Friday, August 27, 2004

Cycle Day 6: Far north central Cambodia

Sa-em to Preah Vihar - 27 km

The Ride:
A good dirt road, wide and well graded. Mainly flat, no drink stops. Forest/jungle most of the way, a lot of mines by the side of the road, but well marked. At the 23 km mark from Sa-em, take the left turn at the T-intersection. It's a further 4 km to Preah Vihar village. There's one guest house.
Preah Vihar is actually a very interesting temple (and I'm not into temples, as such), perched on top of the mountain ridge, which forms the the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Maybe 2000 (?) feet straight up from the surrounding plains. From the temple you can see for miles across Cambodia and Thailand. Spectacular indeed.
But take note that the track up to the temple is truely difficult. A very steep incline, rocky and dangerous. You'd have to be the Olympic champion mountain biker to get up it, I think, and coming down would be equally challenging. May be best to walk up. 2 to 3 hours.

The day:
Sa-em is a small cross-road village, and the waitress at the cafe serves me up a big glass of good, strong coffee. Thank you very much. The cafe is clean and efficent, and I'm feeling surprisingly invigorated after last night's deep sleep on the concrete porch of Sa-em Primary School.

I sip my coffee and realise I'm inside the journey, at last. Life is good.

It's 8 am, and I head out, due north to Preah Vihar (pronounced: Pray-Bee-Hair, rhymes with Yogi Bear). It's cool and cloudy, and within five minutes the rain starts again. The road is wide and well graded, but slippery as hell. Traction problems again, and the gears are slipping.

Still, it's only twenty odd kilometres to a hot meal, so what the hell? And the scenery is kinda nice. Green forest on both sides, and way up ahead, a wall of deep blue mountains on the Thai border.

I pass a couple of mine fields, but for the last couple of days this has been the norm. The Khmer Rouge held out up here until the mid-nineties, and planted a lot of 'em. No wandering off the road for butterfly catching or any other semi-important auxillary sporting activity. No nicking off into the bushes and making love to your very fit and very active Danish co-cyclist. No, Sa-em to Preah Vihar is celibate city. Trust me on this.

But, I've got bad traction problems, and the more I peddle the more mud I collect. Bad. The red clay is sticking to everything, and even on the flat I'm standing up in the peddles at times trying to turn the wheels over. Ah, shit! I'm getting mud in my face. It's coming up from the front wheel and clipping my cheeks. My glasses are all spotty. Christ!

My early morning buoyant spirits are draining away at an alarming rate. But that's OK, I don't need them, 'cos I'm the world famous Mr Pumpy, and I should be able to handle 27 kilometres, whatever the conditions.

I hit a slippery hole, and the bike suddenly jumps from under me. I'm left standing in the middle of the road, with my bike lying on it's side under my feet, wheels spinning, panniers askew. It looks ungainly, stuck, like a cow that's just been run over by a truck and is left to kick it's legs by the side of the road in mute despair. It's not a good look.

Jesus I hate this fucking mud! I throw a mini-fit, and pick up the bike and push on. A dog wanders out on the road in front of me and I peddle towards it, I'm gonna run it down. Maybe this will make me feel better!

It dives out of the way at the last instant, tail buried between it's back legs, and looks up. It has that, Why are you abusing me? look in it's eyes. It's the same look I give to God on a regular basis, and I know it well.

Oh dear, I'm definitely losing it and I've only been on the road for forty five minutes. Not good. I feel guilty. I cycle on. I resolve to be good and disciplined. I resolve to stop complaining. Maybe I should quit and go home?

I go around a bend and the road sweeps out before me towards the hills, and the view is startling, majestic. Big blue mountains running across the horizon from left to right, set off by the green of the forest. Bright, saturated green, moist and shimmering.

I stop to take it in, I breathe deeply, I listen to the forest. An exquisite digital soundscape, ambient, dangerous, alive. God, I love it!

At the 23 km point I come to a T-intersection and a big tree. There's no signs, and the road branches off in both directions, with no discernable difference. Jesus! Cambodia! Which way to go?

Naturally, I take the wrong turn. I go right, I should have gone left. I cycle on, up-hill through the mud and unrelenting rain for 5 kilometres. I stop.

No, this can't be right. We're getting into denser and denser jungle, and the road up ahead is deteriorating, turning to mush. And there's mines everywhere. I guess I'm right on the border. Skull and Cross bone signs to the left and right. For the first time I'm intimidated by them, scared.

I head back to the intersection and go the other way. A couple of kilometres on I run into Mason, a young American cyclist. He's on the back of a motorbike, with his bicycle on another, and is on the way out.

