28 02 2011

Since we are lounging on our batties (having whipped up a mere 600 students into an HIV discussion whirl before lunch today) with only fruit shakes and Pho (noodle soup) to slurp we have added NEW STUFF to our website.. like… photos and films! Have a look at the photos and films page.. it’s a Tibet film with yaks and monks and other Tibetty things.


PS – if anyone (aged small)  is following the adventures of Mee Nooi she has also dragged her little paws to the keyboard to throw down a few diary entries – See Mee Nooi Page


R & R in Saigon and all our broken bits

27 02 2011

Vietnam-Cambodia border... high-tech...

We are back in Vietnam! We have cycled from Hanoi to Saigon via Laos and Cambodia.Woo.

Saigon will be our last cycle-in-to-able city as from here we turn right and head for the Cambodian coast and out to Thailand. Saigon is an exhilarating place to cycle – the wide streets are thick with whirling whizzing mopeds; always on the move, always on the move. We are finding it, however, a dull place to visit. Its key tourist streets sell the widest range of mediocre food, its market vendors are aggressive and needy, and its museums are full of blatant propaganda that sadly serves only to undermine their impact. ‘Where you from?’ one market seller calls out to a passing khaki short clad middle aged American ‘Pizza hut’ he replied sarcastically.  This is the relationship. One sees only dollars the other only greed. Neither sees the other.

A list – Liz’s broken bits

Gloves – Her first pair wore through in India. She is now on her second pair; bought in Mumbai.

Chain – Her first one broke off in India. She is now on her second one; bought in Mumbai.

Front pannier rack – Her first one snapped in two places; bought in Kathmandu.

Cycling shorts/trousers – we just keep sewing!

Rear wheel rim – Her first one cracked around 4 spokes; new one sent out and fitted in Saigon.

Rear tyre – Her first one wore down; new one sent out and fitted in Kathmandu.

Sunglasses – flip-ups brought after her prescriptions were stolen in Iran. They snapped; sticky tape now doing the job.

Bungee. We have others – phew.

Will we get her there in one piece?……

B List – Cath’s broken bits

One almost broken tyre



A day on the road – cycling the Mekong at last!

25 02 2011

Luckily for Cambodia first impressions are not lasting ones and day three brought a perfect opportunity for redemption. Having been denied our Mekong boating experience we were pleased that our next day’s progress took us on a 120km stretch of minor roads that run a tight line next to the river. The numerous cracking points on a problematic rear rim are rapidly gaining territory and it was thus with some trepidation, and not a little finger crossing, that we set off on the Mekong road between Kratie and Kompong Cham.

As the sun broke light over the earth (at 6am prompt) we peddled out of Kratie. Having never cycled off a main road in Cambodia we

One of three cracks on the rim....

were unsure what to expect; getting a grip on which roads on the map are generally cyclable is key to future planning, and a first foray can be a bit hit and miss. Luckily the road was mostly paved but with some significantly bumpy sections comprising only of grey grit and red mud. The combination of which resulted in a thick brown red covering of grime that clung incestuously to our sweaty arms, legs and faces and looked somewhat like a streaking bad fake tan; on the plus side it acted as a barrier to the suns spiking little rays. The thin road was mercifully tree lined and the wide palm canopy eased the heat of the midday sun. And it was beautiful indeed.

Tobacco drying building

The floppy green then brown tobacco leaf is the staple of this region; and the road was a positive hive of tobacco growing, stringing, drying and transporting. Small industrious gatherings of men, women and children sit under raised wooden houses busying with the leaves; a whole 90kms of cottage industry that collectively produce a mountain of flat brown sheets that are then sold to the British American Tobacco Co in Phenom Phen. During a water refuelling break we got chatting to a local woman. She was a cheery middle aged woman who was clad in a striking pair of pink “nighty night” pjs; a strange and jarring aberration to our western sentiments more commonly confined to the deranged, the unhinged and mothers in St Mellons Tescos in Cardiff, this is apparently the national dress in Cambodia. It is considered perfectly desirable to spend your day in any number of garish pj’s and the women certainly do.

The road bowed in and out to the Mekong itself offering tantalising glimpses of its wide cool flow. Though with the waters so low we were often shocked at the equal expanses of brown sand that ran along with it. Although it was a challenging distance that left us smattered with sweat, dust, sand and heat rash it was utterly compelling.

Cambodia – Day 1

21 02 2011

‘Fill in this .. quarantine regulations’ we were handed yet another piece of paper by yet another languid Cambodian border official ‘let me guess, $2?’ Liz muttered under her breath ‘$2’ the official demanded. At the Laos-Cambodian border of Dong Kralor we had to weave though a small paddy field of paperwork; every form, every stamp costing another $2, another $2. So far on this trip we have cycled across 11 land boarders and this certainly tops the bill for nefarious overcharging.  A German cycling couple (of course) who we have been cycling with for the past few days refused to pay for the final stamp and after a limp insistence effort by the official they were waved through anyway.

