Tania's tour - South East Asia
(3 448km - 52days)
(718km - 10days)
June 16-17 - Bangkok – Ayutthaya – 83 km
At last, it was time to leave Bangkok, something I was extremely happy about as I just about had enough of that place. We woke early with the result that we got underway much earlier than usual, a good thing as well, as it was still nice and cool and the traffic not too hectic.
As always, it was stressful and slow getting out of the city, and it took forever to clear the city limits. Tania did extremely well on her first day, and we managed to get out of mighty Bangkok without any major problems. Soon we reached the outskirts of the city, and then it was an easy ride to Ayutthaya, past luminous green rice paddies and delicious-looking roadside stalls. With its magnificent ruins, today a UNESCO world heritage site, Ayutthaya made a perfect stop. We found ourselves rooms at the well-known Baan Lotus Guest House, a beautiful, old, converted teak schoolhouse. We spent the following day exploring the ruins and just eating our way through the day.
18 June - Ayutthaya - Lopburi – 63km
Once again, we were immensely lucky with the weather; it was a moderately overcast day of around 30/34 degrees Celsius, perfect for cycling. In Thailand, there is never a shortage of interesting things to see, and first up was the elephant kraal, which I had not expected. The elephants and trainers/owners were getting ready for a day with tourists, and the elephants were dressed in their Sunday best before heading out.
Next up was a rather bizarre, if not somewhat kitsch, temple with a humongous dragon or rather dragon tail surrounding the entire property. We followed small roads all the way to Lopburi, which made for enjoyable cycling. Again, a friendly woman flagged us down and gave us a bag of bananas, for which we were grateful and which kept us going the entire day. We were by no means passing any of the villages unnoticed as white women on bicycles don’t easily manage to do that, and mostly, we were stared at by slacked-jawed locals.
We passed huge Buddha statues, incredibly ornate temples, bamboo forests and, of course, the ever-present roadside stalls selling interesting nibbles. Once we reached Lopburi, it was easy to find the popular Noom Guest House where we booked in and then set off to explore the town and all there is to see. Tania seems to have taken to life-on-a-bike like a fish to water, as no sooner were we in the room than she had her shirt washed and a line strung, MacGyver style, on which to hang it.
19 June - Lopburi – Pak Chong – 103 km
In a haze of smoke from the breakfast BBQ we left Lopburi, which turned out to be a much larger town than expected. The touristy bits are in the old part, and the new city is a large area that I only discovered on cycling out. It felt like we cycled and cycled and never really cleared the city limits. Eventually, we turned off the big road and headed along farm roads to where we eventually met up with the highway again.
It was a beautiful stretch through the countryside and past small villages. The highway came as a bit of a shock as it was incredibly busy, but it was the easiest way over the mountains. Not only was it very busy, but it was also rather hilly, and we cycled over the pass in the midday heat, which did not make matters any easier. As always, all uphills come to an end, and eventually we sped downhill reaching speeds of nearly 60 k/h.
Clouds came in, making for a much cooler ride towards the end of the day. In Pak Chong, we spotted a hotel just off the main road and thought it a good place for the night. It came in at a bit more than what we normally pay, but it was mostly the sight of the mashing machines outside that made up our minds for us. I needed it really badly as I have not washed my clothes since leaving Bangkok and even the stray dogs retreated when they smelled me.
20 June - Pak Chong – Starwell Bali - 107 km
The stray dogs seemed to respond well to the word “voetsek,” and if it was uttered with enough conviction, they would retreat to a safe distance, or maybe it was just our smelly clothes that kept them at bay.
Along the way, we passed many statue-making areas where one can buy any shape, size, and colour Buddha that the heart desires. We passed more small villages surrounded by luminous green rice fields where locals keenly offered us exotic fruit, but the strangest of all was the elephant waiting for its lift at the bus shelter! Only in Thailand!
Again, we followed farm roads, but this day the road became more and more narrow and went from OK to just a muddy track, and in the end, it petered out completely, and we had to backtrack to the main road. We gave the big city of Nakhon Ratchasima a miss and followed the bypass road to try to escape the traffic. In the process, we found the most wonderful accommodation for the night. Beautiful wooden chalets surrounded by lush greenery were enough to make us stay put. I love it when a plan comes together. (www.starwellbali.com)
21 June - Starwell Bali – Phimai - 60 km
“Did you see the weather?” Tania said with a frown, as we woke to bucketing rain. Fortunately, the weather cleared, and we had a short and easy ride to Phimai, where we went to see Prasat Hin Phimai, one of the biggest and most important religious sanctuaries in Thailand. Constructed around the 11th–12th century, it must have been a really important town in its day. Inscriptions found on one of the doors indicate that the town existed since the time of the ancient Khmer Empire and that it was built a century before the strikingly similar Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The town of Phimai also marks one of the most western outposts of the Khmer Empire's holy highway. I find all this fascinating, and I'm so pleased that we turned down to see it.
We found ourselves a room at the Phrimai Paradise House, a lovely hostel with wooden floors and high ceilings; I wish all hostels looked like this one. We just dropped our stuff and then set off into the park to explore the ruins after which we cycled to Sai Ngam, a 350-year old Banyan tree that by now resembles a horror movie where trees come alive and strangle unsuspected passers-by. On our way back we stopped off at the night market to have our fill from the very large variety of food on sale.
22 June - Phimai
Phimai turned out a lovely laid back little village, and we decided to stay one more day. We went for a jog around town, just to explore by foot, and for me to get back into jogging after being ill. I have not been for a run for at least three weeks and needed to start getting back into it before it was too late.
I also had plenty of catching up to do – organising and re-organising my photos, which took about the entire day, laundry and a few long overdue phone calls. I walked around town and in the process met the (retired) town photographer; now, at the age of 78, he is still an avid photographer and collector of antique cameras. We had a lovely chat, and he insisted I take a photo of him with a self-portrait, taken 50 years ago, in the background. Before I knew it, the day was over and it was again time for the night market.
23 June – Phimai – Ban Phai – 119 km
We got away nice and early, and once again, we were lucky with the weather as it as an overcast day, so we ambled along quite happily. The northern part of Thailand is fairly rural, and we passed a multitude of small villages, each with its own temple and herd of buffalo.
