Rediscovering Cambodia through the UWS Bike Challenge
Kings Oxford teacher, Sean Scatchard, reports back on an epic bike ride through Cambodia that a team of Kings staff recently embarked on in order to raise funds to support our charity partner, United World Schools (UWS). The money raised will go towards building schools in underprivileged villages in the region.
So what’s so special about north-eastern Cambodia? Why should we support a project to build schools in such a remote corner of the world? It’s difficult to put my finger on, even when I’ve just come back from there, but this trip has definitely reaffirmed my belief in what UWS are doing.
Cambodia has a unique quality. It’s such a troubled but beautiful land of contradictions, to be sure, but beyond that there’s also something intangible. The scented air, the light, the dust… This missive aims to put down on paper some observations from the amazing trip I’ve just been on, then you can make up your own mind. And yes, tears were shed, blood was spilled, expletives were uttered, spiders were consumed…
It was sixteen years since I’d last been to Cambodia. Everything and nothing has changed. It's still the Wild East, with an exciting air of unpredictability, but then again tourism has certainly developed a lot and there is a noticeably safer feel to the place – far fewer guns than I remember, for one thing. Even remote outposts like Ban Lung, the capital of the north-eastern province, Ratanakiri, now have numerous signs in English and several tour companies in operation. I can vividly recall the journey there from Phnom Penh taking several days, including a gruelling 12-hour pick-up ride through almost impassably difficult swamps and jungles. Now the entire journey is on good roads and takes 9 hours. Is this a good thing? Well, that depends on your perspective.
For sure, the land has been opened up. In the process, much of the forest has also been cleared and turned into farm land or rubber plantations, much of which are effectively owned by foreign companies taking advantage of a 99-year land concession deal between the Vietnamese government and its in-hoc, corrupt Cambodian counterpart – a de facto land grab. Mile after mile after mile of spindly, regimented rubber trees now line the road, where thick jungle once grew. Progress of sorts.
But who are we to lament the loss of indigenous forests? We who felled all our own trees centuries ago? That’s a fair point, but it must come as no consolation at all to the tribes who once relied on the forest for their livelihood. Within a generation, these folk have been virtually forced to settle in villages. Unable to speak the national language or comprehend their rights, they run the risk of languishing into extinction. Like it or not, it’s time to sink or swim, and the latter means joining the 21st century, which in turn means educating their children. Hence United World School’s raison d’etre.
Seventeen of us set off from a dusty town in Stung Treng province on our brand-new Giant mountain bikes, including seven Kings staff, intent on blazing a trail where cyclists had never been before; our aim was to visit as many UWS schools as possible on a multi-day route heading east into Ratanakiri province, and to donate the bikes at the end of it, along with all the money we'd raised. Within hours the scale of the challenge we faced dawned on us - any illusions of an easy ride were completely banished by some incredibly tough cycling through deep sand in baking temperatures. By the first stop we were already sweating profusely – and it had barely gone 9 am.
However, the first school we came to reinforced my belief that what we were doing was worthwhile. We found ourselves in the most unlikely and enchanted of places. I entered a classroom full of tiny tots who were at once grubby and immaculate. Clearly very poor, they nonetheless were making every effort and their behaviour was impeccable. It reminded me of entering an aviary of silent little birds, who all fluttered and turned their heads in unison. It was breath-taking to find such cute and well behaved kids in such a dusty, litter-strewn, out-of-the-way place. No-one could deny that they were here with a clear intent and for a very good purpose.
Back in the saddle, the sand continued to be the bane of every cyclist and his bike. We struggled on, making what seemed like very slow progress. Frequent stops for fluids were essential. At the end of the first day, most of us were capable of little more than plonking our weary carcasses down in the nearest river to cool off, refuelling with copious quantities of rice and jungle curry, and collapsing in a heap in our hammocks, strung up between the stilts underneath a school.
The following days were basically a repeat, with variations in terrain and distance covered, and with most of us caring less and less about our increasingly soiled bodies, clothes, bikes and equipment – after all, what choice did we have now? Each night, sleep was limited by several factors: loud techno from some locals’ party, numerous bugs, pigs and dogs, and the inevitable rooster calls from about 5 am. Oh well, we had to be on the road by 6 am anyway, to beat the worst of the day's heat.
Day two saw the worst of the sand alternate with more technically, if less physically, challenging sections of rutted tracks with short sharp dips and rises. I enjoyed these sections the most, though they did cost the team some blood and tears to go with all the sweat. After that we would increasingly hit wider and more even paths where the going was faster; dirt roads rather than tracks. But this didn’t stop people suffering cramp, heat exhaustion, falls, stomach problems and other woes. I don’t think even the fittest cyclists among us would say it was easy.
