Saturday, December 7, 2002

Phnon Phenh, Cambodia

Friends: The sugar cane juicers dispensing that splendid nectar of the gods are even more ubiquitous along the roads of Cambodia than they were in Vietnam, at least for the first 100 miles. And they are even more welcome here, as these so-called "Roads from Hell" are plenty dusty and hot, though not as rough as advertised.

I still have 300 miles to go before reaching Thailand, but so far there have only been a few short stretches that have been truly diabolical. They would have been the worst I had ever encountered, if I hadn't bicycled Bolivia earlier this year. I went several days in Bolivia on roads so rough that I was unable to go faster than eight miles per hour. I was able to average that yesterday on the first 25 mile stretch after coming 45 miles to the border from Saigon. And then today I averaged 12.1 miles per hour over 76 miles, better than just about every other day of this trip. Most of today's stretch was even paved. I was able to draft a motorbike for 20 minutes at 22 miles per hour. It was like a heaven sent chariot. "This is not hell,"I kept gratefully muttering.

I knew today's road had to be in fairly good shape after a couple of Aussies traveling by bus yesterday afternoon told me it had taken their bus two hours to do the first 25 miles from the border, a stretch that had taken me three hours, but their bus driver said the next 76 miles would also take two hours. Both yesterday and today had some horrid dirt and mud stretches that clogged my fenders as in Bolivia and had me walking. Not knowing how long these stretches would last or when the next would occur was the toughest part of the ordeal.

Laurie was wise to bow out in Saigon. These roads are definitely not for neophytes or for those prone to wanting to bus ahead when the going gets tough. She had been dreading the roads of Cambodia even before we left the States. She had early on decided to only bike as far as Siem Reap and then bus it to Bangkok so she could have a few extra days of shopping. But after the rough roads of Vietnam she thought she only wanted to go as far as Phnom Phenh and then hop ahead. And then upon further reflection she announced, after we checked into our hotel in Saigon three days ago, she didn't even care to do that and would continue on by alternate means, partially to save some time so she could have a few days on the beach to spruce up her tan before returning home.

That was actually great news. Saigon had no allure for me whatsoever, unlike Hanoi and other places we have been. As we biked in I couldn't wait to get out. It didn't have the wide tree-shaded boulevards of Hanoi and the traffic was faster and more aggressive. We had planned on a rest day, which was hardly necessary after the brisk tail winds of the past four days since our last rest in Nha Trang. An afternoon was enough time to get a few provisions and a spare tire for those intimidating roads ahead and to see the few sites I cared to see in Saigon.

The first couple of miles after crossing into Cambodia were on a one-lane wide recently paved road. It soon degenerated into a dirt road with patches of mud and water-filled pot holes. There was so little traffic pigs were wallowing in some of them. There have been a few stretches of gravel and some washboard, but nothing that threatened the sidewalls of my tires as did the rock-studded roads in Bolivia that had me nervous about flats and breaking my spokes or worse.

Last night I met Henrik, a Danish cyclist who'd been meandering around Cambodia for the past month and loving it. He is the first cyclist I've met on this tour riding a touring bike with down handlebars and narrow tires, as I am, rather than a mountain bike. He'd had had no punctures or mechanical problems and was quite happy with his choice of bikes. He'd been bicycle touring for twenty years, half his life, though this was his first tour of more than a month. He'd just completed a two-year stint of teaching in Greenland and hadn't ridden his bike the entire time. Even though he was stationed in its largest city of 13,000, it had only one road seven-and-a-half miles long. He started this trip in Bangkok and was woefully out of shape, only biking 30 miles a day his first few days.

Henrik, like most veteran touring cyclists, knows that the early morning hours are the best for cycling, especially in the tropics when the temperature will climb in to the 90s. It only took Dwight one day to realize this when we biked Cuba four years ago. Unfortunately, this was a concept that Laurie was most resistant to. She never gets up before eight back home, so doing it on a "vacation" seemed inconceivable to her, though she managed it a couple of times.

Henrik and I both planned to be on the road by six the next morning and were already salivating over the pleasure of it. He was truly sorry that Laurie wasn't there so he could sell her on the many reasons of getting out on the bike early. He was an extremely committed cyclist who spoke with great passion. He was certain he could convince her of the great joy, not to mention practicality, of being out on the road in the cool, calm of the early morning as the mist burns off and few others are about. Getting in ten or fifteen miles before breakfast can be even more invigorating than the couple of cups of coffee she liked to start each day with.

I was sorry Henrik and I weren't headed the same direction. At least he was able to brief me on the road ahead. He thought it possible to make it to Phnom Phenh in the eleven hours of light available, though it had taken him two days. The Germans managed it in one, but they said they completed the last few miles in the dark. Henrik said the road improved the closer I got to Phnon Phnenh. He thought that if I crossed the Mekong by noon I ought to make it to Phnom Phenh before dark. But I had to cross the Mekong by ferry, and if I had to wait long for it, I could lose some valuable time.

My first few miles this morning were on smooth gravel until I came to a makeshift bridge that had been slightly washed out. It was semi-blocked by a truck that had gone off it the night before. Only two-wheeled traffic could presently cross the bridge until the truck was moved. There had been a hard rain the night before, so the dirt section ahead was muddy and slimy. I had to stop and clean my fenders all too often. I was on the verge of removing them, as I had done in Bolivia, just when the road improved.

After an hour-and-a-half and thirteen miles I stopped for breakfast. As I was eating a young girl came by with a basket full of potato and banana fritters on her head. I jumped out to buy one of each. I handed her 25 cents not knowing if I was to get change or not. When she started packing up, the woman running the restaurant interceded and made the little girl give me full value--three of each.

Henrik the night before had raved about how good the Cambodians are. Several times he said, "They will not cheat you." I had been cheated at the border, however, by some woman changing money. She tricked me by including several 5,000 riel bills among a stack of 10,000 notes that she counted out for me. They are the same blue color, and she had turned over the 5,000 notes so that I couldn't see that they weren't tens. She short-changed me 25,000 riel, about six dollars. But getting cheated at the border doesn't really count.

The road improved after breakfast and I soon had my average speed up to over ten miles per hour and then after drafting a motorbike to over eleven miles per hour. I made the forty miles to the Mekong by ten and was sitting very pretty, especially if the next 36 miles were better than the first forty. I only had to wait ten minutes for the ferry, which was plenty long as a couple of ten year old boys smoking cigarettes clung close to me. I'd seen ten year olds driving motorbikes in Vietnam, but none smoking. The people here are nice, but many are as disheveled as the roads.

Henrik was right about the run in to Phnom Phenh being good. There were only a couple of short breaks in the sealed road. The road was narrow, which made it perilous the last few miles as traffic increased. I nearly suffered culture shock when I suddenly turned on to a six-lane wide, boulevard, smooth as a baby's fanny, with each lane marked but a freshly painted dotted white line. It followed the Mekong into the heart of the city. It was shockingly modern, and equally shocking was the abundance of SUVs. There was more four-wheeled traffic than Hanoi and Saigon combined. But there were hardly any motorbikes, so the roads were relatively calm. I was liking this place quick and look forward to immersing myself in it for a couple of days, doubly glad not to have been stuck in Saigon for an extra day. My early start and determined riding got me to Phnon Phenh by 2:30. After fretting I might not make it by dark, I felt genuinely triumphant. It was another great day on the bike.

Later, George

No comments: