Don Det to Phnom Penh

February 1st, 2013 by DC

It’s been a lot of hot, flat riding though northern Cambodia from Don Det down to the capital Phnom Penh. It almost broke me. Here’s the deal.

So, after the last post I had a few more days in my hammock on Don Det. But in the end, it was time to move on so early one morning I headed down and after quite a bit of waiting I finally got a boat to take me and my bike back to the mainland.
Fast boats look cool on a 1sec exposure!
Albino water buffalo!
Main street of Don Det
On the boat back to the mainland..
On the other side, I grabbed some breakfast and hit the road. It was about an hours ride to the border. It was obvious that the border’s pretty far from the capital cities, as suddenly these extra charges appear.. For instance, when I left Laos into Thailand I didn’t have to pay for an exit stamp, but suddenly here I did! It sounds like it’s not worth challenging it though- easier just to pay the 1 or 2 dollars and keep going.

I saw 2 cyclists on the way to the border, and another one at the border. On the other side I quickly caught up to a Frenchman, and rode along with him for a while. We ended up crossing paths a few times over the next few days.

By the time I got through the border and back on the road the sun was getting pretty high in the sky. I didn’t have any Cambodian currency, and at that stage didn’t realise that the US Dollar is the defacto currency in Cambodia, so I hadn’t been able to buy the usual sweet drinks that get me through the day. Then I started having problems with my chain. It had snapped when I was riding around Don Det, but I thought I’d fixed it enough. It turns out one of the plates had been bent and the rod wasn’t able to properly lock into it. I tried a couple of times to fix it again on the side of the road this day, and eventually spent an hour in the heat removing a whole link from it.

So by the time I eventually got to Stung Treng, it was the hottest part of the day and I was struggling. I found a guesthouse quickly and sat down in the shade for a bit before trying to check in. I must’ve stood up too quickly, and combined with the heat I ended up fainting, waking up on the ground with people shaking me. It was a bit of a shock, but after drinking a fair bit of water and soft-drink, I felt better. The owner of the guesthouse offered me Bear Bile, which I politely turned down.

Stopping to fix the chain (the first time)
Straight, flat, hot roads..
There were a heap of cyclists in town that day- there was a group of 6 or 7 Europeans who were doing an annual SE Asian tour, a Canadian girl, and a family of 3. It’s pretty much the only place to stop between Kratie and Don Det, so it’s not that surprising.

I was planning on continuing on the next day, but after the heat and then a stomach bug, I ended up staying in town for a couple of days.

A gaggle (I think that's the collective) of cyclists.
When I finally moved on, I was on the road before dawn. I’d read a description of this day as possibly “the hardest, hottest, longest stretch of cycling you’ve ever done”. It was 145km, and early on I stopped at a road-side stall and bought a wide-brimmed hat with a flap to wrap all around the head. This means that now my head is completely protected from the direct sunlight, which is the killer. The owner of the stall took quite a bit of interest in the fact I hacked at it with my leatherman knife as soon as I bought it, to remove most of the brim so I could still wear my helmet over top and use my mirror!

I made sure I stopped frequently to drink and eat. In fact I think I ended up drinking too much water, and often felt like it was sloshing around in my stomach. But I was able to ride the 145km to Kratie without too much hassle, although it was a long day.

Riding out of town at sunrise
Sun protection!
Mattresses on the move!
Mighty Mekong..
Mighty Mekong..

It was a short 30km day from Kratie to Chhlong to avoid a really long day to Kampong Cham. I stayed at a nice guesthouse overlooking the Mekong. I spent the afternoon reading and watching the water go by. I was also able to get some documents printed, filled out and scanned back in. It’s amazing that I could get it done in this pretty small town of Chhlong, but in Stung Treng and Kratie I wasn’t able to find anyone who would print from a USB stick! The documents were to book my spot on the container ship from Melbourne to NZ that I’m taking in mid-March: exciting! :-)

Chhlong had some really nice old architecture down near the river, away from the main road. A lot of French influence, and it’s interesting to see the effect the hot climate has on the building materials.
Little paths leading out of Kratie
One of many Wats I passed
Early morning market in Chhlong
Breakfast view
Cool old building where I had breakfast

It was a great (albeit dusty) ride from Chhlong to Kampong Cham. Quickly the road turned to dirt, although it was quite smooth and fast. Along the way I passed through a lot of Muslim villages, so I even got to call out “Salam alaikum” as I rode along which got some excited reactions!

