In March this year, a diverse group of Plan International supporters took on a truly epic adventure – cycling 268km across Cambodia. The Cycle for Girls team took on this challenge with the goal of raising much-needed funds to support Plan International’s life-changing work with children (particularly girls) and their communities. The team raised an incredible $33,385 and a central part of the trip was a visit to one of the projects that these funds will support.
The Cycle for Girls team took on this epic challenge for girls’ rights, and symbolically began their cycle journey on International Women’s Day. They were accompanied by a team leader from Inspired Adventures, the folks from Buffalo Tours who looked after the logistics of the trip, and our Community Fundraising and Engagement Officer, Marta.
You can read Marta’s travel journal and watch a recap video below:
This is mostly a travel day. You get out of long-haul flights what you put in, in my opinion. For me, that’s a fresh young coconut. I slosh it down with the best Banh Mi I’ve ever had at an airport. In all seriousness it’s delicious, and gets me pining for a holiday in Viet Nam at some point. But we have one flight left – Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap.
On arrival in the Cambodian city, we get off the plane into the pleasant, warm air and meet the rest of the Cycle for Girls team once we pass customs. Our guide, Yann, is there too, ready to introduce us to the country we would quickly fall in love with.
It’s International Women’s Day, and we’re straight into it! After a hearty breakfast and the most delicious mango I’ve ever had, we’re transferred to our first stop where Yann and his team from Buffalo Tours are waiting with our bikes. It’s 8:30am and already sweltering hot, but getting on the bike feels exhilarating. I welcome the breeze as I start riding.
First stop: Angkor Wat. No biggie. We ride in a line around the moat and park in front of the temple complex. We take our time wondering around, before getting back on our bikes to ride to a local restaurant for lunch. We don’t stop after lunch but instead spend the rest of the day riding from temple to temple, over a range of terrains, amongst trees so full of cicadas their singing is deafening, and past locals taking a moment to relax in their skilfully hung hammocks.
Riding around the outskirts of Siem Reap, past ruins, under thousand-year-old arches, and skirting around monkeys, elephants and locals selling everything you could ever need is just about the most magical experience of my life. I pinch myself and still don’t believe it.
A well-deserved dinner this evening is at a local training restaurant, Marum. I have another coconut – a trend which would continue for the rest of the trip. If this sounds like a full day, it is, and we only rode 35km. It’s an “easy” introduction to what we can expect for the rest of the trip. I try to ignore the nervous butterflies in my tummy.
We start the day knowing it will be the hardest one: 70km of riding. How I get through it I don’t even know, but I have a feeling the pain in my posterior masks any other body pains. We start the day very early – by 6:30am we’re being transferred to the starting point. We are the early-birds and our proverbial worm is Banteay Samre temple.
We’re the first ones there and freely explore the site. Before getting back on our bikes, we’re treated to more mango (yum!), sweet treats and cold water – a must. The rest of the afternoon is spent riding to Banteay Srei temple, lunch and then attending the Cambodian Landmine Museum. We take this opportunity to discuss the incredible strength and tenacity of Cambodian people as they work to overcome their recent history and not be defined by it.
The last 15km of cycling is the hardest, but the Cycle for Girls team get through it together. I finish the day covered in red earth and feeling victorious. I rode 70km in one day. I now know I can do anything.
Today the team has a much-needed rest day. After another gorgeous breakfast with more mango, dragon fruit and papaya than you could poke a stick at, we enjoy a free morning. A couple of us meander through central Siem Reap and visit the Old Market. I buy a white and peach coloured Krama – a traditional Cambodian scarf, to wear cycling. My plan is to shield my fast-burning neck from the sun, but mostly to look effortlessly cool.
We reconvene in the afternoon and are transferred by bus to a restaurant on the outskirts of Siem Reap to take part in a cooking class. My Beef Lok Lak is superb and I wolf it down with abandon
I didn’t think our days could get any fuller, but here we are. For the first time in my life I’m beginning to believe I could be a morning person as I sit ready for our transfer at 6:30am. Might be something to do with the excitement of wearing my Krama. In combination with my padded bike shorts, the cotton scarf makes me feel like a combination of overly-enthusiastic tourist and poser. It’s a rather pedestrian fusion of stylistic inspiration I never knew I wanted to channel, but will continue to do so now that I have.
By 8:30am we’ve already completed 20km – this is convenient as the temperature is so hot by midday I think my plastic helmet might melt into my hair. We ride through towns, lush green rice paddies, and visit a temple off the beaten track. Children walking to school in their crisp white shirts and navy bottoms wave at us as we huff past them. After a quick lunch at a local restaurant we head back into Siem Reap to rinse off and then take a bus to the Plan International Cambodia office for a project briefing.
Arriving at the office is really exciting. I nerd out as the Plan International Cambodia staff tell us about how the organisation works with local schools on the Learning Garden project. I feel proud as the Cycle for Girls team learn more about some of our programs which they’ve worked so hard to support.
Project visit day. Safe to say, I’m just a little excited. It’s an early start as we greet the Plan International Cambodia staff at our guesthouse and travel together to Sras Primary School. It’s a 30 minute drive before we are warmly greeted by the school principal and teachers. We’re invited inside the staff room and sit around the table as the principal tells us more about the Stephanie Alexander-inspired Learning Garden project.
