SOUTH-EAST ASIA: BEACHES AND BIKING TOUR
Bicyling through NE Thailand, Southern Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Beaches of Malaysia and Thailand
Bangkok: October 28, 2005
The banana index takes a vacation, Monsoon waves and our bicycles clear Bangkok customs ....
We begin this chapter with an ending. Sometimes you have to give things up to gain experiences and in this case we emptied out our apartment including the ironing board. Letting go of the last remote control marked the beginning of homelessness once again.
We flew over the Pacific and caught up with Tony (Nepal 1984) south of Kuala Lumpur while our bodies adjusted to a quantam time shift and warm moist air. Our taxi ride on arrival sometimes exceeded 140 km/hr and included passing around corners. Driving can be more than transportation; it is a life and death thrill.
Tioman Island was our next stop. Back in the middle of our last Calgary winter, we had promised ourselves some beach time. Juara beach did not disappoint. Juara featured the stereotypical palm tree lined beach front and and cooling ocean breeze. Our bungalow was right on the beach with snorkelling a short distance away. There was a laid back kampong (village) behind the beach and the main entertainment was watching new arrivals slow roasting in the sun and then admiring the various shades of red skin. The many hundreds of fruit bats that rested on the tallest of palm trees put on and equally impressive show every eveing as they set out in search of fruit and flowers.
Paradise, except for the sand flies! Click on the photos to see the full size picture
Further north, still on the East coast of Malaysia, we hopped over to the Perhentian Islands. Despite promises to avoid comparing beaches, the busy and commercialized Long Beach did not compare well to the laid-back Juara beach. On our first night, we were pinned down between the rumble of the hotel generator and pulsating bar music that stopped somewhere in the haze of 3:00 a.m. The crowds cleared out the following day and with the approaching monsoon season, the island began to empty out. We moved to a quieter bungalow. The normally placid sea quickly became excited and gave us the opportunity to bash these old bodies around in the surf on boogie boards. The early monsoon rains drove us back to the mainland and onto Thailand.
Our visit to Malaysia coincided with Ramadan. On the beach, the local Malay villagers fasted by day but they depended on tourist stomachs so we naturally obliged by continuosly filling oursleves with seafood and fruit drinks. Once off the islands, peninsular Malaysia offers a wide range of cultures and associated foods. On our last night in Malaysia (Kota Bharu), we dined with Indians, Chinese and Europeans with a Malay contingent that awaited the 7:00 pm all clear sign before tucking into their Indian food. Across the street, a Chinese dragon danced in front of a Chinese hall and a mosque callled ot to the faithful.
While Malaysia is mellow, Thailand is "switched on". We caught up on the latest in overnight bus videos on the way north to Bangkok. The onboard service on Thai buses is better than some major domestic routes in other countries (no names). The bus company provided a sit-down dinner with a selection of delicious dishes shared with our felow passengers. The reader may recall that we travelled Greyhound to San Diego, California. Greyhound stopped exclusively at Burger King. Sometimes it's hard to determine what is a the developing country.
Shopping and eating are two of Bangkok's strong points. It is a place where, in places, two people can still eat a pretty good meal for a buck and "Diesel" (or knock-offs) clothes sell for a song. Bangkok is also renown for its staggering traffic and thick curbside air and noise pollution. We jumped right in and experienced a full-on rush hour one day. The price of a non-air con bus is 7 Bhat (20 cents). The experience is priceless.
We sought out our own wheels for the next stage of our trip: multi-bus cross-town adventures made just finding and purchasing our latest bicycles an acheivement. The bikes we decided to purchase were in the Bangkok Port customs, but our man Mongkorn assured us that they would clear customs and would be ready by today. He delivered on his promise. The cycle back to our guest house was epic and made our cycle through Bratislava (Slovakia) seem like a picnic.
Sunil (New Delhi 1974) treated us to a lovely riverside dinner as we caught up on many years. We've arrived at the beginning of the cool season, when Thais are putting on their sweaters. Daytime temperatures have slumped to 32 to 34C.
Coming Attraction: we peddle through the rice bowl of NorthEast Thailand on our way to Southern Laos and Vietnam
LAX (Los Angeles Airport) International Terminal provides a contrast to the KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport). LAX offers the international transit traveller a choice of pizza, hot dogs or white bread sandwiches at the only food outlet next to a scaled model of a normal duty-free shop while KLIA is a pleasing modern, sparkling architectural marvel with a wide range of shops and restaurants.
Glenn became known as "Turtle Man" on Tioman with his turtle sightings over 10 consecutive days.
Travel Dangers: we survived a particularily breezy day on Juara beach. We called it the "day of falling coconuts". If you have ever heard the thud of a coconut impact falling 25 metres, you'll know what we are talking about.
Problems in Paradise: tiny sand flies on Juara beach seemed innocuous enough until 24 hours later, leaving an itch that lasted for many days. Baby oil worked well as a sand fly repellent (or was it the Tiger beer?).
Bungalow Wars: Giant gekkos, some 25cm long, hunted insects at our Perhentian Islands bungalow. Cats stalked gekkos and the occaisonal rat.
Laundry Blues: Malaysia is humid. Unless the sun shines, laundry can go from wet to damp to damp and then begin to ferment.
The Cold War Continues: Bring an extra layer of clothing for the air conditioning of Malaysian long-distance buses. Their Thai conterparts can hold their own; despite three blankets, Sheila was still cold on our overnight journey. Those blasts of cold air on Bangkok city buses make traffic jams a joy!
