Hello adoring internet public (…I can pretend at least)
Throughout the trip, I jotted down little notes here and there of tips, tricks and advice that I thought would be beneficial to bestow upon future travelers.
The recommendations I’ve tried to make are out of the ordinary and as you’ll read, obviously do not include common sense basics. Some tips are universal to all budget traveling, some unique to being on a bike. Without further ado, here they are:
- Mandatory items:
- Have a phrasebook on you; bought home or away. Additionally, try to learn some of the local tongue: I guarantee a richer more memorable experience.
- Earplugs, quality ones. Not easy to find abroad, bring a big bag from home
- A cheap 3.5mm audio splitter to share tunes with a fellow traveler (especially on buses) . Can be easily found while traveling
- Tape: most useful for covering holes in shabby guesthouse screens
- Domestic knick-knacks and family photos to entertain locals with
- Universal sink stopper: Doing your own laundry? Don’t expect a drain stopper!
- Cyclist items
- Sugar and salt packets for makeshift energy drinks (keep your salt up!)
- Dog repellant might be useful for Thailand’s vicious dogs
- Punctures are easy to locate with a cotton ball; just run it along the tire’s inside and look for any cotton left behind on the protruding offender
- Tent and sleeping pad, a contentious issue. I say, take them. They won’t be necessary, but they will give peace of mind when you can’t find a place to stay. The sleeping pad also offers relief against terrible guesthouse mattresses. Just make sure to not be stupid like me and bring the ten’s rainfly
- Decide between toting a laptop and using cafe PCs: there are pros and cons of each
- Cafe PCs
- Have a USB flash drive with all your apps on it (ie picture editing). Having Picasa and Windows Live Writer on mine made blog posting a cinch
- You WILL get viruses though, it’s out of control there. Do the best you can to make sure the machine is clean or find one that is.
- Computers will be generally slow and cumbersome to use
- A several hundred dollar breakable and weighty liability
- Privacy, all your apps in one place, no virus worries, properly calibrated screen, watch movies, learn languages with Rosetta Stone
- Guesthouse rooms without windows. Cheap, yes, but also impossibly hot.
- Constipation: I prepared for the opposite, surprise! Eating lots of fruit helped
- Money issues. Call your credit card company and debit card issuing bank before leaving and alert them you are travelling and request a cash advance PIN from your CC company. Generally no one takes credit cards but if they do, pass, fraud is a big problem. Have a backup and a backup to that backup.
- Cyclists, beware:
- All transportation beside the bike. Bus drivers and ticketers will refuse your bike outright. Airlines will refuse your bike if not packaged to their specifications. Trains only take your bike when there is a special luggage car (which can be random!). For buses, never mention you have a bike: when you arrive to board, have your bike ready in it’s smallest form (handlebars turned, front wheel off, seatpost lowered, pedals off) and with some ninja stealth open the luggage door and slide it in (it will fit despite what they tell you).
- Being a weight weenie. Few weeks on the road and you’ll forget about weight. Being space conscious is much more important than weight.
- Rust: The coastal routes I traveled wreaked havoc on my steel. Apply a light oil to all steel parts at regular intervals and keep that chain in check!
Please let me know what you think of the list and if anything was helpful on your trip!
Amazing how quick air travel pulls the proverbial rug from underneath you. I’m now back in the States. Sudden change, I know, it was quite sudden in fact. This trip fortunately never had a definite end date, thanks to an open ended air ticket, so it was at my discretion when to wrap it up. That decision ended up being made halfway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Why it was made is difficult for me to really answer in any detailed form but at conclusion, it just felt right, a “change” was needed. The deciding factor in at all was that I will be back again (and likely again, and again….)
Phnom Penh was…chaotic. Traffic in particular, was insane. Cambodian drivers are by far the worst I’ve encountered. Phnom Penh is one of those cities where the traffic completely ignores traffic signals but instead waits for a large enough mass of vehicles to collect in their desired direction, then inch with the collective forward until the opposing traffic is blocked. Its mostly a game of wills; a big game of chicken. Fun sometimes but also stressful as hell. Biking in it wasn’t nearly as bad as trying to walk around; stress level through the roof there. Pedestrians, the lowest on the totem pole, are forced to constantly survey a 360 degree field in front of them watching for impending doom coming from all possible directions. Real shame too since walking is my favorite way to see a city. The palace and riverside area is much more enjoyable to walk than the rest of the city though. Unfortunate also that on top of this you have to deal with the persistent noise of buzzing motos and cars, choking exhaust fumes and touts who just don’t know when to call it quits.
Some very beautiful old French buildings in the city and there is undoubtedly a French feel right down to it’s grid layout. Noticed an elephant casually being trotted down one of the Parisian riverside avenues.
I had heard about the backpacker area of the city, guesthouses situated lakeside, and decided to make it my home for the night. First night I stayed in a posh place on the alley before the lake. Second night I stayed at Number 9 Sister right on the disgustingly green water but that proved a disaster after rowdy Aussies went ape with drunken abandon around 3am. The whole lake area is cartoonishly out of control. It just seemed like a humorous exaggeration of the “backpacker scene” complete with restaurants dishing up “happy” pizzas and shakes and herb being both smoked and solicited at every corner. The vibe was fairly chill if you could ignore the insistent touts (and by this point, ignoring was getting easier). Sunset on the lake though is a nice close to the day (with or without the prop spliff).
I can go on and on about how spectacular how Couchsurfing has been on this trip. I haven’t even used it to it’s fullest either, often forgetting to check it. In Phnom Penh though, I remembered. Browsing through the Cambodia message board I stumbled upon a post by “The Velomads”; they sounded right up my alley I thought, turned out I was right. The Velomads, Stani and Richard, are touring cyclists four years into a world journey. They kindly invited me over to their apartment (or rather the apartment they were housesitting) and cooked me a vegetarian meal complete with cycling conversation; great people, good time.
I had noticed on the streets several truckloads of bikes in various conditions . Don’t know what that was about but I can only hope they weren’t destined for the scrap heap
Knowing that I’d finally be headed back home, I for the first time allowed myself to actually shop. Normally, it isn’t my thing but with so many interesting things to choose from it was actually fun picking up certain things as gifts. My favorite by far was a stall in the Russian Market that sold bags and wallets made out of recycled fish feed bags (out of all things; the same woven plastic fiber bags they also store rice in and that I’ve often seen stuffed into garbage dumps). Great little cottage industry that recycles goods AND gives villages a legitimate source of income. Just wished I saw more of this kind of thing!
I had gotten tired of the lake area already and wanted to try out staying somewhere else in the city; I tend to move guesthouses often. Ended up at King GH near Sihanouk Blvd. Thought it a very mediocre place but it ended up being a fine choice not for its accommodations but rather the random encounter while sitting at one of their computers. Sitting there, I met Zoe, a Canadian on a two month trip who just so happened to be wrapping it up same as myself.
Next day, we hopped in a tuk-tuk off to do the typical but depressing tour of the killing fields and S21 prison. Hadn’t anticipated sharing the experience with anyone but felt glad that I could. Killing fields are strangely peaceful and there’s really little evidence of the brutality that occurred there remains with the exception of the large glass Buddhist stupa containing many skulls of those murdered.
S21 on the other hand, is still clearly a place filled with chilling reminders of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia a mere 30 years past. The school turned prison is truly a creepy place, especially the rooms with single metal beds and a hung photographs showing the room as found in 1979 with bloodied tortured victim atop that same bed you are staring at. The crude windowless brick cells and barbed wire enclosed building were particularly poignant also. Killing fields could honestly be skipped but do not skip a visit to the prison.
Zoe was headed back to Bangkok, just as I was, so we boarded a Khao San bound bus for the princely sum of $13USD. Thirteen long hours later and we were amidst the nonstop backpacker party that is the Banglamphu area.
We stayed off Khao San down a soi, then down further another; was somehow still noisy but nothing earplugs couldn’t fix. Had a couple days to still kill in Bangkok so we took off by foot, my favorite mode of transport for sightseeing.
The water taxi piers are never that easy to locate but somehow drunken Thai guys are quite easily located. Lost down a narrow path looking for the pier we ran into these gentlemen who insisted we drink some whiskey with them and exchange a few English words and a few Thai. They were nice guys haha; guy on the right may have had second thoughts though…
Bangkok public transit usually requires you to enter and exit with force, shoulder pushing your way through the crowds. Water taxi on the Chao Phraya is of course no different.
Some tasty insect snacks under plastic. Good thing for the plastic, wouldn’t want to attract flies….or would you?
I’m really pleased that I ran into Zoe; was able to end the trip on a really high note.
