Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Cycle Day 4: North central Cambodia

Phnom Daek to Trabaeng Meanchay - 65 km

The route so far:
Phnom Penh - north west to Kampong Thom - north to Phnom Daek.

The ride: Phnom Daek to Trabaeng Meanchay, 65 km
65 km of dirt road. The sign at Phnom Daek says 75 km to Trabaeng Meanchay, but it's in error. The road is mainly flat, but goes up and down for some of the way, and weaves through jungle and forest, and across a lot of rivers. Very scenic. It's dirt all the way, and sometimes very chewed up. Would be a great ride in the dry. In the wet it's very muddy, hard going. Goes across a small mountain range, and the mountains proper are on the left (West). Speccy. Food and water most of the way. The small village of Preah Klaeng is at a crossroad, at the 39 km point, and they have food, drinks and most importantly, ice. I love ice.

The day's ride:

They sure do rise early in Cambodia. It's half past five and the cafe in Phnom Daek where I'm crashing for the night is coming alive.

I had a good night's sleep, curled up on the wooden bench, not too many mozzies, cockroaches or rats. Excellent! I love Cambodia! I struggle out of my sleeping sheet, order a coffee and head for the water closet. A bucket of water over the head sure is a pleasant thing. I love water.

It rained all last night, and it's still misty by the time I collect my mind and push out into the world. I'm starting to get used to Rooster, my new 26 inch Giant, feeling it's rythms, it's strengths, it's weaknesses and idiocyncracies. Yep, I'm becoming at one with the bike.

This is a Zen concept that non-bikers scoff at, infidels that they are! But who cares about them?

I cycle north out of town past the big sign that says 75 km to Trabaeng Meanchay, but it must be old, as the trip turns out to be only 65 km. On and on into the green Cambodian jungle alone, but the road is again a mud-pile.

Jesus, this is hard! And demoralising. You work up a hill, no traction, wheels spinning, gears clogging with mud, you get to the top, you think: OK, now to coast down the other side!, but it's wet and muddy, so you sit on the brakes, slide the back wheel to and fro, and reach a top speed of only 15 km/hr.

Then you hit the bottom where the mud and water is three feet deep, so you have to stop and wade through. Get back on the bike, and start the grind again.

All along this section there are red and white Skull and Cross Bone signs, to the left and right. Minefields!

OK, I gotta go do No.2's at some point, so I park the bike, and gingerly make my way into the forest. No sound of explosions, no unreal sense of flying through the air, no white lights at the end of tunnels, no figure of Jesus shaking his head sadly at my lame attempt to live a productive and fruitfull life. Excellent!

I do my business, and feel better. I stand on the road listening to the sound of the jungle. No sound of people, no sound of civilisation, only the metallic whine of the cicaders, or whatever they are. Sliding sound waves cutting through the green foliage, sheets of sound coming in from all directions. Scher-w-i-i-i-ng! Scher-wing!

OK, I'm having a perfect moment, just me and the cicaders and the forest, my bike and the road. Excellent. I smoke a cigarette to enhance things a little. I feel frisky, sexually alive. I stomp my feet up and down on the good earth. It must be the jungle, the Spirit of the Forest, whom I love maybe even more than Jesus. Life is good.

And then it starts raining again, slowly at first, and building. Big blobs of water hitting my cap and making a Tack! Tack! sound. Perfect moment over. I climb back on the bike, and ride off in search of some good cover. The roads is running with water, and it's suddenly cold and wet out here. I'm soaked in five minutes.

I spot a house, and turn the bike into their mud-heap, which doubles as a driveway. Underneath the house, a traditional wooden Cambodian affair, sit three little girls warming themselves beside a small fire. The oldest can't be much more than 8, but it's hard to tell with Cambodian kids.

Normally I wouldn't just barge in like this, but this is an emergency. The rain is now very dense and thick, and there's lightning up along the cliffs in the distance. Ba-a-ng! Ba-a-ang! Big, deep blows of the hammer!

Well, you gotta give these kids credit. A big hairy bike riding barung arrives out of the blue, muddy, puffing, an unstable moose of a man, and they don't move, but just sit there by the fire and look up, wide-eyed.

Even so, they're ready to bolt at the first inexact movement, so I slowly park my bike under the awning, and slowly move towards the fire.

Sok sa-bai! Sok sa-bai! I say, Khnom hot! (Howdy doodee! I'm tired!)