Poor Mason stepped on a nail, and can't cycle for the time being. Yep, shit happens, we agree. We talk about the mud, and the difficulties, and agree that cycling is great, and aren't those backpackers idiots, and Hell! On my bike I'm King of the World!

I feel better, if only because Mason still believes in the Grail. Me, I'm having serious doubts, but it's good to meet a kindred soul. We exchange email addresses and push on, although I'm so starved for conversation that I wouldn't have minded whipping up a camp fire, grilling some dog and settling in for the afternoon.

Nothing like a good natter and some dog! - an Old Khmer saying, although it's sometimes translated as: Chew the fat, chew the dog!

Another ten minutes down the road and I enter Preah Vihar village. Thank God, I've had enough. I think yesterday has taken more out of me than I realised. The village is a small ramshackle affair, one of those jerry-built things that you see a lot of in Asia and looks like a movie set. I cycle over to the cafe beside the guest house and order some food.

The Khmer guy who runs the cafe speaks good English and starts in with the usual questions: Wot your name? Where you from? Blah, blah. Then he starts telling me what a great bloke he is, and how you can't trust anybody else in this village, and if I want anything I should go through him, 'cos every one else will rip you off, but he's a great guy, and maybe even a great humanitarian, 'cos he looks after homeless boys.

I check him out. Skinny and dried up. No, definitely not a great humanitarian. The eyes are jet black, and lifeless. An opium addict? Well, Mr Great Humanitarian, I gotta go now! I say, and pay my bill, and abruptly get up to leave.

Christ! What a creep! Just what I need.

I turn around and surprise, surprise, there's Jackie, hanging out of a brand new four wheel drive super deluxe Pajero. Hi, Felix! she says. Well, he-llooo, Jackie! I say. What a site for sore eyes.

(See previous post: Day 5: Trabaeng Meanchay to Sa-em)

Jackie's an Australian-Khmer, who's travelling around with some highly placed Khmer friends. They are going up to Preah Vihar temple, and would I like to come? You betcha! I lock the bike up in the guest house, and climb in.

The last time I saw them was yesterday, but it seems like a week, and they were riding through the mud on Scooby-machines 50 km south of Sa-em.

Where'd you get the Pajero? I ask.
We had it sent down from Kampong Cham this morning, she says.

Yeah, well, silly question. If I was extremely highly placed in Cambodia, I'd get a helicopter sent down, and maybe some dancing girls. Maybe some good cheese as well. Also peanut M & Ms wouldn't be bad.

We take off at an alarming speed, and career through the town and onto the track that leads up to the temple. It's pretty much 3 or 4 kilometres straight up the hill, and would be impossible to cycle. We bounce over rocks and go through water falls, and all the while the drop on my left gets bigger and bigger.

But the view! It's breathtaking. Cambodia is running away towards the horizon, and the road I cycled on to Preah Vihar is a giant brown snake, weaving through the jungle, still and silent, and from this distance, eminently cycleable (and it would be in the dry.)

I plug my I-pod into the car speakers, and as we round the top of the slope and come into the temple surrounds, Grace Slick is booming out:

Don't you want somebody to love! You be-e-tter find somebody to lo-o-ve!

What a sound track! What a life! And after the rigours of the past few days this is approaching bliss. Thankyou Jesus. I'm a believer.

Up at the temple the Khmers go off to check out the whiskey prices, and I climb around the ruins looking at the graffiti. It's fascinating. There's a whole alternative history chiselled into the walls.

Thai graffiti from 1968, Khmer graffiti from 1976, Vietnamese graffiti from 1980. It's all pretty basic, Sittaporn was here - 1968, Col. Nguyen Van Tham - 1980 etc, but everynow and then a graphic, a symbol. Paratroopers wings, a heart, a cross. It's riveting stuff and I spend a good hour combing through it, copying some of the designs.

A couple of hours later Jackie and Co. drop me back down at the guest house in the village and we arrange to meet up in Anlong Veng in three days time.

We're gonna go up the hill and have a party! says Jackie, and I'm invited. This is the hill, about 15 kilometres north of Anlong Veng, where Pol Pot is buried.

Pol Pot died of natural causes some 6 or 7 years ago, and his flunkies then burned the body on a car tyre and buried the ashes beside the road under a piece of tin. I think there's a stick stuck in the ground to mark the spot.

Jackie tells me that the Khmer guest house they've hired is just down the road a piece.

Well, this certainly puts a spin on things. We're gonna be twisting the night away, while Mr Pot, or what's left of him, lies quietly down the road, getting eaten by worms. Well, better him than me, and I can bring some more worms if you like, no charge.

