Hey everyone, just got back from a great cycling trip through Cambodia.
It sort of all happened as good things do, by complete chance and luck. I have been following this organization called PEPY
for the last year or so and have really been interested in their approach to learning service. The company started with a few Americans cycling through Cambodia and realizing there were much deeper issues to deal with, and from then on PEPY was born. As a testament to that initial ride the sister company, PEPY Tours, now offers a 1000 km cycling trip through the country every year, this being the PEPY Ride IX
. Another case of small world syndrome allowed me to be part of the ride as guide and facilitator too!
The group was as diverse as could be possible, with a collective 16 languages spoken between us. Everyone brought their own perspectives and life experience to the trip, we all learned a lot about Cambodia and ourselves.
My co-guides on this trip were amazing. "Lucky" the 7 time Cambodian cycling champion was our bicycle guru, a truly inspirational person. Not only was he physically and mentally strong, but he also had a vulnerable side and talked at length about his dreams and ambitions in the coming years, look out for Lucky Champion Bicycles in 2015. I think I saw Lucky not smiling for a grand total of 4 seconds the entire trip, a truly happy individual. Check out the short doc about Lucky below.
Our cultural liaison was Thavry Thul
, one of the most passionate and involved people I have ever had the pleasure to work with, truly a shining example of the future of Cambodia. Also along for the ride as a participant was the PEPY team photographer Luis Barreto
, again I can't say enough good things about this guy, just a pleasure to get to know.
Ok ok ok, enough about the crew. The trip itself encompassed a multitude of challenges and tons of high points. I will only point out a few of my favorites as to not bore the general populous.
Siem Reap - Battambang
The trip started out in the circus like city of Siem Reap, made even more circus like by the giant hotels, bus loads of tourists, and tons of Christmas lights everywhere (really strange for a Buddhist country?). As per usual there was an orientation and short bike rides around the area, including a sunrise at Angkor Wat and amazing Christmas dinner at Le Touich. We even got off trail for a while at the Baray, where the first of many flat tires and falls happened.
After leaving Siem Reap we encountered the reality of riding with all of our gear, the heat, the wind, and our poor poor butts. We met with a few organizations along the way including Investing in Children in their Societies (ICS
) and the Banteay Chhmar community social enterprise. Banteay Chhmar is home to a giant Wat , which was built concurrently with Angkor Wat, but this place is not visited much and is in my opinion much nicer. We even had a great candlelit dinner at the temple itself accompanied by the local musicians and some impromptu dance lessons.
Few kms later we arrived in Battambang. I don't know why but this is by far my most favorite place I have visited in Cambodia. The town itself is not that large, easily crossed on foot in about 30 mins, but the town has this lackadaisical feel. This is also the artistic center of the country, with lots of handmade crafts for sale, as well as tons of social enterprises, including Kinyei (best coffee I have ever had) and Soksabike.
We had a great new years party on top of the hotel and then promptly turned in at 8 pm for our 3:30 am start the next day to Pursat - 111km.....
|pre trip bike repairs|
|Thavry and Vive|
|Khmer cooking class|
|Angkor Wat - Christmas day|
|first flat tire at Angkor Wat|
|graffiti at Angkor Wat, the archaeologist in me cringes.....|
|PEPY's school in Chanleas Dai|
|sunset fishing with Thavry|
|getting limbered up|
|another Lucky moment, eating duck fetus, yum yum|
Battambang - Phnom Penh
|biking on a day off in Battambang|
The ride to Phnom Penh was a bit uneventful, basically early starts and long hours in the saddle. There isn't much to see in this part of the country except Tonle Sap Lake and Oudong Mountain, both of which are actually extremely important fixtures in Khmer culture. Tonle Sap almost quadruples in size during the rainy season and actually reverses the flow of many of the rivers that feed it. More than that it is home to a large number of nomadic fishing villages and an important source of food. Oudong Mt. was the site of the previous capital of Kampuchea and is now the religious center of the country, home to a lot of monks monking about.
Phnom Penh was a nice return to modern life, the main one being hot showers and some time off of the bikes. Lucky also works as a tuk tuk driver in the city when he is not cycling, so it was cool to have him drive us around and see him in his element.
We visited S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison notorious for its crimes against humanity, only 12 of the 20,000 prisoners that entered survived. It was a bit of a somber affair but we ended up talking at length about why it happened and what it will take to rebuild from it in the coming years. It also tied in well with the current instability in the area, as Hun Sen the current prime minister was himself a member of the Khmer Rouge. The riots and violence near the Killing Fields persuaded us to avoid the area completely, but we still managed to take a nice boat ride and eat at Friends
(get the fish!). One thing that struck me as strange was the fact that these two sites where numerous crimes against humanity had taken place are the top tourist attractions besides Angkor Wat. Why is that? And does this leave a negative image of the country to visitors? Lots of visitors have a hard time seeing the grass roots development that is happening in the country because it is overshadowed by the atrocities of the past.
Another pit stop was to SmallWorld
, a social enterprise focused on entrepreneurship. Thavry's brother Rithy Thul started it a few years ago as a co-working space and it has produced a number of successful businesses. One thing that I really admired about all the organizations we visited was how transparent they were about their failures and successes, as well as the general "unknown" about the future of the project outcomes. The faith these people have in social development is infectious and extremely exciting.
Phnom Penh - Rabbit Island
The last stretch to the coast was a nice bonus. Some of the crew had to leave early in Phnom Penh, but a few of us soldiered on. The riding became easier and easier it seemed. By the last day we were putting in 40 km before breakfast. Riding was beautiful and full of off track riding. Besides an exploding tire and an epic wreck by one of the participants it was an uneventful and relaxing ride to The Vine Retreat
. Lots of relaxation and lazy time ensued, we even made a joy ride down to Rabbit Island to sample the emerald waters and the outstanding peppered seafood.
The trip was great! I learned a lot about myself and Cambodia, as well as fine tuned some of my guiding skills. Met a lot of interesting and engaging people, and even learned some Khmer. My butt and legs are still recovering but I keep dreaming of cycling.......
|43km before sunrise|
|the route in total - Siem Reap to Rabbit Island|
|the finale at rabbit island|