I had my bike boxed up at Probike across from Lumphini Park the day prior to leaving and the next day luckily managed to convince a taxi driver to cram the bike box and boxed panniers into the small cab and off to the airport we went. Left BKK at 12p and arrived at SFO oddly the same day at 4p. For some reason, EVA Air refused to change my destination from SFO to LAX, so a Southwest Air ticket was purchased for the next day. Where to stay for that evening was a question in the air but I figured at worst, I could sleep in the airport. Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to that. I scoured Couchsurfing prior to leaving Bangkok and sent off last minute requests to crash at someone’s place for the night before my LAX flight. Xavier, an over the top nice guy in San Bruno, got back to me happy to help. He went as far as even picking me up at the airport and dropping me off the next day! Like I said before, Couchsurfing is an amazing resource and the people on it are often genuinely one of a kind class acts!
Now, I could have (and would have liked to in fact) posted about my intentions to come home when I first had the thought a few weeks back but there was a bit more to it than that. I thought if I was going to come back, I’d make the most of it….and surprise the hell out of my mom by just showing up at her door. So to keep the secret, I could no disclose any of my intentions online.
Arrived at LAX, I assembled my bike in a quiet corner of baggage claim. I expected to get hassles from security, this now being US soil and all, but had only a single question and was then mercifully left alone. Made a short ride down Aviation Blvd and the plan went off without a hitch: her mouth was agape opening the door, jaw on the floor hahahaha.
Back now, the feeling has been a bit weird but the adjustment has been relatively quick. Short term plans are to stay in LA for a couple weeks and then bike the coast up to the Bay Area where I can sell off the few things I still own that have been in storage and plan my next big getaway This will not be the last, trust me.
Finally made my exit from Siem Reap; it was long overdue. There were plenty of foreigners, but none I connected with (something I’ve been on the lookout for lately). Mostly package tourists and a few closed off groups of rowdy Aussies. The city’s feel just bothered me, smelled of exploitation. The taxi touts are enough alone to cast a negative light; I’ve never met any as persistently annoying!
My last night at the guesthouse, I had planned to leave before dawn and wanted to settle my tab; turned in my key as well since I wouldn’t be needing it. Explained I’d be cycling off in the early morning, exchanged fake smiles, and I turned in. Wasn’t sleeping well, too hot with even the lack of clothes or sheet. In a half sleep daze I heard a door, my door, being molested by some would be intruder. Wasn’t entirely alarmed by this but it was obviously enough to raise an eyebrow. Felt secure though, I had slid the lock across the door. At least I felt secure until the fumbling noise ceased and my door swung open. I sat up, alone, naked in my room and eked out the words "Uhh, excuse me?". The shadowy figure immediately took a step backward realizing the room he expected vacant, actually still occupied. He kept the door open just a crack apologizing embarrassed while I sat upright in bed. One of the more awkward conversations I think I’ve ever had; it couldn’t end soon enough. He wanted to hand me the key but I insisted he just leave it on the ground by the floor to save us both the dignity. Suffice to say, I don’t think they understood at all why I left the key. Lesson for the future as well: keep the key and leave it in the door or in the room.
I was on my bike pedaling out of town by 5:15a, morning light just beginning to peek from behind the dark veil of the sky. Delightfully cool air at this time of day; only wished it persisted. Air comfortable, surroundings peaceful and quiet for a change, and all around me bicycles! Bicyclists were everywhere mostly riding towards Siem Reap I’d assume to head to work or to market. At this time of morning bicycles far outnumber both cars and motos combined.
I had done my research and found that 60k down National Highway 6 a place to sleep sat in the town of Kompong Kdei (labeled differently on my map, a problem I’ve found). There ended up being four guesthouses in town; surprising for such a one street cow town. The 60k went by in a flash and given my early start, I had hours and hours still to kill the remainder of the day. I felt like I could ride further but was not in a mood to risk finding the next accommodation. I picked the first guesthouse I saw: it was of mediocre quality priced at $5, the de facto room rate it seems (regardless of whether its a luxurious or squalid room).
Nothing to do in the town except eat, drink and shop; I headed to the market to browse with eyeballs trained on my every move the whole time. Bought some sliced pineapple with chili salt. In later boredom I returned to the market but it was nothing but a ghost town. So strange to see the place bustling with life one moment and then deader than dead the next. Impressive too since sellers setup and tear down all their wares every single day.
Came out of my room in the afternoon to see a bicycle, clearly foreign, upside down in the hall with a man beside tending to it. I trotted over, smile beaming like I’m meeting long lost family. He’s touring SE Asia he tells me, started in Chiang Mai and went through Laos and Vietnam to get here. Steve from New Zealand, I’m introduced. We tear into all manner of travel and cycle related subjects, myself at least excited to speak to another tourer (it’s been rare for me). He says he’s met many though through Laos and North Thailand and even travelled with one for a few days. We have a drink and dinner, strangely at one of the few places still open. Maps open, we go over routes and he points out places I should head and tips about the regions. We’re both headed in opposite directions and it’s a shame too since we’d both like to be riding with a partner at the moment.
The next morning was another early departure given how successful the last was. On my way out of the guesthouse, tires just pumped up and already on the saddle pushing off to leave, I hear movement on the second floor and I’m being called to in a halting manner. I already know what this is about: they think I’m running out on my bill. The woman owner hadn’t asked me for money the day prior and I couldn’t find her later to pay so I decided I’d simply leave the key and money inside the room. Could only assume no one would be up at 4:30a but apparently they’re early risers at this joint. I try to explain to her that I’ve left the money but it’s no use: I walk with her over to the room to show her my honesty. I’m thanked and back again, on my way.
Another peaceful morning ride. I make a stop in Stoung 30k south which had a bank, one visible guesthouse (that seemed closed) and restaurants. Had a meal of rice and a few pieces of BBQ pork. Everyday I’ve had 2-3 square meals of rice. It really is a miraculous food: it stretches expensive ingredients out and really fills you up! Surprises me though despite poverty, how much meat they still do eat. The distinction though is its always used sparingly and stretched heavily with rice or soup rather than just a Western plate with a hunk of meat and maybe a piece of lettuce for presentation.
Beggars are all over the country and with a government that does nothing to help it’s people, it’s not much of a surprise. I gave very little in Siem Reap, something about it didn’t feel right. It’s in the villages and small towns though that I haven’t been so reluctant. I don’t know by what logic but it just seems more "right" to me. I suppose I figure that if someone has to go and beg their own people for money then they really must need it. So many have lost limbs and can’t work to support themselves; truly sad.
Similar to Thailand, foreigners are given the title "barang". I noticed it the first day I arrived. To me it seems Cambodians are much more open with it though where in Thailand I think they realize the foreigners now generally understand what it means so to remain covert, they don’t use it so much. I sat at a shaded roadside table where I sipped a Coke and sat surrounded by three or four curious people. It was obvious they were talking about me, and for quite some time too, but what was said, no idea.
It’s been necessary to pick up some Khmer; smaller villages usually only have a handful of English speakers and they’re often not around when you’d need them. Hasn’t been easy though. I’ve been strangely getting attitude when I try to practice what little I know. People ignore me or walk away or make faces as if they were offended. Those that speak some English usually choose not to humor me when I attempt Khmer and make abrupt replies in English. I do know a few things though: how to count, say hello, goodbye, thank you, sorry; not even close to enough though. The language isn’t tonal but the pronunciation is a challenge for Western tongues; their sounds just don’t exist in English.
Noon arrival, I was in Kompong Thom, a city of considerable size compared to the villages I had been through; was even in the guidebook. There some Pre-Angkorian ruins north and south-east of the city that I thought would be interesting and giving myself a rest, I’d take moto taxi. Checked into Arunras Guesthouse (next door to their flashier more expensive hotel) after checking out another guesthouse down the street and realized the better value (both again, $5). Such a silly chain of events would then follow.
After checking in on the first floor I went back to ground level to retrieve my bags placing them on my third floor room. The room felt a lot hotter than when I was first shown it before check in and reaching for the fan, I realized there was no power. I left my room unlocked so after alerting the front desk, they could inspect the problem. I went to tend to locking my bike, drinking down a coconut and purchasing the biggest sweet mango I’ve ever seen in my life. 5-10 minutes must have passed before I returned and was told the power now worked. Climbed the staircase, traversed the hallway and turned the unlocked door to my awaited horror: my bags were gone. I checked the room, just in case they were moved but to my climbing dismay, no such luck. I told myself someone must have slipped into the unlocked room and taken the bags. It didn’t seem very likely at all to me but I rationalized it pathetically by thinking about the impoverished desperation of people here.
With some calm but mostly franticness, I told the front desk, the same woman from before. She obviously didn’t understand because she led me back upstairs and happily showed me the power worked….Not exactly what I was worried about at this point. Apparently it sank in eventually and back at the reception area a group of staff was amassing to discuss the problem. I was the most serious of the bunch, not a hint of brevity, no smile on my face, that was for sure. I couldn’t do anything but stew in my head, Khmer I couldn’t begin to understand flying by me. I thought about what was in those bags: sure, a small point and shoot camera, a Nikon 50mm lens but nothing else of high dollar value (except the bags themselves which are not cheap and unfortunately would not be easy to replace in this part of the world either). Everything was replaceable though, I’d be out a few hundred bucks but it didn’t matter, I could replace it all. That is, except for one single thing: my memory cards, my pictures. That realization changed me from bailing water out of my mental ship to yelling for all crew to abandon and watch as it sank beneath my now miserable mood.
