Day 1 Planes and Buses
It was an excellent full English Breakfast at Heathrow terminal 3 for most of us. All hail-fellow-well-met in our new blue T-shirts and black armbands to remember the lovely Andy Matthews, and almost all with the right badges too. But that would not have been as much fun as the scene in downtown Singapore where an unknown restaurateur leapt for joy as Adam Tyrer, Jason Peers and Victor Ubugo eased their joint 70 stones into one of his booths and ordered the chateaubriand for a starter. While they drank his cellar dry and sent him happily into retirement the rest of us flew through the night, sipping cocktails and snoozing so quietly that the Captain had to come through the cabin to see if we were all OK. He and Luke got chatting and agreed that we’d not stop in at Kabul, but rather all go to sleep for the rest of the journey. Dear Reader, we slept like lambs and disembarked safely to explore Singapore (well the bar at the airport or the bar atop the highest hotel, depending on whether you could be bothered or not) for a few hours, before flying on to Siem Reap.
The Somadevi Resort and Spa in the middle of town may be a little dated, but the staff, like all Cambodians we met, are charming, the rooms just fine and the pool huge and dark blue and with a bar in the water to boot, meaning that within minutes of our arriving half a dozen beluga whales pulled up a stool and started challenging the Angkor Wat brewery supply chain. With Tindley P, Eric, Fuller, Lyons and Tyrer safely installed we called it the Buddha bar, though the holy one was never that translucent.
That night we dined by the pool on Cambodian buffet, watching a troop of happy young Khmer dancing their local folk stuff with the just the right mix of teenage fancying each other and traditional discipline, while we drank brutal Aussie wine and vats of beer, warming up for the traditional late night perambulation through the town. The awards committee of Hole, Curran and Baigrie decided that Luke clearly wanted WOTD too much, that Fuller’s throwing of a coconut at same was not wankerish at all, and that all in all we had behaved so well that the award could only go to the man who had snored horribly and continuously throughout the short afternoon flight, the Rock God himself, Alex Milas. Before heading out we met Wild Bill, our first Hawaiian Truant, who faded in front of our eyes like something out of Alice in wonderland. All that was left was his smile. We called him Mild Bill. Nice Guy. We never saw him again until the awards dinner in London, though like a yeti’s footprints he left a saddle behind big enough for vastest arse in all Hawaii. Do have another go in Mexico Mild.
And then a brief tour of the local cultural centre. Pub Street by name and by nature. The beer was 50 US cents a pint, and we love a bargain, so there was a lot of this and that and the other, before we headed home for a good hour’s kip before the first day’s ride.
Day 2 – Getting Going
At 0630 we dribbled into breakfast, and at 7ish we got to the bikes and got ready for the off, only realising at the start of the Tai Chi warm up that our cameraman, Howard, was not there to film us and was in fact just one of several no-shows. Eric, Barry, Gunnar too were still in the fetal position. Howard was roused along with the rest, and armed with a working camera we got off into the morning rush hour, all cool and suburban as we headed off to the temple region, took possession of our tourist passes; our bachelors and those of similar mind mingling easily with the German university students amidst the throng, then all of us cycling easily enough out of town and on to a quite magnificent and awe-inspiring ruin of a temple, this the one made famous by the Divine Ms Jolie, with vast ancient leafless but living trees growing through the 12th Century ruined stonework.
As we arrived the tourist-tat selling kids surrounded us as they do, though Cambodians hassle you with a smile and a gentle nature (the $^&%£*& foul tempered Egyptians could take note). We advised the kids that Barry was indeed THE Swagman and when it came to buying and selling tat there was no one bigger worldwide, so they surrounded him adoringly, looking up at him, as so few Westerners are able to do, and when he turned his pockets out to show that he had no money, he drew from one young lovely the bon mot that became out tour slogan, as we used it back at them to keep all at bay. “No Money, No Honey” it went and we were OK with that for we helped the economy plenty enough in other ways our lovers at home would disapprove of far less. Having said that I still wear my scarf bought from the biggest pair of eyes I had ever seen on the last morning. Even strong men can crumble.
But it was off to “Temple-Angelina” (ugh!) so we left the bikes with our guards and the tourists and tat-sellers and walked the half mile to the temple, though one of us had to do that twice as he had forgotten his pass within minutes of been given it. He got to write this blurb as punishment for blaming our selfless tour leader Miriam-from-Holland for his stupidity.
