Mike and I each bought used Chinese bicycles in Phnom Penh for $35. The bikes themselves were the same except for a few minor differences. Mike’s bike looked cooler than mine. It sported a dark, silvery-gray paint job and a sweet orange Panasonic sticker. My bike was a much lighter gray. It was covered in City Walker stickers (was that a brand? the name of the bike? Who knows…) and small stickers of flowers. Both bikes had a few gears in theory but only one in practice. Neither bike shifted well, though I think mine was in moderately better shape than Mike’s, which made mildly disconcerting metal-on-metal clanking noises. Both bikes also had a rear rack, a front basket, a simple lock, and a bell.
What more do you need?
Our goal was to ride to Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia. It’s in the western part of the country. Phnom Penh, where we live, is in the southeast. It’s just under 200 miles one-way between the two. We would cover that distance in three days.
It was my idea to go on a bike trip. Bicycle touring is something I’ve always wanted to do. It always seemed like a fun adventure to try. I proposed the idea of a Cambodian bike trip to Mike when we were traveling through Laos, and he was game. We threw out a few suggestions. We could bike to Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat and other Angkorian temples. But both of us had already been there before. Mike had been there twice. We could bike to Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. But a quick search online for information showed that that particular route wasn’t terribly interesting. How about to Battambang? First, neither of us had been there before. Second, there were a few interesting things we could see once we got there. And third, my friend Joe, who I’d met and gone climbing with in Thailand, was living in Battambang. The fact that there weren’t any major mountain ranges (read: steep climbs) between Phnom Penh and Battambang also helped persuade us. It was decided. We would ride to Battambang.
We went on exactly one training ride. It was a ~40-mile round trip ride to some Angkorian ruins south of Phnom Penh. That ride was very, very dusty. It was also hot. We’d be riding along and sweating profusely, and a huge truck would barrel on down the road past us, kicking up a thick cloud of dirt and dust as it did so. This dirt and dust mixed with our sweat to coat us in a layer of fine mud, giving us a low-budget swamp monster look. I did get one flat tire, which I was able to get fixed in a village for about fifty cents. At another spot, we stopped under some shade to hydrate and a man waved us over to sit near his house. He spoke English well and wanted to practice on us. He asked us about ourselves and what we were doing in Cambodia, asked how much our bikes cost (he told us we’d gotten a good deal), and offered us refreshing pieces of jackfruit. All in all, it was a successful excursion. We made it to the ruins and back. More importantly, the bikes made it to the ruins and back.
We had a couple other training rides planned in the weekends leading up to our grand adventure, but neither of us was super motivated to actually go out riding when the time came. We aren’t cyclists. We both enjoy riding bikes, but we need a destination and goal in mind. Riding across the country? That sounded fun. Riding 60 miles in a loop from Phnom Penh? Nah. That didn’t sound like much fun. So we didn’t do it.
We received very mixed reactions when we told people about our plans. They were mostly of the shake-the-head-and-smile-and-tell-us-we-are-crazy sort. One reaction in particular stuck out to us though. The guy we’d just told our plan to had lived in Cambodia for a couple years, including six months in Battambang. His first words upon hearing our plan were, “Oh no.” He looked genuinely worried. “Do you at least have good bikes?” he asked. Our reply made him turn downright somber. “Good luck,” he told us. It was more of a prayer than a platitude.
In the end, our ride took three days. We rode roughly 60 miles a day. We each packed a backpack, strapped it with bungee cords to the rear rack of our respective bikes, loaded up the front basket with bottles of water and snacks, and headed off. And, amazingly, we made it.
So. What is it like to ride a $35 bicycle across Cambodia? Well, it’s pretty crappy. About as crappy as you’d expect. Here’s a rundown the highs and lows.
We got a late start because I had diarrhea. We’d intended to start at 6. I was having stomach problems, though (and had been for the several days leading up to this point), so I was a bit anxious about leaving before everything was, er, out of my system. We ended up leaving at 9.
