Crossing a land border is often an enriching experience because you go from one universe to another in very little time. When traveling by plane, for example, this experience is totally missed because you spend several hours in a bubble before landing somewhere pretty standard (let’s admit it, international airports are all very similar) and you get in another vehicle and go somewhere else also pretty standard (normally a hotel) thus not having the time to really appreciate how far you’ve gone in so little time.
That border in particular, the one we used between Vietnam and Cambodia is, to date, one of the most contrasting we’ve ever crossed. On one side, Vietnam can be, and mostly is, very noisy, busy and pretty overcrowded. Cambodia, on the other hand, is a lot quieter and much more undeveloped than its neighbour and, wow, did we flip out!
After being surprised at how easy and uneventful the actual border crossing went (we had heard horror stories of corrupted officials), the first thing we noticed is that we could hear birds singing again; sadly in most of Vietnam there isn’t much wildlife left!
From the border we had an easy two-days ride to the capital where we had two very important rdvs, and we made sure to make the best of it by taking small roads. In fact, the first afternoon was spent riding on a single-track. It was so small that we had to stop whenever a motorbike came the other way. This also gave us the chance to “speak” to the locals who couldn’t help but wonder what the hell are these two doing here?!
That look is by far the reaction we prefer the most.
We took that path to avoid a main road and because we knew that it crossed a village which is where we slept. It was the first monastery to host us since Thailand and we were happy to be back among monks… although that meant being woken up very early by chanting and bells.
Funny anecdote; before ringing the “morning gong” which was right next to our tent by the way, a young monk actually woke us up and warned us… so sweet!
We had foreseen a stressful entry to the capital but it was actually one of the easiest riding days ever; it was the day before the Chinese New Year and everyone was leaving the city meaning that the highways were crammed in the other direction and we had two lanes all for ourselves!
The first important rdv was with Dannith; he studied with Aurelie at University and lives in Phnom Penh with his beautiful wife Monica and their amazing family. It was great to see him again and to get to know them all better. They hosted us and gave us a unique insight into their culture which we’ll never forget. One of the most memorable nights, we had a Karaoke which will go down in 421adventure history 😉
The other important rdv we had in the capital was with 3 special girls to whom we donated bicycles through 88bikes. If you have no idea of what this is all about, please click HERE (2 minutes read). They all come from very difficult backgrounds and thanks to the work of another local NGO they live together in a small flat, have the chance to attend university and in the evening work in a restaurant. They can’t afford public transport so the bikes that they received will definitely make their lives a lot easier. It was a life changing experience to meet them and spend some time together and we shall forever cherish those memories…
Leaving the capital, on a hot Sunday morning, was relatively easy and we opted for a quiet alternative to the busy Highway 5 which quickly reminded us of a harsh reality of Cambodia which is easily forgotten while in Phnom Penh and other touristic cities; most of its population lives in dire conditions.
Nonetheless, people smiled and waved at us and it made us think of the genuinely beautiful people of Myanmar. We spent a few days navigating through a sea of dirt roads and sand, being February a very dry month, and enjoyed the cool shade of temples and roadside juice shops in small, quiet villages, far away from the busy tarmac roads. As always, this gave us the chance to observe simple and mundane but precious everyday scenes.
That is, until, one day, we slept in a temple which had, apart from a lot of kittens, a ruin in it’s back garden. This represented our first encounter with the two thousand years old temples of Angkor Wat.
First thing you should know about Angkor Wat and we hope that we don’t sound snobby when we say this; we weren’t sure whether we actually wanted to go there or not. We had already been to other similar but smaller sites in other SE Asian countries and this one is particularly busy simply because it’s the biggest. However, the hidden side of this success is the fact that, around Angkor Wat, there’s a lot of poverty and all the other not very nice stuff which comes with big cities which offer “opportunities” in less developed countries. What tipped the balance to going was the fact that 88bikes had organised for us another bike endowment in Siem Reap, this time for 10 bikes, so of course we went… and while there we decided to visit the temples 😜
It was mega hot and we were really tired so we only visited 1 day (most tourists buy a 3 day pass). In hindsight, hiring the services of a guide is a good idea but at the time we just couldn’t be bothered! We just wanted to wander about the huge area and we did so in the incredible company of Muntsa and Edu, a.k.a. 360graus, who are simply fantastic! We spent 24 hours together and after 2 years, we are still in touch today!
Temples visited, bikes endowed (yet another heart-warming experience that the universe threw our way!) and we were on our way to the Thai border. No, not the big, popular one, come on, you know 421adventure by now! Pailin is a much smaller border which also grants access to a very interesting part of Thailand, Chantabury Province, known for its beautiful beaches and Durian plantations and it took us about 5 days cycling to get there using very small roads.
Having taken the time (and the Dollars) to get a 2 months Thai Visa in Phnom Penh, and having decided to use a much smaller and much more “local” border in order to avoid corrupted officials and other type of problems, we were sure that this crossing was going to be a piece of cake. However, the evil Gods of public administration had decided otherwise and a huge surprise way awaiting … read all about it in our post about border issues (funny and not) right HERE.
To conclude, we loved our 28 days spent in Cambodia. It wasn’t always easy and it’s definitely not the most comfortable place to cycle, but for every drop of sweat, you’ll get back so much more worth in genuine experiences and incredible memories!
If you’re wandering exactly which way we cycled in Cambodia or any other countries we’ve been to, there’s a special page in this website where you can see where we’ve been AND where we are right now! Check out this mouth-watering map by clicking HERE.
As always, don’t forget that we also have a YouTube channel full of interesting videos about our adventure and that there’s a VLOGs section about our trips in which we try to show more of the local aspects of each country. Two of these videos are dedicated to Cambodia;
Vlog #18 – Cambodia; just flat, dusty roads ? … Link here
Vlog #19 – From mystic temples to dusty roads … Link here