Phnom Penh is a strange place. Hulking metal high rise buildings flanked by fleets of busy cranes; all encircled by valet parking spaces full of luxurious German cars. The Cambodia of just 10km’s in any direction may as well be on another continent – relegated to history books where young children point and laugh in disbelief at men hauling their gear on rickety horse and carts. Yet, that may not be too far off. The city is so at odds with the reality of the country I had seen so far, that I couldn’t help but feel uneasy cycling along its streets as preppy kids were driven to school in Mercedes’ latest creation.
It wasn’t a city that enticed you to just leisurely wander its baking hot streets, so I was glad to be here with a purpose. I was going to see the museums left over from Paul Pots monstrous regime between avidly writing some new articles.
After months of fruitless emails, a British cycling magazine returned one of my messages asking if they’d like a story. They seemed interested (as interested as you can be replying 4 months after the intitial email was sent) so I was keen to try maintain what little momentum I had by finishing the piece of pronto. In the midst of this madness, I received an exciting email from a different outlet wanting an article, all on top of the promise of paid work if I could write for a separate third party. This unexpected flurry of divine messages had sent me into a scribing overdrive, which ensued this Blog was unfortunately neglected for longer than I’d like. But here we are, back again, only two weeks after the last post – which is now considered good for me!
After spending the majority of my time in overpriced coffee shops in the Cambodian capital furiously writing, I managed to break away from the keyboard to explore the infamous S21. Once a school, the complex was turned into a secret holding facility for the supposed enemies of Paul Pots Khymer Rouge regime. Tens of thousands of innocent prisoners were detained, tortured and humiliated there before being sent to the killing fields for their forced admissions. Moving between the makeshift cells, you really got a harrowing sense of the regime’s brutality. The experience of walking through the stark concrete buildings was a deeply moving experience, and one that I needed time to reflect on.
The same went for the killing fields, a place where trees sway in the afternoon sun oblivious to the malevolent acts that so recently fertilised their roots. Walking around listening to what went on there, I couldn’t help but be shaken by the senseless acts of a regime fuelled by an idiosyncratic idealism. Their idea was to turn everyone into labourers and farmers again – this, they believed, would eliminate the greed in society. Uprooting huge swathes of the population, pushing the city people into unfertile lands, massacring normal peasant farmers (the supposed heroes of the regime) and killing millions to restore a national ‘purity’. The xenophobic, racist and autocratic movement was responsible for a genocide the country is only now starting to recover from. The whole thing is truly terrifying but a must do when visiting the country.
Feeling understandably solemn after a particularly heavy day, I visited the hostel bar where I met two friendly British lads – Martyn and Leo. A dash of British sarcasm quickly cheered me up, as did the proposition of checking out the larger rooftop bar in the opposite hostel building. Up there we met a lovely group of Aussies, quickly forming a sizeable contingent that took to a quirky set of narrow streets containing a good few bars. A band firing up was all we needed to set us off dancing around the narrow lanes to the amusement of the timid Cambodian locals. After a good hour of the capitals finest funk and soul, we were soaked with sweat and headed home after seeing off the bands deserved encore.
This was the start of what was to be a strong friendship. Over the next month we formed a close unit of travellers exploring the crazy country that is Cambodia. The Aussie contingent consisted of Kit, Claud and Abi, with the later two planning on heading off to the Stans (much to my delight) later on their trip. The Brits were eventually whittled down to just me and Martyn, but as we initially planned to explore the riverside town of Kampot, Leo and a further group joined us.
As the group jumped on a nicely air-conditioned bus leaving Phnom Penh, I mounted the bike for what was set to be a scorching ride on busy roads. The manic city traffic kept me constantly weaving for the first few hours until I was able to freely ride the monotonous hard shoulder of the country’s primary road. Bored out of my mind, I opted to take a small tributary lane that ran parallel to the main motorway. The road soon turned to dirt, leaving me riding through huge dust plumes every time a vehicle sped past. A solid headwind ensured I consumed as much of the dust as humanely possible whilst cycling, and I quickly began to regret my decision to explore the rural regions.
