The last day of cycling in Cambodia was a lovely day. All the days on the ride were lovely days. A whole collection of lovely days I’d love to do again. What a way to see a country. Thailand next me thinks -this touring on a bike thing has gripped my fancy. It’s so alive allowing all five senses to be twiddled like no other mode of transport. You see things from a totally different perspective and I saw lots as I poddled along at the back of the group, rhythmically pedaling at my own pace in the position reserved for the matriarch of the trip. I looked left and I looked right, up and down and all around. The colours, the shapes, the differences, the homes, the people. Mainly the people. I adore looking at people and these all so happy with their bright teeth and enveloping smiles. The smells of roadside braaied pork, dried fish, freshly harvested something – I think it was rice (do you harvest or reap rice?) pig manure and of course sweet smell of flowers. Lots of flowers in Vietnam. The feel of the many kids rushing to the roadside shouting hell-o as they hand up high fives, hoping for a touch from the foreigner. The salty taste of sweat as it drips off your nose – just a reminder that you’re alive and doing something satisfyingly physical. How sweet the taste of water from my water bottle at regular intervals. The feel of the wind cooling tired limbs… and of course you feel your bum even when its numb. My goodness do you feel your bum. That pain remains relentless no matter where you place it on the saddle. Forward, backwards, side, together! Stand up on the pedals for momentary relief or get off the bike. The only options to ease the agony.
I lost track of days but clearly remember the last ride through Vietnam. So very pretty along a tree lined path next to one of the Mekong River tributaries, of which there are many. Seems like the whole of Vietnam is built on waterways. I loved the sense of community and the pace at which life is lived. The houses are built close together and the front yards communal and shared with the street. Ladies gossip across motorbikes, carts, and barrows as they sit each side of the path. Men drink iced coffee in groups, their low slung bums squatted just above the ground as children do what children do best – play, all over, despite the traffic coming and going. Food, (which was so tasty in both countries) comes without a phone call – on barrow wheels or in oversized stuffed baskets precariously balanced across a head – fresh fish, slabs of meat, cooked or raw, green veg, baguettes (the French influence of many years ago, so good) cooked beef, sliced duck, pork skewers, live squid, dead crickets garnished with chili, honey baked spiders and fruit in its rainbow colours – green coconuts, orange mangoes, bright pink dragon fruit, finger bananas and plenty of stuff I did not recognize. Everyone looked happy and content with their lot in life. The elusive state of simplicity I could easily covert.
And so to the Kingdom of Cambodian border where we off loaded our first set of bikes as they were refused entry. The exit Vietnam customs house was a small tin hut where we were officially stamped out. Then a walk across no man’s land to another hot tin hut to apply for a visa. Backwards to another hut to pay for the visa and then to another to have it stuck into our passport by one official and handwritten names and dates scribed by another. Said visa had a number needed to fill the gap in the final entry form to get us into Cambodia which we, one by one, handed over to another official next to a boom and whoopee do, after two and a bit hours we were officially called Cambodian visitors. How soon we forget the instantness of technology.
On this side of the land we were fitted out with a new set of bikes. This lengthy process involved measuring for bike size, putting in saddles, pulling on gel seats, checking the brakes working, clicking gears, mechanics oiling chains, cable tying our names to the front and going for a spin kicking up as much dust as possible just to check all is in order. And in order all the bikes were. Really great all round – I had only one complaint about mine, it didn’t go as fast as the ones in the front of the peloton! Drat.
This part of Cambodia is very different to Vietnam. Much drier, less water, plenty red dust and much lighter traffic. Fewer motor bikes, more carts and less people. 15 million people (Vietnam has 90 million) in a larger space. The roads are generally good, although there are many patches being patched. Large chunks of the road sides are taken up by mats drying rice. And why not? The surface is flat, its smooth, its hot and sunny and its available right outside your bit of farm. Bargain all round, never mind it takes up half the travelling space. Then the universal problem of plastic bags. Everywhere. Hurting and hiding the landscape.
But not nearly as much as one of our afternoon stops deeply hurt my heart. We visited the Killing Fields of the infamous Khmer Rouge where genocide claimed three million lives in just over three years at the end of the 1970’s. Death came in the most brutal ways possible while the Western world looked away and did nothing. Sick sick sick that humanity can be devalued and degraded to such an extent, lead by one man who thought everyone should be equal to the farmer in the field. If you were educated in any way. You died. A horrible death. If you had any more money than the farmer. You died. A horrible death. If you had soft hands. You died. A horrible death. Children were beaten and killed in front of their mothers. Families were tortured and thrown in mass graves….and on and on and on the horror stories go. And right now as the United Nations judges sit in Phnom Peng trying to try the generals responsible, they remain tight lipped and say they know nothing. Their leader Pol Pot died in dignity, a few years back. This carnage has left a large gap in many areas of society and none more so than the education of the people. With all the learned wiped out, there was no one to teach. The literacy rate is only now starting to creep above 3 percent – it’s going to take a while. Awful. Just awful.
We left the fields with our heads hanging low, depressed and saddened as we felt a collective disgust that these tyrants who inflicted such atrocities, under order or not, could possibly be included in the fellow human being category. In situations like these I find it hard to believe that man is the most intelligent species.
Not only were people affected and destroyed in this civil war. The Khmer Rouge also banned the practice of any form of religion as they did not want the devotion they craved diluted. To ensure this happened the child soldiers were ordered to destroy the Buddhist temples and any worshipping sites throughout the country. Angkor Wat, a centuries old religious site important in history was certainly not spared. It was built across a large stretch of land in the ninth century and took 300 years to complete. In the fifteenth centuary it was abandoned to the jungle and forgotten about till French explorers discovered it in the 19 hundreds. The area with its beautiful statues, sculptures, intricate carvings depicting the life of the times and multi layered towers is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A fact ignored in arrogance by the soldiers who mutilated its animal guards, shot off the stone heads of the gods and sprayed sacred bodies with bullets. The resident monks were either killed, forced to convert or grew their hair and went into hiding in the jungle. Many killed themselves in mass suicides. Ironically, it was here that we had the most peaceful and pleasurable rides. Our local temple guide took us off the beaten tourist track, through the surrounding forests, dodging tree trunks, jumping roots, sliding on fallen leaves and over running streams covered only by a thin plank. Not easily negotiated with a bike on your back but oh so much fun. No traffic, no motorbikes, no other people. We entered and exited the temple areas through elaborate arches and over wide moats, stopping to look at the sky touching trees with their 700 year old twisted trunks and hugely visible roots that squeezed and squashed the ruins in their grip. Paradoxically crushing and preserving at the same time. Fascinating stuff.
As with all things, the time passed far all too fast and the trip came to an end. Memories made for a lifetime. Friendships forged and many experiences that have enriched and enhanced my life will remain indefinitely. My bum is no worse for wear and the well used muscles in my legs and arms only mildly irritated. Another Buck(et) list item to satisfyingly cross off.
What’s next…..lots. But the most exciting has to be the wedding of our eldest unmarried in three weeks time. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that, so watch this space and if you’re wondering what the mother of the groom will look like….. Yes, you’re right, the dress I’m wearing is probablyinpurple!