Archive for May, 2007

The Suicide King

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Today was a day that started out tough and ended strangely. I woke up this morning feeling decent, and my diarrhea had firmed up from a liquid actually thinner than water, so we decided to cycle. After checking out of the hotel in Buon Ma Thuot, we were on the road at 6:30am and as soon as we started pedaling, I could tell I was weak. My legs felt dead and I was struggling to keep up with Sarah. It was difficult to concentrate on turning the cranks while at the same time constantly keeping my sphincter on guard against the spasms in bowels.

After a couple of hours of riding, I was feeling better. That could be partly due to the two coffees and one sugarcane juice (with added sugar!) we drank though.

The afternoon went smoothly and was great cycling. I don’t think there was a single stretch of flat ground. We were constantly going up and down over the hills with views of the coffee, wood, and rubber being grown. It seems like the farming has probably made this area more beautiful than it would be if it was untouched jungle. The route was lined with trees to keep us in the shade and a cool breeze prevented us from overheating on the climbs.

We arrived in Ea Drang at 3pm after 82km and slowly cycled through the town looking for a hotel. Before we knew it, we had reached the other edge of town without seeing a single place, and then we heard a voice call out “Hello. Stop for a bit.” Always suckers for perfect English, we swung back in the direction of the voice and found two Vietnamese guys on motorcycles with two hefty Australian women in back. I asked if there was a hotel nearby and one of the guys launched into a diatribe on how there were no hotels for foreigners in this town. Something about the ethnic minorities and their relationship with the government of the north after the war. For some reason, hearing someone speak English extremely well always makes us a little suspicious. It makes the person seem too slick. We bluffed and told him we met some New Zealanders who had stayed in this very town and he said for Kiwis or Australians maybe, but no way for Americans or Russians. Not really wanting to believe him, and remembering that we had specifically asked at the tourist office in Buon Ma Thuot and they said there were hotels, we decided to ask at the hotel across the street. They had the same story though, telling us the nearest hotel was 100 kilometers to the north at Plei Ku. After talking for a bit, we realized we had three options.

  1. Search around the town for a hotel where we could stay. This was risky because we might not find anything and we would kill valuable time as there were only about three hours of daylight left.
  2. Eat lunch, stock up on supplies, and continue riding looking for a place to set up the tent for the night.
  3. Attempt to catch a bus north to Plei Ku.

We decided on a hybrid of 3 and 4. I started looking out for a bus to flag down, while Sarah went into the hotel to ask when the next bus to Plei Ku was. They told her 4:30 (we think), so we decided to eat lunch and stock up on food and water and then wait for the bus until 4:45. If we didn’t have any luck by then, we would start riding.

After lunch, we stood outside keeping our eyes peeled for an approaching bus. I was definitely not feeling confident at this point. I kept imagining the nightmare scenario of being stuck on the road in the dark with no options for camping and hungry, malaria-carrying mosquitos swarming us. I also vaguely remembered reading that this was one of the most heavily mined areas of Vietnam and wasn’t too pleased about that either. As I was staring down at the ground in anguish, I noticed an overturned playing card among the rubble. I told myself, if I turn that card over and it is the queen of hearts, it will be a good sign. I flipped the card over and was surprised. It wasn’t the queen of hearts, but it was close: the king. For a few seconds my heart rose as I pondered whether the king of hearts was actually better than the queen. Then I got a sick feeling in my stomach as I remembered something. Was it true? A quick glance confirmed. Yes, yes it it was.

Read ’em and weep. It was the suicide king!

I quickly alerted Sarah to the portentous news and she told me I was crazy. “You like to take the ignorance-is-bliss approach to life don’t you?”, I asked. “No”, she said, “I’m ready for action. If it comes down to it, I’m ready to break Mr. Safety’s regulations and hitchhike.” My only response was to laugh cynically.

The minutes crawled by. At 4:15 with still no sight of a bus, we decided to flag down the next one no matter where it was going. We were successful in flagging one down, but it wasn’t going to Plei Ku, so that didn’t accomplish much and we were left waiting again. Then out of nowhere at 4:29 a Minibus pulled up with a guy hanging out the window who yelled “Plei Ku city” at us. “Yes,” we exclaimed and we pointed to our bicycles, which he said he would take care of. It didn’t seem like it was going to be possible, but he crammed our bicycles and gear into the back of the bus and we hopped onto the bus which brought the number of occupants to 14.

There are two employees on a minibus. One is the captain and the other is the first officer. The captain plays with your life by passing at high speeds on dangerous curves. At one point, we had three vehicles abreast going the same direction on a narrow, two-lane road. The first officer sits in the back with the passengers and hangs his head out the window to yell at the driver if we we really are about to hit something. He also yells something which sounds like “weeee-weeee” at motorbikes as we pass. We’ve never heard anyone yelling that at us on our bicycles. The other thing the captain does is communicate with the minibuses going in the opposite direction. There seems to be a complex system of hand signals they use consisting of pointing your hands in different directions and shaking your hand in different ways. One of the motions looks like a dance move from Saturday Night Fever. We weren’t able to figure out what they were communicating about though. We definitely got ripped off on the price. We paid 200,000VND (~US$12.5) for the trip and it seemed like the Vietnamese were paying around 50,000VND. There was a heated exchange of money ahead of us and we heard the first officer say “farang” and “xe dap” (bicycle), but that is all we could decipher. Sitting in the back row of the bus behind us were four older women. They were constantly coughing up phlegm and either spitting it on the floor or in plastic baggies which they tossed out the window. We stopped for a toilet-break and they pulled down their pants and squatted right on the side of the road to pee with their asses in plain view. I quickly averted my eyes. I thought these people were known for their modesty! The scenery on the road to Plei Ku was beautiful, maybe even better than the stretch that we had ridden. From the bus the climbs looked higher and longer and in the distance we could see actual mountains. I wish we could have ridden that stretch too.