Tomorrow I'll cycle back to Sa-em, and then head east for two days towards Anlong Veng. I love a party. No worries!

Thursday, August 26, 2004

The REAL Mr Pumpy!

OK, folks! I don't normally go on the attack on the web. Why? 'Cos you can't see your opponent, and what you can't see, you can't hit over the head with a cricket bat.

But honest Master Phil Davis from Ireland - see email below- has just contacted me with another sad tale of the FAKE Mr Pumpy (Let's just call him Mr Pretender!), some turkey, maybe English - wouldn't you know! - who masquerades as the REAL Mr Pumpy.

And I don't want to have to get into calling Mr Pumpy, The Real Mr Pumpy, like the Real IRA, or some other such tom-foolery.

So, to be clear: Mr Pumpy, the real and original one, never posts, never writes.

Only Mr Felix (me) blogs and writes, and I sign as Mr Felix.

I'm Mr Pumpy's Boswell (sp?), the great man's biographer. So every post you read signed Mr Pumpy is a sham, and deserves to be trashed, or flamed, or run over by a bus full of backpackers.

From honest Master Phil.
He writes:
Hi Felix,I saw your comment on the fake pumpy's out inforumland... here is one that I thought had secondthoughts... but nope, his conscience is hurting oversomething else!
Your pal,
Phil Davis

OK, so Mr Pretender is feeling guilty or something about a new bike he has just bought - Christ, get a life! - and wouldn't you know, Mr Pumpy has just bought a new bike! Next thing you know, Mr Pretender will be staying at the Last Home Guest House in Phnom Penh, and heading out to Vietnam next week.

Well, as I explained to honest Master Phil, you can get someone wacked in Cambodia for under 100 dollars, and there's a lot of lonely stretches between Phnom Penh and Saigon.

OK, that will do. Enough.

I'm going out for an iced coffee, and I won't be paying with a crisp new 100 dollar bill. Coffee is only 40 cents anyway, and I might need the 100 dollar bill for something else.

Mr Felix (for Mr Pumpy)
Phnom Penh, Thursday 24th August

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Cycle Day 5: North central Cambodia

Trabaeng Meanchay to Sa-em - 100 km approx.

The route so far:
Phnom Penh - Kampong Thom - Phnom Daek - Trabaeng Meanchay

The Ride:
Dirt road all the way and zilch traffic. This is close to the back of beyond. Some hills, and some bridges, all in OK condition. Heading north out of Trabaeng Meanchay the road is good for 25 km, then gets very cut up for the next 50 km or so. The last 20 km into Sa-em is OK. There's a drink and food stop 23 km past Trabaeng Meanchay, and then pretty much nothing for the next 60 km; nobody, only forest, jungle and land-mines. The land-mines are all marked, but still, no venturing off the road or worn foot-tracks unless absolutely necessary. Also, not to be attempted in the wet season. This road is pretty much impossible on a bike in the wet, with mud and water up to your chest in places, no kidding! But in the dry, a fun little run. Take food and water, and maybe some company.

The Day: Trabaeng Meanchay to Sa-em

At 7 am in the cafe I meet Joe, an Aussie NGO worker who's been working up here for four years. This is pretty much the back of beyond, and I'm surprised Joe can still talk English.

(NGO: Non-Government Organisation. In other words, Aid Workers, shu-u-udder!)

Joe explains to me the mysteries of NGO funding, and how to write applications to exotic places like Japan and Switzerland and get money. It's amazingly similar to arts funding applications, of which I'm painfully aware.

You write what they want to hear, get the money, and then you go ahead and do what you think really needs to be done, explains Joe. The funding bodies are locked into all manner of Western orientated politically correct half-truths, but Cambodia has more basic problems than any of that. Water, sanitation, electricity and how to keep the beer cold.

I sympathise, and then steer the conversation around to cycling, and my own pressing problems.

Joe confirms the Mining Advisory Group's (MAG - see previous post) assessment of the road: It's a total mud-heap. Impossible. No food or drinks. You'll die! type of thing, and I take note. He also tells me there's a food and drink stop at the crossroads exactly 12 km up the road, and after that, nothing until Sa-em.

It's now 8 am and I head off. The road is greasy, but not too bad. At the 12 km mark I stop and look around. Big, beautiful mountains to the west, blue and rugged. Paddies to the east, distant hills on the horizon, but where's the drink stop?

This confirms my well learned rule Number 7 for cycling in Asia: Only trust cyclists when it comes to road information.

