Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Week 16 Carry on Up the Mekong. Mukdahan to Phon Pisai 422kms cycled

Highlights: Religious festival at That Phanom
Low blows: Flat tyre caused by a tiny tiny thorn
Music of the week: I Got Mine – The Black Keys

Rain eventually stopped by sunrise – at least it’ll wash all the dog crap off the streets. Spent most of the day in an internet shop. Overcast all day. Went to scruffy market in morning had pinapple and some fresh coffee (2nd stalls coffee tasting much better than the first), lots of muddy puddles about around mkt. 2 jumpers on today and thinking back to DBP and how cold and dull it was there! Had a nap later and went for a wander as sun finally appeared from the murk about 5ish. Groups of rickshaw drivers sharing a grilled fish and getting sozzled on nasty factory made lao lao (declined their offer of a slug).

Mukdahan to That Phanom 49kms
Stopped to watch a group of poor looking Thais having bf in bus carpark as some of them were playing a traditional Keane pipe flute and guitar type instruments while others danced around. They looked to be enjoying themselves (and drunk at 7am!). Set off a bit later than planned as chatting with an old Italian bloke in reception.
Nice quietish road mostly along the river. Land well irrigated and in production. Didn’t know if I was gonna stay in TP or not but on arrival I discovered there was a big festival underway so had something to eat and then went in search of accommodation. Found a place on small road where Id entered the town, after an hour of looking and 400baht with ac a snip as all other places 700 up and most full anyway.
Wandered through the streets lined either side with food, clothes, pop the balloon with darts and other fair games, vcd and toy stalls, an impressive arsenal for sale in one plastic guns shop and loads of kids wandering around with M16s or passing by in the back of pickups touting pump action shotguns. Eventually arrived at temple, an impressive gold and cream stupa in Lao style and hundreds of people going around it with flowers and insence sticks. Best of all were groups of pilgrims at the head of which was their own band banging drums, clashing cymbals, a cart bringing up the rear stacked with PA system and live bassist and guitarist noodling Lao licks as they walked along. Behind were others bringing gifts of pillows, robes and blankets for the monks. A short gap of 50m and then another group would commence their round of the stupa.
Meanwhile monks chanting coming from loudspeakers, photographers vying for trade, visiting monks taking photos of each other, bells ringing 3 times on small towers at the corner of the inner sanctum, inside which people knelt and prayed with insense, from which the air was thick with scented smoke. Lots of people also camping within the temple grounds amongst the buddhas seated around the walls. Great to see all this going on. Wandered through the streets - a bloke with lots of snakes on display brought out and put back in boxes by teenage assistants, fairground rides and everyone clutching a gift, souvenir, or bargain theyd picked up from one of the stalls.
Had a beer in a quiet place near the river. Ate at night had another wander, big sermon in the temple with hundreds of people kneeling and praying, people still going round temple (no bands tho) and some crashed out on mats (mainly old people). Must be big opportunity for locals to make some money, loads of blokes waving cars into patches of land with red flags. Water on sale at double price etc etc.
Back at the gh, the friendly old man who’d set me up with the room was now pimping out young women sat giggling in a seated area across the street. I told him I was tired which he thought was hilarious.

Monks do the rounds at That Phanom

And the band goes round

Budha keeps a watchful eye over the campers

Cleansing and blessing with water

Photogaphers vying for trade

Pilgrims pray

Amongst the stalls choosing a mask

That Phanom by night

That Phanom to Nakhon Phanom 54kms
Bloke in resto asked if I wanted beer for bf, I said who drinks at this time and he said Thais start at 5am/6am – don’t care about time. Suppose there is a festival on! Straight forward ride on good tarmac, bit boring really. Stopped off for a pinapple and chatted with coffee stall holder. Buffalos cooling off in big muddy wallows. Rolled into NP which was a lot bigger and busier than I remembered. Found cheap gh 170 fan room, showered ate and went for a spin around town. Beautiful scenery along the riverfront, the limestone peaks across in Laos hiding in haze. A few colonial buildings in town but that’s about all, big wide streets and a sprawling place, pretty chilled out though. Market a bit scruffy. Walked along promenade at night, kids break dancing on polished floor under Vietnamese clock tower, red Chinese/Viet lanterns surrounding it. Funny to see a toddler copying the older kids and he could do some of it too! Big tokay lizard outside my room on the wall.
Tokay lizard waits for it's dinner

