“Don’t go there! You’ll get robbed! Locals are unfriendly and aggressive!” This is more or less how people described Cambodia to us throughout our trip in South East Asia. Although it was never first-hand experiences but “someone I know told me” stories, we did approach the country on our last day in Laos feeling slightly concerned about the upcoming three weeks… First we had to cross the border. Our friends Kate and Jason, who had entered the country at the same crossing a few days earlier, had warned us that we might have a few bribes to pay in order to get through. They also warned us that the scruffier we looked, the less we’d probably have to pay. We saw a rather grand looking building as we approached the border-point but soon realised that it was under construction and that the actual customs were situated behind the building in shabby-looking little houses. As expected the Laos border guard requested a two dollar fee for a stamp in each passport, which we managed to reduce to one dollar only. That money naturally went straight in his pocket and there was nothing we could do about it if we wanted our exit stamp, or even our passport back… We then had to pay a dollar each for a bogus temperature check on the Cambodian side but surprisingly the customs officer stamped our passports without a second glance and we were free to enter Cambodia. Maybe wearing our dirtiest and smelliest cycling gear was worth it after all!
We cycle most of the day with Gunther, a German cycle-tourist who had been just ahead of us in the queue at the border, until we reached the town of Stung Treng. It was while having lunch in a street-side restaurant with Gunther that we discovered iced-coffee for the first time. Instead of hot coffee, Gunther had mistakenly been served a weird looking beverage, white at the bottom, brown in the middle and a layer of ice on top. Angela and I tried it and fell in love with it directly! Not too strong, rather sweet and very refreshing. It was soon to become our drink of choice whenever we stopped for a short break. We said goodbye to Gunther, for whom the 86km of the morning had just been a warm up (he averaged about 150km a day) and spent the rest of the day walking around town. The next dot on the map, Kratie, was 150km away with absolutely nothing in-between. With our camping gear already waiting for us in the southern hemisphere and not feeling like sleeping under the mosquito-net by the side of the road, we found and booked a minibus that was heading that way early in the morning the next day. In a typical South East Asian tradition, the guy at our hotel had promised that our 12-seater van was going to be empty but of course it ended up transporting about 17 people… We arrived in Kratie around noon, grabbed a quick lunch and iced-coffee and hopped on our bikes to cover some more ground in the afternoon. We followed the Mekong on a quiet and beautiful road, crossing many small villages and enjoying the imposing Buddhist temples and lush green rice plantations. After a night in Chhlong we pushed on towards Kampong Cham following the river again and along the way came across an unexpected sight in the centre of villages… Mosques! We hadn’t seen any in many months and observing the local women and men wearing the hijab and the Taqiyah reminded us of our time cycling in Turkey and Central Asia. We were presently in a region inhabited by the Cham people, an ethnic group descendant of the lost Champa Empire and a Muslim minority in a country where 96% of the population is Buddhist.
While pushing our bikes through the street market of Luang Prabang one morning, someone behind me tapped my shoulder and said “Hey, I recognize you!” It took me a while to figure it out but eventually it all came back to me. What a small world! In front of me stood Jason, an American cyclist who we had bumped into in Kyrgyzstan nearly three month earlier while cycling with Guillaume and Jerome. At the time he and his Irish wife Kate were going south towards China whereas our group was heading north towards Kazakhstan, so we had only had time to talk briefly before setting off in our respective directions. After crossing China and Northern Laos they had arrived in Luang Prabang around the same time as us and were continuing south along the same route that Angela and I had planned to follow. After bumping into each other a few more times in Luang Prabang we decided to leave on the same day and cycle together for a while. We have been quite lucky on this trip: after Kath and Andrew in Turkey, Francesca and Sam in Tajikistan, Guillaume, Jerome and Masha in Kyrgyzstan and Paddy in Northern Laos, Kate and Jason were the 5th travel companions that we got to ride with. Both Ange and I have really enjoyed it every time: it has lifted our spirits when our motivation was low and it has always been enjoyable to share stories and tips, making the cycling more interesting! Not that I find Angela boring of course, but after more than 200 days spent together sometimes you do need some new topics to discuss!
The road to Vang Vieng took us through the last mountainous area before the flatlands surrounding the Mekong. Angela bravely decided that she would attempt the ride and see how her knees would cope. The first 50km of that first day went by in a jiffy, but we then had to tackle a 25km long uphill in the scorching afternoon heat. The beginning of the ascent felt rather easy, everyone happily chatting away and enjoying the lush green hills surrounding us. But soon fatigue settled in and we all fell silent, struggling up the never-ending climb and sweating profusely. We stopped every five kilometres to rest our legs and drink as much water as we could, and eventually arrived in the little mountain village of Kui Kacham. Being back at higher altitudes the evening was rather chilly, but the little hotel where we were spending the night offered hot showers and stunning views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The following day was another challenging one, with many steep climbs in the morning, in the thick jungle bush. As the day progressed the hills around us became more scattered and the jungle less dense, offering better views of the deep valleys and more and more high limestone cliffs started appearing in the distance. I particularly remember standing at the top of a hill shortly past the town of Phou Khoun, looking down at a road following the side of a mountain and disappearing in the distant mist at the foot of some impressive vertical limestone cliffs. As usual kids would appear out of nowhere, running to the edge of the road and sticking their hands out for a high-five, a big grin on their faces. By the end of that day we had left the hills behind and the following day we enjoyed some flat cycling, arriving in Vang Vieng in time for lunch.