Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cycling across Cambodia

Upon arriving at the Phnom Penh airport in Cambodia, I was amazed at how quickly my visa-on-arrival was issued. I spent less than half an hour in the airport before I was on the first tuk-tuk taxi to a hotel in the city. My bicycle, still in its box, just managed to fit across the tuk-tuk without causing any traffic obstruction. 

Tuk-tuk ride in Phnom Penh upon arrival.

I was in Cambodia to meet up with Jan, an old friend whom I met in South Africa some eight years earlier while he was conducting research on wild canids. He was now in Cambodia doing research on Asian Wild Dogs (also known as Dholes) near Sen Monorom in the south-east of the country. Jan was about to leave on a trip to Myanmar, so there would not be much time to see him and catch up on all the news. So to speed things up I booked a bus ticket from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom, which was to be my first bus ride since starting my travels. I had a day to spare in the capital city before departing, so I took to the streets to do some sight-seeing. Jan had given me some tips on places to visit, so in a day I squeezed in the Royal Palace (which includes the Silver Pagoda with over 5000 silver floor tiles), the Sisowath Quay alongside the Tonlé Sap River, the Wat Phnom temple, and the Independence Monument. By the end of the day I was again reminded how exhausting it can be to be a tourist.

The Royal Palace grounds in Phnom Penh.

And that's why its called a palace - the buildings are all exquisite.

The Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.

The bus ride the next day was like any other, though I did enjoying the passing scenery through the flatlands. In places, numerous hammocks were strung up under simple roof structures, providing ideal retreats from the sun and rain. The few times the bus made stops, there was the opportunity to enjoy mouth-watering deep-fried delicacies with eight legs, or crickets if one preferred. Despite tarantulas being high on the menu in Cambodia, I was more than happy to spoil myself with fried beetroot slices instead (I can recommend these!). 

Fried bugs are high on the menu in Cambodia.

The terrain became hilly as we approached the lands of Sen Monorom. Rolling grasslands interspersed with patches of forest began to dominate the landscape.  By the time the bus finally arrived in the capital town of Cambodia’s Mondulkiri Province, I knew I had fallen in love with the place. The beauty of the countryside surrounding Sen Monorom just looked awesome to my eyes. Besides being brilliantly green, there was something about the hills that was captivating – I knew that this was certainly a place I would have to return too in future. 

Countryside near Sen Monorom.

After a couple days of acclimatising to the new surrounds while Jan completed some pressing work matters, we were off to do some birding at nearby sites. Lisa, a social researcher and expert local birder based in Sen Monorom, kindly took some time off from report-writing to take us birding. Our first stop was O’romis, a site with good forest just a few kilometers to the south of the town. Birding was done from a road with forest stretching out on both sides of the valley, and where a scope would have been useful for some of the distant birds. We recorded a few species I had already seen in Malaysia, such as White-rumped Shama, White-rumped Munia, and Blue-winged Leafbird, while there were also some new species, including Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Crimson Sunbird, Asian Pied Hornbill, Hair-crested Drongo (Spangled Drongo), the recently split Annam Barbet, Scarlet Minivet, and three bulbul species in rapid succession, Sooty-headed, Black-crested, and Black-headed Bulbul. A drive through the rolling grasslands delivered another two new species for me, Vinous-breasted Starling and Burmese Shrike. The latter has a rather striking appearance compared to the Brown Shrikes sharing the same habitat; its white underparts contrasting with its grey crown, rufous back and black wings.

Lisa and Jan birding at the O'romis site just south of Sen Monorom.

A Sooty-headed Bulbul, a common species in Southeast Asia.

In the days that followed, Jan and I did a couple more trips to nearby forest sites, most notably the picturesque Busra Waterfall, some 20 km to the east of Sen Monorom. However, the birds were rather quiet and unobtrusive, resulting in a very short bird list for the morning. Great Woodshrike was probably the only highlight that caused some excitement. Green-eared Barbet was new for me but did not manage to clinch all the features on a possible Yellow-vented Flowerpecker - the one that got away. We had a fleeting glimpse of a Blue Whistling-thrush, and neck-wrenching views of smaller unidentified species in the high canopies. We took our time viewing the two waterfalls, one of 30 metres in height cascading before the second of 40 metres. A surreal spot, worth another visit!
Jan looking over the second waterfall at Busra.

