Thursday, December 30, 2004
Miss "S" writes:------------------------------------------------
I was wondering if, under the present tsunami circumstances, it would be safer to cycle in Australia than South Asia.
Miss "S", Australia
Well, I don't want to sound like JP2 on great matters of moral and personal choice, but in a word, "no".
Let me share with you a sobering email I got recently from my elder and only brother who lives and cycles in northern New South Wales, a couple of hundred kilometres north of Sydney.
I got hit by a kangaroo a year ago while out pedalling. Bizarre! 4 broken ribs, a punctured lung, cracked hip, concussion and plenty of meat left at the scene. I left the bike and the dead kangaroo, walked 6 km to the highway and spent 9 days in hospital.
Months off work. Still can't sleep on my right side. And you should see my helmet!
OK, thank you elder brother for sharing your wisdom. Appreciated.
So, in India all you gotta worry about is "elephants", and in Cambodia, "landmines", neither of which hop.
So, Miss "S", I hope that clears that up.
Bye for now, your friendly helper cycling pals,
Felix and Mr Pumpy (in Kolkata)
Sunday, November 07, 2004
I sleep until the late afternoon and then climb under the shower, careful not to get my bandaged arm wet. There’s a stretch of blood seeping through the cotton and running from the elbow down to the middle forearm, and I pose manfully in front of the mirror. It’s looking very Arnie. Man, seh ich gut aus! Lookin’ good!
The arm is still swollen – this afternoon’s estimate: 35% above normal - and paining, so I throw down some more anti-inflammatory pills and a couple of Panadol. I’ll swear I need anti-biotics, but doctor knows best, probably.
Having a medical problem in Cambodia is disquieting.
If it gets really bad, and they need to cart you off, who will know where you are? Who will record your last words, and relay them on to family and friends? And who’s gonna collect the body?
Nobody, that’s who.
And what’s the home town priest going to say at your belated funeral?
"We don’t know what (insert your name here)’s last words were, or his thoughts, but I’m sure they were with his family and friends, and he was grateful for your love and caring during his short but troubled life."
"But, friends," he continues, "at least he died doing what he loved best, may he rest in peace!"
Which of course you won’t, ‘cos you didn’t die doing what you loved best, you died in stark terror at the hospital, and with a great and abiding sense of abandonment.
And do they use adequate ice at the morgue? Probably not, so if there is a viewing of the body at home, it won’t be much.
But they do have plastic bags. Asians love plastic bags, and they’ll be able to wrap you in one, no problem.
Scene: Le Pines Crematorium, on a cold, grey, drizzly Melbourne day. Aunty Kylie and Uncle Max peer in to the coffin.
"What a lovely green plastic bag!" says Kylie.
"Yes, I’m sure he’s happy in there!" replies Max.
It’s Cambodia, friends, and it’s very poor and understaffed, and things go wrong out here, things that shouldn’t normally go wrong.
But so be it.
Right now I need the warmth of companionship and maybe some cheese, so I’m off to Klaus's place for dinner.
I cycle out of the guest house and on to the road.
This is Highway 6, which leads east out of Sisophon all the way through Siem Reap and on to Phnom Penh. It’s just on dusk, and as I gaze westwards in to the sun, the dust over the road is a great orange halo, dirty and opaque.
And it reminds me of the first time I stood on this same spot, way back in 1998.
It was my first time in Cambodia.
I’d ridden to Sisophon from Poipet, on the Thai border, a couple of days before, and was about to push further along Highway 6 in to the Cambodian heartland. The ride in from Poipet had been extraodinarily good, but I was still apprehensive. There were so many unknowns.
At that time, Cambodia was just emerging out of almost 20 years of serious, and sometimes bloody troubles post the Khmer Rouge takeover of 1975 and the Vietnamese invasion in 1978/79. It had been a tumultuous period of civil unrest, political upheavels and lawlessness as the country struggled to it’s feet.
By 1997 the country was still a mess, but at least they weren’t shooting people in the back streets of Phnom Penh anymore. And apparently the countryside was safe enough to venture out in to, as long as you took adequate precautions, according to my (hopefully) well informed connections.
And I was ready to believe them.
Cambodia was a cyclist’s dream. New territory and virgin roads. Throw in a unique culture, an exotic past and a reputation, despite the mind-boggling terror of the Khmer Rouge, of easy going hospitality. It doesn’t come much better.
But how much remained? How dangerous was it to cycle through? Was this adventure or folly?
I’d read of a Canadian who’d cycled from Poipet to Phnom Penh and got there in one piece, sometime in 1996. As far as I knew, he was the one cyclist who’d made it all the way through, so I tried to track him down, but failed.
I felt confident enough I’d get through in one piece also, but I would have liked some reliable road information.
I put some postings on the alt.rec.travel.asia web-board and got a few replies. A couple of motorcyclists sent me some pictures and gave me a basic run-down. The roads were pretty rough, but do-able.
And I disregarded, as you do, most of the alarmist e-blowings of the back-packers who’d been through on pick-ups; ‘You’ll never make it!’, ‘The roads are diabolical!’, ‘Forget it!’
OK, what to do?
In January of 1998 I flew in to Bangkok, and stayed with some Thai friends out by the docks. The Thais, being Thai, were singularly appalled that I was going to Cambodia, and on a bike? Are you mad?
They dropped me at Hualampong Station (Bangkok Central) before dawn one Saturday morning, and even after I’d loaded the bike on to the train and was standing around saying last goodbyes, they were begging me to reconsider.
‘If you stay with us, Felix, we can go on a picnic!’ they said.
As the train began to pull out of the station, Kip, the youngest, and about 10 at the time, called out that she’d pray for me.
It was then I had my first real moment of panic. Not the sort that paralyses you, but just that little squirt of dish-washing detergent that spins around your belly and reminds you that you may be going down the plug-hole. Sheese! Kids!
So off I rattled towards Cambodia.
One hundred kilometres out of Bangkok we hit the smoke. It was paddy burning time, and the dense smoke from the fields blew in from the south and swirled around the carriage. It was gritty and hot, and threw the carriage in to an eerie half-light for most of the journey. It was like heading to Sleepy Hollow.
I’d never been to Aranyaprathet (Aran) before, on the Thai side of the border, and didn’t know what to expect. Border towns the world over are crazy places. Too much flow-through traffic, too many drugs, too many girls, too much of everything that’s transient.
During the 1980s, Aran was at the centre of a mess of Cambodian refugee camps, home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Khmers who had poured out of Cambodia ahead of the invading Vietnamese army and after the breakdown of Khmer Rouge rule.
The Khmer Rouge had been routed from Cambodia proper, but still operated with impunity along the Thai border, protected by the Thai military and a complex anti-Vietnamese political nexus involving the United States and other Western governments.
The graft within the camps was monumental, and Aran was dangerous and unsettled. NGO friends who had worked there told alarming stories of human rights abuse and blatant corruption.
The train arrived at Aran just after 1 PM, and I got down, collected my bike and set off for town. The Cambodian border is about 6 kilometres down the road, but I was advised to spend the night in Aran and cross in to Cambodia at Poipet in the morning.
‘Poipot is dangerous at night, Felix’ an NGO friend told me, sternly, ‘and you might get mugged!’
OK, I hate getting mugged, especially on my first day in-country. It colours the whole trip a dank shade of grey, and I much prefer blue.
I checked in to a cheap hotel and took a ride around town. Boy, for a former bad-arse burg, Aran sure looked quiet and sleepy. I rode down a couple of back-streets, curious to find the wrong end of town, but no, no smell of sleaze, no wind of corruption. The wrong end didn’t seem to exist.
By my reckoning, Aran had turned in to the most boring border town on the planet, which is something, but not what you’d call interesting. Tomorrow I was definitely heading across to dark and mysterious Cambodia, muggings or no muggings. Forget Aran.
At 7 AM the next morning I was winging down the paved road towards the border. If you cycle down that stretch today there’s a few guest houses and restaurants, and it’s quiet and sedate, but in ’98 it was sparse stretch, with nothing but a run of make-shift camping gear stores. ‘Don’t they have hotels in Cambodia?’ I wondered.
Take a right off the highway, go through the enormous Thai duty free market and you’re at the border.
And here I got my first look at the Cambodians. There was a torrent of them pouring across the border, entering Thailand on day passes. They were pushing carts, carrying large sacks and to a person, dressed in rags. I had never seen a more dishevelled bunch. Christ!
The Thai guy at immigration stamped my passport, looked dubiously at the bike and waved a finger vaguely in the direction of Cambodia.
‘You bicycle?’ he asked, incredulously.
Now, as all of you who cycle will know, this is the time when you stand up straight, look your interrogator in the eye and say, ‘Yep, only way to go, mate!’
And contained within this neat, little reply is a deep hell-hole of thoughts and prejudices: I’m a cyclist! And you're not!I’m a risk-taker! And you’re a marshmellow.Which makes me the Alpha male/female around here and you’re aways back somewhere in the middle of the Greek alphabet, maybe Mu or a Rho.
Ah, vanity. It’s so addictive.
But as I stood at Thai immigration, with the river of shabby Cambodians jostling behind me, I felt another squirt of detergent in my belly, and I nearly asked him, ‘You don’t think it’s a good idea, Sir?’, before I checked myself and just nodded.
His eyebrows went up to the middle of his forehead and he opened his mouth and started laughing. ‘Chog-dee!’, he said, which is Thai for ‘good luck!’ Oh, dear.
And so I left the relative hilarity of Thailand.
I walked over to the white fibro sheds with the nice, new, plastic Cambodian flags dangling in the wind, and got my passport stamped at Cambodian immigration. The immigration guy was not too concerned about anything. He smiled, said ‘Welcome!’ and waved me on. Excellent.
I then went over to customs. The customs officer spotted the bike, frowned, and came out of his office to take a closer look.
‘OK, here we go!’ I thought, ‘There’s about to be an argument about whether I can take the bike in or not, and lots of forms to fill in in triplicate, and money may need to change hands. Great!
’‘You go bicycle?’ he asked, looking down at the bike and running his hand across my back pannier.
‘Yes, sir, I do. I-go-Per-nom-pen-bi-cycle!’ I said, and pointed confidently down the road.
He looked up with a large grin, and said, ‘Oh, very good! Very good! Welcome to you!’, and reached over and patted my elbow.
‘Well, thanks a lot!’ I said. ‘It’s good to be here!’
He waved me off, shouting out ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ as I wheeled the bike under the enormous Khmer Gate that marks the border.
OK, excellent, bored immigration guy, and friendly customs guy, now what?
Take a look around!
I’d been cycling in Asia on and off for years, but nothing prepared me for Poipet. It was total rag and bone chaos, and brown. Everything was brown; the people, the roads, the houses, the air. On first glance, it looked like my kinda town.
But would I be mugged? Would I be engulfed by hordes of beggars, would I have children thrust at me by distraught mothers begging me to give their off-spring better lives, or maybe led off by underpaid government soldiers and relieved of everything but my bike-shorts, or worse?
