18th MARCH 2019
I’m up at 8.00am for scrambled egg baguettes and a cup of tea before leaving Siem Reap and saying Goodbye to the Cashew Nut Guesthouse. The place has been a tranquil oasis in an over-touristy town, just the sort of calm refuge I needed to recover from my second bout of toilet ‘inconvenences’.
It takes around six hours for the bus to reach Phnom Penh, through a dry landscape of brown farmland, skinny cows and dusty roadside towns. I don’t mind spending all this time looking out the bus window though, having missed most of the passing countryside when I was ill on the way up. A motorbike taxi gives me a lift from the bus station back to my accommodation at Vanny’s, where he greets me with cold water, mini bananas and news of a further power cut. It’s hot as Hell upstairs with a redundant electric fan, so I jump straight under the shower to cool off and freshen up after the long bus journey. As I’m getting out the candle-lit shower room, the electricity jolts back into life and my room fan begins it’s cooling rotations once again. For dinner I return to No. 72 Restaurant, despite my suspicions that their food may have been the cause of my stomach upset. I’m prepared to take the chance a $2 per meal. This time I avoid eating anything chicken based, and settle for a fragrant Red Tamarind Beef with rice.
The following morning my waking for breakfast coincides, unsurprisingly, with yet another power cut. Fortunately my breakfast must have been cooked just before the electricity went off, as it’s still relatively lukewarm by the time it reaches my gob. I’m served the standard steamed rice with egg on top, with today’s extras coming in the form of vegetables. I sit with a Mexican woman who has been working in Phnom Penh for three years as an English teacher. It gets me thinking about how many English teachers I’ve met on this trip, and how many of them don’t even have English as a first language themselves ! There’s hope for me yet.
My final day in Phnom Penh is spent doing little chores and organising things before I get back on the road tomorrow. First, I visit the local laundrette and get them to do a service wash of every garment I have, apart from the clothes I’m wearing. The dodgy electricity supply at Vanny’s place giving me a legitimate excuse for being lazy and not doing my own. Then I go to a bike shop I’d been e-mailing to pick up a new tyre, as I wasn’t sure my current worn pair would make it all the way to Bangkok. The shop had told me my size of wheel isn’t normally found in Cambodia, so they’d improvised and ordered a tyre from their supplier in Thailand. Annoyingly, this difference in wheel sizes also means they don’t have any ready-to-fit replacement spokes for my bike. This doesn’t deter them though, and they go about making one from their existing stock of spokes by cutting it down to size and threading it. I appreciate their efforts; I’m in the shop an hour and a half while they manufacture a new spoke and fit it for me. The replacement tyre looks a lot more substantial too, despite being skinnier than the original. I’m a lot more confident about my prospects now.
By mid-day I’m back at Vanny’s guesthouse, where the electricity supply has been switched back on again. He’s so deliriously happy with this development that he loads me up with another handful of mini bananas in celebration. Later I visit an ATM, making what I hope will be my final cash withdrawal in Cambodia. Unfortunately, I forget to ask for an uneven amount, and am dismayed to receive my $200 in the form of two $100 notes. Bollocks. Notes that size will be awkward to get rid of. My plan for unloading the first one involves finding a nice, Western supermarket where they are much more likely to have change than in a Plastic Chair Cafe. I fill my basket with essentials like sunscreen and mosquito spray, but also splash out on a feta cheese and pumpkin baguette. Oh, how I’ve missed cheese ! The $3 price tag would be worth it for the cheese alone, but the bonus is managing to offload one of my pesky $100 notes.
In the evening I return to No. 72 Restaurant for the last time, having now overlooked and forgiven the likely food poisoning episode. On the off chance I ask for Red Tamarind Prawn, the elusive meal I’ve tried unsuccessfully to order twice before. I’m surprised to find that it’s actually available tonight, so I sit down happily to wait whilst drinking iced tea and watching some chaotic driving manoeuvres on the small crossroads outside. I pay for my $2 meal with 8,000 Cambodian Riel, finally getting the hang of this weird, triple currency exchange.
Most of the evening is spent working out distances and accommodation stops that will get me to the Thai border, a distance of around 300km. Normally this would be a straightforward task, with maybe four days of 75km pencilled in to reach the target. However, a lack of accommodation, inconvenient distances between towns and a hilly National Park means crossing this section will be far from straightforward.
The next morning I afford myself a late start as my accommodation searches have led me towards a town called Chbar Mon, meaning today will be an easy 50km cycle out of Phnom Penh. This kind of distance will break me back in gently after a week off the bike, but it will also leave me with a big day of 100km to follow. Breakfast is fried egg atop steamed rice again, this time accompanied by a few pieces of chicken nugget type morsels. I faff around till about 11.00am as I’d like to say Goodbye to the whole family before leaving, only to be told that Vanny is out this morning driving his tuk-tuk. Bugger. I would have liked to have seen him before I go, although I do get to farewell three-quarters of the family.
I’m soon to discover that leaving Phnom Penh on a bike is almost as slow and tortuous as leaving by bus. At one point the road is completely gridlocked where two streets converge to cross a bridge, the traffic inching forward amidst a bedlam of fumes and horns. Being on a small vehicle like a bike is really no advantage here as there are so many scooters and tuk-tuks competing for the small gaps between vehicles. I edge out of town on crappy, bumpy roads, giving my new tyre an unwanted first work out. Vanny had advised me not to take this road, due to it being full of trucks and buses heading for the port of Sihanoukville, and I’m starting to wish I’d listened to him. I spend a lot of time pulling over onto the roadside gravel when I hear the warning horn of a large vehicle approaching from behind.
My big breakfast and mini bananas keep me going for most of the journey, although a roadside stall offers an excuse to get out of the traffic for a while. A young girl serves up beef slices with rice and two boiled eggs in a dark spicy sauce, while an old guy at the next stall brings me over a bottle of chilled water. The water is most welcome, even though today’s temperature is almost ten degrees cooler than the scorching thirty-five and above we’ve been having recently. I rejoin the busy road and find that there’s no let up in traffic, industry or roadside businesses all the way to Chbar Mon.
By mid afternoon I’ve reached my destination and am checking into a hotel I found on Google maps which, confusingly, also directs to enter by the rear of the building. Although I’ve arrived unannounced, they do have rooms and I’m able to chain my bike to a roof support pillar in the gated back yard. When I go up to my room I’m amused to find a sign that warns of a $10 fine for staining the bedsheets, so I make a mental note to behave myself tonight. I shower, crash out and then head along the wide, dusty main street in search of food. I’m finding that outside of Phnom Penh and touristy Siem Reap, Cambodia really doesn’t have much in the way of food and accommodation, and certainly nowhere near as much as there was in Vietnam. With limited choices, I end up in a place called Phnom Penh Bakery, stocking up on pizza slices and two pastries that look like they could be apple turnovers. I eat half of everything, keeping what’s left for tomorrow’s breakfast. I’m somewhat disturbed to find that the inside of my pastry is filled with a gruesome hot dog sausage, where I was expecting to find sweet apple.
Tomorrow is, I think, my third 100km cycle of this trip, which is a distance I had planned to avoid tackling in such exhausting heat. I don’t have a lot of choice over the next few days though; the distances between towns and accommodation means there’s going to be a couple of long, hot days ahead.