We turned down to a small silk village where local women still weave silk threads by hand. Not a word of English was spoken, but they were more than happy to show us around. It was a day of roadside farming, and once back on the main road, we passed women cutting reeds by the side of the road and understood from hand gestures that they were using them for mattresses.
Locals even plant rice on the road reserve, and it seemed that using the road reserve for farming activities is what people do here as, just a bit further along, they were harvesting lotus flowers and seeds. Just before we reached Ban Phai, the area once again changed, and it seemed to be a bee farming area as the road was lined with stalls selling honey and honey combs. We turned off the main road into the small village of Ban Phai where I, amazingly, found a rather modern hotel for 600 baht. As soon as we off-loaded, we headed for the food stalls for our usual Thai noodle soup.
24 June - Ban Phai – Khao Suan Kwang – 115 km
It rained all night but, fortunately, it stopped in the early hours of the morning, leaving a lovely fresh day for us to cycle. We cycled along the highway until just after the town of Khon Kaen, where we turned off onto farm roads as we spotted a sign stating “King Cobra Village.” It sounded rather interesting, and we headed in that direction on the most beautiful of rural roads. It always surprises me that even along the rural roads, there are so many interesting things to see. I had my Google directions on “walking,” which always turns out to be rather interesting, sending us along the smallest of roads. At times, the road disappeared completely, and other times, it took us through peoples' backyards! Finding the way like this is always interesting, and today was no different.
Some people were drying thin slivers of meat in the sun; others invited us in to share their lunch. Farmers tended to their rice and buffalo. It felt like it took forever to reach the village we were looking for, and once there, it was rather disappointing. In a way, it was quite sad as they tried their best to make a little show out of it, and I thought it would have been much better if they just left the snakes in a natural way. In any event, it was a lovely ride there.
Again, we consulted Google maps, and it appeared that there was some kind of accommodation about 20 kilometres from the village. Once we reached the resort, it turned out that it used to be a resort, and once again, I thought it sad that such a lovely place went to ruin.
We headed for the highway, where we were sure to find some kind of accommodation, and no sooner were we on the main road than we spotted a 24-hour joint, normally let on an hourly basis, but we managed to get a good rate for the night. I think Tania was a bit shocked at the state of the room and that it only had one bed, which we had to share! Fortunately, it was a rather large bed, and neither one of us is very large!
25 June – Khao Suan Kwang – Udong Thani - 68 km
It was a short and easy but typical cycle-touring day. I stopped to take a picture and no sooner had I put the bicycle down when the roadside stall owner presented us with an already cut watermelon. Delicious! On top of that, she wanted no money for it. I felt so bad about them giving us all these things that I invested in 3-in-1 coffee sachets, which I can give to them in return. I know it sounds a bit odd, but they do like their sweet stuff and one sachet is the same price as a watermelon; it's also just the thought, not the value.
It was a beautiful day, scenery wise, butterflies darted around us as we peddled past large cassava plantations and sugarcane fields. We popped into one of the many monasteries along the way for a chat with the monks and to take a few pictures. Next stop was the durian stall where Tania (obviously) sampled some of Thailand's most famous (or infamous) fruits. The woman eats bugs so, no doubt, she will eat Durian as well!
We even tried our hand at some fishing along the way, but that was rather unsuccessful. Thai ladies fished in large ponds next to the road, using earthworms as bait, but we never saw them catch anything, so either there were no fish, or the fish did not like the earthworms.
We slowly made our way toward the big city of Udon Thani, passing more monasteries and lakes with fishing platforms that looked a bit more promising for fishing than the roadside ponds. We had one final stop to buy sticky rice cooked in segments of bamboo tubes. The bamboo tubes are filled with the sticky rice ingredients and plugged with a piece of coconut husk wrapped with banana leaf to keep in the steam for cooking the rice. In Thailand, this dish is called Kao Lam, but in Malaysia, it was known as Lemang.
In Udon Thani, we found the King’s Hotel, not much of a hotel for kings nowadays, but it came with the right price tag of 350 baht for a huge double room. I had some business to see to, and Tania wanted to stock up on some stuff that we may not find in Lao, so the early day suited both of us.
(966km - 14days)
26 - 27 June – Udon Thani, Thailand – Vientiane, Lao – 80 km
“I’m so excited to go to Lao that I can't get the smile off my face,” Tania said as we headed past the customary smokey breakfast BBQ stand out of Udon Thani. We were keen to get to Lao, stopping only once for coconut juice on our way to the Thailand/Lao border. Once at the border, getting our $30 Lao Visa was an effortless process. We cycled over the mighty Mekong River via the Friendship Bridge, and as always, it was soon apparent just how different things are on the other side of the border.
The French influence from years ago is still visible, especially in the architecture. Suddenly, we could find baguettes, and the smell of coffee seemed to permeate the air. I withdrew 1,500,000 Lao kip, which stretched my wallet to nearly breaking point! Once that was done, we headed into Vientiane, the capital city, which must be the easiest capital into which to cycle. We had hardly crossed the border, and Tania was already sampling the roadside food. The guesthouse we had in mind was no longer there, but that was not a problem as there was so much accommodation to choose from that it was fairly easy to find something else. After a quick shower, we explored the city and, at sunset, headed for the riverside for supper. We sipped a Loa beer, watching the comings and goings of Vientiane. The green curry we ordered was so good that we nearly ordered another plate; fortunately, we came to our senses just before placing another order!
We spent the following day in Vientiane, checking out the beautiful temples and shopping at the morning market for computer cables and other necessary stuff. That evening we ate at one of the local restaurants, ordering a variety of dishes, all equally good.
28 June Vientiane – Pak Ngum - 71 km
We took our time in leaving, and once on the bikes, we first stopped at Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Lao. Legend has it that missionaries from India erected the main stupa to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone in or around the third century! After that, it was a short ride out of the city and onto the rural roads; we stopped for baguettes and bananas along the way. Tania also pointed out that all the cars on the road were new and in a middle to higher price bracket - fascinating!
I found the road interesting and loved seeing the temples jutting out of the forest and kids walking to and from school. It is refreshing to have such a safe environment that small kids can get to and from school on their own. It was very much a rice field and buffalo day as we peddled along admiring the scenery, temples, and friendly people of Lao. It was a rather rural area, and once we spotted a guesthouse we decided to stay there for the night, even though it was still early. But looking at the map, it did not appear that there was anything for the next 100 kilometres. The guesthouse consisted of bungalows surrounded by large green fields and plenty of trees, making for a lovely relaxing place to stay, and at 70,000 kip, it was a bargain.