No worries, they move over and let me inch in towards the fire. I produce some sweets, and we're almost pals now, having a little sugar party while the rain buckets down, and I squat on a log, feeling at peace with all things Cambodian and bike.

The last 20 km turns out to be the worst. The rain has made a complete mess of the road, so there's nought else to do but accept it and stop complaining. Focus on the job, Feely. I pass some soldiers stationed beside the road, guarding a bridge. Why, I'm not sure, but these parts were some of the last to come under government control in the late 90's, and apparently there's still outlaws out here somewhere.

I stop. I'm the entertainment for the day, and I make an effort to be charming and funny, like Bugs Bunny. Besides, these guys, who look about 14 years old, are all carrying AK-47s, and I don't know if it's Duck Season or Rabbit Season, but whatever it is, I want to be on their side. You never know when you need a 14 year old with an AK-47.

Up and down, up and down, slog through the mud, cross a bridge on foot, get back on, slog up a hill. And then that most welcome of Cambodian fixtures, the roundabout! Every decent sized town has one, usually with a prominent Buddhist statue of some description standing tall in the middle. OK, Trabaeng Meanchay, lookin' good!

Trabaeng Meanchay turns out to be a thriving regional town, and I collapse in the cafe by the market and order two iced coffees.

Pee? the waitress asks. (Two?)

Yep, bring me two of the coolest, biggest most refreshing iced coffees you can make and I'll put you in my will and support your family for six generations.

There's a few guest houses to choose from, and for some reason, which is a mystery to me, but probably not to any of my ex-girlfriends, I choose the cheapest. At 6,000 Riel ($1:50) it's too good to pass up. And after the coffees, which are loaded with sugar, I'm feeling bouyant, almost ecstatic, so who needs crisp, white sheets and an inside toilet? This dump will do fine! Everything is fine! No more cycling for today! I love Cambodia!

And besides, The Great Fractal Pattern is looking after me. At the guest house I run into the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) who are out here clearing the mines. Apparently it's gonna take another 10 years to clear them all, but despite this, or maybe because of it, they are a happy group, and they give me some detailed road information.

Apparently the road to Sa-em, about 100 km further north, is a complete wasteland of mud, water and no drink stops. However, I've heard all of this before, all over South East Asia, and it may be right, may be wrong.

Rule no.7: Only trust cyclists when it comes to road reports.

But, if you're on the road tomorrow at 10 am, they tell me, we can pick you up in the truck. We're going to Sa-em.

Alright, that seems like good insurance. No worries.

I spend the evening talking with them, and they are full of questions about the West. The conversation never steers too far away from money and women, which is pretty normal for blokes anywhere, but always, always there's the great, yawning cultural gap.

Short, simple answers to blunt questions. Answers with no social context, no body of experience and no historical perspective to give them inter-cultural relevance. It's fun and merry, affectionate and well meaning, but the facts become warped as they get force fitted into the local context.

MAG guy: Why you ride bike? Why not ride motorbike? It's much easier!
Me: Well, I like. Good for health. Sport!
(Silence. Puzzled looks. This guy must be mad. He's a barung, so he must be rich, so why ride a bike? It doesn't make sense.)
MAG guy: How much bike cost?
Me: Five hundred dollars.
(In actual fact, it costs $1000, but I've learnt to drop the price on most items in Asia.)
MAG guy, laughing: In Cambodia you can buy motorbike for $500!
(Laughter all round. Yep, this barung's a nut case!)

Now, this is just a conversation over a simple bicycle, so when we broach sexual mores, marriage and virginity, the facts are bending into unrecognisable shapes. It's too hard, my head is beginning to hurt, so I make my excuses and go to bed.

Luckily I've got some Khmer headfuck left. I roll a joint, kick out my feet, and lay back under the mosquito net. I dial up Traffic on my I-pod and climb on the back of a giant albatross, which flies through a crack in the clouds to a place where happiness reigns, all year round. No worries.

Next morning I'm to head north to Sa-em, and maybe Preah Vihar, right on the Thai border. 100 km of evil mud doesn't sound too good, but let's leave that for the 'morrow.

I look around the room. It's filthy. The wire coming from the brown light bulb runs across the bed-head. How many folks have been electrocuted in here? No wonder it's only 6,000 Riel. Am I a Cheap Charlie, or just deluded? Am I an idiot? What's it all mean?

But who cares, let it all go, I'm on a giant albatross, sailing across a magical landscape, and I don't have to peddle.

No comments: