Murray Gunn's Blog
November 18, 2015
After a day resting by the hotel pool, today we returned to the adventure theme. A bus picked us up at 7:15 and took us to get fitted with harness and helmet. For the next 3 hours, we traversed 10 ziplines through the Angkor park. The gear was all top-notch and the entire enterprise as safety conscious as the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. Our guides had been with the company right from the start, carrying wood, and hauling materials up to the treetops. I asked how people were chosen for this work, whether they’d had any experience with rope work prior to Gibbons. Apparently the main criteria were good English and fitness.
Despite a fear of heights, I never felt uncomfortable. In fact, the highest point at 45m felt more like 10m, because the canopy of trees below is so dense it appears to be scrub on a hillside. The guides are so focussed on safety that they are not allowed to be distracted even for photos, but at stops, they would talk about the nature around us, pointing out the variety of trees, the squeal of cicadas and, back on ground, even drew a tarantula out of its hole. The day comes at a hefty price compared to other local activities, but it’s well worth the money.
November 16, 2015
We finished our tour with a ride into the ancient city to visit three major complexes. The first, and most famous, was Angkor Wat, which, aside from the tourists, was as beautiful as it’s known to be. Our guide, who was a uniformed official, explained that it was built on volcanic rock for stability, but adorned with sandstone to allow the intricate carvings of three-headed elephants and Apsara dancers. The restoration work funded by Japan and Germany integrates well with the original stone, though it will need a few years of moss to disappear. The hour wait to get to the top of the main temple was too long for all but the most avid temple enthusiasts, but the view over the treetops did provide a certain tranquility.
Writing 2 days later, Angkor Thom has already faded in my memory. It was built later than Wat, but without the volcanic foundations, so it has slipped further into ruin. Here I asked our guide about the colours used in the heyday, but unlike Mayan culture, the Angkor people left the stone in its natural state.
The final ruin, whose name I will need to look up, was my favourite, and not just because a busty Lara Croft once ran through its corridors. Strangler Figs and other strong trees had taken up residence, perched on top of buildings and draping their roots down walls into the earth below. Cicadas let out a constant high pitched squeal, in contrast to the rhythmic tenor of their Australian cousins. The jungle gave this site a sense of age the previous two only hinted at.
To finish the day, we returned to Angkor, where the late afternoon light turned walls and towers yellow. We could see why people make an effort to visit at dawn and dusk.
We handed the bikes back with some sadness, but mostly with a feeling of immense accomplishment. We’ve cycled about 500km in eight days through oppressive heat and some fantastic scenery, but I think it will be the 10,000 hellos I will remember most.
November 15, 2015
The road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is always under construction. Apparently the government uses it as a way to get funding from other countries, but most funds go into official’s pockets. The materials used are poor, so by the time the road is finished, work must start again. This meant that we could only ride 40km today, which was a relief because their was little cover and the heat was oppressive.
Instead, we visited a number of temples including a complex on a hill, which looked like it cost all the money collected for the road. Tall marble spires decorated with three-headed elephants and busty women housed 4000 Buddha statues. Hundreds of locals had turned out in their best clothes to donate food and money to the temple, presumably because it was harvesting time. Other temples on this path were in dire need of repair after being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and were presumably left that way as a reminder.
My favourite temple, earlier in the day, was much quieter, with a large pond and a building stacked with carved wooden statues, A group of people sat on the steps to one side of the building, palms pressed together in prayer, while a monk threw buckets of water over them. I asked if I could join them and soon became the target for most of the water. On such a hot day, that was all the blessing I needed.
November 14, 2015
No cycling today since we had to cross the border from Vietnam to Cambodia, a journey that took 4 hours by speedboat. We had to disembark at two separate ports for customs out of Vietnam and in to Cambodia respectively. Our new guide, Polo, met us in Phnom Penh and took us on an atrocity tour. First stop was another killing field, but this time one specifically intended for the purpose. Second stop was S-21, a prison for suspected spies and their families – the order chosen mainly to avoid peak hour traffic. The history was too convoluted for me to follow, but the relevant aspects were that Pol Pot came into power in 1975 and advised people to leave the cities for a few days because the US were planning to bomb them.
Once the people were away from their homes, and in many cases isolated from their families, he turned them all into slaves, forcing them to grow rice. They were also only allowed to eat rice porridge, and anyone seen munching on a grasshopper found in the paddies would be punished. Punishment usually involved being move to a prison to be tortured. S-21 was one such prison. The Khmer Rouge destroyed temples, factories and education institutions, but some of these, including S-21 (an old school) were converted to prisons. Anyone disobeying orders or believed to be educated was brought to these prisons to be tortured until they confessed to being spies for the CIA or KGB. Once they confessed, they were taken to the killing fields.
In the killing fields, groups were made to dig their own grave, then blindfolded and made to kneel in beside the hole. They were then beaten with bamboo sticks or had their throats cut with serated palm fronds. This was done at night so nearby slaves wouldn’t see, and under cover of music so they wouldn’t hear. They would kill 300 per day, but the numbers of confessions grew so much that they had to erect a wooden cage to keep people until they could be processed.
