Saturday, October 09, 2004

Cycle Day 9: North West Cambodia

Samraong to Banteay Chhmar - 57 km

The Ride/the Route:

A flat dirt road, mainly smooth and firm, but a few intermittent sections where the road is cut up. There are a few dodgey bridges where you will need to dismount and walk the bike across, but apart from that, everything is straight forward and easy. The traffic is very light. As usual, an easy run in the dry, apart from the dust, but difficult in the wet.

Drinks available along most of the route, and some decent food at the small village of Am Pin, 30 km due west of Samraong. From there it’s 27 km south to Banteay Chhmar.

Banteay Chhmar is a small town, with a market and a few cafes, but there is no Guest House in the town itself. In normal circumstances, you’d be advised to ride straight through to Thma Puok, a further 16 km south down the road, where there is a Guest House (although I didn’t see it), or all the way to Sisophon, 64 km from Banteay Chhmar.

The temple ruins in Banteay Chhmar (what I saw of them) look interesting and untouristed, and there is apparently a Guest House some 10 (or maybe 20?) kilometres out of town at the main temple complex. I don’t know the price or exact location.

The people are very friendly and helpful out here in the north-west, and they don’t see many tourists, especially on bikes.

The scenery is pleasant and rural, paddies and forests, with blue mountains in the distance along the Thai border. There’s quite a few live mine-fields, but they’re all clearly marked. Stick to the road and well worn paths and you’ll be OK.

The Day's Ride:

I roll out of bed at the Phra Chea Thmey Guest House in Sam Raong at the usual early hour and Ouch! My right arm is swollen and sensitive to the touch. The little red volcanoes where the spider (?) bit me are still oozing puss, and the swelling has spread down the arm from the elbow to the middle of the wrist.

Yep, it’s now a medical problem, and not just a minor bother. Just what I need.

It’s also been raining all night, and I woke up a few times and listened to it pounding on the roof. I don’t mind too much if it rains at night, as long as it clears by morning, and there’s a chance that the road will dry out as the day progresses.

But no such luck today.

The clouds are heavy and grey, and there’s an annoying drizzle coming down as I walk out of the Guest House and cross the road to get some breakfast. The Ryk Reah restaurant serves up a big plate of French fries (Freedom fries? Save me!) and good coffee, so this cheers me up a little. French fries are not common fare in Cambodia, so I’m winning on the food front at least.

I order an extra coffee and sit at the front table by myself, gazing out on to the road and the early morning activity.

My arm hurts, it’s raining, I’m lonely, and the roads up ahead will be turning to mush so it looks like I won’t make it through to Sisophon today, about 120 km away. I’ll try for Thmar Pook, about 80 km south west of here. A couple of Khmers have told me there’s a Guest House, so that looks to be the day’s reasonable destination.

If worst comes to worst I can stop in Banteay Chhmar, a small town about 60 klicks down the road. Three out of four Khmer’s tell me there’s also a Guest House there, and these are reasonable odds for the lone cyclist.

And I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I’ll need to go to the doctor to get my arm looked at.

Oh, dear, the Cambodian doctor experience. It’s one I’ve luckily avoided up until now, but it looks like my number is up. Khnom bproo-ay! which is Pigeon Khmer for I’m a little worried about this!

So why don’t I just catch a pick-up all the way into Sisophon and save myself the trauma of two more days riding in the mud with a bung arm? Well, that would be cheating of course, end of story.

Like the Canadian Mounties, the Texas Rangers and any other gung-ho idiotic group of testosterone driven dick-heads you can imagine, the international cyclist comes through.


Well, ladies, down this bung arm and in to these legs flows the blood of Ned Kelly, the Man from Snowy River and possibly the milk-man who used to deliver dairy products to my great grandmother while my great grandfather was away fighting the Hun up along the Rhine River Valley in 1914.

No, defeat is out of the question, even if it kills me. I don’t have many material possessions but I have my pride.

At 10 am I climb on the bike and push out in to the rain.

The main road through Sam Raong is sealed and in very good condition, and heads due south to Chung Can (Chong Kal) and further on to Siem Reap. Considering the rain, the mud and my arm, it would be the wise choice, but I’ve been to Siem Reap a couple of times before, and the glut of soft bottomed tourists doesn’t spin my wheels.

No, it’s the north and north western back roads for me, so I take a right turn off the main road and push west towards Thailand.

It’s muddy and slippery, and there’s deep ruts in the road, and it’s approaching biking hell before my odometer hits 5 kilometres. But no use complaining, just turn those pedals over and over and forget about the pain.

You can do it, Feely. Be a man! So I tell myself.

At the 10 kilometre mark I’m getting cramps in my stomach. What next? Maybe it’s the French fries?

Two hundred metres on I pass a Halo Trust encampment, and the Khmers lying under the awning of the house call out as I go past. OK, this looks like the toilet stop, so I turn the bike around and roll in.