We’ve come at a good time in the project cycle – in under 12 months the garden has grown, and teachers and students have been able to reap rewards already, stepping outside the constraints of traditional classrooms for the first time and learning science, maths, Khmer and social studies directly through the garden and kitchen space.
The project has not only been beneficial for the teachers and students, but for the wider community as well, with the community, parents, grandparents and socially minded local farmers participating and supporting the garden too. It is a stunning example of communities making things happen on their own terms for themselves.
We are taken to meet the students in the garden, where we’re quickly put to work. We get our hands dirty as we tend to vegetables while the teachers demonstrate how the garden is used as a vehicle for education. Shovels and watering cans are used alongside books and protractors.
I walk around and observe how the Cycle for Girls team blends in with the students and helps out in the garden. The students freely give advice on how to best grow vegetables as I eat a cucumber still warm from the sun.
Having had contact with Plan International’s programs from my desk in Melbourne up until now, it’s a very special moment to directly see how our programs work in practice. I feel fortunate to have this very intimate opportunity to meet our partners and beneficiaries, and proud to work for Plan International. The glow doesn’t leave me for the rest of the day.
Day four of riding and another early morning. By now I feel like a total pro, and then quickly lose my cool as I realise that most of the terrain is rocks. Every kilometre is a challenge but the team doesn’t give up. Children pass me on their own pushbikes and I try to not feel pathetic. Near the end I have a very small fall – my bike gloves taking most of the impact. My pride is a little hurt as a local woman laughs at me from afar. I suppose it’s not wasted if someone gets some amusement. And I make it to the end – good for me. 58.6km later we’re collapsed on the bus and being transferred to Battambang.
The fifth – and final – day of cycling. Today I learn what ‘mind over matter’ really means. I thought the 70km day would be the toughest, but for me this is it. My body is exhausted. Pain takes on a new meaning when I realise I had left my gel seat cover on the bus the day before. I know it’s long gone and nearly cry, but grit my teeth as the team sets off. With a wince, I get on my bike and ride on, feeling positive that the plan is to “only” do 50km today. We ride from Battambang for 20km straight in our first leg, and get off to climb up the 350 steps to Phnom Banan, an 11th century temple. Why is it so much harder than on a Stairmaster?
Once we get to the top I look around and see the beautiful country we have cycled across spread out below me. Solid moment. The rest of the ride is mostly on smooth road and I make sure to take in as much of the sites as I can. Riding through a country is an incredible way to travel. I know I will miss the experience even before we’re done for the day.
We finish up cycling by lunch time. 268km over five days. If you had told me I could do it a few months ago, I would’ve laughed. I will never forget this feeling.
In the evening a few of us go to the Battambang killing field. Our guide, Yann, contacts a local to take us to the top in his red Jeep, and then takes us to the shrine and speaks about how the Khmer Rouge killed their fellow Cambodians. Emotions run high. Again I’m overwhelmed by the incredible resilience of the people of Cambodia.
After breakfast we get straight on our bus and are transferred to Pnom Penh. It takes about six hours and I’m happy to have the reading time. The afternoon is free to explore the city and tourist sites. I also go to Bodia Spa and enjoy the most deserved massage of my life.
We have our final team meal in the evening. I try lotus seeds for the first time and wash them down with my last fresh coconut. One of the team members serenades us with a ‘roast’ delivered as a long-form poem and we’re in hysterics. Tomorrow we fly home. It’s bittersweet. An adventure it truly has been.
Now that I’ve had a bit of space from the trip, I can say hand on heart that it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ll probably ever have. I know that my fellow Cycle for Girls team members feel the same. Our cohort was made up of a range of experience in terms of cycling. There were some like myself, who occasionally rode a bike, and there were those that were very experienced cyclists, and had gone on trips like this before. This means that the challenge was more difficult for some, and we certainly got to see exactly what we are made of. But the way that the tour was structured, and the incredible support we had from the Buffalo Tours support crew, meant that even the most difficult days and terrains felt attainable. Cycling between towns, between temples, past weddings, and through rice paddies and suburban backstreets is probably the most intimate way to get to know a country and culture. We weren’t just dropping in to a city, but really immersing ourselves in it and amongst its residents.
But the most special moment for me was the visit to one of Plan International Australia’s projects. It’s so rare that our supporters have the opportunity to meet and share a morning with the communities their fundraising supports. I feel humbled to have been able to experience that with them. The Plan International Cambodia staff were incredibly open and keen to talk to our supporters about Plan International’s work, and were also excellent at facilitating a discussion between the students and the visitors. I know I will look back on this experience with awe and pride in years to come, and I hope my fellow travellers feel the same way.
If you’re looking to elevate your next trip, to take on something new, to learn what you’re made of, and to see the incredible impact your fundraising and support makes, then make sure to keep an eye out on our next adventure tour. Watch this space, because honestly, why would you want to miss an opportunity such as this?!
Interested in joining a future challenge? Email [email protected] to learn about our upcoming trips!