Corruption, Coffee, and Motorbikes: Cycling the Coast of Cambodia

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” — Aldous Huxley

If you research traveling in Cambodia, you will undoubtedly find heaps of information on the extravagant Angor Wat, the Mekhong Delta, Phnom Penh, and other incredible tourist destinations.

You will also find information on government corruption, tourist scams, and about never walking alone at night. This is because Cambodia still suffers from government corruption, years of Western interference, a high rate of sexual assaults on women, and is still recovering from the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge.

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Day one of cycling in Cambodia.

As we prepared to leave the Land of Smiles for the Golden Land, I had researched, stressed, and grew increasingly nervous about cycling through Cambodia. I had reservations about cycling through a country where police were known for stopping and charging tourists at random, where the rate of rabies is extremely high (a major concern when you move around on a bicycle since dogs HATE bicycles), and where petty theft is said to be common.

After a long, but easy ride out of Thailand, we anxiously arrived at the Cham Yeam Border Checkpoint. I had read the Google Reviews of the crossing and had scrolled through review after review of horror stories about overcharging, entry denial, scams, and bribes. I had even read about a couple being put in separate rooms until they paid a $100 fee for entry. So imagine my surprise when I walked up to the immigration counter holding my e-visa, passport, and my thoroughly filled out entry form and received my passport stamp with hardly an exchange of words.

With a sigh of relief I walked over to Christopher and told him how simple the process was. As he went to get his papers processed, I stood by the bikes and looked around at the locals. Most of them seemed to be waiting to assist travelers coming through with their bags, or to offer rides into the nearby town. Some were shop owners, sitting in front of their businesses, leisurely scrolling through their phones. The image hardly matched what one Google Reviewer had described as the “wild, wild west” run by the “Cambodian border mafia.”

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Back sweat is the new black. 

Perhaps their experiences were in a different time and things have changed, or perhaps we got lucky and traveled through on a good day — I’ll never know. But our experience at the border turned out to be one of the many moments when Cambodia surprised me, chipping away at my prejudices.

After a successful border crossing, our first taste of Cambodia’s pothole filled roads, and a phoneless journey to find an ATM and SIM card, we were finally ready to take on the next leg of our tour.

We set out to follow the coastline, expecting a fairly flat, easy ride into Vietnam. And while it was (mostly) flat, it definitely wasn’t always easy.

Our first few days of cycling involved a surprising amount of climbing with rolling hills and stunning scenery. It was also extremely hot which is something you would think we would have grown used to in Thailand, but no — not even a little bit. As we cycled along, sunscreen and sweat poured down my face and stung my eyes, sweat dried on my shirt leaving salt stains as further evidence of my suffering.

But even on the hottest, most miserable days the number of “hellos,” waves, and thumbs up we received from locals — be it young or old — always brought a smile to my face. It sometimes felt that we were cycling at a turtle’s pace just so we could consistently wave back at everyone who greeted us.

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Christopher and two children in the village of Phnom Tob.

In addition to the hills and heat, our first few days also included multiple discoveries. The first being that Google translate is basically useless with the Khmer language and the second, that cockroaches are a fact of life in guesthouses. And I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy the feeling of a multi-legged insect running across my chest while I’m sleeping.

But the best experience for me  — probably in the whole of Asia so far — was when we arrived at an ecotourism location in the small village of Phnom Tob.

For those who have never heard of it, ecotourism is a form of sustainable tourism designed to improve the well-being of local people while also assisting in the conservation of the environment. Instead of a tourism or government agency keeping proceeds from tourists, the money goes straight into the pocket of Cambodians.

Earlier in the week we had spotted a roadside sign advertising ecotourism locations and we thought that it could be a great way to interact with some locals as much of our previous interactions were at guesthouses and restaurants.

And it turns out, we were right.

The journey to the ecotourism village started with cycling down one of Cambodia’s red dirt roads — dirt from which is still on my bike frame over two months later.

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One of Cambodia’s red dirt roads — famous among cyclists.

We arrived sweaty and covered in red dust. We spotted an old, empty building with an ecotourism sign posted in front of it. It was sandwiched between two small houses where some people sat staring at us curiously.

As there was no service on my phone we had to make do with pointing at the sign and trying to explain why we were there. Despite the fact that no one spoke English, we managed to get a place to sleep, a lovely dinner, and an unexpected mountain adventure.

A local man who seemed to be appointed as a community leader welcomed us with open arms and showed us a room in the empty, stilted house where we could set up sleeping bags. After, and after taking our panniers off our bicycles, we followed him on his motorbike to a neighbors house where a young man named Ned offered to take us up the nearby mountain. As he said it was possible to do so by bicycle, we agreed.

We followed our guide up a rock and sand covered path, pushing our bikes, and wondering if we were actually going to be able to bicycle it. He informed us via Google translate that there would eventually be a road.

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Our home for the night thanks to local villagers. 