We arrived in Plei Ku just as the sun was setting. It was too dark to look around so we settled on the first hotel we found for 150000VND (~US$9.40). Better than sleeping out in the jungle!

A Love Affair with Marlboro Reds

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

Illness strikes again, and this time Jamie is the unfortunate victim. It all started with cigarettes. We bought three packs of Marlboros in Phnom Penh because we’ve heard they can be very useful tools for greasing the wheels in sticky situations, especially in China. If someone wants to charge us a big fine, throw us in jail, rob us, etc, our big plan is to pull out a luscious Marlboro Red and smoke all our troubles away with our new friend. Right after we’d purchased the cigarettes we decided to practice smoking – neither of us have had a cigarette since college and we’ve heard that if you just hand over a cigarette to the person that wants to arrest you it can be interpreted as a bribe. You must smoke cigarettes together to truly forge the new friendship! Jamie took one puff and started choking. I was so grossed out by the smell and the remembrances of how cigarettes make you feel like you’re coming down with a cold that I couldn’t even manage one puff.

Here in Vietnam we’ve met lots of friendly people and it seems that the tradition here, too, is to offer a cigarette. Lucky for me only men smoke so only Jamie gets offered cigarettes. We’ve read that it is really rude to decline the cigarette and unless you have major issues with smoking than you might as well just take it and puff a little bit to avoid offending someone. This means Jamie has been fake-smoking on average one cigarette per day – yum!

He didn’t finish this cigarette with one new friend and instead rode off still smoking. How effortlessly cool!

After the third day of this in Buon Ma Thuot Jamie started to feel like he was getting sick with a cold or the flu. We spent one rest day here to recover from the hills we’ve been climbing that we’re not used to anymore, and during that one day Jamie got sicker and sicker. Last night he came down with the runs and spent all night running to the bathroom. As you may or may not remember, this is Jamie’s “Thing you most dread on this trip” – see the About Us page for proof. In addition to the runs he feels really achy and slightly feverish, so we both hope it’s not something more serious.

Last night I looked over at him and here’s how he was coping with his illness. Not sure how a towel around the head helps, but he seems to like it:

Today we’ll spend another day resting in Buon Ma Thuot which is not a bad thing because the spring rolls here are truly excellent, the town has a bakery, internet is only 25 cents per hour, and we have A/C in our room. This is my new equation for pure happiness (minus the sickness of course).

More views from the glorious Hwy 27:

Day Two, Sunday May 27th

We’re taking a 2nd rest day in Buon Ma Thuot, Jamie is still very sick. We’re going to try to find a clinic tomorrow if he doesn’t improve today. I spent yesterday alternately walking around town alone and then hanging around in the A/C room watching television with Jamie. He spent the day alternately running to the bathroom, watching television, and glaring at me from his sickbed.

I ate lunch alone at the spring roll place that I love so much, only this time it wasn’t much fun. One of the workers had her baby there and the baby was not happy. I could hear it in the back room screaming and crying like crazy, barely stopping for a breath. Then the mother got an idea: try to distract the baby from its crying jag by showing it something really bizarre – a white person! So she brought this red faced, sobbing, gasping one year old out to my table, pointed at me, and said “Hello!” to her baby. This is what parents here always do, they point at us and then try to get their little children to say hello to us. Sometimes the kids love this and other times they clutch at their parents clothes, hide their faces, and quiver with fear.

Now, if you know me, you know I do not have the appropriate amount of sympathy for crying babies and their unfortunate mothers so you can imagine the furious thoughts running through my head. This one year old baby was not at all impressed that there was a white person eating lunch in her mother’s restaurant. She stopped crying for a split second (I think it was most likely just to take another deep breath) and then started shrieking again. I felt sorry for the mother, but I also felt sorry for myself because the mother kept bringing the baby back to my table over and over again in a desperate attempt to distract it. I finished as quickly as possible and left.

Right now I’m sitting in one of the many cafes in Buon Ma Thuot drinking an iced coffee and listening to the funny songs they play here. One example: Rhinestone Cowboy. Country music has been really popular throughout Southeast Asia, we can’t figure it out!

Vietnam’s Highway 27

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Highway 27 which runs from Da Lat to Buon Ma Thuot is by far the most beautiful road we have cycled on in to date in Southeast Asia. Great climbs, wonderful views, and very little traffic make it an amazing road for cycling.

Day One: Da Lat to Mile Marker 99
101.29km, 5:44:10, 17.6k/h

We left Da Lat at 6am and started the day with a fast and steep descent down from the 1500 meter hill station. Once we got back down to the lowlands, we were back in the rural and tropical surroundings to which we have become accustomed.

Next week’s pho bo.

A little girl and her machete.

Typical tools.

After about 30 kilometers of flat roads, we began to climb into the beautifully cultivated hills.

The road was perfectly smooth, the views of the coffee being grown on the hillsides were gorgeous, and to make it even better it got much cooler as we ascended. The motorbike traffic was light and we saw only a handful of trucks. Cycling bliss! The pass topped out at 1529 meters according to our Rough Guide road map.

At the top of the pass there was a little rest station, complete with hammocks and cool drinks.

