Want to glimpse the everyday lives of the locals while travelling at your own pace? A cycling trip might just be the answer, as we find in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Even above the hum of mountain-bike tyres on asphalt, the unmistakable laughter of children followed by the short, sharp, happy “Hello Mister” can clearly be heard along the Cambodian road.
They come running to the roadside, some sticking out their hands, others shyly hiding behind a tree to watch the tourists fly by on their bikes.
Soaked with sweat and sunscreen, the temperature tipping 35C and what seems like 100 per cent humidity, it cannot fail to raise the rider’s spirits.
High fives are the worldwide celebratory gesture and some of these children have mastered the art of running and slapping hands with the weary riders without either party spilling on to the road. It’s the beauty of being at ground level and going at your own pace on a bicycle tour, as I am with World Expeditions.
You get a brief glimpse of the life of the rural people. A fleeting vignette of the way they live and what they do to survive.
One family is busy stripping the outer shell from raw sugar cane so it can be pushed through a ringer to make cane juice. Another woman is cutting up a pig in her roadside butcher shop.
There is a man without goggles or glasses using an oxyacetylene torch to repair a bike. Others have small handicrafts and fruit stalls.
And while the scenery may change, the smiling faces are a constant reminder of the simple pleasure taken when people can briefly connect.
Riding from the Vietnamese metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City through to the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, on the doorstep of Angkor Wat, is a satisfying and exhilarating way to see both countries.
At a steady 20km/h and with days ranging from 50km to more than 100km, the ride is within reach of the most inexperienced cyclist and satisfying enough for even hardened road warriors.
Heading out from Vietnam’s largest city and leaving behind the bustle and constant tooting of scooter horns, you quickly feel the weight of any worries fall away as the road eats up the kilometres and the scenery changes slowly from fringe metropolitan to the sparse rural settings.
Within a couple of hours the hassle of city traffic is replaced by the serenity of rubber plantations and the first of the rice fields. The road becomes less and less congested and the cycling group begins to open up as smaller groups of riders of a similar pace band together and the banter begins.
About an hour down the road are the famous Cu Chi tunnels, part of the immense underground network used by the Viet Cong to live, move supplies and wage war against the American forces.
A few of the tunnels are open to the public and a tour shows the hardship endured by the Vietnamese as they fought the “American war of aggression”. Often thousands would be crowded into the underground labyrinth as the US bombed the area with hundreds of tonnes of explosives at a time.
Some of the craters are still visible today, pockmarking the landscape in much the same way as the Western Front in France still bears its scars from World War I.
The tunnels are small and claustrophobic, with several riders opting not to venture into the darkness or taking the emergency ladder out within the first 25m. It’s understandable as well. The tunnel closes around you and there is no room even to crouch as it swallows the light and conversation. Although only about 150m long and in utter darkness, it feels like the end will never come before the tunnel opens up to a small room and you can scramble out into the daylight and fresh air.
Being out on the road between 11am and 3pm is the hardest with the heat and humidity sapping the strength and the sweat pours out as fast as you can drink. Stops every 20km punctuate the day and give everyone time to refuel with bananas and dragon fruit and replenish water supplies and talk about the journey.
Despite the vast levels of experience and fitness, the lead riders only ever have to wait 10-15 minutes before the last rider rolls in. Being on the road binds the group together quickly and after just 10 minutes there is concern for any stragglers.
It’s a camaraderie built on shared exertion and the fun of riding in a small group.
At the end of the day a brief visit to the Cao Dai Holy See temple in Tay Ninh provides the weary riders with a spectacular kitsch awakening of the visual senses. Inside the temple pillars adorned with brightly coloured dragons make way for multicoloured umbrellas, which in turn lead to an altar which houses a massive sphere depicting the Divine Eye.
We leave just as the white-clad devotees begin to descend on the temple, making the sweat-laden riders feel like we are intruding, although we are still greeted with smiles and warm gestures despite the language barriers and our informal road attire.
Riding through from Vietnam and into Cambodia brings a change of bikes and guides but the road continues on. Along the way the rice fields begin to dominate the landscape and a mix of old and new technology coexist. Water buffaloes hitched to ploughs share fields with modern tractors. Farmers use nets to gather fish in ponds while talking on mobile phones.
Modern scooters are piled high with handmade wicker baskets, the design of which hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.
We witness myriad strange sights on the road. The man with 17 single foam mattresses strapped to his scooter, weaving over the road as the wind tries to push him into the trees. A family of five, including a sleeping baby, crowded on to a bike, a rider with tyres tied on the back, making his bike as wide as a car. And riders motoring along with cargoes of feather dusters, tin pans and kitchen pots, T-shirts, pigs in baskets going to market and carcasses heading to restaurants.
