So that’s it, another challenge completed, I can’t believe it’s all over! All that preparation and training, the challenge seemingly ages away and suddenly it’s here and gone in a flash.
What an amazing challenge it was though, Vietnam and Cambodia are truly beautiful countries. The scenery we cycled through was spectacular and so off the beaten track I don’t think you would have had the privilege of seeing it by any other means of transport. The people of both countries were so welcoming; they must have a very strange view of Brits as the only ones they are likely to have encountered are Lycra clad with helmets, all shapes and sizes and keen to get a tan. Whereas the locals are all dark and small, no one was in the least bit chubby and they were well covered, including facemasks to avoid the sun. A tan there is a sign that you work/live in the countryside and deemed poorer than the city folk who tend to have lighter skin.
We cycled along paths through coconut groves, which were nicely shaded, and paddy fields, which weren’t. As this was the hottest November on record with temperatures reaching 42 degrees and exacerbated by the humidity, any shade was a bonus. At least while cycling a breeze was created, but at our frequent water stops the heat was overwhelming. Several of the group were overcome and had to resort to the bus for respite. I don’t think anyone realised how much water we needed to drink, 8-10 litres a day, supplemented by electrolyte drinks. One girl ended up in hospital after day 1 and never returned.
Each day we were up at 5.30am, breakfast at 6, leaving the hotel at 7 and not back until 6-7pm for a quick shower and change before dinner and then bed. At the end of each day we were hot, sweaty, covered in dust and exhausted. Although the accommodation was of a good standard, changing hotels each night, packing and unpacking constantly and the long days were a big part of the challenge too. I’m so glad I had done all the training, as had I not been fit the whole thing would have been even harder. So those long, muddy, wet cycle rides between Bristol and Bath paid off.
In addition to casualties from the heat there were several falls as the terrain was rough to say the least in parts, particularly in Cambodia. At times it was like cycling on a pneumatic drill and we were definitely ‘shaken not stirred’. At regular intervals there would be a shout ‘bridge’ which required getting into an appropriate gear for a sharp ascent, if you blew it you caused mayhem for up to 40 cyclists following you, no pressure! Some bridges were quite simple, well maintained and with rails, others were narrow strips of concrete or wood with no sides and a muddy river flowing beneath. On day 1 someone ended up in the river (thank goodness it wasn’t me) and several others had very dramatic falls sustaining a variety of bumps and impressive bruises, luckily nothing more serious than that and a loss of dignity.
The local children were gorgeous; they greeted us with shouts of ‘Hello’ and ‘What’s your name?’ and were delighted with a wave or shout in response. We had taken some small gifts, pens, stickers, bubbles etc, when we presented these you would have thought they had received gold! We saw hoards of children en route to and from school on their bikes, which were real old-fashioned silver, sit up and beg bikes, invariably several sizes too big. Despite their lack of possessions and the apparent poverty of their living conditions they all appeared so happy and content, not an iPad or iPhone in sight!
We did manage a bit of sight seeing, an afternoon in Ho Chi Min city where we visited the market, talk about high-pressure sales, it was terrifying. Couldn’t even recognise most of the produce on sale and what we did you wouldn’t want to purchase, unless you are into bottled scorpions and snakes that is. Much more to our liking was the local Tiger beer.
An experience never to be forgotten is the traffic, there are literally thousands of scooters and NO rules of the road! The advice we were given was to just step out into the road and keep walking, the traffic will avoid you, hesitate and all is lost. Well it seemed to work as we lived to tell the tale. The traffic continued to be a theme as we were also expected to cycle through it. There were several near misses as the need for current and comprehensive holiday insurance became apparent.
We also went to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, which was a very sobering experience although we generally felt that the place was unkempt and bones surfacing through the eroding soil on the pathways we were walking on was gruelling. There was no escaping the brutality of the genocide here, with a glass monument displaying collected skulls and bones and the killing tree where children were battered to death in front of their parents.
We were a large group of cyclists as there were 40 of us on the challenge. Our bikes and support teams were provided separately in each country, with 2 UK guides providing continuity. The whole process of issuing bikes, fitting saddles and other accessories was really slick and there was always a mechanic available within the team to sort out any problems (tyres coming off, punctures etc). A big challenge was the toilet facilities, as the group was predominantly women there was always a queue, the boys being much more able to use alternative facilities. This made each stop lengthy and a study in palming toilet tissue, wet wipes and sanitizer gel!! Most facilities were of the squatting variety in a shed or similar with a trough of water and a bucket for flushing purposes. Often accompanied by wildlife particularly gecko’s and spiders, one tended to hold on as long as possible, not always practical with an 8-10 litre water intake. I was very grateful not to experience an upset stomach during the trip!
We completed our challenge having cycled 410k at the Angkor Wat temples, an amazing feat of engineering, which seemed impossible without the use of machinery. The scenery we cycled through on the last day was stunning and involved some off roading, which was quite challenging for the more casual cyclist. We crossed the finish line outside the main temple and celebrated with a cold beer, even to a non-beer drinker, champagne couldn’t have tasted better!
That evening we were treated to a traditional Cambodian meal and dancing, followed by an excursion to Pub Street (exactly what it says on the tin!). Very messy 3am finish with some spectacular headaches the following day. Not me though, my intake of Espresso Martini’s and Tequila shots ensured I was buzzing for the next 24hrs, much better than Red Bull!
All in all, what an experience! Definitely recommended.