A long post today, with a lot of history, a little about the riding, and a few pictures. It’s hard to capture this part of Cambodia and Vietnam with just a few pictures. The last week of riding has been a little emotionally heavy at times, but we’re finally through Cambodia and on into Vietnam.
Ratanakiri province is along the Eastern border of Cambodia with Vietnam. Its name comes from the Khmer and Sanskrit words for “gem mountain,” named for what the province is known for. As we move closer to Vietnam, the rolling hills have grown larger, and many of the villages along the route contain gem mines. As we have moved East, towns and cities have grown more remote and isolated. I have never really been more aware of being “foreign” in a place than along this stretch.
Ratanakiri is home to the minority group the Khmer Loeu, and contains just 1% of Cambodia’s population. Towns outside the provincial capital of Banlung are organized into vaguely communist communities of around 50 families engaged in subsistence agriculture. The province’s infrastructure, even though it has been massively improved over the last five years, remains the poorest in Cambodia. Almost one out of four children die before the age of five, and three quarters of the population is illiterate.
Nothing but good in this post. Good news, good riding, good weather, good company.
Sophie and I were glad to get out of Siem Reap. Car people, I guess, would describe it as going from 0 to 60 to 0 very quickly. From rural shacks without running water to suddenly massive resorts, towering hotels, tuk-tuk drivers, and tourists and then suddenly back to rural shacks without running water. Such is Cambodia. After 30 final kilometers on the main highway, we turned north at an unmarked turnoff at Dam Daek towards the rural northeast of the country.
We’ve reached Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, a very fascinating old Khmer Empire temple and Cambodia’s main tourist attraction. It is also a UNESCO heritage site and draws tourists from all around the world. The Khmer Empire was the dominant force in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years until the 15th century when the capital of Angkor was captured by the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Things went downhill from there for the remnants of the Khmer and Cambodia as a whole, as the region was repeatedly conquered, exploited, vassalized and colonized for the next 400 years by Siam (Thailand), Vietnam, France and the United States. That is where I will stop with respect to recent Cambodian history, only to say that we have seen very few old people here. Such wonderful people, and so welcoming, but there is an undeniably tense feeling that hangs over everything. The country is advancing quickly due to investments from the outside world, and this trip would have been ill-advised, if not logistically and physically impossible on our rigid bike frames, only 15 years ago.
Anyways, the last few days have been an interesting, trying at times, experience to say the least. As we’ve gotten further from the border, the more we have sunk into rural Cambodia and a first-hand, lung, and mouth experience with this country’s dusty, blisteringly hot summer months. For our mothers’ sake, I have not included pictures of the 70km stretch of road from Sisophon to Battambang and instead just leave these pictures of us wearing appropriate safety gear.
Sophie and I spent a few days in Bangkok taking care of some important errands before boarding the train to the border at Aranyaprathet and fleeing Thailand. Sophie ended up paying for two days of overstay. These overstay fees had been a source of worry for us, but in retrospect the process of paying the fine (3 min) and the amount ($30) was probably overall a smaller burden than the length of the line to pay the fine in the first place (1.5 hours).