Sunday, December 15, 2002

Sisiphon. Cambodia

Friends: I have closed to within thirty-one miles of Thailand. Already prices are initially quoted in Baht, the Thai currency and the preferred currency. As much as smooth pavement, I'm looking forward to all the 7-Elevens that every Thai town of any size has and their air conditioning and bags of ice for 15 cents and their drink machines dispensing crushed ice. Big Gulps here I come. And I'm looking forward to all the smiles and niceness. My bike especially will be glad to be no longer defiantly molested by all the malingering Cambodian males who love to grab its brake levers and stuff their feet into its toe clips and tinker with its shifters and just generally fondle it, frequently glaring at me to see how I'm taking it. No other of these Southeast Asians have been so belligerent.

My bike and I survived another 65 miles of the Roads of Hell today. The first 21 out of Seam Reap were paved and then hell was upon us. It was the most rutted, rock-studded obstacle course so far. I wasn't even managing five miles per hour. My mind was frantically calculating how long it would take me to finish off the 45 miles remaining to the next town. At five mile per hour, it would take me nine hours, one less than the hours of daylight remaining. In the blistering heat hell and I would become quite intimate. If I could increase my speed to six miles per hour, I'd only be out in it seven-and-a-half hours. If the road would relent enough to allow me seven miles per hour, I could chop another hour off my baking time. And if by some miracle I could get my speed up to nine miles per hour, still my slowest average speed of Cambodia, only five hours. Or if my speed fell to under five miles per hour I could ride with the moon. There was no telling. I only knew that this stretch to the border was said to be the most horrendous in Cambodia, so bad that buses didn't travel it. Travelers had to hire trucks to get them to Thailand from Siam Reap or take a boat.

I zeroed out the average speed function on my cyclometer so I could monitor my progress. Only rarely though could I sneak a glance at it, as my eyes remained glued to the many treacheries unfolding before me. After half an hour my speed had climbed to 6.1 miles per hour and the road did seem to have longer, smoother stretches off to the side. I followed a Cambodian cyclist who I couldn't pass and was going a tad slower than I would have been, which was encouraging. After he turned off, I had my speed up to 6.7 miles per hour and I was feeling some relief. The road was plenty dusty, but the passing traffic could barely clunk along at ten miles per hour so it wasn't stirring up the clouds I had choked on before Seam Reap. It felt good to be going at a steady, albeit tortoise-like pace, rather than my initial picking and choosing, braking and coasting and braking some more.

I kept waiting for a couple of fast-riding, light-traveling Dutch guys on mountain bikes to catch up to me. We had ridden for a while earlier in the morning until they stopped for breakfast. They came charging past me at 6:30 this morning about three miles out of Seam Reap. I was cruising at thirteen miles per hour on a nicely paved road when they blasted past with a mere "hello." They were a pair of grizzled 45-year olds in ratty t-shirts, cycling shorts and just rear panniers. They looked as if they could have been retired cycle cross racers with their smooth, yet ferocious, riding style drafting one another. I immediately sped up and latched on to their pace line. They rode as if they were intent on reaching the border today. After a few minutes I pulled up alongside the one drafting and asked if he knew how long the pavement lasted. He didn't. He said they only intended to ride 100 kilometers themselves and were hoping to be done by noon and out of the heat. I didn't think that likely based on what I'd heard about the road, but these guys looked tough and hardened enough to fly through anything.

They must have taken a long breakfast, as I never saw them again despite breaks of my own. I had hoped to hear more of their travels and maybe life in the European peloton. They had started this trip in Ventiane, Laos a month ago and came down through northern Cambodia. They hadn't liked any of Cambodia, not even Angkor Wat. They'd bike Asia twice previously, once in northern Laos and another in China. They spoke glowingly of both of those experiences. Hopefully we'll connect tomorrow and I can learn more of their exploits and add their photo to my gallery of cyclists met along the way. I liked their serious, intent look. They, like the Germans Laurie and I met in Vietnam, were cyclists through and through.

Though my average speed was increasing, the road still dealt me a few setbacks. A couple were due to road work. Some of it was mere maintenance and some was actual construction. There were stretches that had been dampened to still the dust, turning the surface into mud, clogging my fenders, a real nightmare. But after 42 miles the road actually smoothed out and my speed jumped to ten then twelve and even spurts of fifteen miles per hour, a veritable miracle. It gave me great pleasure to watch my average speed inch upwards from 7.3 miles per hour to nearly ten miles per hour in the final twenty-three miles. I escaped the dusty inferno by 1:30. I was greatly, greatly pleased to be able to ride hard and limit my time in the sweltering heat. I had a couple of guesthouses to choose from for my last night in Cambodia, though none were great shakes.

I am told that at least half of the remaining miles to the border are paved, another monumental reprieve. The roads here have been bad, but nowhere near as bad as they could be or that I feared. That 300 mile stretch in Bolivia preceding the World's Most Dangerous Road was much slower going, but there it was fifteen degrees cooler and I could camp and the scenery was splendid and the people were cordial and I had my friend Teresa awaiting me in La Paz. I would gladly ride those roads again. I'd ride these roads again too, but not so gladly

Later, George

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