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

Cycling glorious Kampuchea

10 03 2011

There is no greater sign of national insecurity than a country which has its own currency but doesn’t use it. And there is nothing quite as irregular as being dispensed crunchy crisp US dollars from a Cambodian ATM. This quirk raised innumerable questions for us, such as…where are they printed? Do they get shipped over from the US? Are they real US dollars? How does their distribution impact on the US stock market / economy? Are they really printed in China as suggested by one internet cheekster? Questions questions.   Answers on a postcard please?

However using the dollar presents wonderful overcharging opportunities for the canny Khmer. We are in Cambodia after all and as we know (from our Dong Kralor border experience) the Cambodians love a good bit of overcharging. Since that experience we have learnt that this practice is widely engaged in and that it even has its own name; bonjour. As a legacy from the French occupancy, bonjour is the fine art of door opening otherwise known as wide-spread, endemic and institutionalised corruption.   Thus we approached the Prek Chak border with a firmer resolve to not pay bonjour. We simply said we’d actually rather not pay the $2 for a ‘quarantine’ certificate and/or the $2 for the visa stamp, though smiling through gritted teeth we were all set for a confrontation of some sort – but much to our relief and surprise we simply received a shrug instead and were duly sent on our way! We can only assume this has much to do with the other national stricture, the cast-iron necessity to ‘save face’ and avoid conflict at all costs! Which was definitely a super cost saver for us!

Back to the dollar; Cents haven’t been embraced quite as enthusiastically as the dollar thus the minimum charge is generally 1$; Postcards are $1. $1 = 60p. 60p for a postcard in Cambodia!

‘Since the Khmer Rouge rule… then the civil war… and now with the continuing Khmer Rouge influence… no one trusts the Riel… they went to nothing overnight. Your life savings became toilet paper overnight. Now you want to be safe… it’s either gold or dollars… No one trusts the Riel’.  Huoy a 60 year old Khmer woman told us one evening. She was a slight, reserved woman who grew a few fields of lotus flowers and rice, as she and her family had done for generations.  She slowly, thoughtfully, sipped iced coffee as mosquitoes whined hungrily around our ankles and a small   battery of insect life bounced enthusiastically into the naked overhead bulb. ‘In the old days the community would share things, help each other… now everyone looks out for themselves, no one trusts, no one helps, everyone just wants to make money, dollars, keep it safe.’ In the great upheaval of the 1975 – 79 Khmer Rouge agrarian experiment it would seem that a lot more was lost than the inconceivable genocide of a quarter of the population, any industrial or economic advances, and the loss of all land entitlement.  As Huoy sat and gently, quietly, told of children being buried alive in mass graves, just down the road; of the soil that bubbled blue as the gasses of the corpses fought their way to the surface; of the desperate neighbours who scavenged for bounty; and of the long jagged scars of mistrust that fester still, fresh under the surface as Cambodia staggers forward. The young and keen trampling the poor as brutally as ever in this new capitalist democracy. ‘It’s the same the world over’ Heng a 22 year old businessman from Phnom Penh proclaimed cockily while trying to sidle just a little bit closer, his gold rings clinking against his beer glass, ‘that’s Capitalism. If Cambodia wants to grow some people will have to lose’. We made our excuses and left.

‘Development’ Huoy tells us, ‘is a word we fear’. The Cambodian government is selling off great swathes of land to foreign investors and since the Khmer Rouge collectivised all land many of the poorest and most vulnerable have had extreme trouble getting land documentation for farms they may have lived and worked for generations.

The Khmer Rouge national anthem sang its prophecy and legacy of ‘The bright red blood [that was and is] spilled over the towns and over the plain of Kampuchea, our motherland, The blood of our good workers and farmers’. She is a complicated and painful country to cycle through and we can only hope to do her some service by hearing her tales and encouraging others to do the same.

A day on the road – cycling the Mekong at last!

25 02 2011

Luckily for Cambodia first impressions are not lasting ones and day three brought a perfect opportunity for redemption. Having been denied our Mekong boating experience we were pleased that our next day’s progress took us on a 120km stretch of minor roads that run a tight line next to the river. The numerous cracking points on a problematic rear rim are rapidly gaining territory and it was thus with some trepidation, and not a little finger crossing, that we set off on the Mekong road between Kratie and Kompong Cham.

