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French Indochina Bicycle Tour – Cambodia 12/13 to 12/20 (Phnom Penh to Kep)

* 12/13 Phnom Penh (no biking)

In the morning, we took a tuk tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng had been a school which the Khmer Rouge turned into a secret prison where prisoners were brought for torture/questioning. An estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned there during the Khmer Rouge rule. Only seven survived. It was a place of unspeakable cruelty during a regime of unspeakable horror. We thought we’d be out of there in about an hour but we had been there three hours by the time we walked out.

Pretty reasonable rules, not sure what all the fuss was about.

NO SMILING

The "luxury" suite, for more important prisoners

The grey concrete part on the ground shows the size of the individual cells. By the wall are the iron shackles in the group room and busts of Pol Pot made by the inmates.

In the afternoon, Carissa stayed in and I biked out to the riverfront to lunch before I headed over to the Royal Palace. As I neared the Palace, I was hailed by a guard. I approached cautiously and it turned out he wanted me to valet my bike there. I was a little wary of leaving my bike with someone who was too eager for me to leave it with them, but it seemed fine. It was grand and awesome and I enjoyed the French influences, to be sure, but much of the Palace was closed to visitors as it is in use as the king’s residence currently. Worse, though, the unique Napoleon III Pavillion – the building was originally used by Empress Eugenie for the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869 and later gifted to King Norodom by Napoleon in 1876 – was under renovation and completely obscured from view by a green covering. They did have the Emerald Buddha (I believe it’s actually jade… but let’s not be nitpicky!), just like in the Royal Palace in Bangkok. In fact, much of the Palace in Phnom Penh reminded me of the Palace in Bangkok. Once I got outside, I found my bike was safe and sound. I paid the 1000 riel (US$0.25) valet fee and rolled out.

Statue of King Norodom

There were some impressive halls at the Palace!

One of the temples at the Palace

I checked out the central post office, a beautiful new art deco building, before I headed over to Wat Phnom. It was nothing spectacular but it was a little temple atop a high (relatively so) hill overlooking Phnom Penh, surrounded by a nice little park area.

Carissa’s stomach was better, so we went out for dinner nearby. At night, I met up with an expat who I had contacted via a message forum I post on. I told him about my journey and also mined him for information about living and working in Phnom Penh. I was really enjoying the city and I was vaguely thinking about trying to move here.

* 12/14 Phnom Penh (no biking)

By morning, I had a bad stomach ache, although Carissa was much improved. We decided to stay another day. Carissa took a tuk tuk around to the Russian market, and I think to the Palace and the riverfront as well. I biked up to Central Market, a new (May 2011!), grand Art Deco building – fairly impressive. I then biked down to the Russian Market, which was still an older building. They had everything on sale, from tools to books to meat to motorcycle parts. I was starting to feel weak, because I wasn’t eating due to my stomach ache. I hobbled my way back to the hotel and had an unpleasant evening of stomach troubles.

The sparkling new Central Market, completed May 2011 iirc with French assistance.

Inside the Central Market

* 12/15 Phnom Penh (no biking)

I had another day of stomach issues, so we stayed another day. I was on my computer the whole time, just trying to make my stomach behave.

* 12/16 Phnom Penh to Kampot (routing: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5224236  )

I was feeling somewhat better, and Carissa was feeling okay, so we headed out into the great big world. Our plan was to make it to Ta saom tonight and then on to Kampot tomorrow, but we had barely made it out of town before we started getting exhausted. We were both in bad shape – we had to take breaks every 20 minutes, and even so, we were feeling terrible. We took a small nap in a little structure (maybe a little rest stop or temple?) with tiled floors. We made it about 45 km before Carissa suggested that we take motorized transport all the way to Kampot and we could take a couple days there recuperating. That sounded just dandy to me, so we pulled up to a van that looked like it might go our way, but they said they weren’t going to Kampot. We pulled up to a gas station, where one of the attendants spoke English. They gave us seats and we waited in the shade while we waited for a minivan that they hailed for us. Once they hailed a minivan that stopped for us, one of the gas station attendants ran over and talked to them. He yelled back to our ‘interpreter,’ who told us that they would charge $10 for the both of us and our bikes to get to Kampot. we readily agreed, although we suspected it might be a bit on the pricey side. Our bicycles, with panniers still attached, were strapped with some rope off the back of the van, with the trunk door open. We trusted it would work just fine. We transferred minivans in Ta Saom and we got to Kampot – both we and our bikes made it just fine.

Yeah, no problem.

We stayed at a very nice riverfront guesthouse called Moliden – $30 for an air-conditioned room, with wifi and no breakfast (the lady asked $35 for with breakfast, but we suspected we may not be eating anyway).

* 12/17 Kampot (no biking)

We spent a lazy day in Kampot, with Carissa mostly staying in to recover – her stomach problems had flared up again, and worse than before. She decided to take some cipro that I’d been carrying. I walked around town a bit and looked at a bit of the nice old French colonial architecture. The town is mostly a place to hang out by the riverside cafes and relax. I got a lot of reading done while there.

The bridge at Kampot

Kampot riverside around sunset

* 12/18 Kep (25km)
After the barrage of cipro, Carissa was feeling much better, enough for us to make the relatively short ride over to Kep. The dusty road was a bit narrower and in worse condition compared to the national highways, but we managed just fine. we checked into a guesthouse called Kukuluku – $20 fan room cold shower only. After a quick ‘swim’ from the private beach (the water only came up to about my upper thigh, although we walked fairly far out), we washed up and headed to town for the famous Kep crabs. The fresh crab really was quite a treat – especially after having eaten nothing or very bland foods for many days!

