Cruising to the beach

January 17, 2013

Kampot and Sihanoukville are 105km apart so we tried really hard to go to bed early, but the western backpacker’s guesthouse next door was blasting music until midnight. Not just an annoying variety, but the same two songs, over and over and over, for hours. When we woke up at 530am, Chandler and I actually discussed our mutual dreams of cutting the power or throwing the stereo into the river. Despite our annoying neighbors, we woke up in good moods and ready for a long day.

We had already scoped out the restaurants and knew who would be open early for breakfast, a bakery in Kampot. We also picked up some cinnamon rolls for later.

The riding was great outside of town. Finally, we had a tailwind and were flying without too much effort. We passed through a few cute fishing villages.

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Fishing boat fishing

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Bikes looking good

One of the more interesting things I have noticed is that the further south we’ve traveled in Cambodia, the more Muslims and mosques we see. I thought Cambodia was only really a Buddhist country. The people are just as friendly and curious about us as anyone else.

The road was in pretty decent shape with a few stretches of highway widening construction. The shoulder disappeared when we hit the intersection of the two highways. Not too big of a deal because there was flat, dirt trail adjacent the road which was partially packed by motos.

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Sugar cane lady and friends

Whenever we have a really big ride, I try to mentally prepare myself beforehand. I knew there was a 6km hill right at the end of the ride, just north of Sihanoukville. I began imaging this one hill would be worse than the combination of the three hills we did outside of Sangkhlaburi. While there wasn’t any shade or a shoulder, so we were in the road, this 100 meter hill was a piece of cake. The best part was coasting down hill to town.

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The globe seems a little off

Overall it was a pretty easy ride despite being one of our longer distances – tailwinds rock!

We found a nice hotel, cleaned up and headed straight for the beach where we watched the sunset and enjoyed a pile of crab. Second dinner included pizza and pineapple shakes before relaxing in our room with some TV.

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Sunset

Pepper and Ginger

January 16, 2013

6am is probably the wrong time to ask me if I want to sleep in or get up and ride. I think Chandler knew the answer before I even opened my mouth. So, we slept until we woke up naturally, around 9am.

I think sleeping in and relaxing is just what we needed. Kampot is the kind of town that makes you want to relax and take it easy. Chandler and I got a really good feeling from the town.

We found a nice cafe with real coffee, not Nescafe! Cafe Espresso not only had delicious drinks, but also wonderful western food. We had a nice brunch and decided to return in the afternoon for some ginger beers.

Meanwhile, we went to the office at FarmLink which is an organization that aids pepper farms and workers in the Kampot region. We were able to learn the process of producing various kinds of pepper and have a small tour of the building were the girls sort the good berries from the bad. The girl we spoke to said they all really like their jobs because not only were they together, but they get Saturday and Sunday off. That is a real treat. Most people in Cambodia work 7 days a week.

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Girls sorting peppercorns

The pepper is grown on vines and start producing berries after three or four years. The timing of when the berries are picked partially determines the type of pepper produced. The green berries produce black pepper, while fully ripened berries turn red and are individually picked from amongst the unripe berries to produce red pepper. White pepper is made from black pepper that has had it’s outer skin removed through a boiling process. The berries are dried in the sun until hard and then combed through one by one by hand! During this process the workers remove rocks, stems or unattractive looking peppercorns. Apparently they destroy the peppercorns that don’t past the test, because they used to sell them as seconds, but competitors started buying them selling them to tourists as Kampot pepper, diluting the quality of the product.

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Grow me some pepper

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Black pepper drying

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Red pepper

The whole pepper scene here sounds pretty complicated- with Kampot Pepper recently receiving an official Geographical Indication status, which is apparently similar to the status enjoyed by farmers of Champagne grapes and Florida Oranges. This recognition has miffed other Cambodian pepper farmers from different regions as the value of their product has diminished relative to the “real” pepper. Additionally we heard rumor that some of the pepper found in markets catering to tourists may be supplemented with pepper from other sources, such as Vietnam. Farmlink makes a big deal about traceability in their advertising materials which are quite slick- all of their products have codes that can be traced back to the farm they came from- sort of like the Icebreaker merino wool farm tracing program. I’m not sure how much oversight the program has, but the products they offered were much more uniform and didn’t have any of the stones and stems that the packets from the souvenir shops in town had (which were half the price).

