We always thought of ourselves as adventurous eaters – generally up for trying most things.
We realised we weren’t, after visiting this restaurant in Poipet. This is a taster of the menu.
Half of it they didn’t even bother to translate, who knows what’s in those dishes…
We bottled it and went for plain rice.
There’s only so much gambling it’s worth doing when you’re cycling seven hours a day. It wouldn’t be fun for anyone spewing up a “steamed youngest baby cow in uterus” at the side of the road.
There was pretty much no other choice of place to eat in Poipet, and this menu is a good metaphor for the town itself. Strange, confusing and pretty disgusting.
It’s a dirty, dusty and busy border town between Cambodia and Thailand, full of people trying to rip you off and scam you. People harass you, and raw sewage runs through the streets. Trip advisor describe it as follows: “Poipet is, in the view of many people who travel through there, a disgrace to Cambodia’s young tourism infrastructure”.
Thankfully we only stayed one night, and the rest of Cambodia was nothing like Poipet. You can see the full photo album for Cambodia here.
After a few days off in capital Phnom Penh, we cycled a big 160km day to give us a good start to the next big city, Siem Reap. At a lunch stop at a roadside café, we bumped into fellow British cyclists, Joe and (another) Katie.
Joe and Katie are doing a bike tour across Asia to explore social initiatives in two fields: sustainable energy and the education of women and girls. In their own words:
“Meeting social enterprises and charities working in these fields, Katie and Joseph hope to gain an understanding of the challenges they face and the ingenuity with which they tackle them.
They hope to raise awareness of the work of these organisations and initiatives by growing lively social media accounts, writing articles and engaging national media organisations.”
They have a cool website, if you’d like to learn more.
We were heading the same way, so teamed up for a few days. We followed Highway Six, which only a couple of years ago been widened and resurfaced.
It’s a near perfect surface for cycling, which was brilliant as various blogs prior to the roadwork describe it as being unsealed and hellish.
As it happened it was a great ride, punctuated by stops at roadside cafes and markets to eat and shelter from the heat.
Accommodation is cheap here, but there are long stretches with little provision, so we expected to have to camp in some places. There are so many people everywhere, and no such thing as campsites so it’s quite hard to find a secluded, safe place to pitch a tent.
Thankfully, Joe and Katie introduced us to a great way to find safe accommodation. Often small towns won’t have a hotel, but they almost always have a temple.
The temples are open to the public, and are run by monks who live on the grounds. They are a sort of safe haven, and a roof over the head for local people who are travelling through, or even sometimes people who are homeless.
We rolled into one, and through a variety of our very limited Khmer (Cambodian language) and charades, asked permission from the head monk to stay on the grounds. He was happy for us to stay and showed us a place we could set up our tent.
A short while later, an English speaking monk introduced himself and invited us to come inside and sleep in the actual temple. It was a beautiful place to sleep with paintings all over the walls and ceiling. It was so hot we didn’t bother getting our tent out, but just slept on mats underneath the painted roof.
Monk days start early, so we were up at 5am to pack up and get moving. The bonus of getting up and out early was watching the sunrise.
The following night, after a long day we pulled up at another temple. We rolled in, and before we’d even asked permission, a smiling monk came over and said:
“You sleep here!”
He ushered us into the main building to introduce us to the Head Monk. The boss didn’t speak any English, but a smiling man called Sam translated for us. Sam had fled to the USA as a refugee in the late 1970s when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and now lived in Sacramento. He was back in Cambodia as his father had recently passed away.
Sam explained they were more than happy for us to stay, and really enjoyed hearing about both of our bike trips. He went on to say we shouldn’t sleep outside, and offered us two small rooms that didn’t have any monks in them.
A kind monk showed us where we could put our things and lit some candles for us in the rooms as they had no lights.
We had a “shower” which consisted of filling a pail of water from a big stone tub and pouring it on your head. Then we dropped off our bags and proceeded to eat some food.
We had a terrifying experience half way through dinner.
The monk who had lit the candles, had balanced them on top of a plastic tray by melting wax, then putting the candles in the wax thus holding them upright.
There were loads of stumps there, and a holder for incense so we assumed that was the done thing and didn’t give it a second glance.
Whilst sitting on the porch of one of the rooms, Joe happened to notice some strange light coming from the other room next door.
Realising what it was, we rushed in to find the candle had burned down, melted the plastic and was starting to catch onto the rest of the plastic tray. We sprayed water from a water bottle and put out the small flame before there was any damage done.
It made us shudder thinking about what could have happened if Joe hadn’t noticed when he did. The bed was wooden, there was a mosquito net which could have gone up in seconds.
Although we didn’t light the candle or put it there, we probably should have flagged it earlier and moved it. Definitely a lesson learned – thankfully without any major damage to the room or us.
We left early the next morning, here we are setting off.
A short day’s ride, and we were in Siem Reap, a city toward the west of the country. It’s famous for being close to the ancient temples of Cambodia, the main one of which is Angkor Wat which features on the national flag and is the main tourist attraction.
Angkor Wat was built 800 years ago, and is said to be the largest religious monument in the world. It’s part of a larger network of temples that made up the ancient capital of the Khmer empire.
At it’s peak, the city supposedly housed over a million people, and according to this was the largest city in the world until the industrial revolution.
It’s possible to cycle round the temples, but we fancied a day off so hired Leng, a tuk tuk driver, to take us round. To catch the sunrise, you need to be up at 4am but it’s worth it to watch the sun slowly light up what was once the biggest city in the world.