CRABBBBBB

* 12/19-20 Kep (no biking)
Carissa looked through her diary and realized we had an extra couple of days. Given that we have a limited number of days in Vietnam, we decided to spend one of the extra days here in Kep relaxing. We had a couple days of relaxing and lazing and reading – mostly being beach/guesthouse bums. There are worse fates.

CRAAAAAAAAAAABBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBS

CRAB STATUE!!!!!! WOO!!!!!!!!!! (I'm really excited about crabs)

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

French Indochina Bicycle Tour – Cambodia 12/9 to 12/12 (Siem Reap to Phnom Penh)

* 12/9 Siem Reap to Battambang (by boat, mostly. total km: about 10 km)

We got up bright and early to get on the boat to Battambang. They strapped our bikes on top of the van to get to the pier – no problem. We skirted by Tonle Sap and wound through the rivers, passing by floating villages. Lots of kids waved at us, some blowing kisses. There were a couple of Austrian bike tourists on our boat, who Carissa chatted with briefly. They’d been on the road for five years!

Once we arrived in Battambang, we wandered around town a bit trying to look for a suitable guesthouse before settling on the very clean, beautifully decorated Lux Guest House ($12). We grabbed dinner at the local market and then headed back to the room to bask in the internet.

Sure those bikes would be safe... why wouldn't they?

The floating village on our boat ride to Battambang

Locals would row up to the boat to get on board

* 12/10 Battambang to Pursat (bike route: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5221298 , total km: 105.89 km)

Having had a room with big windows, and having forgotten to draw the curtains at night, we woke up bright and early and got on our bikes before 8am. For breakfast, we each had a mini baguette with some meat paste, sliced meats and green onions, as well as the ubiquitous Khmer pickled salad, before heading out on the highway. Even with the flat I got about two hours into the day (the first flat of the tour!), we made good time. We saw one particularly overloaded truck which we kicked ourselves for not getting a picture of – the truck was loaded with bags of rice, with people sitting on top, and had dozens of ducks (presumably dead) hanging off the left and right sides, and three motorcycles hanging off the back of the truck with the front wheels on the truck bed. After we got settled into the not-so-creatively-named Pursat Guesthouse ($5), we headed out to get some food and spotted another bike tourist. He was an Englishman who had started from Chiang Mai. We exchanged a few stories, mostly about routing, and then headed out to the market for food and supplies for tomorrow. Not having internet back at the guesthouse, we were able to get some blogging and reading done.

Hey, we're getting pretty good at this! Standing our bikes during a sugary drink break.

The sun setting over the river that runs through Pursat town.

* 12/11 Pursat to Kampong Chnang (bike route: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5224232  , total km: 64.519 km)

We had asked the guesthouse the night before, but they didn’t know when the bamboo train left or exactly how far it would go, so we headed out early just to be safe, at 7am. Between the train operator’s very rudimentary English and my notepad, he was able to communicate that if we wanted to go now, he would charge us US$80, which was negotiable but not too much. If we go at 10am on ‘schedule’, he would charge us US$10. We were probably still being way overcharged, but we thought it a fair enough price for us. We biked around Pursat a bit, sat at a riverside park, grabbed second breakfast, and returned around 9:30am.

After four northwest bound trains passed, it was our turn. The train operator first put the wheels down on the track, and then five men put the platform on the wheels. Maybe fifteen or so passengers along with a motorcycle, our bikes, and some other cargo, all crammed onto a platform about 3 meters by 3 meters made of pieces of wood about 10 cm wide. The train sped ahead and stopped along the way, picking up and dropping off a couple of passengers along the way. Once, we encountered a train coming the other way (there’s only one track), so after our train operator talked to their operator, it was decided that our train should be dismantled to allow the other train to pass. It didn’t take more than a few minutes.

Most of the passengers got off at the terminal ‘station’, where we negotiated with another train operator to get to where we could get off so we could bike to Kampong Chnang, our destination for the day. Again, we encountered another train, but they were going to same way, so we waited for them to finish loading their cargo (about a dozen logs), and then off we went. When we got to our final destination, some locals gathered around – I’m not sure if they had originally come out to unload the logs or maybe they just walk over to see whenever the trains roll by, but they were a bit curious about us. They helped us steady our bikes as we got them off the trains and as we put all our luggage back on. One of the women ‘helped’ Carissa pull her socks up (??). We ate lunch in town while the local kids circled around and shouted “hello!” at us.

The dirt road to the main highway seemed to stretch for a long, long time. We stopped at one store where the lady spoke some English. She asked where we were going and we told her Kampong Chnang today and Phnom Penh tomorrow. She was puzzled why we were going to Kampong Chnang, and she was amazed that we were going all the way to Phnom Penh by bicycle. I wondered what she would’ve thought of the rest of our routing. Once we hit the main highway, it was smooth sailing as always.

We arrived in Kampong Chnang and stayed at a $6 guesthouse – again, fairly basic but clean enough and hard to complain for the price. Dinner in town was pleasant, and we had a cat guest at our table, which for me is the true measure of whether a dinner is successful.

Dismantling the southbound train.

Two of these + platform + engine = train

Aww yeah, baller as hell on our private train

* 12/12 Kampong Chnang to Phnom Penh (bike route: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5224233  , total km: 94.507 km)

Carissa was starting to feel the effects of heat exhaustion and/or the side-effects of the malaria pills. We stopped early in the day to get some sugar cane juice, which is served in a little plastic baggy with plenty of ice. Once we were done drinking, she grabbed the bags and stuffed ’em in her back jersey pocket to cool down on the ice – that seemed to help a little. We made steady progress on the dusty highway despite the sun beating down on us. As we were nearing Phnom Penh, two passed the two Austrian bike tourists we had met on the boat to Battambang, as well as the Englishman we saw in Pursat. Carissa was a trooper and managed to make it into town despite her illness.

