At the age of 23, Battambang native Untac Nem has already studied nuclear engineering at university, become the country’s top coffee barista and designed bike tours. Writer Joanna Mayhew talks to the cycling enthusiast about his recent attempt to ride from Bangkok to Bali. Photography by Charles Fox.

You have an unusual name. Where does it come from?
The name comes from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The year I was born was the same year the UN came. It’s the name my grandma gave me. People just keep calling [me that], and it stuck. My family name is Nem, which means spring roll, both fried and fresh. So it’s a funny name. When I introduce myself, after the first time everyone knows me just because it’s so weird and different.

What inspired such an ambitious cycling trip?
My dad really liked sports. [When I was 10], he bought me a bike. It wasn’t a great bike, but it was the best bike in my village. After that I [was] just crazy about biking, going everywhere I possibly can. People can walk, I will bike – that was my philosophy.
[The Bali trip] was a very personal ride. Just me and my bike. I wanted to encourage Cambodians to do these kinds of crazy things. It took me 44 days to cover 4,000 kilometres. [Before leaving,] I asked many people if they had heard of anyone doing this trip before. They said, no, if you do it you’re going to be the first – the first Cambodian, and the first friend they know. It was exciting.

What was the biggest challenge?
I had to fly from George Town [in Malaysia] to Medan [in Indonesia]. It was very expensive, and I knew straight away I was going to run out of money. From there I started to pay only for food, not accommodation. Even then I didn’t manage to eat. I went from three meals a day to two, then from two meals to one, and then no food.

When I got to Jakarta, it was a bad situation. I took the bus to Bali. Every stop the bus made, I didn’t [eat] because I didn’t have anything. People kept noticing. One guy bought a pack of cookies and one water bottle and said, please enjoy. I started crying, just kept crying. It was really terrible. I expected my trip to be challenging, but I didn’t think it would be that much of a struggle. The climate and the roads were much harder than I expected. But now that I’m back I feel great.

What was the best part?
I made a lot of friends along the way. If you have money, you have everything – food, accommodation – but you don’t make friends. You can do a lot of things, but it’s going to feel lonely. When you don’t have money, that’s when you make connections. If you need help, people in the countryside are going to come and talk to you more. I know so many people now. I always told them that this is a really big deal to me. If you give me this meal, it’s going to stay in my mind forever. And when I come through again, we’ll go for a big dinner.

How did it change you?
It changed me physically and mentally. Physically I got a long moustache, and I lost three kilos. Mentally, I think I’ve become tougher. Sillier. Crazier. If I start something I want to finish it. I didn’t do it completely. I had about another 800 kilometres to go, but I’m happy that I finished and got back safely.

Before the trip, I didn’t like Phnom Penh, and now I like it a lot. I used to think it’s really busy, smoky. But after Jakarta, this is wonderful. I love my people, I love my country, I love my city. When I was in Malaysia and Indonesia, I really missed my family. When I was by myself, going through hard times, I realised how important the people around me are.

You were crowned the country’s best barista in 2012. How did you get interested in coffee?
I got a job [at Kinyei café in Battambang] in 2010. Before that, I had no passion for coffee. I knew Khmer coffee, but I didn’t know what cappuccinos and stuff were. I started to be more and more interested. We had trainers coming from different countries, and I never missed one of those. I applied myself. Whatever I do I want to challenge myself. I wanted to get to the top, and then I did.

What was your winning drink?
The “street latte” with sugar cane juice, orange juice and orange peel. Because it was a national barista competition, I wanted to bring something from the place I grew up. Battambang has the best oranges in the country. I thought I could balance the orange and the coffee quite well, and I personally like a sweet drink. I didn’t want to use sugar, so I said, hey, everywhere in Cambodia has sugarcane. I played around with that, and it worked well.

What’s next for you?
I’m going join the national [cycling] race in October, and if I get what I want, champion, it’s going to be great. If not, I will probably throw my bike away. We’ll see. I’m still trying to explore. I don’t really have a main goal, main destination yet. Right now I’m interested in starting a business. It could be a café. It’s a secret.