After the incredible day at the library at Andaung Trom Primary School, Khanh and I parted ways with the Room to Read team at Kampong Thom, and climbed in a car with Untac, our guide for the next five days of cycling along the Mekong River in Cambodia.
The next five days were hysterical, magical, simple, and filled with delight.
The first of many ferries
Our route would take us along both sides of the Mekong River, and onto islands in the middle of the Mekong, which is often over 2 km wide. At many points, we’d be throwing our bikes onto a ferry and crossing.
The ferry system along the Mekong, except in Phnom Penh, is not what you think of if you live in Sydney, or Seattle, or any major city with a ferry system. It is often a man and his boat, and sometimes neither, and just a sign with a cell phone number on it.
Before we’d even spun the pedals once, we loaded the bikes on to a ferry to cross onto an island where we’d spend our first night.
You can fit more on a small wooden boat than you might imagine
Our first ferry on the 4th day. Horse carts returning from the Phnom Penh markets.
Our first night’s accommodation was a cabana on stilts in the Arun Mekong Guesthouse, that we reached via cycling in the dark along a narrow path, weaving as motorbikes passed us in both directions. After dinner, Khanh announced that an animal had pooped on our bed, but judging from the size of the poop, it was a small animal. The humidity was high, even though the rainy season had been mild and we hadn’t seen rain yet. With no AC, the fan was keeping us sane, until the generator cut out at 2 AM, when we pulled the mosquito net around us.
At 4 AM, a blaring noise drilled into my brain. It was if someone was pointing a loudspeaker directly at our cabana, and 100 monks were chanting into the mic. That turned out to actually be the case. We told ourselves that it would go away in 30 minutes – we’d heard chanting before and it lasted about that long. 30 minutes later, the chanting stopped.
And then the drumming began. When the drumming stopped, the singing began. With each new wave of booming sound, we broke into laugher. I think I began singing back at some point, a bit delirious from lack of sleep.
When we asked Untac the next morning, he smiled and let us know we had started our trip at the beginning of the 15 day “hungry ghost festival”, and that everywhere in Cambodia, we’d hear this at 4 AM, and then twice more during the day. The festival is about feeding the ghosts of your ancestors and other people to make sure they are well fed in the afterlife and don’t haunt you.
The beauty of the temples and their presence is every village is entrancing, but behind it sits the sad fact that temples outrank schools in the priority of the government.
By the end of the trip we could grunt along with the rhythm of the monks.
One of the many sources of Hungry Ghost chanting in Cambodia.
The path along the Mekong
- Day 1: Our route started in Kratie town (in the province of Kratie) on the East bank, starting in the morning from Kaoh Trong island, where we ferried to the West bank, and rode North to ferry across to Sambor, returning to Kaoh Trong island that afternoon in a tuk-tuk along the East bank.
- Day 2: From Kaoh Trong we cycled to the same ferry crossing to the West bank, but went South to Chhlong, ferrying back to the East bank to reach Chhlong.
- Day 3: From Chhlong, we rode South to Kampong Cham, ferrying to Koh Tasuy island and then off again to reach the West bank. After lunch, Untac and I averaged 30 kph (on mountain bikes) for about 10-12k, and I managed to survive an addition 6k solo.
- Day 4: We started by casually riding around islands near Kampong Cham, then hopped in the van to skip some high traffic’d bits of road, and then rode the final 30k along the East bank before taking a full-sized ferry to Phnom Penh.
Our journey took balance and a sense of adventure
Food along the Mekong
Almost anywhere, you’d find a small store, with the strangest combination of single serving Men’s shampoo packets, assorted plastic items, and you’d wonder how it came to this part of the world. But there was always food – fresh, local, and usually delicious. Normally, I’m not that adventurous of an eater – I know what I like and what I don’t. But in Cambodia I wanted to try more of what locals ate. There were several firsts: balut, tarantula, and then a host of fruits: longans, jackfruit, palm fruits, jujubee and rambutans, along with previous favorites dragonfruit and asian bananas.
No meals were ever indoors, which makes eating so much better. At a restaurant in Chhlong, the owner cooked right in the middle of the restaurant, pulling fresh ingredients from the piles of vegetables and meat around him, sweating and smiling over the wok-like pans and open fire.
A simple snack (salt, lime, and duck embryos)
No, it doesn’t crawl into your mouth. You just eat one of the fried ones in the bucket.
I wonder why we liked this guy so much?
Everywhere we rode, kids yelled “Hello!!” and cackled with laughter if we responded. I answered in Khmer most of the time. On ferries and in towns kids would openly stare, amazed by the foreigners in cycling gear. I would ask them what their name was in Khmer, which would send them into an absolute fit. Either my pronunciation is horrendous, or my comedic timing is exceptional.
On one ferry that never actually left, Untac was talking to local Muslim girls about what language they were speaking. He promised to buy them a book and a pencil if they wrote their language out for him. After we left the ferry, the girls and their little brothers followed us to a small lean-to market stall where a man had a number of activity books. A few other kids caught wind of the transaction, and Untac agreed to give them books as well. Within minutes, the alarm in the village had sounded and kids of every age under 13 were streaming in to the market stall, which barely held 5 of them, but was suddenly flooded with what seemed like 20. Untac handed the merchant a handful of cash and we fled the riot we had spawned.
It’s easy to see the kids – even in their often dirty and simple clothes, living on a small boat, who have so little, but who laugh so loud and smile so easily, to wonder if education is really what they need? Ignorance is supposedly bliss, is it not.
When you see a 9-year-old girl laugh and smile, you don’t see that in 6 years she will be married, in order to provide income for her family. You don’t see that 40 years ago, there was very little laugher, that this was a country filled with orphans from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. Her smile does not reveal that without education, the Khmer people are at the whims of the government and cannot see though the political arguments and propaganda that has sadly been their diet for generations.
A girl along the Mekong
Khanh had never done anything like this before. I’ve done a solo, month-long tour of Ireland, and a two month tour of New Zeland. I spend a decent amount of time on a road bike. Let’s just say Khanh is now familiar with a mountain bike, clipless pedals, and their delicate and special relationship with gravity, mud, cement, and dirt. She’s incredibly tough – much tougher than I am, and never a word of complaint did escape her lips.
The tour was so well done from start to finish, and our guide is a legend. Originally born in a small village in Cambodia, he was the national barista of the year two years ago in Cambodia, along with being a graduate of the nuclear engineering program in Cambodia, and has cycled through so much of SouthEast Asia and even parts of Australia. Grasshopper Adventures is an amazing cycle-touring company who I’d love to get to ride with again.
Yeah, this totally looks like a comfortable place to wait for the next ferry
A bamboo bridge over peaceful waters
Mind the cows.
I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be back in Cambodia, but it will be within two years. I can’t wait.
A view of the mighty Mekong from one of the few hills in Cambodia