Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia – A Dry and Sobering State
It was pretty much by chance that I met Ben on my supposed last night in Siem Reap. There was a mutual connection but Dave, a BBC producer, hadnt actually made the cycling link by the time I ended up sitting next to Ben in my Hotel lounge. It turned out he was cycling from Singapore through Asia and although he was on a much longer and more diverse trip than mine, we were both traveling in the same direction for the next few days.
So it was to be that Ben & I headed off, quickly leaving the smooth roads that temporarily stretched out from Sierm Reap behind. Both of us were British, both of us came from a cycling club upbringing and both of us drank a little too much and on the road we cycled well together.
A Fall From Grace
We maintained a fast pace through the dry dusty roads, I punctured and managed to attract a huge crowd of on lookers who leaned over the bike observing with amazement the revolution of toe clips and the cycle computer. I fell off when a local on a bike with a precariously balanced 20ft plastic tube attached to her rack caught the wind a moved perpendicular to her bike and hit mine bringing me to the ground in a very ungracious fashion. No huge damage other than to my pride, a few grazes that may ruin the all over consistancy of my tan for a week or two but still annoying, my first fall (and first puncture) on the trip and all within my first morning of cycling with a partner.I dont this that often I proffered to Ben, but then these are the worst conditions we had both cycled on and Ben had a minor spill later that day!
At our first stop of the day I was instantly reminded why it was fun to have a cycling companion. Ben was not traveling light and as part of his back to basics low tech traveling concept rather than mp3 players, portable computers and digital cameras he had a sketch book and on his back, a guitar. Not the way I would have traveled but I accept this is more to do with my inability to draw or play a musical instrument with any level of proficiency! The rest stops were now more like a cabaret, not only was there the digital camera, the Khmer English phrase book, we now had live music! When we stopped for a coke it was like the circus was in town!
The Cambodian Wave
I have commented before how crazy the children are. But every mile I ride they seem to get more and more enthusiastic. Either for some of these villages we are the most exciting thing that was wobbled past that week or they are aware of the problems of waving while riding these dirt tracks and the chance of us taking a tumble is worth the energy expended on shouting. When they see us they come, they run from their houses screaming hello, hello, hello and jumping up and down until we acknowledge them. When one kid starts their next-door neighbors hear the cries and they start also and before you know it you have a chain reaction, a Mexican wave of hollering Cambodian youth. Fresh at the beginning of the day I find it great but after 80km of being bashed and bumped through this dry and dusty landscape I find it hard to maintain anywhere near the required enthusiasm that their energy deserves. I did consider putting in my earplugs but I am saving them for Laos where by on all accounts I hear the same reception awaits.
Like Bikes that Pass In The Night
My guidebook says (and I quote) You dont see many international cyclists in Cambodia You would need legs of steel to survive the roads It was therefore an odd afternoon, first we happened upon a lone cycle tourer coming the other way. We stopped, had a coke and traded war stories for an hour or so. This guy (I didnt catch his name) was from the Canary Islands and as part of his mammoth tour had come through Laos and Vietnam along the same route I had roughly planned. I was pleased to hear that a remote road in the mountains of Northern Laos was rideable, safe and well worth the effort. I was less enthralled to hear his experience of Vietnam. He found the people hard, un-corporative, money grabbing and bureaucratic. Everybody I have met who has been to Vietnam seems to have different experiences and as I would be there in a little over a week I hope I have a better experience. The day got more surreal as on the same stretch of road we met a couple of Dutch cyclists on their traditional continental Europe hybrid bikes laden down with too much luggage followed by a Swiss guy who the Spaniard had warned us of, who although also one a big big trip was doing it at his own pace which meant long lunches and plenty of beer! In 2 days I had met 5 other cyclists compared to zero in the preceding two months all very odd.
A Better Road to Follow
That evening we ate a chicken bone and rice dinner drank beer and talked about the merits of Neil Youngs recent live performances. The joys of a traveling companion! The next morning we experienced anew type of bad road, after the deconstructed roads of the past 300km we hit road that were being reconstructed if only a little slowly. The sharp rocky base had been replaced by thick dust, not dissimilar to trawling through a few inches of talcum powder. The road did get progressively better and after a command performance of the Simon & Ben show and a 2 hour lunch we hit pot-holed tarmac. The final day of this segment saw a long sprint against a strong headwind into the capital city Phnom Pen. A solid road with a fair amount of traffic saw a 90mile day, each of us doing our share on the front to protect the other from the oncoming wind.
We had elevenses at a town renowned for a local delicacy of deep fried spider, What is interesting and reflects the reliance of the people of this country is that this lunchtime snack is not some ancient Khmer luxury but came about during the Pol Pot famine years of the 1970s!
Skeletons in the Closet
Phnom Pen was a relief to get to. It had only been three days since Siem Reap but they had been hard. A few days relaxing with an ex-pat was well deserved. One day I visited the Tuol Slen Museum. A high school taken over by Pol Pots security forces and turned into a prison known as S-21. Almost all the people held there were executed, some 18,000. At its peak some 100 enemies of the state a day were liquidated. From there the prisoners (and I) were taken to the killing fields some 10miles away. Initially there is little to see, just a few dimples in the ground where mass graves used to be, but when you look closer you see old rags and fragments of bone lying astray, under trees or next to paths, too much to clean up and left as a memory for us all. There is a large central pagoda, which houses over 8,000 human skulls (those still in one piece as the regime often beat their victims to death to save bullets) all sorted by gender and age. The Killing Fields are not a pretty place but as I sat there outside the pagoda , the only noise I could hear was from the playing fields of a new school a few hundred meters away. Cambodia is a harsh country with an even harsher history but the youth are always the future and from my limited experience here they are moving forward with a focused quest to preserve the recent peace.