Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Riding the banks of the Mekong - Mekong Discovery Trail Cambodia

Summary
- Our final week cycling!
- After leaving a lot of our gear in Phnom Penh, we bussed to Stung Treng and followed the Mekong River as closely as we could all the way back to PP
- Spent nights in Koh Preah, Koh Khnhear, Koh Phdau, Kratie and Kampong Cham - cycling route description & detailed map to follow!
- We enjoyed following the 'Mekong Discovery Trail', practicing our khmer and eating local food!
- Currently spending 4 weeks volunteering with Flame in Phnom Pehn (www.flamecambodia.org)  These guys are worth checking out we reckon!
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It was 10am and we'd reached a fork in the road. Straight ahead to stay on the east side of the river, or turn right to a ferry landing, a small boat and an unknown adventure on an island in the middle of the Mekong.

We turned right.

It was Day One of our final week of cycling - a week that would take us on variety of small gravel paths, dirt roads, remote villages and even some single track mountain biking whilst staying as close to the Mekong River as possible. In preparation for this, we had significantly reduced what we were carrying on the bikes, had scoured the internet and cycle blogs for information and had quizzed every local we could find. It sounded like it had the potential to be a great week.....or a terrible one!

Stung Treng Market and the start of our Cambodian Mekong Adventure

And so, with a fair amount of adventurous intrigue and enthusiasm for the unknown we turned right, off the main road for our first village homestay on a tiny island in the middle of the mighty Mekong River. We felt ready - the previous day we had stocked up on bananas, a pineapple and a packet of Oreo cookies (our cycling necessities!).

A bit of context!


Setting out down alongside Mekong (just to left of the huts)

Leaving the tar seal - woop woop!
New bridge construction - happening all over the show!

With us on the 10min ferry ride across the river to Koh Preah was an egg vendor (carrying an impressive amount of eggs in giant baskets on his motorbike) an icecream man and several other guys on motorbikes. Our vessel was a barge - a wooden platform spread across two canoe hulls and an impressive crank-start motor.  On arrival we biked along the few kms of road to the village and were promptly welcomed by the school teacher who poked his head out the window as we pedaled up.

Turned out he was the village leader, Saylom and he organised us a homestay within minutes. And so, by 11am we were settled in, chilling out on a hammock on the first day of our (last) cycle adventure. Quite a change from the usual cycling hours we had been doing. Being active relaxers - it was a good challenge stopping this early in the morning when we felt like we were just getting into it!

Quiet rural riding

Inspiration for when our bikes feel too heavy!

The first of 7 ferries - our ride to Koh Preah

Check out the egg man!!

Some cyclists cover the 145km from Stung Treng to Kratie in one long day on the main road - we took four days and were so glad to finish on a bit of an adventure - these villages experience a lot less frequent tourism so we enjoyed being the only outsiders for a few days.

We wrestled with a few things over these first few homestay nights. Firstly, price. One homestay had offered us food at an outlandishly expensive price so we politely declined and went to forage out our own feed in the village - while we wanted to support local tourism initiatives, we didn't want to set, or continue a precedent that westerners will pay whatever price for food, especially when we could easily eat down the road for about an eighth of the initial price suggested. As it was, accommodation in these homestays was more than we would usually pay, but in the spirit of community development and being looked after while off the beaten track, we were happy to pay a fair price.

Secondly, communication!! Our Khmer stretched as far as asking how much something cost, counting to ten and greeting/introducing ourselves. Despite thinking we COULD ask for food, we still found ourselves in an awkward situation one night where we thought we had agreed on a price for some rice, but it became increasing obvious that the family we were hanging out with were unsure why we were still sitting with them as they sat down to share their evening meal! It ended up with them offering us some but it being very clear there wasn't actually enough for us. We declined, retreated (with both parties being quite confused) and desperately wandered through the village looking for another option. Thankfully we found one! (Turned out they were the breakfast restaurant & previous conversation & prices only related to that).

Another challenge - the village soundtrack! Generators, metal grinders, kids, horns, midnight herds of cows with neck bells, dawn roosters, dog howling at 1am and motorbikes were our constant friends!! Ahhh, the serenity!

Our first homestay night in Koh Preah with Chanyee

Leaving Koh Preah

The family we were having fun learning Khmer with until we realised we had overstayed our welcome!

Homestay family in Koh Khnhear, the night before heading over to the island

Village life, Koh Khnhear

We were stoked it hadn't rained more leading up to our visit
Two young homestay boys who were quite fascinated by Andy

The pyjama wearing Cambodian women!! It is awesome seeing matching outfits as completely legitimate fashion!

The real challenge came on day three as we crossed to Koh Rougniv- the infamous island. This island has no roads, only ox and motorbike tracks which run throughout the interior of the island for about 40kms - this was probably the part of the journey we were most nervous about! Our canoe deposited us on the bank, the driver pointed at a sign which explained there were signs every now and then, and that it was 45km south to the next ferry crossing. As he motored back to the mainland side, the couple in the first house looked at our bikes, pointed at the muddy ground and grimaced. Hmmm. Not a good start. We had heard stories of this trail being muddy, sandy, with a high likelihood of getting lost.