I cycle on. I stick to the middle where the road surface peaks, and I'm doing a fast little canter of about 25 km an hour, wind in my hair, cool morning breeze, light, and beautiful God given silence. And maybe best of all, no traffic. Excellent.

An hour out of town I see the drink stop. My odometre says 23 km! No worries this time, but you gotta be carefull.

I get off the bike for a well earned breakfast of rice, fried beef and flies.

I push on up the road. Two more kilometres and I come to another stop. I can see about 5 kilometres ahead of me, as the road twists and turns though the forest, reappearing at times as a bright silver and brown ribbon. Beautiful, but Jesus! It's completely covered in mud and water. This is a road disaster par excellance.

For the first time in Cambodia I can use the words so often thrown around by soft-bottomed back-packers: The road is diabolical!

I feel almost happy, triumphant. At last, I've found it! I say to myself.

But I can't go any further today. It would be suicide. The MAG guys said they'd be along at about 10 am, and would give me a lift, so I settle down and wait for the truck. It's almost 10 now, so I shouldn't have too long too wait.

Why do I always fall for this? It's Cambodia! Time means nothing!

I look around. I smoke a cigarette. I sit on the ground. I pull out my plastic rain jacket, spread it on the side of the road, and lie down. The ground's a little soggy and muddy, but not too bad. I start to doze off, I'm floating upstream, could be worse.

I come awake with rain falling in big droplets on my face. I look at my watch. It's past 11 am, and no sign of the MAG guys. I sit up, wrap myself in plastic. Here comes the rain again, falling on my head like a memory, or is that misery?

Oh, shit! It's pouring down. Ah, fuck! I leave the bike on the side of the road, in full view of the promised truck-to-come, and go and sit under a bush. Ah, shit! Big rain, huge rain. I'm wet and cold, and it's midday.

Where's the fuckin' truck?!

I look up and down the road, nothing. It's like waiting for Jesus. I hang in and hang in, I'm pissed off, I'm beginning to have bad memories, but what can you do?

At 2 PM I decide to head back to the cross-road for some Coke and sympathy, which I should have done hours ago, but when you're on your own, you can make bad decisions, you get locked in.

Just as I get there, the MAG truck arrives. No! two trucks. No! two trucks and two jeeps, full of MAG people, guys and girls, all spiffy in bright orange jump suits with MAG emblazoned across the back.

I want one of these suits! They are very cool. I ask about buying one. The Khmers laugh, No, not possible!

OK, no worries, lookin' good anyway! I climb on the back of the truck, and jam myself in beside my bike. I'm right at the back of the tray, which is not a good place to be, but that's the way it is, better than nothing. There's about 25 of us on the back, it's bucketing rain, and we're all crunched up, wet and smiling, and ready to go.

And you gotta hand it to these Khmers. The conditions right now on the back of the truck as we trundle forward are truely shitty, but nobody complains. Let's be happy, let's be Khmer. No worries.

So off we bounce, down the diabolical road, north to freedom.

The truck I'm on is the lead truck, heavy duty, big, and we slide and swerve all over the road, and we hang on, through the mud and water, with the jeeps following. A few kilometres down the road one of the jeeps gets bogged, so we back up, string a line, and pull 'em out. A few more kilometres and another jeep is bogged, so we get out the line again.

This goes on, in some kind of wet, boggy rythm, while I sit with the 25 other humans on the back of the truck, not moving, getting wetter and wetter, watching everything. It's better than TV, almost.

But it's slow going indeed, and cold. It's kind of exciting, and shitty at the same time.

A few more kilometres down the track and we grind to a halt. The engine goes Ph-tup, Ph-tup, shwoosh!, and just like in the movies, steam comes out from both sides of the engine. This is not a good thing. We've blown something, and so we sit, silent and marooned.

The first hour is OK, but by hour two the rain has really set in, and then FLASH! and BA-AUNG! The biggest, loudest thunder you have ever heard, maybe a kilometre away. This is starting to shit me. I stare out at the rain, I focus on the horizon, and begin moving into the Zone.

Eventually there's a flurry of movement, the driver jumps in the front seat, and Crank! Crank! The engine coughs into action.

Just as we get going, along comes four Scooby-bikes, those motorbike things with the four big, fat, round tyres. Hey, it's never a dull moment out here in Cambodia!

The Scooby folks are having a whale of a time, sloshing through the mud, whooping and hollering in convoy. I wish I was with them. On the back of the lead Scooby is Jackie, a Khmer-Australian from Melbourne, world's most liveable city. Excellent! Jackie and machine take off past us, waving and smiling.

Bye, Jackie! I call from the back of the truck, and feel alone and sad all of a sudden.