After our descent, the road deteriorated quite a bit and we were back in the steamy jungle at around kilometer 80. The road was so deserted and crumbling, we would have thought we had gone the wrong way if we hadn’t met some Kiwi cyclists going the other way who warned us about it. The road was as bad as the ones in Cambodia but the lack of vehicles meant we could take up the whole road in search of the smoothest path.

At about 3pm we realized we weren’t going to make it to the next town, so we started to keep our eyes open for a place to camp. Only a few minutes later, we found an abandoned house right off the highway and quickly set up our tent inside. The house was two rooms with no water or toilet and the walls were papered with cardboard and old newspapers. We thought we would be alone all night, but after about an hour of hiding in the dark, we were surprised by a married couple who showed up at the house. They were there to collect some scrap wood and immediately said it was OK when we mimed that we wanted to sleep there. It was a hot, sweaty night in the tent. For some reason, sleeping in a tent in this weather makes you feel extremely greasy. Maybe it has something to do with all the synthetic surfaces.

Day Two: Mile Marker 99 to Lake Lak at Lien Son Township
56.67km, 3:31:55, 16.0k/h

We woke up at 5am after a fitful night. We aren’t used to sleeping in the tent anymore and I felt like I had woken up about 50 times during the night. After only about ten kilometers of riding, we stopped for some “ca phe sua da” (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and we were quickly surrounded by the family that owned the cafe. We showed them the pictures on our camera and tried to communicate where we were going and where we had been. They were also very interested in our map. We pointed out Da Lat on the map and Buon Ma Thuot where we were headed. We wanted to know what town we were in, but when they tried to show us they were looking at places in Cambodia and Thailand. Hmmm. As we got up to leave, they offered us some fresh breadfruit a neighbor had brought over. Breadfruit is very chewy and has a mild, fruity flavor. Sarah thinks it tastes like Hawaiian Fruit Punch.

Their three year-old was talking constantly and saying “Hello” and blowing kisses at us.

We cycled on and only went for another hour before we met Mr. Pham The Quang on the road. His first sentence to Sarah was “You are very strong!” so of course she liked him immediately. He spoke excellent English and we learned that he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the war. He asked if we would take a picture of him to send to his sister in Houston, so we rode to his village with him to perform the photo shoot.

That’s me on the left.

We offered to take some of the neighbors too. At first they all shrieked and ran away covering their faces with their hands when I aimed the camera at them. A few minutes later some brave people decided they’d give it a shot. They tried to pose, but it seemed like they couldn’t stay still long enough for me to take a picture of them.

After the photo shoot we sat down for some tea and fresh avocados from Pham’s sister’s farm. We have been eating the avocados with salt, but Pham served them with a spoonful of sugar. They are actually really good this way: like creamy candy. Pham said they were really good with ice too, but we couldn’t figure out how that would work.

We said our goodbyes and then rode on to Lake Lak. This last stretch of road was flat and everybody we saw was harvesting rice. People were beating the stalks on steel drums, shaking the rice in giant woven baskets, and drying it right on the road. We went around the rice, but a lot of trucks just ran over it and then the farmers would rake it up again!

Day Three: Lake Lak to Buon Ma Thuot
51.87km, 3:11:52, 16.3k/h

Cycling away from Lake Lak, we had a short climb and then spent the rest of the day riding rolling hills on the plateau. The hills here were a lot rockier, but most of them were still being farmed.

Today was hot with no clouds, but we had a stiff breeze to cool us off.

The remnants of what looked like an old colonial church.

View of the rice paddies below.

Every restaurant and cafe in Vietnam is full of tiny tables, chairs, and stools. The stools literally come up just past our ankles and the chairs are calf-high. It reminds Sarah of the “kids’ table” she always had to sit at for Christmas dinner celebrations with the extended family. We look ridiculous sitting in these chairs, and all the locals seem to agree – they are very entertained by our giganticness!

The bathroom at this particular cafe was one we hadn’t encountered before. It was a little wooden room off the back of the cafe, on stilts about 20 feet above the hill below. The construction was rickety – there were lots of cracks and gaps between the scrap wood used to construct the room, and to get to it you had to walk along a narrow plank made of pieces of old wood. There was no actual toilet, only a small square hole cut into the floor of the room with a stack of newspaper stacked next to the hole for wiping (or reading?) purposes. Sarah had the pleasure of using this bathroom and came back saying she hoped no one was standing around at the bottom getting splattered!

Today was a short day, so we arrived in Buon Ma Thuot just in time for lunch. We had fresh spring rolls. You make them yourself by wrapping up the lamb, pork crackling, fresh herbs and greens, starfruit, green banana, pickled scallions, rice noodles, and cucumbers in rice paper and then dipping them in the creamy sauce. Sarah loves these and every time we eat them she says “Now THIS is what I came to Vietnam for!”

Tomorrow we head north on Highway 14.

Da Lat – Da Bomb

Monday, May 21st, 2007

The three days we spent in Ho Chi Minh City were great – we really loved the city. We’ve decided there are a few key city success factors, and HCMC had them all: clean, full of friendly helpful people, and tons of really good food. They day we actually rode into the city was a long day for us – 11 hours of traveling including almost 8 hours pedaling. We didn’t have a map of the city other than the crappy one from our guidebook so we were going through quite a bit of stress and frustration as we fought our way through the traffic and made random guesses at which streets to follow in order to find the budget hotel area of town.

