Tom and Jodie posted a photo:
View our route plan in more detail here
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Cambodian Federation of Rugby - http://www.cambodiarugby.net/
The Billabong Hotel - http://www.thebillabonghotel.com/
Rega Le Toit - http://regasiemreap.wordpress.com
It seemed all too soon that we had to pack our bags and leave Vientiane on the road south to Cambodia. The bikes had that all too familiar heavy and wobbly feeling after the treat of riding around town pannier-less. But they had new chains, the sun was shining and we were pretty sure we were in for a good tailwind. It was going to be good fun. Two days later, we had our waterproofs back on and a headwind forcing us back to where we came from. Come on! Nevertheless, the unstoppable cheer of the Laotians was infectious and the enthusiastic 'Sabaidees' and waves kept our spirits high. And so despite the puzzling weather, we made good progress and before we knew it, we were heading towards our last pitstop before crossing the border. Theoretically, we werent really due a break but we couldn't resist this little gem. Khong Island! How can you miss an island named after a great big hairy monkey?! By now the sun had decided to come back out and things were really starting to get steamy. Heat waves radiated off the road ahead, my fair skin was sizzling like crispy bacon and we guzzled our 'bath like' water as the sweat poured off us. We have to admit, Khong Island was bliss. Catching the boat across in the early morning as the sun rose, we had two full days of pure relaxation and bum therapy.
But Cambodia was calling and our visa for Lao PDR was running out. It was time to get a move on. By the time we had cycled the 40km to the border, I was boiling and Tom had managed to almost break his foot. Ah the joys of life on the road! So when the border guard tried to con us out of $4 for stamping our passports he really had picked the wrong pair. $4!! The cheek of it. A few sweat mingled crocodile tears later, we had our passports back and I rather proudly marched off to the Cambodian border. Where of course we are ashamed to admit that we did succumb to the $2 'stamping' fee. Well I had run out of tears and it was $2 cheaper! Bargain!
We had heard the road from the border to the next town was desolate and a little dull, they weren't kidding.
So we put our heads down and just counted down the clicks while discussing quite how dangerous it would be to wild camp in Cambodia given the devastating fact that there are still millions of unexploded mines littering the country. It would be an understatement to say that Cambodia has suffered a chilling history. Victims of the Vietnam war era, the Khmer Rouge regime and years of civil war, we had much to learn about the countries courage and determination to move forward and leave the past behind them. We have had a truly humbling and eye opening experince here.
For now though, back to the road where, out of the blue we saw a very unexpected but welcome sight. Two more cyclists chilling out at a roadside shack. Mais mon dieu! These were no ordinary cyclists! This pair had the most incredible tandem bicycle we had ever seen! We quickly made a u-turn and discovered that our new French buddies had literally been just an hour ahead of us all day! Tom was green with envy over their bike. And even moi, with my tandem-phobia, was almost won over. I said 'almost' Tom. We are not, I repeat not, getting a tandem...
We hadn't really thought much about our route into Phnom Penh, the highway was of course the obvious choice. Honestly, we are not the adventurous types when it comes to going off road. I know, its awful. But the sheer weight of our gear and our rather basic maps makes going off the beaten track a bit of a risky option. I worked in Compliance for 10 years for goodness sake. I hate risk!!! But perhaps we were both craving a bit of adventure, or maybe the sun had got to our heads, but when we got wind of a track along the Mekong River we decided to take it. Well, at least we couldnt get lost if all we had to do was keep the river to our right. How hard could it possibly be?! At 3pm that afternoon, after 7 hours of bumping along the hot, dusty and rocky path, we had to concede defeat. We had reached a complete dead end. Cut off by a river flowing into the Mekong we faced nothing but river on one side and jungle on the other. Our only option was to backtrack. Its difficult to put into words how we felt at that moment, but I can assure you there were a few expletives muttered... But we knew by now that the only way is forward. No room for wallowing in self pity though I'm embarresed to say there were a few real tears of frustration shed by me that night. Having of course survived this little hurdle, we continued towards Phnom Penh and actually had a great time, we even ventured off the highway again! Dusty tracks, wooden shack houses, mango trees and cows all followed by sunset swims in the Mekong, this was what it was all about. Touring at its best! Add to that the promise of some great rugby stories to uncover in Phnom Penh we were truly spoilt. We were lucky enough to be hosted by a wonderful French couple in Phnom Penh, Guilain & Elizabeth, and with Guilain running Stade Khmer, one of the countrie's Super 4 sides, we were able to learn much as well as picking up one of our most colourful shirts to date! Thank you guys!
"Bal Arb" - a ball to carry.
After the horrific suffering of the Cambodian people throughout the Pol Pot regime (Khmer Rouge), the country was brought to its knees and life for many millions became a daily struggle between life and death. Thousands or children and families were left to live and feed off the scraps of food at huge rubbish dumps, and to scavange whatever reusables they could find amongst the broken glass, syringes and rotting waste. If there was ever any doubt as to the destruction caused by the regime, you might find guidance in their radio broadcasts to the people "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss".
Many of the estimated 2.5 million victims of the genocide were educated, city dwellers, the brains behind business, and often nutritionally the healthiest sector of society. Over 10 years of slaughter, the national average height dropped by 10 cm, a difference that takes around 100 years of human evolution to gain back. So, with a population dimished in stature and numbers, what progress could we expect after rebuilding from the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero" around 1980? The stories are inspirational.
