Stories

 

Cambodia


From the 26th of January to the 27th of February, 2015

After crossing the border, I stopped in Stung Treng, a dusty town were tourists are only transiting. For me, it was the starting point of a three days bicycling journey on the Mekong Discovery Trail. The 110 kilometers long trail runs along the Mekong River and crosses several islands reachable by boat. Following the fishing restrictions aiming to protect the Irrawaddy dolphins in the area, this project provides an alternative income to fishing communities.

I met Marine and Lennon who had already cycled about 300 kilometers from Siem Reap till here. They had already booked the bus to Kratie, but after a brief description of the trail, they looked at each other with a smile on their lips...

We sent our big bags directly to Kratie and I rented a mountain bike at Xplor Asia. As of the first kilometers, we were greeted by children shouting Helloooooooo. A word which would echo throughout this journey. We cycled from village to village on a red dirt road and discovered the rural life of the inhabitants. We spent the first night in a homestay located on Koh Preah island. We were the only foreigners. In order for everyone to benefit from this project, a system of rotation has been established. In the village, we discovered the daily life of women, working the rice from the seeds to the noodles.

    

The second day started with a two-hours boat trip to the island of Koh Phdau. In this dry period, rapid formed, small sandbanks appeared and our captain made its way avoiding rocks exposed by the low water. Petrified trees growing almost horizontally reflected the height and power of the Mekong during the rainy season. After being dropped on a sandy riverbank, we cycled on a sandy track winding through a forest with autumnal colors. There was not sound, excepted that of parrots flying away. The scenery was gorgeous and the trail was lot's of fun. It took us 6 hours to cycle 40 kilometers under a burning sun and without seeing any house. In the village of Kho Phdau, we found a homestay which seemed momentarily closed in the absence of the owner. One of the neighbor opened the house and installed mattresses and mosquito nets on the floor. In the evening another neighbor brought the meal she freshly cooked. No one spoke English, but with a few gestures and a little imagination we understood each other. In the village, a little girl jumped into my arms. Her mother seemed just as surprised as me ... Accompanied by her girlfriends, we admired a gorgeous sunset.

    

The following day, we embarked on a ferry taking us to the mainland for another 40 kilometers of asphalted road to Kratie. Although it was the end of the bicycling trip for Marine and Lennon, I decided to extend this wonderful experience along the Mekong. Marine generously offered me her bicycle to which I installed a luggage rack and a wooden board to steady my giant backpack. I was ready for a solo ride to Kompong Cham, located about 120 kilometers downstream. A relatively uncrowded asphalted road continued along the Mekong, crossing Muslim communities, each village having a little mosque. Grannies sitting on their porch were laughing at me seeing me carrying my big bag.When disembarking from the ferry in Stueng Trang, a little boy came to my rescue and helped me pushing my bike all the way up the dusty road. "Ar Kun Tom Tom!"

After a good night rest in a guest house, I was ready for my final ride to Kompong Cham. On the way I made a stop at Hanchhey Pagoda, perched on a hill. The slope was so steep that after 10 meters, I had to turn back. With my big bag, no way I could climb. I asked a lady to keep my bike and bag. When I returned, she handed me her passport picture and made me understand she wanted a picture of me ... When I see how much people enjoy looking at their face on the pictures, I think it would be nice to travel with a small portable printer or maybe an old style polaroid !

    

This cycling trip was the best way to experience the rural life and have an absolutely authentic contact with the local population. They are not used to seeing tourists. In five days I have not seen any, apart from my night in Kratie.

Click here to see the video of the bicycle trip.

In Kompong Cham, I rode to the hills of the woman and the man to admire the view, the temples and the monkeys which seemed to enjoy the location. Mothers were grooming their tiny little baby while young monkeys played with whatever they could find. On the way back I stopped at Wat Nokor, a temple which was built in the ruins of an ancient temple. Back in Kompong Cham, I crossed the bamboo bridge, built by hand each year after the rainy season.

In the bus to Siem Reap, I met Christophe, with whom I crossed the Laos border a few days earlier and I met Telissa and Benjamin. In Siem Reap, we rented a tuk tuk to visit the most remote temples. The Beng Mealea has been damaged by bombings, resulting in mountains of stone blocks which the vegetation has taken over. It almost felt like explorers discovering a hidden site for the first time. We then reached Kbal Spean, also known as the River of 1000 Lingas. Hindu mythological motifs are sculpted in the rock of the river bed. We ended the day by the temple of Banteay Srei, a beautiful temple which in view of the delicate decorations was probably built by women. The sunset light accentuated the pink color of the stones which made it look every more mystic. This was definitely one of my favorite all Angkor temples.