Our first choice of hotel, the Anise, was booked full, but it looked rather pricey anyway – I think it was $42 for a single. We took a room at the closest hotel a few doors down, the Golden Gate Hotel, at $28 for an air conditioned windlowless room (well there was a window, but it faced a wall about 1.5 inches away) including wifi and breakfast. There was a litter of hotels on the same block with the name Golden ____ Hotel, including another Golden Gate Hotel. I’m sure one of them had been mentioned in some guidebook somewhere. We called it an early evening – it had been a long, hot riding day, and Carissa wasn’t feeling so well.

The central roundabout in Kampong Chnang

Legitimate Forms of Transport (tm)

Annnnnd... one of the central roundabouts in Phnom Penh

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

French Indochina Bicycle Tour – Cambodia 12/6 to 12/8 (Bangkok to Siem Reap)

I’ve been keeping some hurriedly written narrative about our tour progress, with the intention of cleaning them up before posting.  Rather than just keeping good intentions on my mind and notepad text files on my netbook forever, I’ve decided to post these instead.

* 12/6 Bangkok to Sisophon (bike route: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5221292 ; total distance: 57.2km)

At the Aranyaprathet train station, about to set off

We took the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet (48 baht ticket + 90 baht cargo fee) bright and early at 5:30am.  The third class wooden seats were adequate, but I got a bit stiff sitting there for six hours.  Once we got off the train, we got our gear on and biked from to the border, about 6 km away.

It was nice that I had done the border crossing before – everything went smoothly (visa on arrival cost $20 and 100 baht standard ‘tea money’ for the officials).  I had been warned before that Poipet, the border town on the Cambodian side of the border, was a dangerous, scummy place, but it seemed fine as we rolled through on the main highway.

We sat down at some seats at a street-side restaurant, and at first we wondered if the place was still open – the staff didn’t seem to understand why we were there. It took them a while to get someone over to serve us, but the food was great. It was a kind of spicy and sweet greasy soup with pork, served with some really good baguette-style bread.

Sweet, sweet tractor drafting

We biked straight along the nearly completely flat, smooth highway. My rig, a rather heavy (for an aluminum frame) Merida 24-speed mountain bike with front suspension fork and Schwalbe Sammy Slick tires (26 x 2.1), was working out quite well. As we neared the halfway mark between Poipet and Sisophon, we were passed by a tractor full of bags of what I assume is rice. Carissa slid in behind the tractor to draft off of it – it was going about 25 km/h, compared to the 18-22 km/h we were doing. We managed to draft for most of our way to Sisophon, going significantly faster than we could manage without and putting in much less effort.

At Sisophon, the owner of the first guesthouse we tried came out with such a comical caricature of an angry/refusal face that no one needed to speak a word before we left – we understood. The next place was very clean and they asked for 250 bahts, although they accepted 200 bahts rather than having to make change from three 100 baht bills.

We had a nice sit-down dinner with a kind of Khmer crepe with bean sprouts and chicken, washed down with some Angkor beers. We called it an early night after washing up.

* 12/7 Sisophon to Siem Reap (bike route: http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5221294 ; total distance: 108km)

Breaking for first lunch! We got better at standing our bikes against each other as our tour went on

Breakfast consisted of some meat over broken rice.  We broke for first lunch at a small market and had some noodle soup and bananas.  As we were eating, the rain had started, so we waited a while for that to clear up. Second lunch was much more substantial.  After 100km of smooth, rather boring road (in fact, we commented about how the flat roads through repetitive farmland reminded us of the American midwest), we made it into Siem Reap. The boulevard of giant luxury hotels and Korean restaurants on the outskirts of town greeted us first, but we pushed on into town and biked to the Old Market area.  We stayed at a clean A/C room at Shadow of Angkor 1 ($16).

* 12/8 Siem Reap (bike route and distance not recorded)

Carissa went to Angkor Wat and nearby temples, while I went to the Roluos Group, as I had already been to Angkor Wat.  I toured Preah Ko, Bakong, Prei Monei first.  Preah Ko and Bakong were impressive, but not as off the beaten path as I was told – there were legions of tourists there, even tour-group tourists.  Prei Monei was much less impressive, but on reachable by a sandy path barely passable by a tuk-tuk – a Japanese couple, their tuk-tuk driver and I were the only people there.

I tried to find a few more temples on the map that I got from the guesthouse, but I mostly ended up wandering around villages completely lost.  My GPS had a few roads indicated, but it was mostly unhelpful.  Eventually, I gave up and made my way back to the highway and headed home. 

Carissa and I both returned to the guesthouse after our morning adventures and had lunch.  I walked over to the post office to send Kimberly the kramas (Khmer scarves) she wanted – 22 in all.  I had planned on going out again to the West Baray temples, but I got sidetracked by the sweet glow of internet.  It was a good thing, too, because it started pouring about 15 minutes later. After the rain let up, Carissa and I went down to the Night Market area for a massage, had dinner and a few drinks out on Pub Street before calling it a night.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

A Reasonable Couture


BMC team replica set, shirt and bibs, purchased at the Internationaler Spessart Bike Marathon at Frammersbach, Germany, €40.

Icebreakers wool socks, purchased at http://www.icebreakers.com, US$12.

Fila water shoes, purchased at the Fila Store, D’Mall, Boracay, Philippines, 1790₱.