Maybe the worst part of this whole disaster was when one of the staff, I’ll nickname Weasel, started to outright call me a liar. Weasel stood there in front of everyone and claimed that, no no, I was all wrong, I had never even brought up my two pannier bags; he claimed he never saw me bring them up. Oh I was pissed. This guy was undermining me for no reason and had the power of language to converse with all these others. The bad continued as several of the staff were giggling at my misfortune and the lack of smile on my face. If those memory cards weren’t in my lost bag then I bet I could still keep a hint of a smile but the thought of those lost pictures made me miserable.
With hardly a change in atmosphere I was now being led by Weasel back to the staircase. I asked sheepishly what was going on. My bags he said, were upstairs, but skimped on most details. So confused, frazzled. He led me to my room and there, as I left them, my bags!! ….how?! Smiling with his weasely pleasure, he tells me I put my bags in the wrong room. Oh my god….no…there’s no way….could I? I did. One single stupid wrong right turn in the hallway caused all of this trouble. The rooms were identical in both positions in the hallway and layout of the room. Also identically, both rooms somehow had unlocked doors, a detail I noted later that if the door to the alternate room was not unlocked, I would’ve stopped there and figured it out. Upon learning my misfortune I was mortified, terribly embarrassed. All of it was my stupid mistake. I felt ignorantly stupid, plain ridiculous. A numbing but unfortunately familiar feeling. I somehow often get myself into such predicaments; you could even say I have a knack for it.
Still shaken from all the mess I decided to nix all the days plans and relax.
Tourists came and went throughout the day, this being a stop on the route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (and vis versa). I’d see big crowds of French or Aussies ushered into restaurants that paid out to the bus companies for the business. By the late afternoon I was the only Westerner in town.
So all in all, Cambodia has been a mixed bag for me but I’m not feeling much fondness for being here. The heat and lack of personal relationships compounds the situation. I’m unsure again of whether to press on or to come up with another idea. Like before, it’s obvious to me that these "problems" are hardly anything to worry over; I have it very lucky for this to be the greatest of my worries. Phnom Penh lies just another 170k away making it a two day ride. I think I’ll go today to see those ruins then plan some sort of departure for tomorrow morning.
PS: Silly glasses + sillier hat + me + tigers attacking an elephant = this
Oh Siem Reap…
Fourth day in town now and my level of weariness for tourist Cambodia is about at it’s limit. I want to move on but unfortunately just can’t figure out where exactly to go! Oh the problems of a traveler. Cambodia presents an interesting dilemma for me, given my limit of 60-70k a day in the few cool morning hours that I’d be willing to push my legs to ride: accommodating cities are spread too far apart and camping in the bush is off the table due to landmines. Been tossing around a brain numbing array of ideas ranging from heading to China to flying back to California for stateside touring. For tonight, I’ve settled on doing some research on crazyguyonabike.com to see what other people’s Cambodia bike routes have looked like so that I may be able to have an idea of my own.
This moment though, I’m simply enjoying this beautiful life sitting on one of the many balconies near Pub St overlooking the tourist bustle with my $0.50 Angkor beer.
Yesterday I took a needed rest from riding and hired a moto driver for most of the day. Banteay Srei was the first stop, a temple part of the Angkor complex but 20k or so away from Angkor Thom and the main area. I had thought it was $20 extra to get in here but if it ever was, it isn’t now, just an Angkor pass is needed (Bang Melea, which I didn’t make it to is an extra $20 though). Banteay Srei has nowhere near the scale of Angkor Wat or the Bayon but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer beauty of its relief carvings and fine detail. Everything is so well preserved too, quite a sight to behold; it shouldn’t be missed on an Angkor trip.
The peddlers were again out in force. I stuck around Srei for over an hour to study all the detail and to wait it out while crowds moved through so I could return when it was just me and the stone. It gets me every time when the kids without provocation start lowering their $1 offering price like its somehow too expensive for me; I just don’t want the tourist knick knacks! Still sad, every time.
There’s a landmine museum near Banteay Srei that I thought would be interesting and fancied a look. One dollar admission which I was happy to give to such a worthwhile organization. Museum and organization was impressively created by a single man who just out of the kindness and love for his people, demined all over the country for no monetary incentive. He says he’s disarmed over 90,000 mines! The museum is small but poignant, four viewing rooms displaying pictures of the demining process, nicely written explanations in English about the history and several displays of spent munitions and disarmed mines that have been collected. The most shocking thing I learned while there was that my own country, the US, has yet to sign the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines!! The explanation that I read claimed the US deems mines necessary in securing the border between North and South Korea. Surprising and infuriating that the US, of all countries, has the audacity to not step up against the inhumane brutality these mines wrought. Its sad that humans even sat down to create such a weapon of war that strategically maims, but does not kill, so to create greater cost to the "enemy". Glad I made a visit, I think its worthwhile, especially when combined with Banteay Srei.
Back on the road, so many people honking. First day I got to Cambodia I figured this out: Cambodians love to honk. They honk to say hello, they honk to say goodbye. Honk to say they’re coming through, to say thanks, to emote anger, happiness and sometimes they must honk for no reason whatsoever.
Went to Pra Tom to check it out, hadn’t seen it the day before, and also catch the sunset from its peak (it being a "mountain temple"). At the base of the temple touts appear from the sidelines and offer up cans of beer, an embarrassing Western custom apparently picked up on by these entrepeneuring Cambodians; can’t help but think its pretty funny actually. Ascending the steps, about four dozen people came into view sitting about on any open space facing west. Bit of a circus but nowhere near as crazy as I’ve heard the temple mountain is that is closer to Angkor Wat; I’ve heard as many as 1000 cram themselves up there. The whole scene of people praying to the sun god was humorous to me at least; I actually liked the contrast of the seated tourists and ancient structure.
Dropped back at the guesthouse I realized predictably I had left my room key IN the locked room. Luckily no padlock was used (since the hole the slide goes into was discomfortingly knocked out at some time). Tail between my legs I admitted my error to the front desk hoping they had an extra key. Few minutes later and a plastic bag full of what looked like a hundred keys was spilled out on the floor in front of my room. Bewilderingly, none of the keys were marked!! The key bearer seemed to have some sort of method to this madness but after no success he eventually just started trying them all; what a mess. He disappeared and reappeared with yet another bag full of keys and with just a bit more key attempt madness, one thankfully worked. I’m so forgetful! Got lucky this time. I was smart and bought a combo lock so I wouldn’t have to worry about this, but that of course only works when the door jam is in proper condition.
Walked around the streets as I usually do just to entertain myself. The moto touts are annoying enough during the day but at night its a whole different level. You typically get the same number of them approaching you but their pitch goes from "Moto? You want moto? Tuk tuk?" To "Moto? You want moto?" Then if you say no or ignore, you get: "Marijuana? You want to get high tonight? Smoke?" Then if you ignore that, "Boom boom? You want lady?" And finally, if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, the guy simply asks "What do you want tonight?". This is the question I’ve been very frightened of what the answer could even be…
This morning I did a Khmer cooking course through Le Tiger de Papier. Three others luckily joined me after I simply dropped by impromptu around 10a. Our group was led through the market with our teacher for the day to see the different produce for sale and have the opportunity to ask her what anything we saw was. Quite a few unrecognizable fruit and vegetables and also an interesting peek into the anatomy of several fish and chickens that you usually don’t get, that’s for sure. Back at the restaurant, in the upstairs cooking area, we started to prepare the two dishes of our choice (mine being mango salad and amok with fish). We chopped our vegetables and spices; I love love love lemongrass, I could chop it all day. After chopping came mixing and after mixing came cooking and after that, bon apetit! Was some really good fun but certainly wasn’t at all for serious foodies who really do cook; was all very simplified and hand held. Worth it for me though. Was $11 for the 3 hours with the teacher and at the end you eat the two dishes you made
NOTE: This post was written April 19 but posted April 21. Another updated post to come
I could feel a few hairs stand on end as I was awoken by alarm to the darkness of predawn. Today, Angkor. Made certain to drag my difficult to wake self out of bed to get on the road to catch the morning light around the temple complex.
Followed a sign straight up the main road for Angkor Wat but that was actually to be the last sign on the road (annoyingly despite a fork). Picked randomly and within 8k I spotted the telltale megabuses parked and knew I was there. I rode forward and with zero roadside fanfare, there it was, the iconic Angkor Wat. I just wanted to go up to it and kick its proverbial tires; was this actually it, was I here?