Along the way we were hugely impressed with how helpful every single person we came across was. At one point we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for a drink and a rest before continuing on into the fray. I ordered a soymilk, Jamie got a Coke, and we sat on tiny ankle-high stools to enjoy them. We were a little surprised when the vendor served us the actual soymilk and Coke that were on display in the burning hot sun (usually they store drinks in coolers on ice). The drinks were this close to boiling! She gave us each a glass of ice to pour the drinks over and the entire glass of ice melted almost completely away as we poured. Our guidebook warns against drinking the crushed ice served on the street, but we were so exhausted and thirsty that we didn’t care – we chugged those drinks and ordered another round. I got sick later on (surprise, surprise) but it only lasted one day so I guess it was worth it. As we drank the vendor squatted on a tiny stool next to us and gesticulated her shock that we were actually riding our bikes through the city. Then she got her English speaking daughter to come out and chat with us a bit – they couldn’t believe we’d ridden in from Cambodia. We told them we were basically lost and the daughter helped us with some directions. Her English was pretty good but she had switched “right” and “left” and instead of saying “yes”, she said “oui.” When we paid the bill we were happy to find that we’d only be charged 25 cents per drink – a really good price, and especially nice after all the horror stories we’ve heard of tourists being drastically overcharged in Vietnam.

We were lost again a few turns later and about to give up and get a room at a too-expensive hotel when a one of the guys that drives motorbike taxis said “That one is too much! Just a few blocks that way are hotels for a much better price.” We were blown away – usually these are the guys that are aggressive and pushy and you just wish they would go away. So, we rode the few blocks in the direction he’d indicated, checked out a few hotels, and were getting discouraged again because they were still too expensive. As I was standing in the hot sun with the bikes, waiting for Jamie to check out prices, one of the taxi drivers said to me “These on the street are too expensive – there are much better ones in the alley behind this street.” He crossed the street to Jamie, led him back to the super secret back alley that we would have never found on our own, and we had our pick of at least ten really nice budget hotels. We couldn’t get over how people were going out of their way to help us out – it was a great feeling. Oh yes, and we also ran into this kid who told us his name was Michael, like Michael Jackson. He was excited when we said we were from the US, did a few little MJ style dances for us, and then gave us directions. We thought he was for sure going to ask us for money after his little performance, but I guess he was just more interested in a captive audience.

Another highlight of HCMC was that we got to meet a friend of my Grandma’s – Quynh. They met in Michigan where Quynh was working and my Grandma lived. Quynh said she missed her grandma and my grandma said she missed her grandchildren – so they decided to fill in for each other and struck up a friendship. We had a lot of fun with Quynh – she took us out to two delicious Vietnamese dinners, we had coffee and cheesecake, we walked around town together and bought tropical fruit magnets as a souvenir, and we visited her house and got to meet her family and five dogs! When we arrived at her house we found they’d gone and bought a selection of tropical fruits that were in season for us to try – it was so fun! The highlight was trying durian fruit which is the infamous stinky fruit of Southeast Asia. It smells so strongly (some say of sewage) that it is actually banned from airports and hotels throughout Asia! We’ve been smelling this fruit at every market since we arrived in Singapore and have been looking forward to trying it, but just hadn’t gotten up the courage to do it yet. We were both surprised that we actually liked it – it has a creamy custardy texture and I thought it tasted a lot like caramel. Everyone knows how much I love dessert, so this is the perfect fruit for me! They also made us delicious Vietnamese coffee and gave us one of the little drip-brewers and coffee beans as a gift. They were so generous and we had so much fun with them – we really hope they visit us in Seattle someday so we can invite them over for a buffet of salmon, king crab, cherries, apples, blackberries, and of course Seattle coffee!

Trying the durian:

Waiting for our coffee & cheesecake. Quynh is in the center, her niece is on the right:

Quynh and her husband also helped us learn some Vietnamese phrases along with the appropriate pronunciation. I think we entertained them quite a bit with our very bad attempts at imitation!

Attempting some Vietnamese:

After our time in HCMC we took the bus north to Da Lat, which is where we are today. Da Lat is at an elevation of 1500 meters so the weather here is temperate and wonderful. They market is full of strawberries and avocados which is quite a change from the usual pineapples and mangoes. Right now we’re sitting at a cafe on a small lake in the center of town, enjoying the fact that we can actual be outside without sweating through our clothes. On the bus ride here, we were both amazed by the height and the steepness of the hills. There are some serious climbs here! We are both hoping we can handle it after a couple months of pancake flat riding. Our guide book keeps describing this region as “high-adventure”, so hopefully we will survive. Tomorrow we’ll ride our bikes north, with our fingers crossed that our route stays at a high enough elevation to stay cool.

Avocados in the market:

Good Night Cambodia, Good Morning Vietnam!

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

We have arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam after two days of riding from Phnom Penh! All that whining I did in the last post must have paid off, because the day we left Phnom Penh we had our best weather yet in Cambodia. By “best”, I mean overcast with drizzling rains and a temperature below 90 degrees. Not suffering in the heat made the ride immensely better and we covered 128 kilometers – our longest day ever.

One thing we will remember about Cambodia is the crazy loads people carry on bicycles. Crops, crafts, animals, people, even massive amounts of kitchenware for sale. Their loads definitely make ours look tiny.

The scenery on the ride was again very rural with people tending their animals and working the fields.

The road surface was also the best we have experienced in Cambodia. The road was very wide and well-surfaced. It even had a bicycle/motorbike lane for us. One strange thing was that every couple of kilometers, the road had speed bumps on one side of the road in order to slow down traffic. This did not have the intended effect though. When drivers passed through these areas, they would switch to the oncoming traffic lane, speed up, and lay on their horn. Here is one of the offending drivers in action.

