The day after crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam we ran the gauntlet and entered the city of Saigon amidst an escort of thousands of small motorcycles. No matter how wide the roads may be, they are always clogged by this popular mode of transport, buzzing around our bicycles from all sides like swarming bees - sometimes from the front. Faces are often covered by all manner of masks (anti-pollution or anti-sunshine?). As a result the women cyclists in rural areas dressed in traditional hats resemble bank robbers with lamp-shades on their heads making their getaway on bicycles. I've only been in Vietnam for about a week, but so far I estimate that in terms of development Vietnam is somewhere between Thailand and Cambodia. The city of Saigon (officially re-named Ho Chi Minh City, but still referred to as Saigon by many locals) seems to be under construction, and at this rate the skyline may rival that of Bangkok in a number of years time. So far everything here seems to be more expensive than in Cambodia, but there is a greater variety and availability of commodities such as foodstuff. So far accommodation comes at about double the Cambodian rate, but these are proper hotels with A/C, TV, fridge, hot shower, and clean bedding. Talking about TV, I've been able to view 2 SA sports channels, also watching the Springboks beat the touring British Lions at rugby. So, there I was, sitting in Saigon watching Kobus and Toks speaking Afrikaans on TV ( I wonder if those 2 big fish know how small the pond really is?). The language barrier in Vietnam is one of the toughest so far, as the spoken word has very little resemblance to it's written counterpart. For instance, our first night in the country was spent in the district of Cu Chi, but even there we were not understood when we asked "is this Cu Chi?" - instead we were offered food, or pointed off somewhere in the distance. Incidently, Cu Chi is the centre from where the Viet Cong waged their war on the Americans from underground tunnels. Since leaving Saigon 3 days ago Leana and I have caught the tail wind East to the coast, and are currently at the coastal town of Mui Né (close to Phan Tiet). There are many fancy resorts here, as well as a renowned golf course designed by Nick Faldo. We're staying in the budget bungalows, right on the beach - not too bad for church mice! Daily distances cycled since I've last reported these from Phnom Penh have been:- Traeng Tratueng 91 km; Veal Rinh 97 km; Sihanoukville 50 km; Ream Nat Park 30 km; Kampot district 86 km; Kampot town 14 km; Kep 24 km; Kampot 24 km; Takeo 97 km; Neak Luong 131 km; Svay Rieng 65 km; Cu Chi 87 km; Saigon 38 km; Cia Ray 102 km; Phan Tiet 96 km; and Mui Ne 37 km. Total distance cycled since leaving Cape Town at the start of this journey is 42 638 km.
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
By "madness" I'm not referring to the effects of the local hazardous rice spirit - although it's best use is probably for the sterilization of the suspect drinking water. Rather, I'm referring to the mighty Mekong river which originates in Tibet and flows into the ocean via the delta in Vietnam, dominating this region of SE Asia. Since my last post from Phnom Penh Leana and I took in some of the city sights, including the Toul Sleng museum which is a former school where the Kmerh Rouge regime in the 70's imprisoned, tortured, and killed thousands. While in the city I also had my beard shaven by a local barber, but as the local men don't have much facial hair he couldn't bring himself to totally clean my face and left me with a mean moustache (I eventually persuaded him to go through with the evil deed). After catching a glimpse of the nearby Mekong, we pedalled South, visiting the coastal towns of Sihanoukville, Kampot, and Kep. We stayed in some interesting places such as the Prek Teuk Sap "guest house", which consisted primarily of a stilted wooden deck over a river in the Ream National Park. There we also rented a leaky wooden canoe with a single short paddle, with which we explored the channels amongst the mangroves for a couple of hours. During our time in the South Leana decided that it was time to "do her own thing", but we ended up staying in the same place again a few days later (the "Wide World" is not so big when you're on a bicycle!). Our time in Cambodia is running out, and on the way towards the Vietnam border we crossed the Mekong after dark to find accommodation in Neak Luong on the far banks. That was the end of an unexpectedly long day on bad roads in the rain, repairs to Leana's bike also taking up some time along the way. There are many roadside- and street stalls in the area offering interesting foods. Some of these eats include dried frogs, a variety of deep-fried birds, crickets, and turtles. I didn't even try any of these tasty treats, let alone Leana who is a vegetarian - no wonder we exist mainly on noodles! Total distance cycled since Cape Town at the start of this journey is 42 278 km. (In my next update I will give the daily distances cycled since Phnom Penh).
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
It may surprise some people (including myself) that I'm still on the bike! This time I was rescued by 2 things - a bail-out by my sister, and the fact that Leana decided not to go back to SA from Bangkok. Since my last report from Chumphon we made good time across Thailand (mostly with a tail wind), cutting across the river by ferry in the South of Bangkok. We reached the border town of Aranyaprathet with a couple of days to spare on our extended Thai visa's. From what I'd previously heard I expected Cambodia to be the "poor cousin" of Thailand, and in many respects that seems to be the case. Even at the border there were throngs of poor-looking Cambodians carting their wares in hand-wagons across to the large market on the Thai side. However, the "dreaded bad road" which I'd heard about was now newly-paved, and within 2 comfortable days we were at the tourist mecca of Siem Reap. The greatest attraction in Cambodia is the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, close to the town of Siem Reap (the main Angkor Wat temple is even depicted on the national flag). The bicycles came in handy, and we spent a day cycling between the various temples and ruins. The people in the lush and wet countryside live mostly in stilted wooden houses which line the roadside for miles on end. As far as one goes you hear "hello", mostly from under the houses where people seem to live during the day to escape the heat and the rain. The many small motorcycles are put to the utmost tests, often towing fairly large trailers loaded with goods or people - and even large wooden boats. Pigs are generally transported to market on the back of these motorcycles (on their backs with trotters facing the sky). By the time they're in transit these animals have usually stopped sqealing, but one still had some grunt in him and I thought I heard "Farang" as he passed me. The countryside through which I cycled is quite flat, and any hill seems to have some religious significance (although the stone sculptors are cutting up the hills at quite a rate). Thankfully things are generally cheaper in Cambodia than in Thailand, particularly accommodation (camping is a bit awkward due to the daily rain showers). However, one has to be wise to the cost of things, as the locals are not shy to quote a "farang" double the going price. Another issue which could be confusing to newcomers is that US $ is commonly accepted as currency alongside the local Riel (ATM's provide $ to Visa and Mastercard holders). From Siem Reap Leana took a boat across the Tongle Sap (largest freshwater lake in Asia), and from there she cycled to Phnom Penh. I cycled to the capital along the other shore of the lake, and found Leana already in the "budget tourist" part of the city, booked into a rickety guest house over the water. We still have a few weeks in the country, so we may go towards the Southern coastal region from here. Daily distances cycled since my last report from Chumphon were:- Ban Saphan 114 km; Prachuap Khiri Khan 100 km; Cha-Am 132 km; Samut Sakhon 129 km; Chachoengsao 109 km; Sa Khao 139 km; Aranyaprathet 58 km; Sisophon 62 km; Siem Reap 108 km; Angkor Wat 45 km; Tongle Sap 32 km; Kampong Kdei 64 km; Kampong Thom 90 km; Skun 94 km; and Phnom Penh 82 km. Total distance cycled since Cape Town is 41 569 km.