The Inside Chicken Story: Although some visitors trek across Tioman Island to reach Juara, beach, these two chickens opted for air conditioned 4WD transport. We also opted for an air-con room near the river in Bangkok (8 USD/night). Our room was on the ground floor and the heavy downpours back up the Bangkok plumbing, sometimes with unpleasant cosequences. We have moved to higher ground (2nd floor).
FOR THE RECORD
2005 Tent Nights: 52 and holding
The Banana index takes a vacation to allow for a guest appearance of the rambutan index (kg per USD):
Malaysia rambutan index: 1.5
Thailand rambutan index: 1.6
Pakse, Laos November 14, 2005
Our bike journey naturally started with a train journey out of Bangkok. This was not just any old train. It was a third-class-only train. We were most impressed with the efficiency of the baggage handling of our bicycles . We were less impressed by the number of people that we squeezed into our seating area (nine on two seats) and we were somewhat relieved to reach Nakon Ratchisima (Ok, we'll stop the whining). The next leg of our biking trip featured a bus ride to Phi Mai where were so impressed with the Phi Mai Inn that we banked a rest day to enjoy the A/C, movie channel and swimming pool. The movie "Temple of Doom" insired us to go outside and visit the Khmer ruins.
We established a routine of hitting the road at daybreak that became increasingly early as we moved east in the time zone. Markets bustle at sunrise, barefoot monks collect food before 7:00 a.m. and farmers collect fish in irrigation pools early in the day. N.E. Thailand is ideal for lazy cyclists: it is largley flat rice paddy country. However, by 9:00 a.m. each day, the temperature was usually hittling 30C in the shade. Cycling is not conducted in the shade so we generally kept a steady pace (except for noodle stops) to our daily destination to avoid the afternoon sun.
It was flat riding in NE Thaialnd. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
* We stayed at a "Cabbages and Condoms" Resort (profits go towards community devleopment & HIV prevention) where the food is guaranteed not to make you pregnant.
* In Nang Rong, an elephant was wearing a flashing bicycle light on its tail while it wandered the night streets.
* Our first hill was up a 400 metre high extinct volcano to visit Phnom Rung ruins which even at 7:30 a.m. was like exercising in a huge open air sauna.
Modern Day explorer at Khmer ruins. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
* With daytime temperatures reaching 41C in the shade, some much needed rain cooled the countryside briefly and it also drove a variety of creatures into our hotel room at Prakhorn Chai, including a frog and a scorpion.
* In Si Saket, we stayed at a rather smart 190 room hotel (7.50 USD for room with A/C and TV) where a uniformed bellhop brought our panniers up to our room. How much should one tip a bellhop in Si Saket?
* In Kantharalok, most of the town seemed to flake out during the heat of the day. We had a two remote control room (A/C, TV) so we could flip through the Thai, Cambodian and Indonesian TV channels in comfort. Sheila left a lasting impression in the freshly laid cement driveway.
* We grinded our way up the 625 metre a.s.l. Preah Vihear Khmer ruins that sit atop an escarpement overlooking the Cambodian plains. Preah Vihear is technically within Cambodia but access is only possible through Thailand.
* Ubon Ratchasima is a beginner's version of Bangkok. The fumes are less offensive and the traffic moves during rush hour. So cyclists can move up to the front with the throngs of motorcycles at each stop light. When the light changes to green, it's a tremendous surge forward and vroom, you wait at the next trafic light and breath in more fumes. We lingered and extra day in Ubon. We will readily admit that the A/C and the two english language movie channels and ESPN on our TV had everything to do with it.
Thai roads are well signed though not always in roman script.
* Over in Phibun Mangsahan, we did not buy any deep fried frog skins, despite the attractive prices of one bag for 20 Bhat or 3 for 50 Baht (40 Baht = 1 USD). We do not expect to maintain a frog skin index.
* At Kong Chiam, Thailand's two largest rivers meet at the "Two Colour River". We had some difficulty distinguishing between the two shades of brown.
* Finally, at Chong Mek, we scored another 2 remote control hotel room to base ourselves from to visit the large Thai/Laos market (mostly houshold products) and our last Thai food before crossing over into Laos.
We have rigged up wide brimmed rice paddy hats on our bicylce helmets. They are so wide that it feels like they don't fit through doorways. The hats are flat topped so most local people can tell from our hats that we are not from around their particular region.
Thai food is yummy. We were never sure of what we were going to eat until it was delivered to the table. There is no such thing as "a little" spicey.
Internet or Game rooms are surprisingly quiet in Thailnad. Patrons (mostly kids) normally wear headphones while they blast away. This allows women shopping for husbands to do so peacefully. Internet access costs 10-15 Baht an hour.
FOR THE RECORD
Thai nights: 23
Thai nights with A/C: 19
Thai hotel nights with TV: 9
Thai bicycle kilometres: 800
Other foreign touring cyclists seen: none
Thai banana index: 16 for 1 USD.
Watermelon index: 4 smaller melons for 1 USD
TECHNICAL INFORMATION ON OUR BICYCLES
Colour: Sheila's is black and Glenn's is blue
Weight (including baskets): 14.5 kg
December 2, 2005. Dong Ha (Central Vietnam)
We crossed over into Laos from Thailand and cycled with thousands of school children who were cycling and walking to school. There is a population explosion taking place in Laos. We regained out intimate knowledge of the Lao language from three years earlier. Sabaidi (hello) and kop jai (thank-you) were rolling off our tongues within days. The occaisional sawatdee (Thai for hello) did slip out and on more than one occaision, Glen slipped over to the left-hand side of the road.
