Vietnam to Cambodia Bike challenge.
8.30am Heathrow 17th of October 2015. I am here for the journey to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with a stop via Singapore. Why? I am flying to Vietnam to take on a cycling challenge in aid of Macmillan Cancer Care. I wanted a challenge – one that would push me out of my comfort zone, test me to my limits. Body, spirit and mind.
I was met at Heathrow by a multitude of smiley and friendly people who were to be my new team mates for the next twelve days. The room was filled with an air of excitement if not tinged with apprehension of things to come!
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh “scooter” City. 8 million residents in Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon renamed in 1976 the year of my birth, maybe that’s why I’ve felt such an affinity with Vietnam) and 5 million scooter/moped owners which felt they were all on the road at the same time. Weaving, beeping and tooting their way through the city. Many Vietnamese versions of evil kennevil’s on mopeds! They carried everything from children, TVs to chickens and ducks sometimes a family of four to one small moped! Wow!!
Bags quickly dumped and we were whisked off to lunch at a local restaurant for noodles with chopsticks and a well deserved bottle of Saigon Red. Post lunch off we trotted to meet our bikes and there I met my trusted steed who I named “Albert Cannondale” he was to be tasked with seeing me safely to Angkor Wat, Cambodia 545km later and 8 days biking together – GOOD LUCK on that one Albert!
Dinner & then finally bed!! My only regret in Ho Chi Minh was not hiring a scooter and joining the locals for a “beep beep” session. But Kelly on a Vespa with sleep deprivation is a little more than the locals could handle I think at this stage!
Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City to Tra Vinh. 50km.
5.30am alarm *OUCH* Cannot even begin to explain the level of sleep deprivation, jet lag and time zone challenge. Thank god for – EXCITEMENT. Yup, it’s the first day me and Albert hit the roads.
First, it’s a visit to the Vietnamese Chu Chi war tunnels where the Vietnamese Guerrillas hid from the Americans during the war. I was truly inspired by the lengths these people went to, to protect their city and country with their hand-made weapons and traps.
Tunnels of 300km long with a whole other world underground, so far underneath the American bombs could not even get close to beating the intelligence and animal instinct survival power the Vietnamese had.
They had kitchens, houses, schools, a hospital! Simply everything they needed to survive. Now let me put this in perspective, I am 4ft 11 1/2″ (don’t forget my half) and I had to crouch to walk through these tunnels, some of the Vietnamese people lived in these tunnels for more than 30 years. Truly incredible.
How can I sum this up: The Vietnamese during the war, defeated the Americans by living and breathing a classic quote from the famous Bryce Courtenay book – The Power of One. “First with the head then the heart”
For all the bravado, money and arrogance of the Americans they were defeated by sheer intelligence and heart. A heart the Vietnamese had for their precious and simply stunning land.
Enough with the history and back to the biking… Albert and I then hit the road for a 50km bike ride to Tra Vinh for our first overnight stop. It took a wee while for us to gel, but after a few seat adjustments Albert and I were ready to travel the world (well Vietnam to Cambodia maybe).
Day 2: 75km. Tra Vinh – Can Tho 75km.
Yup, you guessed it 5.30am alarm. 75km to cover in the heat and humidity. 88 degrees when we set off after breakfast at 7am covered head to foot in sun cream and mozzie spray. (This was a better smell than the ones to come later in the week – trust me!)
Back on the bikes heading for Can Tho via the Mekong river. The Theme of the day was certainly peeing and the conversations had resorted to states of toilets and colour of pee. Yep, our team Macmillan had bonded!
Highlights of this day was at a water stop at a Vietnamese monastery where we met a local mum and her son who came to visit. The saddest part of the trip was not to purchase anything from the children or give them sweets or money. (We were advised not to do so) I cannot tell you how hard it was not to give this wee Vietnamese lad one of our chocolate bars. With every heartfelt aching bone in my body seeing his wee face as we ate and drank ripped my heart out.
As we went to leave I turned around to see one of our local guides giving him a tiny packet of biscuits and he was leaping and cheering like my kids would Xmas morning. So day 4 and I’m thinking my biggest challenge is handling my emotions, not sudocreaming my nether regions.
