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  • Tom Blower

What if?


I’d had to break up my trip into three parts mainly for the sake of managing my diabetes effectively, but in all honesty, it was also an opportunity to reset psychologically; the opportunity to see my loved ones and friends again helped to give my mind a break from riding while liberal applications of some Russian antibiotic cream took care of my slowly disappearing saddle sores. Sitting in The Temeraire – the fake jewel in the wonky crown of Saffron Walden’s pub scene – looking at the familiar Saturday night crowd, it was almost as if the last three months hadn’t existed. This artificial break in my itinerary had taken me out of the riding ‘bubble’ I’ve heard described so frequently by other cyclists, but this disruption gave me a fresh head for the precursor to the next leg of the trip: Japan.

I’d been wanting to visit Japan with Is for a few years, and as I planned to resume the next leg of my trip in East Asia it made sense to experience it together. That, and I spoke barely a word of Japanese, so I could relax and let Is do the talking. In a brief two-week tour of central Honshu, I saw, experienced, ate, and explored, almost entirely free from thoughts about cycling. The volcanic peaks of Kamikochi National Park and the millennia-old temples of Kyoto and Nara seemed a far cry from my last bike experience (climbing sweaty, bedraggled, and wonk-wheeled up to Big Almaty Lake), and the hardships I’d been facing for the previous three months were nowhere to be seen. In a way, I was buttering myself up to be sucker punched by the beginning of Leg 2.

Not/China

In retrospect, planning a cycling trip through Southeast Asia during the tail end of typhoon season and the monsoon period was not the smartest of choices. I’d been very lucky to have missed the passage of Typhoon Faxai across the Kanto Region of Honshu shortly before our arrival, and even luckier that I’d departed before the chaos of Typhoon Hagibis, which killed 80 people in Japan and caused an estimated $9 billion of damage. (And to think that Rugby World Cup fans were getting shirty online because their games had been cancelled...) But on touching down at last in Taiwan, the ‘Republic of China’, my luck ran out. The winds were picking up, and storm clouds were gathering: another typhoon was on its way. I holed up for an extra day in my hostel in central Taipei, deciding it would be better for me to not attempt crossing the mountains dividing the western plains from the east coast in torrential rain and winds of up to 85mph. Occasionally venturing outdoors during dry spells, I saw a city whose traditions and modernity jostled for attention. The Grand Hotel, set on an imposing outcrop overlooking the downtown Datong District, looked like the love-child of a Chinese temple and a Premier Inn. On steroids. I would have liked to explore more, but the weather had other plans. The day after Typhoon Mitag made landfall in northeastern Taiwan, a steel-arch bridge in the port Nanfang’ao (where I had been planning to camp) collapsed, killing six foreign workers and entrapping 500 fishing vessels docked in the harbour. With concerns about further meteorological impediments dogging my thoughts, I eventually set off from Taipei into the mountains.

Beyond riding home from the station to my home upon my return to the UK, I hadn’t really done any cycling since Kazakhstan, and I was not only setting off across a mountain range, but I was also carrying even more kit with me (having decided to move some of my kit to cages on the bike’s front forks to slow the wearing out of the rear tyre). But by far the worst thing, for which no training could have properly prepared me, was the humidity. The air as I climbed through the lushly-forested mountains on roads strewn with leaves and typhoon detritus felt like steam to breathe, and though I’d started before sunrise, I was drenched in sweat before its rays even touched me. It was at least a pleasure to have the road almost to myself: a vast new motorway shot beneath the mountains to Yilan City on the east coast, while I and an occasional other cyclist (dressed to the nines in lycra on carbon framed racing bikes) wound my way slowly uphill. The small roadside shrines overlooking the distant capital were far more ostentatious and colourful than even the most grandiose temples of Japan: it was clear that culturally I was closer to China than Japan, even though Taiwan arguably has better international relations with the latter.

