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The Last Days of Asia, Days 259 – 295: Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore

Cambodia, Days 259 – 269

I cycled to the first ATM yet it would only dispense American dollars. Confused, I cancelled the transaction – I already had USD, so didn’t need more. At the end of the war, USD was used to stabilise the economy. A temporary fix that became permanent. Cambodian Riel and American Dollar now co-exist as a shared currency; 4,000 Riel is the equivalent to one dollar. So, it’s normal to pay in USD and receive Riel in return, or vise-versa.

Cambodia was eye-wateringly expensive. At the supermarket I spent $3 on one litre of water, a packet of biscuits and an ice cream. My shock was so severe that I took a photo of the receipt. Although expensive, poverty was obvious. It felt poor, underdeveloped.

I arrived in Phnom Penh on Christmas Eve, it was a festively warm 31C. “This is as cold as it gets”, Kathleen and Colin announced as they welcomed me into their home. The Canadian couple had kindly offered to put me up over Christmas. They'd been living in Phnom Penh for five years and were keen cyclists, so host the occasional tourer.

After cycling 2,000 kms in 12 days, I jumped off the bike, showered, put on new clothes, and joined my hosts at a Christmas Eve dinner party. I was wrecked, but I couldn’t say no to calories. I was speechless when I saw brie, camembert, and cheddar, sliced and arranged perfectly on a wooden chopping board; centred on a dining table, accompanied with grapes, crackers and olives. I hadn’t seen cheese in months. It was an M & S Christmas advert.

The dinner party was alive with expats – Aussies, South Africans, Canadians, Brits, Japanese, Kiwis – a community of internationals and their families living in the heart of the capital. Their work mostly involved the church, education or infrastructure. Cambodia has many languages, languages that are tribal; always spoken, never written. One expat explained how he helps those communities create an alphabet, so they can write their language. It was a fascinating insight into wider Cambodian culture, which is more diverse, ancient and complicated than its surface lets on.

By 8pm, I had faded. Unable to open thy lips, not even for cheese.

On Christmas Day, I joined Kathleen and Colin at their church service, another expat affair. After the service, I witnessed three baptisms. A moving hour. Watching devotees promise their life to a faith was a beautiful, unique moment. An Indian couple moved to Cambodia after their caste system denied them marriage. They changed religion, wedded and completed their transition with a joint baptism.

Later, my hosts spoke about the on-going struggles faced by Cambodians. Genocide from Khmer Rouge has had unimaginable repercussions on the entire population. Mis-trust plagues society – when the fighting ended, both sides returned to their villages not knowing whether their family members had been murdered by their neighbours. Mis-trust runs in government, between parties, and the relationship the public has with those parties. Drug abuse is the result of years of mental and physical trauma – the only escapism for many.

An ideal way to finish off the festivities: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former school was transformed into a torture chamber during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Situated in the heart of the capital, it was a prison and interrogation centre for those who went against the party line, or were suspected of doing so. In reality, it was a death chamber. 18,000 people were tortured and killed there. No one survived bar 12; the 12 prisoners were found alive in the prison after Khmer Rouge’s fall. It was a sobering few hours. Afterwards, I watched the film: ‘First They Killed My Father’, an incredibly moving depiction of the genocide.

Goodbyes never get easier. I will forever be grateful to Kathleen and Colin for sharing their Christmas. After two days off, I returned to the saddle and headed west, to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat – the ancient capital of a thousands year old dynasty.

I had no expectations for Angkor Wat. In my mind, it was a tourist destination that I had to tick off... because I was in the area. But, I was mistaken. I was blown away. I’d never been anywhere quite like it. A complex of ruined temples and stone block buildings that span kilometres. A beautifully crafted enclave, situated deep in the jungle that has lasted the test of time. A reminder of a bygone era. An era that we will never fully understand.

During a temple visit, I had left my bicycle outside. A mandatory rule. Upon my return, I found two people staring at the bicycle. I approached the inquisitors. “Is this your bicycle?” they asked. Tammy and Simone were also cyclists. We quickly got to it. A chorus of questions back and forth; the usual stuff. Fast forward a few hours and we were drinking beer in Siem Reap. An infectiously funny Argentinian couple, we continued the conversation over a couple bouts of laughter.

Til arrived in town a day later, so I scrapped my plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Bangkok. Tammy and Simone were also in Siem Reap to see in 2023. So, I announced our location on the South East Asia WhatsApp group, and our group size increased to nine immediately. That evening, we dined, drank and bonded over shared experiences.

