After my birthday shenanigans in Siem Reap with the brilliantly hedonistic Essex Helen, Philippa & Joe, and of course Critical Dave, we took in some culture in the form of the Phare Circus. This remarkable organisation was set up by nine children and an art teacher when they returned home from a refugee camp following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. It helps to give young people from the streets, orphanages and struggling families an opportunity to learn, express and recover through the arts by teaching music, art, theatre, acrobatic and circus skills, not dissimilar from the style of Cirque du Soleil. The show we saw, devised and choreographed by the founding teacher and performed by students, was an autobiographical account of her life from the Khmer Rouge murdering her family in front of her through to present day, told in mimed physical theatre, acrobatics, live art and live music. It was inspiring, tragic, tearful, terrifying, hilarious and astonishingly impressive all in one 90-minute show, Cambodia has such a rich cultural vein to tap into, it’s inspiring to see students and teachers engaging in the arts in such a vivid and expert manner.
I left Critical Dave shacked up with his latest skirt in Siem Reap and took the scenic route with the intention of reaching Phnom Penh via the coast – not that Phnom Penh is anywhere near the coast but I’ve got a few days to kill before I need to be in Phnom Penh for a Skype interview so some mountain scenery and a bit of coastline is called for, it’s so hot inland on the plains I decided a bit of altitude and some coastal breeze might take the temperature down. I headed South to find the trails leading over the Cardamom mountains which run up over 1000m so the air should be cooler up there. The Sat-nav was reluctant to let me route over the mountains to get to the South coast, it kept trying to take me on the long, hot, straight main roads so I set a waypoint at the top of the mountain and forced us onto the little roads. These little roads which wind their way up through the remote villages and forests of the Cardamom mountains are not really roads. Well, they are marked on maps, on Google and on my Sat-nav but they do bring up the semantic argument as to what a road represents. I’d suggest these should be called dirt tracks, and these dirt tracks run for over 200km through the mountains. Sounds fun, looks great, spirit of adventure, let’s go! As with all dirt tracks they’re a bit rutted and pot-holed with some loose dust, dirt and gravel to skid on, but Cambodia has been in the hot dry season for the last couple of months so the tracks are hard-packed and baked dry, the only issue is the deep red bull-dust which is super-slippery. (That’s deep holes of dust, not deep red in colour, it’s more of a terracotta). So it has been the hot dry season for months, but now it’s not, it’s the beginning of the wet season. Over 80km into the dust trails the clouds arrived, closely followed by the rain, big heavy globules of soaking rain. My speed slowed from steady progress to a careful crawl, as the deep dry dust turned into thick slime. The type of mud that manages to stick to everything whilst being as unpredictable as riding on ice. The front wheel squirmed and slid through the ruts, the back wheel clogged with mud and spun up giving no traction. The average speed is now less than 15km an hour, it’s 1pm, I’m almost half way into the mountains so there’s no point turning round, but at this speed I’m unlikely to get to civilisation before it gets dark, and there’s no sign of the rain stopping.
By mid-afternoon the situation had become critical. The quality of the dirt track had reduced to rivers of mud, the mountain had become steeper meaning treacherous inclines and descents, the rain had got heavier, I was soaked, cold and becoming exhausted and then at about 3pm the nightmare started. The mud was so thick I lost control of the front wheel, at less than walking pace I skidded sideways, lost balance and dropped the bike. Soaking wet, covered in mud and somewhat distressed there was no way I could to pick up my fully luggage-laden bike and in the rain I had very little inclination to start taking the luggage off to make it easier to lift. I’m in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a Cambodian mountain, I haven’t seen any signs of life for the last 10km and it’s going to get dark in a couple of hours. Two minutes later a couple of saviours arrived on a scooter. They were having the same problems, they had no traction, no grip and no steering but their saving grace is their little scooter weighs less than 100kg – less than a third of the weight of my stupidly over-sized beast. The two boys must have been late teens, not wearing any shoes, just shorts and a tee-shirt and skidding around on a tiny scooter which they could pick up with ease. I envy them as I stand there, bedraggled, with soaking wet heavy clothes and protective gear and my bike lying on its side in the mud. They helped me get the bike back on its wheels and we mimed to each other that we’re all going in that direction so we set off further into the mountains. Three more times in the next hour my bike landed on its side in the mud and the boys helped me pick it up. Their scooter had no rear tyre traction so we created a