When at last the summit of the first 1500-foot climb came, I rested to take a last look back to the west, the back of my neck beginning to burn in the rising sun. I felt exhausted, and despite trying to be less sparing with water my muscles still felt tight and dehydrated. I finished almost all off the remaining water from my bottles and headed downhill, hoping I’d find somewhere before the coast to refill. I passed through a small town but couldn’t identify anywhere that looked like they might sell bottled water: I’d seen the colour of the fast-flowing rivers weaving through the western foothills and had decided not to try taking my chances. I was starting to worry a little as I began the next climb, when I passed a roadside building with a couple of Caucasians setting up some food by the roadside, with a large van with some bike racks on parked close by. I stopped and was given a load of food and as much water as I could carry by these guys, who were supporting a Tour D’Afrique group ride of cyclists from Taiwan to Singapore: they generously let me fill my bottles from their supply, and offloaded several bananas and a jar of peanut butter onto me. It seemed that, even despite the hills, Taiwan was a popular cycling destination for older cyclists too. I set off again just as the first of the riders pulled in. I was a little envious of his lack of luggage (my bike, before food and water, now weighed over 40 kilogrammes), but pushed on before I could admit that to anyone. One last, long climb separated me from the east coast. I pumped up the volume on the iPod I’d borrowed from Is and dug deep. A good hour and a bit later, I crested the top. I sat panting under a tree, looking out through long hanging creepers at the coast below me, my muscles screaming and my head beginning to throb from dehydration. The heat and the humidity were really screwing with me, and my blood glucose levels were sky-high, despite having eaten barely anything all day (a carton of juice, a peanut bar, and a banana). Radiohead’s Reckoner came on and I couldn’t hold back the tears. I had started too hard, too humid, and too heavy. But the heat continued to rise, and there was nothing to do but push on. After a few miles’ drop through some gorgeous hairpins, the road flattened out and I sped along the eastern coastal floodplain around Yilan, skirting the edge of Nanfang’ao as the mountains rose once again before me. I looked out and saw the port’s destroyed bridge, the waters around it still darkened with oil from a tanker that had been crossing it at the time of its collapse.

The coast road headed south, clinging, serpentine, to the verdant cliffs looking out over the Pacific. My legs began to twinge, and my pace slowed to a crawl. I stopped to try and drink some more, and my left hamstring suddenly cramped. I screamed in pain, frightening the monkeys who had been watching from the side of the road: they scattered across the tarmac and disappeared into the undergrowth as I slumped down onto the tarmac, sobbing. Why did I come here? I couldn’t recall feeling lonelier, nor more that this was a huge mistake. You should have stopped in Almaty, but now here you are, burdened by your weakness, prisoner to your overambition. How did you think you could make it through the next three months in conditions like this, you stupid fucking idiot? When eventually I stopped crying, it must have been through lack of water rather than anything else. By the end of the day, I’d covered only 83 miles, but climbed over 10,700 feet in 34-degree heat and eighty-percent plus humidity. I can’t go on like this, I thought as I lay in my tent, soaking in a pool of sweat. For starters, there’s no way my nipples can take this chafing.

The next day I tried to follow my plans and give myself a shorter day, as I’d finished 20 miles up on my target. But again, as the sun rose, my aching muscles started to complain and no amount of water, regular stretching, and carefully-dosed insulin could convince them to carry me further than Hualien, only 130 miles from my starting point in Taipei. Defeated, I pulled into the train station and bought a ticket for Taitung, where I would be able to rest up for a few days. I felt angry and weak as I crouched in the shade of the station concourse. I stood up to get myself some food and my head, a swirling storm of self-loathing, went black. I crumpled to the floor. Luckily some other bike tourists were around, and as I came to one rushed over with some Coke and energy drink. Whatever my mind thought, my body was telling me that the train was the right decision to make.

