10th MARCH 2019
After cycling out of Vietnam, there’s a strange two hundred metres of nothingness before I reach the Cambodian border crossing. Straight away the architecture at this end of the border post feels different from Vietnam, the main building looking more like a temple with curved, upturned roof corners. Notices written in Khmer script are completely unintelligible to me as well, with none of the weird, squiggly letters before me bearing any similarities to their English counterparts.
My bike is chained to a bench and I venture inside to join a queue that leads me to a stocky, middle-aged lady at a passport booth. When it’s my turn she just points dismissively to a separate section where I have to get my copy e-visa stamped by another official first. She looks like she enjoys her little bit of bureaucratic power. I traipse over to the correct department, get my bit of paper signed and dated, before returning triumphantly to the grumpy woman. This time she simply chucks down an Arrivals Card and says ‘You fill that in.’ I take the card and thank her sarcastically, but then realise I better watch my mouth as she could deny me entry if she really wanted to. So, dutifully I join a table of Japanese tourists, borrow a pen and fill out my Arrivals Card. Then it’s back to the passports queue where, thankfully, the surly woman seems to have disappeared. Unfortunately, my rejoining the queue coincides with her return, and I’m shouted back for one last encounter with her. I’m preparing for more power-hungry red tape nonsense, but she just checks all my paperwork and stamps my passport with a heavy thud. I now have one month in Cambodia !
After crossing the border I’m immediately struck by the amount of casinos lining the main road, making the first few kilometres look like a mini Las Vegas. However, this tacky casino strip is not for Cambodians – it only exists so that Vietnamese can pop across the border from their own country where gambling is illegal. Their appetite for betting must be huge as there’s even more hotels and casino resorts under construction as I pass. The whole area resembles a building site, with the road I’m cycling on reduced to a dusty, gravelly track in many places. I crawl ponderously through this section, travelling not much faster than a brisk walk, and make a return to worrying about punctures once again.
The other thing to hit me is just how blisteringly hot it has become, with the temperature hovering at a baking thirty-six degrees. I’m gasping for water, so stop in the dust at a roadside shop with stalls out the front. I’m not sure how communication is going to pan out so I just grab one of my large water bottles, show it to the owners and raise a single finger to indicate I’d like one. The owner lady goes all the way to the back of her shop to get me a chilled bottle, while I’m able to chat a tiny bit of English with her teenage kids. The transaction that follows then leaves me feeling a little confused, as Cambodia uses both US Dollars and their own Cambodian Riel. I hand over one US Dollar to cover my water and then receive my change back in Cambodian Riel. I’d heard this would happen, but in the moment I’m unprepared and have no idea what the exchange rates are. I just say Goodbye, pocket the change and will try to make sense of it later.
Tonight’s destination of Svay Rieng is about 40km from the border, although it turns into a slow, stuttering plod with the bumpy roads and exhausting heat. My rest stops become more and more frequent through an arid, flat landscape of dry season brown. Although the land is currently parched, I notice many roadside houses built on high raised columns, testament to the flooding threat in wet season. These houses are elevated a good three metres above the ground, so I imagine the road I’m now cycling on may find itself underwater in a few months time. This part of the country seems like it would be quite an inhospitable place to live – baking hot in dry season and flooded in wet. However, despite the harsh surrounds, my first impressions of Cambodia are positive. As I roll slowly along I notice that I’m getting a lot more ‘Hellos’ than I did in Vietnam, and from adults as well as kids.
About 5km from town I’m able to pull off onto a minor road which is, ironically, a far smoother ride than the Route Nationale One. I cross a bridge that’s under repair by darting between barriers and am at the Riverside Villa Guest House soon after. The reception building looks very grand, a two storey mansion overlooking a river with columns, mirrored windows and a balcony at the entrance. However, I’m in a ten dollar motel room out the back. When I chain my bike outside I notice that one of my wheel spokes has become detached, no doubt a consequence of the awful roads I’ve been cycling on today.
In the evening I venture our for food, aiming for a little cafe I’d found on Google maps. I’m back to pointing at foodstuffs to make my order once again, although the owner does make me smile by saying I can have ‘cow with egg noodle’. She boils up a fresh batch of noodles behind me, while I drink tea poured from a porcelain teapot into a glass with ice. By the time I’m finished the sun is dipping towards the horizon, casting an orangey-pink glow all over town. I walk back to my motel room through a series of grid-pattern streets that face directly West into the setting sun. On each road I cross it looks like there’s an orange ball, levitating just above the far end of the street. Some of the locals seem a little bemused that I’m taking so many pictures pointing down a street that’s so ordinary and commonplace to them. Maybe if I lived here this would be a normal, everyday sight, but for me in paparazzi mode it’s a striking image.
When I get back I book accommodation for tomorrow and also give myself three days off in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. By that time I’ll have cycled seven days out of eight in temperatures that have been steadily creeping towards the mid-thirties. Although the daily distances haven’t been huge, I begin to feel drained cycling every day in that kind of heat. I’ll be glad to reach Phnom Penh, have some Rest Days and play tourist for a while.