On yer bikes… exploring Battambang

In the middle of the night whilst retching over the toilet bowl in my en suite I didn’t think I’d make it out of the hotel door this morning.  I don’t even know that I’m ill, I think I’m just so exhausted due to a combination of sleep-deprivation and sensory overload, plus the unfamiliar diet, my body is in rebellion.  I tell myself that such purging of my body will be a great way to kick-start my marathon training planning by rapid weight loss  The fact that I had the shakes so badly I could hardly stand being a minor detail.  Maybe running will be easier… less requirement to stand still.

The bathroom is of interest by the way.  So many pipes and water sources to choose from.  Where are you supposed to insert or point al that hosiery I wonder?  Also, given that there are so many tube and points of entry for water, why is none of it drinkable when right now I could sink a gallon of pure water but have just a trickle left in my water bottle.  Sod’s law is following me.

When morning came though, i looked around my windowless room and the fear of missing out was overwhelming.  I’ll see how I go.  Breakfast at the adjacent hotel went down surprisingly well ($3 for muesli, yoghurt and a really good cup of coffee) and I felt better.  Familiar food helped.  Today was bike ride exploration day.

Our intrepid guide walked us short distance to bike place.  Much quieter, ,past market and down a back ally to pretty little back street

Intro, really good guide, tried to teach us Cambodian, explained name of company is a pun on a sort of universal greeting ‘soksabi’ adding the ke is therefore cunning and relevant, albeit it required explanation.

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The guide was encased in tight green and white lycra, not a look everyone can carry off, but he was super toned I couldn’t help but notice.  He gave a  good introduction, including explaining the gears – ‘what do you do to go faster?’ our guide posed a rhetorical question ‘scream‘ i said.  Not sure he got the reference though he giggled with delight.  I think he does this some times, giggle I mean,  because he doesn’t quite know how to respond to some of our comments that seem nonsensical to him but clearly relevant to rest of us.  Communication is such an adventure!

Playing on bikes, it was really fun immediately.  We each had our respective steeds, and wobbled off down the back lane to see if the seats were the right heights and to remind ourselves how to steer and change gears.  I love riding a bike, every time I get on one I wonder why I don’t ride one more.  Then I remember Sheffield with its hills and ice and think again…

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Soon enough we were off. First challenge was to negotiated town, traffic in Cambodia is always an adventure, though it does have its own (admittedly opaque) logic and flow.  OUr guides were most attentive.  One led from the front and one acted as sweeper at the back.  Basically leave town centre and get to more rural backstreets.  It was soooooooo much fun.  You immediately feel transported to another world.  I wished I had spider like 360 degree vision – or is that chameleons.  I think Chameleons have more fun, also they can lick their own eyeballs.  I don’t know if I’d like to be able to do that exactly, but you have to admit it would make an amazing trick and certainly help to break the ice at parties.

We passed loads of sellers of everything and anything, laundry places, food.  Everywhere we passed by children they rushed excitedly out to shout ‘hello’ and wave shrieking with delight as we replied with waves and responses of ‘suas dai‘.  It was like when we’d been similarly delighted to get a response from our feeble enunciation of thank you (aaah kohn) a couple of days ago.  Some bold children offered out their hands for high fives. I’m highly experienced in giving these now from running (did I mention yet in this blog I’ve done a half marathon?).   It was more challenging if it was a child on the back of a motorbike passing on the left, but well worth the effort.  Sometimes we got a couple in one go.  Yay!  Drive on the right hand side here by the way, not that you’d necessarily know from looking.  It’s sort of drive on the right, unless there is space on the left, or even if there isn’t.

We passed weddings in progress, heard a funeral chant, endless sights to see, temples, allsorts.  I can’t describe it.  There were some formal stops on the way which were excellent.  They didn’t have the excruciating tone of some ‘authentic pit stops’, rather it was very well organised. The bike guide showed us round having first drilled us in polite greetings and farewells (which we trotted out with diabolical intonation but good intentions at each stop).  Then the families continued their business whatever it was, and we could have a good look round.

Stops included:

A place where they make rice paper for spring rolls.  This is really hard work, and a family endeavour.  They do 7 days a week, insanely long days, and for all this between $5-$7 a day between the whole family work force.  It is sobering, we spent $10 just on a dinner last night.  It is shocking to come face to face with this.   Although they were smiling and welcoming I wonder how we are perceived really, parachuting in to get a literal as well as metaphorical snapshot of their lives.  I could now tell you how to make rice paper, but you can probably look it up better yourselves.  Here are some photos though, so you can see if you can work it out.

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I will let on that it is hot work, and that the rice papers are individually scooped out by hand and roller out to dry on the bamboo frames.  In the dry season that’s fine, but when it rains, their production rate is much less.  Work starts at 4.30 in the morning, and they mainly sell to local people.  Although the workshop looks rough and ready, it is clean.  The people take a pride in their produce.

They get paid a small sum for having us troop round  – and I noticed each premises we went to, proudly displayed a letter of appreciation from the bike company framed prominently so you could see it on entering.  Again, I’d be interested to know what they got for allowing us to peer at their production process, I hope it is worth their while. I suppose it must be, as they have been working with soksabike for many years if the letter was anything to go by.

