Bipolar: Part 3 (Into the depths)

I left Pra Maoy in a thankful but slightly upset mood, but the riding was generally acceptable for the first ~16 km. More mud holes than I expected on the main road through the mountains, but all of them were easily navigated. My mood was improving, and I was happy to be out in the mountains. 

As I rode along I found myself clearing mud from my fenders more often than the previous day, which started to get annoying, but I wasn’t too concerned as it was supposed to be a short day.

On one such occasion a fellow stopped on his scooter and asked, in perfect English, if I was alright. I explained that I was just clearing mud from the fenders, and he mentiomed that it rained heavily the night before. That explained my recent troubles. 

There was nothing I said during our early conversing that he didn’t understand. He asked the standard questions about where I was going, where I was from, etc. and one that seems to be common here that makes me uncomfortable. “How many of you are there?” It always makes me nervous to let people know that I’m alone in a secluded area, but if I lie it won’t take long for them to find the truth as they head further down the road. It’s a bit of a conundrum for me, but I always elect to say confidently that I am travelling alone. Generally it just leads to a question about why no one came with me. I never have an easy answer for that. The truth is long and may just lead them to believe that I’m very rich. Which I’m not.  Eventually, I got to ask him where he learned English. He told me that he studied in Battambang, and then joined the church for a few years. While with the church the leader was from Singapore (if I remember correctly), and as English is the official language in Singapore he got a lot of practice speaking. In the end, he moved back to the mountains to take over the farm and support his parents. I really feel like with his English skills alone he could provide a fine living for his parents if he used it in the tourism market of the area. He knows the mountains, and speaks English really well. There’s money to be made with those skills. We said our goodbyes and I was on my way. 

A few kms later I was climbing a little hill when an old man came by on a scooter and made gestures that it gets steep. Soon I was climbing a short steep (10+%) hill that crested and descended quickly to another mud hole. On the descent I thought to myself: “Yeah it was steep, but its not like it was long.” I couldn’t ride through this mud hole, so I had to walk carefully on the periphery with my bike and trailer. The problem was that the exit of the mud hole was straight up another longer steep climb. Trying to start up that climb on that gradient would be futile, so I was relegated to pushing my bike until the gradient relented. By now the heat and humidity had climbed significantly and in the dense jungle vegetation there was no breeze. I was sweating profusely to put it mildly.

This is when I met someone that I’m ashamed to say I never asked his name, or introduced myself to properly. This is the man that showed me kindness that I’ve only heard about in writings. 

He pulled up beside me as I rested during the long push up the hill. He didn’t speak much english, but I was pleasantly surprised by what he knew. He asked if I was alright and I said I was fine, and  that I’d just push up to the top of this hill and ride along without trouble. He looked at me with a bit of concern, a sign I should have taken more seriously, and offered to tow me up with a rope. I declined the tow, knowing that with the rutted road conditions and the handling of the bike being heavily weighted on the rear tire, the result would be me on the ground being run over by my wagon in short order. 

I kept instisting that I’d just push to the top and it would be fine. He kept looking concerned. Eventually he dismounted his scooter, got behind the trailer, and helped me push to the top. I protested the need for help, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

There’s beauty out in these mountains.

Upon reaching the top it became clear that it wasn’t much of a top at all, and for the next 8 km it was stop and go.  Riding a steep bit, riding a shallow bit, taking a bad line on a steep bit or being too tired from the last one to get up the next and dismounting to push up it. The entire way he stayed with me, and every time I had to push he helped and then went back down to get his scooter. At the top of one of the steep sections, seeing how much I had been sweating and how tired I looked, he said “2 k my house. You eat with me.” Then he nodded looking for me to do the same in approval. I did, and with that settled we moved on. Two steep bits later,  he ammended his offer and said: “You stay with my family tonight. No O’Soam.” 

During one of the rest stops. The mountains are beautiful, but really I was just trying to get a picture of a helpful person.