Day 3: Floating Market & 80km Cycle to Long Xuyen
Started with a visit to the “floating market” at 7am. As we headed down the river I was in awe at the “riverside homes” and it made me cast my mind back to when we went sailing the gulf coast of Mexico in Florida last year and the comparison of the “waterside homes”. Not going to try to put this into words as a “picture paints a thousand words” Worlds apart!!
As we reached the floating market, we joined all the other boats selling their produce. Everything from fresh fish to coconuts and coffee. What a way to do your weekly shop. Fabulous! My highlight was a wee boy selling us bunches of bananas for a $1 a piece. Such was his sales patter with the ladies he’d sold out in a minute. A Vietnamese entrepreneur of the future if I ever saw one.
Back to Albert for another 80km heading to Long Xuyen through the Vietnamese countryside and villages. My favourite day of the whole trip. What a sight that was, if I have memories until the day I die I will remember this afternoon. Words, pictures, videos, a recount will never do it any kind of justice.
The best bits started when we had to stop at the side of the road for a friend in need, Trish was suffering from dehydration (not a best bit, a friend in need obviously). Pretty far away from the Doc (aka Helen) with Trish feeling dizzy in steps Dr Jock (aka me) we managed to find Trish some shade and got some fluid in her with magic hydration tablets. (Thanks to Oundle fitness and your donation – they saved the day)! We were quickly joined by Rachael and James suffering the same feat.
We found we had actually stopped at the side of a Vietnamese family home who were so welcoming to allow us to sit on their cool porch. The children were brilliant and wanted to pose for photos, again a picture paints a thousand words so I have attached it here.
My new little ‘friend’ Wan found his new vocation in life – looking after hot and bothered English females. Here Wan is seen “fanning” Rachael down with his mother’s hat. Maybe we have the wrong idea here – let’s drop the biking and go for more “Wan fanning”
Back on the bike, we cycled through all the Vietnamese countryside villages and so many bridges we lost count Leanne and I tried for 13km and counted 27!! The sound of “BRIDGE” warning your teammates of the next one will ring like a wonderful bell in my ears forever. We were joined that afternoon by Lisa and Anita (aka Patsy and Edina Ab Fab Nam & Cam style). What a scream!! Never laughed so much ever……..
Every corner and umpteenth bridge brought a new sights, visions, and welcomes so warm. Hellooooooos beyond thousands that I could not begin to count. Smiles as wide as the Mersey tunnel.
We cycled past schools, through markets, children playing in the river, adults chilling on hammocks. Sights I am sure I will treasure until the day I die. Today brought a new meaning to “life” Vietnamese style, one of which I’m proud to have encountered and no words or photos here will ever do it justice. It truly was one to see, feel, taste, smell and experience.
I never knew what heaven was until today – a reflection of the villages, a cold wet buff and a hammock! I went to bed with a sense of calm I have never experienced and all I could think was how can I bottle this and take it home.
Day 4: Long Xuyen to Chau Doc. 95km.
Yes, it’s THE BIG one and now you have the idea 5.30am start! 95km, 90 degrees+ and 94% humidity with a 3km hill climb to end. Cannot put into words how tough this day was, no amount of training would have prepared you. But that’s why we take on challenges!! I suffered heat stroke, sun stroke and felt pretty sick most of the day. Where was my “fanning Wan” when I needed him? However, I had the next best thing, I had “nurse” Amanda. Without Amanda and her iced buff showers at each stop and encouraging words from team mates I could not have managed this day.
I have played and coached many football teams and been involved in team sport my whole life. I have had the pleasure of working within and leading high performing teams at a senior level in business but never have I encountered a team spirit, camaraderie and resilience as I have here in “Team Macmillan” when I say Team Macmillan I also include our Discover Adventure team and Vietnam/Cambodian cycle crews – we were all #teammacmillan here in Vietnam – Cambodia.
People ask why “Intrepid Adventures”? I always struggle to answer, but now I know why. It’s not life changing, its life enhancing!
I made the 95km but a night of sickness ensued and the Doc was called, which we initially thought was sunstroke but very quickly turned into a gastro bug. Yuk! I’ve never felt so ill. BUT I’m keeping it real – it’s nothing to what our cancer patients go through and after all that’s exactly what “Team Macmillan” are here for.
Day 5: Cambodian border crossing & Killing Fields visit. 50km. Chau Doc – Phnom Penh.