Halfway along I took a ferry across the Mekong. Luckily I had my GPS as there didn’t appear to be a sign indicating to turn off down a little side road towards the river! On the other side it was a little bit more dirt, then a busier but fast sealed road to the large town of Kampong Cham. I really enjoyed this town (partly because they serve cheap beer in pitchers!), so I stayed a couple of nights, eating tasty food from the market and watching all the fishing taking place on the Mekong.
Quite a few Muslim people here.
Dusty roads
Cambodian Surveyor!
Mekong again
Muslim influence
Loading up the ferry
Stung Trang, where the ferry landed
I was covered in dust!
Blurry shot showing the dust on my leg (and the jandal tan!)
Fishing on the Mekong at Kampong Cham
Fishing on the Mekong at Kampong Cham- view from my $5 Hotel room.
Kampong Cham waterfront at night

My last day of riding to Phnom Penh was a real mix. I decided to keep following the Mekong down, and I knew that a lot of it would be gravel. It started on a nice sealed road, then changed to fast, smooth dirt. Then the dirt went to shit- getting pretty bumpy with a lot of large-ish stones in it. Finally, once I got back near and then onto the main highway to Phnom Penh, it was generally sealed, but the whole 40km was under construction (although I didn’t see a single worker!). Again, I was completely covered in dust by the time I got to PP. At least here I was able to find a bike shop to give the bike a service and an amazing clean for $US8! It was cleaner than when I started the trip!

Kampong Cham waterfront at sunrise
Farmland outside Kampong Cham
Farmland outside Kampong Cham
Rural living
Side river..

So yeah, spent a day or two running errands- getting the bike fixed, getting a local SIM, catching up with my friend Veronica (from Lijiang and Luang Prabang).
Then it was time for the serious stuff that I came to Phnom Penh for. I rode out early in the morning to the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre, better known as the Killing Fields, 15km from Phnom Penh. This was one of the many site that the Khmer Rouge undertook mass killings. The numbers were truly staggering- one mass grave alone (there were well over 100), had over 400 bodies. The hardest thing to reconcile here is that now it’s such a peaceful place, with large established trees providing shade, and everyone who visits being pretty much silent (and listening to their audioguide).
Most of the victims at this site had been tortured beforehand at the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh (also called S-21). I visited this next. It was just as intense as Choeung Ek, and here I joined a group being given a tour by a Cambodian woman who explained the place. One thing that really blew me away was a young western guy in the group who didn’t even know who Pol Pot was. I don’t want to be too harsh, and I can understand coming to Cambodia without knowing some of the history, but you’ve come to a torture prison museum, surely you might have done a little bit of research first? Maybe I just have a different travel philosophy to other people..
But yeah, all up, a very intense day visiting these two sites which show off some of the worst aspects of humanity.

Photos are from my GoPro- hence the lower quality…
Killing Fields
Dog at the Killing Fields
Bracelets left
Mass graves and the memorial stupa
Skulls inside the stupa
Skulls inside the stupa
S-21 Prison

Today was quite different. There was a huge funeral procession for the former King before his cremation in the next few days. And the route went past about 50m from my guesthouse!
Street empty for the procession
Crowds getting the good spots
Cambodian Funeral Procession
Cambodian Funeral Procession - coffin

So now I’m getting ready to head from here to Siem Reap and Ankor Wat. I’m down to 3.5 weeks till I fly out of Bangkok, and it’s 6 weeks till I’ll be back in NZ! Wow, it’s so hard to believe the trip’s coming to an end!

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