Arriving in Bangkok in mid-January after a fun Christmas holiday in Sydney with friends felt exciting. We were ready to head off on our two wheeled adventure, if only for one reason – to burn off all the turkey and mince pies! We had no fixed plan of where we were going. All we knew was that we had to be back in Bangkok in time for our flight home to the UK approximately 10 weeks later. We wanted to see as much of the region as possible but also didn’t want to make the trip into a marathon whirlwind adventure or a logistical headache. Would we head southeast through Cambodia and on into Vietnam or turn north towards Laos? Could we take bikes on local trains and buses? Would the roads have a safe shoulder to ride on? Would the driving be manic and aggressive? There was only one way to find out, get on our bikes and get riding….
Our bikes? Hmm, now that was a bit of a snag. We didn’t have any! Neither of us owned suitable touring bikes in the UK so we’d decided rather than fly out our sub-standard machines, we’d buy new ones in Bangkok. At the time this seemed to make sense but with hindsight, and now knowing the limited availability of decent bikes (and large sizes) available in Bangkok we’re not so sure it was the best idea (don’t believe everything you read on the internet!). On future trips, I think we’d prefer to buy dedicated touring bikes and get them properly set up, comfortable and familiar prior to heading off. That’s what all the other cyclists we’d met out there had done and I think with good reason. With the excitement & anxiety of heading off into the unknown in a foreign land with no knowledge of where we’d sleep or what food & drink would be available, we didn’t need the extra stress of whether the bikes would be comfortable or more importantly, up to the job…..
We scoured the shops and finally found some bikes that kind of fitted the bill. Enough messing around, it was time to get going. At 5.30 on a Sunday morning (we figured the traffic would be at its lightest) we crept out of our hotel in Bangkok and pedalled off east into a glorious sunrise. The first couple of days riding weren’t overly rewarding. We’d read other peoples’ blogs and they’d all caught the train to escape the clutches of the manic city traffic and bland surroundings but this was the start of our cycling adventure and getting the train just seemed wrong. By now we’d decided to travel pretty much exactly east, heading for a little used border into Cambodia, near the town of Pailin. We’d bought a pretty good map and combined with the digital maps on our phones (we used the “Maps with Me” App that doesn’t require phone signal) we made our way out through the hot, rather featureless countryside. However, after 4 days riding, we decided this wasn’t the best use of our time so bundled the bikes into a minivan and 5 hours later (aren’t engines great?!) we were dropped off at the dusty border post.
Crossing over into Cambodia was quite scary. We’d felt pretty comfortable in Thailand, the ‘holiday destination’ of SE Asia but now, we were heading into unfamiliar territory. The remote western province where we’d entered the country was apparently (according to our guide book) still littered with UXO (unexploded landmines etc) and populated by supporters of the notorious Khmer Rouge. Out there, pedalling along a quiet road through the hot, barren landscape, we felt more than a little vulnerable. We needn’t have worried though. After a couple of hours we arrived at the town of Pailin and all our worries dissipated. Everyone was friendly, there was a decent clean guest house and a restaurant serving delicious cheap food and ice cold beer. Do cyclists need anything else?
We’d hoped to cover about 50km a day on average but also knew that we might need to occasionally ride further to make it to a town with a place to sleep and eat. To keep us out of any potential trouble we were carrying basic camping gear but the lure of a soft (ish), clean (ish) bed and a shower always seemed worth putting in the extra effort for. The next day, after a 92km ride, we rolled into the city of Battanbang. Our clothes were soaked with sweat, our heads pounding from the incessant hot sun and our legs wobbly from the effort. We checked into an executive room at a big fancy looking hotel and for £20 a night, spent the next few days chilling out in air con comfort or wandering the groovy little bars and art galleries of this surprisingly trendy & fun little city.
One limitation of this whole region was that in a lot of cases, there were only major roads linking the places we wanted to visit. These roads can be pretty damn unpleasant to ride on. Exhaust belching trucks and buses hammer up and down them and despite the fact that the driving standards throughout the region were extremely courteous, they are just not nice places to be. Luckily, to get to our next destination of Siem Reap there was a boat. Due to the low water levels in the river it was a bit of a hell ride but we reckon it was still better than riding the 200km, but only just.
Now I’ll leave the guide books to wax lyrical about the world renowned Angkor Wat site. It had to be seen though, even if what appeared to be the whole of the population of planet earth had had the same idea. Suffice to say, the bicycle was definitely the best way to get around the extensive and impressive grounds. In fact we racked up over 40km as we cruised the site, and that was supposed to be one of our days off!
Another boat took us to the city of Phnom Penh. All capital cities are a bit confronting, especially when you arrive by bicycle. Phnom Penh though, was in a league of its own. Not for its busy, traffic clogged streets nor for its noise & pollution, but for its hideous history. We’d known little about the Pol Pot regime prior to this trip and have to say that we found our visits to the S21 torture centre and the Killing Felds site more than a little emotional. This is not the forum to delve into this subject but suffice to say that it so saddens me to discover what a human is capable of doing to one of his/her own kind.
It was time to get moving again, there was an adventure to be had. We’d decided to not continue east into Vietnam but instead turn north and follow the Mekong river, possibly (if our little legs could take it) as far as the northern Laos city of Luang Prabang approximately 1200 miles away. We spotted an excellent escape route from the bustling city, and after a 10 minute ferry trip across the river, found ourselves cycling along a small, quiet country road that linked a seemingly endless string of rural villages. It was fantastic riding, exactly the way we’d hoped and imagined it would be. Little kids constantly called out “hello”, some running out to ‘Hi 5’ us as we rode past. Every few miles there were little cafes (think wooden shack with a couple of plastic chairs out front) serving cold drinks and snacks. The scenery had much improved, the road was flat and there was a town every 50-100km that would (we hoped) be large enough to provide some kind of accommodation. We quickly worked out how to order up delicious plates of rice or noodles and also discovered Cambodian coffee – Strong, iced, and loaded with sweetened milk. All served up in a pint glass with a straw. A weary, hot cyclists dream!!
