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!

Cycling in the Middle Kingdom

Well, since I managed to last four months in China without resorting to using “The Middle Kingdom” – so favoured by typical all expenses paid “travel reviews” you read – I thought I would use it just this once. I have left China, but I thought I should just put a few closing remarks, on how to fit in when riding a bicycle in China.

First the bike. Ideally you would buy a cheap steel bike, then leave it outside in the rain for 10 years, preferably somewhere where cars can run over the back wheel a few times. If the back wheel doesn’t wobble, it’s not a proper bike. I’ve seen almost brand-new bikes with wobbly wheels. If you don’t have 10 years to wait, then go down to the local supermarket, and buy a shiny, folding, full suspension bike in pink, complete with rear rack, mudguards, stand, shopping basket, bell, glittery lights, and “sit up and beg”-style handlebars. All for about $30.

Fitting your bike: There are many ancient rules, based on the Confucian ideals, that should be followed when correctly setting up your bike. Basically they can be boiled down to removing the seat-post bolt, and putting the seat as low as it can go. When pedalling, ensure that you carefully position your heel over the centre of the pedal. This should result in having your knees in the optimum position, widely splayed out.

Now, which side of the road to ride on? Well, you could do what the traffic is doing, and mostly ride on the right – but as we all know, traffic rules only apply to vehicles with 4 or more wheels. Horsepower rating is irrelevant. So you just ride on whichever side of the road suits you best – maybe it’s easiest to ride to and from your destination on the same side both ways, saves crossing the road. But if you’re on the left, what about all the oncoming traffic? Just give them a bemused look, as if you can’t work out why they are all going the wrong way, as you plow straight through them.

Alerting other traffic to your presence. Of course your bike has a bell, which should be rung constantly. It doesn’t matter if there is no-one in front of you, ring it anyway. It’s part of the rhythm – pump the pedals, ring the bell. Perhaps you are lucky enough to be able to afford an electric bicycle. In this case, silently zoom up behind the laowai with the loaded bicycle, wait until you are just behind his ear, then blast that horn for all it’s worth. If you only have an ordinary bell, remember to tinkle it as you cut off that 18-wheel truck.

Traffic lights. Huh? What do they matter? You only have two wheels remember, they don’t apply to you. Go through the intersection whenever you feel like it. Especially if there is a large amount of traffic going across you. Glare at the cars – why are they in your way, when you’re trying to cross the road?

Clothing. No need for specialised clothing. High heels and miniskirt shouldn’t slow you down in the least. Unless it’s raining, and you should wear a rain cape, preferably with clear plastic window at the front for letting your light shine through. Not that it matters, as even if you do have lights, you never use them anyway.

Load carrying. The official load limit is 900kg for bicycles and 2,500kg for tricycles. Preferred loads are very long, and mounted sideways across the bicycle. Long hoes or scythes are good for this. That is of course unless you are carrying one of your friends on the back. Chinese cyclists like company, so easiest to carry a friend with you. On a similar note, if your friends should happen to also be on bicycles, remember that the maximum allowed number of cyclists riding abreast is six, and should not be exceeded.

Hills. At the first sign of any slope, get off and push. Chinese bikes don’t have gears, remember.

Finally stopping – brakes are never much good, so all stops should be done at a run, similar to starting really. If you are female, when you come to a stop, do not stand astride the bike. Instead jump off to one side of the bicycle. This is regardless of if you are wearing a skirt, or if your bicycle has a high top tube. The real reason is to scare the cyclist coming up behind you, into making an emergency stop. This will also help you to identify any impostors, who haven’t yet learned the rules to cycling in China.

No doubt there are more rules, but this will be enough to get you underway. I’m in Vietnam right now, around 150km south of Hanoi. The first 40km out of Hanoi were OK, as a new motorway takes much of the bus and truck traffic away, but it has been pretty unpleasant after that, and I’m not enjoying it at all. Too many speeding buses and trucks, all leaning on their horns, which I believe are louder than the Chinese horns. I think the deafness in my left ear will be nearly profound by the time I get out of here. Should just be one more long day of it though, then I’ll turn off Highway 1, and head west into Laos, and a bit of the unknown – the map doesn’t show too many places to stay for the first couple of days.

No More Beer and Skittles

Sadly, my run of beer and Skittles has come to an end. I have, after 4 months and nearly 10,000km, left China and crossed over the border into Vietnam. I have searched high and low, but I have been unable to find any Skittles. So now it’s just beer.

I woke this morning (New Year’s Day) to a dull thump in my head, that just seemed to keep on going. Perhaps not so unusual you might think…except after a while I realised it wasn’t my head, it was the neighbours starting some major construction, tearing down a wall or something. Early on New Year’s Day. And that, more than anything, reminds you that you are in a country where the New Year is celebrated with a different calendar – Tet will be celebrated on February 7 2008.

Not that there was nothing happening at all – no, there was a show involving comedy boxing, monkeys on bicycles, and roller-skating girls with lycra swimsuit-type outfits that looked to be pulled up rather uncomfortably far. All this with several hundred Hanoians sitting on their scooters, watching. A bit of a quiet lot though, very little emotion showed by the crowd, not even much clapping. Guess it’s a cultural thing, but you would have thought the performers would like some sort of approval from the crowd.

That all ended at 21:45 though, then everyone drifted around to another concert. Lots of food stalls and things – aha I thought, I’ll find someone selling beer…but no, I only saw one can for sale. Eventually I went around to a bar, and was there at midnight – a rather surprisingly empty bar, but with some interesting people. A bit different, but a fun time was had.

The ride in from the border at Mong Cai was not bad – a big change to the feel of the place as soon as you cross over though. Narrow roads, millions of scooters, then you’re out into relatively unpopulated countryside. Some nasty little climbs too, nothing too big, just short and steep. Rolling up and down like that takes it out of you more than doing one big climb. I also hit a coal mining area, which meant huge coal trucks, dust everywhere, terrible roads, etc. The dust would have been bad enough, but they had a truck watering the road to keep the dust down. This meant that I ended up getting covered in sticky black mud. Luckily the nice staff at my guesthouse in Hanoi washed my panniers for me.

The Thai embassy was closed Mon 31st/Tues 1st, so I have to wait until tomorrow before trying to get a 60-day visa. Should be able to get it issued on the same day, then I can head south out of here to Vinh, and across the border into Laos. Doesn’t look to be too many towns along that road where I can stop, nor much information online, so it could be a touch interesting not having any camping gear. No doubt it will all work out though.

Oh and two New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Gain weight.
  2. Do less exercise.