Biking Bad Cambodia : the movie

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Here is a short movie on this two-weeks biking trip!
A few shots from here and there, to give a feeling of the land.

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Culture shock 2

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Here I am back at the Phnom Penh airport, along with half of the group. Boeun and his team dropped us off one hour ago, and it was a sad moment to see them go, after having cared about us for two weeks.

Here are a few more items that could be striking for a westerner spending some time in Cambodia.
One important aspect is the presence of the king’s picture in all places, along with his parents. It reminds me of the book from Guy Delisle in Pyongyang, where the dictator and his father had their pictures in each and every rooms. Not as omnipresent here, but for a king without power, he sure is visible. And of course I never snapped a pic of that πŸ™‚
Coming back on the road traffic a minute, as in all poor countries you can see overloaded cars, buses, trucks and else. People cram on top, they cram stuff at the back door, strapped ajar by a cord, they sit everywhere and make the most of the space available. Security is clearly not the main concern.
You also see a lot of farm engines used as vehicles, notably these small motors with very long handles, that people drive with their feet, moving at maybe 10-12k/h. They also leave the special metal wheels that are necessary for plowing the drenched rice fields, probably damaging the roads a bit more. Behind such a contraption would be a long cart, with a few people and wood planks, tools, or some harvest.

  

What’s been striking me in almost all areas were houses along the road, for miles on end. We were out of any town for an hour or two, and still houses were aligned every now and then. I guess this is in order to be closer to fields, and have quick access to the road, as on the other hand, they are far away from everything else. This was less true in the south of the country, with more void and natural areas.

  
In any area though, you can see a lot of litter, of any kind, in any place. This seems to be a common factor of poor countries and poor regions. I have noticed a few litter cans, notably along the road where they are probably gathered, but this was rare. Plastic, bottles, construction material, you can find any kind of crap around. Bottles and cans are often gathered by some people, to be returned against a fee. We even passed a house almost covered with metal cans at one point.

 

Another constant feature is the use of cows or buffaloes as lawn mowers. They are attached at one point, often along the road, and keep the grass in check. Fields are mostly open, so that would be the only way to retrieve them – although they can get loose easily. It’s quite funny to see a large field, with cows being placed at regular intervals like a giant chess game!

Many fields are also protected by a wall. And that would be only one, lonely wall, generally on the side of the road, or sometimes along the next field. All other sides would be open. And most of these fields remain raw, uncultivated spots.
Using them everyday during the trip, I almost forgot that most of the little shops use cooler boxes and a lot of ice, having no fridge around. In most areas outside cities this is how drinks are kept and sold.

  
I made quite a few pictures of monasteries. There is a lot around, and we passed a huge one being built, south west of Phnom Penh. Most are living places, and used by monks or common people. There is usually a couple large buildings for ceremonies, a few housings, some statues, and a few stupas. These are the family mausoleums where ashes are kept, as all Buddhists are being cremated.

  
Another extremely common faith item are what could be seen on a first glance as birdbaths : small decorated houses, perched on a pillar at man’s height. These are used for incense burning and offerings, and can be found in almost every middle class garden. Many are sold here and there.

  
And finally, to conclude this second list, I often noticed French written below Khmer, especially for police and official buildings. It’s probably been there since the fifties!

 

Well, this is about all I can remember on this subject for now. It’s been an intense discovery, mind-clearing, eye opening, physically challenging, that went by in a flash. I remember clearly standing here two weeks ago, thinking it would be fast, and it has been. Two weeks is a quick period of time, but you can do a lot though, like visiting a country or fucking up your life.

 
I think I had a very diverse view of Cambodia in a short timeframe, thanks to Boeun and his team, clearing the way, taking care of all details, and explaining everything. Riding on a bike remains the best method to discover a place : you go fast enough to see a lot, and slow enough to enjoy it all by yourself. It’s been a great adventure.

  

Culture shock

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Having spent two weeks in Cambodia, here are a few things that were striking for a French guy.

Keep in mind I never visited another Asian country but Hong Kong (probably the most western place in Asia), and it was a long time ago (1999-2000). Closest would be Mauritius two years ago probably. I won’t be talking about nature, cultural heritage or history here.

