Thursday, December 12, 2002

Seam Reap, Cambodia

Friends: I pulled in to Seam Reap at five this afternoon after eight plus hours and ninety-two miles. When I looked in the mirror at my hotel I had the deepest, lushest tan of my life. Even my beard and hair were tanned thanks to all the dirt and dust stirred by the passing traffic. I knew I had to be a sight, as a woman mockingly laughed at me today. When I looked at her quizzically, she rubbed her nose. When I followed suit, my finger removed a crust of dirt. I could see my calves were caked with the brown dirt of the road, but I had no clue that the hue went all the way to my ears.

But it was a great day on the bike, the most miles of the trip under the most trying of conditions. I finally got a prolonged taste of rough road. The pavement gave out after 18 miles and then I had 64 miles of varying states of dirt until a glorious ten-mile paved romp in to Seam Reap. Fatigued as I was, I couldn't hold my legs back on the smoothest surface I've encountered in 300 miles across Cambodia. Only 100 miles to go and then 150 miles to Bangkok. When the end is in sight I start getting excited--excited to get home and excited to start thinking about the next journey.

The rough road varied from soft and sandy to solid and hard-packed. There wasn't a passing vehicle oftener than every couple of minutes so I could range all over the road in search of a smooth path. My eyes didn't look much beyond a couple of bike lengths ahead. Every so often I'd sneak in a glance ahead hoping to spot the end of the dirt and the start of the pavement. Like all these 300 miles so far across Cambodia there were no road signs or kilometer posts giving the distance to the next town. Without my cyclometer I would have been racking my brain trying to calculate my speed and how far I had come and how much further it was to my destination. It would have been torturous, especially with so much at stake. Asking people along the way would have been futile--they either wouldn't understand or wouldn't really know. So thanks to my cyclometer, one of my most valuable and treasured possessions, I knew exactly the miles I had ridden and the miles left to be ridden and could think about other things. There was only one town a little more than half way. Once again I had the dilemma of staying there or pushing on and hoping the road would cooperate and let me get to Seam Reap before dark.

I was on the road at first light at six a.m. to give it every chance. There isn't much motorized traffic that early, but there are plenty of bicyclists and pedestrians. People's lives in these parts adapt to the daylight hours. School starts at seven a.m., so there are streams of students on bikes in their uniforms of white shirts and navy blue pants or skirts. They are about the only cleanly dressed people I see all day. There are also many road side stands in operation at daybreak selling the traditional noodle soup breakfast or fritters. I was thrilled to see one of the fritter sellers cooking up waffles as well. I grabbed a couple to eat later when I had earned my first coconut of the day.

As all of Cambodia has been so far, the road was flat and through fields of rice paddies, though many are dormant as their irrigation has fallen into disuse disrupted by the spate of calamities the country has suffered the past few decades. It is decidedly poorer than Vietnam. I see none of the industriousness that was so prevalent there. Wherever I stop there are men and boys hanging about, looking downcast and downtrodden and a tad surly. I really wanted to push on to Seam Reap and avoid another night in a middle-of-nowhere town. Plus with the flies and filth so prevalent, I am wary of disrupting my digestive tract further. I usually don't pay much attention to such matters, but with the end of the trip nearing I don't want to be stranded somewhere sick and miss my flight. Likewise I never fear injury as I'm messengering until a couple days before one of my trips. I feel like a cop nearing retirement, suddenly being more wary and cautious on the job.

I reached the town where I had to make my decision after 54 miles by 11:30. I was still able to average ten miles per hour on the dirt, though there were short stretches that reduced me to half that. I didn't know for sure, but I was counting on the road improving as I neared Seam Reap, so I was fairly confident I could manage the final 38 miles in the six hours of light remaining. I had been riding hard, so there was always the danger of the bonk, especially in this heat. My first flat tire since my day of four over two weeks ago thankfully came near a patch of shade after I had come 67 miles. I munched some food as I replaced the punctured tube, but was snappy about it, intent on keeping my breaks short, focused as I was on the challenge of a ninety plus mile day. The sprawl of Seam Reap started after I'd come ninety miles. Two miles later I had found a hotel. I wouldn't have minded in the least if I could have ridden another eight miles with the road so nice and plenty of light and had the satisfaction of a one hundred mile day. But ninety-two miles was still most satisfying. I had feared Cambodia's roads could limit me to 50 miles a day as Bolivia had done for days at a time.

The ruins will have to wait until tomorrow. They are five miles away. I'll see how much these ancient temples grab me and how long I will linger here--a couple days for sure though I could make it three or four if I so desire. It'll take two days to escape Cambodia and then a day or two to get to Bangkok. My flight is at seven a.m. on the twenty-fourth. If I could time it, I would pull into Bangkok right then, but I need a couple day cushion to confirm various matters. I hope the miles I'll be earning on United won't be going to waste. I sent out an email last night that is floating around somewhere that hopefully will be forwarded to you all.

Later, George

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