The real cycling starts today. Into some unknown territory at last!
On the way west out of Kampong Thom I stop at the big bridge across the Steong Sen River for an early morning sugar cane juice. The Australian government is a big donor in Cambodia, and has built a lot of ugly, but functional, steel bridges throughout the kingdom. You can always tell it's an Aussie bridge because they emblazen a graphic of a kangaroo on the side somewhere. It's a little like the red kangaroo on the QANTAS jets, only it's green. My taxes at work.
The guy selling the sugar cane juice speaks OK English, finds out I'm Australian, and then wants to know why we put the picture of the rat on the bridge. I guess it's an OK question, and if you're sitting there at your sugar cane juice stand every day for years on end, you're gonna think about this.
But I'm in no mood for this verbal tom-foolery, so I just tell him it's our national symbol, we call them kangaroos and leave it at that. The guy is still puzzling as I mount my bike and say goodbye, but what's the point in explaining? Rats, kangaroos, scorpions or dead dogs, who cares? It's all just one big misunderstanding anyway. East is east etc., and today my Good and Patient Christian Index is at a low.
Maybe I'll feel better 50 km down the road. Probably not, but who can tell?
The ride: Kampong Thom to Phnom Daek (Phum Daik?), 77 km, dirt road, poor condition in parts.
Good in the dry, bad in the wet. Road undulates through forest, jungle and villages. A few river crossings, good bridges. Drink and food stops run out at the 50 km mark, then it's forest and no people all the way to P. Daek. Very scenic in parts.
5 km past the Rat Bridge is the turn off to Phnom Daek (although this maybe Phum Daik, I'm not 100%) and Trabeng Meanchay. Unfortunately it's been raining all last night, a real monsooon bucketing. At 8 am it's a beautiful, cool, clear morning, but the dirt road at the turnoff to Phnom Daek is a complete mud-heap. How I hate Cambodia!
I plunge in, swivelling and swozzling across the road, dodging the pot-holes filled with water, and struggling to keep balance in the mud. I normally ride with fat tyres, but at the moment I'm using thinner touring tyres, due to a foul-up at the Melbourne Bike Shop where I bought my new bike, and today I'm paying for it. How I hate the Melbourne Bike Shop!
It's really hard going. The mud is a sticky, red clay, and it's fouling up my gears, which keep slipping. I'm doing a lot of upper-body work to stay balanced and afloat.
My new 100 dollar radio controlled odometre is working well, as it should for 100 dollars, but I'm doing a maximum of 12 km/hr in this mush. It's depressing. And also heating up. Man, it's hot.
4 hours later, through almost constant mud, I stop at a school house for a siesta. I'm dead beat, and need a break. The folks out here don't see many tourists, and the kids, half naked and wild, are especially blown away by the stupid barang on the bike. And when you stop to say hi!, they bolt. Yep, 50 km off the main drag and you're in woop-woop.
At the school house I run into a couple of friendly Khmer teachers who camp out there during the week. I'm literally covered in mud, head to foot, and I look like Yogi bear. The Khmer teachers don't mind and smile encouragingly.
After the prerequisite 20 minute introductions, they give me a mat to lie on and I go to sleep. When I wake up an hour later they've made some rice and curried beef for me, and I sit there and eat it with relish. It's the first food I've had since breakfast. How I love Cambodians and everything about them! I give them a dollar and take off, improved.
The last 20 km into Phnoim Daek is forested and beautiful, and the road dips and curls through shadey glens and up over jungled ridges. This would be a great run in the dry months, but again, I'm hampered by the mud. It's sticking to everything, and I'm getting a lot of drag.
Tough on the body, and equally tough on the mind. The file marked Existential Bullshit flips open in my brain and won't close. And I've noticed, the tougher the conditions, the darker the thoughts. Yeah, well, cycle on, burn on. The only way through is straight up the road. Happy days cometh.
I reach Phnom Daek at about 4 PM, and have averaged under 10 km/hr for the day. Christ! It's a small village with a few wooden cafes and no guest house, right at the fork in the road to Ro Vieng. I'm all brown and muddy like Yogi Bear again, and I head for the cafe. After a couple of iced coffees, and I ask the young waitress if I can sleep on the bench tonight in the cafe. Yeah, no problem, if a little weird is the reponse, so no worries, I love Cambodia.
Later that evening there's a few surprised looks as I curl up in my sleeping sheet, sans hammock, but I'm so beat I crash right out on the hard boards, and try not to worry about the rats and cockroaches too much.
Tomorrow I head for Trabeng Meanchay, and more self abuse.