Cambodia: The First Week in the “Wild East”

Finally, uncharted territory!  The last time I entered a country I hadn’t been to (by bicycle) before, it was July and I was headed to Thailand.  I spent a whopping three months there before October brought me to Laos for the second time (documented), November to Vietnam for the second (yet to be documented), and then December to Laos again for the third (partially documented).  I’m not complaining – it was nice to be somewhat prepared with advance knowledge of geography, cuisine, and language, and even to return to some of the same places.  I find that depth in travel is much more satisfying than breadth; the longer I stay somewhere, the better I get at interacting with the locals, leading to more comfort and a better sense of connection.

This sentiment is of course in direct conflict with short visa durations and my/our original plan, now seeming to me increasingly unrealistic, of leaving India before autumn snowfall makes the mountains of Pakistan and Tibet impassible.

So, it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I came into Cambodia.  I could book it to the west and reach Thailand within a week; this would make my other plans all a bit more feasible, but would make my experience here that much shallower.  Alternatively, I could take it slow and be faced with another dilemma later: skip lots of India, or spend the better part of a year there and cross the mountains next summer.

I suppose that, all in all, these are rather pleasant problems to be faced with.

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So, our crossing into Cambodia started with a clever idea of Chris’: rather than cycle back north the length of two islands and then wait for the ferry that shuttles tourists over to the mainland, why not rent a private boat from the pier down south and save ourselves 30km and a bunch of waiting?

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We got our visas without major issue, had a generic lunch just on the Cambodian side of the border, and hit the road.  There wasn’t much to see – the next sixty kilometers were entirely flat, peppered with only an occasional shack or hut.

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It didn’t take us long to make it to Stung Treng, a pretty typical border town full of scooters, potholes, repair shops, phone vendors, and the like.  Less snazzy than Chinese border towns, slower than Lao ones, in a similar state of disrepair as Vietnam, but somehow with a sense of destruction rather than dilapidation.

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Mustering evidence for that last claim would be a task greater than my powers of recall and analysis are up for. I have the feeling that it would take a real novelist to manage it.  I think the above photo might go a little way towards explaining things, though.

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Intent on heading down to the coast, we had only planned in spending one night in Stung Treng.  As always, plans change: we met two more Korean cyclists on the way down.  They’ve been on the road for four months now…and started in China just a few hundred kilometers northeast of where Mingyu and I started one year and five months ago.  Oh my lord, why can I not get out of East Asia?  We got a classy room for five for only $15 and decided to take a day off together.

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Chris, Minseong, and I headed out early the next morning to find the answer to the question of questions: how’s the food here?  I’ll save the details for a dedicated food post, but the gist is: it’s incredible.  More fruit than Laos, more bread and donuts than Vietnam,

The only downside is the counting I had 5+ months of training in Thai/Lao under my belt, and 2+ months of Vietnamese, but hardly an inkling of how to count here.  It turns out to be relatively complicated: for one, the basic number words aren’t at all related to Korean/Chinese/Thai; for two, the counting system is itself either screwy or quite interesting, depending on your point of view.

 

1: Muy

6:  Bram Muy

2: Bii

7:  Bram Bii

3: Bei

8: Bram Bei

4: Bo-won

9: Bram Bo-won

5: Bram

10: Dawp

There’s another word for 20, which I haven’t had to learn yet, and then 30, 40, 50, and so on up through 100 are all just slight modifications of the Thai/Lao versions.  The word for “thousand” (buon) sounds almost the same as the word for “four,” and the word for “ten thousand,” “Muon” sounds a bit like the Korean version (“man”) of the Chinese number “wan.”

So, “six” is “five-one,” “sixteen” is ten-five-one, “Thirty”  is “thirty in Thai but with a u instead of an ee”, and anything above that is kind of beyond my power of explanation at this point.

Like in Chinese, they also have the interesting habit of dropping the last digit.  Thus, if something costs 2,500 Riel, they’ll say “Bii Buon Bram,” “Two Thousand Five.”

All of that is to say that this might take a bit of getting used to.

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A trip to the morning market always makes me feel better.  I love the feeling of being dumped right into the middle of real local life.  People sitting around on the ground selling food feels honest to me in a way that very little else does.  No pretentions, no facades, just mother earth’s great bounty out for display.  It washes away the worries that always fill my mind – Where am I going?  What am I going to do when I get there?  Will that be satisfying?  Will it bring harm to anyone else?  Should I do something else instead?   Oh, shut up and just eat!  Sticky rice with coconut milk in bamboo!  Sweet potatoes!  Mangoes!  Jackfruit!  Fresh honey!  Peanuts!  Coconuts!  Donuts!