system: we push their scooter up the steep hills then climb back down for my bike, they walk either side of it keeping it upright whilst I try to keep it moving without skidding. It took us another hour to reach their village which consisted of no more than half a dozen wooden shacks. The track had improved a bit and the rain was easing off and they mimed that the road onwards was more flat and should be OK. I ventured on alone, conscious that it’s going to get dark soon. By 5pm the rain came in again as I rode into a tiny village still over 60km from a tarmac road, I’ll never make it off the mountain before nightfall, it’s time to hope for some help. I pulled up outside a farmer’s wooden hut and prayed to the Gods of humanity that they’d take pity on me. People are amazing. This village has no electricity supply and no running water, it’s subsistence living in the truest sense. But this small Cambodian farming family ushered me into their hut, found a plastic sheet to cover my bike, hung up my soaking gear under cover and started making dinner. There was no common language so we communicate through mime and copying. Their wooden house consists of a single storey, single room hut on stilts to keep it dry. The dogs and chickens and a pig live under the house. The toilet is over there in the woods, pick a tree. There is no furniture, everything happens on the raised floorboards in the single room. I am ushered to sit and dinner arrives from blacken pots on the open fire in the corner; plain rice and boiled pigs innards. I’ve had pig intestine before as a dare in a restaurant in Soho but that at least had a strong black bean sauce, this is literally just the gristly chewy insides of a pig boiled in water and put in a bowl in the middle of the floor. I can’t not eat it, and anyway I’m quite hungry, it’s a good job I’ve got an open mind and high tolerance to unusual food! After dinner and a glass of some revolting tasting homebrewed liquor they clear the room and get beds out. Beds means a rolled up bamboo mat and a blanket. They have a spare and we all settle down on the hard wooden floor with the rain beating down on the rusting corrugated roof. Total darkness descends by 6:30pm, an hour later most of them are asleep, this way of life is a bit of a culture shock, even after being on the road since the West coast of India.
Cardamom Mountain village life revolves around daylight so it starts early, they’re up at 5am. I spend the morning trying to be inconspicuous whilst observing their way of life as the sun comes up, the sky turns blue and the stress of yesterday dries up. Not for the first time I find myself spreading my belongings around the ground to dry, propping my boots and helmet at the right angle to catch the heat of the morning sun. The friendly family make me instant coffee (they seem to treat Nescafe with some bizarre reverence) and I leave at about 10am with much thanking, bowing, smiling and waving to head down the mountain and back to a more normal way of life. Even in the couple of hours of morning sunlight the rivers of mud have turned back into hard-packed dirt tracks which are no longer treacherous slimy death-traps for my huge bike and I begin to enjoy the scenery again. Stress returns in the form of a lack of petrol stations on this mountain but I’m carrying a 3 litre spare tank which I’m so glad of, without it I’d have run dry 30km short of the tarmac, towns, phone signal and petrol pumps which we take for granted most of the time, even in Cambodia. That afternoon as I lie in a hammock outside a stunningly idyllic wooden guest house looking out over the Gulf of Thailand sea, with a beer, an internet connection and an air conditioned room I have some existential thoughts about different lifestyles and cultures. I’m not sure I could cope with such a remote lifestyle as where I stumbled upon last night, there’s something missing from their world which I couldn’t live without for long, mainly in the form of a lack of a piano!
Talking of music, when I get to Phnom Penh I’ve got set up a Skype meeting with the recruitment company who are hiring the new Director of Music for the BRIT School. I’ll keep this bit short. The Skype interview went very well, despite the culture shock of not thinking about music education for several months I fell back into the thought process with ease. They said I was exactly the sort of person that the BRIT School were looking for so I belted the bike 700km over to Bangkok, jumped on a flight to Heathrow, went through a ludicrous two-day interview process in London which felt somewhat false only to be told that the position has been given to the internal candidate. It was so nice to be back in the UK for a few days though and briefly catch up with family and a few friends, so I’ll suck up the extortionate cost of return flights and not hold it against the BRIT School, shit happens, although it’s the first time I’ve ever not got a job; up until now I’ve always nailed every job interview with a job offer. Oh well, that track record had to come to an end at some point. So now I’m back in the back end of beyond in central Laos having belted the bike another 800km across Thailand to meet up with Fix-it Brett and OCD Lawrence as we head for the border to Vietnam tomorrow. I feel a Robin Williams quote coming on soon …