At the end of the tour we were given a little taste test of black, red and white pepper. They all smelled amazing, and each had a strong, unique flavor. Because we were going to be coming back through Kampot after heading down to Sihanoukville, we decided not to buy any souvenirs until later.

After our pepper lesson, it was time for ginger beer! We headed back to Cafe Espresso and ordered dinner and a few drinks. This was my first alcoholic beverage since we have been in Asia and it was probably the best ginger beer I have ever had. I love ginger beer, however most ginger beer in the US is heavy on the beer and light on the ginger. This drink was more of an alcoholic ginger ale and very refreshing. The owner of the cafe makes it himself in large water jugs, but it was very well done without a hint of homebrew tang!

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Gingers love ginger beer

Tomorrow, a long ride to the beach in Sihanoukville!

Mayonnaise in my coffee

January 15, 2013

We knew we would be getting a late start considering we were at a home stay, where socializing always keeps us longer than we think it will, but we enjoy these visits. Our hostess made us pancakes and coffee. She gave us a can of sweet milk and motioned that a jar on the table was sugar. We had talked about palm sugar production the night before and how it is similar to maple syrup. I thought the sugar was just thicker than maple syrup, not individual crystals. I took a small spoonful and mixed it into my coffee. The hostess then came back to the table and swapped the jar with another identical jar and said she accidentally put out mayo and this was the sugar. Oh well, I got some extra calories for the day.

We finally hit the road around 8am after many goodbyes and signing the guestbook. Yesterday’s feelings were long gone and we were both happy to be biking. The weather was nice and cloudy, however we continued to have a headwind. I think I will also be biking in a long sleeve shirt for while. It appears as though I have developed prickly heat on my arms. This is when sweat is trapped in your pores and you develop a rash. Just as lovely as it sounds.

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Happy on the bike again

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Chicken, anyone?

The ride was not exciting until we had about 30km before we reached Kampot. Mountains started to appear- the first ones we’ve seen since Thailand! Soon, a man on a motorbike putted along side us and said hello to me and then moved up to Chandler. I thought he would say hello and then move on. Instead, he held a conversation with Chandler for the rest of the ride. For 30km, or about 2 hours he rode along side Chan, cruising on his moto at 10 mph. He left at one point, only to return a few minutes later, after he got a bottle of water. Apparently, he wants to be a tour guide and was asking Chandler to explain the meaning of different words. The topics vocabulary lesson ranged from specific names of construction equipment and fruit trees to the use of the word “immediately”. They also spent a while discussing the subtle difference in the pronunciation of the words “three” and “tree”.

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Mountains

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Chan and his buddy

We had a little trouble saying goodbye, because he wanted us to stay at his brother’s guesthouse in the town center, but we had trouble conveying that we wanted to stay on the river. We finally got things squared away and he left after thanking us many times. We found a nice bungalow on the river. It was a single unit up on stilts with a thatched roof and a brick bathroom on the ground floor. We set up a hammock and spent the rest of the evening reading and relaxing, until we were ready to sleep. That is when the “backpacker” bar next door started blasting American dance music. Luckily, it only annoyed us for a moment, we were both so tired, we fell asleep quickly.

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Our bungalow

Frustration

January 14, 2013

After a quick omelet breakfast (bacon and eggs for Chan), we hit the streets in the middle of rush hour. The traffic wasn’t bad, but requires extra concentration and is always slightly stressful. Phnom Penh traffic has a little more of an anarchic feel than Bangkok, for example, there are many uncontrolled major intersections that at first appear to be absolute traffic jams, but everyone weaves their way through slowly without bumping, crashing, yelling, or really even using horns much.

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After an hour of biking, I was really ready to be done but we still had 65km to go. While the road was paved and very flat, the constant headwind and monotonous landscape was getting to me.

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Once the foul mood hit, I cultivated it. I started thinking about how I hated biking long distance and how exhausted I felt. My rear felt like I was sitting on sandpaper. I wished we had taken the bus to Sihanoukville. I hated pretty much everything.

Suddenly, Chandler yelled to me that I had missed the small sign marking the turn off for the home stay we had found on our route. We traveled about a kilometer down a dirt road in the midst of rice fields to a quiet courtyard. The owner was quite surprised to see us, as most guests book ahead of time and are either dropped off by a local taxi or brought in by the owners themselves. They were quite stunned that we were able to find them, but we had marked roughly where their road was on the GPS and Chan was watching closely for their tiny hand painted sign.

