Tania's tour: South East Asia
Thailand - Laos - Vietnam - Cambodia - Thailand
(3 339km - 47days - 1 September - 17 October 2017)
(999km - 12days)
Day 1 - 1 September - Bangkok – Phanat Nikhom – 75 km
I was umming and ahhing about which route to take but, in the end, decided to stick to the original plan. I’m not sure if the taxi ride to get out the city did any good as, after being dropped off, it appeared we were still in the thick of things. There was nothing to do but pull up our big girl panties and face the traffic out of Bangkok. After about another 30 kilometres, a rural road finally emerged. It was a pleasure, as always, to be in the countryside with bright-green rice paddies, blue skies, and colourful temples. It was clearly the land of friendly Thai people as we were offered drinking water, and a lady at a roadside shop presented us with drinking yoghurt. Our path continued until it reached Phanat Nikhom, home to the world’s largest woven basket. A kind lady showed us to comfortable accommodation which was near to food and the ever-present 7-11.
Day 2 - 2 September - Phanat Nikhom – Sronlaihomestay – 70 km
Right from the start, our path followed back roads, making for a pleasurable ride through the countryside. For much of the day, our route went past wetlands and farmlands, where pineapples, cassava and papayas formed the main crop. A roadside stall sold pineapples, and what a sweet pineapple it was! Once again, the lady wanted no remuneration for it. It made me feel guilty as they have so little, and there I was on an extended holiday, being fed by them.
The large rubber tree plantations we cycled past always came with spirit houses. Typically, spirit houses were for earth spirits which lived on that particular piece of land before it was cleared, providing them with alternative accommodation. It was a pleasant surprise to find an idyllic spot with cottages and a place to camp. The availability of kayaks allowed us to row on the lake; a lovely end to a day of cycling.
Day 3 - 3 September - Sronlaihomestay – Khlong Hat – 87 km
Tania was up at the crack of dawn, and by the time I woke, she was already packed and rearing to go. A lovely ride along the dam wall brought us to Khlong Takrao, from there, the road led to Khlong Hat. It was an enjoyable cycle, mostly along country roads and through rural areas past corn and sugar cane plantations.
Our path also ran through an elephant reserve, but no wildlife was spotted, let alone any elephants. It, however, remained stunning to cycle through such a densely forested area. It was effortless riding with a slight tailwind, and we sailed into Khlong Hat shortly after 15h00, where camping was at the police station.
Day 4 - 4 September - Khlong Hat—Aranya Prathet— 88 km
With Tania around, there was no sleeping in and, we first cycled to nearby caves. Some climbing was required before reaching the cave, and although it looked inviting, it was pitch dark and very slippery. Neither of us brought a headlamp, and it was far too risky to explore any further. The viewpoint, however, had magnificent vistas of the surrounding area after which it was back to our bicycles, still under the watchful eye of the Buddha.
The way back ran through Khlong Hat after which it swung east in the direction of Prasat Khao Noi, ruins of a Khmer temple on top of a small (Noi) hill (Kho). Prasat Khao Noi’s claim to fame was a lintel discovered during excavation being one of the oldest ever found in Thailand dating back to the 7th century, most likely reused. It started drizzling, and we made our way down the 254 steps to where we left the bicycles.
Prasat Muang Phai sounded an exciting place to visit as Phai was an ancient city dating from the Dvaravati-era (6th - 11th century AD). I read Mueang Phai was a walled city which measured 1,000 metres by 1,300 metres and that it was surrounded by a 40-metre-wide moat. Great was our disappointment, therefore, when only a heap of stones with chickens scratching in the dirt was found. Then it was on to Aranyaprathet, our final destination for the day.
Day 5 - 5 September – Aranyaprathet – Non Din Daeng (Lam Noang Rong Dam) – 105 km
The way between Aranyaprathet and Non Din Daeng ran past bizarre temples as well as the ruins of Sdok Kok Thom. Sdok Kok Thom was an 11th-century Khmer temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Sdok Kok was best known for its 1000-year-old inscribed stela came upon during renovations. Inscriptions describe everyday life during that time, as well as details about important events and services provided to the king by the family who built the temple.
Again, it was a day of kindness as locals provided us with ice-cold drinking water, mangos, and steamed rice in banana leaves.
The sun was relentless as we slowly made our way over the Sankamphaeng Range. Shortly after reaching the top, roadside stalls sold passion fruit and ice-cold passion fruit juice; just what was needed after such a steep climb on a hot day! Nearing Non Din Daeng, dark clouds appeared on the horizon, and one could hear thunder in the distance.
The approaching storm made for pedalling like the clappers to reach Lam Nang Rong Dam, where the plan was to camp and where our arrival coincided with the falling of the first drops. Stall owners were kind enough to allow us to pitch our tents under a large covered area, and there were more than enough restaurants to eat from. The food was delicious, and supper was enjoyed while watching the moon reflect over the dam.
