Thursday, October 14, 2004

Cycle Day 10: North West Cambodia

Banteay Chhmar to Sisophon – 64 km

The Ride/the Route:

Another flat, dirt road. No hills and very light traffic. The scenery is mainly paddies and some forested sections, with blue mountains out towards Thailand.

My Cambodian Road Atlas tells me this section of road is in better condition than the road north of Banteay Chhmar, but I couldn’t see much difference. Good and firm in sections, and cut up in others. Easy in the dry, difficult in the wet.

There’s a few broken bridges where you must walk the bike across, but it’s no hassle. Also a few mine-fields, but they’re clearly marked. You’d need to work hard at getting blown up.

There’s no Guest House in B Chhmar, but a market and good cafes by the lake. A pleasant spot to eat and drink. There’s also a basic bike shop.

There’s drinks all along the route, and food, shops and a market at Thma Puok (16 km from B Chhmar), and also at Svay Chak/Chet (36 km from B Chhmar).

You will come in to Sisophon from the north. When you hit the main roundabout by the big park, turn east towards Siem Reap down highway 6, and there’s 4 Guest Houses (3 on the south side, and 1 on the north) about 1 km down the road, just past the Sokamex petrol station. They’re cheap and basic at 10,000 Riel ($2:50), and I recommend the one on the north side, but take your pick.

The Day’s Ride:

Orn’s family wake up early and head off for the paddies, and I get packed and survey the damage on the back wheel. The tube has blown the side out of my tyre, so it’s either change the lot here in Banteay Chhmar, or catch a pick-up all the way to Sisophon.

I’m not hopeful.

Orn’s on holiday from the university and is off to a party with his mates in town. I slip him five bucks with strict instructions to buy lots of beer.

Good for the over-taxed mind, Orn! I say.

Now, I admit I might be suffering from Advice Transference Syndrome (ATS), perhaps needing a beer myself, but I turn down his invite to tag along. My right arm is swollen and paining and I need a doctor, so I need to get to Sisophon without too much mucking about.

The word amputation has surfaced in my mind this morning, and it’s not a word I normally associate with myself.

What do you think the problem is, Orn? I ask, waving the arm around in front of his face for maximum emotional effect.

Mosquitoes! he says. Yeah, right, just what I thought. I may be becoming clairaudient.

We exchange email addresses, and I trudge off wheeling my bike, and turn on to the main road towards town.

There was a hell of a storm last night, and the thunder claps woke me a couple of times, but I’m refreshed, and am busily telling myself to relax and accept whatever the day brings. The last couple of days have been arduous, wet and mud-filled, and I’ve been seriously wondering about the meaning of it all.

Remember to be Buddhist, Feely! I tell myself. You could be at home, waking up to a beautiful Melbourne spring morning, sipping a latte and reading about the latest episode in fundamental lunacy, and who needs all that?

Out here in Camboland it’s also a beautiful morning, the clouds are puffy and white and there’s some blue sky peeking through, but the road through town is a complete pig’s trough. It’s gushing mud and brown water, and I’m dodging and sliding around just walking the bike.

I come up past the temple ruins and stop to take a quick look. They’re right beside the road and are the usual exotic Khmer thing; big Buddha faces, semi-reliefs and inscriptions, and of course, the whole complex is falling down. So works the ravages of time, war and Thai antique dealers.

I’d like to spend longer, but with a question mark hanging over the day, I push on after 20 minutes. I’m told there’s a bigger complex somewhere up the road, but again, I’ll pass. As I’ve said before, ruins don’t spin my wheels all that much. I prefer a good road.

Three hundred metres through town and around the bend I come to the market and a few shops and cafes across from the lake. It’s brown and ramshackle, but picturesque all-the-same. There’s a couple of large Bodhi trees arching across the road giving plenty of shade, and on the other side of the lake sit the temple ruins. The ancient Khmers certainly knew how to pick a nice spot.

I choose the cleanest café, and wander in. The waitress looks appropriately startled and runs off before I get a chance to order, but she’s back in a flash with the manager, Mr Beng (or something), who speaks pretty good English and is over-joyed to see me.