I spent the next few days convalescing at a hostel in Taitung, playing the guitar they kept in the basement, and reading a new book. The first night I was the only person in the hostel, but the following day a few more people turned up, including Yuan, a native of Kaohsiung, where I’d be ending my time in Taiwan (I hoped). We got to talking, and after a while, I tentatively broached the C-word: China. Whilst I was only broadly aware of the poor relations between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China, I was really keen to hear a Taiwanese account of things. Fifty years ago, Taiwan (as the Republic of China) was recognised by 71 countries, more than recognised PRC. Now it is recognised by just 15. It was expelled from the UN in 1971 (despite having been a charter member at its founding), and now cannot fly its own flag at the Olympics and must compete as ‘Chinese Taipei’. Particularly given the concurrent struggles rocking Hong Kong through the summer of 2019, where violence was spilling into the streets and transport systems thrown into chaos, the genuine concern shared by a lot of younger people over Taiwan’s independence was palpable. People were looking with worried eyes towards Hong Kong. As one of Yuan’s friends who lived there had warned him: “Today, Hong Kong; tomorrow, Taiwan.”

After three days in Taitung I felt ready to move on physically, but still mentally I was still unsure. I still had to make it back over the southern mountains to Kaohsiung. I gave myself two days to cover the just over 100 miles, planning to camp as soon as I found my way back to the west coast. Thankfully, a cracking headwind had me 40 miles down the coast and into the foothills by 8:00 AM. I pushed on, grateful for the longer climb giving me less of a back-breaking incline than my previous coast-to-coast crossing. The mountains separated the comparative peace of the east from the windy, industrial sprawl of the west coast. I decided not to try camping on a poorly shaded mango farm by a bridge and simply push on to Kaohsiung itself: if I could do the extra miles, I would have earned that air-conditioned dorm bed. The sign welcoming me to Kaohsiung stood against a hellish background of belching chimneys and I was glad to reach the hostel at last. I brought my bicycle inside then flopped onto my bunk. I’d only cycled just over 230 of the 340 miles I’d set myself to ride, but I didn’t regret coming to Taiwan. Having been to China over ten years ago, I was interested to see the differences between it and what I saw as this other, this China but not China. Despite sharing so many cultural similarities with the mainland, Taiwan is very much its own country: a country which the celebrates heritage of its aboriginal peoples, the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex partnerships, and a country hungry for greater democracy. As I flew out of Kaohsiung for Hanoi, I hoped it would be able to keep the Chinese tiger at bay.

Pathetic fallacy

The heat which had hit me as I left the air-conditioned safety of Noi Bai International Airport took me by surprise. Surely I should be getting used to this by now, I thought as I joined the main highway heading into Hanoi. A vast suspension bridge carried me over the Red River into the capital of Vietnam, and suddenly the traffic chaos of Taiwan seemed very tame. The road teemed with scooters like a school of fish, each moving on its own individual trajectory but the whole moving as a solid, mechanised mass which stopped for no man and, in most cases, no traffic light. As a cyclist I was towards the bottom of the food chain, just above the crossing children and wandering dogs that cowed away into the gutter as I sped past: of course it was my fault if someone came round the corner on the wrong side of the road, not looking and indicating in the opposite direction, and my brakes got some good wear on them from the several sudden stops I had to make to avoid a rogue driver or pedestrian. The narrow streets of the city’s Old Quarter as I turned off the main thoroughfare proved to be even more challenging; though it wouldn’t be until dark that I realised I’d really picked the most crowded of places to stay. Come nightfall, the restaurants set out their low plastic chairs and tables, and the thronging crowds were so thick it took a good several minutes to walk what during the daytime had taken less than thirty seconds. The smells of different fried animals filled the air, mingling with the liberally applied deodorants of sweaty tourists like me, while the roaring chatter of a Babel of different languages spoken was underscored by a cacophony of different EDM beats emanating from various clubs and bars. It seemed like daytime Hanoi belonged to the twentieth century, but the night was the preserve of the twenty-first, the twilight mingling the two as foreign revellers staggered back to their hostels and the first light of day began to illuminate the graffiti sprayed across the less loved parts of the Old Quarter.

