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by Rob

Cambodia’s bicycle adventure path

We are somewhere along the Mekong River in Cambodia. Next to the river is a small village far away from everything. Wooden stilt houses sit along the waterfront, it is peaceful here. The only annoyances are the dogs and maybe a brave chicken. Luxuries are nowhere to be found and your smartphone won’t work here, there is no electricity and no tap water. The people living here just have as amenity a car battery and barrels which the rains fill. If you take a stroll through the village, you can make out ten huts in which live maybe thirty people with about twenty dogs and a fair amount of chickens. We are currently living as honored guests by a nice woman and her family. Our small room consists of nothing except for something that counts as a bed. The food is simple but good enough for us: it’s just rice and some eggs spiced up with some morning-glory, but after one month soup in Lao we feel like kings when we are eating. We came to this village to find someone who can bring us to an island in the Mekong River where a small bicycle path runs. The main roads are a drag and dangerous so we decided to cycle along the Mekong Adventure Path. It has been a touristic attraction from the government and a NGO. But both stopped funding it. Now it is only a dirt track trough nowhere to somewhere. As we arrived at the village, the elder was sitting with two guys in front of a shack, smoking and drinking beer. He had some well-mannered English skills which proved useful at the time with us. He organized our stay with the woman and her family as well as our boat trip for the next morning. All this in just ten minutes, much more organized and cheaper than any travel agency.

The sun is setting behind the Mekong, it has a pink to red tone and put the surroundings in a bizarre light. I sit in front of the house in which we are staying right now and mirrored light of the Mekong dazzles me as I try to savor this moment. In my left hand is a knife and my right hand holds a bamboo stick. The simple carvings I did amaze me. I have really grown on this bamboo stick that I found somewhere in Lao to fend off the dogs. Now after I carved it, it feels more like a piece of me. Cath pulls me out of my thoughts. She wants to go to the river bank to watch this odd sunset over the Mekong River. I put the knife and the stick away and we move trough this uncanny light. There is not much to say, just to experience. The sun sets with every minute and draws like a curtain over the village which sinks in darkness. But not for long, the moon and the stars shine so bright that we can see the village. It is late and we go to bed, the next morning comes early at five O’clock.

I awake as the smartphone starts ringing. I hurry out of the bed to stop the alarm clock which is ringing ever growing louder, not to wake up the whole village. I prepare myself and get out of the house. The night already fades away into the daylight, some villagers are already up and so are the chickens. With no fire going in the small stove in the kitchen there is no way of producing a hot coffee. I hate cold coffee! But better than nothing. With the last bottle of drinking water I enjoy as I can my cold coffee as I am watching the sunrise. That done, I wake up Cath and get packing our bicycles. It is a steaming hot morning and we push our overloaded bicycles through the muddy banks of the Mekong till an embankment to the canoe. Our driver is already there enjoying his cigarette and watching us fiddle with the muddy underground. I wonder how those packed bicycles and we will fit on this small canoe. But the driver makes it possible. I take the seat in the front of the canoe, one bicycle to my left one to my right. My job for this morning is to hold them tight, otherwise the Mekong will have a new addition of junk. I am worried about our luggage and the bicycles that could disappear in the Mekong. Our passports and everything would be gone. Because of that I hold a tight grip on everything I can grab and pray for the best. Cath looks also anxious, she doesn’t like the sea. With rivers there are usually no problems but the Mekong is wide and big here and looks more like the sea than anything else. She told me once that she, as a small child on a family holiday in France, was taken from a big wave and dragged underwater; she felt so helpless in that moment but came out good. Since then she is anxious around water. She says nothing and tries to play it cool, but I know her and I can see three small wrinkles on her forehead which tells me that she is stressed. I hand her a cigarette and a lighter and hope she can come on her own terms with the Mekong. Our driver starts the back board engine; it is loud, so loud we can’t speak. But there is nothing to say, it is six O’clock in the morning somewhere on the Mekong River. The sun is rising and the animals lift their heads from sleep for a new day. There is so much to awe and wonder. Talking is overrated sometimes. The driver brings us on the left side of the Mekong River and stays most of the time next to the shore. As we drive along I can see on the shore some people fishing and washing clothes. But after a short amount of time we leave the village behind and now it feels as there is nobody except for three humans, two bicycles and a horrendous loud engine. As the sun is steady rising I can’t stop wondering about the colors of the whole scenery: the wide and brown water of the Mekong, the lush green shore to my left and right and the blue sky sprinkled with the whitest dots of clouds. It gives me a sense of adventure which I so dearly missed back at home. Sitting in a boat running down the Mekong River only with your backpack and your bicycle… I already feel like Indiana Jones! After almost two hours we arrive at an island. There is no jetty, just mud. After we load the bikes from the boat I hand the guy forty dollars. I think it is too much but what do I know? He shows us an overgrown sign which I would certainly have missed without him. The sign indicates that yellow arrows should bring us to the next village on the island and the blue arrows should bring us back here. This looks quite easy. We thank the guy and he leaves, fills the air with deafening sounds of his back board engine. With every passing minute the sound of the engine disappears till I can only hear the river and the birds. We mount the bicycles and follow the path of the yellow arrow. After a short distance we arrive at a house which looks deserted. We go on for some kilometers, following the signs which bring us to an enclosed field. There the main way splits in two. I take a look around in one direction and Cath in the other but we can’t find any sign. I think this starts already bad. We want to take the left path but it is blocked by a wooden gate, which means that you lift your ten kilo bike plus your seven kilo luggage over. That done, we follow a small path which runs between the palm trees. It is a nice spot here and no one is around except us, which gives me a worrisome and adventurous feeling. Sometimes I have the feeling to be the greatest scaredy-pants.

The path filled with potholes is narrow and twists and turns everywhere. It is so difficult that we can’t make four kilometers per hour. The cherry on top of all that, is that the red soil shifts to red sand, which looks so similar. I see my back-tire overtaking me and I wonder how bad the bruises will be. Gladly I am not alone in my endeavor: we both lie on the ground, cursing in French, German and English.

We get ourselves up and back on the bikes. The path we follow narrows down to a thin line and with every round of the tires more grass and vegetation show up. The overgrown path reminds me of a tour guide in Kratie some days ago. We asked him about the adventure path and especially the part on the island. He told us he has been on this path two weeks ago. Actually it doesn’t look like that. I look over to Cath and ask her: “Didn’t the guy in Kratie say that he came along here some weeks ago? Doesn’t look like he’s been here for years?” “It’s just a bad spot”, she replies. I can’t stop wondering about her optimism and let her take the lead. The path leads us trough some palm plantations, where a water buffalo enjoys a sunny day in the shade of the palm trees. Till this point I didn’t see any sing with a yellow arrow. But now we have to make a decision, the road splits in two and in the middle I can see a cryptic signpost. I take a look at the sky to the sun and estimate that it took us three hours to get here. So I pull out a pack of cigarettes, hand over one to Cath and take one for myself. As I try to wrestle the pack of cigarettes back into the bike bags I realize we have just two cigarettes left. Cath already examines the sign. I clear my mind from all that so that I don’t have to worry and just enjoy my cigarette. Not for too long. Cath says: “Rob take a look at this”. I see a signpost made out of wood: it is weather-worn and has two arrows that don’t match to any path. There is a blue arrow more on the left and a yellow arrow more or less to the right. On the blue one is written “Round-trip” and the yellow one indicates the village we want to reach. Easy enough, follow the yellow arrow till you reach your goal. For me it is not clear which arrow belongs to which path. I take a look at the right path which is already completely out of order, full overgrown with some small fallen trees rotting there in their murky climate. My eyes peer to the left just to know if the capricious fate again loves to fuck me. The left path looks in use; I know this because I can see some old bike tracks. It is a difficult decision but we should follow the yellow arrow as indicated before. “What do you think, Cath?” She takes a drag of the cigarette, takes a look at the left then at the right. I see the wrinkles on her forehead and I know she is unsure and worried. “We follow the yellow arrow”, she says. We dispose our cigarettes in our mobile ashtray, get back on the bikes and then we look at each other, both wondering the same: Does the yellow arrow show left or right? We head for the right path. I feel my bad temper shows up and I curse the tourist guide who told us that this is no trouble at all. We run through some proto-soup of life forms, Cath comes out good but I sink in. I get down from the bike and my feet are gulp by this proto-mass. I scream into the forest: “Jesus Christ” but he doesn’t answer me; just Cath does: “Stay positive you will have cooled feet all the day”. I know I have to stay positive, I tell myself. We get on. After some time beneath the shady forest the small path climbs upwards and we have to get down and walk the bikes uphill. This isn’t easy with all our luggage, the bikes are heavy and Cath can’t do it alone. I take my bike uphill and then come down to help Cath’s to push her bike uphill. In front of us is a big tree stamp. One big tree stamp blocks the way. I climb over it and take a look at the path behind it… There is nothing? Can’t be, I go on but the path just ends suddenly between the trees. I try to find a signpost, maybe it is under the grass? There is nothing, this can’t be. I get back to Cath and the bikes. I tell her: “No luck here the path just ends”. I feel my anger coming back, I take my bike back and roll down the hill full speed. I race back the path we came along just minutes ago. I don’t care about proto-soups, I just race through them till I reach the road fork. I wait with my worried mind there till Cath arrives. She knows that I am pissed over all this and just says: “Let’s take the other way”. I follow her lead. We ride along the path, my thoughts somewhere else in my anger. After twenty minutes we reach another fork on the path. No signpost, nothing. To the left is a way which leads to a sprawling glade. To the right is an overgrown path. We decide to walk the bikes into the glades together and try to find a signpost or a path. As we leave the trees behind us, the glade in front of us opens up and we can see paddy fields and about six stilt huts made out of bamboo. In the distance you can make out some people working in the paddy fields but the path vanishes. “Woah, that was unexpected”, I scream out. Cath says: “Maybe the inhabitants can give us a clue where to go, but before we bugger those people, let’s take a look around.”

