They say that there are certain things that money can’t buy…true, but today - I owe it to my $20 bicycle!
Old as it may be, my shaky green manual rocket (bought from my favourite Pho chef and the kindest Vietnamese lady I’ve met here thus far) has allowed me the freedom to explore at will, to cruise along with some very polite (though chaotic-looking) Cambodian traffic, and to turn into areas that I may have missed had I been travelling A to B by the more commonly taken modes of transportation; namely, Tuktuks and motorcycles.
I woke up in Siem Reap this morning in work mode; eagerly packing my gear into my bicycle’s front basket, triple checking that I did in fact save screenshots of the directions I was given along nameless rural roads, and departing on what I thought would be another fascinating journo day as I set out to document the story of a land mine survivor who is changing lives and inspiring many (more to come on that very special person shortly).
Underestimating my off-roading compass (and perhaps a bit of luck), I arrived in the area I was suppose to be - an hour early.
Mondol 3, as it is known locally, is a small and often bypassed village nestled in the thick forest lining the main road to one of the world’s most revered and visited heritage sites: Angkor Wat. The road leading up to this ancient capital is undoubtably beautiful; a break from the concrete structures, streets bustling with selfie snapping sarong wearers, and the French-inspired architecture of Siem Reap - while providing a breath of fresh air capable of thrusting one’s imagination into a calm and meditative state in which, perhaps, it needs to be. Cruising along this two-lane highway, and pleading my case to the Angkor Wat ticket police (to allow me to enter the area without paying the temples’ $37 entrance fee), I ignored their somewhat conflicting directions, and turned off the pavement (when it felt just right) towards one of the many unmarked dirt roads, but somehow precisely along the one that led to me to the specific spot where I needed to be. That said, I did, as you may recall - arrive an hour early. So what is one to do?
Well, if you’re anything like me - you milk this opportunity (to the max)! I pinned my meeting location in my head and cruised along an uneven dirt road, trying to dodge the giant potholes carved out by recent rainstorms, while continuing along as many of its rugged side roads, and as far, as I could. Did I know where I was heading, or what I would encounter? Hell no.
What I saw during that brief hour, the wonderful people I met, and the real flavours of rural Khmer culture that I witnessed were unlike any visit one can pay for. I allowed myself to get lost, to veer off the tourist path only to meet to the warmest “how the heck did you end up here oh lonely foreigner?” smiles and welcomes, and the kindest stream of countless hellos.
I met a man who told me that this area was once a jungle; with animals like monkeys, birds and large cats roaming wild - a mere three years ago. I also met a lady who proudly introduced me to her three daughters, a boy who reluctantly endured a haircut, and a group of young lads who were thrilled to have their pictures taken. I also learned about Jayavarman 7, the apotheosized King of Cambodia, who despite being physically alive some 1000 years ago, is still very much alive today I was told.
My initial meeting with the man I cycled to interview outside of town was postponed by a day due to an unforeseen scenario. Sir, no problem at all! It is because of you in fact, that I got to experience an unexpectedly wonderful day; one that reminded me of the beauty of getting lost, of meeting and being welcomed wholeheartedly by strangers, and perhaps allowing oneself to feel a little vulnerable…dear bicycle, you have proven yourself worthy!
Ride on dear Friends, ride on!