Sa-em to Preah Vihar - 27 km
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!