Reality Bites

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…

Flat Out

“What’s with the guys there with the mullets?”

“Oh, those two are my brothers.”

Crap, how do I back-pedal out of this one? But luckily the girl was a little drunk to notice I’d just insulted her family, and Anna returned to save me. But seriously, if you’ve got a mullet, and you’re wearing white tube socks, I highly advise that you do not go out to a bar that uses U/V lights. It hasn’t come out that well here, but you should be able to see the socks showing up:

But when you find out that he’s Australian, and about 16 years old, it does kind of explain things. Apparently their family of 5 goes away on expensive holidays every year – the money would probably be better spent on fashion consultants for the two boys. Ah well, can’t be helped. I would have liked to ask the young man if he regretted wearing the white socks to the pub, but I suspect the answer would be “no – why?” Anna tells me that white socks are never appropriate.

We’ve been in Siem Reap the last couple of days, at first seeing the temples, but then the last couple of days have been pretty well wasted. We both came down with some form of food poisoning. I was worse than Anna, but we both didn’t really do much all day yesterday, and today has been an easy day too, while we are recovering.

Unfortunately this has put a slight spanner in the works – we were planning on two more days of riding, from Siem Reap to the Thai border, and then onto the train. With an extra day spent here, we’re now a little short on time, so we’re going to have to bus/train from here to Bangkok in one day. A pity, as we both would have liked a couple more days of riding. So it turns out that the trip has been one way by bike, and return by bus/boat/train. Not like we were trying to set any records anyway.

Dress Appropriately

One of the things you notice when you travel around is the local dress styles. These can range from the amazing coloured dresses of Central Asian women, to the just a little bit too short jeans and white socks preferred by Russian men, to the Charlie Sheen-style outfits preferred by American men everywhere.

In this part of the world, it’s all about the pajamas. Anna is very much in favour of this, as it turns out that it’s completely appropriate to wear pajamas all day long. Today we obtained photographic evidence that slippers can be worn at any time too. In Cambodia the pajamas tend to be cotton, and looser fit. Vietnamese seem to be more synthetic fabrics, and slimmer cuts. Not nearly as comfortable I should think. Men’s outfits here are pretty plain, but to be honest, it’s always the women’s outfits you look at, wherever you go.

But then you start looking at the outfits worn by the Western tourists, and you realise that they’re pretty odd too. A fine example would be the young Israeli girl we saw the other day, wearing a singlet, dancing tights, and brown slip-on workboots (such as these). I suppose she can’t be blamed though, she will have just come out of compulsory military service. Still doesn’t explain the conversation that she was having with another young gentleman, that went along the lines of “Oh, I never take any photographs, because if you need a photo to remember something, then the event wasn’t strong enough, and it wasn’t worth remembering anyway.” I should probably also point out that the young gentleman was wearing a black singlet, pantaloons and kung-fu shoes. Didn’t really quite gel with the iPhone 4S he was holding though.

Yesterday we were sitting in an Indian restaurant, when another good example walked in. A youngish man, he had a mullet haircut, divided at the back. Singlet again, to go with matching camouflage backpack and rolled-up cargo pants. A tripod and disappointingly small camera hung off one shoulder. This was at 20:30, so I’m not sure what he was planning on taking photos of, but I digress. He spends 5 minutes standing up, reading the menu, before deciding to take a seat. He then studies the menu for this Indian restaurant for another 10 minutes, before placing his order. After looking at the currys, dhalis, naans on offer, he asks for fried rice. The waiter does his best to respond politely, but you can see him thinking WTF? Calmly, he informs him that this is an Indian restaurant, but if he wants fried rice, he would be far better off going just up the street to the market, where any number of stalls will be able to do cheaper, better fried rice. Perhaps this young man’s lack of awareness of his surroundings is due to the wide availability of cheap alcohol and drugs. I don’t know.

Today we’re off to Siem Reap. Rather than take the cheap and fast bus, we’re taking the slow and expensive boat. Hopefully there’s still enough water in the lake/river system to make it through safely.