Day 6 - 6 September – Lam Nang Rong Dam – Khao Krodong Forest Park – 112 km
A beautiful sunrise greeted us, and the howling dogs of the night before were soon forgotten. Phew, what a noisy night it was!
Our first stop after leaving the dam was Prasat Nong Hong, ruins of the 11th century. Our route led us past bright green rice fields, small settlements, and scrawny cows with long ears. So rural was the area that we bought bananas from a toothless lady trading from an old pram. Next up was Prasat Mueang Tam, built about 1000 years ago in old Khmer style.
Interestingly, Prasat Muang Tam formed part of a direct line of temples between the city of Angkor in Cambodia to Phimai in Thailand. For some reason, these structures were abandoned about 700 years ago.
I also had the opportunity to taste the colourful stringy sugary things they sold in plastic bags next to the road. Thais eat them wrapped in a small roti/pancake (not sure what they are made of, maybe rice?). They were delicious and not only did the stall owner let us try them, but she also gave us a full bag to take with us.
It was a pleasant day of cycling past men in conical hats guarding scrawny cows and both men and women collecting small kids from school on bicycles. I thought the physical closeness quality time spend with children, even if no words were spoken.
The route continued to Khao Kradong Forest Park outside Buri Ram, where camping was available. A walk to find food stalls turned out disastrous as no sooner had we left, and rain came pouring down. Tents were left uncovered and to our dismay, discovered just about everything soaking wet. Oi, what a mess, not something you want after a full day of biking. A kind lady from one of the park houses brought us each a blanket. How sweet of her!
At around 10 o’clock it started raining again. This time flysheets were fitted super quick, but we discovered the entire platform covered with ants and promptly dived back into the tents.
Day 7 - 7 September - Khao Kradong Forest Park–Surin – 57 km
“Ants are everywhere!” Tania exclaimed on waking. On closer inspection, they were indeed everywhere. Our tents were pitched right next to one of the park employee's houses, and they no doubt, noticed the commotion and came to rescue us—bug-spray in hand! Wow, I don’t know what we would have done without their help! Packing up was at the speed of light, and then it was out of the park and back on the road, hopefully without the ants.
Breakfast consisted of a bowl of noodle soup from a roadside stall, which was delicious, as always. It was comfortable riding through the countryside and past ever-present, luminous green rice fields. What a privilege it was to cycle along a potholed country road, swerving out only for scrawny cattle and striking up a conversation with a toothless, paan-chewing lady. Animal feed was cut with handmade sickles and carried shoulder-high to handmade wooden carts, while women were weaving in traditional ways. On arrival at Surin, the “New Hotel” opposite the station was our abode of choice. The “New Hotel” was clearly not new anymore, but at 180 THB one could not complain, and at sunset, food stalls popped up right in front of the hotel, an added bonus.
Day 8 - 8 September – Surin
The following day was also spent in Surin as accommodation was dreadfully cheap and food plentiful and delicious. First thing it was off to the morning market for cold, white noodles served with a curry sauce, which could be garnished with various greens and spices provided. There were also more than enough sweet things to pick and choose from.
To my surprise, I also located more than one excellent bicycle shop. They were stocked with top-of-the-range bicycle parts, and I bought an odometer as well as an inner tube. That evening, supper was outside our hotel, eating from various food stalls. What an absolute privilege to be sitting outside at 10 p.m in shorts and T-shirts, eating delicious food from street vendors at a pittance.
Day 9 - 9 September – Surin – Uthumphon Phisai - 100 km
On leaving Surin, the plan was, at first, to cycle via the glass temple. The route was, however, along the main road which turned out rather dull and, instead, we opted for a more scenic country path heading to Si Sa Ket. Our route took us past tiny settlements where people appeared surprised to see two foreigners on bicycles and, to their delight, we sat down for a bite to eat. The idea was only to get corn on the cob and pineapple but landed being served a massive plate of sticky rice with tiny fried fish. Stuffed, we continued, stopping at yet another set of ruins. Tania didn’t feel well, and it was best to find a place with an aircon room.
Phisai was conveniently situated along the road, and with a guesthouse opposite the local Tesco Lotus, it was perfect for our needs. Fortunately, it appeared Tania’s problem was only due to heat, as after a while in an aircon room, she felt considerably better.
Day 10 - 10 September - Uthumphon Phisai - Phibun - 130 km
There was not a lot to report as it was a slog along the highway past a few roadside stalls selling bamboo furniture and beautifully woven baskets. As always, in Isan, rice paddies were luminous green, as we made our way past gong maker's stalls which the area was famous for. Main roads never made for good cycle touring, and it was heads down, only wanting to reach Phibun, where camping was at a Buddhist temple.
Day 11 - 11 September – Phibun – PK Resort – 60 km
From Phibun, our route crossed the Mun river, and then followed the river to the Pak Mun Dam, and on to the quaint settlement of Khong Chiam. Khong Chiam was a tiny but charming village situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Mun River. After coffee, it was on to Pha Team National Park, where camping was an idyllic spot on the banks of the Mekong River.
