Friday, April 20, 2012

Four punctures and a funeral

When I told my mum that I planned to ride down the Mekong River from Kratie to Phnom Penh, she said, "Oh, is that safe? Why don't you take a little friend?"

Personally, I would have made a funny joke, like, "Huh, wouldn't it be better to take a boat?" But my mum's not so silly.

Fortunately for her, I already had in mind Rowdie as a potential little friend. That's his real name by the way - the one his parents gave him. Pretty cool huh? And before you ask, yes, he is a bit. But in a good way...mostly.

The night before leaving, I got myself organised. Amongst other things, this involved changing my tyres. This is normally a painless enough exercise, however on this occasion my valve snapped off. As a result I had to use one of my two spares. No matter, one tube should be enough, right?

Anyway, we set off on the bus from Phnom Penh bright and early on Monday and arrived in Kratie, which is just under 250km away, about nine hours later. If that sounds slow, it's because it is.

Kratie is famous for dolphins but while we were there we didn't go to see any. Instead, we saw nice old buildings, like this one:

We also saw a family on a moto which is not in the least unusual. What piqued our attention was the fact that the mother was holding a stick with a drip which was attached to the baby. Actually, it turns out this isn't so unusual after all; we saw two more of these in the following days.

Kratie also has nice sunsets;

And here you can see the locals relaxing in the Mekong;

In Kratie, we stayed in an average hotel with a loud air conditioner. In searching for a powerpoint, I came across a used condom wrapper. Rowdie decided to pump his tyres up. This is normally a painless enough exercise, however on this occasion his valve snapped off. As a result we had to use our last spare tube. This raised both a question and a problem. The question was - what's with all the valves snapping off? And the problem was - we have no spare tubes.

We decided the best thing to do would be to ignore both the question and the problem.

The next day, we committed the rookie errors of leaving too late and riding too fast. As a result, after about an hour of riding, we were hot and tired. We pulled into a little roadside joint to have a sugarcane drink. And then we had another one. These were to become a staple of our journey;

How many forms of transport can you spot here?

Along the way, we spotted many of these things;

We wondered what they were for a while. After a while of wondering and coming up with nothing, we decided to approach one of them and have a look inside;

Any ideas? It turns out they are tobacco leaves. They get dried in the big huts and then carted off to be made into cigarettes. The old man who seemed to be running the show was happy for us to have a look around. He also got his grandson over to show off his English. We went through the standard questions - What is your name? How old are you? Do you have brothers and sisters? - and then told him he spoke English very well. The granddad was chuffed. A very friendly bunch they were.

On our way, we crossed many of these metal bridges. They made a clunking noise which enabled me to pretend that I was a train. Here you can see my little friend choo-chooing across;

We spent a lot of the first day looking for a ferry to cross the Mekong. We'd been informed by two independent and reliable sources that there was a ferry-crossing at a town called Kroch Chhmar, which means "lemon". When we arrived there, however, it turned out that Kroch Chhmar was indeed a lemon when it came to offering river-crossing facilities. 

So instead, we had the first of many swims in the Mekong. Then we found a nice family of tobacco farmers. After a few attempts at doing ferry charades (It's hard - you try it), I drew a boat in the dirt. It was a shitty boat and they didn't know what we were talking about. After some time, we resorted to phoning Narak, a Cambodian friend who works at the same school as us. He spoke to the nice tobacco family and communicated to us that we had another ten kilometres to travel.

As we were leaving the nice tobacco family, I noticed I had a puncture. I pointed this out to the nice tobacco family who very nicely directed me up a lane. About 50 metres down this lane, we came across a tyre fixing depot. These are all over the place in Cambodia as lots of people drive motos and therefore lots of people get punctures.

Here you can see my little friend watching the lady fix my tube, the boy on the little bike watching me, and me watching them. When payment time came around, she raised five fingers and said, "five". Five what? Five thousand riel? Five dollars? No, 500 riel or 12.5 cents. I was super-generous and paid her double.

Then we rode on in search of the elusive ferry. The 10 kilometres turned into 20, so we had another sugarcane juice. Then the 20 kilometres turned into 30, so we had another sugarcane juice. Then we were a bit tired, so we lay down at the sugarcane juice place. After a few minutes one of the sugarcane ladies ushered us into her house. We thought this was a bit weird but she wouldn't take no for an answer. She gave us pillows and a mat and put us to bed on her floor. There we stayed for about an hour.