Ho Chi Minh Rest Stop

Just a quick note to let you know that we’ve just been having a couple of rest days in Saigon. The roads have been getting busier and busier, and it’s good to have a rest, and do tourist-type things.

We’ve been doing museums, visiting tunnels, eating and drinking, and dodging traffic. Typical Saigon stuff really. Tomorrow we turn back to the West, but since we’re short on time, the bikes will be stuffed in the hold of a bus, across to Phom Penh.

For cyclists coming into Saigon, it turns out to be very easy to cycle into if you’re coming from the south on Highway 1. HW1 itself is not much fun to ride on, but at least there’s usually a shoulder. Follow it until the major clover-leaf intersection, and turn right onto Vo Van Kiet. This is a major road that runs alongside a stinking canal. There is a separated lane for motorbikes and bicycles, but most motorbikes stay in the main part of the road. This means only a handful of scooters in your lane, and almost no-one going the wrong way (this is almost unheard-of in Vietnam). Follow this along for a fair way, until you can turn off to the left on Nguyen Thai Hoc. A couple of blocks along there, and the backpacker ghetto is on your left.

One other tip for cyclists – get a boat from Vinh Long to Cai Be, rather than trying to ride that section. Very pleasant, and very easy to put the bikes on a boat. There’s people at the dock who are used to doing it, and they’ll sort you out.

Police Bust

Some people find it quite disorienting to wake up in different hotel rooms each day. Personally, I don’t really mind, it doesn’t seem to bother me. That’s assuming I’m just waking up at my normal time. When the doorbell keeps ringing at 2:00am, it’s a different story. It takes me a while to even work out what the noise is – it’s not like it’s the doorbell from home.

OK, I’ve come to enough to work out it’s the doorbell. Prostitutes maybe? It is a border town after all. Hmm, usually they only knock once, then leave me alone. Why is it still ringing? Time to get up and look through the peephole. Oh. Two hotel staff, and three uniformed policemen. Perhaps I’ll put the clothes on then.

I knew straight away what was going on. The hotel staff had not filled in the proper registration forms when we arrived, and had not kept our passports. It just so happened that the police decided to do a raid, and they found that things were not in order. So I got my clothes, grabbed the passport, and went out to see them. Sure enough, they needed my passport, and they wanted me to go downstairs. Hmm. This could go badly.

But funnily enough, I wasn’t worried, because when I told them Anna was also in the room, but was asleep, the policeman put his finger to his lips, and was concerned about waking her. That put me at ease, and I gladly grabbed both our passports and headed down to the lobby, where the staff could fill in the required forms while the police watched. Bleary-eyed, I stood there waiting, watching an enormous rat make its way across the marble lobby, working its way around to us, before suddenly seeing us and turning tail, fleeing across the shiny floor, and out the enormous hole to the construction site next door. It’s that kind of place.

Eventually they finish with the passports, and I’m sent back to bed. Takes a while to get back to sleep after that though, too many bright lights in the lobby. Just another day on the road for me, poor old Anna was starting to worry about what was going on though.

We’re in Vietnam now, in Long Xuyen. Vietnam is a lot busier than Cambodia, and it makes things a bit more “interesting.” Luckily we got on a quiet road for our ride from Ha Tien to Chau Doc. It wasn’t on my map, but about 4km out of Ha Tien, we turned left onto a road that followed one of the huge canals here, mostly very close to the border with Cambodia.

It’s the Mekong Delta now for us. Huge canals marching off like grid lines across a flat, flat land. Water is everything here, with most of the land at least semi-submerged. Often the road is the only raised point. Houses crowd on both sides of the road, but they’re built on stilts above the water. Rice paddies stretch out for miles, but unfortunately we’re struggling to find rice meals, it’s all rice noodles here instead. Quite a good meal, but once you’ve had it for four meals in a row (including breakfast) you start looking for variety.  That’s why we were quite happy to find the supermarket in this town, which had a reasonably good selection, and we brought a lot of stuff. All manner of crackers, cheese, chocolate, snacks, cereal and lollies. Good stuff too, was like a little party in our room.