But no, nobody besides the friendly customs guy had paid me any interest. I seemed to be in the eye of a storm. All around me there was movement. People whirled and dust skitted, but where I stood there was only me. Strange.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, there were mountians of Cambodian horror tales circulating in the media. Stories of guns, robberies, land-mines, the Khmer Rouge and rogue government soldiers, and I had read everything I could, including every book entitled: First they killed my mother, then my father etc, and there were a few.
And it was also only a few years since Brian Wilson, an Australian tourist and his two companions had been pulled off a train by the Khmer Rouge in Takeo Province, south of Phnom Penh, and subsequently abducted and shot. The video images that came to light during and after the ordeal were ghastly and unforgettable.
The case had received enormous publicity in Australia and around the world, and had coloured many peoples attitude to Cambodia.
And the late Princess Diana flying out from the UK and standing around in a Cambodian mine field, looking vulnerable and pretty, didn’t help much.
When I had first announced I was going, most of my friends were alarmed. "You gotta be kidding, Feel!" was the common response.
One friend, prone to excited outbursts, asked if I’d finally gone insane. ‘Why don’t you just go up to Queensland and ride around there?’ he continued.
But I'm wary of the so-called good advice most people hand out. It's well meaning, but often uninformed.
The fact was, by 1998, the word on the ground was that it was OK to travel through the Cambodian countryside, as long as you took some precautions;
1. Be off the roads by 4 PM, because after dark bandits come out. OK, as long as you’ve got a watch, what’s the problem?
2. If you come to a road-block of any sort, be friendly and pay up. A few bucks was the recommended price. I structured a few extra bucks in to my budget.
3. There’s a lot of mines, but most of them are marked. And if you don’t wander off the main roads and tracks, you’ll be sweet. OK, just walk/ride where everybody else is walking/riding. This one looks like a percentage play. No sweat.
As I happily explained to my excitable friend, once you break these things down in to their component parts, and deal with each issue separately, things don’t seem half as bad.
'Almost good, in fact!’ I added, brightly.
But as I stood near the Khmer Gate at Poipet, and gazed around, I wasn’t so sure.
I secured my panniers, checked my money belt and camera, climbed on the bike, and pedalled off down the road. I took a left towards the Poipet market and stopped in a small café, ordering some noodles and tea.
I ate slowly, and sipped on my drink. I wanted to get a feel for the place. I wanted to see how the locals were behaving before I headed out down the highway to Sisophon, some 50 kilometres away.
And surprisingly, despite my doubts, the locals were behaving just fine, and best of all, at least in my little corner of Cambodia, nobody was getting abducted, or blown up. In fact, quite the opposite.
The waitress in the café was doing her best to understand my embrionic Khmer, and the rest of the patrons were nodding, smiling and encouraging me to eat. Excellent.
The road out of Poipet to Sisophon was as rough as bags; bumpy, pot-holed and garbage strewn. The traffic was thin, but there was a small cavalcade of home-made vehicles and motor-bikes with trailors full of people, and the dust was behemoth.
Dust, dust every where. Across the paddies, over the road, and inside my eyes and panniers, and cycling down the highway was a total sensual experience. Visceral, pungent, gritty and unknown.
I stopped at a small bamboo drink stand some 10 kilometres out of Poipet. There was a family of Khmers living in a small wooden shed beside a large Bodhi tree selling Coke and ice. I got off the bike, and wandered slowly over, not yet sure of the correct approach and not yet sure of the Cambodian response to the lone barung on the bike.
But it was friendly and relaxed, and so unexpectedly welcoming, that after I’d drunk my Coke, I wandered out on to the road and took a few deep breaths. I had to shake the fear, it was getting in the way.
About 20 kilometres up the road I came to my first road-block. I could see it from a few kilometres away, and despite the good start to the day, it put the wind up me. Friendly Khmers selling Coke and ice is one thing, but soldiers manning a road block in the middle of the countryside is another question.
I rolled to a stop at the wooden pole straddling the road, and wheeled the bike across to the two men in shabby army fatigues who sprang to activity at my approach. They were well armed, with machine guns slung across their shoulders and pistols in their belts.
Usual thing: They look, I smile. No sudden movements. Show passport. Give name. Where you go? Why you travel by bike?
It was brusque but not unfriendly, and it was stinking hot. One of the soldiers motioned me towards a nearby hut, asked me to take my sandals off, and then led me down a path towards a small brown pond, some 20 metres off the road.
I trotted behind him like an obedient sheep, ready to please my master, ready to obey his every command, as long as I could understand it, considering I don’t have much brain.
Was this it? Was my number up? Maybe my friends were right. And what an inglorious end, and so soon! Not even a day in-country.
He then took me by the arm and gestured for me stand with my bare feet in the water. Oh, dear, here we go, popped in the back of the head and left to rot in a fish pond.
I stood stock still, waiting for his next order.
After a few seconds, he said something in Khmer, which I didn’t get (of course), and then lent forward, looked up, and made paddling motions with his hands.
"Move your feet, you stupid barang!" he was saying in sign language, "Don’t you know it’s 40 degrees in the shade out here!"
O-Ka-ay! I ge-e-et it! He wants me to paddle about in the water!
I stomped my feet up and down and paddled for all I was worth. I splashed, I played, I made whoopee noises. I lay back on the ground and let the cool, muddy water lap all the way up to my thighs. I looked up in to sky and started laughing.
And I couldn’t stop.
By the time I got up and walked back to the bike, all three of us were giggling, and looking around at each other with that sheepish why are we laughing? look.
Cambodia, this was it. I’d arrived.
By late afternoon, as I rolled in to Sisophon, I was dusty and tired, but happy as a boy who'd just shot his father. The roads were bad, the food poor, the countryside barren, the towns derelict but the people were alive, laid back and welcoming.
What a place, what a find.
And as I stood here now, 6 years later, on the road outside my guest house in Sisophon, with my arm bandaged, and the dust kicking up down the road, I remembered this; the apprehension, the joy and the sense of wonder.
But things change. Myself, and also Cambodia.
I’d ridden so much of it in the intervening years. I’d gone down the main highways, searched out the back roads and pushed myself further and further in, but now, as I stood here and thought about it, I realised it was over.
I was no longer bolted-in. The game had been played out.
And so opens the great yawning gap. Where to now, Feel?
Well, definitely not Queensland, and I was invited to Klaus’s place for dinner around seven, so that’s a good start.
And I have time to go around to the internet café by the park and check my SPAM. There might even be a message from home, you never know.
I move in to the saddle, string my feet over the pedals, and turn the wheels.
At the internet café I get a reply from Sothy, my American-Khmer friend who lives in Chicago. She’s my Khmer background person, the one I contact when I need some specific, inside Cambodian information. I’d emailed her about my arm yesterday.
"Dear Felix," she wrote, "whatever you do, don’t go to a Cambodian doctor! Most of them are charletans and their qualifications are bogus. Get on your bik (sic.) and go to Thailand. The doctors there are much better."
O-Ka-ay! Thanks, Sot! Tell me about it!
I don’t have the courage to hit the return key and tell her I’ve already been to the Butcher of Sisophon. Best to let that one through to the keeper, I think. She’ll only get mad, and threaten to cease all communication again.
I double back to the Sokamex station, and take a left off the highway to Klaus’s place.
His house is a large colonial affair, with big verandahs running all the way around the ground floor, and a second storey that opens on to a large balcony, wide and airy.
He’s glad to see me, asks about the arm and ushers me in to the cool interior. I briefly meet his Khmer wife and mother-in-law, but they’re off to visit relatives, and won’t be back ‘til late.
We tuck in to a big Western meal of eggs, bacon, onions, German bread and cheese, and wash it down with red wine. It’s the best food I’ve had in weeks, and I savour the lot.
Klaus tells me that if my arm isn't better in a couple of days he'll give me a lift to the Thai border so I can go to the hospital in Aran.
"I need to be getting some duty-free chocolate anyway, Felix," he says.
After dinner we retire upstairs to the balcony for coffee.
It’s a hot night. Outside beyond the house-gates it’s pitch black and there’s not much noise, save for the odd bicycle rattling down the road and a couple of fruit bats winging back and forth between the trees.
I light up a joint and the Great Charlie Parker starts belting out some raw and untamed saxophone, which goes streaming over the bannister in great cascading loops, down across the lawn and out the front gate.
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Dear fellow cyclists,
We live in a beige world, and if you're gonna show your colours, you need to be very bloody careful which flag pole you run 'em up. So pl-e-e-a-a-se, don't all go rushing off to Tasmania at once like a pack of school kids on parade sans knickers. I don't wanna pick up the Bangkok Post one day next month and read:
Australia, Monday: Cradle Mountain officials bewildered at sudden surge in international cyclists to Park!
Why? Because it's only a short step away from:
Marsupial Monster Nabbed at Airport!
Melbourne, Frid: Kangaroo molesting cyclist Mr Felix was detained today as he attempted to slip through immigration at Melbourne International Airport.
A defiant Mr Felix was led away by Federal Police, shouting: Infidels! Infidels!
He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted, and a 3 million dollar fine.
Person 1: I always knew he was no-good! When we went to the Melbourne Zoo he took an unnatural interest in the monkey cage!
Person 2: Yes, dogs! Dogs! He always made a point of patting my dog whenever he came to visit. Egad! It makes me sick to think about it!
OK, folks, keep the rubber side down and may the wind be at your back,
your cycling pal,
Mr Felix - Phuket, Thailand
Thursday, October 14, 2004
Sisophon – West Cambodia
Klaus comes by and picks me up at 1 PM. I just love German punctuality. We take off in his 4 Wheel Drive, headed for the surgery.
I make some light conversation, just to relax us all a bit.
‘Klaus, that's a pretty common name in Germany, isn't it?' I ask.
'Yeah, there are a few of us,' he says.
'Yeah,' I rattle on, 'it's kind of your generic German name, isn't it, like Fritz or if you were English you'd be called Tommy, like in the war, you called English guys Tommy, and we called you guys Klaus or Fritz, and maybe Americans are called Randy or Bob.'
Klaus keeps driving, looking steadily ahead and doesn't say anything, and I realise out of nervousness I've ventured in to dangerous territory. I try a back-peddle.
'Hey! Hey!' I laugh (forced), 'At least we're not (note the first person plural) called Bob, eh? I hate to be called Bob! What a stupid name. Imagine being called Bob Down, or maybe Bob Up! Hey! Hey...'
'Yeah, right...' says Klaus.
We arrive at the surgery and bundle out of the truck. The surgery is clean enough, but incredibly empty and sparse. No pot plants, no fish tank to soothe the fretting mind, no smiling receptionist to take your details and enter them on the computer for posterity (in case something goes seriously wrong).
Just the doctor and what looks like his younger brother. And they both look startled. And I’m so nervous all I can do is nod, smile and point to my right arm.
