Takeo to Phnom Penh with some great stops inbetween

It’s possible to cycle from Takeo to Phnom Penh in a day (81km) but there were a number of reasons why we chose to spread the distance over three days ride:

The N2 road which offers the most direct route isn’t the best road for cycle tourers. There’s no hard shoulder, its incredibly dusty in the dry season and the road is busy with trucks and and other heavy traffic. (At the time of writing – Jan 2016 – there are also major road construction works between Tonle Bati and the capital which adds to the dust and general unpleasantness)

Most importantly though there are four major sites of interest on the way – Phnom Chisaur, Phnom Tamau Zoological Park and Rescue Centre, Tonle Bati, and finally the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. We wanted to hit them all and decided that Phnom Chisaur and Tonle Bati would be the best bets for camping. (Don’t be tempted to camp near the zoo, you will be no match for the semi-tame monkeys).

Taking all this into consideration we stocked up at the big market in Takeo, let some air out the tyres and headed directly north out of town along the windy roads through the lakes and canal network which run parallel with the N2. It was a great ride – a flat, quiet dirt track lined with spectacular lily covered lakes, friendly villages and plenty of shelter from the headwind.
   
 We stopped at this amazing setting for lunch along the way which gave us the opportunity to try out our Life Straw filter.

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We reached Phnom Chisaur at 3.30 and headed straight for the 400+ steps which lead up to the temple at the top which boasts a sacred linga ($2 entry fee).

At the bottom of the steps there is a school surrounding a playing field and lake. We parked ourselves on the edge of the playing field and made some tea. Nobody took much notice so we agreed it would be ok to camp. 

After more than a few days, Paddy’s back is still covered in red spots and I’ve had an erruption on my back and upper thighs now too. We have been super careful to cover up while stopped and have come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t ant or mozzie bites at all but rather an extreme case of heat rash. I’m contemplating throwing away my cycling top and stocking up on white baggy t-shirts instead but the padded lycra shorts pose more of a problem.

The next day we continued to head north towards the wildlife zoo. Some great more scenic tracks – this ‘road’ was barely more than a walking path between cropped rice fields.

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The landscape continues to be dominated by canals and irrigation systems. It’s hard to imagine what it must look like at the end of the rainy season, the grazing cattle gone, it covered with lush green.

We get to the zoo at around 11am and climb the steady incline to the entrance (you pass quite a big wat on the way). It’s very quiet and we continue to cycle another km through beautiful countryside before we reach the start of the enclosures. It feels incredibly remote but as we park we instantly get bombarded by sellers offering bananas and potatoes to feed to the animals. Very different from London Zoo!

We instantly felt uneasy about leaving all our stuff – we just got a feeling it could be a bit dodge. In the end we agreed to leave it parked and tipped one of the boys to look after the stuff – although it is possible and maybe advised to cycle around what is quite a long tour of the enclosures.

Despite its slightly run down feeling we were generally impressed by the size and scale of the enclosures. Most of the animals, many of whom have been rescued from much worse fates, have a good amount of space even if they’re not particularly entertained. You are very much left to your own devises as you make your way around.
  
Tame monkeys rule over the whole site and follow you round expectantly. We enjoyed the crocs and had an exhilarating meeting with an agitated male tiger. Paddy also enjoyed the otters and spotted a very pregnant leopard.
   
   
We cooked up lunch on the lake near the entrance – a group of cheeky monkeys approached and managed to steal out bananas. They ended up getting farely agessive and we had to use the helinox chairs as shields to scare them away long enough to eat our noodles! There’s no end to how useful those chairs have been.
  
Back on the road we head to Tonle Bati arriving for 4pm – we instantly head to one of the stilted picnic huts on the lake. Its here we discovered we had lost (or had stolen) both our foldable knife and our leatherman set. Both items we use every day. 

At dusk we cycled into the modern temple complex opposite the Ta Prohm ruins and ask one of the monks if they would allow us to camp. 

