Cycling Through Cambodia
Small children, in superbly composed groups of three or more, line the side of the dusty roads. First they are mesmerised by the crazy Western tourists – lycra-clad, red-faced and sweaty – chuffing past on bicycles. Then hilarity sets in, and the children, still shy, laugh and wave, the braver (usually) boys presenting palms for high-fives.
Goodness only knows what their reaction is in our wake. Because they’re right. We are crazy, signing up for seven days cycling through the heat of Cambodia, one of the poorest nations in Asia, when we could be viewing the countryside from the sterile comfort of an air conditioned bus.
The wide and welcoming smiles of Cambodians belie their nation’s violent past. After seizing control of the country in 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime murdered, worked to death or starved nearly 1.7 million Cambodian citizens in just four years, focussing on intellectuals, merchants, bureaucrats, members of religious groups and any people suspected of disagreeing with the party. Millions more were relocated and tortured.
As a result of Pol Put’s brutal and murderous regime, today’s Cambodia is a young country, with about half the population aged under 18. There are children everywhere: lining the side of the road, pouring out of schools at lunchtime, flocking around tourists at the temples of Angkor Wat – just everywhere. And they are heartbreakers – brown-skinned, white-toothed, some entrepreneurial, some incredibly shy, all absolutely gorgeous.
Leaving a temple at Siem Reap, I am bombarded by facts about Australia, after being grilled about my nationality. “Australia: population 20 million, capital Canberra, exporting sheep, beef and minerals,” proudly lectures one child, whose head barely reaches my elbow. “Buy postcards from me? One dollar.” And she fans out post cards of the stunning temples of Angkor Wat, the legacy of the kings who presided over a golden age of Khmer civilization between the 9th and 13th centuries.
Why seal yourself off from this youthful, inquisitive nation in a bus? Why not place your aching rear end on a bike to power over 100 kms of hot bitumen a day at local level? If only for a fleeting glimpse of the lives of Cambodians?
I began my nine-day tour of Cambodia in the capital Phnom Penh, starting with a visit to the killing fields at the nearby Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, advertised as “hell on earth in the 20th century”. Tourist authorities recommend visitors see Choeung Ek and the Toulsleng Genocidal Museum in Phnom Penh to understand the scale of the atrocities committed by the Ultra Conservative Khmer Rouge Regime (UCKRR).
Once an orchard and Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek became part of the prison called S-21, used for the detention, torture, interrogation and slaughter of prisoners. Between 1976 and 1978, about 20,000 diplomats, foreigners, intellectuals, officers, soldiers, workers, farmers, women and children were murdered at Choeung Ek. Nine Europeans were among the victims. In the following three years, 129 mass graves were discovered and 8,985 corpses were found. The largest grave contained 450 bodies.
The tourist brochure says the site is now a national centre for the “consecration of the spirits of over three million people who had lost their lives in this regime”. A memorial charnel house contains 8,000 skulls. You can buy incense to burn outside the grisly memorial, which is probably best visited before lunch.
Each week, more bones and are turned up by the rain and the movement of the soil. When new bones are washed free, the tour guides pick them up and put them on little collection stands that look like bird houses. Our guide picked up a knuckle bone and placed it on the stand, then pointed out I was standing on some bones and clothing that was still half buried.
Open daily from 8am to 5pm, admission is US$3, fee goes toward the development of the site. For more information visit www.cekillingfield.com
Vigorous exercise helped chase away the gloom of the killing fields, as did the laughing, smiling children who waved us on our way. The adults were just as friendly. On one hot afternoon, I was accompanied for about 40 minutes by a chubby businessman on a motorbike who wanted to practice his English. “Your legs are a pretty colour,” he told me. Perhaps the strangest compliment I’ve ever received! In Cambodia, as in Vietnam, pale skin is prized as a sign of wealth, as farmers and labourers are darkened by their work outdoors.
I cycled from Phonm Penh to Sihanoukeville with Cambodia with a tour group called Intrepid Travel, which no longer does a cycle Cambodia tour. It does, however, run cycling tours that pass through Cambodia and there are several our companies that offer Cambodia cycle tours, taking eager cyclists past temples, rice fields and rural villages .