Laos Road scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
The Lao Kip to Thai Baht exchange rate of 263 to 1 made comparisons of Lao prices to their Thai counterparts best left alone. Money flows like water with beer at 7,000 Kip (680 mls of happiness) and a nice hotel room goes for a staggering 60,000 Kip a night. A dollar buys more than 10,00 Kip, so the pain is not severe.
After enjoying Indian and Italian meals in Pakse, it was all uphill to Paksong. At "Banana Junction" we found room in our panniers, already full of millions of Kip, for pineapple and papaya. The relentless climb was eased by the thousands of kids greeting us along the way. "Sabaidee", "bye-bye" were the main greetings but they also included "thank-you" and our favorite "I love you". There is not much to Paksong as it was obliterated in an earlier American folly (Vietnam War) but it does feature lovely cool air. We made the first real use of the front suspension on our mountain bikes (the machines) descending on a "technical" dirt road/track by avoiding cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks; the goats were the most unpredictable.
At Tad Lo village and waterfalls, the greenery supported continuing cool temperatures. Thatched bungalows were well situated to experience the full-on Laos version of "Old McDonald"'s ("Old Oudom") farm including the 3:00 a.m. rooster chorus. The bikes took a rest and we rode an elephant called Moon; how much do you tip an elephant handler in Tadlo? Sheila was our first gastro-intestinal casualty, down with food poisoning at Tadlo.
Back down on the plains along the Mekhong, the temperatures eased. The reader may recall that on many occasion, under a hot Thai sun, we had to re-check our map to make sure we had't accidently taken the road to hell. Overnight temperatures dropped below 20C. Chilly!
Over at Champasak and Wat Phu, a world heritage site, we sprinkled spring water on our heads for good luck (apparently the thing to do) and set off on a dusty road to Kiet Ngong for more elephant trekking. While trekking, we encountered a large bull elephant working timber and our elephant experienced a testosterone surge or panic and shot off downhill. We held on tight to our bucking bull; it is a long way to fall from the back of an elephant. We did tip our elephant for the thrill with sugar cane and we felt safer closer to the ground on our bikes after that.
Road scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
One of the advantages of cycling over travelling by bus is that you feel closer to the countryside. Bus travellers pass through places thinking "Boy, I'm glad I don't have to stay there" while cyclists get to stay in those villages. Ban Thang Beng is one of such places, just waiting to be discovered by Lonely Planet (guidebook).You read about it here first. So the sheets in the guesthouse hadn't been washed in some time, but one of the local restaurants served a mean beef stomach laap (salad). Once the restaurant gets a Michelin rating, it will never be the same. At night, when the air goes still, the smoke from the local charcoal factory blankets the village to suffocate all and provide a rooster-free sleep.
We cycled further south to the Mekhong area called Si Phan Don or four thousand islands (some poetic license involved). On Don Khong, buffalo have the right-of-way on the roads, ducks have the water right-of-way and roosters have the first and finalal say. There are more bicyles than motorbikes on Dong Khong and the morning market offers a good selection of frogs. Deep in the far south of Laos (Don Det and Don Kon) palm trees and bamboo groves create an atmosphere remniscent of Kerala, South India. Don Det has no roads nor electricity and is a back-packer's hang-out where you can still get a bungalow for a dollar a night. Equally impressive was seeing the Irrawady dolphins. Though it is true that Disney might do a better job, we were quite taken by the overall experience.
Si Phan Don moments. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
Despite the allure of more beef stomach laap, we re-traced our route north and onto Savanakhet by bus. Our bikes rode on top of the bus with the chickens and we caught up on more Thai music videos below. The theme of women and cell phones waiting for their prince charmings to call seemed to be popular subjects. Usually the man does call and they live happily ever after, but in the sad songs, he never calls.
From Savanakhet, we rode west through gentle hills and a not-so-gentle headwind towards Vietnam. There were plenty of hill tribe people and smiles along the way with surprisngly decent accomodation and food. The further east we rode, the more exotic the roadside meat became including rats, snakes and other unknown creatures from the forest. We passed war wreckages , the HoChiMinh trail and entered Vietnam. Our first impression of Vietnam is noisy and brash. There are 80 million people living in Vietnam and it feels like we have already waved to 5 million of them.
More Laos road scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
Laos hotels generally post rules in each room. they feature some interesting english translations such as "don't make much noisey when sleeping"
People use car or motrocycle batteries to provide power for lighting in some rural Laos areas. A chap on motorbike and trailer collects the batteries laid out on the roadside for re-charging.
Domestic birds (chucks, ducks, turkeys, geese) wander about freely. We have not seen a sick bird yet. Believe us, we've heard plenty of healthy and chipper roosters at 3:00 a.m.
Ordering Laos food is always and event. Glenn's Lao and Thai, supplemented with gesticulations seem to work. Gosh, he's been asked several times "where did you learn to speak Lao?"
We made an important discovery; freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. It is served with ice and a touch of lime. Who says you should avoid the ice and not to eat the lettuce?
We ran into the boat cartel when getting around the Mekhong islands. In Savanakhet, we had to maneuvre around the banana cartel. We know our banana prices!