Klaus rattles off my something about my problem in pigeon Khmer and the doctor motions me in to the examination room in pigeon English. I don’t get his name, and he doesn’t ask me mine.
‘Show me arm,’ he says. I boldly thrust it forward.
‘Swollen!’ he says. OK, yep. ‘Mosquito!’ he continues.
OK, whatever, but what can we do and am I going to die?
‘I clean!’ he says.
He’s incredibly brusque, and I must say I respond to the gentle approach a little more, but maybe he’s just nervous. It’s not everyday you get a farang in the surgery.
I’ll make some small talk, that’ll lighten things up a bit.
‘I guess you don’t get many Westerner’s in here much, eh, doctor? Heh! Heh!’ I say.
‘I clean!’ he repeats.
OK, cut the small talk, let’s just clean the arm. There’s puss around the elbow and the arm is 50% bigger than it should be. It’s a mess. Let’s get to work. Good idea.
He leads me down a corridor with his brother trotting behind, and I leave Hardy sitting in the reception room.
‘See you soon, Klaus!’ I call out. He waves back encouragingly.
We enter what must be the surgery, and I’m told to lie down on the table. It’s a proper padded adustable number, which is encouraging, but the white covering sheet hasn’t been cleaned in a while and there’s blood dotted around the head-rest.
The doctor takes my arm and swabs it with some alcohol, and says, ‘I clean! No move!’
OK, cool, no move.
He then takes out a new razor blade and repeats, ‘No move!’
OK, we’re gonna open the white pussey bits on the elbow, might sting a bit, but I can handle it. If you’re gonna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.
I relax a bit, and look around the room. Over on the opposite wall there’s a calendar with a Swiss mountain scene hanging askew, and further along the ubiquitous oil painting of Angkor Wat. You see these paintings all over Cambodia. In people’s houses, in cafes, Guest Houses and doctor’s surgeries, it seems.
I catch a vigorous sweeping motion out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly there is such a jolt of sharp, stinging pain in my elbow, rifling down my arm that I momentarily dry retch. It’s so intense that I draw inwards and go black for an instant and then involuntarily lurch forward with neck muscles tensed and jaws clenched.
Oh, Christ in heaven! Oh, Jesus! I gasp for breath, and there’s tears flooding in to my eyes and spit coming out through my teeth in bubbles.
The doc has cut a two inch slice right on the end of the elbow, straight through the pussey bits and in to the flesh. Oh, shit. Oh, scheiße!
I look up and see the doctor’s brother peering over my arm, eye’s wide, grinning.
‘What the fuck!’ is all I can manage.
The doctor says something in Khmer and grabs my arm in a vice grip, and begins squeezing. Oh, holy shit-bags in heaven. There’s blood and puss oozing out of the wound and running down my arm, and the pain is turning in to a deep throb, all the way along the bones and in to my fingers which are splayed outward and rigid.
I swear, I curse. The doctor squeezes some more and his brother continues to grin. I’m breaking out in a sweat. My whole body is wet, and I’m suppressing the urge to vomit.
This is hell. Keep it together, Feely. I’m talking myself through, holding touch, walking the wire.
I focus. I close my eyes and pull inside. The doctor keeps squeezing. I breath, forcing the air in and out, slow and deliberate. I feel myself sink an inch or two inside my body. I’m falling, separating.
And then a picture pops up in to my mind: my right hand is inside the pouch of a kangaroo.
All the way in, deep, and it’s the most pleasureable feeling imaginable.
Utter marsupial bliss, something from home, something from deep within the Australian heartland, from a time before even the aboriginals first got out of their canoes, some 50 odd thousand years ago, looked around and said, ‘Hey, nice place! Let’s move in!’
Fancy that memory coming up now! The mind is a beautiful thing.
I was down in Tasmania some years back with a mate, doing the Cradle Mountain–Lake St. Claire walk. Tasmania is an island off the south east coast of mainland Australia, about the size of Rumania (!), and our smallest state.
It’s also pretty much the land time forgot. They’ve got crazy mixed up animals down there that appear nowhere else on the globe. The echidna, for example, is a small, marsupial spiny ant-eater that lays eggs, and suckles it’s young in a pouch. A strange combination of survival skills, but it works.
In fact, most things down there are marsupial, except of course the Tiger snakes, which are aggressive, large and deadly.
And the scenery is wild and beautiful, and in many places, pristine. Rugged mountains, deep rain-forested valleys and spectacular rivers that cut through the rock and spill out in shooting waterfalls on to the plains.
And of course, kangaroos.
Cradle Mountain is a large, 'cradle' shaped rise in the north west of the state, and the walk to Lake St. Claire takes about a week. At the entrance to the walk is a small Bavarian style chalet, surrounded by well watered, green fields.
And oh! how kangaroos love open, green fields, gentle herbivores that they are.
My mate and I set out on the walk, working our way past the chalet and up around the open fields. Right beside us, lounging on the grass was a large mob of maybe thirty kangaroos, taking no notice of our approach. They see a lot of humans around the chalet, so no big deal.
It was a bright sunny day, and ‘roos were half asleep, chewing on some grass, lying on their sides and looking well fed and bored.
So what the hey! Maybe I’ll go over and pat one. Why not? And so I do, and she seems to like it as I tickle her behind the ears. Nice kangaroo!
Hey, maybe I’ll rub her tummy! I call out to my mate, ‘Hey! Look at this! I’m rubbing a kangaroo’s belly!’
He takes a picture, but keeps a safe distance.
I mean, you never know with kangaroos. If they get upset they can split you in two with one swift kick of their hind legs, so you gotta take it slow and easy if you’re gonna get intimate. It requires a sensitive hand.
So then I start thinking, ‘What’s it like in the pouch?’ It’s something you never read about, and doesn’t come up in conversation much.
Nice kangaroo, there’s a good girl! Uncle Feely is your friend!
I slip my hand lower and lower down her belly, giving her a quiet rub, back and forth as I go down, down towards the Inner Sanctum.
The fur is getting softer and softer, and then I get to the pouch, and slowly, slowly I slip my fingers in. No movement from the kangaroo, no body language to say That's as far as you go on the first date, buster!, so I push down further, until my whole hand is sliding in to the pouch.
And then it happens, and it’s hard to describe.
Imagine the softest, most angelic kid-leather mitten, warm and ever so slightly moist. Imagine it enclosing your hand, welcoming, protecting, accepting, holding. Imagine that, and maybe smoke a big joint as well, and multiply by a hundred, and you wouldn’t even be close.
My whole body goes immediately limp, and I sink to the ground beside the kangaroo and lie down in the grass, and I never want to move. I am home.
My mate calls out, a little concerned, ‘Are you OK?’, and all I can do is nod my head.
When I die, folks, I wanna go to kangaroo heaven.
I keep it there, not moving, not doing anything until after about 10 minutes my mate finally calls out that we need to push on if we’re gonna make the first hut by night-fall.
OK, time to pull out, but gee, what an effort of will.
We trudge off down the track, and I’m babbling on and on about the experience, and my mate tells me later that he was seriously concerned about my mental well-being.
Yes, well, they thought Rama Krishna was mad when he returned, stricken, from the all embracing arms of Mother Kali at Kali Ghat. And ditto for pretty little Bernadette when she returned, full of grace, from a meeting with the Virgin at the grotto in Lourdes.
Let them scoff, infidels that are!
When you have lay down with the Great Mother Goddess Kangaroo, who cares?
For the next 24 hours my right hand feels touched by the infinite. It’s light and airy, but also soft, contained and dense. It floats, but it’s also grounded.
Oh, yes, we can but talk in riddles of things mystical. So be it.
Back in the doctor’s surgery I’m getting my arm bound, and there’s blood seeping through the bandages. No stitches, no pain killers, no ‘There’s a brave boy!’, but most of the puss seems to be out, and I’m on my feet and following the doctor and his brother back out along the corridor.
I’m absolutely drenched in sweat and my clothes are hanging off me like I’ve been out in the rain.
Klaus takes one look at me, and I note the look of horror on his face. He'd heard me screaming from the back room.
We pay up, ten bucks in all, and take away some anti-inflammatory pills. Take 3 a day for 10 days.
OK, ‘Thanks, doc!’, now let’s get out of here.
‘When he said he was going to be clean the wound, I thought he was just meaning to give it a little bit of cleaning!’ says Klaus.
‘Yeah, welcome to Cambodia…’, I say, and we pull out from the curb and head back through town.
My arm is still throbbing, and stings every time I move it. Christ, what a day.
Klaus drops me off at my Guest House and invites me up to his house for dinner later on in the evening. He promises some Western food, and maybe we have a little bit of cheese, Felix!, which sounds pretty good.
I’ll be there.
We drive through the Guest House gates, I get out of the truck, I walk to my room, climb on the bed and cash in my chips.
The Ride/the Route:
Another flat, dirt road. No hills and very light traffic. The scenery is mainly paddies and some forested sections, with blue mountains out towards Thailand.
My Cambodian Road Atlas tells me this section of road is in better condition than the road north of Banteay Chhmar, but I couldn’t see much difference. Good and firm in sections, and cut up in others. Easy in the dry, difficult in the wet.
There’s a few broken bridges where you must walk the bike across, but it’s no hassle. Also a few mine-fields, but they’re clearly marked. You’d need to work hard at getting blown up.
There’s no Guest House in B Chhmar, but a market and good cafes by the lake. A pleasant spot to eat and drink. There’s also a basic bike shop.
There’s drinks all along the route, and food, shops and a market at Thma Puok (16 km from B Chhmar), and also at Svay Chak/Chet (36 km from B Chhmar).
You will come in to Sisophon from the north. When you hit the main roundabout by the big park, turn east towards Siem Reap down highway 6, and there’s 4 Guest Houses (3 on the south side, and 1 on the north) about 1 km down the road, just past the Sokamex petrol station. They’re cheap and basic at 10,000 Riel ($2:50), and I recommend the one on the north side, but take your pick.
The Day’s Ride:
Orn’s family wake up early and head off for the paddies, and I get packed and survey the damage on the back wheel. The tube has blown the side out of my tyre, so it’s either change the lot here in Banteay Chhmar, or catch a pick-up all the way to Sisophon.
I’m not hopeful.
Orn’s on holiday from the university and is off to a party with his mates in town. I slip him five bucks with strict instructions to buy lots of beer.
Good for the over-taxed mind, Orn! I say.
Now, I admit I might be suffering from Advice Transference Syndrome (ATS), perhaps needing a beer myself, but I turn down his invite to tag along. My right arm is swollen and paining and I need a doctor, so I need to get to Sisophon without too much mucking about.
The word amputation has surfaced in my mind this morning, and it’s not a word I normally associate with myself.
What do you think the problem is, Orn? I ask, waving the arm around in front of his face for maximum emotional effect.
Mosquitoes! he says. Yeah, right, just what I thought. I may be becoming clairaudient.
We exchange email addresses, and I trudge off wheeling my bike, and turn on to the main road towards town.
