Travel: South East Asia

Dubbo Photo News - - Contents. - BY ABI JACK­SON

IT takes mere sec­onds for the thick, gnarly clouds to tum­ble across the sky, smoth­er­ing ev­ery inch of blue. The chalky red dirt track and flank­ing green paddy fields, which un­til mo­ments ago had looked so vi­brant they seemed un­real, are now bathed in an eerie gloom.

The rain fol­lows with equally dra­matic speed. I pedal on, re­mind­ing my­self to savour the mo­ment – while also keep­ing an ex­tra care­ful eye out for pot­holes and dart­ing dogs – un­til our guide Alis­tair yells: “Ev­ery­body stop here!”

Af­ter a morn­ing of long, re­mote stretches, the rain’s struck at a con­ve­nient point: there’s a build­ing where we can shel­ter un­til it clears.

Hud­dled be­neath a porch in ru­ral Cam­bo­dia, we’re a mot­ley crew of 14 tourists shiv­er­ing in sod­den Ly­cra. Re­mark­ably for a group that loves talk­ing about the weather, we’re ren­dered tem­po­rar­ily speech­less by the sheer magic and mad­ness of it all.

I’m grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to rest. Five days into my eight-day ride with global cy­cling and trekking chal­lenge spe­cial­ists Dis­cover Ad­ven­ture, I’ve been hav­ing an un­com­fort­able morn­ing. De­spite the padded shorts and chamois cream (used by cy­clists to guard against sad­dle sore), blis­ters have sprouted un­der my bum cheeks and my legs are close to seiz­ing up (my own fault for can­ing it the day be­fore, try­ing to keep up with the boys on their race fin­ish of the fi­nal, hilly 10km of a long 90km day).

Stiff and sore, I’m re­al­is­ing why the trip brochure warned this was go­ing to feel like a chal­lenge and may some­times re­quire us to ‘dig deep’.

That dig­ging had be­gun on day one for some. As Alis­tair had said at the start: “It’s not the dis­tance or ter­rain that makes this trip chal­leng­ing, it’s the heat.”

Our itin­er­ary – start­ing in Viet­nam’s Ho Chi Minh City and fin­ish­ing in Cam­bo­dia’s Angkor Wat – would take us on a 510km cy­cle ride over the course of eight days. The trip is man­age­able for peo­ple of mod­er­ate to de­cent fit­ness, though cy­cling ex­pe­ri­ence mas­sively helps. If you’re not used to be­ing on a sad­dle for hours, days on end, it’s go­ing to hurt, and train­ing’s firmly ad­vised.

Throw 40-de­gree heat and hours un­der a blaz­ing sun into the mix and it’s largely pot luck how you’ll fare; heat ex­haus­tion makes the first cou­ple of days tough for some.

Thank­fully, by day three, ev­ery­body’s feel­ing good. We’re free to re­lax and em­brace the ex­pe­ri­ence, leav­ing ‘real life’ thou­sands of miles away back at home.

De­mand for ad­ven­ture travel has boomed in re­cent years, with cy­cling trips be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. It’s a trend that’s set to free­wheel even fur­ther, and tour com­pa­nies have seen a no­table in­crease in ap­petite for trips in south­east Asia. In the four years since the Ho Chi Minh to Angkor Wat itin­er­ary that I’m on has been go­ing, de­mand’s risen by around 50 per cent year on year.

What’s the ap­peal? A quick sur­vey of our group sums it up.

Rang­ing in age from 22 to 67, we’re a right mix. For some, fundrais­ing for char­i­ties close to their hearts is their main mo­ti­va­tion, while for oth­ers, it’s sim­ply a pas­sion for cy­cling, a de­sire to push their lim­its a lit­tle and see a bit of the world in the process. As sea­soned ad­ven­ture-seeker Ca­role Fen­dick, 63, puts it: “Hav­ing a chal­lenge on the hori­zon gives me a rea­son to keep train­ing and keep it up in the gym.”

The fact we’re trav­el­ling in this part of the world gives our ad­ven­ture an ad­di­tional ex­otic twist – and cy­cling en­ables us to get up close and per­sonal with the desti­na­tion in a way that’s not usu­ally pos­si­ble.

