Cycling holiday? How to bike through Cambodia
Australian Bruce Ford and two mates pushed their legs to the limit when they cycled 1,000 kilometres across Cambodia to raise money for the charity, Tabitha. He shares the story of this trip: snakes, tarantulas and all.
Cambodia is a big country. Where did you start?
We flew into Siem Reap with our own mountain bikes, planning to ride about 150km a day. Our nights were spent in reasonably good hotels in Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, Phnom Penh, Kirrirom Mountain, Sihanoukville and Kep, before returning to Phnom Penh.
We’d hit the road at about 6.30am, cycle for about two hours and stop for a picnic breakfast, which was usually packed by the hotel: eggs, wonderful baguettes and bananas were the typical fodder. After another hour and a half we’d stop for a water break and electrolytes, and then push on until lunchtime at about 1pm. By this time we’d have covered about 110km with only about 40km to go.
Around 3pm or 3.30pm we’d arrive at a hotel for a well-earned shower, and time to wash the gear and make any repairs. Dinner ranged from burgers to local food, including red ants with beef salad, lots of frogs and the occasional tarantula.
The road conditions varied considerably, from dirt tracks to highways and bitumen with potholes. Every so often we encountered a snake on the road, but luckily no one got bitten. The fourth day was 125km of dirt road and tracks; off the 140km target. It was slow going. We were in the saddle for 12 hours, only arriving at our destination in the dark.
Going back the beginning, how did you train for this adventure?
The team, made up of Steve Jones, Mat Talbot and myself, regularly cycled 500km or more a week. This included a 155km circuit around the island, which got a bit monotonous.
It turned out to be enough preparation though, as we found we had the “kilometres in our legs” to do the trip. Of course it was gruelling, but it got easier over the course of the week as our bodies got used to the distance each day.
Did you have a local back-up team? How many punctures did you get?
We formed fantastic friendships with our local guide Buntry, mechanic Rith, and Det who drove the van with the bike trailer. Buntry and Rith rode with us the whole way and came to believe in the cause as much as we did. We also had a great mate of Steve’s, Graham Baigent, riding in the van as support crew and entertaining Det.
There were only a few punctures, plus a couple of tyre changes. But we regularly had to replace the brake pads. By the second-last day we had run out and were still 200km from Phnom Penh. This was not a problem though – the guys organised a taxi to bring them from the capital, which cost just $2.50!
What was the reaction from the locals as you rode through their villages?
There was a lot of disbelief – they couldn’t understand why we would ride bikes when we had a perfectly serviceable van to ride in. Invariably, the kids would come running out from houses waving and yelling “Hello!” over and over. It was incredible that they knew to speak in English, of all languages, so we waved and yelled “Hello!” back; at least a thousand times a day!
We often stopped at villages where Tabitha had built houses and schools. Frequently, around 200 people waited for three hours or more in the baking heat or driving rain to greet us. Many of the communities were unrecognisable from when I had been there two or three years previously.
They had improved the houses by adding on to them, and many had sunk wells, with Tabitha’s help. Years back it had all looked so desolate, but since then they have been able to irrigate the land and grow food. There were ponds with yabbies, fish, frogs and pigs too. I also noticed that the streets were cleaner.
The kids looked so healthy. Previously they had a yellow tinge to their hair from some type of vitamin deficiency, but this was gone. They all looked proud, whereas on previous visits they looked beaten. The difference in their prosperity was remarkable.
Why did you do the ride?
My wife Sharon is the treasurer of Tabitha Singapore and is involved with the Nokor Tep Foundation. Last year our kids, Jaimie and Brandon, and Sharon’s father joined us on a house-building trip in Cambodia. We were also involved in a cooperative effort to sponsor the building of a school in Battambang province.
A casual conversation about fundraising for the hospital, with Janne Ritskes, the founder of both charities, quickly sparked a commitment to do an awareness and fundraising ride.
What surprised you most during the ride?
The reception we received on the final day as we arrived at the hospital site. Twelve additional riders joined us for the final 15km into Phnom Penh, and over 100 people greeted us with cheering, Champagne and a big banner at the finish line at Tabitha’s office. It was really moving.
How much money was raised?
To date we’ve raised about US$85,000 and donations are still coming in. It all goes towards the construction of the Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital in Phnom Penh. This amount of money funds about two weeks of construction.
Would you do it again?
I haven’t got back on my bike since the trip, but yes, we are planning a ride for August and September 2014. We already have 15 confirmed riders.