Cambodia 008 – To Takeo
February 19, Monday, 2007, Kampong Trach
Once more I have to go back in time again to catch up with my story. I had decided to leave Phnom Penh by riding my bike in a loop to the south coast and then back to Phnom Penh. I could have gone in either direction on the loop. I could have gone down National Highway 4 directly to Sihanouk, then followed the coast to Kampot and Krong Kep and returned along National Highways 2 or 3. Or I could go to Krong Kep first down National Highway 2 and then go on to Sihanouk and back to Phnom Penh on NH4. I decided that it would be better to arrive in Sihanouk at the end of my coastal run, rather than at the beginning. I also had this idea that NH2 would be the more interesting highway. NH2 goes through Takeo Province and there are a number of pre-Angkorian temples along the highway. I’m not a big temple fan, but it would at least break up the journey. And who knows? Maybe these temples would surprise me.
I wanted to set off as early as possible, but I actually woke up quite late. I can’t remember what time it was, but the sun was long up. I think it was after 7:00. It also took me a long time to get ready. I thought I’d already finished packing and that it was just a matter of showering and carrying the bags down to the bike, but with the Ortliebs it’s never that simple and I had to spend some time getting things sorted and organized. I was shocked when I finished at how much the bags weighed. I picked all four of them up plus the handlebar bag at once and staggered. Of course, one of the front pannier bags was loaded with nothing but water and that can be pretty heavy. I had no idea if there was water to be had out there or not. I had no idea really what I was cycling into. The front left pannier bag contained all that water. I hadn’t bothered putting the water into my water bag. I just put the big 1.5 liter bottles into the bag directly. That pretty much filled up the entire pannier bag. My right front pannier bag contained all of my important things like the NEO, books, maps, money, passport, tools, Shuffle, camera lens, sunglasses, and extra film. The idea is that I could survive with just that one bag. It would also contain everything I might need if I wanted to get off the bike and go into a restaurant or someplace. I could just pop off that one bag, lock up the bike, and go in. Then I would have everything that I would need. And if in the meantime, the bike and everything else disappeared in the back of some pick-up truck, I’d still be okay. Doing it this way and with my camera in the handlebar bag, put a lot of weight on the front wheel. I did that deliberately, because most of my body weight ends up resting over the rear wheel and I didn’t think these wheels could take that much weight without buckling. I wanted to distribute the weight as much as possible.
At least there was good news as far as flat tires are concerned. After that spurt of them in the first two or three days, I haven’t had any more. The last patches I had put on have been holding. The tires don’t seem to be losing any air either. They are just as hard as they were when I pumped them up. And most important, I haven’t broken any spokes. I really thought that spokes would break. The rear wheel has all new spokes, though. I had them all replaced with stronger spokes after the first set that came with the bike started snapping. That was a disappointment. I don’t think I’d ridden a thousand kilometers on the bike and the spokes were already snapping. I think the wheel was simply built improperly. There’s no way that spokes should break that soon. The spokes on the front wheel are still the original ones and I’m as worried about those as I am about the rear ones. The front takes less stress, but I just have no confidence in this bike.
It took me a while to get all the bags on the bike and then with a great feeling of impending doom, I cycled out of the Shining Star Guest House’s courtyard. There was no great ceremony surrounding my departure. One young man came out and when he saw all the bags on the bike, he saw me off with the simple, “Checkout?”
I hadn’t ridden on the bike this loaded before (even coming from the airport I didn’t have the weight of the water) and I wobbled a bit as I started to get going. It’s common, though, to have this feeling of dread when you start a cycling trip. It just doesn’t feel right to have that much weight on a bike. It feels awkward and difficult to control. Plus, it feels like the bike is going to collapse from the weight. You can really feel the weight when you pick up the rear of the bike and try to swing it over. You can barely shift it and then you realize that when you’re riding the thing, you’re adding another 190 pounds of body weight. It seems impossible that those thin spokes will be able to support that weight. But as the kilometers start to go by, you get used to that weight and your confidence grows and suddenly it starts to feel natural and okay to be cycling with a touring load. I don’t think I’ll ever get that confidence with this bike, but it has gotten me this far and down one very tough road.
