Bangkok or Bust

As some of you know, I’ve been covering a fair bit of ground quickly over the last few weeks, to get to Bangkok by the end of January. This is to meet my favourite sister, who is joining me for a month, riding around Thailand. While the time/distance was certainly achievable, it did mean I was riding just a little more than I might have liked, with fewer rest days. In a big push over the last few days, I have made it to Bangkok, Venice of the East, with a day to spare.

After leaving Laos, I entered Cambodia, and rode direct to Siemreap, which is surrounded by a massive complex of temples, the most famous being Angkor Wat. I had a couple of long days touring around the various temples, covering around 70km. And this was supposed to be time off the bike! It is such a huge area, that I could only see a limited number of temples. To be fair though, after a long hot day of looking at ruins in the jungle, you do get a bit “templed-out.” Looking at the jungle strangling what were once vast complexes, you do start thinking of Ozymandias.

I also had a couple of days off, doing basically not much, and enjoying the range of international cuisine available. I like eating the local food generally, but it’s nice to have a bit of a change. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to local people that while their food is great, you’re used to eating at least four different cuisine styles each week. Still, the local food is always cheaper and usually better quality than various attempts at copying other styles.

The roads in Cambodia were generally pretty good, especially the first couple of days south from Laos – good new roads, with basically no traffic. On the third day, I decided to take a shortcut from Kratie, to try and save some time. When Jan had done it, he’d more or less followed the Mekong the whole way, travelling mostly on dirt roads. I’d met an American couple travelling on a tandem, who’d shown me another way, that meant around 30km of dirt, then a decent road, away from the Mekong. As ever, I was reminded that you should only take advice on roads from cyclists or truck drivers. The guy at the guesthouse told me “it was a good road all the way.” I was about 2km out of town when I hit the dirt. At least I knew it was coming up.

But that wasn’t much compared to the state of the road between Siemreap and the Thai border. This was the busiest road I rode on in Cambodia, and a critical road for tourism and trade. Yet it’s in an appalling state, supposedly being worked on. Over 120km of more or less dirt – the signs say that the upgrade project has been running for over 2 years, and it is due to run until October 2008. There appeared to be a total of about 11 people, equipped with one shovel and a tractor, working on the road. I can’t see them finishing it on time.

I could have split things up into a couple of days, but I wanted to make it to Thailand in one day. This meant a pretty long day, but I finally made it to the gorgeous silky smooth roads of Thailand late in the day. As I was crossing the no-man’s land between border posts, I was vaguely wondering why I exited Cambodia on the right, then seemed to have to move over to the left to enter Thailand. I’d also been wondering about the high number of right hand drive vehicles I’d seen in Cambodia, but I hadn’t quite managed to put two and two together. I thought maybe it was like Kyrgyzstan, where they got second hand Japanese imports. Sigh. It was a bit like that ad that used to be on NZ TV – the old guy driving the wrong way down the motorway gets a call from his wife, warning that she’s heard on the radio about a madman driving the wrong way down the motorway. His reply “There’s not just one – there’s hundreds of them!” It turns out that the Thai drive on the left hand side of the road. Woops, didn’t realise that. Not that it takes that long to get sorted out. Of course, in these countries, riding on the wrong side of the road doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

Smooth roads meant a very fast day the following day, getting closer to Bangkok. I then had a short day navigating into Bangkok, which actually proved to be pretty easy. I thought it might have been a bit tricky, and there was a lot of traffic to deal with, but it really wasn’t too bad. Drivers are pretty nice here, and remarkably hardly ever seem to use their horn. Quite a change from China and Vietnam. I’m not sure that I would want to be riding in this if I’d come direct from a Western country, but for someone like me, after the places I’ve been, it’s not really that big a deal.

I decided to head for the tourist slum around Khao San Road. It’s just a weird experience. So many Westerners concentrated in one area, lots of dreadlocks, tattoos and banana pancakes. British men were out in force, shirts removed at the first sight of the sun, drinking on the street. Early in the morning. I guess if you’d come direct from a Western country, it would all be a crazy new out-there experience, but it’s a bit strange for me. It does make life very easy though, as there are lots of places to eat whatever you want, plenty of guesthouses, places selling the sorts of things I might want to buy, etc.