Nakhon Phanom to Ban Pheang  95kms
Up almost too early for the town as stalls only just getting started at 7:30, eventually found some food then coffee at 7/11 which I took to riverfront only to find a mobile ‘coffee car’ doing café bolans – damn!  Drank it and set off. Good tarmac and some of road alongside river. A new bridge in progress across to Laos so should be finished in a year I reakon as almost done. Some nice tree lined parts to road, lots of buffalos about munching grass and wallowing in water.
Picked up a big pinapple on the way then ate it on river bank in Tha Uten town halfway. Bloke had left 2 big nets full of tiny frogs caught along the banks of the river, on the table, all of them hopping about in panic inside the net. River very low with sand bars and islands, blokes off boats wading too. Wanted to stay along river so followed the concrete road through local market – lots of people over from Laos selling wild food – tiny barking deer, normal deer, wildcats, pink armadillo type things hacked up, porkupine meat and other oddeties. Got through mkt then along river, a temple with stupa similar to one yesterdays but compound not as fancy. Further up massive bays set up with conveyors extracting pebbles from Mekong which is then JCB’d into back of a truck and away to a storage yard further up river, 5 bays going on at a quick pace. There’d been quite a few sand yards a few days ago too.
Small road eventually joined back to main road so along that. Hot day and few places to refuel on snacks. Stopped for lunch at a small town also having a festival, 2 old boys the worse for wear stumbling about (one fell over and couldn’t get up again), young lads getting drunk, wailing Karaoke coming from a big sound system on the stage, expect it would really get going at night! Woman cooked a big plate of pad kapow moo kai dow, and continued to multi task, cooking, helping run the nearby shop and filling cars/bikes with petrol – busy lass! Chatted with farmer bloke who came for a bowl of noodles. Very Hot.
Passed a sala with Swiss blokes crashed out in it! Carried on. 2 drunk women on a moto chatted with me for a bit and then weaved off up the road, just like the car driving girl from other day, really irratic and random careering about and speeding up slowing down. Stopped off at a small quarry where dinosaur footprints had been discovered. Had the place to myself and interesting to see the small birdlike prints in fossilized riverbed, crack marks of dried mud and ripples of sand clearly set in stone.
Got to small town of Ban Pheang by 3:30. Found a resort (300bt ac nice room) and into shower to cool down. Fields around here planted with large crops of corn, and tobacco. Down at the river ladies making brooms from big reed things bought in Laos as cheaper. Only a small functional frontier type shop on banks of river and nowhere to sit and admire the view. Almost full moon in sky. Lots of small flies/midges around here annoying to cycle in after dark. Very Laos type people here.

Reeds imported across the river from Laos and made into brushes

A smokers dream - tobacco as far as the eye can see

Ban Pheang to Bung Khan  86kms
Surrounded on both sides by noisy Thai family in morning so got up as it was 6:30 anyway. Was about to go for bf but discovered flat back tyre so changed inner – a tiny thorn had just managed to penetrate the tyre wall and nick the tube. Pumped it up enough to ride and went in search of food. Hard work filling big tyres to right pressure.  After going to mkt and up and down, eventually got directed to a place and had chicken on rice. A lot of women in the town waiting in rows to make merit with passing line of monks. Set off 8:30. Good tarmac so fast going. Lots of flies/gnats immediately decending on me each time I pulled up, very annoying. Saw Swiss blokes going other way so maybe theyd left summat behind somewhere? Had a break in a gas station with neat flowerbeds and orchids, a small boy ran off shouting falang falang and brought his gang of mates to see me , still shouting falang falang evertime he saw me, even when I left 20 mins later. Funny. Passed 2 cyclist blokes going other way and looking a bit puffed going up the hill and later an older bloke in full racing gear, cheery enough. Ate lunch, chatted with lady from shop and suncreamed up, but by time I got to Bung Khan was feeling a bit frazzled – factor 20 not quite up to it! Had an icecream and bag of peanuts the was directed to cheap accom by a bloke I asked. Fan room 180baht, clean neat room too. Internetshop till 5 then up riverfront, heat coming off of road and still toasty. River very low, a vast sand bank of a few hundred meters towards the Laos side. Tons of tomatoes being grown in neat rows all along the riverbank and Id been passed by 2 trucks full of toms earlier today. Had a beer and observed the scene, lots of annoying gnats here too  Lots of small restos putting out tables and chairs or mats to sit on. Big full moon. Ate a small portion of food earlier and was gonna get more food from nightmkt but all  finished by 7:30 so had a sweet pinapple.
Fertile banks of the Mekong in full production 

Sunset view over the Mekong into Laos

Bung Khan to Phon Pisai 92kms
Slept well. Went to mkt and had probs as I have had in al these Isaan riverside places of finding a resto – what do these people eat? Air and grass? Only had take away so got a carton of chicken on rice and sat in coffee place . Woman looked after me giving me a metal spoon and putting my plastic bag of soup into a cup. Shame her coffee was watery. Bought juice in 7/11. Today is an exam entry day so loads of students buying ridiculous amounts of junk food.
Set off, quiet country lane to start but soon joined up to main road which was shaded by lines of trees, but petty much a boring ride. Annoyed by swarms of gnats everytime I stopped for a Pee or snack. Felt sorry for the buffalos getting pestered by these flies. Just cracked on, (had lunch in place Id considered stopping at but nowhere to stay) and got to Phon Phisai by 3pm. Only 3 places to stay in town- ended up in English blokes place. Had whole place to myself, bought some beers from shop then sat looking over Mekong drinking beer reading my book and sipping Sang Som. Local kids running up and down mucking about and nice to see 2 teenage lads go over to the mobile monk truck that was passing and get blessed and Wai the monks inside. In eve found a riverside place to eat a delicious fish steamed in lemon, chilli and garlic.
Phon Pisai to Nong Khai 46kms
Easy ride to Nong Khai, last 10kms on a quiet road along Mekong and then along the stretched out town and through the massive market until I found a cheap place to stay. The town is a pretty much a tourist circus  filled with some of the sleaziest farang Ive seen in a long while. Apart from that there was a nice new promenade along the river and some reasonable places to sit and eat avoiding the wrong-uns. Good food at the night market along the road and I got a huge bag of pinapple from a ladies van stocked with ripe pinapples outside the hospital.
21st Century variation of the Bobby Charlton sweep

Week 15 Thailand again! Samrong to Mukdahan 416kms cycled

Highlights: Civilization, smooth smooth tarmac, great food
Low blows: Potentially stuck in Cambodia while the Thais and Cambodians fight over a temple
Music of the week: La Soledad – Pink Martini

