A Day in the Life of a Cycle Tourist: Southeast Asia

This is the second installment in my “A Day in the Life” series. This update covers our daily life and routine in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.

The thing that ruled our lives here in Southeast Asia was the heat. It is incredibly hot here, which we expected, but we were incapable of anticipating just how hot it actually would be. We have never experienced heat and humidity like this; it was rather amazing. We were here between March and July and the temperature would regularly hit 40°C (104°F) with humidity in the 90th percentile. The heat ended up determining our schedule and activity.

To beat the heat we got up very early in the morning, between 5 and 5:30am. It was pitch black outside when we got out of bed and we’d often convince ourselves that we could sleep just a few more minutes. It was always so hard to get up that early, no matter how many times we did it. We’d quickly get into our cycling outfits, pack up our panniers, load the bikes, and slather ourselves with SPF 50 sunscreen. We were able to do all this within about 30 minutes of waking, and as we finished up the pitch black sky would lighten to pale grey and we would set off!

We’d ride for an hour or two in the early morning. Although it was only 5:30 or 6am practically everyone would be out and about doing things like sweeping the sidewalks, herding cows, and setting up roadside stalls for the day. This was also prime time for getting chased by dogs. We’d get passed by rickety wooden carts full of people going to the fields to begin work for the day. The carts pulled by old tractor engines would slowly overtake us on the uphills – everyone would laugh and wave at us. Then we’d cruise past them on the downhills – they’d laugh even harder and wave again. The carts pulled by pairs of cows or water buffalo were easy prey for us – we blew past them in an instant and they never caught us again! The temperature was cool and the sun was low – this was the best time of day.

After an hour or two we’d get hungry enough to need breakfast. Each country had a slightly different breakfast routine:

Thailand – There were little roadside restaurants all over the place. We rarely had to ride more than a few kilometers to find a place to stop once we’d decided we were hungry. Oftentimes these restaurants were made of bamboo and propped up on stilts over the ditch. We were always worried the rickety floor would collapse underneath us. We ordered Kai Jeaw, which is a deep fried omelet served over rice. We drank Garfair Yehn, which is Thai iced coffee.

Cambodia – Food was really hard to find here. We were usually unable to identify roadside restaurants. Things that looked semi-promising were either deserted, full of sleeping people, or looked so incredibly dirty that we passed them by. Instead we bought breakfast from roadside vendors in the morning markets in small villages. We’d usually end up with either either deep fried doughballs filled with sweet yellow beany stuff or tubes of sticky rice wrapped up in a banana leaf and filled with coconut, red stuff, or yellow stuff. We were never completely sure what we were eating. We almost never found coffee in the mornings and had to make due with either Coca Cola or water.

Vietnam – Easily had the best breakfast food, although absolutely zero variety. We had beef pho every single day; it is a spicy, herby noodle soup that we both loved. The coffee was delicious too. We had cafe sua da which is iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. The coffee came to the table in a little metal cup that was filled with grounds and hot water. It was balanced on top of a glass and dripped through as it brewed. On the bottom of the glass the coffee was brewing into there was a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk. When the brewing was finished you stir it all up, plop in a few ice cubes, and drink it. This was hands down the best coffee in Southeast Asia! Roadside restaurants were usually easy to find although the mountain country we traveled through was sparsely populated so we’d often eat breakfast before leaving town and starting out for the day.

Laos – Our routine here was very similar to Thailand. We’d ride for an hour then stop at a roadside restaurant. Decent looking little restaurants were plentiful (most were Vietnamese), and we went back to our morning breakfast of eggs and rice. The omelets in Laos are called jeun khai and you get sticky rice served in a little wicker basket instead of the regular steamed rice. We’d get coffee about half the time – sometimes they had it, sometimes they didn’t.

After breakfast we’d continue riding but by this time the heat would begin to rear its ugly head and we needed to stop every hour or so to avoid overheating. We’d try to find little shady spots on the side of the road to drink of water and eat a piece of fruit every hour or so. Sometimes we’d be unable to find fruit and would have to fall back on our emergency provisions of non-perishable snack food. These were almost always gross and were eaten out of desperation only: airy sugary wafer cookies, chemical-y cheese crackers, fluffy cakes with fake marshmallow in the middle and fake chocolate on the outside, etc. The best snacks we found were different types of peanut brittle that were sold in the markets here. They had the crunchy kind we were used to, but also a chewy, gummy kind with sesame seeds that we loved.

Our goal was to reach our day’s destination by around noon. At this point the sun would be high in the sky with no shadows to be found anywhere, and the villages we’d pass through looked like ghost towns. All living creatures had retreated to the shade to sleep through the hottest part of the day. No more dogs chased us because they were passed out on the side of the road looking like they were dead. Some days we ended up riding well past noon; this was always torturous.

Once we arrived at our destination, we’d immediately search the town to find a guesthouse with a nice balance between price and vermin infestation. The check-in process was usually moderately embarrassing because we would be sweating incredible amounts by this point, resulting in the liberal sprinkling of big sweaty droplets all over the counter and check in forms. Our bikes were always locked up somewhere safe, the guesthouses usually had secure garages or courtyards they let us keep the bikes in. Sometime there would even be a guard on duty to keep everything extra safe. We’d unload the bikes and begin the process of carrying all ten heavy bags up to our room. We never once stayed in a place with an elevator, and the record number of stairs we had to lug our gear up was 77 in Ho Chi Minh!

Immediately after checking in we’d take cold showers and then lay around eating a snack of fresh fruit for lunch, reading, looking at the day’s pictures, and napping. Usually around 4pm when things had cooled down a little, we’d reemerge to see the town, use the internet, and buy water, fruit, and snacks for the next day.

We’d eat dinner around 5 or 6pm at a cheap restaurant, trying to find a place with an English menu so we could have a bit of variety. We only know the names for a few dishes in each country and the menu allowed us to try new things. We usually had a beer or a fruit shake with dinner. We got used to never cooking and eating in restaurants 100% of the time here. It is going to be a shock going back to our camp stove!

By 6:30pm it would be starting to get dark. We would usually check out the town’s nightmarket and sometimes buy a desert or another snack, but we rarely stayed out late drinking or doing anything else. It was fun to walk or ride around a city in the early evening because it would be exploding with activity. The deserted streets would now be teeming with people socializing, eating, and shopping. We always commented on how strange it felt for there to be so much activity at night and how people from all age groups were out spending time together. Teenagers would be flirting and right next to them would be a mom with her baby chatting with a grandma. We always felt safe because there were so many people around.

Back at the guesthouse we’d read some more, mess around with the computer, and sometimes watch English TV. Cambodia and Vietnam had Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and sometimes CNN. For a period of a couple of weeks, we got addicted to the Discovery Channel and watched Myth Busters every night. By 9pm we’d be ready for bed. If we were in an AC room, we would be comfortable for the night but if we only had a fan we would have to routinely turn over every couple of hours to allow our sweaty sides to evaporate and cool!

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