Translated by: Pal Capewell
Back when we were still in Laos, it happened that we met an American couple on our way to Luang Prabang. Anna and Paul flew from Alaska to Bangkok to spend three months biking around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and a bit more in Thailand at the end. The four of us grew fond of each other so we exchanged contacts and agreed to hit each other up once in Cambodia, as it seemed our times there will overlap. Time went on and though Eni and I didn’t forget about them, we didn’t have high hopes about ever seeing them again. Then one day during our stay in Cambodia, they sent us an e-mail enquiring what our plans were and then agreed on meeting for coffee in Phnom Penh. A great opportunity to catch up and see what has happened the past one month.
Needless to say, Eni and I were not in our best, chit-chatty mood after the museum (refer to previous post), but I told Eni it’ll be good to relax a bit. Looking for a place to have lunch, we settled down in a cafe and checked our e-mails. Anna and Paul were just on their way to the museum so we calculated their approx. finish time and decided to meet them at the gate. We had to wait 15 minutes tops, then the four of us were already greeting each other with grinning smiles. Our choice for a place was a cute little spot nearby, and though some of us opted for beer instead of coffee, everything went according to plan. Had a great chat, got to know and grew fond of these nature-loving bikers. Unfortunately Eni and I had to say our goodbyes soon though, as we didn’t want to miss the last ferry to cross the river, where our hosts for the night were. Had we missed it, we’d have had to do a 50km detour or possibly be without a place to stay for the night. With a big sprint, we did make it to the ferry! :)
As it turned out, the ferry goes till 10pm, so our worries were unnecessary. It was nice to arrive on time to our German hosts though. Rafael and his girlfriend Cloudy are the leaders of an NGO. They have generously given us very comfortable accommodation, which we appreciated greatly. The next stay we had breakfast together then I had the opportunity to try a “reku”. I only went a few rounds in the garden, but I fell head over heels. Eni and I need to get one for each one time. It’s a must!
We said our goodbyes around 10am, then headed for the super cheap ( EUR 0,1) ferry back to the buzzing Phnom Penh. A few postcards were sent, then ate lunch in a hole-in-a-wall restaurant. I must say, these Cambodians do very good frog soups! Even Eni enjoyed her little sample. After lunch we got back on our bikes and departed from the city in torturing heat, between long queues of cars. The enormous trucks all stirred up the dust, with us breathing it all in sadly. The town of Kep welcomed us the next day; a beach town which served as holiday destination for the upper class around the sixties. Under the Khmer Rouge, this town became uninhabited during the seventies. Nature completely took back the control, with villas barely visible in the midst of trees, bushes and high grass. People totally forgot about Kep. Today it’s a small town of just a few thousand people, surrounded by quaint fishing villages.
Fortunately our guesthouse was easy to find, and was on the “good” side of town. Oasis Guesthouse catered for all sorts of guests back in the day, who had female visitors of the lowest grade. It was a night club, pub really. After the change in ownership though, regulars were asked to leave as the profile of the establishment changed, and how to put it...well, “the butterflies flew away”. The new owners turned it into a cute little place, though it’s hard to say, having no frame of reference. There were separate houses as well as rooms with bunk beds for those on tighter budgets. The price is really fair, even at the bar (one coffee USD 0,5; small beer USD 1, a cocktail USD 2). The crew is French, French-Canadian and Khmer. Very kind, friendly, smiley, and have provided with us a fair amount of information regarding the surrounding area.
We got to Kep on the 24th of December, with zero Christmas mood. The setting, the scents, the temperature all didn’t match. Had SKYPE calls with the family, with the “All I want for Christmas is You” in the background. For the next thirty minutes, all hell got loose Christmas wise in the bar. Then, except the barboy’s Santa hat, nothing reminded us of Christmas. Our festive dinner was a street-food stall, with an old lady whose cooking we grew fond of and loved her smile. She and her cooking were so enchanting that Eni and I returned for dinner every day during our stay. The easiest things to find at stalls like this are grilled fish and meat, sour stuff, perhaps some lettuce or salads, rice, boiled eggs, duck embryo.... DUCK WHAT??! Duck embryo. I am pretty sure our vegetarian readers will stop reading here and DISlike our page, but yeah, I tried duck embryo. Oh, and it’s delicious, by the way. This egg looks like any other boiled egg, but inside it’s different. VERY very different. An underdeveloped duck whose one half is still an egg. You can see some distinct features already such as beak, eyes, wings, but everything is still soft and there are no bones. Alright, I’ll stop here. This is what they serve on green spice bedding, with salty, black pepper-lime sauce on top.
