By Bike, A Different Way to See Angkor

Siem Reap province – I arrived at Angkor Wat close to 6 a.m., and into the midst of what seemed like a thousands-thronged battlefield, riders jostling for position.

Bike racers cheer in a race in Siem Reap city. (Simon Henderson/The Cambodia Daily)

A few stray tourists, late for the sunrise over the temple complex, stood around looking confused amid the commotion that was ruining their early morning vista.

When the South Korean mega-hit “Gangnam Style” blasted over the public address system, the cyclists’ hands pumped the air and a collective cheer rang out from the thousands who had turned out last Saturday for the Angkor Wat Bike Race.

It should have been cheesy, but it seemed appropriate, the ubiquitous song in a language unfamiliar to most uniting a crowd of disparate nationalities.

A man shimmied past into line, his infant in a child seat on his handlebars; a woman near the back had a trailer attached to her bike with her dog on board; there were tandems and various other contraptions with country-flags attached.

Scores of Cambodian youths smiled for photographs or pushed themselves into the mess of bodies and bicycles, somehow managing to filter past the starting line while organizers bellowed order-restoring pleas.

And then the starter shot.

Coming round the first bend of the route around the temples with the sun coming through the trees, there was suddenly calm. Riders fanned out, the breeze wasn’t yet scorched by the sun. I had entered into the 17-km family event with the intention of pausing for photographs but I got into a race with a 12-year-old English boy and didn’t want to let up once I had passed him. A group of Khmer girls waved from gear-less bikes. Police officers stationed at various intervals nodded at me and grinned.

I stopped peddling for a minute on a slight decline to rest my thigh muscles and a group of four women cycled into view in front of me. They were dressed in the thick looking flannel shirts and wearing face-shielding hats, and on the back of rickety bikes they had balanced stacks of logs. Only one of them broke from the uniformity of detached stares into a smirk. It was hard not to feel idiotic, suited in professional cycling gear, panting, my legs resting already and a bottle of isotonic drink in my hand, making a pantomime out of peddling myself around the roads on which these women lived and worked every day.

Still, it was a different way to see Angkor.

Most of the tourists who pile in increasing numbers into a few of Angkor’s sites every year have no knowledge of the fact that 130,000 people live inside the temple complex. Most of them are untouched by the rewards of the tourist dollar. What is also rarely apparent to the masses touring quickly through Angkor is that it is not just an archeological relic, but also a sacred place of great importance to the people who live around it and to Cambodians in general.

Whether cycling or running the temple-site’s roads is somehow less neglecting of these facts is another thing, yet it seemed while in the midst of the race that it was a more integrated than usual way for foreigners to experience Angkor. Of the over 700 riders who participated in the races last Saturday, almost half were Khmer.

Village Focus International (VFI) was the not-for-profit organization behind last Saturday’s bike race, along with the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and a new event partner Terre des Hommes, Netherlands, a worldwide anti-child-exploitation charity.

VFI promised that the $75 dollar registration fee for non-Khmer participants is donated, after organizing costs, directly to the three or four Cambodian projects VFI selects as beneficiaries. This year those are The Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, The Anti-Trafficking Safehouse and Il Nodo International Cooperation. So even if philanthropy was not a rider’s raison d’etre, it was a tangible outcome, nonetheless.

The race was divided into 3 different distances, the 100 km, 30 km and my 17 km. Unintentionally, I found myself 5 minutes into a second lap, this time on the 30-km route. After I realized, I thought about turning around, giving in to the lactose burn, but the log-carrying women had chastened me. I persevered as symmetrical swarms of 100-km racers lapped me, and mostly just enjoyed the view. I crossed the finish line eventually, perhaps the only person racing who completed 47 km that wasn’t due to crashing half way around the 100 km; I had no timer, nor the energy to think to ask the time when I dismounted, but surely I must have set the record for that distance.

Amid simmering nerves and dissipating adrenaline, the post-race brunch in Siem Reap city was a time to reflect—on the achievements of the riders, the numerous fundraising feats and the generosity of those swept up in the moment. Luy Sokhom, for instance, a 78 year old, had just completed the 100-km race for the seventh time. He raised close to $1,000 sponsorship and donated a raft of bicycle equipment to Who Will Village orphanage. And Sala Bai Hotel School will receive $6,000 through the efforts of a British rider.

It was a good morning for Khmer competitors all round.

National cycling champion and bike guide Meas Samnang, better known as “Lucky,” won the men’s 100 km in 2 hours, 50 minutes and 57 seconds. In preparation for the race, Lucky had cycled from Phnom Penh to Pursat in a day, then from Pursat to Siem Reap the next day, arriving on Saturday—the day before the race. Lucky loves bikes.

“I am so so happy to win the race,” he said. “There were a lot more people this year, it was a very difficult field. So I am glad to win. I am also very happy that there is an international cycling event like this in Cambodia. It is good for tourism, and good for cycling in this country.”

If the event is having a positive impact on cycling in Cambodia, perhaps the evidence is in the rest of the results—another Cambodian competitor made the top three in Lucky’s category, and in the men and women’s 30 km events, all but one of the top finishers were Cambodian.

In the Women’s 100 km, seasoned cyclist Kim Ames, a Vietnam-based chemist from Pittsburg came in first and donated a high-end Giant brand mountain bike she won to one of the groups associated with the event.

As people loaded platefuls of the buffet, there were one or two less than positive comments on the lack of information about the dissemination of profits from the race among the proposed beneficiaries.

But VFI Director Rick Reece was forthcoming about the need for organizational improvements.
“Of course there are challenges. We need to organize the start/finish [of the race] better; we need to redouble our efforts to provide a safe biking experience for racers and riders. And we need to organize our information better—both pre and post event—but overall we are quite happy,” he said.

“There is no question in my mind that the VFI team did a better job of preparing for the 2012 event than in any other event in the past.”

Although everyone must have been exhausted, there was a palpable energy at the after-race brunch. Perhaps it was endorphins, though it was difficult not to have a sense of something positive having occurred, something more than just handing over money and giving charity. Perhaps everyone just had a good time.

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