It's about 6 PM now, and getting dark. We continue on. There's only forest and mud, brown and green, all around. How did the Khmer Rouge survive out here? Yeech, this is a bad, bad place. Time drags on.

We start towing the medical jeep, as it keeps getting stuck every few minutes, so why bother unhooking the line? Good thinking Khmer expert de-mining friends! Forward to Sa-em! Forward to victory! The glorious demining group and famous world cyclist are coming!

Oh, dear, I've collapsed into a small, private, soggy world. I'm having painfull thoughts, with strange leaps of logic. And florid, grandiose ideas.

What would happen if I took my clothes off, lept up, and ran off into the forest? What would the Khmers do? What if I stood up like Adolf Hitler in the back of the truck and began sig-heiling everyone? And on it goes, the bizarre, the sexual, the unwelcome.

Oh, dear. Let's get this job done, folks, 'cos the big hairy barung may be becoming a little unhinged.

What would happen if I suddenly grabbed the woman next to me? What if I ripped her clothes off, and began making furious love to her, right on the spot, in front of everyone?

Half an hour later we run into Jackie and crew again. One of the Scoobies has turned over and is stuck fast. We hook 'em up and pull 'em out. Thankyou, Jackie, for breaking the boredom! Thankyou for talking to me! See you in Melbourne! I love you!

Sometime around 10 PM we stop again, dead, but I don't care anymore. There's a foot of water sloshing around in the back of the truck, and my sandles have expanded and my panniers are soaked, along with everything in them. Fuck it! Fuck everything! Fuck my life! I'm not having fun.

It's pitch black out there beyond the truck, and I settle into my stupor again, but this time I don't have the energy to think. I can't even amuse myself in my own private dungeon of the absurd. I'm defeated. I'm half asleep, head lolling over the handle bars, chin resting on the brake lever, bell digging into my right cheek. Fuck it!

Around mid-night I wake up and peer out from under the plastic tarpolen somebody has thrown over me at some point, but I can't remember when. And we're on a smooth dirt road, winging past cliffs and trees that flash by in the headlights. Action, lights! Cool. Looks like we're gonna make it!

I cup the water running off the tarpolen in my hands, and wash my face. Splash! Splash! I'm willing myself into a positive mood. Come on, Feely, time to join the human race again.

Just before 1 AM, with the rain still beating down, we pull into Sa-em Primary. Thankyou Jesus! This is it! Down we jump, and the Khmers start hooking up hammocks and mosquito nets all along the ground floor balcony. In no time they're all set for bed; jim-jams, teeth brushing, flirting, laughing, having a fine time.

Where your hammock? inquires one of the Khmers.

Yeah, well, dumb Mr Felix don't have one, does he?

He doesn't have one because he doesn't like to carry any extra weight, never-mind that he's heading off into woop-woop Cambodia, and a hammock and mosquito net are pretty much basic gear, like a toothbrush and a Koran.

Someone hands me a plastic sheet, and there's much mirth as I wrap myself in it, soggy clothes and all, and lay down on the concrete floor with my equally soggy towel wedged under my head.

And that, dear cycling friends, is the last thing I remember.

Don't worry about the wet, don't worry about the cold concrete floor, or the bizarre thoughts, or the soggy pillow. The switch marked GO TO UNCONSCIOUS gets pulled in my brain and all goes black and void.

I wake at six the next morning, alert and refreshed. This is perhaps the best sleep I've had in 2004! Maybe the best since 1978! Total black, total nothing.

Must be the fresh air! I tell myself.

The Khmers climb back into the truck and jeeps, and head off. I stand by the bike and wave. Alone again, but that's fine. This relationship has run it's course. Everything looks cool and clear, expansive, alive with possibility. OK!

Five minutes later I'm in the Sa-em cafe, opposite the roundabout, ordering coffee.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Cycle Day 4: North central Cambodia

Phnom Daek to Trabaeng Meanchay - 65 km

The route so far:
Phnom Penh - north west to Kampong Thom - north to Phnom Daek.

The ride: Phnom Daek to Trabaeng Meanchay, 65 km
65 km of dirt road. The sign at Phnom Daek says 75 km to Trabaeng Meanchay, but it's in error. The road is mainly flat, but goes up and down for some of the way, and weaves through jungle and forest, and across a lot of rivers. Very scenic. It's dirt all the way, and sometimes very chewed up. Would be a great ride in the dry. In the wet it's very muddy, hard going. Goes across a small mountain range, and the mountains proper are on the left (West). Speccy. Food and water most of the way. The small village of Preah Klaeng is at a crossroad, at the 39 km point, and they have food, drinks and most importantly, ice. I love ice.