I soon discovered that Sen Monorom is a hotspot for conservation NGO’s working in Cambodia. It is one of the last frontier towns in Cambodia; the first paved road leading to the town was only recently completed. As the infrastructure such as roads improve, the area is gradually becoming tamed, with some positive but also some less desirable consequences for the region’s natural assets, ranging from virgin forests to large wild carnivores. The possible extinction of the forest-dwelling wild ox, the Kouprey, is one example of a species unable to keep up with the pace of deforestation and hunting. The only traffic roundabout in Sen Monorom depicts a pair of Kouprey, a stark reminder of what once was.

The Kouprey statue in Sen Monorom.

Meeting with many of the like-minded conservationists working in the area, I soon got wind of a mountain bike race that was to be held within the week of my arrival. I could not resist the opportunity, so made sure I got registered pronto. On the day of the race, there were far more riders than I had imagined would turn up, while there was also an array of race categories – I effortlessly made it into the ‘veteran’ category! The race involved two consecutive laps around the track, which included a single climb followed by lots of downhill; perfect for a touring cyclist, or so I thought. The pace was a little faster than what I was used to, so I found myself out of breath rather quickly. I managed to finish 7th out of the 11 riders in the category (those behind me seemed to have suffered more mechanical failures than I did), and while I was very happy with my performance, a podium finish would have been priceless. Especially since I was wearing my usual cycling gear, trousers and a long-sleeve shirt. I must have stood out like a sore thumb!  

Just before the race in Sen Monorom.

Fellow bike riders in Sen Monorom.

Proof that I can stomach Cambodia's pungent fish soup, or whatever it was.

While I rested my aching muscles in the days that followed, I took to birding at the Nature Lodge on the outskirts of Sen Monorom. Strolling through the grounds amongst the bungalows yielded a few new species for me, such as White-crested Laughingthrush, Red-breasted Parakeet, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, amongst a variety of other species. Numerous other common species, many of which had been seen previously at the O’romis site, were also observed.  

A White-crested Laughingthrush at the Nature Lodge, Sen Monorom.

A Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.

I enjoyed Sen Monorom so much I ended up staying a good two weeks. Then I remember that my visa was only valid for one month; it was time to take to the road once again. I was keen to at least see the Angkor Wat temples near Siem Reap in western Cambodia, which meant I would have to cycle across the country to satisfy my curiosity. I only had two options of getting out of Sen Monorom; the tarred main road leading back to Phnom Penh, or the unsurfaced road heading north into the dense woodlands of eastern Cambodia. Naturally, I took the latter, as I wanted to see this near-wildness part of the country. Dust clouds raised by road traffic, though not heavy, left me with a red tan colour on my face and fine grit in my mouth. A pleasant reminder that I was somewhere remote. While I tried a bit of birding along the way, I was too pressed for time to look about while keeping an eye on the bumpy road. White-bellied and Black-headed Woodpeckers provided good views, but poor sightings of numerous other species left much to be desired. Not to mention the persistent calls of Chinese Francolin teasing me from the dense grass; I had not made enough effort to search for this species before, thinking it will eventually show itself, and now I was paying the price. Collared Falconets dashed across the road a couple times, but the brief views would make sure that the species would not make it on my life list. 

Woodland north of Sen Monorom, and the red road.

After passing through Lumphat, I turned left onto the paved road leading to Stung Treng, a town on the shores of the Mekong River. Random thundershowers would occasionally make for a good but temporary downpour, sending me at a faster peddling stroke towards the nearest shelter. Like clockwork, children would wave wildly at me as I passed their stilted homes, usually from the comfort of their hammocks. Interestingly, I never received the same attention in the mornings or at midday – perhaps they were too pre-occupied with other activities at these times. Scenes of forest logging and clearings became disturbingly more common as I headed west, making me ponder over the future of Cambodia’s wild lands. When would enough be enough?

Cleared lands, rapidly becoming a common sight in Cambodia.

Roadside birds featuring along the way included White-throated Kingfisher, Black-collared Starling, Indian Roller, Red-wattled Lapwing, White-browed Fantail, Rufous Treepie, Green Bee-eater, Pied Bushchat, Hair-crested Drongo, Oriental Buzzard, Black-hooded Oriole and Oriental Magpie Robin, amongst others. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Wooly-necked Stork, Great Cuckooshrike and the Southeast Asian race of Eurasian Jay were also seen.

Popular transport in Cambodia.