The ride from the capital to Kampot was 100 miles, after completing 80 I opted to camp up for the night, sparing myself the cost of a hostel and riding through the dust clouds in the dark. I knew the decision was the right one, the only problem however, was finding somewhere to camp. Cautious of the hundreds of thousands of landmines still embedded deep in the Cambodian countryside, I really didn’t fancy pulling my usual stunt of straying miles off the main drag. Instead, I opted to set my tent up on the cusp of darkness behind a stack of shipping containers that boasted a decrepit tuk-tuk perched on top. The night was a real sweaty one – it was the first time I had struggled to sleep due to the heat on this trip, and I knew, surely it wouldn’t be the last .
The next day I added some tired bags under my eyes to the dusty face and sunburnt legs look I was rocking. Only one day on the road here and I already looked a mess. After the mornings 20 mile ride to the hostel, the girls looked genuinely concerned upon seeing my blackened face roll into the bar. A wash in the river was suggested more than a few times and it wasn’t long before I found myself jumping off the crazy platforms and slides into its cool water. Arcadia wasn’t just a hostel, it was an adult playpark. Huge homemade waterslides fired you precariously 30-feet up in the air, Russian swings propelled you far out into the water, and a gigantic air-bag was readied to send you into space if you found two big blokes to jump off the roof onto the other end. Mix all of that with an open plan wooden bar and a social group of backpackers to form what must be one of the coolest hostels in the world.
The place was so good in fact, that I ended up spending the best part of a week there. Mornings were spent reading about Belgian cycling teams, (research for an article – what a surprise) whilst afternoons were for larking about in the river. Evenings would of course be spent with a beer in hand.
One day we decided to break from the routine and rent out some mopeds to explore the nearby mountains. An amazing tarmac road led us up over 1000 vertical meters into cooler air. Here we found the remnants of various French colonial buildings scattered about the hills between the odd church or shrine. An afternoon walking around the eerie decaying buildings was followed up by a visit to a dried-up waterfall, (we forgot that it was the dry season) and finally an immense viewpoint overlooking the ocean. Riding in a large group around the smooth hairpin bends was a good laugh, until we came to turn into the hostel… Besides me, Martyn locked his back-wheel braking on some loose gravel, whilst at the same time Leo and Kit got too close turning into our place, hooking handlebars and sending each other sprawling into the rough road. I turned to see Kit skidding along the road on her shoulder as Leo took the hit with his palms stretched open.
A lot of blood combined with lovely mix of dirt and stones embedded in the open cuts ensued. Thankfully both of them were alright, yet both them and the motorbikes would require some repair work. Just as luck would have it, the crash took place right outside the rental place, so the owner of the bikes saw his beloved machines upturned in the road as the whole escapade unfolded before his eyes. To his credit he mentioned nothing about the bikes whilst helping clean the cuts of the wounded. A tuk-tuk to A & E was needed to check everything over before we could descend on the bar with our very own ‘South-East Asia motorbike accident tale’.
After many backflips and belly flops trying various ridiculous stunts off the slide, it was time to nurse our self-inflicted bruises somewhere else. The destination was to be the island of Koh-Rong Samleon. Located just off the Cambodian coast, Samleon is the smaller and quieter of the two Koh Rong islands. This was exactly what we needed after a week spent at Arcadia, and what a choice it was – the place was a paradise. A single quiet beach complete with a wooden jetty protruding from white sand that stretched back between the timber huts that made up the ‘village’. The huts looked out over a stunning azure bay. It was a shade of blue I’d only seen before on exotic postcards, with the whole scene framed by coconut trees that arched over gracefully in the breeze.