Cath explores the left side of the glade. I have enough. At this point I lose my temper and tell me: “Fuck it, we’re turning back”. I get my bike back into the jungle where we came from. Those seconds cool me down and I spot to my left a half overgrown path. I tell myself: “Don’t give up now, just try this”. I pull my bike into the overgrown path. It ends after five meters with a big tree and nothing else. So I turn back to talk to Cath. I go back to the glade. As I step out into the bursting sunlight, there is no one there except for the locals in a far distance. I call: “Catherine, amour?” No response! The bicycle leaves my grip and hits the muddy ground. I run back to the opening of the glade where the jungle begins. I can feel my blood rushing and my ears ringing. I try to make something out in the thick forest, but nothing. I start screaming again this time louder: “Catherine…”. My voice tries to break through the thick and lush jungle to no avail. At this moment my brain starts to think. “What happened? Did she think that I will turn back to the starting point? But how didn’t I see her go by? It’s impossi… maybe when I went into the small path. Nah, that’s not possible, it was just a minute, I should have heard or seen her, but what else?” The ringing in my ears gets louder. My psychology classes are coming back and I hear my professor talking: “If you can spot the signs of panic you can control them, if you are in a situation like this try to imagine a helpful friend which guides you…” Then he is gone, devoured by an animal in distress. There is a fight between my consciousness and the animal in me, and the animal takes the lead. My thoughts are speeding away from me, a picture of land mines takes form in my head: “Why can’t she answer my calls? I did not hear an explosion. An animal? There can’t be some predators on the island it’s too small, else I should find her bicycle. quicksand? Maybe other people?” I pull myself together and follow the path back where we came from. The muddy underground should help me to decide if she went back. I search every nook and cranny but can’t make out a difference between our trails. A thought takes me back to the people, maybe they have something to do with it or have seen her. I leave the bike behind and run to the paddy fields. They are filled with water and mud. At this moment I don’t mind. My feet sink in the deep ground but I don’t feel it anymore, I just run over the fields to the next hut. A man with a smile greets me. I babble incomprehensible. The guy does not understand. He just shows with his hand north. What does he mean? Did Catherine go north? I paint stick figures into the mud. But his blank stare tells me everything. I start screaming again, my voice travels far through the glade. People in the distance look at me. I start running again to the next hut. As I arrived the people look worried, maybe because I am covered in mud and I am screaming as a mad man. They hold their hands into the air, like a sign that I should leave them be. I try anyway, I put my hands together as I were praying more like begging: “Please help me!” They just laugh. I feel lost and helpless, I go back to the entrance of the glade and pull a last cigarette out. The animal is exhausted. My consciousness is coming back and some imaginary friends with it. I pick some of the best staff my brain has to offer and I choose: Ruediger Nehberg and Sherlock Holmes. “Ok guys, the situation is like this, we are on an island in the Mekong river, I lost the woman I love some time ago somewhere here, you already know the rest of the story! Suggestions?” Ruediger tells me about the rule of coming back to the last place we saw each other but recommends not to stay and to search on. Mr Holmes agrees with him. Ruediger instructs me to leave my bicycle here and build some artificial sign post which could be differentiated from the flora. I should build it on the ground with stones and wood which state a message and in which direction I went searching. So I take two big pieces of wood, erect them on the ground and build an arrow in the direction where I will search. After that is done Mr. Holmes tries to analyze every possibility what could happen. “Dear Mr Rob, if she has stepped on such horrific apparatus you described with the word landmine, you would have heard something. Animals: not feasible, you would have found her bicycle. In the case of quicksand it would be possible but unrealistic that she sinks so fast in, as well you should find the bicycle. So what happened? When you eliminate the impossible whatever remains however improbable must be the truth.“ “Thank you Mr Holmes”, I said and went on in the direction where we came from. My next scream: Catherine was echoed by a Roby.