The day's ride:

They sure do rise early in Cambodia. It's half past five and the cafe in Phnom Daek where I'm crashing for the night is coming alive.

I had a good night's sleep, curled up on the wooden bench, not too many mozzies, cockroaches or rats. Excellent! I love Cambodia! I struggle out of my sleeping sheet, order a coffee and head for the water closet. A bucket of water over the head sure is a pleasant thing. I love water.

It rained all last night, and it's still misty by the time I collect my mind and push out into the world. I'm starting to get used to Rooster, my new 26 inch Giant, feeling it's rythms, it's strengths, it's weaknesses and idiocyncracies. Yep, I'm becoming at one with the bike.

This is a Zen concept that non-bikers scoff at, infidels that they are! But who cares about them?

I cycle north out of town past the big sign that says 75 km to Trabaeng Meanchay, but it must be old, as the trip turns out to be only 65 km. On and on into the green Cambodian jungle alone, but the road is again a mud-pile.

Jesus, this is hard! And demoralising. You work up a hill, no traction, wheels spinning, gears clogging with mud, you get to the top, you think: OK, now to coast down the other side!, but it's wet and muddy, so you sit on the brakes, slide the back wheel to and fro, and reach a top speed of only 15 km/hr.

Then you hit the bottom where the mud and water is three feet deep, so you have to stop and wade through. Get back on the bike, and start the grind again.

All along this section there are red and white Skull and Cross Bone signs, to the left and right. Minefields!

OK, I gotta go do No.2's at some point, so I park the bike, and gingerly make my way into the forest. No sound of explosions, no unreal sense of flying through the air, no white lights at the end of tunnels, no figure of Jesus shaking his head sadly at my lame attempt to live a productive and fruitfull life. Excellent!

I do my business, and feel better. I stand on the road listening to the sound of the jungle. No sound of people, no sound of civilisation, only the metallic whine of the cicaders, or whatever they are. Sliding sound waves cutting through the green foliage, sheets of sound coming in from all directions. Scher-w-i-i-i-ng! Scher-wing!

OK, I'm having a perfect moment, just me and the cicaders and the forest, my bike and the road. Excellent. I smoke a cigarette to enhance things a little. I feel frisky, sexually alive. I stomp my feet up and down on the good earth. It must be the jungle, the Spirit of the Forest, whom I love maybe even more than Jesus. Life is good.

And then it starts raining again, slowly at first, and building. Big blobs of water hitting my cap and making a Tack! Tack! sound. Perfect moment over. I climb back on the bike, and ride off in search of some good cover. The roads is running with water, and it's suddenly cold and wet out here. I'm soaked in five minutes.

I spot a house, and turn the bike into their mud-heap, which doubles as a driveway. Underneath the house, a traditional wooden Cambodian affair, sit three little girls warming themselves beside a small fire. The oldest can't be much more than 8, but it's hard to tell with Cambodian kids.

Normally I wouldn't just barge in like this, but this is an emergency. The rain is now very dense and thick, and there's lightning up along the cliffs in the distance. Ba-a-ng! Ba-a-ang! Big, deep blows of the hammer!

Well, you gotta give these kids credit. A big hairy bike riding barung arrives out of the blue, muddy, puffing, an unstable moose of a man, and they don't move, but just sit there by the fire and look up, wide-eyed.

Even so, they're ready to bolt at the first inexact movement, so I slowly park my bike under the awning, and slowly move towards the fire.

Sok sa-bai! Sok sa-bai! I say, Khnom hot! (Howdy doodee! I'm tired!)

No worries, they move over and let me inch in towards the fire. I produce some sweets, and we're almost pals now, having a little sugar party while the rain buckets down, and I squat on a log, feeling at peace with all things Cambodian and bike.

The last 20 km turns out to be the worst. The rain has made a complete mess of the road, so there's nought else to do but accept it and stop complaining. Focus on the job, Feely. I pass some soldiers stationed beside the road, guarding a bridge. Why, I'm not sure, but these parts were some of the last to come under government control in the late 90's, and apparently there's still outlaws out here somewhere.

I stop. I'm the entertainment for the day, and I make an effort to be charming and funny, like Bugs Bunny. Besides, these guys, who look about 14 years old, are all carrying AK-47s, and I don't know if it's Duck Season or Rabbit Season, but whatever it is, I want to be on their side. You never know when you need a 14 year old with an AK-47.

Up and down, up and down, slog through the mud, cross a bridge on foot, get back on, slog up a hill. And then that most welcome of Cambodian fixtures, the roundabout! Every decent sized town has one, usually with a prominent Buddhist statue of some description standing tall in the middle. OK, Trabaeng Meanchay, lookin' good!

