A few days resting among the tranquil islands of Si Pan Don was a much needed break after the frankly boring ride south on Highway 13 through Laos. The road had been not only flat and featureless but long and straight. Each small rise would bring the hope of something to see over the crest but it was usually not the case. The islands on the other hand were small, individual havens of peace and quiet, except for Don Det, the centre of the islands thriving backpacker scene. Anne, Cormac and I had left Don Khong by riding almost to the southern tip of the island and catching the ferry across to Don Som. This ferry was made up of three boats lashed together with a platform allowing larger loads to be carried. Don Som has no roads so it was even more fun than normal riding down dirt paths between the houses and dusty single track along the ridges between the dried-up rice paddies.
Very soon we were at the southern tip of Don Som and catching another ferry across to Don Det. As we approached the landing beach it was obvious that this island was going to be different. About a dozen young backpackers were sitting in the water with beer cans alongside a water buffalo (without a beer can) cooling off. After finding ourselves some bamboo bungalows to sleep in the pace slackened off very quickly with the next couple of days consisting of meeting for breakfast, lunch and dinner with very little else happening except for swinging in a hammock and sipping cold drinks. One more ferry and we were once again heading south on highway 13 towards the Cambodian border about 30 kms away. The border crossing was easy enough, just pay the visa fee (entrance fee) and get a stamp in the passport and once again we committed ourselves to another boring straight road to the first town of any size - Stung Treng. Early the next morning I said goodbye to Anne and Cormac as they made a 5am start towards Phnom Penh. Later I made my way to the local market and met Dina and Christian, a Swiss couple cycling with the most loaded bikes I have seen so far. Another couple heading north to China. On returning to my hotel I met Stephan, a solo German cyclist who has been on the road for 20 months and was also heading for China. He stayed one night and headed north. The next day I received an email from Christian telling me they were having lunch with Stephan and were riding north together. Small world.
I left town myself the next morning taking a ferry going west across the Mekong and headed out on a dirt road towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat via a much more remote temple complex at Preah Vihear. Preah Vihear is situated less than one mile from the border with Thailand, an area that has been argued over for many years and even quite recently fought over between the two countries. The UN intervened and made the decision that the area is Cambodian as all parties had previously accepted the mapped area showing it to be within Cambodia, although this was still to cause me a minor headache when I reached it. The road from the ferry was hard packed dirt and gravel with a lot of dust kicked up by passing vehicles and very little in the way of habitation. I had heard of a new road being built but couldnt figure out why this road was not being tarred as it as a good straight road with new bridges over the small streams. 100 kms later I came to a large town called Tbeang Meanchey. Considering that this was the provincial capital and a thriving town it seemed strange that there had been no tarred road towards it. Later I found out that the road I had ridden was in fact the new road. There had been no sign of the old road from the ferry port. Somewhere I completely missed the only paved road from the ferry. In fact I hadnt seen any tarmac since getting on the ferry that morning.
The next morning I pushed on and got to the ticket office and tourist police HQ for Preah Vihear towards the end of the day. Deciding to spend the night on the top of the mountain as close to the temple as possible I went to get my ticket only to be told that I was not allowed to ride my bike up there as it was too steep. I was told in the gentlest and quietest way that the only place for a foreigner to sleep was 25 kms back along the road that I came in on. This was down to tourist security and my personal safety. . It was about one hour to sunset and the thought of retracing that much of my route, only to have to ride it again the next day was not something that appealed to me, Seeing an empty barracks next door I suggested that the safest place for me to stay would be with the tourist police. I seemed to have played into the policemans hands. What followed was not so much a shakedown as an invitation to shake myself and then hand over what ever fell out of my pocket. It was almost as if I had suggested it myself. Just a couple of US dollars which included food would provide me with a place to stay for the night - in a tree house ! I cant remember sleeping in a tree house before. It even had a view of the mountain upon which the temple - in fact 5 temples - are built. Wild camping with armed security. Does it get much better ?