Mid-morning on our second day, we emerged from a hot cloud of dust to visit Kapin village, where we were privileged to witness the birth of a school. This was the place where this year Kings Education has committed to funding the building of a brand-new UWS primary school. It was inspiring to see the whole village turned out for the speeches and ribbon cutting of the opening ceremony. Where previously there had been no school, no education, no register of vulnerable children, now there would be classes, learning, safeguarding and a brighter future. Less child trafficking, prostitution and labour, more children learning to read, write and do sums. No one would deny that questions still remain: what happens when these youngsters finish primary school? How many will go on to secondary, never mind tertiary, education? What employment opportunities await them? And won’t they choose to leave the villages and move to the city? Despite all these unanswerable questions, it still seems to me that the focused work that United World Schools is doing is a step in the right direction. These schools are happy places where learning is valued, fun and relevant, so whatever comes next, this is surely a good starting point.
Another real challenge that we faced on the trip (at least for anyone averse to arachnids) was basically the entire village where we stayed on the third night, and in particular the toilet block near the school: I have never seen such a concentration of spiders in one place. There were literally thousands – tumbleweed balls of multiple spiders would break up and scatter in all directions as you unavoidably disturbed them. I really don’t understand what was going on in that place, but it’s fair to say that I did begin to understand why some people eat fried spiders – naming no names!
Nature must, in truth, find it hard to keep up with the pace of change in this region. One of the most depressing things we witnessed was mile after mile of burning and felled trees. Slash-and-burn agriculture might be a tradition in this area, but when it’s combined with rapid population growth and all the other pressures on the land, it doesn’t take a genius to see it’s unsustainable. If deforestation keeps going like this, there’ll soon be nothing left to slash or burn.
Our final day in the saddle was possibly our toughest yet. We had more miles to cover, the hills were higher and steeper, and we were already spent. Plus it was 38 degrees C in the shade by lunchtime! Visiting another Kings-sponsored school at Kro Lorng village took us on a diversion down a very bumpy and dusty track. Heaven knows what it must be like in the rainy season; it’s only fair to assume the village must get completely cut off when all that dust turns to mud. It was bad enough now, in the dry season, when thick clouds of red dust enveloped us, leaving us caked and choking. But yet again the team pulled through (actually some were by now revelling in the glory of their own filth – again, naming no names!) and we were rewarded when we met positive, inquisitive kids committed to learning, who were even polite enough to turn a blind eye to the appalling state we were in. I even managed to find enough puff left in my lungs to blow up an inflatable globe and give an impromptu geography lesson, which was good fun if all-too brief. Soon we were back on the bikes, being chased by the hot, hot sun.
At the end of that last day we finally arrived at a hotel in Ban Lung where the staff looked at us with barely concealed disgust – understandably, since we looked like a collection of mud wrestlers. The showers and cold beer had never felt so good. We’d covered about 250 km, but that figure told only a fraction of the story. Our bikes were virtually unusable, such was the effect of dust and grit on gears and bearings. I hope UWS have been able to salvage them! This was, without a doubt, one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve ever completed, and it had been a test of mental strength every bit as much as physical ability. Everyone performed admirably.
A few days later, waiting for our flights home at Phnom Penh airport, some of us were reflecting on the trip. It was generally agreed that it felt impossible to tell whether time had passed quickly or slowly; rather it was like we’d been in a parallel universe. I’ve done a fair bit of travelling in my time but this trip was up there with the best of them, not least because of the people I’d met along the way and the places we’d passed through.
Cambodia will always hold a special place in my heart; the people are so gentle it seems a contradiction to think of the awful deprivations of their recent past. Forty years ago today, the Khumer Rouge were a year into their devastating, genocidal reign, trying to impose Pol Pot’s vision of an agrarian utopia on these poor, stunned folk by starving, torturing and murdering them into submission and brainwashing their kids. The country has never really recovered. And yet the people are invariably kind and generous.
Other contradictions also abound. There’s a certain smell in the hot, humid air, which you catch from time to time; a kind of natural incense which is intoxicating, evocative and ephemeral. Sadly, it probably comes from the copious amounts of burning which seem to be going on everywhere. And then there’s the massive contrast between rich and poor, fuelled by corruption and intense, greedy exploitation. One cannot help but wonder how it will all end. And yet there’s still an optimism, a cheerful sense of peace and calm, which is admirable and infectious.
Whatever way you slice it, anything we can do to give some beautiful but vulnerable children a brighter tomorrow has, in my view, got to be worth it. If this report has struck a chord and you feel able to, please give your support to UWS by donating, or get involved directly yourself by visiting www.unitedworldschools.org. If you already have, thank you, and thanks for reading!