We rode through Cham villages. The Cham are a Muslim ethnic minority in Cambodia. We passed several large and beautiful mosques throughout the day. Many of the women wear scarves over their heads, and the men wear white caps and long, flowing shirts.
We waited out the rain. Oh, did I mention that we were riding across Cambodia in the rainy season? Yeah. We were. We spent about an hour, hour-and-a-half waiting out the rain under the too-small canopy of a couple scruffy palm trees by the side of the road. I had an umbrella. Mike had a poncho, but it was being employed as a waterproof cover for his backpack, so he ended up crouching/cowering under the scraggly boughs of another tree that grew up against a concrete wall. It was a wall that we, and undoubtedly countless others, had peed on (it’s what you do in Cambodia; you pee on walls when you need to go). I was happy to have my umbrella.
We visited the old Cambodian capital of Udong. This involved a slight detour from the main road, but we figured it would be worth it. And it was. We parked our bikes and climbed a series of stone steps up the side of a hill, accompanied by a couple young Cambodian kids. At first they wanted us to pay them for fanning us with these hand fans they had strapped around their shoulders. When they saw we weren’t interested, they followed us up anyway. Though the day was overcast, climbing the steps was brutally hot and humid. We were dripping as we climbed. The views from the top were great, and we enjoyed them briefly before hurrying back down so that we could continue biking.
We biked up and over one hill, on which Mike just about had a heart attack.
We barely made it to Kampong Chhnang, the small town that was our destination for the evening, before dark. It was dusk by the time we rolled in. This was a pattern that was to repeat itself over the following two days.
The scenery on day two was the best. It was typical Cambodia—flat, very green rice paddies dotted with tall sugar palm trees. I loved it.
We got separated. For most of the trip, I was the one riding in the front. Our general style was to ride for 20 or 30 minutes and then stop for a quick water and snack break. I kept track of the time and pulled over whenever we hit the 20 or 30 minutes. After peddling through one mid-sized town, I pulled over for the water break, looked back, and saw that Mike wasn’t behind me. Huh. Odd. The last I’d seen of him was when I’d looked back over my shoulder about 10 or 15 minutes before that, when we’d first entered the town. I waited for a few minutes and still saw no sign of Mike. I pulled out a package of salted and dried peas to munch on. He still hadn’t appeared by the time I’d finished the peas. I waited a few more minutes before setting off to try to find him. We both had cell phones, but Mike wasn’t getting reception outside of Phnom Penh, so I couldn’t call him.
I figured that one of a few things had happened. He could have gotten a flat tire. He could have taken a wrong turn. Or he could have been hurt/abducted/sold into sex slavery/whatever. Anything is possible in this part of the world, right? I slowly rode my way back through town, checking down all side streets and peering into every shop. He wasn’t at the junction where the road we were on met another good-sized road (where I thought he might have taken a wrong turn), so I kept riding. When I was almost through to the other side of town and started thinking about what I’d do if I never found him, I saw him sitting in a small bike shop. He had indeed gotten a flat tire, apparently right after I’d look back and seen him. A skinny little kid that seemed to be about 8 years old was fixing the bike while his cousin and aunt—the aunt and her husband were the ones that owned the shop—were cackling over the absurdity of our plan to ride our bikes to Pursat, our destination for the day, which was still about 40 miles away at this point. They’d settle down a bit and talk about something else before again mentioning Pursat and again erupting into fits of gleeful, maniacal laughter. They thought we were the dumbest people in the world. At that moment, sweating my brains out in a tin shack of a bike shop and watching the child slave fix Mike’s tube and tire, I did not disagree with them.