Tracking down a guesthouse with rooms was a bit trickier than I thought it might be though – lots of places were full, or they only had air-con rooms. I don’t mind air-con, but I can’t be bothered paying for it. I managed to track down a room that could be charitably described as a cell. It does have windows – two even – but they just look at a small gap across to another window. A narrow iron frame single bed in the corner, a bare table and chair. A fan and a fluorescent strip, not even a power point. Shared cold-water bathroom. Ah well, it was cheap – relatively. Because Thailand is an expensive country, especially given the decline in the dollar. My room is around $5, which in Cambodia would have gotten me a nice room with a TV and bathroom.

I guess it’s the whole development/costs thing – this is a quite developed country, and with that comes higher prices. Nice smooth roads come at a price it seems. Having been in China, where the yuan is still held down, and Cambodia where you can spend dollars anywhere, it makes it cheap to travel if your money isn’t in USD. Here it’s a bit different when the USD is only worth 32 baht now – down from 45. However, it is rather nice to see a wide variety of products for sale in the stores – and the range of books!

Of course if I was going to stay in the tourist slum, I needed to make the most of it – so I went out for the full experience, drinking on the street with other random travellers, roaring around Bangkok in a tuk-tuk at 3:30am, trying to find a slightly suspect nightclub, and finally getting to bed sometime after 5:00. I was feeling a bit humble after all that though…

No way, it’s too scummy for that

“I’m telling you, it has to be!” “But it can’t be, it’s way too scummy to be a brothel.” “But what else could it be – there’s only women working here, there are several small thatched huts, a couple of different bars and karaoke, and it’s all in a strange location, outside a small village.” “Maybe you’re right…but it’s cheap, and it might be 50km to the next guesthouse, and sunset isn’t far off – let’s just stay here. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve slept in a brothel.”

I was making my way down through Laos, and had recently met up with Tim, who has got roughly the same start and end points as me, yet left 6 months earlier, and has taken an almost entirely different route. We were riding on of the longer legs, from Seno down towards Pakse, and wanted to do it in 2 rather than 3 days. We had been talking too much, and not quite covering enough ground to make the place 2/3rds of the way south, so we were stopping in all the little villages, doing the mime thing to find somewhere to sleep.

And so we ended up at a brothel. Was actually OK though – after 5 bottles of beer Lao, and some laolao (a local homemade firewater) I slept remarkably soundly. We washed using a scoop from a 40-gallon drum of water, outside in the sunshine, with the locals. Better than many showers I’ve had. The walls were just thin rough thatching, so I did wake up early, feeling a bit fragile – but we managed to get out without having to purchase any “services.”

I crossed over from Vietnam into Laos at Cau Treo, and a different world. The roads were superb condition, but with almost no traffic. I thought Vietnam was far less developed than China, but Laos is another step down. Possibly feels like the poorest place I’ve been, except for the roads. The people are great though, laid-back but friendly. Maybe the best cycling country yet. The distances between guesthouses require a bit of planning though. There was not much in the way of Internet access around, hence my delayed/missing replies to various emails – sorry!

Reaching a tourist site after six days, we were amazed at the high number of guesthouses (at least 5) and Westerners (at least 9). Nevertheless, other tourists were heard to complain at how few tourists were around, and how few guesthouses there were. Guess it depends on what you’re used to. I am firmly onto the “Banana Pancake” tourist trail now though – lots of identical places to stay, with identical menus, and plenty of English spoken. A few of the soap-shy dreadlocked archetypal stoner backpackers around too. Doesn’t matter. Just strange, after where I’ve been. In Central Asia, you meet some interesting types, been out and about doing tough/crazy/stupid stuff. Here, it’s a different sort of tourist. OK, but will take some getting used to.

Our mini peloton grew by one when we met Natalie, a Belgian going the same way – like-minded company is always welcome! We took a rest day at Don Kong Island, some of us doing rather little. Well, drinking beers overlooking the Mekong counts as a tourist activity doesn’t it? And besides, I had to rehydrate, as things have really started to heat up since I came down to the Mekong plains.

I’m back to riding by myself though, as I’ve headed down into Cambodia, and the others are going back up towards Pakse – they both have to get to Bangkok before I do. It seems to have gotten even hotter, and there is just no shade out on the road. Can’t step too far off the tarmac either, too many landmines. One village had a bomb mounted on display. Apparently found nearby. Hmmm. But the heat is my biggest problem, think I ran low on salts today – not so much lack of water as salt. Better add extra salt to my dinner tonight.

I’m a few days away from Angkor Wat, where I’ll take a rest for a few days, then push on to Bangkok. Will try and catch up with my email there – I have read them, I’m not ignoring you!