Our mahout (elephant handler) at Tad Lo used only his feet to control the elephant. A spirit man communicates with the Tad Lo pachyderms weekly to keep them happpy. At Kiet Ngong, the mahout occasionaly used a riding crop with four chain links to control his elephant. The chain links controlled a couple of tons of elephant but they are nothing compared to the ball and chains we are familiiar with in the working world.
Celebrity status: we get more attention than Lance Armstrong in the part of the world when we ride through villages, sometimes reaching hysteric proportions. It's mostly under 8 year-olds but we provide a lot of entertainment.
There are plenty of poor folks in Laos. They sure smile a lot. Are they happier than people with an SUV and a sports car in the garage? Not likely, if you lost six kids to malaria.
Much like Thailand, people are honest and we often leave our bikes unlocked. In Laos, some hotel owners instisted that we keep our bikes indoors at night. We reckon that this is because of the mischevious Phi (spirit) who comes out at Night.
FOR THE RECORD
Most people seen on one bicycle: five
Laos nights: 17
Laos kilometres cycled: 825
Other foreign cyclists seen: 6
Laos Banana Index: 24-36, so lets say 30 per USD
Number of Lao kids that asked for candy: none
DECEMBER 22, 2005. HOI AN, CENTRAL VIETNAM.
Entering Vietnam from laid back Laos on Highway 9 was a bit of a shock. Curious officials climbed over our bikes, ringing the bells before we had even cleared immigration. Vietnamese can be a in-your-face lot. We jumped into the road chaos and onto our first stop of Khe Sanh, site of a huge bloody battle in the "American War". An American commander had commented on Khe Sanh that "you could lose it and really haven't lost a damn thing". That still holds today as dust, fog, musty hotel rooms and grubby food stalls were our first impressions.
We rode down towards the coast and enjoyed a streak of three consecutive hotels that provided free toothbrushes. This country has lots to offer like teapots with teeny weeny teacups and cafes with plastic kiddy chairs.
The rain started and we bussed our way north to Hanoi via Vinh and Ninh Binh. The cows south of Hanoi were wearing sweaters (polypropylene bags) and so with temperatures of 5C in the far north, we halted in wonderful Hanoi. That vibrant city features plenty of Franco-Vietnamese architecture and a gentle version of traffic chaos compared to other Asian cities. Jeff (Nepal 1984), who is teaching English in Hanoi, introduced us to the high life, knocking back 10 cent draft beers (bia hoi). We worked hard on lowering our lifetime average beer costs.
Try and find sheila in the picture on the bus
We lined up and paid our respects to Ho Chi Minh who continues to lie in-state. Much like Mao in Beijing, Uncle Ho is shrinking to nothing. We checked out, but did not check-in to the "Hanoi Hilton" (Hoa Lo prison, now a museum). We saw no less than three guillotines in Hanoi; the French must have been tough colonialists. We opted to change Hyundai truck horns for French horns and the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra at the grand Opera House.
A quiet Hanoi street.
The spectacular Halong Bay and thousands of limestone islands jutting out of the South China Sea is best visited on a package tour. We were whisked from our Hanoi hotel to visit roadside tourist shops and shepherded onto awaiting boats. For three days we didn't have to decide on anything including what and when to eat. This way please!
Halong Bay is amazing. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
Our pseudo cycle trip continued with a pleasant overnight train journey to Hue, the old imperial capital. A mere 55,000 Dong gets a foreigner into the Purple Forbidden City which seems like a great deal considering that only eunuch servants were allowed to enter in the good old days. Hue in the rain, drove us further south (yes, by bus) to Hoi An.
Hue Pagoda. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
Whilst Hoi An is a wonderful living museum, the action has shifted to tourism. It's loaded with restaurants, souvenir shops and tailor outlets; the latter seem to outnumber tourists by a large margin. It's a good place to weather the unseasonal rain, most recently in the form of "Tropical Storm 25W". With roads and bridges washed away by flooding, who needs to cycle when you take in the Hoi An cafe scene?? The main north-south highway is closed further between here and Nha Trang.
Hoi An waterfront
Budding Capitalists: The high Vietnamese visa fees were an early indicator of Vietnam today. We've had to haggle for everything including a bowl of rice. Vietnamese haggle over bus fares; westerners don't stand a chance. We have even met an Indian tourist who thought that the Vietnamese haggling was over the top!
No McDonalds: There is no sign of American fast food chains in Vietnam. The closest that we have seen are the posters of Ho Chi Minh who looks similar to Colonel Saunders, except that Uncle Ho was a General.
Endless Summer: we have had quite a weather run in South East Asia. The monsoon arrived early in Malaysia, The Thai monnsoons have lingered, winter air greeted us in Norhtern Vietnam and now tropical storms batter us in Central Vietnam. It all feels like a Northern British Colombia summer.
Best Tropical Purchase: Sheila bought a ski jacket in Hanoi and she hasn't taken it off since then. It's a topsy-turvy world.
No sign of chickens: birds are off the menu in Vietnam. Dogs on the other hand, try to keep a low profile because they are on the menu.
Hotel deals: there has been a frenzy of hotel construction in Vietnam, especially in spots like Hoi An. 8 bucks can get you a new, tastefully decorated room complete with AC, remote controls, fridge and french doors leading to a private patio overlooking the rice paddies. But who wants to look at the paddies when you can watch B movies on HBO?
Our Christmas Wish: Peace on Earth and a dry (weather-wise) and warm 2006.
FOR THE RECORD
Vietnam bike kilometres: rain abbreviated 400
Vietnam banana index; still under review. More haggling is required!
