Cycling in Cambodia. A day.

15 03 2011

Today was a perfect cycling day. A day where, by the end, biting red welts were scoring the beat of each revolution, where tears of desperate exertion and  impossibility were shed before 7am, and where utter exhaustion (bordering on heat stroke) whipped its triumphant conclusion into a mild delirium. It was a perfect blend of the seemingly impossible and potentially improbable.

Cycling Andoung Tuek to Ta Tai.

Andoung Tuek is a dusty dull one street town hanging on the edge of the Preak Piphot river. It’s few shacks; homes, eateries and ram-shackled supply stores, peel unevenly out from the town centre piece; a gawking white bridge that straddles the river.

The town’s one guest house was a particularly grubby affair. Unwashed sheets, unswept floors and unhygienic bathrooms are neither a novelty nor a significant cause for complaint; suffice to say that this was certainly a particularly ripe example of the genre.  And as the moist evening air clung to us in stagnant desperation, we retired unwillingly to our concrete box. The one whirling fan valiantly stripping a degree or two off the air, tempering it to the just-about-bearable. Until 11pm, when the electricity cut off, and we were left, two smears of sweat slowly dissolving into the stale mattress. The stodgy weight of the rancid night air rendered us hardly able to breath, let alone move, let alone sleep.

At 5.45am, heads muffled with exhaustion, stale sweat itching the length and breadth of our skin we pushed our bikes out onto the main road, the cool morning breeze bringing some modicum of relief. 6am – too early for food stalls to be open for breakfast so we quickly threw down a packet of biscuits each and set off.

The first 8 kms out of Andoung Tuek were flat and uneventful. Miles of red sandy soil blurred into uninhabited scrubland to either side of the road.  The heat in the air was unusually oppressive for that time in the morning, and ominous thick clouds were hanging low in the sky.

By the 9 km mark we were already drenched with sweat; the salt running pin prinks into our eyes and rimming our lips as we started the assent into the Cardamon mountains.  6.45am and we were slowly grinding our weary, warn bikes up a road gradient that demanded the lowest of low gears and a physical exertion more robust than the sticky inert air, one limp packet of biscuits, and utter exhaustion, allowed for. Slowly, slowly we inched our bikes forward, propelled only by determination and necessity. And as Catherine fell further and further behind tears of desperation began mingling with the streams of sweat that ran persistent tiny slaloms down her face.  Yet by 7.15am, one slightly sooner than the other, we both successfully crested the hill and in silent urgency, with wobbly legs and with shaking hands we devoured 2 litres of water. Only then did we allow ourselves to exhale grins of relief, and wonder at our success.  Only then did we allow ourselves to see the beauty that surrounded us.

The Botum Sukor national park forest rose thick and steep to either side, the stout air quivering with the sounds of the jungle; chirps, cracks, rustles, and whoops, somersaulting through the air at once in unison and in jagged aberration.  All along the tree-line wispy tentacles of mist gently spiralled up to touch the thick grey clouds that were crowding the air. The grey metallic light and the layer upon layer of gigantic cloud mountains made for an intoxicatingly dramatic vista. Which (along with exhaustion and dehydration) made our heads positively spin a jig.

At 7.30am the dark clouds split their mighty watery loads upon us and we were duly soaked; the glory of it! RAIN!! Cold and cold and wonderfully cold! It made the entire rest of the day significantly more bearable, though the extra weight of our now sodden clothes was a tad wearisome, it was a small price to pay in exchange for COLD!

Then, at 9am disaster struck! Well… nearly. As I (Liz) was pushing hard into a particularly aggressive slope my front gear cable slackened but refused to shift to the lowest cog (this is somewhat of a handicap when trying to cycle up a steep hill). Fearing a snapped gear cable I continued as best I could and at the top, pulled off the hill, to where Catherine was already waiting for me. We ineptly poked around for some minutes and concluded that the cable hadn’t actually snapped but the front gear was defiantly stuck good and firm in second; no going up, no going down, and that there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. So, with the bulk of the day left to go, and no flattening out on the horizon I braced myself for a good couple of hours of burning thighs and cramping calves.

And so the pattern of the day was set; the road ran a constant up down up down up down for the entire 80kms with some inclines holding more bite than others. Yet the awesome beauty and isolation of the landscape made gawping fools of us at the crest of many a rise. And though the sun soon resumed its oppressive dominance the rain seemed to have left a decent cooling breeze to see us though.

At 12.30am we duly arrived at Ta Tai exhausted, once again drenched in sweat, and with chaffing issues it might be best not to talk about, after having ridden one of (potentially) the best cycling days of our entire trip!

Ta Tai Rainbow Lodge

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