Riding in the midday heat we pass schools where Cambodian students wave and smile as they head home in their white shirts and blue shorts or skirts. Some ride along for a while racing us and laughing as we pick up the pace to see if they can keep up.
Overnights in the small rural towns of Svay Rieng and then Prey Veng give us a taste of the simple, rustic Cambodian life. After clocking more than 100km in the saddle in a day, a group of us share a cold beer on the banks of the flood plains of the Mekong River, swapping stories and sharing laughs and photo opportunities on the edge of one of the Asia’s most important waterways. It’s time to kick back and revel in ticking off a hard day on the road.
Another long day on the hot road follows before we hit Kampong Cham, the country’s third biggest city and a welcome break from the heat as it rains and cools things down briefly.
Riding into town, we detour to Wat Nokor and get a taste of the temples to come. An 11th century complex built by Jayavarman VII, who built the impressive Angkor Thom, the small temple provides some peaceful respite from the congested roads. A few kilometres away is Phnom Srey and Phnom Pros, Man Hill and Woman Hill. The ride to the temple at the top finishes us off and walking around the site and its lush gardens taking in the gilded buddhas is a bit of welcome downtime to stretch the legs and unwind from a long and arduous day.
Rolling through the countryside to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, gives us the opportunity to stop and experience one of Cambodia’s more acquired cuisines — fried spiders, crickets and other assorted insects.
Not for the squeamish, the large tarantulas are placed on the onlookers, slowly creeping around hands and arms. But once cooked, most baulk at chewing the bloated abdomens, preferring instead to nibble at the legs. The guides show us how it’s done and quickly devour the leftovers.
A couple of days respite from the bike in Phnom Penh gives the riders the chance to see a part of Cambodia’s dark, sad history.
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, systematically killed more than two million people under a twisted ideology where academics, artists, teachers, the educated and even people wearing glasses were executed along with most of their family in an attempt to purge the country of its culture and traditions so the new regime could institute its own culture.
The former high school in the capital was converted to a prison and interrogation centre, the notorious S-21, where an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured during the regime. If they didn’t die under interrogation they were sent to the nearby killing fields where they were callously killed by a blow to the head and dumped in mass graves which are still giving up their victims.
But Phnom Penh, a bustling metropolis on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, plays host to some amazing vehicular sights.
The mini-vans stacked with firewood, bottoming out as they tackle the rugged roads. The scooter rider with a trailer full of hundreds of eggs skilfully negotiating potholes in an attempt to get his produce, undamaged, to its destination. A mother riding along with a sleeping toddler in her arms, casually mixing it on the road with hundreds of other scooters.
And amazingly enough, not one incidence of road rage as the thousands of people go about their business of getting from A to B.
After a day of rest and another driving from the capital to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second-largest city and stepping-off point to Angkor Archaeological Park, riders are itching to get back on the bikes and tackle the sprawling temples complex.
Over the next three days the wonders of the ancient Khmer empire reveal themselves.
The beauty of Ta Prohm, made famous by the first Tomb Raider film with Angelina Jolie, with its kapok trees slowly strangling the temple in an embrace between the exquisite stonework and the majesty of the natural world. The roots of the trees seemingly reaching into the very heart of the structure and slowly prising it apart.
Angkor Thom, the 9sqkm city surrounded by a moat and home to the Elephant Terrace, the massive Victory Gate, the causeway which is flanked on one side by 54 demons and the other by 54 gods, Baphuon and the multi-levelled Bayon temple with its 49 towers, each with the four faces of Buddha — charity, compassion, sympathy and equality.
And the majestic Angkor Wat, recognised the world over as the symbol of Cambodia, sits surrounded by a moat and is the most popular of the temples.
Built as a Hindu place of worship but later converted to Buddhist, the temple has hundreds of beautiful carvings of devatas and apsaras — gods and heavenly maidens.
The beauty of touring by bike is you spend as little or as long as you want at each site and, when you get “temple fatigue”, simply sit back under the shade and relax for a little while and watch the world go by.
The cosmopolitan city of Siem Reap has some of the best restaurants in the country and there are plenty of bars to cater for everyone’s taste. Having lunch in a cool garden restaurant along the river is one of the best ways to spend the afternoon in the city. And at night dinner at the FCC Angkor (the classier offshoot of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh) is a touch of luxury, as we sit on a balcony overlooking the reflection pool in the balmy evening enjoying a cold glass of wine.
Bicycle touring is one of the best ways to experience a country. You are at ground level, away from air-conditioned comforts and able to mix with the locals. The journey opens up a world most tourists merely get a glimpse of but something travellers relish.
Andrew Shipp travelled courtesy of World Expeditions, Thai Airways International and Bangkok Airways.
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