Samrong to Prasat 78km
Banana blocker for breakfast as bad belly. Asked lady on reception which way to go to O’Smach border and she said it was currently closed. Loads of people had arrived in the night fleeing scared from the area, and a load more traders who usually go there to buy stuff were also milling about in the hotel carpark. Woman said she’d put an emergency bundle in her car just in case she had to get out quick. Some families from border were going to Siem Riep or PP out of the way.
One of the people sitting around was a policeman and he was in contact by mobile phone with someone actually at the border. Went to find slow internet shop and when I came back at 10am woman said border was now open. Quickly packed bags and got on the road which turned to dust on the outskirts of town.
A lot of traffic on this road in both directions so seems like people are making the most of this window of opportunity. Went the whole 40kms to border without stopping, last bit uphill and road still being cut out of the rock. Actually had some trees scattered about near the foothills which seemed odd after covering so much ground with not a stick on it. Could see some Cambo soldiers going into a concealed in a camp a few kms before border on top of a tree covered hill. Cambo side also burning off grass in a banana plantation, dunno if they are doing this to make area more open or its just a normal activity. Crossed border no problems and had a wash in the toilet on Thai side to cool down and get rid of the layers of dust Id accumulated.
Apparantly theres food about 7km down road so set off on the wide smooth tarmac road – civilization!!  The big market on the Thai side was all closed up as were all the small food places along the way because of border closures scared people away. Eventually found a place to eat in a town 18kms up road and glad to stop and have a rest, eat and drink sugary Pepsi. Landscape on Thai side is pretty much the same as Cambo side – very flat with rice paddies, but the difference being the Thais have lots of trees dotted about and the whole thing looks a lot more cared for and productive instead of the dried up barren Cambo landscape. Carried on till a place called Prasat and checked in to a fancy resort 400 baht a night, nothing else around. Washed off bike too with hose. Cycled up into town, just a strip either side of the busy road and ate in small place. Had an ice cream and got some beer and crisps from 7/11 then back to room and aircon.

Prasat to Si Saket 38km by bike, rest by bus
Set off 8:30ish, police cars sirens and lights going, whizzing up road escorting a fleet of landcruisers. Quite a few army vehicles around too, but all Thai border areas always have a base nearby, sensible really! Long straight main road to Surin, some big grain storage places on the way. Got to Surin by 10:30 but then had to wait for a bus till 1pm. Had a ride around town, not much here, ate lunch then sat around in station waiting. Hauled bike into back of bus tied it to window with elastic cord and blocked wheels in with my bags.
Took a long time to get to Si Saket arriving around 3:30. Looked at ghs in LP, the hotel being 400baht, and the cheapie being a complete dump. I would have taken a room but the locks on the doors were all completely knackered and the rooms I was offered had all been broken into with wood splintered off and lock exposed. Apologised for being fussy and went to find their suggestion of a boutique hotel nearby. Disgusting pink striped wallpaper in lobby but room very nice if a little twee 400 baht. Had a shower then wandered up to night market, loads of food on offer. Ended up sat in eating area, got there at 6pm so everyone stood while the national anthem played on the tv. Ate nam tok, somtam palaa and a cold beer all for 110baht, very satisfied. Wandered about a bit, laid back town with good feel to it.

Si Saket
Hotel owners Labradors in a kennel in front of hotel barking in the night, I called reception and asked them to shut em up, but of course they did nothing – dogs barking, what’s wrong with that?. Woke up 7ish and decided to stay here for today. Found some pinapple and papaya in huge market that stretches along both sides of the railway tracks and ate it in a cool quiet spot under vine things hanging from a tree in nearby temple. Got a coffee bolan then went in search of tourist office which turned out to be closed this week, Went into govt office behind and helpful staff there sorted me out with a map and guidebook to read. Had a look at the few sights in town – a stucco building, went to big park but full of hoards of school kids so the peace shattered there and couldn’t ride bike anyway so came away, just rode around. Back to room in pm for ac. Ate same food in market again at night, tasty.  Walking past the market area at dusk, hundreds of bats flitting about, twittering as they hunted overhead in the red sunset sky.
Si Saket to Kong Chiam mainly by bus then 36km cycled
Dogs barking at 3am so went to have a chat with them and they calmed down. Pinapple and papaya again for bf and a found a better place for coffee over the train tracks. Packed then up to bus station for 9:20, bus not leaving till 10:30 so loaded bike onto back and waited in seating area as hot on bus.
Bus full and finally set off arriving in Ubon 2 hours later, a bus just pulling out as I got to the correct bay so they quickly loaded my stuff on and off we went. Went through big city and then stopped at a small market. Bought a roasted sticky rice cake and 3 sticks of chicken balls as hungry then back on board. Another bus turned up and I think driver decided to sell them his passengers as both buses half full so we all changed onto other bus. Sat with 2 students who wanted to practice English so passed the time having fun.
Arrived in small town of Phibun about 2 ish. Had some food then set off, riding over a bridge across a big river then turning right along a long straight undulating road. Quite hot and dry, landscape looking very dry although some parts were irrigated and growing rice and vegetables, but mainly dry as a bone with paddies, trees and exposed rock on surface – must be hard to farm this area. Interesting to pass by many gong and temple drum shops located either side of the road, one place had an enourmous gong propped against a tree and the bong of gongs and thump of drums carried on the air.
Easy ride, arrived at top of hill at big temple overlooking Mekong, very scenic. Opposite a boy laid unconscious at hospital entrance with staff running to attendance, couldn’t work out if he conveniently crashed outside the hosp or if someone had dumped him there. Carried on downhill into the town and soon found a small place to stay next to river run by a nice family. 250baht. Had a cycle down riverfront which had a bit of a promenade and some restaurants, realized it must be a popular Thai holiday spot as quite a few ghs too, cant believe nowt is mentioned in LP, although did see 3 other backpackers in town.
Bloke took me up to beer shop on his motorbike at night. I got 2 bottles of beer Chang and felt like Id been tranquilized when Id had the first one, well mashed after second, really soupy feeling and not very pleasant. Proprer tramp juice is Chang. Read book on porch at night. Really relaxed feel to this town too.

Bike on a bus

King Gong!

Rock Outcrop along the way

Shrine on the hill

Marigolds by the Mekong

Kong Chiam to Phu Tiam Rock Painting 40km round trip
Nice cycle up the road to the rock paintings and good to zoom along having no bags to slow me down. Dry landscape, ants nest in mud balls in so many trees, mushroom rock, impressive view from top of crags, giant cliff face with faded paintings, wax honeycombs hanging high up, nice walk, very dry vegetation, paintings site 4 along a narrow ledge with big drop and sign beware of bees (although none there) -  what about the drop! Some kids? Been scratching on top of 4000yr old paintings. Very hot. Got back to gh in afternoon and relaxed for a bit then walked up promenade and back. Reclaiming land at end where 2 rivers meet and putting in erosion barriers. Had a beer looking at river, and sat outside in eve as very hot. Bothered by mozzies in night, and chickens up early too at 4am. Nearby temple did an interesting variation on the gong chiming in the morning which was amusing to listen to.

Mushrooms rock formations

Craggy overlook of the Mekong river and Laos

4000yr old graffiti

Dry Bamboo

View down the Mekong
Kong Chiam to Khemarat 117kms
Big down hill after rock paintings, passed 2 happy cyclists going up other way , then relentless rollercoaster up and down all the way, stunted forest, leaves changing colours, drysoil. At some point along the way a lush green irrigated area of rice paddies in striking contrast to barren earth across road. Some dizzy birds in car weaving about in road and driving slow (looked drunk but weren’t) stopped and chatted with me twice. Lots of people coming from a temple cars/trucks laden.
Stopped off for a drink in a run down village and there was a Swiss guys huge newly built fancy ass home there which looked very much out of place amongst all the poorer houses. Aching stiff neck from being sat in one position. Managed to eat dinner next to river at old womans place, just as sun going down. Nice enough little town but dead at night.

Khemarat to Mukdahan 107kms
Ate as same place last night next to river then to mkt for a coffee. Cool start and pretty much overcast for the whole day. Passed 2 old boys from Switzerland cycling  and had a brief chat along the way. Vegetation getting greener and farming looking healthier the further along I went. Stopped off for a break at Chanum and chatted with a drunk woman who said she was 45 but looked 55 at least. Shed had a kid with a GI from the war but said he was dead now. Her daughter was working in Phuket. Seems a lot of peoples daughters work in Phuket or Pattaya from this area. Sad really. Boring long ride, some lovely smooth bits of road and some really crappy parts too, couldn’t figure out why theyd make small stretches so nice only to be back on the old knackered stuff further on.
Eventually arrived in Mukdahan. Checked into gh 170baht a night, loads of incontinent cats and dogs about with associated stink downstairs, several cats sprawled out on mats on tin roof out the back in the afternoon sun that had finally appeared. (Asked woman and she said she had 7 dogs and 10 cats although more popped in from the nearby temple to hang out with their pals). Room immaculately clean even if furniture a bit worn and old. Had a wander. Busy tat market full of hoardes of wandering Thais. Bought some boiled eggs (been messed about with to make them more delicious but I thought theydve been better left as nature intended), iced coffee, and a chicken pasty thing. Wandered about to night market, not very good and smell of dog poo everywhere. Bit of a dump this place.
Chucked it down at night – further evidence that my plastic bottle rear mudguard controls the weather – Id removed it only 2 days ago and now look whats happened! Rather cold in night too.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Week 14 Into Cambodia Hon Chong to Samrong 345kms cycled

Highlights: Less traffic, less beeping, life at a more relaxed pace, ABC stout
Low blows: Dust, but not too much.
Music of the week: 80’s Poodle Rock Fest including the likes of Ozzy, David Lee Roth, and Aerosmith

Hon Chong to Kompong Trach 58km
Awoken by blaring horn of a truck which must be transporting rock somewhere. Just as well or Id've slept quite late. Had noodles and coffee up road then set off. Bloke who’d done me a deal on room last night actually dreamed up a way to make back some of the money he’d discounted me and charged me for the 2 bottles of water in the room – the Vietnamese! Amusing actually J.
Lovely morning light and swash of sea against the beach. Soon heading along flat road adjacent to cement factories and shrimp farms, newly dug pits revealing smelly mud. A head wind also not helping my advance. Road followed coastline pretty much and fairly light with traffic too. Past over one bridge with all fishing boats jumbled together below. Stopped off for lunch in town 6kms before border and spent the last of my cash – tasty squid and beans on rice, 2 coffees, half kilo of satsumas, and some sweets.
Got to border, Vietnamese passport blokes being officious and slow and flipping through passport ‘checking things’  just to give an air of authority and that they actually give a monkeys, took a good half hour even though only 3 people there in front of me. 4 casinos in no-mans land, but really on Cambo side. Got cambo visa $20US plus $3 tip. After being conditioned to overcharging for the last 3 weeks I couldn’t be arsed fussing. At the next office where they check the stamp one official asked me how much Id paid and why Id not made a fuss, just shrugged at him. Why don’t they do summat about it?
Dirt road all the way to Kompong Trach, luckily the wind was now coming from the side so all the massive clouds of dust kicked up by the few trucks, cars and speeding van from the casino, was blown away from me. Very flat landscape. Rice has been harvested not long ago, a few buffalos dotted about in mud holes. Sugar palms. Lots of kids coming from school on bikes and saying hello. Hot sun. Arrived at destination by 2pm. Fan room for $6. Went to have a look at a cave complex set amongst limestone outcrops, $1 to get in and I tipped the young lad who’d attached himself to me on the way there and showed me around a dollar too. Interesting enough. Several people quarrying rock by hand out the back and breaking it into aggregate. Back into dusty town, pony and traps around, interesting designed and good looking new Khmer temple next to road, lots of roof levels and quite compact. People keen to practice their English.
Jumbled fishing fleet