At one of our next shaded rest stops after we’d continued onward from the town, a man on a bicycle pulled up next to us. On the back of his bicycle was a large, orange, plastic bin. He started speaking to us in English (“Where do you come from?”), and we asked him about what was in the bin. “Ice cream,” he said. I could have kissed the man right then. It was hot. It is hot in Cambodia in July, notwithstanding it being the rainy season. It was mid-day and very hot. I was wilting in the heat. It was a pattern that held out on each of the three days of our ride. I was strong in the mornings and late afternoon but struggled in the heat of the day. Mike’s pattern was the opposite. The mid-day heat didn’t affect him as much, but he’s not a morning person. The locations of our now-every-15-minute stops were dictated by wherever I could find decent shade. We were in the shade of a tree when our ice cream friend appeared.
And then came the blow. He was all out of ice cream, he told us. I was heartbroken.
He biked along with us for a while, talking rapidly to Mike behind me, before turning off onto a dirt side road to head home. We waved goodbye and kept peddling on.
We got rained on again. It rained hard. It rained mean and nasty and long and hard. Mike and I were taking an extended break under a palm tree at the edge of a rice paddy when it started. At first it wasn’t so bad. It was a drizzle. But then the heavens opened, the wind was cranked up to 11, and we found ourselves in the middle of a legitimate tropical maelstrom. Mike’s poncho was still covering up his backpack and protecting its contents from the water. He had no umbrella. So he again stood right under the tree next in some bushes, trying to make his footprint as small as possible. I, on the other hand, had both a poncho and umbrella, and had also managed to find myself in the best-protected spot under the tree. I briefly gloried in smug self-righteousness at my superior planning (“Serves him right for not bringing an umbrella!”) before realizing that I was being a jerk… and that it would be a net negative on the rest of my trip if my friend were to die of hypothermia (did I mention that the air temperature must have dropped 20 degrees when it started raining, and that it was now downright cold?). I relinquished the sheltered spot and surrendered the umbrella. I put my rubber flip flops down on a rock, sat down on the flip-flops, curled up into a ball, and completely cocooned myself in the frail plastic of my 40-cent poncho.
The rain lasted a long time. I was facing away from Mike, but I turned around or shouted out every once in a while to make sure he wasn’t dead. After we’d been sitting it out for what must have been an hour, we discussed our situation. The day was getting on. We still had 20 miles to cover before Pursat. We needed to move soon if we wanted to get there before nightfall. The problem was that it was still raining. Do we wait a bit longer in the hope that the rain stops, or do we keep going in the race to hit town before it got too dark? That dilemma was solved for us when Ice Cream Man came rolling down the road and again stopped to talk to us. He was headed in our direction, so we rode with him. He again talked rapidly to Mike about his sister in Minnesota and about how he needed a sponsor to go to America. We eventually got to his next turnoff, and we again said goodbye. As far as I know, he was not able to successfully convince Mike to sponsor him, and we never did get to try his ice cream.
Our last big stop of the day was at a rickety little wooden platform by the side of the road. There are lots of these in Cambodia. They’re places for people to sit or stretch out and sleep during the heat of the day. We were tired. It was getting late. We were hungry. Across the street and set back a ways was what a sign in front of it touted as the Japanese-Cambodian Friendship Rest Stop. It’s worth noting that the road we were riding our bikes down was a national highway—one of the biggest and most important roads in the country. But this was no American interstate. This was just a two-lane road with dirt shoulders. So it had come as no surprise that we had seen nothing like what I would call a real rest stop, something with tables and a restaurant and convenience store. But that’s what we were looking at as we sat on our little wooden platform. A minibus/van was stopped there, and we saw a few fellow foreigners exit the rest stop and climb back into the van. They were the first non-Cambodians we’d seen in a couple days. It was weird. They were in a different world. Our world was slow and hot and made our legs and butts hurt. Their world was air conditioned and moved at 60 miles an hour. We glared at them with a mixture of contempt, wariness, and envy. We did not enter the rest stop. We rested up a bit more and continued our final push into Pursat.