That one was hard to swallow. I mean, I regularly cover over 100 km a day, and in Spain/Scotland/Croatia/Albania/Montenegro/Greece I was used to 5000+ ft of ascent per day. Heck, not even 2.5 weeks ago I did a 6000 ft 100km day and I’ve been riding stonger every day since. Now, he was asking me to stop at a measly ~1600 ft of ascent and 28 km. Talk about a tough pill to swallow. I agreed to lunch, and some rest, but with only one big climb left in the profile I said we’d figure out if I’m staying a little later. He accepted that, and we finished the last 1km to his family home. Before we went up the gravel path towards where he lived he tried to prepared me with the statement: “My family is very poor.” And then he trailed off a bit losing the words in English. 

We proceeded up the path to his home. 

His family (father, wife, daughter, and uncle) have made their home in and around a radio/cell tower building. The man, his wife, and their daughter sleep on a wooden platform with a thin mat, located underneath the elevated cell tower electronics building. The man’s father sleeps inside the front room of the electronics building.  The uncle sleeps on another platform built beneath one of a couple of thatch roofed lean-tos. The kitchen area is a simple structure with a place for two small wood fires for pots. They have built a chicken coop and have multiple chickens and chicks going around the area eating the bugs. The cell tower building has a toilet building next to it, and has a system for collecting rainwater for bathing and flushing the toilet. It also has a drinking water tank system that is separate from the other systems.

They have a garden behind the fenced in tower area that appeared the have pineapple plants growing among other things. They have also trained zucchini and some other gourds up the fences and on the chicken coop roof to make a sort of hanging garden. They also have a pet dog.

From a brief physical description it probably seems like, they have everything they need and are doing alright. I can assure you, and maybe the pictures will attest, that I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable living as they do. I also have no idea what kind of arrangement they have with the cell company or tower owner. It looks like a pretty well established place, so I assume there is some sort of understanding, but who knows.

I don’t have many picutres of the time I was there, so I can’t show their home in it’s entirety. I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed or self conscious, so I kept it to a minimum. 

When we arrived obviously everyone looked at me with a sort of “What are you doing here?” expression. The man explained my presence and motioned for me to relax and have a seat in one of the hammocks in the shade. I can honestly say that I was uncomfortable being there. Not that I’m too high class to visit a poor persons home, but I really didn’t want to take anything from them. They needed their food more than I did, but again he insisted and kept assuring me that everything was okay. Before I knew it they had killed a chicken, threw it in boiling water and had it plucked. After that his wife took over and began preparing multiple dishes to go with rice. They were all delicious, but I honestly have no idea what they were. The entire family constantly urged me to eat more, probably aware of the fact I was “slow playing it” to ensure they had their fill. Towards the end of lunch, the bottom fell out of the clouds and a torrent of rain came falling down. It was 3 pm before it stopped, and I knew the roads would be impassable on my bike until the next morning. I no longer had a choice, I had to accept his offer to stay for dinner and the night. 

After lunch we all had a short break from doing anything. They urged me to go inside the building and have some sleep, but I wasn’t tired in that way, so I just sat quietly. When the rain had stopped and the clouds parted, the man and his uncle took a scooter and the fishing nets to the lake below to set them for the evening. The man’s father took a machete and ventured out into the jungle, leaving me with the wife, daughter, and the dog who wasn’t very fond of me.

It was an uneventful afternoon. The wife worked in the kitchen, the daughter played and generally got in the way, and I sat quietly feeling like I should be doing something. Anything to help. Eventually, seeing that my help wouldn’t be accepted, I went and washed myself and changed clothes.

One of the daughter’s favorite games; pretend scooter riding. I stopped the video a bit too soon, because she also makes the sounds of a gear change. It’s terribly cute.

One-by-one they all returned. The father with bananas, the man and his uncle with three beers. They beckoned me to join them for a beer and I obliged. Dinner was being completed in stages,  and things were being placed in front of us as they were finished. Rice, “trei”, a chicken curry of some kind (not Indian curry, more thai), and a couple sauces were first.  Trei is the Khmer word for fish. The fish served that night was a salted and smoked/grilled fish. It is apparently prepared in a way that allows it to keep for a while unrefrigerated, or at least I hope that’s true. The final dish to come out was a familiar one, Tom Yum. It was delicious! 

Between dishes coming out the man mounted his scooter and ran back down to the lake and bought 5 more beers. 