  
First off, of course, this is a poor country. We passed many very simple houses on the way, made of wood, straw or steel. It doesn’t get better around large cities, as the poor are crammed together in small areas. The people are dressed very simply in these areas, and even if most seem supplied with electricity, they collect rain water, and seem to have very crude living equipment. I have seen or heard very few electronics (TV sets, radios…) outside of cities.

  
Even if most people are clearly very poor, a large part seem to live much more decently, at least seen from the houses. And what is unsettling is that everyone is mixed together : large, impressive, modern houses, side by side with wooden huts. In the west we have the decency to reject the poor in the suburbs where no one can see them :/ I suspect I have missed rich districts, or maybe there isn’t yet enough around.

  
Cambodia also appears to remain very heavily a land of agriculture. In the countryside, many of the houses were linked with farmland, mostly rice fields, visible everywhere. This requires a lot of manual work, and we passed a lot of people working on the fields. Lots of animals around too. Families were living with a collection of chicken, dogs, cows, and the odd cat or buffalo. Most farmers though were using engines to plow the land, not too many work with animals.

  
Another striking point, clearly demonstrated in the photos, is the abundance of children. They were everywhere (less so in large cities), smiling, waving, welcoming. There are also schools everywhere, with morning and afternoon shifts, to be able to accommodate all of these kids, with mandatory uniforms! Waving back to children was the delight of this trip.

  
Riding on a bike, we have seen the traffic up close, and it is a joyous mess. Everyone moves at once, and priority is given to the boldest, or the biggest, which are usually the same. This means the cyclist is a negligeable quantity, just above the pedestrian and the chicken. I’m wondering what is the mortality rate on the roads. People do not seem to drive excessively fast though. It’s often a necessity, as road conditions range from catastrophic to excellent, but average around dangerous!

 
Motorbikes are the predominant form of transportation. With super long seats, they can accommodate three people, even four or five including children. Very few users have helmets, much more have medical masks to protect from the dust. Motorbikes are the ones able to get anywhere and around any obstacle, like a van trying to turn left or right at a crossing. Right after them would be cycles, but they are more frequent in the countryside, and mostly used by kids.
Another regular surprise is the number of political lawn signs. At first I thought they were marking party offices, but they are everywhere. 90% are for the Cambodian people’s party (most political parties want to be “of the people” anyway), then the Rescue party (?), or Linpinchek, and I’m missing another one. The people’s party often displays the three notable VIPs, and I’ve seen quite a few signs for the prime minister.
Right after lawn signs come the beer commercials! I don’t think there are as many even in Germany. Angkor beer, Anchor beer, Cambodia beer dwarf commercials for farm engines or about anything else by a factor of 100 to 1 – literally. It might be mandatory to drink beer in the country. And as all three brands use the same logotype : strong red background, gold letters, they are easily confused.

  
These commercials are usually linked with shops or restaurants. You can find a small shop about everywhere, even by highways. Most of the time, it’s a table, a few products, a few bottles of gas, but it’s a shop! When they are more “brick and mortar” versions, they get their beer commercial to be more visible. In the southern part of Sihanuk, where all the tourists are, the streets are a long line of small restaurants, bars, souvenirs, mini marts, massage parlors, mini hairdressers, a few hotels, casinos, etc. Not a single residential home.

  
A complement to the huge number of small shops are street vendors. Whether on food, cycle, motorbike, they pop out of anywhere to sell snacks, raw food, even ice cream. They are the true equivalent of the NYC hot dog vendors, complete with repetitive music.

  
When entering a town, one surprise is the number of electric cables hanging around. It’s just as if each new home got a direct line to the town generator, adding one cable to the mass already in place for kilometers. Thing is, I’m almost sure it’s exactly what happens. There are hundreds of cables hanging from each post, some of them so loose they can be reached from the ground. Probably a maintenance nightmare.

