The Stampede

Dan said  “we had better actually do something if we are going to write about anything”.  Basically our days have been pretty laid back since arriving at the beach on Koh Chang Island over a week ago.  Yoga at dawn on the deck of the funky fisherman’s guest house where we are staying, followed by ginger tea, a walk to breakfast on the beach, reading and napping in the hammock, kayaking to the beach to swim, more reading, a run for Dan, then a long walk down the beach for a perfect curry dinner, and home by the light of the moon.  Completely relaxing.   Today I thought we might want to get back on our bikes in a few days to start cycling to Bangkok to catch our flight home, but the bus would be much easier, and certainly faster.

The stark contrast of tidiness in Thailand with the dustiness of Cambodia struck us as we cycled across the border last week.  The beautifully paved roads with wide shoulders, relatively sane drivers, lush green roadsides, garden stores and sweet little eateries welcomed us with the predictable Thai hospitality.  Thailand is a great country for cycling and we do plan to return for more cycling trips here.

We arrived on Koh Chang by ferry from the mainland, and within the hour our bikes were locked to a tree.  They are still locked to the tree.  We are feeling sad to be finished with the biking part of our trip.

Today we actually did something.  We took a long hike inland, through the jungle and toward the mountains.  It was a perfectly pleasant hike, and we got to see the elephants bathing in the river.  These elephants are set up for people to take a ride on their backs, and midway through is a river stop.  There is also a lunch stop, where you can feed the seemingly docile elephants some banana leaves.  As we plodded along up a hill, we came upon the area where they keep the elephants chained up overnight.  There was one elephant left there:  a huge male with long tusks.  We were feeling sad for it, as it had a chain around its’ two front legs.  So as it struggled to move closer to us, 6 inches at a time, we had no concerns.  But then it picked up into a gallop, lifting both of the front legs together, stampeding toward us!  What we didn’t realize was that a rear leg was chained to a tree and at some point (assuming the chain didn’t break) it would be forced to stop.  We panicked and hightailed it out of there fast.  The power of that massive animal was impressive, and easy to forget when you take a lazy ride on top of one.   Later, when we mentioned this to the guesthouse owner, he told us that a German tourist had been gored by a big male elephant’s tusk last month and had to be airlifted to Bangkok. They are not sure what shape he is in now.

Back to the bikes.  The cycling has been incredible here in Southeast Asia, and we are so fortunate to have been able to see these countries as we have.  Best of all, we have had the “gift of time”, where we haven’t had to rush between places and could take our time in places we especially liked.  In all we cycled about 2200 miles in 5 countries.  Some days were challenging, some easy, all were interesting.  The mountains in Vietnam and China were tough, but the long, flat stretches in southern Laos and Cambodia made us long for the cooler days and vistas.  We met the Mekong River up in Jinghong, China, and kept it close until we said goodbye to it as we left Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  We had many a meal and spent many a night overlooking it, and watched both sunrises and sunsets behind it as the direction changed along the way.  The river continued on to the Mekong Delta, and out to the South China Sea without us.  While we have seen so much, there are so many roads we did not take.  We need to return to continue cycling here some day.  Thailand and northern Laos are our favorites, but the people who have greeted us along the way have been the highlight.

Dan is removing the fenders and the rear racks from our bikes as I write this, and I am feeling sad.  It seems like just yesterday that he was packing the bikes up and we were checking in at JFK with excitement and anticipation, boarding our flight to Ho Chi Minh City.  A lot has happened since then. We are winding down, and our minds are wandering toward home more lately.   Dan has just suggested that maybe we should just keep the bikes packed in their boxes when we get back to Vermont, so they will be ready to take on another trip.   Perfect, I am there.

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Cambodia is Very Much Alive Now

Two weeks before the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.  Led by Pol Pot, they emptied out Phnom Penh, forcing the entire population of 7 million to the countryside into terrorized work camps.  We can never understand the horror of what happened over the next 4 years, but almost 2 million Cambodians died.  The Vietnamese invaded in 1979, occupying the country for almost 10 years.  The Khmer Rouge was still active and until 1999 there was a civil war here.

Cambodia is very much alive now.

When we last cycled in Cambodia in 2004, it felt sleepy.  Not much traffic at all, and not so many visitors.  Today it is bustling, and the Cambodians have put the past behind them.  Trucks, buses, motos, and bicycles all make our cycling a bit chaotic, as it seems there are no traffic rules.  Motos come at us on our side of the road, and we are low on the totem pole.  When cars turn in front of us we must stop to let them go.  All of this is frustrating, but the gentle, honest people we meet each day more than make up for that.