Tour de France biking hat, purchased at Look Mum No Hands!, London, England, £8.

Limar 525 helmet, purchased at Saeng Thong Bikes & Parts, Nonthaburi, Thailand, 1000฿.  

John Richmond sunglasses, purchased at Lotte Department Store, Seoul, South Korea, approx. ₩200,000.

(Photo courtesy of Carissa)

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Bicycle touring guides?

I’ve browsed through several and bought one bike touring book. I have never gotten any worthwhile information from any of them.

I think the main problem is that there’s so much difference between all the different types of bike touring you can do. You can tour with a $50 heap of crap or $5000 custom handmade bike. You can tour for 2 nights or 2 years. You can tour while stealth-camping and cooking with a camping stove every night, or staying in hotels and eating at restaurants every night. You can tour fully loaded or with a sag wagon following you. You can tour alone or in a tour group. You can ride 30km a day or 300km a day.

I think the best way to teach yourself about bike touring is to 1) go to a local bike shop to figure out what kind of rudimentary gear you need – a cheap mountain bike with a rear rack and a pair of panniers are more than enough to get you started, and 2) go bike touring a few times, starting off with overnight tours.

Keep the rubber side down.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Southeast Asia Bike Tour Extravaganza

Having left my touring bicycle in Germany, I had been traveling regular backpacker style for the last few months.  Other than renting bicycles here and there for little rides, I hadn’t planned on bike touring again until I got back to North America in late October.

Then, I learned that Carissa was planning to start a Southeast Asian bike tour in early December.  I was enjoying my time out here anyway, so I changed my flight – and other plans (I had planned on going to Vegas in November).  I spent November on beaches in southern Thailand and in the Visayan Islands in the Philippines, mostly on hammocks or underwater, before making a detour to Hong Kong to visit Royal and to get my bag-o’-bike-gear from him.

I met up with Carissa yesterday and got all squared away with gear and whatnot.  We met up with Kevin, an American expat who posts on the same message forums as I do.  I had never met Kevin before, but he had offered to take me to his local bike shop.  The folks at Saeng Thong Bike set me up with a Merida mountain bike, and they were happy to put my rack, saddle, and bottle cages on for me as well.  The shop was quite far from the skytrain station and the bike wouldn’t fit in a taxi (we tried!), but another customer at the shop was nice enough to give us a ride in his van.

I’m almost all set, equipment/gear-wise, but I don’t have a handlebar bag (I overloaded my Topeak one and broke the handlebar attachment while touring in western Europe), so I’m debating whether I should grab the only one available at the shop that I know how to get to – it’s the Ortlieb Ultimate. It’s a little big and way expensive at 3750 baht (about US$120) but, on the other hand, it’s a nearly three-month tour.

Our loosely planned itinerary so far is to go through Cambodia, swing north through Vietnam, and then west across the northern mountains of Laos, and then tour through northern Thailand.  Carissa will probably take the train back from northern Thailand to Bangkok, since she has to be back a couple days before March 1, her fly-out date.  I haven’t decided what to do yet.  I may extend the tour down through Thailand and hit up the beaches and islands before heading back, or I may be tired of bike touring and Southeast Asia by that point.

We catch the 5:55am train the day after tomorrow to get to the Cambodia-Thailand border.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Getting from Bagan to Inle Lake

At the end of our first day in Bagan, Kimberly and I each admitted to each other that we had thought it was a mistake to come to Myanmar. Yangon had a few grand sights to see, but overall was a terrible disappointment. The city was dirty and in great disrepair, and we found the people were mostly cold and smarmy (a big exception was the proprietor of our hotel, Beautyland II, who was very helpful and friendly). Bagan was such a great change of scenery that we decided to skip Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, and stay in beautiful Bagan a while longer, and go directly to Inle Lake.

We were faced, then, with a few options on how to get to Inle Lake. The first option was by plane, but this was far out of our budget, especially since there would be a hefty taxi ride from Heho, the airport town, into Nyaungshwe, the gateway town for Inle Lake. The train service is nearly nonexistent.

The option recommended by a certain omnipresent guidebook was to take the “local” bus. We would be picked up at 3:30am to catch the 4am bus, which would arrive in Shwenyaung approximately 12 hours later. From there, we would have to catch a pick-up (basically a local bus service on make-shift benches on the back of a pick-uip truck) or a private taxi. All this for 10500 kyat per person, or a little over US$12. I had researched this bus ride online, however, and heard terrible horror stories. You can read some here and here. Highlights include being crammed in so tight that you can’t move your feet, let alone recline your seat; all the windows being open all the time, so you get a good mouthful of dust and smog every once in a while; and vomiting locals.

We walked up and down restaurant row several times to look for alternatives. Three private taxis were willing to take us all the way to Nyaungshwe, with their first named prices being US$120, US$150 and US$180, respectively. Even if we could talk them down significantly, these prices were far too high for us. All the transportation information kiosks told us that our only options were bus, private taxi, or plane.

We had nearly given up hope when we arrived at Ever Sky Information Service. The woman working there gave us the bus option, but also told us that they would be starting a brand new service starting in October (i.e. we would be riding on their first trip!), because they knew that the bus service was so terrible. The twice-weekly share taxi would leave every Tuesday and Friday at 7am (luxuriously late in the morning compared to the bus!). The US$25-per-person taxi was a van which can seat eight people and they would run the taxi even if there was only one passenger. We thought about it overnight and signed up first thing the next day. We even told another traveler about it, who also signed up the following day.