The itin­er­ary also in­cludes gaps for touristy stuff, in­clud­ing a morn­ing boat ride through Viet­nam’s Can Tho float­ing mar­ket where fish, fruit and even live­stock are all traded on the wa­ter; the Cu Chi Tun­nels where the Vi­et­cong hid dur­ing the Viet­nam War; the Tuol Sleng Mu­seum in Ph­nom Penh – a for­mer school used as a se­cret prison camp by the Kh­mer Rouge dur­ing the Pol Pot regime in the late Seven­ties which saw around two mil­lion Cam­bo­di­ans killed; and the Killing Fields, where much of the geno­cide took place.

Al­though truly heart­break­ing, th­ese sites are im­por­tant re­minders of the hor­rors peo­ple went through.

It’s on our bikes though, that we re­ally get to see – and fall in love with – th­ese en­chant­ing coun­tries.

We pedal through bustling towns and tiny vil­lages, bounce across bridges, weave through nar­row streets and cruise along end­less coun­try roads sur­rounded by lush rice pad­dies, ba­nana and sugar plan­ta­tions.

Some days, huge honk­ing trucks rum­ble past, while on oth­ers, we share the roads with cows and carts and school­child­ren in pris­tine uni­forms, who gig­gle and oc­ca­sion­ally race along.

We marvel at colour­fully-painted pago­das and a duck farmer guid­ing his flock down a river, gasp as mopeds trans­port­ing en­tire fam­i­lies – or squeal­ing pigs – whizz by, and hours are spent chat­ting and shar­ing sto­ries with fel­low rid­ers.

Daily dis­tances range from 30-90km, with reg­u­lar stops to re­fill drink bot­tles and top up on sun-cream and calo­ries. Stay­ing prop­erly hy­drated and fed is cru­cial and pro­vi­sions are plen­ti­ful; we snack on fruit, cake, crack­ers and crisps and – though I don’t touch the stuff back home – guz­zle end­less fizzy drinks, and tuck into bowls of rice and veg with meat or fish for lunch.

Food and flu­ids aside, two other things play a key role in keep­ing those ped­als turn­ing: the group ban­ter and the end­less friendly smiles, waves and cheery ‘Hel­loes’ from the lo­cals.

In some ru­ral ar­eas, the ar­rival of th­ese bi­cy­cling aliens ev­ery few months has be­come quite an event: chil­dren gather to greet us and ex­change ex­cited high-fives.

Dis­cover Ad­ven­ture part­ners with lo­cal oper­a­tors – in­clud­ing two lo­cal guides, Vet and Sal, who cy­cle with us the whole time, along with Alis­tair – to sup­port the in-coun­try trip lo­gis­tics, sort­ing ev­ery­thing from the bikes (though there is the op­tion to fly your own out), ac­com­mo­da­tion and meals. We’re also ac­com­pa­nied by a mini bus (which we travel in for some stints of the jour­ney) and sup­port ve­hi­cle.

They’re pas­sion­ate about pro­mot­ing cy­cling in the re­gion and giv­ing back to the lo­cal com­mu­nity; bikes are do­nated to or­phans once they get too old to be used on the chal­lenges.

Seven days into the trip, my skin is gross, I’m bloated from all the sports drinks and I’ve worn noth­ing but grubby Ly­cra for a week – but I’ve also fallen head over heels in love with it all and can’t imag­ine re­turn­ing to a rou­tine that doesn’t start with a 6.30am wake-up call, in­volve seven hours on a bike and end with a beer and hob­bly tod­dle to bed.

To soften the blow, our fi­nal day is a real treat – a short ride, which in­cludes some su­per fun jun­gle tracks and ends in the breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful an­cient tem­ples of Angkor.

We cross the fin­ish line with mixed emo­tions: we did it! But oh, that means it’s over...

It’s a bit­ter­sweet vic­tory, but boy – what a ride!

TRAVEL FACTS

Abi Jack­son was a guest of Dis­cover Ad­ven­ture.

Tem­ples at Angkor. Pho­tos: PA Photo

Abi, front left, and fel­low cy­clists mak­ing friends with lo­cal kids while cy­cling across Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia.

A house in Cam­bo­dia.

Abi at the fin­ish line in Angkor, Cam­bo­dia.

Tem­ples at Angkor.

Abi pos­ing with new friends in a vil­lage near Long Xuyen in Viet­nam.

Cy­cling past a cart in ru­ral Cam­bo­dia.

Abi sweat-free be­fore set­ting off on day one in Viet­nam.

Abi at the Tem­ples at Angkor.

A dog rid­ing a moped in Viet­nam.

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