11th MARCH 2019
After leaving my motel I trundle round Svay Rieng for ten minutes trying to find somewhere that’s open for breakfast. I’m finding that street food stalls and Plastic Chair Cafes are nowhere near as abundant in Cambodia as they were in Vietnam. In the end I find an outdoor restaurant who say they will feed me even though it looks like they’re not open for business yet. A girl takes my order by showing me images of meals on her mobile, while I try to keep things simple by pointing to a plain fried rice. She leaves me a little basket of drinks on my table to start with, which consists of water, Pepsi and melon tea. The melon tea sounds interesting so I try that poured into a big glass over ice. My God it’s refreshing and it tastes brilliant ! Then my fried rice dish arrives, with an unexpected bonus of squid, baby octopus and a couple of large prawns. I can’t get my head round people who skip breakfast in the morning.
Once I leave town I’m back onto Route Nationale 1 again, heading West with the sun blazing down on my back to begin with. As the day moves on the sun climbs progressively higher, until soon it’s overhead and my exposed forearms are bearing the brunt of its relentless rays. And, just to compound things, it’s another bloody scorcher today. By mid-day I’m flagging, so stop for lunch and a break at a Plastic Chair Cafe on the opposite side of the road. I pay 10,500 Cambodian Riel for an average beef noodle soup along with a can of mysterious fizzy juice that is a vivid, luminous green in colour. I’m beginning to notice that food and accommodation are slightly more expensive than in Vietnam, even though Cambodia seems a poorer, less developed country. Still, in the big scheme of things it’s only £2 per meal, so I’m not exactly complaining. When I leave, the owner bloke tells me to be careful with my bike in Phnom Penh. This might be fair warning, but I also know it could be someone from a country town being a bit apprehensive about the big city. I’m hoping it’s the latter.
The afternoon is a hot trudge through brown, bone dry countryside. It’s so ridiculously hot that it’s starting to affect the water bottles I have strapped to the rear of my bike. They’ve been in direct, blazing sunlight for over three hours now, and are so horribly warm that it feels like I’m drinking bathwater. I stop to buy some chilled water and continue my slow Westward slog, arriving in the town of Neak Loeung just after 2.00pm. Finding my guesthouse proves to be less than straightforward though.
Both Google maps and my accommodation booking site show the building in the same place, but annoyingly they are both completely wrong. I faff around the bumpy, unsurfaced streets for a while trying to locate the place myself before I resort to asking the locals. The only method I have for doing this is to show a picture of the guesthouse on my phone, which draws a couple of blank faces, before a third guy says he recognises the location. He goes to get his motorbike and beckons me to follow him, delivering me to the guesthouse within a minute. In reality it was just round the corner, but would have taken me ages to find on my own, if at all.
The bloke then comes in to act as interpreter between me and the guesthouse owner. I’m told that a room with a fan will cost 6 US Dollars per night, so I hand over $10. Normally this would mean a simple transaction with me receiving $4 change, but of course I know I’m going to get my money back in Cambodian Riel. I think I’ve worked it out though, as 1 US Dollar equates to 4,000 Cambodian Riel, which means that for my $4 change I’ll be due 16,000 Riel. At first the owner tries to palm me off with 3,000, so I tell my interpreter friend that I know it should be 16,000. He translates this to the owner who (miraculously) manages to find the rest of my change and apologises for his ‘mistake.’ I’m glad I know what I’m doing now. The upstairs room is basic at best, with cobwebs hanging lazily from the ceiling and a shower that operates on one constant, cool temperature. This chilly shower isn’t so bad mind you; my phone told me it was thirty-seven degrees when I checked in.
In the early evening I go for a walk and to search for some food. Neak Loeung turns out to be quite a scruffy, dusty town right on the East bank of the Mekong River. I try to make my way down to the river’s edge, walking along a messy street that’s lined with stalls, cafes and modest houses, only to be thwarted by tall, corrugated barriers between me and the waterfront. I walk back for food, realising that I must stick out like a sore thumb in a town that would normally be bypassed by most tourists. The locals are a friendly bunch though, to such a degree that I’m taken aback by the amount of people who smile or say Hello as I pass.
For dinner I find myself sitting outside a cafe, while a young guy gets me to choose food by showing me pictures on their menu. I point to one dish and he shakes his head, then try a second and he shakes his head again. This isn’t going particularly well. In the end he points to Fried Rice with Seafood and I just nod my agreement, even though it will be my second helping of this meal today. As I wait I watch the staff come and go, which mostly involves them playing on their phones. One girl is trying to take a selfie on a ten second timer, but every time the countdown reaches zero the young guy who took my order puts his foot in front of the camera to ruin her picture. I have a bit of a laugh at this and pretty soon we’re all friends and they’re taking selfies with me too. The people here just seem very open and warm. I can’t imagine this kind of spontaneity happening in Vietnam, where the locals behaved in a more reserved and detached fashion. I’m beginning to like these Cambodians.
