You’re Not In Cambodia Anymore

By Stephen Ewashkiw | May 7, 2014

13,681 km so far.

Riding out of Mae Rut this morning, along the elevated quays, I forgot for a moment that Thai roads are left-hand drive. When a scooter came towards me, I instinctively moved to the right side of the path, which is the side the water is on. So did the scooter driver. It was a close call.

Fortunately neither of end ended up in the river, and we both continued on our ways.

We are headed to Trat today, a small town that is usually only visited by cycle tourists heading to Bangkok or Cambodia, and holiday makers headed to one of the islands off the coast.

clean guest house in thailand

Ban Jaidee guesthouse. Highly recommended.

For us, it’s just a stop along the way, so I made the most of the ride, taking in the scenery, and noticing the differences between cycle touring in Cambodia and Thailand.

Smooth Sailing

In Cambodia we were surprised by how few roads were paved. Even the ones that were paved often consisted of large sections under repair, and this includes the roads in and out of Phnom Penh. As soon as we crossed into Thailand yesterday, we were met by a perfectly smooth, newly paved highway with wide shoulders.

Wide shoulders to ride on make things safer for us, and a smooth surface for our tires means we go fast, expend less energy, and don’t have to keep our eyes peeled for the next pothole.

The smooth roads make it easier for the motorised vehicles to go faster as well, and in Thailand, private cars (well, mostly pick-up trucks) abound, flying along the road at speeds that make us, as cyclists, extremely nervous.

Riding on smooth roads also gives us a chance to look around. The views today were stunningly beautiful.

The rainy season has begun, so the jungle foliage, deep greens of every shade, is popping. With the sea to our left, and jungle to our right, it was difficult to know which way to look. The jungle rises high up a cliffside as it becomes Cambodia’s Phnom Sakor Wildlife Sanctuary, home to elephants, pangolin, and tigers. Here, the border runs along a narrow 80 km stretch of land.

How Thailand ended up with the coastline I don’t know, but personally I would rather have the wildlife and jungle than a sparsely inhabited, rarely visited coastline. I suppose the fishing rights make it valuable.

Electricity, Electricity

One of the most obvious differences between Cambodia and Thailand is the power grid, which Jane touched on yesterday. In Cambodia, brownouts are common in the capital, Phnom Penh, and in Siem Reap. Outside of the cities, many places run their power from diesel generators or car batteries, if they have any at all.

In Thailand, things are different. As soon as we crossed over yesterday, the road was lined with high-capacity power lines on proper power poles. In Cambodia, as in China, it is often bamboo poles holding up wires, and more than once saw lines just strung through trees and bushes.

Because there’s limited electricity, people’s lives truly revolve around the sun in Cambodia. The guesthouse we stayed at in Chi Phat had an information sheet that summed it up well.

We begin our day at 5am and are often in bed by 8pm.

On the road early this morning, we were reminded how late the Thai day starts in comparison. We had a quiet hour or two of riding before the traffic picked up on the highway.

Ice was the most common refrigeration tool in Cambodia, which means no ice cream. Ice cream seems to be a national dish in Thailand, and every small shop along the highway has an ice cream freezer, and sells soda from a fridge.

Hand ice grinders were everywhere in Cambodia. In Thailand, most drink stalls have an electric grinder.

Hand ice grinders were everywhere in Cambodia. In Thailand, most drink stalls have an electric grinder.

One of the other benefits of constant power is coffee. You can grind it, brew it, ice it, blend it, and serve it in an air-conditioned room. And in Thailand all of these are common place. Coffee was a rare commodity in Cambodia, which made things difficult for me each morning.

The Simple Life

Please don’t think I am saying that Thailand is better because it is more developed.

In fact, I feel the opposite.

I have to admit that unlimited access to coffee, ice cream, and smooth roads is nice. However, all this so-called advancement seems to often just be about making thing louder, faster, and bigger, without making anything much better.

The gulf between the haves and the have-nots widens, smiles and laughter seems to be less frequent, people put up fences and train guard dogs to protect their property, and the environment pays the price for all of it.

I loved Cambodia and the seemingly simple lives people live. No iPhones, no games consoles, no air-conditioning.

Want to play a game? How about this stick and tire? Want to cool off? Sit in the shade or jump in the river. Want to talk to your friend? Go over and talk to them.

Yes, of course there are major problems associated with this “simple” life: lack of proper nutrition, education, and health care takes a heavy toll. But, the people of Cambodia seem happy and productive, and they seem to live well, even if it isn’t in the way our society thinks is best.

Soundtrack: Liam Finn, The Nihilist | Charlie Wadhams, Out At The Bar | This American Life podcast  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.


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    David B. May 11, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Aren’t we just trying to get out of all of this modern life when cycle-touring and (wild) camping?
    Except for iphones and ipads, so indispensable…

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