Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Cycle Day 5: North central Cambodia

Trabaeng Meanchay to Sa-em - 100 km approx.

The route so far:
Phnom Penh - Kampong Thom - Phnom Daek - Trabaeng Meanchay

The Ride:
Dirt road all the way and zilch traffic. This is close to the back of beyond. Some hills, and some bridges, all in OK condition. Heading north out of Trabaeng Meanchay the road is good for 25 km, then gets very cut up for the next 50 km or so. The last 20 km into Sa-em is OK. There's a drink and food stop 23 km past Trabaeng Meanchay, and then pretty much nothing for the next 60 km; nobody, only forest, jungle and land-mines. The land-mines are all marked, but still, no venturing off the road or worn foot-tracks unless absolutely necessary. Also, not to be attempted in the wet season. This road is pretty much impossible on a bike in the wet, with mud and water up to your chest in places, no kidding! But in the dry, a fun little run. Take food and water, and maybe some company.

The Day: Trabaeng Meanchay to Sa-em

At 7 am in the cafe I meet Joe, an Aussie NGO worker who's been working up here for four years. This is pretty much the back of beyond, and I'm surprised Joe can still talk English.

(NGO: Non-Government Organisation. In other words, Aid Workers, shu-u-udder!)

Joe explains to me the mysteries of NGO funding, and how to write applications to exotic places like Japan and Switzerland and get money. It's amazingly similar to arts funding applications, of which I'm painfully aware.

You write what they want to hear, get the money, and then you go ahead and do what you think really needs to be done, explains Joe. The funding bodies are locked into all manner of Western orientated politically correct half-truths, but Cambodia has more basic problems than any of that. Water, sanitation, electricity and how to keep the beer cold.

I sympathise, and then steer the conversation around to cycling, and my own pressing problems.

Joe confirms the Mining Advisory Group's (MAG - see previous post) assessment of the road: It's a total mud-heap. Impossible. No food or drinks. You'll die! type of thing, and I take note. He also tells me there's a food and drink stop at the crossroads exactly 12 km up the road, and after that, nothing until Sa-em.

It's now 8 am and I head off. The road is greasy, but not too bad. At the 12 km mark I stop and look around. Big, beautiful mountains to the west, blue and rugged. Paddies to the east, distant hills on the horizon, but where's the drink stop?

This confirms my well learned rule Number 7 for cycling in Asia: Only trust cyclists when it comes to road information.

I cycle on. I stick to the middle where the road surface peaks, and I'm doing a fast little canter of about 25 km an hour, wind in my hair, cool morning breeze, light, and beautiful God given silence. And maybe best of all, no traffic. Excellent.

An hour out of town I see the drink stop. My odometre says 23 km! No worries this time, but you gotta be carefull.

I get off the bike for a well earned breakfast of rice, fried beef and flies.

I push on up the road. Two more kilometres and I come to another stop. I can see about 5 kilometres ahead of me, as the road twists and turns though the forest, reappearing at times as a bright silver and brown ribbon. Beautiful, but Jesus! It's completely covered in mud and water. This is a road disaster par excellance.

For the first time in Cambodia I can use the words so often thrown around by soft-bottomed back-packers: The road is diabolical!

I feel almost happy, triumphant. At last, I've found it! I say to myself.

But I can't go any further today. It would be suicide. The MAG guys said they'd be along at about 10 am, and would give me a lift, so I settle down and wait for the truck. It's almost 10 now, so I shouldn't have too long too wait.

Why do I always fall for this? It's Cambodia! Time means nothing!

I look around. I smoke a cigarette. I sit on the ground. I pull out my plastic rain jacket, spread it on the side of the road, and lie down. The ground's a little soggy and muddy, but not too bad. I start to doze off, I'm floating upstream, could be worse.

I come awake with rain falling in big droplets on my face. I look at my watch. It's past 11 am, and no sign of the MAG guys. I sit up, wrap myself in plastic. Here comes the rain again, falling on my head like a memory, or is that misery?

Oh, shit! It's pouring down. Ah, fuck! I leave the bike on the side of the road, in full view of the promised truck-to-come, and go and sit under a bush. Ah, shit! Big rain, huge rain. I'm wet and cold, and it's midday.

Where's the fuckin' truck?!

I look up and down the road, nothing. It's like waiting for Jesus. I hang in and hang in, I'm pissed off, I'm beginning to have bad memories, but what can you do?

At 2 PM I decide to head back to the cross-road for some Coke and sympathy, which I should have done hours ago, but when you're on your own, you can make bad decisions, you get locked in.

Just as I get there, the MAG truck arrives. No! two trucks. No! two trucks and two jeeps, full of MAG people, guys and girls, all spiffy in bright orange jump suits with MAG emblazoned across the back.

I want one of these suits! They are very cool. I ask about buying one. The Khmers laugh, No, not possible!

OK, no worries, lookin' good anyway! I climb on the back of the truck, and jam myself in beside my bike. I'm right at the back of the tray, which is not a good place to be, but that's the way it is, better than nothing. There's about 25 of us on the back, it's bucketing rain, and we're all crunched up, wet and smiling, and ready to go.

And you gotta hand it to these Khmers. The conditions right now on the back of the truck as we trundle forward are truely shitty, but nobody complains. Let's be happy, let's be Khmer. No worries.

So off we bounce, down the diabolical road, north to freedom.

