Friday, 21 February 2014

15/12/2014 - Takeo to Phnom Penh

We had stayed in a little bungalow complex on the outskirts of a nowhere town for our first night in Cambodia. It was quite a nice place and the family had a few nice cars so not short of a bob or two. The dinner we had around the corner was odd though, served in separated little hut style enclaves dotted around a big yard. Not bad food though but we struggled with the menu and the language! We should have learnt a bit more before we crossed the border. It poured down all night and we got soaked going back. Johanna took some time to get rid of all the bugs in the room using the flip flop swatter technique but the ants were everywhere. Not a cheap room either at £10. Bed was comfy though.

We had to pay for the breakfast which was limited in choice but was OK. A coffee and a mixed omelette which was brought from the kitchen by one of the young guys on his scooter. When he brought he second one he left the bike in gear (they are automatic) and climbed off to pass up the omelette to the woman who was serving us. Just then one of the younger kids decided he wanted to climb up on the scooter - by grabbing the throttle to pull himself on. Well the bike shot off and scooped the delivery lad off his feet. The woman he was passing the omelette over the hedge to made a grab for the plate as he went down and somehow got hold of it mid air and even avoided it slipping off the plate. Top reactions! We thought the little kid was going to get walloped but they just laughed!

We set off agian expecting the worst from the road but hoping for the best. It was not quite as severe as yesterday as they had laid less of the gravel base layer and sometimes there was even a bit of the old potholey surface left to use. The dust was chronic again though. Today was shorter than yesterday and we had more energy and less hangover so it did not seem as bad. It felt like slow progress nonetheless, but we managed the 75km in about 4.5hrs.

One thing we have noticed over the last two days is the continual presence of roadside political messages, or rather party advertisements. The parties do not have the most imaginative names and it reminded me of that famous Monty Python scene from the Life of Brian. The various parties are listed here. I think each party perhaps covered a 10km stretch of roadside with maybe a sign or banner every 500m. They were not messages, just a picture of their leaders looking smug and the party name. There is an election happening soon but it seems that resistance to the current party in power (Cambodian Peoples Party) is futile. There are currently some protests in the city centre which we planned to avoid. Hun Sen has been the National Leader almost since Pol Pot got knocked off the spot and it doesn't seem likely to change soon with him being the party's deputy.

Arriving in Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia was not as smooth as expected. The traffic was not too bad, but the roads were terrible, almost all the way into the city centre. We expected something more like HCMC but it was a totally different place. There were a few tourists on the way in, but not too many. The sides of the roads were not as colourful with shops and food stalls either. It did look very interesting though and the area we had our hotel booked was right in the centre of the most interesting part of the city. We got some flavours of why this place was frequented by certain tourist types as we got nearer the hotel, but we will go into that side later. The hotel was an air-conditioned palace of cleanliness that was so appreciated when we arrived all dusty and sweaty again. The sun was really beating down in the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, high humidity and the hottest part of the day about 35 degrees C.

We took another video, but have lost the willpower to edit them as the laptop crashes each time the video exports, plus it just takes and absolute age to create, so please excuse the full unedited video which we will post up of the last half an hour into the city.

Route Link

Not too dusty yet

Must mean good for bikes?

Happy Cambodians

Sea coconuts and other treats, these stalls went on for miles

Wahey! Tarmac!

Local bus

Lots of propaganda from the imaginatively named parties

Noodeley goodness

Second course madam?

This kid wanted me to buy him Coca Cola

River front (Mekong)

Everyone keen to see what the guy with the net caught

Monday, 17 February 2014

14/12/2013 - Ha Tien to Takeo

We managed to drag ourselves out of bed on time which was a surprise, and had a breakfast of drinks and snacks bought the day before as the hotel did not do breakfast, and we wanted to get to the border early before the rush started. Of course we could have nipped out to a local place for a bowl of Pho and a glass of hot green tea, but that still doesn't grab us first thing in the morning to be honest. Our Western palate demands something sweeter, and caffeine at a minimum. The noodle soups start to become interesting only at about 10am when you feel properly awake.