  
Another such surprise is the scaffoldings. In Hong Kong they make them out of bamboos, even for 30 or 40 stories buildings. That was very surprising to me at the time! Here they are made of wood, but extremely simple : the areas where workers can walk is only one long branch, exactly the same as the ones used for the structure of the scaffolding, meaning they are always balancing over the void.

  
And after a trip to the US, my list wouldn’t be complete without a note about obesity. There are a few overweight people in large cities, but you have to find them. The official obesity rate is 3%, lowest in the world (ok Ethiopia or Bangladesh are lower). To be compared to 33% in the US, meaning one in three adults, ranked in the top 3 of actual countries (not autonomous islands). France is at 18%, in the middle of the charts. 

Sihanuk

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This is the last day of the ride, and clearly the hardest! We did more than 100k again, and reached the town of Sihanuk.

  

There was an air of competition this morning as we were getting ready for this last day. Robert was willing to beat me again, and Nils was certainly interested in finishing this trip first too πŸ™‚ We left Kampot early to cover the long distance before the usual 4pm.

  

The first bit proved very tiring to me : my legs had accumulated a lot of fatigue, and it was mostly uphill for the first 20+k. We were going along a mildly busy paved road again, following the coast going west, but not close enough to enjoy it. I tried to stick to Robert and Nils but couldn’t. I was really tired. We finally reached the first stop, at a monastery, once again with lots of children around.

  

Strangely, but as is often the case, my stamina came back after that, when I was getting used to the action again. The roads were a bit easier, and we did the next 20k much faster. Another monastery, many young or a bit older monks around. I found the closest I ever could to Ikkyu, from the great Japanese comic novel.
 

As we were going rather fast, we didn’t stop for lunch on the next small town 10k further, did a micro-break, and went on for another 20k! We changed road and plunged into rolling hills, a low and dense forest, and absolutely no one around! Another country again. We were actually skipping the busy road to Sihanuk and going another way.
  

Going up and down, up and down, was a real challenge under a pressing heat, and it became even more so when I had a flat tire! I tried going on, then walking, thinking maybe the stop would be close, but I got caught up by the van trailing the group, and the mechanic changed the wheel in a couple minutes.

  

After this much needed break, in the middle of nowhere, we did yet another 20k, still rolling, and with some much steeper hills! We were going back into civilization, as some houses and factories were appearing again. And we reached the ocean! We were almost done. A long white beach, sadly littered with crap, was in front of us.

  

The last few km’s of the trip were done entering Sihanuk, through a very poor area, with wood and steel panels shack houses, and then the industrial port. There was no real race at this stage as we were in the city, reaching our final hotel of the trip!

  

As I write this, the rain starts to pour down so hard it blocks the view out of the balcony πŸ™‚ Tomorrow is a free day around town, I’ll use the daily post to collect my thoughts on the culture shock, as I did in the US.

  

The last blog theme I have planned is teaching about love. It’s the complement version of the first one, learning about love, where you give your children a vision of what it is and what it means. That’s a situation I hope to live someday.

  

On this subject I can only speculate a few items that I have in mind, and that would guide me. The first one being of course that, as children reproduce what they see, you must be a role model on this point as on any other. That means that you live and experience love, as a couple, and as parents, the way your children can take example of you. Which means in turn that you are confident and stable enough in your couple.

  

I also think that you have to give them a positive view of life. Life in the modern world is complex, and it’s not changing anytime soon. You have to approach this with a mindset of opportunities, of discoveries, of encounters, and value love as a rewarding method, and a sure fire way of being happy in life. Even if there are certainly risks, they need to be taken, and you have to love like you’ve never been hurt.

  

Finally I think a discussion about what love means, what caring about someone means, would be necessary. I never had a formal parental lesson or discussion, but I feel that it is critical in a child’s upbringing. Such a subject would need to be done over time certainly, and probably with children that have started to mature a bit about feelings and other people. But it all depends on how they grow up πŸ™‚

Rabbit island

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Today was almost a rest day, as we spent the morning on an island, and cycled just a few km’s to Kampot.

  
Kep, where we stayed overnight, is being developed by Cambodia to become a tourist area, with many beaches and islands. A large road is under construction, that we used to leave the area after lunch. But before that we took a small boat to the nearest island, in front of the village : Rabbit island.