For some reason, on our last day of cycling in Cambodia we met more people on the road than all our other days combined. Maybe it was because it was cool enough that people were out and about instead of hiding from the heat. We met three students who wanted to practice their English with us and one extremely friendly teacher named Saman who rode with us for about 10k. Saman was a teacher of basic computer skills in Phnom Penh and was riding to his hometown near the border to visit his family. He was extremely excited to learn that we used to work for Microsoft and wanted to know our opinion on getting an MBA or a graduate degree in computers. He had decided he wanted to learn about computers several years ago and his father sold some of their farmland to purchase a new computer for him. He had studied for several months and gotten a job as a teacher in Phnom Penh with a salary of US$20 per month. After a while of more studying and teaching, he was able to increase his salary to $US400 per month – a very large amount by Cambodian standards. His family was very proud of him and he was now able to help support them. I think he and Sarah were discussing their favorite network routing algorithms in this shot.

Another observation we had about Cambodia is that the tuk-tuk drivers are a lot nicer than those in Thailand. They actually want to take you to your destination instead of a shopping trip. They are mostly very friendly too and when you say no once, they listen. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the driver will always quote a price of $2 for wherever you want to go in the city. At first, Sarah and I would bargain with the guys. We would start with $1 and we usually got our ride for $1.50 in the end. However, once we were actually riding around with the guy we would always feel bad. Did we actually just bargain this friendly hardworking guy out of fifty-cents? We felt so bad knowing that fifty-cents meant a lot more to him than us. So after bargaining, we would end up just giving the guys $2 anyway. In the end, we gave up on bargaining. We just asked how much it was, and said “fine” when they told us $2. Sometimes it seemed like they were laughing with the other drivers that they got us to pay $2. It makes you feel a little weird but not quite as bad as bargaining with some poor guy trying to make a buck.

One thing we are not really going to miss is Khmer food. One day in Siem Reap we ate at a busy Khmer restaurant on the corner. It was filled with only Cambodians, so we figured it must be good. We got some fresh kaffir lemon juice and noticed a lot of black things floating in the water. Some of it was dirt (or something) and some of it was bugs. We were examining our glasses and the waitress noticed so she came over and we showed her the bugs. She took the glasses, and returned with some new lemon juice. These ones still had some black things floating in them (but not as much) and no visible bugs so we said “what the hell” and drank them. We figured the ice in the drinks was probably dirty. We ordered our food and when we got it, it too had black things floating in it. I got a soup and after I had eaten most of it we counted over 18 bugs that looked like small winged ants floating in it. The soup had some sort of leafy green in it so we figured the veggies were dirty. We thought about complaining, but we weren’t sure what the reaction would be. Would the waitress understand that we didn’t like bugs in our food? Our is that normal here and would we look like crazy foreigners. We decided to just keep our mouths shut and we quickly paid the bill and left. Khmer food in general has not been that great. Cambodia has been greatly influenced by other cultures, and it shows in the food. Khmer cuisine is similar to Thai, but with much milder flavors and with some Vietnamese and Chinese influence too. Almost every time we ordered noodles in Cambodia, it was just packaged ramen noodles! We ended up eating mostly Chinese food during our stay in Phnom Penh.

Vietnamese food, on the other hand, has been excellent so far. As soon as we crossed the border we were starving so we decided to try some pho. We found a nice looking restaurant and attempted to say some Vietnamese words (pretty much impossible since the language has six different tones and a lot of sounds we can’t even make). We ended up with some amazing pork pho and iced coffee. The coffee is served in a tin cup with a filter at the bottom. The coffee brews at your table and then you pour it over a glass of ice. It is served very strong with a lot of sugar and tastes great on a hot day. I think we will be renewing our caffeine addiction here in Vietnam. Everything was so good I am planning to eat pho and coffee for every meal.

After crossing the border, we were only about 50 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, so we started to look for a bus to the city center. We found one going as far as Cu Chi and the ticket-taker told us to hurry up and get on. We stood there a little confused until we realized she wanted us to bring our bicycles and gear right onto the bus.

When we arrived at Cu Chi, we looked for another bus to HCMC, but none of them would take bicycles. Our only option was to start ride the remaining 30 kilometers to the city. On the outskirts, there was a divided motorcycle lane, so we were cut off from most of the traffic.

As we got into the city itself though, all hell broke loose. The amount of motorbikes was staggering and we couldn’t hear each other over the sound of the blaring horns. The scariest part by far was the roundabouts. These are pure mayhem. There is no such thing as yielding here, two seas of motorbikes approach each other and then individual motorbikes weave in between the others. Cars can do whatever they want, including blindsiding you, so you have to look in all directions as you make the your way through. It was extremely nerve-wracking and required a lot of concentration, but we both agreed it was also kind of fun.

They also carry crazy things on bicycles here in Vietnam. Check out this mobile pet store!

Tomb Raider Was Filmed Here

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

It was about 6am and Sarah and I were sitting on one of the many stone walls of Angkor Wat when I asked her, “Are we burned out?” Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of the highlights of Southeast Asia, but we were feeling tired and apathetic, rather than awestruck and inspired by the famous temple. It has been tough to get going again since we left Bangkok; it feels like our rhythm has been broken. We spent 21 days motionless in Bangkok and in Cambodia our cycling has been disrupted by boats, buses, and sightseeing.