Border crossing and first day in Cambodia passed me by in a wave of sickness. However, at one of the water stops (Kelly sickness stops) at a Buddhist Monastery the main monk man asked why I was lying in the van. I pointed to my stomach and the van driver explained I was sick. He said something in Cambodian and waved his hands about which apparently meant he was healing my tummy.
I wasn’t convinced after a lunchtime full of projectile vomiting, but by the afternoon I started to feel a teeny bit more human! So who knows….. Healing monks or was it the sheer horror of the afternoon at the Genocide killing fields made my gastro problems seem insignificant?
I’m struggling to put into words how inhumane the Pol Pot Khmer regime was during his reign of power. A population of 9 million Cambodians and he mass murdered 3 million innocent people all because they were intellectual.
But actually, how did he know how intellectual 7 & 8 year old children were going to be? The answer is he didn’t. He was a psychopath of the very evil kind. He mass murdered and tortured 1 in 3 of his own people purely for his own pleasure. May all the men, women and children rest in peace.
Day 6: 75km stretch from Phnom Penh to Kam Pong Chhnang
The day started at Tuon Sol jail where 20,000 Cambodians were tortured and killed. This jail was a large former school-house. The irony that Pol Pot chose a school house and education establishment to torture and kill his victims.
The levels of torture are beyond anything I have read or seen ever. There were pictures on the walls and every pair of eyes told a different, yet harrowing story behind them.
Truly gut wrenching (pardon my pun). There were 11 survivors, 4 children and 7 adults. I had the pleasure of meeting two of the surviving adults. What an inspiration these two men are. Mr Bou Meng, a wonderful talented artist and Mr Chum Mey, who has written a book on his survival the first page says it all.
“The triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide”. Having met him I’d say he is one of the most EXTRA ordinary people I have met.
By far one of my most challenging days on the bike, through endless green paddy fields and Cambodian farms, such an inspiration these hardworking people are, cultivating miles and miles and miles of land, I still a managed to muster the required hello’s whilst being greeted like the queen was in town.
Such a lovely welcome everywhere. After being ill, it felt like 75km of sheer hell. My motto was just keep the legs pedalling and thinking back to the two gracious heroes I had met only that morning and my torture was nothing in comparison. I simply needed to refuel, and make it to each stop.
Sheer grit, determination and avoidance of sun stroke was the order of the remaining Km’s for me. Mr Bou Meng and Mr Chum Mey’s levels of grit, determination, intelligence and avoidance of death was a whole other ball game. Nothing short of remarkable.
Day 7: Kam Pong Chhnang to Siem Reap 30km.
Started with the few hours boat trip along the Ton Le Sap Lake to meet Albert and the rest of our bikes for the 30km cycle in Siem Reap. I was feeling super confident and a lot fitter.
Ready to tackle the world Albert & I headed off at breakneck speed only to be thwarted by the off-road red dirt tracks, mountain cycling lumps, bumps and searing heat like it was the Sahara Desert.
As I trailed into the half way drinks stop, legs wobbling and body shaking, i sat in the van and down came the tears. Frustration did not even come close. When the brain is there, but zero fuel in the legs.
If my legs had a statement this day it was simply “F**k you – there’s no fuel in this tank”
Just when I was trying to find something deep inside to dig up for the final 15km. In swoops Macmillan team-mate Carolyn at the ready with inspirational stories of cycling the Pyrenees and a monumental challenge far more difficult than this, how she made it through with grit, guts and determination.
The tears were dried, I was dusted down, water fuelled Albert and I were off again on the 15km into Siem Reap. Thank you Carolyn, forever I will remember that 10 minutes in that dirty old van on a red dusty road in the countryside of Cambodia.
Day 8: Angkor Wat 23km
This was my favourite cycling part of the journey, mountain biking style. Up and down, through winding tiny tracks and sand laid slipstream tracks. 37 seas of green Macmillan jerseys in a row blending into the rainforest style landscape. Wow! What a vision… We exited from a tiny track to the most breathtaking view I have ever seen, the moat around the temples with lilies gently blowing in the wind on the lake.
We cycled to the first temples and had a short tour around it was 11.03am and 105 degrees the hottest day. Blistering heat we tried to shelter in each other shadows to salvage breathing space away from the sun. I have a sheer fascination with the stories that were being told that was carved into the rock face. For somebody that loves reading this was one almighty book I was reading crafted into the stone.
