Wednesday, December 29, 2010

PEPY Bike Tour - 23 Dec 2010 to 25 Dec 2010

Day 4 – Chanleas Dai to Samraong
After a 5:30 am breakfast, we headed out on a long, bumpy ride to Samraong. It was an uneventful day beyond Ania and I figuring out the words for “thousand” and “hundred” on our own while running errands in the market (pon and roy). We were quite excited as knowing the numbers 1-19 is insufficient when shopping in Riel (4000 Riel = $1 USD). Ania also managed to find a triple chocolate ice cream after much searching in the afternoon. And again at night. So we had a nice time in Samraong!

Day 5 – Samraong to Banteay Chhmar

This was my worst ride by far. I still made good time but my knees didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The road was extremely bumpy, long and there were long stretches of inclines (nearly hills by Cambodian definition. Flat based on a Toronto long-distance cyclist definition). But the end was that much sweeter and the very well organized Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism project (CBT) nearly made me forget about the pulsing pain going through my legs.

We met up and drank coconut water in the Tourism Centre while the president of the CBT  project explained it to us. It was initiated by a French NGO, Agir pour le Cambodge, and is now assisted by the Global Heritage Fund. It is extremely well organized with a detailed map of the town and many local activities that tourists can partake in or observe that showcase Cambodian rural village life, from traditional silk weaving, to seasonal agricultural practices, attending religious ceremonies with host families and traditional music and dance.

The only way to stay in Banteay Chhmar is in a homestay organised by CBT. Everyone was a little apprehensive on the way there, not knowing what to expect. Once again, CBT impressed by setting us up with not only comfortable accommodations, but also families generous enough to welcome us into their homes and their lives for a night. Most homes did not have electricity or, if they did, only enough for a light bulb or two. Showers were out of buckets. Ania, Jam Lucky and I stayed in a large spacious wooden house with a two bedroom loft on the second floor, where we also had the company of the family’s adorable children and pet cat.

Soppain tells us about Tomb Raider Magic at the temple.

We had a shortened itinerary because we’d have to leave early in the morning to beat the sun the next (Christmas) day. First, our guide Soppain took us to the Banteay Chhmar temple. We were all pretty wiped from the bike ride, but he told us interesting facts about the area and described the detailed scenes and symbols carved into the stone. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Global Heritage Fund is working with the co­mmunity to ensure it is preserved. The crumbling ruins are mystical, beautiful and inspiring, particularly with the natural environment’s partial encroachment; trees grow on and through the walls and flower petals blow through the air as you walk through the temple complex.

After the temple tour, he brought us to the Soieries du Mekong Silk Centre. The step-by-step process of creating silk products was well labelled and described orally by a guide. We got to see the whole process from cocoons to scarves. I bought Mama Cruz her Christmas present: a beautiful red silk rose pin.
One of Ania's many gorgeous sunset shots
The rest of the group took a bumpy bike ride to check out the sunset. I decided to end the punishment of my knees and stayed back with Jam and Maria. This ended up being a great decision not only because the sunset ride was over very tough terrain but because I got to help set up Christmas Eve dinner.

With the help of the CBT staff, we set up a table and chairs beside a 13th century temple. They put up torches a la Survivor around the table. Jam and I spread flower petals all over the table. He made a funky centerpiece and set out candles. Maria and Jam put out stockings, one per participant, that included a personal card from the leaders, a PEPY book of inspirational quotations, a PEPY t-shirt, a PEPY pin and candy. The CBT chefs brought a delicious Khmer meal. And, the best part, a local group played traditional Khmer music.

Vi and Jessie scope their stockings
From the sunset, the group arrived to the scene already set up. Jam, Maria and I sang ”We Wish you a Merry Christmas” as they approached the temple. Everyone was surprised and touched by the effort the leaders had gone to in order to make Christmas special.

After excitedly opening our stockings and stuffing our faces, Jam brought out dessert. Smores! Ania literally screamed with delight when Jam made the announcement. A North American delicacy, smores are marshmallows melted over a fire (in this case, over a pot that we lit a fire in) on sticks (chopsticks) and then sandwiched with a square of chocolate in between two graham crackers (vanilla cookies). The North Americans did some capacity building, teaching our Khmer, Australian, Belgian and Indian team how they work.

Making the night even more memorable, we then danced with some of the CBT staff to the traditional Khmer music. They taught us some moves and Jessie showed us all how to boogie like we have never boogied before. Under thousands of bright stars, I knew I would never forget this Christmas as long as I live.

Day 6 – Banteay Chhmar to Sisophon

Christmas Day was much like every other year. Waking up already sweating because of the heat at 4:30 am, using a squat toilet and hearing Christmas carols in Khmer as I biked through dust and dirt ...same old, same old. At one of our first breaks of the day, Ania commented that usually when people are drinking out of a coconut on Christmas, they’re at a resort and it’s full of booze. We were chugging coconut water in an effort to replace the nutrients we had sweated out all morning.

Christmas was the worst day for many of us over horrible roads and with bright sunshine. It was my favourite day. Maria loaned me her extra pair of bike shorts and it changed the rest of the trip for me from then on. Ah, sweet relief!
I gave Maria the 4 Classic Bad Christmas Gifts: 1) "romantic" coupon (5 hugs), 2) healthy food (an apple), 3) socks and 4) underwear
Once again, a day of difficult riding was alleviated by  a great afternoon in Sisophon. For Christmas dinner, Jessie organized a Secret Santa gift exchange. Our budget was one American dollar, which proved to be a challenge in the market. Walking away from an item because it was 25 cents over budget without being fully able to explain why was an awkward experience. Nevertheless, the group came up with several great finds including a hammock, the CD of an up-and-coming Cambodian pop star who happens to look like a hybrid of Rithy and Justin Bieber and an inflatable toy donkey. Ania picked the donkey from Kayla which, lucky me, makes a squeaking noise. The rest of the night involved Ania making the donkey both dance and squeak. It’s going to be a long rest of the trip. Jessie boogied once more to a live karaoke band with some of the restaurant staff and other drunk patrons to top off the night’s entertainment and finish off a crazy Christmas in Cambodia.

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