Day 8, 60 miles
I’d made nobel plans to set off at 7 this morning, but the bed at ‘the little Saigon boutique’ is far too comfortable for such nonsense and i didn’t get going ‘till 9. This meant that i was cycling through absolute bedlam at rush hour. It’s great fun though. There’s traffic everywhere! Waiting at a red light can be easily 200 bikes along with buses and cars, and because everyone takes liberties, carrying on after red and going on red a couple of seconds before it changes, (there’s a countdown for everyone to watch) people are crossing paths everywhere. You just have to commit and go. People will pull in front of you with less than a foot between but somehow it works. It wasn’t very eventful although i saw my first accident when, out in the country, a bike slammed in to a car, no-one appeared to be in too bad a shape but i think that was more luck than anything.
A minor achievement as for the first time on the trip i managed the desired 60 miles. Again i could have done more, likely the next goal of 75 but it started raining in earnest, my gears got immediately caked in grit and started making a noise like a kitchen knife being sharpened on a garden slab. So i backtracked a mile or so and booked in to a shabby guesthouse. I did get to wash my bike though for the first time this trip, got her re-oiled and everything tightened up.
Day 9, 52 miles
I came across my first truly awful road today, it’s the main highway in these parts but the craters are phenomenal. Progress inevitably suffers and my speed dropped by half.
Quite often out in the middle of no-where in Vietnam you come across the most ornate and elaborate churches at the side of the road. I stopped at a particularly arresting one today to take a photo. The vicar spotted me and brought me over a bottle of water which was very kind.
I was anxious about the Cambodian border crossing that was due today, when i did a land crossing to Cambodia last year, it was horrid. Masses of tourists endlessly queuing, and then the inevitable trudge through no-man’s land between borders which house Casinos due to the lack of state law. This time though as i’d chosen a different crossing there was none of that. I was the only tourist and the whole place looked deserted. The X-ray machine had to be started up especially for me, and it took me a while to even find the Cambodian customs office. When i eventually happened upon it i waited with 6 or 7 of the border officials, idling the day away in listless ennui dozing amongst the dogs and chickens.
My stomach so far this trip has been most co-operative, perhaps in gratitude for how well it’s been fed these last years, giving me plenty of energy and asking very little in return, ( 50 mile days with a dry cob and 2 bananas) but it seems this grace period has come to an end and i’ve actually started eating. I had to stop when i was just 3 km out of town to get some food as i’d lost all energy, a lesson i should learn now, as i believe the lands of plenty are soon to run out when i get to Laos.
Day 10 58 miles
Yesterday i got to talking to the manager of the hotel who was asking all the usual questions about what i was doing and where i was going etc. When i informed him of my next planned stop at Kratie, a town i intended to sleep in and move on from, He told me that Kratie was worth spending a bit more time over. It’s on the Mekong and it’s at Kratie where 70-80 Irrawaddy river dolphins live. So i decided on a rest day, and subsequently to get a really early start so i could get there in good time and have a rest afternoon too. I did just that and was on the road for about half 7. This was quite a lovely days cycling, for one thing Kratie is almost dead on 50 miles away so it’s far enough away to feel i’ve achieved something but close enough to make it a pleasure. The roads were good the whole way and the scenery started to get a little more interesting with a hill or two to break up the monotonous tableland that is most of Cambodia.
If someone told me that the cars in Mad Max weren’t created but were just lifted from Cambodia i’d believe them. A peculiarity of Khmer people is their abiding attachment to the most make-shift and ramshackle vehicles. I’ve started taking the odd photo of some particularly bad offenders although the worst ones often pass me on the road where i can’t get a shot. Many are trucks with the whole cab removed, who knows why! Others are a strange contraption to the best of my knowledge unique to Cambodia and Laos, whereby they’re not a real vehicle at all, as in you couldn’t buy one new and drive it away. What you buy instead is an engine that powers two attached wheels with around 6 foot long handle bars. You’ve then got to find a cart or something to attach it to and Hey Presto! you have a Cambodian road worthy vehicle that tops out at about 15 miles per hour. They must be all torque because you see them pulling tonnes of timber.
I arrived in Kratie for just passed 1o’Clock and made my way to a guesthouse recommended by the Lonely Planet that’s situated 20 meters from the Mekong I booked in. It turned out that the one i actually wanted was about 25 meters further down the road, this one just has a remarkably similar name. The staff were properly miserable either that or all of them were unfortunate stroke victims who were incapable of smiling. I found my way to a cafe that had WHITE PEOPLE which meant some conversation and there i had the closest thing to an English breakfast i could get. They also had wifi so i had a look to see what a good little tourist should do in Kratie. Kayaking down the Mekong to see river dolphins that’s what!