After our tour, we pedalled on towards Angkor Wat. Stuart and Charles Bradbrook vied for the Speedy Gonzales award, with Charles winning, because Stuart isn’t allowed to anymore. We were slowed by the beauty of our surroundings and the innumerable photo Ops they provided, though not for HoJo and the Truants tour camera, for our man had forgotten to charge it the previous night and rather like him, it had run out of battery. Thanks be for i-phones, the available footage is endless, though the usable amounts to at least 5 seconds. Eventually we got to Angkor Wat and toured the vast and ancient complex, though one or two members didn’t make it up the vertiginous staircase to the gods which did for our Beluga Pod, though not the scampering and increasingly scrawny Tindley C and the sylph-like Bennie S, Bluemel A and our shy rookie bombshell Jo. Our lady-truants led the cultural way, and dealt wonderfully tactfully with the stair gate-keeper who pointed to the sign advising that pregnant ladies should not attempt the stairs. He tried to explain that of course it wasn’t showing, but you never know, but they were all gone and up to the top by then.
We lunched in lycra as we do darling, at the rather good car-park café, sipping cokes and bottled water and nervously queuing up for this year’s winner of the dodgy bog award, which was as nothing to the Moroccan version, but still a challenge as tummies adapted to the local cuisine with varying degrees of success; and then we wound our way home through English-style lawns and lakes and endless beautiful temples and bridges. How this place must have looked in its imperial hey-day, Versailles or St Petersburg or Blenheim would be as shanty towns. A truly, awesomely, beautiful patch of earth, at its best in the gentle warm sunlight of the coldest January the Khmer can remember.
And so home to our “Resort and Spa” for an early evening swim and a massage, before Tuk-Tukking to dinner that night at the poshest spot in town, down by the river, where the food was outstanding and the WOTD went to HoJo for failing to fill the late Andy Fellini’s boots in any way whatsoever. After that Fuller took the boy Luke to bed, while the rest of us headed to the beach, for that is what the ? Bar had turned itself into to celebrate Australia Day. And there, another Day, Alan of that ilk, another juvenile rookie truant like Luke the cook (it rhymes when Shacky says it), encouraged us oldsters, led on by his master the Galbraith, to take the regiment of tequila shots that da‘Guins has acquired, and rather than necking them, as is proper form, got us to snort them. I won’t do it again, but the others did look bloody funny. The alcohol you see, goes through your nasal membranes and hits your optic nerve like a Medellin cartel; making your eyes pop out, your pupils go microscopic and your brain set off on a mad series of recalibrations, that only end when you either do it again and faint, or as I did dear reader, plunge your head into the warm darkness of the Tindley cleavage and cry like a baby. I didn’t, but it would have been as sweet a way to die as an old-soldier ever found.
Day 3 – The Long Day
We gather in much better order the next morning. We are battle hardened now. The rookies are getting the hang of it. The Prefects are up to their eyeballs in Sudacreme. The warm up looks like a Zombie movie or perhaps the break out shot in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest. The lovely Miriam promised us lots of tarmac and a bit of sand and a lovely 11km stretch on tarmac pre-lunch for the racing of the Speedy Gonzales. She lied about the ratio of sand to tarmac it was 80:20 not the other way round, and she failed to mention that the tarmac stretch would bake in suddenly searing heat and send us into a hot head-wind from hell. The brave peletons rapidly broke down into a shambling forwards-retreat. We’ve all been told about Dutch-girls before, but still we trust them. Ah well.
Before the race that never was, we stopped first at a modern day Buddhist temple where the properly fit and practiced Bennies demanded the full tour, and the rest collapsed like so many dead marines, despite the attractions of the beautiful loom-operators weaving their scarves nearby. From there we hit the dirt, quite literally for Rod, who was first down, followed by your scribe, and as a result (and due to their own inadequacies) many others, until Fuller did it properly and got covered in blood. Always a bit of a show-off Fuller. The Geordie Doc used all his available kit – an aspirin he borrowed from the lovely Amanda and Mark was strong.