After the genocide of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge social experiment Cambodia has a significantly depleted population. During Pol Pot’s rule approximately a quarter of the population was either killed outright or died of starvation.  His murderous legacy extended beyond his Ubu-esq rule as hundreds of thousands more died of starvation in the subsequent years as Cambodia struggled to relocate all it’s displaced people and to re-plant rice fields abandoned as those forced to work them during his reign left them to try and locate scattered family members.  Not to mention the thousands of Cambodians who have since died as a result of land mine explosions or the thousands who fled the country to take refuge in other countries around the world.  Thus, on our first day in Cambodia we were unsurprised at how few villages we came across.  The brittle dusky landscape runs right up to the road, interrupted only by the occasional landmine warning sign.  The first town we came across was the Mekong hugging Strong Treng. A busy little hub, we landed a room in the Riverside guesthouse (see the LP).

If there is one thing we love as much as cycling along next to a river it is riding a boat on a river; the mighty Mekong has been singing along next to us for the past 500km’s and we have been itching to ride it. It was in Strong Treng that we caught up with our German cycling buddies and set to discussing a cycling blip looming on the morrow. The section of road between Strong Treng and Kratie is a corking 140 km. A big day. Do able if a) we were travelling south to north as the wind would be behind us and b) we didn’t mind cycling in the dark- which we do. We have cycled 140km days before but with temperatures rising to 40C, the humidity chaffingly high, and the hot wind running into us, thus we (gleefully) settled our chances on catching a boat instead.  The Lonely Plant recommended an agent based at the Riverside guesthouse (Mr T) who we approached to try and help; but unfortunately he turned out to be a bit of a scally and so we wasted much of the remains of the day trying to weave round yet another set of Cambodian miscreants. At the end of which we didn’t get a boat and we didn’t get any good advice either.  We grumpily settled on a bus lift to take us part of the way and sadly let go of our Mekong boating dreams L. First impressions of Cambodia? … hmmm.

Cyclists cyclists everywhere (Southern Laos)

19 02 2011

‘Helloooooooo’ we wave raucously at the two fellow cyclists that glint in to view on the other side of the road. We all slam our brakes on and swing round, grinning shiny sweaty grins into the hot midday sun. It is a wonderful thing, and up until now quite a rare thing, to meet other cyclists. For the majority of our trip we have gone days, even weeks, without seeing any other ‘farang’ (foreigners) and it has been many weeks since we bumped into another cyclist! Until we hit the lower Mekong.

The cycling pair we bumped into yesterday morning were a German man and woman in their early thirties. They were perched upon wonderfully rickety bikes that they had brought in Cambodia; they had small backpacks balanced on the rear pannier racks with not a cycle helmet or sniff of lycra in sight. The whole image looked slightly Mad Max-esq every bit as if they and their bikes might fall apart at any minute. We passed the usual pleasantries; information on the state of the road ahead, distances between stop-offs etc and they were relieved to know that, though rolling, there were no major hilly surprises on the horizon – their bikes only had a very limited gear range! This was a rather refreshing meeting for us as in the whole of the past 7 months not once have we met such .. shoe-string cyclists, in fact this may have been the first “bikepackers” we have ever come across. No way would their bikes stand up to the rigours of long distance touring but that was not their intent, they were very much part of a Mekong (thus quite flat) adventure that would see them utilise a whole range of transport modes.

The second set of cyclists we met, not an hour further on, were a most delightful American couple who were whizzing along on the tiny wheels of their fold down bikes. These crazy kippers were on a world tour to celebrate the chap’s 70th birthday. They had two tiny front panniers which held their essentials and were bedecked with a wild array of gadgetry clipped, strapped and tied to their bodies and cycling hats. With their little bikes folded neatly away they basically flew into an area they were interested in, toured around on busses etc and then whipped the bikes out for any sections they felt inclined to cycle!

The THIRD set of cyclists, (please bear in mind that we hadn’t seen another single cycling soul in almost a month) didn’t stop. Though we did exchange large waves and huge whoops of ‘helloooooo!’ . These where two boys, on decent touring bikes, and probably on a bit of a testosterone-fuelled-distance-cruncher of a trip.

And these were only the beginning! As we continue towards Cambodia we are practically falling over an absolute glittering tiara of bicycling bunnies. We have chatted to Thai, Russian, and German (lots of) pedal pushers; gone are the long distance purists of India, Iran or Turkey.  Over the past few days we have met people who are using bikes for journeys that last for as long as 2 years and as short as two days. It has been both an education and a real little heart warming pot of diversity. Wheel on the revolution!