I went to book in at the Kayak shop and found Suzanne a quick witted very accomplished Oklahoman running the place. Suzanne’s 26 years old who, three years ago decided she wanted to a. move to Cambodia, b. set up her own business that employs people, and c. do something she loves. So she moved to Kratie after a crash course in the Khmer Language and set up a Kayaking business taking tourists down the Mekong through flooded forests and on to view the river dolphins. The business has just made it into the Lonely Planet and things are really starting to take off. I booked in although i couldn’t pay ( more about this little debacle tomorrow) and we ended up spending the evening together playing cards and ‘checkers’ ( draughts if you speak English).
Day 11 Rest 0 miles
An early start with the Kayaking at 7. In the morning! Plus i didn’t want to stay in Faulty Towers any more so i had to pack up and take my bike to Suzy’s. We were all loaded into the back of the truck and jostled about like a Teddy Bear in a washing machine for the half hour ride. There were quite a few people there but two French couples were especially fun Thomas and Beatrice, and Matthew and, forgive me i’m hopeless with this name, it sounds vaguely like ‘quality’ just with less consonants.
I was paired with Tina. Tina’s doing volunteer NGO work as an accountant… I think. To the water, we all idled over to the the islands on the other side, some straight and purposeful, others turning like a lost child in a big city. We meandered this way and that through the sandy islands with Herons and other water birds flying overhead. Tina it turns out, in her younger days was a very proficient canoeist, perhaps this was why she kept trying to steer from the front. A little annoying as she’d then make comments about my steering skills which she was cocking up. We got to a sandy island and had a swim, don’t worry mum Crocodiles haven’t been spotted in this part of the Mekong for a few years now. A relief when swimming but a sad reminder of what Cambodia once was. ( it still boasts wild tigers although their numbers are dolefully small)
After that we continued ( well obviously we continued ) for a bit at least, as the couple from the Netherlands somehow got into a sticky situation and abandoned ship, always a solid move that, but it wasn’t long before we were back on course and heading for the flooded forrest. That was my favourite part. Such a novel experience meandering through river bound trees, their enormous route systems spookily pointing like arthritic fingers downstream.
We saw the dolphins, not overly close but close enough to desern their telltale bulbous heads.
I spent the afternoon by checking into the guesthouse i’d meant to the first night, which was much better. Then trying and failing to get money. It’s the Water Festival in Cambodia, that combined with the wifi acting like a woman scorned meant that the ATM machines refused to work with foreigners. I had some money, about $60 ( the Cambodians use US$ along with their own currency of Reil. You don’t know what an ATM’s going to cough up) I could get to the next town Stung Treng but if the ATM’s didn’t work their i wouldn’t have enough money to buy a Laotian Visa so i’d have to wait till Tuesday to do a Western Union transfer, blah blah boring but a pain in the bum. By the way i’m not completely hopeless i carry Euro’s and Pounds for currency exchange but the market refused the pounds on principle and only took some of the Euros.
I ended up spending the evening with the French couples who were lot’s of fun and great company. An early night though as we were all whacked.
Day 12 4 miles.
The “road” (BMX track seems more apt), between Kratie and Stung Treng is renowned, infamous really for being absolutely godawful. It’s the best part of 90 miles of the most dusty pothole ridden, axle breaking excuse of a road with no guesthouses en route. This was not a prospect i warmed to and it turned out, didn’t have to. I cheated! Busses are like bikes only ones that you don’t have to peddle so it was only cheating a little bit. I had to be up to catch it at the silly time of 6:15 whence my bike was tied to the back and i was bundled, along with 17 others in to the compact 14 seater minibus. I suppose i do the same when sending a delicate item in the post, i pack around it, bubble wrap and tissue so that it can’t move about. Much the same with our sardine can on wheels, for as we lurched and teetered our way along the ever worsening carriageway, what kept our fillings in and our shoes on were the soft appendages of the many warm bodies we were stuck to.
On arrival my bike was indistinguishable from a barn find, it was completely caked with fine dust. I darn’t ride it so pushed it ‘till i could find a friendly face in possession of a hose pipe. Once i’d got her all spick and span we rode together into town to find a guesthouse. The recommended lonely planet place had gone up in price by 100% and had many interesting stains on the bed sheets that looked like a map of Florida’s swamp marshes, so i did what i always do in these situations, gave up and went to the big hotel in town where i could sleep on a very comfy bed under a warm duvet in an air conditioned room.