The ride arrived for us right at 7am. The van was quite comfortable – possibly the most comfortable seating I’ve ever had for ground transport. The woman at the kiosk had told us it would seat eight people, but it was really seven plus driver. The van was fairly wide but only had two seats per row, so Kimberly was able to sleep lying down – what a luxury! The generously padded seats also had generous suspension, which were very much put to the test on the treacherous dirt highways through the mountains after Thazi.

My only complaint was that our lunch stop had the worst service I had had in a restaurant since I arrived in Southeast Asia – it took them an hour and a half to get us our food, even though the only other party being served had left halfway into that time, and they got our order wrong. By contrast, the bus from Yangon to Bagan had stopped at a rest stop staffed by a small army of children, so efficiently run that we had wandered around looking for the bathroom, used the bathroom, wandered around looking for a seat, finally took a seat, ordered, ate, and paid, all in twenty minutes. Not that I’m advocating that we should have stopped at a restaurant with child workers, but it seems to be that they should pick a restaurant that keeps us moving along.

Around 6:15pm, a little under 11 hours after we picked up the last passenger in Nyaung U, we arrived about 220 miles away at the entrance to Nyaunshwe.

The next day, we went on a boat trip around Inle Lake in a group with a Japanese man who had taken the bus from Bagan. The way he described the trip, it was nearly as bad as I had read online, except no one had vomited – he did say there were lots of small empty plastic bags placed for easy access, however.

So there you have it. If you’re in Myanmar and looking to get from Bagan to Inle Lake, I highly recommend that you visit Ever Sky Information Service at their kiosk on restaurant row and book your share taxi before it fills up. It really is the best US$25 I spent in Myanmar.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Getting our Myanmar visa from Bangkok – a how-to

Hearing that hermetic, secretive Myanmar would possibly reject tourist visas without much explanation given, we wanted to be sure we did everything ‘right’ when we applied for our visas at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. We had already booked our plane tickets, after all.

Our flight was at 4:30pm on Monday, September 26, and the Myanmar embassy opens Monday through Friday. I highly recommend the WE Bangkok, a brand new hostel about 3 blocks away from the embassy. It was quiet, reasoanbly priced (as reasonable as Bangkok gets, anyway), clean, and friendly. We were able to wake up around 7:45am, brush our teeth and head straight over – there was even a coffee vendor along the way. It was 8am by the time we arrived at the embassy. Others behind us in line had woken up as early as 6am.

I was carrying some passport/visa sized photos, but Kimberly needed some made, so we headed up Pan Road, the side street from Sathorn Road, where the embassy is located. About 30-50 meters up, you can see a bright yellow sign advertising PHOTO COPY services. Turn into the alley and you’ll find the copy shop. The shop seems to get a lot of their business being a go-to place to get Myanmar visa forms filled out, including printing the appropriate photos. They had many copies of the forms on hand and helped us fill them out. They weren’t difficult forms to fill out, but I just wanted some hand-holding since we were going to Myanmar, after all. The prices were quite reasonable.

Around 8:20am, we arrived back at the visa door of the embassy, on the Pan Road side of the compound. Only one person was ahead of us in line and he had gotten there at 6am. As a few people got in line, we chatted about our trips. A young Australian man was visiting Myanmar as part of his long Southeast Asian trip. An Englishman worked in Bangkok at a British school and was taking a holiday cum visa run. A German woman was applying for a business visa to work as a midwife. They all asked where we had gotten our forms. We told them, and they all scurried out to get their forms done, too.

One Southeast Asian man stood behind me and the white folk in line and chatted us up. He said he had been to Myanmar many times and that he got into all the attractions for local prices by charging in pretending to be from Myanmar. His questions became oddly specific in its wording – what is the purpose of your visit to Myanmar, how long will you stay in Myanmar, etc. When we told him about the copy shop to get the forms done, he thanked us for the information and walked towards the shop. We never saw him again.

By around 9am, there were still only a handful of people, which surprised me, as some of the information I had seen online made it seem like it would be a frenzy to grab up the tourist visas – the embassy only issues a specific number every day. By around 9:30am, though, the line was plenty long.

We received numbers once we entered the building, and we were served in order of our numbers. Kimberly and I requested same-day service (a little over 1200 baht per person instead of about 800), which the officer allowed because we were flying the next business day.

We checked out of our hostel but left our bags there, and then toured around the area all day, nervous about our visas. We were nearly sure we should get the visas, but I had heard somewhere that visas can be rejected for not only journalists, but also for lawyers. I had put down “insurance – claims adjuster” on my form. I was worried that they’d call my “current” employer and find out that I had been a “claims attorney” and that I was no longer employed there (when I asked the copy shop owner whether I could say I was unemployed, he suggested “you should… have a job”). I realized that, with same day service, they wouldn’t get any answer at my old job – that was a bit of relief. I then worried about the fact that my father is a law professor.

My neurosis lasted nearly all day, until we arrived back at the embassy for passport pick-up at 3:30pm. The visas had been granted. We left immediately for our weekend trip through a couple of former Thai capitals.

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

I Biked in Dubai in July

It’s been a while since my last update.  After I finished my EuroBikeTour, I traveled around the Wiesen area a little, visiting Maria in Darmstadt, and then going on an overnight bike tour to Heidelberg.  After that, I left my bike behind and visited Tien Yin in Vienna, before returning to Frankfurt to meet up with Renbo to go to Rome and Berlin.  I then picked up my big bag – full of bike touring stuff like panniers, racks, Brooks saddle, and an assortment of other stuff – from Maria, and headed to Dubai to meet up with Renbo again.

For some reason, I had the bright idea that it would be fun to bike in Dubai.  So here’s how it went.

