Where have I been?! Other stuff has called: a curtain pole and baton needed putting up; room redecoration; Christmas 2016 arrived; stuff; things; busy-ness . . . Now I’m back, unfit, but recovered from injury (groan) . . . On with what I said I’d do: report on the Global Limits Ancient Khmer Path 2016!
Late-November 2016 (UK: cold, wet, freezing, dark; south-east Asia: the complete opposite)
This year I was flying out to Cambodia far fitter than the previous year with 2016’s autumnal food poisoning (which happened close to the race in 2015) having struck a few weeks beforehand and cleared my system. First, a few days in Singapore sight-seeing with my wife. This was a cunning plan to get some better weather experience en route to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to acclimatise a little more and get a few runs done in hot, humid conditions, followed by a cold shower in the hotel. How quickly that luxury was forgotten!
My UK runs indoors on the gym treadmill wearing a buff covering my face, a balaclava, Gore-Tex gloves, two long-sleeved Helly Hansen layers plus waterproof jacket, and thermal running rights, had seemed to help . . . I was still dripping sweat after a 5K around Singapore’s Marina Bay but my heart rate seemed to be behaving itself and staying low. Which was the main thing.
Thursday 24 November
So after a few days it was on to Phnom Penh, minus wife, bumping into fellow competitors Markus and David at Singapore Airport’s departure gate on their way from Australia.
The flight passed quickly and this year bribery wasn’t necessary to get through Immigration as I had the necessary compliant photos. My passport passed down a line of 13 (yep, 13) uniforms before it received its stamp with the demand for $35 from uniform number 14, a surly-looking official standing in front of a massive sign emblazoned with “Tourist Visa $25”, a price I much preferred.
“How about $25?” I asked with a slight look of surprise.
“OK. $25.” A slight Mona Lisa-type enigmatic twitch appeared in the corner of her face.
The guy in front of me, finally collecting his passport from official number 15, looked miffed.
“I bloody paid $35!”
Global Limits efficiency saw a rep hailing us as soon as we left the airport building so we could be guided to the minibus for the trip to the hotel, worming our way through rush-hour traffic.
I’d forgotten how damn hot and humid it was here; the race hotel fronts Phnom Penh’s mighty Mekong River, and the odd little breezes felt deliciously cool for all of a couple of seconds.
As the remains of the day wore on and the temperature settled to the mid-20Cs into the early evening it was great to see the previous year’s familiar faces appear. I dumped my bags (marvelling at my hotel room-mate’s (Stan) buffet of food pouring from a gargantuan sports bag) and then we moved on a short distance to a restaurant for a sumptuous meal.
Then back to my room for a penultimate bag check and clear out, unpacking and squeezing out any amount of weight or kit I didn’t need. I realised another advantage of having come out to this time zone a few days earlier: I was naturally tired around 10pm. Eye mask on, ear plugs in, one herbal sleeping tablet: a great night’s sleep was had.
Race check-in: Friday
After breakfast a group of us decided on a tour which would require tuk-tuks. Was $3 or $4 the going rate per tuk-tuk without being shafted? Half of us shrugged and couldn’t give a toss, while the other half felt it important not to be ripped off.
After further discussion about what to see and whether we wanted to see it (was it too depressing? had we seen enough of this thing on our travels? was it what we were here for?) we commandeered two tuk-tuks, Stan leading the way with tough negotiation skills for two tuk-tuks at $3-a-piece, for a trip to Toul Sleng.
As previous Cambodia visitors will know, a visit cannot avoid an insight to the brutal history that this country has suffered in recent times.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime came to power, clearing the towns and cities of its people into the countryside for hard agricultural labour. Phnom Penh was left to the encroaching jungle. Genocide ensued as did the infamous ‘killing fields’: over the succeeding four years up to three million Cambodians, men, women, children, babies were killed (25% of the country’s population). The Vietnamese overthrew the KR in 1979 but, incredibly, it wasn’t until just 18 years ago, in 1999, that the KR finally surrendered.
This is why you notice something very unusual when now visiting this amazing country: there are so very few elderly people. They largely do not exist because of that four year period of horror and its consequences.
And the consequences continue to this day in various forms. Every adult you meet has his or her story to tell of that time (including Global Limit’s own Cambodian fixer who tells his tale on the bus journey out from Phnom Penh to the first camp) and millions of mines litter the countryside while international agencies fight to clear them (see my picture later in this blog).
Unfortunately, those Cambodian mines are still maiming and killing: 111 in 2015, 154 in 2014.
Toul-Sleng is alternatively known as S-21 and is a museum kept to show the horrors of that period, one of over 150 torture centres that existed at the time. A school before the KR arrived, this essentially became a factory for torture and extermination: first, the senior political figures of the old regime. Then the professions. Then their families. Then their neighbours. Then officials of the KR itself. Then the wives, husbands and children of those KR officials.
20,000 people passed through S-21’s doors. Only seven survived the last minutes of torture as the Vietnamese arrived to liberate the centre in 1979.
We all sank into our own thoughts as we walked around the centre, our group of 7 or 8 dividing into our solitary, individual spaces, listening to harrowing stories on the audio-guides. At the end of our visit we regrouped before leaving and it was both chilling and fascinating to hear the stories of similar sights or sounds experienced by some members of our group growing up in their own strife-torn countries.
So why visit it?
I’d already seen it from a trip made several years previously and I’d thought about a visit a year earlier but didn’t have the time. We all had a common reason: a desire to understand more about this beautiful country and its people as we ran through it.
There’s one chilling picture at S-21 I remember vividly from my trip almost 10 years previous. It’s a picture of Chan Kim Srun, the wife of an official, holding her new-born baby. They were both killed not long after her defiant picture was taken.
But that time passed and is replaced in this beautiful country by a welcoming warmth, kindness, patience and happiness expressed by its people, particularly the children.
You see it everywhere: in the busy city to the most remote villages we would pass through. People smiling, cheering you on your way, kids laughing. The historical horrors can’t and shouldn’t be forgotten, but it’s enervating to see what it can be replaced by in a single generation.
And what better way to see it than by running Global Limits’ Ancient Khmer Path?
Some of us managed to get lost on the way back but finally arrived at the hotel. Myself, Ash and Ali managed it via a tuk-tuk when we got too hot, bothered and flustered trying to walk and work out map directions and whether the distant temple we could see was the one near our hotel or one the other side of the Mekong River many, many miles away. Stan was nowhere to be seen, lost in the local market trying to find his local man to do his annual running kit repair (for the fourth year): at $2, who wouldn’t?
After a quick pre-race leg massage at a reputable establishment around the corner it was race check-in time. It was a non-rushed, relaxed affair as competitors had been checked in gradually through the afternoon rather than dealt with chaotically in one massive group. Event volunteer, ultra-athlete and medic Meese checked the necessaries and my bag weighed in at 10.05kg . . . 50 grammes above the limit. I was let off though, and metaphorically punched the air delighted at the minor victory of winning the first competition in this multi-day stage racing lark: coming within a whisker of the bag allowance.
Before too long we were all gathered together for the evening meal, friends old and new. After a short speech by Race Director Stefan it was time to fill our boots at the buffet, acutely aware that we were about to embark on a week-long force-feeding of whatever “food” we could stomach while running 140 miles in oppressive heat.
And so to bed: an early-ish start the following morning would begin the journey to the inner depths of Cambodia and a Bhuddist temple: our room for the night before Stage 1 would begin.