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.


cat said...

I wonder Mr Felix who you think you are? The Prime Minister or something? You have spent all your life subverting others because you are simply a medocre middle-ground-hugging self-indulgent Mr Ordiary. Advancing the middle-brow because that is where the money is huh? Being medeocre and ordinary with medeocre and ordinary gags is all there is to you. It took brains to build the jet engines to haul your fat arse to Asia, but you wouldn't know or care about this would you?

Patrick Laronde said...

Mr Felix for Prime Minister... now there's an idea! Yup, cast your vote for Mr. Felix(or should I say Mr.Ordiary). Pumpy party billboards all over Cambodia... Whadya think Feely? Should we take steps to get you nominated?

Mr Felix said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mr Felix said...

Yeah, not a bad idea at all! And thanks to CAT for suggesting it. But which country?

Mr Felix said...

Hi Patrick,

I've been giving all of this serious political stuff a lot of thought, and I've finally worked out what my problem is, besides not being able to spell.

I've been thinking TOO SMALL!

Now, to explain this, let me take you back a few years, Patrick, into the dim-distant early nineties.

Back then a friend of mine in Melbourne became a born-again Christian, which I admit, was a bit of a shock, but hey! It takes all sorts, and you never know who's gonna be useful and easy to manipulate.

I mean, it's not quite as bad, or maybe it is, as the wife of another friend who left him to join the Hare Krishnas. Yeah, it's a wacky world, Patrick, as I'm sure you know.

But anyway, this born-again friend asked me if I wanted to come to a talk they were having in the church down the road from my place.

"Who's giving the talk?" I asked, looking for a way out.

Now, my born-again friend, being a wiley devil, knew that I was interested in anything "space", and that I had followed the Space Race and Moon Landings in the sixties and seventies with avid interest.

"Astronaut Charles Duke!" he announced.

"Not THE Charlie 'Chucky' Duke?" I said. "Moon-buggy guy on Apollo 16!"

"Yep!" said my friend. "The one, the only! He found God on the moon, and now he's gonna tell you all about it, Feely!"

"Well, I'll be damned!" I said. "Count me in!"

I wasn't gonna miss an opportunity to listen to a man who had rolled around the mountains of the moon on a Quad machine, even if he did find God there.

And it was free. I like "free" anything pretty much.

Free food tastes better, free concerts sound better, and free talks are rivetting, even if you gotta withstand a whole bunch of Christian fundamentalism to get at the real juicy stuff that interests you.

And as you can imagine, Patrick, I'm willing to withstand a whole mountain of crap to get at what I want. That's what cycling, and Life's, all about!

So anyway, the great day arrives, and I head off to the church with my mate, and we plant ourselves in the front row, and listen to the warm up speakers, who are sincere folk, I admit, but mind-numbingly fundamental to my way of thinking.

But all the while, devious low-brow that I am, I'm sitting there trying to work out how I can slip a couple of "space" questions into the proceedings when The Great Man appears.

And I know, I'm gonna be going against the flow, going up the Great Christian Fundamentalist River the wrong way, so you gotta be carefull.

When these guys are "witnessing" (that's what they call it, Patrick, "witnessing"), be carefull lest you cross them and they takest you out the back and set fire to you.

They can be a tetchy bunch, but I'm willing to risk it.

Are you still with me, Pat? I'm getting there, mate, just hang on a bit longer, she'll be apples.

So anyway, Chucky appears on stage, and starts in with his story, which is pretty fabulous around about up to the time he finds Jesus on the moon, and that's where I start to diverge a bit.

And then it's question time, and Meine Got! If I can't get a question in. Somebody asks something fundamental and sincere, and Chucky goes on and on and on, and then it's time to end.

OK, no problem, I'll go and see him back-stage.

I talk my way past the guards, telling them that I just gotta see Chucky or I'll die, type of thing, and they let me through, a little suspiciosly.

And there I am, all of a sudden, standing before The Great Man himself! Just me and him. What an opportunity!

"Hello, Mr Duke," I say. "I'm a great fan!"

Chucky smiles benignly, nods.

Silence. More silence. Hell! I've gone blank. The dingo has taken the baby and the Sydney Harbour Bridge has fallen down. This is my big chance to meet a for-real, paid-up, dinky-die, honest-to-god moon-walking astronaut, and I've lost the script.

OK, so what do you do when you've got a great Life opportunity and you're blowing it? Why, you start name dropping of course! Of course you do!

And so I did.

"I once met Alan Shepard, Mr Duke!" I say.

Chucky looks momentarily non-plussed about this sudden twist in the conversation, if you can call it that, but soon picks up the thread, like the champion he is.

"Oh, yeah, Al Shepard," he says. "A great pal of mine!"

Ok, I get it, anybody that knows Alan well calls him "Al". I can dig it.

I only met "Al" once, but I did spend a good 20 minutes with him asking all sorts of low-brow populist scientific questions, and he seemed to be only moderately bored, until I asked him about his "golf ball".

He got markedly more animated at that point.

