The Hardest Day

23rd MARCH 2019

The day I’ve been dreading for a week has finally reared its fat ugly head; a long, blisteringly hot cycle of 110km, with a bloody great big hill in the middle. I know that today is going to be a hard slog, so I thought I’d book myself into a beach bungalow for a couple of nights as an incentive and reward for making it. When the going gets tough I just need to motivate myself by the thought of feeling sand under my feet tonight and watching sunset over the sea at my destination.

My day doesn’t start brilliantly though, which turns out to be an ominous precursor for what’s about to follow. I had planned to get going as soon as I woke, attempting to get as many kilometres under my belt as I could in the coolest part of the morning. Alas, when I check the tyres I pumped up last night, I’m more than a little disgruntled to find that the rear one has deflated slightly. Bollocks. It must have a slow puncture to have gone down that much overnight. Grumpily, I sit cross-legged on the wooden floor, remove the rear wheel, prize off the tyre and take out the inner tube. Running my fingers round the inside of the tyre, I find the tiniest sliver of sharp metal poking through the rubber, protruding just enough so that it would re-puncture the inner tube. Lucky I checked. I remove the metal and simply pop in the second of my spare inner tubes, before rolling out the guesthouse a lot later than I intended to.

I pause briefly to stock up on cakes and water for the road, before leaving town and making for the dry, jungle-covered hills beyond. My rear wheel feels strange and wobbly as I depart, and within two kilometres I’ve stopped at the dusty roadside, courtesy of yet another flat tyre. For Fuck Sake ! Under the patchy shade of a young tree I begin that familiar task of removing the back wheel and tyre. Ironically, the offending tyre is the brand new one I picked up in Phnom Penh, purchased precisely because I was getting worried about puncturing the old ones. In the end I give up on the spanking new tyre, certain that it must still have a tiny, sharp, mystery object embedded somewhere that I can’t locate. This fragment would continually puncture any tube inside the tyre, so my best option seems to be a return to my old, worn original tyre. 

Now that the tyre conundrum is solved, all that remains is to pump up one of my inner tubes. Unfortunately, my Presta valve pump now seems to be ineffectual, it’s rubber-band ring having become too loose to operate. I’m faffing around, trying somehow to sort this, when a young lady on a scooter stops to check if I need any help. She tells me she had already ridden past, before deciding to turn round and come back to see if I was alright. By this point it looks like I might not be able to fix the pump, so she comes up with a couple of alternative solutions, including a taxi or bus to my target of Koh Kong. This is a distance of around 100km, but she seems to think it would only be a $10 taxi ride, a surprising revelation that I will certainly bear in mind today.

My helper is called Ul Sarann, a woman from the next village, who has that South-East Asian trait of looking at least a decade younger than her thirty-two years. Her English is excellent too, having spent time working as a home help for a rich family in Malaysia. As we chat I rummage through my panniers, chancing upon the forgotten pair of Schrader valve inner tubes I bought in Nha Trang a month previously. At the time I’d almost dismissed them as cheap rubbish that probably wouldn’t even fit, but now they might just be my salvation. I check I’m able to inflate the tube using my Schrader valve pump, before Ul Sarann helps me fit the tyre back onto its rim. She’s been brilliant, staying with me for over half an hour to make sure I get moving again. I take a selfie of the pair of us, before she rides off and I prepare to restart my day. Any thoughts I had of an early start are now long gone.

When I eventually get away from Botum Sakor, I find the road heading inland becomes a series of steady uphills and downhills. There’s one steep climb where I’m gradually caught by an oversized flat-bed truck, crawling slowly uphill with the burden of transporting a bulky digger. On the following downhill I’m then able to overtake the truck, as it can still only creep along. The driver gives me a big wave and an enthusiastic blast of the horn. He catches up with me on another uphill about ten minutes later. For the next few kilometres I fly along, aided by downhills and some lovely ‘false flats,’ which look level but barely require me to rotate the pedals at all. I reach the outskirts of Traepeng Rung village, just short of half distance, and pull into a large Plastic Chair Cafe set back from the road. Things seem to be going OK so far.

My meal is a surprisingly tasty fried rice with beef and onion, washed down by an entire jug of iced tea. There’s a guy at the next table who looks like a local, but tells me he’s actually a Canadian with Cambodian parents. He’s over here doing voluntary work as part of his university degree, monitoring the surrounding jungle and checking that locals aren’t chopping down trees to smuggle across the border to Thailand. He asks about my journey and which route I’ve taken, telling me the road I cycled in from Vietnam is the only ‘sketchy’ part of the country. We chat for a bit, before I head into the village after handshakes from all the blokes at his table.

