Sorry about not posting this sooner, but getting back into “normal” life has all been a bit much of a shock to the system. We’ve now been back in New Zealand for just over a week, and I’ve had a pretty busy week at work, trying to fit in VMware VCP training along with trying to catch up with work. Work didn’t stop while I was away it seems. Anna’s been busy around the house, sanding and painting. Seems like every other day I’m at the hardware store, picking up some tool or paint. They even know my name there. Weirdly, they knew my name and history before I’d ever told them – Anna had gotten to chatting with some of the staff on a previous trip.
Last we heard from our heroes they were having a recovery day, trying to get back some energy after a bout of food poisoning. All recovered, we got the bus from Siem Reap to Poipet, the closest Cambodia/Thailand border crossing. We saw the only rain of the whole trip that morning, a light drizzle that quickly cleared. Arriving at the bus stop, I was not happy to see the large number of backpackers. Not that I’ve got anything much against them, it’s just that full buses are more problematic when you’re trying to squeeze a bike into the luggage hold. Especially when the backpackers seem to be carrying enormous amounts of luggage. One girl in particular was causing quite a commotion, as she had multiple cases and bags, and the zipper was broken on the suitcase, presumably from trying to cram too much stuff in it. The suitcase ended up in a cardboard box, with a bit of string to hold it together.
The baggage handlers also had a quiet look of despair when they saw our two bicycles, in combination with the crowd of other travellers. But this is Cambodia, and where there’s a dollar, there’s a way. Or in this case, $5 per bicycle. The ticket for the 140km bus ride was $5 each, and they charged another $5 for the bikes. Paying a little extra is usually a good thing, because it means they will find a way to help you out. In this case, there were two buses leaving at the same time, but both were full. They ended up splitting the bikes between the buses, while we travelled together. I wasn’t all that happy about my bike being on a different bus, but it all worked out OK. The only annoying thing was that we stopped about 3km from the border itself, and had to wait more than half an hour while they pissed around sorting out stickers for the other tourists who were getting connecting services on the other side. If I’d been able to get my bike out, we would have been able to ride to the border crossing, and gone through well ahead of the other tourists.
As it happens, we still did get through the Cambodian customs fairly quickly. We were last off the bus, and by the time we’d gotten the bikes ready, there was a line of about 3 busloads of foreigners waiting to get stamped out of Cambodia. Sigh. I don’t like standing around in the hot sun. Lets wheel the bikes up over here, see what we can do. Sure enough, a solution presented itself. A uniformed border official said “Leave the bikes here, pay me a few dollars, and I’ll take your passports in and get them stamped, and you’ll be on your way in a minute.” Deal! There were a few grumpy looks from those standing in line, but that’s just the way things work around here. You don’t have to pay to leave Cambodia, but I don’t mind paying a fee for a real service. Otherwise I would have had to leave the bikes unattended for quite some time, in what is certainly the roughest town in Cambodia.
Sadly we couldn’t do the same thing on the Thai side. They’re not so keen on that sort of thing. We had to stand in line for a while instead, but at least it was in shade at first, later in air-conditioning, and they even had free drinking water. Very civilised. The only problem is that they won’t process foreigners in the “Thai Passport” line, even if there are no Thais in that line. However, this enforced break gave Anna and I a chance to follow the interaction between the two young backpackers in the line in front of us.
The Australian guy seemed to be trying to make a move on the girl, although the conversation was a little odd:
“Yeah, so I’m meeting my girlfriend in Bangkok in a few days. What about you – want to meet up tonight? Where are you staying in Bangkok? I’ve got a place sorted out, you can stay there”
He wasn’t really picking up on the fact that she wasn’t interested anyway, and somehow missed out on the memo that came out a while ago, saying that mentioning your current girlfriend is not usually ideal when looking for a short-term liaison. Anyway, he then moved on to discussing how he had to pay “the GOVERNMENT” to get into Cambodia. “I just said look mate, you’re the GOVERNMENT, you should just do your job and let me in.” He had absolutely no idea how things work here, or just how messed up the country is. He was talking about having been on the road for 4 months, but I suspect most of it was in the Australian enclave of Bali.