New Year’s Eve went from 0 to 100 quickly. As the clock chimed midnight, we danced in the streets with a Cambodian rap artist as our soundtrack. By 3am, drum and bass engulfed the town, and we raved in a wave of hedonistic escapism.

I hadn’t partied like that since Istanbul.

On New Year’s Day, our group of nine went for one last supper. The night ended with a wave of goodbyes, prayers for tailwinds, and hope that our paths would cross again.

Thailand, Days 269 – 280

I love Thailand. The smiles, the food, the cheapness. It’s a dream. Travel on a bicycle and no one bats an eyelid. I was a camouflaged nomad, a rarity. Due to its ease, there was no need to think. No need to worry about water, food, or accommodation. It was a joy – and I was over the moon to be back.

From Siem Reap, it took two days to reach Bangkok. I was blessed with a beautiful tailwind all the way to the CBD. I spent less than 24 hours in the city, as I wanted to keep moving. But I did manage to fix a long list of mechanicals. Time well spent.

I’d already seen the west coast on a separate trip, so I followed the east south towards Malaysia. I flew past salt farms, beach hopped, slept in buddhist temples, and enjoyed chance encounters with a solo tourer, Josine. I stayed in a homestay for two nights in the middle of the jungle and caught up on the blog.

It took ten days to cycle to the Malaysian border. I was riding head first into the monsoon season, at which point, I was riddled with saddle sores. A first. And, a result of humidity and loose lycra.

Malaysia, Days 280 – 293

Traffic lights plagued the route. Lights for pedestrians, zebra crossings, roundabouts, intersections, small T-junctions. I was able to cycle no more than 10 metres before an aggressive red man appeared and forced progress to a halt. An on-going irritation that tarnished my first impression of Malaysia.

I was overdue a break, hence the slight overreaction. As time passed, I noticed that my lack of patience increased significantly if I hadn’t taken a rest day for a prolonged period. With that in mind, two days after crossing the border, I rolled to the Penang ferry terminal. Betty was stripped of her weight and thrown onto the ferry’s roof. It was a Friday, and we were headed for a long weekend on an island. Ideal.

Once a large trading hub, Georgetown is the capital of Penang. A former British port town, its architecture is a mix of colonial and Chinese. Nowadays, it’s famous for street art and boutique stores. During a two night stay, I wandered the streets wondering why I was there. Ten miles north, I found a basic one bed apartment on the beach. I relocated. My remaining days on the island were spent sprawled horizontal on sand dunes.

During that time, Betty received her own R&R. Trek collected her from the beach, only to return a day later. Unbelievable service, I barely moved. That being said, I had one criticism. She returned resembling the Mafia. Her teeth were knocked out for golden replicas. The new chain was gold. She was unrecognisable. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if we were in, say, Tajikistan. She would have been top of the food chain. Gold teeth are a symbol of importance; it is hierarchical for Tajik women. But, we weren’t. We were in Malaysia – and she looked odd.

Back on the mainland, the monsoon had started. I had overestimated how long it would take to reach Singapore, so I reluctantly slowed down. One night I spent wild camping on a remote beach, accessible only by foot. Content with a night of stargazing, I was quickly reminded of the moon’s gravitational pull. That evening, I spent hours Googling tide times. It was a clammy few hours.

South of Penang, somewhere along the coast, I stayed in a windowless hostel for £2. Ripped curtains acted as the only barrier from I and the outside world. A man stood in the courtyard outside. He sang renditions of Coldplay classics to the handful of characters drinking in the square. As I lay in bed, I let Yellow send me to sleep.

I celebrated Chinese New Year with thousands of others, camping on a beach. It was Glastonbury. Later, I followed the coast to Melaka. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was once regarded as the most important trading port in SouthEast Asia. Since the 16th century, the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese have had control over the city at some point. In fact, Melaka’s centre is Stadthuy’s, the oldest Dutch building in the SouthEast. Visiting Melaka was, by far, the most interesting place I’d been in the country.

I found Malaysia hard to connect with. I couldn’t distinguish the country’s identity, or get a feeling of it. Malaysia is a strong mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities, followed by a minority of Europeans. Islam is the main religion but it’s not practised by all. Malaysia is diverse, but, maybe that dilutes its culture and identity?

The last days in Malaysia were spent riding monsoon rains. A state-wide emergency was announced as the rain turned to floods. I arrived in Johor wet and relieved – only one Asian ride remained.

No more rain. No more humidity.

