After crossing through the most corrupt border of the journey to date it was with some scepticism that we pushed on down the long, desolate, dirt road and into Cambodia. We were immensely pleased that we had not paid the disgusting man on the Laos side of the border (given we were prepared to camp at the border he didn’t stand much of a chance); on the other hand we were absolutely furious that we were duped into paying the equally disgusting man on the Cambodian side. The scepticism did not last long though, and as we pulled into the small city of Stung Treng we were met with a tsunami of smiles, waves, and hellos.
Our first port of call in Stung Treng was the truly wonderful Le Tonlé guesthouse, housed in a traditional Khmer wooden residence and acting as a tourism-training centre for at-risk Cambodian youths. It was uplifting and incredibly humbling to meet these young adults and see the passion they had for life, even though they had almost certainly come from unimaginable painful backgrounds.
With our accommodation sorted and the debacle at the border behind us we headed off into town to find dinner, a celebratory beer (for passing 17,000km) and supplies for what we anticipated would be an absolutely horrendous day in the saddle the following day. Earlier, when cycling into the city we had passed by what looked like a bustling market, so we made a beeline for that and were certainly not disappointed.
Having experienced many markets in our travels all over Africa we thought we had just about seen it all, but we were gravely mistaken; the market in central Stung Treng was truly something to behold. The first thing to hit us was the unavoidable smell of fermenting, rotten fruit; mixed with the deeply raw smell of animal parts baking in the unnaturally hot and humid main street adjoining the market proper. With our gag reflexes fully warmed up we pushed aside a curtain and ventured down the dark corridors of stalls that seemed to press in on our senses from all directions like a suffocating blanket. The light that filtered through allowed for just enough detail to be displayed to our wide-eyes taking in the surroundings. Of everything we saw the one image that sticks out in my mind is the juxtaposition of a kind looking lady wearing pyjamas (seemed to be the fashion here) expertly wielding a meat cleaver, hacking what looked like a small deer (or possibly a large dog; can’t be entirely sure) into pieces; blood was splattering everywhere, but mostly on her pyjamas. From that moment on, it was very easy to be a vegetarian in Cambodia… as for the supplies we were in search of… we went for the very vegetarian French baguettes located in a bakery opposite the market!
The next day out on the bike we spent a lot of time reliving the horrors of the Stung Treng market, which was actually preferable to the cycling. For a flat country we found the cycling in Cambodia to be particularly difficult. The heat and humidity at this time of year are incredibly uncomfortable, the wind seemed to be howling into our faces no matter which direction we cycled, and the scenery is very, very dull (and somewhat depressing). The villages we passed through were some of the poorest we have seen anywhere in the world (certainly to the untrained eye anyway) and it is hard not to feel for these people. The almost apocalyptic site of semi burnt and smouldering forest that enveloped the area did nothing to help the situation either; so it was no small joy when we finally reached Preah Vihear after 140km of torturous slog, and more importantly the air-conditioning of a hotel.
With the day to Preah Vihear behind us we knew it was two relatively short days to Siem Reap, two nights there and then we would be on holiday. Yes, holiday! Contrary to popular opinion we do not believe that cycling day in and day out represents a holiday and had decided a month or so previously to book ourselves onto a retreat in the Cambodian countryside (more on that later). What we had not banked on was that the holiday was not starting in four nights, but in fact would be starting the moment we reached Siem Reap; it was like a child being told that not only is Santa coming on the 25th, but he will also be popping in to say hello on the 23rd as well… we could barely contain our excitement!
Back on Don Det in Laos we had been contacted by our very good friends Zach and Staci and asked what dates we would be in Siem Reap; it was a bit out of the blue, but given that we regard their opinions as second to none we were truly excited to hear what recommendations they had for us there. To say we were blown away by what happened next would be an understatement…
On checking our emails at a less than salubrious eating establishment in Preah Vihear (using the next door neighbours wifi) we were informed by Zach and Staci that they had booked us into a hotel, and not any old hotel, it looked like a really, really nice hotel… paraphrasing their rationale behind this incredible act of kindness was that “they were loving our journey and our stories, but having embarked on their own epic travel journeys were well aware that sometimes you just need to lock out the world and recharge your batteries”; people who have never travelled will say “spoilt brats”, people who have travelled will say “well said, well played”! To be honest we didn’t really know what to think, it was all a bit surreal, people as kind as this don’t grow on trees, so what happened next was probably understandable. We sat in the less than salubrious eating establishment and shed more than a few tears; mostly tears of joy, but there were some tears there that showed just how exhausted we had become (without even really knowing it).