The morning light was obscured by mid-level buildings and telephone wires as I left the hostel in Hanoi, cautiously approaching every junction, knowing there was a very real possibility that I might encounter someone on a borrowed motor scooter careening around the corner on the wrong side of the road through a red light, in possession of nothing more than a thin plastic bucket masquerading as a helmet and a subconscious deathwish. Eventually the buildings fell back into a state of peri-urban development as national highway QL1 made its way south towards Ho Chi Minh and the southern border with Camodia: the countryside could occasionally be glimpsed through the gaps between shop frontages and metal rooves of roadside eateries, but it kept its distance from the road until a good 60 miles south of the capital, where I turned off after the town of Ninh Binh. In the distance I could see dark green sprigs adorning monoliths of limestone. I reigned in my excitement, keeping my pace commensurate to the poorer quality of this rural side-road, which ran atop a levy turning eventually towards them. Protruding suddenly from the flatness of the surrounding delta plain, the hills of Trang An grew nearer and nearer until I rounded a corner and was at last among them.

The midday sun was hot, but as the road passed between large lily-filled pools under a canopy of trees the air felt cool. I pulled over and sat by the edge of a vast pond. A strip of land ran towards its centres, where a few ornate graves were clustered together. The occasional car or minibus passed but under the dappled shade of the tree I had the scene practically to myself. The memorials, striking as they were, seemed utterly dwarfed by the grandeur of the towering rock faces, which echoed back the calls of birds from far away. The thought of spending the rest of eternity buried here seemed oddly calming. For the first time since leaving Japan, I felt a great sense of peace, even of confidence in myself. I can do this. I can make it to Singapore unaided.

The day ended long at 102 miles, and the next day was lining up to be the same: I wasn’t willing to relinquish the miles I’d built up on top of my originally planned goal, and wanted to make it to within a short ride of the Laotian border in two days instead of three. I felt cautiously grateful as I wheeled out of Thanh Hoa with a light tailwind, though concerned about the clouds darkening ahead of me. Though some rain fell through the morning, the sun eventually broke through, seeming to signal carte blanche to my fellow road users to take to the road at whatever speed they chose, and on whichever side of the road felt most relevant to them. I’m all for a poststructuralist take on reality and the grand narratives of authority which control society, but not when it means risking a head-on crash with a twelve-year-old hightailing it home from school up the hard shoulder towards me. A few miles later, the traffic slowed uncharacteristically, and began to merge. Ahead, the cause became clear. A scooter lay smashed in the middle of the road, and a few metres beyond, a large shape lay shrouded beneath a reed mat. I noticed lumps of flesh-looking matter on the asphalt, and blood was everywhere. I rode on, hoping it wasn’t human, knowing it probably was: in Vietnam people are eight times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than in the UK.

Turning southeast and leaving at last the busy highway, I finished the last 25 miles at a crawl, despite a now gusting tailwind. My calves had been twinging for hours, threatening to cramp, and my tired mind could hardly appreciate the comparative peace of this minor road, which meandered through a bucolic panorama of rice paddies nestled between gently rising hills. When I reached Pho Chau and checked into a cheap hotel, I was taken aback when the manager, Tranh, who only a few minutes earlier had been impressed by my cycling 112 miles from Thanh Hoa, asked “I’m going out to play badminton now, you wanna come?” Perplexed and exhausted, I declined, but accepted his kind offer of dinner in the kitchen when he got back. I was dead on my feet, and storm clouds were drawing in once more. I estimated I had a little time to get myself some food for breakfast and for the following day’s push to the border. There seemed a paucity of options for someone avoiding gluten out of necessity and spices out of fear, but I eventually found a combination of crisps and fresh vegetables and made my way back to the hotel. The room felt like several rooms I’d stayed in in more tropical climes: sparse, dark wood furnishings; ornate plasterwork ceilings with flourishing light fixtures; and a wet room that never really seemed to fully drain. I’d just got the key in the lock when the first heavy drops began to fall. In a matter of seconds, it became an all-pervasive hammering that seemed to deaden everything. People withdrew indoors, traffic disappeared from the streets, and nothing could be heard over the downpour, bar the occasional roll of thunder. The power and the internet cut out, but not before I’d confirmed that it wouldn’t stop raining for two full days. Let’s see how it is in the morning and try and make a push for Laos, I lied to myself. Sleep came eventually as, in my mind, the hammering on the corrugated roof became a soft, distant hum.

