The drivers outside VSO’s office in Phnom Penh can’t believe we barangs would walk anywhere. Cambodians never would. Everyone rides a motorbike or gets a ride on one, luggage and all. Some will take a tuk tuk or ride in a cyclo but most are on motos. I haven’t seen more than five people on one yet but I’m watching out! Four adults or two to three adults with as many children is not unusual. Of course the drivers want to persuade me to ride with them – it’s their business, and all the way to iCAN, the British International School about 40 minutes away, drivers call out offering a ride. I’m forever smiling, shaking my head and calling out ‘Ort tei, orkun!’ ‘No thanks!’ I enjoy walking and seeing the sights, going my own way at my own pace and taking pictures of the interesting things I see especially early in the morning when it’s cool. From iCAN a convoy of tuk tuks is scheduled to leave at 7.15 to transfer many of the 170 swimmers to the site on the Mekong River where the swim starts.
Five swimmers team up in one tuk tuk and we introduce ourselves to one another and chat for the whole of the 6km ride northwards, over the Tonle Sap on the Japanese Bridge and following the right bank of the Mekong though we can’t see it for buildings and trees. The traffic at this time of day is hugely congested especially as we jostle for position in the approach to the bridge. We hammer on the side of a minivan and fend ourselves off when he gets too close. The motos ride the pavements to escape the four-wheeled traffic especially the Lexus drivers who think they own the road. They too have no other options in this traffic because we only creep slowly along until we are on the bridge.
At the swim start we register and have our identity numbers written on our deltoids – I’m M1 because I’m an adult male and first in the alphabet since the custom here is to put surname first so they think mine is Adrian and now I’m at the top of the list. We mill around awhile under an awning while the spectators and support boats get in position and we receive our safety instructions – how to attract attention when in trouble. Eventually we walk barefoot to the river 100m away and after more hanging around in the strengthening sunshine we descend the steep and muddy bank to the muddier Mekong River and wade in the welcome water. Welcome because it’s cooling but not so much the mud around our ankles.
The swimmers spread out along the length of the river many making for a more northerly starting position to allow for the current flowing south. It seems an age before we are called by loud hailer to be ready to start and all the while I’m imagining the bilharzia worms burrowing in between my toes. This is the only part about which the swimmers grumble – the waiting around in the sunshine and standing in the muddy river bed – of what is otherwise an extremely well organised event with first class safety precautions.
Then we are off! The front crawl swimmers, the alpha males, the triathletes and anyone with something to prove rapidly forge ahead leaving the rest of the Sunday-day-tripper-pleasure-swimmers to bring up the rear. That includes me.
Surprisingly … the water’s lovely!
It’s cloudy and grey-green in colour for sure, but the temperature is perfect and there’s no solid matter or plastic evident, only a few bits of straw here and there and in the middle – nothing. I’m wearing my green theatre hat – because I haven’t a swimming cap and we are told to be distinctive and identifiable – and my new goggles to keep the water out of my eyes. It’s more difficult keeping water out of the nose and mouth and I suppress any thoughts of what else I might be swallowing. Behind me a few people have given up and are hauled aboard support boats, ahead the fastest have reached the finish 800m away and I settle in a rhythm that would take me as far as I could walk. There’s no great effort except to keep an eye on the finish banner and adjust for the sideways motion of the current. In former years I’m told there were few boats and the swimmers had to turn around and swim back again. Cheers from the finishers encourage the stragglers in a final effort to show we have stamina and reserve and in no time at all it seems we are walking ankle-deep in mud once more and receiving congratulations and our swim times – 20 minutes 15 seconds. The winners are around the 8 minute mark and already aboard the ferry-boat which takes us back, eating filled rolls and drinking bottled water.
Six of us returned from the race in a tuk tuk which was fine until we reached the Tonle Sap and the poor motorbike engine had to work hard to get us onto the bridge. Until then it’s a flat earth but now we were in trouble and the driver was rocking his bike back and forth to try to keep it moving. I couldn’t let him struggle like that so jumped off into the traffic and started to push (barefoot of course) – one passenger less weight (me) and one horse power more (me again) was enough to get us to the top and the driver shouted, “Jump on!” and we were off again (I was on when we went off) and we carried on with much laughter.
Back in the city we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways except for John and me who were disappointed that the best ice cream parlour in the City wouldn’t be open until 1pm. Undaunted (as you may imagine) I finished my important business of the day like buying my return bus ticket for the following morning, moving into a guest house for the coming night, doing some essential shopping and then I borrowed a pedal bike from VSO to head back for an ice cream. I haven’t had so much fun on a bike since I was a school boy and my big brother taught me to overtake the school bus down a big hill with a bend at the bottom where the bus had to slow down and we didn’t. We just leaned over and made sure the pedal didn’t hit the ground. Wild and exhilarating! Same thing in Phnom Penh traffic.
I reached the ice cream parlour before the end of happy hour – two large scoops for $2. It was good ice cream and I think I earned it!
So I’ve been there and done that and now I’m back at work. I didn’t take antibiotics or worm medicine after the swim and I’m keeping very well thank you.
What’s more … I’ve got the T-shirt!