We were expecting to see a change from Thailand to Cambodia, but maybe not quite as big and it took us a while to adjust at first. The first thing you see in Prum (border town) are the huge and relatively new casinos, which contrast a lot with the rest of the little town, which seems very poor. We didn’t really stop there as we didn’t have any Riel and there was no ATM (we weren’t aware than that you can use US$ everywhere in Cambodia, and with an exchange rate as good than in the bank).
As we rode to our first destination, Pailin, we noticed that, compared to Thailand, most of the forest has gone, so it was much warmer and dustier. There was also a lot of smoke from burning fields, and the high grass and trash along the road. On the very positive side we could hear loud HELLOOOO coming from each side of the road from super cute and smiley kids. Sometimes they would spot us from hundred metres, and come running from the fields to greet us… really heart-warming.
Pailin is a little city surrounded by hills, and on one of those hills is a massive golden statue of a Buddha and a beautiful temple that can be spotted from quite far away. It has quite a rough past as it is one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge as recently as 1998. Westerners rarely stop here, as it is less than a day by bus or car from Battambang to the Thai border. One big highlight as well was our first sandwich, with real baguette (yes we think constantly about eating while we cycling, and after those few years living in NZ, we get really excited about good bread :).
After Pailin, we cycled to Battambang. We really liked this slow paced city and stayed an extra day to enjoy the food and relaxed atmosphere. It may seem chaotic at a first glance, with kids playing on the side of the street, chickens and dogs running around and tuktuk, scooters, cars everywhere, but somehow everyone and everything had their place in sort of an unhurried flow. In the evening, we went to one of the shows of the Phare circus. Phare Ponleu Selpak (http://www.phareps.org/) is a non-profit Cambodian association and one of their program provides a multi-arts education for disadvantaged children. The show was really funny and we were pretty amazed by their skills!
We took a boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, mostly so we didn’t have to cycle the same road twice (to get to Siem Reap and then to cross back into Thailand at the border of Ou Smach). The boat ride was very long (>8h) as it is dry season and the Sangker river was low on the first few kilometres. We were a bit conflicted about our choice to take the boat at first, because on that first section the boat was clearly too big and had a large impact on the river and the people, from nearby villages, trying to get on with their daily activities (fishing, laundry, washing etc.), but were largely disrupted by us. It was also a bit sad to see that because of intense irrigation, there is likely not going to be much water left in the near future. On the second half or the boat ride, the river joined up with another, bigger, one, and it became really pleasant. We passed many floating villages with hydroponic gardens, and fishermen growing some kind of plants on the water to trap fish seeking shelter from the sun.
From the pier, we had a short but most beautiful bike ride on a dirt road to get to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is maybe a bit uninspiring but it acts as the life-support system for the temples of Angkor. Plus, as it mostly caters for tourists, it offers a lot of comfort that made our stay there quite enjoyable. We took a 3-day pass to the temples, as visiting everything in 1 day would probably have been too overwhelming. The temples are truly magnificent, we couldn’t get enough of it (and we still didn’t manage to see everything). We also met a lot of cyclists in Siem Reap, the first ones we met so far. Many of them started cycling in Europe and did the same route as we are planning, but in the opposite direction. We felt very inspired after those encounters and received a lot of useful tips!