International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Vietnam/Cambodia by bike
Saigon to Angkor by bike
hot, its flat and its 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.
if a panting, sweating red-lycra-shirted cyclist loomed into spitting
distance of your personal space?
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.
Id signed up for the tour with World Expeditions with two niggling
worries it would be too hot and sticky in early July, and Id
be riding with complete strangers who were scarily young and freakishly
I neednt have worried too much on either score.
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
theyd 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 Id just perfected my
haggling at Saigons 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.
Theres 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 theres the reminder of an ancient and recent pasts
fractured by violence, whether its a warlike frieze on a temple,
landmine warning signs or exhortations to report evidence of child sex
Its unsettling to sense the terror and tragedy that must lie beneath
the surface of what seems a vibrant, rapidly developing country. Its
sobering to place the exuberance of the kids on the roadside into the
context of the killing fields and a landmine museum.
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 Cambodias 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 names 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 Cambodias history,
architecture and politics. As we cycled through his village, he told
us how his grandfather starved to death under the Khmer Rouges
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
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, Cambodias third-largest
city and centre for the Cham people, the countrys 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 days 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 worlds 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. Lets
just say I didnt 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 Angkors
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 youre a traveller in, healthy exercise,
and interesting relationships with a diverse group of fellow adventure-seekers.
Back home, Ive retained the imprint of only one of those experiences.
Contact with co-riders petered out as quickly as expected, and I havent
got back on a bike in weeks. But Im 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.
Ill 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. Ill put the best gloss on this enigmatic
utterance, and choose to think he wasnt referring just to the
speed I worked up behind those piglets.
© Jeff Fitzgibbon 2009
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