As you can imagine we didn’t sleep particularly well; what with all the upcoming excitement and when the alarm went off at 0530 we were already up and ready to roll on out of Preah Vihear. Thankfully we had a short day and by lunchtime we had reached Koh Ker, completed the daily kilometres, and checked into a guesthouse; exhaustion overcome us and we had passed out on the beds. After a few hours hiding out of the heat we were feeling good enough to get back on our bikes and take in a scenic 15km loop from our guesthouse. What we saw that afternoon was incredible!
Koh Ker is located roughly 120km from Angkor Wat, and as such does not get anywhere near the number of tourists as its more famous big brother; which was great for us. In fact, the entire time we were there we only saw four other tourists (across five sites that we visited). This was the first time in my life that I actually felt a little like Indiana Jones. We were able to explore incredible temples, some of which have been taken back by the jungle, at our own pace with no one else in sight. Walking up to partially dilapidated temples, pushing aside tree roots (or vines) that had made their home as sentinels guarding over the doorways, and peering inside evoked the beginning sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark (excluding the boulder) and I found myself (much to Katie’s annoyance) humming the theme tune, very loudly and almost certainly out of tune!
The final push into Siem Reap can be broken down into three sections; a busy main road, a very quiet back road, and a very busy main road. It was somewhere along the busy main road that I realised that my back tyre had bulged out the side and was threatening to explode. We took the calculated risk that if it did in fact explode it would cause little damage and we could fix it if and when it occurred. What we absolutely did not want to do was miss a single minute at the resort that we had been booked into; so on we pushed… arriving roughly 30 minutes before check-in.
The resort was like nothing we had experienced on this, or any other journey and to some extent I don’t think the staff had experienced anything quite like us either. On walking into the main lobby I had the distinctly uneasy feeling that I was being watched, scrutinised almost; what I came to realise quite quickly was that I was not only being watched but I was also filling the nostrils of all and sundry with disgusting cycle touring odours. You realise quickly how bad you smell when surrounded by people who are living in a normal world and have access to normal ablution practices. Our clothes for one had not been washed in a washing machine for the best part of four months (hand washing in sinks, toilets, and rubbish bins is not quite the same), the dust from the mornings back road had baked onto the sun cream I had applied to my face in a motley pattern, for the first time on the journey I could actually smell my sandals, and I suspect the less I say about the trail of dirt that accompanied me the better… to their immense credit the staff could not have been more helpful; out came the cold, immaculate white towels, which I quickly painted a dirty brownish-red colour; out came the freshly squeezed orange juice, which I gulped down as if it were a university boat race, and then came our porter to carry our 12 bags up to our room. Perfect!
We knew we only had 41 hours at the resort, and we were determined to do as little as possible. Our time was spent either in the pool, basking in the sun next to the pool, looking out of our window at the pool (when it was raining), sleeping, or eating. We did not have a shred of guilt that we did not want to go out and visit Siem Reap. It was actually with much annoyance that we had to venture out to get some USD from a cash machine, thankfully we also found a barber willing to fix my attempted haircut (on myself). In total we spent 39.5 of the allotted 41 hours holed up in the resort, and it was bliss. We were beyond sad to leave, but thought that if we spent anymore time there, November would roll around and our planned journey of London to NZ would end up being London to Siem Reap (and we would not have seen a single thing in Siem Reap). Thankfully we had our second (original) holiday to look forward too.
For many years now, both Katie and I had been interested in getting into yoga, however as with most things in London it seemed to be extraordinarily expensive for what you actually got so it was always put on the back burner. This all changed when we were looking at how to fill our time in SE Asia. We came across a website for a yoga retreat by the name of Hariharalaya and it sounded perfect. What the hell we thought, what have we got to lose, so off we cycled from our Siem Reap resort and out into the Cambodian countryside to our yoga retreat.
It would not be stretching the truth to say that the six days, and five nights we spent there were some of the best days of this journey. We absolutely loved the experience; we met some truly wonderful and inspirational people from all walks of life, we were taught the basics of yoga, and something that I never thought I would try… meditation. Both of which are infinitely harder than they look or sound. It was not only the yoga and meditation that were great; it was the entire environment. The setting in the Cambodian countryside allowed us to completely disconnect, step back and relax. We gave up using electronic gadgets for the duration of our time there, which was remarkably refreshing; we spent a lot of time lying in hammocks reading books (or by the small pool, reading). If we weren’t being taught yoga, or practicing meditation, or lazing in a hammock with a book we could be found supping delicious chocolate/coconut juices at the juice bar, playing around in the outdoor gymnasium, participating in a traditional fire ceremony, or having fairly mind twisting dharma discussions with Joel, the founder of Hariharalaya.
