It was 3am and I was suddenly awoken by torrential rain loudly crashing onto the tin roof of my home stay in the small community of Chi Phat. I managed to go back to sleep but when I awoke again at 6am it was still raining, heavily. This didn’t bode well for my upcoming, overnight Chi Phat mountain biking trek in the jungle of the Cardamon Mountains in Western Cambodia.
When I arrived at the community center to start the trek I asked the guide if the trek was doable after all the rain. He insisted it would be ok but that there might be a few leeches as they like the rain. Wait, what? Leeches? Those horrible blood suckers that wriggle on grass blades and tree leaves, jump onto you, and then suck your blood out until their bodies are so fat they fall off again? I have had previous experience with blood sucking vampire bats in the Amazon, but I have never encountered leeches so far.
I did my best to leech-proof myself by tucking my socks into my trousers, wearing a long sleeved top, and tucking that into my trousers as well. Not exactly the sexiest look but you have to tuck everything in as although leeches might land on your ankle first, they soon wriggle their way up to your private bits or arm pits as these parts are more veiney and therefore easier to get blood out off (too much information?). Just the thought of these creepy crawlies making their way to body parts I really don’t want them to be on made me cringe, so I pulled my belt as tight as I could, my socks as high as I could, and applied so much leech-spray to my socks that they were dripping wet. But I was soon ready to face those suckers, or so I thought.
I started the bike ride and as expected the terrain was almost impossible to navigate with my bike. The ground was either so muddy that I just slid through it, landing on my butt a few times, or I was faced with puddles so deep I never knew if I would make it through until I tried it. I tried to peddle through the puddles as fast as I could but they were usually so muddy that I’d just get stuck in the mud which made me fall off my bike so many times I lost count. I was completely soaked through. My trousers were wet, and my hiking boots were filled with water.
The deeper we got into the jungle the wetter the conditions got and that’s when I first heard a scream so loud that I thought something really terrible just happened. My friend discovered a first leech on her sock. Soon after all of us had leeches all over our socks and shoes, trying to make their way to our skin. Just imagine four girls covered in leeches, screaming like, well, little girls, whilst flapping their arms around in a sheer panic and you have a good picture of what we looked like. At first I was scared to touch them and either asked our guide or cook to dispose of them for me but after a while there were just so many that I couldn’t rely on other people all time to get rid of them for me. I started scraping them off with leaves or sticks but after a while I just got so peed off with them that I just used my bare hands to flick them off. Luckily they never got onto my skin apart from twice when they landed on my hands, but I had no major blood-letting damage. Unlike a fellow trekker who wore a tank top and hit a leech on her back which promptly exploded and left her whole back covered in blood. Disgusting!
When we finally reached our camp for the night I was a hot sweaty mess full of leeches so the first thing I did was clean up in the nearby stream. I put on some dry clothes and hung my wet ones up at camp. I knew they wouldn’t dry completely in the steamy jungle but that was ok, as long as I had some dry clothes for the night. Our cook and my Khmer friends started cooking a delicious meal of fried rice with vegetables, chicken and omelet. It felt so good to be dry and put some food in my tummy that I even didn’t mind the massive worm that was living in our camp, nor the flesh eating plants for that matter. Having slept in a hammock before I knew how to get comfortable and I think I fell asleep in my US Army hammock at about 8pm and slept like a baby. I only woke up occasionally to the sounds of wild cats and gibbons but they were so far in the distance that it didn’t worry me too much.
When I woke up the next morning I put on my damp clothes again but luckily my body heat soon dried them again so it didn’t feel too bad. The second day was much easier as the ground had dried up a little and it was also mainly downhill, so it was far less exhausting than the first day. I drove past waterfalls, had some fresh coconut from our cook’s garden, took some silly photos, and made it back to Chi Phat community for the afternoon.
Over the past two days I cycled about 40km through the deep Cambodian jungle, fighting exhaustion, giant worms, flesh-eating plants and leeches, but feeling a great sense of achievement. Bear Grylls would have been proud of me.
Have you ever had a leech encounter?