For those of you who aren’t that interested in cycling stats you may want to gloss over the below.
Sisophon is 110km from Siem Reap and we wanted to do it in one day. We had a very sleepy start though and didn’t get going until 10am in the end… not a great start for a long cycle when you have only 8 hours of daylight left and it promises to be a scorching 37• until 3:30pm.
Luckily we steamed along and had our best day of cycling yet:
We set a new personal best for:
Top speed (38.4)
Average speed (24.7)
We also spent more time on the bike than resting which is also a first for us!
Saturday 13th of Feb saw us leave Seam Reap after a stay of six nights.
We had a terrific time in Seam Reap and spread our 3 day Angkor ticket over 5 days so we didn’t get ‘temple fatigue’. In the middle we had time to find someone to weld the other front rack (which had began to crack), explore the town and its MANY bars, and meet some other travellers.
We enjoyed teaming up with Sarah and Julian from Germany and coming 2nd place in the hostel pub quiz one night! We also bumped into Karin and Dierk (for the third time!!) and had dinner with them and their two friends (both experienced cycle tourers who had arrived that day) on our last night.
Gunnar, the cyclist from Norway, has been touring his whole life reckons he’s probably covered 130,000km on his bike! This is like cycling the circumstance of the Earth at the equator 3 and a bit times! He had some amazing stories and we really enjoyed meeting them.
Dierk had also bought along his Swiss army pen knife as a parting gift for us after reading on our blog that our other knife got stolen. We were both very touched by this.
Angkor has been a spectacular end to our 25 days in Cambodia and we are both ready to see some new scenery. Even some hills might be welcome!
Originally we had planned to head towards Batambang on the other (west) side of the Tonle Sap lake. We thought we could spend some time there before crossing the border at Pailin. You can apparently make this journey by boat but after looking into it and discovering the cost ($22 each + $10 for the bike) we agreed it wasn’t worth it and so we decided to head north towards Sisophon instead and then onwards to the crossing at Poipet, leaving Cambodia slightly earlier than expected.
Siem Reap once again blew our budget so we plan to get back to basics for a week or so in Thailand as we head East towards Bangkok. We plan to take the scenic route and will probably make a detour down through Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctury in Chachoengsao province and then head up to the popular Kao Yai nature reserve in Prachin Buri province. We have heard that both offer great camping spots.
We were all set for an early start from the hostel in Phnom Penh, that is until we met Jo from Clapton the night before leaving and one thing led to another…so we had a 10am rather than 7am start. The benefit was that we met an expat cyclist at breakfast who pointed us to the Giant shop in town.
Our main purchases there being dry lube and a bike computer which has turned Annie into a hard taskmaster – regularly calling out average speeds, distances covered and time on bike as we zip along. It turns out we travel quite a bit faster than we guessed – around 22km/hr over the ~400km since we left PP.
Our first stop out of town was at the NGO school which our Warm Showers host Raphael runs. It was interesting seeing the kids running around doing English lessons and sharing lunch with the volunteers. A small way up the road we found two Wats – one didn’t let us camp, but the second did – providing a very, very welcome bath (big tub of water and a bucket).
The next morning we did set out early and racked up miles fast, that is until we hit an unpaved section of the main highway. It was tough, very tough. We bought some surgical masks (standard local attire) and dug deep for an hour or so waiting for the end of it…it didn’t end for at least 20km, truck after truck engulfing us in dirt. Eventually we couldn’t bear it and had to stop – checking the map it was only 3km to Kampong Thmar, so we climbed back on and the paved road did thankfully return in the town.
The other side of town on a pleasant paved road we crossed paths with a Belgian couple cycling the other way – they were 8 months into a basically identical, but reverse tour as ourselves. Over the course of 10mins we soaked up some great advice on routes and countries. It’s very reassuring to meet kindred spirits, we are not insane! We reached our stop in Kampong Thom with 105km on the clock, a tough day.
