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.
As we rode through the central highlands of Vietnam Yasmin got her bottom stroked three times by passing scooter riders. It happened alarming on consecutive days and made us nervous not to be far apart as we climbed and descended the hills. We were in remote country close to the Laos border with the gaps between towns large and mountainous.
One of them was a boy who stupidly stopped further up the road next to some roadworks who I then confronted. It’s always difficult to know what to do in these situations particularly as Yasmin was not a 100% sure it was the same person who’d touched her. As I stopped he looked away, a give away sign, as everyone otherwise stares at us in bewilderment. I’ve no Vietnamese to say ‘don’t touch my wife’s arse’ so I just mimed that I’d seen him. He was standing with a group of men who all immediately realised that something must have happened up the road for me to have pulled over so abruptly next to him. They started to question the boy as I was clearly angry. I could only hope their queries and his embarrassment might make him think again about touching anyone inappropriately.
We couldn’t figure out why this had happened. There’d been no road incidences other than being offered heroin in the northern highlands, when two men on the back of the same scooter pulled up next to us. Was it Yasmin’s floppy hat she’d started to wear under her helmet that looked very much like all the hats lady scooter drivers wore? No idea. Was it her cycling skirt that was being so provocative? No, because she decided on the second day to wear cycling trousers. Was it because we were in border territory? Maybe.
Heading towards Cambodia the police presence on the Ho Chi Min highway increased dramatically with road blocks pulling over lorry and scooter drivers to check their paperwork. On some of these stretches of road we’d see inexplicably groups of riders standing to the side of a field only to realise, as we turned the corner, that they were waiting for the approaching road block to ‘move on’. It made us realise there was another world prevailing at the edges of a country that might have explained Yasmin’s harassment. Perhaps, in the borderlands through which we’d been travelling, social normalities are distorted by illicit trafficking effecting the behaviour of those too young enough to have known better.
The last post on the subject of hygiene attracted lots of attention and after more than a month cycling in Vietnam needs updating. Riding in the heat and humidity is very different from the winter cycling in Australia and the following subjects all need further clarification:
- The three basic sets of clothing, underpants, socks and t-shirts still works but could be reduced to two. We wash everything we’ve been riding in at the end of each day and hang it out to dry with the room fan on over night. We carry washing powder and leave the clothes to soak in the washhand basin each evening whilst we shower. We’ve bought a 5m length of cord from which to hang the clothes to dry. For the architects amongst you this length has so far been perfect and not failed. I use a midshipman’s knot to tie either end from a curtain rail, bathroom door hinge or wardrobe hanging rail. Our room always looks like a laundry.
- We get really filthy and smelly from the road. My cycling mitts smell like vinegar with fish and chips. I’ve had some kind of tropical boil from my clothes rubbing against my lower abdomen which looks dreadful but is now recovering. It’s hard to keep clean and any cut or abrasion needs to be carefully looked after to avoid infection. I got through a lot of plasters and disinfectant.
- Toilette – the delightfully named ‘bum jet’ or hand operated hose is everywhere and we use it.
- Showering – sometimes several times a day. Before we ride, after and then before we sleep.
- Shaving – I still shave daily as any beard would be intolerably in the heat, becoming smelly and dirty.
- Toe and finger nails – they still grow like crazy. We bought some anti-fungal treatment to sort wonky fingernails which we keep forgetting to put on.
- Hair – still growing although it got so ridiculously messy I had to have a trim a month ago.
- Laundrettes – there aren’t any although an Airbnb had a washing machine which we made use of.
- Medicated talcum powder – just run out and need to get some more.
- Sun cream – as before and we’re really having to use here. The sun can be fierce and for a while I rode in long sleeves. I’ve silly suntan lines nevertheless.
- Moisturiser – Just running out of Vaseline which I’d thought would be easy to find anywhere. Not in Vietnam where it’s strawberry flavoured and pink to be used on lips.
- Teeth – as before but we’re experimenting with a Vietnamese brand of toothpaste called ‘PS’.
- Underarm deodorant – yes and this is the only luxurious scent we wear. It reminds me of a story about the early space astronauts on the Apollo missions who were so sensory deprived that the lemon scented helmet wipes were cherished and saved. I love deodorising.
- Thermal drinking cups – we’re not carrying them but drink loads of water from our bidons.
So far we remain fit and healthy. Cambodia here we come.