24th MARCH 2019
Unsurprisingly, I sleep like an over-tired log after my hardest day of cycling. I wake to the restful sound of tiny waves lapping against the sand about fifteen metres from my shack, before crawling out from under my mosquito net around 8.30am. Breakfast consists of scrambled egg on bread followed by a fruit plate, although I find things are a bit more expensive here than in a normal Plastic Chair Cafe. I eat slowly, still feeling weak as a kitten after yesterday’s hot, exhausting trek through kilometres of hilly jungle.
A large chunk of my recovery day is spent swaying gently in a hammock, suspended between two roof support pillars at my bungalow. Morning involves me drifting in and out of sleep, whilst listening to the sea and the comings and goings of locals. By luchtime I’ve decided to spend an extra day here, just to make sure I’m properly relaxed and recharged before moving onto Thailand. The beach bungalows are a lovely spot to unwind, set on a quiet sandy bay in this isolated and under-developed corner of the country. It’s one of those beachside places where the stunning location and easy-going atmosphere makes up for the basic facilities. Who needs Wi-Fi and a reliable electricity supply anyway ?
In the afternoon it clouds over and a refreshing sea breeze picks up, which is such a boon after enduring the hot, airless days further inland. By this point I’m feeling more rested and go for a walk along the road towards Bak Khlang village. Within a few hundred metres I begin to feel spits of rain, and as I cut back through to the beach it starts to fall more steadily. The downpour becomes torrential just as I make it back to the shelter of my bungalow. I raise the front bamboo blind and watch the deluge over the sea, which has now been joined by a chorus of thunder and lightning. The rain doesn’t let up all day, and by nightfall it’s still pouring. Yesterday I was wishing for showers to cool me down, but after witnessing today’s storm, I’m doubly glad I made the effort to get here in one day.
For dinner I have Beef Lok Lak, which is tasty beef, tomato and onion in a dark, slightly spicy sauce. The chef is a local guy, but the property is run by a young Polish couple who took over only three weeks ago. One of their friends in Poland is the business owner and asked if they would be willing to move out here and manage the place for him. The girl says that two months ago she could never have imagined they would be running a beach bar and accommodation in Cambodia. I have water with my meal, but stay at the end to drink beer with the managers and a German couple. It takes me a while to realise, but this is actually my first beer since arriving in Cambodia. In fact, I can’t remember having any alcohol since drinking with the alcoholic expats at Hotel California three weeks ago ! I’m in bed by 9.00pm, but I definitely feel far stronger after all today’s good food and relaxation.
Sometime during the night I’m woken by barking beach dogs and find I’m bursting for the toilet. Because I’m still half asleep, I take the lazy option of a short stroll down the beach to pee in the sea. I stand ankle deep in the warm water, pissing, while watching the lights of dozens of fishing boats on the horizon.
After a day of inactivity, I feel like I’m almost back to normal the next morning. I cycle the short 2km into Bak Khlang village for a look around, finding a messy collection of tin sheds and markets perched on the mouth of the Prek Kaoh Pao river. Most of my time in this run down fishing village is spent on a fruitless search for effective sunscreen, with me miming my requests to bewildered shopkeepers. First I point to the sun, then to my brown forearms, before rolling up my t-shirt sleeve to show the white skin underneath. The majority seem to understand my bizarre charade, but none of them have any sunscreen. Even the local chemist only has Whitening Sunscreen, which is more often used as make-up by Asian women so that their skin appears more pale. I can only imagine the reactions I’d get from wearing that and cycling along like a deathly white ghost.
On the way back I pass through Samotherean Pagoda, which everyone just refers to as The Black Buddha. This massive statue, sitting cross-legged and draped in golden robes, is unlike any other Buddha I’ve ever seen before. The tall, slim figure is painted entirely black, save for a pair of manic looking white eyes, that appear to be staring in two different directions. It would make a striking photo, but alas, it’s under renovation and covered in unsightly scaffolding. I ride out the main entrance through a corridor of one metre high golden buddhas, which remind me of the award statuettes given to Oscar winners.
Like yesterday, the wind gets up in the afternoon and the sea starts to become choppy. On the horizon to the South there’s an ugly, dark stormfront which appears to be heading our way. The Polish management couple run around fetching all the lounger cushions and other fly-away equipment from the beachfront, so I collect a few pieces to help them, and then settle down to watch the incoming storm. It’s all a bit of an anticlimax though, as heavy rain pelts into the sea fifty metres offshore, but somehow manages to miss us completely. It remains cloudy, windy and warm for the rest of the evening. For the third day in a row I miss out on sunset over the sea.
And then, a mere sixteen days after arriving in Cambodia, I’m getting ready to depart. Because I took the bus for my touristy side trip to Siem Reap, I’ve only cycled around 500km through the whole country. Mind you, 100km of that was my sweltering, energy-sapping trek of two days ago. I know it’s difficult to build up a true perspective of a country having only seen small parts in such a short time, but on the whole I’ve enjoyed myself. Cambodia seems less developed and less organised than Vietnam although, strangely, I’ve found it to be slightly more expensive. Physically, it’s been a challenge cycling through some of the flat inland regions, which is more down to me being drained by the heat in dusty, scorching dry season. The terrain has been relatively easy apart from the last couple of days. To make up for the barren areas between towns, there’s the modern vibrancy and cafes of Phnom Penh, the ancient temples around Angkor Wat and my current laid-back beachside location.
Like in Vietnam, the people have generally been friendly, warm and helpful. During the course of an average day in Cambodia, I would receive plenty of ‘Hello’s’ from the locals, which is always a good way to gauge a country’s friendliness. Part of me is amazed how the population and the country have bounced back so well after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. Although that era will always cast a dark shadow over Cambodia’s past, it’s probably a blessing that nearly 80% of today’s population are too young to remember it.
On my final night in Cambodia I fall asleep to the sounds of the sea, splashing lightly against the sandy shore outside my beach shack. It’s a great way to spend my last few hours in the country. Tomorrow I’ll be cycling into Thailand !