How do the Khmer stack up against other Asians for hospitality an friendliness? Just
ask three British bicyclists who rode 9,600 kilometers across Asia-including the
first circumnavigation of the Tonle Sap on two wheels in recent history.
"The Khmers are the friendliest people we've met so far," said Anthony
Ainsworth, 30, the leader of a United Kingdom-based NGO called Bike Aid, "and
we've just spent eight months pedalling through 16 other Asian countries."
The cyclists, seeking to raise funds for primary schools in Asia, left Phnom Penh
against the advice of the British Mission. The three self-proclaimed "adventurists"-
including Edward Kay Shuttle-worth, 29, and Mark Curzon, 26-took 15 days to complete
their trip around the lake, travelling through eight provinces.
"Whole villages would burst into laughter as we rode past," Ainsworth said.
"Women and children were the most amused by this spectacle-some jumping up and
down waving 'hello' frantically, others rushing from their homes to catch a glimpse
of the three of us."
Many villagers along the cyclists' route are becoming accustomed to U.N. or NGO vehicles
speeding past on their way to their next destination. Moving at a much slower pace,
the bikers gave many villagers their first close-up glimpse of a foreigner.
"A crowd would gather whenever we stopped," said Ainsworth. "The people
were curious and quickly discovered that the bikes had 21 gears. One person would
usually explain how the gear system worked to the rest of the onlookers."
The Brits had no problems finding accommodations wherever they went. "People
offered rooms that they would normally use for their own families," said Ainsworth.
"We also stayed in a wat, an UNTAC house, a house belonging to a monkey dealer
in Battambang, and once we even just strung up our hammocks by the river in Kompong
During their trip, the cyclists only had to pay for accommodation four nights, the
rest provided for free by the people they met.
Commenting on the security concerns that some voiced before their departure, Ainsworth
said, "We never felt our lives were at risk. There's more of a chance of being
killed in Phnom Penh in a traffic accident than on the roads we travelled."
The trans-Asian pedal pushers did have one close call though. "About three kilometers
from Steung in Kompong Thom Province we ran into two bandits with AK-47's,"
said Ainsworth. "They weren't in uniform and showed no insignia. Initially,
we thought they wanted money.
"They weren't interested in riels as they brushed aside our offer of
500. We guessed they might want cameras or something more valuable as they started
prodding our panier bags with their guns."
When Ainsworth pulled out an UNTAC poster showing the different factions disarming,
the bandits waved the cyclists on.
"Maybe they thought we had some connection with the U.N.," Ainsworth said.
The three cyclists headed off for Vietnam where they will bike to Ho Chi Minh City
before flying to Hong Kong, the last stop on their trans-Asian odyssey, which began
last Sept. 25 in London.
To date Bike Aid has raised through contributions and pledges over $35,000.