Author Archive | Michelle

Day 10 – Battambang to Siem Reap

Our last day cycling started with a bus journey to Siem Reap, gateway to the famous temple complex at Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a UNESCO world heritage site and its distinctive towers feature on the Cambodian national flag. Surrounded by a wide moat, it was built in the 12th Century and in its time it was the part of the largest city on earth.

Standing in front of Angkor Wat

Standing in front of Angkor Wat

It is at once familiar and yet unwordly. Its ancient stones and scale a dramatic contrast to the wood and tin buildings we’d seen on our journey so far.

As we crossed the causeway, our temple guide explained how the construction represents the Hindu vision of the Universe. The central tower represents Mount Meru, the mythical mountain at the centre of the universe. Its five peaks are represented by the five towers and the ocean that makes up the outer universe is represented by the moat.

It felt strange to be walking around among the groups of tourists, after so much time as our own group on the roads. But it was great to be able to explore the stone buildings and admire the beautiful elaborate carvings that adorned the walls and showed scenes of life in ancient Cambodia.

Carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat

Carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat

We had lunch in a cafe just behind Angkor Wat and got back on our bikes for a short ride to our next stop, the Bayon temple. This is remarkable for the carved stone faces that look out in all four directions from its many towers. The serene faces smile out over the jungle setting.

Faces at the Bayon Temple

Faces at the Bayon Temple

We had some fun taking group photos in the stone galleries, and our guide had trouble keeping us together. But eventually we all made it back to our bikes for the ride to the last temple of the day, Ta Prohm.

The paths on the way there were little more than tracks in the sandy ground and there were moments when we felt the wheels sliding beneath us as we made our way through the dense undergrowth. Getting away from the tourists and the minibuses, made it feel like a real adventure, exploring some long forgotten land.

Ta Prohm is arguably the most dramatic and photogenic of the three temples we visited. Abandoned centuries ago, the jungle has reclaimed its territory here, and huge trees throw their roots over the stones, like monsters about to crush them in their claws.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

It looks like a film set. As we entered the outer courtyard, we were reminded of King Louie’s hideout from the Jungle Book. But if you’ve seen the first Tomb Raider movie, you’d definitely recognise it. Our guide told us that Angelina Jolie and the crew spent 8 days filming in this location, starting very early in the morning each day.

The semi ruined temple, possessed by the twisted roots and branches of the huge trees, make a dramatic backdrop. And for me, its beauty was enhanced because it was both broken and held together by natural forces.

In parts there were just heaps of rubble and broken stones, but some sections have been restored, pieced together like a complex jigsaw puzzle.

We had a lot of fun peering round corners into shadowy doorways here. It felt like the scene of adventures and stories, and it was hard to keep us moving on.

Inside Ta Prohm

Inside Ta Prohm

But the afternoon was drawing on and we still had 10 miles to go to finish our epic ride. Once more onto the forest tracks in single file, we passed between a few small dwellings, simple huts woven out of jungle materials.

It was quite a dramatic change as we came to the busy main road as we cycled towards the city of Siem Reap. The traffic really was crazy here, with scooters, cars and bicycles travelling three or more abreast. But by now we’d got our confidence and went with the flow, laughing at the craziness and eventually all cruising up to the front of our hotel, all in one piece.

And that was the end of our ride. Our bikes were dismantled and packed up onto the truck for the last time.

We posed for photos, congratulated each other and Kathryn awarded us with medals for making it to the finish. There was a huge sense of achievement and celebration with a touch of sadness that this amazing experience was about to come to an end.

We did it - 2 countries and 460km completed!

We did it – 2 countries and 460km completed!

We made it last a little longer, with a fine celebratory dinner at a local restaurant, where we thanked our guides and drivers, and Kathryn and Tracey summed up an amazing few days. Everyone got a special certificate recognising their unique contribution to the group.

Siem Reap really comes alive after dark and our celebrations continued into the night. Drinks on Pub Street; a game of table football beneath a skate ramp on the roof of a bar; and a tuk-tuk ride to a rather dodgy looking karaoke bar. It was another memorable night and a fun way to bring our adventure to an end.

You can see in the photo above that I was wearing a GoPro camera on my cycling helmet. The following is a video of the footage I captured during the trip.