    

The next morning, we woke up at 4.30 am, cycled for 45 minutes with our headlight to reach Srah Srang for a beautiful sunrise over the lake. To accompany this magical moment, a little boy recited a nonchalant mantras with the same few words he repeated non-stop for half an hour. (Postcard) one dollar, one dollar, one dollar, one dollar, give me candy, give me candy, give me candy, give me candy ... During the day we made a great bike loop to visit the main temples, excepted Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom which we kept for the last day. Not being a passionate about old stones, I first thought that the three days pass might be too much. But at the end it allowed us to take our time, observing the chaos caused by guided groups and especially enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the place when they left. Each temple was different and each site had its appeal.

    

After a day break enjoying the guest house swimming pool, we started the third day with the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We were far from being the only ones, but despite the crowd it was beautiful. While groups listened to their guides explanations on the first floor of Angkor Wat, we took advantage of having the highest temple almost to ourselves. We then went to Angkor Tom before the crowds and the heat. The Bayon was definitely another of my favorite temple. It is hard not to get caught by the hundreds of faces carved in the rock !

The evening before we left Siem Reap, I offered Marine's bicycle to Vilay our tuk-tuk driver. Speechless, he left his shyness and cultural barrier aside and hugged me.

    

Together with Christophe, we continued our journey to Battambang. On the outskirts of the colonial center, the barracks and hangars of an abandoned train station were homing poor families. One could walk past this slum without even noticing what is happening a few meters away from chic cafes and restaurants. When walking through their camp, a lady offered me a piece of the sweet potatoes she was boiling. Despite the poverty and misery, they keep smiling and share the little they have.

With a motorcycle, we reached Samrong Wat, a temple which was converted into an execution camp by the Khmer Rouge. Hard to contain emotions while observing the self explanatory bas-reliefs of the memorial erected to the memory of the 10'000 men, women and children which were executed here. We then visited the Angkorian temple of Banan and Phnom Sampeou. Every day after the sunset, thousands of bats are emerging from a cave, creating a cloud rolling over the treetops. What a surreal experience !

In Kompong Chhnang, downstream of the Tonle Sap lake, we discovered the immensity of the floating village. On a rowing boat, we navigated through the little channels borded by more or less elaborate houseboats, aligned one beside the other. Little boats delivered huge blocks of ice to keep their "fridge" cold while the grocer went door to door to sell his goods. Electric cables held by bamboo stick were supplying power for televisions or mechanical workshops. On the banks of the rivers, the stilt houses were perched a dozen meters above the ground. From the boardwalk, the view overlooking the river offered a beautiful view of the harbor activity. A few kilometers away, the village of Ondong Rossey was specialized pottery. A family workshop produced wood stoves while others specialize in pots or sculptures.

    

We spent three days in Phnom Penh, just enough time to enjoy the beauty of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, and to get a big slap while visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a French high school turned into a torture center by the Khmer Rouge. Cells, objects of torture, blood drops on the floors and pictures of thousands of victims, all is there to make you have a glimpse of what it was like. Out of the 16'000 inmates who were tortured here, only seven of them survived the genocide and we met one of them. At the age of 85, Chum Mey recounts the atrocity he went through. Prisoners were then secretly taken to the Choeung Ek killing fields, about 15 kilometers away. Equipped with an audio guide, we discovered the site where victims were barbarously executed and thrown into mass graves. It's been 40 years and bones and clothing continue to be rejected by the earth. In the stupa built in memory of the victims, thousands of skulls and bones found in the pits are displayed. For more details on the website and a good summary of the Khmer Rouge Regime, click here.

We made our way to the quiet little town of Kampot and explored the nearby salt fields, pepper plantations and Kep.

    

After two weeks traveling with Christophe, this is where our ways parted. I gave myself a break to relax for a few days on Koh Thonsáy and Koh Rong Samloem Islands, my first beach in nearly three months of travel !

I really enjoy my Cambodian journey and my encounters with the Khmers (Cambodians). If they were sometimes shy in the less touristy areas, you only have to send them a smile to get a mirror effect. How many times were we invited to share their lunch ? How many times did I invite myself to their garden to look at them while cleaning fish, repairing fishnets, painting their boat, cooking, doing pottery or weaving? You just need to take the time, to look around, to be open and curious to discover an authentic Cambodia.

Click here to read the following story about my journey in Myanmar.

Album "Cambodia - February 2015"

Video : "Cambodia"
Video : "Bicycling the Mekong Discovery Trail"