Kate Hodal bicycles through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in pursuit of eco-alternative tourism.
April is the cruellest month, according to TS Eliot. In Indo-China with 34C heat with 95 per cent humidity that’s about right. It is 10am on day two of a 16-day, 500-kilometre cycle tour and I wonder if I have already lost my mind. The thick air is sweet with the milky scent of frangipani, the hills dotted with endless palm trees. Bamboo-framed houses on seven-foot high stilts squat in rows along the dirt roads, their thatched palm roofs blowing in the hot wind. I shuffle around, trying to find a comfortable position for the 95 kilometres looming ahead of eight of us, all strangers.
April is the preamble to the monsoon season in Indo-China (Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) and as a result scorching heat can sometimes erupt into thunder and water droplets the size of cotton wool balls. Our motley crew – a German, a Canadian, a Pole, two Danes and a few Brits – has prepared for the weather by wearing breathable lycra, wrap-around shades and cycling shoes. I own none of the above and there are clucks of disapproval from the more serious cyclists when they see my leopard-print dresses, turquoise sunglasses and large hoop earrings. But I am here for the views – not to race.
And anyway, the brochure said that this was a “moderate activity” trip so I’m surprised, being the youngest, that I am also the slowest. We are such a fast group (the Tour de Sadists, I dub them) that our soft-spoken, 30-something Thai tour guide Al, who cycles this route six times a year and is unfazed by the heat or the distance, continually looks like he’s been dunked in a pool of sweat.
Our other local guide (we have two throughout the trip) is much more relaxed. A former Buddhist monk, Sart’s real job is as a singer in a Bob Marley tribute band. Astonishingly, he stars as Bob Marley. “I wear a wig,” he confides. “You would be surprised at how similar we look.”
Sart and I become fast buddies, stopping together to marvel at the surrounding landscape: vermilion and gold leaf Buddhist temples, water buffalo in the emerald rice paddies, farmers with eight foot-long shotguns, and children holding out their palms for rapid transit high-fives.
One day, after feeding a few stray puppies on the side of the road, I realise the Tour de Sadists are racing each other – and, even more bizarrely, the motorised “tuk-tuks”. When I catch up with them, I discover the Danish dermatologist has been bitten by a stray dog and realises he has not had his latest rabies shot. Soon after, another of our group falls ill from heat exhaustion and takes refuge in the air-conditioned support vehicle.
We boost morale by indulging in £4 full-body Thai massages, swimming in a deep blue reservoir in the middle of the jungle, and enjoying home-made pad thai and spicy green curry, courtesy of Al, for dinner. But it’s here that our tour guide warns us that the route into Cambodia will be an eye-opener. “The roads are not good like they are here,” he says, chucking kaffir leaves into a boiling pot of spices. “Cambodia is still very poor after the Khmer Rouge. You will see.”
He’s right. Crossing the border, Thailand’s smooth pavements and smiling locals are replaced by Cambodia’s endless potholes and beggars maimed by landmines. Still reeling after 30 years from the Khmer Rouge who killed off a quarter of the population, the country is attempting to make its way back into more tourist-accessible territory. But it’s tough going. We cycle to Angkor Wat, where the complex’s petal-like domes emerge victoriously from the jungle canopy. It was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 12th to 15th century and is best experienced at dawn. I wake up in the dark early one morning to catch the warm jungle light dancing across the temple walls. Songbirds call loudly to each other amidst the banyan trees, with the smell of frankincense floating in the air.
Later, a side trip to the floating boat communities of Tonle Sap, who live year-round on southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, confirms my belief in the beauty of human resilience. But my natural high is quickly broken when we reach Phnom Penh, where our arrival is preceded by the stench of decay. Beggars, landmine victims and young children crowd its streets. Tuk-tuk drivers on street corners call out to us offering cheap rides, cheap hotels, cheap girls and cheap heroin – in that order.
And nothing prepares us for the visit to a former high school-cum-Khmer-Rouge torture prison, S-21, where some 20,000 prisoners were held and killed. Remarkably, we are able to meet two of the prison’s seven survivors, Chum Mey and Bou Meng, who tell us that they hope, one day, their torturers’ karma will catch up to them. Even more disturbing is our trip to the Killing Fields, where many of S-21’s prisoners were buried. Amid the dirt paths, teeth, bones and prison garb can be seen sticking out of the ground – with more appearing every time it rains, our guide says.
When we push our weary bodies into Vietnam, we are all silently relieved. The Vietnamese are boisterous, their clothes bright, the roads well-paved. We criss-cross canals manned with conical-hatted rice farmers in wooden canoes and cycle through fruit orchards along the Mekong Delta. Our last two days in Vietnam are spent dodging motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City and scrambling on all fours in the underground network of tiny Cu Chi Tunnels, used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War to run supplies and soldiers. I find myself happily shooting an M16 rifle at their Cu Chi shooting range. My enjoyment must be due to a 500km cycling delirium induced by April’s heat.
Kate Hodal was a guest of adventure specialists Exodus Travel, which offers a 16-day Cycle Indo-China and Angkor Wat. It includes accommodation, transfers, some meals and flights ex-Heathrow for £1,879. Connecting flights from regional airports from around £100. Next departure dates are April 14, July 21, August 4, Sept 15 and 29 and include cycling in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Reservations: 0845 863 9601 or www.exodus.co.uk