We were a sombre group arriving at the hotel tonight.
November 13, 2015
Day 5 was the hardest so far, despite the shorter distance. Most of the 45km until lunch was in full sun, and the breeze from riding barely held the heat at bay. Quang made sure we stopped every 10km to hydrate with water, tea, coconut or sugarcane juice. We were all glad to get into the bus to travel the nex 40km to the Killing Fields, though not so happy to leave the air conditioning again.
This village didn’t need a flashy museum to depict the horrors the Khmer Rouge had committed here. One small building displayed photos of the dead, eyes collapsed, skin shrunk to the bone. A nearby dome held bones in glass prisms reaching to the ceiling. They were separated by gender and age – senile, mature, adult and child. Only two women, who hid in the hills, survived. I joined Quang and the others in lighting incense and placing in the shrine at the centre of the room. As I pushed it into the sand, I prayed, ‘This must never happen again,’ but of course it will.
We cycled another 16km before catching the bus to the hotel and our final night in Vietnam.
November 12, 2015
The floating market begins at about five o’clock every morning. Our boat had a canopy along most of its length and kindergarten chairs placed along each side for our comfort, but the locals sat on flat bottoms with nothing to obstruct the path of flung produce. Most of the market boats had deep hulls, which presumably held more of the stock we could see piled up on deck – pineapples, rice, watermelons, chokos. Smaller boats, often driven by women in conical straw hats, who used one foot to maneouvre the propelors on long poles, would pull up beside the market boats and catch cluster after cluster of bananas, arranging them on the deck until they threatened to spill over the side. These would be taken back to the markets on the shore for the landlubbers to buy.
I was just considering buying something, anything for the experience, when a small boat laden with packets of chips pulled up beside ours. Quang bought twenty packets, which satisfied by desire, adding them to a bunch of toothbrushes I assume he’d picked up from hotels. When we’d seen enough of the market, Quang directed the boatman to take us into a quiet backwater filled. Here, boats converted into homes nestled amongst giant water lilies, and children ‘hello’ed us from every direction. We approached each boat to give delighted children both chips and brushes. Dogs barked as we neared, in one case, skidding over the edge and into the river before climbing back up and slinking away, embarrassed. Mothers were usually as happy as their children to receive the gifts, but one woman glared as she took the packets, threw them at her children and turned her back on us. It was easy to look at the run-down boats, confined indoor space and the danger of water all around, and think these people were poor, but I saw bright smiles, clean clothes and freedom and wondered if they would really envy us our lives.
November 11, 2015
Too tired today to think about writing, but I’ve managed to embed maps of the day’s trip. My navigator only lasted 7 hours so I had to capture the last stage while it was attached to a charger, which means a separate recording.
November 10, 2015
Ferries replaced bridges today as the estuaries widened. Paths angle steeply into the water, and the ferries drove their fixed ramps over the paths so we could ride straight on. The terrain opened up to reveal coconut plantations with irrigation channels cut through the earth, then opened up more for rice fields. We spent more time on main roads, though our guide took us into the backroads for ‘adventure path’ as often as he could. He relied a lot on the locals for directions as some paths had been swallowed by mud and on others the bridges were under construction.
The paths we took seemed to be a trade route for pigs. Motorbikes towed cages just big enough for one large pig to stand up in, or five small pigs to pile into. We tried to get them to stop to let us take a photo, but they seemed to think our gestures were some foreign form of greeting and mimicked us with big grins.
We stopped at a market area on one occasion, and I discovered a number of stalls selling ten different kinds of eggs – small, large, white, speckled, furry black ones. Quang tells me the latter had been rolled in charcoal, and were a delicacy. Beneath the table, each of these stalls had a tray of chicks climbing over one another and cheeping loudly.
At the end of the day, we caught a ferry over a river that must have been a kilometre wide. Near the ramp, which always remains down the whole trip, a pig lay in a cage too low to stand up in. When the ferry pulled away from the ramp, the pig began to panic, struggling to stand. Its motion pushed it backwards where the cage must have been weakest. From the other end of the ferry, we saw the pig suddenly free and heading down the ramp. I ran up to make sure it was okay, not sure what I could actually do, but the pig was gone, already in the water. One of the locals pointed down the side of the boat, then a bit later, we saw a pink spot bobbing in the wake. No one seemed too worried. I hope it made it to shore, but I fear it became dinner for a crocodile.
Despite reaching every ferry just as it was about to leave, we arrived late to the city on the other side of the large river, and Quang wanted us to take the bus the final 7km to the hotel, but the younger part of the group wanted to try the traffic. For the next twenty minutes, he led four of us along streets writhing with scooters and bicycles, our bus right on my tail. Fortunately, the route was mostly straight, but I still had to pass the slow cycles and avoid the faster scooters. This was most frightening when trying to turn left across the busy road, but there were always enough gaps to get through. We arrived at the hotel buzzing.