The Kingdom of Cambodia - Phnom Penh - Battambang
07/06/18 - 26/06/18
My plans and route for Cambodia had completely changed at this point as I’d originally planned to cycle through Boutum Sakor nation park, home to many endangered animals, in south west Cambodia up to Battambang. For reasons largely out of my control, I’d spent so long in Otres, that I now risked not being able to visit Siem Reap and see Angkor Wat, and so, with this in mind, and now that I’d booked my Vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar for August, I spent some days planning the next couple of months and ended up extending my Cambodia Visa by another month for 80$, and getting my Myanmar Visa from the embassy in Phnom Penh, for 50$, express, whilst there also.
Mother Hen (Ken) was in Phnom Penh at the same time, so we caught up for some food and hung out again which was cool.
Soon enough, Surly Temple had been fixed by the guys at Flying Bikes in Phnom Penh and I was back riding around and exploring Phnom Penh ready to hit the road again!
I’d been spending some time at a westernized café/ restaurant called The Shop 240, as the wifi was good and the food even better. It was here I had a sobering experience, when on my way to the bathroom, I walked past a children’s play area, where I came across some children’s books that didn’t have your usual Peppa Pig illustration on the front.
This quickly reminded me of just how real these atrocities were, how it still massively affects millions of people, and how important it was for the Cambodian people to remind future generations of the atrocities that happen here.
On my last night in Phnom Penh, I met Iree, a half English half Japanese girl, who had lived in Brighton, but now lives in Tokyo and who had been on holiday for a week in Cambodia. We got talking and we seemed to click, and after 2 hours chatting, we were heading out for dinner before Iree headed to the airport to head back to Japan. Iree was awesome to talk to and we talked about all sorts and lots about Japan. I hadn’t even considered Japan to cycle through at this point, but had always wanted to visit. I hadn’t realized how close it was to Vladivostok, where I had intended to take a train to St Petersburg, and upon doing some research on its geography, I pretty much decided there and then that I’d be adding Japan and South Korea to my route home, and that I’d stop and say hi to Iree in Tokyo on my way through.
I’d picked up a nasty cold, probably due to a mixture of being ill for a week and A/C, which quickly turned into a sinus infection, which sucked the big one, especially as I was leaving the next day and my face felt like I’d done a round with Mohammed I’m ‘ard Bruce Lee.
I took highway 5 south of the Tonle Sap lake, an important fresh water lake and hydrological system in center of Cambodia, with a river connected to the Mekong. The 300km to Battambang ride was as straight and as flat as it gets, with a bit of a headwind from the west. It’s when it’s this flat, that you start realizing how much you enjoy riding up hills. On a more somber and chilling note, it also made me realize how easy it would have been for the Khmer Rouge to operate in the way they did.
It felt pretty unique cycling this part, as based on the reaction of the people, I’m not sure they see huge amounts of cyclists or ‘tourists’ going past.
The roads certainly weren’t perfect with a hard shoulder of red clay next to the road for motorbikes and cyclists.
The first 2 days riding were both 100km days with tough head winds, and I felt terrible. At one point I was stopped on the side of the road and I just said out loud “ Get angry, get f***king angry, it’s ok” and swore and swore and swore, which really did help. It certainly made me laugh afterwards.
I felt so rough and tired after these first 2 days from Phnom Penh, that I had a rest day in a small town called Pursat and stayed in my hotel room all day, except to go down to the restaurant, order some Khmer food and eat it in my room.
I’d been off the bike long enough for my body to ache and my Achilles to be feeling a little sore, but the rest day had absolutely done the trick, and the ride from Pursat to Battambang was awesome. I strapped my Achilles just to be sure and for peace of mind, and headed for Battambang.
I don’t know where I got it from, but from the very start of that day, I started a new meditation technique whilst riding, and it was incredible. I was completely zoned in, and it’s something I’ve been using ever since.
At one point in the day, I was joined by two Khmer teenage guys who cycled with me for 2 km’s and would come up beside me and ask me questions. Very friendly.
Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city has a unique charm with its colonial buildings, gridded streets, its ruggedness and wonderfully friendly people, not to mention the delicious food on offer and its history.
I arrived in Battambang with the intention of only staying 4 days or so, but its charm soon took hold, and those 4 days got extended slightly. Oh, and the fact that due to poorly strapping my achilles on the ride from Pursat - Battambang, an alien life form had formed on my ankle.
May I introduce you to Bilbo, my first blister.
Blisters, when un-popped are ugly looking things and fairly innocent, with the natural healing process being quicker when intact, but once popped, they certainly don’t look much better but can become a bit more problematic, and of all the places it was going to get infected if it did pop, Cambodia was quite possibly it. Operation ‘Keep Blister Intact’ had gone so well for the first 3 days, with me buying the appropriate treatments to keep her clean, until one innocuous morning. I woke, and was pleased to see Bilbo, this ‘cod liver oil’ looking capsule still intact on my ankle. Now, one thing about these little liquid filled mutants is, they are incredibly itchy.