Over time, you also get used to the ritual of packing and unpacking and it doesn’t feel quite so onerous. It just becomes part of the rhythm of your day. I won’t be cycling long enough for it to really become ingrained of course. This is a short trip (just how short I’m only now beginning to realize), and I’ll probably never get comfortable with the routine or the bike.
To get out of Phnom Penh, I had to follow Monivong south until I reached a traffic circle with Norodom at the bridge I crossed on one of my first days here. Instead of crossing the bridge, I had to continue south along the Basacc River. There, my map of Phnom Penh ended and I had to simply make my way with the larger scale highway country map and hope that things make sense at various intersections and I’ll know which way to go. One problem has been that names of cities are different on all of my maps and then in the LP. I keep having to cross-reference them in order to figure out where I am or where I want to go. And that doesn’t help anyway when I’m talking to local people. They seem to have entirely different names when talking amongst themselves and they don’t match up with any of the maps. And I can’t understand what they’re saying anyway. The pronunciation of Khmer seems horribly difficult. My ears can’t distinguish sounds very easily anyway. I can only learn something by seeing it on paper and then associating what’s written with what I hear. When I hear a word in a foreign language, I can’t make out the different parts of the word. It is all just one random sound. And Khmer has its own alphabet that I can’t read, so there is no help there.
It was while cycling along Monivong that the crank nearly fell off my bike and I had to stop and put it back on. I had to do that a few more times that first day. I tried to tighten up that bolt as much as I could, but it never seemed to stay and soon enough it was wobbling all over the place again. It’s a strange thing for me. I’m used to having a better bike than local people. I’d be riding along all smooth and carefree while the local bikes would have pedals flopping all over the place. Now I’m the guy on a bike with a floppy pedal. It’s not a huge problem. I just have to keep tightening up the bolt. But I do worry about it. I’m worried that someday I won’t notice that the bolt is loosening and then I’ll apply a lot of pressure to the pedal and strip the threads or bend something. Where the pedal crank attaches has to take a tremendous amount of stress. It has to be attached perfectly in order to deal with it. I’m sure that this constant loosening of the crank arm will eventually mean that attachment will fail.
I had to ride through the outskirts of Phnom Penh for a long time. I can’t remember anymore when the traffic finally started to fall off and the countryside opened up a little bit. It took a long time and I started to reflect on life in Phnom Penh. When I was hanging out at the Java Cafe and those other nice restaurants it started to seem like Phnom Penh would be a great place to live for a while. And it would, as long as you could afford that ex-pat lifestyle to offset the realities of the place. Out there in the traffic it all started to get a bit overwhelming – the noise and the heat and the business of the place. I haven’t been here long enough for it to become a big problem, but I can already feel my annoyance for the horn honking start to grow. In one restaurant, I heard a local ex-pat radio station and the DJ was giving the answer to a contest. The question had been something like, what does the average driver do 897,375 times in their lifetime? (or something like that, I can’t remember the actual number or the amount of time) Everyone answered from a western point of view and said things like put on their seatbelts, touch the brakes, turn on your signal lights. The answer of course was “honk the horn.” The horn honking is an inescapable part of life here. It hasn’t bothered me so far, but that’s because I’m new in the country. It’s the honeymoon period and I’m cutting the place some slack. But that morning when I left Phnom Penh, it really started to get to me. Everyone honks their horn pretty much all of the time. It’s simply constant and it can drive you crazy if you let it. The traffic was also pretty crazy, but that hasn’t bothered me that much. It’s coming quite naturally to me to cycle in this traffic. Overall, cycling out of Phnom Penh was much, much easier than cycling out of Taipei.
