Cycling to the Rural Villages of Outlying Phnom PenhSeptember 10, 2012
I have a long-standing love affair with the following: my wife, my daughters, my extended family, food, travel, laughter – and my bike.
Back in the US, my Litespeed Siena road bike (titanium, with carbon-fiber cranks and a nifty Shimano groupo) is stored in my friend’s attic, along with my GT Avalanche mountain bike. There they sit, collecting dust, ignored, forgotten.
Here, I own a used Giant that I picked up for short money at Vicious Cycle. It is less techno bike than I’m used to. Like the rest of my life in Southeast Asia, I’ve gone with the simpler alternative for the promise of increased reliability.
My bike is an instant connection to the people and villages surrounding Phnom Penh.
For starters, it’s a 20-minute 500-Riel ride on the ferry by the looming NagaWorld casino into a more authentic Cambodia. There, you leave behind the Lexuses and paved streets of Phnom Penh and embrace the dusty roads which fade into narrow cowpaths the further you venture in to the spit of land bordered by the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.
Or – as I did two days ago – you can head out of the city on one of the major arteries and simply divert into one of Phnom Penh’s fascinating neighborhoods. Or head north along the national road towards Battambang and cross the Tonle Sap on the new flyover bridge and head back through the Muslim and Vietnamese villages which dot the riverside.
Regardless of which path I ride, this is my paradise, my escape. Where I used to separate myself from the rigors of life in the US in my kayak, rolling on the waves off Marblehead, Mass. and watching the gulls scour the ocean’s crest for food, I now ply my trade amid mango and papaya plantations and rice paddies.
The Tonle Sap flows north this time of year – filling one of SE Asia’s biggest lakes and quadrupling its size while creating a complex environment that provides Cambodia with the majority of its protein. I usually end up riding through a fair amount of both the Tonle Sap and Mekong during the course of the year and have mastered the art of riding in muddy water up to the wheel hubs.
The tricky part is watching out for rocks, as the water is too murky to see where you’re going. I’ve had more than a few spills. It’s part of the fun.
I’ve had some curious moments on these rides. During the height of mango season last year, I was nearly knocked silly by a massive fruit whose weight had lowered the canopy of a familiar path by a full foot. I took it in the middle of the forehead as I sped along, once again validating the need for a helmet regardless of your experience level or biking proficiency.
Had I been bareheaded, that sucker would have knocked me cold or cracked my skull. A rock-hard mango suspended head-high is a worthyopponent for an unsuspecting cyclist at any speed. Confronted at high speed, it’s a formidable weapon.
Dangerous encounters with fruit notwithstanding, the best part about these rides is the people I encounter.
While riding with two friends recently we stopped to buy water at a makeshift roadside stand in the middle of gawd knows where. Sweat ran from our brows and soaked our shirts as we approached the proprietor, a man who looked to be about my age.
He looked upon us with wariness, sporting a skeptical grin I often receive when I show up at locals’ doors in this condition – dirty, sweaty, big-shouldered and white. I suppose that a baraing on the doorstep is anomaly enough in these parts; when covered in dirt and sweat and riding a bike for FUN, we move well past novelties and into the land of the bizarre and perhaps unpredictable.
My improving command of Khmer opened him up like a book and before we knew it he had pulled up a bunch of plastic chairs and we were sitting with him at his table, sharing stories and comparing our lives. Turns out we were the same age and we both have two daughters. The similarities ended there, but it was enough in common for him to jokingly suggest that we were brothers separated at birth.
On the same ride, my two colleagues and I rode along a path that skirted a rice field and abruptly ended somewhere around Saigon, or so it seemed. Pausing to weigh our options (one: turn back) we heard voices coming from a reed-shaded brook nearby. I made my way along a footpath and came upon a woman who with her two teenage daughters was harvesting fruit in a narrow vale, chattering away in the mid-morning heat.