29 June – Pak Ngum – Paksan – 87 km
We were on the road early, enjoying the cooler early morning weather. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside with the mountains on the one side and the Mekong on the other. Every so often, there were tiny villages where we could get water or something to nibble on. What a pleasure it was on the road!
We cycled along, sometimes close to the river, and sometimes the road would head slightly inland. Dried or smoked fish stalls lined the banks of the river, and we enjoyed nibbling on odd and strange things. We spoke to locals and sampled what they had for sale. They always seemed happy to let us try their produce. What a friendly nation it is! Kids shouted, "Sabaai dee" from the roadside; not even the stray dogs chased us. We reached Paksan in good time, had a shower, and then took a walk down the road to the river to look for something to eat.
30 June Paksan – Vieng Kham – 90 km
We woke to a constant rain and decided to wait and see what the weather was up to. Around 9h30/10h00, it cleared somewhat, and we headed out. It drizzled for most of the day, only clearing around 14h00, and even then it still drizzled from time to time. We also found that Google maps were rather useless in Lao. I don’t think that they have been here for the past 20 years. I looked in my diary and noted that I previously (2009) stayed in a place by the name of Vieng Kham but could not find it on Google maps, and neither could we see it on any road signs. In any event, it was supposed to be 92 kilometres from here, so off we went in that direction.
Tania did not feel well, but she pushed on regardless; she is a real tough one. I hardly took the camera out due to the constant drizzle, but it was still a stunning day. Locals tended their cattle next to the Mekong river; others planted rice, and others were busy ploughing the fields. The area was getting more and more rural the further away from Vientiane we cycled. The roadside stalls were now selling petrol by the bottle, charcoal, and steamed duck eggs. They seem to be fond of ducks and duck eggs in this part of the world.
It was a wet and muddy day as we headed further south, past bright green rice fields, interesting markets, and friendly folk. I was delighted when we finally reached a town by the name of Vieng Kham! Despite it not being on any map, it was quite a sizable village with more than one option to stay and quite a few places to eat.
1 July - Vieng Kham - Thakhek – 108 km
The weather forecast was for rain and thunderstorms the entire day. Fortunately, they were wrong, and we had a most beautiful day on the road. Again, the scenery was sublime with the misty mountains in the background and the lush green forests on both sides of the road. As we were heading farther south, the villages along the way were getting smaller and smaller and farther and farther apart.
We passed locals selling their fruit; some had stalls, and others were pushing carts along. We passed herds of buffalo and herds of cattle grazing by the side of the road. We passed farmers using the most ingenious piece of farming equipment. I'm not sure what it is called, but it is very versatile and can be fitted to a variety of innovative auxiliary equipment for planting, threshing, irrigation, and even carting people around. We passed locals carrying their wares in woven baskets on their backs and others carrying them from straps around their foreheads.
The roadside markets were even more fascinating, as they were selling things one only reads about, from rather illegal looking wildlife to interesting pieces of meat. We could not figure out which part of what animal it could possibly come from. As always, there were the rice fields with people standing knee-deep in water, planting rice, and I was wondering how their backs must feel after a day bent over like that.
As we neared Thakhek, we passed the Great Wall of Lao, or rather the remains of the Great Wall. Apparently, its construction is attributed to the period of the Sikhottabong Empire in the 9th century, no one seems sure about the purpose. Historians hold that the wall served as a defence system; others believe the wall functioned as a dike to stem rising flood waters. In Thakhek, we found a hotel across the road from the Mekong River for a very reasonable price. As usual, we were starving and headed out to a lovely restaurant right on the banks of the river where both the food and the view were out of this world.
2 July – Thakhek – Savannakhet – 125 km
I was no ball of energy as I had hardly slept the previous night. Nevertheless, we rolled out of Thakhek at around 7h30. The road was fairly undulating, and we were going straight into the south-westerly breeze, making for a slow day on the road. I was in no mood for taking pictures as we kept a steady pace, passing interesting stalls and loads of kids, doing what kids do during school holidays. The schools in Lao have a three-month break during the rainy season (July to August).
We cycled past plenty of temples where the monks' bright orange robes were drying in the breeze, making a pretty picture against the green of the surrounding fields. Butterflies and dragonflies were, once again, in abundance although it seemed to be getting less forestry. About 30 kilometres from Savannakhet, we found a shortcut, taking about 10 kilometres off our intended route, something we were happy about as we were getting tired. Tania even managed to fall off her bike. Fortunately, she was fine, except for a few bruises and a lump on her head! She is a real tough one. Once in Savannakhet, we found a room and headed straight for the night market, where I bought far too much food again!
3 July – Savannakhet
We spent the day at leisure in Savannakhet, doing laundry and checking out all there was to do in the old city. I went for a jog in the morning, and what a pleasure it was jogging through the streets with all its temples and decaying buildings. Later that day I popped in at the Dinosaur museum and although small, it was a fascinating sight into 110 000 000 years ago. I even got a tour and explanation by a staff member of all the exhibits which I found rather informative as all the information was in Lao and French only.
4 July – Savannakhet – Muang Lakhonpheng – 131 km
We were on the road at 7h30, anticipating a long day. We were lucky and had an excellent day, weather-wise. It was cloudy, but it did not rain, and we even picked up a bit of a tail wind! With all in our favour, we pushed on, making good use of the favourable conditions. I looked around me and realised just how lucky I was to be cycling in this beautiful country with its ever-friendly people. It was the rainy season, and every man and his dog were out in the fields planting rice, leaving the daily chores to the smaller kids. It was interesting to see these tiny kids doing chores we would never dream of allowing a child twice their age to do. It looked as if the little ones were taking over the household responsibilities, from tending the cattle to caring for the babies. The rice fields had the most brilliant green colour, making the colourful temples look even more colourful. Water buffalo grazed lazily along the road while goats and cattle were led off to graze somewhere else. Wooden houses on stilts, with hammocks swinging in the breeze, completed the picture.