Rest, writing, picture- and video-editing. We visited the the secret Angkaul Beach which is really not secret but is indeed hard to find. Biked quite a few hours on the beach, between rice fields and water buffalos before getting to Angkaul Beach. A peaceful, quiet, beautiful place where one can get enormous coconuts. One can sit back, relax, stare at the water and ponder why do locals call the island ahead a Rabbit Island, as it looks nothing like a rabbit. I believe I did see a rabbit on its back while staring long enough, in all fairness though (don’t worry, I really only had coconut milk nothing else). Meanwhile, our new American friends arrived to Kep as well, with a new friend Andy, who teaches English in Poland. Andy went over to Vietnam for New Year’s, Anna and Paul decided to stay at our guesthouse. The gang was united once again! By this time Eni and I felt totally on the same wavelength with them and really looked forward to spending more time together.
But who are Anna and Paul?
A few words about them, if you don’t mind. Anna, 28, is from South Carolina and Paul, 26, is from Chicago. They met at a tour agency in Alaska, and from the friendship came shared trips then dates. During spring time they work for an American bike-tour organizing company, during the summer they lead different trips and have smaller side jobs to collect enough to bike around a warmer country during winter months. This rhythm may be broken this year, but they are not sure yet how their year is going to shape up. In February and March they are going to lead some trips in Tucson, but the rest is not decided yet. Anna and Paul are both very friendly, open, and seek to learn about new cultures and people. The four of us had really good conversations as we were all very interested about the others’ countries and customs. Politics, education, social and health care systems were all talked about, just as were biking and camping. Us boys talked about tents, sleeping bags, routes and paths, while the girls probably discussed hair conditioners, the art of cooking, and steep hills. Eni and I met quite the number of couples on our trip so far, but we could only bond this well with Anna and Paul. It felt like we have known each other for centuries and have done hundreds of adventures together.
The four of us ventured to the Crab Market once, where one can buy fresh, live or grilled crabs, ink fish, and all sorts of seafood. The gang had a huge meal, needless to say. Generally our breakfast consisted of Khmer pancakes and Khmer coffee at one of the markets nearby. Their pancakes are like the Hungarian crepes, but much more yellow for some unknown reason (perhaps turmeric?). Locals eat it with grind meat, bean sprouts, raw veggies, fresh spices and some baked noodles, with some sweet-spicy sauce. It’s filling, delicious and cheap. Khmer coffee is prepared like Turkish coffee except it’s much stronger and they use a fine cloth as a filter. It’s served with sweet condensed milk, and accompanying tea.
Eni and I took our American friends to the “secret” beach, to which we already discovered the best possible shortcut. It took about an hour or 90 minutes from our guesthouse to the beach, on bike, approximately 12km. Passed by salt mines, fishing villages, into the rice fields where dear families smiled and waved kindly while attending to their chores. One can see the genuine Cambodian life and openness while on this route. Eni was our lead, confidently taking our small crew through narrow, white tracks. Anna and Paul liked the shore (it’s really not a beach), as well as the cute bistro that’s ran by a married teaching couple. A few resting spots under the cover of palm trees, and net beds, where one can attempt to figure out the cryptic names of the islands ahead. Despite the readily available sodas and beer we opted for coconuts, our newest obsession. The grandma who runs the store apologized as she just ran out, but as soon as grandpa arrived he reassured us he will refill shortly. Changed his outfit, grabbed a long rope, a machete and off he went to get some coconuts. Paul and I wanted to take our share of the work, and of course someone had to take pictures as well, so the two of us accompanied him. Safety wasn’t his biggest concern, to say the least... he only needed the ropes to get the machete up and the fruits down. He was so skilled as a monkey climbing up and down that 10m high coconut palm tree. Before Paul and I could awake from our surprise, the first batch of coconuts was already coming down. This is how it’s done in Cambodia! Perhaps grape work and pea breaking would make him shy like us with coconuts, but he is talented alright. He came down the same way he went up, just using both his legs and hands.
The coconut was dreamy and the four of us carried on talking. Then we went to take a dip in the water, when our second surprise came about (the first was the coconut hunting, if that wasn’t clear). We spotted starfish in the sea! THey haven’t done much other than what they usually do, but their sight was enough for us to get excited over. None of us dared to touch them. Then I decided heck, why not, and picked up a smaller, palm-sized one. Of course nothing happened, they are not aggressive animals. Using the GoPro camera, I shot a few pictures while we picked up and investigated one from each size.