Number of suits purchased in Hoi An: none
Days in Vietnam; 22
Number of Vietnamese days with sunshine: one afternoon
Sihanoukville, Southern Cambodia. January 23, 2006
We pulled into Quang Ngai on Christmas Eve. Almost 10 percent of Vietnamese are Christians so the churches are nicely decorated at that time of year. There seemed to be an undeclared truce as we were not knowingly over-charged or short-changed on Christmas Eve. The banana index shot up to 42.
Santa on Christmas Eve outside a supermarket. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
Sheila was appreciative of her Christmas gift; a train ride to Nha Trang. Christmas lunch and Christmas dinner were both served up in a box by the Vietnam Railways catering staff. Both meals were identical so we know which containers to open and which ones were best left alone at dinner time. Our Christmas goodies were of the first order including green bean cake, banana candy and sesame snaps.
Santa was also good to Glenn and he managed to find us despite our no-fixed-address. We went from no CDs to a fully loaded 30G IPOD with a customized selection of over 460 albums (6091 tracks to be exact) from the "Groove Shack"music library including albums from "Crazy Penis"and "The Pink Martinis".
Life continued to improve with a visit to the spa near Nha Trang on Boxing Day. We wallowed in the mud like two water buffaloes. That was followed by a boat trip to the islands so that we could float in the refreshing South China Sea at our boat's floating bar and knock back Vietnamese mulled wine.
Day trip out of Nha Trang. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
2006 started well enough for us. On New Years Day, we slurped some excellent noodles and enjoyed great seafood but nore importantly we rode an amazing tail wind for 108 kilometres, a very auspicious number in this part of the world.
Highway 1, south of Nha Trang. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
Further into 2006, we had a yin-yang day when we drove through what we refer to as the "valley of the pigs", not to be confused with the "bay of pigs". Over 50 little piggies were going to market and were loaded up in to our Dalat bound van. they got a little excited and lost control of their bladders. Our panniers seemed to soak up most of the pee. We smelt like pig farmers on arrival in Dalat. The smell was not all that bad as it only took three washes to get the odour out of some of our clothing.
Although Dalat is considered a hill station, it is more like a Vietnamese version of Blackpool. It is a prime honeymoon destination. It does not disappoint with its "Valley of Love", Vietnamese cowboys, pedal powered swans on the lakes and caleche rides.
From Dalat, we pedalled to non-descript De Linh and its corresponding culinary delights. It was the beginning of our coffee-to-surf ride: head and shoulders above all other Vietnamese cycling sections that we did. We topped out on a pass that was covered in rain forest. We made a spectacular, almost traffic-free descent, through forest, bamboo thickets and then green rice paddies on the lowlands. Our destination of Mui Ne is known for its wind, especially in the afternoons. So it was fitting that we paid for our descent in the currency of sweat, riding hard into a headwind in the final kilometres.
Mui Ne beach sits below towering sand dunes and attracts kite-surfers and wind-surfers from around the world including a sizable Russian contingent. Winds were up, limiting the late afternoons to a core group of 40 impressive kite-surfing experts; it was exhilarating to watch. It is a "scene". The wind reduced the ravages of the dreaded sand flies. Even so, their numbers were sufficient enough to drive us onto Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) after a few days of seafood on the beach. Yes, we went sand tobogganing.
Saigon is a big bustling city. As the well behaved tourists that we are, we took in some history by visiting the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and the nearby Cu Chi tunnels. In the new Vietnam, the American War has been relegated to history as over two thirds of the population was born after the war. All American presidents should visit the War Remnants Museum before they take office; the museum portrays a human perspective of war.
Saigon mortorbike/bicycle parking.. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
In the Mekong Delta, we indulged in a fruit party with Paolo and Daniella in Can Tho. Vietnamese mangoes are really good. We did a mixture of boat and bike through the delta, a very enjoyable part of Vietnam. In Long Xuyen, the Karaoke beat forced us to higher ground and a hotel room on the top floor. We took the back roads through the rice paddies and friendly villages and somehow or another, we found our way to the back door in to our next country, Cambodia.
Mekhong Delta scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
Coffin on a bicycle. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
Vietnamese traffic is rich and complex. It is a mixture of bicycles, motorbikes, buses and transport trucks with a constant melody of various horns punctuated by frequent ear drum warping and brain rattling toots of air horns. The two lane roads have four currents with some motorbikes driving against the flow on the inside of the road.
Cyclists should keep their heads up and be prepared to slide off the road. At one point, we faced three side-by-side vehicles hurtling towards us on a two lane road.
Motorbikes commonly transport pigs, dogs (to market), beds, sofas and even coffins.
Our typical interaction with Vietnamese cyclists (mostly school kids):
Vietnamese: "hello"supported by hand waving
Touring cyclists: "hello"supported by hand waving
Followed by the same ten seconds later. And so on.....
Saigon Traffic: It is not exactly the parting of the Red Sea, but it sure feels like it when you walk across the street and make it safely to the other side. We found cycling easier than walking because you go with the flow.
The Book: Lonely Planet guides are so good that they have reached "Microsoft"levels. Tourists take guidance from the same book and visit, stay and eat at the same places. The expression, "off the beaten track" should be replaced by "not in the book".
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus: Santa does not use a sleigh in Vietnam. He drives a Honda motorbike. The Vietnamese are not large people, nevertheless, there was something incongruous about seeing two skinny Santa's with a huge sack on their motorbike on Christmas Eve night.