Viva Hatien Vegas

Pleasant Cambodian scene

Could this really be a door to a $6 room?

Kompong Trach to Takeo 74km
Only place I could find that did food in morning had super burnt pork steaks and pickled veg, so I just went for the pickled veg on rice and a coffee. Not a bad road, hardly any traffic, rice paddies either side, cows, a few buffalos, people going along on bicycles, some women having a mobile meat shop from the back of their bikes and selling pork to people who stopped them. Bit of a head wind so achy knees. I  was daydreaming along and came back into reality to realise a long snake was crossing the road immediately in front of me. I didn’t have time to stop or swerve and unfortunately ran straight over it, lifting my legs as high as possible in the air to prevent any possibility of getting bitten by the poor thing. When I looked back it had slinked off into the bushes, but I felt really bad that Id hit and surely injured  it.
Came past a small hilly area which made a change to the flat landscape. ‘Zoomed’ past a truck carrying a jcb on its trailer and belching black smoke out the back. Dry landscape all the way. Typical housing along the roadside was a small square shaped house on stilts set back a small way from road, tiled roof and decorative crowns at roof ends and a larger one in middle, haystack in yard, a tree for shade and a small lotus pond, perhaps with fish in it? Ate tasty small eel like fried fish and omelet on rice for pre lunch. Bicyles laden with bamboo tubes of palm wine, dishing out servings into pans and cups of the local residents. Road busied up a bit and got bumpy for last 20km so rode on sandy bit at side as did everyone else on a bike. Very hot and glad to arrive at 2ish.
Found lovely room although plumbing and wiring very bodged, superb view over flood plain area and lush green as planted with rice as far as the eye could see. Ate fish soup in skanky burnt out/derelict looking market building then retired to room until cooler and had an explore. Had fruit shake, dinner and some dessert flan things, on crushed ice with condensed milk. Yum. Takeo must be the education capital of Cambo, so many buildings as schools, English centres and universities.
School closes for lunch and the street swims with cyclists

View from my balcony

Takeo to Phnom Penh 81km
Beef in gravy with baguette for breaky and a good coffee. Young girl working in shop very pleasant and polite. Was gonna buy bananas from mkt as not full but too expensive. Got some later on when I stopped off for a break. Busier road today although nothing compared to Vietnamese standards. Wind a bit of a battle at times but right enough. Road went quiet around lunchtime.
Id planned to stop off but the last 20kms had nowhere at all selling food so plodded on. PP also pretty quiet traffic wise to my surprise. Riverfront area has been well poshified. Soon stopped off in what used to be a cheap resto but had since put its prices up. Ghs I new were cheap were full, but got a tip from a worker who pointed me in direction of a cheapie and got a decent enough room for $5 (far better than the cheapies Id wanted to go in too). Showered and made a beeline to local supermarket, got bottle grouse whisky $10, bottle Rawson Retreat wine $10, 100g cheddar $1.50 and 2 delicious baguettes 60c. Back to gh. People burning stuff for Chinese new Year in pots outside their house and saying prayers over piles of goods outside their shops on the street. Zulu on TV so watched that and glugged the wine before it got too warm and ate the tasty cheese sarnies. Had a wander about and looked up a mate who manages Riverside Bistro.

Phnom Penh
Intended to get Thai visa today but when I got down to embassy was told that visa would take 4 days cos they were busy. I pointed out I was first in the queue of 2 people and gestured to the empty room, but they said that’s how things were done here. That would mean a wait until Tuesday and don’t want to wait that long. Had a moan to a local bloke outside and it turns out all agents come at 10am and they all pay ‘processing fees’ so these get processed first and all normal traffic has to wait.
Got a taxi to Russian mkt which turned out to be closed as Chinese NY. Walked back up to gh area, stopping off for some food. Loads of language schools here too – big business! Went and bought a book and chilled in afternoon. Sat on promenade at sunset, pleasant breeze as pleasure boats went up and down the Tonle Sap, then for an Indian which was pretty crap. Felt sick after. Happened upon a corner shop selling big bottle beer Lao for $1.5 so sat outside there watching world go by and a bloke selling tiny packets of drugs to the local blokes. Lots of beggars about including an old woman who obviously had a duvet stuffed up her sarong to look pregnant cos she mustve been at least 65 and the bulge was all wrong. Felt sorry for her and the other desperate people here. Retired to room and read for a bit.