Trabaeng Meanchay turns out to be a thriving regional town, and I collapse in the cafe by the market and order two iced coffees.

Pee? the waitress asks. (Two?)

Yep, bring me two of the coolest, biggest most refreshing iced coffees you can make and I'll put you in my will and support your family for six generations.

There's a few guest houses to choose from, and for some reason, which is a mystery to me, but probably not to any of my ex-girlfriends, I choose the cheapest. At 6,000 Riel ($1:50) it's too good to pass up. And after the coffees, which are loaded with sugar, I'm feeling bouyant, almost ecstatic, so who needs crisp, white sheets and an inside toilet? This dump will do fine! Everything is fine! No more cycling for today! I love Cambodia!

And besides, The Great Fractal Pattern is looking after me. At the guest house I run into the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) who are out here clearing the mines. Apparently it's gonna take another 10 years to clear them all, but despite this, or maybe because of it, they are a happy group, and they give me some detailed road information.

Apparently the road to Sa-em, about 100 km further north, is a complete wasteland of mud, water and no drink stops. However, I've heard all of this before, all over South East Asia, and it may be right, may be wrong.

Rule no.7: Only trust cyclists when it comes to road reports.

But, if you're on the road tomorrow at 10 am, they tell me, we can pick you up in the truck. We're going to Sa-em.

Alright, that seems like good insurance. No worries.

I spend the evening talking with them, and they are full of questions about the West. The conversation never steers too far away from money and women, which is pretty normal for blokes anywhere, but always, always there's the great, yawning cultural gap.

Short, simple answers to blunt questions. Answers with no social context, no body of experience and no historical perspective to give them inter-cultural relevance. It's fun and merry, affectionate and well meaning, but the facts become warped as they get force fitted into the local context.

MAG guy: Why you ride bike? Why not ride motorbike? It's much easier!
Me: Well, I like. Good for health. Sport!
(Silence. Puzzled looks. This guy must be mad. He's a barung, so he must be rich, so why ride a bike? It doesn't make sense.)
MAG guy: How much bike cost?
Me: Five hundred dollars.
(In actual fact, it costs $1000, but I've learnt to drop the price on most items in Asia.)
MAG guy, laughing: In Cambodia you can buy motorbike for $500!
(Laughter all round. Yep, this barung's a nut case!)

Now, this is just a conversation over a simple bicycle, so when we broach sexual mores, marriage and virginity, the facts are bending into unrecognisable shapes. It's too hard, my head is beginning to hurt, so I make my excuses and go to bed.

Luckily I've got some Khmer headfuck left. I roll a joint, kick out my feet, and lay back under the mosquito net. I dial up Traffic on my I-pod and climb on the back of a giant albatross, which flies through a crack in the clouds to a place where happiness reigns, all year round. No worries.

Next morning I'm to head north to Sa-em, and maybe Preah Vihar, right on the Thai border. 100 km of evil mud doesn't sound too good, but let's leave that for the 'morrow.

I look around the room. It's filthy. The wire coming from the brown light bulb runs across the bed-head. How many folks have been electrocuted in here? No wonder it's only 6,000 Riel. Am I a Cheap Charlie, or just deluded? Am I an idiot? What's it all mean?

But who cares, let it all go, I'm on a giant albatross, sailing across a magical landscape, and I don't have to peddle.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Day 3: Kampong Thom to Phnom Daek, 77 km

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.

Day 2: Skun to Kampong Thom, 86 km

I'm out of Skun early, and chugging north-west along Highway 6 quite nicely. The road is sealed and in great condition, flat, but there's a steady head-wind coming in from Thailand, a light sou-westerly, and it's a bother. Luckily there's no rain. Not much traffic, but I'm still suffering from boredom and a lack of fitness. I'm looking forward to turning north after K. Thom, and into some unknown territory. I need some adventure.

I'm not one of these guys who can cycle and cycle, grind it out for days on end, just for the cycling's sake. I need a reason, I need romance, I need delusion! So I tell myself, amidst the toxins and doubts.

I get into Kampong Thom around 3 PM, and am exhausted. I meet a French couple, Nico and Natalie, who like to talk, so I decide to stay for 3 days. I've also really got to nail this lack of fitness, so I cycle 25 km out and back around K. Thom every morning, and feel better for it. When you're doing short loops like this you can really put the foot down and have some fun.