After pitching our tents, and in a relaxed mood, we sat watching the river flow by. It was a most unusual evening as right in front of our eyes the sky changed colour from blue to a deep orange/brown. It made for a somewhat ominous mood, but still, it was a pleasurable evening, sitting outside our tents, chatting and enjoying the lovely weather. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, a fierce wind picked up and almost immediately it started raining. Not a gentle rain but a biblical storm where one wanted to build a boat and start gathering two of a kind. All one could do was to dive into the tents and hang on for dear life. I thought it would pass quickly, but it felt like it lasted forever! I’m not exaggerating if I say our tents, with us inside, nearly blew away. It was not only raining hard with a strong wind, but it was a rather noisy affair. I shouted to Tania at the top of my voice to hang on to the tent poles, but one could hardly hear each other. The owner/manager of the resort braved the weather and offered us space inside their conference room. It was virtually impossible to stand up, let alone move a tent and panniers in such weather. Slowly and one by one, all our stuff was moved the short distance to the empty conference room. Needless to say, it was a relief to be safely inside a brick structure. There was no thanking the owner enough, not only for his very generous offer but for coming out in foul weather to help us.
Day 12 - 12 September - Pk Resort - Khemerat - 115 km
“Wow, at least the wind subsided,” Tania said on waking up, still wide-eyed from the storm the previous night. From our camp, it was a slight climb to the main road. For the rest of the day, the road remained undulating but shaded. Tania claimed it was so hilly not even local dogs gave chase. Although undulating, our path ran through a National Park which made for scenic riding.
The map indicated various points of interest along the way, but we only turned off once to what was shown as a scenic spot. The scenic spot didn’t quite live up to its name, but we snapped a few pics anyhow. Arriving in Khemarat, the local temple granted permission to camp but, after pitching our tents, were told to move to an outside room which, apparently, was for women. Hunger pains drove us to a nearby restaurant for a plate of fried noodles.
(339km - 6days)
Day 13 - 13 September - Khemerat, Thailand – Savannakhet, Lao – 105 km
Sluggish after the previous day's hills, it was a leisurely ride to the Thai/Laos border. While passing people, basket in hand, collecting leaves and herbs, I thought Thai people most privileged as they still had the luxury of foraging. It’s no wonder they can prepare the tastiest of meals with only one or two ingredients. They have a knack for collecting tiny fish, crabs, and snails in ponds or rice paddies and conjuring up a meal which will make you think you're in a 5-star restaurant.
Lunch consisted of noodle soup served with a basket of fresh greens, giving it an extra unique taste.
Then it was on to the Thai immigration for our exit stamp. Cycling across the Thai/Laos Friendship bridge that spanned the Mekong River, was not allowed. All pedestrians and cyclists were required to take a bus to the Laos side. It didn’t take much to corrupt Tania, and we hopped on the bicycles and gunned it across the bridge, to great protest of the border officials. We, however, kept going as fast as possible and laughed ourselves silly at how ridiculous it must have looked to a bystander.
Once in Laos, a $30 visa fee was paid after which it was a short cycle into Savannakhet and Savanpathana Guesthouse. The fun part was going to the ATM to draw local currency (Lao Kip). As the conversion rate was 8,280 Kip - US$1, one could draw 1,000,000 Kip without breaking the bank. I still had a SIM card from my previous visit and only had to top up and was good to go.
Day 14 - 14 September – Savannakhet
As Savannakhet had a Vietnamese consulate, it made for easy applying for a Vietnam visa. A 30-day visa was $45 and a 90-day visa $55, and therefore best to apply for the latter, as it left us with an opportunity to explore far more.
Savannakhet was a lovely place to wander about. We strolled the leafy streets of the old quarters and along the Mekong River, marvelling at all there was to eat at small stalls lining the river bank. I have to admit, pig’s brain in banana leaf didn’t do it for me!
Day 15 & 16 - 15-16 September – Savannakhet
There were rumours of a typhoon off the coast of Vietnam, but I didn’t think Laos was in the path of the storm. Savannakhet was located 300 kilometres inland from where the typhoon was to make landfall. It, however, still rained the entire day and most of the day was spent in our guesthouse. At around 15h00, it was back to the Vietnamese consulate to pick up our visas. As our abode also lost power, there was little else to do but eat. Not an unpleasant way to spend a day. That evening, I somehow managed to lock us out of our room. Fortunately, those places mostly have spare keys. It, however, took a surprisingly long time to locate it in the dark.
The following morning, it was bucketing down and, as the weather forecast predicted rain throughout the day for the entire region, another day was spent in Savannakhet.
