And on the fourth day, I awoke to the sounds of roosters crowing practically inside my inner ear. I tried, in vain, to stay asleep until my 5:30am alarm, but by 5 in the morning I had to give it up as a lost cause.
I laid in bed, feeling my legs and gaging my energy levels. They were still pretty depleted, if I was being honest with myself. And I was looking at a 125km day, through the mountains, down to Koh Kong. On top of that, I had really loved my afternoon in O Saom the day before and I fervently wished I had more time to enjoy the lake, this mountain village, and the people living here.
The battle raged inside my head. On the one hand, my intense inner voice lambasted me for my laziness. Telling me to stick to my plan, not be a quitter, get on that bike and ride, damn it, never mind the burning pain in my thighs.
My more reasonably inner voice, the one that loves me and believes in a more laissez faire approach to life, told me to chill out. The reason I had set out on this journey in the first place was to spend some time in the mountains. Why was I in such a hurry to get to Koh Kong? The mountains were here, and I had 2 more days until I needed to catch a bus to Battambang. Just stay. Spend the day in the hammock reading a book and swimming in the lake.
Thankfully, the reasonable voice won.
I went to find the proprietor and let him know about my plans, then at 6am, laid back down in bed to go back to sleep. But of course, I couldn’t sleep and by 7am, my stomach was begging me for some breakfast.
A Cambodian Schedule
But Cambodians follow a very different meal schedule than most westerners, especially in rural areas. They wake up at 3:30 or 4, I assume they eat at this time, though I’ve never been awake to witness it, and head to work in the fields before the sun rises and the heat of the day begins. By mid morning they return home, and lunch is at 11 or 11:30. The middle of the day is reserved for napping in hammocks and spending time with the family. The late afternoon sees a bit more work being finished, then dinner is at 5, maybe 6 at the latest, and when they sun goes down, they go to bed.
All that is to say that I ended up cycling into town to get some breakfast and once again, had one of the best meals I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. A simple red curry over Khmer noodles, called “nom wren chok”.
As I rode my bike the 2 or 3 kilometers from the village back out to my homestay on the lake, I started thinking.
On Self Reliance and Obstinacy
Something I’ve noticed over the years is the effect that the mountains have on my thought process. Somewhere in the struggle and overwhelming challenge of moving my body across mountains, I reach a point of clarity.
The mountains let me step back from myself and observe objectively. Especially when I am alone. Over the past two days as I cycled up, I found myself appreciating my own independence and faith in myself in ways I hadn’t before. I realized as I struggled up the unrelenting mud drenched hills, that I was listening to myself, without fear or anger or shame.
I don’t always have a lot of faith in myself, to be honest. When I am with another person, my desire to please them can get in the way, and I find myself unable to make decisions. Instead of listening to my own inner voice, I try to base all my decisions on what I think will make the other person happy. It doesn’t work out. Ever.
But here in the Cardamoms, alone and struggling through one of the hardest bike rides of my life, I was the happiest I had been in ages. I wasn’t worried about anyone else feelings, about their opinions of me, or comparing myself to someone else. When I want to take a break, I gently push myself a bit further, and then I take a break. I got back on the bike when I Was ready, and not before. And I loved every second of it. Even when my bike broke or I was too tired and had to hop in a car, I wasn’t angry or ashamed, it was just part of the adventure.
If I had been with a partner, who knows if I’d have been able to take this day off to appreciate the mountain village. I may have pushed myself on, dangerously and in spite of the painful fatigue in my legs, simply out of a desire not to appear weak or incapable.
The next step is to take this solitary version of myself, the one who honors her own opinion and respects her own desires, and marry that with the self that I display when I am with a partner. I hope I’m up to the challenge, but I haven’t yet met the person with the adventurous spirit that matches and balances my own.
I love my competitive nature. It makes me fierce and it pushes me to be a better version of myself. But when it gets to the point where I hurt myself, and I hurt the people I love, then it has gone too far. Then it is time to put my competition aside. In the end, the only person you are really competing against, is yourself.
Meanwhile in O Saom
The rest of my day in O Saom turned into one of those travel experiences that you read about in blogs and magazines. I spent the morning riding around in the back of a pick up truck with a Cambodian family, visiting their friends in the surrounded villages, picking up odds and ends, and having broken conversations with friendly strangers. In the afternoon, I rode bicycles and practiced funny yoga poses with some of the local children, then we all went out swimming. At sunset, I walked around taking photos of the lake, photos of the village, and spent a few moments sitting with the local women, while they brushed each others hair.
Really, it was like something out of a travel documentary.
I was not, however, the one and only foreigner to ever pass through this town. In the middle of the day I saw two foreigners go by on dirt bikes, without stopping. And as the sun was setting at the end of my wonderful Cambodian day of realization, two Australian guys rode up on dirt bikes to spend the night at the hotel. We shared a few beers, I admitted I was envious of their bikes, they admitted the thought I was completely insane for trying to ride a mountain bike through this terrain alone.
They were probably right.
I went to bed early, rested and restored, ready to attempt the epic 125km last day out of the mountains.
This blog post is a continuation of a series on my 4 day cycling trip across the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia from Pursat to Koh Kong. Read about days 1 and 2, from Pursat to Pramoay, or Day 3 from Pramaoy to O Saom.