No boules. In contrast with Laos, where boules pitches were common, we didn't spot any boulesdromes in Vietnam. Remember those guillotines (another spotted in Saigon)! However, the French did leave behind the legacy of coffee, cafes and baguettes.
Pyjama patrol: In Vietnam you can walk around or even hop on your motorbike in your pyjamas without creating a stir. What a country!
FOR THE RECORD
Vietnam banana index: 42 for 1 USD
Vietnam kilometres cycled: 1325
Other touring cyclists encountered in Vietnam: 11
Stay tuned for more misadventures through Cambodia.....
Bangkok, February 10, 2006
We entered Cambodia at an obscure border crossing from Vietnam in the blazing hot sunshine. The border facilities amounted to no more than shacks and gentle officials; Cambodia in a nutshell. From the border, it got hotter and hotter where there was pavement, we felt like we were melting into the asphalt. We cycled through a mixture of "hello" and "bye-bye" villages through Takeo, Kampot and onto Sihanoukville. By contrast, Vietnam is very much a "hello" country while Laos was largely a "bye-bye" country. The Kampot green peppercorns are amazingly tasty and known around the world at better restaurants.
We cycled past elephants, guinea fowl, through old crumbling French colonial towns. Sugar cane juice poured over ice kept us going through the heat of the day. Coincidencently, when we stopped drinking sugar cane juice, the "trots" also stopped. If you knew how they handle the ice blocks, you would understand why.
Elephants have right of way in Cambodia!
We planned to stay in Sihanoukville (Occheutal beach) for 3 or 4 days. We stayed 11 nights and we could have stayed much longer. With 59 channels on the telly, who needs anything else? The white sand beach of Occheutal goes on for several kilometres with a long string of funky bars and restaurants all cooled by a fresh ocean breeze. It's laid back, almost too laid back for the high season. Many bars/restaurants advertise free accommodation, free smoke, free pool and happy pancakes a hippy paradise. We became regulars at the comfy "Happy Eagle" and we parked ourselves there for much of the day. A Chinese massage master awaited Sheila. And with beachfront bars like "Utopia" and "The Tent" next door, how could we go wrong? The whole beach scene was almost surreal. One day a Samuel Jackson look-alike dropped in at our bar. Was he the real McCoy? Was the beach real?
Pineapple lady on Occheutal Beach
Occheutal Beach is long enough to absorb plenty of action. That's exactly what it did over Chinese New Year as a tumultuous mass of fun arrived to liven things up. Adult Cambodians sat at the water's edge making sand castles, seemingly making up for lost childhoods through decades of civil war. It made you want to cry, but would they be tears of sorrow or tears of joy?
Then there was the disappearing bicycle trick. One moment, Glenn's bike was parked outside a cafe in town and the next moment it was gone. It brought our so-called bike trip to an end a week earlier than planned. With the Cambodian sun kicking in, it brought few tears to these chickens. It did expose and edge to Sihanoukville that few tourists are aware of.
The show moved onto Phnom Penh where power cuts seemed to be a way of life. The city was a positive surprise; it is a recovering city full of wonderful Cambodians. We took a history lesson and visited Prison S-21 that was once a secondary school, then a detention and torture centre and now it is a museum. About a million people were killed during the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot days. Over the years, 17,000 inmates were held at Prison S-21 and 7 survived. It's hard to understand how such warm, gentle people got caught up in such horrors.
A painless journey took us to Siem Reap (Angkor) which feels like the tourist epicentre of South-East Asia. Out at the ruins, people from all over the world crawl all over the incredible Angkor ruins. By 4:00 p.m., it resembles the Tokyo rush hour. It is not a place for solitude, but you should get there soon before it really takes off. Superlatives cannot fully describe this mind-boggling place that dwarfs all other archaeological sites we have visited.
Angkor scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
We donated Sheila's bike to a local charity and continued onto the Thai border unencumbered by bicycles. Although the road is much improved, the dust was impressive as anywhere. The bone jarring journey was better than any amusement park ride (including the Coney Island roller coaster " The Cyclone") and it lasted much longer.
Re-entering into Thailand was a culture shock for us. We cannot recall a land journey with more contrast, particularly when we hit the expressways, traffic and shopping malls of Bangkok. Like many other visitors, Cambodia will always hold a special place in our hearts.
San Bushmen in Asia: 59 TV channels offered up "The Gods Must be Crazy" dubbed into Chinese. Our Phnom Penh bound bus played The Gods Must be Crazy II " dubbed into Cambodian.
Back in Style: boules re-appeared in Cambodia. With a bottle of pastis going for 5 bucks in Cambodian grocery stores, it is better than the South of France.
Sporting Club, Sihanoukvile: a beach bar offered comfy beach-side chairs and "musculation all day". The only musculation that we observed was lifting of beer mugs.
Just like home: We stayed at the GST Guest house and travelled on GST buses . In Canada, GST is a goods and services tax.
Hard to keep life simple: Life is getting more and more complicated. With Ipods and digital cameras, travellers need a power source every couple of days. Then there is the need to manage the hard drives, do downloads, upgrades, file transfers, etc. It is hard to avoid the modern world as we all swim in the same river. All we can do is stick to the eddies and watch the fast current go by. We are all going to end up in the same place, so what is the rush? [ That is supposed to be profound, though the Cambodian mid-day sun can stunt you thinking.]