The main advice offered was to always choose the most major looking fork, and when in doubt, get out your compass and head south! Everyone we had talked to had biked this in the dry season and we were unsure how the monsoon might affect the 'sandy' sections (mudholes??). Sure enough, the first 500m was a slippery, slide-y, skinny track that was impossible to bike as we crossed the first rice field. Thankfully it improved!!! The 40km took a good long time, with the track changing from hard-packed dirt, to bumpy stones, to rooty, rutted gravel and sandy trails which were impossible to bike. Despite choosing the wrong fork once or twice (difficulty on deciding which track was most major) we really enjoyed the challenge of getting to the other end!! We arrived in the final village homestay about 3pm, happy, muddy and pretty stoked on life!  We were so thankful for good weather during this stretch!!!

The smallest of the 7 ferries!

Hoping the track will improve!

Life on Koh Rougeniv

Cruising on some single track

Civilisation!!

All I need - my bell, bike computer, compass and GPS! And a track heading south!

Hmmm....trying to pick the "most major fork"

We had a lovely night with a grandmother who had an english phrase book - her first phrase to point out was "I'm so glad you are staying with me". Ohhhh. A lovely way to start! We were fed very well, and it was a real pleasure observing grandmother, mother, daughter and grandchild all sitting round yarning, laughing and passing the time together (ages ranged 5, 25, 45, 65!). It made me want to be a part of a community where multiple generations do life together!!!


The awkward (but lovely) lineup of family watching us eat our meal

Stoked to have made it to the south end of the island

The following day we crossed back to the east side, discovered bamboo stalks filled with sticky rice, frozen soursop juice (a real hit in the heat!!) and more friendly Cambodian people along the way. We arrived in Kratie, enjoyed a good long shower and even got to choose what we ate for tea - a treat after three nights of relying on others to feed you!

Yet another ferry! (This one spent some time ominously pumping out their ballast tanks before we could start)

In Sambour, a small village on the east side - we had a good noodle soup here
Early morning rice fields

A relaxing dinner in Kratie, enjoying the sunset over the Mekong

So, four days to cover 145km. That meant we had two days to cover the final 220km to Phnom Penh - back into usual cycling hours! We crossed to the west side and covered the 120km to Kampong Cham by biking from sugarcane vendor to noodle lady to freezers for cold drinks! Thoroughly enjoyable!

At one stage the main road went up a hill . Steeply.  At the top I happened to check Google Maps and was surprised to find we had actually left the main road, which looked like a much more direct route than what our current position would be.  Quick team meeting and we decided to fly back down the hill and take the actual main road.

Well.

The "actual" main road involved pushing our bikes through the middle of a wedding reception tent setup over the road.  So, we squeezed our way with another scooter between white table cloth tables, as waiters distributed the cutlery.  We emerged from someone's back yard onto the road and followed a gravel road which rapidly turned into into a track, and then a rutted path, much to steep and loose to ride. Main road?? Google assured me it was!! And so, after some pushing up a very steep hill we re-emerged on the other side of the rubber plantation where we had been sometime before, and found our way back to the tar seal. While our "main road" was definitely shorter, I wish I had looked at the scale of the map as it would have been much quicker to just bike the long way from our original position!!!

Sharing the road...


Classic Cambodian village houses

Fishing net drying contraption
Google assured me this was the main road!!
Sugarcane juice is a pretty good time on a hot dusty road (neighborhood kids waiting for their dose)

Our final sunset - Kampong Cham

And all of a sudden we were sitting on the banks of the Mekong, enjoying our last night on the bike. We reminisced over people we had met along the way - our Moroccan host Mbark, Andy's awesome relatives in Holland, the random family in Germany who took us in, Moritz and his family in Brixen, the Croatian goat herdsman, our Syrian friends and other volunteers, Ege and the Kaya family in Turkey, Brother Aung in Myanmar, and so many other inspiring, generous and loving people. What a privilege it has been!

It wouldn't be right for the final day to not involve a good challenge and we certainly found it - after crossing back to the east side our road changed from concrete pads (glorious for biking on) to 20km of heavily rutted, bone rattling, soul destroying loose gravel - UGH!!! SO slow-going and by the end of 20km our arms were literally feeling as though they might fall off. We were planning on finding the first ferry we could to whisk us back to the westside and the main road. Thankfully though, things improved and we enjoyed the final kms on a quiet, sealed road which took us all the way to a ferry crossing opposite the centre of Phnom Penh. Pretty weird rolling in and suddenly seeing skyscrapers across the river and knowing you were about to be plunged into 2 million scooters and crazy traffic! What a way to arrive though and it was with great satisfaction we navigated our way home and collapsed into a much-needed shower.

Thankyou Mekong for such a good adventure!

Setting out on the final day towards Phnom Penh

Death Road - 20km was MORE than enough

Feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves!!! We clicked over 5200km as we rolled up to this ferry crossing.

Arohanui,
Miri and Andy

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