We pitched with the sun going down on these.
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Our food bag got completely attacked AGAIN by black ants in the night. They bit through the black bin liner and proceeded to tear holes in the top of the Altura bag (we wonder if they’d get through our ortlieb bags?).
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Ants have been our biggest problem so far so if anyone has any good solutions to tackle this ongoing problem please get in touch!

A quick stop at the Angkorian Ta Prohm ruins were well worth it – the carvings are amazing!
   
 On to the mass grave site of Choeung Ek which is situated on the edge of the city. The site (1 of many) marks where thousands of Cambodians were systematically murdered and buried during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. There are no words to describe it; you must visit but be prepared.

The last 10km into the city were easy – we followed the same tuk tuk right into the centre.

Welcome to Phnom Penh!

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Takeo

We reached Takeo at around 5pm. The 75km ride was pretty unaventful, good road from Kiri Sela with a couple of steady inclines but all in all pretty flat. 

We headed to the north of the town which sits on the Rohkna Khnong Lake and after cycling around for a while we eventually found a guesthouse (Nita Gueshouse) on the canal which is pretty basic but was $6 a night, friendly and had a safe place for the bike. 

Takeo is quite an important town, it acts as the major trade link with the border of Vietnam and it has a university, language school and plenty of government buildings, banks and a big market. The major draw however is the nearby 7th Century Funanese sites, (the only such sites in Cambodia) Phnom Da and Angkor Borei, which are both reached by boat via the extensive canal network which stretches across the entire province.

We met a nice German couple who were also staying in the gueshouse – Dirk and Karin – who were also aiming to head down river the next day so we agreed to charter a boat between 4, helping to bring the cost down significantly ($35 total). 

Dirk and Karin were a pretty amazing couple. Both into their 60s, they have travelled all over Asia and this was there 4th trip to Cambodia alone. They were incredibly knowledable about Angok Wat and to top it off, over dinner, Dirk told us all about his love for speed road rollerskating – when he was in his 50s he completed a marathon in just under an hour and 10 minutes (that is an average speed of around 36km ph!!!!) 

Anyway, we headed down river at 8am the next morning first stop being the two temple ruins at Phnom Da ($2 each). Theres not too much see of the main site but there wasa good view from the top.

   
    
Paddy made a friend on the way back down…

 
Onwards to Angkor Borei where there is even less actual ruins to see, although a small museum does document the Funannese era quite well.

All in all, considering how much the boat ride cost we’re still unsure whether the trip is actually worthwhile. I guess the boat ride is quite fun (take a jacket) but during the dry season the canal is pretty low which means you don’t get a great view of the surrounding countryside. I would encourage other travellers to head to the site at Tonle Bati instead, where there is a lot more to see with the added bonus of no entry fee.

We spent the afternoon blogging, picking up our washing and trying to sort a warm showers host forPhnom Penh (no such luck, we left it too late). To save on cash we set up the stove on a picnic table outside the guesthouse and cooked up our own noodles for dinner. 

Our lovely hosts soon came out to see what we were up to and after a appreciative nod brought out a light and sticks of insense to keep the mozzies at bay. We ended up having a great evening with them all drinking beer and they even let us finish off their freshly caught lobster and shrimp. Dirk and Karin arrived in time for the viewing of the wedding album!

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The next morning we had a long shopping list to get so we headed the main market in the south of town to stock up on kerosene, foodand toilet paper. We’ve got a great couple of days ahead as we head north towards Phnom Penh.

  

Kampot to Takeo via Kiri Sela Cave and Temple

Having conquered the almighty Bokor Mountain yesterday we took the morning off to rest our legs and sort and re-pack our gear at the hostel.

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It has been great camping there by the river and after a huge breakfast with fresh rolls (and real butter!) we said our goodbyes and headed to the old market in Kampot to stock up on provisions for the next few days. 

The bike was looking and feeling great after the good clean we gave it last night and despite it turning into a very hot day we felt confident about our 40km cycle to Kiri Sela in Kampong Trach.