So, after failing to resolve the riddle of the sands, we reach the 11km stretch of tarmac, or rather the quicker lads get to the end of it as the heavy brigade get to the start. So Charles and Stuart race back to offer encouragement, but it’s Baigrie who provides the practical help, by borrowing a scooter and going back to tow in the last pair of desiccated foreign legionnaires. He’d be fined for this selfless genius later. The straight stretch takes us to a stop and then a lovely dirt road through woods and fields to a nature reserve and market, with a large open air restaurant attached, to which we all repair, in various states of disrepair, to drink more diet coke and bottled water and listen to a long and passionate history of modern Cambodia from our lead local guide, who while we eat a light lunch, tells us of the chaos that started as a side-effect of the Vietnam war, continued through the communist lunacy of the self-genocidal Khymer Rouge and ended only after the Vietnamese invaded and restored the basic and corrupt, but at least not mass-murdering, faux-democratic government now in charge. His talk set the scene for the keynote moment of the trip, our visit to Aki Ra’s landmine museum, which we reach after a wander through the small nature reserve, looking at herds of water buffalo in the natural swamp habitat, and a tough, hot, little crap 12K road burst. We spend an hour or so gawping at the displays: amateurishly done, but no less horrifying and effective for that, and listening to the American émigré museum director tell us of Aki Ra’s heroism in leading the tackling of the millions of unexploded mines and bombs that still kill dozens a year across the Cambodian countryside. We donate generously*, ponder man’s inhumanity to man, swallow endless energy-foods and pedal on determined not to stray too far off the roads, for their a 6 million mines left still to defuse they reckon. *Except me, Dear Reader, I borrowed $5 to donate, but promptly forgot from whom I had borrowed it… Please make your honest claim; we Catholics struggle so with things like that.
But this is not called the long day for nothing, though on the long trek back to town the miles fly for some, as the heavy boys discover the joys of drafting and la peloton. Jason in particular is inspired by Steve Pennington and the mighty Victor to change his normal world order and break the wind at the front of the group, letting many follow in his heroic and vast wind-shadow, drifting lazily along in the vacuum he always creates. Even when sitting down in truth. And so we straggle back to the Somadevi through the evening rush hour, tired, hot, and much wiser and more thoughtful. Well for a bit at least; for after swims and buckets of iced poolside beer and many massages – I have to tell you about mine, forgive me: I was lying on a mattress separated by a curtain from the next one, while the wee lass set about my calves and shoulders, all proper you understand, with incense and silence drifting me, when on the other side of the curtain a vast shadow descends and several girls giggle. It is the Victor and they simply have never seen anything like him. I pull back the curtain and my masseuse promptly collapses in giggles and cannot stop herself prodding his bicep (about the same size as her waist you understand) and staring open mouthed at the benignly smiling Buddha like prince of men, like you or I would do were we to meet a Martian. I roared with laughter, they all hushed me, I got searing cramp in both legs and had to hop around like a demented marionette unable to choose between crying with pain or laughter. You had to be there, I guess, but yet again the Ubogu gave me a moment I’ll never ever forget. And all with our shorts on too! Anyway, back at the hotel after the evening briefing, Phil Rowley got a wonderfully harsh WOTD for losing his chain after promising to help organise us all into a giant peleton and we headed out to a rooftop restaurant overlooking Pub Street for a meal which ended fine, but started horribly slowly as the lovely staff had no idea how to deal with the alcoholic needs of a table of 45 Truants and their support. So the wine and beer started coming out one at a time and at the wrong end of the table for Flipper Eric and Kevin Witheford, Robin Moore and the normally far too quiet Nick Price, who this time broke with his monastic air and firmly explained how it should be done, such that minutes later a veritable tablecloth of booze appeared such as to soothe even the most savage heart and thirst. We went at it as we do, and much later many went back to the Aussie Bar, while others headed for the Angkor Wat club, where the music pumped and we clubbers danced ourselves into the sweatiest of heaps, led on as I recall by a London bobby in a short skirt. I heard she went yachting in the end, but I was fast asleep with the Pope by then. There were though 4 who after supper opted not to party, but instead to have their feet nibbled clean by the little fishes you see in all tourist spots these days. Jo the beauteous one might expect to indulge in such things, but to see paddling alongside her, old Mark and baby Luke, and most shockingly of all, the truants answer to the Kray brothers, or more accurately Carter off the Sweeny, Big Frank – well words fail even this most verbose of manly men.