Was readying myself to cross the bridge into the main area when I was asked for a ticket. Since there wasn’t an admission booth in sight on the road, I’d thought maybe I could buy one further on up; obviously incorrect though. I took some sort of back road that inadvertently lead to sneaking into the area ticketless. I was told I’d have to backtrack 6k and go to the only ticket office. Begrudgingly did so, losing prime morning light, and bought a 3 day pass for $40 (a huge sum for Cambodia but of course supposedly worth it; it’s unfortunate only a measly 15% of the funds actually goes to the site, the rest is sucked up into Sokha Hotel Co, the entity responsible for ticket administration, and general government bureaucracy and corruption).
I returned again, this time legitimately, ticket in hand. The Angkor complex is massive, a dozen or more separate sites to explore. I just randomly pick the most famous, Angkor Wat, and decided to enter via the seldom used east bridge. Interesting bit of trivia I learned: it’s uncommon (if not unheard of) for a temple to have it’s main entrance positioned to the west as this signifies death. The history dudes (historians, if you must) have apparently decided that Angkor Wat was then both an active temple and intended tomb of the King.
I had little idea what to expect really. I had saw Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand which were either Khmer in origin or inspired thereby, but what greeted me was a giant tier above anything I saw previously. This has to be the granddaddy of all temples. All the hype, quickly explained. Its the detail that really awestruck me. The bas reliefs I think are my favorite feature; such artistry, they’re so beautiful. Some are still in amazing condition too; others damaged by hasty acid washing Indian renovators in the 80s, others damaged by the more obvious passage of time.
So, so cliché but there is just a sense of magic about the whole place. For me, I knew that at least some of that was just being in such an iconic world renown place. Surprising how much they let you just traipse all over; you can go through almost the entire structure studying every fine detail. I think this is what has made visiting the ruins in Thailand and now Cambodia such a great experience: there’s no velvet rope. It’s such an opposite experience to European or American historical sites where there’s a constant "look but don’t touch" attitude. But, as enjoyable as the laissez-faire option is I know its also a boon, I’ve seen it: people completely blasé about the preciousness of the ground and stone they step on. Posted an earlier picture of a group of obnoxious Europeans climbing all over an ancient Buddha statue (as Thai people looked on in disbelief). Giving people that much freedom unfortunately leads to further destruction. Oh well, I’m enjoying it while it lasts at least.
Set off by bike for the next wonder to see. Ride was cut pretty short when my fork found its path interrupted by a moto. I was proceeding straight, they were turning left. You’d think that there would be at least some hint of yielding, myself being the through traffic, even in SE Asia, but nope, they just continued until I unexpectedly was on the ground. I was lucky, no injury at all, it was very low speed, I saw them, just didn’t think they would be that stupid. As when you’re hit, I immediately wanted to look at the culprit and yell "WHAT THE HELL?!" but I and her kept quiet, looking at each other but knowing speaking would be pointless. Unhurt like I said, but shaken; was my first crash the whole trip. Sat it out a few minutes and then was back on that horse.
In the morning, was not a problem, but later in the day, the children pedaling silly tourist wares got pretty bad. I had heard about it but now I experienced it. Its so hard to keep telling these kids no: firstly, simply because they’re so persistent and repetitive about it but second, they’re adorable children that yank every heart attached fiber in your body. I did end up buying a guidebook which I was looking for (strangely a legit non photocopied one) but had to all day turn down bracelets, flutes, postcards, t-shirts, silk, drinks. Its a seriously trained operation though; these kids are business moguls. They have the whole cute kid thing going for them automatically but on top of that, they’ve amazingly learned all manner of things to impress potential buyers and up the cute factor exponentially. Nearly all I spoke with impressed me with their English, Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese. They recited from script "where are you from?" and if you said they’d US, they’d name Washington DC, President Obama, your state’s capital and it’s major cities. Its frustrating and heartbreaking at the same time.
By 3p, I was exhausted and just about "templed" out. I had been going nonstop the whole day from temple to temple in the often unsheltered heat. I wanted a sunset under my belt though; I’d go the whole day.
Generally I felt like I was really lucky: there wasn’t nearly as many people as I pictured. At least there’s a few small upsides to a down economy and scorching uninviting heat.
At Ta Thom I was randomly led around by a teenage kid, taking me on a mini tour of nice picture spots. I usually don’t like this kind of thing, I prefer my own assessment for pictures but it was actually worthwhile since he knew hard to find spots and led me to places I wouldn’t have comfortably ventured on my own. I figured this wasn’t all just a friendly gesture of kindness (although I really really hoped that it was) but I thought regardless, I’d invite him to eat lunch with me, my treat. My offer was turned down though with an awkward smile and he was insisting on a monetary donation. I was appreciative so I did want to thank him in some way but he kept turning down my lunch offer and not having any bills small enough I had to tell him sorry. Random acts of kindness do exist, just usually not in masses of tourists.
Sunset arrived and I headed to Bayon inside Angkor Thom to explore in the glow of the fading sun. The smiling stone faces had a great light to them. Met a small boy trying to do the same "let me show you around" thing but with a much higher cuteness factor. Had to refuse but snapped his picture which he seemed happy about.
Took a short ride north into a random dusty narrow road through villages. Its nice to know there’s a Cambodia outside of the tourist zones and I can attest their true differences.
Tomorrow I’m thinking maybe of actually catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat and then heading 30-40k north to a landmine museum and Baneay Srei temple (which is supposed to be nice although another $20 unfortunately). I don’t think I can strike up the will to do it by bike again though, if I can, I’ll hire one of the many moto drivers as long as he can pick me up early enough.
Found a good Indian restaurant in town just off Pub St called Taste of India (I swear there’s an Indian restaurant in every large city on earth with that name). Their masala tea was really good.
Such a long day, will sleep like a log tonight, guaranteed.
NOTE: There’s a new post below this one that should be read first…so, read it!
Siem Reap, within reach yesterday, but in a relief of pressure, new destination set to Phnum Liep, the mid way point. The 105k to SR under ideal circumstances, an early start and little heat, would be easily conquered. My disgustingly late start though and the tremendous heat, made even the 60k to Phnum Liep a slog. My average somehow was still a very quick 27k, thanks to the lack of any grade deviance and a slight tail wind. Speedy but still could not get there quick enough, the heat was nearly unbearable. At the peak around 2p it was 43C in the sun (108F) and not much cooler in the shade (which was frustratingly absent on the highway; no bus shelters along the road like in Thailand). Either the temperature has really ballooned over the last month or there’s just something about Cambodia!
I had been told by the guesthouse that, no problem, there was a place to stay in Phnum Liep. Arriving there, initially seeing nothing, returning for another scan, then another still seeing nothing, it was fairly clear there wasn’t a guesthouse (at least an advertised one). Started asking around, still feeling rather embarrassed and uncomfortable to not know any Khmer, I feel like I should’ve done more of my homework. First stop I totally struck out; they spoke no English and my mimed gestures for sleeping didn’t help at all. Second stop though, already a success. I started speaking some English and quickly someone was called forth who could apparently handle the situation. With a moderate command of English, I was told that unfortunately, nowhere to stay in the small town there and I’d have to go Siem Reap. But, I was invited to join the group of young men seated outside, to which I of course obliged, and a glass of Chinese ginseng wine was arranged in front of me. Thinking I may be forced to ride the remaining distance to Siem Reap, I was a bit hesitant to imbibe but also careful not to insult. Tasted alright actually, not as terrible as the last Chinese liquor I had; I politely covered my glass after the second shot which I’m sure otherwise would’ve been poured and poured.
Chuop, my English speaking partner, says he’s staying at the pagoda nearby and music to my ears, I would be welcome to stay there as well. General chatting continues but soon enough, I’m being led by moto to this pagoda (a Buddhist temple, not sure why they refer to it as “pagoda” actually).
I’m shown around the grounds, introduced to the monks then shown the surrounding area including a wildly rickety bridge that motos cross with reckless abandon. We sit to enjoy some fresh sugar cane juice; I always enjoy watching the canes get mashed through the press, small engine roaring and belt drive smacking away. I’ve had cane juice in Thailand, Malaysia and now Cambodia and they all taste slightly different but by far, I enjoy this one the most.
Dinner was what has already become typical for Cambodia: steamed white rice, a meat, and some kind of strange cooked vegetables. We did also have some fried small fish; sardines maybe, pretty good actually. Very simple meals; I at least enjoy them but I’m generally unparticular about what I eat.
Desert next door was a bowl of shaved ice with condensed milk and various local fruit. Don’t know the name of it in Khmer but in Malaysia they simply called it ABC. Slurping this sweet dish, I had two tables of locals vying for my attention and a chance to practice their English.
I hardly got this feeling in Thailand: people here seem very eager to improve their English. And in fact, many more people seem to speak at least a little bit of English here than in Thailand.
One guy at the adjacent table is an English teacher at a non-profit and another works at a hotel, both are based in Siem Reap. All very friendly, I come away with several mobile numbers and e-mail addresses.
New Year is somehow STILL going on and people were partying it up on the temple grounds. Unfortunately can’t say that Khmer music is any better than Thai; it sounds nearly identical actually.
My sleeping arrangement was an army cot set outside the monks quarters which fortunately also had a mosquito net, all I needed.
