A muddy path running parallel to rusty, unused railroad tracks stretches before me, and I struggle with my rented mountain bike to follow the tour guide as we navigate the uneven trail out of Phnom Penh. Mud cakes my legs and I spit away grit from time to time…it’s hard to keep the dirt out of my mouth when I’m grinning so widely.
Bumping along singletrack and muddy paths, we pass shacks, vendors selling vegetables, fruits, meats and household items, rolling over traprock that’s spilled from beneath the railroad bed. We come upon a group of orange-clad workers who are hacking away at the dirt that’s covered the tracks – prisoners doing hard time preparing Cambodia’s railway system for an expected return in the fall.
Trains haven’t run here for many years, but word is out along our path that a route north to Battambong and another to Siem Reap are coming soon.
We stop at one of my guide’s favorite fruit vendors for a snack, and I snap some photos to capture one of the many new and different scenes that Saturday’s ride provided. The 65 kilometer ride to Oudong – the historical capital of Cambodia – is billed as a moderate ride along flat paths, tracks and some paved and unpaved roads. It promises a view of “real” Cambodia, and I am not disappointed.
It would be easy to view Phnom Penh as representative of Cambodia, but that would be a falsehood. In a country where 85% of its population lives in poor, rural areas, reality is only a short journey away from the trappings of Phnom Penh – even by bike.
About an hour outside of Phnom Penh we pass a series of concrete row houses, and my guide explains that they are housing for some of the country’s tens of thousands of garment workers. The company-owned structures are little more than windowless warehouses for the young women who work long hours for an average wage of $60 per month. They pay $30-$40 to live there, ensuring perpetuation of the relationship between an exploitive industry and an uneducated and unskilled workforce.
The temperature starts to rise noticeably as 9 a.m. arrives, and with 1.5 hours under our belt we reach remote countryside. A motorbike driver struggles to right his bike on the side of the tracks, where he was apparently clotheslined by a cow’s tether as he rode along. He looked none the worse for the experience, and was actually grinning in Cambodians’ characteristic way of dealing with a problem as he untangled his bike and dusted himself off.
Rice fields stretch to the horizon, most of them dry, sandy patches that stand in arid contrast to the rice paddies we’ve seen elsewhere in Cambodia. There is no irrigation here, so farmers plant a different type of rice plant that will grow in the grainy earth.
After stopping briefly to speak with a group of young monks who had paused for a break beneath a lone tree in the middle of the field, we ride into greener, more lush countryside where a river suddenly appears alongside our path. Ahead, a group of young men are chest-deep in the river, hauling nets to land their catch of snake eel, fish, crab and water roaches, which they’ll sell in local markets. Several women that are part of their group slice water plants from the muddy bottom, which they’ll also sell in the market.
Just about everything that moves or grows here can be eaten, as I’m learning, and the harvests are ongoing.
I pull my camera from my backpack but think twice about photographing the group. It somehow feels invasive, so I put the camera away and walk down to the river bank to talk to them as best I can. After a few awkward struggles I end up speaking to them through my guide, whose English is as good as his language coaching skills.
The terrain is pothole-strewn, uneven and changes abruptly, and I am grateful for the full suspension bikes that came with the tour, courtesy of the Vicious Cycle bike shop in Phnom Penh. My guide, 24, is strong and fit, and it’s all I can do to keep pace with him as the sweat runs off my brow in the mid-morning heat and we splash through a series of mud puddles.
We come to a tiny village where hundreds of Cambodians were relocated by the government after taking their land in Phnom Penh for development. They were paid them a pittance of the land’s real value then relocated them to the countryside where there were no common water supply and no electricity. A group of village men are digging a drainage ditch by the side of the road using shovels and pickaxes. Labor comes cheap and constantly here, even in the heat of the day. There’s always work to be done.
The guide tells me that with the help of the district governor villagers brought electricity to the town a year or two ago, and he points out a Catholic Church that seems to be the village’s center. We weave past a construction crew struggling to ease an enormous concrete drainage pipe into place with a backhoe, and speed past them out of town.
All along the way, children spy us coming and race to the side of the trail, waving and yelling “hello, hello!” Their beaming faces make me smile, and I wave back and return the greeting.
