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Sunday, 27 December 2009

Riding From Saigon to Angkor - Page 2

Written by Jeff Fitzgibbon
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Cambodia’s roads are hot, flat and straight as a rail, but for all that, cycling on them is an exhilarating multi-dimensional experience

Just for a moment, the piglets stopped their squealing. Wouldn’t you, if a panting, sweating, red-Lycra-shirted cyclist loomed into spitting distance of your personal space?

 

The two-day Vietnam leg of the journey passed quickly. Just as I’d perfected my haggling at Saigon’s main market (I reckoned $5 for a small North Face daypack was pretty good, knock-off or not) and mastered the art of crossing the motorbike-manic streets with equanimity, it came time to light out for the territory – Cambodia.

We rode northwest to Moc Bai, the border town, where we got our first glimpse of the many contradictions of Cambodia. Smiling and helpful Cambodian officials were a tonic after dealing with Vietnamese border suspicion. But the first thing we rode past was a row of casinos, looking like wedding cakes but reportedly owned by the underworld of various countries and facilitated by an obliging officialdom.

There’s a sense of the frontier about Cambodia. Things are changing fast as aid money and other sources of wealth help pave roads, build lavish houses, and replace pushbikes with motorbikes on the roads.

But the great majority of the population still lives and works in the country, where rice is planted, rubber is tapped in time-honored ways, and electricity is delivered – if at all – through a single wire on rickety poles, and the kids are still astonished to see white giants riding by on pushbikes.

Everywhere there is a reminder of violence from either the ancient or recent past, whether it’s a warlike frieze on a temple, a landmine warning sign, or an exhortation to report evidence of child sex trafficking.

It’s unsettling to sense the terror and tragedy that must lie beneath the surface of what otherwise seems a vibrant, rapidly developing country. It’s sobering to place the exuberance of the kids on the roadside into the context of the killing fields and a landmine museum.

But back to the border. It was there we changed to our Cambodian bikes, and beautiful machines they were, too: sleek, well-sprung, 21-speed Trek aluminum mountain bikes customized to our individual sizes. Regardless, I was glad I took a gel seat cover to supplement the padded Lycra shorts I wore under my Billabongs – riding an average 70 kilometers a day can get awful taxing on the nether regions, no matter how quickly Cambodia’s road surfaces are improving.

Here we also met our support staff and vehicles, so critical to a good touring experience. First, an air-conditioned bus that would travel behind us to carry our gear and give succor to the weary or injured. Second, a truck with mechanic to tend to all machinery needs. Third, a cycling guide and guru – in fact, the number two rider in the Cambodian national road racing team. (His name’s Lin, and his mother despairs that bike riding might make him too skinny to attract a wife.)

And fourth, but most important of all, our guide Hoeum. He was magnificent – organized, articulate and passionate about Cambodia’s history, architecture and politics. As we cycled through his village, he told us how his grandfather starved to death under the Khmer Rouge’s rice-hoarding policy, how his father was press-ganged into the regime, and how he had to time his run home from school to avoid the shells that flew from the jungle over his village every afternoon.

 

(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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