Cambodia by Bicycle
"Whenever you see three Cambodians, remember the fourth one who was killed by the Khmer Rouge." A friend shared this sobering thought on the eve of a special adventure I was about to embark on: a bicycling trip from Bangkok to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. While this undercurrent of sadness was a part of the trip, my adventure was also filled with unexpected challenges, friendly people, and awe at seeing the magnificent ruins at Angkor.
After spending our first day (March 14) cycling in Thailand, we reached the Cambodian border at Prum at noon of the second day. We bicycled onward 17 km to Pailin and stopped there for the night. Pailin is famous for two things: sapphire mines nearby and several retired Khmer Rouge officials. Luckily I did not run into the latter while exploring the town in the afternoon. The streets of Pailin were torn up for installing sewage pipes and it was dusty and hot. Many more children than I had seen in Thailand played in the streets. The market reminded me of the bazaars of the smaller towns of Bangladesh, with the vendors waiting with their offerings while their children entertained.
The next day was our most difficult: 92km from Pailin to Battambang, the second largest town of Cambodia. Expecting another hot day (mid-30s) we started bicycling at 7am. Having braved Dhaka's traffic and shattered roads for many years, riding through Pailin's potholes was easy for me. But just outside the town I ran into trouble. That's because we started climbing the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains.
Now I don't know about you, but to me Bangladesh is the best country for mountain biking because there are no mountains. Going up those hills, my feet, legs, thighs and lungs all screamed for one thing: flat land. Suddenly I was missing the flat potholes of Dhaka, the flat muddy paths through the villages and the flat unfinished brick roads.
There was another difference I noticed immediately. The Cambodian landscape had no trees! The area we were in had been under Khmer Rouge control for years and they had chopped off all the trees. So now I was missing both the flat and green of Bangladesh.
I was also missing another advantage of cycling in Bangladeshi countryside: if you need to relieve yourself, you can always park your bicycle and walk away into a field or some trees and do the needful. Not so in Cambodia, because of landmines.
As if to soothe me, Cambodian children started appearing from their village homes. Charming and friendly, they reminded me of the village children in Bangladesh as they greeted us from the roadside.
The road from Pailin to Battambang is being built by the Chinese. Some of it is gravel and stones, while the rest is asphalt carpeted. Numerous trucks plied this road (taking sewage pipes to Pailin?) and every time one went by, we wheezed and coughed through its trail of dust for the next few minutes.
Covered with dust and bleary-eyed from the heat, we somehow made it to Battambang after seven hours of hard riding. It was there next morning that I had a moving experience.
I had awakened before everyone else and hired a Tuk-Tuk so I could take some pictures. Exploring Battambang, I discovered its charming atmosphere, friendly people, cordial neighborhoods and old French architecture. Towards the end of the ride, the driver asked me "Do you want to see the Killing Fields?" At first I declined but then I changed my mind. He took me meandering through the town and through the grounds of a Buddhist monastery to a clearing with a tower. This was a memorial to those who had perished under the Khmer Rouge. In the middle was a glass enclosed display of skulls and bones. All around the monument, frescoes described atrocities. Having come from a country which had also suffered genocide, I immediately empathized and was filled with sadness for the suffering of these gentle people.
The ultimate goal of our trip was to explore Angkor Wat by bicycle. A series of Buddhist and Hindu temples built during the height of the Cambodia's Angkor empire (800-1200AD), the area is spread over several square kilometers. The temples were "discovered" and restored by the French during the early 20th century using a process called "Anastylosis" reconstructing a structure to its original specifications using modern materials only when necessary (but discreetly.) Every year millions of tourists visit Angkor Wat to see these monuments created by man to show respect for the divine.
To see Angkor you must be based in Siem Reap, the nearby town. So on the fourth day, we went there from Battambang. We rode in a minivan because our original plan of taking a boat across the Tonle Sap lake was scuttled due to low water levels. I learned that China is building several dams upriver from the Mekong river and this is possibly causing water shortages in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Aha, I said, this story sounds very familiar! Speaking to the Cambodians, I also discovered that there is no power shortage in the country because they buy power from Thailand in the west, Laos in the north and Vietnam in the east. Women in Cambodia freely drove motorcycles and bicycled, often wearing sarongs. No one spat or did waak-thu like in Bangladesh, though I did notice some discreet nose-picking. Because of the sparser population (16 million) the towns looked cleaner than Bangladeshi towns.
Next morning, we bicycled from Siem Reap to Angkor. The vegetation changed, with many ancient trees standing among more recently planted saplings. The first temple we stopped at was Bantay Kdai, a Buddhist monastery from the 12th century. This was where I saw my first Spung tree and caught my breath.
It is the Spung tree that adds a hypnotic dimension to many of Angkor's temples. Its roots crawl like giant snakes along the walls, while the treetop towers hundreds of feet overhead. If you have seen those banyan tree trees that grow out of old abandoned houses and palaces in Bangladesh, try to imagine something ten or maybe a hundred - times more macabre and powerful and you will get an idea.
Ta Phrom is a temple with impressive Spung trees. This was our next stop. Massive Spung tree roots competed with the architectural details and fine workmanship for our attention. Then we bicycled to Bayon. This temple is filled with steep stairs, narrow corridors, and wide open terraces. But the highlight is its 54 towers all decorated with the same giant face with an enigmatic smile. After staring at that face every which way we left Bayon and went out. It was a pleasant surprise to see the smiling Cambodian children peddling Tshirts, books and souvenirs.
Our final stop was the main temple, Angkor Wat. It is a huge and complex temple surrounded by a moat. The story of the Ramayana is carved meticulously into the walls of the temple. I climbed to the top and looked around, but for me Angkor Wat was overwhelming and I came away with sensory overload.
The following day we bicycled 50km to explore Banteay Srei temple (967 AD), which many consider the most beautiful temple in Cambodia. Its pink stone building was indeed pretty, as was the artwork in stone. We also climbed up a steep mountain to see the River of Thousand Lingas. Along the stone riverbanks of this mountain river, many carvings depicting linga (ie, female phallic symbols) can be seen.
The last day of the trip was meant for bicycling in the Cambodian countryside. Since this is similar to the Bangladeshi countryside, I skipped the cycling and spent the day exploring Bayon and Ta Phrom again. Afterwards, munching on a bowl of fried yellow noodles at the Blue Pumpkin restaurant, I contemplated my trip, which was near its end.
I had experienced intense physical and emotional forces on this trip. The tough bicycle rides had challenged and drained me, but I had survived, due in no small part to my preparation before leaving. I had been less prepared for the emotional turmoil I experienced by the three faces of human Cambodia: the ghastly atrocities of the Killing Fields, and the magnificent vision of the Angkor kings and the gentle and cheerful Cambodians of today. So Cambodia will always be an enigma to me a rich enigma, but an enigma nevertheless.
Practical Details: The bicycle trip is offered by Spice Roads (www.spiceroads.com). They are well-organized and dedicated with helpful and knowledgeable staff. Needless to say, in order to avoid getting into trouble, one must be physically fit before embarking on such a trip. The bicycle trip is one-way and you need to fly out of Siem Reap at the end.