It’s very busy around here, and it’s going to get even busier over the next few days, as we get closer to Saigon. I think we’ll take it easy, do the ~200km over 3 days rather than two. This gives us more time to negotiate the busy roads, and doesn’t wear you down so much. Couple of days there, then it will be time to turn back to Cambodia.

One more thing I must report on before closing out: What it’s like to travel with my wife, rather than my previous solitary man style. Well, the main place you’ll see a difference is in the state of the hotel room. As every other touring cyclist knows, your panniers are under a certain amount of bursting pressure, and it only takes about 3 minutes after arrival in a room for your gear to explode everywhere. If I was sharing a room with another cyclist, it wouldn’t just double the mess, it would quadruple it.

This goes against Anna’s nature, and so now you’ll find everything neatly arranged on her side of the room, while my gear is at least contained, if not orderly. Just doesn’t seem right, does it?

It’s good travelling with Anna though. Means I don’t have to do all the talking, organising, etc. Someone else to share the load, someone else to keep an eye on me, make sure I’m fed, watered and happy. A very nice change.

Red Dust Road

We’ve just spent a week in Cambodia, and while most of the roads we took were sealed, there was still plenty of that distinctive Cambodian red dust around. Not nearly as bad as coal dust, but still, we were pretty filthy today. Every time a big truck went past I was enveloped in a cloud of dust, obscuring everything.

We ended up getting the bus from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville, and while it was definitely rideable, I’m happy we got the bus. The first 100km was a lot of up and down, and not a whole lot of places to stop for food/drink. We don’t have any real rules around where and when we should ride, so we just need to do what works for us.

Sihanoukville is a strange place, seemingly with a battle going on for its soul. Concrete casinos, dirty old men with Cambodian girls, backpackers, flashpackers, Filipino families, all sorts. There’s a ridiculous amount of development going on, and it’s hard to see how it can possibly survive. But it was a good place to have a few days off. With the amount of competition going on, it’s also reasonably priced, and service is far better than in places like Kampot. Get Anna to tell you the story of bad service in Kampot some time.

We spent New Years at a bar/restaurant in Kep, playing pool, and drinking overpriced beer and cocktails. $4USD for a Mai Tai?

That’s outrageous! You must be joking! Apparently not. But it was cool, the good thing about having a country that only has paper currency is that you don’t need to keep feeding coins into the pool table.

We did seem to be having a better time than the group of do-gooders at a table at the restaurant next door. Now, I am not making this up, but there was around 15 of them, all wearing the same blue/black shirt, with “VOLUNTEER” written in large letters on their backs. One poor sod had “LEADER” on their shirt. I’ve never been a big fan of voluntourism, but this was a particularly bad look. All earnest-looking do-gooder types, no doubt paying good money to come to Cambodia and tell 10th generation fishermen how to catch fish, or some such nonsense. Always be on your guard when people turn up and say “Trust me, I’m here to help.” I don’t know what they thought when someone told them they all had to wear matching shirts to their dinner party. I would have liked to have asked them if the shirts were made in a sweatshop, but perhaps some questions are better left unsaid.

We’ve now crossed into Vietnam, where we’ll be for at least the next week or so. Haven’t worked out the exact route, but I think it’s going to be off the map I’ve got. Everyone who’s ever been to this part of the world knows what the traffic is like, and can understand why I want to try and get off the main roads. I just don’t have the detail I need in my maps, so there will probably be a bit of compass work tomorrow. Ah well, I’m sure I’ll work it out. One minor problem though: I lost my speedometer off my bike today. Not sure if it was pinched, or fell off. Rather annoying though, since I’ve had that one for almost 40,000km. Can’t seem to find one in this town either. Should be able to get something in the next few days, but it does make it a bit harder trying to work out just how far it is to the next water/food/bed.