Day 17 - 17 September – Savannakhet – Muang Phalanxay - 119 km
Tania was up and packed by 5h50. I wasn’t equally inspired and took considerably longer to get ready. The route to the Vietnamese border ran in an easterly direction and, from Savannakhet, one could follow a rural road past Ban Bungva, a lake with restaurants on stilts, which looked rather inviting.
Our path eventually ended up at That Ing Hang, a stupa rumoured to house a relic of Buddha’s spine. We snapped a few pics and continued in the direction of the Vietnamese border. It was a lovely ride, through a rural area with tiny settlements and roadside markets. Late afternoon, a roadside guesthouse with food close by made for an excellent overnight stay. It was hardly worth 60,000 Kip but then what does a person expect for 60,000 Kip ($7)?
Day 18 - 18 September Muang Phalanxay – Ban Dong – 115 km
It rained throughout the night and in the morning, we left our humble abode via a muddy, potholed road which ran right through the morning market. One could tell by the stares and giggles not many “farangs” ever visited the market.
Like the previous day, it was a day spent biking through tiny settlements with simple houses on stilts and past people carrying their wares in woven baskets on their backs or on shoulder poles. Women preparing food on open fires and small children herding cattle reminded me of Africa. We overtook people going to the market in basic, wooden, homemade carts and others in equally minimalistic longboats heading upriver. Bare-bottomed children played in the dirt next to the road while their parents sold bamboo slivers for tying up rice. Lunch was again a bowl of noodle soup from a roadside stall while admiring the stunning scenery. On arrival in Ban Dong, we dodged chickens, goats, and small black pigs before finding a suitable guesthouse. The conveniently located food stall across the way made for a perfect overnight stop.
(1 160km - 19days)
Day 19 - 19 September - Ban Dong, Lao – Cho Cam Lo, Vietnam – 90 km
Breakfast was from a lady across the road, and then it was off in the direction of the Laos/Vietnam border. It was a short ride and, once in Vietnam, our first stop was in at Lao Bao, for new SIM cards and where the ATM spat out a whopping 3,000,000 Vietnamese dong!
Hardly out of Lao Bao, Tania’s bicycle chain snapped. Fortunately, it was downhill, and possible to free-wheel back into town to find a bike shop. The discovery that Tania's derailleur was cracked came as a bit of a shock. There wasn’t much one could do but nurse the bicycle along in the hope of finding a decent bicycle shop, in either Dong Ha or Dong Hoi.
Again, it was a beautiful and very rural part of Vietnam and a novelty watching people on motorbikes, loaded to the hilt with bananas. It’s quite astonishing what all one can load on a motorcycle. The scenery was sublime as our path led past the famous or infamous “Rockpile”, a karst rock outcropping used by the United States Army as an observation post and artillery base from 1966 to 1969.
It was a blistering hot day and the road hilly and the going slow. On reaching tiny Cho Cam Lo, we called it a day.
Day 20 - 20 September - Cho Cam Lo – Cửa Tùng – 67 km
After inquiring about a bicycle shop, one was located a short distance away. It was a tiny workshop in a very basic, corrugated iron shed who mostly catered for motorbikes. The owner was helpful enough and fitted Tania’s bike with a new derailleur, albeit a bottom of the range seven-speed one. Not in any position to complain, we were happy to pay 120,000 VID. Unfortunately, the new derailleur didn’t quite live up to expectations. The gears were slipping to such an extent cycling was no pleasure. I tried tuning it but knew little about adjusting gears, and it was better to return to the nearby town of Dong Ha. Enquiring about a bicycle shop in English wasn’t easy in Vietnam. Eventually, and by using Google Translate, a helpful chap understood our problem and escorted us to a bicycle shop. The shop was surprisingly well-stocked but also only had seven-speed derailleurs. They did, however, manage to tune the gears well enough for us to continue.
From Dong Ha, a rural road ran next to a river and continued along the coast to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Business along the coast was mostly fishing, and we passed ladies in conical hats, covered from head to toe (to avoid the sun), collecting dried fish in large plastic bags. Shortly before reaching the tunnels, the typical Vietnamese beach village of Cua Tung looked too inviting to pass by, and with a guesthouse on the ocean, it was our kind of place. Our early arrival allowed us to do laundry and other chores.
Day 21 - 21 September Cửa Tùng – Dong Hoi – 90 km
A beautiful sunrise greeted us, and I’m always amazed by just how quickly light can change. Breakfast was a bowl of Pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup eaten at miniature plastic tables and even smaller plastic chairs. The route to Vinh Moc Tunnels followed the coast and once there, they were even more amazing in real life than on brochures. They were also much more extensive than expected and quite narrow and low. Navigating the tunnels required walking bent over, a good thing most Vietnamese are tiny. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live in those tunnels for an extended period. It, however, seemed they were well organised, as there were sleeping caves, hospital areas, bathrooms, a well-point, and many other demarcated areas. Still, it must have been terrifying living there and hearing enemy bombs dropping overhead. Again, I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like living in one's own country while the enemy dropped bomb after bomb, for years on end. It must be a desperate situation.