The Halo Trust is one of the many NGO groups here involved in de-mining, and one of the Khmers lounging about under the house speaks good English, which is always a relief. I use the loo, and take up the offer of coffee. And as I sit there sipping it, the rain really sets in.

It looks like the elements are really against me today. I belt across the road to the little variety store and buy a big bag of boiled lollies, run back, share them around and climb in to one of the hammocks. If I’m gonna be stuck here, I might as well get comfortable.

And then I drop off in to a deep sleep. God knows what’s going on. The weather’s screwy, my arm is screwy and so is my metabolism, it seems. The only thing that’s working well is my bike, and the Khmers.

And thank God for their easy going hospitality. No rush, no pressure, no questions. Just lie in the hammock and make yourself at home. This sure is a long way from Switzerland, at least the German speaking part.

I wake up at one o’clock and drink another coffee. Thanks again, lovely Khmers. The rain has stopped and I’m feeling fresh enough to go on. And I’ve only done 10 kilometres, so it looks like Banteay Chhmar might be the end point today.

Up and out along the road I go, working against the mud, sliding and slipping, standing on the pedals and straining to stay upright as I slither from rut to rut. Minute after difficult minute.

There’s farms and paddies all along the way, and a few rivers with broken down wooden bridges. I actually love these old bridges, with their horizontal planks lying across the roadway in all directions, and upright supports standing askew. The wood is grey and weathered, and the bridges have withstood the ravages of weather, time and twenty-five years of serious social conflict.

Beside the rivers, which are swollen from the rains, grow big shady trees, and you’ll often run in to kids fishing off the railings, or women washing clothes down on the cool, dark banks.

But of course, I’m being romantic. If you’re a Khmer, you’re gonna prefer the new metal bridges that are popping up all over Cambodia. They’re clean and functional, and have a certain Stalinist feel to them, but like most things Russian, they do the job.

At the 30 kilometre mark I stop at the small village of Am Pin. It’s almost 3 PM and I’m in need of more coffee and a little food. There’s a market and a string of cafes, but it’s a grubby place, with flies buzzing around the food and dogs sniffing about under the tables of the cafes. It’s also not helped by the rain and mud, but the Khmers are helpful and friendly, as usual, and tell me it’s about 25 kilometres to Banteay Chhmar.

The man at the café also tells me there’s a Guest House there, but the woman selling sugar-cane juice tells me there isn’t. It seems my odds have dropped to 50%, but there’s nought I can do about it, whatever the truth. All will be revealed in God’s good time.

But I’m so exhausted I take a good hour to freshen up, and then it’s back on the road. I’m only averaging ten kilometres an hour in this mud and slush, but I should make it in to Banteay Chhmar by 6:30 PM, just on dark, accidents notwithstanding.

On I go again, down the road, through the mud, slowly and painfully on and on. It’s like dragging a dead weight. I’m doing my best to keep my spirits up, and thankfully my arm, which is still swollen and doesn’t seem to be getting any better, is not impeding my progress.

I pass a few small villages, and the Khmers are friendly and surprised, but gee, this is hard. But by now the rain has stopped and there’s only dark clouds hovering overhead, and as the day turns into late afternoon it’s actually getting chilly out here.

It turns 6 o’clock and I check my odometer. It says 56 kilometres. OK, maybe five to go, maybe ten at a push. I think I’m gonna make it. It’s going on dark already, but not far now.

And then, POP!, a loud bang from the back wheel. Oh, Jesus, no! I’ve blown my back tube. I cannot believe this. Not now, Lord!

This is the last of the super-high-tech self-sealing tubes that they talked me in to buying down at the Melbourne Bike Shop before I set off on this mud-caked odysee (may a pox descend on them and their children for seventeen generations). These tubes aren’t worth a pinch-of-shit. Scheiße!

Not only has the tube blown, it’s taken out the side wall of the tyre as well. And finding a replacement tyre out here in woop-woop is gonna be difficult.

Oh well, cycling over for today, nothing else for it put to walk and push the bike. At five kilometres an hour I should make it in to town in one hour, or maybe two, depending on the distance.

It’ll be well and truly dark by the time I arrive, and then there’s the problem of finding the Guest House, if there is one. And if not, well, it may be the restaurant floor again, unless of course I find a good Samaritan Khmer who will take me in and say nice things to me.

And so off I set.

My God, I’m wet and miserable. The traffic’s non-existent, so it’s just me and the mud and my bung arm and now my equally bung back tyre.

If only that good Samaritan Khmer would come by and rescue me. It’d be also nice if he/she spoke English so I could explain my problems, and maybe go on and on for a while. Nothing like off-loading on someone when you’re in deep shit, but it helps if they know what you’re talking about. But fat chance out here.