Once packed up and on the bikes we headed onto the main road, pointed ourselves due West and headed for Cambodia. The road was fine, rough tarmac like usual but a lot of local traffic obviously heading for Cambodia and also coming back loaded with cheap stuff. The faces seemed to be changing also, we saw a darker skin and rounder flatter faces with thicker lips and also several short stocky and round persons which was not common for Vietnam at all. We reached the border managing to not feel too rough from the previous night and the temperature had not become to hot either yet.

We were a little nervous about the border crossing, only because this is the first time we have done this in Asia and were not sure what to expect and maybe they even wanted to search the bikes and luggage for drugs or ask us to pay import taxes for the bikes or show the receipt for the bikes or most likely just try to get more cash out of us in some way. The first stop was a little hut where the guy checked the passports and let us proceed to the main gate with a smile. In there it was quite empty so we did come at the right time of day. We spoke to a security guy about parking the bikes (we had been told to park out of sight so that they did not see them and would not ask for any extra money), and parked them where we could see them through the window to keep an eye on them but by now I already felt that this was a professional operation and we were safe from opportunists. They stamped our Vietnam Visas as expired which seemed to take a while behind the tinted glass counters and let us proceed through to No-Mans-Land and on to the Cambodian checkpoint.

The Cambodian side was markedly worse in terms of facilities! The problems seems to be that they have torn up all the roads on this side as part of a huge Casino and Hotel complex, which has since shut down due to lack of interest, which means the roads project has also stalled. You first have to get a form for entry which is filled out with all of your details (ALL of them), then you take this to another ramshackle hut where they check and issue the Visa but not before you take another form back to the first office for the Departure details (fill in exactly same details as first time on a different sheet). Then pay for the visa which we know should cost $20 but that they would charge us $25 to get a little extra for their pocket. Instead of standing and arguing in the heat (and in case they gave us it for $20 then asked for details of the bikes or something to be difficult) we just paid it. They then try to squeeze a little more money out of the traveller by trying to perform a medical check in another little hut next door and charging another $2 for shining a torch in your eyes and taking your temperature. We didn’t want this so waved our immunisation cards from our jabs at home at him he wasn't happy about missing out on his dollars so made us fill in yet another form with the same details. Then, finally more than one hour later we were off into Cambodia!

We had decided to head up towards Phnom Penh and then on towards Siam Reap (Angkor Wat) instead of sticking to the coast and following the beaches.

The roads continued to be very bad, dusty as hell and so potholed from all of the border traffic on the uncovered surface that it was very slow going. We hoped that as soon as we got farther away from the actual border it would improve.

It did improve, albeit very briefly. There was a stretch of maybe 5km of the original 1.5 lane wide highway still intact with passable tarmac. It was a nice sunny but not too hot day. We remarked about how we could already tell that this was a much poorer country, the houses were again just shacks or stilted shacks, many more people road past on older motorcycles or bicycles. The feeling was friendly though not as much as Vietnam. Apparently there is a law enforced since 2008 that forbids people to be unfriendly to tourists. Certainly all of the very little children have been trained to wave and shout hello in their little cartoon squeaky voices, even though they seem far too young to understand why they are doing it. We compared the standard of living with something like the smaller villages and agricultural lifestyle of the very North of Vietnam, but the people seemed to look a little more forlorn, lost even. There were fewer hello's from young guys, some would just stare even when we waved. I don't think it was aggression of any kind, more a shyness or unwillingness to appear happy. Poor old Cambodia has had a bit of a time though. We stopped for a couple of cokes in a little hut/shack/shop with three young guys and one tiny woman who had the shrillest, yappiest, most painfully loud voice ever. She didn’t so much talk as scream in your face. In a nice way of course but not something you want with a hangover like we had. Even the 3 guys seem to tilt their head away from her and wince as she let another staccato sentence out with all the ferocity of a tiny sub machine gun. We paid them in dong and even learned our first few words of Cambodian.