Back on the bikes to the temple with the tree, this temple was like something you would see in a Disney movie. It had an air of child like to it, in fact, this was where Indiana Jones temple of doom was filmed. Maybe that’s why I thought it had a mystical feel. Such a peaceful feeling being inside the largest religious monument in the world, even amongst the million of tourists.
Fed and watered we were off for the last 3km of the journey to the main Angkor Wat temple and the finish line to our epic journey. We made it to the end. There was oooohhhsss and ahhhhhssss at the sheer beauty of the temples. Hugs, kisses, cheers and tears. Team Macmillan we came, we saw, we felt and we conquered and in true Vietnamese style it’s definitely a V for victory!
As I sit and reflect on my day-to-day epic Vietnam to Cambodia exertions. I have a thought on my day to day back home. I work in the field of helping organisation’s grow their business.
Organisations need people to perform to their peak in order to allow their business, sport or themselves grow. To deliver brand engagement and help customers have a meaningful experience.
Peak performance what does that actually mean? I have seen and heard stories of depth within people so deep this week it goes beyond high performance.
From start to finish I have immersed myself in something way beyond peak performance. You have a year of gaining trust and tapping into human kindness in order to fundraise for such a worthwhile charity.
Macmillan are a charity that knows no boundaries they help our cancer patients and cater for their families needs on top. They give their all on a daily basis. I believe this in our business world is more commonly known as having a common purpose.
Create a common purpose or vision / mission / strategy as we know it in the business world. You will find no better strategy in the world than the one the Chu Chi Guerrillas had to defeat the Americans during the war. One visit to the tunnels teaches you to build a strategy for survival to protect your country. A strategy like no other.
Building high performing teams and organisational alignment (having the right people doing the right things at the right time to be the best you can be) I have spoken enough about team spirit throughout this blog for you to gain a sense of what that truly means.
Vietnamese and Cambodians cook by the side of the road, and sell their wares, everything from the harvested food to hand-made chopsticks with such a sales style that the best could not complete. They greet you with wide smiles, hellllllooooos so long that it could cover the full A1 motorway from London to my homeland of Scotland.
They lay their hard-earned saleable goods out with such care and attention to detail that every inch of the mat, food stall or “floating market” boat is covered and made to look like the only thing in the world you should purchase right there and then.
I believe that is known in, the business world as “customer experience” sales and marketing.
Execution plans: In the business world we have business plans that require execution to grow and retain profits. In Vietnam and Cambodia I could utilise this word execution and execution plans in my blog within two different contexts. In this case I shall not use it to reflect on the Pol Pot Khmer regime.
But I shall bask in the glory of Cambodia as a country who have executed a mastermind of a plan to rebuild a broken country where generations were wiped out. I am not sure quite how they have done it, but when you visit the vibrant and growing towns of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap it is evident whatever plan they have is well and truly being executed!
Transformation and adaptation to change, in the business world we use this term to try to push our businesses to be innovative and grow in different ways.
The largest element of this I have felt this week in Cambodia has been that we were encouraged to not purchase goods for the children but instead encourage them to attend school. The Cambodians believe education and learning is the key to growth in the country and youth. Nuff said!
Another term we use in the business world is “insight” The insights I have had are we have all arrived here with a common purpose to raise valuable funds for a truly wonderful cause.
As a team we have raised a massive £193,000 so far. This will fund a Macmillan nurse (including all necessary training) for three years to support hundreds of cancer patients and their families that need their valuable support.
We saw three birthdays, an engagement at sunrise over the temples of Angkor Wat, bumps, scrapes, sickness, tears and laughter.
We shared insect cream, sun cream, mozzie spray, perfume (Leanne), inspirational stories, fun, laughter and most of all a team spirit any business I know would kill for. Team Macmillan, I thank you for the wonderful life enhancing experience.
As everyone who knows me reads this, I started out this journey in memory of my dear wee mum who suffered the dreadful disease. I was with her when she passed and some of final words that last week to me were (which sound a bit cliched’ I know) – “stop pissing about, live life to the full, go and be happy” she also said many other things of which I couldn’t possibly repeat here.
Mum – this ones for you!!
“The moment we decide to begin the journey to cross Great Plains of uncertainty is the moment we become pioneers”