One Bike. 450 Kilometres. 10 Days.
Vibrant red roads, bright green paddy fields, small villages, energetic children, wild chickens, a warm breeze and an array of traditional temples; this is just a glimpse of what I saw while travelling Vietnam and Cambodia on two wheels. I cycled 450 kilometres, over 10 days, from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia, to raise money for a rural village, Preyvihear.
Preyvihear village is in the process of establishing their own maternal health care unit because of a growing number of deaths after birth, of both mothers and babies. Funds raised from our bike ride went to support this cause.
A bicycle and a breezy adventure
What would your thoughts be if you imagined cycling across 2 Asian countries in the heat of summer? Adventure, excitement, challenge? Perhaps you’ve already decided against it.
Cycling through Vietnam and Cambodia was, surprisingly, easier than I anticipated. Making our way through the crazy streets of Ho Chi Minh City to pick our bikes gave an insight into what the next 10 days were going to involve. Asian countries are busy in general, with unpredictable roads, and Ho Chi Minh City has the highest number of motorbikes on the road in Asia.
When we arrived at the site where our bikes were kept, we were greeted with old and heavy mountain bikes. Some of the bikes were so old that it was necessary to bring along some replacements in the ‘back up’ van. I ended up being incredibly grateful for this, as I had an incident with my pedals coming off, making me change my bike within the first few days. Nevertheless, mountain bikes were necessary, instead of road bikes, because of the rugged terrain we cycled across.
The journey began. We cycled between 70 and 90 Kilometres each day, with only a couple of days off cycling to visit Preyvihear and the Killing Fields midway.
Starting in Ho Chi Minh City immediately put my cycling abilities to the test. It was a challenging and thrilling experience to be amidst the city traffic. I used the locals’ method of driving; to just go. Be too slow and cautious and you may get in the way. Not being mindful enough could also get you in trouble. Finding the balance in organised chaos is the trick to cycling (or driving) in Asia. Every vehicle drives in its own unique way, looking out for every other vehicle that does so too. Adapting to this very non-western method (especially considering that a bicycle is a lot slower than a motorbike or a car) is a heart pumping experience.
Having left behind the madness of the city we found a small track that took us up the Mekong River. As we slowly transported our two wheels through authentic Vietnamese villages, we watched out for coffee drying on the road, passed by raw cow heads being sold on wooden stalls, and stopped now and again for cold water and to catch our breath.
We also attempted to cycle across a typical rural bridge, a thin but steady tree trunk, while a group of local community members watched in confusion. Our time in Vietnam was short but sweet. As we came to our last town in Vietnam before reaching the Cambodian border, we imagined what daily life would have been like at the time of war, a time when intelligent community members would be kidnapped and killed to minimise the number of intellectual citizens of society. Making a visit to the small Temple of Sins where Vietnamese veterans would go to cleanse their sins was how we said our goodbyes to Vietnam.
Change of country, change of terrain.
From village pathways to wide, dusty, rural roads. From passing by the Mekong River to riding alongside rice paddies, we altered our cycling approach from mindful meandering to racing each other, competing to see who could get the dustiest the quickest. With nothing but Cambodian wonders ahead we rode until sunset every day until we reached Phnom Penh, where we took two days off cycling to visit the Killing Field monument site and Preyvihear village.
But before our midway break we tackled our biggest challenge of the trip: a 32 kilometre steep and continuous road up Elephant Mountain. This challenge was marked by the hottest day of the year so far.
We started the climb at midday, and out of the 20 cyclists, only 5 of us completed the ride to the top by bike. After being the leader for the first 10km, I happily tossed my bike into the van and jumped onto the passing bus at the 16km mark, joining the other group members, while thanking my legs for having carried me that far.
Preyvihear is situated in the enchanting countryside outside Phnom Penh. Cycling along a bumpy, seemingly never ending road, we finally arrived at Preyvihear. It’s a very quaint and rustic village, occupied by approximately 140 warm and welcoming families, who sustain their livelihood by agriculture. Unfortunately Preyvihear suffers from severe sanitation issues, lack of crops to feed all the villagers, and a lack of close-by medical care and suitably sized housing to fit all family members.
As they have very few visitors, the chief of the village made an appearance to humbly greet and thank us for visiting. After a short introduction, we were invited to sit and eat before meeting the children and seeing the foundations of the maternal health care project. Despite the village not having enough rice to feed its own community, on the table lay more than double of what we could have eaten. Within a few hours I saw that what Preyvihear may lack economically is certainly counter-balanced by the villagers’ overwhelmingly kind and compassionate nature.
Upon leaving Preyvihear, each of my group members had something new to think about and a new perspective on the first-hand experiences of developing nations. Nations that promote ‘off the beaten tracks’ tours that offer ‘the most authentic travel experiences’, as many travellers would say.
A beautiful moment to mark the end of our journey was spending time with local Cambodian children jumping into a lake together, fully clothed, embracing the moment. Although verbal communication was almost impossible, we happily communicated with body language and gestures.
The end in sight
On our tenth day we reached our final destination, Angkor Wat. This is an ancient temple that in the 12th century housed 1 million people, many times the population of London, which clocked in at under 50,000 at the time.Spending our last day exploring the temples, on two wheels, was an incredible way to finish our journey across two Asian lands.
Cycling through Vietnam and Cambodia reinforced the concept of collecting moments, not things. I met people who carry the world on their shoulders and smile every day, and people who have nothing yet offer everything. If you have ever experienced a voyage similar to this one or it’s something that you would like to do, I have one very important piece of advice – keep a journal. Experiences like this are precious, and intricate detailed memories of thoughts, smells, emotions and lessons learned will eventually fade. Memories like this are special; keep them! You never know when they may touch your heart again.