This is the house in which we lay;

It was at about this point that we began to realise that all our misfortunes were being easily righted and often led to charming little human interactions. This was largely thanks to the Cambodians we met along the way. What do I mean by this? Well, to put it bluntly, Cambodians are bloody friendly.

Finally, we found the ferry!

"So, do you come here often?" My bike is so cheeky.

The ferry took us to a little town called Khum Trea. There we saw Cambodians kids jumping off a boat;

And this school;

And the beautiful Mekong;

And cute kids on bikes;

We stayed at a lovely little guesthouse that had a small ants' nest in the bathroom along with two used condoms in a plastic bag. It was just charming and raised a new question - what was with all the condom paraphernalia in our hotels?

Once bitten, twice shy, and also wanting to get the fuck out of that hotel, we left bright and early on day two. We were able to watch the sun rise as we pedalled out of town. It seemed a little apocalyptic at this time; passing vehicles caused dust clouds from which appeared cows, farmers and towns, while eery music from local mosques created the soundtrack.

As it turns out, it wasn't the apocalypse, it was just dusty and I was half-asleep. Here's my bike watching the sunrise;

After a while we got a little peckish, so we pulled over at a cooked banana place and had a snack;

Then, before we knew it we arrived in the city of Kampong Cham. We found a nice café and sat there for a long time eating and drinking. While there, we rang our friend, Narak, to let him know that we'd made it. He told us that he was on his way to his village, which is 30km south of Kampong Cham, for his auntie's funeral, who had died the day before.

Narak invited us along. He came and collected us from Kampong Cham. Before going to his village, he took us to his cousin's restaurant where we ate duck's blood (amongst other things). Then Narak motor-paced us all the way to his village, and with the power of duck's blood, we managed to hang on to his slipstream.

On arrival, we sat down to a glass of monkey-esque endangered species rice wine. Excuse me? Well, here, take a look;

So they get this little animal which is like a monkey but isn't one, and is much more difficult to find, and put it in the rice wine, where it spends the rest of its days, or would if it were alive. The idea is that it makes you strong. I certainly felt strong. What with the duck blood and the monkey-esque endangered species rice wine, I doubt I have ever been stronger.

While Narak and his family took their auntie "to her new house", which is the Buddhist version of a grave, my little friend and I napped and relaxed in Narak's family home.

In it, there was a picture of the former King;

And some very cute kittens;

A cyclist passing by;

In the evening we had a delicious meal of fish and chicken and "Cambodia" beer;

The power went out a few times;

We set-off bright and early the next morning - the third and final day - once again in time to greet the sun;

All the way from Kratie to Phnom Penh, children yelled out hello. It was all very nice. Here are some hello children;

Nearing our destination, it was my little friend's turn to get a puncture. The whole family congregated around the work and watched while we attempted to converse in our limited Khmer;

And that's about it.

Except you must be wondering about the other two punctures. You're probably feeling deceived. "Why did he say four punctures when it's only two?" Calm yourself child. It turns out that having fixed one puncture, air was still escaping. How can that be? Aha, another hole. So that one was fixed. But then air was still escaping. Aha, yet another hole. And then that one was fixed, and the air could no longer escape and all was well. So you see? Three punctures right there, enabling me to employ the very clever title you see above.

Here you can see our route and things;

This was a fantastic trip that offered lots of unexpected experiences. What in many places would cause problems were nothing of the sort here in Cambodia. If anything, any time something went wrong, something good happened as a result.

As I mentioned, Cambodians are really friendly. This may seem a trite comment but it's an observation I cannot neglect.

Thanks to Rowdie for being my little friend. Have I forgotten anything, mate?

And thanks to Cambodie for being cool.


  1. Isn't it always the way. Things go wrong in a third world country, you get looked after like royalty. Things go wrong here in Australia ...

  2. Rowdie was the name of my first family dog. A bull terrier/fox hound cross. He would disappear for days chasing girl dogs. When he'd eventually came home he'd be carrying the wounds from fighting . . . Does your Rowdie behave in this manner?

    1. Yes. I have been trying to train him better but you know what they say...

  3. Rowdie also goes missing for days chasing girls :-) Sounds like you had a brilliant trip! Loving the blog. Good work

  4. Death certificates, special permits, and authorizations are just some of the paperwork that needs to be completed and filed for the deceased.