The journey began in 1995 when a French couple visited Phnom Penh to assist with an education project in Cambodia. Christian and Marie-France des Pallières witnessed children living and working through the rubbish dump and decided that something needed to be done. Starting only by feeding these children, they returned to France to raise awareness of the situation and began collecting donations to assist with their work. So inspirational was the footage they had taken, that support was immediate and soon they were able to turn some of their wider dreams into realistic projects. By 1996 they had signed agreement from the Cambodian government for their project "Pour un Sourir d'Enfant" (for the smile of a child) to act as an official school and educate the children. Today, as we speak, the project is beyond comprehension, providing housing, healthcare, nutrition, education and support to children and their families, and now also providing vocational training and further education to their pupils. Their current outreach project, combined with the PSE school in Phnom Penh, provides opportunities and support to over 6,500 children. Sadly we were not able to meet with the founding couple, they are currently on their annual 3-month fundraising trip in France, but we've heard that this is even beyond their own expectations. It is clear from speaking with students and employees at the centre that Cambodian people want to rebuild their society and they are grateful to the des Pallières for having planted the seeds.
Our visit to PSE was not by chance, we also had an appointment to meet with the new full time rugby coordinator, Ratana Pich. As a very young boy, Ratana grew up in a family living and working around the rubbish dump in Phnom Penh. He attended the local shool by morning but in the afternoon worked with his family shifting through piles of hazardous refuse and waste. By the age of 16, his family could no longer afford the loss of income and so he dropped out of education and began a full time struggle for food on a pitiful income. In 1998, on one of his many visits to the dumpsites, Christian himself stumbled upon this boy, and personally brought him into the centre. Ratana was now 17 years old, and had already spent at least 12 years of his life working in this way. He spoke only Khmer, and had a very limited education. In a world where many people leave their life of education, Ratana's journey was only about to begin, and he progressed through PSE to learn English, French and complete further education studeis in a Business course.
What else would he learn at PSE? Nothing other than rugby.
"I saw some boys throwing around a funny shaped ball, and the man who was teaching them was French"
"I thought, I must understand this game! It must be important if a French man is teaching it!"
After attending the training, Ratana learned about the sport and where it was played. Discovering that it was played by English, French and by English speaking nations in the Southern Hemisphere, he realised that rugby was a sport that might lead him to other opportunities in life. He loved the teamwork that the game generated, and although the game was a lot more physical that his beloved football, he was surprised at how much he enjoyed playing, he was already hooked.
The coach, Philippe Monnin had spent many years in the country and had for some time been considering ideas to integrate rugby into the Cambodian community. In 2000, he initiated a rugby session in the PSE centre which captured the interest of rugby fan Jean-Baptiste, a full time PSE volunteer. With the team of volunteers, they organised rugby sessions for both girls and boys, and soon the numbers were so strong that they could field several sides at various ages. As the children finished their education, many of them would continue to play rugby for senior PSE rugby sides in a domestic competition.
By 2003, Philippe had put together a Federation of Rugby in Cambodia, and the annual Angkor 10s competition was in it's 3rd year. Teams from all over Asia competed with the Cambodian representation coming from an expat team called "Les piliers d'angkor", there were 2 Khmer players now in this side, one of whom was Ratana Pich at scrum half.
Over the coming years, the senior boys from PSE continued to train and by 2005 they were experienced enough to form and compete against similar level national sides. The team, mostly from PSE, travelled to represent Cambodia in the first international rugby match, hosted in Hong Kong. As an undercard fixture to Hong Kong XV vs Korea XV, the boys from PSE took to the field weighing an average 35kg less per player than their opponents, Macau. For 60 minutes the match was extremely close, before finally succombing in the final 20 minutes. The team left the pitch to a standing ovation from the Hong Kong crowd, amazed by the effort and spirit of the tiny Cambodians. It was a successful trip and in 2006 the PSE Garudas entered a Khmer side into the Angkor 10s, led by Ratana Pich. By 2008 the team were good enough to bring home the trophy.
Our new friend Ratana Pich is now 29 years old, and has been ever-present Khmer figure in the rugby community since the PSE inception of 2000. He has captained the national side for many years and has played in every single international fixture. Now he is looking to the future generations of national players and jokes that he is "getting too old and slow", he doesn't look a day older than 17. Now with a wife and baby daughter, Ratana is working for PSE after 8 years of business employment around the country and is contributing to the same centre that set him free from a life of poverty. Seeing the PSE centre has been a huge inspiration for what can be achieved from a simple idea, and how the strength and courage of a young boy from a rubbish dump can turn a small opportunity into a giant window.
Ratana has become our Cambodian "World in Union" legend and and one hopes that many more generations will continue to play the game with the "bal koi" - the broken ball.
International Player & Captain
Rugby Coach at PSE (Pour Sourir
A Sterling job
Cambodian rugby has been largely built on French platforms, but 2010 saw the introduction of the Sterling, 3 of them actually.
The Sterling brothers, Tom, James and Gary touched down in Phnom Penh in 2010 to launch their Sterling Project Management business. Their arrival and passion for rugby has been a huge advantage to the Cambodian Rugby Federation and they certainly know how to deliver a project. The guys are now actively building relationships with local business and assisting with all the rugby programs around Phnom Penh.
Coupled with the annual success of the Angkor 10s, the family are introducing the first Cambodian 7s tournament in 2011 - The NagaWorld Cambodian 7s on 4 June 2011.
Places in the inaugural tournament are still available and it proves to be a fantastic weekend of entertainment.
If you are interested in participating, James can help you out with accomodation deals, transfer assistance from airport, station etc. Just drop him an e-mail and find out more.....
Finally, we would also like to say a massive thanks to Dan Parkes, for the worst hangover of the trip so far, to Larry and Andrew who have made a massive contribution to rugby in Cambodia and run the wonderful and highly recommended Billabong Hotel in Phnom Penh (as illustrated by Tom), and Jean-Baptiste who welcomed us in Siem Reap at his guesthouse 'Rega Le Toit' and helped us piece together the history of rugby in Cambodia.
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View our route plan in more detail here