When I return to my shoddy accommodation I’m plunged into darkness for half an hour by a power cut, which is destined to become a recurring theme here in Cambodia. In between power cuts, the fan will remain trained on me all throughout the hot night.
The following morning I return to the sister restaurant of the one I ate dinner at last night. It’s situated right across the road from the first and I recognise some of the staff, thinking they can’t have had much rest after working a late shift yesterday. I have a beef noodle soup that includes some tiny, puzzling meatballs, before leaving Neak Loeung and its rutted, uneven roads. I’m quickly back on Route Nationale 1 and heading for a huge new 2km bridge that will take me over the mighty Mekong River. Financed by Japan and only open since 2015, this is now the longest bridge in Cambodia. If I’d been doing this trip four years ago, I’d have been crossing the river by ferry. There’s quite a slope to get to the highest point, where I join a dozen or so scooterists who have stopped to take selfies and pictures of the scenes below. I freewheel down the other side, taking care when I go over a series of chunky rumble strips with my damaged spoke.
After the crossing I turn North for a while, the Mekong flowing idly along in the opposite direction a few hundred metres to my right. It’s shaping up to be another hot day, although I’m buoyed by the fact that the road surface has improved somewhat since getting over to this side of the river. I make good progress till lunchtime on these smoother roads, where a Plastic Chair Cafe serves me up yet more beef noodle soup, even though I’m sure I asked for rice. A jug of iced melon tea goes down a treat too, and I start to think this beveridge may overtake iced coffee as my favourite drink whilst on the road. I’m usually slow after lunch, but the increased volume of traffic as I near Phnom Penh seems to speed me up subconsciously. By early afternoon I can see tall city buildings in the distance, and by 2.00pm I’m checking in at Vanny’s Peaceful Guesthouse.
I’m greeted with a chilled water by Vanny’s wife, before the man himself makes an appearance. He’s a lovely bloke with good English and a wealth of information on Phnom Penh, having spent years working as a tour guide and taxi driver in the city. I check in, chain my bike to one of their unused motorbikes inside the front gates and sit down for a chat. I’m given yet more water and some mini bananas, before I’m shown to my room up a metallic spiral staircase that is as ridiculously steep as it is narrow. After showering I head round the corner of the block to No. 72 Restaurant, recommended by Vanny as every meal costs 2 US Dollars and you get unlimited free tea. With all today’s noodle soup consumption, I decide I should probably have some variety and order a rice meal to change things up a little. Being so used to eating on the go, I just ask for chicken and rice on the way into the cafe, before discovering their stack of menus and all the tasty options I could have chosen. Still, I’m sure I’ll be back.
When I return to the guesthouse, almost the entire street is in darkness due to a power cut. A college across the road and a couple of large apartment blocks must have their own generators as they still have lights, but otherwise the street has been left in dim twilight. Vanny and his wife can’t be apologetic enough and are mortified they don’t have electricity for their paying guests. He seems to think the electricity has been shut off deliberately by the power company to save energy, and that different city blocks will be without power for a period tomorrow. Apparently the combination of a massive increase in construction work and unusually hot weather has pushed the city’s electricity supply to it’s limits. I’m also surprised to learn that Cambodia has to import large portions of its electricity from neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
In the end we all sit on chairs on the pavement while Vanny’s wife brings out candles, water and slices of watermelon. With the family, guests and neighbours all sitting together outside, it feels like a nice little village community in the midst of a big, bustling city. It’s good to feel part of the neighbourhood as we all sit and watch the world go by in the gloom, with some motorcyclists inexplicably still choosing to ride up the street without lights. Vanny keeps encouraging his twelve and ten year old daughters to talk with me to give them a chance to practice their English. They already do extra lessons after school and are not too far away from being fluent, especially the cheeky ten year old. It turns into a really pleasant evening just sitting outside on the pavement and chatting, whereas normally you’d expect a power cut to be a nuisance.
It’s only when the mosquitos start biting that I finally head inside about 10.00pm. The power supply has been off for six hours at this point. I make my way upstairs by candlelight, blindly knocking the fan off the wall in my room as I enter, and settle in for what could be a sticky night without electricity. My consolation is that there’s a mosquito screen on the window, so at least I can open that to cool the place down a little. I’ve been in my room for all of two minutes when the electricity comes back on. I plug the fan in joyously and direct it’s refreshing airflow straight onto me. I’m glad my days off in Phnom Penh look like they will now feature electricity. I’m also glad I don’t have to get up and cycle tomorrow.