We ate and drank the beers by the light of two old school headlamps. He taught me a little Khmer regarding food while we ate and drank. He also asked me to stay the next day and night too. I smiled and said I’d think about it. 

The wife joined us when the food preparation was complete, and the father joined when there was someone else available to watch over the daughter. She can be a bit of a trouble maker. Again, they encouraged me to eat and then eat some more. 

After dinner the uncle brought out two nescafe 3+1 instant coffee packets and prepared them for the two of us.

As in much of Cambodia, when the sun goes down, time is short before people hit the hay. So after coffee, and cleaning up dinner, it was pretty much bed time. I expected that I’d be sleeping in one of the hammocks under the lean-to, but instead I was going to be sleeping on a bamboo mat on the floor inside the building with his father; who was sleeping in a hammock. They gave me pillows and blanket and we all said goodnight, or at least I think we did. 

As the sun comes up, so do Cambodians. We all arose with the sun between 6 and 6:30. Immediately the man mounted his scooter to go retrieve the fish. The wife started preparing breakfast. The uncle and father talked on the cell phones (Everyone has one. They are cheap, and so are the service plans.) and worked on some wood carving projects.

The dog had decided I was okay by this point and constantly wanted to play with me, or pee on one of my bike wheels. The daughter was still shy. She was venturing closer, even to the point of gifting me a chicken feather, but rarely returned smiles.

Sunrise from the cell tower.

Around 8 am the man returned with his catch. He and the wife made a few preparations and soon he was off to Pra Maoy to sell his fish to someone. I figured it would take two hours for the round trip, so I couldn’t set off until probably 10:30 or 11 as I assumed there would be some pressure to eat with the man when he returned. 

In the meantime, the rest of us had breakfast and whiled away the morning. The uncle again retrieved two sachets of nescafe, for us to drink after breakfast. I made some preparations to leave and changed into my riding clothes so I would be ready for the man’s return. A few friends stopped by on scooters, and eventually went and picked some zucchini and other fruit, vegetables, and herbs. They weren’t the first to do so in the ~24 hours I was there, and they didn’t pay anything for the produce, so I assume they may be family or maybe there is another reason. Every time someone came and picked food, it seemed as though the wife was a bit anxious. Maybe it was just worry about their own food supply, but I get the sense that there was more to it than just sharing with friends. What do I know? 

The friends had brought their son who was about the same age as the daughter. He was very shy at first. His mother kept trying to get him to say the ubiquitous “hello” but he just wouldn’t do it. Eventually, the two children went off to play while the adults talked and picked produce. I shouldn’t say they played together all that much. The boy played, but the daughter was much more subdued, and really just watched the boy play for the most part.

There were two particularly cute points, though. At one point the daughter picked up a ball and the boy slapped it out of her hands. The girl started to cry, and immediately the boy picked up the ball and gave it back to her. He must be a well socialized child to understand at that age what he had done and how to fix it. 

The other instance was at the end of the visit. The parents were saying their goodbyes, and the little boy went in for a kiss. Not once, but twice straight on the lips. He’s going to be one smooth operator some day. 

Anyway, it wasn’t long after they left that the husband returned. He saw my preparations, and asked when I would be leaving. I said pretty soon, and he asked me to at least stay and have breakfast with him. I said okay, and then mysteriously he got on his scooter and told me to stay here. Fifteen or twenty minutes later he returned with nothing in hand, but said there was a truck that would take me to O’Soam. I protested, assuming he had paid someone to take me, but eventually he told me to get on the scooter with him. I did and we went maybe 500 meters down the main road where there was a truck and a man changing a flat tire. They spoke for a minute, and made aure it was alright for me to ride with him. Everything was good as long as I got there soon, he wasn’t going to wait for me. So we raced back to the man’s home, we said our hurried goodbyes, I asked for permission to take a picture of his family, I gave him the money I thought I  could spare (the night before I did some estimation of what it would cost to get out of the Cardamom mountains) and my rechargeable headlamp (As theirs each had one problem or another), and left in a flash. 

They don’t really line up or pose for photos. From left to right: wife (in the kitchen behind scooters), uncle, two random friends that showed up, the man, the daughter, the father.