Locals celebrate Chinese New Year in style

Phnom Penh central market looking good after a fresh lick of paint

The Royal Palace

Phnom Penh to Siem Riep  by bus
Intended to catch 8:30 bus but turned out the bus company didn’t take bikes so had to go back to one near gh and book it on the 10am bus as earlier departures full. Sat in a café and had breakfast. Lots of policemen on a table who’d been guarding the jewelry shops along this section – an old lady tipped them as she came out and got into a huge 4x4. Monks wandering around, but here they have a temple ‘boy’/bloke who goes in front and asks for money. The bloke screwed up his face when I declined. All seemed a bit odd and when I asked someone later they said its not really correct. Traffic quiet again cos of new year.
Went and sat briefly on riverfront before a guard approached blowing a whistle and asked me (with the aid of a passer by) to move the bicycle off the promenade, so just went for a cycle up and down until time to go to bus station.
 Big bus so just slotted bike into huge space underneath, along with loads of luggage and 2 motorbikes! Set off. First part of new road not sealed yet so very dusty. Chatted with local bloke sat next to me who sold real estate in Siem Riep and a Jewish bloke and Chinese bird behind who were researching use of solar power in Cambo. AC not so good so sweaty back. Bloke got a call from his wife saying Thais had started shooting at Prear Vihear temple on the border and he got all nationalistic and upset about it. Arrived SR 5:30. Eventually figured out where the gh was and luckily theyd taken my booking via last nights late email, didn’t seem so busy although Italian couple I kept seeing in Vietnam were there so said hello. Showered, ate food, had a wander, then had a few stouts that was on offer across the road. $6 room, Spartan but fine.
Driver giving the buses rear transmission a good bash with a hammer during a brief intermission in the journey

6 TV channels at once! Night out Khmer style

Siem RIep to Kralanh 53km
Some people crashing about early in morning, probably going for the sunset over the temples. Got up. Have the shits. Ate bf then set off along lovely new road to destination. Thais built it so its good quality and I managed 25kmh with ease. Not too busy either. Flat land going off into horizon on left side, just dry rice fields, some with stubble burnt/burning off, small houses, Indian type cows (the white ones with floppy ears), a duck farm around a muddy pond, water buffalos munching on floating weeds, sugar palms. Had a fresh coconut halfway then opened it and ate some flesh too. Arrived Kralanh at 12 and ate fish soup on rice. Found the only gh in town – they wanted $10 for fan room but haggled to $8 eventually. Way overpriced but the only place in town! Tomorrows road stretching off into the distance and just one big pile of dust. Felt tired so slept till 3 then had a wander in mkt, very hot. Read book in resto over road and chatted with girls who ran it. 2 Coach loads of Russians from Thailand turned up later on and were straight over to check out the booze cabinet, although no one bought anything, some just finishing off the cans of Chang theyd brought with them. Road vendors surrounding a stopped car with their trays of food. Wandered up a tarmac artery for a bit in eve to a river then came back. Dusty town whose only commerse is passing vehicles, and farming.

Ducks n cows

A fresh swarm outside my room

Mobile pottery shop

Kralanh to Samrong 79km
Big red sunrise to start the day and bananas for bf as stomach still ropey. Set off prepared for dust and dust is what there was! Unsealed road the whole way, traffic wasn’t too bad, but tended to be cars/ pickups rammed full of people (including Cambodian style 2 in the driver’s seat) going past at hight speed, and huge lorries laden with aggregate for the road going up and down churning up the good stuff for poor old me and the local people making their way along the road on their push irons. Several empty army trucks coming from the direction of the border too.
Misty start to the day. Long straight road, barren fields of rice stubble stretching off into distance, sugar palms silhouetted in the mist. Floppy eared white cows casually crossing the road, white falcon type birds hunting, swooping down low over the fields. Not a lot else. Very poor looking houses dotted along the road in small settlements every so often – all covered in red dust, kids shouting out hello hello. Luckily wind generally blowing in my favor and keeping a lot of dust away. Soon heated up once the mist had gone.
Stopped at a small dusty town for lunch, stomach well dodgy but need to eat something for energy. Had a bowl of noodles with loads of delicious slices of fresh pork and only 3000 riels! ($1=4000riels) - wondered if itd stay in my stomach. Easy enough to get water from small stalls along the way. Stopped off in a lonely sala at 60kms for a rest, stretched out on the wooden seating and had a doze as 2 sparrow type birds twittered and made a nest in the rafters. Finished the remaining 20kms and eventually hit tarmac on outskirts of town. Had fried rice in a resto then got a room sorted out for $5. Showered, lazed and watched tv. Had a spin around big lotus filled lake up the road, locals to and froing with small bottles of fresh sugar cane juice- fancied some but stomach had other ideas. Ate tasty dinner in local place next door, $1 for big plate veg and pork  rice and bowl of soup veg and chicken.

A beautiful start to the day ahead!

Dust begins here, just 50m off the lovely smooth tarmaced main strip
Typical landscape in early morning mist

Saved by a side wind, plumes of dust exit stage left

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Week 13 Tra Vinh to Hon Chong 236kms cycled

Highlights: Some nice people, truck free narrow road following a canal
Low blows: Chest full of gunk, incessant blaring of horns, traffic, overcharging
Music of the week: Dukes Cookies – Duke Reid Group

Tra Vinh
Local news cast started at 5:30 but managed to doze off again. Wanted to have a proper look round market so stayed. Bought some jackfruit and ate it next to river, then nipped across river on an old lady’s boat to look at another gh Id spotted but same price, although maybe a bit quieter. Went to temple grounds nearby where herbs drying in the courtyard and a tree being sculpted into shape by huge rocks hanging from it’s branches tied with old monks robes. Now have a hacking cough, gross. Cycled around a bit up to Mekong, then retired to room with a packet of biscuits in afternoon to accompany a pot of green tea. Funny to see locals in a newly opened supermarket, like some sort of amusement park for them, still don’t know how to queue though, the woman behind me shoving her things onto conveyor and hustling me to get past even though I was waiting for person in front to be served.

