Kompong Cham and a Morning on Koh Paen

Yesteday was another early morning after a sleepless night. The downpour started a bit after sunset, with whipping winds and buckets of rain. The restaurant I was sitting at, with a view of the Mekong, even closed early. Sleeping in my own room in a city where no one knows my name, with that crazy storm going on, did not equate to comfortable sleeping.

My alarm went off at 5, and even though I had listened to Vegan Fitness podcasts (no joke) til after midnight, I jumped up feeling ready to rock out. I was on my bike, cruising along the riverside, before the sun had risen.

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Mekong sunrise 2
Sunrise over the Mekong – so beautiful I had to get 2 photos
Kompong Cham Koh Paen Mekong sunrise biking backpacking
Sunrise over the Mekong

After some confusion, I found the path to the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen, an island in the Mekong. I’m so bad with directions. (To find it, follow the road along the Mekong until you see an opening in the barrier that follows the entire length of the walking path along the road. Or just ask anyone “bamboo bridge”)
The bridge is amazing. Built entirely of bamboo every dry season, every monsoon it is washed away. It is strong enough to withstand the weight of any vehicle, even trucks. Its springy surface of flattened bamboo makes for an uneven, off kilter ride, and combined with the lack of side rails to prevent you from falling into the river, it’s quite the scary experience. Add the motorbikes rushing past and the horse carts charging by (yes, horse carts are a very common sight on Koh Paen – awesome!), it’s one of the more unnerving bridges I’ve crossed. (Bridge fee is 1000 riel with return)

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge biking
Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge
Kompong Cham Koh Paen Horse Carts
They still use horse carts on Koh Paen

Once on Koh Paen, the terrifying bridge crossing just a memory (until you have to go back!), it’s impossible not to relax. The 5 hours I was there, I didn’t see one other tourist. Success.

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Bike Path Biking
Path on Koh Paen

As usual in the more rural villages, small children greeted me with a chorus of ‘hello!’s, and even the adults smiled and waved. A girl on her way to school biked with me for a bit, asking the usual questions. She was shocked when I said I was 24 and not married. She told me she was 17 and wanted to study instead, that’s why she wasn’t married yet.

After seeing the majority of the island, including the temple, schools, rice paddies, and livestock every where, I headed back to town to pack up my stuff, have lunch at Khmer Food restaurant (lovely tofu salad for $2 right on the Mekong), and catch my moto to the bus, so I can get to Phnom Penh today.

Kompong Cham Khmer food restaurant salad
‘Khmer Food’ Restaurant Tofu Salad

The bus didn’t have air con. Of course. ( Sorya sucks. Take any bus company but them if you can manage). But I did meet 2 peace Corp members from Colorado currently stationed in southern Cambodia (they were on vacation and traveling back to work from Ratanikiri). Reignited my curiosity in joining up. Hmmmmm.
I found an awesome guest house named Okay and splurged the extra $2 for air-conditioned luxury. When I went to pull out my passport, I realized I had forgotten it in Kompong Cham. Ughhhhh.


Mekong Discovery Trail Day 2

Great breakfast waiting for us.. Best yet
The 7am ferry

This morning we woke up at 6am, had another awesome meal, and headed out to the ferry. Good god my butt was sore. When we got to the port town on the other side, Kat got picked up in a car (she was too sore and not feeling well enough to justify the ride back), and Sam and I continued back. We made awesome time, being cheered on with the ‘hallo!!’s of countless children , stopping a few times for a water or crushed ice drink, returning our bikes to CRDT and arriving back to Balcony before noon.

The road on the mainland
View from my bike of the Mekong

Not gonna lie, it was the most physically challenging thing I’ve done in Southeast Asia. The heat, lack of sleep (due to it being so hot), dehydration and not being used to riding a bike all compounded to make a pretty difficult second day (and end of the first day). That being said, this was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far.

Sunset view from Balcony

Mekong Discovery Trail – 2 Days of Biking and a Homestay on Koh Phdao

Kat, Sam, and I woke up at 6am (which was rough because none of us had slept barely at all, the power kept on shutting off and leaving us without fans to sleep in steamy nonmoving air), and left at 615am to be to the CRDT office by 630am where we picked up our bikes from Ravi (our super helpful coordinator) and hit the road!

We stopped and grabbed a baguette for 500 riel (12 cents) and then tried to make the most of a (relatively) cool morning. It was still in the 80s F. We stopped to drink water and let Kat catch up, who was going a bit slower because she wasn’t feeling well.