Be sure to be vigilant against mosquitoes. Take malaria medication if you can; but still always use repellent and wear long sleeves and trousers because there is no vaccine or treatment for the mosquito-borne dengue haemorrhagic fever, which is prolific in Cambodia.
Dengue fever and tuberculosis are particular problems for Cambodia’s children, many of whom come from families too poor to pay for medical treatment. In the final days of our cycle trip, a group of six of us donated blood at the Kantha Bopha Jayavarman VII children’s hospital in Siem Reap, founded by Dr Beat Richner. Unfortunately we were not in town long enough to get the results of our AIDS tests!
After giving blood (thankfully no one fainted) the staff gave us care packages containing a packet of biscuits, multivitamins, a t-shirt and a sticker. One of my fellow cycle tourists, Dr Mark from Perth, informed us that as most Asians have B-type blood, our donations of the common Caucasian blood types O and A would not actually end up in sick children, but would probably be used to make other blood products.
We went to see a cello recital by Dr Beat Richner that evening, but he was sick, so a video of his work was shown instead. The free recitals are held (when the good doctor is not ill) every Saturday evening at 7.15pm. Dr Beat, as he’s known locally, performs and encourages the audience to support his good works. Dr Beat worked in Cambodia prior to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. In 1991 King Norodom Sihanouk and the government asked him to return to restore the hospital in Phnom Pehn. The Swiss paediatrician advocates young tourists give blood and old ones money!
The Siem Reap hospital is one of four run by Dr Beat, which includes the Jayavarman VII hospital in Siem Reap, named after the ruler believed to be depicted by the 216 giant stone faces adorning the towers at the Bayon temple of Angkor Wat.
Each year Dr Beat’s hospitals treat 600,000 children, help deliver 5,500 babies, give 100,000 inoculations, admit 55,000 severely ill children and perform 9,000 operations. About 1,000 children a day are hospitalised at the hospitals, with the average stay for each child at about 5.5 days. Cambodian children are treated for free, with the US$17 million a year running cost of the hospitals mainly funded by private donations. More information is available at www.beatocello.com
And so, feeling physically and morally self-righteous after sweating across the country and then leaving some of our body fluids behind, we joined the throngs at the World Heritage-listed temples of Angkor Wat.
Our tour guide told us the stone temples were all that remain of a vast ancient city that was once home to one million people, with running water and sewerage. We rode our bikes through the heat and the dust to see one temple, then collectively decided it was just too hot to ride anymore. But after taking a bone-jarring bus trip to see another temple, we agreed cycling was the best way to see the vast and mysterious Angkor Wat complex. Even though the Cambodia children are right and we are crazy, us Westerners on bicycles, there’s a method to the madness. Self-powered travel, without air conditioning, through the countryside really is a great way to go.
Dos and Don’ts in Cambodia
Don’t touch heads (the holiest part of the body), don’t lose your temper, don’t show too much exposed flesh (cover shoulders and thighs), don’t point your feet at anyone or any religious icon. Don’t embarrass Cambodians by kissing or cuddling in front of people. Women should not touch monks.
Do say hello in Cambodian: “Sua Saday” (Susa-day, rhymes with Noosa day)
Do take your shoes off before entering temples and homes.
Do only drink bottled water. Ice in drinks seems to be OK.
Do build up your squatting muscles before you go. Squat toilets are common (as is manual flushing). Make sure your leg muscles – even if not going cycling – are strong enough to get down and then up again, if only to save yourself from an extremely embarrassing situation.
Do check it’s OK before taking a photograph of someone.
When to go: Anytime of the year, although the weather is less humid between December and March. Visas are available on arrival at Phnom Penh airport.
Stay on the path: Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises tourists to exercise caution when visiting more remote parts of Cambodia because there are still many unexploded ordinances (UXO) from the nation’s troubled past. Stick to the paths and tracks used by the locals. (http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Cambodia)
*I wrote this in 2007 as a travel article for The Age newspaper but it was never published (and I was never paid for it). But I thought it was worth sharing. It was a fabulous trip. I’ve been back to Cambodia several times now and I just love it.
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13 years ago