Friday, January 7, 2011

Days 6 - 8: Kampong Chhnang, more learning and 115km ride to Phnom Penh!

Hey everyone!  It's been a hectic, interesting and eye opening last few days and we have another 5am start tomorrow so will make this blog post not too long!

Day 6

After spending a few awesome days in Siem Reap, we began our journey to explore the rest of the country.  This adventure started by taking a long, 7 hour ferry across Tonle Sap (Cambodia's largest lake) to the outskirts of Kampong Chhnang city!

One of my (Laura's) most memorable moments happened unexpectedly as we biked from Tonle Sap to Kampong Chhnang. After biking for 15km from the ferry port, my tire blew out!! Luckily, one of our super awesome ride leaders, Chor (but we call him Joe) was right behind me and stopped to help. We look around and it just so happens that we end up in front of the home of a family of four, including a 90 year old grandma sitting on a wooden platform with a pestle and mortar in hand grinding spices for a traditional Cambodian noodle dish, two young girls (probably aged 10 or so) playing with their two dogs, and the mom, just observing as most moms do. Not only do we stop in front of their home, they happen to sell a variety of fruits as well. So what do we do in this case? We buy a watermelon, crack it open and share it with the family!! As I ate my watermelon with the two girls, one of which spoke a bit of English, and with me speaking a few words of Khmer, we ended up laughing and smiling despite the language barriers. As I waited for my bike to be fixed by another super fantastic rider leader, Rithy, I went over to grandma and sat with her. No verbal communication was necessary, just the simplicity of eye contact made me feel like I understood what she was thinking, and her with me.

We've all been told to live in the present and not worry about the past or future, and for most (including myself), that is hard to achieve. But in that brief span of time because of an accidental flat tire, I felt completely in the moment and felt connected to a family that welcomed me into their home and showed me the generosity and hospitality of the people in Cambodia. Throughout our bike trip, we bike pass many homes and rarely get to stop and enjoy the moment. This was one of those times where unexpected experiences are created and you become completely immersed in the present. They put such a big smile on my face that I hope the rest of the riders get to experience something like that!!     

We arrived in Kampong Chnnang city after 30km or so.  The city was a far cry from Siem Reap, in that there were not that many foreigners and the city was definitely less developed.  With few foreigners in this city, it was not surprising that our bike tour became somewhat of a curious attraction to the locals.  Having children from every household shout "hello" was definitely a memorable experience.   We checked into our guest houses and ended our night early as another 6 am start was on the horizon.

Day 7

Day 7 included about another 40km of biking throughout Kampong Chnnang's suburbs and included two primary highlights:

Khmer Rouge Secret Airport

After biking on dirt roads, our road conditions suddenly switched to a hard and proper concrete roadway.  These roads were built in the early 70's for trucks to transport goods to a secret airport built by Cambodia's genocidal regime led by the Khmer Rouge.  The abandoned airport, guarded by one security guard, was eerily quiet.    We gathered around the runway and were given a tragic history lesson by one of our local Cambodian ride leaders, Rithy.   The airport was built by the Khmer Rouge with help from China during the early 70's.  The intention was for China to ship weapons to the airport in exchange for rice grown in Cambodia.  Of course, this never happened as Cambodia had its own food crisis during the regime.

We also learned why the airport was tragically considered "secret".   The Khmer Rouge killed everyone that was involved with designing and building the airport.  Furthermore, locals in the surrounding areas were also killed due to their proximity to the airport.  The Khmer Rouge were an extremely paranoid regime and feared that spies would discover the existence of the airport.

To truly understand Cambodia and where it has come from, it is extremely important to understand the Khmer Rouge and the repercussions of their time in power that extend all the way to present day Cambodia.  For those that are really interested in the country, we highly encourage you to spend a few moments reading up on them over the internet.

Ceramic development center

The province in which Kampong Chnnang is located in depends on pottery for economic development and job creation.  We visited a local pottery shop to see some of the goods.  These pots are mainly meant for local consumption rather than exports, and are used for such things as water storage, cooking etc.  Ceramic pottery is an important industry!

After a productive day, we ended the night early for what was going to be one of our earliest starts, 5 am on our bikes!  Why so early you ask?  Because we had a 115km bike journey in the pipeline!

Day 8

Our epic journey was about to be tested with our first of many > 100 km days.   The bike ride went from 6 am until we arrived in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, at approximately 3:30 pm.  It was truly a long yet satisfying journey filled with many memorable experiences.   We had many stops along the way - interacting with locals, having our fill of sugarcane and coconut juice, spontaneous dance sessions during the breaks, eating snails, high-fiving each other throughout the day for support, and getting bursts of energy from children coming out from their homes to give us high-fives.  The road conditions were a mix of main highways, with our bike group sharing the roads with large trucks, and local dirt roads.  We also got lucky with the heat (normally 30-35 degrees) as the weather was overcast with a mix of sun.

My (Herman's) most memorable experience was at a sugercane stand at a local village corner.  While I was waiting for the juice, I started interacting with some local kids.  I had remembered purchasing a Vancouver postcard and decided to give one of the kid's the postcard.  The child was definitely happy and perhaps it might serve as motivation for him to go to school...?????  Maybe him getting the card was a life changing moment???? Probably not, but I could not stop imagining the possibilities :).

Days 9 and 10 have been even more memorable but unfortunately, that's all the time we have today to blog!  We will try to catch up on our postings as soon as we can but this may be the last update until we are on our way back home!!!  Thank you all for continuing to read up on our interesting experiences!!!

Herman, Karen and Laura

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