The end happened much faster than I imagined.  

I reached the truck as he threw his wheel into the bed. I unhooked the trailer, threw the bike and trailer into the bed of the truck, hopped in the back and held on for dear life. 

The truck driver must have been a rally racer in his previous life. We flew down the road. Initially, the road seemed like it was really nice, and easily rideable. Then we got to some of the biggest mud holes I had seen yet.  There was no way I would have got through or around some of them. The man knew I needed that truck. 

Thirty minutes later I was in O’Soam. A little battered and bruised from the ride, but still alive. I quickly unloaded my bike and trailer and the truck sped away. It wouldn’t be until the next morning that I realize that I left my helmet in the bed of the truck… Now I ride without one because I have no choice for a while.

I knew where multiple guesthouses were in O’Soam, and just cruised down the street to get a feel for each before settling on one. I pulled up, and was shown to a room. That afternoon it rained. Not a small rain, but proper tropical torrential rain for two hours. It ended just before 6 pm, just in time for me to get dinner. Except, that in small villages when the sun goes down the day is over.  After trying at 3 places, I  settled on having a can of juice and drinking four beers quickly to make me drowsy enough to sleep. Not healthy, but effective at keeping hunger at bay until the morning.  

Post rain in O’Soam…

In the morning I was up with the sun and preparing to move to the O’Soam eco-tourist site as I had read they are good with English, and would probably know how to get me out of there. Well, I never made it to the eco-tourist site because as I was about to leave the guesthouse, the owner said; “You! Koh Kong?” 

She pointed to her son’s car. “Taxi driver.” 

I asked how much and we agreed to $70. I had read that a taxi up is typically $120 from Koh Kong, so I thought it was a fair deal. 

I had breakfast and we left. We picked up a few friends and one other person that actually needed to go to Koh Kong along the way. The road starts with 10-15 km of dirt road and pot holes, but no massive mud holes. It then becomes a nice hard packed road, and eventually becomes a 75:25 mix of concrete:gravel roads. 

Yep, I could have saved the $70 and ridden out. I was past the hard stuff. Apparently, a Chinese electric company has built three hydro-electric dams on the south side of the Cardamom mountains and wanted reliable access. So, they built and maintain the road. This isn’t unusual in Cambodia.  The Chrolong Bopta Farm and Resort owner, Ram, told me that China pours billions of dollars into Cambodia every year. Another man in Koh Krong put it more bluntly. He said: “If it’s nice, it’s not built by Cambodia.” 

One of the hydro-electric dams built by the Chinese electric companies.

We arrived in Koh Krong before noon. It took about two and a half to three hours to travel the 110 km. I was dropped at a guesthouse, and was allowed to check-in early. I showered, and went about my daily needs: food, money from a bank, etc. I was back where life was easy.  It felt good knowing that everything was within a westerner’s grasp. But, I kept looking back at the mountains where life is hard and you rely on others for help; wondering whether I should have stayed with the man one more day as he had asked me to do over dinner. Wondering what their future would hold. Would they eventually be evicted due to any number of reasons? Would the daughter become ill and need treatment that’s not available? Would they live happily as a family in the mointains forever? 

I don’t know, but I feel as though I took and received so much more from those mountains in my very short stay than I gave. 

People constantly ask, especially in Southeast Asia; “Why on a bike? Motorcycle, car, bus!”

I think this experience is why. When you are vulnerable, magic happens.

The sunset view from my guesthouse in Koh Kong will never match the perpective I gained from the cell tower in the mountains.


Published by: Andrew Monfort

I am a former engineer who decided to follow my dreams. After 9 years of working as a process engineer in the oil & gas production and refining industries, I decided to follow my passions (cycling and travel) to see where they lead.


4 thoughts on “Bipolar: Part 3 (Into the depths)”

  1. Stumbled upon your blog. I’m not surprised that you would quit work and tour the world on a bicycle. Sounds like you are learning a lot about yourself and the world. This story in Cambodia is the stuff movies are made of. I know that you will cherish it, and that family will never forget the time they opened their home to you and gave you all that they could. Be safe! And I look forward to reading more about your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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