Day 4 –Farewell to Pain
Miriam takes one look at Jason at the off and strongly suggests he takes the bus, seeing as he had forgotten to go to sleep, but he has none of it and plods along ever further behind, taking by surprise a chicken bold enough to cross the road, no one knows why, but only so far as Jason’s spokes, which prove as effective a guillotine as you’d expect, causing Jason reluctantly to accelerate (marginally you understand) out of the area rather than follow his heart and go to apologise to the family whose pride and joy he had just decapitated. Before that, as we set off, we drove past the Siem Reap dump, passing a large dead rat on the main road and for a while it all felt very ugly third world, but two hours of dirt roads later it was all beautiful third world as we rested up in the grounds of a school and found classrooms full of smiling children, all learning English and laughing hugely at the sight of dozens of fat men in lycra. We learned from the hygiene poster how important it is to wash your hands after defecating in your dad’s rice paddy, and Dave Whitestone reprised his Peace Corp days and took a class in American. The Khmer are a forgiving and tolerant race indeed, or maybe they just love a good laugh as much as the rest of us..
After a great rest in the shade we set off again along the dykes and sandy tracks, with plenty of fallers and walkers, crossing the main road to Phnom Pen and then passing through a police station and on to our 20th temple, where we stopped to let the heavy mob catch up, allowing some who weren’t clubbing earlier that day to climb yet more stairs to the top, while all the while a loudspeaker belted out chants and cries in celebration of Chinese New Year.
And then from there we finished with a long straggle along the nastiest, most pitted and rutted, dried mud road you ever saw to the finish by the banks of the Tonlé Sap lake – a vast freshwater system that reverses its flow with the seasons, causing huge rises in water levels, and causing the natives to build their houses on long stilts and create the fabled floating villages.
Our ride ended in warm sunshine as we passed under the Finish Line banner in a mass cavalry charge, posed for the group photos and quaffed the ice-cold beers our support team has so perfectly provided. We posed for the mankini shots that help so much with our fund raising and gave back our bikes for the last time. Hurrah! From there we boarded the long, teak “long-tail” boats, and motored down through the mangroves to an amazing restaurant among the treetops high above the water, where the food was fantastic, the wine foul, but the beer and cokes reliable as ever. Then we boarded the boats for a trip out onto the lake, but left behind Barry, Gunnar and Simeon who would have got hugely fined, but for their brilliant hiring of a fast boat and launch of a Bond-style boat chase to catch us up. Sherriff J.D Pepper where were you? Mind you the main boats were unable to go at any speed as they nearly capsized when the more vast amongst us shifted position, with Jason scoring a bullseye when he went and sat down hard on the front deck, causing the stern to shoot out of the water, the prop to race madly and the bearings to break and the boat to need a tow. “Boat disabled by the moving Sand Dune of Flesh” said the headline in the Floating Village News the next day. Owner smiles bravely as his brother tows him in. If they have a pub up there he’ll at least have a story to tell.
And after our wee boat trip we piled into the buses and slept all the way back to the hotel, to swim and get massaged back into shape, before Big Frank won WOTD for the sleeping with the fishes thing the night before, with Simeon winning a Speedy Gonzalez for being consistently far faster than anyone thought possible on 40 hamlet and 3 bottles of vodka a day, and then we decamped across the road to another excellent local cuisine restaurant where Judge Moore and his prosecution team (there is no defence) did their work as cruelly as ever, before we headed back across the street to where the indefatigable Curran P had found a piano bar we could take over. We sang all he could play: Adam Tyrer, Stuart Galbraith and many others prove their talent. Mike Hole stayed mercifully at the bar and well away from his namesake. The rendition of Angie was for many (well two of us anyway) a particular highlight, but The Galbraith My Way was surely the best individual effort, though Adam quite rightly got the nod for effort and exuberance.
Many stay right there to talk the night out, but many head off into the night, including Jan McGinty who gets rolled by a ladyboy as he arrives on Pubstreet, and in refusing her advances finds himself short of his money clip. He found the only crooked Cambodian we came across. I don’t know which to believe myself.
Day 4 – Retreat in Triumph
With no more cycling we swam and sunbathed until lunch, when the discerning amongst us went for burgers and steaks at the glamorous Foreign Correspondents Club. In a reprise of Havana glories we eat and drink and laugh all afternoon, we tease another Flipper out of Eric who then delights all with menagerie of animal noises, the African Grey tree frog being quite the funniest thing any of us had ever heard. You had to be there and be very well oiled in truth. We made it back to the buses with plenty of seconds to spare and sang all the way to the airport on one bus, while the others on the sober bus, used the opportunity for a snooze. We disembarking and embarked easing Luke B through the formalities and sleeping all the way home to Singapore and London.
What a tour, what a country, what a gang, what a thing it was.