Cycling here in Cambodia has definitely been a mixed-bag. Cambodia is probably the most interesting place we have visited so far, because it is so different from anything we have ever seen before. But it has also been the most difficult place for us to cycle. In the early mornings, it is pleasant because it is cool and there is a lot of activity with people going to work and kids going to school. By about 10 am though, you begin to notice the heat and then you are filled with a sense of dread. How far are we from our destination? Is there any cloud cover that will protect us today? How about wind? Are we going to be cycling through some stifling still air? All these questions run through your head as the sweat starts to flow. I also worry a lot about Sarah getting heat stroke. One steamy afternoon, we saw a Cambodian women walking down the street in some brown silk pajamas (they all wear pajamas here) with a brown cloth and basket on her head and Sarah thought the woman was dressed up in a bear costume. Was she delirious? While I’m worrying, Sarah spends her time getting mad at me because I’m not as uncomfortable as she is. She wants someone to share her misery. I think she may have turned a corner though, because instead of asking me when she will get used to the heat, she now tells me her Nordic heritage simply means she was not designed for this kind of weather and that’s all there is to it.

What makes matters worse is that when it really gets hot in the afternoon, there is nothing to take your mind off the heat. The roads are flat and straight and the scenery is endless fields with the occasional filthy village. There are no longer any people to look at because they are all sleeping somewhere in the shade. You only get passed by the occasional motorbike or mini-van. So you have to ride along, trying to adjust your position to keep your hands and butt from going numb, and counting down the miles to your destination. We rarely felt this way in New Zealand, where we could cycle along in the afternoon on quiet roads, chatting and where it felt so great just to be out riding that we would spontaneously break out into the occasional Disney song.

We decided to take a break from temple-viewing to discuss our situation over breakfast. Neither of us wants to go home. I never would have guessed it, but after six months on the road the thought of going home and getting a job does not sound appealing to me. We decided that we wanted a couple of things: to get on the road and make some progress again, to get out of this heat, and to see some natural beauty. So, we have decided to head for the Vietnamese highlands. According to the Rough Guide, the highlands have a “bracing” climate, mountain views, and a lack of tourist attractions to slow us down. It sounds like the ideal situation for us. Feeling better about our situation, we headed back to the temples for more exploration.

Every time there was a lull in the conversation during the temple viewing, I would say to Sarah, “Tomb Raider was filmed here.” This had the intended effect of driving Sarah nuts after about the third time. As we were about to leave the Ta Prohm temple one day, one of the security guards asked us where we where from and when we said “America”, he said “Tomb Raider 3 filmed here. Giant crocodile.” Yes! The Cambodians were now helping me annoy Sarah!

It might make us simpletons, but Sarah and I have both realized we are the most impressed by huge things. The 150 foot Reclining Buddha in Bangkok was the cultural highlight for us. The diminutive Emerald Buddha bored us. At Phnom Penh’s National Museum, the things that captured our attention most were the giant stone statues. It is the same here at Angkor Wat, we walked around the entire perimeter of Angkor Wat, studying the detailed bas-reliefs, while Sarah read the history behind them in our guidebook. They were beautiful, but we were both bored by the end. We had the most fun just wandering around alone in the deserted temples very early morning, listening to the jungle, looking at the giant stone blocks and wondering “How did they build these things?”

Our favorite temples were Ta Prohm (for the giant trees growing on the temple and despite the Disney World crowds), Bayon (for the giant stone faces), and Preah Khan (it was so deserted we were able to walk around the crumbling temple alone listening to the sounds of the jungle).

Bayon (Can you see all four faces?)

Preah Khan

Ta Prohm

You can see all of the many pictures we took of the temples on our Flickr Site.

We are back in Phnom Penh now. We took the bus to and from Siem Reap. For US$10 each, we got a seat on an air-conditioned, 28-seat bus with plenty of leg room. On the way to Siem Reap, we were literally the only customers on the bus (those are the ‘bus stewardesses’ in the background, below). We couldn’t figure out how they could afford to run the bus for only US$20.

The ride back today was the first time we have been really embarrassed by our appearance. When we got up this morning it was raining and we had to cycle about 3 kilometers to the bus terminal on the wet, sandy roads. My bike has no fenders because the SKS fenders I installed originally broke and the Zefal fenders I bought in Bangkok won’t fit with my 700x40c tires. So my entire back, up to the neck, was covered in wet, red sand when we arrived at the terminal. Sarah has fenders and was wearing a raincoat, but she was so dirty the busdriver said “no, no, no!” when she tried to board the pristine bus. She took off her raincoat and skulked on to the bus and I was able to sneak on after her. One of the workers gave us a couple of napkins to try to clean up with, but it was useless and we spent the five hour ride feeling gross and fantasizing about buying some new clean clothes. Our bikes are just as dirty as we are. My chain is so filled with grit, I can actually feel the crunching in the pedals.

We will spend tomorrow in Phnom Penh and then head for Vietnam.

Phnom Penh

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Feast your eyes on the rarest site in Southeast Asia: me under a blanket.

Despite the intense heat here, I somehow came down with a bad cold the day before we arrived in Phnom Penh. Head and body aches, fever, sore throat, cough; I had it all. My streak of no illnesses on the trip is over! At first I was worried I had caught something bad and was wondering if my liver was going to explode at any moment, but it only lasted a couple of days so I can’t complain too much. I fought it off with massive amounts of vitamin C. Phnom Penh has three very large markets and we bought large amounts of fruit every day. Even with our less than stellar bargaining skills, we bought this haul for $US7.

We spent the rest of our time here sightseeing at the museums, markets, pagodas, and palaces.

National Museum:

Street Market:

Wat Phnom:

Tomorrow we are going to take the bus to Siem Reap. After visiting Angkor Wat, we’ll start riding back east through Cambodia to Vietnam.