Once I got out of the city, the traffic started to ease up and the road got a bit bumpier. It was still a fine road though. It was a paved road, and though it had seen better days, it wasn’t a problem to ride on it. I wasn’t able to really appreciate my surroundings as much as on previous days. I guess now that I was cycling somewhere, part of me was focused on the destination and it was hard to slow down and simply look around and appreciate the experience. Part of me wanted to get to Takeo, the town where I would be spending my first night, find a place to stay, and then I could relax and look around. It can be hard to shake that mentality sometimes. It is doubly hard to shake it when the sun is beating down on you. I was astonished at how hot the sun was. I’d put on sunscreen, but I could feel my skin burning all over the place.
Next to the sun and the horns, the most common thing was the chorus of hellos that came at me from all over the place. It was mainly the children, but adults would often shout hello as well. At first, I thought that the entire future of east-west diplomacy lay with me and my response to each of these hellos. The strange thing was that they felt like real hellos. They weren’t just screaming the only English word they knew. It felt like they were really saying hello and it would have been rude of me not to say hello back or at least wave. So I did. I shouted hello and waved like a madman. Eventually, though it became exhausting. These children only had to shout hello once. I had to do it hundreds and hundreds of times and I started to run out of steam. It would be different if it were like in Ethiopia or in Guinea or other places I’ve been in Asia, where the shouting was just shouting. In Ethiopia in particular I was never able to figure out why they were shouting “You.” They just screamed it over and over again and it didn’t require a response from me. The children here, though, seemed to be waiting for a response. I came to this conclusion when I noticed that they stopped shouting hello when I said hello back. If I didn’t shout hello back or at least wave, they kept screaming hello over and over until I was out of sight. Therefore, not saying hello back felt rude and I ended up shouting hello and waving all day long. Occasionally, there would be laughter, but it never felt like it was laughter at my expense. In most countries, when people screamed at me in English, it always had an edge to it like they were having fun at my expense, ridiculing me, being nasty. When I said something back, they’d explode in gales of laughter and make further jokes. It felt like they were poking sticks at a monkey in a cage to make it do something. But here in Cambodia it feels different. The children feel genuinely friendly and saying hello to me and my saying hello back seems to give them real pleasure. I’m not saying I shouted hello every single time. That would have been impossible. There were far too many of them for that. The hellos were almost constant throughout the entire day.
Another odd thing is that I felt like the poor cousin on my bike. In most countries, I felt a bit uncomfortable on my expensive bicycle. People would be on foot or riding decrepit old bikes that barely functioned. But here, I was the poor one. Most people were riding on scooters, and broiling in the hot sun on my bicycle, I felt a bit foolish. I could only look at them with envy. Of course, they were sitting two to as many as six on a scooter, but still, they were going to get where they were going in comfort and ease while I was dying.
I saw two other foreigners that first day. They passed me on a tuk-tuk and waved. Later, I caught up with them and stopped to chat. The drive chain had fallen off and the driver was fixing it. I didn’t ask this couple where they were from, but their accent was clearly Australian. They were on their way to an animal preserve not far ahead. It was a kind of animal shelter for wild animals that had been caught in traps or hurt by poachers. At one point, the woman looked at my bike and said, “Is that all your luggage?”
That sentence has been floating around in my head ever since, because after thinking about it, I didn’t know what she meant. She could have meant that I had a huge amount of luggage: “Is that all YOUR luggage?” Or she could have meant that I didn’t have very much: “Is that ALL your luggage?” I think, actually, she meant the second. I feel like I have a lot of stuff, but when you put the bags on the bike it does look fairly neat and trim and contained.
Their tuk-tuk driver told me that the turn-off to one of the pre-Angkorian temples was only a short distance ahead. This was at Tonle Bati. I thought I might as well check it out and I turned down the dirt road. It was a very pleasant ride through little villages. Lots of people were out front of their houses spraying the road down with water to keep the dust down. At the temple complex, a man was waiting on a bench under a shade tree. He jumped up when I arrived and sold me a ticket for $3. It included a free drink, he said.