The girls and Leo had arrived a few days before us to escape the madness of Arcadia. We just caught Leo heading back to the mainland as our ferry pulled up at the jetty to say our goodbye’s. It didn’t take us long to catch the girls either, as a screaming mass of bodies riled into our dorm immediately after we put down our bags. It seemed that our plans for a chilled night seemed to have gone out the window…
Back as a complete squad (sorry Leo), we walked down to the sand where a wooden shack was serving beers and playing music. The atmosphere down at that beach was electric that night. People commandeering both chairs and the bar, dancing like crazy to some classics until late when the place closed for the night. After that we grabbed a speaker of our own, heading for a nice secluded spot further down the beach to run felt pelt into the sea. Being dark, we hadn’t spotted the rocks that lay just in front as we ran at full steam straight into them. Everyone managed to draw blood from various body parts as we tumbled head first over the unsavoury hurdle. Yet, even that couldn’t dampen the mood, as the sea lit up a bright pink as we found ourselves swimming through swathes luminous plankton.
The night was magical. A moon and stars so bright they cast shadows over the island; a place alive with us shouting about like idiots as the plankton illuminated our smiles and fine collection of bleeding cuts below the surface. The silhouettes of boats bobbed gently in the waves around us, and for a moment time seemed to stand still. After everyone wandered off to various points on the beach, me and Kit commandeered a two-person rope swing hanging from a seaside tree, before opting for one last swim / fall over more damn sneaky rocks. It was so refreshing to feel close to people again, to not have to explain that I was cycling, instead just chatting about the here and now. What shall we do today? Where shall we all explore next? It was living in the present with non-cyclists for what felt like the first time on this trip.
Unsurprisingly, we spent a further few days relaxing in the island sun. Each night we would congregate on the west facing rocky outcrop to watch the sunset below the still sea. Often we watched in silence, completely in tune with the calm nature of the small island. I was sad when my time came to depart that tranquil beach. I needed a head start to begin the 550km cycle up to Siem Reap, which meant leaving the others behind. I’d ambitiously said I would be there in 3 days time, even booking myself a nice room to spur me onwards – it was a tall order.
The first day I battled through 150 sweltering kilometers in the saddle, reaching a temple just before nightfall. The young kids and monks in training took a keen interest in me, especially an older monk who chuckled away at the sight of me reading a paperback book whilst the kids played an online shoot ‘em up on their phones. The white western man reading an old-style book whilst the eastern boys played video games online, a role reversal if ever I saw one. In many respects it’s indicative of a real trend between the two cultures right now. The eastern kids want to be like the western people they see on tv and in movies, sipping on milkshakes in plastic cups, playing online games; whilst the western people want to use natural, sustainable materials to replace that plastic cup (the materials that they were using initially in east to consume food) and are reverting to less technologically advanced methods of entertainment. The whole world is doing a big swap.
That evening I savoured my night sleeping on the cool temple floor. I’d take bats screaming overhead over another sweaty night in the tent any day. Leaving early the following morning I knew I’d need every hour of sleep I got there, for today was to be 200km into a headwind. This made things difficult as I pedalled back past Phnom Penh and along the only main road in the north of the country. The hours dragged by, yet, as night fell, I still found myself with more miles to make up.
Once it gets dark I don’t bother trying to couchsurf or even ask in a temple, the monks are asleep and locals are always suspicious of anyone who turns up looking for a bed in the night. After finally riding the distance, I followed a local on a motorbike to a cheap guesthouse right by the roadside. There may have been large holes in the wall where someone had tried and failed to kill the giant rat running around between rooms, but I was far too tired to care.
Another day, another 200k. After having taken so much time off the bike over the past two weeks my legs weren’t feeling great after two long days on the saddle. Pushing the pedals early that morning was a serious chore, and I really wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it to Siem Reap that night. Setting off long before sunrise to give myself the most time to cover the distance, I really found myself struggling to find any sort of rhythm. After a small nap and a mad rush to the toilet upon waking up, I finally began eating up the miles. After 11 hours cycling time, a blood red sunset signalled the end of the day. As I closed in on the city, it was now a race between me and the darkness.
