Cycling to Angkor Wat
Indochina by bicycle
The morning humidity is high as we set off through the Thai jungle and over hills dotted with frangipani and palm trees, the thick air sweet with the scent of milky flowers. Bamboo-framed houses on seven-foot high stilts squat in rows along the dirt roads, their thatched-palm roofs blowing in the hot wind. Whizzing past brightly painted Buddhist temples and dodging the stray dogs lying in the middle of the street, we're greeted by barefoot children eagerly holding out their palms for rapid-transit high-fives.
Eight of us, all strangers, have decided to cycle some 500 km through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in a bout of eco-alternative tourism. I am the only one not wearing lycra, a fact which has elicited clucks of disbelief, but soon enough I realise I am also the only one not interested in racing. The Tour de Sadists, however, as I silently dub them later, race each other as well as the motorcycles and tuk-tuks that pass us by. I stay in the back and watch water buffalo graze the rice paddies that stretch to the horizon instead.
It is April, Indochina's hottest month, and all of us are suffering from saddle seat, the heat and humidity increasing daily. We chug electrolyte water and devour candy bars called "Beng Beng" to survive. Bargain, $7 full-body Thai massages boost morale; so does swimming in a large reservoir in the middle of the jungle before lunching on fresh pad thai and chicken curry.
Where Thailand has pavement, Cambodia has dirt roads, the border between the two lined with billboards and posters saying “Please don’t harm our children: sex trafficking is illegal”. Young girls stand dolled up on street corners at night, though, and fat, middle-aged Western tourists prowl the bars with a sinister look of hope in their eyes.
My heavy heart is assuaged only when we cycle to the 13th-century temples of Angkor Wat, their petal-like domes emerging victoriously from the jungle canopy. One morning, I wake up in the dark to catch the temple at sunrise. As the warm jungle light dances across the temple walls, songbirds call loudly to each other amidst the banyan trees, and a spellbinding explosion of magenta, tangerine and bubblegum pink erupts across the sky.
We ditch our bikes for a day and drive to Phnom Penh, stopping briefly to snack on fried tarantulas (gingery and crunchy, I'm told - I had crickets instead). Our arrival in Phnom Penh is preceded only by its stench of rotten meat and sewage; swarms of beggars - some landmine victims of the civil war, others children as young as four - crowd its streets. The vibes of past pain are heavy here. We visit a former high school-cum-Khmer-Rouge torture prison called S-21 and meet two of its survivors, who tell us they hope, in the next life, that their torturers' karma catches up with them. Even more disturbing is our trip to the Killing Fields, where bits of people's teeth, bones and clothes from the mass genocide of 1975-79 can still be seen sticking up out of the ground.
When we push our weary bodies into Vietnam, we are all silently relieved. The Vietnamese are boisterous, their clothes bright, the roads well paved - a stark contrast to Cambodia. We criss-cross canals manned with conical-hatted rice farmers in wooden canoes and cycle through fruit orchards along the Mekong Delta. One night, we homestay on an island, feasting on spring rolls we roll ourselves and the local delicacy, elephant ear fish. As we drift off to sleep under mosquito nets, a symphony of mating frogs provides our lullaby.
Our last two days in Vietnam are spent dodging motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City and scrambling on all fours in the underground network of tiny Cu Chi Tunnels, used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War to run supplies and soldiers. When I literally bite the bullet for the most random but touristy activity there and shoot an M-16 at the Cu Chi shooting range, I am amazed at myself. It must be a 500-km cycling delirium, I tell myself. Sure.
- Do try local delicacies such as sweet iced coffee, red bean tea, fried crickets and Vietnamese pho at local food stalls - it's unlike anything you've ever had at home.
- Try to visit between November and March, as monsoons start around May and last till October. If you want to see rice paddies when they're green, bring a mac.
- Bring your own saddle, or at least a saddle pad. Your bum will thank you.
- See www.exodustravel.co.uk for more details on Cycling Indochina or use responsibletravel.com to book your eco-adventure, as I did.
Kate Hodal is a freelance journalist and photographer currently travelling through Asia. More pictures and stories of her travels can be found at www.katehodal.com