CY­CLING THROUGH CAM­BO­DIA

A five-day bik­ing tour takes in­trepid trav­ellers through a coun­try rich in cul­ture.

Dreamscapes Travel & Lifestyle Magazine - - Table Of Contents - BY PAMELA ROTH

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.

THE PLAN

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.

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