As the sun broke light over the earth (at 6am prompt) we peddled out of Kratie. Having never cycled off a main road in Cambodia we

One of three cracks on the rim....

were unsure what to expect; getting a grip on which roads on the map are generally cyclable is key to future planning, and a first foray can be a bit hit and miss. Luckily the road was mostly paved but with some significantly bumpy sections comprising only of grey grit and red mud. The combination of which resulted in a thick brown red covering of grime that clung incestuously to our sweaty arms, legs and faces and looked somewhat like a streaking bad fake tan; on the plus side it acted as a barrier to the suns spiking little rays. The thin road was mercifully tree lined and the wide palm canopy eased the heat of the midday sun. And it was beautiful indeed.

Tobacco drying building

The floppy green then brown tobacco leaf is the staple of this region; and the road was a positive hive of tobacco growing, stringing, drying and transporting. Small industrious gatherings of men, women and children sit under raised wooden houses busying with the leaves; a whole 90kms of cottage industry that collectively produce a mountain of flat brown sheets that are then sold to the British American Tobacco Co in Phenom Phen. During a water refuelling break we got chatting to a local woman. She was a cheery middle aged woman who was clad in a striking pair of pink “nighty night” pjs; a strange and jarring aberration to our western sentiments more commonly confined to the deranged, the unhinged and mothers in St Mellons Tescos in Cardiff, this is apparently the national dress in Cambodia. It is considered perfectly desirable to spend your day in any number of garish pj’s and the women certainly do.

The road bowed in and out to the Mekong itself offering tantalising glimpses of its wide cool flow. Though with the waters so low we were often shocked at the equal expanses of brown sand that ran along with it. Although it was a challenging distance that left us smattered with sweat, dust, sand and heat rash it was utterly compelling.

Cambodia – Day 1

21 02 2011

‘Fill in this .. quarantine regulations’ we were handed yet another piece of paper by yet another languid Cambodian border official ‘let me guess, $2?’ Liz muttered under her breath ‘$2’ the official demanded. At the Laos-Cambodian border of Dong Kralor we had to weave though a small paddy field of paperwork; every form, every stamp costing another $2, another $2. So far on this trip we have cycled across 11 land boarders and this certainly tops the bill for nefarious overcharging.  A German cycling couple (of course) who we have been cycling with for the past few days refused to pay for the final stamp and after a limp insistence effort by the official they were waved through anyway.

After the genocide of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge social experiment Cambodia has a significantly depleted population. During Pol Pot’s rule approximately a quarter of the population was either killed outright or died of starvation.  His murderous legacy extended beyond his Ubu-esq rule as hundreds of thousands more died of starvation in the subsequent years as Cambodia struggled to relocate all it’s displaced people and to re-plant rice fields abandoned as those forced to work them during his reign left them to try and locate scattered family members.  Not to mention the thousands of Cambodians who have since died as a result of land mine explosions or the thousands who fled the country to take refuge in other countries around the world.  Thus, on our first day in Cambodia we were unsurprised at how few villages we came across.  The brittle dusky landscape runs right up to the road, interrupted only by the occasional landmine warning sign.  The first town we came across was the Mekong hugging Strong Treng. A busy little hub, we landed a room in the Riverside guesthouse (see the LP).

If there is one thing we love as much as cycling along next to a river it is riding a boat on a river; the mighty Mekong has been singing along next to us for the past 500km’s and we have been itching to ride it. It was in Strong Treng that we caught up with our German cycling buddies and set to discussing a cycling blip looming on the morrow. The section of road between Strong Treng and Kratie is a corking 140 km. A big day. Do able if a) we were travelling south to north as the wind would be behind us and b) we didn’t mind cycling in the dark- which we do. We have cycled 140km days before but with temperatures rising to 40C, the humidity chaffingly high, and the hot wind running into us, thus we (gleefully) settled our chances on catching a boat instead.  The Lonely Plant recommended an agent based at the Riverside guesthouse (Mr T) who we approached to try and help; but unfortunately he turned out to be a bit of a scally and so we wasted much of the remains of the day trying to weave round yet another set of Cambodian miscreants. At the end of which we didn’t get a boat and we didn’t get any good advice either.  We grumpily settled on a bus lift to take us part of the way and sadly let go of our Mekong boating dreams L. First impressions of Cambodia? … hmmm.