Like Stepping Back in Time

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

It took us two days of riding to reach Phnom Penh from Kampot. Both days, on Highway 3, took place on extremely flat roads that took us through vast dry fields and rice paddies. In some places the scenery felt almost desert-like because we’re at the very end of the dry season here. Next month these empty dry fields will flood and turn green, but for now they are a dustbowl. There was almost no shade as we rode along past the dry fields and the sun was very intense. The best part of the ride was the fact that as we rode through all the small villages it felt like we’d stepped back in time 100 years.

The best part of the rides was in the early morning, when the roads were filled with men riding in carts pulled by a matched pair of cows. The carts were not very sturdy looking – they were usually made of old wood and the wooden wheels made a racket as they rolled along. Sometimes there’d be a big pile of grass or hay in the back of the cart with a little kid perched on top. We also passed a few carts pulled by matched pairs of little ponies, complete with jingle-bell harnesses! Those were my favorite.

We saw mopeds and trucks hauling all sorts of things. This guy has a big wooden crate packed full of baby chicks strapped to the back of his moped. You could hear the chicks peeping as he zoomed along past us.

Another popular thing to haul were pigs. People had woven pig-sized baskets especially for transporting these animals! The pig snout stuck out one end and there were ropes tying the other end closed over the pig’s rear end. This guy was transporting his (live) pigs upside down – maybe to keep the struggling down? Another time we saw a man with a pig shaped basket, but this one was crammed full of piglets. Their little legs were falling through the openings in the basket and they were squealing like crazy! Do not come to Cambodia if you are an animal rights activist.

Most of the traffic was on Highway 3 was mopeds and bicycles; trucks were fairly rare until we got closer to Phnom Penh, which was nice. People on old single-speed bicycles were carrying amazing loads. This guy had stacks and stacks of woven leaf thatching on the back of his bicycle.

That about sums up the best parts of our ride. We were pretty miserable during the afternoons when the heat became so intense we felt like we were cooking. Jamie had to convince me more than once that we shouldn’t hitch a ride in a pickup. The worst part by far though was the road. It was so lumpy and bumpy that it felt like cobblestone. It was very hard on the hands and the butt. My hands kept going numb from holding on so tight, but I couldn’t really loosen my grip due to the quality of the road. My butt was in pure agony. All that time off in Bangkok really softened up my money maker! Jamie switched to his padded mountain bike shorts on the 2nd day, but I was left wishing everything would just go numb. We often chose to ride on the dirt shoulder rather than the road because it was a much better ride.

Riding into Phnom Penh wasn’t bad at all. The traffic slowly increased, which lead to increasing honking and crankiness on our part, but as soon as we passed under the sign saying “Welcome to Phnom Penh” the road turned to a perfectly paved thing of beauty. We cruised at unheard of speeds of 25 km/hr, waved back at all the police men hanging out on the corners, and felt very happy that we’d made it. We were just a few blocks away from our guesthouse when Jamie’s front tire had a major blowout. It was so loud that I assumed it was a moped backfiring somewhere! We both groaned and pulled over to the sidewalk where Jamie inserted two 100 riel bills beneath the giant gash in the tire and pumped up a new tube so we could make it the rest of the way. This is the third Panaracer tire that has failed on us so far. One developed at gash at 30 kilometers, one developed a giant bulge at 2500 kilometers, and now this one failed at 3700 kilometers. We wanted to get a little more life out of the Panaracers, but we are now going to switch to the Schwalbe Marathons immediately. We had an audience of 10 (I counted) during the tire-fixing escapade and they were extremely entertained when Jamie put the money into his tire.

Bokor Hill Station

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Today we visited the Bokor Hill Station – an elegant retreat built by the French in the 1920s to enjoy the cooler climate and beautiful views at 1000 meters above sea level. It was inaccessible to the public until 1998 when the area was finally secured against bandits!

For $10 each we got a full day tour which started out with a ride in the back of a pickup truck to the hill station. It was a 30km ride to the top on a road that you can just barely call a road. The Khmer Rouge deliberately destroyed the road in the 70s and they did a superb job of it. Eight of us were packed into the back of the pickup truck. There were two benches running along each side, four to a bench, and we all clung for dear life to a metal bar running down the center of the pickup bed. The road was so incredibly bumpy and bad that it felt almost like an amusement park ride, or one of those ‘virtual reality’ tours at Universal Studios where you sit in a fake car, watch a big movie screen, and get jerked all over the place in your seat. We’d regularly go over such huge bumps that the pickup truck felt like it was about to flip over sideways, and all the people on the low side involuntarily screamed and then looked at each other fearfully. We also got whipped in the face by vines and branches a few times. At one point we came to a downed tree blocking the narrow path. We crept along past the tree, looked down, and realized we were inches from a sheer drop to the bottom of the cliff. Later our tour guide told us that people regularly came to this hill in order to jump off and commit suicide – especially during the Khmer Rouge period! Just two years ago a man drove his moped off the side of the cliff because ‘he had a broken heart’.

At the top we saw the King’s former vacation residence, his concubines’ house, a Catholic church, and the French retreat. The buildings were old and crumbly but still beautiful. It seemed wrong to be allowed to traipse around anywhere we wanted in these beautiful old buildings. In the US this place would be completely locked down due to potential lawsuits from someone slipping and falling into the antique pit toilet. There was graffiti all over the walls, stupid things like “Harold and Tom from Yorkshire, 2006”. The views were spectacular!

Front of the main building:

View from the top:

Standing on the rooftop deck enjoying the cool breeze:

Maybe this was an open air restaurant:

Walking through the deserted halls:

Next we did a short trek through the jungle, during which our guide sang a few Backstreet Boys songs and talked non-stop about all the leeches that might be out and about waiting to crawl into our nooks and crannies. I spent the whole time trying to minimize wet leaves from brushing me, and made it out with no leeches.