That night we realised we had an extra day to burn before our host could accommodate us in Siem Riep so we decided a 60km run out and back to the Sombor Prei Kuh temples would be worthwhile. They were the capital of the Angkorian empire before (7th Century) the famous Angkor Wat and they felt like a nice little warm up for the many temples still to come. It was very peaceful strolling through the woods seeing crumbling ruins in competition with nature.
At the virtually empty site we could really appreciate the temples properly…
Day 4 was a good day as we turned west and the NE wind came slightly behind us, could we fashion a sail to harness this on the bike – hmmm. George Dadd, get thinking!
95km was gobbled up easily and we stopped at the Spean Praptos bridge which is an 85m long arched bridge dating back to Angkor and is still in use. A perfect place to camp beside; or so we thought!
Half way through cooking our pasta some torches wandered down to meet us, Perun introduced himself and warned that in this town the gangsters drunk in the bar close by. He also mentioned the words ‘murderers’ and snakes. SNAKES – Judas! (incidentally we’d run one down that day accidentally and didn’t fancy any playback). Perun very kindly led us up the bank to the front of his sister’s shop where we re-pitched the tent. Then two local police arrived to check what we were up to. These local visits were made complete with the police chief arriving to double check we were ok and to offer the use of his station to camp instead.
The lesson – don’t pitch the tent in a big town – but it was nice to feel the warmth of Perun’s family and the police towards the crazy westerners. I guess the same would happen if two Cambodians pitched a tent in Hyde Park. Would it? I’d like to think so anyway.
It was the first cold night we’ve had in our tent and we got to use ‘Big Agnes’, our double sleeping bag for the first time. We fell sound asleep to the howling of dogs and shouting of drunk gangstars and their women close by.
Day 5 and we only had 60km to cover to Siem Riep. It went quick and by midday we arrived at The Roluos Group of temples east of the city. This is where the temples of Angkor start and a wonderful spot for lunch. We took a tour of the Bakong temple and it really was impressive – no stupid shots riding a lion here – this was a spectacular sight.
After looking at some great scale models of the major Angkor temples which locals had carved close by we left for Siem Riep ready for Temple mania.
We make our way through the maze of empty rooms and long hallways, poking our heads behind solid teak doors and ascending grand colonial style staircases, clouds of dust created with every step. This place is wonderfully eerie and we feel we could be in some sort of adventure video game.
At first you might ask why Paddy and I are visiting a collection of rubble filled rooms connected by dark corridors and step ladders instead of strolling around Phnom Penh’s Russian Market or relaxing in the shade of The Royal Palace. But this isn’t any old building on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, it is in fact the chosen space for Cambodia’s first major arts centre. And its no building, it’s an abandonned boat.
With its total of six floors and earthy facade which, from afar looks like rust but is in fact red paint, the structure certainly commands your attention.
Originally built to be a luxury floating hotel, but left half complete, the boat now sits on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River, north of the city. There is no doubt it’s an amazing space, brewing with unlocked potential – even the harshest cynic couldn’t help getting a little excited.
Naturally, the project sparked both our interests, me having worked in the arts for 8 years and Paddy being a chartered Marine Engineer. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever find another project which marries our two interests quite like this one – indeed, if the project takes off, as far as I know, it will be the first floating arts centre in the world (at least on this scale).
Three international ex-pats, who together bring representation and expertise from the hospitality, business and artistic sectors, are the brains behind the project. I came across their plans while doing some research about Cambodia in Vietnam and instantly made contact with Dana who has lived and worked in the Cambodian arts scene for 17 years and leading on the creative side. We were lucky that her schedule allowed us time to visit the space.
While Paddy donned his headtorch and climbed down inside the hull to examine the engines, watertanks and quality of the welding, Dana and I headed skywards (via a rickety ladder) her explaining the overall vision for each floor as we go.
As we move up she takes me through where the education and library/archive spaces would be housed, where she’d ideally like to knock down walls to create group workshop spaces and where there would be office space for a number of in-resident arts organisations. A whole floor would be dedicated to offering a range of artists affordable studios and the deep bow has the potential to be turned into a tiered garden.