Thought I was getting an early start by waking up at 6a but I was surprised the sun had risen perhaps half an hour before; my timing was way off. Chuop and I walked to the market area and he saw me off after my many appreciative thanks. I biked around a bit thinking about where I should eat (and then WHAT I should even ask to eat, and how). I looked out of place, not surprisingly, and another moderate English speaker picked up on that and asked where I was going (the most common of questions in all of SE Asia I think). He recommended I sit to eat over “there”, a pointed finger at a crowded restaurant; crowds usually don’t lie, I wander over. Really wishing I spoke Khmer. Figure out the word for coffee is kafae, same as in Thai and many other languages, easy. Sit and observe for a while the standard fare being ordered then mosey up to the cooked rice container pointing to it and making a silly eating gesture (I hate these mimes but they get the job done). She, rice woman I’ll call her, points at some meat, and I nod my affirmation, sure, why not. I also end up with a bowl of soup stock and a small dish of delicious sweet pickled vegetables which I probably could’ve eaten as a main course. Awesome breakfast if you ask me!
Off on my ride to Siem Reap, not much different than the day before but about 5-10 degrees cooler to my satisfaction. Still paved road, still children wildly calling hello and goodbye (sometimes in opposite order), hands thrashing the air. Certain times I might as well not even put my hand back on the handlebar I’m waving hello so much.
I’ve been making sure to stock up on water before I leave a town, not knowing if any will be available on the route (no 7-11s every couple kilometer like in Thailand). But on this route at least, there are plenty of roadside "gas stations" which consist of not much more than usually a tiered stand of a dozen recycled liquor bottles filled with gasoline, and an ice chest with cans of soda, beer and water. Cola has been my drink of choice lately, in absence of any cane juice of course; have to keep sugars an salts up.
Another fast average and arrived in Siem Reap at about 10a. Thought this advertisement for a film body Nikon SLR was interesting; sometimes you forget anything but digital exists anymore
Lots of swanky hotels on the way into the city but was confident there would be budget options lurking further within. Checked the first gas station I found for a tourist guide but they were out so I took the next best course of action: guess. Randomly turned, turned again and started seraching down what I thought were quiet roads. Hard to tell what a guesthouse is like from the outside but at least you can try to find a quiet place. Found the creatively named #10 Guesthouse down a dead end street. Nice rooms with en suite bath, a nice lounge area and only 5 bucks; sold.
I can’t imagine possibly doing a ride any longer than 60k like I did today. Its a pathetic distance if I’m to be honest but at the same time, I’m hardly a masochist. Given this heat, I think I can only enjoy the riding if I start at 5:30 and end by 9.
I had read online that a Cambodian SIM couldn’t be acquired with a resident ID card (or of course having a local just get one for you). Then I read that this wasn’t true anymore, but you needed to have them make a copy of your passport. But neither of these were true for me: I just walked up to a shop, asked for a SIM and $5 later it was mine.
TV in this hotel room as well (I guess Cambodians find TV much more important to travelers than Thais do). Watching Discovery channel, a show about the new Bay Bridge. I knew a new bridge was going up but didn’t know there was so much progress already; this is my first time seeing the piers in place. Guess I really have been gone a while.
Picked up "Catfish & Mandala" at Lost Books in Chiang Mai (amazing collection of books here, especially SE Asia oriented ones). Been reading and enjoying; great story about a Vietnamese American from San Jose riding the Pacific coast and then Vietnam. Of course even more interesting to read when you plan to do just about the same. I love a saying the author of the book picked up in his travels through Portland: "Ill see you when I see you". Been sharing it with some of the many I’ve been meeting but I unfortunately don’t think they understand the nuance.
Tomorrow, Angkor! So much hype, I’ve reserved myself from too much excitement. Just going to wait and simply embrace the experience. I feel lucky though to have my own comfortable and well working bike to tour all the temple grounds with instead of some for-rent junker.
Boat to Battambang is $16 and they’ll take my bike without a problem but I’m worried about how long it takes and the level of comfort of the trip. People online seem to indicate that during dry season, the boats are liable to bottom out on the river and general slow going making for a 9+ hour journey. A travel office quoted me 6 hours and said that low water isn’t a problem but I don’t trust that much. Have to look into it more…
Oh, and PS, can anyone tell me why the hell SE Asian computers shock me through the USB port?! Its not very pleasant! Happens when you touch the USB port, end of an exposed cable or touch any metal part of something plugged into the USB port (ie the neck strap loop of an SLR).
Whole new adventure begins, back atop the bike. I’ve arrived in Cambodia! Arrived in a manner slightly askew than planned but at this stage, to expect plans to be set off as intended requires quite the naivety.
Yesterday in Bangkok, only minutes after I made my triumphant blog post, I was dealt a few new cards: train I bought the ticket for didn’t have a luggage car, they couldn’t take my bike. Received several varying pieces of information but apparently the route only "sometimes" has a luggage car and apparently I was being told one of those "sometimes" would be tomorrow morning at 5:55 (the one which I specifically avoided last). Nothing I could do at this point honestly, it was what it was; just accepted it and mad new arrangements as is often necessary. Decided to stay another night in BKK and catch that morning train.
The morning train gets to Aranyaprathet mid-day and Sisophon lies only 50k east of the Poipet border crossing; a flat, paved easy ride.
First thought was to head back to Refill but had the second thought of losing face, I wanted to keep mine intact, as silly as that may be, and decided not to crawl back there defeated for that day. Then I thought maybe the familiar Lumphini/Silom budget haunt I was familiar with. Then I simply settled on the more obvious solution: just stay somewhere close to Hualamphong. Feels dirty every time still, but I opened up the Thailand Rough Guide I bought when backpacking with Rachel. I’ve admittedly brightened up to the idea of owning a guidebook despite the stigma imposed by the "serious" independent travelers. It without a doubt is a welcome helping hand when you do need it; it’s just when the book is followed like a bible does it really bother me.
Anyway, picked a guesthouse in the book for lack of time and desire to do the "rounds" of comparison. TT2 Guesthouse is where I ended up (unfortunately), their name I hope just a strange Thai numeral addition and not indication there is another one of these places lurking about Bangkok. They do love their rules here; in fact they make you read their list of them and watch you as you do so. I thought also strange that the front door has hours 5:30a to 12a; if you want to arrive or leave outside those hours, tough luck, they don’t give you a key. Had to convince them I needed to catch an early train and please let me out of my guesthouse prison earlier. Bad vibe here, didn’t enjoy it at all (especially when reprimanded for violating their set of holy code); won’t get my recommendation for sure.
For some reason the train station wouldn’t allow me to buy my ticket in advance so I bought it the morning of; 48B for 3rd class, the only class offered, and another 90B for the bike. Plenty of farang on this route going to Cambodia; briefly attempted to assist one with questions about the $20 visa on arrival. Troublingly, she told me her friend recently had issues with pricing at the border (as I’ve often heard).
The train ride wasn’t too bad; would’ve preferred the more comfortable 2nd class seats for the 5.5hr ride but I survived. Expectantly the train was right on time, 11:35 arrival.
Changing some money into USD seemed wise before entering Cambodia and relying on bank/ATM availability there. I read online that one could get USD from the Siam City Bank near the bus station but if you go to the one near the Aranyaprathet station, you’ll be out of luck. More likely they meant the one near the border (where some buses do drop off); this one has plenty of cash on hand for exchange (and is smart enough not to give you old and worn looking bills as they’re generally not accepted in Cambodia).
Other order of business was to procure some headwear to get the sun out of my face. Found one easily at the Aranyaparathet market for a measly 20B but a few minutes of riding and it was proven inadequate; brim was too flexible, flops about, gets taken by the wind. The first time it whipped off my head in the wind, I didn’t bother to retrieve it, I’m sure someone out there will enjoy it.
Couple k ride to the border where there’s another market: a huge one in fact. Lots of cheap same-same goods; great place to shop if you’re looking for that kind of thing. Found a replacement hat, stiff brim with cord that won’t allow it to blow away but its too small, rats, will have to do for now; also a 20B purchase.
Started the border process, a famed one if you ask me. Thai immigration was straight forward, just a stamp out. In the no mans land, you go straight to the archway with three Khmer style monuments then on the right is the visa area. Bit of shenanigans here as expected but it was dealt with without any pain. Nowadays, they seem to be asking everyone for $25USD despite it being posted on a sign that a tourist visa is $20. I watched three people in front of me stupidly pay into these guys pockets the 5 extra bucks; its obviously not much money but its principle. He told me $25, I said no, $20, making sure just to smile and not make it serious. He said $25 again and I simply asked why: claims that its $25 here, its only $20 if you get it in Bangkok (a lie); I say no politely again. He still wants $25 but now he has a new reason after shuffling through someone else’s passport he was handed: he now says, if you don’t have a picture, then its $20 plus 200B, if you have a picture (like I do) then its only 100B. Now I question: if the 200B is for no picture then what is the 100B for? He says "express processing". Well alright then! I kindly request "normal" processing and disappointed he seems, the man tells me to take a seat. I thought maybe they’d try to get back at me by having me wait an hour seated for not giving into their money making scheme but surprisingly, three minutes later, I had passport in hand with 30 day visa for the actual price, $20USD. Minor annoyance though, the visa they issue is a large sticker that takes up a whole page in a passport and given the WEAK number of stamping locations in a US passport (take a look at a German passport, its like a small novel), I don’t want to waste precious space like that and have to prematurely get a new passport. Still of course happy to have it at the fair price.
