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!

Losing our bearings and cracking up

11 02 2011

‘What do you do if your bike breaks?’ this is one of the most common questions we get asked, everywhere, always. ‘Well’ we confidently reply ‘we can fix most things; a puncture, a broken chain, a snapped cable etc. And for anything bigger than that, why, there are any number of bicycle shops lining our route.’ Brave words.

We are bike maintenance careful, we keep our bikes as clean as we can, we toothbrush our chains regularly and keep them well oiled and debris free. But this trip has taken more of a toll on our poor bikes than we could ever have envisaged. The roads have been rougher, the way bumpier. And now we are into problems beyond any learning accrued on our 8 hours of bike maintenance training. We are into wheel truing (which is surprisingly easy), bearing maintenance and rim cracking. The latter two are of significant concern as there are two tools we didn’t bring that we seem singularly unable to find; a chain whip and a cassette removal tool. Though these may sound like kinky sex toys they are in fact what you need to take off your rear bike cassette (the rear gear cogs) and thus get access to your bearings (they are small balls that live in the centre of your rear wheel).

After days of being plagued by an unidentifiable ‘thump’ from the rear of Catherine’s bike we turned to the great interweb. Whereupon BIGTOOL, ROADMAMBA and other such bicycle experts helped us to the conclusion that her rear bearings must be wearing out or worn out. While knowledge is a wonderful thing we are still left somewhat stumped as we can’t actually get to the bearings (because of the lack of cassette removal tools – in rural Laos no bikes have gears….) and are still hazy on the long term affects of cycling on wearing bearings. Thus Catherine’s, somewhat cautious approach to hills, has become a crawling ginger paranoia; ever terrified of the rear wheel spinning off or locking and throwing her onto verges littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO), carelessly left every which where, by the US in the Vietnam war, to be blown into a thousand smithereens! We take hills moderately now.

Thankfully we have what every long distance cyclist needs; a Mothership, or, in this case a Fathership, who has cast a few tools in our direction to be collected in approximately 200km time. … *gulp* .  On top of this a rim inspection (again, not a kinky sex game) has revealed cracking on Liz’s rim (see pic). …. God (and maybe BIGTOOL and ROADMAMBA if we could get close enough to a web connection to ask them) alone knows what this means….. anyone?

ps – we have turned Right and are now cycling through Laos to get to Saigon… if anyone is interested..

Planning our Tet offensive – cycling Vietnam

10 02 2011

A Tet-mas Tree

Riding the inner North – South Ho Chi Minh wiggle had been traffic light, mud heavy. The road was coated with a persistent thin film of watery mud that our back tyres kicked high up our backs and over our heads to rain orange grit down on us from above. Mud clots clumped in our hair and packed into our ears. It had been a big decision not to fit the bikes with mud guards, which, on balance, was the right one; the vast majority of our days have been dry and a mud guard is yet another thing to break and yet another weight to justify – but with the road raining down on us and pop-corning up from below, it was sorely missed.  Our tolerance for all things wet, grey, and cold was beginning to rub – we had been pushing south for weeks now and the sun seemed as far off as ever it was. And Tet was lurking unimaginably before us; ‘Nothing will be open’ we had been warned ‘no guest houses no hotels no food no shops no nothing no anything’. Everyone knew something, but everyone’s something was soon huffed over and out by someone elses something else. These things we did know a) Tet is New Year but is more like Christmas b) everything may be closed at some point for some indeterminable length of time. Or not.

For this whole bag of reasons we decided to move back onto the other North-South vein– the 1. Quicker, dryer, more ‘main’, more danger; But not, thankfully, during Tet. We moved onto the 1 about a day before Tet eve, lining into it at a big knuckle town with a super market – A Big C. Lacking any further information and/or guidance other than ‘no’ and ‘don’t do it’ we decided to plan our own Tet offensive around the only fathomable time indication we could find; the Big C opening hours. Big C was closed for two full days thus, we surmised, we needed to ensure we had all our food, snack etc provisions for two full days too –after which, if Big C is back in the game surely pho (noodle) and com (rice) shacks will be too. So we stacked up with tins of tuna, noodles, chocolate and peanuts and crossed all our extremities on the accommodation front.

As it turned out cycling the 1 during Tet was both a blessing and a quite literal pain in all sorts of bodily fringe areas. The road was bare; not a whiff of truck dust or roar of sleeper bus ran its glitzy neck. It was ours! While there is little of visual interest along the edge of the 1, this traffic nakedness did mean that we could ride side by side for once; a leisurely treat usually only available on the sleepiest of sleepy lanes. And (thank all the baby cheeses!) while many guest houses where closed there were a good few open; AND we even managed to blag a full cooked meal on one of our “closed” days!

Caught between the sticky rice and the bean

However in the danger void left by the traffic came a profusion of small boys wielding their shinny Tet gifts; riding high on a diet of Tet candy. With boredom and sugar crashing through their veins these small boys fell into near apoplexy when they saw us coming. For the majority of our encounters (of which there were many many) this meant nothing more than a sudden cyclonic whipping up of small-boy-tumbleweed which scuttled down the road after us for a while until it a’whooped and a’hollered itself out. But for other small-boy-clusters, those whom the Claus of Tet had blessed with shiny new cap guns, we meant target practice. A cap gun, it turned out, is a surprisingly common Tet gift; and surprisingly surprising when on a bike. Thus, cycling during Tet turned out to be somewhat of an obstacle course – Catherine scored two hits from a cap gun, one slap on the arm, and one stroke with a bouquet of feathers; Liz  scored two drunken shoulder slaps, one feather stroke, and one hit by a handful of pebbles. All, it must be noted, while we were in motion!

Up the Himalayas!

4 02 2011

Cying Video – better late than never….