Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cambodia: flattened by a pancake

Dec distance: 687 km

Sun 21 - Sun 28 Dec 08

From Siem Reap to Kompong Cham and return, Cambodia, 652 km.

This is my seventh cycling expedition since I started serious cycling in 2002. After riding in the Laotian mountains last year, I thought I'd ride in a country I'm told is flat as a pancake. Well, Cambodia is generally flat, but it's a pancake that flattened me.

Six firsts
Day 1: Sun 21 Dec, Siem Reap, 55 km. First first: #1 this is my first major expedition where I am solo (friends all pulled out). #2: the first trip I'm doing after my first marathon (two weeks earlier, which puts me at risk of injury). #3: First cycling trip in Cambodia. #4: first expedition where I face a flight delay (as it turns out, the same thing happens on the way home). #5: equipment failure straight out of the box: my cyclo computer can't pick up the wireless signal. This is a critical component for navigation. #6: first time touring on fat tyres (1.95" semi-slicks, in case I come across bad roads like in Laos).

My "literature review" tells me there are bad roads west of Siem Reap, so I do an orientation ride, to know what to expect eg traffic conditions and driving habits. What a sight to behold, if one can see through the clouds of dust thrown up by passing traffic. The road is broken, with what remains of the tar here and there, then dirt road as far as the eye can see.

Night stop: Nokor Phnom Hotel

Cut in half
Day 2: Mon 22 Dec, Kompong Thom, 147 km. 7am. Rush hour madness. Cyclo computer dies in the night. I fiddle with it on the move, to no avail. Will I lose the race against the sun? I resort to looking at milestones (on the other side of the road, on Route 6) for familiar names. For "insurance" (actually, I might end up claiming insurance for this), I draft two cyclists hanging onto a motorcyclist, and progress fully-loaded at over 30 km/h on my fat tyres. I manage to fix my cyclo computer at a rest stop, then find out that the wind cuts my speed to about 15 km/h. Half my desired speed, twice the time on the saddle. I come close to bonking. I eat a granola bar and drop a quarter of it. Ultimately, I spend 10 hours in the saddle, 2.5 hours longer than I'd have liked. Doing an expedition two weeks after my first marathon and no cycling training were unknown unknowns ...

I lunch in a shack, where the waitress-cook-cashier speaks English and gives better service than in many Singapore joints. Dinner is with an American retiree, who is volunteering in Cambodia (HIV public education) and dirt-biking around to see ruins in unexploded ordnance (UXO) country.

Night stop: Stung Sen Royal Garden Hotel

"The longest day"
Day 3: Tue 23 Dec, Kompong Cham, 138 km. Breakfast is a packet of peanuts, about 300 calories. There is a blessing: "may the road rise to meet you." Sounds like a curse for tired cyclists. Cyclo computer fizzles again and I spend 30 minutes fixing it. I draft a sugar-cane laden motorbike-trailer, then an old couple on a motorbike. As the couple overtake a bullock cart, I follow suit. The cow turns its head and could've knocked my head off. Cows are a road hazard, so is bullshit; yesterday, a motorbike flung some at me.

The headwind turns into a cross wind and pushes me sideways. It's bad for me, but the wind helps farmers to sift chaff from their harvest. My left knee starts to hurt; overuse injury. Then my right knee hurts; trauma injury. For the first time on an expedition, I crash. My bad. The bumpy road had bumped my map off the handle bar and I crash as I try to affix it on the move. My rest stops become more frequent and longer. Once in a while, people (kids and adults) say "hello", even those who labour in the fields. This is like cheerleading; it doesn't stop the wind or make my wheels spin faster, but it helps somehow.

Lunch is not the usual steaming instant noodles, but rice and dishes with pesky flies buzzing about. The pineapple with liver is nice and perks me up as I resume cycling. It's nearly my last meal as a truck going the wrong way speeds past me while overtaking another truck. I go off road to stay alive. Maybe that's why my tyre punctures (turns out to be at the valve; perhaps because of the deceleration and/or the jolt). I'm then sandwiched between a motorcyclist and another cyclist going the wrong way. At Skun, where Route 7 begins, I look out for the famous fried spiders. People eat them ... the thought of this puts butterflies in my stomach ...

Riding into a big town after a long ride, with 30 minutes to darkness, is tough. Do I have another 5 or 10 km to go? Where is a hotel? I ask a local, then a foreigner for help. "Turn left, second junction" etc and my head spins. As I head in the general direction, two guys on a motorbike stop, speak English :) I find the swankiest hotel at last. All in all, I've been on the road for 11.5 hours.

The hotelier tells me to leave my conveyance inside the hotel (which is an improvement compared to Day 1, where I'm told to leave the bicycle outside the hotel). But my bike is my teddy bear, I can't sleep unless it's beside me ... Besides negotiating with hotelier, I have one last hurdle: after it hauls my ass all day, now I have to haul my bicycle upstairs.