I awoke with a sharp intake of breath. The air felt cold, and outside the shutters the rain was still falling. I took a look outside. The streets were awash, and those daring enough to be piloting their scooters through the deluge were still getting soaked under their rain ponchos. I crawled back into bed and cried for ten minutes. Where did my resolve go? Why the fuck am I here? Why am I not at home, sitting silently next to Isabel under a tree? This is all your doing, you arrogant prick. It felt as if all my determination and desire to continue had simply dissolved in the rain. A wave of exhaustion rolled over me and I fell back asleep.

Mark, a Floridian in his 50s who had checked into the hotel at the same time as me, invited me to lunch, asking if he could film an interview with me to upload to his website, comparing the differences between my journey and his (he had been travelling around Southeast Asia on and off for two years on a motorbike). I agree and whilst we could agree on some aspects of approaches to our journeys, I felt a sense of deep division in others. Mark seemed to focus a lot on the ‘heroism’ of travelling (with diabetes or without), but I didn’t quite see it like that (or at least, not at the time – in time I’d come to appreciate the cathartic nature of the conversation). I didn’t know how I saw it. I am trapped in a hole with my own failure and I can’t get out. The ease with which I attributed adversity and belligerence to inanimate objects or situations like rain was simply an arrogant, desperate way for me to justify my lack of resolve. Pathetic fallacy at work: looking out at the unresponsive world and lying to ourselves that it is telling us what we want to hear; that the rain is too heavy, the mountain too high; the risk too great. I wanted the world to tell me I couldn’t make it to Laos, and when I found a way to, I believed it. Shame-faced, I asked Tranh to book me an extra night in the hotel, and arranged a bus to carry myself and my bicycle south to Ho Chi Minh. I retreated to bed after saying goodbye to Mark, self-defeated. The rain was still falling.

The twenty-eight-hour bus journey from Pho Chau to Ho Chi Ming City cut several hundred miles off my ride. Looking through the window at the submerged fields going by, I was so ashamed, and yet so glad, to be in the dry and warm. Central Vietnam had already seen flooding after nearly 36 hours of non-stop rain, but I still couldn’t quite let it go. Yet again you’ve failed, you weakling. It was pointless: I’d already surrendered my choice for the time being into the hands of the bus driver, who seemed, even by Vietnamese standards, to be rather overzealous in his application of the horn (and the brake for that matter), yelling to the conductor in a high, nasal voice. As flooded fields became pined dunes and coastal paddies, before the road wound through mist-shrouded hills, I tried to get some sleep. The bus bumped on into the night, horn blaring.

What if (Luck of the (half-)Irish)

After another day mentally convalescing amidst the noise and traffic of Ho Chi Minh, it was time to move on. Laos would have to wait for another day, but Cambodia was up next. A quick blast of 45 miles and I was at the border, where I boosted my sense of integrity by refusing to pay an extra – and entirely unnecessary – $10 to ‘speed up’ my exit from Vietnam. As gorgeous as parts of the country had been, that bureaucratic, cynical approach to foreigners and their money held by some of the population was not something I would miss.

The first few miles after the Cambodian border were a rough, bouncing nightmare of washboard red earth packed hard by thousands of wheels. I tried to pick up a coconut which had fallen off the back of a pickup truck, but soon that was jolted from my grasp by the rutted path, which slowed me down at points to 6 mph. If this continues like this I’ll never get to Thailand on the bike. The voice again. But the weather was good, and I was in decent spirits. Shut the fuck up. Let’s at least give this a try. Happily, the road evened out into a nicer stretch of tarmac, and I was able to look up and around me at the passing Cambodian countryside. Houses on stilts, more simply built and with far more space between them, replaced the more modern Vietnamese constructions that had characterised that peri-urban space which had continued almost non-stop from Ho Chi Minh to the frontier with Cambodia. People on bikes waved and children shouted “Hello!” The enjoyment was not in the attention being given, but the sense of engagement: I waved back enthusiastically and nodded my head, finding my rhythm in the saddle.