Herbs drying in the sun
Street market

Tree weight-training

Business end of the barge

Floating garden centre

Pottery for sale

Tra Vinh to Soc Trang  68km
Had gut rot in night and runny bum in the morning, probably from the fruit I didn’t wash yesterday – stupid! Bought some bananas as a blocker and felt weak as I cycled, but a straight forward ride. Stopped at 11 to put on sun cream and felt dizzy so sat on a bridge while school children cycled by eyeing me with curiosity.  Interesting to see houses with concrete front and thatched sides (as has been the case in all this region), must be to keep the insides cool and ventilated, or maybe they can’t afford the sides. Vast rice paddies, some being harvested and some wet and being tended. 2 people with 3 pronged hoes seemed to be plucking out rice plants and then popping them into another place, maybe thinning the area? Seem to plant rice a lot more densely in Vietnam. Some areas threshing the rice and making haystacks.
After asking directions at 2 crossroads found the ferry station. Sat in a hammock drinking a cup of tea and chatted with an English teacher who also owned food shop until time to leave on the smallish wooden boat, loaded with motorbikes, a few foot passengers and me on my bike. Feeling weak and wanting to sit down. 20 mins later landed on jetty then a 1km stint across small concrete path winding its way through the vegetation and over small bridges across an island. Small houses set back from the ‘road’ and people sat on varandahs talking and drinking. Must be weird having a rush hour in such a quiet place every time the ferryboat lands. Lots of rattan, banana palms, fruit trees. Eventually land opened up and came to another queue for the ferry stop. Had a sit down at a café as feeling ropey. This boat a bit bigger so had a seat on it too and journey a lot shorter straight across the river to a small town. Had a brief chat with a girl sat next to me from Korea who had married a local bloke – we communicated using a translator on her phone. Cant be long now before a speech version is made, thatll be so good! Would certainly help travel in Vietnam that’s for sure.
Decent road for rest of way and not too busy until we hit town. Feel very hot. Found gh to stay in after looking at all options, but even this one is near traffic noise. Starting to get to me this relentless beeping and peeping of horns, annoying and unnecessary if they drove properly. Had a bit of a wander around, lots of people selling lottery tickets, sometimes three sellers at once would come around. No where to sit down and relax, just busy roads and noise.

Island hopping

Soc Trang
Feel bad so rest day. Had some breakfast and a wander round the big market. Impressed by the super clean fish section, which shone compared to the grotty red meat market next building along. Cycled around town down back streets to find a huge yellow Chinese Buddhist temple, popped into park for a Pepsi (not much sugar in it in Vietnam so tastes bland like soda) then went a few kms out of town to the ‘Bat Temple’, where a few fruit bats roost in the trees. The way back saw the beginning of  a quest for a cheese sandwich, but stalls here only sell meat, or rather the fatty cuts youd usually give the dog. Ended up buying some baguettes and a box of laughing cow from a deli. Cheesey sarnies to match the cheesey movie on telly in afternoon. Had a long nap.

Soc Trang to Can Tho  61km
Feeling a bit better so made a move to Can Tho. Started the day hacking up large amounts of green phlem, bit like a scene from the Exorcist. Busy road and not much fun, for a long way the road ran parallel to a canal which on the other side had some pretty houses on its banks, boats chugging or rowing down the canal and rice fields beyond. Kept wishing there was a small path over there that I could follow rather than being stuck on this hellish road. Beep Beep, honk honk, and the truck/bus drivers have a high pitched screetchy siren too as well as a fog horn for back up. Got blasted eardrums a few times. Hot day. Had a brief stop in a town marked as having a floating mkt but no one around so too late at 12 noon I expect. Had a rest and annoyed for 20mins by a fat woman trying to sell me a lottery ticket who just wouldn’t go away.
Arrived Can Tho in afternoon. Full of Westeners. Got a room quick enough but roasting and fan only as cheap $6, touts very quick off the mark to try and get you on a tour, but nice of them to show me their map cos theres a mkt just 6kms away near the road. Picked up a pinapple and ate it on riverfront then had a ride about. Busy noisy city, lots of big bridges connecting the surrounding land. Ended up going down a small alley for a long while which was interesting to see everyone just relaxing in and out of their homes, some places quite stylish with paint and décor. Chatted with some English blokes and had some beer which probably wasn’t such a good idea as head all blocked up with snot.

Floating market nowhere to be seen

One of many canals in the delta area

Flowers for New Year

Festive dragons decorated with oranges

Unloading nearly-blossoming bonsai trees for sale on the quayside, popular gifts for New Year