The riding went on like this for a couple of weeks. Sometimes the tarmac road turned into smooth dirt that only added to the adventurous feeling. The Mekong became our friend as we followed its banks or crossed it via a combination of bridges, vehicle ferries (one loaded with Water Buffalo) or at one point on a small tributary, a barge that was pulled across by a wizened old woman in a pointed bamboo hat. We were in ‘Adventure Cyclists Heaven’!
It wasn’t all great though. The heat between 11 and 3 was pretty unbearable. We tried to find places to sit out the worst of the day but the basic little dusty roadside cafes just didn’t offer any respite and it just seemed better to keep moving. The main downside of being off the beaten track was that when we did eventually make it to a ‘big’ town, the facilities were still pretty damn basic. Many of our guest houses, although very cheap (£4 a night between us) left a little to be desired on the cleanliness front. We often lay out our sleeping bags over the ‘clean’ sheets and in one place even put our camping mats on the bed as the mattress was that hard! Being out in the rural areas where little English is spoken meant that we had to quickly increase our vocabulary beyond the standard “hello” and “Thank you”. By the end of the trip we’d mastered “Can we have 2 big bottles of water please” and “Is there a guest house nearby” in Thai, Cambodian and Laotian!
The last couple of days in Cambodia threw up a big challenge. Over a couple of beers we decided to take on our biggest battle yet, a 140km ride through barren, open countryside that only offered one remote village where we’d be able to pick up food and water. This distance would easily smash our previous ‘record’ of 97km in a day and the whole thing felt a bit daunting. At 6.30am, with 20km already under our wheels, the tarmac road literally crumbled away. This was a major route and years of pounding from overloaded trucks and buses had literally smashed the road to smithereens. Little did we know that we now had over 80km of dust and gravel to battle through before the tarmac would eventually start again. As we slithered and bumped our way through the sand & gravel, heavily loaded vehicles constantly hammered past us, throwing up huge plumes of thick red, choking dusk. The visibility dropped to less than a couple of metres as we were engulfed in it. Luckily we’d bought some dust masks (like the ones you get in a DIY shop) that helped a bit but the conditions were quite frankly appalling. We struggled on for hours and once finally back onto the tarmac, managed to wobble on through the last 40km, eventually arriving in the town of Stung Treng about 13 hours after we’d set off. Phew!
A day or two later we crossed the border into Laos, paying a dollar bribe to the guard as it was a weekend. Well, there’s no way the government were going to pay him overtime was there? We had a few days relaxing at gorgeous Don Dhet, otherwise known as “The 4000 Islands” before heading on north. After a few more hot, long days riding, we decided to break away from the now monotonous, highway. We needed a change of scene and a new challenge so decided to head up into the hills towards Phonsavan and the famous Plain of Jars.
At what point do hills become mountains, is there a definition? I think it’s when you’ve been twiddling away in granny gear for over half an hour and you are nowhere near the top? The combination of the constant climbing and the heat got pretty unbearable. We met two French guys riding three wheeled recumbents who were heading our way. We checked their computer and saw that we’d all pedalled our heavy, fully laden bikes a total of 75km that day, including a continuous 20km climb that rose 850m. Not a bad achievement in itself, but add in the temperature of about 38 degrees and full sunshine and the whole thing started to look pretty mental.
The Plain of Jars turned out to be a bit of a non-event but the incessant climbing in the mountains kept our minds off that. 20km up, 15 down, 25 up, 5 down, sleep. 15km up, 8 down, 12 up, sleep. You get the picture…. After 4 long days of turning our legs to jelly we finally rolled into the gorgeous town of Luang Prabang. We’d done it! We relaxed there for about a week, taking in the temples and lovely little French style cafes. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves and celebrated with lots of guilt free yummy croissants and baguettes.
This pretty much marked the end of the cycling. We’d run out of puff and it was getting so hot that riding any distance between 11am and 4pm was madness. We took a lovely 2 day river boat up the Mekong and crossed back into Thailand. A couple of local buses then whisked us down to Chiang Mai. Through more luck than judgement we sold both bikes to a friendly bike shop owner and managed to get back about 40% of the original purchase price. This equated to approximately £2 per day per bike for the time we’d had them, which we thought was pretty good going.
The charming overnight sleeper train brought us back down to Bangkok. On our last night, this fantastic city put on a farewell display of what ‘start of the rainy season’ means. It absolutely chucked it down as we ran through the flooded streets, dodging a 3 foot long cobra along the way that must have been washed out of a local garden. Eventually we made it to our favourite bar, totally dripping wet and raised a glass to the trip. We’d managed to do nearly 1400 miles without any accidents or mishaps. We’d only had 2 punctures and amazingly no tummy trouble, despite eating some very suspect looking meals. Everyone we’d come across in all three countries had been genuinely friendly, trustworthy and most had gone out of their way to make us feel as welcome as possible. Excluding flights and bike costs, we’d spent about £35 per day between us, covering all our accommodation, food and drink. Now you’ve got to be happy with that? We really can’t recommend enough doing a trip like this. Go on, you know you want to. Chock Dee!!!