The rest of the day was spent dotting round the temples. Many of them are well preserved, and it’s possible to climb to the top and look out over the jungle - a privilege that 1,000 years ago was reserved only for the king.
One of the coolest ones was Ta Prohm – the temple where they filmed a scene for the 2001 Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider film. It’s so old, trees have grown all over it and the roots flow down the walls like lava.
Angelina Jolie has recently released a new film called “First They Killed My Father”, the premiere of which was actually at Angkor Wat a few days after we left. It’s advertised all over Cambodia and is based on a book about the Khmer Rouge who were in power between 1975 and 1979 and were responsible for killing 25% of all Cambodians. See more in previous post here. The film is available on Netflix.
It was fascinating talking to our driver Leng about his experience during that time.
“I was very young so don’t remember much. I do remember there was not enough food. We were very hungry, only small bowl of rice a day for the whole family. My smaller brother died of hunger.”
We talked about his life in Cambodia now:
“I used to be police officer, but didn’t earn enough money, so I went to school to study English and became a tuk tuk driver. This is now my third tuk tuk. I am saving up to buy a bigger one – some tourists they are so fat they cannot fit in my tuk tuk!”
“There are elections next year. I want to vote to change the government. The guy has been in power for very long time, there is so much corruption. He is a military guy, he only focus on protection (defence), and not focus on economy. Many people still hungry.”
The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has been in power for more than 30 years. There is an article on BBC posted on the 20th February 2017 describing how the Cambodian parliament has recently approved legal changes that will effectively bar Prime Minister Hun Sen's main rival from participating in politics. Read full article here.
We said goodbye to Joe and Katie the following day, and began a 400km ride to Bangkok.
Aside from the strange experience in Poipet, the border crossing was no problem and we entered Thailand.
It’s noticeable almost straight away the improvement in living standards and how much more developed and wealthy Thailand is. We’re also back on the left of the road now, although it’s still mostly optional.
There are very few towns between the Cambodian border and Bangkok, so we spent another night camping in the grounds of a temple.
Monks are celibate, and in Thailand are not allowed to touch women. According to this, “there is a rule forbids monks to touch woman's bodies to prevent distraction as the monks might not already achieve enlightenment, they can be distracted by lust”.
Whilst Katie stood respectfully at the door of the temple, Ewan went to ask if we could camp in the grounds. The monks were very welcoming and friendly and beckoned us in. They spoke little English, but we had a brief exchange:
“Where you from?”
“Ah, Dundee United!!”
Then they all burst out laughing.
Absolutely no idea how the Thai monks got wind of Dundee United, and can only think that they play in orange which is the same colour they wear. It was clearly a great in joke, and they were delighted to meet someone from Scotland.
Whilst they wouldn’t shake hands with Katie, they were very happy for us to stay and had no problem with her being around.
We were up at 5am the next day and were packed up and ready to leave around 0630, when a smiley guy called Son came over. He had a bit of English, and said:
“You join us for breakfast, after the monks have finished pray”
Son wasn’t a monk, but there were loads of non monks arriving by bus – men, woman and children. We had no idea what was going on, but gratefully accepted.
We waited for around an hour whilst the monks chanted, and were then beckoned up the stairs into the main hall. All the monks were sat on a raised stage, and everyone else was sat around the room.
We were handed a huge bowl of rice by a happy cooking lady who then pointed at us. We assumed she meant the rice was for us to eat, but even by our standards of eating it was vast. Katie was then handed a bowl of fruit.
Various people came over and started gesturing towards a table containing more rice and fruit. After much gesturing and demonstrating, it transpired that we were required to move sideways down the table, depositing a spoon of rice from our big bowl, into each of the rice bowls on the table, and a wrapped fruit in each of the wrapped fruit bowls.
Katie was also required to have her hand on both the rice bowl, and the fruit bowl. We were the source of much amusement for the room, and when we eventually worked out what we were supposed to do there was a small cheer from the cooking ladies and various other people watching.
They were so excited we’d worked it out, the lady was taking photos of us, and kindly took one on our camera.
You can see the monks sat on the left – and us laughing at how long it had taken us to work out what to do.
A truly monumental meal followed, which we enjoyed sat cross legged on the floor with a few of the friends we’d made during the rice ceremony.
We said many Thai thank yous, and left absolutely stuffed around 8am for the final leg to Bangkok.
We discussed if we’re doing the right thing asking if we can camp in the temples as we don’t want to take advantage of the hospitality of the monks, or put them in an awkward position with their rules regarding women etc.
If we ever felt like we were taking the piss or being culturally insensitive, we would stop straight away. Truth is, the reaction we’ve had in both Cambodia and Thailand is near always positive.
When they speak English they love asking us about our trip, and where we’re from. Even when they can’t, they find it funny to look at our bikes and our kit. Miming our cycling trip, and showing cycling related tan lines is always the source of amusement.
In a lot of these places they don’t get white people stopping often, so it’s cause for excitement to have a couple of Falang (Thai for white person) on site.
We think we’re perceptive enough to know when we’re not wanted, but it’s not been the case so far and they have been welcoming, friendly and interested in us and our trip.
Here’s Ewan trying to explain to a young monk called Vindee about our trip and where we come from.
We had a great tailwind into Bangkok so covered the 400k in two and half days.
It’s great to be here, and this completes the first section of our South East Asia leg.
We’re stocking up on things like new bike parts, and we bought a new camp stove the other day which was very exciting…
Next country is Myanmar, but we’re stopping here for a few days before heading off again to explore the city and surrounding area.
It’s been a great introduction to South East Asia and we’re looking forward to seeing more. You can see our route as we progress on the live map here.