As we continue to move up, the spaces become more and more ‘finished’ and you begin to really see the potential for where impromptu performances and installations could take place. The upper floors would be dedicated to what we call in the arts ‘commercial activity’ – an essential lifeline for any arts space, and an important ingredient when mixing leisure with cultural activity. Most people are unlikely to visit any building unless there are some great places to socialise and be merry with friends, and I’ve visited some arts centres where the designers have forgotten that food and drink can also be counted as important cultural capital.
The top floor which houses some of the three largest spaces, would be used as an open performance space/cinema, dance studio and huge gallery. There is also an open top pool already installed which would offer a paradise like retreat for sun worshippers, offering spectacular views across the city.
The project has a huge number of hurdles to jump before it can really start to take shape however. Currently, these mainly consist of construction questions – Paddy is trying to help with this. Surveys to determine any issues require a certain amount of seed funding, and as one might expect, sponsorship and/or central funding are hard to drum up for an arts project which is still in it’s infancy… ‘harbour trials’ is hardly a sexy phrase when talking to philanthopists…
After the little I’ve learnt about Cambodia’s arts sector during my short stay in Phnom Penh, I’m genuinely excited about this project. The artistic community has been desperately recovering from the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s when 90% of all Cambodian artist and arts academics were rounded up and executed. Entire art forms were very nearly wiped out (many of them ancient traditions) and the past 40 years have naturally focussed on rediscovery and consolidation, with an emphasis on passing these art forms on to the next generation. From the looks of things, organisations such as Cambodian Living Arts have played their part well in ensuring the survival of this cultural heritage.
However, Cambodia (particularly Phnom Penh) now feels it’s on the crest of a new phase of cultural development; one which focusses on innovation, creativity and artistic exploration. Led by a new generation of artists who can drive Cambodia’s cultural sector forwards and who will mirror the Cambodia of today. But these young artists need a dedicated space, somewhere which will act as an incubator for ideas, skill development and artistic dialogue. A space which will support a diverse melting pot of current creative thinkers, audiences and businesses and which will help to support both the old and the new. A space which will support the social and environmental sustainability of Cambodia’s capital and which can attract swathes of foreign visitors as well as bring the local community together.
Apologies, perhaps getting a bit too ‘arty’ and utopian in that last paragraph, but I can’t help myself!! 🙂
I’m so pleased I was able to see this space and if you are interested to know more or wish, (perhaps?) to contribute to the crowd funding campaign to help get this project off the ground please click the link below. Please help to share with anyone who might also be interested.
Phnom Penh really is a fantastic city buts lot of travellers will stop here for a few nights, only having time to hit the main tourist attractions such as The Silver Pegoda, The Palace and S-21 Museum before moving on.
As well as needing a stop to re-charge our batteries and stock up on a few essentials, I was particularly interested in exploring Phnom Penh as it is known to have an industrious and developing arts and cultural scene (my line of work). Cambodian arts have a particularly sad history as they were virtually eradicated by the Khmer Rouge. The city has a vey high percentage of people under 30.
I had already read about this project (The Boat) before arriving, which has big plans to turn a 6 storey floating boat into Cambodia’s first multi-disciplinary arts centre. We were lucky enough to meet one of the founders and have a tour of the space. Separate blog soon to follow!
We ended up having nearly a week in the city (waiting for Paddy’s Thai Visa) and we are so glad we did as those few extra days enabled us to escape the main tourist areas and explore the local ex-pat arts scene.
Phnom Penh has a large and very active ex-pat community (especially French). Many of them are here running or working for various NGO’s. Others have come to set up their own hotels and bars while others are artists, writers etc.
The best way to tap into this more local scene is to locate the monthly listings. You can pick up a copy of Asia Life or a Pocket Guide:
Alternatively here are a few places we visited during our time in the city:
Java Arts Cafe, near Independance monument
A great cafe/exhibition space – often filled with expats who go to catch up on email. Make sure you explore upstairs too. They have events running in the evenings.
META House, Sothearos Blvd.
Exhibition space downstairs with a covered but open cinema space, restaurant and bar upstairs. Food is good. They have DJs playing regularly (although it was pretty quiet when we were there) and screen some great independent films and documentaries earlier in the evening.
