March 18th, 2017 in George Town, Malaysia
Another border, another country... Not too long ago, it had taken us almost three months to cross China and now we were entering our third country in under a month. The roads we followed in Cambodia were mostly flat and paved, food was easily accessible and there were lots of places to rest at night. As a result, we were almost effortlessly doing good time without the need for much planning. And with a total of just eights days in the country, we don't really have a lot to write about… but we’ll give it a go anyway!
The roads in Cambodia have long been known as some of the worst in Southeast Asia (although they still got nothing on some of the roads in Central Asia). The last couple of years however, a lot of money have been put into infrastructure and many of the country's roads have been significantly improved. The problem for us was that we didn't know if the roads we were planning to take were going to be among them. So when we entered Cambodia and the road immediately got much worse we feared the worst; that Cambodia would be a long struggle along sandy roads. But the sand didn't last long and on our second day we were back on proper paved roads.
Meeting some other cyclists, heading in the opposite direction, we were happy to hear that the road would continue to be in good condition all the way to Siem Reap. Easy peasy! And that would sort of come to sum up our entire route to Siem Reap; flat, easy and rather eventless…Well, if you don't count some nice camping, lots of other cyclists (of whom we mostly forgot to take pictures), smiling locals and surprisingly good food.
The food has slowly been getting better and better and Cambodia, and particularly Siem Reap, represents a tipping point where we would come to expect good, cheap food on a daily basis.
In order to have something to write about (yes, we are doing all this just for you, dear reader) we decided to mix things up and try to be cultural. Anyone who know us, know that temples and museums are not really our cup of tea. But as Robin had already been to Angkor Wat, we stopped at the temple complex of Koh Ker along the way. It was only a one-hour detour from our planned route and because we arrived there really early we were also the only tourists there. It was really quite liberating exploring the old ruins unsupervised and on our own. Better writers could probably spend paragraph after paragraph describing the different temples and ruins but you know what they say about pictures…
The next day we arrived in Siem Reap and it immediately became clear that this is the place that every tourist in Cambodia ends up. After spending the last five days in the almost empty countryside the contrast was striking. Siem Reap (or at least the part we stayed in) felt very much like a prefabricated city made for western tourists. Every other building was a hotel and there were restaurants and souvenir shops on every corner… And there were tourists just everywhere! But that's not to say that we didn't like it; with smoothies (including avocado) at one dollar a pop and burgers at three, we're not the ones to complain.
After taking it easy for a day, we gathered our strengths to do what's expected of us and the reason people come from all over the place to visit Siem Reap - Angkor Wat. We got up crazy early, in order to avoid the crowds, and cycled 6 km to one of the park's entrances. What we didn't realise however, was that this was not at all in the vicinity of where one could buy tickets to enter... So we were forced to turn around, cycle all the way back into town, buy tickets and then cycle back to the park once again. And to really rub it in, as we headed back into town, we met more and more of that crowd we had gotten up so early to avoid...
So, after a refreshing 20 km start to our day, we finally made it to Angkor Wat and its surrounding parks and temples. Thankfully, we were still able to avoid most of the people due to our trusted steel-steeds. The park area is simply huge but there are a lot of shortcuts and forest trails that make it ideal for exploring by bicycle. On bikes, we could follow the small sand trails through the jungle while everyone else was stuck on the main paved road. This way, we quickly got rid of everyone traveling by tuk-tuks, buses or taxi, leaving us with a much more comfortable people density. But when it came to the actual temples, there was no getting around the vast number of people buzzing around like insects in the heat…
Reading online, people were saying that you can/should spend several days wandering around the park and Lonely Planet even goes so far as suggesting you might want to spend a whole week there! After little more than half a day, we felt like we'd seen enough. By now every temple looked just like the one before it and we headed back into town to escape the heat with a cold beer by the pool. That sentence in itself proves that we're really not on much of an adventure anymore.
We spent another couple of days in Siem Reap, eating and drinking well (did we mention that the food is excellent now?!) before cycling the last day and a half to the Thai border.
And with that, we had “covered” yet another country. It feels like we left the country almost as quickly as we entered. We enjoyed its old history (well, as much as we can) but missed out on all of the more recent and… ehm… maybe more violent history as much of this is found further south. Yes, we could have detoured and explored the country more fully and maybe that was wrong of us, but you can't see everything; especially not when you're riding a bicycle (contrary to what some people seem to believe). Besides, we had a hot date waiting for us in Thailand… but more on that next time.