Cycling in Cambodia: Kampong Chhnang to Pursat
I’d met Robin & Katsha from Germany whilst washing my bike (again) in the hotel garden. I got the impression they thought I was mad for washing it so incessantly and, when I realised that during their extended cycle through South-East Asia they hadn’t washed theirs once, I started to understand why. They were on a far longer trip than mine, and from Cambodia they hoped to cycle to Thailand then onto New Zealand and beyond – I have to say I was a little jealous”
We left the Garden Hotel in Kampong Chhnang after a delicious omelette breakfast at 07:30. This was a compromised time – I was used to leaving far earlier, but Robin apparently had an aversion to getting out of bed before 10am! The overnight thunder and lightening had now cleared but it was still damp. The plan was to head west and then northwest from Kampong Chhnang to the town of Pursat. Katsha and Robin had done their research on the route and it looked like, according to MapsMe, we could complete the whole route avoiding the main highway 5. Our route can be found here: https://www.strava.com/activities/783273284:
The roads leaving Kampong Chhnang were excellent and not too busy. We soon turned off left onto a concrete road that had been installed during the Khmer Rouge as access to the nearby airfield. The airfield had never been used, so now was just an eerie platform of concrete and a few outbuildings as a reminder to the regime that wiped out a quarter of the Cambodian population.
The concrete soon ended and was replaced with red dirt. It was compacted which made riding relatively smooth, and was a far better option than the main road.
It was brilliant cycling with other people. Katsha and Robin were an absolute delight to ride with, they had loads of stories about their journey so far and we shared a lot in common.
We passed through countless villages, all of them were spotlessly clean and were welcomed every few minutes by happy children saying hello with their broadest smiles. I was thankful of my mudguards, but they blocked up every now and then, I wondered how much obligatory resistance training I was undergoing.
There are some facts that have me absolutely bewildered. On our first stop of the day, Katsha informed me that Coca-Cola contained a large quantity of salt, which is why it was so good when cycling in hot countries. I couldn’t disprove her claims, but, given that I was sweating continually for prolonged periods, used it as justification to see yet another can away.
A short while later I decided that I’d need some food in a dusty village, the last for a number of kilometres. I bought some boiled eggs, a baguette and another coke.
I’d like to think I was quite worldly, and am always keen to try anything new. My keen eye for good food on this occasion had failed me. As I cracked open one of the eggs on my plate, I realised that I’d made a monumental error. The pot of boiling eggs were in fact a delicacy of Cambodia called balut.
The contents of the shell is in fact an embryo and I quickly realised that there are some things that I’m not willing to give a go. I thought the shells looked a bit dark. Katsha and Robin both laughed at me, I definitely deserved it.
The road soon deteriorated.
We knew that today would be adventurous and, as Katsha navigated, the map would tell us nothing about the condition of each kilometre we travelled. At one point we came to a flooded section of road, there was no option but to get off and push. As Robin and Katsha plunged their bikes into the deep mud, I realised exactly why they chose not to clean their bikes.
I managed to lift my bike over the worst of it, but this was just the start.
This was actually mountain biking, with ruts, holes, debris and water to contend with. It was incredible, real adventure cycling through the backroads of Cambodia. Our largest obstacle of the day was without doubt a buffalo (he moved on).
Katsha and Robin had done their homework on this particular stretch and had found a railway line that lead the final 15 kilometres to Pursat. We found the railway (it looked like it hadn’t been used in 50 years) and, after some skillful negotiation with some random from Katsha, we agreed on a price of $20 to take us to Pursat. This was, however, no ordinary train.
There are more commercial versions of the adorably named bamboo train to the north of us in Battambang. There was, however nothing commercial about our train. The counterbalanced wooden platform was around two metres squared, with a small petrol engine to the rear complete with a seat for the driver. We loaded up our three bikes and panniers onto the back of the platform and took a seat up front. No seatbelts, no seats, just a dusty mat. One woman motioned to us to stay on the mat. As it didn’t offer us any more comfort than the hard wood, I wondered why she was giving us such advice.
Soon, we were off, the train gathered speed as we whizzed at knee-level through the rice paddies. Katsha had asked to sit in the middle and Robin and I soon realise why. We were repeatedly lashed and beaten by the undergrowth, this was not particularly relaxing train journey, but exhilarating nonetheless.
The train was used daily to transport goods and people from the surrounding villages to Pursat. It was a thrilling ride and the perfect end to one of the most exciting and favourite days cycling in my life. After we’d unloaded our bikes and panniers from the bamboo train, we thanked our driver, he turned the engine around to travel in the opposite direction, then zoomed off back to his village. What a day!