There was a hell of a storm last night, and the thunder claps woke me a couple of times, but I’m refreshed, and am busily telling myself to relax and accept whatever the day brings. The last couple of days have been arduous, wet and mud-filled, and I’ve been seriously wondering about the meaning of it all.
Remember to be Buddhist, Feely! I tell myself. You could be at home, waking up to a beautiful Melbourne spring morning, sipping a latte and reading about the latest episode in fundamental lunacy, and who needs all that?
Out here in Camboland it’s also a beautiful morning, the clouds are puffy and white and there’s some blue sky peeking through, but the road through town is a complete pig’s trough. It’s gushing mud and brown water, and I’m dodging and sliding around just walking the bike.
I come up past the temple ruins and stop to take a quick look. They’re right beside the road and are the usual exotic Khmer thing; big Buddha faces, semi-reliefs and inscriptions, and of course, the whole complex is falling down. So works the ravages of time, war and Thai antique dealers.
I’d like to spend longer, but with a question mark hanging over the day, I push on after 20 minutes. I’m told there’s a bigger complex somewhere up the road, but again, I’ll pass. As I’ve said before, ruins don’t spin my wheels all that much. I prefer a good road.
Three hundred metres through town and around the bend I come to the market and a few shops and cafes across from the lake. It’s brown and ramshackle, but picturesque all-the-same. There’s a couple of large Bodhi trees arching across the road giving plenty of shade, and on the other side of the lake sit the temple ruins. The ancient Khmers certainly knew how to pick a nice spot.
I choose the cleanest café, and wander in. The waitress looks appropriately startled and runs off before I get a chance to order, but she’s back in a flash with the manager, Mr Beng (or something), who speaks pretty good English and is over-joyed to see me.
Welcome, welcome! he says, flapping his arms around and grinning broadly. He motions me to a seat, and then sits down right beside me, and sends the waitress off for two iced coffees on the house. Excellent.
Mr Beng was at university studying English and French up until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over. End of studies, act stupid, and keep your head down for the next four years.
But there was a lot Khmer Rouge activity up here in Banteay Meanchay Province right through until the mid-to-late-nineties, and for the local population the nightmare continued like a long drawn out Indian Summer, minus the chappatis.
The Khmer Rouge used to abduct people from around here, take them off in to the forest, and demand a ransom from the family, says Mr Beng, sadly.
I nod. The common people get shafted again here in South East Asia. I sip my coffee.
So what are you doing here, Mr Feelis? he asks.
Well, I’m cycling through to Sisophon, I say, but I’ve got this bung arm. What do you think is wrong it? I wave it around in front of his face etc. Mosquitoes?
He nods. Yep, mozzies. Damndest thing.
The swelling has mooched all the way down in to my right hand, and the knuckles and fingers are pudgey and white. It’s looking decidedly Sigourney Weaver and Alien.
Mr Beng shows me to the bike shop a couple of doors down and I sift through the dusty collection of tyres hanging from the wooden rafters. There’s no point getting the tube fixed if I can’t find the right tyre. They’ve only got about a dozen in all, so I’m not holding my breath.
But, wouldn’t you know! There it is, a 26 inch x 1.75 nobby tyre, made in Thailand. I strip the back wheel off the bike and hand in across to the bike shop guy. What a find! Who’d have believed it?
OK, lads! Fix the tube, fit the tyre, bugger the cost and give me a yell when it’s all done. I’ll be drinking coffee with my new best friend Mr Beng, and chatting up his waitress.
I pay the bike-shop guys 16,000 Riel ($4.00), which is a pretty good deal for a tube patch and a new tyre, and I hit the road.
The clouds are building up, and sooner or later it’s going to rain, but it’s only about sixty odd kilometres to Sisophon, so it’s gonna be no different than the last few days. Wet, and mostly shit-house, but what the hey! I’m working through my own little personal hell, and I’m sure it’s doing me good.
And despite the flat tyres, the bike is performing beautifully, and I’m getting distinctly fitter, and more resilient. And despite the swelling and occasional ache, the arm is not impeding my progress much. I need to take it off the grip every now and then and flex it, but apart from that, no worries.
But also, I must say, I’m in need of some Western company. Preferably someone who likes to talk about concepts, and maybe even better, someone who likes to listen to my concepts. I don’t ask for much.
Oh, Jesus, who loves me and always provides what I need, not what I want, send me a conceptualist! Thanks again, your pal, Feely, over and out.
The road out of town is surprisingly dry so I step on the pedals. I go past paddies in flood, and the usual stream of Khmer farmers calling out and waving as I go by. And the traffic is very light. A few pick-ups packed with smiling Khmers, some small tractors and trailors, and of course, motor bikes.
The new back tyre is hanging in beautifully, and I’m making great time, weaving around the ditches, cutting back and forth across the road and enjoying the view. Cycling can be exhilerating at times.
It’s a decidedly simple activity, really, but requires concentration and stamina, and as the days go by, you feel your body changing, getting taught and able.
And you are forced to excede your limits, forced to go on when all you want to do is lie back in an ice cold jacuzzi of Coca Cola, with ice chunks the size of footballs bobbing gently up and down and making the Coke go fizz-zz around your ears.
But so you get fit and mean. Is good.
16 km down the road I come to Thmar Puok. It’s a small village with the usual gaggle of shops and services, and I pull in for a Coke and some food. The clouds are looking menacing now, so after 15 minutes I push out on to the road again and move in to top gear.
There’s blue mountains out towards Thailand and green paddies all along the route, and the odd broken down bridge. The wind is kicking up in short gusts, and a light rain sweeps in from the west. It’s not enough to dampen the road or my spirits, and I cycle on, and it passes.
By the time I get to Svay Chet the sun has broken through and all of a sudden it’s hot. Yeah, things change out here. I stop at a café and ask to use the loo, and they direct me all the way out the back to the Wat.
I like country Wats, and have spent a lot of time in them over the years, and this one is no disapointment. There’s an old monk brushing up some leaves by the kitchen so I wander over and ask if I can use the toilet. He’s old and wrinkled, and amused, and gives me a key and points to the ablution block down the path.
It’s clean and quiet and shadey inside, so after attending to business I strip off and take a long shower. I pour the cool water slowly over my back, and let it run down my legs. My God, this is close to heaven. Over and over I pour, until I’m almost cold myself, and intensely refreshed.
When I take the key back to the monk I stop and tell him what I’m doing and where I’m going, and he asks me if I need a place to stay. How I love these guys! Normally I’d probably take him up on the offer. The thought of getting off the road and wandering around the grounds for the afternoon is appealing, but my arm beckons.
I say my goodbyes and head back to the café. Pleasure time over. While I’ve been chatting to the monk the clouds have rolled in, and a storm is on the way. It’s about 35 km to Sisophon from here, so I either sit it out, or brave it.
I decide to head out, and hope I can find a roadside café somewhere down the road when the rain hits.
Half an hour later I get caught in a deluge, and the road turns immediately evil. And there’s no café, just paddies and Khmer’s sheltering under trees. I ride on through the gathering mud until I’m so soaked and exhausted and pissed-off that I ride off the road at full speed and come to a slithering, agressive stop under a small tree.
I dismount and stand by the bike. I feel like Ratty in Wind in the Willows; wet, bedraggled and was having a good time but now it’s all turned bad. Ah, shit. Fuck this! I wanna be in Sisophon, now. Watching telly.
Two hours later I get there. It’s late afternoon, and the rain has stopped and it’s hot again. I check in to a cheap-o Guest House, take a shower and climb on my bed, feeling lonely and depressed.
My, how it all changes.
Am I the only idiot in the world who crawls in to his Cambodian hotel room, locks the door and doesn’t wanna come out?
Well, maybe not. I take a snooze, and wake up hungry. OK, that’s something: feel hungry, go get something to eat. Right on. Very Zen.
There’s a long line of cafes in Sisophon beside the park, and I cycle along the strip, looking for the right one. Just as I get to the end I see a Whitey at one of the tables and he waves. OK, this looks like dinner and if I’m lucky, a conversation.
Klaus is German, is working in Cambodia, is married to a Khmer girl and is a sometime cyclist. Excellent. He’s also a thoughtful chap, and a conceptualist.
After the prerequisite formalities, we launch in to all the world’s problems, the joys and sorrows of cycling and the mind-numbing terrors of the farang in Asia.
My, oh my! Who’s the Doubting Thomas? Who’s the guy that’s gonna get up to the Pearly Gates and get directed to the door marked: "Doubters"? And what on Earth am I going to say? Oh, boy.
Klaus inspects my arm and thinks it’s probably a spider bite that’s got infected. But no worries, if I can wait until lunch time tomorrow he’ll come and pick me up and take me to the best doctor in Sisophon.
But, Felix, he says, the best doctor in Sisophon is maybe a little bit not so good, and you may have to go to Thailand to get it looked at by a real doctor.
OK, no worries, let’s see what the local quack says, and take it from there.
Before I head back to my Guest House I send an email to my friend Sothy, an American-Khmer living in Chicago. I talk about the arm, and ask her what she thinks.
Any particular spiders or bitey things that you know of in Cambodia? I write. Any particular thing I should do?
Back at the Guest House I crawl in to bed and bury myself in my book. Doctors, I hate doctors almost as much as I hate Custom’s Officials.
OK, another lonely night in Cambodia. Read my book under the 20 watt globe until I can’t see anymore, turn out the light, go to sleep.
Next door there’s a couple of Khmer’s playing Cambodian pop music on a shitty little sound system, but that’s normal.
Saturday, October 09, 2004
The Ride/the Route:
A flat dirt road, mainly smooth and firm, but a few intermittent sections where the road is cut up. There are a few dodgey bridges where you will need to dismount and walk the bike across, but apart from that, everything is straight forward and easy. The traffic is very light. As usual, an easy run in the dry, apart from the dust, but difficult in the wet.
Drinks available along most of the route, and some decent food at the small village of Am Pin, 30 km due west of Samraong. From there it’s 27 km south to Banteay Chhmar.
Banteay Chhmar is a small town, with a market and a few cafes, but there is no Guest House in the town itself. In normal circumstances, you’d be advised to ride straight through to Thma Puok, a further 16 km south down the road, where there is a Guest House (although I didn’t see it), or all the way to Sisophon, 64 km from Banteay Chhmar.
The temple ruins in Banteay Chhmar (what I saw of them) look interesting and untouristed, and there is apparently a Guest House some 10 (or maybe 20?) kilometres out of town at the main temple complex. I don’t know the price or exact location.
The people are very friendly and helpful out here in the north-west, and they don’t see many tourists, especially on bikes.
The scenery is pleasant and rural, paddies and forests, with blue mountains in the distance along the Thai border. There’s quite a few live mine-fields, but they’re all clearly marked. Stick to the road and well worn paths and you’ll be OK.