The afternoon was spent entertaining the one and a half year old twins of the married couple running the store. In the meantime, we had the take-away lunch we got from our usual market and walked over to the village’s cafe for some caffeine. ‘Cos you know, you can even find a cafe in this tiny village. A small store, a soup kitchen, a dessert place and a cafe, all under one roof. Locals were busy having a blast with a game that looked similar to bingo. My favorite was how they pulled out cubes with numbers on them, from a 2 liter bottle.
The gang set off to return to the city, and the sunset made our biking along the beach a breathtaking experience. The sun basically disappeared into the sea. Priceless sight.
New Years caught up to us in Kep. Had a late breakfast, played pool and only had lunch around 4 in the afternoon. You know, like a boss. The plan was to get to the town’s beach (which is nice and tidy by the way) by 10pm, and wait for the fireworks. Before setting off, we had another beer in the evening and Paul and I played one more round of Pétanque. Our funny New Year’s video (hope you found it funny) was thrown together as well, in that high spirited moment. Downtown was buzzing with people, not our turf though. Seemed like everyone was focused within a 2km radius of the beach. Mostly locals and people from nearby towns, Westerners were extremely rare to come by.
The Cambodians started partying way before, 4 days in advance before New Year’s. Every night pick-up trucks were heading downtown, packed with people at the back who were laughing and singing. The town was filled with BBQ vendors, tearing everyone up, and people were dancing and celebrating left and right.
As we were getting closer to the epicenter of the party, the music grew louder and we became aware of a flow of lanterns above the sea. Food vendors everywhere, the rate of food stand/guest was almost 1/1. One had the longest range of food available: everything from grilled sausages to fish, from sandwich to fried grasshopper and cockroaches. To answer your question: yes, Paul and I DID try the grasshopper and the cockroach and they weren’t all that bad. Not that they were particularly delicious either, but that’s not the animals’ fault,may they rest in peace, but the disgusting oil on its hundredth rotation, having been used to fry half the bug population of the whole country. But the reason why it’s good to try stuff like this, despite the overused oil, is that it’s safe. It’s not a speciality for tourists, it’s munched up all over the place by the locals. Of course we bought “normal” food too, which we ate up on a mat, next to a Cambodian family.
This was my most memorable New Year’s Eve so far, for a number of reasons. FIrst, because it was in Cambodia, and second, because it was during our biking trip. And third, the strongest, because it was peaceful and modest. I know it’s contradicting to all the things I just said about the big festivities here. The four of us looked for a relatively quiet spot on the beach where one didn’t have to scream to the person next to them, and the Cambodian pop-rock became bearable. The aspect that made it peaceful for me was how the Cambodian locals and families celebrated. Almost everyone was having a picnic. On mats, with tiny tables and chairs, on top of cars. Families were united, friends were united, kids were running around in the sand, set candles on the sandcastles or set off fireworks or lanterns. Rowdy people were nowhere to be seen, nobody used firecrackers, no overdosed or drunk people out of their minds, no people without basic civilized behavior. I only saw two guys under the influence, but even they were smiling and let themselves be seated in a car to be escorted home. It was such a peaceful, lovely sight.
Paul and Anna surprised us with a lantern (this was our secret plan too, but they beat us to it!) and fireworks. Their lantern set off real nice, heading upwards then with an explosion it broke out in flames and fell into the sea. Anna was a bit disappointed but got over it soon. Then came the Hungarian half of the crew. The lantern was ascending real nice, as Eni and I watched it, holding hands. Then instead of turning towards the sea, it started heading for the hotel. It was great it’s flying on its own, but it’s not supposed to be flying right into the hotel! Phew, it ascended just enough and missed the hotel. But noooo, come on, now this one is in flames too! This ain’t fair! At least the fire went out before it landed in the forest. The last thing we needed was a forest fire... Felt a bit bad about it, but then I consoled myself that the wind’s direction is hardly my fault. We did everything right, but somehow the wind wasn’t cooperating. This is why both lanterns got lit up, as the flame and paper met due to the ever-changing directions of the wind. Many others had the same “luck” so we decided it wasn’t our lack of skills, but the wind. About eight minutes before midnight, the locals roared off to the beach, like they were about to start a war. Everyone set off their fireworks, Paul and I being no exceptions. Like two children we stood on the beach, with the shooting paper roll in our hands, grinning widely at the sea. Eni and I had never seen fireworks this close up before. It seemed like they shot the prettiest flowers above us (it WAS like that actually!). Fireworks flew up for half an hour in an ad hoc fashion, from the beach and some fishing boats. The four of us sat in the sand and stared at the unspeakable beauty of the fireworks and their reflection in the sea. What a superb night it was!
