We left Saigon with a sense of wonder, we wondered how the hell there traffic system actually worked !! At roundabouts it’s a free for all, no particular side gives way and no one seems to mind if you go the wrong way if it’s shorter. At other junctions your supposed to stop and give way but this rarely happens so everybody just meets in the middle and takes there chances. Despite all of this we rarely saw an accident and there weren’t actually any traffic jams. We joined the masses on one of the busiest roads I’ve ever been on and actually felt quite at home, both Naomi and I were smiling with incomprehension !!
It took a long time to emerge from the city and out into the suburbs and longer still to be out in the country again, as soon as things got quieter we looked for a place to stop. Despite it taking so long and having to be constantly on your guard it was an exhilarating ride and one I’m glad that we did, I don’t suppose I’ll ever cycle through a city as busy as that ever again and certainly not one that seems to exist without even the most basic of highway codes 😉
Once out of the city it was fairly easy going and our only other obstacle on this 116km ride would be the border crossing into Cambodia. It went very smoothly as it happens, we filled out the exit forms and handed our passports over to be stamped out, next we proceeded to the entry and handed over some money, passports and a photo and in ten minutes we were issued with visas and allowed to enter. Country No 25 on our tour and another one with a particularly brutal history, we’d find out more later but for now, welcome to Cambodia !!
The strangest thing about our first few km in Cambodia was the fact that we were now surrounded by casinos, apparently the Vietnamese spill over the border in large numbers to gamble in Cambodia, it’s a mini Las Vegas !!
We made good time due to good roads and were soon turning off the main highway into Svay Rieng, the first decent guesthouse was the Apsara, it even had a couple of touring cyclists staying there already, a good omen if one were needed. Tim an English guy had cycled from the UK and had met Boogey a German cyclist along the way, they travelled together for a while but split up for a short time before reuniting there partnership in Bangkok. They were on a very long tour, Tim was hoping to get to Australia and Boogey said he’d be away for four years if he had the money. Nice guys, I wish them both good luck and great cycling !!
Originally we were going to take three days to cycle from Saigon to Phnom Penh but the next day would see us finish the ride on our second day, it would see us take a small ferry and get to meet another touring cyclist. The ride itself was tough, Naomi was definitely feeling off and despite feeling unwell she managed to cycle 127km, really proud of her for this !!
We met Maria about 40km out of Phnom Penh, she was heading the way we’d just come, we stopped to chat and discovered she was on her own and had travelled from Switzerland. She mentioned she’d come through Iran and told us how amazing it was and how friendly the people were ! We now plan to include Iran on one of our trips, we’d already planned to cycle through Turkey so hopefully we’ll now start in Iran and cycle all the way back home 😉 We wished her good luck and carried on, with Naomi’s stubbornness and a little coaxing we made it to Phnom Penh and the Diamond Palace Hotel. Naomi was still not great at dinner and I ended up eating on my own as poor Naomi sent herself to bed !!
Some photos from our ride into Phnom Penh….
The following morning it was raining hard so we had breakfast and went back to our room, lunchtime came and again we went downstairs for lunch, it was still raining after lunch but by then we’d had enough of our room. We hailed a tuk tuk and went sightseeing, we got dropped of at the far end of town and meandered back. First stop was a Wat, it’s also the highest point in Phnom Penh, next we walked towards the covered market. We passed the American embassy and shortly after that we came across a bike shop, Naomi needed new gloves so in we went. They didn’t have any but gave us directions to there other shop, it was beyond the market so we kept walking. We stopped briefly at the market, continued to the bike shop and got Naomi sorted then took a wander passed the presidential palace before grabbing a coffee at Costa. After that it was time to head back to the hotel……
Costa looked out over the river, not a bad view really and we decided we’d keep walking after our coffee to soak up some of the atmosphere…..
Our second day in Phnom Penh was completely different, I’ve had permission from my friend, Naomi, to use her blog as quite frankly I can’t write it any better :-
Just outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is an area called Choeung Ek. Nestled in among paddy fields, we rode down a bumpy, muddy track, passing children cycling to school and the usual hustle and bustle of village life. Our driver pulled in, under some trees and arranged to meet us there in two hours time. We had decided to visit what in essence was a scene of great brutality. Around 17, 000 people (men, women and children) were brought to this extermination camp from a prison, known as S-21, where they had already been held and tortured.
While much of the site infrastructure (waiting rooms, tool stores etc) have long since gone, mass graves are clearly marked and a chilling audio guide leads you around. Steadfast on a communist ideal whereby cities were destroyed and peasant farming and manual labour were the standards being set to bring equality to all the Khmer Rouge led a war of unimaginable proportions. Teachers, foreigners, anyone who spoke more than one language , those who spoke up against them, took rice or belongings from the collective pool or it seemed anyone even with a vague association to any of the former were simply removed. While the exact figure is unknown estimates are as high as 3.5 million deaths (half the population).
8595 bodies were exhumed; at Choeung Ek in 1980 and as you wonder through what is now a quiet memorial site, clothing remnants, bones and teeth that continue to rise to the surface each year as rain disturbs the ground are displayed.
Thankfully those arriving at the site were unaware of their fate. They didn’t use bullets here but bludgeoned people to death and the audio guide played loud vitriolic songs that were blasted out alongside the noise of the generator to cover up the sounds of people screaming as they were killed. I couldn’t listen to the audio. They had done too good a job of stimulating the noise of the environment. One grave housed many bodies that had been beheaded – thought to be soildiers who had raised objections- and the site marked a tree where babies heads were thrashed before being discarded. Again, the audio was turned off. It was too much for me.
In 1988 the Memorial Stupa was built on the site. In essence, a narrow tower, ten stories high displaying the skulls and bones of some 8000 people.
I had not been sure whether to visit The Killing Fields. The War Museum in Saigon had also been vivid in it’s portrayal of the Vietnam War and I saw only enough there to understand. Nothing is masked here. I had been ignorant of the full extent of the torture Pol Pott had inflicted and while The Killing Fields was far from being a pleasant experience this is history I am now much more aware of.
I share her emotions and thoughts on this, we both thought that the war museum in Saigon was hard to stomach but this was even worse. Added to what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did to it’s own people it also ripped out all of the existing train lines and many other services, pretty much sending Cambodia back to the dark ages. It’s amazing to see how far the people of this beautiful country have come, we are met with smiles and friendly welcomes from just about everyone and although there history is brutal the people are kind and generous….this country is certainly worth a visit 😉
Arriving back in town we headed for the palace and took a guided tour of this beautiful place, it was busy when we were there as they were celebrating there anniversary of independence the following day !!
On the way back to our hotel you have to pass this street, it has got to be one of the most characterful streets I’ve ever seen, so much life and colour…..
Well that’s about it for this blog, hope you enjoy and keep reading 😉