Tomorrow I head north towards Preah Vihar, into unknown territory, and also feel better for it.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Phnom Penh to Skun - Day 1

My plan is to cycle out of Phnom Penh, up through Skun to Kampong Thom, and then hook north up to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. I've cycled most of the primary highways in Cambodia over the last 6 years, and am now keen to venture further out into woop-woop. What's out there? What will happen? Will I make it?

After Preah Vihar, and depending on the weather and the state of the roads, I'll head west to Poipet, and make my way back to Phnom Penh.

The monsoon has broken, and it's raining every other day, and I'm told the usual story: the roads around Preah Vihar are diabolical, and you won't get through.

We shall see.

Phnom Penh - Skun, 75 km, HWY 5, north-west out of PP.

I leave at 8 am and peddle out into the morning traffic. I'm on a new bike, Rooster, and am terribly unfit. Twelve months of sitting at home on the couch watching nature documentaries, and now I'm a slug. How many people have I told, when emailing me about fitness levels, to "not worry about it, get fit as you ride"? I take it all back, I was wrong. Get fit before you go.

I rode my old bike for ten years, and never had a problem, but now I've got a shiney new expensive model, and it's a beaut. But the weak link is me. No leg muscles, no mental focus and by the time I go over the Japanese Bridge out of the city, about 4 km from my guest house, I'm overheating so badly that I have to tie a scarf around my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes.

I stop on the top of the bridge and have a cigarette. That should help.

The road is sealed the whole way and is in great condition, and the traffic aint too bad, usual chaos, but light enough. Unfortunately, I've cycled this leg four or five times before in both directions, so I just about go to sleep as I'm peddling along, despite the green-on-green scenery and happy Khmer kids waving and shouting from the sides.

I've also got a Khmer pop song in my head, going around and around, and it won't go away, and by the 40 kilometre mark, where normally I should be just getting into my second wind, I'm flagging, puffing, straining.

Another 5 kilometres and the mental toxins are beginning to come out. Why did she say that? Who does she think she is? And deeper toxins. I'm back in school, I'm being hard done by, again. I am innocent, I tell you, innocent!

I get into Skun around lunch time. Skun is about as boring as it gets, and normally I'd have a quick lunch and head on to Kampong Thom, another 50 or so km up the road, but not today. I go to a cafe and order an iced coffee (kar-fay dook-toe tar-kok). I'm exhausted, and there's gotta be a million flies in this restaurant. Too late, I've already ordered.

I lie on my bed under the mosquito net and massage my thighs. My God, I'm so unfit. This is really painfull, and boring.

Frankie said...
Frankie: So what is the shiny new bike? Is the Pump on a titanium job and loads of brightly coloured Lycra, looking like Lance Armstrong or is it gntleman pump on a penny farthing, sporting a drop handlebar moustache and a nice tweed jacker and plus fours – possibly a bit hot for Cambodia! Blog readers really need to know to conjure up an accurate mental image of Mr Pump’s extreme makeover.

Mr Felix: No, no, it's all relative, and not extreme in the least.

Mr Pumpy is somewhat of a low tech guy, and the old bike was a stable mid-range 26 inch Giant with no natty features at all. But reliable. No major mechanical problems and maybe 5 flat tyres in 10 years on the road. Not bad, and if it aint broke, don't fix it type of thing.

The new bike, Rooster, is also a 26 inch Giant, with front shockers and alloy frame. Maybe upper middle-class on the scale of things, but after the last bike, it feels like a million dollars.

Mr Pumpy also looks pretty straight on the road. I ran into a Polish cyclist the other week, who looked very groovy indeed - dreadlocks, Khmer scarf wrapped rakishly around his head, but he was a dill. One of those twenty-somethings, a newbie cyclist, who knows everything, and knows nothing at the same time. Mr Pumpy was glad to see the back of him.

Mr Pumpy dresses to blend: brown cotton shirt, grey cotton pants, and a simple blue baseball cap with an ape on the front - Planet of the Apes!, and make of that what you will, Frankie. Mr Pumpy chuckles to himself as he cycles along, with ape. Some folks say he's got a retarded sense of humour, but I wouldn't know about that.

But Mr Pumpy does have a light blue and yellow cap with MR PUMPY embroidered on the front, but he left it at a friend's place in Saigon 12 months ago, and is now on his way back there to pick it up.

He actually had two made in Malaysia at one stage, but gave one away to a beautiful blonde haired girl from Berlin. Unfortunately she went back to Berlin, and he never saw the cap again. Make of that what you will, also, Frankie, but Mr Pumpy did shed a tear or two over this. He's a sensitive chap.

OK, I hope that clears that up.
Mr Felix - Last Home Guest House, Phnom Penh, Tuesday 20/8/04