I had emailed King at wolfi’s Bike Shop weeks ago to arrange this.  I wanted to ride the Sunday night ride tonight, July 24, organized by the Dubai Roadsters, and I would be renting a bike at Wolfi’s to do so.

The weather was nearly the same today as it had been since I arrived, and as it would be for well past the rest of my stay.  Sunny with a high of 43C (109F).  The heat would peak around 2 or 3pm and linger till about 6pm,  dropping down as low as 33C (91F) at the dead of night.  It’s also a very humid, sticky, muggy heat, as Dubai is a coastal city.  The Emirati traditionally leave the coastal area in the summer in favor of the dry heat of the desert and mountains to the east.

Wolfi's Bike Shop, where I rented my bike. Very nice folks, very nice shop!

I packed my under-saddle bag with a patch kit, tire levers, front and rear lights, and a multitool.  I also brought my sunglasses, camera, phone, mini-wallet, and two water bottles.  Although the weather called for the shortest bike shorts possible, I wore my Chrome knickers, as I didn’t know what biking attire would be culturally acceptable in Dubai.
I took the Metro to the Noor Islamic Bank Metro Station.  It was a 20 minute walk from there to Wolfi’s Bike Shop.  At nearly 5pm, it was still so unbearably hot that I took refuge in the two air-conditioned bus stops along the way.  I had a sheen of sunscreen and sweat by the time I arrived at the bike shop.

The staff at Wolfi’s helped me get fitted on the bike and to put my lights on.  Koos, one of the staff members, drew a very detailed map to direct me to the ride location.  He also told me that there would be a water cooler not too far from the ride area and that at the end of the ride I could hail a cab to take my bike back to the hotel – he assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem.

After browsing the shop a bit and refilling my water bottles, in part to cool down and in part to muster up the courage to get back out in the heat, I set on my way.  The directions were easy to follow, although that didn’t stop me from getting slightly lost.

The lonely desert highway where I managed to get stuck with a flat.

About 5 or 6 km into my ride, I hit a hard gutter on the side of the road and got a flat on my front tire.  I realized then that there was no pump in the pump slot on the frame.  I started walking toward the ride start, hoping that maybe someone there would have a pump.  At worst, I could catch a taxi back to the hotel, I hoped.

A few minutes later, I saw a cyclist, and I hailed him.  He first tried a foam inflation product, but it didn’t work.  He then called someone, identifying himself as Wolfi – he was the owner of the shop!  He had the shop staff send someone in a bus with a spare front wheel, and a pump and extra tube.

I waited a half hour on the side of the busy desert highway, to no avail.  One of my bottles was empty already.  I started to trudge toward the ride start again – I couldn’t afford to let myself be stuck there with no water left.

Here's the bike I rented - a pretty nice entry level Scott. At the time of this photo, I was waiting for my rescue.

In a few minutes, my savior pulled up to the shoulder and greeted me.  He apologized for taking so long, saying he had encountered some bad traffic.  He popped in a new front wheel and I was ready to go.  He also handed me an extra tube and a pump, just in case.  He grinned, “You’re good to go!  No excuses now, get back to the ride and have fun!”

Just as the bike shop bus pulled out, another rider going to the Sunday night ride biked past.  I joined up with him and we rode the desert highways to the ride start, which was out near the camel race course, many kilometers from the edge of Dubai.

When we got there around 6:30pm, there were about a dozen people biking up and down the strip in a few scattered groups.  The meet-up time was 7:30pm, so I rode the ~6 km stretch about ten times or so, trying to catch the groups, but I had trouble keeping up.  It was a nice area – there were 4 lanes on the road but very little traffic, and there were nice palm trees and manicured lawns.  At the end of the strip was a guarded checkpoint and signs indicating no entry and no photography.

The mosque where the Sunday night ride met.

As the sun set around 7:15pm, I asked a couple of riders if there was any water nearby – they told me no.  I was down to my last half bottle, and it appeared as though riders were leaving (in hindsight, I realized they were all going to the meet-up point, but the lack of water alone would’ve made me leave anyway.)

I had some trouble finding my way back in the dark, but I eventually figured it out.  At times, I regretted coming out for the ride, wasting an entire afternoon/evening under the harsh Arabian summer heat.  Eventually, I found my way back to the city along the highways.  By then, the traffic had picked up considerably (most people go out an hour or two after sunset, due to the intense heat.)

I got up to the interchange that crosses Shiek Zayed Road, the main thoroughfare through Dubai, but I didn’t trust the traffic, nor myself biking through it.  Even if I had made it to the other side of the interchange, I wouldn’t know how to get back to the hotel – I was only hoping to catch a taxi on the other side, as it would be in a slightly busier area.

I saw a gas station just before the interchange, so I dipped in there and got myself some water and juice – I had just run out of water.  Having gotten a few calories from the juice, and having filled my water bottles full of ice cold water, I walked out to plan my next course of action.  I walked over to a taxi which was getting filled up and tapped on the window.  I asked if he would be able to take my bike and me, and he said no.

Disappointed, I walked back to the road and hoped to flag down an SUV taxi.  I didn’t see any for a while, but I did see a group of four cyclists – it looked like they had come from the Sunday night ride!  I hopped in line with them and, as a group, I felt the courage to ride over the busy interchange.  One of the riders started talking to me, and he was able to give me very easy directions to get back to the Mall of the Emirates.  After a kilometer or two of riding together, they peeled off and I thanked them again and again for the directions.