Day 8 – Phnom Penh to Kampong Chhnang

This was the day that nearly broke Gary and I, mentally and physically. It was to be our first day cycling in Cambodia, and a rather different environment from what we’d encountered in Vietnam.

We started at 07:30 with a minibus ride out of the city, picking up our packed lunches from the restaurant where we’d eaten the night before and passing through a local market. We stopped in the grounds of a temple where Tree and Veng helped set up our bikes. These didn’t look quite so new and shiny as the bikes we’d had in Vietnam, and the chains and cogs appeared rusty. But, as we soon discovered, this was down to the red dust roads, rather than a lack of maintenance.

Setting off in Cambodia

Setting off in Cambodia

With only a few minutes to test out our new transport, we were off and straight onto a busy main road. The scooters and cycles of the past few days were replaced by cars, trucks and massive lorries and the road surface changed from tarmac to gravel at regular intervals. It was a stressful introduction to our new bikes and a relief to turn off onto the quieter local roads.

Once again, there was a big contrast to Vietnam. Unlike the lush coconut and banana plantations we’d cycled through, here everything seemed drier, and we kicked up a fine layer of red dust as we travelled along the long straight roads. We saw the vivid green of the paddy fields, but fewer other crops and trees to provide the welcome shade we’d enjoyed in the Mekong Delta. We still got shouts and waves from the children and villagers as we passed by though.

Shouts of "Hello" and waves greeted us everywhere

Shouts of “Hello” and waves greeted us everywhere

And instead of dodging scooters and bikes, we found ourselves cycling through a herd of water buffalo. These beautiful animals paid us little attention, their faces soft and serene as we cycled through.

Our first stop was at a Buddhist temple, a perfect place to calm frayed nerves and take stock of our new environment. There were many stone statues of the Hindu and Buddhist gods in the outer courtyard, many of which depicted figures riding on animals, including a rat, a tiger and a hare.

In the temple itself, we all received a blessing from a monk dressed in traditional orange robes. He tied a red cord around our wrists and wished us a safe journey.

We had a good distance to travel to day, with the original plan for 70km increased to 90km. So we pushed on over the dusty roads, climbing a little as we reached our lunch stop, at the foot of a hill with a grand building at the top.

Our lunchtime destination in the distance

Our lunchtime destination in the distance

As we sat in a shady enclosure, equipped with hammocks, and opened the palm leaf boxes that contained our lunch,  the local children came and spoke to us, in perfect English. At first, I thought they were just asking a list of questions by rote, but it soon became clear that actually they understood our replies too, and we were able to ask them about school and their ambitions. They obviously have plenty of tourists to practice on.

Chatting to local children

Chatting to local children

Tree found us a local delicacy to try alongside our rice, fish, meat skewers and fruit. We’d never eaten ants before, but seasoned with salt, pepper and chilli, they were quite tasty.

Tree ants - surprisingly tasty!

Tree ants – surprisingly tasty!

After lunch, we climbed up to the top of the hill to see the tomb or stupa, where the ashes of the Kings of Cambodia are interred. As if our legs weren’t working hard enough on the bikes, we had to tackle 509 steps to reach the summit, but the views over the surrounding area were worth it.

Impressive views

Impressive views

Back down to the bikes, and the temperatures had risen to 42°C and we had another 20 mile stretch to complete before our next stop. The heat coming down from the sun and radiating up from the red dust road was relentless, and there was nothing in the way of shade.

I really started to feel the effort and dropped to the back of the group, struggling to keep up the pace, and seeing the distance between me and the rider in front increasing until they were well out of sight. It became something of a mental battle after that.

I felt like I was getting more out of breath than I should have been for the effort I was making. I went through a mental checklist of my body, and came to the conclusion that I was likely in danger of over-heating, if I tried to push on any harder. So I decided not to chase the pack, but eased back the effort even further to bring my heart rate down and to keep on going at my own pace.

Dusty roads

Dusty roads

After what felt like a good half hour, I caught up with the group at a crossroads, and Doctor Alex gave me a spray down with some cool water, which definitely helped as we pushed on to the next rest stop. Here Regan and Tree tried another local delicacy – a boiled, fertilised duck egg.

