Our desire to get to the coast, and specifically into the sea, has been waning a little lately. Originally planning to spend a week sitting out the heat on the Sihanoukville peninsula, we didn’t have the energy to cycle 80km out of our way to a beach resort which not one fellow traveller had enthused about. Time was short too, with extra days in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh eating into what was left of our Cambodian visas. On top of this pile of excuses, Chinese New Year was upon us, meaning that many other people would be heading south. Instead we settled into the sleepy river town of Kampot for a few extra days.
Our arrival coincided with that of Matthew, a UK cyclist we had met in back in Laos. Much eating, cycle touring and IT talk ensued, including a particularly indulgent dinner of barbequed ribs which had other restaurant goers looking at the three of us a little quizzically. I wondered if I should have explained that we were cycle-tourists so it was imperative that we ate a large percentage of our body weight in meat. Iron levels reinstated, we moved onto another bar for dessert pie and beer. The boys ended staying out so long that they had to vault the fence to get back into our guesthouse.
To escape Cambodia’s oppressive heat, Justin and I took a tour up to Bokor National Park, where a disused 1930s’ French hilltop town had a glowing write up in our guidebook. It seems that modern times have come across this old ghost town at a rapid pace. A huge almost completed resort-style hotel now dominates the hill top, while ruins of older structures (including a church) now house workers and the associated rubbish of a construction site.
Unfortunately the main attraction of a decrepit casino was inaccessible as it was being reinforced to ensure it was structurally sound – it was due to be reopened a few days after our visit. We enjoyed the vast view over untamed forest out to sea, cool breeze and relative quiet but wondered how plans for at least one further hotel and a couple of golf courses would alter the ambience of the place.
A few days later we cycled out to Kep, the nearest beach to Kampot and an area famous for crustaceans. Its so famous that there’s a large crab statue in the centre of the town. Kampot, in contrast has a very large Durian fruit statue. Having cycled the length of the beach and through a desolate grid of streets filled with overgrown lots and abandoned French villas, we gamely waded in the murky water before looking for lunch.
Originally planning to dine at a restaurant, we were fascinated to see Cambodian families set up big colourful mats in close proximity to a lively food market presumably set up for the Chinese New Year holidays. Vast quantities of prawns, fish and crab were being boiled and grilled over wood fires and people were spread out in a huge square with their fresh feasts. We joined the festive atmosphere, buying a huge bag of crabs and sugarcane juices. Fully sated we biked back, on a road now much busier with traffic returning from a day at the sea.
With an abundance of chocolate pies, coffee shops and a pleasant waterfront promenade, Kampot was an easy place to hang out in. Eventually we ran out of excuses and set off for the border town of Koh Kong, where we would cross into Thailand for the last leg of our journey. Anticipating a four day ride, we struggled to find accommodation and ended up completing the ride in a less than leisurely two day stint.
Cambodian weddings have been a dominant force over much of our cycling in the country, with loud sound systems blaring out of gaudy coloured tents in most villages we pass. We’ve seen sedate groups nibbling at feasts, workers setting up chairs and testing PAs and the washing of a thousand bright pink table clothes and chair covers, but most days we’ve heard the party before we’ve seen it, with music played loud enough to drown out any conversation in the town seeming to be the norm.
Unfortunately after a very hilly 150km day to Andoung Tuek, we find a wedding is taking place right beside the only guesthouse in town. At least the music is switched off at 9pm, but any thoughts of hanging out outside our very hot, dark and dingy room are quashed as it seems a large percentage of the wedding party is camped in the communal hall.
We had planned to trek in the nearby national park, but both feeling frazzled after a very hot and sticky night in less than pleasant surrounds, we opted to cycle on instead. Though we’d been back into the hills since turning off route 4 the day before, a few wildlife encounters make me wonder just how special the forest walk might have been. Among a lot of small birds I spotted a troupe of macaw monkeys in the trees, small multicoloured lizards and a flock of huge birds with wings that made a helicopter-like whooshing sound in the first 40km of the day.
Cambodia is the first country where the heat has really beaten us. Sweat drips off elbows while we’re eating. Walking anywhere we get uncomfortably hot instantly and our cycling gear is consistently damp with sweat. Having climbed hills in the heat for the best part of two days, we were sapped of energy by the time we reach Koh Kong town. The owner of our guesthouse asked if we wanted to go on a tour to a nearby island and we looked at him in exhaustion. A few days later a torrential downpour started up and cooled the air for a few hours. We can’t wait for the temperate climates of New Zealand.
Tourism hasn’t really taken off in Koh Kong, with a pleasant waterfront marred by piles of litter. Sitting down to watch the sunset, we spot Daniel, a Belgium traveller we’d spoken to briefly in Kampot. Already a self-confessed slow traveller, his progress has been impeded by a leg infection. During the course of the evening that we spend with him, he decides to fast track to Bangkok to get it some proper hospital attention.
The same evening we’re introduced to a French traveller, both ship captain and lay philosopher. This man aspires to walk the 10km to the Thai border in a few days, wheeling his suitcase behind him. Us who have cycled from London think this plan of walking, in Cambodia’s unbearable heat, is madder than ours.