We ploughed on, now starting to feel the effects of the late night and litres of cheap beer. We had not covered many km's due to the border crossing. Then all of a sudden the road surface disappeared. They are widening the road by flattening all the trees/houses/ fields each side by 2m, then raising the level to match the current road and then tarmacing the lot. Now, it would seem sensible to me that you should perhaps do the widening part first, then lay the bedrock on the raised sections and flatten it and perhaps even tarmac one side before removing the old surface, so that the road remains usable. What they have done instead is initiate the process by removing the old surface entirely and then dumping the hardcore gravel layer straight onto it. This leaves a road surface much like a pebbly desert, with inch deep layers of 3cm diameter rocks covering a bed of dessicated red dust. It was almost impossible to cycle on and most of the time we barely made 10kph for fear of falling off when your front wheel digs in to another pothole filled with gravel. These were by far the worst road surfaces we have ever cycled on. We ploughed on getting dustier and sweatier and dustier again. The hangovers did nothing for our motivation and it started to get quite tough. We knew we would make it of course but as a first day into Cambodia, we kind of wished it was over already.

Route Link

There is a famous face in the rock apparently

Failed Cambodian side Casino

The Cambodian side Visa offices and medical Centre

It started with just dust

And got worse and worse

Johanna is back there somewhere

Gravel is incredibly difficult to cycle on

Houses in Cambodia

The dust gets everywhere

Later on the road was - rubbish!

Down at the cow-wash

The dust still got in my teeth somehow.

Eventually some tarmac, near the end of the route.

13/12/2013 - Phu Quoc to Ha Tien

We took the long way round to go back to the harbour as it is all surfaced road but this meant a slightly longer route. Despite this we arrived at the harbour really early as Johanna gets a bit nervous about taking boats and suchlike in case we miss them. Before we left the hotel she already said she had a bad feeling about it as the route was longer and she thought we didn’t have enough time. Anyway we got there over an hour early, and sat around in the sun watching people coming and going. We got onto our boat as soon as we could (Johanna also doesn't like to wait until the end of queues) - and boy are we glad we did. Once on the boat with the bikes and luggage safely stowed away, the crew passed round checking seat numbers and taking passport numbers. Not sure why they did it on this boat, they don’t usually. So we pulled out the passports, but - they weren’t there! We had forgotten to get them back from behind the reception at the hotel this morning.

Now we had 25 minutes before the only boat of the day left. I got off and asked Johanna to wait with the bikes and our stuff on the boat and then just ran around trying to borrow a motorbike or get a lift from anyone on the dock as there were no taxi's there at the time. One guy said he would take me so I hopped on the back of his Honda Dream moped and off we went, hoping to make the 30km round trip in the 20 mins I had left. He didn’t realise that it was so far, plus he would only go 35mph maximum which was not enough. We passed a group of taxi's outside a shack-restaurant near the airport. He said I should try to take a taxi instead and I agreed. I tried to pay him for the moto-taxi but he wouldn't take any money, turns out he was not a taxi just a bloke trying to help!

I started chatting with the taxi drivers who were laying about in hammocks and smoking and drinking coffee. I said that I only have 15 mins to get to the hotel and back but no-one was moving much. Damn. I considered getting back on the motorbike, then started asking about borrowing a taxi just as one younger guy came out of the back of the café ready to go. Great! So we jumped in his Toyota Innova and sped off towards the town. He was a really nice guy and understood the urgency and drove as fast as he could. We were doing up to 80mph now, on these small roads and through the small hamlets. I have to say it was not the most comfortable journey. The driver's bravery far outweighed his driving abilities. He was braking through corners after going in too fast, clutching and braking simultaneously when faced with an oncoming vehicle (usually as we overtook around a blind bend) and randomly changing gears when there was no need to. I stared ahead and said nothing.

We got the the hotel, I ran in and said one word - 'Passports!!' at the reception and they understood and had obviously been waiting for me to come back, then ran out again with them in hand. We had 8 mins to get back to the dock. The journey back was even worse and I couldn’t watch most of the time as we barrelled along only vaguely in control whilst forcing other traffic to stop or pull onto the verge to avoid a collision. When we got back to the dock another big boat had just arrived and dropped its cargo of Asian tourists off which meant that the narrow 250m jetty road down to the end where our boat was moored was totally blocked with taxi's and buses and people. We could not get the taxi down any further so I gave the driver a nice tip and a handshake and sprinted the rest back to the boat. I puffed and panted back onto the boat with the passports clutched in hand 7 minutes after it should have left which I think was pretty bloody good!

