“Hello! Hello!”, came the young voices from somewhere in the shadows. With a bit of looking, you might see the children on the ground underneath their houses built on stilts or maybe they would be sitting on the stoop of a little shop. The braver ones would run toward the road, waving their hands and smiling as they greeted us going by.
It must have been a strange sight for them, four Australian men and one American woman riding by on mountain bikes, along with a Cambodian man racing ahead and a thin Thai man in the back. We crossed the border into Cambodia yesterday afternoon at a border crossing with little traffic. With the crossing came lots of changes. Suddenly we were riding on the “right” side of the road, something I haven’t done since I left Hawaii, the currency was American dollars (starting with the $25.00 fee for our visas at the border) and the terrain switched from the fruit orchards of Thailand to the green, rolling hills of Cambodia – quite reminiscent of a rural Vermont scene.
Along the road, though, were small, wooden homes built on stilts with all those children yelling and waving and their parents smiling along side. Like in Bali, the little shops sold soda bottles of fuel and cows wandered freely along the road. By the time we had climbed and descended hills for several kilometers, everyone was ready for a hot shower and a cold beer. Unlike in Thailand, the beer is barely cold and not something I would go out of my way to import. The choice is either Angor or Cambodia both quite pale and not particularly refreshing unless you pour them over ice, which is the local custom.
My new Aussie friends told me within the first hour that they fit the Australian stereotype – they like to drink. I was the first to be picked up for this bike trip by our two Thai guides early on the morning after I had arrived in Bangkok after an endless 12 hour trip back to the city from Koh Chang (and yes, a delicious dinner across the river the night before). On the way back there had been waiting for a taxi, waiting for a ferry (but the view of the dolphins chasing us was great), waiting for a taxi to the bus terminal. The bus left almost an hour late and then drove directly back to the ferry landing where we spent another hour before leaving. In Bangkok, it was a rushed and early start but I was excited to be going on a bike tour again, my favorite way to explore a new place.
In the van I learned that there would be three other participants. We drove through slow, Bangkok traffic to another part of the city passing embassies and financial institutions as well as the big name hotels. Down a side street, we found Clay, Lou and Brett, three long-time friends who were just back in the city from their motorcycle trip to Phuket. As we drove to the coast, we all chatted and told a few stories. They were nervous about riding “push bikes”, as none of them had very much, if any, experience since riding as kids. I relaxed and decided I could probably do alright with these blokes.
Arriving at the beach, Seen and Tik, our guides, set up the mountain bikes while we wandered around the local aquarium gaping at the colorful fish, manta rays and sharks. I was glad to see all Thai people there. One of the things about bike tours is it is easier to get away from the Western tourist world. Indeed, as we started our ride along the coast, we saw new sights for me. There were anchovies and shrimp drying on racks along the road, shrimp and oyster farms in the water and fishing boats lined up under a bridge. It was a hot ride but the ocean breezes kept us cool enough. Still, after a couple of good uphills to lunch, we were ready to relax and enjoy a Thai seafood lunch. Seen ordered a bunch of dishes and we all shared in Thai style. Some were blistering with chilies, others I could eat without worrying, but all were delicious. I heard a fair bit of complaining about sore backsides but otherwise, we all were pretty compatible, peddling along at various speeds but sticking more or less together.
The first night we spent at a private home, fitted out with guest rooms. I had a great spot over a little pool and behind my room were greenhouses filled with hydroponically grown food. For breakfast we had freshly picked, organic greens along with our eggs. Salad has been rare on this journey and I enjoyed every green bite.
The night before I had a different kind of bite. We happened to arrive in Chantaburi in time for the Durian Festival. For those who don’t know, durian are huge fruit I had first tasted in Bali that are known for their terrible smell. Actually, as I write, I can see a sign in my motel room that shows a sign for no smoking and a picture of a durian with the same line crossed through it. The inside, though, is a creamy fruit which I find quite tasty. We enjoyed wandering through the festival, seeing the various wares for sale, including a lot of jewelry as this is a gem mining area. There were all kinds of foods to eat as well but after a big dinner, none of us were particularly hungry. When we arrived at the fried insects, though, the challenge was on. Having passed up my chance at trying a cricket or grasshopper the last time I was in Thailand, and with my own need to keep up with the “boys”, I had myself a cricket. I can’t say it was delicious – more like a crunchy snack – but I can check that off my list now.
On our ride the next day, we had lots of opportunities to taste new things as we rode through many fruit orchards. Along the way, we had some mangosteens, prickly red rambutans, longsam, dragon fruit, rose apple and freshly picked bananas. Riding through the villages and orchards was very pleasant but what loomed in the Aussie’s minds were the two big hills coming up. With the increasing temps (probably in the 90′s), two jumped in the van as Lou and I gamely rode up them on our bikes. We arrived hot and sweaty but triumphant at our lunch stop where, once again, the food ranged from mild to mouth numbing.
Our bikes were packed up and put in the van at that point as they would go back to Bangkok in the van with Tik and we would get new ones at the Cambodian border a few miles away. After crossing through customs, we met Chum who greeted us with fresh coconuts, new bikes and helmets and the news that our next several kilometers were not going to be flat. I didn’t mind, though, as the sun had gone behind some clouds and the newness of the Cambodian experience kept my mind engaged.
This morning there was some anxiety about doing 92 kilometers, a distance that loomed large for the novice riders, especially given the heat and some hills. I borrowed some Aussie chamois cream (aka butt butter) creatively advertised as good for the “down under” and we were off. We took the shortcut through the dirt roads, dodging geese, dogs, mud and potholes, but shortly joined a main road. Much of the day was a straight shot down a highway. As we passed through villages the children’s voices called from both sides of the road and people smiled and waved as we passed. At our snack stop we were fueled with sticky rice and bananas, fresh, delicious mangoes and papayas and various sweets made with palm sugar. The Aussies pulled out some Australian gifts they had brought from home and gave them to some shocked children nearby. The one with the baseball cap grinned from ear to ear while the mouse pad recipient looked a little shocked. For these kids without electricity, they must have wondered what this strange thing might be.
After the snack, we spread out for kilometers along the roadway. I was alone for miles, riding down the long, hot highway, flat as a pancake now and with fields and no shade on either side. The shoulder was unavailable a lot of the way as there were miles of tapioca roots, cut up and drying on the sides of the roads. We saw trucks piled high with the thick, brown roots and huge piles of them ready to be cut up with cleavers on wooden blocks.
We were all grateful for our lunch stop in a little shady village on the edge of a mountain. After a little hammock rest, a couple of us climbed the 800 or so steps up to the top where we could see an amazing view of the area as well as the huge golden Buddhas and temples and a monastery at the top. It was a short 15 kilometers after that to arrive at the bigger city of Battambang where we are spending the night. We could see lots of woodworkers through the town and indeed, the furniture here is huge, wooden, and has beautiful carvings. Our last dinner together will be tonight and we’ll finish riding in Siem Reap tomorrow. It’s been fun being the token female. I always get served first, there are no lines for the women’s rest room (if there even is one) and I’ve learned a few new Aussie phrases. Nice folks, a beautiful country, and food that’s not quite so spicy – life is good in Cambodia.