You’re on your own, Feely, nobody loves you and you’re a dick-head.

Yep, I’m a dick-head, and my life is a bag of shit. Nay, a muddy, wet bag of shit…

And then, Hey! Hello! You need a lift?

There’s a Khmer coming up behind me on a small tractor and trailer, and he’s speaking English. And quite good English. Almost my favourite type. This is really blowing my mind. I can hardly believe it.

Am I hallucinating?

No, I’m not!

It turns out to be Orn, a 25 year old Khmer who is studying Philosophy at Phnom Penh University, and he’s stopped beside me and is asking me to put my wounded bike on the trailer, and no, there’s no Guest House in Banteay Chhmar, but why don’t I come home with him, meet the family and spend the night?

This really is too good to be true, but I’m willing to give it a try, trusting and desperate soul that I am.

I throw the bike on to the trailer and climb in after it. I whisper a quiet prayer: Thank you, Lord, I will never, ever in my life doubt you again. Amen, over-and-out, thanks again, peace be upon you!

A kilometre up the road we reach Banteay Chhmar town, and turn right in to Orn’s driveway.

Orn’s house is a typical Cambodian affair, large and airy, made of wood and standing on stilts. The family is somewhat startled to see what Orn has brought home, but they soon compose themselves and begin looking after the muddy, but honoured guest.

I take a shower at the outside well and climb in to some clean clothes. By the time I’m done, Orn’s sister has cooked up some fried beef and rice, and I gratefully tuck in to it, and sip some hot tea. Life is good.

That evening we sit around and Orn translates the many questions his family has about my fascinating life as a Westerner. I’m the first one they’ve studied up close, and a real curiosity piece.

As I’m sorting through my panniers, Orn spots my I-pod and asks what it is. I explain that it’s an MP3 music player, and I’ve got 20 gig. of Western music on it, everything from Rock to Jazz, Techno to World and Swing to R & B.

I set up my speakers and show him how to skip through the artists. He’s intrigued, and stops on The Sex Pistols.

Who is this? he asks.

It’s probably the word sex that’s attracted him, but how do you explain The Sex Pistols?

Ah, yeah, The Sex Pistols, I say. You probably won’t like ‘em. They’re a bit heavy.

But Orn insists. He definitely wants to hear The Sex Pistols, and so do his family. For real Western music that for real Western people listen to, and with a bit of sex thrown in. Can’t be all bad. Let her rip, Mr Feeliks!

And so I do.

God save the Queen,
The fascist regime!

The Pistols bash it out, and I let it run all the way. I don’t really know what else to do. By the time we get half way through the set, Orn’s father is looking seriously appalled, and Pretty Vacant pretty much does him in.

He excuses himself and goes upstairs. The rest of the family slowly follow, and Orn says: Yes, thank you, very interesting!

I try to explain that there’s a lot of different types of Western music, and maybe I could find something that they’d all like blah! blah! but the damage is done, and there’s no way back.

Western music is definitely a no-go in Orn’s house from here on in. Oh, well.

That night I sit quietly on the stairs smoking a cigarette and watch the lightning cracking over and over way off over the hills in Thailand. Big horizontal bursts of light, snaking across the sky, and the rolling thunder rattling the wooden boards underneath my bare feet. It’s a beautiful thing.

As I crawl under my mosquito net, Orn and family are huddled in the far corner watching a Cambodian soapy on the tube, and that’s pretty much the last thing I remember. I roll over, carefull not to put any pressure on my swollen arm and enter Dreamland.


Mark said...

Go Go Felix, story rocks, You Rock!

Im gonna keep this, print it out, copy it and staple it to the head of every backpacker that complanes of a mozzy bite, having to wait for a while for a bus or their bum being sore from sitting in a bus too long.

Power to the pedal


Mr Felix said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the posting.

Now, whilst I agree in principle with everything you've said, I'm just a little concerned about the "stapling the print-out to every backpacker's head" comment.

I'm reminded of Martin Luther nailing (they didn't have staples in those days) his anti-Catholic Thesis to the door of the Church in 1517.

I mean, look at the trouble it caused him. He got excommunicated even!

And if you think about it, I'm the one in the firing line. If the soft-bottomed tourist industry fell apart, I might get "excommunicated" from every guest house east of Baghdad, and trust me, I've no plans to go cycling anywhere west of Baghdad in the current climate.

Anyway, mate, great idea, and I'm at pains not to dampen your enthusiasm, nor limit your fighting spirit in any way.

The Lord well knows we need people like you standing outside every guest houses in Asia, staple gun in hand.

I'm just thinking of the big picture, the possible consequences. So let's workshop this a bit, and maybe somebody else can throw some ideas in to the pot.

Speaking of which, I might go smoke some.

OK, mate, all the best,
Felix, and Mr P sends his love and is all for it, but wants to know if he can use a "jumbo size" gun.