The food market was incredible – a bustling hive of activity, with hundreds of makeshift stalls selling every sea food imaginable all packed in under a low, drooping corrregated iron roof.
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We got what we needed (we’re generally living off green tea, nuts (peanuts not cashews as they are ridiculously expensive here!) noodles, rice, veg and eggs when we camp) and at around noon headed south along the same road we had come from the Vietnamese border 4 days ago.

Right from the off the first stretch was a real slog. Yesterday’s ‘victory climb’ was soon forgotten as a combination of the midday sun and a strong head wind resulted in us both feeling pretty grumpy. We didnt even have the distraction of cycling a new stretch of road to help pass the time. We agreed to stop for lunch early, taking solace in a little grove of trees down a side track. 

Fuled with food we got going again and we managed to arrive in Kampong Trach at around 4.15pm. Having cycled through the town we took a left turn down towards the temple and came across this beauty of a camping spot. After some deliberation we decided it was safe to camp. 

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We made friends with a passing farmer who was collecting his grazing cattle from the spot and made him tea. He and his little boy seemed pretty chilled when we showed him our tent, he was more interested in our stove and blow up mattresses so we assumed we were ok. 

We covered up from the midges and got cooking. We ate as the moon was coming up over the hill followed by an episode of The West Wing before we went to bed. Feeling pretty satisfied we turned over and it was then that I noticed Paddy’s back… Covered in bites… Yikes!

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Not wanting to worry too much we took an antihistamine each and turned the light off.

We woke at first light, wanting to get going towards Takeo after a quick tour of the nearby caves. While I was packing down the tent I hear a loud exclamation from Paddy. Ants everywhere, in our shoes, in our food bag…. Everywhere! It transpires we had managed to camp directly on an ant highway. 

It took a long time to shake the bags and tent free of the little buggers, but we celebrated with fried tatties and scrambled egg and finally cycled around the corner to Kiri Sela where we were immediately met by a chorus of kids wanting to be our guide. These two got the job:

  
and immediately treated us to what we later called a ‘guide off’ – interupting eachother with the same pre-learned tour script which mainly involved showing us rocks which vaguely resmbled different animals. They also showed Paddy how to make a red beak out of a plant. Needless to say we tipped them each a dollar for entertainment value. 

  
The tunnels and caves were incredible with a reclining buddah shrine in the middle. We also saw some monkeys and a spooky colony of hanging bats.

   
 
Onwards to Takeo which is approx 75km ride away. 

Bokor Hill Station

Bokor Maintain looms over Kampot and is the must see day trip on a moped out of the town. It rises up from sea level to 1048m, taller than anything in Ireland or England, but slightly less than Snowden, we’d heard from Ukrainian Kate that she cycled up there so we had to take on the challenge…

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The main climb is for 20km with an average 5% gradient, we were interested to see how the tandem was on such a climb. We did unload and pack light for the round trip… In the future we might have to take on something like this loaded up… but not yet!

We climbed steadily through the jungle road which the French built in their hey day. It was spectacular. On stops we were surrounded by jungle sounds including Gibbons and saw a huge toucan like bird which Annie identified later as a great hornbill. We didnt get the right camera lens on in time to take a close up but think we saw the same bird later on the climb.

  
The French built this road through remote and pristine jungle so they could have a casino at the top and a little church beside it: you lose all your money, walk out and choose between the altar and the sheer cliff face. It cost 1000 lives to build the road at the time but then, they did put a church up there…

Near the top there is also a huge painted buddah. We soon wished we packed more clothes for the summit! It was pretty misty and cool!

  
Now the Chinese have moved in (the summit was sold to them for $10m) and built a new bigger casino and hotel which is going to be coupled with a cruise berth in Kampot that will ferry idiots up there to gamble. The Japanese also had a base there during the war and it was on the frontline when the Vietnamese invaded in the 70s… Basically the top of the mountain is a huge and unnessary clusterf##k.

We did enjoy the view and 3 plates of local noodles however. It took us about 3.5hours with stops to get to the summit. Annie had a little sleep before we took off back down the road…

   

 

40 mins back to the start of the climb another 20mins back to our tent, a swim, beer and relax by the river by 4pm.