After all this we had to ride 1.5 hours back down the hill, which wasn’t nearly as fun the 2nd time around. To wrap up the day we got a short tour in a longtail boat down the river, ending up back in Kampot.

Water taxi on the river. All the schoolkids loaded their bikes on for the trip home:

Fisherman on the river:

Close to sunset on the river:

Come Heat or High Wind

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Today was probably our most difficult ride to date: 104 kilometers from Sihanoukville to Kampot. 104 kilometers doesn’t sound that bad, but our pedaling time was 7 hours, 10 minutes, and 55 seconds due to some intense heat coupled with a ferocious headwind that never let up for the entire ride. We were on the road for 10 hours and had to apply sunscreen every hour because of the blistering sun. The wind was so strong, we struggled to hit 12 km / hour for most of the ride even though it was pancake-flat and Sarah was feeling dizzy from the heat and exertion. To make matters worse, the Asian sunscreen we bought in Bangkok absolutely sucks. For some reason, it makes you sweat more than normal and the sweat doesn’t evaporate. You are just covered with a slimy layer that feels disgusting. Luckily, we bought two other bottles of a European brand that we will switch to once we use up this disgusting stuff.

We also got our first real taste of Cambodian drivers and roads today. At first we started out on National Highway 4, which was a nice and smooth asphalt surface with lane markers and a hard-packed dirt shoulder.

After about 50 kilometers, we switched to National Highway 3 which was a little worse. The road is extremely wide with no lane markings. The surface is chip-seal with a layer of loose gravel over the top. Most of the gravel had collected on the edges of the road so we road towards the center.

Cambodian drivers are very different from Thais. In Cambodia, drivers use their horns all the time. Some drivers honk once or twice as they approach to pass you. We can appreciate this. Others honk five to eight times as they approach. This is ridiculous and annoying. Still others simply lay on their horn as they drive down the road, letting up to give their hand a rest every once in awhile. This is the worst of all. There is absolutely constant honking on the roads, with no logic that we can discern. So much so that honking has has lost its meaning and people just pretty much ignore what’s going on behind their vehicle. We were a little nervous when we first experienced this, wondering if we were about to get run over, but then we realized that everybody just loves to honk. In Asia, right-of-way is based on vehicle size, so on bicycles we are only above pedestrians on the food chain. If traffic was coming from both directions, we would have to pull off the road onto the shoulder to let everyone pass. Traffic was light on both of these roads though, so we didn’t have to pull off very often.

From the very start of this ride, we were struck by how much more green and open it is here compared to Thailand. We actually felt like we were in the countryside again. We passed some beautiful rice paddies with farmers working the fields with water buffalos and hand plows.

This woman was kicking muddy water onto her yoked buffalo to cool them off. They seemed to enjoy it.

It seems like everywhere you look here, there is a sign for the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party. Here is one particularly large one in the middle of some rice paddies.

After about two hours of riding, we had only covered 30 kilometers and realized this was going to be a very long day. We decided to find some food, so we pulled off the main road onto a small dirt road leading to a tiny village. We found a woman selling some sticky-rice wrapped in banana leaves from the back of her bicycle, and we bought a couple of different kinds. Sarah got one large one filled with some kind of fruit which we have never tasted before. I got another large one filled with either bean-paste or egg; we couldn’t decide which it was. We also got a bunch of small ones filled with toasted coconut. These are by far our favorite. The total for everything was only 1000 Riel (US$0.25)!

Eating in general has been very difficult for us here in Cambodia. In a lot of these small villages, we attempt to speak Khmer but the Cambodians assume we are speaking English and can’t figure out what we are saying. When we say things like “fried noodles” or “prepared food” in Khmer, they just shake their heads and try to find someone who speaks English. We have even gone up to a lot of restaurants and said “Coca-Cola” and they look at us bewildered. Then an English-speaking Cambodia comes over and says the exact same thing and two cokes are produced. The other problem is cleanliness. In one village, we looked around for a restaurant and chose the place that seemed like it would be the best. It was large, looked clean, and was actually inside a building instead of a tent. However, our cokes were served with glasses covered in some sort of unidentifiable white slime and the bowl that the fried dough was served in was covered in a greasy later of grime. Check this out.

So we have pretty much given up on eating at village restaurants here. We usually just go to the markets where we can get fruit and point at the ready-made items like fried bananas and sticky rice that we want. We also stop at convenience stores often to rest in the shade and cool down with a cold drink. I usually go for coke and Sarah always drinks soy milk which seems to be a very popular drink here. Here is Sarah resting at one of these stores.

All these stores also sell gasoline. Here is a typical Cambodian gas station.

It doesn’t seem like these villages see many tourists because everyone seems so surprised to see us. Some people just stare and laugh, but most people yell “Hello” at us as we ride past. When you say “Hello” back, they say it back again and this continues until you can’t hear them anymore. Sometimes the kids are saying it so fast and so often they seem like they are hysterical. The other phrase people know is “What is your name?”, but when you answer them and ask theirs they just start laughing. When we were sitting at one convenience store, a child walking down the road stopped dead in his tracks when he saw us. He stared at us for a few seconds like he was frozen, and then when we smiled he took off running back in the direction he came from. He returned a few minutes later with his friends and they hid behind a wooden stand staring at us and laughing. They took turns pushing each other towards us, but no one got up the nerve to say anything.

We finally arrived, completely exhausted in Kampot around 4pm. We are going to rest here for a day and tour Bokor National Park before continuing on towards Pnomh Penh.