Welcome, welcome! he says, flapping his arms around and grinning broadly. He motions me to a seat, and then sits down right beside me, and sends the waitress off for two iced coffees on the house. Excellent.

Mr Beng was at university studying English and French up until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over. End of studies, act stupid, and keep your head down for the next four years.

But there was a lot Khmer Rouge activity up here in Banteay Meanchay Province right through until the mid-to-late-nineties, and for the local population the nightmare continued like a long drawn out Indian Summer, minus the chappatis.

The Khmer Rouge used to abduct people from around here, take them off in to the forest, and demand a ransom from the family, says Mr Beng, sadly.

I nod. The common people get shafted again here in South East Asia. I sip my coffee.

So what are you doing here, Mr Feelis? he asks.

Well, I’m cycling through to Sisophon, I say, but I’ve got this bung arm. What do you think is wrong it? I wave it around in front of his face etc. Mosquitoes?

He nods. Yep, mozzies. Damndest thing.

The swelling has mooched all the way down in to my right hand, and the knuckles and fingers are pudgey and white. It’s looking decidedly Sigourney Weaver and Alien.

Mr Beng shows me to the bike shop a couple of doors down and I sift through the dusty collection of tyres hanging from the wooden rafters. There’s no point getting the tube fixed if I can’t find the right tyre. They’ve only got about a dozen in all, so I’m not holding my breath.

But, wouldn’t you know! There it is, a 26 inch x 1.75 nobby tyre, made in Thailand. I strip the back wheel off the bike and hand in across to the bike shop guy. What a find! Who’d have believed it?

OK, lads! Fix the tube, fit the tyre, bugger the cost and give me a yell when it’s all done. I’ll be drinking coffee with my new best friend Mr Beng, and chatting up his waitress.

I pay the bike-shop guys 16,000 Riel ($4.00), which is a pretty good deal for a tube patch and a new tyre, and I hit the road.

The clouds are building up, and sooner or later it’s going to rain, but it’s only about sixty odd kilometres to Sisophon, so it’s gonna be no different than the last few days. Wet, and mostly shit-house, but what the hey! I’m working through my own little personal hell, and I’m sure it’s doing me good.

And despite the flat tyres, the bike is performing beautifully, and I’m getting distinctly fitter, and more resilient. And despite the swelling and occasional ache, the arm is not impeding my progress much. I need to take it off the grip every now and then and flex it, but apart from that, no worries.

But also, I must say, I’m in need of some Western company. Preferably someone who likes to talk about concepts, and maybe even better, someone who likes to listen to my concepts. I don’t ask for much.

Oh, Jesus, who loves me and always provides what I need, not what I want, send me a conceptualist! Thanks again, your pal, Feely, over and out.

The road out of town is surprisingly dry so I step on the pedals. I go past paddies in flood, and the usual stream of Khmer farmers calling out and waving as I go by. And the traffic is very light. A few pick-ups packed with smiling Khmers, some small tractors and trailors, and of course, motor bikes.

The new back tyre is hanging in beautifully, and I’m making great time, weaving around the ditches, cutting back and forth across the road and enjoying the view. Cycling can be exhilerating at times.

It’s a decidedly simple activity, really, but requires concentration and stamina, and as the days go by, you feel your body changing, getting taught and able.

And you are forced to excede your limits, forced to go on when all you want to do is lie back in an ice cold jacuzzi of Coca Cola, with ice chunks the size of footballs bobbing gently up and down and making the Coke go fizz-zz around your ears.

But so you get fit and mean. Is good.

16 km down the road I come to Thmar Puok. It’s a small village with the usual gaggle of shops and services, and I pull in for a Coke and some food. The clouds are looking menacing now, so after 15 minutes I push out on to the road again and move in to top gear.

There’s blue mountains out towards Thailand and green paddies all along the route, and the odd broken down bridge. The wind is kicking up in short gusts, and a light rain sweeps in from the west. It’s not enough to dampen the road or my spirits, and I cycle on, and it passes.

