Cycling through Indochina
Cycling through Indochina

When the poet TS Eliot penned, in 1922, his immortal line that "April is the cruellest month", he was not cycling through Indo-China in 34C heat with 95 per cent humidity.

But here I am on a mountain bike in the middle of the Thai jungle, cursing the poet, the sun and sticky heat dripping down my arms and legs.

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It is 10am on day two of a 500-kilometre cycle tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, 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.

As I shuffle around, trying to find a comfortable position for the 95 kilometres looming ahead of me, I can say with certainty that my bum will never forgive me for this two-week bender of eco-alternative tourism.

Eight of us, all strangers, have decided to pedal our way through Indo-China on a 16-day tour with adventure specialists Exodus.

If it weren't for the slight breeze awarded by our two wheels, we'd most likely be napping like the locals in hammocks alongside the road. Even the stray dogs are snoozing in the middle of the street.

April is the preamble to the monsoon season in Indo-China (southeast Asia's peninsula containing 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 - comprising 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, a fact that elicits 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 in our group, 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 pure sweat.

But in true Thai style he laughs off the challenge of ascending hills and long rides, setting off quickly each day before anyone can complain.


SART

Our other local guide (we always 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 band. Astonishingly, he plays 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, motorised tuk-tuks - to the day's 'finish line'.

"Now they've really lost their minds," I mutter to myself, shaking my head. When I catch up with them, I discover that disaster has struck. The Danish dermatologist, bitten by a stray dog, realises with dread that 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.

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We boost morale by indulging in four 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.


CAMBODIA

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 of repressive Khmer Rouge control, a political regime that killed off a quarter of its population and severely stunted economic development, the country is now attempting to make its way back into more tourist-accessible territory, but it's tough going.


ANGKOR WAT

My heavy heart is assuaged when we cycle, the next morning, from the modern town of Siem Reap to Angkor Wat, where the complex's petal-like domes emerge victoriously from the jungle canopy.

The capital of the Khmer Empire from the 12th to 15th century, Angkor Wat served as a crossover religious state between Hindu and Buddhist kings - and is best experienced at dawn.

I wake up in the dark early one morning to catch the warm jungle light dance 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.

To say the vibe is heavy is an understatement. 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. Amidst 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.


VIETNAM

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.

One night, we stay on an island, feasting on fried rat (surprisingly delicious), spring rolls we roll ourselves, and the local delicacy, elephant ear fish.

As we drift off to sleep under mosquito nets, a symphony of mating frogs provide our lullaby.

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.

Towards the end, 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 the cruelty of April's heat, I decide.


FAST FACTS

BEST FOR: Adventure enthusiasts who appreciate being off the beaten track.

TIME TO GO: November to March is the cool season, monsoons last from May to October.

DON'T MISS: Local delicacies such as sweet iced coffee, fried tarantula and Vietnamese Pho (noodle soup).

NEED TO KNOW: Indo-China is conservative, so dress accordingly.

DON'T FORGET: Your own saddle, or a supply of padded bike shorts.

The West Australian

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