Every time we take a long bus ride to get to a new tourist destination, we gaze longingly out of our tinted windows as we pass the things we really want to see – stuff like small villages bustling with activity, and roadsides full of Cambodians working in their shimmering green rice fields.
While the places we've visited so far have been awesome, they've also been very touristy. Often, there seem to be more westerners than Cambodians.
After talking with Tara and Tyler in Sihanoukville, we began to envy their mode of transportation. So, we decided to try it out for ourselves, making plans to ride 25 kilometers with them, from Kampot to the fishing village of Kep.
When we caught up with them yesterday to prepare for our ride, they delivered some unexpected news: we'd be starting our day at the crack of dawn! They don't normally start this early, but they wanted to save us from the blistering sun and un-inspiring light of midday.
Waking at 6:30AM is not a part of our normal routine. We were a bit groggy, but we managed, thanks in large part to the iced coffees Tara kindly bought for us. Once we'd shaken off the cobwebs, we rented bikes from our hotel, strapped our heavy backpacks to them with Tyler's spare bungee nets, and started our first ever cycle tour at the early hour of 7AM.
We quickly realized that the added weight lashed to our bikes made balancing the already rickety machines a bit of a challenge, but we got the hang of after a kilometer or two.
Cycling out of Kampot in a wobbling parade of squeaky brakes and excitement, I led the way, doing the only navigation required of today's adventure: reaching the road to Kep. From then on, it was a straight shot through the Cambodian countryside. Both Tara and I were nervous and giddy, as if it were us going on our first ride.
Watching the two of them was both inspiring and amusing – it reminded me very much of what it was like for us at the beginning of our trip.
As I was packing my pannier I managed to tip my bicycle over twice, once scraping my shin and the second time almost pulling myself into a thick wall of nettles trying in vain to hold it up.Tyler, in The Canal
They had to learn things like, when you take a break, where do you put your bikes? Or, when your riding partner gets off to pee or take photos, how do you hold on to their unwieldy, oddly weighted bicycle with one hand?
During the first of many stops, Tara and I leaned our bikes against a tree as normal, while Natasha used her kickstand. Her heavy bike promptly tipped over, the flimsy metal bending in half under the weight of her backpack! I was really relieved it was the kickstand and not the chain-stay.
It was slow going, as we stopped every hundred meters, eager to take photos of almost everything in sight. Tara and Tyler were very patient with us, they were more than happy to stop as often as we wanted, and took plenty pictures of their own.
At one point, we took a break in a tiny fishing village to watch as a group of Cambodian guys expertly prepared their nets.
Tara and I pored over flowers…
…and we saw many smiling faces throughout the day.
The landscape, the food and the monstrous temples are all incredible, but it's the people that have made us fall in love with Cambodia.
While traveling, we have developed a newfound love for photography. Unfortunately, riding on a bus doesn't really offer many picture-taking opportunities. So, we were really excited about having the ability to stop whenever we wanted, leaving our bikes by the side of the road to go exploring.
We really admire Tara and Tyler's photography skills, and since we are both fairly new to the process, we asked them for some tips. Among other things, Tyler suggested that we shoot in aperture priority instead of manual, as I was instructed to do in my photography class.
This small suggestion made all the difference. Instead of worrying so much about our camera settings, we could pay more attention to the pictures we were taking. Also, having Tyler & Tara along gave us more courage to walk up to people and ask them if we could take their photo, which was almost universally met with a huge smile and a shy pose.
For the past few days, Natasha has been lamenting the fact that her photos weren't very good. When we finally had a chance to examine them, we were happy to tell her that she was just plain wrong. Nevertheless, she seemed to take all of our advice to heart, especially one of Tyler's favorite photography quotes:
If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough.Robert Capa
We were both thrilled to see her go tromping out into the fields to get a picture of a water-buffalo, or scooting a few feet closer to get a good portrait of a friendly kid, coming back excited about the results every time.
Eearly in our ride, while Tara and I were taking pictures, a group of people motioned for us to come sit with them and have coffee. This has happened to Tara and Tyler on several occasions, but never to us. Once again, this is an experience you're probably not going to get while riding on a bus!
Our favorite thing about Cambodia has been the people, but up to this point, we had only been able to experience a tiny bit of their warmness and hospitality. Unlike the tourist areas where everyone speaks English, communicating with the locals was a welcome challenge. Our hosts taught us some new Khmer words, and practiced counting with us, much to their amusement and delight.
It's surprising how far hand gestures and a smile will get you!
When we left this morning, both Tyler and I were a little worried. What if all these kids we've been waving to, all the adorable faces that line the roadsides… what if they don't show up? We had basically promised Pete and Natasha friendly children galore, but what if there were no kids from Kampot all the way to Kep?!
Thankfully, our fears were unfounded.
From every child we heard an enthusiastic "Hello, Hello!", and many of them were excited to pose for photos. Tara suggested that we show them the results on our digital screen, and this always produced a wave of excitement.Natasha
After we had a few kilometers under our belt, we tried out Tara and Tyler's big touring machines. Riding on a flat surface wasn't too bad, but there is no way we would want to take these and their extra weight up a mountain! They said it would be no big deal, since there are gears, unlike on our rented bikes.
After a few kilometers, we traded back, and stopped for food, pulling over to a small roadside restaurant. There, we got to test out our new Khmer words, trying to order a bowl of god-knows-what meat and hardboiled eggs in a dark brown mystery-sauce. It was pretty tasty!
Once again Cambodia has amazed us, never have we experienced a more friendly, welcoming culture. The day has become one of our most memorable Southeast Asian experiences so far, and it will change how we continue to travel. It may not always be easy, but we will try our best to get of the well worn tourist trail, maybe incorporating more bike trips into our travels.
The ride back to Kampot a few days later was not nearly as pleasant. We left later in the day, so it was unbearably hot, and we had to pedal against strong a headwind. After the return trip, our envy of Tara and Tyler transformed into awe at all they have accomplished.
Thanks for letting us be a part of your journey guys!