As cycling holidays gather momentum, Abi Jackson jumps on her bike for a breathless journey through Cambodia and Vietnam.
It takes mere seconds for the thick, gnarly clouds to tumble across the sky, smothering every inch of blue. The chalky red dirt track and flanking green paddy fields, which until moments ago had looked so vibrant they seemed unreal, are now bathed in an eerie gloom.
The rain follows with equally dramatic speed. I pedal on, reminding myself to savour the moment – while also keeping an extra careful eye out for potholes and darting dogs – until our guide Alistair yells: “Everybody stop here!”
Huddled beneath a porch in rural Cambodia, we’re a motley crew of 14 Brits shivering in sodden Lycra. Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to rest. Five days into my eight-day ride with global cycling and trekking challenge specialists Discover Adventure and my legs are close to seizing up. Stiff and sore, I’m realising why the trip brochure warned this was going to feel like a challenge and may sometimes require us to “dig deep”.
Our itinerary – starting in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and finishing in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat – would take us on a 510km ride. Throw in 40-degree heat and the first couple of days were tough for some.
Thankfully, by day three, everybody’s feeling good. We’re free to relax and embrace the experience, leaving “real life” thousands of miles away back in the UK.
The fact we’re travelling in this part of the world gives our adventure an additional exotic twist – and cycling enables us to get up close and personal with the destination in a way that’s not usually possible.
The itinerary also includes gaps for touristy stuff, including a morning boat ride through Vietnam’s Can Tho floating market where fish, fruit and even livestock are all traded on the water; the Cu Chi Tunnels where the Vietcong hid during the Vietnam War; the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh – a former school used as a secret prison camp by the Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot regime in the late Seventies which saw around two million Cambodians killed; and the Killing Fields, where much of the genocide took place.
Although truly heartbreaking, these sites are important reminders of the horrors people went through.
It’s on our bikes though, that we really get to see – and fall in love with – these enchanting countries. We pedal through bustling towns and tiny villages, bounce across bridges, weave through narrow streets and cruise along endless country roads surrounded by lush rice paddies, banana and sugar plantations.
Some days, huge honking trucks rumble past, while on others, we share the roads with cows and carts and schoolchildren in pristine uniforms, who giggle and occasionally race along.
We marvel at colourfully-painted pagodas and a duck farmer guiding his flock down a river, gasp as mopeds transporting entire families – or squealing pigs – whizz by.
Daily distances range from 30-90km, with regular stops to refill drink bottles and top up on sun-cream and calories. Staying properly hydrated and fed is crucial and provisions are plentiful; we snack on fruit, cake, crackers and crisps and – though I don’t touch the stuff back home – guzzle endless fizzy drinks, and tuck into bowls of rice and veg with meat or fish for lunch.
Food and fluids aside, two other things play a key role in keeping those pedals turning: the group banter and the endless friendly smiles, waves and cheery “Hellos” from the locals.
Discover Adventure partners with local operators – including two local guides, Vet and Sal, who cycle with us the whole time, along with Alistair – to support the in-country trip logistics, sorting everything from the bikes (though there is the option to fly your own out), accommodation and meals.
Seven days into the trip, my skin is gross, I’m bloated from all the sports drinks and I’ve worn nothing but grubby Lycra for a week – but I’ve also fallen head over heels in love with it all and can’t imagine returning to a routine that doesn’t start with a 6.30am wake-up call, involve seven hours on a bike and end with a beer and hobbly toddle to bed.
To soften the blow, our final day is a real treat – a short ride, which includes some super fun jungle tracks and ends in the breathtakingly beautiful ancient temples of Angkor.
We cross the finish line with mixed emotions: we did it! But oh, that means it’s over...
It’s a bittersweet victory, but boy – what a ride!
Abi Jackson was a guest of Discover Adventure (01722 718 444, discoveradventure.com) which offers the 11-night Ho Chi Minh to Angkor Wat Cycle challenge from £1,899pp (two sharing) including accommodation, flights from London, transfers, most meals, a 21-speed mountain bike, entry to the temples of Angkor and Discover Adventure support team. Departures on February 6 or October 1, 2016.