Traepeng Rung village is only a small settlement, lined up along the main road with an incredible amount of food stalls for its modest population. There’s also a guesthouse, which I’d seen listed on Google maps, but couldn’t be sure if it actually existed or not. It does. And it looks a lot better than the mosquito-infested hovel I stayed in last night. Part of me wants to stop here right now, thus breaking a hot, hilly 100km day into two more manageable days of 50km each. I seriously consider this option, even though I’ve already booked my accommodation in Koh Kong tonight. However, I still feel pretty good at this stage, having just filled myself with food and tea after a relatively easy morning. I keep going.

On the way out of town I notice a few stalls that sell water, but I don’t stop as I still have two full bottles and a belly full of tea. About 5km later I meet a pair of cyclists going in the opposite direction, and stop to chat under a shady tree. They are a couple in their late 50’s or early 60’s who are heading to Traepeng Rung and staying at the guesthouse I had thought of stopping at. Again, a huge part of me wants to call it a day, turn round and go back to the guesthouse. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I should have listened to my gut instinct at this point.

From hearing them speak, I can tell the couple are from somewhere in North America. It’s only when the bloke talks about something being ‘ootside’ that I know they’re definitely Canadians. They tell me they began cycling in Singapore and have ridden up through Malaysia and Thailand to reach Cambodia. We all remark on just how bloody hot Cambodia is, with the old bloke’s crimson face illustrating this point perfectly. I ask about the big hill I’m about to face, to be told that the slope I’ll be climbing is long and gradual, whereas their side was shorter and steeper this morning. They are happy to hear that their guesthouse is only 5km away. I’m less happy to hear that the couple have already cycled 58km since leaving Koh Kong this morning. My accommodation is just past their starting point, which means I’m looking at another scorching 65km before I can stop. The guy asks if I have enough water, as there’s nowhere for supplies between here and some stalls at the top of the hill. Bugger. I knew I should have picked up more water in town when I had the chance.

When I carry on, the road does it’s undulating thing to begin with, so I’m never really sure whether I’m starting the big hill or not. I’ll begin climbing and think ‘this must be it,’ only for a downhill to arrive shortly after. However, the down slopes end soon enough, and the road starts to climb steadily, yet interminably, upwards. And My God it’s boiling now ! As I’m sucking oxygen into my lungs I can actually feel how hot the surrounding air is in my throat. I stop under the first shady tree I see, just to get out of the sun for ten minutes. Even the slightest waft of a breeze in this shade gives me some cooling respite. I’m chugging down my water too, even though I know I should be rationing it to get to the top.

The countryside is sawdust dry, with certain areas still scorched black after bushfires. I keep plodding sluggishly upwards, although I need to sit down under the shade of a roadside tree for another rest stop as I’m beginning to fade. I’m sweating so much that my three layers of padded shorts are saturated right through to my normal shorts above. Thanks to Google maps, I know that my reaching the summit will coincide with a sharp left turn in the road, but any progress I’m making on the map is painfully, tortuously slow. Of all the cycling days I’ve ever described as ‘a struggle,’ this is by far the toughest. I get to the foot of one slope and simply decide to dismount and push the bike up. It just looks too difficult. At the top I reach the shade of another tree and sit down cross-legged on the roadside gravel below. I’m absolutely ruined.

At this point I’m sincerely thinking about flagging down a passing vehicle and asking for a lift to the top. I’ve never felt so drained on a cycle before. I’m continually stopping, sitting and resting under shady trees to stay cool, although I now start to feel dizzy each time I stand back up again. My water supply is almost finished and I’ve still got about 5km of crawling, sweltering uphill left. I can feel a horrible, metallic taste in my mouth too, a sure sign that I’m dehydrating.

Another steep hill sees me getting off to push once more. I reach halfway, sit down at the roadside again for a breather and begin to think that I could be hallucinating. At the top of this slope there appears to be a large grey monkey sitting on the white line in the middle of the road. A couple of passing vehicles toot their horns, yet the creature is unfazed and doesn’t move. One car stops and the driver throws out an apple which the monkey accepts gratefully. Hey, I could have done with that ! I’m clearly struggling to push my bike uphill in a stifling, searing heat and now people are giving away their food to bloody monkeys ! I rest my head on my forearms for a few minutes, close my eyes and try to summon up the energy to resume cycling. About ten minutes later I open my eyes and look back up towards the top of the hill. There’s no sign of a monkey. Maybe I imagined the whole episode. I’m a wreck.