Ha Tien was very hot. The dock was full of tourists and hectic as usual. We only had a few km to the already booked hotel but it was a bit of a pain as the road on the map didn't exist. We found it eventually, checked in and had a quick shower before going out for some lunch and a look around to find the post office as we had some things we needed to send back as they were just taking up room in our bags.

Later on in the evening, we went out for dinner to a place mentioned in the book that supposedly did a good western menu. It was run by a 60ish-year old English guy who had been a taxi driver in Wales near Aberystwyth before moving over here 8 years ago. His wife was Vietnamse, they had a 3 year old son and met in Cambodia 5 years ago. She could have only been 21 at the oldest, looked a lot younger. I think they met when she was 16 or 17. We had a few beers there, deciding not to have dinner between ourselves as there was no other customers. Anyway, we had a good chat about our trip and life in Vietnam - he told us that an Australian guy had a three storey house built from a green site in the town for £5000, including water, power and sewage lines, materials and labour and painting inside and out!!! We were about to leave to find some food when two massive fat Canadians and an older English guy came and sat down with us outside on the the two small tables. I recognised them from the beach in Phu Quoc where we sat beside them in a restaurant a couple of days ago and we got their bill by accident. So we chatted and had a couple more beers. We had some chips that the owner had been teaching his less-than-interested wife to make and a sausage baguette each.

Then another couple turned up who were from the Czech Republic and shared our table with us. They were from a small town called Domazlice which we cycled through and stayed in for one night on our Euro-tour. They were proper travellers and not the half-body tattoo and silly glasses and beard types. They had been almost everywhere in the world including cycling in the roughest parts of India and Pakistan on rubbish bikes, living in communes in various parts of Spain and had been to almost of of Asia at least once before. He was 34 and she was 28. So we had a couple more beers with those guys too. Then Jim, the fattest of the two Canadians started sending rounds of beers over to our table I assume in order to redirect the conversation in their direction. So we had a couple more. I think Jim bought 4 rounds in total before his friend just got up and left without a word. Must be how they do it in Canada when they have had a little too much to drink! Then shortly afterwards Jim himself pulled the same trick, got up and just waddled off down the road without so much as a whisper. We left soon afterwards as well as the English guy that ran the place went to bed leaving us chatting outside with his young wife doing the clearing up and looking after us. The Czech's wanted to find another beer so we found one place that was mainly an open-late food joint with the help of one seriously inebriated Vietnamese guy who was absolutely hilarious without knowing it, the best way. He even went back to his house to pull his poor wife out of bed to come and meet us all. She spoke no English at all but Johanna was very nice to her and kept her in the conversation somehow.

All evening we had been saying to people that it was OK for us to have a bit of a night, as we only had 90km to do tomorrow on pan flat roads, even though we did need to cross the border. Lets see if this false confidence would pay off the next day or not!

Route Link

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

09/12/13 - 13/12/13 Phu Quoc Island

We had to leave Rach Gia early after a slightly questionable Westernised breakfast (eggs, sweet toast bread and some plasticy tasting sausages) at the hotel, to get to the harbour for our 8 o'clock boat to Phu Quoc island. The boat trip was straight-forward, only about 1 hour, and we noticed two other cyclists getting on board, two women in the mid thirties maybe. I got chatting to them when we arrived on the island and waiting to get of the boat. They were Dutch. One of them was going for a month and a half, the other one joined her for 2 weeks. They cycled along the Mekong and were now planning a few days rest on Phu Quoc looking for an idyllic paradise.

We had to cycle another 13k on the island to get to our guesthouse just outside Dương Đông, the main town on the island. The boat didn't even go to the same harbour as advertised. There were maybe 4 ferry companies advertised online, but all but one had closed, with boats and jetty harbours lying unused. Lack of tourism, or poorly planned investment?