By the time I get to Svay Chet the sun has broken through and all of a sudden it’s hot. Yeah, things change out here. I stop at a café and ask to use the loo, and they direct me all the way out the back to the Wat.

I like country Wats, and have spent a lot of time in them over the years, and this one is no disapointment. There’s an old monk brushing up some leaves by the kitchen so I wander over and ask if I can use the toilet. He’s old and wrinkled, and amused, and gives me a key and points to the ablution block down the path.

It’s clean and quiet and shadey inside, so after attending to business I strip off and take a long shower. I pour the cool water slowly over my back, and let it run down my legs. My God, this is close to heaven. Over and over I pour, until I’m almost cold myself, and intensely refreshed.

When I take the key back to the monk I stop and tell him what I’m doing and where I’m going, and he asks me if I need a place to stay. How I love these guys! Normally I’d probably take him up on the offer. The thought of getting off the road and wandering around the grounds for the afternoon is appealing, but my arm beckons.

I say my goodbyes and head back to the café. Pleasure time over. While I’ve been chatting to the monk the clouds have rolled in, and a storm is on the way. It’s about 35 km to Sisophon from here, so I either sit it out, or brave it.

I decide to head out, and hope I can find a roadside café somewhere down the road when the rain hits.

Half an hour later I get caught in a deluge, and the road turns immediately evil. And there’s no café, just paddies and Khmer’s sheltering under trees. I ride on through the gathering mud until I’m so soaked and exhausted and pissed-off that I ride off the road at full speed and come to a slithering, agressive stop under a small tree.

I dismount and stand by the bike. I feel like Ratty in Wind in the Willows; wet, bedraggled and was having a good time but now it’s all turned bad. Ah, shit. Fuck this! I wanna be in Sisophon, now. Watching telly.

Two hours later I get there. It’s late afternoon, and the rain has stopped and it’s hot again. I check in to a cheap-o Guest House, take a shower and climb on my bed, feeling lonely and depressed.

My, how it all changes.

Am I the only idiot in the world who crawls in to his Cambodian hotel room, locks the door and doesn’t wanna come out?

Well, maybe not. I take a snooze, and wake up hungry. OK, that’s something: feel hungry, go get something to eat. Right on. Very Zen.

There’s a long line of cafes in Sisophon beside the park, and I cycle along the strip, looking for the right one. Just as I get to the end I see a Whitey at one of the tables and he waves. OK, this looks like dinner and if I’m lucky, a conversation.

Klaus is German, is working in Cambodia, is married to a Khmer girl and is a sometime cyclist. Excellent. He’s also a thoughtful chap, and a conceptualist.

After the prerequisite formalities, we launch in to all the world’s problems, the joys and sorrows of cycling and the mind-numbing terrors of the farang in Asia.

My, oh my! Who’s the Doubting Thomas? Who’s the guy that’s gonna get up to the Pearly Gates and get directed to the door marked: "Doubters"? And what on Earth am I going to say? Oh, boy.

Klaus inspects my arm and thinks it’s probably a spider bite that’s got infected. But no worries, if I can wait until lunch time tomorrow he’ll come and pick me up and take me to the best doctor in Sisophon.

But, Felix, he says, the best doctor in Sisophon is maybe a little bit not so good, and you may have to go to Thailand to get it looked at by a real doctor.

OK, no worries, let’s see what the local quack says, and take it from there.

Before I head back to my Guest House I send an email to my friend Sothy, an American-Khmer living in Chicago. I talk about the arm, and ask her what she thinks.

Any particular spiders or bitey things that you know of in Cambodia? I write. Any particular thing I should do?

Back at the Guest House I crawl in to bed and bury myself in my book. Doctors, I hate doctors almost as much as I hate Custom’s Officials.

OK, another lonely night in Cambodia. Read my book under the 20 watt globe until I can’t see anymore, turn out the light, go to sleep.

Next door there’s a couple of Khmer’s playing Cambodian pop music on a shitty little sound system, but that’s normal.

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