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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Vietnam/Cambodia by bike

From Saigon to Angkor by bike
Jeff Fitzgibbon

It’s hot, it’s flat and it’s straight as a rail, but for all that, cycling in Cambodia is an exhilarating multi-dimensional experience, if just for a moment, the piglets stopped their squealing.

Wouldn’t you, if a panting, sweating red-lycra-shirted cyclist loomed into spitting distance of your personal space? I was drafting – riding the slipstream of a motorbike crackling its way to market on Highway One in Cambodia, its ten porcine pillion passengers crammed into a barrel-shaped basket tied to the back.

That was around high noon on Day 3 of my 12-day cycling tour from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Angkor Wat. We had a total of 55 kilometers to ride for the day. It was 35 degrees in the shade and around 95 per cent humidity, so I was pretty keen on any help to reach the next cold-water-and-banana break, even if it did come with added pungency.
By now my 10 companions and I had made some important discoveries about how to maximise our cycling pleasure and efficiency – like the gear ratios that suited us best, how to alternate as lead windbreaker, and how foolish it was to try keeping up with the alphas of the group. Unfortunately, we never did find the buttock rejuvenation therapy station we yearned for most of the time.

I’d signed up for the tour with World Expeditions with two niggling worries – it would be too hot and sticky in early July, and I’d be riding with complete strangers who were scarily young and freakishly fit.
I needn’t have worried too much on either score.

Eleven of us met on Day One in the Lavendar Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by most locals. I was secretly pleased at the mix – three men and one woman of mature years like me, the rest from mid-20s to late-30s but not looking too obviously alpha.

The only alarm bell rang through the stories they told. It seemed they’d all just got back from climbing Kilimanjaro, cycling Cuba, walking Kokoda or rafting the Franklin. These were adventurers, but reasonably soft adventurers. They reassured me this trip was easily manageable by the inexperienced. It was true – the travel company had it about right when they graded the trip four out of ten on the hardness-ometer.

The two-day Vietnam leg of the journey passed quickly. Just as I’d just perfected my haggling at Saigon’s main market (I reckoned $5 for a small North Face daypack was pretty good, knock-off or not) and mastered the art of crossing the motorbike-manic streets with equanimity, it came time to light out for the territory – Cambodia.

We rode north-west to Moc Bai, the border town, where we got our first glimpse of the many contradictions of Cambodia. Smiling and helpful Cambodian officials were a tonic after dealing with Vietnamese border suspicion. But the first thing we rode past was a row of casinos, looking like wedding-cakes but reportedly owned by the underworld of various countries and facilitated by an obliging officialdom.

There’s a sense of the frontier about Cambodia. Things are changing fast as aid money and other sources of wealth maybe less legitimate see roads paved, lavish houses built and many more motorbikes than pushbikes on the roads.
But the great majority of the population still lives and works in the country, where rice is planted and rubber tapped in time-honoured ways, where electricity is delivered – if at all – through a single wire on rickety poles even on Highway 1, and where the kids are still astonished to see white giants riding by on pushbikes.

And everywhere there’s the reminder of an ancient and recent pasts fractured by violence, whether it’s a warlike frieze on a temple, landmine warning signs or exhortations to report evidence of child sex trafficking.
It’s unsettling to sense the terror and tragedy that must lie beneath the surface of what seems a vibrant, rapidly developing country. It’s sobering to place the exuberance of the kids on the roadside into the context of the killing fields and a landmine museum.

But back to the border. It was there we changed to our Cambodian bikes, and beautiful machines they were, too. Sleek, well-sprung 21-speed Trek aluminium mountain bikes customised to our individual sizes. For all that, I was glad I took a gel seat cover to supplement the padded lycra shorts I wore under my Billabongs – riding an average 70 kilometres a day can get awful taxing on the nether regions, no matter how quickly Cambodia’s road surfaces are improving.

Jeff on his Trek Bike

Here we also met our support staff and vehicles, so critical to a good touring experience. First, an air-conditioned bus that would travel behind us to carry our gear and give succour to the weary or injured. Second, a truck with mechanic to tend to all machinery needs. Third, a cycling guide and guru – in fact, the No.2 rider in the Cambodian national road racing team. (His name’s Lin, and his mother despairs that bikeriding might make him too skinny to attract a wife.)

