With all adventures, you have some great days, and then you have horrible ones. And the horrible experiences usually make better memories and more interesting stories; it’s boring to hear about how everything was a blast. Although it’s hard to cherish the bad experiences when you’re living it, I try to remind myself that I’ll live through it, and how I’ll enjoy telling the story later.
Road less travelled to nowhere
My worst day of this trip came right after a string of incredible ones riding through the villages along the Mekong in Cambodia. Starting in Kratie, I decided to give the popular Mekong Discovery Trail a shot, although I typically don’t like bike paths. It involved a couple of boat ferries and riding through remote, off-road areas. Riding through villages on a paved road was nice for the first part of the trail, and I found the boat ferry area pretty easily. But I had to wait an hour for the ferry to leave, and then it took another 30 minutes to cross the Mekong to Koh Phdao. On Koh Phdao, I biked up the road and it was incredible. Although the gnarly dirt roads made me want a mountain bike with suspension, there was no one around, which felt cool, and I was riding through some small, strange Cambodian villages where I got very few hellos and many long stares – I figured I must really be out there. I checked my phone to see where I was and found out I wasn’t on the Koh Phdao island at all (although the other ferry boat passengers nodded their heads that I was) – I was on the other side of the Mekong. My disappointment lasted about a minute before I decided that this was even better than the trail. It was “undiscovered” and more of an adventure than a well-carved-out and documented bike path.
But things turned bad as the road brought me in circles a few times and I ended up in sand pits and following trails that trailed off into nothing. I started second-guessing my plan to forge ahead into the unknown on a path that didn’t show up on any of my maps. When a couple of guys on motorbikes shook their heads and laughed after I told them I wanted to go to Stung Treng, I turned around. Maybe I could hire a boat to get across the river to where I needed to be?
$7 bail-out is too expensive
Coming back through the only “town” that I had seen, I approached a group of middle-aged guys who were hanging around down by the water. I gestured that I wanted to cross the river. A couple of them told me $7. It seemed like an outrageous price since the boat ferry cost only $0.50 and carried me much further; I only needed them to bring me a few hundred meters to the island. Yes, $7 isn’t a lot of money, but when you’re in a foreign country, you start to accept a different value for money, and I also hate getting ripped off for my white face. I tried bargaining, and I offered $5, but they stood strong at $7. Already frustrated by the road dead-ending and having to backtrack, trying to get this boat ride made me snap. Refusing to give in, I yelled, “Do you want to make money, or just sit on your asses all day!” knowing that they didn’t understand English. Then I stormed off and had to backtrack even more. Portrait of a winner.
By about 3 PM, I had returned all the way back to my starting point. A wasted day. I just wanted to get back to the more developed side of the Mekong – the one with roads that went somewhere. But I didn’t see the boat ferry, and no one else seemed to be waiting. I tried asking some of the other boats that were docked there, but they didn’t want to help me. The sun was fading and I was stuck.
Water and youth makes me happy
I kept cool. I knew it was just one of those days (“When you don’t wanna wake up, everything is fucked, everybody sucks! … Give me somethin’ to break!”). At least I had my hammock, and I figured I could have a nice night sleeping on the beach. I hopped in the Mekong to wash off and pass the time. A group of young boys got in too to do their laundry and bathe. They were jumping all over the place, diving in, and playing games with each other. The fun they were having got to me; I couldn’t help but smile. As I was getting out of the water, they pointed out that I still had sand stuck to my back. I tried bending my arm around to wash it off, but I couldn’t get it all, so one of them washed it off for me. Nice boys!
As a guy with a boat pulled up to dock for the night, I asked if he could take me across the river. He thought about it for a while, and went big: $5. Hell yeah! Let’s do it. But I was kind of sorry to leave because if I had hung out with those boys longer, one of them probably would have gotten their family to take me in.
As I made it across the river, I told myself: no more boats!. They’re a huge time-suck and you lose your independence.
Theft at a Buddhist Temple
Walking up the bank of the river as the daylight was almost gone, there was a Buddhist temple right in front of me. I asked if I could stay there for the night, and the monks showed me a private room with a bamboo mattress and no air circulation. After having already experienced monk accommodations, I passed on the room and told them I’d use my hammock.
Among the group of monks who greeted me at the temple, there was an old civilian guy. As I was storing my bike in one of the rooms, the old guy came in to talk to me in private. He asked me for a donation for sleeping there for the night. Kind of weird. I told him I’d make a donation to one of the monks tomorrow. He seemed to accept that, but then a little later when none of the monks were around, the old guy asked me again. He seemed to really want a donation.
Little did I know when I arrived, but I was sleeping at a famous temple: the 100-pillar pagoda. Having so many pillars gave me many options on where I could hang my hammock. Breezy and warm, I slept comfortably while the monks slept on the hard ground of the temple.
On my way out early the next morning, I got my wallet out to pay for breakfast, but the $20 I had had in there was gone. Immediately, I knew who took it. That old geezer. I had left my wallet out on the ground near me when I was sleeping in my hammock. And I had even shown the old man my wallet and the money that was in there the previous evening because I was using it as a prop to communicate something.
Standing at the gate of the temple ready to leave, I wondered what to do. Should I just move on and forget about it? No, I decided I needed to try to do something. I tracked down the old bastard in the dining hall and confronted him. He played stupid and acted like he was ready to take my donation. I opened my empty wallet, pointed to the emptiness inside, and then pointed to him. “You’re a bad man. You’re a thief!” I knew I wouldn’t solve anything, but I wanted to let him know that I knew he stole from me.
As I was leaving the temple grounds, I saw one of the monks who spoke English. I told Meeho that the old man stole $20 from me; I didn’t want the old man’s evil to be a secret. The old man came out of the dining hall and approached the monk humbly. After explaining himself to the monk, the monk turned to me and said, “Thank you, and good luck.” He was dismissing me. I didn’t get anything out of it, but I hope I damaged the old man’s reputation at least a little bit.
After leaving the temple, I realized that my headphones and clip-on shades had also been stolen. They were in a bag on my bike and my bike was in an unlocked room. I’m lucky that the head monk had kept my panniers locked in his room. Otherwise, the old man would have drained me of everything, I’m sure.
For the rest of the day, I biked in a fury. I had been planning to take a detour to spend a few extra days in Cambodia, but after the boat frustrations, getting lost, and the thieving old man, I wanted to get out of Cambodia. So I rode 120 miles to get over the border and into Laos.
Note: 24 Hours in Hell in Costa Rica is still my worst bike touring experience.