The map indicated very little in the line of accommodation, food, or water along the way, but we found plenty of villages—quite a sizable one at around 70 kilometres and a nice-looking guesthouse at around 85 kilometres. There were plenty of little stores and petrol stations along the way where we could fill up with water and get something to nibble on. After 131 kilometres, we cycled into Lakhonpheng (not indicated on the map), where we found quite a few guesthouses. We picked one that turned out to be a poor choice, and Tania was not a happy chappie as the bed was lumpy, and the place had no wi-fi. I don’t care much. As I always say, I'm not buying the place; I just want to sleep, and then I'm off again in the morning. But, then again, I have been doing this for nine years.
5 June – Muang Lakhonpheng - Pakse - 112 km
We woke to bucketing rain and waited for it to subside, but by 08h30 we could see this was not going to happen, so we saddled up and hit the road. The rain continued throughout the day, sometimes just a drizzle, and sometimes, it came down quite hard. It would have been a nice ride were it not for a headwind, making the going rather slow. There was not much we could do but put our heads down and push on.
Tania was a real sport, never complained, and stuck to the task at hand. After about 35 kilometres, I got a flat tyre and realised it was not the tube that was the problem but that the tyre blew. I fixed it with duct tape, but it only lasted for another 35 kilometres. Fortunately, we were right opposite a motorbike repair shop, and lo and behold, did they not have a used bicycle tyre hanging from the rafters? I pointed to the tyre and my wheel, and in no time at all, I had a new tyre fitted, all for 20,000 kip! I could see that the tyre was approximately 100 years old and hoped that it would get me to Pakse, which was still 77 kilometres away.
Along the way, we passed motorbike salesmen with bikes loaded sky high and Gong Makers, hard at work. Gongs are the alarm clocks for the monks; they have to get up at 04h30 in the morning. First, they do a little bit of meditation, and then, they take a little walk to get [fed], after which they study and clean around the temple. The day dragged on, and it felt like we were not getting anywhere, but all comes to an end, and around 18h00, we cycled into Pakse, found the nearest guesthouse, and headed straight for a restaurant.
We cycled past pink water buffalo, and I swear that it had nothing to do with drugs or the fact that I had hardly drunk any water on this day. Locals were sitting under their houses, hiding from the rain, making small fires (they must have thought it was cold). I loved the smell of the wet, smoky wood mixed with the smell of wet soil; it is such a basic, earthy smell.
We passed plenty of ladies selling mushrooms along the way. It was not the fact that they were selling mushrooms that were interesting but the vast variety that was impressive; there were big ones and small ones, underground ones and above-ground ones, single ones and ones growing in clumps, and just about all the colours one could think of.
7 July – Pakse – Champasak – 55 km
The rain finally subsided, and we cycled the short distance to Champasak, and what a stunning day it was. Bright green rice fields lined the road, and the good rains of the previous few days had soaked the fields, making them ready for planting. We had the misty mountains to the one side and the Mekong River to the other side as, slack-jawed, we stared at the beauty of the country.
We found a room right on the river, offloaded our panniers, and then set off to the picturesque Vat Phu ruins, which date back to the 7th century. Today, Vat Phu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex. The complex has a stunning location at the foothills of Mount Phu Kao, overlooking the Mekong valley. We wandered around for a while and then headed back to our humble abode, where we placed an order for dinner and sipped a beer (Lao) while the sun set over the Mekong River.
8-9 July - Champasak - Maung Khong, Don Khong Island - 107 km
After breakfast, we headed down a muddy road to the ferry that could take us back to the mainland. Although it was not a car ferry, we could push our bicycles onto the ferry without a problem. Once back on the road, we found ourselves another muddy, potholed road back to the main road. We were lucky and escaped most of the rain as we headed further south towards the Cambodian border.
Approximately 30 kilometres from the border, we turned off and found a ferry to take us to the well-known Four Thousand Islands, or Si Phan Don as it is known in Lao. This time, the ferry was not as successful as not only did they overcharge us (or so we thought) but the landing on the island was disastrous and must have been quite a spectacle. Tania got off OK, but by the time I tried to push the bicycle off, the boat started moving away from the shore, and I had one leg on the boat and one on the shore! I hung on to the bike for dear life while doing the splits, but there is only so far one can stretch oneself! In the end, I landed in the water, but fortunately, the boatman caught the bike and managed to get it to shore without too much water damage. As funny as this was, I was fuming as all my computer and camera equipment are in those panniers, and if the bike had landed in the water, all the equipment would have been ruined. Fortunately, all’s well that ends well, and we managed to get the bike onto dry ground undamaged. Tania found us a nice guesthouse with a restaurant on the river’s edge, which made up for the near disaster.
The following morning, we woke at the crack of dawn and followed the locals down the muddy road to the morning market. We filled our stomachs will all the delicious, and not to mention interesting, snacks for sale. The rest of the day was spent doing very little other than enjoying the view and eating. Tania organised us a boat trip on the river and at around 17h00 our boatman arrived and we puttered up river, past riverside villages and fishermen doing what fishermen do.
(1 336km - 23days)
10 July - Maung Khong , Lao – Strung Treng, Cambodia – 100 km
“I feel quite emotional leaving Lao,” Tania said as we continue south to the Lao/Cambodian border. It was a short ride to the Lao checkpoint, where we were charged $2 each to leave Lao, which I think is going straight into the border official’s pockets. We, however, claimed poverty, and after a long wait, our passports were stamped, and we scurried off to the Cambodian border where we were charged $1 each for not having a yellow vaccination card. Then it was off to the small blue building where we were charged $35 for a Cambodian visa (which should have cost us only $30). By then, we were too tired to argue and paid the money, got the stamp, and headed for Strung Treng, the next town indicated on the map.
It was a lovely ride through the most rural of the countryside, and although a dirt road, the road was good with a few small stores where we could get water. Fortunately, Tania could change her last Lao kip at a petrol station, providing us with enough local currency to buy water along the way. Once in Strung Treng, we first looked for an ATM and found that we could only draw US$ and not Cambodian Riel, always a good indication that we were going to get ripped off. There was not much we could do but draw a few dollars and then went in search of a guesthouse, of which there were plenty around the lively market area. We were starving, as usual, and could not wait to find a room and head off to the market. When booking in, we were told that there was no water in the hotel. There was not much we could do but pack up and go in search of another place to stay.