The one thing that I was most concerned about when entering the retreat was the food. You see, the diet is completely vegan, which to be honest, having been a vegan for a month (as a challenge from a co worker) many years back did not really float my boat. Well, the food at Hariharalaya was the absolute highlight for me; there was not a single meal when I did not go back for seconds, and often thirds.
As part of the service at Hariharalaya we were able to get tutored on correct alignment whilst practicing yoga, which for obvious reasons is incredibly important; especially for someone like me who is the unwelcome owner of a “glass” back. But the real win was having our own yoga practice designed, discussed, and practiced in one-to-one sessions with the head instructor, Mary. Katie and I both took this opportunity, and the two hours we each spent with Mary have proved to be some of the best-spent hours ever. Each and every day since we run through our yoga practice (before or after cycling it does not matter), and we can feel an enormous difference in our day-to-day well-being and also our cycling, particularly the ability to focus more acutely for longer periods of time.
Leaving Hariharalaya was just as hard as leaving the Siem Reap resort that Zach and Staci had sorted for us earlier in the week. What was incredibly interesting to both of us was the cycle ride back into Siem Reap, you see this cycle ride was on the exact same very busy road that we cycled when rushing towards our resort on our first visit to Siem Reap; but we could not have felt any different. When we first approached Siem Reap we were exhausted, fatigued, probably pining ever so slightly for home; when we returned we were completely and utterly rejuvenated, almost like new people and it felt great. The joy of cycling, smelling the countryside, embracing the kind natured local smiles was back!
Our second visit to Siem Reap was set aside for one thing, and one thing only; that Angkor Wat thingy! Angkor Wat is quite simply incredible; there is no point even trying to find superlatives to paint a picture, it is a quantum leap from where my wordsmith skills lay. What I will go into is how we went about taking in this immense collection of unbelievable temples…
The general consensus for those that visit Angkor Wat is to go for sunrise at the main temple and then follow the thousands of tourists in a clockwise direction around the other main temples. Well, we are sick to death of crowds of annoying tourists carrying selfie sticks, talking loudly, pushing into photos and basically making complete arses of themselves; so we decided, some would say foolishly, to go in the opposite direction and sacrifice seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise; what we got was something truly remarkable… what we got for all intents and purposes was a whole host of empty temples, yes that is right, a whole host of empty temples at Angkor Wat!!!
We started the morning by heading to Sras Sang, which admittedly is nothing on the main Angkor Wat temple, but there were only four other tourists there, the sunrise was mesmerising and at no time did we regret being there. From there we headed to Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame) and essentially had the entire place to ourselves, which again made me feel like Indiana Jones (I was under strict instructions not to hum the theme tune ever again though, so that was disappointing). We are not ones for traipsing around temples all day, the fact it was almost 0900 by the time we made it to Bayon said something for how mesmerised we were. At Bayon, famous for all of the amazing faces that are carved everywhere, we started to run into some tourists, but thankfully we had finished by the time the bus loads started piling out wielding their f*$&n selfie sticks. From here it was over the road and into Angkor Thom, again we lost track of time just wandering and staring in wonderment at the enormity and grandeur of it all; finally, around 1130 we made our way to a now sparsely populated Angkor Wat, where we could sit and relax and really soak in the whole experience. An epic day!
From the moment we arrived in Stung Treng, to the moment we crossed the border into Thailand I think it is fair to say we loved everything about this wonderful country. Yes, the cycling was a bit of a drag and the wind did its best to break our souls, but through it all the Cambodian people and culture shined like a beacon. This is a country that is still stigmatised for something that happened almost 40 years ago, but it should be a country that is seen for what it is today… a young, vibrant, artistic melting pot that is immensely proud of its ancient history and is making the most of the savage hand it was dealt. For us it felt very much like Rwanda, which is not really surprising given their similar recent histories.
Zach and Staci, Team Hariharalaya, and everyone we met in Cambodia (excluding the disgusting border guards) we thank you very much for helping make Cambodia what it was for us; an absolutely incredible experience. We are so happy we cycled out of the way to explore this wonderful country and have no doubt that we will be back, hopefully sooner, rather than later.