Bicycling in Cambodia: going in circles
Bicycling? Perhaps my favourite thing to do to relax in Cambodia.
I have always had a love for the byways that open up to you from the saddle of a bike, the chance to be a spectator on landscapes rolling past, snatches of greetings, concentration required to keep you in the moment. Cares seem to get blown away and the images are of the turning wheels and the simplicity of life, a reward for a simple endeavour – well for the most part... pedal on, pedal on... Into is the guy who leads the Easy Riders, a mixed bag of foreigners working in Cambodia. Into has a GPS lodged in his brain and the unruffled ragged look of the person to follow, the shepherd who will take care of all his flock. We drop off our bikes, coming in from different directions to assemble and exchange casual greetings. The group is always different as our orbits bring us to the Vicious Cycle at 7.00am on a Saturday at different intervals. Phnom Penh traffic is still fairly light as we make our way down the Boulevards and side streets of this unique city that is changing so rapidly as to take your breath away. Here on the street, size matters. A Landcruiser beats a Lexus: a car beats a motorbike and they all beat pushbikes which sit with hand-pushed carts, livestock and pedestrians competing to occupy a square on the board in any one instant, squares that rush at you and are past with a flick of the handlebars and a push of the pedal. Perhaps a trump suit is the “shoal” rule – a shoal can beat a big fish – sometimes. As a brightly clad westerner I certainly feel noticed in the dusty grey streets and am granted a couple of extra millimetres – I surely need it even in our shoal – steel and bitumen surely beat flesh and bone – always. Today our route takes us past a bizarre range of real estate. We dodge around the back of Calmette Hospital and into the lanes next to Boeung Kak Lake that the property developers are filling in to leave us on the edge of a desert. In the rainy season, the lake water finds other homes, an unwanted guest in many living spaces, bringing with it all that floats out from dark holes. The railway comes this way and the tiny space this corridor has on either side is filled with the living spaces of the dispossessed, generally no more than a Robinson Crusoe style shack of a few bound together pieces of flotsam. The morning meal is on the fire. There is a note of surprise and the inconceivable smiles on the faces of the residents, greeting us as we negotiate the broken path along the rail side. “Hello, Hello...” the children shout – a chorus taken up by one group after another in a kind of Mexican wave that follows our progress. Someone still merry from a night on the palm wine, insists on shaking each of us by the hand as he stands next to the tiny square we need to occupy briefly to head onward. The throng are putting on their masks behind which they can face the world. Well pressed clothes, whites that are unimaginable in the grime, appearances that are in stark contrast to their surroundings. We are welcomed as passing celebrities with great amusement and incredulity – what will those crazy foreigners do next?? Well, let me tell you a little about that – some will be coming to remove what you call home in the name of progress as the railway line gets a face lift, and in the name of progress, they will dump you on some vacant lot on the edge of the city – in fact we are headed there right now to check it out. Off the railway and down a tarred road for a kilometre and the real estate turns real expensive. Our white skins and florescent lycra suits get us past the guards with a salute and into, well, is this Atlantis city perhaps? Still significantly under construction, the triumphant arch spanning the entrance boasting larger than life winged beasts, and together with the driving range, are now complete and sparkling. The houses – a bargain at $600k, would seem to be from a different planet. There are a few takers already, but we glide past the sales office with barely a glance, too confused by the sensory input to speak. Out of town now the roads need more concentration lest you are swallowed up by a pothole. Chances arise for snatches of conversation with other riders. These are not your normal Saturday morning joy-riders, they are here in Phnom Penh on serious business – for the most part. Working or volunteering for NGOs or the UN, they are trying not to think about the mountains their work takes them to. Instead they want to laugh again and enjoy the absurdities and to try not to take it all that seriously – at least until Monday. I marvel at these people, giving so much of their lives and selves when I escape soon back to Australia to take stock and sit by the beach. The dust tracks take us through duck farms and back towards the suburbs, resettlement sites from previous generations of the dispossessed and a bizarre scene of one single terraced house, three storeys high, standing in isolation. Protruding steel rods from either side look like open wounds as the result of a crude amputation, reminders of long lost friends torn away. Onward with barely a backwards glance through a myriad of interlinking ponds – well more like flooded bomb craters with thrown up piles of soil providing our pathway. Not an easy route to negotiate: studded with short protruding wooden stakes which will unseat you at any wrong turn. The mental and physical focus is a relief and brings us to a water crossing that seems to carry us back towards the high rises under construction that are heralding a new era for some... This time the negotiations to pass an island of paradise are more protracted – perhaps it was the sheer weight of our number that persuaded the guard to raise the gate with a smile and a wave having beseeched a crackling radio for some guidance – silence, nothing.. “Oh no ,I have to make a decision – they are only foreigners after all – don’t they always get through?” A few shouts of “Bye – see you next week” and we disperse in several directions – the force that bound us suddenly not able to carry the weight and we carry our confusion away, hoping that as we strain at those handlebars and push harder on the pedals, we will leave it behind.. Relaxing? Yes, surprisingly so – granted, the crazy juxtapositioning is unfathomable, the questions unanswerable, but there are also things that can be better and that we have a place there is strangely comforting. In every encounter, no matter what the circumstances, or how absurd, there is a sense of connection, person to another person, a brother being in that second. Pedalling from one moment to the next, occupying one square after another to move forward is what it is about, anything more is too confusing. And now we are back to where we started our circular motion.
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