We saw three different sides to the smallest country in our Asian odyssey (except Singapore). Firstly, the incredible ruins of the powerful Angkorian Empire that dominated the region 1000 years ago. Secondly, the memorials and stories of the terrible Pol Pot regime only 40 years ago. Finally, a country trying to rebuild itself, trying to escape its recent past and its more powerful neighbours. Our group ride with United World Schools (UWS) really demonstrated how Cambodia is being rebuilt, slowly but surely. Our week with UWS yet again humbled us and made us realise how lucky we are and how important the work they and Beyond Ourselves (in Zambia) is doing.
When we entered Cambodia, we headed straight for Siem Reap and the astounding Angkorian temples. It is incredible to think that 1000 years ago this town had 1 million inhabitants when London had 50,000 and New York was just a few pig farms.
They did not disappoint (even Stu was impressed). Touristy and cliched but Angkor Wat at sunrise is simply. magical. The myserious and mercurial faces at Bayon, the power of nature taking over Ta Phrom and the awe-inspring gates into Angkor Thom all made for an incredible few days of cycling. We were lucky enough to stay at the Isann Lodge and very much enjoyed Hugh’s hospitality and food. Although three Khmer weddings in one week became rather wearing - huge speakers blasting out music from 5am to midnight - we were told that the music has to be so loud as it is tradition to call all the village to the wedding. We did try to ask how old the 'tradition' could be - with these mega-speakers - we did not get very far!
The awe-inspiring Angkorian empire.
Cycling down to Phnom Penh took us through Skun, famous for its spiders. People often have asked us ‘what is the strangest thing you have eaten?’ and until now we couldn’t really answer. Thanks to Cambodia we can now say we have had frog, mouse, tarantula, silk worm and cricket!
In Phnom Penh we had to visit SL21, the high school turned prison and the killing fields. It was a harrowing morning which really opened our eyes to the tragic and tumultuous history of this country. During out time in Cambodia we met many people who had stories of losing their parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles in 1970s, we later had a very interesting conversations about whether the power of the Khmer Rouge has really abated. Pol Pot and the other ‘brothers’ may now be gone but there are still huge issues in this country.
Tragic reminders of the Pol Pot regime.
In the capital we met up with Tim Howarth, CEO of UWS and 14 other riders who had flown out to meet us for our group ride. Spirits were high as we had a meal together although everyone was very nervous (including Tim, Stu and me) as none of us really knew what we were letting ourselves in for! The next day we all piled into the minibuses (including the tandem and bamboo) and drove to Stung Treng where we met Sitha the Cambodian manager of UWS who has been with the charity and the Howarths since day one. Sitha, Tim and everyone at UWS hugely impressed us with their professionalism, vision, motivation and hard work.
Visiting the UWS schools in remote north-east Cambodia.
The group ride was great albeit very challenging. To be honest the ride was far more challenging than any of us expected. The cycling was some of the hardest Stu and I have done in the last seven months. We had a lot of sand, several tricky bridges, some technical stuff and, on the last day, a lot of very steep hills. Our group ranged in age from 26 to 62 years (some nice symmetry there) with a wide variety of cycling proficiency. We were so impressed with the group's resilience and good natures and everyone improved a huge amount in their technical ability (and no doubt fitness) on the ride. We also spent three nights 'roughing it', sleeping in hammocks, washing in the Mekong's tributories and dodging enormous spiders.
The ride was incredibly challenging, especially battling the sand and the nearly 40 degree heat.
We visited nine of the UWS schools, these schools are so remote and really proved UWS’ ‘tag line’ of ‘teach the unreached’. It was such a pleasure to see the school children so happy (and so well behaved) in their lessons. There were a few impromtu lessons giving by some of the riders too.
John Craven, a UK based teacher, explains the principles of subtraction to some local students!
The Cambodia ride has raised an incredible £30,000 so far, this added to our Beyond the Bike fundraising means we are already getting close to our £50,000 target. Just like when we spent time with Beyond Ourselves in Zambia, being with Tim, Sitha and seeing the schools and children in this very poor area really brought home to us why we are trying to raise money for these charities and how much of a difference these funds will make. Yet again, it has spurred Stu and me on even more and is something we will remember when we are struggling up the mountains in Laos and China!
We all made it, very tired and dirty!