21st MARCH 2019
I’m awake reasonably early, munching on a breakfast made up of last night’s bakery goods and the remainder of my mini bananas from Vanny’s. I pay for my $12 hotel room with my final $100 note, triggering a frantic search for change and a few headaches for the young guy at reception. He eventually manages to find enough notes through a messy combination of low value US Dollars, supplemented by thousands of Cambodian Riel. Once outside, I pause immediately to buy two large bottles of water and, with an unusual efficiency, that’s me ready to depart. It’s only 8.00am when I leave, so I’ll be able to ride the first hour in slightly cooler conditions, before having to cycle the bulk of my 100km in mid-thirties heat.
Like yesterday, the road is full of trucks and buses, most of which give me a warning toot on their horn if they’re about to overtake. My normal tactic is to move into the roadside gravel to let them pass, but only if there’s traffic coming towards us from the opposite direction. However, if there’s nothing approaching on the opposite carriageway I don’t move, figuring they’ll have ample room to get past me easily enough. After a while I get to know the size of the approaching vehicle by the sound of their horn; trucks and buses generally give a deep, hearty blast, whereas with cars it’s softer and more tinny. Some cars still toot though, possibly expecting me to get out the way and pull over for them. I find myself shaking my head and saying ‘Fuck Off’ a lot when hearing what I think is merely a car tooting behind me.
For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe and choose a rice meal containing various chicken bits. I’m using the word ‘bits’ as it seems like all the grisly chicken off-cuts have found their way onto my plate. As I’m rummaging through my food, a single chicken’s foot makes a grim, unwanted appearance. It looks revolting, but I decide to give it a try anyway as I think that tasting these challenging foods should always be a part of travelling. It’s awful. I can feel chicken claws scraping my tongue as I attempt to extract some meat from the scrawny, wiry mouthful. It’s back on my plate within ten seconds.
As my day progresses, the surroundings gradually change from flat, dry countryside to more jungly, undulating hills. I’m also drinking water like there’s no tomorrow, with repeated visits to roadside stalls to gulp down chilled drinks, cool water or flavoured tea. I stop to take on more liquid today than I ever have before, drinking litre after litre, and don’t think once about going to the toilet. I’m losing so much in sweat that my bladder is being bypassed.
I carry on, with regular stops under shady roadside trees, before I reach the landmark I’ve been waiting for – the Srae Ambel roundabout. It’s at this junction where the main body of traffic, especially trucks and buses, carries on South towards Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s main seaport. The road I’ll be taking swings North to begin with, before heading West through a hilly National Park and eventually all the way to Thailand. I’m happy to see the back of all that traffic, but less pleased about the slow, baking climb that takes me away from the roundabout. I crawl steadily higher, past shacks on a roadside of red dirt, until I’m up level with the town’s radio transmitter. A nice, cooling descent then drops me back down for my final, sluggish 10km to Srae Ambel.
There’s a choice of two guesthouses on the long straight road into town although, lazily, I just pull into the first one I see. My ground floor room has a steaming hot shower and powerful air-conditioning, but also a large, black scorch mark all round the main light switch. The owner catches my worried expression as I’m looking at the burn marks on the blue wall and responds with a slightly unconvincing ‘No Problem’. For dinner I take a walk towards town as I didn’t notice any food places on the road in, but I also remember reading that the other guesthouse had a small grocery shop underneath it. I arrive to find that their product choice can only be described as ‘limited’, so my makeshift dinner consists of nothing more than pomegranate juice and a zip-lock bag of sugary cereal.
The following morning I leave my guesthouse just after 9.00am, paying for my $15 room with 60,000 Cambodian Riel. I’m really getting the hang of this currency malarkey now, plus I want to get rid of all my Riel before leaving the country. US Dollars will be easy to exchange or pay into my bank account back home. Cambodian Riel won’t.
For the first couple of kilometres I double back, taking the same road I cycled in on and accidentally stumble upon a Plastic Chair Cafe within two minutes. How the Hell did I miss this yesterday ? I order a rice meal with chicken bits and sit down near two guys in their twenties who speak a decent amount of English between them. They stick out like sore thumbs in this dirt-floor local cafe, wearing immaculate white shirts, ties and trousers while everyone else is in shorts and flip-flops. It turns out they’re on a work trip to visit the Botum Sakor branch of the bank they work for. We ask each other all the usual questions, before one guy gets out his phone to show me his wedding pictures. Generally, the wedding photos of strangers are pretty boring, but I have to say I’m rather impressed with this gallery and the amount of colour-coordinated outfits that the couple wore. An assorted collection of yellows, reds, golds, blues and greens, all in matching pastel shades, make them look like a pair of Bollywood superstars. I’m told the couple’s wedding lasted for two days and involved ten changes of outfits. Just as I’m looking suitably shocked by this, the other bloke writes a figure on his hand to tell me that each outfit can cost $1,500 ! I’m less shocked to hear that they hired the outfits.