We decided the bike needed some tlc in the evening so we got the rags and toothbrushes out and gave her a good scrub down (the stove kerosene cane in handy for soaking the chains), then a few more beers and bed after a satisfying day.

Cambodia Day 1 – Around Kampot – Phnom Chhnork and Secret Lake

Having woken up after a good night sleep in our tent we prepared breakfast and got ready to explore the surrounding area of Kampot. We headed south into the countryside where we experienced our first glimses of rural Cambodia. We both have a good feeling about Cambodia, it feels more relaxed than Vietnam (and just as friendly) and we get a sense that wildcamping will be a lot easier over the next month. This is a good thing as its been quite a bit more expensive (Cambodia imports most things) but it’ll be interesting to see if this continues away from the touristy areas. Before we got here we heard so many reports that Cambodia was so much poorer than Thailand or Vietnam but we havent really seen this yet.

We’ve already passed lots of Wats or temples but we’ve also seen quite a number of Mosques and we even heard the callto prayer yesterday lunchtime. 
We took some air out the tires once we turned onto the dirt red track. It was good to explore without all our gear and we were soon rolling through the harvested rice fields. It’s still incredibly flat and fertile but the country here is less intesely farmed than Vietnam and there are a lot more cattle – the cows all have humps and huge flaps of skin on their necks!! We stopped at a village party (well it might have been the morning after actually) where they were playing live music. 

Our first stop were some natural caves at Phnom Chhnork which have housed a temple since the 7th Century. We were quite surprised when our guide led us through a hidden, pitch black passageway on the way out. 

 We followed a small canal for a few km until we reached a huge reservoire locally called ‘secret lake’. 

  
We chose our waterside spot and cooked up our lunch. The helinox chairs again coming into their own! 

  

  
  This dragonfly fly kept us company throughout our stop.

 
 After a quick dip to cool off we headed back completing our 45k circle, finishing the evening with a few beers and a game of chess.

Tomorrow we tackle the 1080m climb up Bokor Mountain…

Ha Tien to Kampot

Annie has been recovering from the flu so we took an extra day in Ha Thien to recover. On our ‘off day’ we had a little local ride around the headland south west and found some sleepy fishing boats and a local beach resort.

   
    
 After a nice evening playing cards and showing these kids some card tricks we retired for another early night.
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It was an early start to do the 5km to the border. Paddy picked up some kerosene (dua lao) for the stove, which came double plastic bagged, no other container!

After the border Annie’s energy was fine so we decided to skip Kep and head on for Kampot.

We had a beautiful lunchtime stop and cooked fabulous noodles under the shade of a tree. We’re finding our feet well with the cooking and needless to say, again, the Helinox chairs are marvellous!

  
Rolling into Kampot, we eventually found a uber friendly hostel with its bar emerging from the jungle right on the river….perfect to swim and relax with a beer. If any cycle tourers find themselves in Kampot it’s definitely worth heading here (Kampot River Bungalows) where we have been pitching our tent for 1$ a night.

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Cambodia immediately feels more relaxed, less traffic on the roads and Kampot seems a nice place to spend a few days.

Annie’s Birthday and the Russian Connection

International relations bode well as we’ve been spending time taking on the eastern bloc in the form of a friendly couple from St Petersburg. On the eve of Annie’s Birthday Sergei beat us at whist with his ice cold stare…then they sung happy birthday in Russian, so in return Annie rolled off a number from Oklahoma – bringing the house down in standard fashion.

There seems to be a big Russian presence here – the historic communist/socialist links remain strong. Our warm showers host, Kate, is originally from Odessa, Ukraine, but studied and lived in Moscow. We’ve been welcomed into her group of Russian friends and had the chance to join in their sunset yoga classes. Interesting folk, very serene.

Here’s out mosquito net/tent set up in their flat:

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AC seems to have given Annie a head cold, so we’ve been off the bike for another day today, but did some excellent pottering about and planning.

It’s an early start tomorrow for the onward trip to Cambodia, first up is an early morning cycle to the SUPERDONG ferry (amazing.) then a run up to the border towards Kep on the other side.

Cambodia awaits.