CYCLING THROUGH CAMBODIA
A five-day biking tour takes intrepid travellers through a country rich in culture.
The air is thick with humidity; the dense forest blocks any hint of a breeze. My bike bounces wildly like a bucking bronco over sharp, slippery rocks as sweat drips into my eyes and coats my fine hair, making it feel like I’m having a shower. Quads burn the further I climb, yet somehow my 35-year-old legs refuse to stop pedalling.
“That was awful,” says Kevin as he reaches the top and collapses on a small wooden bench. Others are all smiles, basking in the glory of what they had just accomplished.
Being an occasional cyclist in Canada, I had never ridden a mountain bike up a steep hill, nor cycled more than 200 kilometres over the course of five days along an assortment of roads that often left me vibrating like my mother once she’s had her morning cup of coffee.
But when I signed up for a seven-day cycling tour with Grasshopper Adventures, I was looking for a unique experience that would challenge me both physically and mentally, while viewing a new country (and one that was relatively flat) through a different set of eyes.
The plan was to cycle 330 kilometres from Siem Reap in the north to Sihanoukville in the south, then spend a few days relaxing and recovering on the beaches of Koh Rong Samloem—a laid-back tropical island paradise just off the country’s southern coast.
AN INVIGORATING EXPERIENCE
The first two days are a breeze, cycling about 25 kilometres each day through the lush countryside around the sleepy city of Battambang. Then the real adventure begins, cycling 60 kilometres in one day, 65 kilometres the next, then another 45 kilometres in heat that makes me sweat just sitting in the shade.
At times the cycling is easy and my bike flies along the roads like the Road Runner from Looney Tunes. Other times it feels like I’m trying to move a tank stuck in thick mud.
“Hello!” yells a group of enthusiastic young children as they run from their tiny homes toward the side of a dirt road in the countryside. Arms stretched, they eagerly await a high five from the group of 15 cyclists whizzing through their village like a swarm of bees.
It’s things like this that make cycling through Cambodia an intimate experience that invigorates all of my senses. Mainly sticking to quiet country trails and back roads, I’m hit with a variety of smells as we pass through villages and towns, dodging chickens, dogs and numerous herds of cattle along the way.
We meander along pothole-riddled roads fringed by tropical palms gently swaying in the breeze and basic homes that look like they’re built on stilts. I hear
strange music blasting from the odd wedding, snippets of lively conversations among the locals, and the never-ending sound of peeping chicks.
I see an elderly couple making rice paper underneath their home, sparkling temples and Buddhist shrines seemingly plopped in the middle of nowhere, bustling markets packed with exotic foods I’m scared to try, shirtless men fishing in streams, floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake and an unexpected forest of pine trees in the hills of Kirirom National Park.
The experience is something I would never get just sitting on a bus. This is how travelling should be.
“I want to show the tourists how beautiful our country is and share our culture,” says my local guide and avid cyclist Hang Chhoeurn, noting many tourists flock to Cambodia with one thing on their agenda— seeing the famous temples of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.
THE FINAL STRETCH
But beyond the grand sprawling temples and bustling streets of Siem Reap next door is a country rich in culture with a very dark past that often creeps into my thoughts as I observe Cambodian life from the seat of my bike.
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, took control of the country in April 1975, turning it into a detention centre that later became a graveyard for nearly two million people during the genocide. Millions of landmines are still buried throughout the countryside and continue to claim around 100 victims every year. It’s not uncommon to see people with missing limbs in many parts of the country.
Despite their dark past, the locals are friendly and I’m constantly greeted with enthusiastic “hellos” that give me a muchneeded push to keep on pedalling. By the final day, we’re all feeling the six days worth
of cycling and groan at the thought of getting back on a bike.
“Are you having fun yet?” I say to Caitlin during the final day of the ride—a 55-kilometre journey along a hilly paved road from the lazy town of Kampot to the beautiful beaches of Sihanoukville. Back in Australia, Caitlin doesn’t even own a bike, but she’s part of the group of 11 friends of all ages on the tour who’ve made a tradition of cycling through a country in southeast Asia every year.
Drenched in sweat from the sweltering 37 C, Caitlin looks unimpressed as I question yet again the things I do for fun. I’m sweating in places I didn’t even know it was possible to sweat, but the group keeps my spirits high. The final day is a struggle, the heat zapping every shred of energy from my tired little body, leaving me wondering if I should sit out a stretch in the support van following us the entire ride. None of us, however, are willing to throw in the towel.
A wave of relief washes over me as I arrive at Otres Beach for sunset and immediately crack open a cold beer, basking in the glory of completing the entire ride. It feels like I just won an Olympic medal. The group is all smiles, chatting excitedly about what country to cycle next year.
During the next few days of lazing on a white sandy beach that feels like flour, I’m still buzzing with excitement about the epic cycling journey, even though I’m scared to sit on a wooden chair. I contemplate whether I would ever do it again, then realize I can’t wait to jump on my bike when I return to Canada.
“The overall feeling of riding into Sihanoukville was joy and accomplishment,” says Caitlin, a few weeks after the ride. “It was harder than I expected, not because of the distances, more so because of the heat and potholes. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s still an amazing way to see a place.”
OPPOSITE: Paradise found: Otres Beach at sunset. TOP: Children run from their tiny homes to greet us as we whiz through their village. CENTRE: Our group of cyclists takes time out to rest and enjoy the view. ABOVE: A typical scene in rural Cambodia. LEFT: Grand sprawling temples are found throughout Cambodia.
ABOVE: A vendor sells his wares at a Cambodian marketplace. BELOW: A rural fisherman casts his net. OPPOSITE TOP: Saffron-robed monks are a familiar sight across Cambodia.