The Day's Ride:
I roll out of bed at the Phra Chea Thmey Guest House in Sam Raong at the usual early hour and Ouch! My right arm is swollen and sensitive to the touch. The little red volcanoes where the spider (?) bit me are still oozing puss, and the swelling has spread down the arm from the elbow to the middle of the wrist.
Yep, it’s now a medical problem, and not just a minor bother. Just what I need.
It’s also been raining all night, and I woke up a few times and listened to it pounding on the roof. I don’t mind too much if it rains at night, as long as it clears by morning, and there’s a chance that the road will dry out as the day progresses.
But no such luck today.
The clouds are heavy and grey, and there’s an annoying drizzle coming down as I walk out of the Guest House and cross the road to get some breakfast. The Ryk Reah restaurant serves up a big plate of French fries (Freedom fries? Save me!) and good coffee, so this cheers me up a little. French fries are not common fare in Cambodia, so I’m winning on the food front at least.
I order an extra coffee and sit at the front table by myself, gazing out on to the road and the early morning activity.
My arm hurts, it’s raining, I’m lonely, and the roads up ahead will be turning to mush so it looks like I won’t make it through to Sisophon today, about 120 km away. I’ll try for Thmar Pook, about 80 km south west of here. A couple of Khmers have told me there’s a Guest House, so that looks to be the day’s reasonable destination.
If worst comes to worst I can stop in Banteay Chhmar, a small town about 60 klicks down the road. Three out of four Khmer’s tell me there’s also a Guest House there, and these are reasonable odds for the lone cyclist.
And I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I’ll need to go to the doctor to get my arm looked at.
Oh, dear, the Cambodian doctor experience. It’s one I’ve luckily avoided up until now, but it looks like my number is up. Khnom bproo-ay! which is Pigeon Khmer for I’m a little worried about this!
So why don’t I just catch a pick-up all the way into Sisophon and save myself the trauma of two more days riding in the mud with a bung arm? Well, that would be cheating of course, end of story.
Like the Canadian Mounties, the Texas Rangers and any other gung-ho idiotic group of testosterone driven dick-heads you can imagine, the international cyclist comes through.
Well, ladies, down this bung arm and in to these legs flows the blood of Ned Kelly, the Man from Snowy River and possibly the milk-man who used to deliver dairy products to my great grandmother while my great grandfather was away fighting the Hun up along the Rhine River Valley in 1914.
No, defeat is out of the question, even if it kills me. I don’t have many material possessions but I have my pride.
At 10 am I climb on the bike and push out in to the rain.
The main road through Sam Raong is sealed and in very good condition, and heads due south to Chung Can (Chong Kal) and further on to Siem Reap. Considering the rain, the mud and my arm, it would be the wise choice, but I’ve been to Siem Reap a couple of times before, and the glut of soft bottomed tourists doesn’t spin my wheels.
No, it’s the north and north western back roads for me, so I take a right turn off the main road and push west towards Thailand.
It’s muddy and slippery, and there’s deep ruts in the road, and it’s approaching biking hell before my odometer hits 5 kilometres. But no use complaining, just turn those pedals over and over and forget about the pain.
You can do it, Feely. Be a man! So I tell myself.
At the 10 kilometre mark I’m getting cramps in my stomach. What next? Maybe it’s the French fries?
Two hundred metres on I pass a Halo Trust encampment, and the Khmers lying under the awning of the house call out as I go past. OK, this looks like the toilet stop, so I turn the bike around and roll in.
The Halo Trust is one of the many NGO groups here involved in de-mining, and one of the Khmers lounging about under the house speaks good English, which is always a relief. I use the loo, and take up the offer of coffee. And as I sit there sipping it, the rain really sets in.
It looks like the elements are really against me today. I belt across the road to the little variety store and buy a big bag of boiled lollies, run back, share them around and climb in to one of the hammocks. If I’m gonna be stuck here, I might as well get comfortable.
And then I drop off in to a deep sleep. God knows what’s going on. The weather’s screwy, my arm is screwy and so is my metabolism, it seems. The only thing that’s working well is my bike, and the Khmers.
And thank God for their easy going hospitality. No rush, no pressure, no questions. Just lie in the hammock and make yourself at home. This sure is a long way from Switzerland, at least the German speaking part.
I wake up at one o’clock and drink another coffee. Thanks again, lovely Khmers. The rain has stopped and I’m feeling fresh enough to go on. And I’ve only done 10 kilometres, so it looks like Banteay Chhmar might be the end point today.
Up and out along the road I go, working against the mud, sliding and slipping, standing on the pedals and straining to stay upright as I slither from rut to rut. Minute after difficult minute.
There’s farms and paddies all along the way, and a few rivers with broken down wooden bridges. I actually love these old bridges, with their horizontal planks lying across the roadway in all directions, and upright supports standing askew. The wood is grey and weathered, and the bridges have withstood the ravages of weather, time and twenty-five years of serious social conflict.
Beside the rivers, which are swollen from the rains, grow big shady trees, and you’ll often run in to kids fishing off the railings, or women washing clothes down on the cool, dark banks.
But of course, I’m being romantic. If you’re a Khmer, you’re gonna prefer the new metal bridges that are popping up all over Cambodia. They’re clean and functional, and have a certain Stalinist feel to them, but like most things Russian, they do the job.
At the 30 kilometre mark I stop at the small village of Am Pin. It’s almost 3 PM and I’m in need of more coffee and a little food. There’s a market and a string of cafes, but it’s a grubby place, with flies buzzing around the food and dogs sniffing about under the tables of the cafes. It’s also not helped by the rain and mud, but the Khmers are helpful and friendly, as usual, and tell me it’s about 25 kilometres to Banteay Chhmar.
The man at the café also tells me there’s a Guest House there, but the woman selling sugar-cane juice tells me there isn’t. It seems my odds have dropped to 50%, but there’s nought I can do about it, whatever the truth. All will be revealed in God’s good time.
But I’m so exhausted I take a good hour to freshen up, and then it’s back on the road. I’m only averaging ten kilometres an hour in this mud and slush, but I should make it in to Banteay Chhmar by 6:30 PM, just on dark, accidents notwithstanding.
On I go again, down the road, through the mud, slowly and painfully on and on. It’s like dragging a dead weight. I’m doing my best to keep my spirits up, and thankfully my arm, which is still swollen and doesn’t seem to be getting any better, is not impeding my progress.
I pass a few small villages, and the Khmers are friendly and surprised, but gee, this is hard. But by now the rain has stopped and there’s only dark clouds hovering overhead, and as the day turns into late afternoon it’s actually getting chilly out here.
It turns 6 o’clock and I check my odometer. It says 56 kilometres. OK, maybe five to go, maybe ten at a push. I think I’m gonna make it. It’s going on dark already, but not far now.
And then, POP!, a loud bang from the back wheel. Oh, Jesus, no! I’ve blown my back tube. I cannot believe this. Not now, Lord!
This is the last of the super-high-tech self-sealing tubes that they talked me in to buying down at the Melbourne Bike Shop before I set off on this mud-caked odysee (may a pox descend on them and their children for seventeen generations). These tubes aren’t worth a pinch-of-shit. Scheiße!
Not only has the tube blown, it’s taken out the side wall of the tyre as well. And finding a replacement tyre out here in woop-woop is gonna be difficult.
Oh well, cycling over for today, nothing else for it put to walk and push the bike. At five kilometres an hour I should make it in to town in one hour, or maybe two, depending on the distance.
It’ll be well and truly dark by the time I arrive, and then there’s the problem of finding the Guest House, if there is one. And if not, well, it may be the restaurant floor again, unless of course I find a good Samaritan Khmer who will take me in and say nice things to me.
And so off I set.
My God, I’m wet and miserable. The traffic’s non-existent, so it’s just me and the mud and my bung arm and now my equally bung back tyre.
If only that good Samaritan Khmer would come by and rescue me. It’d be also nice if he/she spoke English so I could explain my problems, and maybe go on and on for a while. Nothing like off-loading on someone when you’re in deep shit, but it helps if they know what you’re talking about. But fat chance out here.
You’re on your own, Feely, nobody loves you and you’re a dick-head.
Yep, I’m a dick-head, and my life is a bag of shit. Nay, a muddy, wet bag of shit…
And then, Hey! Hello! You need a lift?
There’s a Khmer coming up behind me on a small tractor and trailer, and he’s speaking English. And quite good English. Almost my favourite type. This is really blowing my mind. I can hardly believe it.
Am I hallucinating?
No, I’m not!
It turns out to be Orn, a 25 year old Khmer who is studying Philosophy at Phnom Penh University, and he’s stopped beside me and is asking me to put my wounded bike on the trailer, and no, there’s no Guest House in Banteay Chhmar, but why don’t I come home with him, meet the family and spend the night?
This really is too good to be true, but I’m willing to give it a try, trusting and desperate soul that I am.
I throw the bike on to the trailer and climb in after it. I whisper a quiet prayer: Thank you, Lord, I will never, ever in my life doubt you again. Amen, over-and-out, thanks again, peace be upon you!
A kilometre up the road we reach Banteay Chhmar town, and turn right in to Orn’s driveway.
Orn’s house is a typical Cambodian affair, large and airy, made of wood and standing on stilts. The family is somewhat startled to see what Orn has brought home, but they soon compose themselves and begin looking after the muddy, but honoured guest.
I take a shower at the outside well and climb in to some clean clothes. By the time I’m done, Orn’s sister has cooked up some fried beef and rice, and I gratefully tuck in to it, and sip some hot tea. Life is good.
That evening we sit around and Orn translates the many questions his family has about my fascinating life as a Westerner. I’m the first one they’ve studied up close, and a real curiosity piece.
As I’m sorting through my panniers, Orn spots my I-pod and asks what it is. I explain that it’s an MP3 music player, and I’ve got 20 gig. of Western music on it, everything from Rock to Jazz, Techno to World and Swing to R & B.
I set up my speakers and show him how to skip through the artists. He’s intrigued, and stops on The Sex Pistols.
Who is this? he asks.
It’s probably the word sex that’s attracted him, but how do you explain The Sex Pistols?
Ah, yeah, The Sex Pistols, I say. You probably won’t like ‘em. They’re a bit heavy.
But Orn insists. He definitely wants to hear The Sex Pistols, and so do his family. For real Western music that for real Western people listen to, and with a bit of sex thrown in. Can’t be all bad. Let her rip, Mr Feeliks!
And so I do.
God save the Queen,
The fascist regime!
The Pistols bash it out, and I let it run all the way. I don’t really know what else to do. By the time we get half way through the set, Orn’s father is looking seriously appalled, and Pretty Vacant pretty much does him in.
He excuses himself and goes upstairs. The rest of the family slowly follow, and Orn says: Yes, thank you, very interesting!
I try to explain that there’s a lot of different types of Western music, and maybe I could find something that they’d all like blah! blah! but the damage is done, and there’s no way back.
Western music is definitely a no-go in Orn’s house from here on in. Oh, well.
