Cycle, breathe, listen, look about, think a little, then stop, get off, have a snack, maybe a chat, get back on and repeat. It’s the life rhythm which engulfs anyone who travels for long distances on a bicycle. It’s a gloriously simple, wonderfully self-indulgent and a purely escapist way to live. For the most part we do nothing of any great significance, but as my travels begin to near their end I think more and more about how fortunate I’ve been to do not much other than observe for such a very long period of time. Time spent getting to know the world for all its good bits and bad bits and getting to know myself for all my good bits and bad bits. Away from a world where time flies by to the rhythm of a cash register I feel it’s these days spent doing nothing much other than watching the world pass by and figuring things out for myself that will turn out to be some of the most memorable of all.
“What I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.”
A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
Once we leave Wat Phu we island hop across the Mekong and find wonderful roads on which to do what we love doing best. Life does not move slower than here and it feels as though if we pause to lounge in a hammock for even just a moment we may never summon the energy to leave.
So we maintain a steady clip and ride on, stopping in on the largest waterfall in Asia with a small throng. Then, following the Mekong’s swirling waters, we bid a fond farewell to Laos and move on to country number 12; Cambodia.
Straight on to the backroads we go and blimey the conditions are bad.
Sand up to the ankles and the only vehicles which make an easy job of it seem straight from the film set of Mad Max.
Plenty of time for us to think about what keeps bringing us back to these roads over and over again.
Ride a little, grind to a halt, get off, sigh, push, get back on, and repeat. There’s an all encompassing rhythm to riding in these conditions. Eyes perpetually analyse the road ahead to pick a line, the body works to wrestle the steering and keep balance whilst applying just the right amount of power to the pedals. Everything works in unison and is entirely occupied by the simple act of moving. Like yoga, climbing, surfing and others it is meditative and even in temperatures over 40 degrees bizarrely relaxing.
Small detours scoured by scooters give us breaks from the horrors of the main road,
but for the most part it’s a day of pushing.
A few steps and the odd pedal at a time we inch our way through 50km of sand
until we finally reach a good road where travelling salesmen and women roam and serve up all sorts of sugary icy delights.
And on we head
to Ban Lung for a rest and a wander.
Mornings in Cambodia start slowly, supping ice coffee with the usual crowd.
Then we head into the forest
get horribly lost,
push a bit,
cycle a bit
and generally continue on the assumption that all roads must lead somewhere.
We ride until smoke begins to fill the air
from fires left unattended to burn through the undergrowth
and our stomachs sink.
Vietnam war remake? Cambodia has the third highest rate of deforestation in the world. 70% primary forest in 1970. 3.1% in 2007.
Gone forever, never to return. Passing through the chaos of the “frontline” into the desert beyond leaves us feeling sick.
And a change in the wind doesn’t do much to help,
nor do the tables we dine on – slabs of tropical hardwood pitted with the signature streaks of a chainsaw.
The market in Usan Monorom is a rabbit warren of crooked rubbish strewn alleyways complete with pungent wafts of rotting veg and ageing meat. It’s the kind of place I’ve grown quite fond of this last year.
For the very last time we chug across the Mekong on a rusty tub
and once across we run in to a spree of good fortune. For three nights in a row all sorts of people invite us in.
After overnighting in a monastery Sun took it open himself to show us around
and Prov invited us to sleep in his back garden. These small encounters and insights into local people’s lives do not grow old. As they’ve happened to me time and time again no matter where I’ve been they’ve changed how I think about strangers and foreignness. To the extent I recoil at the scaremongering headlines on my BBC News app; that’s not the world I’ve come to know.
Trouble ahead. The first signs of a change in season begin to show.
And it’s not long before the clouds break with a characteristic South East Asian deluge. An enormous thunderstorm batters our tents and our road becomes a lake
pepperpotted with pools of stagnant water.
Back to pushing then.
Careful where you tread. The rain brought out all sorts of creepy crawlies and amongst a host of campsite visitors were a 3m long python as thick as my calf and this scorpion.
Finally here’s a few shots from the various Angkorian temples we’ve been exploring.
Matted with tree roots
and plastered with lichen
there’s always a doorway worth popping your head through.
Me. Filthy. Knackered. Hungry. Happy.