So I got out of bed, grabbed my toothbrush and walked to the mirror, and without even thinking, the itching on my ankle got the better of me and I’ve dragged my other foot up against the itch without even thinking, and splat. A small puddle forming on the floor and a rather uncomfortable stinging sensation starting, and operation “ keep blister from getting infected” now underway.
There are some great restaurants in Battambang, and on my first night, I came across the best. Coconut Lyly, a lovely, family owned restaurant and cookery school, owned by Suk–Ly or LyLy as his customers know him as, is on a small back street and seats about 20 people. It was here, on my first night that was the start of a friendship with Suk-Ly and his family.
I went back the following evening and had exactly the same thing as the day before and continued talking to Suk-Ly, who had this time, taken a seat and joined me for a few beers and a conversation, whilst I sat eating his delicious food. I went back for lunch the following day too, where I had exactly the same Amok Chicken and rice, as the 2 days before. So delicious.
Our conversations continued and he was very open and honest with me and we both shared stories and laughed, as if friends for ages.
On my second day in Battambang, I went for breakfast at HOC, Hope of Children, an NGO run restaurant who support the children of Cambodia. HOC serves Japanese and Khmer Cuisine, Organic Coffee & Smoothie’s and has a fresh buffet breakfast for 3$, which was delicious. One thing I haven’t yet mentioned, is that in Cambodia, the predominant currency is the US Dollar, with the Cambodian Riel (KHR) used also. Their lowest note denomination of 50 KHR, is less than a penny, their biggest, a 50,000KHR note roughly £9.40.
Here I met Gail, a nice American lady. Gail was sat at a table, and as I walked passed, we said hello, and for someone reason, I though she might be a doctor, so I asked “ I don’t suppose you’re a doctor are you?” to which she replied “I’m a nurse”.
I don’t know why I thought she looked like a doctor, but my instinct proving correct.
“Does this look ok to you?” I asked, pulling of my bandage and showing Gail this rather rank looking thing on my ankle.
“Hmm” she said “ I’d keep an eye on that, looks like it could be getting infected”
“That’s what I thought” in agreement.
Gail and I ended up chatting for the next 2-3 hours and then spending the next few days together hanging out and chatting, which was really nice. She was fun and really nice. I told her I was going to a Vipassana meditation course and she said her son had also attended one, prompting her to connect her son and I via email.
The following evening I went back to Coconut Ly-Ly for dinner, and again, was joined by Suk-Ly, who openly explained about his life. Before Suk-Ly had opened Coconut Ly-Ly, he had moved to Phnom Penh to work in a restaurant as a waiter some 7 years ago, and a gentleman he was serving took a real shining to him and his commitment, courage and sincerity, and decided to sponsor him through catering college, where Suk-Ly trained as a chef.
After completing the course, Suk-Ly had big ambitions of opening his own restaurant in Battambang. “Everyone said it wouldn’t work” he explained, smiling. “ I worked very hard with lots of stress the first year and I lost lots of weight” he continued, showing me pictures. Suk-Ly then told me a story and showed me a picture, which just reaffirmed what an honest, kind and remarkable guy he was. The picture was an aerial picture of 5 people sat on the floor, with 5 hands reaching across one another, grabbing food from 2 small plates of rice and stir fried morning glory, which he then explained. “ This is me and some friends. I look at this picture often, and it is a reminder of a time where I was poor, and that we had little, so I look at it and know that if I work hard, I can support my parents and family”.
We spent the evening continuing to talk and learn more about each other, and I, the problems in Cambodia. He also explained that he gave his poor neighbour a job, so that should could feed herself and live a better life and he had hoped, that once he’d saved some money, he’d be able to buy her some “real” jewellery so that she would be accepted by the local community, who had dissociated her as she was very poor.
The following day I booked a ticket to go to the famous Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus, which I’d heard so much about. At $14 dollars a ticket, it seems quite pricey initially, but this expense is soon justified.
A speedy ‘Herby goes Bananas’ type tuk tuk ride and only my 4th tuk tuk ride in 6 months, and I arrived down a dusty, pot-hole laden road to the shows locations.
Phare Ponleu Selpak or ‘The Brightness of the Arts’, is a non-profit Cambodian association improving the lives of children, young adults and their families, with arts school, educational programs and social support since 1994.
The circus itself is an absolute pleasure to watch. An array of impressive talent, performed with passion, pride and excitement by these young Cambodians. Traditional live music, impressive acrobatics and a humor which seemed to tickle the senses and hearts of the audience; a mix of Cambodians and tourists alike. At one point the audience in complete silence, an air of suspense filling the room, palpable and intense, with a late teen Cambodian guy attempting a balancing act which would surely end in agony should it go wrong, but instead, with the small audience erupting in applause and smiles. Nailed it!
The show was so enjoyable I retuned for a second night 2 days later with Gail, who seemed to equally enjoy the experience.
Gail and I had dinner together the following evening before she left the next day. We met Mike and Becky, and English couple who had just spent 5 months in India who were lovely and we’re still in touch now.