That night I sit quietly on the stairs smoking a cigarette and watch the lightning cracking over and over way off over the hills in Thailand. Big horizontal bursts of light, snaking across the sky, and the rolling thunder rattling the wooden boards underneath my bare feet. It’s a beautiful thing.
As I crawl under my mosquito net, Orn and family are huddled in the far corner watching a Cambodian soapy on the tube, and that’s pretty much the last thing I remember. I roll over, carefull not to put any pressure on my swollen arm and enter Dreamland.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
A flat, dirt road all the way, reasonable condition, not too many pot-holes. A good fast run in the dry, but muddy as hell in the wet.
The traffic is very light, and there's drink and food stops for the first 40 km, and then again at the 57 km mark, where the road hits a T-intersection. To the right (north) is the Thai border, to the left (south) is Sam Roeng, a further 18 km down the road. There's food and drink all the way along this latter leg.
The scenery is mostly farms and paddies, with mountains in the distance, and few small forested sections. Most of the bridges are in good condition, excepting a couple nearer to Sam Roeng where you may need to dismount and walk the bike across.
Once you hit the roundabout at Sam Roeng (18 km from the T-intersection), you need to cycle a further 2 km through town. The road does a big curve, so follow it around, past the open field on your right, and turn left at the big Wat. There's two Guest Houses about 200 metres down the road.
The GH on the left is white, clean and luxurious at $5 per night, and the one on the right is a little more Khmer, at 10,000 Riel, about $2:50. It's called the Phra Chea Prey Thmey GH, and runs girls, and a non-stop card game out the back. No prizes for my choice.
Sam Roeng is a medium sized regional town, and relatively prosperous on the scale of things Cambodian.
I wake up early in the Anlong Veng Guest House with an itchy right arm.
Jesus! I seem to have gotten bitten by something during the night, and there's about a half dozen large pimples dotted around my right elbow, red and insistent, with a little cap of white puss oozing out of each hole, like mini-volcanoes. Yeek!
When I climb in the shower I notice there's two more inside my right thigh, and they sting under the water pressure. Oh! Not good, Feely, not good.
Bites and cuts can easily turn septic in the tropics, and you gotta be carefull, so on the way out of the Guest House I show the madam my arm and ask for any ideas. I'm looking for a lead.
Mosquitoes! she says, and waves it off dismissively.
Jesus! Bloody damn big mosquitoes! I reply, but what can you do?
I've found you don't get much sympathy in Cambodia for physical ailments, and I guess a few mosquito bites (!) don't stack up to much in a land where people sometimes get their legs blown off, but they're tender and painfull to the touch, and have me worried.
If I was at home in Oz, I'd be reasonably sure they're spider bites. We've got a lot of poisonous spiders where I come from, and some of them can even kill you. A painfull, excruciating death, where you bloat up and turn blue and purple and nobody wants to know you anymore.
But most of those are in Sydney, which is another good reason to live in Melbourne. And I tell you, they don't talk about that in the tourist brochures!
Come to Sydney, world's only home of the painfull, excruciating funnel-web spider, where your children bloat up , turn purple etc!
OK, what the hell, get on the bike and start peddaling.
I take off north through the Anlong Veng market and turn west towards Sam Roeng. The road is in OK condition, firm, as the rain has been light for the last three or four days. There's a head wind coming in from Thailand, but nothing too bothersome. I'm cracking along, running the sleep out out of my legs and flexing the muscles in my forearms, singing to myself, loosening up, shifting in the saddle, feeling the air run down my collar, turning the pedals, over and over, watching the front wheel spin, the tread go round and round, straight down the middle of the road. Is good.
It's the first hour or so in the mornings on the bike that is usually the fastest. You're fresh after the night's sleep, and the day's bone tiredness is still hours away. As you peddle along your brain slowly moves into action, you breathe in the fresh Cambodian air and you remember why you're here. And of course, the day is ahead of you, bright with possibility. It's a solitary time, and to be enjoyed.
Out to my right run the mountains along the Thai border, a long line of rugged blue ranges, and I'm passing farms and coconut plantations, and usual clusters of screaming kids waving from way-out in the paddies. Hell-ooo kids!
Boy, I'm sure glad I'm on a bike and not planting rice. That really does look like a tough gig.
I'm making great time, and even though the clouds have been building all day, the rain is still at bay. I've clocked almost 60 kilometres as I roll into the cafe at the T-intersection, park my bike and take a seat. Just as I sit down the wind kicks up, short gusts of air that blow the garbage around on the road, and a sure sign of rain. Oh, dear.
It's only 18 km to Sam Roeng, and I need some food and and rest, so I decide to sit and wait it out in the cafe.
Cafes and restaurants in Cambodia are often ramshackle affairs, just a couple of walls thrown together with bits of wood, some tin sheets on the roof, with one side open to the street. There's some cheap plastic chairs to sit on, a couple of tables and an earth floor. It's all pretty basic, no electricity, but perfectly functional. And of course, it's staffed by Khmers. Open, friendly, curious and sensitive. I like these people a lot.
I order a Coke and ice, and the woman pulls out a large block of ice from the plastic cooler and begins hacking away at it, knocking off little chunks that go spinning across the cafe and straight into the back of my head. Thunk!
Jesus! I jump up from my seat, and everybody laughs. Yep, that's another thing about Southeast Asia. You bang your leg, you spill your coffee, your bike falls over and takes six other bikes with it, you get hit in the head with an airborn chunk of ice, and everybody laughs. Ha! Ha!
They're not big on guilt and blame around here, unlike the Germans. Even the dog joins in. Woof! Woof!
OK, nice doggy, settle down now, you're embarrassing me...
I sit back down as elegantly as I can and order some rice and meat. I think it's beef, but it's hard to tell. I skipped breakfast, and really need some protein, and as long as the meat looks OK and is well fried I'm willing to give it a go. But there's no refrigerators way out here in the boonies, and not that many in Phnom Penh for that matter, so you gotta be carefull.
A couple of years ago I was cycling down Highway 6 with a mate from Melbourne, a newbie cyclist, and we made the mistake of eating some boiled chicken soup without really checking the quality. I woke up in the middle of the night dreaming that I was choking on a condom. Yep, strange dream, and as I struggled to cough it back up, I woke and realised I was about to vomit. Rush to the outside toilet. Head down the hole, heave. Deep throat stuff. Wild choking sounds. Rib cage making involuntary nervous contractions. And then I turn around and let a hose of fluids explode out of my behind. Indeed, not a good look, not worth imagining.
Fifteen minutes later I'm still lying flat on the tiles, and I look up from the hole and there's Mark, my cycling mate, needing to take a turn also. And he was looking frightfull! Egad!
We rode the 50 kilometres or so into Siem Reap the next day, and it was possibly the hardest day I've ever clocked. Welcome to cycling, Cambo style, newbie cyclist Mark!
No food, no fluids, dizzy and weak. On the way down we stopped at a Wat and both pretty much collapsed on the temple floor. But this being Cambodia, the monks were calm and reassuring, and gave us both pillows and a plastic mats to sleep on. After a couple of hours, and a few trips to the water closet, we got up and rode on.
In Siem reap I stayed in bed for three days, and felt sorry for myself every hour on the hour, and the emotional imprint remains. And God knows what it did to Mark. He kept his humour throughout the whole ordeal, but I've never been able to talk him into cycling with me again.
But it's all part of the fun, Mark! I said.
Back at the T-intersection, the rain comes in short and fast, and blows over inside half an hour, so I finish my meal, say my goodbyes and set out south down the road to Sam Roeng. The road is greasy in parts, but seems to have held up pretty OK, surprisingly. I guess it's been relatively dry for a few days, and this short bucketing hasn't quite penetrated the clay. Thankyou Lord!
The only real problem is my arm. It's starting to swell around the elbow, and is sore to the touch. It doesn't hamper the cycling all that much, but it's worrisome. The last thing I need out here, besides a traffic accident, or maybe amoebic dysintery, is a bung limb. You need all four to cycle effectively. What would Lance do?
18 kilometres down the road I roll past the Sam Roeng roundabout, make some enquiries and head off through town, past the big Wat, and down through the market looking for the Guest Houses. There seems to be a lot of NGO offices here, and I guess Sam Roeng must be some kind of regional headquarters. It looks relatively prosperous, and I hardly raise an eye as I cycle through town. Yep, they must have seen everything that we barungs can throw at 'em around here.
The first Guest House I come to costs five dollars, and is spotless. This has to be the cleanest Guest House in Cambodia, bar none, and quiet. Excruciatingly quiet. And everything is white. The walls, the ceiling, the floors, the shower, the toilet, the towels. How weird! Even the girl who shows me the room is dressed in white. I can't take it. I have visions of lying naked on the crisp white sheets, surrounded by four white walls, by myself, going slowly mad.
And I aslo don't want to drag my muddy panniers into this spotless sanatorium and unpack my equally muddy things. It's intimidating.
In the white room with black curtains near the station.... I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines, Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves.
No I won't, I'll go and check out the other Guest House, despite what Jack Bruce says.
The one across the street is a lot more Khmer. It costs $2.50, has cramped little rooms with green walls and bright red, felt bed-spreads. And the bathroom is painted a vivid yellow, and has deep brown stains all down the walls. Yeah, this is more like it, grotty baroque, sometimes called Rococo Khmer, my favourite.
When you're travelling alone on a bicycle by day you sometimes need sensory input at night. If I had company, someone to have dinner with and talk about the day, then I'd probably take the sanatorium across the street. Or if I was close to the Cambodian edge, and needed to isolate myself, ditto. But not today. I'm missing Jackie and Co., and Mark's back home in Melbourne drinking cafe lattes and telling jokes to beautiful girls in short dresses, and I haven't had a decent conversation in 24 hours.
After I clean up and take a rest I go out the back to the water trough and begin rinsing my clothes. This is a biking ritual that cannot be avoided. If you want that sweet smelling cyclists' ring of confidence, you gotta wash your clothes, every night. The bike shorts need daily rinsing, for obvious reasons, and I cycle with the same cotton shorts and shirt every day, so there's no way around it.
And I could get one of the maids to do it for me for about a thousand Reil (25 cents), but I like the activity. It's focusses me, brings me back to planet earth, makes me feel almost normal.
As the night rolls on at the Guest House the working girls slowly emerge from their rooms, and begin hitting on me. Everytime I walk down the thin corridor between the rooms, they manage to position themselves so I have to rub past them, sometimes front on, sometimes from behind. I kinda like it, but I'm not buying.
Khnom hot! I say, I'm tired. Khnom chee-kong Anlong Veng - Sam Roeng! (Me bicycle Anlong Veng-Sam Roeng!), and I make vigorous peddaling motions with my hands and look frantic.
OK, no problem! they say, Massah! Massah! (Massage, massage!)
Well, if I could get a real massage for a couple of bucks I might partake, but this is strictly boom-boom territory and after the day's vigorous peddaling I'm not sure I could perform anyway, even if I wanted to. But it's all friendly and funny and Khmer, and keeps me entertained.