Back on the bikes, and the next stop was bananas.  You would be amazed what you can make with bananas. There were cut and dried bananas, bananas thinly sliced and dried and overlaid with one another to make a textured ribbon that looked like a dried snake skin and contained some 36 bananas apparently.  Which is a great many bananas indeed!  One of our group bought some for $1 I think – or was that at the floating market on the boat trip?  It’s all a blur.  Anyway, they last for 2 months apparently, so great ploy to carry with you if you really like bananas a lot!

Also on site, was an elderly man was selling puppets he’d made, they were really imaginative creations, made from recycled bits and bobs.  I felt bad for not buying to support him, he was so smiley and creative.  But I don’t really want to buy anything at all at this stage in the trip.  Hope someone did today though.

Back on our bikes, it was raining now, but that didn’t bother us hard-core intrepid riders.  Next stop was to see rice wine being made.  This involved tasting and lots of toasts, 35% – 80% proof apparently.  It is a local drink and cheap as chips.  Families buy it and add their own herbs and spices.  Women who have just given birth are encouraged to drink it morning and evening – marvelous medicinal properties apparently!

To add flavour, scorpions and snakes are sometimes added to the mix- this is regarded as a man’s drink.   Women are more expected to drink the rice win with added fruit.  I’m vegetarian, so that would suit me.  We also had our attention drawn to a metal bed, that was quite high, more like a table.  Apparently this was a bed that women used to lie on after giving birth.  The idea being that hot embers could be placed underneath to keep them warm after the exertion of labour.  It is still done in very remote rural areas, I daresay it is quite effective, albeit a rather alarming notion to our western sensibilities.  The fuel for the ovens that drive the distillation process is rice husks by the way.  Isn’t that cool?

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We had a quick pit stop to use loos – there was a cow shed adjacent, so that was good photo opportunity too.  There was also a cat in a bucket that caught my eye, and some rice wine being ‘improved’ with the addition of a snake in the householder’s backyard.  She seems to be a seamstress, and was working away whilst we used her facilities.

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We were given an option then, as to whether or not we wanted to go and see the fish paste being made.  Fermented fish paste is a bit thing apparently, and very special.  Our guide kept saying ‘if the smell is too much, we can just cycle past’  he said it so often, I began to suspect strongly he himself finds the stench of it overwhelming.  It was certainly true that as we approached the riverside market place the smell was pretty overpowering.  If you passed out there, you’d never again regain consciousness.  Some went on, I figured I’d give it a go, but didn’t want to linger too close for explanations.  Turns out it isn’t really fish paste, just very small fish, squashed together and, presumably, sort of rotted.  Blurgh – made me heave, but was interesting though I was standing too far back to get much of the salient detail.  My I’m glad I dont eat fish though, smelt disgusting and looked rank.  Cat fish from Thailand were being unloaded from the back of a truck as we went through the market stalls (at speed).  The main business of the day had been concluded, so it was pretty empty.  What you notice though is that at the back of all the stalls trading fish, are dwellings with living areas directly adjacent to the market.  The reality that people live there, in that stink, is quite shocking. I know in theory you get used to it, but it’s not a desirable way to live.  Having said that, the cars being used were expensive and the homes lavish compared to many I’ve seen, so it is a step up from growing rice I’m sure.  Even so, a hard hard life.  Be grateful the internet is not yet smell enabled.  Durian fruit have nothing on this!

Final stop was on to lunch – fruit and coconut milk drink delightful child photo ops – ox cart with tinsel and party hats.  Not used in this area any more but in rural areas probably.  To be honest, lovely as it was on the bikes, I was beginning to remember why I don’t do spin classes.  The ambience was lovely, the scenery outstanding, the sensory experiences amazing, but the genital rearrangements and arse aching qualities of the bike seat I could really have done without.  Is there a human on earth for whom these bike seats would be anatomically appropriate?  I can’t imagine there is…

Onwards,a very quick stop to try sticky rice cake – but we were late so only one was left for us to try.  Made of sweet rice, beans and coconut, they tasted alright but I was being cautious.  Rice stuffed into empty bamboo wtih various fruits and flabours, cooked over charcoal.  Yum.  A quite substantial snack, priced according to the diameter of the bamboo length that is filled.

Fortuitously, one of our number thoughtfully got a puncture at a great location right by a temple, where we were able to use the loos by creeping past drying monks robes at the temple,  and I got some dogs bollocks shots. Childish, but true.

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The puncture was fixed with impressive speed, and we were quickly back on our bikes and back to the bikeshop to drop off bikes and say farewells.  This was a really excellent trip, and one that I would thoroughly recommend.  Can’t believe how much we crammed in.  Great way to see the countryside and learn a bit about traditional food manufacturing too.

FYI though, I must reiterate, that very rapidly once on our bikes I was like, this is the best thing ever, I could sooooooo do a duathlon, or maybe skip the running which is too hard, and just whizz around on a bike instead!  Maybe I should try a velodrome!  Then, few kilometers on I was ‘this is why I don’t do spin‘.  How a bike seat can be designed to be such a perfect instrument of torture I have no idea, but my lady bits and arse will never be the same again, also not in a good way.  Note to anyone considering a biking holiday in these parts, bring your own gel pad seat saver and preferably a spare arse too.  You will be in need of both.

Great trip though. Thanks soksabike!

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