All of our needs were met in Phnom Penh.  We saw some films, ate interesting food, socialized some and even bought a few new pieces of clothes to wear.  After 9 days we headed out to Siem Reap where we cycled around Angkor Wat for a couple of days before meeting Dan’s cousin Barb and husband Ned.  It was great to see them again.  We hired a tuk-tuk to take us to see as many temples as we could before the days got too hot.   Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, and with the surrounding temples, the whole complex covers more than 60 square kilometers.  It is phenomenal to see, and overwhelming to comprehend how it was built in the 12th century.

Southeast Asians live their lives in public.  Their houses extend into the street, leaving little room for privacy.  Cooking, grooming, socializing, eating and even napping are done on the sidewalks of Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh and all the other cities we have seen.  The doors to the houses open up wide, and it is common to see the beds just inside the doors, sometimes among goods for sale if it is a shop.

Cycling on from Siem Reap we got to Sisophon on a newly paved road with a nice shoulder.  To Battambang there was no shoulder and we had to get off the road onto the dirt when a truck or bus came along blaring their horn, or a car coming at us was passing in our lane.  This made for a long day in the hot sun with a stiff headwind.  One more day cycling in Cambodia and we will be back in Thailand where we head south to the beach.

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Back to Laos and on to Cambodia

It felt good to be back in Laos after 2 weeks – familiar, but also very different than the northern part we had left to enter Isan Thailand.  We were feeling glad that we cycled south on the Thailand side, as the road was in better shape and probably had less traffic than the main route 13 in Laos.

We cycled south from Pakse and after a few days, we turned off the main road onto a smaller road until it ended at the Mekong.  In less than a minute we found ourselves on a makeshift “ferry” to take us across – two skinny wooden boats, a few planks of wood in between, and a small motor.  We stood balancing with our bikes on the planks as we headed across…then the motor sputtered and died.  All the while, the driver had been bailing water out of the bottom, now he put the bucket down and was calmly (that’s the Laos way) trying to restart the motor.  We had visions of us floating down through the Mekong Delta to the South China Sea when the boat sparked back to life and got us safely to Champasak.

Champasak is a one street town, and about 6 miles past it is a Unesco World Heritage site – Wah Phu Champasak.  We happened to be there along with many thousands of Asians during the annual 3 day Theraveda Buddhist festival. A peaceful visit to the ancient Wat was not to be, but the people watching was great.

We cycled on to Don Khong to relax on an island in the Mekong for a few days.  Serene island life is just what we needed.  Men weaving fishing nets, boys herding ducks down to the river in the morning, goats grazing randomly, small wooden boats out fishing at dawn and dusk, women washing clothes down by the river, naked children swimming – day to day life is simple there and is very much the same as it has always been.

The next 30 miles south in Laos to the border, and the first 140 miles in Cambodia are known to be incredibly hot and without many services, so we opted to take a bus for that part.  It has been so great getting around on bikes for the last 4 months (and 1,800 miles!) – so much nicer than loading onto a bus crammed with people when we want to get to the next place.  The places in-between the “tourist destinations” are where a lot of living happens in these countries and we like to see that, letting it all unfold slowly for us.  That said, we were happy to be on this bus, as it would have been a long, hot 3 day cycle to Kampong Cham, without much for services along the way.

Cycling the 60 miles into Phnom Penh from Kampong Cham we started super early since we had a long way to go and it was sure to get up around 100 degrees again. The first 10 miles were paved, close to the Mekong… and full of friendly welcomes.  Children came running, parents holding children waved their hands for them, everyone was smiling and saying hello to us!  We saw lots of Muslims along the way, and even 2 mosques. Horse drawn carriages delivering ice, delivering hay, delivering sugar cane stalks…plenty of people on bicycles…this was rural Cambodia at its best. Our favorite part was seeing the women in matching flannel pajama sets!  They are the new style here, and they wear them all day.  Once in awhile you will see silk, and sometimes the pajama sets don’t match, but hey, whatever works.  For me, flannel long sleeves and matching pants don’t work when it gets up near 100 degrees.

Then the pavement became a fine, sandy dirt.  It blew at us when a car would pass, getting into EVERYTHING! We slipped in it, having to stop to balance at times, and were constantly dodging deep potholes.  We had this for about 28 miles. Finally we got the pavement back, and merged with a busy road heading into Phnom Penh for the last 20 miles.  The traffic picked up in volume and speed, we could feel the energy of the city ahead.

We spotted a car wash and pulled in, took our panniers off and they sprayed our bikes off (badly needed), then they sprayed us off too (even more badly needed)!!  Just from the knees down, but since we were caked in dirt, it helped so much.  The woman there even dried our bikes off, and wouldn’t take any money for it, they were just tickled we had stopped by.

Finally we crossed the Japanese Friendship bridge into PP and eventually found the Boddhi Tree Guesthouse.  They brought us cold water, carried our panniers to our room, then returned a few minutes later bearing two cold washclothes with eucalyptis oil on them.  Perfect to sit back and put on our foreheads in the cool serenity of our room.