When we made it to the road we began our slow climb up the mountain as Ned followed us on his motorbike. About halfway up, being tired from a day of cycling and dripping in sweat, I whimped out and decided to stop. Ned kindly offered to let me ride on the back of his motorbike the rest of the way and I, having always wanted to be swept away on a handsome man’s motorbike, of course said yes.

We left my bicycle on the mountain path, and Ned and I rode away as Christopher pushed on like the badass he is. I savored the opportunity to fly up a hill without effort, looking around at the beautiful, lush forest and trying to hold onto the bike instead of onto Ned.

When we arrived at the top, we were treated to a stunning view of the lower valley, its flowing rivers, and miles and miles of the gorgeous Golden Land.

It was spectacular.

After soaking it all in and also visiting the nearby dam, we made the trek back down the mountain where I was reunited with my bicycle and enjoyed the sweet descent down to the village. We spent the rest of our evening spending time with one of the families and having my phone hijacked by their young daughters who took about a thousand selfies. They also spoiled us with an incredible Khmer meal of mixed vegetables, rice, and fried fish. As we began to set up our tent and air mattresses, a small crowd of villagers watched with what I can only assume was both wonder and amusement — judging by the laughter.

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Leaving my heart in Cambodia.

Once we said goodnight, Christopher and I laid in our tent rehashing the days events. We both commented on the nature of the families we interacted with. The generosity we were granted from total strangers, the love and appreciation we witnessed as families and neighbors interacted with each other, and the genuine happiness we saw among people who, by American standards of wealth, were quite poor.

It was a unique and beautiful experience. I only hope that it meant as much to the locals as it did to the both of us.

That being said, we were both sad to leave the next day, but as we didn’t want to overextend our stay and could both really use a shower, we said goodbye to our new friends and headed towards the coast.

We spent the next fews days of cycling on busy roadsides, hopping from guesthouse to guesthouse, and attempting to cool off with ice cream and the delicious iced coffee (where have you been all my life?).

We also experienced one of the worst days of roadside cycling since leaving the U.S. Our route took us on a busy, truck filled dirt road with rocks and dust flying in every direction. As we had no other road option, all we could do was use our handkerchiefs as face masks and hope the road would improve. Dust collected in our eyes and dirt, road grime, and salt stains covered our clothes. When we arrived at a gas station for some cold drinks and ice cream I’m sure we looked a mess to onlookers. But when a rough ride ends in not one, but two ice cream sandwiches, who can really complain?

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Dirty and sweaty, but still smiling.

The road did improve later in the day and we also found out that our visas for entry into Vietnam had been approved.

We were both excited, but at the same time we had realized that we had cut our time in Cambodia extremely short with our entry date. As such, we were both bummed to be leaving so soon. Nonetheless, the date was set and we still had a few days of coastal riding that we intended to make the best of.

After escaping the road of trucks and dust clouds, we arrived in the city of Krong Kampot and found a spot that served a large, Western style breakfast — no judging. We sat covered in road dirt, sipping on iced coffee, and taking turns rinsing our faces and arms in the bathroom.

Krong Kampot was not only the biggest town we had been in so far, but also the first place in Cambodia that we had seen other tourists. We spent the day reading and relaxing at a local bar owned by a Canadian man who shared interesting travel stories and some recommendations for our trip to Vietnam.

Our last few days in Cambodia, though relatively uneventful, were spent enjoying the coastal cities, eating and drinking, and reminiscing about our beautiful experience in the country.

On our last day, we spent time at the oceanside city of Kep where we relaxed on the beach and later, found a little bungalow — the only one in the area not filled with French tourists — and with a local pizza place nearby. Christopher, I think, has a personal goal of trying pizza in every country.

Overall, as I look back on our time cycling in Cambodia, I can’t help but wonder what it would of been like had we explored for more than just a week. If I would have gone in with simply a desire to explore and to experience Cambodia rather than to just cycle through.  Maybe we were lucky to never have any run ins with police, thieves, or rabid dogs, but the week we spent there was wonderful — rough dirt roads, mosquito bites, and all.

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Coastal riding in Kep.

Author Aldous Huxley said, “to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries,” and from our experience in Cambodia, I have found this to be true.

I would encourage anyone that wants to travel there to do so — especially if it’s on a bicycle.

To meet the locals who have every reason to be bitter and dislike foreigners, but are nothing except kind and generous, even with so little.

To drink all of the Cambodian iced coffee. Seriously, where has it been all of my life?

And to escape the cities. To see more than what travel blogs and tourism sites tell you. To visit and support ecotourism locations and to see how the Cambodian people live, work, and support one another.

And lastly, to be aware.  Recognize the dark and recent history of the country. Know that while the country is growing and changing, corruption and crime is still present — just like anywhere else in the world. Most importantly,  be aware that the experiences of others will never be anything like your own and that what you research and read online could never give you a full glimpse or be representative of an entire country nor its people.

When it comes to traveling and when it comes to Cambodia, you have to experience it for yourself. I can promise that, just as I was, you’re more than likely to be pleasantly surprised. 

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