11 July Strung Treng – Kratie – 140 km
We knew it was a long distance to Kratie, but we were later than usual in leaving. We first wanted to change our dollars to riel and then popped into the pharmacy. We stopped a few times for pictures, and after 30 kilometres, I realised we better step on it if we wanted to make Kratie before nightfall. We put our heads down and kept a steady pace, past pajama-clad women and steamed duck eggs piled high at roadside stalls, past wooden houses on stilts where the entire family seemingly spend their days in hammocks. Friendly kids shouted “hello” from behind the banana plants, and locals invited us to share their meals, but there was no wasting time as we headed into a slight headwind. The going was made even slower by roadworks and the occasional thunderstorms.
Still, we kept going; caps pulled low down, we headed into the weather until we reached the turnoff for Kratie. The heavens opened up, and we were forced to take shelter until the storm passed. By the time the weather cleared, it was already dark, and we made slow progress into Kratie, trying as best we could to avoid the potholes and puddles. We found a lovely hotel right on the river and were more than happy to unload our sopping wet gear and head straight for the shower. That was a rather long day on the road.
12 July - Kratie
In bucketing rain, we set off by boat up the Mekong River to see if we could spot the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins. Great was our excitement when we eventually spotted them. It is said that, genetically, these dolphins are closely related to the killer whale (orca). How interesting! Although sometimes called the Irrawaddy river dolphin, I understand that it is not a true river dolphin, but an oceanic dolphin that lives in brackish water near coasts, river mouths and in estuaries. By now it has established subpopulations in freshwater rivers, including the Ganges and the Mekong. These dolphins are rather vulnerable as the worldwide population appears to be over just 7,000. Another interesting fact is that they are nearly blind. They have very small eyes and even lack lenses and can do little more than distinguish light and dark. What a fascinating world!
13 July - Krati – Strung Trang - 89 km
The previous night we decided to take the river trail instead of the main road. What a good decision it was! It was a most magnificent day with perfect weather, fantastic scenery, friendly people, interesting food, and unparalleled views of the Mekong.
We cycled past houses precariously balanced on stilts on the banks of the river, making one wonder how long they could still last. It was an incredibly rural area, and people still farmed in the old ways using oxcarts with wooden wheels; kids skipped to school in typical childlike fashion and ladies on bicycles sold fresh produce door-to-door. What an eye-opener this area was. Rice was dried on the road, and ugly bare-necked chickens darted across the road. We passed numerous rivers where fishermen were hard at work bringing in the catch using all conceivable ways and means.
Tiny kids shouted “Hello!” from their stilted houses, and one wondered how it was possible that they didn’t fall down the rickety stairs. It was an area where water was still obtained from a communal well and where roadside stalls sold bananas wrapped in coconut sticky rice cooked in banana leaves. We stopped for the most delicious sugarcane juice after which we slowly made our way to the ferry, which took us across the river to Strung Trang, where we spent the night.
14 July Strung Trang – Kampong Thom – 97 km
At short notice, we changed plans and headed for Kampong Thom instead of Kampong Cham. We headed slightly west (inland); again, it was a most satisfying ride past vast rice fields, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a rather unvisited area, and kids took a few steps back in utter surprise on seeing us. Even the local dogs scurried away without even so much as a bark. We cycled past vast rubber plantations and cassava fields until we finally reached Highway 6.
Still, it was a rather rural area where stilted houses were surrounded by palm and banana trees, each with a stack of hay in the front yard and cows grazing somewhere close by. It seemed that each house had a “bug catching” device, consisting of a plastic dam and fluorescent light for attracting the bug at night. We could tell that we were reaching the ancient Khmer stronghold as there were already signs of old ruins to be seen next to the road. Finally, we cycled past the dust-covered statue makers, hard at work making statues for the many temples in Cambodia.
15 July – Kampong Thom – Kampong Kdei – 89 km
On a day in which one could easily say that not much was happening, we stood in awe as we watched monks in colourful robes collecting food. We stared at women ploughing the fields with an old-fashioned ox-cart and were once again amazed at the friendly people we met along the way. It was Friday and, obviously, market day as we passed traders with carts piled high with beautiful wooden furniture and woven baskets. We also passed motorbikes piled equally high, some with live chickens and others with pigs.
We cycled past the ever-present wooden houses on stilts and overtook kids going to and from school. Their balance on bicycles is truly extraordinary, and it is not unusual to see even the smallest kid giving his friend a lift on his tiny bike. For the first time in ages, we met another cyclist along the way. We chatted for a while and then continued on our way. We stopped for watermelon and later for coconut juice, both were refreshing and, as always, made us the centre of attraction! We continued to Kampong Kdei where we found, surprisingly enough, quite a comfortable guest house for such a small village.
16 July - Kampong Kdei – Siem Reap – 64 km
On leaving Kampong Kdei, we had to cycle through the market, something that is always a novelty, both for the traders and for us. Soon after leaving, we stopped at the Kampong Kdei Bridge, an ancient bridge built between the 11th and 12th centuries. It used to be the longest cobblestone-arched bridge in the world. The bridge is still in very good condition and used to form part of Highway 6 until 2006; the highway was since diverted but the bridge is still used by bicycles and motorbikes.
We slowly made our way to Siem Reap, sharing the road with herds of cattle and traders selling all conceivable kinds of goods. We passed school kids going to or coming from school and this on a Saturday! Again, the road was lined with stalls selling rice cooked in bamboo or fruit and vegetables. Around 15 kilometres from Siem Reap, we could already see some of the old temple ruins. We made a quick stop and then headed into Siem Reap to find a room for the night. The plan was to stay three nights as we had a rather large amount of things to sort out.
Later that evening, we took a walk to the night market and on the way popped into the camera store to see if they could fix my camera lens. I really hope they can as it is my favourite lens.
17-18 July - Siem Reap
We spent two full days in Siem Reap. Tania went to visit Angor, and I did as little as possible, except doing the usual laundry, repacking and restocking of things. I did manage to take the bike for a service and was delighted to find the bill a mere $3! What a bargain that was! I also managed to take my lens to the camera shop and was equally delighted that they could fix it, this time, however, it was a bit pricier at $60 but still a bargain if compared to a new one. The most exciting thing I did was to watch the circus, which turned out an absolute delight! I was thoroughly impressed with the way they used the small space available to them and how entertaining they were. It was an evening well spent.