Further out the back is the card game. It's been going on since I arrived, with a floating population of about twelve sitting around on the ground, drinking beer. There seems to be a lot of money getting wacked down on the floor, and they're playing some kind of weird game that looks like a cross between 21 and Rummy. I can't quite work it out, even though I sit and watch for over an hour.
You play? asks one of the Khmers.
Oh, no! I fell for this one back in Thailand some years back. I thought I had the rules sorted out, but everytime I made what I thought was a winning play, they'd drop a random card down on the table and say: You roose!
I never did work out whether I was getting shafted, or there was some special, exotic rule that made fours and sevens over-ride kings and queens. In the end I called it Thai Surprise!, and every time they said You roose!, I yelled Thai Surprise!, which amused them no end, especially as they gathered up my money into little piles on their side of the table.
And that's a whole bucket of worms that: Asian Surprise!, or to be more locale specific, Thai Surprise!, Lao Surprise!, Vietnamese Surprise!, Malaysian Surprise!, Cambo Surprise! and possibly my all time favourite, Indonesian Surprise!.
And it can be anything, a card game, a social situation, a simple task, an event, but it relates to the perennial nagging, lurking Asian ability to throw something into the mix that you have never thought of, and never expect.
It's the black box, the tertium quid, the third thing, the leap of logic, the hidden rule, the silent killer shark surfacing from the deep that the Asians know about, but they have neglected to tell you anything about it at all, until you're being dragged down, injested, and are looking up pleadingly, saying Wha-a-at's happenning?
No thankyou, Asian Surprise!, I've been there before, and will no doubt go there again, but not tonight.
I climb into bed, and roll onto my arm, and it's hurting badly, swelling. The little red volcanoes are growing more insistent and sensitive to the touch, and still oozing small drops of puss. I have trouble getting to sleep, and am really starting to worry now.
Tomorrow I'm hopefully out to Bantey Chmar and through to Sisophon, where I'll take stock of my arm and make a plan of action. If worst comes to worst I can hop across to Thailand and go to the hospital there.
The last thing you want in Cambodia is to go to a Cambodian out-patient clinic. I love these people but I don't want 'em operating on me. Every relationship has it's limits.
Monday, September 13, 2004
Anlong Veng sits in the far north of Cambodia, right on the Thai border. It was one of the last last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge (KR), and Pol Pot stayed here until his death, apparently of natural causes, in April 1998.
The road runs due north out of Anlong Veng township, over the spillway and up the hill. At about the 6 kilometre mark we start to climb, and the road deteriorates rapidly into a stoney, muddy mess. And up we go, bang! bang! bump! lurch!
The mountains all along the Thai border form a spectacular barrier, rising straight up for maybe 1000 metres from the flat Anlong Veng countryside. It gets cooler and cooler the more we rise, and the forest gets denser and denser. Like the mountains around Preah Vihar, this is beautiful country, lush, green, dense and full of mines.
And like the road up to Preah Vihar temple (see previous post), it'd be almost impossible to cycle. You'd end up pushing or carrying the bike most of the way, and some of the rocky outcrops, along with the mud in the wet season, would be dangerous to get over with a bike on your back.
No, better to be sitting in the back seat of a four-wheel drive Pajero with Fat Boy Slim booming out of the car speakers.
It's easy to see why the KR picked this spot. You could defend it with a pea-shooter and a bad attitude. It's a natural fire-base, with vertical walls and jagged, rocky bluffs vaulting up through the foliage. The KR planted mines literally everywhere, and few have been cleared, but it's cool as long as you stick to the main dirt road and tracks.
Up at the top we drive past the Thai border post and straight on to the Khmer Guest House we have hired for the night. Jackie and Co. are on a country wide tour, and I'm happy to join in. It sure beats peddling for a couple of days.
I settle down into my own deluxe room, clean up and come out for the BBQ just on dark. There's so much strange food rolling off the fire it's unsettling. Baby crocodiles, turtles, and of course the usual beef, pork and chicken on a stick. Just as well I'm not wearing my World Wild-life Fund tee-shirt.
Any chance of a panda on the menu, Jackie?
Apparently you gotta go to China for that. I make a mental note: Go to China.
We wash it all down with copious amounts of beer and whiskey, and by this time I'm totally stuffed and wobbly on my feet, along with everybody else. Khmer hospitality is pretty good, but I might have over-done it a bit.
And I tell you, baby crocodiles, way to go!
Apparently they retail in Phnom Penh for twenty bucks a pop, and we're eating them like there's no tomorrow. They're about 30 centimetres long (12 inches or so) and taste a little like veal, only better. They've been skinned and gutted, and are served up looking a little like Australian flying foxes, which I must say I haven't eaten, yet.
I take my fourth crocodile over to the hammock that's strung between two trees that stand straight up by the edge of the cliff. The hammock is so close to the cliff face that it hangs over if you swing too far out. I check to see the ropes are tied securely and climb in, finish the crocodile and throw the leftovers over the edge.
There's something wonderful about physical objects falling, arching and spinning under gravity, down, down almost in slow-motion. The grace, the line, the motion. What a beautiful thing.
Maybe that's why I became an animator, unlike Mr Pot, who became a despot, but who knows?
I light up a joint, and find that if I turn to the left I can't see the ground, only the big, big drop under me, going down, way down into the blackness, into Cambodia. It's sure is spooky out here.
Maybe Mr Pot himself sat on this hammock and looked out over the Cambodian countryside? Maybe he dreamt of a better society? Maybe he just thought about women? Maybe he should have embraced the world of animation where we welcome idiots, and you can play out your diabolical fantasies without inflicting undue harm on humanity.
But whatever, it's a million dollar view, and if Mr Pot did lie here, I can understand why. I'm with you at least on this one, Mr Pot.
By now there's a half moon rising, and I can see for maybe 100 km south across the Cambodian countryside, lights twinkling in the towns, big clouds rolling across the horizon, and far away in the distance an aeroplane on it's way east to Saigon. Beautiful, inspiring.
Maybe not so inspiring anymore for Mr Pot, nor for the wild-life we're devouring, but what the hey, I'm in Cambodia, with generous friends, and there's no need to be rigid and a social pain in the arse.
The next morning we take an early breakfast of coffee and left-over barbequed turtle. I'm not so keen on the turtle actually, as it's soft and squishy, and tastes neutral. No, I'm definitely a crocodile man.
I ask Jackie about when we're gonna visit Mr Pot's grave, and she tells me it's on the way out, not far from the road, and we'll stop and take a look.
After Pol Pot died, they took his body and cremated it on a rubber tyre, and buried him in a grave about 50 metres from the roadside. Apparently there's a little mound of dirt, with a tin covering, and a few sticks to mark the spot.
When we get there we find it's behind a newly built house, and is off limits to tourists. Oh well, it's all a bit macabre anyway, and I don't want to push it.
The Khmer's have an uneasy relationship with the Khmer Rouge, and it's a complicated issue. Truth and reconciliation? Bring 'em all to justice? Maybe, maybe, but just as maybe it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with living, building up the economy.
One of the things you learn out here, on the ground in South East Asia, is that things look different than they do at home, and if you sit and listen to the locals long enough, be they from Cambodia, or south Vietnam, or north Vietnam for that matter, your hard won geo-political clarity starts to look a trite simplistic.
Me? I don't know where I stand anymore, on a lot of issues. It depends on where I'm physically standing, but I'm very clear about the fact that Mr Pot was a numbskull of the first order, but how to deal with his legacy, I really don't know. And in the end, despite what the Western know-it-alls say, it's up to the Cambodians.
And the Khmers naturally don't want to keep stirring the Khmer Rouge pot.
This is not the prism through which anybody wants their native country to be seen, and the sooner the world moves on, the better, although I'm not helping much, standing there on the road beside the new house, banging off photos, and asking everyone to smile.
Half way back down the hill we stop at the Khmer Rouge rock carvings. This really is an odd phenomenon. The KR weren't known for their generous arts funding, but somebody took the time to carve a number of statues of soldiers into an enormous rock that straddles the mountain road.
There's about six soldiers, life size, in two seperate clumps, dressed in KR military fatigues and carrying AK-47s. A couple of the heads have been knocked off, whether by angry Cambodians, or Thai antiquities dealers, who's to know? Somebody has also put some offerings at the feet of one of the statues, a few flowers and incense sticks, so make of that what you will. Yep, it's a complicated world.
I take a bunch of photos and we head back down to Anlong Veng.
Yeah, it's been an interesting couple of days, and Jackie and Co. are off to Siem Reap for a few more days sight-seeing, but I decline the invite. I've been there before, and it's time to get some cycling done.
I set out a couple of weeks ago to ride the Cambodian-Thai border, the back-woods, and this I'll do. But I tell you, when my cycling days are over, I might buy a Pajero.
Tonight I stay in Anlong Veng, and tomorrow I head to Trabaeng Meanchay, or maybe Sisophon, depending on the weather.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
The Route: Preah Vihar is in the far north of Cambodia, on the Thai border.
Preah Vihar – 27 km – Sa’em – 44km - Trapaeng Prasat – 31 km – Anlong Veng
The road is dirt the whole way, and pretty much flat. The Preah Vihar – Sa’em leg is wide and well graded, and an excellent road in the dry. The road from Sa’em to Anlong Veng is not quite as good, but still very do-able in the dry, not too many bumps.
There’s a lot of mine-fields up around Preah Vihar, but they thin out once you’re past the Saém, so happy days, no worries.
The scenery is a mixture of forested sections and small farms, paddies and banana trees. This is outback Cambodia and the locals are very friendly.
Drink stops all along the way, but food is a little harder to find. But both Sa’em and Trapaeng Prasat have café’s and good food.
Sa’em is small cross-road town, and Trapaeng Prasat is a clean little country town with a Guest House. Anlong Veng is a bit bigger and noisier and has a large market, but is still, on the scale of things, a small town.
The traffic is very light the whole way.
The Day’s Ride:
After the rain sodden days of the last week or so, the cycling gods decide to smile on me, and I’m very grateful. Here comes the sun, the smile's returning to the faces! Thank you George, thank you Saint Velo.
Apart from a few muddy sections, the road is firm and clear of traffic.
I head out of Preah Vihar village at the crack of dawn and take off to Sa’em 27 km down the road. It’s dry, and the road is a solid gravel highway to heaven. I make it into the Saém café in just over an hour and order a coffee from the young waitress I met the other day. Howdee doodee lovely Khmer girl, I love you, I love Cambodia and I love my bike! Excellent!
West past the roundabout and I’m off to Trapaeng Prasat, I’m doing close to 30 km an hour, and this is cycling at it's best.
I’ve thrown off the sloth and torpor gathered from 12 months of wall-staring in Melbourne, and am hitting high gear, breathing fresh, clean Cambodian air, waving to the kids, slip-streaming the odd motorbike and singing It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock and roll! thank you Bon, thank you Angus.
