We’ve had a rude awakening arriving in Cambodia. Crossing the border we’d no idea that two countries so close together could be so very different within a matter of a few kilometres. Everything after Vietnam changed – the written script, faces, clothes, traffic, and road with no places to stop for coffee. We stopped in Svay Rieng where we found a hotel with a restaurant. In this we were lucky as the guest houses we’d tried earlier were impossibly filthy. We ate in the restaurant where I then got food poisoning being very sick later that evening. This was our first night in Cambodia and we were meant to be staying in what we thought was a good hotel.
By the morning I’d recovered but Yasmin had the other problem of bad food – a runny tummy. Somehow we both recovered and by breakfast time were able to eat something. Our cycle route was to take us on secondary roads from Highway 8 up to Highway 7 and then across the Mekong to Kampong Cham. Our maps and SatNav all clearly indicated where we should go and the hotel’s lobby had framed maps further collaborating the route and existence of roads.
We set off riding, feeling relief at being well enough still to pedal, but after 25km found the tarmac road had disappeared into a mud track. It looked initially as if this was only a temporary set back but the road and our progress further deteriorated. We should’ve been enjoying the views of the wide flat rice fields, small passing villages with stilted houses, gold roofed temples, ponds and waterways full of pink lotus flowers but found all our energy and attention being focussed on avoiding potholes, mud and other vehicles. We stopped for cool drinks at the trackside and to get advice on the route. We were told to turn right in a few kilometres to another better road also heading northward. This we did but found, despite the helpful directions and our maps and SatNav, they were all wrong – the alternative road did not exist – and we had to retrace our steps.
We had this happen several times before in Vietnam and now again on our first full day of riding in Cambodia. It was a mistake to have left the main highway and to ride on secondary country roads as they turn to mud tracks with in moments of leaving the main intersections. We clearly were not going to make it to Kampong Cham and had no idea where we’d stay, stuck out in the rural hinterland between the two highways. The mud kept jamming our wheels, the red clay sticking to mudguards and tyres making us having to stop to dislodge the blockages. It felt like we were riding with the brakes on, crawling along the same muddy track and progressing nowhere.
And then the road got worse. At about 70km we had to wade through knee high mud, dragging our bikes and panniers to continue at all in a northerly direction. We washed in a village pond shared with a group of playing children, a sow and her piglets and a man fishing. The kids helped us wash everything down as otherwise the bikes were unrideable. We just had to try and keep going and reach the other main highway and hopefully find somewhere to sleep before it got dark. Even this possibility was looking doubtful.
Finally we reached an expected junction to a better secondary road leading to the highway about 25km away. It was now 4.30pm with about an hour of daylight left so we started to pedal hard to reach it. Luckily, Yasmin spotted a guest house where we stopped and they had a simple room and yard where we could clean off the bikes and our dirt. This was miraculous as the following day riding to Kampong Cham there was nowhere to stay until much nearer the town, a distance too far away. We were lucky not to still be stuck on the muddy road between highways 8 and 7.