19 July Siem Reap – Battambang – by boat
We took the boat across the Tonle Sap Lake to Battambang, an interesting, albeit long day. The trip took us past numerous floating villages, complete with the police station, political party office, restaurants and schools. It is very much like a traditional village, just that everything is floating on water and where kids can seemingly steer a boat before they can walk.
The most worrying sight was the crocodile farm; just imagine one of those getting into the rivers where these people live, bath and work! Although interesting, we were all happy to get off the boat as those benches became fairly hard, even for a seasoned cyclist!!! Our boat was rather old and broke down twice along the way; the fact that I spotted empty beer cans under the driver’s seat did not instill any confidence in the driver either.
Nevertheless, we made Battambang safely where there were loads of accommodation, and it was easy to find a room for the night. The night market was a lively place to find a meal and 2.5 street provided plenty of pubs where one could have a cold beer.
20 July - Battambang – Pursat - 118 km (app 8 km by trolly)
We followed small roads to where we could board the fascinating “bamboo train”, not that it was a train at all! It was, in fact, a trolley that wobbled along a narrow track through the forest; what a fun thing to do! We did not go very far and got off again at the next “station” from where we had to find our way back to the main road.
We turned south again and headed in the direction of the capital, Phnom Penh. As always in Cambodia, it was a beautiful ride past friendly kids, small villages, and the ever-present rice fields. We passed traders loaded with pottery and others with pigs in woven baskets on the backs of motorbikes. We passed colourful trucks, some poorly loaded, and we debated whether they would make their destination; my money was on them not making it! Towards the end of the day, we could see the weather coming in and were gunning it to Pursat to escape the approaching storm. We made it just in time and were hardly in our room before the storm hit. We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, and once again, the food was delicious.
21 July - Purst – Kampong Chhnang – 96 km
“This is Cambodia, baby,” Tania exclaimed with a smile as we headed out of town in a cloud of smoke from the morning traffic. We joined motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, busses and water buffalo and headed further south, past the ever-present steamed pau stalls. It was a rather pleasant day, and we could not help but stop at the watermelon cart and devour a whole one. Neither could we cycle past the ice-cream man selling the unique Cambodian ice cream, which they serve on bread and drizzle with condensed milk. We were on the conservative side and only had a cone. We also bought a piece of dried buffalo meat, which we hoped to eat at supper without getting sick.
There were plenty of interesting stalls along the way, but we stopped short of buying the fermented ant and ant larvae mix. The weirdest thing on this day must surely have been what we now call the flying snakes. They seemed to fall from the sky and once on the ground wriggle away into the long grass. I didn’t want one of those falling on me! We subsequently found that they are indeed called flying snakes, how weird!
22 July - Kompong Chhnang – Phnom Penh - 93 km
We cycled along, past more beautiful rural and ornate monasteries, past families working in the fields planting rice together, and past “petrol stations” where fuel is pumped by hand out of a drum or sold by the litre in Coke bottles. We passed slaughtered animals hanging from branches; what kind of animal that was is still a mystery. We saw motorbikes and small trucks piled high with chickens; obviously, headed for the market. We watched farmers walking their cattle through rivers, and we ate watermelon at a roadside stall. We desperately tried to make conversation, but the English language is not understood in Cambodia.
Eventually, we cycled into busy, crazy Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh conjures up romantic and exotic images, but a Friday afternoon is not the best time to cycle into any city, and Phnom Penh was no exception. It was busy and dusty from ongoing road works. We ducked and dived roadside stalls and markets which spilled onto the road. Finally, we reached the city centre and a guesthouse that looked good enough to stay a week! It was time to explore, and we headed straight for the riverfront and the night market.
We also stayed the following day and did the usual things one does in Phnom Pehn, including visiting the depressing Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum. I popped in at the Canon store as I was not happy with the repair work they did on my lens in Siem Riep. The verdict was not good and confirmed what I already knew. The focus was off and the lens could only be calibrated in Singapore. Oh well, guess I will pack the lens away until I reach Bangkok and see if maybe they can do it there.
I also applied for a 2-month Thai visa as I was not sure exactly where I was heading after Tania flies back home on 8 August. The most exciting thing we did was to buy Tania a tent, as we have decided to camp as much as possible for the remainder of her time in Southeast Asia.
24 July - Phnom Penh – Takeo - 77 km
Leaving Phnom Penh was never an easy task (traffic wise), and although it was Sunday morning, the roads were chock-a-block with all kinds of vehicles. We tried the best we could to avoid them all. While stuck in the morning traffic, we were passed by flatbed tuk-tuks loaded with elderly, toothless women in big hats and by trucks loaded high with hay and whoever needed a lift on top of the hay. Friendly commuters laughed and waved, and Tania once again exclaimed, smiling, “This is Cambodia, baby!”
After what felt like hours, we cleared the city limits and headed for the nearby Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center (PTWRC). The centre was established in 1995 and covers an area of over 6,000 acres of protected, regenerating forest. The centre is run by the Cambodian Forestry Administration in partnership with a non-profit environmental organisation called Wildlife Alliance. PTWRC currently houses over 1,200 rescued animals from 102 species, including endangered Asian elephants, tigers, pileated gibbons, Siamese crocodiles, Malayan sun bears, among many others. As this is what Tania does at home, we had to stop and take a look.
We spent a good few hours and then continued down the road past the most interesting roadside stalls and past fields with scrawny looking cattle. The roadside stalls, once again, did not disappoint, and we found the most interesting fruit as well as BBQ frogs, cockroaches, and crickets! Eventually, we reached Takao and asked if we could camp at the monastery. They were very kind and even suggested we sleep in the temple. We were more than happy for the bucket of water for a shower and the electrical point for charging whatever needed charging.
25 July - Takao – Roadside camping – 104 km
We waved goodbye to the monks and continued on our way past luminous green rice paddies and piles of coconuts watched over by owners lazily swinging in hammocks. We passed duck stalls where they were not only selling BBQ duck but also the ducks' eggs, intestines, and heads. Nothing goes to waste. It was, however, the eggs that intrigued us most.