And fourth, but most important of all, the guide. Hoeum was magnificent – organised, articulate and passionate about Cambodia’s history, architecture and politics. As we cycled through his village, he told us how his grandfather starved to death under the Khmer Rouge’s rice-hoarding policy, how his father was press-ganged into the regime, and how he had to time his run home from school to avoid the shells that flew from the jungle over his village every afternoon.
Day Four was Daunting Day – 95 km to ride, from Svey Rieng to Prey Veng in the provinces, with only the promise of a three-star Soviet geometrical-style hotel at the end in a town that the guide book called ‘charmless’.

We started a little crestfallen. Two cases of sunburn and the temporary departure of two of the group – back to Saigon for an emergency passport to replace the one that got sodden in a brief monsoonal downpour yesterday – had left us a little flat.

But we ended the day exhilarated. The road – mostly Highway 1– was flat but far from featureless, straight but far from sterile, and after all, 90 km at 23 km/h translates to only four hours in the saddle.

We were buoyed by the grinning hellos and side-fiving handslaps of the kids lining the road, and the shy smiles of just-as-curious grown-ups. We rode comfortably on well-paved roads in traffic light enough we could snap from the saddle photos of green rice paddy landscapes, traditional timber stilt houses, and stalls selling jackfruit and water, palm sugar and dried fish, and dirty brown litre-bottles of petrol.

We stored up material for anecdotes to take back home: how Reidar sweated so much no-one would ride behind him for fear of drowning in his spray; how 60-year-old Darryl sprinted to the front and stayed there when Hoeum pricked his pride by suggesting he take the bus after a sapping 25 km leg; how the lights mysteriously went out in the massage rooms that night and unsought extras became available.

A cold Coke and a catfish curry for lunch, plus a feast for dinner (in my case the wonderful national speciality, amok fish curry with its a subtle, rich coconut-milk based taste) washed down with copious draughts of Angkor beer (as advertised on the tourist T-shirt – ‘My Country, My Beer’) were the ultimate rebuffs to any inclination to whine about heat or saddle-soreness.

Day Five saw us ride a mere 80 km to Kampong Cham, Cambodia’s third-largest city and centre for the Cham people, the country’s Muslim ethnic minority among the Khmer majority. A hurtle into town down the bridge over the swirling Mekong River led us to the best lunch so far – squid and shrimp with black pepper, sheatfish sour and sweet, sticky rice with mango, Chinese soup with tofu, and 7-Up.

By now hardened cyclists, we viewed the next day’s 80 km journey with mixed sorrow and serenity, knowing that it would end in two days of leisure in Phnom Penh before the final leg on our air-conditioned minibus to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

The day held a particular highlight – a stop at Skun, better known as Spiderville for a very obvious reason. It makes its tourist dollar from one of the world’s more peculiar culinary delights – deep-fried spider. I was one of the two of our party to try it, but only a leg, and not the, ah, ‘creamy’ mid-section. Let’s just say I didn’t order it for dinner that night.
After bike-free explorations of Phnom Penh, our bus took us north to Siem Reap. From here, we cycled a full day and 30 km around the Angkor complex, and the next day rode the 60 kilometre round trip to an outlying temple at Banteay Srei. Amazed by the strife-torn richness of Angkor’s history, and laden with the scarves and guidebooks foisted on us by squadrons of polite 10-year-old hawkers – it seemed everything cost ‘One dollar, sir!’ – we cycled back to town through rain that sweetened the air and elevated our spirits.

I surrendered my bike with mixed feelings at the end of the journey. It had been at once torturer and conveyance of delight, certainly the best way to combine a range of desirable experiences – intimate exploration of the culture you’re a traveller in, healthy exercise, and interesting relationships with a diverse group of fellow adventure-seekers.
Back home, I’ve retained the imprint of only one of those experiences. Contact with co-riders petered out as quickly as expected, and I haven’t got back on a bike in weeks. But I’m already planning a return trip to Cambodia, this time with my partner on an itinerary that allows us dig deeper into dark subsoil of the Khmer civilisation.

I’ll give the last words to Lin, the wiry No.2 Cambodian national road racer. Three weeks after the trip, he emailed us, hailing us individually. To me, he said ‘Jeff, I think of you even though you are not strong but not slow too’. I’ll put the best gloss on this enigmatic utterance, and choose to think he wasn’t referring just to the speed I worked up behind those piglets.
© Jeff Fitzgibbon 2009

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