I still had a few hours to kill though so wandered around, a good book in tow. This town is also on the banks of the Mekong and like Kratie, owes most of it’s interesting architecture to the French occupation. A pleasant afternoon doing little more strenuous, than taking the occasional photograph.
I had a very good nights sleep as i took a good(ish) hotel which meant a comfy bed and air con so didn’t get a super early start, but no matter the road was easy enough most of the way, nice and quiet, pretty flat but with the occasional slip into bone shaking dust bowls, where even trucks get stuck, (see photo’s). En route i came across my first real land mine site with signs dotting the road only about 10 feet apart, close enough to really get the point across. This was not a place to collect a lost ball. Just further along i passed quite a lot of soldiers, all of them smiling warmly which was nice. They were all heading from a controlled bush fire? I doubt it would qualify as such, but it was a fire that was clearing land, they’d left it to burn to go and get a coffee, which it was doing at an industrious rate, so lets hope it didn’t skip over the small fire break they’d made.
The border crossing was again simple and straightforward, apart from a bribe/charge of $2 that perhaps on principle you should fight for tooth and claw but for ease i ended up paying. Basically what they do is give you the visa which i had to pay $35 for and then at the next window they require $2 to stamp the passport, a completely bogus charge i believe but for ease of mind overall, ( i don’t want to find they stamped my passport incorrectly) i paid the $2.
I cycled on to the planned stop for the night which was an island on the Mekong called Don Kong to get there i had to catch a boat, (more a personal floating taxi so i didn’t have to worry about timetables) which would take me to an island called Don Det, but on arrival at Don Det after a a lovely boat ride in the waning sun i found it so pretty i decided to stay there instead.
I found a place with small basic bungalows that worked out about £3.50 a night. I was greeted from a hammock by a friendly Frenchman named Jean Luke. I checked in and quickly convinced him to go for a swim in the Mekong, which we did as the sun set, turning the water orange and silhouetting the landscape in a sharp contrast from the crimson sky.
After, i met Jean-Luke for a drink which he was already sharing with an American couple Dillan and Julie. Dillan’s really in to cycling (he has a tattoo to prove it) and had the best job! He was a bicycle messenger in Seatle.( a bicycle messenger for anyone that doesn’t know is someone who usually works for an agency that get packages that need to be delivered from one business to another in the same city within a tight time-frame of perhaps an hour or two. They are usually Legal documents that cannot be emailed but are desperately urgent. The bicycle messenger then has to, for a shamefully small fee, zip across the city weaving devilishly in and out of the traffic to get the parcel delivered on time.) Seatle is a tricky city to be bike messenger due firstly to the hills and secondly to Seatle’s predilection for rain a dangerous combination to tackle in a fixie.
We dined at an Australian’s BBQ joint who’s owner wandered around topless, beer belly spilling over his homemade shorts. He knew how to cook a BBQ though, fantastic Chicken, so good in fact that I had a second meal. The beer flowed well as did the whiskey. A very enjoyable night.
Day 14 10 miles
Breakfast with Jean Luke, a swim and then i was cycling round Don Det with terrible control of my bike. I’m now used to having a lot of weight on my front wheel so that turns are exaggerated and belated. Without this excess weight I look like i’m learning to ride, controlling my handle bars more like a kite than a bike. I stopped to see a man up a coconut palm collecting and dropping coconuts and met Alex ( a polish girl) and Guy (pronounced ghee, from Holand) we got to chatting and i wheeled my bike from Don Det to Don Khon. Alex and Guy met two days previous on a sleeping night bus where they were required to share a double bed. We had some lunch and they hired bicycles so that we could all go to see the waterfall in Don Khon. We cycled along dirt paths through rice paddies and exotic trees. We saw the one waterfall then another enjoying the suspension bridge over one of the falls, but were stopped from seeing the third by an inconveniently collapsed bridge. We all ended up going to back to Don Det having a swim (Guy only for a little due to the fear of Crocodiles) and went to the Australian bar for dinner. There we met up with Jean luke and some other French guests. Jean Luke swapped seats with a lovely chap, Francois who was cycling for 3 days and wanted to chat as he aspires to organise a longer trip.
Myself Alex and Guy wanted to play pool and ended up at a place where 3 Finnish siblings were playing on a table that bad that the rules had to change. Whisky flowed, and to bed. Tomorrow i had a big day.