I then rode my bike around the complex. I rode around a big modern temple of some kind. Then when I got close to one of the old temples, a group of children descended on me trying to sell me flowers and incense. There were six of them and their constant shouting and tugging at my arms led me to get out of there pretty quick. Perhaps these temples were endlessly fascinating if you knew their history, but I knew nothing about them. Given a chance I might have been able to appreciate their age or something, but these children were too annoying for that. All I saw was a pile of old rocks. I snapped a quick picture and pedaled away. A tuk-tuk driver sat up in his tuk-tuk and said in English, “Quick visit!” I agreed and cycled away. The man who had sold me the ticket also seemed disappointed. He stopped me and started listing the buildings and temples at this site, knowing that I couldn’t have seen them all. I told him it was okay and I cycled off. It was only as I rejoined the main road that I realized I hadn’t even gotten my free drink.
I really struggled later in the day. I hadn’t eaten anything and I was feeling the lack of all the luxuries of Phnom Penh. It’s astonishing how quickly that can happen. I’d only been on the road for five or six hours and I was already dreaming and fantasizing about those ice-cold Cokes and hot cups of cafe latte. I didn’t see how I was going to survive without them, let alone without comfortable places to sit and reflect on life.
But then came something of a revelation. I was actually getting close to Takeo, but I felt I was at the end of my rope. I was stopping the bike under shade trees more and more and when I put my feet on the ground, my whole body swayed and I thought I was going to fall over. My heart was racing and wouldn’t slow down. I felt like heat stroke was right around the corner. I really felt like I should take a break and I stopped at the next convenient little food stall. I had been passing hundreds of these little places, but I hadn’t stopped at any of them. There didn’t seem to be any point. There was no comfortable place to sit and I didn’t see any food that made sense to me. The things I had noticed were the coolers. There were coolers everywhere, but I assumed they were just filled with warm Cokes and warm bottles of water. But then I saw a place that looked a little different. This was the raised platform where the little girl upended my bike. This place looked far more comfortable than the rest. The raised platform was about twenty feet square and had a nice thatch roof providing lots of shade. There were mats on the wood and hammocks strung between the upright poles. I pulled in there, got off my bike, and wobbled over to the platform. When a woman asked me what I wanted, I indicated the large cooler thinking I might as well buy some warm water or something. But when she opened the lid, I stared down into paradise itself. The cooler was jammed with ice. The woman reached down into the icy depths and came up with a frosty cold Mirinda – an orange soda. I could have kissed her. I cracked it open and drank it with the straw that she gave me. I felt energy rushing back to my limbs and quickly asked for another one. I was also surprised to see official prices listed on the cooler. This size drink was 1,500 riel it said. I assumed the woman would ask for a lot more or that the price was outdated. But no, when I handed over a 5,000-riel note, she gave me 2,000 riel in change. Now that the ice had been broken, I saw that these ice-cold drinks would become a life-saving part of my day.
Since that time, I’ve slowly become aware of how big a part ice has in the day to day lives of people here. I suddenly saw ice everywhere. It was delivered in large long blocks to central spots. People there would use hand saws, machetes, and even power saws to cut the ice into manageable chunks to be sold to people. These chunks were either put in plastic bags or handed over just as they were. The blocks often had holes right through the center and people would simply insert their entire arms into the holes and carry the ice that way. They were on scooters most of the time and they’d roar away with one hand holding the handlebars and the other arm encased in ice. I don’t imagine they went very far like that. It would quickly get painfully cold.
When these chunks of ice arrived at their final destination, people would grab them and start chopping them into smaller pieces to be distributed in all their various coolers. This cutting and chopping and delivering of ice is a big activity and I see it all around me now.
I arrived in Takeo nearly at the end of my endurance. It wasn’t the cycling that was the problem. I’d only gone 83 km and all of that was on flat ground. I wasn’t tired in the normal sense of the word. No, the problem was the sun and the heat combined with sore wrists and a sore butt. I almost crawled into Takeo.
