It was about 6am and Sarah and I were sitting on one of the many stone walls of Angkor Wat when I asked her, “Are we burned out?” Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of the highlights of Southeast Asia, but we were feeling tired and apathetic, rather than awestruck and inspired by the famous temple. It has been tough to get going again since we left Bangkok; it feels like our rhythm has been broken. We spent 21 days motionless in Bangkok and in Cambodia our cycling has been disrupted by boats, buses, and sightseeing.
Cycling here in Cambodia has definitely been a mixed-bag. Cambodia is probably the most interesting place we have visited so far, because it is so different from anything we have ever seen before. But it has also been the most difficult place for us to cycle. In the early mornings, it is pleasant because it is cool and there is a lot of activity with people going to work and kids going to school. By about 10 am though, you begin to notice the heat and then you are filled with a sense of dread. How far are we from our destination? Is there any cloud cover that will protect us today? How about wind? Are we going to be cycling through some stifling still air? All these questions run through your head as the sweat starts to flow. I also worry a lot about Sarah getting heat stroke. One steamy afternoon, we saw a Cambodian women walking down the street in some brown silk pajamas (they all wear pajamas here) with a brown cloth and basket on her head and Sarah thought the woman was dressed up in a bear costume. Was she delirious? While I’m worrying, Sarah spends her time getting mad at me because I’m not as uncomfortable as she is. She wants someone to share her misery. I think she may have turned a corner though, because instead of asking me when she will get used to the heat, she now tells me her Nordic heritage simply means she was not designed for this kind of weather and that’s all there is to it.
What makes matters worse is that when it really gets hot in the afternoon, there is nothing to take your mind off the heat. The roads are flat and straight and the scenery is endless fields with the occasional filthy village. There are no longer any people to look at because they are all sleeping somewhere in the shade. You only get passed by the occasional motorbike or mini-van. So you have to ride along, trying to adjust your position to keep your hands and butt from going numb, and counting down the miles to your destination. We rarely felt this way in New Zealand, where we could cycle along in the afternoon on quiet roads, chatting and where it felt so great just to be out riding that we would spontaneously break out into the occasional Disney song.
We decided to take a break from temple-viewing to discuss our situation over breakfast. Neither of us wants to go home. I never would have guessed it, but after six months on the road the thought of going home and getting a job does not sound appealing to me. We decided that we wanted a couple of things: to get on the road and make some progress again, to get out of this heat, and to see some natural beauty. So, we have decided to head for the Vietnamese highlands. According to the Rough Guide, the highlands have a “bracing” climate, mountain views, and a lack of tourist attractions to slow us down. It sounds like the ideal situation for us. Feeling better about our situation, we headed back to the temples for more exploration.
Every time there was a lull in the conversation during the temple viewing, I would say to Sarah, “Tomb Raider was filmed here.” This had the intended effect of driving Sarah nuts after about the third time. As we were about to leave the Ta Prohm temple one day, one of the security guards asked us where we where from and when we said “America”, he said “Tomb Raider 3 filmed here. Giant crocodile.” Yes! The Cambodians were now helping me annoy Sarah!
It might make us simpletons, but Sarah and I have both realized we are the most impressed by huge things. The 150 foot Reclining Buddha in Bangkok was the cultural highlight for us. The diminutive Emerald Buddha bored us. At Phnom Penh’s National Museum, the things that captured our attention most were the giant stone statues. It is the same here at Angkor Wat, we walked around the entire perimeter of Angkor Wat, studying the detailed bas-reliefs, while Sarah read the history behind them in our guidebook. They were beautiful, but we were both bored by the end. We had the most fun just wandering around alone in the deserted temples very early morning, listening to the jungle, looking at the giant stone blocks and wondering “How did they build these things?”
Our favorite temples were Ta Prohm (for the giant trees growing on the temple and despite the Disney World crowds), Bayon (for the giant stone faces), and Preah Khan (it was so deserted we were able to walk around the crumbling temple alone listening to the sounds of the jungle).
Bayon (Can you see all four faces?)
You can see all of the many pictures we took of the temples on our Flickr Site.
We are back in Phnom Penh now. We took the bus to and from Siem Reap. For US$10 each, we got a seat on an air-conditioned, 28-seat bus with plenty of leg room. On the way to Siem Reap, we were literally the only customers on the bus (those are the ‘bus stewardesses’ in the background, below). We couldn’t figure out how they could afford to run the bus for only US$20.
The ride back today was the first time we have been really embarrassed by our appearance. When we got up this morning it was raining and we had to cycle about 3 kilometers to the bus terminal on the wet, sandy roads. My bike has no fenders because the SKS fenders I installed originally broke and the Zefal fenders I bought in Bangkok won’t fit with my 700×40c tires. So my entire back, up to the neck, was covered in wet, red sand when we arrived at the terminal. Sarah has fenders and was wearing a raincoat, but she was so dirty the busdriver said “no, no, no!” when she tried to board the pristine bus. She took off her raincoat and skulked on to the bus and I was able to sneak on after her. One of the workers gave us a couple of napkins to try to clean up with, but it was useless and we spent the five hour ride feeling gross and fantasizing about buying some new clean clothes. Our bikes are just as dirty as we are. My chain is so filled with grit, I can actually feel the crunching in the pedals.
We will spend tomorrow in Phnom Penh and then head for Vietnam.