We come to a tiny restaurant on the side of the road, which is actually three plastic tables covered with swarms of flies and a bunch of plastic chairs. We buy num pan (bread) from a vendor who has stopped at the restaurant for a bowl of brothy soup and munch on it while we sip water (for me) and sweet iced tea (for my guide) that we buy from the restaurant. I wave the flies away as they angle for some of my roll, which is stuffed with durian and raisins.
Fortified, we return to the road, and my guide tells me we have about 30k to go. It’s nearly 11, and he asks if I’d prefer to stop for lunch at the wat (temple) just ahead or continue to Oudong. I tell him I’d rather keep going, if that works for him, and he smiles and says, “Ott panyaha.” (No problem.)
We make a brief stop at the temple, which was completed recently and is a source of enormous pride to the villagers. I receive a blessing from an elderly woman begging on the steps into whose bowl I place a 500 riel note, and a handshake and a halting “thank you” after a similar gift to a badly disfigured man in a wheelchair. I wonder how he survives in the heat and rough terrain as his smile sends me on my way.
Further on wee stop before a bridge to watch two farmers in the river below, one with a horse, another with two cows. I realize he is cooling them off, taking them for a mid-day swim to escape the relentless heat. I consider joining them, but instead snap a picture and ride on. My guide has loaded Cambodian music onto his cell phone, and it plays softly as we maintain our pace across the countryside.
We reach Oudong in time for lunch, drenched with sweat and exhausted, and we settle into a raised-platform feast of deep fried chicken, rice and soup. As I ladle soup from the boiling cauldron into my bowl a chicken’s foot emerges from the broth. I let it slip back into the soup, sticking to the vegetables and broth.
Young children surround us, some cooling us with woven fans, others trying to sell us food and trinkets. I was prepared for the incessant begging of this place, but not for the humbling number of the needy.
A girl of about 8 with penetrating brown eyes stands close to us, selling deep fried confections that we do not buy. She is captivatingly beautiful, and softly declines our offer of the extra food we have from lunch.
One young boy entertains us with a tone-deaf version of a Cambodian love song, and I give him $1 for his crooning. My guide invites the child to join us for lunch, and he tucks into the gristly chicken and bowl of rice as if on a serious mission.
After lunch we set out for the 509-step climb to Wat Oudong, accompanied by 8-10 young children who fan us, encourage us, and clearly wait for their chance to ask for money in return for their attentiveness. One young boy, 14-year-old Oodom, gives me a non-stop tour of the mountain, the wat, and the countryside’s surroundings, all in perfect English.
He points to the countryside below, to his school, to the new temple, and to the new government factory which “was a killing field.” I ask him if he learned about the killing fields in school. “Oh, no,” he tells me, echoing the answer I have received from every Cambodian I have asked about the country’s legacy under Pol Pot. “I learned from my family.”
I realize as we ascend that at 14, Oodom would have been a perfect target for conscription into Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
Most of the steps are occupied by beggars…old, young, disfigured, shoeless, sightless. At my guide’s urging I picked up an inch-deep stack of 100 riel notes at the foot of the mountain, and I place one in each bowl or hand on my way up until I have no more. I will have disappoint the rest of them, and I softly tell each “ott mien looey” (I have no more money) and show them my empty hands.
On the way down from the mountain, Oodom tells me he wants to be an English teacher when he is a man, then points out that he has to pay for his schooling himself. It’s $15 a month, he tells me, and asks if I might be able to help him.
After a bit more lobbying on his part, I give him $5 for a job well done.
A dozen children descend upon us as we near our bikes, all begging quietly for $1, and I am eager to get back on my bike and away from the constant begging.
It’s a short ride to the town, where we’ll toss our bikes on the back of a flatbed trailer pulled by a motorbike for a bumpy ride back to Phnom Penh. After transferring to another flatbed when our driver stops to wait for garment workers to end their shifts and clamber aboard his rig for a ride home, we decide to abandon the motorized transport outside of the city so we can ride our bikes into the city.
It will be faster than the flatbed, and the daily rains are threatening.
We motorpace behind a tuk tuk on the way back (riding as close as we can to take advantage of the vehicle’s slipstream) and attract stares and catcalls as we blast along, a Cambodian and his baraing in mud-streaked lycra, dodging potholes, motos and cars and raindrops.
Back at the bike shop, it’s a quick farewell and a tip for my guide, then it’s onto a tuk tuk for the ride across town. Time for a hot shower, a cool drink, and quiet reflection about yet another facet of this incredibly gorgeous, rough-cut of a diamond called Cambodia.