Night stop: Mekong Hotel

Lay about
Day 4: Wed 24 Dec, Kompong Cham, non-riding day. The Muslim call to prayer sounds around 5 am. I go back to sleep and arise when breakfast is ready. French Indochina is no longer French, but the baguette is here to stay. Bon apetit! I hardly see any plump people around here, except for certain people on TV. Everyone else is wiry or svelte; no need for gym membership. Kids walk or cycle to school. Many adults toil in the fields or in rivers. During dry season, with an almost cloudless sky, the sun beats down.

To give my painful legs a rest, I walk around town instead of cycling today. The typical set up for an Asian town is a town square, with bus terminus, food stalls and wet market nearby. I check out tomorrow's route out of town, to avoid getting lost again. After my walkie, it's back to the hotel for TV (Pax Americana!) and self-massage while waiting for lunch. A typical meal is US$1-2, including free flow of tea and tissue paper, all missing in Singapore.
Rain clouds gather and it starts to drizzle.

Night stop: Mekong Hotel

Day 5: Thu 25 Dec, Kompong Thom, 116 km. Two people tell me that Route 71 is an OK road. On the map, it looks preferable to the motorway madness of Route 7. Indeed, 71 is a minor road; it is quiet and picturesque. I go offroad to see a grand temple being built. A cross wind blows but I'm not cross under the cloudy sky amidst the friendly kids and adults who gather (they seem fascinated by my map and pedals) and doggies who happily ignore me when I stop.

My first stop is after a grand 1 hour 45 minutes in the saddle, at a bicycle-friendly shop: easy parking and double serving of noodles without me having to ask for it (all I said say is "mee, moo", which the cook correctly understands as beef noodles).
Back on the road, a lorry overtakes me. I throw "preserve legs, don't chase, don't draft" to the winds. The lorry blocks my view of the road ahead. The score: potholes 3, cyclist 2 (fortunately, the holes I hit aren't huge).

The tarred road ends abruptly. I rattle and bounce along at 13 km/h on loose stones and gullies, picking my line so I can keep up my speed and keep upright. When the earth is hard-packed, my speed goes up to 21 km/h. Nine km later, the road is tarred again. Going offroad is fun, the km and time just pass by because of the intense concentration needed. I don't even feel thirsty, but stop for a Coke to celebrate.

The cross wind continues to blow, as evident from the Cambodian flags that flutter robustly. My right leg starts to hurt. It protests as it was the left leg that got my tender loving care. Lunch is at a big petrol kiosk in Kompong Thmor, where I have an ice cream cone. If it's got melamine in it, I don't care.

I draft a motorbike-trailer. The driver throttles up to 33 km/h but I keep up on my ole Rattle and Squeak. I make good time despite the wind and the upward sloping road. Today's journey lasts less than eight hours and I get to see a bit of town. The tourist info booth is a trinket shop and the market shows what sells, including wires and rat traps. I service my bicycle and oil it after trying to get the dust off my drive train. I also oil the bolt of the seatpost rack and the seatpost itself. One, perhaps both of these, stop the squeaking.

Night stop: Stung Sen Royal Garden Hotel

Day 6: Fri 26 Dec, Siem Reap, 151 km. I breakfast on bread and water like a prisoner (of my passion) and hit the road at 6 am. My butt starts to hurt. I stop to buy one banana (100 riels, about 2.5 US cents). I realise my elbow hurts too; my arm warmers have been ripping off the scab that formed after I crashed. The song in my head: Supertramp's "Take the Long Way Home".

I overtake a girl whose friend is riding pillion. I hear creaking and it's not coming from my knees. The girl overtakes me, smiling and panting. I let her savour the moment, then I pull away.
As my bicycle rolls, I mull over the trade-offs I am making. #1: I sacrifice sleep to reduce the risk that I lose the race against the sun. #2: my tyres are hard to reduce rolling resistance, but this makes for a harsh ride. #3: I ride around 20 km/h instead of struggling against the wind, to delay the onset of leg pains though this will mean more time in the saddle and more pain in the butt. #4: I stop more frequently and this means a longer journey time, since if my legs are kaput, the journey is kaput (for the first time in the journey, both legs hurt at the same time. I stop to tape up one leg). #5: to save my legs, I said I wouldn't push myself to draft, but a motorbike-trailer passes by. I grab it and instantly let go as my bicycle wobbles. Drafting is dangerous enough ... I keep it up for 45 minutes before the driver stops. I hope I spared my legs more than I hurt them. I'm closer to Siem Reap and treat myself to another Coke.

