Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Mekong Trail - Into Cambodia's north-east

15th - 24th August 2012
8175 - 8744km
Phnom Penh – Kampong Cham – Kratie – O Krieng – Banlung – O Yadao

The Mekong is a fat, languid beast. Undercurrents swarm and crinkle her clay coloured skin, but she keeps her composure and rarely breaks into surf. Instead she glides by, a great swirling hide of brown leather. Water for millions. Sustainer of empires. And our guide for the next 300km as we followed her into the sleepy north-eastern regions of Cambodia.

River run

We were up early on the 15th, and on our bikes in time to join the morning traffic in a halting conga line past traffic lights and sleeping neon signs. Breakfast was had, then we headed over the bridge and out of the city. Within minutes the traffic was gone and the road had shrivelled into a cracked tarmac trail.

This was real rural Cambodia now, none of that highway malarkey of the last two weeks. Before long the tarmac gave in, leaving us with only dirt to ride on, which was fine for the most part because, for the most part, it was dry, compact and flat, but things did get a little adventurous when it broke up into these deep wet trenches, or degraded into mud.

These changing conditions meant that our route had to be hammed together as we went, as tracks appeared and disappeared, and as local ferries arrived to cough and clang us to the other shore. We ended up riding along walking tracks that skirted the crumbling river bank, and following cowherd's trails across open grassland. We heaved our way up hillside rubber plantations to excellent views over the river, before coasting down to the village below where local kids' ambushed us with their happy shouting. If this all sounds ridiculously idyllic, it's because it was. It was excellent. Our first couple of days were long ones, over 100km each, and conditions weren't always ideal, but the area was so attractive that we both finished up each day grinning through layers of thick dust.

Robin's pedal falling off was an event the whole village came out to watch, even
the dogs came along.

Everything was going a little too brilliantly all in all, and it was about time for something to come along and lob a spanner in our spokes.

We had holed up in Kratie for a day to rest and catch up with the blog. Nice place really. A lot of the French influence about it, with its riverside esplanade and tall curly lamps. The market was a riot too, with huge baskets of dried horseshoe crabs for sale. We were thinking of buying some to take with us and eat on the road, before realising that we had neither the knowledge nor the desire to eat one, so we left them be.

That afternoon we found a faded photocopy of a map of the 'Mekong Discovery Trail' lying amongst the usual pile of brochures in our hostel. Apparently various local groups had teamed up to map out the next 150km section of track - marking out accommodation, villages, sights to see, ferry crossings, all of that - so tourists could rent a bike, hire a guide, and set off on their own little Mekong adventure. Well, we thought as we pocketed the map, the next few days should be fairly straightforward then.

Jungle bungle

The next day began as glorious as ever. We set out beneath a silky blue sky and spent the morning in the company of the river and a lovely light breeze. Fishing villages slipped by, oxen gurned cud at us, but our little trail gradually dwindled.

By the early afternoon it had become little more than a path between a scattering of huts, and riding became a slow and careful business as grass and branches clawed at our sides. Something was up, but we could still see the Mekong off to our left and this was supposed to be the Mekong Trail so we couldn't be too far wrong.

Coming out into a clearing and seeing that our trail led straight into somebody's hut didn't necessarily spell the end of it. A couple of days before a track had led us literally right through someone's house, with this lovely old woman sat there laughing at us as we pushed our bikes through her stable, apologising profusely. The woman who now emerged before us was nice enough too, but she seemed pretty adamant we had reached the end of this track. She shook her head and pointed back the way we had ridden. Surely not. I wandered onwards a little to have a peep, and found the way blocked by a wide feeder channel several tens of metres across. Without a boat we were not getting over it, and there were no boats to be had.

We backtracked a little way and came across a concealed jeep trail that broke off east through some trees. Another local lady came by and we asked her whether this was the way we needed, and she responded positively, as far as we could figure. It didn't look like the way though. All branches and roots and vines dangled about in the way, and the track wound through the trees like a drunk. Our map had nothing like this on it, but then neither did it show a large fast-flowing river blocking the way. The only alternative was to backtrack 40km, and you can imagine what we thought about that.

We ventured in, and the track almost immediately slumped into the boggiest, wettest, most difficult terrain we'd ever come across. Steep humps of earth reared up on us then sank down into pits of thick wet mud. We had to tackle it one bike at a time, dismounting and charging them through the mud hazards. Worked up a sweat pretty quick I can tell you, and it wasn't like we were confident all this work was leading us the right way.

Our inebriate jeep track was all over the place, curling round and back and off this way and that. We tried following it north but soon hit another section of that sodding waterway, so then we backed up a bit and pushed eastwards again. We knew that the Mekong was just to our west, that was obvious, and we knew that there was a major road somewhere in the region of 15-20km east of us. So, as long as this track continued vaguely east we would either join up with the proper Mekong Discovery Trail, which we had somehow missed, or would end up on the main road again. Plans as good as that bring confidence to a situation that can make all the difference for morale, especially when you explain them in terms of cardinal directions. But as the hours go on, and the jungle thickens, watertight plans can buckle.

