After we said our final goodbyes and gave hugs to Gae and Chris, we walked with out new guide, Pia, to the visa building to fill out and purchase our Cambodian visas. We were thankful Pia was there as our translator, it was not a very busy border crossing which also meant there were not many English speakers around. After getting our passport situation all set, we went over to the van to meet our driver, Wade, and set up our new bikes – really heavy Cannondale mountain bikes.
After we were all set up we headed uphill and away from the Thai border, further into the Cardamon Mountains. We only had 20km or so till lunch and then just 10km after that, but we had already done over 40km of super windy and fairly hilly riding earlier that morning, and now we were on heavier bikes and encountering more hills (and still that same darn wind!) Our guide also had fresh legs, which meant that for the first time so far this trip, Lindsay and I were struggling to keep up. About 5km in Pia was quite a bit further up a hill, but he waited at the top and soon pulled over to a shaded shack of a shop on the side of the road. Wade pulled the van over and got out the water and snacks for us. Pia starting talking with the woman who was running the shop and translating for us.
This encounter (as well as future people we talked with) requires a bit of a history lesson. This region of Cambodia was jungle controlled by the Khmer Rouge less than 20 years ago, before the surrender of the Khmer leader in 1996. There was no road, there was no town of Pailin (where we were staying that night,) and there were land mines strewn over the land. All of my knowledge of the Khmer Rouge up till that point was about the killing fields when the Khmer Rouge conducted genocide in the 1970’s, I had no idea they still controlled part of the country till the late 1990’s! I already couldn’t help but think about the cinematography of movies about the Vietnam War as we were riding through this quite stunning part of the world, then Pia started asking the locals some questions.
The woman at the shop moved to the area because her husband was in the Khmer army. They were given land there as long as they cleared the land mines! Our driver, Wade, (translated through Pia) told us about his childhood in this region as a Chinese Cambodian, born of Chinese parents. He was sent there as a boy to work.
The incredible people we encountered because of Pia’s friendliness, and the stories we heard, were almost overwhelming. Also, if there were children around, Wade was sure to give them some cookies. If Lindsay and I asked what kind of fruit was on the table, Pia would buy one and Wade would prepare it for us. It was a whole new guide experience, where we were very much treated more as clients than friends, but their pride and enthusiasm in their work was palpable.
We got to our lunch spot and had our first encounter with Cambodian food. Less spicy than Thai food, but still really good! Yes again we ate almost everything on our plates, and felt really gross in all our cycling gear while sitting at was probably a pretty nice Cambodian restaurant, but didn’t care, it had been some tough cycling! Pia thought we had another 10km to go to the resort, but it ended up being more like 7 or 8, although on some pretty potholed dirt roads. The resort, Memoria Palace, was absolutely stunning, and our room was massive!
We were left to our own devices for a few hours, which included finishing drying our laundry that didn’t finish drying the night before, and visiting the chilly pool at the top of a hill. Once again I got into the pool and swam a few laps but I don’t think Lindsay did, and I did get a bit chilled with the wind. After showering, we met up with Pia and Wade and drove into the town of Pailin where we were going to visit a hill top temple.
This area of Cambodia is known for its gems, and this mountain was especially productive and made a Burmese woman (in the 1500’s I think) very wealthy, and there were a couple of shrines to her as well as other Buddhist shrines and temples. We ate dinner at the hotel that night, once again without our guides, so it was a Lindsay/Lizzie date! Another gigantic and delicious meal that we finished almost in its entirety. The next morning we woke up to yet another beautiful sunrise, in the heart of the Cardamon Mountains.
We had our second longest day from Pailin to Battambang, that included a stop about 75km into the ride at a limestone mountaintop temple called Phnom Sampeau. We ate breakfast, which included some delightful French bread, loaded our stuff in the van and hopped on the heavy bikes! The ride flattened out after 20-30km, as we left the Cardamon Mountains and entered the flat rice producing part of the region. We stopped and talked with the locals, even learning all about the rice harvesting process from a woman who was in the act of harvesting rice!