As it turns out, Siem Reap is just 7 km away but the approach is messy. Traffic comes in all directions including the wrong way. I start to complain, then realise the road users are more chaotic and more skilled (I don't know which is cause which is effect) than those in Singapore. In Cambodia, road users actually see you and take steps (often with a wide margin of safety) to avoid you.

As I stop to check my map and my bearings, a stranger (he's Asian but doesn't look local) tells me my map is out of date, offers help, wishes me a happy new year and walks away. I find a hotel, it turns out to have a queen-size bed and bath robe! It is near an English school and a children's charity. At night, one of them is either having English or singing lessons - happy voices sing Michael Learns to Rock.

Night stop: Five Star Angkor Villa

Victory lap
Day 7: Sat 27 Dec, Siem Reap, 45 km. In the darkness of night, there is ... darkness. A blackout on the upper floor of the hotel. I have (an overpriced) breakfast at another hotel then head south to explore. Some Uniforms wave authoritatively at me and I stop obediently. "Boat, boat", they say (they want me to pay $ for a boat ride on the Tonle Sap, I gather). "No, no," I say. "Bicycle." And I ride away. "There's nothing to see over there," says one Uniform disdainfully. Well, that depends on what one wants to see. Phnom Krom is what I want to see. A village, where I treat myself to a nice cold coconut. This is my victory lap. It drizzles a little but doesn't rain on my parade.

I turn into a village path and it leads to a big hill. Cambodia is flat, but somehow I've managed to find a place where I can go uphill in granny gear and bounce downhill happily on my rigid bike.
No victory lap is complete without adoring fans. Lulled by the hitherto cyclist-friendly doggies I've seen, I pass a row of houses near the war museum and a dark furry missle bounds up, half seriously. I half seriously speed up. The road is a dead end. I have no choice but to turn back. I get set for action and crank it up to get past the beast. This time, I'm serious. It is serious too. I am outnumbered, 1:3; where did the other two come from? I speed past and round the corner. Fortunately, there's no traffic. The beasts stop and I stop for a fizzy drink to calm my frazzled nerves.

No victory lap is complete without getting lost. Momentarily, I can't find the hotel where I left my bike box. The hotel staff, who'd on Day 1 asked me to leave my bicycle outside the hotel, helpfully wheel my bicycle to my room for me. I spend some time watching Cambodian karaoke (there are two channels) on TV to see what they song and dance about. I then go out for walkies; "active rest" and come across a massage joint where I pay US$10 for someone to inflict serious pain above the knees. Pay to suffer pain? Yup, that's what this trip has been about :O

Night stop: Nokor Phnom Hotel

Day 8: Sun 28 Dec, non-riding day. I stay in my room to watch a Chinese documentary on the rise of the Russian Empire on TV, then a Korean / BBC production on how North Koreans defect to South Korea: via China, Laos and Thailand (to the South Korean embassy there), in that sequence. The route involves crossing an icy river during winter into China (nude from the waist down so the clothes don't drag you down, which is what happened to one unfortunate woman who lay frozen in death) and bashing through the steamy jungles of Laos at night. Suddenly, I forget what I've gone through in the days past. What was I complaining about?! But I soon forget to count my blessings as, once again, my flight is delayed by almost an hour again. Still, this is a nice airport to cool my heels in.

I'd started out with six people willing to join me for my year-end cycling holiday, but one by one they back out. As it turns out, riding solo is ok. There are people who do this and come back to tell the tale (I suppose those who don't, don't and that may be why we don't hear their stories). Anyway, when cycling in a group, we may ride alone at our own speeds and meet only at rest- and night stops.

The high five of this ride: #1: a blessing from a non-cycling friend before my trip, "May God give you good legs to walk and cycle, safe hostels for you and Iron Horse, kind people and friendly dogs when you are lost and great fun in the journey all day long. Amen!" #2 and #3: my bicycle came home in a box but I didn't (despite being run off the road). #4: no food poisoning. #5: I got to eat and drink pretty much when I needed to.

The low points of the ride (took me a while to come up with five): #1: I crashed (which partly contributed to leg pain). #2: got chased by three dogs all at once. #3, 4 and 5: cross winds, legs (and butt) hurt, didn'ride to Vietnam border.

Regarding Vietnam, I wondered if I should've tried for it. I decided not to, as it is foolish to put the primary mission (ride on my own steam without major hurt) at risk for a secondary mission (hit the km key performance indicator).

Regarding Cambodia, what would've happened if the Vietnamese army hadn't poured across? Surely, more than 1.7 million Cambodians would've died since Year Zero (1975) under the Khmer Rouge, with their saying, "To keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss". The Cambodians are remarkably resilient and characteristically cheerful. I came across no sign of what's happened except what's sold in bookshops and video stores. More about the killing fields.

© 2008 Kevin Lee. All rights reserved.

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