Two days earlier, I had arrived in Siem Reap with little more than an idea: to go cycle touring in northern Cambodia. With no information available online, I set off with little idea what to expect and nothing but a small rucksack filled with a single change of clothes, a few spare bike parts and enough food and water for a couple of hours.
It wasn't long before I left the busy tourist centre with its many souvenirs and hawkers and entered instead, a local's market. Fruit stalls lined the roadside; each one with its own makeshift tarpaulin roof, bamboo frame and huge bunches of bananas hanging haphazardly at head height. Behind these were stalls selling meat, whole carcasses strung up from those same bamboo poles, and bowls of live fish, rice, flour and cakes beneath them. It was an explosion of colour and chaos, and I loved it.
Navigating the road through the market was like a computer game with people crowding in the street and cars and motorbikes, tractors and strange vehicles I don't even have a name for all driving in whatever direction they pleased. My senses were at once delighted and overwhelmed and I was reminded just how much fun it is to cycle through an unfamiliar country.
My route took me in a 435km loop from Siem Reap to Sra Aem, Anlong Veng and back again. The roads took me through fields greener than I have ever seen, through small shaded avenues lined with trees, through towns and villages with red dirt roads and old ladies selling fruit and boiled corn from bamboo shelters and past temples, still beautiful beneath the peeling paintwork. I was able to lose myself in the beauty of the country as I cycled along early in the morning when the mist still clung to the trees around me or beneath blue skies in the afternoon.
Usually I covered between 65 and 80km a day and all along the way was treated with kindness; both young and old greeting me with "Hello" as I cycled past their homes, school children running to the gate to wave or cycling next to me on their bicycles as I passed through their villages.
Cycling in the hot Cambodian sun meant that I constantly needed to replenish my dwindling water supplies. Instead of fridges, everyone sold refreshments from huge, red cooler boxes. Inside the coolers there would usually be a large selection of soft drinks, water, fresh young coconuts (my favourites) and a huge lump of ice.
I sometimes saw the ice men delivering these enormous slabs of ice; couriered on the back of a motorbike trailer and covered with a thick piece of tarpaulin to protect it from dust and the sun. It looked like hard and unforgiving work to move them from the trailer to the cooler, but I guess it is cheaper than having a fridge.
Relying previously on the regular roadside stalls to refill my water, I was somewhat thrown on my third day of cycling when I found none for more than ten kilometres. I realised I was in what appeared to be a military area, rows of identical stilted houses for kilometres at a time and big armoured vehicles racing past me on the road. Eventually I was forced to cycle up to what appeared to be a small army base, with hundreds of heavily armoured men wandering around in khaki gear, and timidly ask for water. Far from being shunned, I was given big smiles, had my photo taken and was sent on my way with three times more water than I had asked for.
Cycling allowed me to travel slowly, to really see and enjoy the views, to smile and talk to the locals and to visit and stay in places that rarely, if ever, see foreigners. It allowed me a small glimpse into the real country, and what a beautiful country Cambodia is.
Written by: Laura Ricketts
Laura loves the wild places of the world and is always looking for journeys that will take her to the remote corners of the globe. She enjoys traveling slowly, taking the time to explore a place before moving on to the next. When she is not writing, she likes to cycle, rock climb and camp on beautiful beaches. Follow her at: www.wanderlustforwildplaces.com
All Photo Credits: Laura Ricketts