The owner must have noticed something else because she told us to go clean up and asked her sister to make us lunch. Lunch was fabulous. Huge piles of rice, veggies, tofu, omelet and fresh fruit. Now, everything was better! I knew I would have tough days like this, but the important thing was that at the end of the day, I’m still happy we are on bikes. I’m glad not to be stuck in some bus, being whisked through everything between the big cities.

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The owners only had one other couple as guests- some friends from New Zealand staying with them, so it was nice and quiet. The owners are both teachers and have an English class that they teach at their house. They asked if we wouldn’t mind talking to the students to help them practice their English. The students were all between 17 and 20 and a fun bunch to talk to once we all got over being shy. We talked about Alaska, bike touring, our families, what they do for fun, what their career goals where, what we do for a living, what they study, and all sorts of other things. A few of them also took turns riding around on my bicycle, which everyone found amusing.

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After talking with the students for an hour, dinner was ready. We had a nice family style meal with everyone. The owner was a bit embarrassed because she had already planned a “western” meal of spaghetti and garlic bread not thinking that they would have guests, but it was very good, and a perfect dinner for cyclists. We had a traditional Khmer desert of sticky rice flour ground mixed into a paste with coconut milk and wrapped around a center of palm sugar and peanuts, which is then steamed in a folded up banana leaf. It was very tasty and we both had seconds. Apparently palm sugar is derived from “sugar palms” which don’t have coconuts. The sugar palm guy (for lack of a better term) climbs the tree and makes a precise cut near a new flower on the tree and hangs a bamboo bucket which collects the “sap”. After it is collected, the sap is reduced with heat into coarse sugar- kind of like maple syrup!

We chatted with everyone for a while after dinner, but we both got sleepy pretty quick and decided to retire early to ensure we were well rested for tomorrow.

Phnom Penh

January 12 – 13, 2013

We had our usual set of chores to complete while in a city but we decided to leave those for the afternoon. First, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum referred to as S-21. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge converted a high school in the middle of Phnom Penh into a prison and interrogation center. Warning- this post is a bit depressing!

The people brought to S-21 were photographed and usually starved and tortured in order to extract to confessions of “crimes” they had committed against “Angka” which was an ominous term for the “organization” that controlled Cambodia during the dark period of the mid to late 1970’s.

The record keeping at the prison was meticulous and the confessions that people were forced to sign were elaborate but usually very obviously contrived. Of the few dozen example confessions on display, most prisoners admitted to being agents of the CIA or KGB and most “crimes” were associated with spreading counter revolutionary sentiments and burning rice fields or supplies. There was a confession from an American citizen who had been captured on a boat off the Cambodian coast while supposedly intercepting radio transmissions from inside Cambodia. It was not clear what his fate was. Some prisoners were photographed again if they died at the facility. Many were executed in killing fields outside the city. Of an estimated 20,000 prisoners there were only an estimated 200 survivors including 7 who were freed when the Khmer Rouge abandoned the prison as the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979.

The museum was very simple, with pretty limited interpretive information, but a number of relics from the original configuration were left untouched, such as makeshift cells and bedframes used for torture.

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It was a very sobering experience and gave us an idea of what some of the Khmer people had to go through. I think one of the worst parts were the photos of the victims, especially the children.

After a couple hours at the museum, we were both pretty stunned and weren’t up for a tour of the killing fields. We decided to get our errands done. Chandler broke his Kindle e-reader when he accidentally dropped his bar bag and the Kindle got smashed inside, so he was in the market for a new one. Luckily, it wasn’t the tablet or one of the cameras.

We went all over town looking for one, managed to complete everything else on the list, but no Kindle. Chan is now relegated to photocopied books on local history or used Danielle Steele and other pulp classics. We dropped off our bikes for a cleaning and to have someone look at my bottom bracket to figure out why my bike clicks. After walking around for a hour in the heat, we decided to take our first tuk-tuk. Finally, we ended up at a mall and in an arcade. For some reason there was a ban on photography in the arcade, so no pictures, but we had a really good time playing video games and ended up with a pretty decent crowd gathered around us watching us play. $2 kept us busy for a hour or so.

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We spent the next day relaxing and planning our route through the rest of Cambodia. We didn’t venture too far from the hotel.