On the 19th October four members of the NE Youth team (Bruce, Ray, Peter and Sara) set off on an adventure after 8 long months of planning, fundraising and training. The aim was to cycle 450 miles from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam in order to raise funds for NE Youth member organisation Smile for Life. Funds would go towards setting up a new café where young people with learning disabilities could gain confidence, meet new people and gain real life work experience preparing food and drinks and serving customers.
Bruce is an experienced triathlete so wasn’t too daunted by the cycling. The rest of the team had to put in some serious graft! Lycra was eventually invested in (after Ray had an uncomfortable experience in cold, wet and muddy tracksuit bottoms whilst completing a 26 mile circuit of Kielder reservoir) and weekends and evenings were dedicated to trekking around the North East on bikes. In May Peter and Ray completed the Coast to Coast which they claim nearly killed them. When not on the bikes, free time was spent organising weird and wonderful fundraising events, bag packing in supermarkets and selling the family silver at car boot sales in order to hit the £3,500 fundraising target for each individual. The final challenge was to make sure everything was in place to ensure survival. Vaccinations were had, malaria tablets ordered, Imodium bulk bought, anti-chaffing creams selected and – in Ray’s case – mini cheddars packed!
The team set off in a state of nervous anticipation. 13 individuals took part in total and, for many, the 15.5 hour flight time was daunting enough! By the time everyone arrived in Siem Reap (via one bus, two planes and another bus) everyone was well acquainted. The first day was a gentle 30 miles to get used to the bikes and the climate (25-35 degrees and 90% humidity) whilst visiting the incredible Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat. The following day the journey started properly, cycling through villages on a mixture of roads and dirt tracks being greeted by children calling hello and offering high fives at every turn. Guided by members of the Cambodian National Mountain biking team (and sometimes literally pushed along by them) the team covered decent ground, stopping to visit monuments to those killed in the genocide of the 1070’s where a third of the population lost their lives. The team heard some harrowing personal accounts from survivors and were shocked by the brutality which seemed to be such a stark contrast to the welcoming, colourful and joyful people encountered on route.
At the end of the fourth day the group crossed the bored into Vietnam which was much busier and more developed. Everyone was amazed by the traffic which mostly consisted of motorbikes and scooters and appeared to have few rules. Crossing a road involves stepping into traffic and hoping vehicles stop! Thankfully a bus was provided as transport across the cities so the cycling was again on tracks and quieter roads. The area crossed was the Mekong Delta, a fertile area with rivers of all spaces and sizes crossed by bridge (sometimes consisting of a couple of planks of wood) or by ferry (one controlled by a driver who appeared to be asleep and was steering with her feet which sent risk assessment alarm bells into overdrive!!!). after 7 days on the bikes the team finally arrived in Ho Chi Min City (formally Saigon) and visited the tunnels built by the Vietcong guerrilla fighters who had a range of ingenious methods to kill US soldiers and avoid detection. After a celebratory meal and overnight stay it was back to the airport for the 30 hour journey home to chilly Newcastle to reflect on amazing memories, dodgy tan lines and bruises!
Back in Newcastle after one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my entire life.
From cycling hundreds of miles through 37 degree heat and 90% humidity (as well as torrential rain!), doing a 360 off my bike, saying hello to at least a thousand Cambodian & Vietnamese children, visiting some of the most incredible places on Earth and listening to the fantastic & moving stories, mainly surviving on chicken and chips for the first few days, having to battle with my organs, getting megged by a 5 year old Vietnamese kid, being supported by a fantastic support team (including members of the Cambodian cycling team!), seeing 3 alive pigs upside down on the back of a motorbike (no clue), and spending time with some of the greatest people I’ve ever met who helped push me on even when I thought I could go no further, it’s all just been absolutely unreal.
I want to say a massive thank you to Smile For Life for giving me this opportunity, as well as everyone who donated and supported me for getting me there, it really means a lot!