We had trouble finding a place to eat in Pursat that night. By the time we’d checked into our hotel and showered, it was about 8 o’clock, which might as well be midnight to Cambodians. There were a couple stalls open at the central market, where we each had a moderately disappointing mixed fruit shake. We needed more. Mike wanted to eat something cheap and local. I wanted to eat something tasty and western. Mike found a little stand that sold noodles, and I hurried back to the hotel to see if its restaurant was still open. I ended up ordering what I think remains the second or third most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased in Cambodia (after my $35 bicycle)—a $12 pepperoni pizza. In a country that produces no dairy products and nothing resembling western-style sausage, the powers that be at the hotel were somehow able to produce a surprisingly delicious pizza, complete with mozzarella cheese and spicy pepperoni. It was a miracle. I needed it.
Our final day started off inauspiciously. I lost the key to our room and was faced with paying $20 to replace it. I thought that I might have lost it somewhere outside when we’d gone out to buy snacks and water earlier that morning. Mike went off on his bike to retrace our route and—another miracle—returned with it in his hand. It was just sitting there on the ground near the market, where I’d apparently dropped it an hour earlier.
The joy of that discovery was slightly offset by the discovery that in riding down the street to look for the key, Mike had gotten another flat tire. The reception lady at the hotel told us where we could go to get it fixed, and off we went. We couldn’t find the exact place she recommended, so we split up to try to find it. Bad idea. I spent the next half-hour trying to find Mike again. I rode all over that stinking town and managed to find him just maybe 50 yards down the street from where we spit up. He’d been there the whole time, getting his bike fixed by an ancient, wizened, toothless, congenial Cambodian man sitting under a tree. We’d somehow missed each other.
I had wondered aloud on what I think was the first day about whether we would see any other crazy foreigners riding their bikes across the country. We saw none on the first day and none on the second, but we actually did see one on the third. We were headed west; he was headed east. We saw each other, smiled, waved, and continued on without saying anything. No words were exchanged. But it was nice to just see someone else who had an idea of what we were going through. It was a silent moment of shared sympathy. It was a moment like this.
Day three was rough. It didn’t rain. This was both good and bad. It was good because that meant that we didn’t have to wait out any rain. But it was bad because it meant that there was a minimal amount of cloud cover, and it remained in the 90s throughout the day. The result was that I was struggling all day with the heat. In addition to the several liters of water I had with me, I had to stop throughout the day and get more water and juice from a few different stands along the side of the road. I also had not bought enough food that morning, so I ended up eating about 20 of the hard, sugary, fruit-flavored candies that Mike had bought the previous day.
The worst thing about this day, though, was not the heat or the sun or lack of food or water. It was the wind. The headwind, to be exact. It was brutal, and it lasted for about half of the day. It made us feel like we were riding uphill the whole time. No matter which way the road twisted and turned, we were still somehow faced with the headwind. I cursed the foreign cyclist that we had passed earlier, who was likely at that very moment enjoying the ride of his life. I bet he didn’t have to pedal once to get to Phnom Penh. I hated him in that moment.
We did do one thing right on day three, though. We became better at finding places to stop and rest. Instead of resting under standing-room-only patches of shade by the roadside, we relaxed under palm frond-roofed huts in rice fields and under the shaded corrugated steel canopies of boarded up roadside shops. It was glorious. Sitting on something other than a bicycle seat was glorious.
The children of Cambodia loved us. We were celebrities. Or maybe just oddities. Perhaps both. All day, every day, for these three days, there was a constant volley of “Hello!” Kids working in the fields hundreds of feet away from the road would somehow see us and “Hello! Hello! HELLO!” at us. I tried to always say hello back and wave to them, but a lot of the time it was actually really hard to see where the salutation was coming from. I could hear a high-pitched, disembodied voice coming from somewhere, but I couldn’t see any little body to go along with it. On several occasions, we would stop on a deserted stretch of road and a flock of children would magically materialize and gawk at us from the opposite side of the road.
