Sarah Joanne Smith recounts the highs and lows of a cross-country cycle. Photo by some random Chinese tourist.
Back home, there was nothing I enjoyed more than a cheery jaunt around the streets of London on my 1970s bona fide Peugeot racer, affectionally named ‘Peggy’. But upon my move to Vietnam, I traded her in for a motorised model. Last month, however, some friends suggested a visa run to Cambodia on two wheels and I returned, rather unceremoniously, to the saddle of a temperamental Chinese Motachie.
Sunscreen in a monsoon
Before the sun had a chance to rise, we embarked on our journey from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. On the outskirts of the city, a slow, gradual incline – silent hills, if you will – ascended toward the border, along with our appetites. Before the clock had reached 7am, somewhere just beyond Saigon’s limits, we refuelled with generous portions of grilled meat and rice, watching as a pair of locals knocked back an early-morning pitcher of Sting and several cigarettes.
Seventy kilometres later, we rocked up to the border town of Bavet, sweaty and disheveled amongst a busload of well-rested travellers. In typical Vietnamese fashion, bustling our way to the front of the customs queue, we obtained our necessary stamps and, after a brief pit-stop, swiftly got back on our way.
Unfortunately, the second half of day one was not so smooth. Thirty minutes later, torrential rain forced us to seek refuge beneath the leaky awning of a local drinks shop. Still fearing all the elements, I applied suncream amidst the monsoon-level rains, much to the amusement of my fellow riders. Later, however, justice was served as we cycled into Svay Rieng, our destination for the night, and I was the only one without a sunburn.
Food in Svay Rieng was limited, to say the least. That evening we ate what I can only describe as watery gruel. Breakfast wasn’t any better. A flimsy portion of offal did little to satisfy the appetite but did serve to keep our legs turning. We hit the road with half-empty stomaches and a raging dislike for Cambodian cuisine.
Vaseline, potholes and a cyclists’ high
Our second day proved to be the most challenging. The road surfaces were rocky, uneven and unforgiving on our rear ends. In the same way that long-distance runners bandage their nipples, we protected our nether regions with frequent doses of Vaseline, applied liberally and with plenty of commentary, allowing us to glide through the Cambodian countryside friction-free.
The 63 kilometres between Svay Rieng and Neak Loeung, though bumpy, provided us with boundless natural beauty. Neverending grasslands and emerald rice paddies lined our path as the ground slipped by at a familiar pace. Cattle grazed among the fields, locals dozed in hammocks and butterflies fluttered whilst the smell of mint filled the air. Everywhere, elated children ran out to the road, yelling ‘hello’ and waving with oodles of enthusiasm.
On our third day, the final leg into Phnom Penh was scattered with potholes the size of canyons. Despite some dangerous encounters with overtaking vehicles and death-defying craters, we arrived in Phnom Penh with a flat tyre but inflated spirits.
Testing the limits of our Lycra
Like true expats, our time in Phnom Penh was not spent sightseeing but instead grazing and sleeping. We indulged on towering burgers, pizzas the size of dustbin lids, gigantic doughnuts and decadent crepes, all washed down with well-earned cocktails and ciders. All the hard work we had put in en route was undone before making the return trip, and after a gluttonous two days it was time to squeeze ourselves back into our Lycra.
We left Phnom Penh around 9am and cycled the 62 kilometres back to Neak Loeung with surprising ease. Retracing our steps, we turned in for the night at a convenient but putrid guesthouse with stained yellow walls and dubiously soiled bedsheets. Hardly the luxury you’d expect from a USD $6-a-night establishment. The morning saw a rather hasty exit.
The final stretch
As we headed towards home, luminous orange cool boxes welcomed us along the way with ice cold cans of Coke and lychee juice. These receptacles became a vision of salvation and relief, respite from the inexorable sun and our aching quadriceps. At each stop I’d ask to use the bathroom with a bashful squat.
The final day began with a 5.30am wake-up call. On the 110 kilometres back to Ho Chi Minh City, we watched a chicken meet an unfortunate end in a classic case of road kill. Just before the border, a flat tyre entertained an audience of Khmer locals and I went several rounds wrestling with my kickstand which, instead of relieving burden, had become one.
As we cycled into Saigon we were met with Mother Nature’s wet embrace and I couldn’t help but reflect on the myriad emotions compressed into our unforgettable week-long journey.
Our trip had taken us across 480 kilometres of beautiful rural Cambodian countryside at a pace that mirrored the landscape we rode through. Our Lycra exposed its elastic, our inner tubes were a patchwork of collages, our wearied muscles torn, yet our spirits remained high.
An air-conditioned bus may offer comfort and speed, but at the cost of the experience only the open road can provide, whatever the model of cycle you ride.