CanTho to Long Xuyen 60km
Bed super saggy and room really hot so bad sleep. Woke up at 6:30 and cycled up road to a floating mkt only 6km away so there in no time. Followed a small road adjacent to riverbank but view blocked by houses and buildings. Popped into a few people’s warehouse things and down a few narrow alleys to get access to riverside and the scene on the river. The best view came when I was heading back and came across a builders yard with a big open view over river. Went and sat on a mooring post and watched the activity below. Mainly a wholesale market with people selling to other boats on the river – carrots, radish things, cabbages, yellow flowers, anything and everything being transferred from one boat to another, and in the main channel huge boats going past. I actually got there before most tourist boats arrived, some people on small craft, other large boats had only 2 people in them which was ridiculous, and a few boats came fully loaded with tourists (I reakon that’s the cheap tour!) best one was a posh boat set for breakfast so obviously the hoi poloi. A bloke bought a load of cabbages from a big boat, then came to settle in front of me to check them into a big basket and weigh them into another boat next to him, his daughter adding up all the baskets weight – couldn’t understand why the other boat didn’t buy directly from big boat but what do I know. Seen enough so back into town for breakfast and then took out dong and eventually managed to change them into dollars at a jewelry shop (5% mark up on rate) as banks wont sell dollars without passport, airticket, senior citizens railcard and accompanied by your great grandparents -  a pain in ass.
Slip, slop, slapped and headed into the fray at 11:30am. Horrible road, very busy with trucks/buses blaring their airhorns in my ears and passing very close as only a narrow road. More disconcerting were the spray paint markings of past accidents where bicycles had been hit and then dragged 60 meters down the road – all in graphic spray paint detail. Kind of switched off and plodded along. Arrived Long Xuyen and got cheap room in Karaoke hotel – 100k no sink as broken, but cant see point of a sink anyway as you only spit toothpaste into it! Nice town. Had a cycle around lots of yellow flowers, bonsai and orange trees for sale along riverside quay. Also found a barbers street, the length full of barbers chairs and mirrors all evenly spaced out, the days cuttings strewn around. Nice layout of town, busy but not overwhelming, quietish room! Everyone friendly. Interesting designed church in 60’s concrete. Dinner expensive fish steak. Everyone buying new year plants. Had a look at a boat for tomorrow that goes to my destination but looks uncomfy so don’t fancy sitting in that all day.

Floating market seen from the road bridge

Floating market up close

Long Xuyen to Rach Gia 65km
Up early with the govt noise broadcast at 5am, but managed to ignore till 6ish. Had food up the road in a posh place which actually turned out to be cheap, so for sure Ive been getting diddled at these skanky places. First 35kms a drag, following a road that appears to have been built down middle of an old canal, which they are now in process of filling in one side to widen the road. Stopped off for a sugarcane juice and chatted with a student and her sister, had a winge about Vietnamese overcharging for everything and told her it wouldn’t make anyone want to come back here again.
Second part of day turned out to be an absolute gem. Small road alongside a wide canal and basically I went past everything Id wanted to see to make a trip to the Mekong Delta worthwhile – quaint little painted houses, pastel greens, blues, turquoise, shades of grey, and carved colourful wooden inserts in some balconies. Fancy satin window and door sashes. Formica fronted houses with a bamboo print, some really beautiful wooden houses with clay tiled roofs. Small temples. People weaving baskets and them being loaded into barges. Fruit for sale, people in hammocks, people in the fields, boats going up and down. Going over rickety wooden bridges over smaller side canals. Everyone happy to see a stranger riding by.  Superb!  Arrived in Rach Gia and got a room for 90k next door to the LP recommended one which is now charging 200k for the same type of room. My gh turned out to be a whorehouse, but it was clean and they were fun and nice people.
Went for a cycle round town, everyone very friendly. Ended up in one rough neighbourhood, with large boats being built and everyone out on the streets and tons of kids playing. Got invited to drink a few rounds of rice whisky till I made my excuses and left after the 4th pass – didn’t wanna get battered. Further up road 2 blokes splayed out sleeping off the efforts of their afternoons drinking. Ate in a good place at night. Had big piece of fish, veggies and stuffed gourd for 25k. Chatted with an old US Vietnamese guy who’d come over to visit. His wifes family owned the resto. He left in 1975 and didn’t dare come back till the 90’s. Went for a beer next to river near hotel, big shipping fleet moored altogether in middle of river. Ended up sat at a shop near hotel banging tin cymbals while dad played a drum and his 10 yr old lad danced around in a dragon mask and cape which they mustve bought him for TET. You could close its eyes and mouth by moving strings inside, and it had flashing lights on its head and eyes. Woohoo.

Very long, very wide canal

Typical riverside house

Industrial scale nesting barn for swifts (harvested for birds nest soup)

In the town

There shall be a tv for each and every home

Relaxing with rice whisky

The bones of a boat to be

Rach Gia to Hon Chong 82km
Pork steak and eggs on broken rice for breakfast, pretty damn close to bacon and eggs, and a hot coffee. 26k. Road not too busy. Lots of small bridges to go over, crossing wide canals which stretched off perfectly straight into the distance. Mustve been quite an engineering feat to dig all these out. Chatted with a lad at lunch, basically ate same food as breakfast as it was all they had left but for some reason it cost 10k more. The Vietnamese!
Got to fork for beach road and went down it. Several big cement factories along the way, slowly eating their way into the nearby limestone mtns. The last one right at the end spewing smoke from a chimney onto the nearby village. Feeling tired as I arrived at destination. Couldve gone for a 80k room, not bad, but the 160k room was far better so took that after haggling them down fom 180k. Went for a walk on beach and over into next bay which actually had nice sand but the fishing village on the beach had put paid to any beauty it might have had – plastic bags everywhere, stray dogs, even pigs rooting around on the beach. Got to the grotto area at the end which was a really pretty beach set amongst limestone rocks – big real estate opportunity! Had a wander about and was gonna have a beer but they wanted silly money for a bottle so couldn’t be bothered. Walked back to gh then cycled up road for dinner. Had fish and chips – the fish was the same kind Id had in the resto last night but for some reason here it was 50k for the fish alone! Whatever, Im leaving here tomorrow and nice enough view over sea I suppose. Had a few beers then got some more from shop next to gh and back to room as mosquitos on a mission tonight. Almost spent all my Dong so head for the border tomorrow!

Chickens enoy the seaside too

Fishermens homes on the beach front

Bashing in nails

Outside the corner shop

End of my last day in Vietnam