The Burj Al Arab at night on my way home from my bike ride

I rode the rest of the way along a busy but relatively low speed major road.  A mosque and the Burj Al Arab loomed on my right as I biked past.  I was able to gauge my progress by checking the bus stops, which indicated how many more stops it was until the Mall of the Emirates (among other stops.)  I pulled up to my hotel, then walked my bike into the elevator and to my room.  I was almost as wet when I stepped into my room as I was a few minutes later while I showered.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Journal notes: Amiens to London to Wiesen

Here’s the final part of my journal notes for my EuroBikeTour!  Enjoy.

6/11 – Amiens

We set off for the train station in the morning. Instead of trying to navigate our way through Paris or biking back out of town via the canal path, we decided to take the train out to near Charles de Gaulle airport and to bike north from there. Putting our bikes on the suburban train was no problem at all, and we biked out to Amiens from there.

When we arrived in Amiens, we asked a bus driver who was on standby where the campground was, but he spoke no English and we spoke nearly no French. After a while, he did understand us, but we couldn’t understand his directions, so he drove his bus ahead of us and then stopped to point where we should go. We were grateful, and from there we managed to follow the signs to get to the campground. When we arrived at the campground, the campground manager and clerk were sitting outside drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. They were so friendly to us that at first I thought they were being sarcastic. They said they would keep the restaurant open a while longer while we went and settled in, so we went to set up camp and came back for our dinner. We had coq au vin with frites, which tasted great at the end of our long day.

As we were eating, a Dutch bike tourist came in.  He had been staying at hotels but there were no rooms in Amiens (apparently there was a big judo tournament in town) – this was his last hope.  The clerk – again, very apologetically – told him that there were no chalets left.  The clerk and the Dutch tourist frantically tried to brainstorm any possibilities, but at that late hour, it seemed hopeless.  Chris and I offered the Dutch tourist use of my bivouac sack and I would stay with Chris in his two-man tent.  The clerk had a sleeping bag, so we were able to help this bike tourist out.

6/12 – Dover

The Dutch bike tourist left before us in the morning, thanking us again and again. I woke up with a bit of a sore throat. We made our way out of Amiens and got to Calais, a dirty little port town. As we walked up to the ticket office for the ferry, another bike tourist pulled up as well. The bike tourist named Roger and was a Brit, although he had lived in France for six years and therefore spoke excellent French. He was on his way home, two hard days’ bike ride from Dover, a little west of London, and he had planned on catching the next morning’s ferry, but instead, he came along with us on the evening ferry and we would camp together if the weather permitted, or get a hotel room together.

We arrived in Dover to very English weather. The rain came down in sheets at about a 45 degree angle, and it was cold. We hopped over to the first hotel we saw, but they would only allow 2 persons to a room and it was 78 pounds per night per room. It was very late, and Roger and I were almost resigned to staying there, but Chris convinced us to push on to check out the other hotels.

The next hotel was the County Hotel – slightly run down but at its prime must have been a fairly nice place. Their kitchen was still open (as was their bar), they could accommodate our bicycles in their meeting room which was only accessible to staff, and they had a room with a queen bed and a set of bunkbeds for 62 pounds a night. We jumped on the opportunity and settled in for the night and dined and drank to new friendship.

6/13 – Canterbury

Roger had never been to eastern Kent, nor to Canterbury, so he decided to join us. We climbed the white cliffs of Dover, then made our way to Sandwich where we each had a sandwich, then we biked to Canterbury and looked at the cathedral there. I also had a bent spoke which I got replaced, and we rigged up a fix for Chris’s front rack, whose fastening mechanism had broken. Roger had intended to take the train to past London to bike home, but he stayed with us to camp near Canterbury. At the campsite, we met a young Frenchman named Cyril who was on his way to WWOOF in the U.K. but had injured his knee going too fast – he made over 100km in about 3.5 hours, which, in touring terms, is a breakneck speed. After dinner at a nearby town, we brought him some ice to put on his knee. He had planned on biking to London the next day – we hoped he would be able to.

6/14 – London

Cyril wasn’t able to join us – he would stay in Canterbury another day, hoping that his knee healed up. We wished him well and shoved off. I was really feeling that sore throat now – it was a full on cold. Luckily, it didn’t seem to impede my riding much. It wasn’t long before Chris had another mechanical issue with his front rack – a different fastening clasp had broken. Luckily, we had made a spare when we made a replacement back in Canterbury, but it was still time consuming and frustrating. We decided to abandon the National Cycle Network (NCN) routing, which was taking us through rough dirty and gravel paths. Instead, we followed Roger’s pathfinding through England’s tangled highways.

Under Roger’s wise guidance, we made it to Greenwich, where we went up to the Royal Observatory and stood on both sides of the meridian. We followed the Thames somewhat, but, again, abandoned that route as well, as the signage was impossible to follow. Being the “A” riders we were, we fought through heavy traffic to go a more direct route – everyone was happier to ride that way, and we got to London much more quickly.

Once we got to London, Chris and I signed in at the hostel. We had a drink with Roger before he bid farewell – he would go to a train station to catch a train home. He made it home late that night, safe and sound.

Our hostel in London had a fantastic location – right by St. Paul’s Cathedral – but, again, there was no bicycle parking. Luckily, there was a little dead-end nook in front of our room, and the hostel manager reluctantly allowed us to park our bikes there. Not ideal, but it was good enough.

We tried to find some food around, but apparently we were in the business district where everything closed early. We found a mediocre high-end Italian place – it was okay, but we were certainly hoping for larger portions and lower prices.

6/15 – London

In the morning, we headed over to Look Mum No Hands, a nearby bicycle store and coffee shop (similar to One on One in Minneapolis, but much larger) and presented the mechanics there with Chris’s problem. They hemmed and hawed and finally came up with a solution which ended up holding just fine for the rest of our tour.

