Cambodia: On the long journey back to civilisation

David Bertrand cycles across this beautiful country and visits a museum that remembers its shocking past

To the dedicated "safe" traveller for whom all tracks tend to be well-beaten ones, the word Cambodia conjures up images of mystery, inaccessibility, suffering, and a seemingly endless series of wars and invasions. Yet, suddenly, after 30 years of varying degrees of isolation, the Khmer people, the one-time masters of south-east Asia, have been delivered from their years of trial to be reborn with an innocence which is refreshing to behold. Now that almost all regions of the country are safe to visit, experience this tropical garden of Eden before the inevitable worldliness sets in again.

To the dedicated "safe" traveller for whom all tracks tend to be well-beaten ones, the word Cambodia conjures up images of mystery, inaccessibility, suffering, and a seemingly endless series of wars and invasions. Yet, suddenly, after 30 years of varying degrees of isolation, the Khmer people, the one-time masters of south-east Asia, have been delivered from their years of trial to be reborn with an innocence which is refreshing to behold. Now that almost all regions of the country are safe to visit, experience this tropical garden of Eden before the inevitable worldliness sets in again.

The snag is ... how? Cambodia does not have roads as such. What it has are straight, narrow tracts of dust-dry, uncultivated earth. For roads, read "strips of interlinked craters and boulders", like the surface of the moon. Most potholes are no more than two or three feet deep, but occasionally there is a proper five-footer to prevent any four-wheeled vehicles getting rash ideas about going too fast; which is hardly likely considering the state of the many bridges, with their gaping holes in the floor of the road. No, rural Cambodia is no place for a motoring holiday.

Unless you have access to a moon buggy, there is only one solution: on your bike. And not any old bike, either. Nothing but the roughest, toughest mountain bike has a chance against the incessant shake, rattle and roll of Cambodia's unforgiving highways. Find the right one, however, and you're in for an exhilarating scramble along the kind of pock-marked surface that cyclists in Britain pay good money to test their reflexes on at the local adventure park. My bike, a Schwinn Mesa GX with essential Rock Shox suspension, was a real Range Rover of its kind, which glided along the corrugated terrain like a magic carpet. The only tending it required was a brief minute a day of maintenance. Truly, I discovered the meaning of the cycle tourist's mantra: that happiness is a well-oiled cog.

As far as we know, my group of 25 bikers were the first Westerners to succeed in crossing Cambodia from west to east since rural regions became safe for tourists a year or so ago. To pull it off we had to complete more than 450 miles in the saddle in seven cycling days, a mean average of more than 64 miles a day. Much of the time we were pedalling in temperatures in the 90s or even higher, often for seven or eight hours a day. Yet there was nothing special about us, and few of us were regular cyclists. We were just a random bunch who noticed this unusual trip, organised by the NSPCC, and fancied giving it a go. The group ranged from youngsters in their 20s to one or two who were virtually senior citizens. Middle-aged couples were well represented. Most but not all admitted to having done some training before the off, as recommended. But, in the end, all that was really needed was a bit of will-power and a lot of discomfort denial.

The journey was billed as "Bangkok to Saigon", but the bulk of it, and certainly the most interesting part, was traversing Cambodia. After a while, dodging in and out of the potholes became second nature and that left us free to enjoy the scenery, which rolls past at a nicely manageable speed. The Cambodian countryside is one vast, flat prairie of richly fertile paddy fields supporting seemingly infinite expanses of pale-green rice stalks. Here and there are little copses of tall sugar palms with dandelion-ball crowns. Everywhere you look are carefully managed channels of water, and where there is water there are youngsters fishing in the sunshine, winding their nets into a pendulum before launching them through the air to fall parachute-like over the water.

Khmer dwellings are a sizeable wooden shed on stilts reached by a rickety bridge or an earth causeway. Khmers prefer a front pond to a front garden, and the pond is a multi-use resource for household chores (washing clothes or children), recreation (swimming and playing), and as a parking slot for the family water buffalo, the local equivalent of the tractor.

It was the west of Cambodia, the least accessible part by motorised transport, which was the most fascinating. Here the lifestyle is very simple although food appears to be abundant. People have seen few if any Westerners since the 1960s, so the sight of 25 of us puffing and panting in the midday sun in shiny, black, skin-tight shorts and cutaway space helmets triggered much hilarity. Not just entire families but entire villages abandoned their chores to witness our passage along their high street and shout encouragement between vain efforts to conceal their amusement. Children, whose claim to the title of the world's prettiest individuals would be hard to challenge, lined up with outstretched arms to invite a "high-five" slap as we bounced past, only to withdraw their hands at the last moment as fear of physical contact with these strange beings finally got the better of them.

The beauty of it was the absence of any physical barriers between us. When we stopped for a drink of water, or for lunch, and local youngsters could come and investigate us as much as they desired, an instinctive wariness got the better of them. They were intrigued, but kept their distance as if coming too close might compromise their ability to step back again. Not once did anyone stretch out their hand in the hope of one of us putting money into it: that sort of behaviour has not been learnt yet.

Pit-stops were high-points and there had to be plenty of them. I was knocking back a litre of water for every 10 miles cycled. There was one guaranteed pit-stop every hour or so in the saddle, and few sights were more welcome than the support vehicle offering snacks and fluid after 60 minutes in that heat and dust. As for lunch, we took it in turns to pick up the tab for everyone to wolf down as much rice and chicken soup as they desired. This is a land where you can feed 25 hungry cyclists for £4.

But Cambodia is more than just endless paddy fields. Its biggest surprise is the temples of Angkor, a vast complex of immaculately carved edifices constructed between the 9th and 14th centuries when the Khmer kingdom stretched from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal and north to China. The 60 or so temple sites surround the provincial city of Siem Reap in the north-west of the country. The temples are in vastly different states of preservation. Some, like the colossal Angkor Wat complex, could have been finished yesterday, and are there to be inspected in minute detail. You will be lucky (or unlucky) to see another party every hour. Others remain in pieces.

No serious visitor can fail to be curious about the appalling suffering inflicted upon the Khmer people by the infinitely cruel clique of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. It was Cambodia's misfortune to become a laboratory for an extreme form of the Chinese cultural revolution which abolished any form of political, social, economic or academic activity which had gone before it. To this end, the entire population of every town and city was forcibly transported to vast rural communes to begin new lives as labourers. Anyone who could even remotely be described as educated faced torture and, eventually, execution. To avoid the risk of the children of victims seeking retribution in future years, it was routine for entire families to be exterminated in one go. Hundreds of thousands died in the so-called killing fields, near Phnom Penh, where victims were normally battered to death to save expensive bullets.

The scary thing about the Tuol Sleng "genocide museum" in Phnom Penh is that these bland concrete buildings around a grass quad look exactly like the local comprehensive at the end of your road. Tuol Sleng was the local school until the Communists captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and immediately set about sub-dividing classrooms into cell-units with roughly built breeze-block walls. Some rooms house gruesome torture instruments, while others have noticeable splashes of blood on walls and ceilings, and occasionally a photograph of an unfortunate victim in whatever partly mutilated condition he had been stretched into when the capital was recaptured by the Vietnamese in 1979.

On the one hand, it is grotesque to think that this was once a noisy, happy school, yet on the other, it is horribly appropriate: for those carrying out the torture here were aged between 11 and 15, war-hardened children who had been taught only to love and obey Brother Number One until their dying day. And in this duty, they were faithful until the last. For Pol Pot made sure that none of his pubescent torturers lived long enough to tell tales out of school.

¿ A second NSPCC mountain bike trek across Cambodia is now being organised.

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