  
We stayed there for the morning, enjoying the beach, the warm sea, and almost no other foreigners around. As for me, I can’t stay put for too long, doing nothing, laying on a towel. I become restless pretty quick. So I did a tour of the western coast of the island, swam a bit, and finished my current book (a historical review of the Black Plague in 1348, fascinating).

  
This time each one chose what they would have for lunch, I chose shrimps again, and eating by the sea is really fantastic πŸ™‚ Then we walked a bit to another area and took the boat back to the mainland. From there we did a short 25 km’s to Kampot.

  
We did a quick stop to have a look at the white elephant cave, a limestone cave, and then a detour by the sea, to view salt fields, and a small Muslim community – the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist of course.

  
Tomorrow will be the last cycling day, and the longest! Although just a few more km’s than yesterday πŸ™‚

  
The subject for today is long term relationships. In my opinion this is the hardest and most rewarding experience at the same time. On this topic I will simply comment the best summary I have ever read on the subject : a post of the “Wait but why” website, on picking your life partner. The url is http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/02/pick-life-partner-part-2.html

  
The post starts by reminding us that a life together is a collection of simple moments, mostly not memorable, and not great unique days. Living together with someone is sharing the day to day routines, which can be fantastic if you fit well together. To be sure of that, the author sticks to three major factors.

  

The first one is an epic friendship. Do you like to spend time with the other person ? This is true of all friends, and with this one person, it must be even better : talking about everything, never getting bored, having fun, always being stimulated, always discovering new things or learning something. This part always improves over time, as living experiences together builds the friendship.

  
The second bit is a feeling of home. Do you feel at ease ? Do you trust each other ? How well do you communicate ? Do you accept the other person as they are, with their flaws ? Do you have a good vibe ? Overall, are you comfortable together ? This can be tricky sometimes, depending on what happens, but you need to be able to land back on your feet.

  
Finally the third part is a determination to be good at marriage (this is a US website and marriage is compulsory πŸ™‚ ). Meaning that you are ready to invest in the relationship and make the required efforts to keep it rolling. Fights are inevitable, life is complex, but how do you get through the fights ? Do you respect each other ? This is strongly linked with the previous point with accepting and respecting the other one.

  

Kep

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It was an intense day! We did quite a lot of great off-road, and pushed the limit to over 100kms!

  
We had an option today, depending on weather. In any case we would be going down to the coast in Kep, but that was on paved road or off-road. The second option would have been tricky with rain, but it had the attractive prospect of visiting a pepper farm. So of course we went for it – and we didn’t get any rain today.

  
Before getting any closer to this farm however, we had a whole morning on paved road, and a bit busy all the way. Three segments of around 20k each. The scenery remained more or less one of small villages, large factories, rice fields. For the first bit, Boeun let loose the dogs of war, pushing speed to the max, and I got distanced by Nils and Malcolm, as it happened last week! But I wasn’t too far behind. We continued pushing until lunch break, at a small restaurant along the road.

  
For the morning breaks, we didn’t stop at monasteries, rather the equivalent of small chapels, just like yesterday afternoon : small open air buildings, with paintings or statues of Buddha. For the more elaborate ones, the donors are listed and detailed. On the second break, we were right below a school, and as it was 11am, children stared pouring out, on foot or on bike πŸ™‚

  
This dad was waiting for his kids to get them back home on motorbike. I see a lot of dads along the way, caring or playing with young kids, or carrying them around. That’s really comforting.