10 minutes for the visa, another 10 minutes for the line for the stamp into the country and I was let loose on to the streets of Poipet I’d heard so much about. My expectations of a vile sinister city were completely astray from reality though! Leaving the entrance office, I had one subdued tout ask if I was biking to Siem Reap, which yes, I was. Disappointed he said I could take a bus if I wanted (apparently bringing the bike would be OK). I politely rejected and he kindly informed it was 48k to my days destination, Sisophon, and the road was straight ahead. That was it. Granted, I will not ignore that my travel mode, the bike, lends for a very different experience than walking with a pack. I breezed through the trashy city on the paved road and was well on my way.
And then, I got wet, soaking wet. Nothing new there! Was not expecting it at all though! Finally, in Thailand, normalcy had resumed and I could go about my business without being assailed with water. The moment I got out into the open in Cambodia though, wet! This is possibly a record water festival attendance: in Pai, it started early, the 9th, the 12th I proceeded to Chiang Mai where it was getting underway, the 13th, in Bangkok, water everywhere and now the 16th, the end of it all in Thailand, I get it in Cambodia. A full week of water festival!
It’s a massive amount of fun, I really have loved it but it does become a nuisance after about 2 days of fun. All business’ close up so errands are out of the question and even the things that are open you often choose not to go to for lack of desire to be soaked to the bone (especially at night!).
The road was well paved, well painted and very flat. And oh ya..driving on the right, almost forgot about that. Crazy French influence I guess. Kids and teenagers the entire route with water. A new addition in Cambodia were plastic bags sealed with a rubber band, the ubiquitous take out container in SE Asia, but filled with water and used as what Id call a makeshift water balloon. Some kids really fling these things though; they hurt!!
So many hellos!! I’m sorry Thai children, but Cambodia has you beat. First day and already so many people excited to say hello and talk to you in limited English. Kids will wave and run alongside the bike (the adult version being their moto alongside).
Thai drivers seem to also have a penchant for horn blowing doing it for any number of reasons or seemingly for no reason at all.
No sign announcing I entered Sisophon except from the unusual array of buildings (instead of empty paddy field) and careful watch of my trip odometer. Started shopping for a guesthouse and it dawned on me, I don’t speak a damn word of Khmer! I’m back to being what I was long ago when I first got to Thailand: largely unable to communicate the simplest of requests and in my opinion, an insulting tourist. This will have to be soon corrected.
First guesthouse I checked was terrible. Second one I checked, amazing! And both the same price, $5, strange. Sarat Thong (or Sara Torn I saw it mentioned as on the internet) is the place: can’t imagine there’s any better in town. Five dollars gets you a large clean tiled room with private bath, western toilet, TV (with English channels) and the woman who greeted me was nice enough to give a towel without asking and a small packet of shampoo and bottle of water. She even let me take my bike in the room. On the main street near the large signboards leading you out of town but also set back enough to be fairly quiet.
Tomorrow I set out at dawn for the big one, Siem Reap, 105k away. Unsure of the road quality: I know its paved at least a bit ahead of where I am now but that could end at any point. All I know is that a fully paved road to Siem Reap has been talked about online for years and I’m just not sure if it was ever completed fully.
Hopefully can use Siem Reap to locate a reasonably useful road map and trade my Thailand guidebook for Cambodia (which I’m sure will be a humorous photocopy reproduction). A whole country lies ahead!
Guess what…still in Sisophon; didn’t make it out this morning. For some annoying reason I couldn’t get myself to sleep last night; I was engrossed in an English language movie on TV, a rarity. Overslept and missed my window of mild morning temperature to leave. Lied in bed and considered renting a moto to get to Banteay Chhmar temple ruins 70k north but totally unsure of the availability of a moto, I mentally moved on. Spotted a medium sized town on the map only 50k distance: hopefully there’s a guesthouse there because that’s where I’ve decided to head.
Writing this from some fancy restaurant where I guess the rich Chinese and Khmer and possibly tourists come. Still not knowing how to ask for a single thing to order is a problem at any restaurant that doesn’t speak a bit of English so my options are limited at the moment.
Last night I walked the dark streets, lit only by passing motos, in search of internet and some food. Found an internet place after a moderately scary 1k walk but they were closed. Happened across a restaurant next door that was still open and lucky for me, spoke a bit of English. They even helped me order, plopping down on my table a bowl of amazing smelling soup and a plate of rice after I expressed my inability to order. One man there, Peark (silent k), husband to the owner, spoke English well and sat to chat. He works as a type of environmental protection ranger through an independent company patrolling through the Cardamom Mountains. Had a really nice chat and to my surprise and mildly also to my disappointment he was insisting my meal was gratis. I’ve often had this happen at this point and despite being incredibly honored and grateful I have real trouble accepting their gift; I WANT to pay. If not pay, at least give them something in return. Peark was so kind that he even drove me back to my guesthouse on his moto without even my request. He also gave me his mobile number and an invite to join him sometime on patrol in the mountains; we could meet in Battambang. Sounded interesting, I shall see if it all works out.
Back at the guesthouse I spoke with the brother of the woman who checked me in. He had a good control of English and we were able to chat pleasantly. Both Peark and this man expressed to me a longing to travel; that they saw so many people like me and wanted to see the world but had not the means. Both also candidly talked with me about Cambodia’s history and the Khmer Rouge days. Both men relatively young, it was their parents who saw the worst although they have terrible memories all their own as well.
Looking at the map this morning I think that I’m amending my route from continuing south-east on from Siem Reap by road to instead taking a boat down the river from Siem Reap to Battambang and then going by road from there. Seems like there’s more evenly spaced larger cities on this route that are more likely to have accommodation. In Battambang I can also get my Vietnamese visa for possibly a cheaper rate and more importantly, acquire it on the spot with no waiting time like I would have elsewhere. Apparently Sihanoukville also has this luxury but nowhere else.
The heat is despairingly lethargy inducing. Not feeling a strong desire to ride today but I think I can handle the short 50k ride; glad actually I can break it up into bite sized pieces.
I have a feeling that internet access will be rather limited so expect more sporadic updating of events unfortunately. Able to really appreciate the comforts of Thailand now.
Conquered! Finally with enough bravery (and maybe stupidity) I made a real intercity bike ride through the chaos of Bangkok. Traffic was admittedly a bit lighter today because of the Songkran holiday exodus but mostly to my advantage was the increased comfortability and confidence that comes with all the Asian riding I’ve already done.
All said and done, it was nothing, but I am proud of myself; as silly as that sounds.
Got soaking wet, of course, but had a ton of fun with it. I love riding a bike during Songkran, its arguably the best way to experience it all and my god do all the kids (and adults) love it when you come by.
So I have my ticket to Aranyaprathet and will get in this evening for a nights stay and then my first journey into Cambodia. The mystery of a new country is pretty exciting.
Hung out the rest of my time with all the people at Refill and had another memorably terrific stay. Told them “see ya again in July!”; just can’t get rid of me I guess.
There are a few camo wearing army guards outside the train station with ridiculous looking antennas sticking out of their helmets and assault rifles at the ready. I’d take a picture to show you but…ya.
Well, write everyone later!
My foray into backpacking has come to a close back in my hub city, Bangkok, which according to the news at least, has been thrown into chaos. Red shirt, blue shirt, yellow shirt, rainbow shirt, no shirt, no service. Sure, things aren’t peachy here but safety is not hard to come by and things are generally no different than the usual everyday chaos (with the added chaos of Songkran). So if you’re wondering, I’m fine, no worries
Backpacking at a close, my travels with Rachel are also at a close; as I write she’s somewhere over the Pacific back home. Tough goodbyes. Neither of us could with a straight face claim the smoothest of sailing in our traveling partnership but at the same time, neither of us wanted to part ways. The times we had were particularly manic but everyday punctuated with sheer unforgettable joyful experiences. I’ve learned a lot about myself, sometimes more than I’d care to in certain respects. Good luck finishing school Rachel, you’ll get there, and thanks for the good times
Songkran, Songkran, Songkran. Wildly out of control. Songkran, the Thai new year (which seems to coincide with most other SE Asian countries), is the most ruckus and energetic of the years festivals. It has certain spiritual significance in Buddhist tradition but for most, especially the tourists, its the time of year that you can douse any passerby with water and get away with it with a clean conscience. Its water throwing madness. No street is safe. If you’re outside, you will be wet. A farang is by far the biggest target and there’s a particular joy children seem to get from sniping a white face with their water guns.