The closer we got to the coast, the hillier it became, and it was awesome to see the mountains again. Soon it started bucketing down, and we had to find shelter in a hurry. Fortunately, there was a convenient restaurant next to the road for us to take shelter. Shortly after leaving, I had a flat tyre (oh, how I miss my Schwalbe tyres), but, fortunately, it did not take long to fix, and we were on our merry way again.
We continued on past Kampot, and after about 15 kilometres, we spotted a sign saying “Café & Camping,” a rather foreign concept for Cambodia. What we did find were Destan Kilic and Eyup Kostan, both from Turkey. They also travelled by bicycle but sold their bikes in Iran and are now travelling around Southeast Asia. In the meantime, they rented a plot with a basic house and are busy making a short movie of their adventures. While doing so, they offer camping and coffee to passers-by. (www.welcomebyebye.net)
26 July - Roadside camping - Sihanoukville – 85 km
It was a day marred by malfunctions as, firstly, Tania’s $20 tent did not make it through the night, and she woke to a rather flat tent. It was a great disappointment as we dearly wanted to camp for the last stretch of the journey. After a cup of coffee, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts and headed for the town of Sihanoukville, where I wanted to catch a bus back to Phnom Penh to collect my passport and Thai visa.
What a different day it was again! We cycled past oyster farms and small fishing villages where fishing boats were lining the shore, fluorescent green rice fields, and countrywomen guarding their one and only cow. After my second flat tyre, I realised that it was not the usual puncture; my cheap tyre had a big tear in it. I fixed the leak and then taped up the tyre, which lasted to the next town, where I, once again, bought a $5 tyre.
Along the way, my sandal broke and flopped like an old rag while the rain came bucketing down. We headed over the hills into the town of Sihanoukville, and what a touristy town it turned out to be. We managed to find a decent room, had a shower, repacked our bags, and tried to fix Tania's tent poles the best we could, but sadly, our efforts came to nothing. I did, however, manage to buy some super glue to fix my sandal, hopefully with more success than the tent poles.
27 July - Sihanoukville - Phnom Phenh (by bus)
I was up at the crack of dawn to catch the bus to Phnom Phenh to pick up my passport and Thai visa. The bus took approximately four hours and once there I took Tania’s tent back to the shop we bought it and they refunded me $15 which I thought was pretty decent of them. I also popped in at the Giant Store, bought a new tyre, a new tube and a new pair of gloves.
Then it was off to the visa agent where I discovered that the visa will only be ready at 17h00. I spent the rest of my time at the local mall like a true expat! At just after 17h00 I picked up my visa and took a tuk-tuk back to the central market where I hoped to still be in time for a bus back to Sihanoukville. On arrival, I found that the bus had already left and on the back of a motorbike we gave chase and stopped the bus just a few kilometres down the road.
28 July - Sihanoukville – Sre Ambel – 98 km
We woke to bucketing rain and waited for an hour or two for it to subside. Although the rain subsided, it continued to drizzle throughout the day as we headed back to Veal Renh where we turned off and headed in the direction of Thailand.
Tania did not feel too well and felt lethargic as we slowly headed in the direction of the border which was still a good few days’ cycling away. Towards the end of the day it started bucketing down and we took cover. As soon as it subsided, we hit the road again but soon the heavens opened up and as soon as we spotted a petrol station with a good cover we asked if we could camp. The staff was ever so friendly and allowed us to camp at the rear of the station under a lovely canopy that had lights as well as electrical points.
29 July - Sre Ambel – Andoung Tuek – 43 km
As we got closer and closer to the Cardamom Mountains, the vegetation became even lusher and green. At Andoung Tuek boats were heading up river to the small village of Chi Phat located in the Cardamoms Protected area. Once home to loggers and poachers, Chi Phat is today a community-based ecotourism centre. I was impressed by how well-organised they were, and once we were off the boat, there was a tourist centre where one could choose accommodation and activities in the area. We opted for a lovely, rustic bungalow and also chose a one-and-a-half-day trek in the mountains. Supper was a dull affair of rice, boiled cabbage and goose eggs.
30 - 31 July
Cycling Cambodia continues to surprise us; it’s a place where cattle have the right of way and people still get water from a communal well. Small kids, half the size of livestock, herd them along. I thought that a rather responsible job for such tiny kids, but they appear to take on responsibility from a very young age and can seemingly ride a motorbike from the tender age of five!
Early Friday morning, we set off with a guide and cook into the fabled Cardamom Mountains. At first, we walked through a planted forest, and that was a good thing as well because no sooner than we left, my “fixed” sandal broke. We had to phone a friend of the guide to look in my panniers and bring me my sneakers by moto. It’s quite extraordinary where these people can go by “moto”. After that, it was a short walk to where we met the dense forest, a lovely area with streams and rivers and thick vegetation.
We stopped for lunch, and in no time at all, our cook had a fire going for rice and vegetables. It felt like we had hardly sat down before the food was ready. We continued walking, and along the way, we spotted some beautiful and exotic plants and insects. We also saw some real nasty-looking ones that were seemingly waiting for unsuspected hikers (like us) to pounce on!
Around 16h00, we reached our camp for the night. It was a most interesting experience as we stayed with a local farm family and hung our hammocks under their wooden house in what I would call their kitchen area. Although it is a protected area, there are still people farming along the river. We lay swaying in our hammocks while the chickens and dogs scurried about looking for something to peck on and while the family went about their business of preparing food. The most interesting thing was watching them cook, as the ingredients consisted of pumpkin flowers, grated bamboo shoots, loads of chillies, garlic, and other green grasses that we did not recognise. The resulting dish was the most delicious vegetable soup, with rice (of course).
It was fascinating to watch a slice of Cambodian life playing out right in front of our eyes. These people lived a very basic life without any luxuries, and everything was used sparingly. The fire was made with a minimum of wood; there was no electricity, running water or a toilet. Once it got dark, it was bedtime, and we crawled into our hammocks and lay listening to the sounds of the forest, a true privilege.
The following morning, we awoke to the crowing of cocks, and although it was still early, there was no sleeping late as the entire household was already up and busy preparing the fire for breakfast. We were treated to coffee (which I’m sure is a luxury) as they mostly drink a kind of weak tea. After breakfast, it was time to say goodbye to our family and head back down the hills to Chi Phat.
