A few impressions and stories from my bicycle trip from Angkor Wat to Saigon.
Angkor Wat was build by Suryavarman II, who became king after he ambushed his uncle as a teenager and then went to rule over the Khmer empire, where the capitol Angkor was the biggest city in the world at the time. These days Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, sometimes seem to be the place in the world with the most tourists, but you can still have the temples a little to yourself if you enter as early as possible in the morning and cycling is the best way to get around the huge temple area at Angkor, where you have more than 100 khmer temples located.
I bought my bicycle in Siem Reap.
I had just finished a tour guiding stint in Asia when I started this trip and was without a bike. So I decided to buy one in Siem Reap and I managed to get a fine Giant mountain bike, with a rack for 350$ at a local bicycle shop with a very friendly and helpful owner, who made a few little adjustments to the bike, in order to make it more suitable for a long distance trip from Angkor Wat to Saigon. I have bought bicycles several times in Southeast Asia over the years and have always managed to get some decent deals, so do not shy away from that if buying a bike, once you are there, is more practical for you.
Cycling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
Getting out of Siem Reap is quite easy as the city is not that big and the road is of a pretty good quality. Forget about those old stories from 10 years ago, where Cambodia had the worst roads in the world. Today the road is nicely paved and very smooth for a cyclist on most stretches. There are parts where you do not have much shoulder and that can really suck as some of the drivers can be a little on the fast side. Especially the people in the big Lexus cars who are mostly corrupted government workers, who can do whatever they like without being punished. Cambodians are some of the nicest people on the planet, but unfortunately their government is the most corrupted and dysfunctional in all Southeast Asia and that is reflected on the roads by the behavior of those who are in power. Good news is that most of the way you have a nice shoulder on the road, for animals, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians.
Meeting other tour cyclists along the way.
On the stretch between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I really met a lot of tour cyclists from all over the world. I met cyclists from Mexico, Greece, Spain, China, France, Malaysia, USA and several other countries. Cambodia is becoming a popular place to go tour cycling and i can understand why. The country has bicycle friendly roads and plenty of cheap accommodation along the roads, making it a joy to go tour cycling there.
Visiting a local school along the way.
One day a young clean cut american guy cycles up next to me and says hello. At first I think he is a missionary, because he is so clean cut, but it shows out that he is a peace corp worker, who teaches english and computer skills at various cambodian village schools. He takes me to the local village school that is set up as a project for children who are too poor to pay for the public school. The public schools are suppose to be free, but since the teachers hardly ever get paid by the government, the teachers often charges around 50 cents per week for each student and some kids can not afford that. But this school is run by a young couple who do it all for free, while the man has a full time job beside that. Very sympathetic people and nice to see how those with very little are able to get by and take life with a smile, even if the kids only have some old bricks from a nearby construction site, as their only toys.
Drinking beer with a killer in Phnom Penh.
In Phnom Penh I take a break for a few days to relax and because I quite like Phnom Penh. Many people are not keen on the city and I can see why many people are scared away. Down on the main avenue by Sisowath Quay, it’s easy to get tired of all the tourists and sloppy old foreign guys, sitting with prostitutes, but once you get past that scene, you actually have a fairly vibrant city. Because the cambodian government is completely useless at helping it’s own citizens, many NGO’s have set up operations in Cambodia and I like staying in the part of the city where they hang out after work, cause that is the place where you can meet some very interesting people, both foreign and locals. One night I meet a guy who is interesting in a way I am not so used to. He tells me that he migrated to America as a kid with his parents, but got in to drugs as a teen and ended up dealing drugs and then one day when a guy cheated him in a drug deal, he shot him through the head and killed him. So now he is has been deported to Cambodia after serving a 12 year jail sentence at San Quentin and he scrapes a living by helping out foreigners because he speaks both english and khmer. His jobs usually only lasts until they find out about his background and he has no work and no money when I meet him, so I buy him a couple of beers as a thank you for telling me his story.
Cycling on to the border of Vietnam.
I continue towards the border of Vietnam and stops in the pleasant little town Takeo, where I stop for the night before heading to the border. Next day at the border I meet one of those custom officials who take pride in being an annoying dickhead. He sits with my passport for over an hour and goes through every page with a magnifying glass to see if he can find anything in correct. When that fails he starts all over again and after two hours he let me in to Vietnam very reluctantly. I have to say that I have crossed in to Vietnam 26 times over the past 14 years and this is the only time I have had this experience, but I really managed to come across the biggest jerk in uniform that day.
Cycling up to Saigon.
I have crossed the border near the town of Chau Doc in Vietnam, which is a busy Mekong Delta town with a nice vibe. It’s the center of the vietnamese fish farm industry, so there are hundreds of floating houses with fish in the basement as I cycle along the Mekong River. Vietnam has very busy traffic, but it’s slow and it’s surprisingly safe to be a cyclist in Vietnam these days. This is a big change from 2002 when I first came there and the country was a nightmare to cycle in. But these days things are quite good there after strong speed limits have been enforced in Vietnam. And food wise it’s one of the best countries in the world for a tour cyclist, with street kitchens everywhere that cooks tasty and nutritious food. The Mekong Delta is the big money maker in Vietnam, because of the sunny weather and abundance of water in the Mekong Delta, allowing the people to harvest rice three times a year, while they can still go fishing in the river at the same time. The place is extremely busy in a very fascinating way.