The madness began back in Pai. There’s a "schedule" of dates (that seem different from city to city) of when the festivities start but I doubt anyone every adheres to it. Two days prior to the start children already lined the streets having the time of their lives soaking unsuspecting (and suspecting) walkers, drivers, motorbikers and pushbikers and if there were other "er"s around, they’d get them too for good measure. Particularly smile inducing were the group of novice monks outside the temple on the main traveler street in Pai ganging up on anyone who passed by. At this point early in the festival, there were plenty still surprised by it all: whether they didn’t know about Songkran or whether they simply underestimated it, I don’t know.
Rachel and I rented a moto, which I still wasn’t the most comfortable about but reluctantly agreed anyway. After some wrong turns and treacherously steep dirt tracks, we eventually found the large waterfall in the area (but given the dry season, not as large certainly). Nice triple tiered slick rock falls with a couple areas for wading or swimming.
The real fun was the journey though where countless water wielding children reveled in the joy of soaking the two of us on the bike as thoroughly as possible. Most would humorously motion for us to slow down or stop altogether. I like to think that they were interested in our safety on the road but it could’ve also just as easily been for their ease of water dispersal.
Took the bike out to another waterfall but along the quiet dirt path we dead ended with no sign of the falls. Ventured out over what we thought was a bridge but was probably a fence instead but still found nothing
We made our way out of Pai. I still attest I could stay there for quite a while: the thought of opening a quality bike shop in the town (which currently lacks one) seems oddly appealing despite my recent wanderlust. This time I gave a big pass on the minibus and opted for the aircon government bus instead which mostly for the simple fact of its size, can’t barrel and careen around corners like the psychotic minibus experience; ended up being much more pleasant albeit slightly longer a journey.
Back at Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai faced with the choice of tuk-tuks we wisely this time chose a red songthaew to Tha Pae Gate to simply make the rounds for any place that happened to have availability during the crazy holiday. I tried to grab some travelers from the bus we were on to hop on the songthaew with us to get the price down but the self proclaimed leader of that group was a bit of an oddball. He vehemently fought the given price of 20B in favor of his demanded 15B rate he saw in his guidebook. I’ll be blunt: the guy’s a tool. First for basing pricing out of a guidebook and second for being stingy enough to fight over 5B (about 14 US cents). After making a scene and embarrassing us, he got on anyway.
Chiang Mai is at a whoooooole other level than anywhere else in the country when it comes to Songkran. The city is a known hotspot for this time of year and it shows. Surrounding the old city moat, the entire 2.5km square area, kids, adults, farang, Thai, and everyone in between, position themselves around the wall where an endless procession of cars, trucks, songthaews, tuk-tuks, motos and people walking stream by willingly giving themselves to the mercy of the water. All out water war, especially near Tha Pae gate where most of the action seemed to focus.
We luckily found a place with one room left; "I’ll take it". Strange encounter but I ran into Kristi! She was casually strolling the main street when she recognized me with some excitement confusing an unfortunate older man in front of me who seemed excited someone may have recognized him. Congenial hellos, quick exchanges. She seems to think I harbor some sort of ill will towards her apparently but nothing of the sort; I was very strangely actually going to write her to recommend she go to Pai and speak some Hebrew with the many Israelis who’ve made residence somehow in the city.
My image of how I’d spend Songkran in Chiang Mai was atop a bicycle pedaling about the warzone. My vision wasn’t entirely shared so with our final tiff of the trip (feels like I should scrapbook that as "our last fight of the trip, aww), we agreed to do our own thing for a while then meet back up. I rented a bike from a sweet old woman doing laundry who didn’t even want my passport and I rode away from the traveler area to the predominately Thai side where I was drenched head to toe in a matter of seconds. Armed myself with a dodgy quality but ubiquitous neon colored plastic water gun which I stowed in the bike’s front basket and wielded with one hand when the time was right. I had decided to keep my very non-waterproof SLR camera with me in case a dry moment struck me to photograph something but kept it in the very waterproof handlebar bag. By the end of the day, several hundred buckets of water dumped on me, not a drop of water inside the bag. Ortlieb: Songkran Approved!
Rachel and I met up an hour later and I squirted her in the face and she dumped a bucket of water on me and everything was behind us. Spectacular street food nearly everywhere; seemed like every vendor in the city was out! Fueled up with kebabs and sticky rice and mango, back into the thick of it. The day wore on and we decided to attempt to assimilate into one of the many roadside pockets of infinite water supply [hose] equipped groups (usually outside bars). Attacked at first but in time accepted into the group haha. Was a lot of fun having all that water at our disposal to fire at passing motos, pickups and especially tuk-tuks who we attacked with vigor.
With a flight to catch, we cut our Chiang Mai Songkran festivities short and boarded our insanely cheap (500B, $14USD) flight to Bangkok; was only half full. BKK airport, we caught a cab. Confidently forgoing a map or address to Refill, I instructed the driver in Thai Sukhumvit 72 and Soi 42. Only problem being, Refill is off Suhkumvit SEVENTY ONE. Normally this would be a small error, streets are laid out sequentially. In our unfortunate case though, there was no 72, the driver was confused by this, and took us to some random SOI (alley) Suhkumvit 72 (not Thanon, main street). I knew we were on some strange route unknown to me but once arriving down this random dark and quiet unfamiliar alley in the middle of nowhere, it was clear something was amiss; it wasn’t until I opened up my map to see where we were that I realized in my stupidity I was one number off. I felt incredibly stupid but after the realization, we high tailed it out of there and arrived just fine.
Rachel’s flight the next day was at a comfortable 4pm, plenty of time to laze about. Lazing interrupted when logged online we saw that she couldn’t check in for her flight, it showed the 17th and not the 13th! We had called EVA Air earlier in the week to try to change the flight to the 17th but it was booked up. We were offered a wait list position and said sure. Unbeknownst to us, that apparently meant CANCELLING her current confirmed flight on the 13th; seems to make no sense whatsoever to give up a confirmed flight for a wait listed one, I don’t know why they would do that but they did. Frantically started dialing all phone numbers we could trying to reach someone. The US office was closed, end of day; the Thai office closed as well, Songkran. Calling the airport proved no more fruitful telling us to call back later. Decided only way was just to head to the airport and find someone, anyone to speak face to face to. I was prepared for a drawn out battle to get the ticket changed back but a short wait in line, a quick explanation and in a flash the whole thing was solved; that sure doesn’t happen often. Still very impressed with EVA Air.
Sad goodbye to Rachel but getting back made a hello to my bicycle still stowed locked to a pole outside the hostel in the same condition in which I left it nearly a month ago. Freed it from its plastic sheath and installed all its parts back on and gave it a small shake down ride: felt strange, foreign, its been so long. Will have to be reaccustomed to it all over again.
More hellos, I met some of the others staying at the hostel: three English, Welsh (he’d appreciate greatly that I separated him from the English), Aussie and American. I had been studying maps on my escape route to Cambodia when I was happily approached.
Surprisingly short amount of time into the conversation I was being invited out with them to partake in the exotic bizarre spectacle that is the ping pong show; revolted and intrigued at the same time by the whole concept I felt like being three times in Bangkok I owed it to myself to pick up the experience. We took a pair of taxis to Patpong along the way passing a police checkpoint (which we were waved by, but the following taxi stopped), and then passed a large street completely blockaded by tuk-tuks apparently as part of all the protests but it seemed to be mostly taken advantage of by Songkran revelers; the streets were throbbing in a mix of flying water and alcohol, crowds of talc smeared faces dancing in the streets. Had been to Soi Cowboy before but not Patpong. It had an older dilapidated feel to it, still of course very sleazy but less so than normal I’d imagine: the streets were filled with soaking wet Thais partying instead of the would be crowds of the fat white sex tourist contingent (although they were still visible). We lost the other cab behind us when as we would only find out later, they were stopped at the police checkpoint where they were strangely asked to show passports and then let go (despite not having them on them). We kept hope we’d find them but never did. We ended up in one of the seedy bars, ear splitting house music blaring towards a stage jam packed with girls wearing bikinis but most interestingly, a number tag. We sat, had the mandatory beer and watched the unfamiliar surroundings as Japanese tourists and Thais alike ordered these girls like they were off a menu. Hard to not notice how sad all of this is, the girls often dancing in a haggard "oh god, another night" kind of way. None of it interested me in the least except for its value as a sociological study. No ping pong show but the other taxi group ended up going to one and told us about it, sounded terrible.
Had thought about leaving towards Cambodia this morning to get to the border before my visa ran out but late night last night and another day of hanging out with these new friends relaxing convinced me to stay another day. Tomorrow morning I’ll head out after studying Google Maps. Back on the road, tomorrow, somehow don’t even know what to expect, seems like I’m starting all over again. I think I may get a healthy dose of water on my ride out of the city; its actually too bad I don’t get splashed with refreshing water on every ride
Still at the internet cafe doing some research about the route tomorrow. Relatively easy going, 230k, two day ride. BUT, I could also simply take a train to the border skipping what I’m told is very unexciting riding AND also getting there in time to deal with my expiring visa. Will have to ride to Hualamphong Station most probably getting soaked in the process but I can deal. 4 hour ride on the fast train, 6 hour ride on the ordinary train.
