Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Cycle Day 8: Far North Central Cambodia

Anlong Veng to Sam Roeng - 75 km

The Ride

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.

The Day

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

Pol Pot's Grave

Jackie and Co. arrive in the big four wheel drive super deluxe Pajero, and we go hurtling up the mountain to the north of Anlong Veng. Following us are another three four-wheel drives, full of more Khmers of various political persuasions.

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

Cycle Day 7: Far north central Cambodia

Preah Vihar to Anlong Veng – 102 km

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 Ride:
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!