After leaving the harbour  main road all other roads are either unsurfaced (sometimes only consist of sandy bits) or being rebuilt. There were odd 3 lane stretches of 1km motorway in the middle of nowhere, and the GPS had some of the sandy tracks down as main roads. Another poorly executed investment? We arrived at the guesthouse which was nice and clean and in walking distance from the main beach stretch, but very basic, like a Nga Nghi but more expensive. It would suit us fine for a few days. The guy at reception seemed flustered and over-worked, but he was very friendly. We couldn't check in straight away as the previous occupier of our room hadn't checked out yet (it was only about 11am), so we decided to have some lunch at the guesthouse which was also a little café. After establishing that most things in the menu, strangely all local dishes, were actually not available, we decided for ham and cheese sandwiches and waited. And waited and waited.... The little colleague of the reception guy disappeared and reappeared 20 mins later again with our food in take-away boxes. Not the usual home-made Vietnamese cuisine we are used to, but it was nice and we are after all back in tourist land.

After lunch we decided to have a cycle in the main town, Dương Đông, to waste some more time before we were able to check into our room. The town was, well how can I put it, fishy! It was shacks, small shops and busy small streets surrounding the famous fish sauce factory (they also offer a guided tour to tourists!). The smell was over-bearing, so we had to leave.

A quick pit-stop in the hotel to check in and shower, and we were off again to the beach. Only a short walk through some of the bigger resorts which occupy the beach front. The beach was nice, probably one of the nicest we have seen in Vietnam. Blue, clear water and white sand.

The next day we spent all day on the beach. It was wonderful. We saw lots of huge starfish in the water, and also quite a few jelly fish. We also met the two Dutch ladies again. In the evening we went to a bar close to our hotel and played pool and drank for the evening with some people we met in the bar, an crazy Irish guy travelling with a dizzy Australian girl, both in their 30's, and a young pair who were from Australia also and were flying everywhere with cheap internal flights. All bonkers. We avoided a second date that they wanted to arrange with us for the next night.

For our third day on Phu Quoc we went on a snorkelling trip, as you do, but this time with a twist. First we went to see a pearl farm (Phu Quoc is also famous for its pearls) and watched them talking out a pearl out of an oyster before we were gently pushed into the direction of the souvenir shop (we didn't expect this part of the day trip). On the actual boat trip we went fishing (Greg actually finally caught something in front of me!) before hitting 3 snorkelling stops. On the first stop, the Vietnamese boat crew noticed a piece of wood floating in the sea which was covered in crabs, not very big ones, and got all excited. They threw in a rope and were trying to retrieve the drift wood including its precious cargo. Once on board they chucked the crabs in a bucket and the wood back in the sea. Greg who was already swimming around the boat, brought them some more. The Vietnamese will literally eat anything and fancied them for BBQ lunch. Greg even brought a single crab back on a floating babies flip flop which they took gratefully!

And now, guess what happened next, I felt so tempted after that that I went in for a dip on the second spot. Truth is, I did wear a swimming vest and frantically swam to the reef just to hop from big stone to big stone, but I did fulfil the premise of snorkelling - I was wearing a snorkelling mask and I saw corals and fish in the sea. I was very proud when I got back on the boat!

We had a fantastic lunch on the boat. Very generous with fish and chicken dishes, omelettes, veg and much more. Plenty for everybody. We were also offered to try sea urchin which cost an extra 30 pence, but were worth it. We tried them sushi-style with wasabi and lemon and also a barbequed version but the raw was best. The best sea food I have ever had! 

We enjoyed Phu Quoc and extended for one more day which we again spent on the beach and generally enjoying life. We had a beach massage and got a bit ripped off, well not really but we did pay £15 for two of us for half an hour. This happened because they started doing our feet and trying to thread Gregs back which we didnt ask for. Oh well, still not too expensive and they were very funny ladies who thought it was hilarious that we spoke some Vietnamese and this is after all their livelihood. Then back to swimming and eating seafood at small cheap bamboo restaurants on the sand. Tough life!

Next stop would be our last town in Vietnam, after 2.5 months! 

Rach Gia Harbour side

Boat name could be considered amusing to the more childish

Fast boat, you sit at water level

Beach in front of one of the resorts - fine for us too!

Huge starfish

Beach massage ladies

Oyster farm

Buy something sir, madam?

Snorkelling trip boat

Seafood seller for lunch extras

Urchins with spines already removed

He actually caught 3 fish, all small though

Log of crabs for Crew lunch

Dont let them get away!

Preparing urchins

With Wasabi and Lime - delicious

Do I look serious?

Last stop of the day was on this beach in the North - notice the motorbike!

Mmmm pineapple

We wondered how that tastes?