They both shake my hand as I leave, with one guy offering a ‘Good Luck with your journey, Sir !’ When I’m at the counter buying water I can hear the two of them telling the locals what I’m up to. I can make out the words ‘Scotland’, ‘Hanoi’, and ‘Thailand’ as I pay for my meal. Leaving the cafe I pass a large Buddhist monastery, set amongst trees on a hill above the road, and have the oddest sensation that I’m cycling in the wrong direction. Since I’ve been travelling continually West for a couple of weeks now, I’ve become accustomed to the morning sun shining straight onto my back. Today, I feel so disoriented with the sun’s rays hitting the right side of my face. It’s such a weird feeling that I have to stop and check Google maps to confirm I’m moving in the correct direction.
The morning is roasting once again, with me feeling drained and listless after yesterday’s long, hot ride. I spend the day plodding along, stopping for regular breaks in the shade and trying to dodge wandering livestock that roam freely around the road. The numerous skinny cows don’t cause any problems, although I’m far more wary of the occasional tank-sized water buffalo, giving them all the time in the world if they want to cross in front of me. The afternoon becomes a sluggish, weary trudge through increasingly hilly terrain, punctuated by regular stops under roadside trees for shade and rest. The heat is energy-sapping.
Botum Sakor is another town where I’m relying on the accuracy of Google maps, hoping that their one marked guesthouse does actually exist. If the map is wrong, or the guesthouse has closed, then I’m faced with cycling a further 40km in scorching temperatures to reach the next town. And, again, there’s no guarantee of accommodation in that town either.
A gently sloping parabola bridge takes me over a wide, slow moving river and signals the entrance to town. I pass wooden houses on the riverbank below with coloured, corrugated iron roofs and raised on stilts to cope with wet season flooding. There’s one final slog up a hill on the opposite bank, before I catch a glimpse of the guesthouse sign, instantly recognisable from screenshots I’ve taken from Google maps. The accommodation is on the main road, but set slightly further back down a red dirt slope. I’m greeted by an old crone, who appears to be the owner, and through mimes I’m told it will be $6 for the night. That’ll do.
From reading reviews I knew the guesthouse would be fairly basic, but I didn’t realise quite how basic. The accommodation is separate from the family home, and is essentially just a large wooden shed on stilts that has been converted into rooms. In my bedroom I’m able to look down through large gaps in the floorboards to the dry earth a few feet below me. Mosquitos are going to love this set up. I go for a shower, to discover it’s a shared bathroom with no shower attachment. Instead there’s a large vat of water in the far corner, with a big plastic ladel to spoon water over yourself bit by bit. Normally I love a hot shower, but this is a quirky novelty and so refreshingly cool on this sweltering day.
The old crone had mimed there were three food options further up the hill, so I take a wander and find that the first cafe looks quite welcoming. The owner lets me sample the food before ordering, which is a first, and I end up with rice and spicy chicken bits again. It seemed the best of an odd looking bunch. I spend the next half hour sweating like I’m in a sauna, through a combination of sizzling outdoor temperatures and munching on overly spicy food. By the time I return to the guesthouse I’m pooped, so have a late afternoon siesta, whilst unintentionally donating some of my blood to the local mosquito population. I find that lying underneath the mosquito net lessens the desktop fan’s cooling effect, so consequently I lie outside the net. And consequently I get bitten.
For dinner I’m back at the same Plastic Chair Cafe for beef and veggies with yet more rice. The tiny owner is struggling to change a light bulb, having difficulty reaching despite stacking half a dozen chairs on top of each other. I make myself useful by standing on a single chair and replacing it for her, rather than see her falling from the precarious tower of chairs she’s constructed. As I eat there’s about ten baby chickens running around the floor, with some scrabbling about outside and getting perilously close to the roadside. They all look very cute at that age, but in Cambodia they’ll only ever be destined for a cooking pot I imagine.
At night I notice my arms have taken on a slightly red colour, courtesy of me applying low cost Vietnamese sunscreen for today’s short trip. It did feel like cheap rubbish as I was putting it on, so I should have realised it would turn out to be useless. No wonder I was so affected by the heat today ! Before going to sleep I ponder how to get maximum benefit from the table fan, while still being able to protect myself from mosquito bites. In the end I manage to pull the fan as far as it’s cable will allow and take it under the mosquito net with me. I fall asleep to the hypnotic sound of whirring fan blades about a foot from my head. At least the cooling airflow will help soothe my red skin.
I have a nasty feeling that tonight is a ‘Calm before the Storm’ moment. I’ve left myself just over 100km to cycle tomorrow, through a hilly, jungly National Park in uncomfortably hot temperatures. It could be a tough old day …