It’s funny how these small goals really keep you motivated, the chance to see friends in a new city again, that little ice cream you promise to get yourself after the next 10 miles, the rest break after cycling through the next podcast, reaching the end point before dark. On these monotonous stretches these small things make all the difference. That evening I pedalled like mad into the city, reaching the hostel just after dark. It was such a relief to be there, my body was screaming out in protest after 3 days of constant pedalling after too many without. Kit was there to greet me, once again laughing at my dishevelled face.
A quick shower and then back with the gang again, apparently they were taking me to pub street tonight to celebrate my arrival…
After a well needed day of rest, we decided to venture over to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. Unsurprisingly, so had many other hundreds of travellers. Together we formed a giant group waiting by the pond, all aiming to get that sunrise shot. It felt strange to be in such a large crowd of tourists, and I ended up finding a quiet spot away from everyone to watch the rest unfold. One great thing about the Angkor temples is that there are so many of them that you can still find peaceful places. Once we got away from Angkor Wat to explore the Bayon temple, where 200 giant smiling faces are built into structure, things calmed down and I was really able to appreciate the place.
That day we ended up visiting five stunning temples – each one completely unique. We strolled around the place with our smiling guide in the afternoon sun, attempting to absorb as much information as our overheated brains would allow for. After hours of intrigue, negotiating ancient trees and old stone steps, we were truly ‘templed’ out and ready to head back.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to the gang – they were heading to a place called Battenberg and I was due to ride to Thailand. Visiting Battenberg required cycling back on myself along one single road, something I really didn’t fancy doing. Instead, I thought the 400 monotonous kilometers to Bangkok would be more than enough for me.
After a month together, I was really sad to see everyone leave. It had been something really different for me and I felt genuinely close to everyone in that group. I promised to visit Kit when I arrive in Sydney and Martyn when I’m back in London, yet both of those still feel so far off. As their coach departed for the famous bat caves (I was really jealous I hadn’t gone once I saw the videos of them), I set about writing once again. This ended up continuing for a further 3 days as I powered my way to finishing my third article on vintage cycling teams for the lovely people over at Prendas Ciclismo. (https://www.prendas.co.uk/blogs/news/tagged/pedr-charlesworth).
Despite losing my departure card, having to run around the border area in search of a printer, the ride to Bangkok was fairly innocuous. I had one horrifically sweaty night camping in a forest, and stopped for tea with one friendly around the world cyclist. One day before arriving in the city I discovered the shell of giant aeroplane mysteriously sat by the road, stopping to take some bewildered snaps which definitely formed the highlight of those days on the road to the Thai capital.
Bangkok is a big city, the first big city I had been in for a while. Getting around took ages as for once everything wasn’t within walking distance. After a 40 minute boat ride that wouldn’t have been out of place at Thorpe Park, I caught Abi and Clauds from the Cambodian gang for a couple of days of sightseeing before they ventured up north. Then it was soon time for me to begin my journey down south. I was only 300km away from this very spot when I entered Thailand 3 and a half months ago, it was now time to finish of the de-tour de South East Asia.
As expected, riding out of the Bangkok traffic in the heat was not much fun. Neither were the two days of riding hard to reach the coastline. I knew my good friends, Molly and Hayden, were a few hundred kilometers down the road, so I was eager to catch up with them to ride togethr. A few days before that could happen however, I bumped into a German cyclist pushing his bike along the hard shoulder. Thorve’s chain had stretched to point it was no longer useful for his gearing system (on most bikes this wouldn’t be a big problem). I stopped to help fix the chain, and before you knew it, we were happily riding along together towards the coast.
I really appreciated the company – it had been a long time since I cycled with anyone. That first day we spent exploring a huge cave system before camping up on this incredible beach site I had been recommended. Suddenly I was enjoying touring again as the sun set slowly, casting rippling orange hues that spread out over the calm evening sea. These are the evenings you long for on the road, the one’s that make all the monotonous days worthwhile.