At first it was hard to get a handle on the place. I couldn’t tell where the town officially began. I rode for what felt like a long time, and I still hadn’t reached any kind of town center. I thought perhaps that this long stretch was the town center. But I kept going and, to my relief, I ended up at a kind of square with its own liberty monument. A lot of streets were off to the left of the square and leading up to the edges of a lake. To the right was the downtown district with lots of shops and gas stations and to my great pleasure, a gorgeous brand new guest house. There were in fact a number of guest houses, but this one stood out as much nicer than the rest. I can’t remember the name of it anymore. It was something like Ma Muk.
The Ma Muk looked newly built. I wish I had taken a picture of it now because it’s difficult to describe. It was two stories high and looked much like a chalet or something. I rode my bike into the courtyard and parked and went inside. Right inside was a single big open room with four guest rooms at the far end and a huge marble staircase going up to the second floor. On my left, there was a long thatch divider. Behind it, the entire extended family was sitting and lying on the floor eating and drinking and watching TV. There was no desk or anything like that, and I stood there foolishly for a bit. Everyone saw me, but no one seemed to think it was their job to do anything. This was a problem I had at the Shining Star as well. It was nice that it was run by a family. But that also meant that it was all very casual and you never knew who was in charge or who was supposed to do what. Eventually, a little girl was delegated to deal with me. She grabbed a key, a toothbrush with toothpaste, and a little packet of soap and brought me up the spiral staircase to the second floor. The room was incredible. It was beautiful and clean and welcoming. Of course I took it and I handed over the $5 that she asked for. This was a much better deal than the Shining Star in Phnom Penh. The only drawback to the room was that the design fell apart when it got to the bathroom. Everything was there and it all worked, but whoever had drawn up the plans hadn’t left quite enough room for everything and the toilet and sink and shower all competed with each other. It was nearly impossible to sit on the toilet.
I took a shower and unpacked and read my book for a while. I hadn’t made up my mind about eating. Nor had I seen anything out in Takeo resembling food. I wasn’t even feeling hungry, but my last meal had been the pizza the night before and I thought it would be wise to have something. At least I had a nice place to stay for the night if my stomach revolted again.
Food is actually still a mystery here. When I mentioned to people in Phnom Penh that I was heading down this way, many of them said that I could look forward to some great food. I don’t know what they were talking about. I walked up and down all the streets here, but I didn’t see anything resembling a restaurant. The best that was on offer were a row of food stalls. I saw one where a group of seven students were eating, and I went in to look around. I figured they would speak some English and they could help me when it came to ordering. The menu turned out to be very simple. To see what they had, I went up to the three pots and lifted the lids and looked inside. One pot contained some nasty looking meat stew. Another had a soup that looked like it contained all the stuff that was leftover after they’d made the actual food. It wasn’t appetizing in the least. I was just looking for some rice and vegetables, anything. The place was also a bit disgusting. There were hundreds and hundreds of flies crawling over every surface. The dirt floor was covered in garbage and filth, all also crawling with flies. There were even several piles of dog shit that had just been left there to fester. When I lifted the lids on the pots, a bunch of flies flew out and a whole new crop flew inside and landed on the food. When the woman put the lid back, she didn’t bother to shoo the flies away. She just shut them in with the lid.
I went to the next food stall and the next, but they were all the same. I finally found one that had a big pot of white rice and a pot of fried noodles with vegetables. There were also slightly fewer flies here, though I don’t know why that would be. The amount of garbage was the same as at the other places. The noise blaring from the ever-present TV was also slightly less offensive. At most places, the volume had been driven so high that the speakers had either blown or were just naturally distorted. At this place, the volume was bearable, though not pleasant.
In the end, it was a somewhat successful meal. The rice was just rice. The noodles were cold, but they added a nice counterpoint to the bland rice. They also brought me a big pot of cold tea and I drank glass after glass of that until my throat felt raw. I don’t know what food is supposed to cost yet, but this meal came to 3,000 riel. That’s 75 cents US.
After dinner I walked around the town a bit more and stocked up on water. Then I retired to my lovely room and read my book until bedtime.