Alan Shepard was the guy who drove a golf ball some 50 kilometres or so across the Lunar surface on the Apollo 14 mission. He'd smuggled a 6-iron and three balls up in the capsule, unbeknowns to mission control, and while bouncing around on the surface, he pulled out the 6-iron, and let fly.

At the time, I thought it was an appalling act of disrespect, but I guess those guys left so much junk up there that a golf ball or two aint gonna make much difference in the end.

And I guess one day the Chinese will find it, bring it back, and enclose it in a glass case and label it: "Alan Shepard's Golf Ball, Apollo 14", and charge people to see it. They're embracing capitalism over there in a big way, Patrick.

So anyway, there I am, standing in front of Chucky Duke, and I say: "Yeah, Al, what a great guy!"

Chucky nods once more. Once more silence descends. But by now I'm getting my feet, and I launch forth with what you launch forth with after you've done a bit of name dropping.

"Ah, can I have your autograph, Mr Duke?" I say.

Why sure, no problem, he's cool, I'm cool, no worries. He pulls out a photograph from his satchel and asks, in his great Texan drawl, or whatever American drawl it is: "Who shall I address it to?"

I tell you, I had to really stand on my tongue not to correct him with: "Ah, don't you mean 'to whom shall I address it?', Mr Duke?", but I didn't.

"Just make it out to Mr Felix, thanks, Mr Duke," I say.

And so he did. Right across the bottom of the photo he scrawls: "To Mr Felix, aim high, partner! All the best, Chuck Duke."

Aim high...aim high...aim high.

And you know, Pat, until now, I've never really "aimed high". I've always aimed "low", which may explain the "low-brow" humour, and maybe even the spelling mistakes.

Meine got! How wrong "aimed" you can be.

But now I've seen the light. Thankyou linesmen, thankyou ball-boys, you can all go home now!

Yeah, mate, Mr Pumpy for Prime Minister.

Get with the program, aim high!

Mr Felix - Phnom Penh, Sept.26 '04

Mark said...

Hello Mr Felix,wicked jornal, Im setting out from Bkk with my trusty Trek this sunday and heading into Cambodia for a 2 month ride through C, vietnam and maybe Laos.Just thought Id give you a shout of encouragement and thank you for keeping such a good record of your trip, its certianly food for the cyclists soul, very encouraging for what looks to be a fun but challanging few months ahead.
It would be a an honour to meet you if our paths cross (I think your heading back into Thailand?) specialy as the guidebook I will be calling my friend for the next few months has your name splattered all through it:) (LP guide to cycling C,V and L)
You can mail me at if you like. I will also set up one of these Jornals (what a cool thing they are)
Anyway Mr Filix, thanks again, may the wind be at your backand your soft and squishey parts remain so.

All the best

Mark Nash

Andrew said...

Hey Felix, what's with the extended and wandering comments, but no blog update eh? We're all waiting for the next exciting installment. Did you fall into the hands of a ragtag gang of barefoot soldiers whilst negotiating a Khmer Rouge stronghold, or did you just get pissed in a Karaoke bar and stumble home with a nice girl?

Mr Felix said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mr Felix said...

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for the note, and thanks for caring. It’s nice to be cared about.

Yes, I’m fine and in good spirits, and healthy. And no, I’ve neither been abducted by the KR, nor taken up with a Cambodian girl, both of which I can do without for now, short or long time.

I’m on a Chinese Junk, with a crew of East Germans, presently moored in Chalong Bay, about 10 kilometres south of Phuket town in South West Thailand. We set sail for India in early December, via the Andaman’s and Sri Lanka, following Marco Polo’s sea route to Persia.

If we make it across the Indian Ocean in one piece, we plan on continuing on to Alexandria and Venice via Oman and the Suez, and eventually on to Germany via England.

Yep, it’s a long way from Banteay Chhmar and a bung arm.

And RE the BLOG updates, yeah, I’m doing my best, but what with sitting in the Crow’s Nest (someone’s gotta do it, and I seem to be the ‘someone’) and hoisting the mains’l, I’m a bit pressed for internet time.

But hang in there, I absolutely plan on bringing everything up-to-date before we sail. They may be the last postings I ever make, and as I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s nice to tie up all the loose ends before you sink like a stone to the bottom of the sea 300 nautical miles south west of Goa.

The name of the ship is Kublai’s Khan II, and the link is:
For the route to Persia and Europe, go to ROUTES 2 & 3.

But how’d I get here?

The short answer is that I ran in to Axel, an East German cyclist and sailor, coming out of Cambodia in to Thailand, and one word led to another, and bingo! Ich bin jetzt ein Seemann! (I’m now a sailor!)

And without my very bung arm, and the Berlin Wall coming down, none of this would have come to pass. It just goes to show you, Andrew, that the Lord works in very mysterious ways. You never f@ckin’ know, eh?

OK, mate, that’ll do for today.

There is, by the way, a long, convoluted and mystical* tale as to how Captain Axel and I met on the road coming out of Cambodia, but I’ll save that for the BLOG. It’ll hopefully be up within the week.

Tschüß, schiff ahoi! Or maybe, Cheers, ship ahoy!
On board the Kublai’s Khan II,
Chalong Bay, Phuket.

* Not a typo.