We went to a live music night on a Friday night at cloud which is a converted house South of the city. Large bar downstairs with a small performance and balcony space on the second floor. We saw 3 local bands who were all at a pretty good amateur level. Got very busy with a mixed international ex-pat crowd from around 10.30pm
Directly on the river front and has a special mention in the Rough Guide so naturally attracts a strong tourist crowd but it has spectacular views from both balconies over the river. Exhibition spaces and an info desk. They often host live music, a good singer songwriter was playing when we went.
Traditional Dance Show at the Museum
Again, naturally a complete tourist trap, but this dance show is fully supported by Cambodian Living Arts and it’s a good thing to go and support. The show is an hour in length and showcases a mix of traditional court and folk Cambodian dances. It’s tastefully done and didn’t feel too chliched or pander too much to the tourist crowd.
Because Paddy has an Irish passport and we would be crossing the Thai/Cambodia border by bike we knew we would need to apply for a 30 day visa for him at the embassy in Phnom Penh. (My British passport allows me a 30 day exemption visa, see our section on Visas under ‘Before We Go’ for more info).
A warning to other cyclists/border crossing travellers, do not listen to agents who say you need proof of either certain bank funds or flights into Thailand to get a visa. They are trying to swindle you. Guys hang outside/in the embassy and will try to convince you too. You can do it all yourself.
Simply go to the embassy with a passport photo and complete the form (before 4.00). Our visa cost $40 and because we are travelling by bike we needed to write a brief letter detailing our general travel plans – e.g what border crossing, wherel we plan to exit etc.
We found the Embassy very friendly and efficient. Visa pick up is currently (Jan 2016) between 3-4.30pm week days.
During the ride into Phnom Penh we ran over a particularly large bump and the cross bar of the right side of our front rack broke cleanly off.
We were able to do a good temporary fixing job with 2 large cable ties (well worth taping a stash of these to your frame along with your spare spokes) and some gaffa tape.
We had had concerns about the front frame for a while; the make is Avenir and its made of aluminium meaning its a lot harder to weld back together. Our back frame is solid steel.
To add insult to injury, just before heading off to seek out a bike shop we managed to shear the bolt inside the frame – now we had two things to fix…
Phnom Penh has a few bike shops near where we are staying (close to the Royal Palace).
The Giant Bike store near the Olympic stadium is the best store we found. The multi-storey store has an excellent range of new bikes, spare parts, helmets, tools, electronics, tyres, Degreaser etc. The clothes are very expensive though and they don’t stock much for women and we couldn’t find a front rack.
Flying Bikes (mainly a workshop) and its counterpart store down the road, Flying Bikes 2, have a range of mountain bikes as well as a fairly good collection of accessories – if you’re in need of a new helmet, clips, gloves etc. Again, they don’t stock women’s clothes so if your female don’t get your hopes up. They didn’t have any front racks either.
There is also Vicious Cycles on street 144 who run cycle tours – the guys there have a small workshop, speak good English and could probably help cyclists with minor problems such as broken cables and spokes but they were unable to help us with the bolt and told us that it was unlikely that we would find a new front rack in Phnom Penh, apparently you can’t get them here.
It became clear that what we needed was a good garage and mechanic followed by a welder who could work with aluminium.
After stopping at about ten different motorcycle garages someone suggested we head to the back of the new market and try there.
Alumiun welder in action.
SUCCESS! After enlisting the help of a very helpful tuk tuk driver to translate, one of the guys at the main garage extracted the bolt (by simply tapping a groove into the bolt end to screwdriver it out) from the frame in about two minutes and Paddy was pulled onto the back of a motorbike and taken up the road to a guy who could weld the aluminium. The whole thing cost
If this happens to you, wherever you are, be sure to have your rack on the other side reinforced at the same time (even if it doesn’t seem to need it). If one side has broken, the other side is sure to follow – this is what happened to us on the road to Seam Reap and we had to go through the same process all over again in a different town!
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.