He then moved on to hassling the amount of baggage the poor girl was carrying. At this point, she was desperately staring at the slow-moving line in front of her, willing it to move faster. She didn’t actually have that much, although he had an enormous bag. He proceeded to pull out the largest towel I have ever seen. This thing was about 3m by 3m, because apparently “You need a really big towel in Australia.” I have absolutely no idea what you would do with a towel that large, nor why you want to cart the bloody thing around.
Anyway, eventually we got through customs and into Thailand. A short ride into town, and onto the Bangkok train. Bicycles are pretty common on this train. No hassles, just pay the baggage fee, and load the bike into the baggage car at the end of the train. This train is 3rd-class only, so the air conditioning is open windows. No problem, except that parts of the rice fields are being burnt off, which means a bit of smoke and ash periodically comes through the cabin. There’s a lot of grime on our faces and hands by the time we get to the hotel. But it was a relaxed, easy trip. The train makes many random stops, but somehow we still manage to arrive exactly on time. It’s not like there’s a lot of trains on the tracks, I can’t work out why the train doesn’t just leave an hour later.
It was a bit tricky riding out of the station though. At this point it was dark, and we didn’t have any lights on our bikes. It’s not like the police were going to arrest us, but still, I wasn’t keen on getting run over. I had a map, but it wasn’t quite detailed enough, and didn’t show the 1-way streets. This led to a few changes of direction, and one memorable, if rather tense moment, where Anna and I were stuck on opposite sides of a very busy intersection. Two 1-way streets met head-on, with a lot of traffic. I just couldn’t get across the street to where Anna was. Eventually I gave up trying to cross with traffic, and lugged the bike up over the overhead pedestrian crossing. I’ve had to do this a couple of times before – those times the bike was fully loaded, which makes it much more challenging to lift up a couple of flights of stairs. Reunited, we pushed on to our hotel.
Our hotel was only a block away from Velo Thai, who offer a bike packing service. You can buy a bike box off them, or for a little more they’ll box the bike for you. I couldn’t be stuffed with doing the work myself, so went the full hog, and got them to do a full clean, service and packaging. Made my life much easier. Dropped the bikes off, went back 24 hours later to put a couple of other things in the boxes, and seal them up. All good. The hotel staff were also very helpful with getting transport to the airport sorted out. We ended up using a people-mover – the two boxed bikes fitted in pretty easily.
When you’re living your normal life, you will often think of being away on holiday, perhaps exploring a big exciting city like Bangkok, doing some tourist things, enjoying the local food, etc. But what did we do for our last couple of days? Went to the mall and saw a movie. Plus I had to get some shirts and trousers made up. Odd how after a while you just want to drop out, and not deal with anything too “new.”
Thursday we flew out, with Jetstar via Singapore. Hot tip when flying Jetstar short-haul – they don’t do any free water. They do on long-haul, but short-haul you have to buy Evian at $4/bottle. We had water, but the Australian with us wasn’t too happy. Second tip: Just because you can’t take liquids through security, doesn’t mean you can’t take an empty bottle through, and fill it up from the free water air-side.
Long haul back through to Auckland, and home. Too many screaming babies on the flight for Anna to sleep, which somewhat stuffed up our plan to unbox the bikes at the airport, and ride home. It’s mostly bike paths from the airport to our house, and would be an easy enough ride, especially since we got in at 10:30am on a sunny morning. But Anna was rather out of it, and not even sure of which country she was in, let alone how to navigate home. I felt sorry for her, so we splashed out on a cab home.
Was the trip a success? Well, Anna and I are still married. Of course there were a couple of tense moments, but that’s to be expected. We’re still talking, and we’re still happy together. I would have liked to have done a little more riding than we managed in the end, but that’s no big deal. We got to spend time together, just us, a long way away from anyone else, and we got to spend time in interesting places, meeting interesting people.
So yes, Anna said that she enjoyed it. It wasn’t always easy, but she was glad we travelled by bike. The acid test of course will be if we ever go on another trip like this again. The good news is that A) We went for a 5 hour ride around the Auckland region yesterday, B) She wants to ride around the South Island for a couple of weeks this Christmas and C) She is still talking about the longer trip we’d like to do across the States. That one will have to wait a couple of years though – other things like University are a higher priority. Plus I need to settle into some work for a while, save up the cash for it. The States won’t be a cheap ride, although with the way the USD is sliding…