Temperatures sizzle in the mid- 30s, baking the bitumen on Highway 7 and causing rivers of sweat on our way to Skuon.
What is a ‘‘highway'' in Cambodia is actually little more than a spatula of grey on a dusty, horizontal landscape. That the Mekong River cuts a swathe through the interior saves it from being just a drab colour palate.
The river's vital water nurtures a landscape of lime rice paddies where nimble workers toil under their wide-brimmed, cream conical hats. Buddhist temples and pagodas (wats) with their cheeky monkey residents and orange-robed monks are another country staple.
Tiered in gold and white, the temples glisten under ultramarine skies behind majestic gates. Rickety roadside villages are a sharp contrast. Large extended families live in one-room, wooden houses built on stilts to weather the monsoons.
We peer into front yards where towering coconut palms provide shade for tidy vegetable plots, tethered cows and near naked sun-baked children who run freely with scrawny hens (in contrast to wellpreened cocks kept in cages or on leashes ready for their next fight). We know who the pig owners are - their sties ooze a malodorous stench.
Poverty and tragedy riddle the lives of rural Cambodians but as we fleetingly pass by they never fail to look up, and smile and wave. The horrific legacy of despotic Pol Pot and his sadistic henchman who committed genocide on two million
Cambodians only 25 years ago still pervades this country. But the Khmers, with their Buddhist inner calm, show remarkable resilience - to we outsiders anyway. We are a group of 13 cyclists who have gathered from around the world to experience Cambodia at the coalface.
Memorials to the dead, blood-spattered torture scenes and mass graves are left as they were during that five-year reign of terror from 1975-79. Wrenching tales of how family members survived with extraordinary ingenuity and cunning or were tortured and murdered leave us in no doubt about the brutality of this period and the fragile existence of the country today.
Cambodia's friendly people are the country's jewels. The big advantage of cycling, as in neighbouring Vietnam and Laos, is that much of the daily activity takes place on and to the side of the roads. Caramel husks containing rice dry on raffia and plastic sheets on verges and soldier rows of tapped rubber trees are common.
Transporting goods takes on dizzying dimensions. Bikes, bullocks and carts, motor scooters and rattletrap buses shoot by, stacked to the gunnels with everything imaginable, from double beds and scooters to precarious loads of passengers on van rooftops.
Each day ramshackle stalls are set up on the roadside to slaughter animals. Bloodied carcasses hang for sale and slabs of meat sit in the heat. At one stall we stop to check a large, grey sow trussed and straddled over the back of a small scooter that has just pulled up. We call her Doris. She makes a racket, squealing and grunting as if her life depended on it.
There's no chance of a reprieve. A bloodied rib cage of a former pen mate is hanging nearby. Her owner grins with pride as he poses for the camera. Poor Doris. At lunchtime school children returning home for their midday break become our cycling companions.
The older ones have remarkable stamina, pedalling furiously on their basic bikes as they keep up with our geared mountain models.
They are on a mission, shouting their signature repertoire: ‘‘What's your name, where are you from, how old are you'', in a bid to hone their English skills.
It's four days since we crossed the Vietnamese border at Bavet and we've cycled from Kompong Cham, north of the capital Phnom Penh. Our guide, Punloau, an intelligent, highly-educated 25-year-old has an appetite for silly joke telling. He's one of eight children.
His mother had him late after she lost two sons to Pol Pot. One was a general. His family's story is sad. He tells it with compassion but Punloau, born after the fall of Pol Pot, also laughs a lot and plans optimistically for his future.
We wonder what the outcome of his arranged marriage will be, given his predilection for talking about how women boss men around. He calls them tigers which starts him laughing raucously. He laughs again when he tells us we're having spiders for lunch.
Skuon is little more than a layover for lorry and bus drivers. It's smattered with ablution blocks, stalls and a sprawling open-air restaurant with large round tables in concrete booths and plastic chairs. Cooking stations in the middle permeate the air with a deep-fried odour.
The spiders are neither a joke nor a laughing matter. Skuon's creepy fare has earned it the westernised nickname of Spiderville.
It's definitely a place to be avoided if you're anacrophobic. No sooner are we off our bikes than village women start hawking furry, black tarantulas, called ‘‘a-ping''.
Each is the size of a large hand. They've piled these cooked arachnids on flat, wicker trays balanced on their heads. From a short distance they look like a wriggly mass of seaweed or licorice.
Close up their bulbous backsides, big heads and eight long, furry legs are not a pretty sight. We're told they're best eaten deep fried with a dash of garlic and salt. Fat chance.
Our fill of adventurous eating stopped firmly at deep-fried frogs that we'd tried at a roadside stall two days earlier. We pay 300 riel (US8c) to the hawker for a spider when our bike mechanic says he'll devour one so we can take photographs.
This stop is one of his favourites as he's developed quite a taste for this local delicacy. He eats the spiders' legs first.
They have no meat so they're a crunchy appetiser. The head and body apparently tastes somewhere between chicken and crab depending on who you talk to, but the abdomen is another story.
The big, hard shell, full of brown sludgy goo, needs to be cracked first, and then peeled. We never did get a good taste description for this part of the spider's anatomy.
A smarty in our group diverts our attention by flinging a live spider into the middle of our table, assuring us the venom has been drained from its fangs.
I opt quickly for noodles after looking at other food options, roasted ducks and fish that were broiling under the sun at open stalls.
Over lunch we learn the spiders are coaxed out of holes in the surrounding countryside by farmers who gather more than 100 in a day, earning themselves the equivalent of a few US dollars. This is considered a good living when most rural dwellers earn less than $US1 a day.
That these giant spiders are an income earning enterprise is good for Skuon's people but their origin, like so many others in Cambodia, is born out of tragedy.
They were a food source to stave off starvation after Pol Pot forced intellectuals (including the entire population of Phnom Penh) out of the cities and into the countryside as he tried to create a Maoist agrarian society.
If it wasn't murder that took these people's lives it was starvation. They turned to spiders and other insects, such as crickets, as a dietary necessity. Eventually they acquired the taste for spiders.
We hear about residents of Phnom Penh who drive up to the road to Skuon especially to sate their need for a serving of spider.
The capital's restaurants also import them from the village for special billing on menus. After Skuon, Phnom Penh is a momentary assault on the senses.
Sitting at the confluence of the Bassac, Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers the city is big and thriving and pretty westernised, which is no surprise given it was deserted for many years after Pol Pot forced the residents out into the countryside.
It's as if you've entered another world that is trying desperately to bury the ghosts of its recent violent past
Denise McNabb travelled to Cambodia with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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