A Bike Ride into History

The Cambodian government recently announced a long, work-free weekend (July 22–24) to allow all citizens to return to their home constituencies and vote in the national election. The kids at Little Hearts gleefully welcomed this holiday, but if they thought they could just laze around at home and play, they were mistaken! A week earlier, over lunch, Tony and his old friend Frank Zgoznik had plotted and planned an epic bicycle ride that would involve all the kids and some of the staff. (Frank is a former volunteer computer science teacher at Little Hearts; he’s also a bicycling fanatic who has placed highly in various cycling competitions here in Cambodia.)

So on Monday the 24th, all the kids, Tony, Frank, head caretaker Roxanne and head teacher Rosahlee set off like a platoon of pedalling and bell-ringing road warriors on a bike tour that would take them to many different parts of Phnom Penh. The ride was not merely a subterfuge to work their young muscles and bust their lungs, it also had a worthy educational purpose: to teach the kids some of their own culture by stopping at some of Phnom Penh’s most important historical and religious sites.

After ferrying across the Mekong into town, they headed straight to Wat Phnom, an ancient pagoda on top of a tiny forested hill (the only hill in the city!). It was first erected in the 14th century by a wealthy denizen of the area, Lady Penh, to house four statues of the Buddha that had been miraculously deposited there by the waters of the Mekong. (For those who don’t already know, the city takes its name from this pagoda and the lady who first built it.)

The next stop was Wat Ounalom, a temple and monastery on the riverfront near the Royal Palace. It is the seat of Cambodia’s Mohanikay Order, and thus the very centre of Cambodian Buddhism. The main complex houses a stupa that is said to contain an eyebrow hair of the Buddha.

While everyone enjoyed Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom, Tony had to attend to a more pressing matter. Just 15 minutes into the bike ride, one of his tyres exploded! Fortunately, a tyre repair shop is never far in Cambodia. With Michael and Jeff’s help, he found one lickety-split and was able to rejoin everyone at the National Museum, their next stop.

The National Museum is Cambodia’s largest museum of cultural history. It has a serene and inviting central courtyard where you can take a break from the historical and archaeological overload. Here, the kids saw one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptures, ceramics and bronzes. They also ogled at the world’s longest hand-woven scarf (it’s an official Guinness World Record) and the loom used to make it.

Not content with all this art and culture, the kids then visited the Royal Palace, built in 1866 by the great-grandfather to the current king, who still resides there. Within the palace grounds, the kids saw the fabled Silver Pagoda, which has floor tiles made of solid silver.

And the next stop was… the less culturally significant but extremely welcome Carl’s Jr! Yup, everyone was starving by this point and in much need of burgers and fizzy drinks and air conditioning. Tony treated everyone for lunch and surprised one of the younger kids, Naomi, who was celebrating her ninth birthday on that day, with ice cream cake for everyone.

Though restored by food and drink, everyone was quite tired by this point. The younger children complained about pain in their buttocks from sitting in their bike seats for so long. Others had cramps in their legs and back. But Frank was merciless in his endeavour. As far as he was concerned, the bike ride had only just begun! So onwards and forwards – the cycling party continued to northern parts of the city, then across the Friendship Bridge to the spit of land that separates the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, then across the Mekong via the Chrouy Changvar ferry and back to Kandal province, then south along the river to finally return home. On this final stretch, Tony felt like he was having a heart attack, so there was another stop for freshly made sugar cane juice (a typical Khmer treat) and coconuts to let him catch his breath.

According to Frank, the group biked for approximately 40 kilometres that day. Not bad, especially for the youngest… and everyone (including Tony) survived! Frank also noted that most of our kids are already quite well informed about their Khmer history – a reassuring sign that their education is proceeding well.

‘The bike ride was an opportunity for the kids to appreciate their own history and culture,’ explained Tony after the worst of the soreness had subsided. ‘Another benefit was for them to get to know their city better. Some of the children and even our staff aren’t very good at navigating. They have no clue about street names or how to read maps or even a general sense of direction, so this was definitely something we wanted to improve.’

Well done everyone! I bet you all can’t wait for the next biking adventure…

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