The truck I'm on is the lead truck, heavy duty, big, and we slide and swerve all over the road, and we hang on, through the mud and water, with the jeeps following. A few kilometres down the road one of the jeeps gets bogged, so we back up, string a line, and pull 'em out. A few more kilometres and another jeep is bogged, so we get out the line again.

This goes on, in some kind of wet, boggy rythm, while I sit with the 25 other humans on the back of the truck, not moving, getting wetter and wetter, watching everything. It's better than TV, almost.

But it's slow going indeed, and cold. It's kind of exciting, and shitty at the same time.

A few more kilometres down the track and we grind to a halt. The engine goes Ph-tup, Ph-tup, shwoosh!, and just like in the movies, steam comes out from both sides of the engine. This is not a good thing. We've blown something, and so we sit, silent and marooned.

The first hour is OK, but by hour two the rain has really set in, and then FLASH! and BA-AUNG! The biggest, loudest thunder you have ever heard, maybe a kilometre away. This is starting to shit me. I stare out at the rain, I focus on the horizon, and begin moving into the Zone.

Eventually there's a flurry of movement, the driver jumps in the front seat, and Crank! Crank! The engine coughs into action.

Just as we get going, along comes four Scooby-bikes, those motorbike things with the four big, fat, round tyres. Hey, it's never a dull moment out here in Cambodia!

The Scooby folks are having a whale of a time, sloshing through the mud, whooping and hollering in convoy. I wish I was with them. On the back of the lead Scooby is Jackie, a Khmer-Australian from Melbourne, world's most liveable city. Excellent! Jackie and machine take off past us, waving and smiling.

Bye, Jackie! I call from the back of the truck, and feel alone and sad all of a sudden.

It's about 6 PM now, and getting dark. We continue on. There's only forest and mud, brown and green, all around. How did the Khmer Rouge survive out here? Yeech, this is a bad, bad place. Time drags on.

We start towing the medical jeep, as it keeps getting stuck every few minutes, so why bother unhooking the line? Good thinking Khmer expert de-mining friends! Forward to Sa-em! Forward to victory! The glorious demining group and famous world cyclist are coming!

Oh, dear, I've collapsed into a small, private, soggy world. I'm having painfull thoughts, with strange leaps of logic. And florid, grandiose ideas.

What would happen if I took my clothes off, lept up, and ran off into the forest? What would the Khmers do? What if I stood up like Adolf Hitler in the back of the truck and began sig-heiling everyone? And on it goes, the bizarre, the sexual, the unwelcome.

Oh, dear. Let's get this job done, folks, 'cos the big hairy barung may be becoming a little unhinged.

What would happen if I suddenly grabbed the woman next to me? What if I ripped her clothes off, and began making furious love to her, right on the spot, in front of everyone?

Half an hour later we run into Jackie and crew again. One of the Scoobies has turned over and is stuck fast. We hook 'em up and pull 'em out. Thankyou, Jackie, for breaking the boredom! Thankyou for talking to me! See you in Melbourne! I love you!

Sometime around 10 PM we stop again, dead, but I don't care anymore. There's a foot of water sloshing around in the back of the truck, and my sandles have expanded and my panniers are soaked, along with everything in them. Fuck it! Fuck everything! Fuck my life! I'm not having fun.

It's pitch black out there beyond the truck, and I settle into my stupor again, but this time I don't have the energy to think. I can't even amuse myself in my own private dungeon of the absurd. I'm defeated. I'm half asleep, head lolling over the handle bars, chin resting on the brake lever, bell digging into my right cheek. Fuck it!

Around mid-night I wake up and peer out from under the plastic tarpolen somebody has thrown over me at some point, but I can't remember when. And we're on a smooth dirt road, winging past cliffs and trees that flash by in the headlights. Action, lights! Cool. Looks like we're gonna make it!

I cup the water running off the tarpolen in my hands, and wash my face. Splash! Splash! I'm willing myself into a positive mood. Come on, Feely, time to join the human race again.

Just before 1 AM, with the rain still beating down, we pull into Sa-em Primary. Thankyou Jesus! This is it! Down we jump, and the Khmers start hooking up hammocks and mosquito nets all along the ground floor balcony. In no time they're all set for bed; jim-jams, teeth brushing, flirting, laughing, having a fine time.

Where your hammock? inquires one of the Khmers.

Yeah, well, dumb Mr Felix don't have one, does he?

He doesn't have one because he doesn't like to carry any extra weight, never-mind that he's heading off into woop-woop Cambodia, and a hammock and mosquito net are pretty much basic gear, like a toothbrush and a Koran.

Someone hands me a plastic sheet, and there's much mirth as I wrap myself in it, soggy clothes and all, and lay down on the concrete floor with my equally soggy towel wedged under my head.

And that, dear cycling friends, is the last thing I remember.

Don't worry about the wet, don't worry about the cold concrete floor, or the bizarre thoughts, or the soggy pillow. The switch marked GO TO UNCONSCIOUS gets pulled in my brain and all goes black and void.

I wake at six the next morning, alert and refreshed. This is perhaps the best sleep I've had in 2004! Maybe the best since 1978! Total black, total nothing.

Must be the fresh air! I tell myself.

The Khmers climb back into the truck and jeeps, and head off. I stand by the bike and wave. Alone again, but that's fine. This relationship has run it's course. Everything looks cool and clear, expansive, alive with possibility. OK!

Five minutes later I'm in the Sa-em cafe, opposite the roundabout, ordering coffee.

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