Cambodia: with eyes, mouth and ears wide open (and sometimes closed!)

Cambodia: with eyes, mouth and ears wide open (and sometimes closed!)

Travel period: 15-03-2023 – 31-03-2023

Laos-Cambodia border crossing

We are the only ones at the border between Laos and Cambodia. We go to the counter where 3 men are a bit bored. We give them our passports and visas and everything is fine. But they charge extra for a (so-called) exit form that we have to fill in. We had read beforehand that the Lao border guards sometimes try to earn extra money in this way. But we refuse to take part in corruption and say we have already paid for the visa. Then they try to negotiate the price, make us wait and then tell us we can go to Cambodia without a stamp…. After waiting for a while, we say we’ll call the Lao embassy and they don’t know how quickly they can stamp and return the passports. Their behaviour undermines the trust and honesty of the Lao people and does no good for their country’s image. On the Cambodian side, they also try to charge an extra amount, but the friendly man takes a ‘no’ for an answer. Unfortunately, Laos and Cambodia are two countries where corruption is still commonplace.

We are in Cambodia!

Then we drive between clouds of dust on an old sandy road. The first impression: it is hot, dry and there are huge billboards for the supposedly ‘German’ beer brand ‘Ganzberg’ everywhere. In the first hamlet, a scooter passes with a woman on the back holding a walking drip. And then another, and another on a wooden stick in a black bag! Audrey can’t believe her eyes – are IV bags the rage here? As in Laos, the children run enthusiastically into the streets when they see us cycling. At the end of the day we arrive in a bigger town: Stung Treng. Here we eat one of Cambodia’s national dishes: Amok. Originally fish amok, but there are other variations. It is a kind of coconut milk curry steamed in banana leaves. An instant favourite.

In town we also buy a local SIM card and withdraw money, but this time it is different. You get US dollars from the ATM. In many places in the city, it is common to pay in dollars and most prices in shops are quoted in dollars. In rural areas, however, the Cambodian riel is the currency of choice, so you will need to exchange dollars for riel. If you pay for something in dollars, you will usually get the change back in riel.

Why 2 currencies?

Cambodia has had two currencies since the 1980s, when the United Nations (UN) introduced US dollars and confidence in the riel was low. Between 1991 and 1993, 22,000 UN personnel were stationed in Cambodia and the dollar provided some currency stability during the post-war reconstruction period1. In recent years, attempts have been made to phase out the small dollar notes and strengthen the riel.

In people’s homes

We get up at 6am to beat the heat, and despite the heat we make good progress. In between we take Thai soy milk and an ice-cold avocado shake with all sorts of sauces in it, ground in a big machine next to the road. Communication is a bit tricky, so it’s often just a matter of pointing out what the previous person has taken. By 2pm it was too hot and we had to stop at a petrol station to avoid the midday heat. Later we decide to ask if we can pitch our tent on the grass next to the petrol station. At first we are allowed to, but later it turns out that we can’t. Then a girl who works at the petrol station walks a kilometre with us to her sister’s house. It turns out that their mother cleans the toilets at the petrol station. When we arrive at their house, the mother points to the neighbours, which turns out to be her brother’s house, and where we can pitch the tent in front of their house. Soon several teenagers come out of the house. They take turns trying to ask a question in English. They are a bit shy and giggle at every sentence. The brother turns out to be a teacher and teaches English at school and at home. We watch as they sit at 3 computers and type letters in Word.

The man points out that we can take a shower with cold water and a pan. This is outside in a separate corrugated iron shed. Later, Eloy tells us that he got an electric shock while washing his hair and hit his head on a loose light bulb. People are much smaller than Eloy in Cambodia, so Audrey showers in the neighbour’s shed and is joined by a large cockroach that she cannot take her eyes off while she takes a shower. Then a sort of carpet is laid out in front of the house and several relatives, including grandparents, from different houses squeeze in. We share the bread and meat sticks we bought at the petrol station, and a large pot of stock is put on a gas burner. Meat and vegetables are added and eaten with rice. They teach us a few words of Khmer (the local language) and the 2 year old daughter tries her hand at English all evening. At 9pm everyone goes inside and we enter the tent. We lie on the driveway next to the road and the traffic almost seems to drive into the tent. Despite the mosquitoes we have to leave the tent open as it is still 30 degrees and bloody hot. We often cannot imagine how people can live in this climate. Meanwhile, we also take our malaria tablets, as apart from dengue fever, malaria can also occur in this region.

To Kratié

We hadn’t slept much when the music started at 6am. Time to get up! We say goodbye and head south on a main road. We decide to turn right somewhere to cycle along the Mekong. The road is bad and we limp along. We hope to see a river dolphin, but no luck. Before the hot midday sun we reach Kratié, a larger town, and in a guesthouse we find goldfish in an old freezer at the entrance!

Have you ever heard of river dolphins?