After lots of stops where we ate fruit and some salty pringles-like chips, we arrived at the mountaintop kingdom and had a real meal. While sitting at our date table, a young woman from Poland came over to our table and we heard about her travels and how her friend was sick and stayed at their hotel that day while she went exploring. She was getting a ride on a motorbike to the top of the temple and suggested we do the same after hearing what distance we’d already cycled that day. Despite our very tired legs, we decided to walk up the 700+ steps. It was worth it.
You may have noticed the giant gun, this was also a Khmer stronghold and a strategic location for them on the hilltop. Also, the monkeys, they were everywhere and Pia bought some bananas as we sat with a monk and watched him feed them. There is a video of this on my instagram – @liz_triathlete. We even went into a couple of caves, not my favorite thing to do, as we learned about how the mountain was named and the legend behind it. Once we’d had our fill of the wonderful views, various temples, shrines and monkeys, we hiked back down. Once again on our bikes, we cycled the rest of the way to Battambang. After navigating the crowded streets of Battambang we made it to the Classy Hotel and Pia informed us that we actually went over 90km instead of the 85km that was outlined on our itinerary. Our legs kind of felt like it, so we showered the grit off our bodies in our very classy hotel room and then went down to get $5 hour long massages.
Yes, $5 for an hour. With no idea what to expect, Lindsay and I went into the same room and put on these kind of flowy shorts and left everything on top as is. I guess we did that right because then our ladies came in and pointed us to mats next to each other and we both just kind of closed our eyes and tried to enjoy it. Not gonna lie, I was sore so some things hurt, but a good kind of hurt, like a massage in the states. They did use their feet so anyone who hates feet might not enjoy it. I felt slightly drunk afterwards, which to me is a good sign. We walked around the town a little bit and passed a school with a million bikes outside, okay maybe an exaggeration, but lots of bikes were all around being ridden by kids and adults alike!
Pia and Wade picked us up a little later to take us to dinner, another wonderful date meal – this became something that both annoyed and amused us because we would have loved to eat and talk with our guides!
While Battambang is slightly touristy so I’m sure there was night life, we opted for sleep after a long day. The next morning we were taking a boat ride up the Sangker River to Tonle Sap lake and then to Siem Reap. Our riding was from the hotel to the fish paste market where we would board the boat, and then from where we got off the boat to our hotel in Siem Reap. The boat ride was 6ish hours long, slow, but we passed by many cool floating villages and fishing operations along the way. It was also really neat to learn that the Sangker River is one of the only rivers in the world that flows in two directions, changing directions when the Mekong Delta floods!
These are our bikes loaded up on the boat. We stopped at a floating restaurant for lunch and yet again ate everything, even with minimal cycling that day, and this time I got a picture of the aftermath.
We read a lot, ate fruit, and took in the sights from the boat, which included waving to lots of children and seeing lots of really cool birds as we got to the protected wetland of Prek Toa. Sooner than I was expecting, Pia said we were 30 minutes away from the “port.” Once we got there we found a tiny little niche and some boy put a wood board down so we could get ourselves and the bikes off the boat. We thanked our boat driver, hopped on our bikes, and biked along a super dusty red dirt road towards Siem Riep.
The tranquility of the boat ride and the rural dirt road was soon vanquished by the traffic and tourism of Siem Reap. There were tons of tour buses, big Angkor advertised hotels and tuk tuks. Plus lots of foreigners everywhere. We had taken for granted that for most of this trip we weren’t in frequently toured areas and the abundance of them kind of threw us for a loop. After winding our way through Siem Reap traffic, and one flat tire later (Lindsay again!) we made it to Hotel Soria Moria, the boutique Scandanavian hotel we would make home for the next couple of days while exploring Angkor temples. After we checked in they gave us a free drink ticket for their roof top bar. We showered, and then decided to take full advantage to watch the sunset and toast to our arrival in Siem Reap!
Stay tuned for my final post, exploring Siem Reap and the magnificent Angkor Temples!