Lazy Laos zzzzzz

14 02 2011

When cycling Hanoi to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) there are three main options (just ask googlemaps!); one is down the dreaded (yet beach soaked) Vietnamese Highway 1; the practically deserted, beautiful but HILLY Ho Chi Minh Highway; or take a right onto the 9 into Laos and zip down the main north-south Highway 13. We have opted for the Laos diversion – Liz has never been so, heck, why not!

The moment we crossed the border at Lao Bao we were seduced! The wide open traffic free roads, the warm steamy air simmering from the heat of the hazy sun; the mile upon mile of empty brown red scrubland intermittently dotted with grazing cows, little stilted wooden houses, and snuffling boars. Every small village we pass through the air keens with the shrill pitching ‘Sabadeeeeeeeee’s of the under 5’s. After the fuzzy excitement of Vietnam, Laos feels like a mighty exhale.

With the return of warm moist days we ditch our dodgy Chinese doormen’s coats and re jig our daily schedule; now we are back to rising at 5.45am to ensure we make full use of the cool morning hours; by mid morning the sun is nipping at our exposed ankles and soon burns through our factor 50 sun block, Catherine even has a dark tan mark on her back, under her clothes! We are on a bit of a mission to make it to Savannakhet (see previous rim issue blog!) so hurry on.

We stay at cheap roadside guest houses in basic cells offering varying degrees of cleanliness but varying degrees of little else; most have a ceiling fan, a lock on the door, a toilet and a tap. At one such establishment our walls were liberally decorated with half scrubbed out pencil drawings of women’s heads – their barely visible features eyed us suspiciously in the harsh strip lighting as we laid out our sheet bags on the rock solid bed. Yet the rooms are adequate and the owners pleasant and obliging. We often get the feeling we are the only clientele, until the next morning (early) when gaggles of Laotian travellers stream out of the adjacent rooms.

We eat what we can at little road side shacks; a feast of son tam (papaya salad), sticky rice and an omelette is a usual evening meal – even though we try to indicate only a ‘nit noi’ (little bit) of chilli our lips and tongues usually end up pulsing shiny red as we rush to consume enough calories to get us through the next day.   As the red sun sets over the distant hills, we breathe easy in the warm, clear evening air.  Not for the first time on our trip do we thank the slowness of our wheels that allows us to spend our time in these seemingly dull and dusty little places; little places that wouldn’t even get a sniff in a Lonely Planet, but where we get to simply sit, sip an ice cold beer and sink lazily into Laos at is easiest.

Update on our thumps and cracks

12 02 2011

(see yesterdays blog for the intro re bike damage..s)

Having reached the southern Laos city of Savannakhet calamity free and intact we rendez-vous with our parcel of crucial cassette removal tools. We then scanned the town for a decent bicycle mechanic… there are many motorbike ones but scant few bicycle ones. We stumbled upon one with pictures of race teams plastered all over the walls – a sure sign of interest if not quality – Holien Bike Center (041-213190 / 020-55250782).  Where upon Liz’s cracked rim was dismissed as they didn’t have a 32” replacement. When choosing this size we were aware that they are harder to come by in this part of the world than 26” – ho hum. Nevertheless the mechanic confidently set too on my (Catherine’s) bearings. And what a beautiful act of maintenance it was to behold – we shall call it the Dance of the Bearings. With clarity and tenderness he moved through the steps, meticulously cleaning the socket and inspecting the little balls.  He settled upon a change for one set and a general loving of the other.  All told the job was complete in little over 20 mins and cost a whopping £1.  Unfortunately the rear ‘thump’ still remains as does Liz’s rim crack. Our second thump suspect is a thinning patch on the said same rear tyre…. new tyre? ‘Right!’ Liz exclaims, ‘we are only a boat ride over to Thailand. I’m going to go there!’  Extreme measures! This is a risk and a cost but if needs must so must we. After checking the dwindling pages in her passport, stacking up on biscuits, pocketing enough dollars she was sent on her way.  Not 200m down the road Liz spied another bike shop and decided to give it a try – where upon she was duly convinced that her crack will probably last the last 1500km’s to Thailand (the Southern bit – not the bit a 20 min boat ride away) and to not worry about it. This is a bit of a “time-will-tell” solution. With the rim out of the running we decided to scrap the Thailand dash and switch my (Catherine’s) front and back tyres instead. This should take the weight pressure off it and *fingers crossed* help it last the distance!!!  If anyone is close to any wood – if you could touch it for us – it would be much appreciated!