Our short stay in Cambodia was highlighted by navigating our way along and sometimes through the spreading waters of the Mekong, past plains of rice paddies, by floating villages and to the ancient ruins of Ankor Wat.
There are two types of roads in Cambodia, flat highways or flat dirt roads. If you were to compare the landscapes of Laos and Cambodia, you would think they were from 2 different Continents. Laos jungle mountains, borders Cambodia’s never-ending flat plains of rice paddies. Cambodia is a geographical Pancake and as Jasi suddenly exclaimed mid-ride, “Cambodia is the Holland of South East Asia”.
The glistening water from the endless rice patties, gives the flat horizon a late afternoon sparkle. The Mighty Mekong river that connects villages in Laos, now divides them in Cambodia. Flooding irrigates the rice paddies, but excessive flooding risks isolating and swamping villages. Roads quickly turn into waterways and the height of the stilted houses illustrates just how high these floodwaters can be. Rebuilding is a seasonal task for these people.
Angkor Wat, an ancient temple city in northern Cambodia, considered to be one of the 8th wonders of the world. Built by the Hindus, converted by Buddhists, overgrown by jungle and now left crumbling for us to admire. The enormous grounds and temples of Angkor Wat are a Mecca for any history fanatic. Built in the 12th century, the Ancient city is so enormous that guides recommend 3 days to explore the site entirely. Having seen enough temples for a lifetime, we were selective in which temples we viewed. We cycled our bikes for about 30kms through the grounds each day. Trees have now completely overgrown some temples and now support the crumbling ruins. Hollywood has even visited Angkor Wat. Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie was filmed here. View our guide to visiting Angkor Wat temples here
The UN stepped into Cambodia in 1992 to restore peace and civil government in a country ruined by decades of civil war. Since then the US Dollar is king. There are no American Coins, just dollar notes and their official currency, the Cambodian Riel. What makes life difficult is that the two currencies are used together in the same transaction. Because of this, Cambodians are walking calculators. For example, you buy a coconut and a bottle of water. Together it costs 1.50 USD or 6000 Riel. You pay with an American 5 Dollar note and you get any combination of the two currencies in return, in this case, 3USD and 2000 Cambodian Riels. What a mess.
A floating Vietnamese village in the very heart of Cambodia. I’m sure the people of this Vietnamese village are also confused, as to how it ended so far from home. Living completely self-sufficient on the waters of the Mekong, this village has everything you would expect in any small town. A petrol station, local store, butchers, and a mobile street water food stall. You were perhaps wondering about sanitation, well, everything goes into the Mekong, food waste, rubbish and of course human waste. It is for this reason we held tight to our little boat as we watched children splashing and playing in the water. Our boat/raft was powered by a smiling Vietnamese, who was proud to remind us every 3 minutes that she was Vietnamese, not Cambodian. The people were quite relaxed and swinging in a hammock seemed to be the town sport.
Cambodia was decimated by a genocidal regime only 40 years ago. Its difficult not to be intrigued by the cruel recent history of this country. The Khmer Rouge, the communist party of Cambodia, was one of the most savage regimes of the 20th century. Expert historians approximate between 1.5 and 3 million people were killed during the Regime, either through starvation, disease or by direct execution¹. The simple fact that two experts are in disagreement in the death count of 1.5 million people, explains the indiscriminate killings during this hellish time. As you walk the streets, you rub shoulders with Cambodians who knew someone or didn’t get the chance to meet someone because they were murdered by this cruel dictatorship. The Khmer Rouges regime ideology was to return Cambodia back to “Year Zero”. Meaning that people were forced to leave the cities, return to working the land and all contact to the outside world was to be eliminated.
Factories were destroyed, money abolished, and Doctors murdered. The regime starved and took all power away from the people. Wearing glasses at this time was considered a sign of intelligence and this would have had you killed. After visiting the chilling museums, killing fields, and torture prisons you can’t begin to imagine the hardships these people have endured. I was struck by such a moment on the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh. As I walked the night markets, I looked down to see an elderly lady staring back at me, begging for my money. We met eyes, I pitied her and thought, imagine what her eyes have seen?
We started this adventure in Europe. When searching for food in Europe, price was our biggest concern. When roaming the supermarket aisles in Europe, we were thinking: “How can we make a cheap, energy rich salad?” Fast forward 13 months to South East Asia, Cambodia and the conversation goes like this. “How can we find something to eat that won’t make us sick?”, Jasi asks. “I think that’s dog, we will definitely get sick from that”, I say. “Matt over here, this looks safe…sort of”, shouts Jasi. As we make roadside stops in small villages between the floodwaters of the Mekong, our food choices are limited. Coconuts or crackers.
People might disagree and say that they discovered great food in Cambodia’s cities. We agree with you. In the big cities you can find delicious traditional Cambodian food, highlighted by their coconut curry called “Amok”. Unfortunately, when we are 200 km from the next big city, the living standards of these people are very poor. Food hygiene is nonexistent and scraps of meat are boiled away and served in dirty bowls. We naturally respect these people. They do the best they can, and who am I to say my Western food is better, “taste is in the mouth of the beholder”. We genuinely wish we could share a meal with them, so we open a beer or crack a coconut beside them instead.
The South East Asia Loop was incredibly difficult, spotted with such rewarding moments. 3 months of burning sun, heavy downpours and some of the largest language barriers encountered. We are finally arriving back in Bangkok, and we are mentally and physically exhausted. These 3 months were by far the most difficult for myself, whereas Jasi still ranks our time in India as her most difficult days. In such densely populated and poor countries, life is a day to day struggle. A struggle for locals to stay above the rest, stay fed, sheltered and healthy. We feel the stresses and challenges these people face, and completely understand when they see our pockets as a momentary escape from their demanding lives. If I was in their shoes, I can’t say I would do any differently.
Our bicycle has taught us so much. In the first 11 months, we built an amazing trust in strangers and that the ability to ask for help is a strength. In parts of South East Asia, we felt more alone on the road, we felt that if we were going to get through this, then we might have to do it all by ourselves.
See you in a month.
Matt and Jasi