Again, it was a beautiful walk and such a pleasure to be in the mountains. I realised, once again, how much I enjoy walking in the forest. On our arrival in Chi Phat, we headed straight for the jetty where we hopped on a boat back to the main road. Our time was too short, and I wish I could have stayed longer in the mountains as I’m sure there is plenty more to see. Once back on the main road, we found a guesthouse and prepared for our ride over the mountains the following day. Tania was still not feeling well and suffered from stomach cramps and nausea; we could only hope that she would be feeling better in the morning.
1 August - Sre Ambel – Koh Kong – 43 km (60 km by minivan)
We were up at our regular time, but Tania was still sick and could not eat anything. She still had severe stomach cramps and a massively bloated stomach, felt nauseous, and suffered from a total lack of energy. That said, she insisted on cycling, and we slowly headed over the Cardamom mountains in the direction of the Thai border.
Despite it being rather hilly, it was a beautiful ride. After 43 kilometres, we reached another river, and where a few restaurants were scattered along the main road, we rested for a while and debated what to do next. We visited a small clinic, where the lady gave Tania two tablets and encouraged her to take a rest. After about and an hour, there was still no improvement, and we decided to take a bus to Koh Kong, where there were a hospital and accommodations. We waited and waited, but no bus came.
In the end, we managed to find a minivan on its way to Koh Kong. We loaded the bicycles, and in no time at all, we were in Koh Kong, where they dropped us right in front of the hospital. After filling in some forms, Tania was led away to see the doctor and came back with a list of medications she had to get from the pharmacy. I was very hopeful that her disease was identified and the right medication prescribed. We found a decent room right on the river and had an early night, hoping that Tania would feel better in the morning. Fingers crossed!
(428km - 5days)
2 August – Koh Kong, Cambodia – Trat, Thailand – 100 km
Tania miraculously recovered after taking her prescribed $2 drugs, and we headed for the border, which was only about 10 kilometres down the road. As always, the border was a hectic place with tuk-tuks, trucks, and busses.
We exited Cambodia and entered Thailand with ease, and what a beautiful ride it was. The stretch from the border to Trat is a little-visited area with the most beautiful beaches and bays one can imagine. Along the way, we met four Thai cyclists out for a two-day ride, had a chat, and continued on our way again. Tania was feeling great, and we made good time, even stopping for lunch along the way. The girl was on a roll again!
In the afternoon, it started raining, but we continued as there was no reason to stop, and soon, reached Trat, where we found a monastery that had a lovely jetty at the river. We asked if we could pitch our tent, and after much sign language, we managed to get approval and pitched our tents. Not only did the jetty have an excellent view of the river, it also came with a canopy, a light and electrical point. How cool is that? The monks also offered to lock the gate to the jetty and pointed us in the direction of the toilets; what a bargain! We first had a cup of coffee and then cooked our noodles, all while watching the tide come in, covering the mangroves that surrounded us.
3 August Trat – Na Yai Am – 111 km
I woke to the sound of crabs scurrying around the mangroves and Tania making coffee, not a bad way to be woken in the morning. We wanted to be back in Bangkok on the evening of the 5th to give us enough time to box Tania’s bike and maybe for some last minute shopping before she heads back to South Africa on the 8th.
It was, therefore, heads down and heading for Bangkok, not a difficult task, just steady 110/120 kilometre days to get there in time. The highway never makes for interesting riding, but we had a job to do, and we did exactly that. We found good camping at a petrol station along the way that not only had a 7-11 but a good night market right next door. The public toilets at the petrol station provided the necessary ablutions, and we were as happy as two proverbial pigs.
4 August Na Yai Am – Anata Nakorn 135 km
It was not the most interesting ride so we pushed on so we could be in striking distance of Bangkok the following day. Fortunately, it was easy riding and the weather played along; we, therefore, made good use of it and reached Anata Nakorn where we found a rather nice hotel along the road. It was good to have a shower and charge all our devices again.
5 August - August Anata Nakorn – Bangkok – 82 km
We were on the road early, which was maybe not the best idea, as the road was incredibly busy with the morning traffic. It also got no better as we soon reached the city limits and, as always, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic into Bangkok. In the process of finding our destination, we cycled slap bang right through the centre of Bangkok! The concentration on the map, watching out for the traffic—as well as making sure I don’t lose Tania along the way—made for a tiring ride, and I, for one, was more than happy to reach the famous Khao San Road area, where we wanted to stay.
We found a room for 450 baht, which had space for the bikes, a ground-floor room, a window, and air-con; we considered that a bargain and so came to the end of Tania’s cycle tour of Southeast Asia. I was pretty chuffed that it all went well and that the plan came together.
6 August - Bangkok
The following morning, we had loads to do. Tania had to box her bike, I went to look for new panniers (as stuff started falling out of the holes of the old ones), and I handed in my camera and lenses for re-calibration - something that was apparently going to take two weeks!
I was once again in awe of Bangkok. As I took the river taxi, I watched in amazement at all that was happening around me. Colourful longtail boats stood in sharp contrast against old wooden shacks. Askew buildings sat snuggly next to modern skyscrapers, and ferries dogged slow barges heading upstream. We zoomed past colourful and ornate temples where traders sell noodle soup and skewers of chicken asses to passers-by. All that I got for 14 baht.
I jumped off at the Taksin jetty and hopped on the sky train, which took me into the heart of the city. I had to find the Canon repair centre, which was in the MBK centre. Fortunately, the sky train stopped right outside, and it was easy to find my way from there. Once that was done, I was back on the Skytrain to the Amarin Plaza, where I found K-Trade, the outdoor specialist selling Ortlieb bags. I was in luck and bought two brand new, luminous green panniers, after which I treated myself to a cup of coffee and a large slice of cheesecake. Life is good in Bangkok. That evening we headed to Chinatown and the Hau Seng Hong Restaurant, which sells the best Dim Sum in the whole of Bangkok (according to me, LOL). We ate so much that we could hardly run for the tuk-tuk when it started raining!
I was up amazingly early, donned my running shoes and went exploring around Bangkok. I ran along the canal, but it proved more difficult than expected. The path along the canal was very narrow, and it is a place where people live, so I had to duck underneath washing lines, skirt around local markets where food was already sizzling and steaming, dodge cats scrounging for food and watched my step that I did not trip over homeless people or stray dogs. It was nevertheless an enjoyable run past ornate temples and monks collecting food. Bangkok never fails to amaze me.