TV One Breakfast co-host Rawdon Christie has returned from a charity bike ride through Cambodia. He says the epic journey reminded him just how lucky we are to live in New Zealand.

I'm sure I speak for many when I say the best present a young boy or girl can receive is that first bike. It's not just a bike - it teaches skills, provides exercise and, beyond all, gives a child freedom and a means to explore beyond a backyard or a parent's reach.

So when the Children's Charity Variety asked me to help raise money to buy some kids a bike, I was keen to help.

Then they told me it involved travelling through a country that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember: Cambodia.

It's 40 years since the Khmer Rouge initiated a reign of terror on its fellow countrymen that left 2 million people dead. A quarter of the country was wiped out.


I was the same age as my children are now when I watched the evening news as it revealed the horror of what Pol Pot and his regime had done. I remember asking my father what genocide was. I have spent the years since wondering if a country could ever recover.

So, with the blessing of the greatest wife in the world, I met 20 strangers to cycle through Cambodia with and raise money for kids back home.

The initial goal was to raise maybe $15,000 to $20,000. By the time we left for Cambodia we had raised more than $25,000. So we were celebrating the trip's success before leaving the check-in hall.

And we know exactly where every cent goes - each $200 raised buys a kid a bike and helmet. Simple. Some of my fellow travellers had even chosen the school whose children they wanted to benefit.

Our group ranged in age from 30-something to 70-something; ability levels ranged from unsteady to expert. But we all shared an appreciation that the best way to see a new country was from the seat of a bicycle. Even in 38C heat.

The plan: to bike up to 65km a day, starting in the capital Phnom Penh, then heading south to the beach resorts, then west towards the Thai border, before heading back to Phnom Penh and then north to the famous Angkor Wat temples.

A coach was provided for the longer journeys, and for anyone struggling on the bike to have a breather for a few kilometres.

Saddle soreness? Mildly - but I'd been sent a New Zealand sheepskin bike seat cover before I left and mockery from my fellow travellers turned to envy as I boasted zero chafing after each day's biking.


The more I biked, the more I enjoyed it. I even learned to "draft", making the longer stretches easier, and I managed to avoid the one Tour de France-esque pile-up (three bikes went down when someone hit a diesel spill on a greasy bridge - only minor cuts and bruises).

When not on the bike, much of our time was taken up sightseeing and, despite the nature of Cambodia's recent history, there were many moments of levity - such as the visit to the national zoo when a Chinese woman thought I was peeing on her back.

We were part of a crowd observing bears through a fence and to get a better vantage point she was crouched in front of me. I needed to free my hands to take a photo, so put my water bottle between my thighs. Unfortunately, I inadvertently squeezed my legs together and the ensuing stream of water spattered on her back.

I must also apologise to the Koh Kong boat owner, who will be replacing one of his bench seats after my weight got the better of it. Too much jasmine rice and "seasonal fruit", our staple fare throughout.

In every trip there are highs and lows. I like a foreign sun beating down on me even on the back of a bike. Phnom Penh didn't disappoint, with temperatures hitting 40C, but for the five days I spent further afield, the rain was relentless.

The upside is that I need to go back to enjoy the beaches I could only observe from the shelter of a sodden beachside bar.

But maybe the weather mirrored my overwhelming thoughts. I found this a country of two halves - there's Phnom Penh, and there's everywhere else.

Phnom Penh is for the "Haves", the countryside is for the "Have-nots". Phnom Penh is thriving, busy, vibrant - an investor's dream; the countryside is poor, simple, slow, resistant to change. Phnom Penh is for culture, history, shopping; the countryside is for friendly people, doing things the way they've always been done.

Phnom Penh is for international cuisine; the countryside is for deep-fried crickets and barbecued frogs. Phnom Penh was for silently considering the 1970s genocide; the countryside for accidentally "peeing" on other tourists.

I've shared the stories with my children. I've explained how I found the tooth of a forgotten victim on a path in the notorious Killing Fields. I've told them this is a country they must go to. I've told them not to wait too long, so they see Cambodia before Chinese investment changes it beyond recognition. I've told them they don't know how lucky they are.

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