The following morning, I was grinding through the last sweaty miles between the Mekong River crossing and Phnom Penh, when I felt a bounciness come into the rear wheel. Going over a bump, the rim slammed into the ground. Of course. A puncture. I pulled over into the shade of a roadside stall and steadied myself, feeling lightheaded and empty the moment I got off the bike. A crowd of dogs gathered as I began, dripping with sweat, to change my tyre. A couple wouldn’t stop snarling and barking at me, but fortunately the owner of the shop chased them away, returning behind the counter to her young baby. I eventually found the source of the puncture; a small sliver of truck wire which had finally managed to pierce my practically indestructible Schwalbe Marathan Plus tyre. It was a faff to change, but as I saddled up and rode on, I tried to turn my irritation at the interruption in on itself. Come on, that was bound to happen eventually. And besides, how far did you get before this happened? 5,500 miles! Without a single bloody puncture! Smiling, I roared into the city at 22 mph.

Looking for alms, Phnom Penh

The heat in the city was intense, and I nearly fainted climbing the four floors to my hostel dorm with all my bags. This would not be a particularly ‘cultured’ rest stop. I dragged myself to the nearest Circle K and filled up on soy milk, bananas, crisps, and peanut butter. That jar I’d been given in Taiwan had given me a renewed taste for the stuff. Back in the dorm my bunkmate, a guy from Northern Ireland, had been robbed at a nightclub. The attackers had taken all his money but he’d scared them off by grabbing the knife by its blade. His ring and index fingers were bleeding profusely, and his sheets, the mattress, the floor were splattered in a deep crimson. “I don’t feel the pain like normal people do. I just choose not to.” I didn’t quite believe him, but his conviction and his calmness was unnerving. I’d noticed two identical bikes in the stairwell where I’d locked up my Dawes: with front and rear racks, butterfly handlebars, and frame bags, these were definitely set up for touring. I left a note on one of the saddles. “If you’re about today or tomorrow I’d love to talk to you about your journey. Bed D25.” But it was untouched the evening before my departure from the capital as I packed up my stuff in preparation for the three-day ride to Siem Reap.

I woke with my alarm and then dozed, telling myself it was too dark to start at 6:00. I dallied in the hostel reception, taking my time over my breakfast of UHT yoghurt drinks and an apple. Just as I was taking my last bites, two towering, bearded blokes in running gear walked over, and one asked with a Hibernian lilt: “So that’ll be your bike then, eh?” David and Paddy had started their ride in Sydney in August, and were gradually making their way back to Ireland, whilst running an ultramarathon in every country they passed through. They too were heading in the direction of Siem Reap, hoping to make the journey in three days: we swapped contact info, and agreed to meet up there. I was keen to head off, and didn’t feel like waiting around until they’d come back from their morning run. Bloody hell, how can they run anywhere in this heat? I’m half-drowned in sweat and I’ve not even started the day’s ride. I saddled up and rode on.

I managed to make decent miles out of Phnom Penh and by early afternoon I was within reach of the halfway point from the capital to my next rest. I decided to try finishing the journey in two days instead of three. Not that I wasn’t enjoying the Cambodian countryside – if anything, it was turning out to be closer to what I’d hoped Vietnam would be like – but for the first time in a few weeks I actually relished the challenge of pushing myself hard in the heat and humidity. The following afternoon, aided by a gentle tailwind and an almost flawless road, I rolled into Siem Reap, effectively a staging town for the two million tourists annually visiting Angkor, the ruined capital of the Khmer Empire.

The start was an early one – up at 4:30; riding to the ticket office in the pitch black to reach the ticket office by 5:00; then heading north for several miles to reach the East Gate of Angkor Wat, the most famous of all the monuments scattered across the more than thousand square kilometres which had constituted the centre of Khmer power and culture for nearly six centuries. A large crowd had gathered to watch – or perhaps to capture – the sunrise behind the 55-metre temple-mountain’s quincunx of towers. I was no different: I wanted my shot of the beautiful silhouette reflected in a still pond; I was wearing down the sandstone of the beautiful steps and naga-headed balustrades with my tourism; I longed for the comfort of air conditioning in the sticky morning air. But I was here, and that was what seemed to matter most in that moment. After seeing the rising sun, I was keen to move on to somewhere a little quieter. I grabbed my bike and headed east.