Then it was off to Dong Hoi, mostly via the highway, something that always made for a monotonous ride. Only towards the end of the day did we manage to find a smaller path with more interesting sights. Dong Hoi was a pleasant riverside town but during the war had the unfortunate location of being very close to the DMZ. The result was American bombs razed the city to the ground, leaving only part of a church, part of the old city wall, a water tower, and a single palm tree. All quite sad, really.
I always got the feeling I was being overcharged for things in Vietnam. If it was so, I guess, they thought it their right after suffering so much.
Locating a hotel was easy, after which we took a walk along the river, snapped a few pics, and then had supper at one of the local joints.
Day 22 - 22 September – Dong Hpi – Son Trach – 51 km
Visiting nearby Ke Bang National Park was an obvious choice, as it was home to the most extensive cave system (open to the general public) in the world. Son Trach, therefore, came with loads of accommodation and after dropping our panniers at the Paradise Hotel it was straight to the river from where boats headed to Phong Nha Cave. The caves were spectacular and were made even more so by being rowed into the cave with a small wooden boat. It is difficult to describe the share vastness of it all, and it was even more difficult to capture its beauty on camera.
Day 23 - 23 September - Son Trach – 50 km
After breakfast, it was off to Paradise Cave, an incredibly scenic ride. Once there, it was a short walk up to the tiny entrance. It was hard to believe such a small opening in the mountain hid such a vast treasure. Paradise cave was only discovered in 2005 and was then the most extensive cave system in the world. There are no words to describe the beauty of what we saw and all I can say is that, if ever you find yourself in Vietnam, these caves are a must-see.
Day 24 - 24 September - Son Trach – Dong Le – 80 km
All caved out, we headed out of Son Trach. Our path followed the river, and what a beautiful ride it was. The Song Gianh River led past quintessential Vietnamese scenery of rice fields, karst peaks, small villages, and grazing buffalo. Away from the highway, Vietnam was a very scenic country, despite the mining. Stopping for coffee was a must in Vietnam and slightly different from what I was used to. Ground beans were placed into a French drip filter (called a phin), a metal contraption placed on top of the cup. The coffee is weighed down with a thin lid, hot water was added and slowly trickled through into the cup. Coffee was always served with a side dish of ice. We sat sipping our coffee overlooking rice paddies, grinning at our fortune.
Our day was filled with scenes of salesmen on motorcycles, friendly kids bathing in the river, and produce drying in the sun, all while dodging cows, pigs and chickens.
The typical Vietnamese village of Dong Le was graced with red-tiled-roof houses, making it an easy choice to stay the night.
Day 25 - 25 September - Dong Le
Tania felt unusually tired, and our decision to take a rest day was made even easier by continuous rain. The day was spent doing laundry and other rest day chores, but mostly it was spent eating! Villagers found us a huge source of interest, a sure sign not many foreigners visited Dong Le. Ladies at the market stared openly and had no problem looking into our bags or touching us. I found eating in public challenging as they weren’t shy to join us, even if only to look at what and how we were eating.
Day 26 - 26 September – Dong Le – Duc Tho – 113 km
The next day one an old Ho Chi Minh trail let us out of tiny Dong Le. The Ho Chi Minh trails were a logistical system used during the war to provide support to troops. There were many of these trails; some ran through Laos and others through Cambodia. Nowadays, many of these trails are paved roads. It was an incredibly rural and scenic area where people still farmed in old-fashioned ways, ploughing with oxen and buffalo. Ladies traded from wooden shacks, selling their meagre produce or freshly-butchered meat. We watched in fascination as farmers transported logs down-river and then, with the help of buffalo, hauled the logs out the river to the roadside.
The road continued north past grapefruit plantations where large grapefruit were awkwardly hanging from branches. Grapefruit in Southeast Asia was much larger than elsewhere and the skin very thick. Once peeled away, one was left with rather large and somewhat dry wedges encased by a very tough skin.
Dark clouds loomed but, fortunately, it only rained once, allowing us to have a cup of coffee, something which was always a pleasure in Vietnam. Fuelled by caffeine, we rolled into Duc Tho which had a hotel right on the river. It was straight to the nearest eatery, even before having a shower. Again, people found us fascinating and communication was mostly via Google Translate. Most people wanted to know where we were from, what our names were, how old we were, and where we were going.
Day 27 - 27 September - Duc Tho – Roadside Hotel – 110 km
Leaving our hotel via a bumpy and muddy path, it eventually led us to a new road which was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Unfortunately, it took us slightly off course. Once back on rural roads, it was surprising to come across small villages looking somewhat forlorn and half-forgotten. Even the coastal road that ran past these villages were washed away and in poor condition. Our path led us past deserted beaches and bays, with small wooden fishing boats and the rudimentary eateries on stilts over the water. It all looked rather basic but very idyllic. Eventually, there was no other choice but to get back onto busy Highway 1, which was hot, dusty, and noisy; phew! A roadside hotel lured us in, and it was a good enough place to take a break.