I get back on my bike and continue inching painstakingly forwards. A yellow warning sign alerts me to the possibility of elephants crossing, which would be an amazing sight, but is probably the last thing I need at this precise moment. The final couple of kilometres take an absolute age, with me spending far more time pushing, stopping or resting than I do cycling. Eventually the distance passes and the road begins to level out, until I’m spurred on by seeing the row of shacks and stalls which mark the summit. I feel like I’ve reached my lifeline, clamber off the bike and start rooting through a large container full of iced water like a man possessed, desperate for something to drink. A bottle of flavoured iced tea disappears down my throat in seconds, causing ‘brain freeze’ in my parched, messed up head because I drank so quickly. I’m still not sated though. I go back into the ice bin and pull out a pomegranate drink which is consumed just as urgently as the first. Goodness knows what the locals think, as they stare in bewilderment at this red, sweaty Westerner who’s guzzling their drinks like some kind of thirsty animal. I just sit there and chill for a while, letting my body absorb this rejuvenating liquid and trying to regain my equilibrium.

Then I roll off down the other side of the hill, steadily at first, before steepness and gravity have me speeding along beautifully. Since getting over the summit I notice that the vegetation on this side has become far more lush, green and jungly. This is the type of scenery I’d be expecting from a jungle, not the arid, scorched landscapes of the inland slopes I’ve just ridden. I fly down the steep hill that the Canadians had climbed up this morning, thinking that their short, sharp ascent may have been just as difficult as my prolonged, steady uphill. I’m taken all the way down to the riverbank village of Tatai, where I can see wooden stilt houses as well as modern resorts while riding over the bridge crossing. On the opposite side of the river I have to get off and push once again, which is a bit demoralising after my speedy descent. I know that I’ll be travelling generally downhill from here to sea-level, but it appears there’s going to be a few more tiring undulations on the way.

It’s almost 6.00pm when I catch my first glimpse of the coast below, the sun setting as a giant red ball in the thundery distance. With the way I’m feeling I’d love nothing more than to be caught in a refreshing downpour right now. It remains stubbornly dry however, with me being unable to focus on milestones for Koh Kong and my contact lenses sticking like glue to dry, blurry eyes. It’s starting to get dark by the time one final downhill and an easy flat section take me into the streetlights of Koh Kong. I rush along the town’s wide main street and cross a long, sloping bridge that takes me over a river and out the other side of town. At my turn off the streetlights stop, and I choose to ride by the glare of passing scooters rather than looking for the light that I know is lurking in my panniers. This isn’t the smartest move, but I’m not exactly thinking straight by this point and just want to reach my destination with the minimum of fuss. It’s almost pitch black by the time I reach the Hula Hula Beach Bungalows, a knackered and dishevelled mess.

I push my bike to the bar, order a bottle of water and down it in one go, before immediately ordering another and repeating the same trick. The young Cambodian barman shows me across the sand to a simple, wooden bungalow, raised on small stilts and with dried palm fronds for a roof. The design takes me by surprise as there’s only two solid, adjoining walls while the remaining two sides are covered by the flimsiest of bamboo blinds. The bed is just a mattress on the floor, shielded by a large mosquito net that hangs from the ceiling above. I chain my bike to one of the four corner pillars that support the roof and lie on the mattress for a while, trying to slowly recuperate after today’s efforts. The barman had told me about a barbecue tonight, but instead I just shower and return to lying in the bungalow, staring blankly into space as if I’m in some kind of shell-shock. I’m such a shambles that I can’t even be bothered to eat.

I honestly think this has been the toughest day of cycling that I’ve ever experienced. The 110km would be a long day for me anyway, and adding the big hill made it a slow, laborious slog. It’s when you couple both these factors with a blisteringly hot, high thirties temperature that the day becomes an absolute killer. Today is the weakest, most exhausted I’ve ever felt on a cycle and the closest I’ve ever come to jacking it all in and trying to flag down a lift. I peel the contacts from my moistureless eyes and basically don’t move from the mattress all night. I suppose when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be glad I made it and didn’t take the easy option of splitting the journey into two easier days. Right now though, I just feel fucked. And I missed sunset over the sea too.

 

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