At Stung Treng I took two days off to recover from a flu that I had tried to shake off since leaving Sen Monorom. Besides resting I also indulged in tourist behavior in the mornings and evenings, which involved eating fresh coconut while over-looking the massive Mekong River. I was already planning my next trip to Cambodia, which would at least involve cycling along the Mekong River to ensure the chance of seeing river dolphins and the Mekong Wagtail. Time was standing still for me again during this time, until I realised that that would not be a good excuse at the emigration office if I over-stayed my visa. 

View over the Mekong River from Stung Treng's waterfront.

Ferry crossing at Stung Treng.

A Cambodian family I met on the ferry crossing at Stung Treng.

So after two days I hurried on again, taking four days to reach Riem Reap. Similar countryside and similar birds passed by. I also unknowingly passed by Beng Mealea, a temple styled similarly to the ones at Angkor Wat, but situated some 40 km to the east. The temple is largely unrestored and overgrown with tree roots, giving it a real ‘Indian Jones’ feel to it. So I was rather dismayed when I arrived in Siem Reap only to find out I missed the temple on the way. Moral of the story: Be prepared and well-informed to make the most of opportunities!   

The road was so flat that even a small incline had to be sign-posted.

A typical roadside shop in Cambodia.

I booked into the Siem Reap Hostel for four days, which was good value for money considering the facilities available and the location within the metropolis. My main reason for staying in the tourist-flooded Siem Reap was to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex, and the TonlĂ© Sap, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. With the Angkor Wat temple complex only being about 10 km to the north of Siem Reap, I cycled there early in the morning to make the most of the day. A large crowd of visitors had already gathered in front of the main Angkor Wat temple in anticipation of the sunrise. The sun rose, that’s for sure, but the extensive cloud cover ensured that it was not going to be a very photogenic one. Once this reality sunk in with the crowd, it began to disperse as many headed for the Angkor Wat Temple. I spent most of the morning here, marveling at the architecture of this grand temple constructed mainly of sandstone. To think that it was built over 800 years ago, in honour of the Hindu god Vishnu, is mind-boggling. I could have spent the whole day here, but also wanted to see some of the other temples, including Angkor Thom, Baphuon, and the beautifully over-grown Ta Prohm. I thus only had time to complete the ‘short circuit’ route through the temple complex, leaving the other temples such as Preah Khan for a future visit. I would then get an entry ticket for three days, get there early for the morning light, and of course, take my time to appreciate this pinnacle of architectural design. 
The crowd at Angkor Wat waiting for the sunrise.

Angkor Wat Temple just after sunrise.
Tourists inside the Angkor Wat Temple.

Wall carvings inside the Angkor Wat Temple.

Angkor Wat, as seen from the back.

Bridge crossing between Angkor Wat Temple and Angkor Thom.

View from the Baphuon Temple.

Looking and behaving like a tourist at Baphuon. Lineated Barbets heard calling!

The Angkor Wat complex is rather well-wooded.

The Ta Prohm Temple was the most over-grown of the temples I visited.

My bike parked in front of Angkor Wat at sunset.

Sunset over the water surrounding Angkor Wat Temple.

Durian fruit being sold on the street in Siem Reap.

A fresh produce market in Siem Reap - one can buy anything imaginable here.

Pub Street in Siem Reap, a very popular spot for tourists.

Waiters waiting to serve clients at the Angkor What? restaurant in Siem Reap.

Bridge over the Siem Reap River in the city.

Traffic on the streets at night in Siem Reap.

After completing the circuit, I returned to Angkor Wat Temple to admire the sunset view before returning to Siem Reap. It was a rather intense day of temple viewing, and I was pretty exhausted – who said that being a tourist was easy? I rested for one day before heading for the border town of Poipet. It was any easy ride across relatively flat terrain, with some birding along the way. Unidentified swifts, swiftlets, and larks were seen, and I only managed to secure Oriental Pratincole flying over the rice paddies. I was moments away from ticking a Bright-headed Cisticola beside the road, when another touring cyclist stopped behind me. Needless to say, I was rather surprised; I had not seen another touring cyclist since Iran. Leo was from Hong Kong and had cycled through Vietnam and Cambodia, and was also on his way to Thailand. And so our week-long cycling partnership began. And I had completely forgotten about the cisticola as we took off to complete the final stretch of 30 km through Cambodia.     

Cambodian countryside.

More Cambodian countryside in the west.
Leo and I teamed up just before crossing over to Thailand.

My cycle route across Cambodia, starting at Sen Monorom (A).


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