It was a beautiful morning, and we sat watching mist curl around limestone hills while sipping our first coffee for the day. Then it was on to Tam Coc, one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations. There was no other choice but to get on the highway, making for another rather dull, dusty, busy and noisy ride. There were, however, some rather interesting roadside stalls. Some sold beautiful pipes and others all kinds of birds and, of course, the well-known snake wine.
Lunch was again a bowl of noodle soup and, as always, it felt like we were the centre of attention. It was effortless cycling to Tam Coc and our $9 hotel room was considered a bargain in such a touristy place.
Day 29 - 29 September - Tam Coc
The following day was spent in Tam Coc, an exceptionally scenic area. A boat ride upriver wasn’t only picturesque but also revealed an extraordinary habit. People in that part of Vietnam didn’t row with their arms but instead, use their feet. They mostly use their hands for talking on their mobile phones, holding an umbrella or hauling in fishing nets.
Day 30 - 30 September - Tam Coc – Hanoi – 130 km
Our final day of riding arrived, and on leaving beautiful Tam Coc, we discovered an even more stunning area. It was a scenic ride along back roads through a very idyllic setting, despite it being overcast. Fortunately, the rain stayed away, and it was an enjoyable and relatively comfortable ride into Hanoi, all while encountering a multitude of interesting and unique things.
Not only did we encounter a roadside stall selling grilled dog, but also came across a lady pushing her bicycle along. Pushing the bike wasn’t all unusual, was it not for the bike being customised for pushing with one very long handlebar and no pedals. After turning off the road onto an even smaller and narrower road, biking was through Chinese-looking rural villages. Ladies traded on their haunches, and others sold live chickens, door to door, from a wire cage strapped on the back of a motorbike. We waved at women in conical hats, and men with T-shirts rolled up to under their armpits. Our chosen route ran through a valley with high limestone cliffs on both sides. The valley itself was planted with rice, by then in a variety of colours. Old men herded buffalo and younger men had the job of cutting rice and carrying it in baskets dangling from shoulder poles to wooden carts. Women herded goats in stark contrast with kids flying past on electric scooters on their way home from school.
Hoa Lu was an ancient Vietnamese capital city in the 10th and 11th centuries, and it made for an interesting detour. Although not much remained of the many buildings of the time, it was a beautiful area with narrow alleys, old temples and askew moss-covered walls. Although I tried my level best to avoid it, 20 kilometres from Hanoi, we landed ourselves back on the busy highway. Traffic was hectic, and by the end of the day, the light faded, and traffic increased, but we persevered and reached Hanoi without any problems or without losing each other. Accommodation in the old quarters provided us with a comfortable bed and a much-needed shower.
So came to an end Tania’s cycle ride of Bangkok to Hanoi and it was (as always) a pleasure to cycle with her.
Day 31 & 32 - 1–2 October - Hanoi
Tania extended her tour but I only had until 17 October to accompany her as my sister Amanda was planning to visit. Come hell or high water I had to be back in Pattaya by 17 October. Our plan was to take the train to Saigon and cycle from there South via the Mekong Delta and Coastal Cambodia to Thailand. We had one rather important thing to do along the way and that was getting our Thailand visas in Phnom Penh. I know from experience that we will need at least two or three days for obtaining the visas, plus a copy of a flight ticket out of Thailand and well as copies of bank statements. We, therefore, had to plan our route so that we did not arrive in Phnom Penh on a Friday.
I still had enough time in Hanoi to meet up with Bret and Heyley and, as always, they seem to pick the best restaurants.
Day 33 & 34 - 3–4 October – Hanoi – Saigon by train – 34 hours
We cycled off to the station and were told to pack all our panniers in one large bag which we obtained at a shop across the road. With that all done we filled in the forms and the helpful staff quickly did all the necessary, leaving us with just enough time to board the train.
We were in a cabin with four beds which made our trip very comfortable. The food cart came around for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a snack trolley delivered nibbles to keep us busy. Each berth came with its own reading light and an electrical point which turned out very handy for charging electronic devices as there was not much to do but play on the internet. We were under the impression that the train ride took 24 hours, but by 8h00 the next morning we were still very far from Saigon. The total time, in fact, turned out to be 34 hours, with the result that we arrived in Saigon after dark and with the baggage collection office already closed. We took a room at a hotel around the corner from the station to make collecting the bikes easy in the morning.
Day 35 - 5 October – Saigon
There was no point in being in Saigon and not spending the day there. We collected our bicycles from the station and was surprised at their professionalism. The bikes and panniers arrived intact and on time. There is surprisingly little to do or see in Saigon but in the same breath, it is a nice city to wander around. The traffic alone is something to witness.
