Cyclists hit the trail for a 200+ mile trek across southern Cambodia.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF CRIDER
Five years ago, I traveled to Tanzania to join a dozen humanitarians in climbing 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro as a fundraising effort for Lifewater International’s water, sanitation, and hygiene education projects in impoverished villages in neighboring Ethiopia.
After the climb, I visited remote communities in Ethiopia where Lifewater is doing its work and spoke with villagers who told me how the programs reduce the incidence of waterborne diseases, the leading killer of children under 5 in Ethiopia and other impoverished countries.
I joined another Lifewater fundraising challenge last January, bicycling more than 200 miles across southern Cambodia to raise money for its critical projects in Cambodia’s remote Svay Leu District. While I’ve always hiked, I’d never cycled very far. I worried if my 58-year-old legs would handle a week’s worth of long-distance rides across the bumpy dirt roads of rural Cambodia in sweltering tropical heat.
We left last January, only two weeks before news of COVID-19 swept the world, flying through China to Cambodia. I have visited more than 40 countries, but for me, Cambodia is one of the most exotic — a world away from my home in manicured Palm Desert.
We watched the sun rise over the iconic Buddhist temple at Angkor Wat and toured several nearby ancient, tree-encrusted temples, which look like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I could have spent hours exploring their dark passageways and ancient bas-relief sculptures.
We also visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, founded by Aki Ra, who dismantled more than 50,000 landmines across Cambodia left by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Beyond founding the museum, Aki Ra took care of about two-dozen children who lost their legs by stepping on landmines. One of them was our guide.
Before commencing our bike ride, we spent a day with Thong Romanea, who oversees Lifewater’s operations in Cambodia. d anger during his formative years.
Jeff Crider celebrates his arrival at Kep on the Gulf of Thailand. Opposite: Children greet and thank riders for their efforts to help their community.
Children greet and thank riders for their efforts to help their community.
But Thong eventually put his faith in God and now uses his skills to direct a team of employees and contractors who bring safe water, sanitation, and hygiene education to thousands of rural Cambodians.
Lifewater interviews village residents to measure everything from the incidence of sickness and disease to their knowledge of sanitation and hygiene practices, and then provides the necessary education. For example, if remote villages lack plumbing, the program shows its residents how to protect themselves with latrines and by drying their dishes on elevated outdoor platforms, using the sun’s rays to naturally sterilize their plates and cookware. Later, the organization follows up to measure its effectiveness.
The lack of sanitation affects children’s education, too, especially among girls, who often drop out of school by the time they start having their periods to avoid embarrassment or harassment from boys.
Lifewater addresses the problem by building latrines at schools. We visited a school with a recently built cinder block latrine with lockable doors. The program also provided a water tank to serve new hand washing sinks.
Satisfied that our fundraising efforts were making a difference, we started our bike ride at Angkor Wat, alongside an ancient wall that runs through the forest surrounding the temple complex. We rode through a magnificent arched opening in the wall, topped by a Buddha sculpture, and then watched several monkeys swing from branch to branch high above us. At times, the ride was more difficult than I expected. On the first day, descending a dirt trail that’s steeper than anything I’ve ever attempted on a bicycle, I gradually squeezed the brakes while bouncing over some rocks, and the back end of my bike lifted off the ground just enough to make me panic, but not high enough to launch me over the handlebars. Others in our group weren’t so lucky.
Lon Reaksmey, 14, pumps fresh, clean water, while Khen Srey Nith, 10, cools off.
Eight cyclists from around the country, shown at an ancient monument in the Angkor Wat temple complex, joined Crider (far right) to ride for Lifewater International.
We cycled across Cambodia in segments between Siem Reap and the Gulf of Thailand, mostly on dusty and rocky roads next to fields where they grow jasmine rice, sugar cane, and pepper. Some fellow cyclists fell after encountering rocks and losing their balance. A travel medicine specialist warned me to be on the lookout for rabid dogs. We did see several dogs. Fortunately, none of them attacked us.
I felt lucky to cycle through remote villages most tourists never see. The highlight was the children who could spot us from far away and come running toward us, shouting, “Hello! Hello!” with big smiles. I was also struck by the genuine thankfulness of the rural Cambodian people after our guides told them why we were bicycling across their country. I’ll always remember the joy I felt when we reached the Gulf of Thailand — as well as the last quarter mile of our ride. The mud was so deep we could barely walk our bikes through the muck.
Our cyclists raised almost $80,000 — enough to provide about 1,600 rural Cambodians with a lifetime supply of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene know-how.
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