We were last in Cambodia 6 years ago cycling and are amazed to see how much more traffic there is here now.  We will report more after we have been here for a week or so but for now we are happy to eat some good food, see some films and do some laundry! 

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Pedaling South through Isan

Our days start early, we try to get on the road at the crack of dawn, about 6:30.  By 9am the temperature is in the mid 90’s, with a strong headwind, so we try to get in as many miles as we can before the real heat sets in.  Early mornings are crisp and lovely.  We quietly pass by monks as they are out collecting their morning alms, by families starting a cooking fire in front of their house, by workers heading out to the fields for the day, and children walking to school.  The hazy pink sun gets higher and warmer as we pedal along.

Over the last 12 days we have cycled 500 miles south, following the Mekong River in Isan, Thailand.  Life is hard for most people in Isan, as this agricultural region in the northeast suffers from a stagnant rural economy.  The earth is scorched, with dry, brown, dusty scenes along the road.  We see water buffalo in the muddy rice paddies, and occasionally an elephant escorted down the road by their handler. This area in Thailand attracts few Western visitors.

A table full of 13 year old girls celebrating a birthday outside at a riverside restaurant in That Phanom wanted to know where we were from …”ooohhhh!!!   We L O V E  America!!!!, Where in America?”  (they did not understand when we said ‘Vermont’, so we said ‘near New York’)   “ooohhhh!!!  We L O V E   NEEEWWWWW  YOOORRRKKKKK”  they shrieked and clapped.  Suddenly we were rock stars.

People along the road want to know ‘where you go?’   School kids standing in the back of pick-up trucks (some clinging precariously) on the way to school see us and break out in laughter… waving and shouting hellloooo!!!  A pick-up truck driver gives us a thumbs up.  It feels good to smile back to the Thai, as their wide, genuine smiles are contagious.

We haven’t seen any cycle tourists in the last 11 days, and the only Westerners we have met are older men (from Finland, England, Australia) who have moved here to marry local women, usually 25-30 years younger than them.   We try not to be judgmental, but it is a very odd arrangement.  We are told it is a win-win situation.

The term “resort” is used very loosely in Thailand, we have learned the hard way.  The lodging choices aren’t many out here, and one afternoon when we were more than ready to get off the bikes we excitedly pulled into a resort.  The bungalows looked sweet from the outside, and the price was right.  The bungalow was not.  Too late, we just couldn’t go on, and where might we find another place to stay?  It was one of those nights (we have had several on this trip) where we slept in our sleeping sacks, careful not to let anything touch the ground.  There was no sink in the bathroom, and we didn’t even want to get into the “shower”.

And the dogs!  We are chased several times each day by barking, growling, hungry dogs.  We have been squirting them with water from our bottles, and sometimes even that doesn’t deter them.  Dan still slows down to spray them, but I speed up.  It is an issue when I am behind him and can’t get around him fast enough (“GO, DAN GO!!”), but the adrenaline rush helps.

Next we plan to cross back into Laos near Pakse and continue south.  We hope to spend time on some islands in the Mekong before crossing into Cambodia and cycling south to Phnom Penh, where we will be happy to spend many days at the Boddhi Tree Guest House.

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Sabaideeeeee!!!

It is with mixed emotions that we are leaving the mountains behind.  While the climbing has been challenging, the vistas and quiet roads have been spectacular. As we cycle along, we constantly hear “sabaideeeeeee” from the Laotian children as they scramble from their houses to greet us.  At times we feel like national heros with the welcome and thumbs up we receive! We have had some spectacular days lately, and have met other cyclists along the way:  Dee and Rog from Britain, and Bas from Holland.  Dee was hit by a drunk moto driver in northern Laos and spent 7 weeks recovering her leg in Luang Prabang.  She is well healed now, after some harrowing days spent in an iffy, rural clinic.  Her bike was totaled, but they were able to get another one sent over from England, and she is back on track now.  We have enjoyed some nice meals with them (and Bas), and it is great to spend time with other cyclists.

We cycled south from Luang Prabang down to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. As we got closer to the city the traffic picked up, and since Route 13 is the only road heading north-south in Laos, it is where the trucks and buses are. We have also been dodging dogs, chickens, ducks, cows, water buffalo, motos, goats, tuk-tuks, children, you name it . We have decided to cross back to Thailand to cycle south on quieter roads, and re-enter Laos after about 45o miles along the Mekong River. First up though:  more pages in Judy’s passport at the U.S. Consulate this afternoon for the hefty price of $85.

Vientiane was settled by the French as a hub of Indochina, and the French influence is everywhere.  Crusty baguettes, shuttered villas and (our favorite) warm, flakey croissants in the morning!  It is nowhere near as charming as Luang Prabang, but it is a comfortable city to spend a few days in.

