Phnom Penh (February 18th to February 26th)
(Pursat - Kampong Chnang - Phnom Penh - Takeo - Kampot)
Distance biked so far: (12,773 km)
On most days that I bike I arrive in a town mid to late afternoon, do a half hour of stretching, shower and then go to find dinner. I enjoy going to the local markets because the food is good, you see a lot of the locals in their daily life and there is lots of activities. I experienced the downside to this however in Battambang. I walked through the market and found what I thought was a large container of beef so I ordered a bowl and some rice and sat on the side of a riverside embankment. I ate a few pieces and found it to be very chewy and quite disgusting. There was a young guy beside me so I asked him what it was I was eating and he said that is the intestines of a pig. I kindly offered him the rest and walked away. I felt sick that night and the next day but not sure if it was from thinking about what I ate or from any actual sickness. Lesson learned. If you eat at a night market, go to a stall with good lighting.
One of the most noticeable things on biking through Cambodia on the "national highway" which is little more than a paved secondary road is the signage on the roads. I have seen a grand total of 1 speed sign indicating the maximum speed. The signs that appear everywhere are for political parties. The sign of choice and that of the current party in charge is the Cambodia People's Party led by Hun Sen the 60 year Prime Minister who has been the leader for 19 years.
I am currently reading "Hun Sen - Strongman of Cambodia" to try and understand this enigmatic character. He is by all accounts a ruthless leader who has been accused by Amnesty International of torturing thousands of political prisoners. He was also an officer of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime but didn't actually join that party. He originally joined a group loyal to the former leader Norodom Sihanouk after he lost power in a coup and the Khmer Rouge eventually took control. Hun Sen never met Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge and in fact, fled to Vietnam and fought alongside the Vietnamese to defeat the repressive regime. Later Hun Sen would become Prime Minister and he has a strong following due in large part to his determination to rid the country of the Khmer Rouge.
On one hand Cambodia is in a relatively stable period as they have had peace since 1997. On the other, Cambodia ranks tied for 17th on Transparency Internationals 2011 Index of the most corrupt countries in the world. The honor for the most corrupt country is shared between North Korea and Somalia with Afghanistan coming in 3rd. I would have thought that after 10 years of Western intervention, Afghanistan would have been a little better but it just shows you war really accomplishes very little, at least for the people in the nation being attacked. The aggressors seem to do well financially by rebuilding everything they destroyed. By the way, Iraq is tied for 8th on the same list.
The central part of Cambodia is very flat as I headed to Phnom Penh. This is a typical view of the area.
Cambodia is a Theravada Buddhist nation (same as Thailand) but there is also a following of Sunni Islam among the Cham people. Here is a Mosque on the way to the capital.
Phnom Penh was an easy city to enter on my bike, partly due to my arrival on a Sunday but also because the roads just don't allow for high speed traffic.
The riverside part of the City is very well maintained and an oasis in an otherwise cluttered country. Walking along the Tonle Sap River is like stepping out of the real Cambodia and into a European city. The difference between here and the villages is amazing.
The FCC has remarkable pictures of the countryside of Cambodia and also many from the Khmer Rouge period. I would walk around and view the photos every morning. Last year the one with a 10-year old soldier holding a rifle caught my attention and this year, it has been replaced by this picture of a young woman holding her child with her tortured and dead husband in the background. It's a stark reminder of the regime that was removed from power only 33 years ago.
One morning I was strolling through some of the side streets and came across a Monk chanting a prayer for 2 young girls kneeling in front. The mother was in the background and gave the Monk his daily alms. One of the girls seemed more interested in me but the younger was fully focused on the young man and his stirring voice.
Cambodia was a protectorate of France for 90 years until gaining Independence in 1953. During that period the French ignored public education and by the time of Independence, only 60 years ago, there wasn't a single University in the country. The one thing they did leave however were many nice buildings, here are a few.
Each morning I would go to the Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC) for my breakfast of Bor Bor or rice porridge and 2 Lattes. I would visit my friend Somneang who served me breakfast every morning last year and we have kept in touch for the last 8 months.
On another morning I was sitting down for a drink and a man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a hole in my front pannier. The bag also serves as a backpack when off the bike and it was positioned on the floor beside me. He offered to mend it and just happened to be carrying a small toolbox with needle and thread. He asked for $5 and I agreed despite it being a huge sum for a small task because I thought he was creative in finding a way to make money. He was almost finished when he announced that it would be $10 since he had to use a small piece of rubber to support the hole. I asked him why a 1-inch piece of rubber cost $5 and he said it is very expensive. Many people in Cambodia live on $1 per day so I knew it was exorbitant and told him no, $5 was a very generous price and something we agreed upon. He simply shrugged his shoulders and continued, accepted the payment and left. The attempted extortion would never happen in a small village where no one has ever charged me a "tourist price" but in the cities where foreigners are everywhere, they will often do what they can to grab another dollar. It is easy to just give in and pay but they have to learn to set a price and then stick to it.
The Royal Palace dominates the skyline of Phnom Penh. It is the official residence of King Sihamoni, the symbolic figurehead of Cambodia.
I came to Phnon Penh to obtain a 2-month visa for Thailand as you only get 30 days on arrival at the airport and if I cross a land border, would be given 15 days. On Friday February 24th I stopped at the Thai Embassy, picked up my visa and headed south to the city of Takeo. I was delayed getting my visa so didn't leave until 11:00 am, just as the heat really builds. It was only an 80km day but I struggled against a wind. The good news was that there was some shade on the road, a welcome change.
In Cambodia, every town has a number of guesthouses and this is a picture of a typical one where I stayed in Takeo.
I think the outside is far more impressive than the inside as the rooms are clean but quite basic. Once again I had a chuckle from reading a sign on the back of the door. They don't bother with sentences but do manage to get the point across.
I was up early to continue the road south and west towards Thailand but first had to stop for some pork and rice for breakfast.
I cycled to the town of Kampot that borders the southern portion of the Elephant mountain range. The road remained pretty flat despite my hope that I would be able to bike into some cooler air. Here is a view as I approached Kampot.
I stopped for one of my hourly breaks to drink cold water and spent my time helping this girl blow up her new balloons and then tying them on a stick. She started crying as I got up to leave so I stayed to play a little longer.
Kampot is one of the few nice towns in Cambodia with a good location on Prek Kampong Bay. The riverside promenade is a nice place to enjoy a sunset and admire the beautiful blooms.
On Monday February 27th I will continue along the south coast of Cambodia and enter into southeastern Thailand in about 5 days as I make my way back to Bangkok.