We were eager to arrive in Phnom Penh, which was the biggest city we have visited since China. Flat roads devoid of anything to divert us from cycling gave us reason to speed south, and besides, closing in on the end of our trip, we both wanted to see how far we could cycle in one day. Phnom Penh holds dark poignant memories of Cambodia’s past and as we rode into the city that saw a forced exodus of its population into the surrounding countryside, the thought of these events swirled around my mind.
Heading south from Siem Reap there are just over 300km of almost completely flat riding which we start with a tough but manageable 150km day (our longest day of the trip so far). The towns along the route are small and dusty but always filled with smiling faces and shouts of “Hello” from the children. For one of the country’s main highways the road is narrow and the often heavy traffic gives us good reason to cover the distance quickly. The cold water bucket showers on offer at the guesthouses we find en-route provide a welcome relief from the road dust and heat.
In Kampong Thom we store our bikes overnight next to an ice factory which roars day and night to produce the ingredient vital for refrigeration in a country without reliable electricity. In Skuon we pass a vendor balancing a plate of deep fried spiders (a local delicacy) on her head. With her back towards us we are not quite quick enough to attract her attention to sample a few. “Oh well, maybe next time” I tell Emma. Overnight we wake to the sound of rain hammering on the tin roof outside our room. It is the first rain I have heard in around three months. The sound lulls me to sleep.
Approaching Phnom Penh on a narrowing road with no hard shoulder I cycle behind and slightly to the traffic side of Emma. With our wide fully laden bikes we occupy well over half a lane giving cars no room to squeeze by us. Surprisingly drivers who previously raced past us tooting and flashing their lights, now wait patiently behind us and pass slowly when I move aside to give them space. My opinion of Cambodian drivers as maybe the most dangerous we have encountered on our trip to date is slightly improved.
Following advice from Dutch cyclists Bauke and Elske we head to a cheap hotel near the centre of town. The next day we meet with them for lunch at their regular haunt, a vegetarian cafe with a truly mouth-watering menu. Outside is an impressive array of touring bicycles while inside a throng of cyclists sit eating and chatting. With the conversation and food flowing freely we feel transported into a busy social scene that seems a world away from how we spent our morning.
Before lunch we had visited the Tuol Sleng or S-21 Museum with a Dutch cycling couple and their backpacker friends from a neighbouring hotel. The museum courtyards were filled with sunshine and birdsong as visitors walked sombrely along passageways all too recently filled with horror. From the detention rooms you catch incongruous glimpses of bustling city streets and colourful flower filled balconies. The details of the inmates were meticulously recorded by the Khmer Rouge regime and looking at row after row of their photographs is almost too much to absorb. Its easy to forget that each face bears its own individual story of suffering and yet remains largely a mystery to me.
The following day we visit the Choeung Ek memorial site the best known of a number of sites collectively known as The Killing Fields. The grassy site surrounds a tranquil pond with views across rice paddies in stark contrast to the sombre concentration displayed by the visitors. Proceeding between small numbered markers the excellent audio guide provides an insight into the events that took place. With personal commentary from inmates, their family members and former Khmer Rouge soldiers, the emotion behind how the regime impacted the lives of the Cambodian people can be forcibly felt.
Our neighbouring cyclists, Martje and Frank are heading northwards and while I enthusiastically talk through our Laos and China cycling route, Emma spends her day on a cooking course learning the secrets of Cambodian cuisine (thanks to a kind donation from reader Gayle). Between adding Pumpkin Custard, Banana Leaf Fish Sausages and Fish Amok to her repertoire, she chats with the tutor and fellow students about Cambodian life. Emma ends the day feeling a little under the weather and despite her firm protestations, I lay the blame with a full day of eating and cooking.
Heading south to Kampot via national route two then switching to route three the roads continue to be narrow and busy with traffic. We are again racing through the flat coconut palm-strewn countryside and realise that with an earlier start we could have been in Kampot in just a single day. A fellow cyclist had told us that rooms in Kampot could be hard to find thanks to what he described as their “we don’t know who is checking out today non-system”. Finding a decent room at our early arrival time of 9:30am, we grab it and settle in for internet chores and a selection from their fine breakfast menu.