FOR THE RECORD
Cambodian nights: 19
Cambodian Banana Index: 40 for 1 USD
Cambodian distance cycled: 350 kilometres
Total SEAsia distance cycled: 3300 kilometres
Cost of a bicycle wash in Cambodia: 0.25 USD
Cost of a waffle in Cambodian market: 0.025 to 0.05 USD
All for now....off to the beaches of Southern Thailand...Koh Surin is next stop.....
Penang, Malaysia. March 11, 2006.
This missive is a little dull due to a high "Beach Efficiency Ratio". We promise the next one will be more interesting!
The first stop on our Thai beach odyssey was the 60km off-shore Surin Islands National Park. It was return visit (three years earlier) and we were interested to see it post-tsunami. the islands are within reach of Burmese islands and were less affected by the big waves than further south. Three people died as a result of the tsunami and some beach and limited amount of coral was lost. Facilities are completely rebuilt and the "Tsunami Evacuation Route" is now well marked. it's the same wonderful place.
These happy campers pitched their tent just above the high tide mark. Rugged terrain dripping with rain forest, crystal clear aquamarine water and white sand beaches please the eyes. The roar of cicada, bird and gecko calls and the rustling of hermit crabs in fallen leaves tickle the eardrums. Thai seafood and riced whiskey engage the palate. However, the main draw is the snorkeling with a dazzling array of coral and a large supporting cast of fish, all with a bewildering array of colours. Surin Islands do not disappoint.
Mu Koh Surin view from near our campsite
Leo (Honduras 1997) joined us halfway through our Surin 10 day sojourn. Back on the mainland, in Takua Pas, we celebrated a departing dinner of seafood and cold beer, but try as we may, we could not push the bill past ten dollars.
After an overnight stay in the pleasant Phuket old town, we moved out of the eddies into the main current of Thai beach tourism and Koh PhiPhi. Dozens of large passenger boats move human cargo back and forth to the islands each day. For those who overnight on the islands, they discover that supply-demand clearly favours the hotels and the long-tail boat cartel is also well positioned. But it's worth it, just to watch the throngs of global tourists in all colours, shapes and sizes speaking a plethora of languages. And the Southern Thai sun does not require a long wait to see some incredible sunburns. On our snorkeling trip, we had hoped to see an Indian woman wearing a sari put on a mask and jump in the water, but that was not to be. Oh yes, the scenery is also something.
Koh Phi Phi is beautiful but busy with tourists.
"The Beach" that was featured in the movie of the same name is a brilliant Hollywood fantasy. We swam through a flotilla of boats across the bay and miraculously did not get run over by any arriving or departing speed boat. Paradise was lost long before the Tsunami of 2004 hit Koh PhiPhi. The tsunami was hard on Koh PhiPhi with waves sweeping in from two sides and it wiped out the main tourist village. 2,000 people died or disappeared. The international response to the diasater was outstanding and much of Thailand's tsunami affected areas have been rebuilt (often on higher ground). It's interesting to read first-hand accounts of the tsunami. In many instances, the water drained "out of the pool" a full ten minutes before the waves hit. People went collecting shells and fish that were left behind by the pre-tsunami pull. What were they thinking?
We flirted briefly with the always colourful tourist masses at Rai Ley beach, where the cliffs plunge into the Andaman Sea. The Hungarians, Poles and Czechs have joined the holiday scene in greater numbers. it will get even more interesting when the Chinese join the party.
Rai Lay is also beautiful and busy with tourists.
We fled further south, back to the eddies and landed on Koh Mook (not knowing what to expect) which turned out to be a charming, laid-back island. Our bungalow was amidst a tropical, flowering garden set between rubber trees behind us and coconut palms in front. supplies were brought in by an ancient motorbike with side car from across the island. Electricity was available for part of the day and evenings. An ice cream vendor arrived to provides cones and cups of joy most days. Cicadas roared while a bird symphony was arguably a little heavy on roosters. Red sunsets disappearing into the Andaman Sea were the icing on the cake. Koh Mook is approaching the transition from an island hideaway to a destination. it won't last long.
Koh Mook is beautiful and quiet.
Back on the mainland, we spent our last Thai night in smiley Satun and we also spent our last Baht on Thai goodies. The far south of Thailand features a mix of Muslims, Thais and Chinese. A mosque next door to our Satun hotel provided plenty of exoticism and a preview of our next destination of Malaysia.
Welcome to the tropical winter: Water temperatures were 30C and sometimes bedtime tent temperatures of 29C were sticky but they sure beat camping in the darkness of a Canadian winter.
Chasing Islands: Much like in the book & movies "The Beach", there is often the murmur of a just-discovered island hideway. "Have you heard of Koh Rok? Is that anywhere near Koh Flip Flop?"
FOR THE RECORD
2006 tent nights: 10
Days in Thailand: 30
Days by the Thai sea: 23
Beach Efficiency Ratio: 77%
Nights with A/C: 1
Malaysia March 2006
Our first Malaysian stop was Langkawi Island so that we could continue to maintain a healthy beach efficiency factor. Langkawi is beautiful and we stayed on the white sand Chenang beach at the Grand Beach Motel. the "Grand" referred to the beach and not to our bungalow. Finally, we found a beach with a buzz: jet skis, banana boats, water skiing and a half dozen jets landing at the nearby airport. Langkawi is a duty-free island, but finding beer in the Malay (Muslim) shops was a bit of challenge. When we did find beer, it was put into black plastic bags and we felt like we were returning with contraband.