Adults loved us too. Sort of. We’d be sitting on the side of the road, drinking water and munching on something, when someone would slowly come walking or riding a bike toward us. They’d stare at us without any expression on their faces as they walked past. And then I’d wave or Mike would greet them and they’d break into a massive grin and wave back. We’d be riding our bikes and a truck full of factory workers would pass us. These big trucks had open backs, and the workers would just be staring out the back. They’d stare at us, unsmilingly, and then I’d wave, and they’d all smile and half a dozen or so would wave back. Cambodians are good people. I like them.
At one point in the afternoon, we saw three snakes crossing the road within a single five-minute stretch. We saw a single snake on day one and a dead snake on day two, and then three right here in a row. The first two were skinny little things that looked like shiny ribbons flopping their way across the road. The third one we passed by looked really weird. Its head and much of its body was raised up vertically. Its head looked really big and wide. I didn’t get a really good look at it as my bike passed by a foot in front of it. A little while down the road, I called back to Mike and asked if he had seen the snake. He said yes, and he also mentioned the big head. “It wasn’t a cobra, was it?” Mike asked. “There aren’t cobras in Cambodia, are there?” When we got to our hotel that night, we looked it up online and confirmed that yes, there are indeed cobras in Cambodia. King cobras, in fact. Our pedaling, flip-flop-clad feet had been within a foot of a ready-to-strike cobra. Yikes.
True to form, we arrived in Battambang just as it was getting dark. It seemed to take forever to ride through the city to our hotel, but we eventually made it. We survived. We were filthy and sunburned (I forgot about the sunburn! I had bright red sunburn high on my thighs; I guess I hadn’t put sunscreen high enough up. Mike had sunburn on his entire right arm; he had sunscreened up his left arm on the second day but had, for some reason, not done so with his right) and tired and sore, but yes, we had survived. We had survived blistering sun and freezing rain. We’d survived the crazy drivers. And our bikes survived the Cambodian roads.
We each took a photo of each other and our bikes there at the hotel to commemorate the occasion, and then we went inside to take showers.
On the third day, at one point while I was pedaling hard into the strong headwind and feeling like I was going nowhere, I hated bicycle touring. I hated that we were riding our bikes across Cambodia. I hated Cambodia and wind and Mike and myself and those stupid sugary fruit candies that I was inhaling and the dumb kids shouting hello at us and everything else that I could see or conceive of. I decided then and there that I hated bicycle touring, and I vowed that I would never, ever do it again.
That was a few weeks ago, and Mike and I are currently brainstorming what other bike trips we could take in Cambodia and the surrounding countries. Mike is definitely more enthusiastic about the idea than I am, but I’m open to being convinced. We both gave away our bikes once we got to Battambang—Mike had to take a bus to Bangkok to grab some things he left there, and I had to run to Vietnam before my Cambodian visa expired—but Mike has since bought a new bike. It cost $37, and he says it’s a lot better than his old Panasonic.
Looking back, the ride was fun. It was definitely a lot of fun. It was a lot of pain, too, but that’s not what I remember. It’s one of those things that is so much better in hindsight than it was at the time. The overall adventure of the whole thing has already soothed the memory of the more painful moments, and the passage of even these last few week has brought forward and highlighted the better moments. What sucked in the moment then makes for a good story now. It was all worth it. I’m glad we did it.
Traveling long distances by bike makes you feel very vulnerable. You’re exposed to the elements. You’re at the mercy of the drivers that rocket past you and that you hope, as you hear them getting closer and closer behind you, are far enough to your left that they won’t hit and kill you. People can look into your eyes as you cycle past and see your exhaustion. Even if you’re wearing sunglasses, they can see the exhaustion in your posture or on your face. It’s sobering to know that if you’re on a bicycle and want to get to where you’re going, no one else will take you there. Butt on seat, feet on pedals, turn turn turn. That is the only thing that will take you there. It’s simultaneously desperation-inducing and immensely gratifying. I can’t say that I’m excited to do it all over again, but I can almost—almost—say that I am ready to do it again.