Day 36 - 6 October - Saigon – Vinh Long – 123 km
We were keen to get going and we felt rather well rested and fed as we set off to face to notorious Saigon traffic. We joined a sea of motorbikes and scooters and cycled out of Saigon. It turned out to be a rather interesting day. Most of all, I was proud that we managed to make it out of Saigon unscathed! It is a rather large city and we were in the thick of it for the best part of the morning.
Once we reached My Tho, we could breathe a sigh of relief and was at last able to find a smaller road, running next to one of the fingers of the Mekong. We passed rather interesting roadside stalls, including birds, rats, snakes but most interesting was the barbeque stalls we passed. Small birds and rats were on offer and we just had to try it. Tania is rather adventures when it comes to eating and we ordered a grilled rat, right off the rotisserie. I must admit that it was rather tasty!
The small road that runs next to the river was fascinating with its small villages and we could smell the sweet smell of the coconut sweet, something the region is famous for.
I was relieved to find a ferry to take us across the river as I was not sure we would find one. Three times we had to take a ferry before arriving in Vinh Long.
What a magnificent day on the road it was. The delta is a very fertile place and we cycled past coconut plantations, banana trees, mangos, rambutan plantations, Jackfruit trees, to mention only a few. The road we took was a tiny road running next to one of the fingers of the Mekong and it was a busy one, with boats of all shapes and sizes moving up and down the river. It was fascinating to see people going about their daily tasks and they were equally surprised at our presence. We cycled past markets and farmers working in the fields, we saw traders selling their wares from mobiles shops and we crossed numerous rivers where houses were preciously balancing on stilts.
We were lucky with the weather and did not get rained on once! All day long we watched dark clouds in the distance and passed areas where it clearly rained just a short while ago. We drank coconut juice and sugar cane juice and stopped for coffee and by midday realized that we still had 75 kilometres to go and had to step on it a bit to reach Chau Doc before dark.
Once in Chau Doc our plans changed, yet again, and we decided on taking the river ferry up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The ticket was $15 plus $7 for the bicycle (each) and we were told that the boat leaves at 7h00.
(483km - 7days)
Day 38 - 8 October - Chau Doc – Phnom Penh by boat and minivan
Our boat trip was not quite what we had expected as it only took us to the Cambodian border and not to Phnom Penh as expected. On second thoughts, the price was way too low for a trip all the way to Phnom Penh but at least it did include a minibus ride to Phnom Penh. Still, it was a fascinating boat ride on the Mekong, past houses on stilts and fishing vessels both big and small.
We set to work straight away to get a copy of a flight ticket and copies of bank statements for the visa applications.
It was also nice to shoot the breeze with Mat, Chop and Teresa while having a few beers.
Day 39 – 9 October – Phnom Penh
First thing in the morning we were off to the embassy armed with all the necessary documents, just to find that the embassy was closed! Not a word was mentioned on their website but there was little we could do. It could have been a blessing in disguise as Tania found that Lucky Motorbike shop could apply for a Thai visa on her behalf and as the visa processing takes three days, they could send it to wherever we found ourselves at that time. That was fantastic news as we were running out of time. I opted for a 14-day border visa as I was planning on visiting Malaysia while my sister is visiting. That way I will save a page in my passport, which is getting full very fast.
Day 40 – 10 October – Phnom Penh – Prey Lovea – 86 km
We first had a cup of coffee with Mat and then cycled out of busy Phnom Penh looking for small roads along the Mekong River. It turned out quite an adventurous day as first thing in the morning we crossed the river by ferry and landed up on the opposite side of the Mekong River - it would have been better if we took the bridge and cycled along the road next to the Bassac River.
In any event, the first part of the road was stunning, extremely quiet and clearly not a route foreigners take. We soon found out why, as the road became one potholed, muddy mess. We slipped and slid, weaved and snaked around the potholes until we eventually found a ferry to take us back across the river. The area was as rural as anyone can wish for. Ladies were drying and dying grasses for weaving mats, others were drying rice, men herded cattle and fished while monks in bright orange robes collected food from villagers. It’s truly a fascinating country. Still the road did not improve and mud-clogged our wheels, making it nearly impossible to cycle.
A second ferry took us across the Bassac River and finally we were heading in the direction of Kampot. Our attempt to escape the traffic worked but it came at a price as the road remained potholed and very muddy, sometimes more clay than mud, making for a messy and slow ride. It was, however, a fascinating day in a very rural part of Cambodia.
Around 17h00 we reached the small village of Prey Lovea and although we planned on camping at the temple, we spotted a guesthouse and opted for a shower and fan room! First thing on our minds was food…. something there was, fortunately, plenty about.
Day 41 - 11 October Prey Lovea – Kampot – 127 km
“This is Cambodia baby,” Tania uttered (her, by now, trademark saying) as we set off in the early morning light past green rice fields and wooden carts loaded to the hilt with all kinds of stuff. We cycled past typical Cambodian roadside stalls selling steamed pork buns, small grill birds, barbecued duck heads and unknown grilled animals with strange feet. As it was not long before we weakened and bought steamed buns for the road. We cycled through small villages where tiny kids on small bicycles were off to school, some even giving a friend a lift. Their amazing balance on a bicycle is clearly learned at a very young age.
