RIDING through Cambodia’s heavenly countryside it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, peaceful existence.
If the children in Vietnam were excited to see a motley crew of lycra clad cyclists passing by then the Cambodians were positively delirious. One little girl insisted on carrying my dirty, smelly shoes around a temple for half and hour and was overjoyed when I gave her a felt tip pen for her troubles. Many youngsters in little more than rags shamed us with their command of English.
Butterflies and dragonflies circled us as we cycled through this Garden of Eden with its paddy fields surely little changed for centuries, it’s homes limped on stilts and wafts of the fish paste every rural meal is built upon sticking in our noses.
But there is a reason these were the killing fields where the Cambodians killed 2.9 million of their own people not so very long ago..
By the time we reached Siem Reap at the end of our journey, I was convinced that these friendly people had everything I really wanted…a simple life with their families around them without the iPhones and twittering trappings of the modern world. Even the excesses of Pub Street, an avenue of noisy Costa Del Sol style bars that are in stark contrast to the 11th century wonder of the Angkor Wat temples a few miles away, were so cheaply found it was hard to judge.
I remember making sure at one point on the way from Phnom Penh that I was riding totally alone so I could suck in the serenity and try to figure out where my own life became so complicated. They had adopted the US dollar as a currency but why on earth would the Cambodians want to copy the Americans when they had all this?
We truly felt that as part of a group travelling the backways through the country we had a better insight into the reality of their lives. But like any tourists, we were really just scratching the surface.
It was only when Dave and I had the opportunity to talk to some Cambodians in Siem Reap that we learned the reality behind the friendly smiles. And that reality is crushing poverty that leaves ordinary Cambodians hungry and thirsty most of the time, particularly in the rural areas we cycled through.
The rice we saw being hand-grown by stooping farmers up to their calves in water in the fields and drying on the path in batches we had no choice but to ride over was bound largely for Vietnam. Trucks will come a calling at harvest time, ensuring only a little is left behind for the growers. In the shadows, we were told, were the party officially making sure the people didn’t forget or disrespect their Communist masters. Big Brother was looming, even here.
It wouldn’t be the first time in Cambodia that a desperately poor rural workforce rose up at the instigation of a despot to commit unimaginable acts of cruelty and devastation. If nothing is done to feed a dispossessed nation isn’t there the slightest possibility that such horror could take root once more?
It is customary in Cambodia for the daughter’s husband to go to live with her family, meaning more mouths to feed on the $50 or so a month that many people earn. We talked earlier about how lovely it was to see extended families relying on each other the way our families had once done. Not so lovely when there’s no food to eat. That’s when snake tastes good. That’s when spiders and cockroaches fill stomachs. Not as a gimmick to attract tourists but to survive.
In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid to late 1970s these families were so terrorized they used the landlines left behind on their land by a succession of invading forces to protect their property, dotting them around the outskirts as an unseen deadly fence. But it wasn’t the invaders who stepped on the mines, it was their own relatives. Madness fuelling madness.
Now we are on our way home it is hard to separate these conflicting emotions about such an incredible country. But there are no such concerns about our cycling challenge – it was, to use an overworked American word, simply awesome.
We’ve documented much of our adventures on this blog over the past couple of weeks and every day we learned more about our new friends that shared the journey with us. I mentioned some of them before, believing I had a good grasp of the personalities riding with us. But there was always more to learn about the reasons people were going to such lengths to raise money to help others.
Led by our excellent guide Anna and the equally capable and unflappable Dr Angie, it was an absolute pleasure to be a part of.
For me, perhaps the most emotional moment was rounding the tranquil moat bordering the breathtaking Angkor Wat temple on our final run of the trip. If the group had been strung out along the route on previous days we were all together now, sharing a special moment. We rode in silence in single file to the finish line where Dave pulled alongside me so we could end the challenge together, just as we started eight days earlier.
We’ve known each other for much of our lives and shared many experiences; football teams, holidays, weddings, the birth of our children and, sadly, funerals, and have both long understood the value of this special lifelong bond. But shaking hands and hugging with that awkwardness of the middle class Essex boys we’ll always be I can honestly say I’ve never been prouder to call someone my friend.
From the craziness of Ho Chi Min City through a cheering procession of children on the lost byways into Cambodia to Siem Reap, there was never a dull moment. Along the way we met a lot of new friends, including the mercurial Tun Chan Nareth, the landmine victim who builds Dave Constantine’s wheelchairs in Cambodia and was part of the team trying to wipe out the mine menace that won the Nobel Peace Prize. We learned to ride with total disregard for any traffic rules and put on a pile of weight with three meals a day, a steady intake of snacks and sodas and a vat of beer every night (Dave managed to offset this weight gain with his bulimic backside!).
We experienced massages Cambodian style – which resembles a one-sided wrestIng match – snake blood, the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat, the miracle healing power of Butt’r udder cream, supping bottles of stout by the side of the A6 at midnight, and the forgotten pleasures of riding quietly along in a world without mobile phones.
Most of all we had a blast.
Thanks for following our journey with us.
(For the complete TwoDaves blog please see: http://twodaves.wordpress.com/)