Having wished Gail farewell, and with my blister looking much better after some tlc, anti bacterial cream and a course of antibiotics, I was out exploring Battambang on Surly Temple.
Riding around “The Bong” as it’s affectionately known by the expat community, and I stumble upon the gem that is Pomme Hostel, bar and restaurant. Little did I know that I’d be striking up some great friendships with some wonderful people here.
Pomme is owned by Oli and Johnny and is an awesome place to hangout and listen to live music with cool people. Oli and Johnny are awesome guys from the UK who have set up their lives in Battambang, and they made me feel very welcome. Soon enough, I was in conversation with them and some cool local ‘Bangers’ (expats who live in Battambang), including Sam from New Zealand, a cool, introverted guy, who I ended up having a temperate debate with.
Over the course of the next week, I’d be spending most of my late evenings at Pomme, striking up great friendships and listening to array of talented musicians gracing the stage.
As well as Coconut LyLy, there are some great restaurants around Battambang, including Jaan Bai, a social enterprise restaurant initiative supporting the Cambodian Childrens Trust (CCT), a non for profit children charity. Here I met Phirum, a young Cambodian guy who worked at Jaan Bai. Cambodians want to talk and learn more about you and share information about themselves, and soon enough, Phirum and I were talking and Phirum sharing his goals and ambitions, which lead to him asking me to help him with his business plan, which he’d written in a pad and had given me to read. He said, “Next time you visit Battambang, you let me know and you can stay with my family.” Nice chap.
Another delicious restaurant is Kimchi, a Korean restaurant that served a very good sweet and sour chicken and a great bowl of Spicy Ramen. I spent a few lunches here also.
North of Battambang is Ek Phnom, an 11th century pagoda with sandstone carvings, which pre-dates Angkor Wat. Now that Bilbo had healed, I took a casual ride out through the countryside to this ancient Wat.
Here I met Cheurn Punlea, a monk in Battambang. We had a chat in broken English and I asked questions, then I asked for a photo. “ Should I do anything in return?” I asked. “Just your respect and friendship.” he replied. “Do you have Facebook?” he asked, whipping out his i-phone.
I wanted to learn more about the lives of the monks in the temples, so the following day, I arranged to meet Cheurn Punlea at his Wat, where we walked and talked about Buddhism, religion and his life. I then sat with Cheurn Punlea and 3 of his excited monk friends and practiced English with them, which was a great experience. I also met one of the senior monks, who spoke good English and wanted to share lots of information with me. We are actually still in touch now.
After another enlightening experience, I cycled around the streets of Battambang, stopping at different places and talking to different people. There was one café/ restaurant/ wine bar that I would stop at every time I went past and chat with the Khmer staff who were very friendly and always wanted to practice their English. They would tell me about their day and I, mine.
I found my way back to Pomme and was soon surrounded by awesome people and listening to awesome live music. Oli, Johnny, Bopha, Sam, Roxanne, Lana, Vicki & Dom are a group of expats in Battambang that I’d been spending some time with over the past few days and had become friends with. The live music at Pomme is so so good. Roxanne, a cool American, who teaches English, loves cycling, and has an incredible voice, along with Lana a cool Aussie, Sam from NZ and Aristotle from the Philippines, are a super talented group who I’d happily sit for hours listening to.
Battambang, whilst a little rough around the edges, has a lovely charm to it and feels uber safe. I found my self cycling around the quiet streets of Battambang late at night, and one particular night, Roxanne and I went for a 1am, 5km bike ride around the town, stopping at a roadside noodle stall for a late night beer and a great conversation under the streets lights of Battambang.
My time in Battambang was coming to end, and I’d been spending time with Suk-Ly and his family whilst in Battambang and felt I had been accepted in as a friend by all of them. I’d wanted to capture this, and asked for a photo of them all, which they were delighted with. I had a few things items of clothing and gadgets that I just hadn’t used since being away, so I took them with me and offered them Suk-Ly as a gift. Suk-Ly’s mother, whilst weary of me to start with, seemed to have taken to me, and I her. One evening, she gave me a gift of a traditional, heavy pestle and mortar, which was an incredible gesture. Sadly, due to the nature of my adventure, it was just too big and heavy to take with me, so I gratefully, but sadly, declined. I would have cherished that, but I will their friendship even more.
My last night in Battambang had arrived, and Suk-Ly had asked if I’d like to go out for dinner, to which I happily said yes. Suk-Ly had closed his restaurant earlier than usual, a gesture I was taken aback by on its own, but when I arrived, Suk-Ly gave me a gift, which I was totally blown away by.
Suk-Ly, Savath his wife, their friend Thean and their son Nara and I went to a local restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal with great conversation.
I said goodbye and thank you to this wonderful family and made my way back to Pomme to say goodbye to more wonderful people. A few beers and a few hugs later and it was “farewell till next time”.
It’s these encounters, experiences and bonds that I will remember for years to come.
Whilst I left Battambang with a heavier heart than when I arrived, I knew the journey continued and was excited for the next stop, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.