We had never heard of them before we came to Cambodia! Today we swap our bikes for kayaks in an attempt to see river dolphins in the Mekong. We pile into the back of a pickup truck with the kayaks and head upstream on the same bumpy road we cycled yesterday. The Irrawaddy dolphins are unfortunately critically endangered. There are less than 90 adult dolphins left in this part of the Mekong. The main threats to their survival are fishing nets, fishing explosives, dams and other human activities. The stretch of river between Laos and Kratié is also known as the ‘Mekong Flooded Forest Area’ and is home to enormous biodiversity. It is one of 35 areas worldwide on the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) priority list. At present, this part of the river is monitored by wardens and certain fishing practices are banned. However, our guide tells us that during Covid-19 the priorities were elsewhere and this did not help the dolphins. We did not take any photos of the dolphins (one from Google below), but we were able to see and hear a few. And luckily we are not tandem bikers, because kayaking together was still a challenge for a while!

Life by the Road

What we have learnt is that touring is not about reaching a destination, it is about the things we see, feel, hear, smell and everything that happens along the way.

In Cambodia the roads are hot, dusty, straight and often with a monotonous and dry landscape. But it is on these days that we notice certain things along the roadside even more. Like fresh meat or fish hanging out to dry in the sun, the fact that it is normal to wear pyjamas to work or when shopping, constructions and creations on and by the roadside, and the exaggerated advertising of so-called ‘German’ beer. How suddenly several mosques appear in the landscape and how weddings are celebrated literally in the middle of dusty roads, with marquees and all, while traffic passes around them. The music is playing and the loudspeakers are blaring from the many huge birdhouses that are being grown for the Chinese market. But there were also fruits and nuts hanging from the trees, grown by the farmers, such as cashews and mangoes. Yes, it’s on this trip!

En route to Siem Raep

One day, when we are all orange from sniffing dust and have cleaned our faces with a few wipes, we enter a small shop. The supposed owner refuses to pay for our drinks and gives us some more water. Later, on the road to the big city of Siem Reap, we cycle into an English-German couple. They know our names! Apparently through the Turkish couple, Yasemin and Murat, who we met earlier in Laos. The cycling community is a small world!

While we are having a cold drink somewhere else, the owner of the place tells us that there is a famous bridge nearby, which is also on one of the banknotes, so we decide to go there. The bridge was built in the 12th century and is still in use. Very impressive to see.

And then we pass many bird nesting houses. The loudspeakers with bird sounds can be heard from far away and are used to attract more birds. The buildings look like apartment blocks without windows, but with small holes in the walls. The nests are exported to China for use in soup and traditional medicine. Up to thousands of dollars are sometimes paid for a kilo of bird’s nest, with Indonesia being the largest producer, followed by Malaysia and Thailand.

Arived in Siem Raep

Siem Reap is very touristy, mainly because of the famous temples of Angor Wat, more about that later. We spend the night with Attila, a Hungarian we met through couchsurfing. He is busy setting up a crayfish farm and restaurant. In between the hustle and bustle, he shows us his lobster garden. Because of the heat inside, we sleep on his roof terrace under a mosquito net. At 4am the neighbour starts sweeping her garden and at 5.30am the earplugs can no longer stop the sound of a wedding. All because it is the coolest time of day, but still very hot.

Attila tells us later that he has travelled a lot on his motorbike. Also in the Netherlands. He has noticed that the Netherlands is the only country where you can look directly into the living room from the street while people are eating. We laugh about this, but a Flemish colleague of Audrey’s had also noticed this once!

The temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Raep

Cambodia is the only country in the world to have one building on its national flag and that is Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is actually just one temple, but it stands in the middle of the largest religious complex in the world. It covers more than 400km² with over 1,000 archaeological sites. It is the former capital of the Khmer Empire (also known as the Angkor Empire). It was built in the 12th century and took 30 years to construct by 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. No machines were used. We explore part of the complex by bike, starting at sunrise at Angkor Wat. After 50km we finish at sunset at Bayon Temple. Despite the many tourists, it remains a magical and unimaginable place where the jungle has reclaimed some of the temples. Below is a short photo report:

Back to Thailand

After saying goodbye to Attila, we cycle towards the Thai border in 2 days. The heat is getting unbearable and the hottest month in South East Asia is approaching. Fortunately, there are plenty of stalls selling fruit and ice-cream shakes. Sugar cane juice is our favourite, but with ice cubes, which you can’t always trust, but it’s necessary to cool down. Corn on the cob always goes down too, and we leave the chicken feet to one side.

A country in transition

Cambodia is a country where we have often looked at things with amazement. How daily life goes on and how the people, often smiling, are so humble and helpful. The atrocities that took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 are almost indescribable and undoubtedly still have an impact today. Under the leadership of the dictator Pol Pot, between 1.7 and 2 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of 7 million2. The aim of the regime was to turn Cambodia into a peasant state. The people were to become a self-sufficient agricultural community and renounce anything considered ‘intellectual’ or ‘urban’. People were deported from the cities to the countryside, famine reigned, families were torn apart, children were pre-emptively murdered (!) and property was confiscated. After the regime, the country descended into civil war. Today, Cambodia has an incredibly young population, half under the age of 24. And this generation, born after the civil war, did not grow up with such fear. They are ambitious, hard-working people with plans and dreams. Like the 2 young men below, who one day want to explore the world beyond Cambodia.

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