My presence initially scaring the papaya out of them, I spoke with them for a minute, exchanging pleasantries and fielding the inevitable laundry list of questions (“Where are you going? Have you eaten yet?”). Wrapping up the small talk, I wished them good luck and headed back to rejoin my friends.
One of the daughters suddenly appeared with a small bag of mangoes in hand – a gift for the lost baraings who looked and smelled like they might be near death. With a big smile, a sampeah and a “chum reap lear” she was gone back into the bushes.
I’ve had lengthy conversations with motorbike drivers while blasting along a road, once with a guy whose wife and two kids grinned at me as we rode side by side, bumping over rut-creased roads and dodging cows, kids and any number of weird obstacles.
Another time I joked with another family of five whose three children clung for their lives to the bike, to mom and dad as they sped along toward town.
“Room for one more?” I joked. “No,” the mom joked back, “but you can have one of ours if you want one.”
Riding with my youngest daughter one day, a young woman about her age approached us and struck up a conversation in perfect English. After chatting for awhile, she asked us to visit her house and meet her family. We declined, facing a commitment back in the city, instantly regretting a schedule that would deny us yet another amazing cultural experience.
Recently with two friends, we stopped at a motorcycle shop to borrow a wrench so I could tighten my friend’s seat post. A man, his wife and little boy all pitched in to help me find the right wrench. When we found it I enlisted the little guy to do the honors and learn the art of effective roadside bicycle maintenance.
I got a big smile from a little boy proud of a job well done and grins of approval from the shop owner and his wife. Typical of Cambodians in situations like these, they refused any payment, so I gave the little mechanic a buck and told him to buy some ice cream.
It’s not all sunshine and smiles, though. There’s the garbage and poverty, the packs of enthusiastic early morning drinkers which seem to gather in many villages.
There’s the rougher edge of Cambodia, too.
Following a path along the Tonle Bassac River in Tah Kmao on Sunday, I came upon a collection of street people lazing by the river’s edge. One of them, a tattooed young man in his 20s, rose and blocked my path. “Hello, my friend. Where you go?”
Roughly a dozen young people, some in filthy clothes and clutching plastic bags of glue, pressed around me, penning me in. They demanded money, albeit with a smile. One took an enormous pull on his bag of glue and pawed my backpack.
I smiled broadly and straddled my bike, staring the leader straight in the eyes. Telling him I had no money, I clipped into my pedals as if to move along. After a couple minutes of idle chat he got the message, though I saw something a bit sinister pass through his eyes as he sized up the situation.
He smiled, shook my hand and said goodbye.
I rode away reflecting on the desperate side of Cambodia and my thoughts drifted back to an altogether different experience I had last weekend while riding northwest of the airport.
While exploring a garbage-strewn neighborhood, I came upon three scrawny Cambodian males struggling to extricate an enormous pushcart filled with charcoal from a mud puddle the size of Kampong Cham. I stopped and asked them if they wanted help, initially receiving stares and baffled smiles from the three guys as well as the small crowd that had gathered nearby to watch the battle between men and mud.
After a few minutes of coordination we put our shoulders to the task and together freed the cart – to the obvious pleasure of the three lads and to the extreme delight of the crowd of onlookers. I’m sure it was a highlight of the day in a neighborhood where the ebb and flow of life usually does not include a mud-caked baraing pitching in to help out.
But their collective pleasure in the moment paled by comparison to how it felt to me, and the laughter, claps of hands and shouts of glee filled my ears and swelled my heart. It was yet another gift from my bike, my personal and direct guide to aspects of life in Cambodia well off the beaten path. It’s work to gain access to this part of life in Cambodia, but it’s an investment that pays enormous dividends.
This, I thought to myself as I re-mounted my ride, waved and returned to the road, is why I am here.
To make human contact in the most unusual of circumstances. To break down cultural and language barriers and celebrate the things that all human beings have in common. To put myself in places where I am well out of my comfort zone and noticeably out of place, exposed, stared at and studied.
To leave the paved roads, seek and explore, get lost and, in the process of getting back on course, discover a little bit about where I’m going.