 

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No Lao/Thai-style hangups about foot etiquette here!

 

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We split up the next morning.  Our two new Korean friends headed straight west to Angkor Wat to meet another friend, Chris headed straight south to catch up with Mingyu before scouting out a farm he’d been in touch with, and Minseong and I, emboldened by our offroad Christmas expedition in Laos, decided to take a longcut to a volcanic lake.

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First leg: 160km of just about absolutely nothing.

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Looks like it’s cassava season.  Most houses had a giant pile of cassava root out front waiting to be chopped and then laid out on the road to dry.  The stuff had a mild stink to it that made me keep thinking someone had farted directly into my facemask.

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Some Khmer dudes in Korean army uniforms beckoned for us to join them at their table.  At first, I thought they wanted to give us tea.  Then I thought they wanted me to look at the tree full of Jamaican cherries.  Then I noticed the rope leading up to…their pet owl.  Man, I wish I could tie him onto my handlebars.

 

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I thought it was dry season.

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We made it to Boeng Yeak Loem, the lake in an extinct volcano’s caldera, just in time for sunset.  As always, I was assailed by contradictory thoughts.  “This place is beautiful.”  “Did I really cycle for two days just to see this”?  Hush, silly mind!

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Despite the presence of numerous bungalows nearby, we weren’t allowed to pitch our tents near the lake.  Something about “safety.”  Instead, Minseong and I rode in the dark to a nearby forest, found a clearing, and set up camp.  We were only set back from the road by about a hundred meters, but it was still pretty terrifying.  The forest floor was covered with dried leaves, on top of which sat packs of tiny insects that would shiver en masse every so often, making a sound all too reminiscent of a rattling snake.  No wonder people live in cities.

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We woke up early and snuck back into the park the next morning to catch the sunrise, then spent the next five hours lying around on a little pier sunning ourselves, our tents, and our clothes, making mango sandwiches, and pretending to be eight years old again.

 

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Seriously, it must have been about twenty years since my last belly flop.

 

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Minseong got in on the action too.  Actually, despite being a peninsular people, Koreans don’t tend to be very comfortable in water, particularly if it’s over waist-deep or not a pool. This was the first time he had ever swum in open water without a life jacket.  Hooray for traveling and new experiences!  Good thing asthmatic old me was there to take care of him.

 

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After a relaxing morning, we hit the road again, hoping not to have fallen too far behind Chris and the others.  Due to an extreme aversion to riding the same road twice – especially when it’s 165km of nothing worth seeing – we chose to take the “Death Highway,” a 177km stretch of dirt road that runs between Ban Lung and Sen Monorom.  The first person we asked said it was impossible without a mountain bike; others said it was easy, others said it was “possible.”  All agreed it would be dusty.

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Nobody said it would be stunning.

 

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Flat, dry, hot, dusty, empty, astounding – am I in Africa?

(This shows how little I know about Africa.)

 

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New Year’s Resolution: watch at least one sunrise and one sunset each week.

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On this mini-trip, Minseong and I camped five nights in a row, scrounging up showers in between at restaurants, gas stations, and in the national park.

 

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With weather and scenery like this, why not?

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8 Responses to Cambodia: The First Week in the “Wild East”

  1. lea moreau says:

    Your trip is always wonderful ( good idea Chris to rent a boat 😀 ) Hope everything is right , as always ~
    Miss you .
    P.S : your picture are still wonderful 😉
    보고 싶어요

  2. Cambo does look like the serengeti. Also Minseong needs to eat a sammich.

  3. 읨도그 says:

    나도 보고 싶어!

  4. Mom says:

    Um, didn’t you do a belly flop at Silver Lake the last time you were home? 🙂

  5. Matt says:

    Awesome shot on the pier with the sunrise.
    Lookin’ good buddy.

  6. Andy Pekema says:

    I try to catch a sunrise or sunset whenever possible. Your pictures are amazing.
    I think you can do better than once a week. Aim high.

  7. anonymous says:

    Whenever i read your journey, it refreshes my mind. Today i can hardly walk off without dropping a comment.

    Hooray!