Definitely worth the wait - and the wading

To have had my bike with me was certainly a boon. The breeze that came from riding under the canopy of trees cooled me as I rode across the Angkor Archaeological Park, and my two-wheeled independence brought me away from the throng of motorbike taxis and tour buses unloading at the East Gate. When I reached Ta Prohm, six miles away, I was totally alone. Birdsong filled the air as I approached the vast stone edifice of the ruined temple, long since overrun by banyan trees and mosses.

After Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, and Ta Kdei, I turned from the main road onto smaller footpaths through the dense forest, winding between trees and over roots, until I reached Preah Khan, then circled around, taking in the sights of the Baphuon, the Bayon, and finally, the complex of Angkor Wat itself. As I walked across a raised walkway, a small troop of monkeys scattered and ran for the treeline. The scene could be one from The Jungle Book: the aftermath of a long war of attrition between man and nature, with only one inevitable victor, the stone walls’ bas-reliefs echoing the cries of another race too arrogant for their own good; "There is no one in the jungle so wise and good and clever and strong and gentle as the Bandar-log."

The sheer number and vastness of the ruins at Angkor – at its height the largest any city in the world would ever be prior to the Industrial Revolution – makes it very difficult to paint an accurate picture of the beauty and grandeur of the place without lapsing into ridiculous superlatives. It took me two full days to simply grasp a glimpse of some of the most impressive of the site. So here I’ll admit my paucity of words and defer to some (hopefully) representative images.

Preah Khan

Wat Baksei Chamkrong

Bayon

Angkor Wat

Back in Siem Reap I met David and Paddy for dinner. Over a palate-teasing meal of ant spring rolls, tarantula tempura, scorpion kebabs, silkworm muffins, and spinach and cricket samosas, we discussed our respective trips. They’d crossed Australia in a month and a half, traversing the notorious Nullarbor Plain with massively overloaded bikes on their first proper touring experience, and had nearly frozen to death during their first mountain ultramarathon in New Zealand. I was lucky to get a lot of good advice for crossing Australia at the height of summer, though sadly I wasn’t able to usefully reciprocate, having taken a far more northerly route through Central Asia that the one they hoped to take (including using their Irish passports to cross through Iran to Oman). It felt good to be engaging with people on the same level: whilst chance interactions with locals were becoming more common in Cambodia, they still felt very one-sided and selfish on my part, and it was good to be conversing as equals, on a matter which we understood comparatively uniquely and with a correspondent level of calmness about the sense of ‘achievement’ in a journey not yet finished. The pair were two of the most affable, modest, and good-natured people one could hope to meet, and cyclists to boot. Their generosity didn’t just cover the cost of the meal (of which I’d eaten most): David even gave me an almost brand new guitalele, which he swore he’d not much use for, having played it only twice since leaving Sydney. I was flabbergasted. I had missed playing music in my time off for so long, and this was a godsend. When it came at last to part – the boys had to be up early to run their Cambodian ultramarathon around Angkor – I was truly saddened. I hope that someday we might ride together in the Old Country (yes, I’m very well aware that an Irish passport doth not an Irishman make, but for rhetorical purposes it’ll do here).

Back in my hostel, I was plucking the strings of this new treasure for the first time, thinking of how lucky I’d been. Then it hit me. If I’d have continued into Laos instead of taking the bus to Ho Chi Minh, I’d never have rode through Phnom Penh. If I’d never rode through Phnom Penh, I’d never have woken up late. If I’d never woken up late, I’d never have met David and Paddy. And if I’d never met David and Paddy, well... It was hardly worth countenancing. A string of what ifs connected this moment to my weakness in Vietnam. Nothing was innately good or bad; my opinion was the only determinant. I packed up my bicycle and rode towards Thailand.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Whilst working on my blog, I'm concurrently working on another, larger-scale project so posts may not be as frequent, but I hope they're at least entertaining enough. As always, any feedback - especially negative: I'm trying to work on better appraising my own writing but in the meantime the opinions of others are always a great source of review - is appreciated. I hope that this finds you, wherever you are, at ease with yourself: that's certainly something I'm aspiring to.

Tom

Try as I might, I still can't make injecting insulin look cool


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