  
After lunch we hit the off-road, and it felt like another country! Small steep hills typical of south east Asia, corn fields, pastures, cows… And much fewer houses and people than usual. It was also a great riding experience, on a small, firm and smooth dirt road, slaloming between puddle and going up and down at high speed! This was very intense until the pepper farm, located a bit uphill. Everyone’s legs were caked with orange dirt πŸ™‚

  
The pepper farm itself was a quick visit. Apparently this part of Cambodia is famous (since the French colonies) for making good quality pepper, either black or white, or red. The black one had been left in the sun to dry for two weeks, the red one just a couple of days. And the white one is the red one boiled and the skin peeled off. They don’t produce a lot but sell it for a premium. There’s a lot of manual work involved. They use natural fertilizers : cow manure of course, and bat manure! So this is bat pepper πŸ™‚

  
At this stage we could go on on bike until the hotel, another 17k on top of the 88 we just did, or call it a day and finish in the van. Peer pressure pushed half of us to keep going πŸ™‚ It was a speed competition from the start, and Robert beat me at the last kilometer. I had secured a healthy lead, and didn’t see him coming back. I had been too arrogant, as is my divine right as a Frenchman!

  
Tonight we went to a seafood restaurant, a nice change, and a great crab curry!

  
Another couple days of cycling, another couple subjects to go after this one : mending love. Or, how to emerge through crises.

  
In a long term relationship, there are difficult moments. I have never seen or heard different, and that would even seem strange : life is complex, and life in a couple even more so. Communication, understanding, trust, events, anything can slip at any moment, willingly or not. What matters is how these moments are lived, and how they are experienced upon, to make the relationship stronger.

  
In my previous personal story, nine years long, we had quite a few difficult sequences, even leading to temporary breakups a couple of times. As the previous post said, it is a matter then of putting your ego or the relationship itself first. Do you think the first of the latter has more value ? Can you take some distance to what happened, place blame where it should and not elsewhere, differentiate between outside events and real mistakes, assume your own responsibilities ? All of these points are critical to get through on top, and it takes some maturity to process them correctly.

  
After that, the main question is about forgiveness. Can you forgive the mistake ? Was it acknowledged ? Truthfully ? Were amends done ? Did you, and the other one, learn from what happened ? Did it make you stronger ? Are you able to accept apologies and start again ? I’m not a Christian believer but it like the concept of forgiveness : we all make mistakes, what matters is to recognize them and learn from them. This is how you keep growing and become more mature. As a couple it is a major test, and at the same time a major way to improve the bond.

  

Takeo

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Today was a normal cycling day of 70kms, no visit, easy enough after the rest, even if we got hit by rain again.

  
We left Phnom Penh early by van to avoid all traffic and started to set up a few kilometers south. All the team is back on the bike ! Some had had pain issues, others fatigue, other digestive problems… Everyone was feeling better and would cycle at least during the morning.

  
We quickly left the main roads to follow a canal, then a railway, then a canal again. During this part, it was the first time that we really left any string of houses behind us. We passed a few villages next, but clearly split from each other. The dirt roads were good enough, no problem to progress.

  
As leaving the city took some time, we stopped in the middle of nowhere right after the second bit, in a small village. Boeung had proposed that we eat with local people, real local food for once, which was very attractive to everyone. So we set up as local Cambodians would, and enjoyed beef, rice and vegetable.

  
And as we started eating, torrential downpour struck us again πŸ™‚ In a matter of minutes, the earth was flooded. We changed plans and stayed on the paved road for the rest of the trip. We passed quite a few large factories making clothes, just as workers were leaving, or a giant rice mill. After another short break, we reached the small town of Takeo.

  
We’re already half way to the coast, but will now turn west to reach Sihanuk in three days.

  
On today’s menu is : maintaining love and relationship. There isn’t much I would say about this one. In my experience, it is simply a matter of a constant investment. A fulfilling relation with someone is the most difficult, and most rewarding you can live. It is a constant struggle between your ego (doing things the way I want) and the relationship itself (doing things together).

  
I’ve read that couples with more than one negative interaction for five positive ones are doomed to fail. It also depends on cycles : at some point things are tougher, and you have to keep believing, and make it through. I’ve also read that it’s even more important to be there when everything goes well, and be supportive of success, than when things go wrong, which is less obvious. The article was titled “will you be there for me when everything goes right”.

  
Love to me, like all feelings, is a muscle. It needs to be worked upon, cared upon. It can grow painful, get hurt, and even have a cut through. But it can always be cured, be banded, and then get some exercise to recover after some time. Nothing is definitive in human relations if we want it. It’s a matter of investment, hence of effort in the present and rewards in the future.