3 hours in or so, Sam and I stopped at a roadside snack shack for water and some chips. We were sweating our asses off. I’ve never been so hot. We were exhausted.

The awesome old guy who runs the place grabbed chairs for us and, even though he didn’t speak English, we did the best we could to converse. After telling him we were Americans, he pointed at my tan skin and his own tan skin (as compared to Sams being paler?) and said ‘Barack Obama!’ with a huge smile on his face. Then he pointed at Sam’s beard and said ‘Saddam Hussein’ and made a hanging motion hahah, and thought a moment and mimed a beard and added ‘Osama Bin Laden!’ Funny what the rest of the world knows about America..

Our old friend then called over his son in law and grandson, and a bunch of other members of his family to come see us. Kat caught up, and soon we were surrounded by 8 or so of his family members, including a son that spoke great English and was translating his family’s questions to us, and our answers back to them. He asked the usual, where we are from, are we married (no), are we single (2 of us), where are we going (Koh Phdao), where are we coming from (Kratie), how do we know each other (met 2 days ago). After ordering a few more 500 riel waters for the road, we took off.

Thankfully, it took us less than an hour to reach the ferry and take it across to Koh Phdao (1500 riel each person and bike total). After pushing our bikes up the super steep hill, we had about another hour or so before we reached our homestay. Hallelujah! We found it. Sweaty, bum killing, and exhausted, we were welcomed by some members of our host family, the mom dad 7 year old daughter and 3 month old daughter. So sweet! We grabbed some cheap snacks and an awesome ground ice slush from a few of the neighboring families, and then met our community guide, 28 year old Jaansna, and we all decided to take naps and reconvene at 2pm.

Our homestay

After our naps we got back on the bikes,( ooh my bum!), this time with Jaansna too and rode for a while more to see community initiatives in progress, including a huge irrigation ditch being hand dug with spades (in this heat! Ayyyyi).

Eventually we made our way to the community center, where the four of got on a boat in the Mekong. We crossed the river and stopped at a sandy island to go swimming. After 50 kms of riding in sweltering heat, nothing had ever felt so good.
After soaking our sore muscles, we hopped back in the boat towards the center of the river. A quarter from shore, the boatsman cut the engine and we floated. The sound of a deep, throaty exhale caught our attention – Irawaddy dolphins! We sat and watched the amazing mammals, at least twelve of them, breathe, roll over, and surface all around us, a few times only a few meters away. It was absolutely amazing.

We continued back to shore, hopped on our bikes for the final torture of the day, and headed back to our homestay. We watched the father play with his daughter while the mom made dinner.. And what dinner it was!! So good, and so much, and so very needed after such a long day.

After dinner we chilled on the cool lower deck, and watched lightning as we waited for the temperature to cool. Eventually, we headed to our rooms, a part of the living space sectioned off with sheets for privacy, and mattresses on the floor, and mosquito netting.

Koh Trong Day Trip

I woke up around 6am and couldn’t fall back asleep.. I’m used to aircon, so this fan room has been tough, but I KNOW I need to start staying in fan rooms – it gets you acclimated to the weather better (no crazy change from hot to cold to hot), is way cheaper, and fans don’t make you sick like the aircon does here. Whenever I sleep in aircon, I wake up with a scratchy throat, faded voice, and feel a little off.

Anyway. I took a walk to the market, changed my money from Thai baht to riel, exchange rate of 130 to 1. Not great but not bad.

I headed back to the guest house, had some fruit and bread for breakfast, and then Sam (American), Katrina (Canadian) and myself took off for Koh Trong, an island off of Kratie.

The pier is right on the main road that runs parellel to the Mekong (its a small town, anyone can point you in the right direction, and regardless of where you’re staying it won’t be more than a 10 minute walk), and the ferry was 1000riel. We got to Koh Trong, rented bikes for $2 (USD) and began our day. After an hour or so on the bikes, we stopped at a homestay for lunch (Contact the CRDT to set up the day before)- rice, veggies, meat for the other two, and a dessert of mangoes. Really good, and $4 each, going directly to the homestay family.

We cruised around the island a bit more, saw a floating village, were chased by smiling half naked toddlers screaming ‘hellooooo!’ and then returned back to Kratie on the ferry, where we went to the community development office to book our biking trek and homestay for the next two days (only $24 USD for bike, accommodation, 2 meals, a guide on the island, a boat trip to swim and see dolphins!)
After some napping and relaxation, we headed to the rooftop at Silver Dolphin to have some wine and dinner before calling it an early night.

Sunset on The Mekong