Like horses that smelt the stable, our pace has begun to quicken beyond a trot. Ably assisted, no doubt, by the absence of hills and fountains, moors and mountains. Just the soothing tarmac of northwestern Cambodia and its landing-strip highway from its upper border crossing with Thailand to tourist-infested Siem Reap, the launch pad for forays into the gleaming jungles around Angkor Wat.
We confess that a yarn about Cambodia now is a little out of order. Literally. We have chosen to skip over (for the time being) our 4 days of frenetic pedalling from the banks of the steamy Mekong River at Savannakhet in Laos to the machine-gun-clad park rangers of SE Thailand. In fact, we will bundle all three of our trips to the land of eternal smiles and “happy ending” massages (ie Thailand) to the very last when, at the end of January, we sweep our beloved bikes onto an aeroplane in Bangkok with London Gatwick grinning on the horizon.
Before tales of Thailand, abandoned bicycles in the flood-lands of Bangkok, and inverted Christmas holidays in the sun-kissed, upside-down realms of Australia (no, we are not cycling there), we have the pleasure of our days at Angkor Wat to relay and an account to give of our brief glimpse into modern-day Cambodia’s search for justice, truth and reconciliation. Not necessarily in that order.
Once our bikes had reached the flatlands, the many moons of alpine cycle-training reaped their dividends on the Angkorian plateaux as we motored, petit-peleton style (Sam nestling snugly in Francesca’s slip stream), to Siem Reap and then ultimately onwards to the capital, Phnom Penh, where colleagues of Sam are currently involved in the representation of Sister Number Two.
In case you are wondering, Sister Number Two is Ieng Thirith, Pol Pot’s sister-in-law, who presently finds herself before the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) facing allegations of War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity and Genocide, all perpetrated during the tyrannical and paranoiac years of Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 – 1979 that resulted in the deaths of approximately two million people, many at the hands of their own political leaders.
The timing of our visit could not have been better. Diana, Daniel and Sophie provided us with front row seats as the Trial Chamber heard its first day of evidence and the country listened for the first time to the free-wheeling account of Nuon Chea – Brother Number Two – as he described the rise to prominence of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and its struggle against US-backed South Vietnam. People had been drawn to the Khmer Rouge due in great part to anti-American sentiment following US military involvement in the region that had culminated in vast carpet-bombing campaigns of Cambodia itself.
Irrespective of the somewhat incredible exculpatory monologue that concluded with a now infamous sound-bite that the Khmer Rouge were “not bad people”, it was an utterly absorbing experience to be in court in proceedings we might not naturally recognise as a criminal trial but that, nonetheless, felt like history unfolding. Inevitably, it will take much more than apportioning criminal responsibility to a few alleged “Big Fish” for this country to come to terms with the years of torture, forced labour and mass murder in the Killing Fields of Cambodia but it still represents an important step.
After the sterile atmosphere of the air-conditioned ECCC precinct, the following day’s visit to the black heart of the Khmer Rouge regime, namely Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21), was a shocking reminder of what actually took place. It was here in the now eerily peaceful former school that 21,000 Cambodians were held, tortured and invariably executed by a regime that did not tolerate dissent or disobedience to the Party line. The site remains almost untouched, with crimson blood still staining the concrete floors of the crudely constructed cellblocks. Extraordinarily, each detainee who was “processed” at S-21 was photographed (sometimes even after having been tortured and/or hung). They are now the ghosts that hug the walls and stare back with impossibly sad eyes.
As with any sobering experience, there is no tonic quite like a pineapple and green chilli pepper margarita to cast the blues away and so it was that we toasted kilometre number 15,000 with Diana et al. as the sun collided once more into the soupy Mekong River flow. Early the next morning we signalled our good-byes to familiar faces and went in search of the phenomenal stone edifices of the UNESCO über-attraction that is Angkor Wat.
For two days we pedalled unburdened by tents, tools, pots, pans, sleeping bags and all our other daily companions, among the stellar ruins of Angkor Wat, its sister temples and the sublime jungled shrines. Exquisitely crafted around a thousand years ago, they remain utterly extraordinary and exceeded each and every childhood imagining. They just don’t build them like this anymore. After all the wondrous things we have seen along the way, to imbibe this intoxicating treat with a mere 4 days of riding to go was a fitting experience. Savouring the best until last.
Yes, you heard us right. This blog was partially penned with a paltry 4 days and 404km remaining before the bikes would take their concluding bows and put their metaphorical feet up at their final destination: Bangkok. Our cycling days are, however, now done and dusted. We are pinching ourselves as we write. 15,613km and 24 border crossings have come and gone since buttery bagels were wolfed down on a frigid February morning outside Sam’s sister’s front door in London. We have arrived.
The conclusion of this blog comes to you from under the nourishing sunshine rays of Southern Australia where a short (ha!) flight has whisked us, to spend Christmas days in the bosom of Francesca’s Aussie side of the family. Reflections on a year in the saddle, musings on roads traveled in the southern hemisphere, and of course our final days in gentle Thailand are all to come next time round when two odycyclists report for the first time about life back on planet earth.
As ever we have done our darnedest to ensure the latest pictures of life on the trail are uploaded for your viewing pleasure. They can be found here. And the final route we covered can be found on the two maps here.