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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