Thankfully before too long the mud became less of an issue. The track flattened out and we found we could pedal again and get a reasonable speed up. Just 10km/h or so, but it made our goal of reaching the main road before evening plausible.

Our biggest worry though was what this jeep track was going to do. Goodness knows how long ago it had ridden through here, and god knows where it was going. Plants had sprung up and reasserted themselves where the tyres had run them flat, and as the jungle vegetation grew thicker around us the tracks became more precarious and shrank beneath the vines. We needed these tracks to lead us out of here, because we were in the middle of nowhere now, and Cambodian jungles are really not the best places to go trailblazing.

Getting yourself blown up in Cambodia is a very real possibility if you're not careful. Huge areas of the country were mined by the Khmer Rogue, and if you stray from the beaten track you run the risk of tripping one. Hundreds of Cambodians are killed every year in such incidents. There are thousands of mines, nobody knows where they are, and mine clearing is expensive so they don't look likely to be cleared up any time soon.

Pol Pot isn't the only one to blame though. Cambodia remained neutral during the Vietnam War, but despite this America ran a clandestine carpet bombing operation from 1969 – 1970 to try and whack Viet Cong forces operating in the area. During this fairly short period American B-52's managed to drop more bombs on Cambodia than were dropped by all of the Allies combined during the entirety of the Second World War.

The upshot of this is that the east of the country, where we now found ourselves, is now laced with unexploded ordinance, so we really rather hoped that this jeep trail wouldn't suddenly vanish on us. We pedalled on, but the jungle just got thicker and thicker.

By the time we hit our first stream we had been going for so long, and had exerted so much effort getting there, there was no way we were going to turn back. We shrugged and sloshed our way across the shallow water and out the other side. Two wet feet wasn't so bad, just as long as we got to a road soon. Come on road.

The afternoon wore on, and we realised that unless our luck changed we ran a very real risk of being stuck out here at night. I needn't point out the dilemma that would have presented itself to us: do we camp in the middle of a jeep trail at night, or do we camp off the jeep trail? No no no, we really did not want to have to deal with that.

I was also slightly worried about bears. Not satisfied with the danger of bombs in this area, bears have taken it upon themselves to threaten mankind in this region too. Not many of them I'll grant, but we were an hour out of earshot of human habitation, and dusk was coming - just the time and the place to run into a hungry bear.

Tensions were starting to run high, our nerves were frayed and we were worried that perhaps we really were lost. As I rounded a bend and descended a little way a dismaying sight presented itself to me. A river lay right across our path – not quite as wide or powerful as the one that had blocked our way all those hours ago, but it was wide enough, and looked pretty deep. Liv hadn't seen it yet, and I was worried that it might give her wavering confidence a fatal blow. So I gave it a quick scan for crocs and charged forward with the bicycle.

The bike immediately sank down to its axle, me to my shins, but I had to keep up the momentum to stop the bike being dragged over by the current. The water got deeper. Soon it was over my knees, over the wheels, submerging the panniers, over my thighs - but I was beyond the half way point now. The panniers resurfaced, and the bike emerged dripping from the water. Up the other bank we came, just in time to counter Liv's horrible realisation that there was a river in our way. I waded back across, and together we heaved Liv's bike across too.

That was as bad as it got, thank god, but the rest was by no means easy. Rain came, and we sloshed and sweated our way forwards pursued by mosquitoes. At one point the jungle opened up into the wide, bare soil of a recently scraped plantation area, and we worried that our jeep trail would end there, but it didn't, and we followed it across the bare earth and back into the trees.

Finally, not long after that, we heard the distant chug of an engine – the first sound of human activity we'd heard in hours. We heaved onwards, the jungle parted, and we emerged onto a red dirt road. Relief! Oh, relief that felt so good it made the whole ordeal almost worth it. Fear and tension broke up into laughter, and we sank in a heap by the side of the road.

For the rest of that afternoon luck swung in our favour. We bumped into a gaggle of workers a little way up the road, who informed us we were in the middle of an enormous sugar cane plantation. Huge. They gave us directions out of there, and we rode for a good 10km or more down this long, straight track as the sun flared through late afternoon clouds. Bemused security guards let us out at the gate, and we pedalled along more loose ground until finally meeting up with the prized main road. The light was faltering, but after only a few minutes we came to a restaurant that offered us a spare room for the night. And we ate, and we slept - though our shoes were still damp in the morning.

The longest day

Our exploits in the jungle had left us in a bit of a crappy position. Stung Treng, the next town, was about 50km away north, and then there was about 120km of bugger all until we reached the north eastern hub town of Banlung, not too far from the border. A 50km day is piddly, and if we stayed a night in Stung Treng we'd lose a day off in Banlung. But then, a 170km day would be impossible. Maybe.

We set off early, and pedalled hard to the Stung Treng junction for an early lunch. It was midday, and we still had 120km to cover and we were still pretty exhausted from our caper through the jungle the day before. But what the hell, we thought, if it means a day off tomorrow let's bloody do it. There's a strange logic to cycling sometimes.

So, we did. We pedalled on and on, and on and on. There was indeed bugger all along the way, just a very long, but mercifully paved, road with a few fields and forests along the way. The sun scorched along its arc, and swung down into a herd of cloud that marched in and dampened the late afternoon. We sat out the brief storm in a shop-shack, scoffed packet noodles and biscuits for fuel, and pedalled onwards.

We were 40km short when the sun sank, and the light filtered by degrees from gold, to orange, to husky blues and blackness. There were no street lights, rarely any houses, so we found ourselves pedalling through utter blackness for two hours. The hills, the fields, the trees all gathered into a thick black hull of shadow that cut along the oil spill sky above. We rode on, illuminated by an assortments of lights and reflectors that hung from our bicycles and clothes.

At about 8pm the night was broken open by a row of streetlights ahead. We had made it to Banlung. Exhausted, sweating, we arrived at Treetop lodge on the edge of town and managed to bag the last available room. We showered, ate like pigs, then slithered, groaning to bed. Our legs were like sand, but by golly we made it. New record; 177km in a day. Boom!

A fond farewell

Treetop lodge was a wonderful place to take a couple of days off. As you might imagine from the name it was built in and around some trees with plank walkways connecting the huts, and lovely views of the hillsides around. We met up with a cracking bunch of Germans - Yoota, Horga, Corina and Dominic - and between eating excellent food and drinking copious amounts of beer with them, we found time to potter up to the nearby crater lake to take a dip and stretch off those throbbing calves.

Too soon our time was up, and we set out again for our final ride in Cambodia, a fairly short, simple ride to the little-used border at O Yadao. Unfortunately there was a bit of a problem. Our Vietnamese visa didn't become valid until the next day, so we couldn't cross into Vietnam just then. That should fine though, because we had heard that there was a hotel at the border, but this turned out to be something of a half truth – in the sense that there was only half a hotel there, it was not yet built. Apart from the hotel building site there were only a handful of other buildings – two restaurants, and the border guard station – nowhere else really, and nowhere to stay.

Thankfully the border police were very understanding, and said we could sleep in their meeting room. We chewed up the hours by reading and watching some documentaries on the laptop, and at night we put up the tent inside the room. Officer Jamjam had studied English before he became a border guard, and he invited us out the back for a chat as he swung in his hammock drinking coffee. Life out here was very quiet, not much to do, but it kept him away from his family for months at a time. Jamjam had been a young lad during Pol Pot's rule, and he told us stories about how he'd had to gather up cow manure to fertilise the crops, and how he had for a long time only eaten nothing but a thin soup with just a few grains of rice at the bottom.

He was keen to make sure we knew about Cambodia's past. Such things must be remembered, he believed. We nodded, but went on to tell him what a fantastic time we'd had in his country. And it was true, we were going to miss this place.

We were just gonna sleep on the floor,
but this guy was roaming about so
we thought we'd better stick the tent up!
Some time earlier the meeting hall had been commandeered by Jamjam's commanding officer, who was dealing with a domestic dispute “involving wine”. Quite what the troublemakers thought of there being a tent erected in their interrogation room we will never know, but finally they left and we were permitted back inside to get some much needed sleep.

After entering Cambodia nearly a month earlier at a notoriously corrupt border crossing, it seemed apt, given our experiences of the country, that we should leave at a peaceful one run by such friendly guards. Cambodia had certainly been one of the highlights of the trip so far. The cycling has been adventurous and exciting, Angkor was absolutely gobsmacking, and the Cambodian people are just the most wonderful bunch we've come across. Keep your fingers crossed for Cambodia, as she's well overdue some good luck of her own now.

Leaving Phnom Penh
Typical road in the north-east
Why the long face?
Finding our way through grassland
Mekong cloud atlas
Rubber plantation
A lot of children end up doing farmwork to help support their family
Dusty work
Heave ho!
We got covered in this red dust everyday
Our bikes skidded to a rapid halt when we saw this goat at the side of the road sporting a blonde quiff and a Norris-beating ginger beard.
Starfish at Kratie market
Kratie market
Kratie kitten
Early stages of the Mekong Discovery Trail
I say, do you mind?! We're in the bath!
Easy river crossing early in the day
The young girl who runs the river raft
Mekong Discovery Trail indeed!
Through the jungle
And back on the road again!
Spare room at the restaurant
Held up on our 177km day because my chain pinged off. Robin was a gentleman and helped me replace it.

Lazy days at the treetop lodge

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