Singapore, Days 293 – 295

I started the morning’s ride at the border city of Johor. Much like most of SouthEast Asia, Singapore was not my first visit. Twelve years prior, one of our group was escorted through customs in handcuffs. His crime: being in possession of a pocket knife. I made sure mine was hidden in the depths of a pannier before making the voyage across the border. Singapore’s infamous cleanliness and western ease was a welcomed change. £30 to stay in a hostel, in a shared dorm, was not, however. Daylight robbery.

I cycled straight to Green Biskal, a bicycle touring specialist. SK, the co-owner, confirmed a couple days before that he had a large bike box. The shop was en route to the hostel, so I popped in. Fast forward four hours and I was still at Green Biskal.

SK, kindly, took me for lunch. We discussed our trips in great detail; his being very similar to my own, only 15 years before. I was in awe and could have stayed for longer. But, I was late for my second social meeting. I promised SK I’d return the following day and pick up the box. I raced along an old railway track, 15 kms of purely pedestrianised bliss, straight into the heart of Chinatown.

I arrived for dinner late. Wing, and her flatmate, were local Singaporians. Wing had been in touch through Instagram, she had a trip of her own planned. So, she quizzed me on the trip. In between mouthfuls of Singaporean noodles, I did a mediocre job at giving advice. But, I did put her at ease about being a solo female cyclist. Win.

The two hours that ensued, I got to know Singapore on a much deeper level. I asked about politics and the country’s one-party democracy. A party re-elected time and time again with little resistance. Because of this system, the government is able to plan 20 to 30 years in advance and follow through with those plans. It’s one of the main reasons Singapore is an economic powerhouse in the region, and is so distinctly more advanced than its neighbours.

Wing was a year or two older than myself, so I asked when she was planning to go on the trip. “When I’m 35”, she replied.

“35? Why not go now?”, I responded, surprised.

“The housing market. In Singapore, you’re legally not allowed to buy until you're 35. Most people live with their parents until then. 80% of the population live in social housing. Only a portion of the social housing can be bought, which is why it’s limited. So, I will buy as soon as I turn 35 and then rent it out after I’ve left.” She stated.

Back at the hostel, the bike had caused quite a stir. “Ed, you’re famous. Literally everyone is talking about you. Do you have an Instagram I can share with the guests?”, the hostel manager announced. I laughed – whilst enthusiastically sharing my handle. I’m still amazed at how alien the concept of cycling around the world is to most people.

Saddle sores had become an issue, a big one. I had been on the hunt for chamois cream since Bangkok, but with no luck. Malaysians use Sudocrem and Vaseline as a workaround, which I tried, but with limited success. So, I was determined to fix the issue in Singapore. A Rapha-esc cycling retail store was a chamois guarantee. And without fail there it was – glowing on a beautifully lit shelf, nestled between a multitude of chamois products. A haven, a chamois oasis. A sight to behold.

I felt at home in bicycle stores. I always sparked up conversation with the employees, and this time was no exception. After half an hour, when it came to pay, the guy I spoke to announced: “No, no. This is from one cyclist to another. Don’t worry, it’s yours for free.” I could have cried. My bank balance was rapidly evaporating, and £20 was a lot of money to spend on cream. I was extremely grateful, another example of unbelievable generosity from strangers.

I returned to see SK, who was entertaining another cyclist upon my arrival (he gets through them!). Sochel was my exact opposite; cycling to London from New Zealand. We chatted for a few hours and shared advice about each other’s respective onward journeys. With a bike box and a couple bicycle upgrades, I bid farewell to SK, in the hope that our paths would cross again.

That evening, I returned to my steed, for one last ride in Asia. But, this time, with a huge cardboard box tied to the rear (I couldn’t afford a cab to the airport). Singapore’s cycling infrastructure is unbeatable. I cycled to the airport without touching a single road. The country is tiny, so I wouldn't be surprised if the airport was a commonly used Strava segment.

Twelve hours early, I dismantled the bicycle outside before finding a quiet spot on the terminal floor. I unrolled my sleeping bag, used one of the full panniers as a pillow and drifted off to sleep… I woke up the next morning with only 1.5 hours until take off. I rubbed my eyes awake and stared at the clock, I was in disbelief that I had overslept on a cold, hard floor.

Against all odds, I arrived at the gate in time for my flight. I was ready to leave Asia, but somewhat anxious about the Nullarbor in Australia. And, re-entering western society.

But, before any of that, a short holiday in Bali.


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