I stop in Trabaeng Prasat for lunch, and head out again as soon as I'm done. No time to waste, and the rain may come back and spoil the fun. Fitness level rising, spirits rising, bike staying on the ground with the rubber side down. Not bad. I zip past houses and people, waving, smiling, yelling. Roll on Camboland.
Anlong Veng is a busy little boom-town with a big market and a few Guest Houses to choose from. I pick the cheapest at 4000 Riel a night (about a dollar), partly because it’s cheap, and partly ‘cos the lady who runs it is friendly. I’ve got a couple of days to wait for Jackie and Co. (see previous posts), so it pays to have a relationship of sorts with the madam of the house.
I spend the two days wandering around Anlong Veng, riding up past the river and large spillway that cascades under the main road, to what I think is Ta Mok’s house, although I never do quite work out which one it is. Ta Mok was one of Mr Pot’s cronies, and a total blighter. I have no interest in his house at all, and walking around it would give me the creeps, but everywhere I go the Khmers keep directing me there, so I make a half-arsed effort to find it, sort of.
Khmer: You are tourist?
Me: Ah, yeah, sort of.
Khmer: House of Ta Mok, over there, you go!
Me: OK, thank you very much, I will go at once!
I cycle off in the opposite direction, with the Khmer shouting and waving something about Wrong way! Wrong way!
On the second day I pull out my Khmer language book, plug in my Ipod, and get down to some serious verb conjugations. I've digitised a whole Khmer language course, so now's a good time to use it.
Actually, Khmer doesn’t have verb conjugations, unlike Latin and Polish, which is something. It’s also not a tonal language, unlike Vietnamese and Thai, which should make it a piece of cake for the Westerner, but the problem with Khmer is that all the words sound the same.
But I struggle on, and the madam of the Guest House is mightily impressed. She has me pinned for a real intellectual, which is a nice change.
OK, tomorrow Jackie and Co. arrive. We are going up the hill near Anlong Veng to see Pol Pot's grave and have a party. Lookin’ good!
Friday, August 27, 2004
A good dirt road, wide and well graded. Mainly flat, no drink stops. Forest/jungle most of the way, a lot of mines by the side of the road, but well marked. At the 23 km mark from Sa-em, take the left turn at the T-intersection. It's a further 4 km to Preah Vihar village. There's one guest house.
Preah Vihar is actually a very interesting temple (and I'm not into temples, as such), perched on top of the mountain ridge, which forms the the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Maybe 2000 (?) feet straight up from the surrounding plains. From the temple you can see for miles across Cambodia and Thailand. Spectacular indeed.
But take note that the track up to the temple is truely difficult. A very steep incline, rocky and dangerous. You'd have to be the Olympic champion mountain biker to get up it, I think, and coming down would be equally challenging. May be best to walk up. 2 to 3 hours.
Sa-em is a small cross-road village, and the waitress at the cafe serves me up a big glass of good, strong coffee. Thank you very much. The cafe is clean and efficent, and I'm feeling surprisingly invigorated after last night's deep sleep on the concrete porch of Sa-em Primary School.
I sip my coffee and realise I'm inside the journey, at last. Life is good.
It's 8 am, and I head out, due north to Preah Vihar (pronounced: Pray-Bee-Hair, rhymes with Yogi Bear). It's cool and cloudy, and within five minutes the rain starts again. The road is wide and well graded, but slippery as hell. Traction problems again, and the gears are slipping.
Still, it's only twenty odd kilometres to a hot meal, so what the hell? And the scenery is kinda nice. Green forest on both sides, and way up ahead, a wall of deep blue mountains on the Thai border.
I pass a couple of mine fields, but for the last couple of days this has been the norm. The Khmer Rouge held out up here until the mid-nineties, and planted a lot of 'em. No wandering off the road for butterfly catching or any other semi-important auxillary sporting activity. No nicking off into the bushes and making love to your very fit and very active Danish co-cyclist. No, Sa-em to Preah Vihar is celibate city. Trust me on this.
But, I've got bad traction problems, and the more I peddle the more mud I collect. Bad. The red clay is sticking to everything, and even on the flat I'm standing up in the peddles at times trying to turn the wheels over. Ah, shit! I'm getting mud in my face. It's coming up from the front wheel and clipping my cheeks. My glasses are all spotty. Christ!
My early morning buoyant spirits are draining away at an alarming rate. But that's OK, I don't need them, 'cos I'm the world famous Mr Pumpy, and I should be able to handle 27 kilometres, whatever the conditions.
I hit a slippery hole, and the bike suddenly jumps from under me. I'm left standing in the middle of the road, with my bike lying on it's side under my feet, wheels spinning, panniers askew. It looks ungainly, stuck, like a cow that's just been run over by a truck and is left to kick it's legs by the side of the road in mute despair. It's not a good look.
Jesus I hate this fucking mud! I throw a mini-fit, and pick up the bike and push on. A dog wanders out on the road in front of me and I peddle towards it, I'm gonna run it down. Maybe this will make me feel better!
It dives out of the way at the last instant, tail buried between it's back legs, and looks up. It has that, Why are you abusing me? look in it's eyes. It's the same look I give to God on a regular basis, and I know it well.
Oh dear, I'm definitely losing it and I've only been on the road for forty five minutes. Not good. I feel guilty. I cycle on. I resolve to be good and disciplined. I resolve to stop complaining. Maybe I should quit and go home?
I go around a bend and the road sweeps out before me towards the hills, and the view is startling, majestic. Big blue mountains running across the horizon from left to right, set off by the green of the forest. Bright, saturated green, moist and shimmering.
I stop to take it in, I breathe deeply, I listen to the forest. An exquisite digital soundscape, ambient, dangerous, alive. God, I love it!
At the 23 km point I come to a T-intersection and a big tree. There's no signs, and the road branches off in both directions, with no discernable difference. Jesus! Cambodia! Which way to go?
Naturally, I take the wrong turn. I go right, I should have gone left. I cycle on, up-hill through the mud and unrelenting rain for 5 kilometres. I stop.
No, this can't be right. We're getting into denser and denser jungle, and the road up ahead is deteriorating, turning to mush. And there's mines everywhere. I guess I'm right on the border. Skull and Cross bone signs to the left and right. For the first time I'm intimidated by them, scared.
I head back to the intersection and go the other way. A couple of kilometres on I run into Mason, a young American cyclist. He's on the back of a motorbike, with his bicycle on another, and is on the way out.
Poor Mason stepped on a nail, and can't cycle for the time being. Yep, shit happens, we agree. We talk about the mud, and the difficulties, and agree that cycling is great, and aren't those backpackers idiots, and Hell! On my bike I'm King of the World!
I feel better, if only because Mason still believes in the Grail. Me, I'm having serious doubts, but it's good to meet a kindred soul. We exchange email addresses and push on, although I'm so starved for conversation that I wouldn't have minded whipping up a camp fire, grilling some dog and settling in for the afternoon.
Nothing like a good natter and some dog! - an Old Khmer saying, although it's sometimes translated as: Chew the fat, chew the dog!
Another ten minutes down the road and I enter Preah Vihar village. Thank God, I've had enough. I think yesterday has taken more out of me than I realised. The village is a small ramshackle affair, one of those jerry-built things that you see a lot of in Asia and looks like a movie set. I cycle over to the cafe beside the guest house and order some food.
The Khmer guy who runs the cafe speaks good English and starts in with the usual questions: Wot your name? Where you from? Blah, blah. Then he starts telling me what a great bloke he is, and how you can't trust anybody else in this village, and if I want anything I should go through him, 'cos every one else will rip you off, but he's a great guy, and maybe even a great humanitarian, 'cos he looks after homeless boys.
I check him out. Skinny and dried up. No, definitely not a great humanitarian. The eyes are jet black, and lifeless. An opium addict? Well, Mr Great Humanitarian, I gotta go now! I say, and pay my bill, and abruptly get up to leave.
Christ! What a creep! Just what I need.
I turn around and surprise, surprise, there's Jackie, hanging out of a brand new four wheel drive super deluxe Pajero. Hi, Felix! she says. Well, he-llooo, Jackie! I say. What a site for sore eyes.
(See previous post: Day 5: Trabaeng Meanchay to Sa-em)
Jackie's an Australian-Khmer, who's travelling around with some highly placed Khmer friends. They are going up to Preah Vihar temple, and would I like to come? You betcha! I lock the bike up in the guest house, and climb in.
The last time I saw them was yesterday, but it seems like a week, and they were riding through the mud on Scooby-machines 50 km south of Sa-em.
Where'd you get the Pajero? I ask.
We had it sent down from Kampong Cham this morning, she says.
Yeah, well, silly question. If I was extremely highly placed in Cambodia, I'd get a helicopter sent down, and maybe some dancing girls. Maybe some good cheese as well. Also peanut M & Ms wouldn't be bad.
We take off at an alarming speed, and career through the town and onto the track that leads up to the temple. It's pretty much 3 or 4 kilometres straight up the hill, and would be impossible to cycle. We bounce over rocks and go through water falls, and all the while the drop on my left gets bigger and bigger.
But the view! It's breathtaking. Cambodia is running away towards the horizon, and the road I cycled on to Preah Vihar is a giant brown snake, weaving through the jungle, still and silent, and from this distance, eminently cycleable (and it would be in the dry.)
I plug my I-pod into the car speakers, and as we round the top of the slope and come into the temple surrounds, Grace Slick is booming out:
Don't you want somebody to love! You be-e-tter find somebody to lo-o-ve!
What a sound track! What a life! And after the rigours of the past few days this is approaching bliss. Thankyou Jesus. I'm a believer.
Up at the temple the Khmers go off to check out the whiskey prices, and I climb around the ruins looking at the graffiti. It's fascinating. There's a whole alternative history chiselled into the walls.
Thai graffiti from 1968, Khmer graffiti from 1976, Vietnamese graffiti from 1980. It's all pretty basic, Sittaporn was here - 1968, Col. Nguyen Van Tham - 1980 etc, but everynow and then a graphic, a symbol. Paratroopers wings, a heart, a cross. It's riveting stuff and I spend a good hour combing through it, copying some of the designs.
A couple of hours later Jackie and Co. drop me back down at the guest house in the village and we arrange to meet up in Anlong Veng in three days time.
We're gonna go up the hill and have a party! says Jackie, and I'm invited. This is the hill, about 15 kilometres north of Anlong Veng, where Pol Pot is buried.
Pol Pot died of natural causes some 6 or 7 years ago, and his flunkies then burned the body on a car tyre and buried the ashes beside the road under a piece of tin. I think there's a stick stuck in the ground to mark the spot.
Jackie tells me that the Khmer guest house they've hired is just down the road a piece.
Well, this certainly puts a spin on things. We're gonna be twisting the night away, while Mr Pot, or what's left of him, lies quietly down the road, getting eaten by worms. Well, better him than me, and I can bring some more worms if you like, no charge.
Tomorrow I'll cycle back to Sa-em, and then head east for two days towards Anlong Veng. I love a party. No worries!