Our first ferry of the day across the Mekong River

Our first ferry of the day across the Mekong River

Yesterday was almost completely indoor downtime! Apart from a quick dip in the pool before a light buffet dinner on the veranda, neither of us left the house. I spent most of the day online, uploading photographs from the trip and preparing blog posts. Today though, we felt we should do something with our last hours in Cambodia and booked a cycle tour around the islands and peninsulas in the rivers just off central Phnom Penh.

I suspect it was our guide, Somnang’s first time leading the tour as he repeatedly had to call his sister (who owned the tour company) for instructions and directions. He was also quite hazy on many of the cultural questions we asked him. Nevertheless, it was a lovely trip at a leisurely pace around a bit of rural Cambodia; we weren’t in a coach, we weren’t with a big group and we weren’t pre-organised. It felt like a more genuine slice of Cambodia than we had really gotten with our homestay or family meal.

The west side of the river; expensive hotel

The west side of the river; expensive hotel

We started with a ferry across the Mekong downstream of its merger with the Tonlé Sap; a clear contrast between the expensive-looking hotels on the west (Phnom Penh) side and the ramshackle stilt houses on the east. We stopped briefly at a mosque(?) but it quickly became clear from the statues of the virgin and the stations of the cross around the walls that Somnang had gotten Islam and Christianity confused. We stopped at several pagodas along the way, some of them quite extensive complexes where the monks ran schools for local children. One of them, in what I think is a pun in Khmer, had statues of prawns outside. It was very strange; the kind of thing that gives children nightmares!

The east side of the river; a shanty town

The east side of the river; a shanty town

The bikes we had were not the best I’ve ever seen and, despite calling us to ask about our heights, they didn’t have a bike with a frame that was really large enough for me. So I started off riding a hybrid bike with its seat on maximum extension. Unfortunately because of the leverage my weight exerted on the seat post, I managed to split the seat tube/retainer and my seat tilted backwards. Somnang, who was quite a bit shorter than me, swapped bikes though and I was much happier with the mountain bike he had been riding, despite its almost completely ineffective brakes.

The cocoons ready for carding

The cocoons ready for carding

The tour was titled Silk Islands Cycling so one of our stops was at a silk weaving house along the way. We had time for refreshments and a chat with the young ladies who ran the place. We saw the young silkworms before they form their cocoons and also the raw silk after they have emerged – something so incredibly coarse you wouldn’t think it could be the same essential fibre!

Our next ferry ride, across one of the Mekong branches was an interesting affair. The boat was quite small. We arrived, parked up our bikes with a couple of others to one side and sought shade. The covered seating surrounded the engine which was exposed and chugging away in the centre of the small cabin, with turning crankshafts running in three directions and the control cables from the bridge above revealed as little more than well-knotted string. That, along with the diesel fumes which were clearly not being taken down the exhaust pipe, didn’t inspire confidence… and yet the trip went off without incident!

Our second ferry of the day

Our second ferry of the day

Shortly after we sat down, a group of Japanese tourists on very shiny bikes cycled up and boarded. The women were expensively (and, IMHO, inappropriately) dressed for a cycle trip. Several of them were wearing delicate pumps, socks, full-length trousers and blouses, along with gloves. It seemed strange attire, although I recalled something historic about tanned skin being a sign of the working class, meaning Japanese ladies are extremely keen to avoid the sun. I wondered if this was cause…

Lunch was a somewhat random affair. We were cycling down quite a good concrete road between small houses and pulled up at one. Somnang had a chat with the family who lived there and the lady of the house started putting together a table for us. I asked him how they were related and he told me they weren’t, but that this was the village he grew up in so everyone was close. (I was a little curious about why he kept taking wrong turns if this was where he’d grown up…)

A little while later his sister arrived on a moped with lunch in an insulated box; a home-cooked curry and rice that she’d brought over from her house in the city! It all seemed a little random to turn up on this family, use their furniture to eat our lunch off and then go on our way, but no-one seemed to be put out by it.

A monk lunching in the pagoda

A monk lunching in the pagoda

One of the most memorable things about this excursion was how friendly everyone was. Everyone we passed acknowledged us and the children under about eight uniformly smiled, waved and called out hello to us as we passed. If we were going slow enough they would ask us our name too!

Once we were back in the city, the return trip was pretty memorable too; we cycled for maybe a mile or so the wrong way down a reasonably major road, at one point nearly colliding with a moped pulling out from behind a parked van! After a while we pulled over on a side street and Somnang started calling people on his phone, although it seemed that no-one was answering. After a while we got him to explain that he was trying to get hold of either his sister or the tuk-tuk driver who had collected us this morning to take us home again. He wandered off to wait at the road junction, so after a while we sat down in the bar we were standing next to and ordered cool drinks.

In due course our ride home arrived and we set off. Ten minutes away from home, the heavens opened and the afternoon rain began.

We stopped only briefly at the house; just long enough to dump our bags and pick up umbrellas. Then we headed back out for a final massage; another deep-tissue session that left us very thoroughly relaxed once again.

Phnom Penh in the rain

Phnom Penh in the rain

Unlike our first day, however, the rain had not stopped by the time we were finished and we got a first-hand look at what Monsoon Season really means! It’s hard to credit how much water can come down so quickly, but it does! As we walked back to the house, most of the roads were flooded at least as high as the kerb and, in some places, overflowing onto the pavement as well!

At some point on our first evening with Mark and Chris, the subject had turned to a board game called Settlers of Catan. It’s something Brett’s family plays and also, it seems, something that Mark and Chris have gotten into with their friends here in Phnom Penh! And so it was that our last night was scheduled at home with them, Jeff and Matt to play games.

Chris had put together a lovely dinner. We brought along a half-case of wine and Jeff and Matt brought the game.

Once we started playing, everyone was quite competitive; there is clearly a history between the two other couples. Brett and I, on the other hand, had only played a few times (some years ago) and took a while to get back up to speed with the strategy. As a result we were not doing too well towards the end of the game… until I threw my support behind Brett and, in no time at all, he’d come from behind to win!

I don’t think the others had ever considered playing a co-operative game before…!

Once the game was over though, it was time to say our goodbyes to Jeff and Matt and head back upstairs to pack ready for the morning. Our Cambodian adventure was over.

Sunset on the Mekong River

Sunset on the Mekong River