Regan trying the local delicacy of boiled duck egg

Regan trying the local delicacy of boiled duck egg

The heat remained a tough challenge through the rest of the afternoon’s cycling. It’s the dry season and the ground is cracked and dusty. But the  houses on tall stilts by the sides of the roads show just how dramatically the landscape changes when the rain and floods come in the wet season.

After the last short refreshment stop, the final stretch was a tarmac road where we were able to pick up and sustain a good burst of speed for a few miles. As the light began to fade, we ended our cycling day in a busy village and caught the bus back to our hotel, more than ready to rinse off the dust, and sweat that made it look like we’d had a very bad spray tan.


Cold weather training

Less than a week to go before we head off on our cycling adventure, and we’re both very excited about the trip. Since we met some of our fellow cyclists in London in November, time has felt like its accelerated and soon our journey will begin.

We’ve managed to fit in a few more cycling miles, although not as many as I’d have liked. When the wind has been at a tolerable level, rather than threatening to blow us sideways, we’ve been out cycling at the weekends.

Cycling in Tyne and Wear and Northumberland in January involves a lot of dressing up. First you have to wiggle into your thermal bib tights; then add a base layer or two. I have a lovely cosy cycling jersey, so that goes on next, followed by a jacket.

And then full finger gloves, designed to keep off the worst of the wind and rain, but still leave hands free to work the brakes. The warmest socks I own, often topped with a second layer before I shuffle into my bike shoes, which are then sealed in by neoprene overshoes, in a bid to keep out the worst of the water.

I already appreciated the value of a buff, either wrapped around my neck, or shrugged up around my ears on cold days out running. But the thermal version has been very handy on the bike too, covering both neck and ears beneath my cycle helmet.

Last weekend, we headed out to Northumberland. Thrunton Woods is a popular walking and mountain biking spot and the trails there proved an uphill and technical challenge, rewarded by a stunning view at the top.


The gravel paths, covered in parts with ice, and a steep downhill stretch tested my nerves to the limit. Gary fared better with his superior bike-handling confidence. I was pleased to get to the bottom with no slips or falls.

Next week, we’ll be swapping thermals for lightweight T-shirts and shorts for cycling in Vietnam, where temperatures will be nearer 30C rather than -3. And we’ll no doubt be looking forward to ice cold drinks, rather than post-ride hot chocolate.

Whatever our adventure brings, I’m really looking forward to seeing a new part of the world, testing myself against the challenge of cycling 460km and enjoy all the new experience this trip promises.


And it’s hello from me

As Gary’s already introduced himself, I thought I’d better say hello too. I’m Michelle, and I’ll be joining Gary and 13 others on the charity cycle ride through Vietnam and Cambodia for CARE International UK next year.

I think it’s safe to say that, in recent years, I’ve been the more sporty one. I started running as part of a get fit drive in 2008. Since then I’ve completed 5 half marathons and numerous 10k and other races. Not bad going for someone who couldn’t manage a mile when she first started.

Michelle on a bike trail in Scotland

Michelle getting in some off road training in Scotland

And then, because I do like a challenge, I decided to start doing triathlons. For those of you who don’t know, a triathlon involves a swim, a cycle and a run – all one after another. Basically, it’s a whole new level of crazy. But also some of the best fun I’ve had.

So, I do already cycle a bit. But cycling 460km in 12 days will be a challenge for me too. The furthest I usually cycle in a race is 40km, which will be the shortest distance we’ll cover in one day. And I’m more used to coping with wet and windy Northumberland than the heat and humidity of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Until recently, Gary’s been more involved with CARE International UK, as a lender through their Lendwithcare scheme. But it’s a charity and initiative that sits really well with my values of helping people help themselves and understanding how the money I give benefits both individuals and their wider community.

It was a huge surprise to discover, as part of the briefing about our cycle trip, that Lendwithcare runs with just three people. I think that really shows a commitment to making sure that resources go where they’re needed and that they do a great job with very few administration costs.

So I’ve signed up as a lender too and just made my first loans to a couple of farmers – one in Vietnam and one in Cambodia. I hope this will help me understand the reasons behind taking on the cycle challenge as well as learning a little bit more about the countries we’ll travel through and the people who live there.

It was great to meet some of our fellow riders in London this weekend and hear about the different reasons they had for joining this challenge. I’m very much looking forward to the active, endurance aspects, but also getting the chance to learn more about the work that CARE International does in Vietnam and Cambodia.