We started the touristy stuff that day with a visit to the London Transport Museum, which showcased transportation throughout the centuries in London, mostly focusing on trains and subways. We walked over to a huge map shop in Covent Garden, where I became even more determined to travel to Southeast Asia.

We then headed out to Buckingham Palace, then to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben and the Parliament building. We went into a public session of the House of Commons where they were debating a bill to reform the unemployment benefits system. Interesting stuff!

We headed over to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, but – alas – there was no one there to preach to us about the end of days or the evils of illegal immigrations or the plight of the common man in times of high petrol prices. We made our way back to the hostel and had a couple of pints at the Rising Sun, a nearby pub frequented by the business types who work nearby, before we hit the hay.

6/16 – London

Chris had met a cyclist at the hostel the night before, and he went out for a bike ride with her in the morning. I went over to the British Museum instead.

I went back to the hostel to meet up with Chris, but he was a no show ( his cycling buddy had gotten a flat, so they had been delayed). I headed over to the Tate Modern, which we had planned to visit together. I took one of the guided tours and I wished I had been there all day to take the other guided tours. It was an amazing collection in an amazing building. I ran into Chris eventually, and we headed back tostle of last London pints at the Rising Sun before calling it an early night.

6/17 – Chelmsford

The way out of London was horrendously difficult to manage. It rained on us most of the afternoon, too. Even the GPS led us astray – it had taken us in a spiraling circle. By the time we got to Chelmsford, neither of us spoke of trying to go to a campground – we went straight for a hotel room. The Atlantic, a Best Western hotel, had a room for 73 pounds. We hemmed and hawed and the clerk called around to other hotels, and finally said he would be able to do 65 pounds. We capitulated. It was nice to have warm, dry beds after a frustrating afternoon. We had come about 60 km’s distance from central London, but it had taken us well over 100 km to get there. We got some bad Chinese food (it turns out that bad Chinese food in Britain is about the same as bad Chinese food in the U.S.), some overpriced beer at the hotel bar, and called it a night.

6/18 – Harwich (overnight ferry)

The next day, we started fairly early to Harwich, even though we were supposedly under 100 km from Harwich – after yesterday’s disasterous pathfinding, we wanted to make sure we got to our destination during daylight. We did again get lost a few times, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the day before. It was telling that when we asked Brits for direction, even they couldn’t make much sense of the map. I thought it was a fun adventure but there was no end to the cursing from Chris’s mouth. I suppose it didn’t help our mood that it was raining again.

We finally made it to Harwich. The town itself was a regular town, but as we went over to the ferry, there was a little mini-town there. We had fish & chips at a tiny fish & chips shop there, and then went up the street to a rather divy bar for our last English pints. The bar played Eminem the whole time we were there.

At the ferry terminal, we met two Dutch bicycle tourists. Both were women, one was 49 and the other 52, and they were on classic Dutch bikes. Neither wore a helmet – one of them said she would quit biking if she had to wear a helmet. They used a bike touring map of England made by a Dutchman who had done it. All the directions were by landmark – e.g. turn right at the Red Cherry Pub. It made a lot more sense than trying to use street names.

The ferry was a 12 deck behemoth. As it was to be an almost eight hour overnight journey, we were required to get a sleeping berth. It was quite large and roomy – much bigger than the sleeping car on Amtrak. On Deck 9, there was a restaurant, bar, shopping, information, currency exchange, arcade, and even a gambling area. I played a game called “Natural 21”. I asked the dealer if it was blackjack – she said it was like blackjack, but she explained the big differences, and asked if I agreed. The rules were horrendous – bank wins on tie, no insurance, no surrender, blackjack pays 1:1. I played for a while, and some other players joined in. I left with even money – it was too scary to play longer with those odds.

We had a few more drinks and then checked the weather before we went to bed. It would be raining from Hoek van Holland all the way down the Rhine river until we got back to Wiesen. We had planned on taking the train back in a couple days anyway – Chris had business to take care of in Wiesen. Plus, Chris had gotten a chest cold, and I was still nursing my cold a little bit. We decided to take the train back in the morning, skipping Holland entirely. The train schedule indicated we could be back in Wiesen in about 6 to 8 hours, depending on connections.

6/19 – Wiesen

Chris needed some time to get ready in the morning, so I went and tried to stuff as much food into my mouth as possible from the overpriced breakfast buffet. We took the train to Rotterdam, where we spoke to the ticketing agent. It would be no problem for us to travel to Wiesen by ourselves, but making the reservations for the bike spots was more difficult. The ticketing agent finally managed to route us through, but we wouldn’t get to Heigenbruken until 11:38pm.

The routing had us take six trains, with long breaks in two towns – Venlo and Woppertul. It was a pleasant enough way to travel, if a bit boring. Venlo was a small clean Dutch town where absolutely everyone was riding bicycles. It was wonderful to see. At the train station was a bicycle storage place with an attendant. The place doubled as a small bike shop as well. Woppertul was a medium sized town in an industrial part of Germany. It had the kind of heavy and industrial and dirty look that I hadn’t seen elsewhere on our trip. I ordered a random beer at a bar, and got a beer full of strawberries – it was rather strange. For dinner, we got some bratwursts from a street vendor.

We finally arrived in Heigenbrucken at about 11:45pm. The dark country highways were lonely and cold. We climbed a few hills to get back to Wiesen, about 15 km away frmo the Heigenbrucken bahnhof. I didn’t get up till about noon the next morning.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized