into my way. It’s dangerous and selfish and bothered us every day, not just the ignorance of the horny act, but the noise!

Old Temples and Bugs!

Our next day was most industrious and successful, we visited some temples close by in the morning – leaving at 7am to arrive before anyone else. The temples were magic, a few hundred years older than Angkor, in fact they’re the oldest in Asia. We had the place to ourselves and being the strange fellows we are, were equally fascinated by the magnitude of insects around! There were caterpillars pooing on us from high in their tree-houses, huge swarms of tiny bees and various collectives of ants eating bugs who’d fallen from their trees – a truly terrible death. There were spiders who looked like grasshoppers and jumped like them too! We were privy to an army of termites, hundreds of millions of troops in their ranks, working as they walked, what a society! Here, the trees had well and truly developed an affinity for the temples, in some cases, mimicking the shape of the temples so well, the ages-old bricks weren’t needed for structural rigidity.

Right at the end of our guide-free tour (although we were told by the guide and our tuktuk driver that it was ‘impossible’ to navigate without their help) a fairy gate appeared before us, a vision of such giddy beauty it was as though mother nature had designed it with tiny fictional winged humanoids in mind.

A Rough Deal on Dusty Roads

Keeping with the industrious theme of the day, we proceeded to ride another hundred kilometres, including 30 through very dusty, very potholed, in-the-process-of-becoming-a-road foundations. The first town we rolled into with ‘rest’ on our brains, was limited for places to stay, Kat inspected the one and only homestay and returned with a distasteful quiver of her nose, the place was filthier than most filthy bathrooms we’d used and with a giant spider to boot. The proprioter told us we were 30km or more from the next big town, and that dusk would encroach on us too quickly. His friend concurred, suggesting we might be in danger riding in the dark. We pushed on into the sunset and with good reason too! 22km later we arrived in Skon (we liked to put on a very British accent and say ‘scone’ because it amused our simple bike rider minds) and joined a large family in their small hotel/restaurant business for dinner. A fruit smoothie later and we were in bed and ready to have a mere 80km left of our journey back to Phnom Penh.

With baked goods as a terrible substitution for porridge, we saddled up only to run into some French bike tourers just on the other side of the way. In their wonderfully loquacious French manner, they told us ‘the road, it is somehow rotten’, an apt warning for the messy, rough-as-guts ride we had ahead of us. It wasn’t just rough on our bums, but on the poor people living either side of the monstrous mounds of road-rubbish and living within huge plumes of rusty dust.

The whole 320 kilometre route from Siem Reap, Route 6, is under construction and instead of approaching it sensibly in small chunks, the whole ruddy surface has been churned and smashed away to some extent, leaving the people in every semi-interwoven sporadically placed town along the way in rather dire circumstances for a good amount of time to come.

Hide Your Bags, (Hide Your Wife)

Rolling into Phnom Penh we suddenly tightened our pannier straps and our awareness, we narrowed our eyes once more; our shoulder bags were strewn safely inside the front panniers and Kat watched with a hawk’s eye every passing motorcyclist… just in case. This time we noticed that every cyclist and motorbike rider had their bags held close in front of their chests because they knew who was lurking these streets. Everyone, even the drivers who behaved strangely and rode behind us or beside us ended up smiling and waving. We did well to remember that people in every other country ride close to us and roll along with us, we should learn to trust again!

Back to School

We’d been lucky enough to make contact with Denzil Sprague, the cousin of a friend of Kat’s family. He’d moved to Cambodia 13 years prior and had, among many other things, built and opened a school in an impoverished neighbourhood. During the day, we drove with Denzil and Sevan, his driver and friend, into the school. The kids suffered from a few nerves initially, new faces and crazy faces at that, but the act of getting the kids to do silly things with their faces, hands and legs got then to loosen up a bit. We were delighted by their singing, a song by the Seekers called Morningtown Ride. A truly rewarding experience!

We got the children to do ‘crazy faces’; it’s a great way to break the ice with them!
Alee somehow fitting into the pint-sized desks.
Spending time on Denzil’s boat moored on the Mekong.

At Denzil’s home, where we stayed in happy luxury for two wonderful nights, we hung out with his adopted Khmer daughter Corinne. A bright spark of a girl, mostly fluent in English and hugely excited by life and living it. She entertained us as much as we did for her we think! We learned from Denzil about a number of humanitarian efforts happening in Cambodia and Phnom Penh, namely Scott Neeson’s Cambodian Children’s Foundation (CCF) and a law aid program run by a former Australian police officer Jim McAbe.

CCF helps kids get out of slums and dumps, away from an impoverished life scarred by the all too common practise of child-snatching and instead, into community support systems and the work force. The other provides deep police investigation into the darker side of Phnom Penh life: the violent murders, the acid attacks, the rapes and the insidious drug scene. There is a sense that Cambodia and Cambodians too are still at war, as there is a distinct lack of peace below the surface – nothing is as it seems; the smiles in the faces are real, but they are almost learned. Cambodians smile through the sadness and unrest.

Cambodia is still at war in many minor ways, and many countries are currently preying on this – claiming land for themselves or building unbelievably massive sweatshops. These frustrations and changes aren’t obvious to a mere passer through, but do come oozing out of the cracks before too long.

The Road to Saigon

By this stage, we were just champing at the bit to get to Matt and Diana’s home in Saigon, and perhaps we didn’t make enough of the 170km to the border. Our trip took two easy but head-windy days, nothing particularly eventful beyond a very good durian-heavy fruit shake and chatting to some very cool locals just near the border. Mani and her husband own and operate a rather eclectic hotel/restaurant made up of randomly placed thatched shacks and with an entrance marked with concrete kangaroos (which were what drew us inside in the first place).

Making some new friends near the Vietnamese border.

We crossed the border after spending a final noisy night at a busy hotel. Apparently the Cambodian side of the border town is known for gambling and prostitution, of which the gambling bit was undoubtedly noticeable (with lavish Vegas-style casinos littered about the place) but thankfully the latter wasn’t. After a month in Cambodia, our brains had garnered a strange appreciation for these kinds of colourful complexities.

Don’t forget to watch our film, ‘Alleykat Roams Cambodia’!

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More of our Asia LP

⇒ Track 1: South Korea

⇒ Track 2: Japan

⇒ Track 3: The Philippines

⇒ Track 4: Cambodia

⇒ Track 5: Vietnam

⇒ Track 6: Laos

⇒ Track 7: Thailand

⇒ Track 8: Malaysia and Singapore

⇒ Check out our Central Asian series HERE

⇒ Try out our European series HERE