Apple Pai. Pai in the Sky. Slice of Pai. Clever
We’re held up at the moment, nestled amongst the northern mountains, in lovely Pai. Chiang Mai and Pai are usually given in nearly the same breath but for me, give me Pai for sure.
We spent six total nights in Chiang Mai, somehow managing to do not a whole lot (which in my view, is something in and of itself).
Stayed at Eagle House 2 for the first night after battling a dizzying array of options in the sprawling traveler area of an even bigger sprawling city. Disappointed with the quality there, chose Libra GH up the road on Soi 9 which we found pleasing for the remainder of the stay. It blows me away how many traveler oriented establishments there are in Chiang Mai (focused mainly in the east side of the old city but can be found on nearly any street you happen to stroll down). The Western occupation of the town is abundantly visible in most parts of the town except for the outskirts (as I’ve mentioned, the city suffers badly of sprawl).
International gastronomy seems a honed art: restaurants serve up a plethora of Western dishes of any variety desired, of which we sampled pizza and falafel of pleasingly high quality. Next to any restaurant you’re likely to find a "travel agency" dishing out cheap treks, hilltribe voyeurism, drugged tiger visits and probably a motorbike and bicycle rental. Bicycles for rent in town are of typical horrific quality, mostly due to their lack of even the slightest attention to maintenance. If you search hard enough, you can find quality Trek 3900 (or 4300) MTBs but mine had a ransom of 200B (double the price of a motorbike, figure that one out). Plenty of Westerners walking about and occupying bars and cafes but I found it unfortunate that because of the gigantic size of the "traveler area" there was no hub of action as people spread themselves thinly amongst all of the establishments.
The nightly "bazaar" a bit out of town near the Ping river is mostly a let down, same-same tourist crap abounds. The Sunday night market though, a MUST, it’s spectacular! You’ll find just as many farang as you’ll find Thai browsing the seemingly endless row upon row of tables hawking creative art, jewelry, clothing and food. You’ll find a procession of shoppers marching from Tha Pae gate all the way to nearly the opposite wall 2k away (not including all the off shoots vendors create off the main drag). If you’re in town on a Sunday, you cannot miss this; bring walking shoes though (and an appetite and full wallet).
GT-Rider.com, a website with information focused around moto riding and The Golden Triangle, had recommended for us Jonadda Guesthouse where John could help us gear up for a small moto tour around the north. He set us up with jackets, gloves and helmet for Rachel while I opted to purchase my own by the brand of “Real” which are imported in the US with DOT approval but were had in Chiang Mai for a mere 800B. We were referred over to Tonys Big Bikes and ended up with a Honda VRX400. Given zero prior paired riding experience, we decided it best to start with a day trip; the Samoeng Loop was the obvious choice. Somehow a lot more bending and curving than I expected! Was a serious ride with which came along with it serious riders zooming past in full leathers on their sport bikes. Wasn’t hardly a turn when last on a moto together in Sukhothai so I made sure all the leaning was okay with Rachel (and there was a lot of leaning to be done). The VRX had the right amount of power for the hills and riding two up but the cruiser style riding position gave my legs cramps and even a very calm mannered rider like myself was scraping pegs on the tight corners. Was a fun little joy ride around; didn’t see much of anything though: there would’ve been a beautiful vista above the Samoeng forest but the increasingly annoying shroud of lingering smog/smoke that sticks to the hills in the north like sweet rice to your belly made it almost impossible to enjoy. End of the loop with daylight to spare, we made it up Doi Suthep for another disappointing viewpoint and some more twists and bends (this time more heavily trafficked). By the end of the experience I thought it was fun, but unfortunately at the same time nerve racking. I really now appreciate the ease of riding solo! Handling the issue of balance with a rider behind you is not always easy and I think the greater issue for me is the severely increased responsibility of not only my own life but the life of my passenger. I just couldn’t do the full tour we were thinking about. With approaching Songkran, the danger of being on the road was exponentially higher and the combination was too much for me and just not worth it.
Moto touring plans behind us, was time to leave the city, six days does grow long. Had a hankering for some camping and on the advice of the guidebook, we laid our sights to Khun Tan National Park, a short jaunt by train south.
Hour from Chiang Mai Station we were in Khun Tan feeling a bit confused at the lack of….anything around us. Was fairly clear at this point by the lack of any clear direction in which to go from the station and the rows of stares from the still in place train’s windows, that this wasn’t a stop that most anyone took, especially a couple of farang. Few minutes of head scratching and the path to the park entrance was found (as described in the book, excluding some "minor" details). A 1300m path conveniently connects the train station directly to the park (as opposed to the much longer paved road) but not so conveniently, it’s all uphill, and steeply so!
We didn’t so much expect it but we ended up doing some minor backpacking (opposed to "backpacking", similar I suppose to trekking and "trekking"). An unexpected workout later and suddenly now with a view to the hazy valley below, we reached the park. Fee wasn’t as bas as I expected, they only charge 100B here instead of the sometimes 200B (for whities only of course) and then 30B for the tent pitching privileges (the ticket I noticed was numbered "1", the first issued this year?). Another trudge with our gear across our backs to our camp site and up the tent went, a satisfying feeling for me at least, maybe because it just gets used to seldom. Luckily very little to zero rain in the north (yet) so being without the rain fly was no problem.
Took the rest of the day to make a challenging hike to the waterfall which despite telling myself I’d likely come to find a very weak trickle of a falls, I still ended up a bit disappointed the sight. The thought of a rushing deluge of water I could stand under and a pool to swim in beneath it couldn’t help but surface in my mind; what we found was everything but; oh well, was still pretty. The park fortunately is well equipped with a small general store and a smaller kitchen which can whip up a few basic Thai dishes. A bit of food in our bellies and the sun down, no disagreement of it being time to turn in.
Keeping to traditional "camping time" we awoke with the crows of roosters and the peeking of an eager sun. Was still a longer hike to the summit we had yet to explore but we were contented at the prior days challenge and made our leave back to the train station (disappointingly a trek not made at all easier by the downhill). Train times were a bit confusing and on top of that, we knew that all trains were nearly guaranteed to be late (as most were bound from Bangkok and destined to run into some sort of delays during the long trip). Unfortunately and surprisingly unhelpful train station with hardly anyone willing the least bit of help. We apparently had just missed a train then had the additional misfortune of the next train being a sleeper for which the ticket price was an insane 240B for the 1hr trip that originally cost us 15B each. Conceded to waiting for the train after that, negotiated some food from the one of two restaurants in the area and parked ourselves at a table to play cards for the 4-5 hours until train arrival. Wasn’t as bad as that sounds; did happen to have the entertainment of the tactical falling of a large tree some Thais decided needed immediate removal by truck (the entirety of the "town", about two dozen people, gathered to watch as well). Picked up our 15B train back to Chiang Mai; ended up less than an hour given the advantage of downhill travel.
Was easier than expected to pick up a minibus to Pai from the Chiang Mai train station; we expected to have to get back into town but the tourist information desk had a “travel agent” there to book tickets and arrange pickup. If we were better informed though, we could’ve just walked an embarrassingly short distance to the Aya office just outside the train station and saved a few baht. For details on this wonderful ride through the hills, you can see the below post.
So here we are, in Pai. Funny to think about, many months ago now, an employee at REI who had been to Thailand insisted that I get to Pai. At the time I nodded and agreed but hadn’t a clue to it’s location. Turns out she gave a hot tip, I do like Pai (although I can definitely see how it is soured within the last years as so many things do [ie the “you should have seen it X years ago” type sayings]).
We’re staying at Mr Jans just down a soi off the road from the bus station. Plenty of options in town and we basically just took a chance on this place: great choice though! The very well kept and detailed rooms are all amongst a medicinal herb garden with gloriously sweet smelling flowers and even a few edible plants I’ve been nibbling at (which have made me daydream of some bizarre mobile garden atop my bike). The attention to detail at Mr Jans is top notch and a mere 200B, total steal. The places along the Pai River have a lot of appeal but if you do want to stay in town, I think Mr Jans is the place.
Took a short stroll out of town, across the river and up a hill to one of the temples. Nice view down to Pai and the surrounds; caught the sunset. Again, disappointing haze; hoping maybe I can see some miraculous day when its clear (maybe after the rain?).
I could definitely spend a while in this town. Would be great if there was a Thai language course here like in Chiang Mai but I don’t believe one exists unfortunately. Also unfortunately, we are set to leave back to Bangkok, this time via short flight from Chiang Mai, so that Rachel can catch her flight home and I can reunite with my bicycle and ride onward after soaking (ha, pun) in some of the Songkran festival water madness (on Khao San road I’m assuming).