Langkawi is a nice place to relax for a few days. Click on the photo to see the full size picture
Our next island destination was Penang. Georgetown oozes with atmosphere and a surprising amount of wildlife: transvestite hookers on the street and rats & monitor lizards in the rain gutters. Most days we ate the major food groups of Chinese, Indian and Malay. The 24 jam (hour) Kapitan restaurant gets the big thumbs up for superb tandoori chicken accompanied by Bollywood beats. Rain forest walks on and around Penang peak also get our seal of approval and they are terrific for exercising the sweat glands.
Penang scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
The real action in Georgetown is the counterfeit DVD (movie) shops in Parkson Mall. Police go through the motion of shutting them down so that when they re-open, spotters keep an sharp eye out for police. Prospective customers watch the posted prices (like gasoline or petrol) that oscillate between RM6 and RM7 (RM4 = 1 USD). When the price drops to RM6, customers flood back into he shops.Good fun to watch.
More Penang scenes. Click on the photos to see the full size picture
Back in Seremban which is just south of Kuala Lumpur, Tony treated us to a safari. Swarms of rats in the back alleys are as impressive as the wildebeest migration of the Serengeti.
We almost missed our flight to Sabah (Borneo) as the local bus to the airport to a scenic, ambling route until we passed the Sepang Formula 1 race track. Our driver was suddenly energized and he opened up the throttle. We were the last people to board the aircraft. Flying with Malaysia Airlines is noteworthy as the carrier provides both food and service on domestic flights.Can you imagine giving coach-class passengers a choice of meals?
The Borneo climate is ideal for growing oil palms and for mud. We went there for the mud. We headed for a pocket of protected rainforest along the Kitibangan River and stayed at Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp. Uncle Tan's pre-visit notes provide guidance such as:
- You are advised not to bathe or wash in the river. Crocodiles have been seen taking wild pigs during river safaris.
- Facilities are not of a five star resort and spa.
- Do not get panicky when you meet some large mammal in your path
- An "infraction" with an elephant is like getting run over by a truck
This was "hard core Borneo" at the end of the rainy season. Trails were mud traps; shoes were of limited use so we travelled barefoot on the trails. Most of our travel was by motorboat for morning, afternoon and night safaris. The Kitibangan River is thick with monkeys and the occasional orangutan. The proboscis monkey is a fearless jumper. On one night safari, a proboscis monkey expressed his disapproval of our search-light by giving us a golden shower; a naturalist's wet dream. We did not have to leave the camp to see wildlife; wild pigs, monitor lizards, cheeky monkeys, python (in the kitchen), tree frogs, owls, bats and a variety of interesting insects were all regular camp visitors.
Kitibangan River scenes
The torrential downpours eased and with water levels dropping and the mud drying out, it was time to move on. We headed onto Semporna and changed buses in Lahud Datu. [ We had to find some way of working Lahud Datu into this narrative because of its intriguing name, though less exotic sounding than Alor Setar or Kuala Kangsar]. If you look around the Lahud Datu mini-bus station you should find a tasty chicken curry and rice for RM2.
Semporna is a wild west (or east depending on your location) without cowboys but it seemed to have more transvestites than most places. Smiles are plentiful and despite the ever increasing tourists flocking to the offshore destination of Sipidan, foreigners are novelty items in town.
Sipadan Island is a small stunning island sitting atop a pinnacle with drop-offs exceeding 600 metres. We found the scuba diving and snorkeling to be astonishing. We were especially taken by the abundant and relaxed green turtles (1 metre long shells). The multitude of sharks gave the diving an added edge. We could have stayed at the 600 USD/night resort on Mabul Island or even on a retired oil rig platform that now functions as a hotel. Instead we stayed on the mainland in a bargain priced hotel that featured a multitude of stations on satellite TV. O.K., the TV in the rooms were set up such that we could only watch whatever the hotel receptionist was watching. Sipidan is an hour by boat off-shore, so we did the daily commute. We can assure you that commuting in a bathing suit is preferable to commuting in " business casual" attire.
We loved Sipadan Island.
We got hooked on adrenaline so we did a rafting day-trip from Kota Kinabalu on the Padas River (Class III). The water was wet and warm and we ran the exotic sounding "headhunter rapids" and the "cobra point rapids". We thought the highlight was actually the rickety old train ride to get in and out of the drop-in spot. We have ridden train roofs before, but this was our first time to ride atop a flat-bed.
Pulau Tiga was our last beach stop. "Survivor Borneo" was filmed there: the same sand fly population that munched on the TV show contestants, were as hungry as ever. We did not roast any of the naughty rats (more like large cuddly mice) but we did visit the site of the "tribal council" and wallowed in the mud volcano before we too were voted off the island.
We love our mud!!
Since then, it has been a blur of boats, planes, buses, time-zones and temperature changes. We are doing six months of laundry and getting ready to hop into the next chapter: Australia.
The real "hard core Borneo" story: The wildlife camp on the Kitibangan River was pretty soft. There were no leeches, we saw no poisonous snakes, the largest crocodile topped out at a mere 4 metres and the camp was board-walked so we did not go to bed with muddy feet.
Acclimatized to the tropics: When we first arrived in SE Asia and we stepped out of air conditioning, we would immediately start sweating profusely. At the end of our stay, we could wander out under the hot sun for a full minute before starting to sweat profusely.
More on the heat: David Coulthard, a Formula 1 driver commented on racing in the Malaysian heat and compared to sex in the sauna. We liked the heat, but not that much.
FOR THE RECORD
Sabah Banana Index: 20 for 1 USD
2006 Tent Nights: 11