Yesterday we visited COPE, a museum dedicated to education about land mines.  We met an 18 year old boy who had lost both of his hands and his eyesight 3 years ago when he picked up an unexploded bomb.  Even though the locals are told that any metal found on the ground could be explosive, the children are very vulnerable.  The metal is used in so many ways in their houses, and the people are so poor, sometimes it is just too tempting.  Even today it is estimated that there could still be more than 80 million unexploded cluster bombs remaining in Laos after the Vietnam war.

Laos is changing fast, and sometimes we feel we are about 10 years too late.  It is a gem of a country and if you are interested in visiting it, we suggest you don’t wait too long.  Chinese industry is moving in, and the signs of it are everywhere.

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Down the Mekong to Lovely Laos

Taking the slow boat down the Mekong River for two days was a highlight of our trip for us.  Laos was slowly unfolding along the way, and we could experience the river life without intruding – children playing, water buffalo grazing, monks washing, and men throwing out the fishing nets.

Laos has more than 130 ethnic groups, and was a neutral nation during the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, plenty of CIA forces entered the country to train the anti-communist Hmong fighters in response to the large amounts of war munitions and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Ming Trail from North Vietnam.  As a result there were more bombs dropped on Laos than any other country in history. One third of Lao people were displaced.  Thirty five years later there are still unexploded bombs, and many people are innocently maimed or killed each year by them.

At the end of the second day on the boat we arrived in Luang Prabang, the most beautiful city we have seen in Asia yet. Set in the northern mountains, it is an intimate town full of French Colonial architecture, lantern lit streets, a Buddhist temple on each block, and plenty of cafes to linger in. But the best part is the people:  Laotians are laid back, friendly, and like to have fun.

Our days start before dawn with the temple drums across the street. By 6am the saffron-clad monks form a procession for their morning alms.  They quietly walk the streets collecting sticky rice to eat for the day: an ancient spiritual tradition.  In the late afternoons they chant and meditate at the temples, adding so much to the atmosphere of the town.

We have been in Luang Prabang for over a week now, and talk about leaving in a few days. We have met so many wonderful people from around the world, sharing stories and meals.  We cycled and hiked along the Mekong, out to the waterfalls, up and down each small street, through the morning and night markets…poking into Wats (temples) and relaxing in cafes.  We talk about coming back for longer in a year or two as this town feels right to us.

Our plan is to cycle 800 miles south on Route 13 through Vientiene, Thakhek, Savannakhet, Pakse, and Khong, all the way to (and then through) Cambodia. Our visas expire in mid-Feb, so we think we best pack up soon and get on the road.  By the end of this week anyway.

Click the link below to hear monks chanting:

Monks in Luang Prabang

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In the land of Buddha

What’s not to love about a country that is 95% Buddhist?  The people of Thailand have welcomed us with warm smiles, plenty of questions, and delightful hospitality.  First impressions were that Vietnam is the feisty, loud sister who has been bossed around too much.  China is the older brother who is incredibly big, and spits a lot.   Thailand is the elegant sister who is tidy, well traveled and prefers her bathrooms and beds to be clean.

We arrived in Chiang Mai just in time for the holidays.  Being a Buddhist country, we didn’t expect it to feel Christmassy, but they did their best to make the Western visitors feel at home with plenty of holiday wishes, decorated trees, and even a gift on our doorknob when we woke up on the 25th.  Of course we were touched, but any Westerners we spoke with were trying to get away from anything to do with Christmas.  New Years Eve was a huge celebration in the city, and the sky was filled with lanterns lit and sent up to the sky – truly a beautiful sight!

After more than a week in Chiang Mai, we were ready to get out of the large, smoggy city and get on the road again.  We received a sweet send off from our guesthouse and some of the Australian guests, and headed north right after the New Year.  We have had some quiet back roads with little traffic and beautiful vistas – rural Thailand at it’s best.  There are so many tables and benches in the shade beside the road, it is hard to choose where to have our picnics!  In China we had such a hard time finding a spot to sit and rest when we needed it.

Bungalows are popular here, and it has been so nice to have 4 walls and no neighbors at night.  Thai massages for less than $5?  Check.  Red curry with vegetables, brown rice and papaya salad?  Check.  Peaceful Wats (temples) to escape to in the middle of the city?  Plenty of help when we are figuring out which way to go?  Check and check.    Life has been easy for us here so far, and it is fun.

We are still heading north, up toward the Myanmar border and the Golden Triangle, then we plan to cycle along the Mekong River until we catch a boat in Chiang Khong to take us down river to Luang Prabang, Laos.

In the meantime, we are getting really good at packing up each morning and moving on, happy to be on the road again.

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