On the first day of 2016 we slept in quite late, had some coffee in comfort then the crew discussed what next. The plan at the end looked something like this: slowly roll over to the nearby town of Kampot, where we get a room in a cheap guesthouse. Our budget got a little tight due to our overstay in Kep, but Anna and Paul, the sweet souls they are, wanted to treat us. Eni and I weren’t eager to accept their generous offer, both teams being backpacking, budget travelers. Their reasoning was hard to argue with: a two big bed assortment was the same price as the one big bed assortment so they don’t lose anything by having us, would only lose our company if we didn’t join. Now this was so sweet that Eni and I couldn’t say no. After arrival we went out for some street food. A rolling vehicle of some sort with a gas tank for cooking, a few plastic chairs and a table, and lighting from a large battery.
The next couple of days the four of us headed for the Thai border. Anna and Paul planned to stay 15 more days in Thailand, until their plane left. For us, this was just another stop on our journey. There was a day when three of us got sick, right after one another. First Paul said he was having stomach cramps, and diarrhea.Then after lunch, Eni started having severe stomach cramps. At last it was my turn, right in the middle of biking. All the sudden I felt my blood sugar drop, limbs turning weak and sweating like crazy. You know, the symptoms right before someone faints. So we stopped, finished off the remaining jam and honey in the shade and I slowly came back to life. Eni’s cramps disappeared as well, but Paul had the worst night. After having done 105km, we looked for a guesthouse to spend the night. Unfortunately the dinner didn’t go down at all for Paul. Around 3am Eni and I awoke to poor Anna applying cold wet towels on Paul’s head. Fortunately Eni and I carry a thermometer (so should y’all if you are traveling in the tropics!) and could measure his temperature. Paul’s fever reached 39,7! Not that we needed a thermometer to see it’s a severe medical situation, as he was as hot as an oven. We gave him Rubophen and told him to take a cold shower, which was followed by more cold wet towels. They didn’t camp out like we did, but they didn’t have a mosquito net to protect them either like we did, and many places don’t provide that in Southeast Asia. The medicine against malaria can only be taken for one month tops, and the side effects are terrible - hairloss, paranoia, grey skin. It’s not a multivitamin for sure. Eni and I suspected malaria first off. He had shivers earlier on (though this could have been due to the cramps), and pair that fever is never a good sign in the tropics. Luckily we managed to get his fever down to 38, but it increased again by the morning. The receptionists informed us of a doctor in the village after having told them the situation, and Paul, Anna were taken by a motorcycle. Poor soul could barely walk down the stairs. Eni and I awaited them back worried sick. I tried to make myself useful for the time being: fixed Paul’s flat tire, fixed Eni’s bike, cleaned the chains, maintained our means of transport. Eni was busy writing articles. Both of us were overjoyed seeing our two American friends return. Paul apparently bit his mouth while eating, and the bacteria from the expired food attacked his system through the wound. He got injections and antibiotics. He rested the whole day, three of us had to have lunch without him. Luckily he looked much better by the afternoon.
The next morning Eni and I set off for the Thai border very early on. Anna and Paul decided on continuing their journey on a minibus, once he felt strong enough. Eni and I had breakfast with the locals at a streetvendor’s spot, did a little market time for groceries then headed west on the highway. The otherwise flat Cambodia got quite cocky towards the end, making it difficult for us to paddle on due to the numerous mountains ahead of us. But we did see the jungle where Pol Pot was hiding until they captured him.
Rather difficult climbs awaited us and the thermometer went as high as forty degrees, which was thrown back at us at fifty from the asphalt. The heat was brutal. There were times both of us thought our heads are about to explode in those helmets. Only the constant water consumption and regular cold towels made the journey possible. Then at one point a minibus passed us, with two familiar bikes attached to the back - and Paul’s hand was out the window waving at us.
Are we going to see them again? Can we hug each other one more time before we separate for Lord knows how long? Can we hug these considerate, loving, friendly, adorable souls one more time? Is the more developed Thailand really that cheap? Are we finally going to have a decent meal?
I can’t spill the beans just yet, but if you check out our next post, it will all be revealed.