Day 42 – 12 October – Kampot – Sri Amble Temple – 127 km
After a typical Cambodian breakfast, we cycled out of Kampot across scenic rivers where fishing boats were laying four deep. We passed oyster farms where child labour was not an uncommon sight, and we waved at monks and their helpers collecting food. At Vinh Real, the weather came in, and we ducked into the nearest restaurant for noodles with a curry sauce. The weather soon cleared and we could be on our way again, slowly making our way to the Cambodian/Thai border which was still a two-day ride away.
Once we reached Sri Amble, the weather looked ominous again, and we turned down to the small village where we camped at the temple. It was a rather busy temple with mostly small kids, around 8 to 13 years of age. We were no doubt the centre of attraction and had little privacy as the eating hall where we slept was also a sleeping area for the kids.
Day 43 – 13 October – Sri Amble – Trapeang Rung – 80 km
We stopped for a noodle soup breakfast at a typical roadside stall consisting of a corrugated iron shed and a dirt floor. As one can imagine, it is always a fascinating stop, as not only are we foreign to them; they are equally foreign to us. We smiled uncomfortably at each other while slurping our noodle soup.
It was a short but hot and hilly ride and we made slow progress. The hills were not that steep, but it made for slow going. Not that we minded, as it is a beautiful part of Cambodia. Kids were fishing in ponds, making use of ingenious methods and others were herding buffalo or looking after the cows.
We stopped for lunch in Trapeang Rung, a small community-based tourism village. It had plenty of restaurants to choose from, and the food was delicious. Heavy weather came in while we were eating and as there was a brand-new homestay across the road, we decided to continue in the morning. Good thing too, as it rained for the rest of the evening.
Day 44 – 14 October Trapeang Rung – Koh Kong – 63 km
We tackled the last part of the hilly section, and we felt amazingly strong after a breakfast of noodle soup. Hills are not something one can fight on a loaded bike, and we took it nice and easy. “Easy does it,” they say, and that’s precisely what we did.
Halfway to Koh Kong, the weather came in again. There was not much we could do but don our rain jackets and push on. The Cardamom Mountains are very scenic, and we enjoyed the landscape as much as we could. The rain clouded our view somewhat as we had our hoods down low. Soon we reached the top of the mountain, and, even in the rain, we managed to ride at 53 kilometres per hour downhill. The ride was a bit on the risky side as water streamed along the road, and I could not always see the potholes. However, it was very exciting to do it. We reached Koh Kong early, found a hotel room, and went out to fetch Tania’s passport, which the visa company had sent by bus to the city. We were more than happy to learn the passport had arrived on time along with the Thailand visa. Phew! that was a relief.
With all that done, we were ready to cross the border into Thailand in the morning. We still had 340 kilometres to reach Pattaya, and we wanted to be there in three days. We will take it day by day and see how things pan out.
(358km - 3days)
Day 45 – 15 October Koh Kong, Cambodia – Trat, Thailand – 108 km
After our usual bowl of noodle soup, we waved goodbye to Cambodia, crossed the river and headed for the immigration point at the Cambodian/Thai border. We were stamped out of Cambodia and into Thailand without any problems and continued on our way. We both still had Thai Baht and a Thai SIM card from when we left and there was, therefore, no need to draw money or get a new SIM card.
It was a beautiful stretch of road and soon we stopped for an early lunch. We turned off the main road and followed a small road through the villages, something that is always a pleasure. The road ran close to the coast and we stopped for a cup of coffee just to admire the view. Then it was back on the bikes and no sooner were we on our way and the threatening weather caught up with us. We donned our plastic raincoats and carried on cycling. Fortunately, the weather looked worse than what it turned out to be.
We made Trat at around 17h00, which in this part of the world is just before sunset (which is rather early at 17h50). After finding a room at Pop Guesthouse we were both starving so we set off immediately to the night market to get food.
Day 46 – 16 October - Trat – Klaeng – 135 km
After some discussions, Tania decided to give cycle touring a try on her own. It is an easy cycling stretch along the coast and only two days’ ride to Pattaya where we will meet and she can decide what she wanted to do next. I hopped on the bicycle and gunned it down the road before she could change her mind. I felt amazingly strong and pushed on.
My sister Amanda was arriving on 18 October and I had to be there to meet her. There was no time to waste and I cycled to Klaeng where I overnight.
Day 47 – 17 October - Klaeng – Pattaya – 115 km
I was up early, had a quick breakfast and was keen to get on the road. Fortunately, it was easy cycling and I was happy to cycle into Jontiem where I could offload my stuff, do my laundry and most of all have a very long and hot shower! After that I popped downstairs to the local pub where I had a few beers with my friends.