The next night was almost as spectacular. We were offered a place to stay in a stunning mansion house. After requesting a host on Warmshowers, Cedric – who was back at his other home in Switzerland – assured us that we could camp in his garden and make full use of his facilities. These facilities included a beautiful pool and decking area, where the 5 round the world cyclists who turned up that night, feasted on noodles and shared stories from a year on the road.
After 4 days of cycling the lovely coastal roads, we had finally reached Hayden and Molly. Our meet up point – Patti’s house. Patti is a Thai local who signed up to Warmshowers just a few months ago. In that short period of hosting cyclists, she’s become somewhat of a legend on the south Thailand touring scene. The night we arrived she was hosting 5 tourers after taking in 3 night before that. She drove us down to a seaside café in her beat up van as we enjoyed the wind in our hair from the comfort of the pick-up. She brought her elderly mother along with her, making us all crease up with laughter when saying the best thing about travelling abroad with her Mum was the fast-track through airport security.
The next morning, she even cycled the first 25km (15 miles) with us out of town, in preparation for when she embarks of the first tour of her own. People like this really make the cycle touring scene the friendly community that it is.
To add to the fun, it was so lovely to see Hayden and Molly again. To catch up on how their adventure had progressed over the past 5 months since I saw them in Kathmandu on my birthday. That already feels like an age ago, and when we talk about our escapades back in Turkey and Georgia, well, then the nostalgia really kicks in. It’s mad, it was just a year ago, yet it already feels like recounting a story from a previous lifetime.
Leaving Patti’s to ride back to her house, we cycled along as a unit of 5. Commanding our space in the cycle lane, we would now turn a lot of heads with each village we passed through. Everything became a little more fun in good company. ‘Showering’ at the petrol station became a drawn-out event that included snacks and a larking about trying out ‘superman’ poses whilst riding around the car park. Daily distances became shorter, whilst smiles became more plentiful. When we found ourselves in a forest behind the petrol station that would have been a little grim on my own, it quickly became a fun hub of tents and stoves complete with music. It was such a refreshing break that made the mundane stops in the day that bit more interesting.
Camping together was a good laugh, and if we were to remain together, camping is the only way it could happen. One member of our group, Priscilla, had been on the road for 3 years and refused to pay for any accommodation during that time. Instead she would camp and couchsurf her way through each place. It was fun to join in on her challenge, as we easily found ourselves another temple to camp at the following night.
Rolling into a tiny village off the main drag we’d been riding for most of that afternoon, we were spotted by a small Thai lady on the road. She spoke animatedly in good English, directing us to the temple before inviting us to her little house for breakfast the following morning. After a great night at the temple, which involved me getting really stuck into the 1000-page novel that is Shantaram, we made our way over to her place. She was on the street beaming with 5 freshly made banana pancakes waiting for us to tuck into. It was more than we could have ever expected. What’s more, she was living in what could only be described as a tiny garage, with her sick father lying on a bed at the back of the one main room. She had very little money, yet, was so excited to talk to us, to ask us about our travels and recount her own trips to New Zealand.
Some people really get dealt a rough hand in life. To have quit her job, move out of the city and back into a small garage in a rural village to look after her sick father must’ve been seriously rough. To see people like that who are so cheerful and generous to complete strangers is really something inspirational. I hope that by spending time with characters like this, I in turn can spread some of that generosity that’s been shown to me from strangers all over.
After a real good feed followed by a good laugh, we rode the final sweaty kilometers to Krabi. A complete tourist trap with not much going on, it was to be the place for us to split up. Me, Hayden and Molly headed to a hostel, whilst Priscilla went in search of free accommodation somewhere else. Thorve set off in search of a beach for the following days after letting a tropical storm pass through. They’ve been rolling in everyday around lunchtime for the past four days now, we were meant to miss the rainy season, but maybe the tide is turning and things will be difficult ahead.