Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jomtien Beach, Gulf of Thailand

When I tell friends that we are off on another bicycle touring adventure, the response often is an incredulous, "You're going where, to do what?" Now that we are a couple of days before returning, I am also starting to question myself by asking "You've gone where and did what?". But I am a bit ahead of myself.

From Battambang in Cambodia, we decided to head to Thailand and its beautiful beaches, which took us on another less travelled road to Pailin. I use the word road'' advisably, since about half of the 90 kms was dirt or under contruction and Pailin itself, was like a construction zone on all the main streets. As such we wanted to get to a guest house which was described as about 3 kms north of town but without any road signs the only clue that I followed was that there was an unexpected paved cross road which suggested that this may be the Bamboo Guest House we were looking for and would eventually lead us to the Thai border.

Intuitition proved right and after a comfortable night's stay, we headed for the border, only to discover that the last 15 kms were not only like rough tracks, but the terrain was also hilly such that the appearance of several multi-storey buildings, hotels with casinos, were a welcome sign, since they indicated that we were just a few meters from Thailand, and the casinos and hotels were built to attract gamblers from just across the imaginary line.

The crossing was nearly effortless, as we were not asked for a bribe at this location and with a quick visa from Thailand, we were soon on our way on well paved roads with smooth shoulders, manicured medians but alas, non of the warm greetings of "hello" we had become accustomed to in Cambodia and Laos. Even swithching to the left side of the road came naturally, as we had ridden thus in India and Australia.

Our ride to Chantiburi was quite easy as we could avail ourselves of the modern gas stations with convenience stores and eateries so we were well fuelled and fed. Chantiburi turned out to be much larger than anticipated but it still had a charming row of shops along the river, dating from about a hundred years ago.

Eager to see the sea we left early to Ban Leam Phim, which deserved a one line mention in Lonely Planet, to discover a well developed beach community with kilometer after kilometer of hotels and restaurant on one side, and umbrellas and chairs and simple foodstands on the beach side. Seeing the turquise ocean for the first time, after so many months of inland riding, was a spectacular feeling.

Our accomodations, Bali Villa, also did not disappoint as we stayed in this cosy development of 20 cottages, each named after a tropical fruit tree which was grown at its front steps. Ours was the Mango and it was truly reminiscent of Bali with the open air feeling shower and the teak construction everywhere.

After a two day stay on the beach we wanted to go to a similar setting and road along the ocean for nearly 50kms to discover that our possible destination Rayong was a bustling industrial town and not at all inviting. I knew that further along the coast there were several options but using some basic logic, I concluded that the best chance of finding a place would be around Sattahip which not only has a military and civilian airport as well as a major naval base. The town proved to be a charming fishing village sorounded by a few block of stores and the aforementioned uses, but alas, only one hotel, that by northern Laos standards would have been quite good, but having enjoyed the comforts of Bali Villas, we only had the option of going further still towards the famous beaches of Pattaya.

After turning off the main highway several times to follow signs, we would either end up at some multi-story condo develpment or a massive hotel, such as the Ambassador with 4,000 rooms, we ended riding another monster day in the heat of 135kms to the smaller community of Jomtien just south of Pattaya, thinking that it would be quieter and less commercial.

We looked at several standard and luxury hotels but after such a long ride, none seemed inviting, when at the southern end of the Jomtien, on a small side street, a few doors from the beach I came acrossa pizza restaurant, guesthouse and pub with the unlikely name of "Miracle Mirage" owned by a Dutchman Gerard and his Thai wife, Kwan. It only has three rooms but has a European feel of a guesthouse or as we soon discovered, more like a guest home, where at each turn, they anticipated our needs, including the offer to use their computer.

Their pizza lived upto its billing as the "Best Pizza in Thailand" according to the Pattaya People TV and their pasta was equally good. Our plans were to ride to Bangkok Airport, about a 130kms from here, but we discovered that Monday is a public holiday, so elected to use our time here by sampling all the great cuisine and enjoy the beaches and all of the major hotels with such inviting pools, with Gerard driving us in his truck, directly to the airport for Tuesday's departure.

We did ride into Pattaya which is truly an urban jungle and even mid-day it lives upto its notoriety for sex tourism, discos, outdoor beer bars, go-g- clubs, that attracts its share of prostitutes of every shape and form.

We were happy to return to the quieter beaches of Jomtien where last night, as we watched the sunset over the Gulf of Thailand, for the third night in a row, and as I looked back in the opposite direction, I notice a brilliant full moon, did the realization hit me that the previous full moons we had enjoyed were in Jaisamer, India, camping in the desert where it was a brilliant white globe, and in Champasak, Laos, where during the full moon festival, it was a red globe as it was framed by Angkor era ruins, that we have been gone for a considerable time.

The four months seemed to have by so quickly; that we had travelled in five countries, India, Australia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, that we had cycled about 4,500kms, is only now raising the question in my mind of where we have been and what we have done.

With a few minor exceptions, the trip seemed effortless and needless to say extremely enjoyable and stimulating, with each day a minor revelation. Looking back, Alison and I are astounded that the trip is nearly at its end and that we went on bicycles where we did. Still, I know that soon after we board the plane, to Mubai, then London and then to Toronto, the first thing I will do is browse the maps at the back of the airline magazines and contemplate the few inches of ground we have covered, and how on four wheels, we uncovered yet another small piece of the planet and that it will be time to plan the next trip as there is so much more to see and to experience.

Happy travelling

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Battambang, Cambodia

Tourist Times

The culture shock of being in Siem Reap, the contrast of experiencing one of the true wonders of the world and the commercial trappings of all the material goods and services available here, after travelling for many weeks mostly on quiet rural roads where people live off the land, took us six days to overcome, but we did not only managed, but triumphed with great enjoyment.

With apologies to those who have been here and seen it all, its truly a challenging task to encapsulate what Angkor is about. It is much more than Angkor Wat one of the most famous landmarks that is applied to this area. Angkor in fact is the Capital City or the Holy City of the Khmer Empire that existed between the 9th and 12th centuries and it encompasses not only three or four centuries of massive buildings but an area that spreads over hundreds of kilometers, with ruins that are in various stages of preservation: some well done and others intentionally left unrestored with giant building block size stones scattered like mammoth lego pieces, with equally massive tree roots, like elephant trunks hugging them.

The Khmers also constructed massive water works, for many kilometers, and constructed temples dedicated to the gods, places of worship, as well as cities worthy of their military, economic and cultural dominance of a region that spread over an area that covers modern day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Early in our travels, even though we were moving at a relatively slow pace, covering modest distances and had the benefit of two digital cameras and lots of memory cards, Alison and I agreed that we can't visit all sites and capture every photo opportunity, a promise we had to remind ourselves when we toured Angkor. We had a three day pass, which included an evening tour and we soon discovered that it’s nearly impossible to beat the crowds. The guide books all comment on the monuments and which is the best light to photograph them and then go on to suggest the contrarian strategy of doing them at reverse times, but its all to little or no avail. We would rise around five in the morning and were on the go by sixish, and this gave us a couple of hours of relative quiet but by eight or so, at least at the nearby ruins the buses would disgorge their passengers who eagerly followed their tour leaders' flag.

As our own counter, counter maneuver, we would start at some of the most distant sites which allowed us some of the best undisturbed viewing opportunities, but these would also be relatively short lived. Not that its a complaint, but having others around did take getting used to but it was still a most awe inspiring experience, and one that is not only worth doing but perhaps even repeating, not withstanding the fact that Angkor's popularity will not only increase but will grow rapidly as the roads, as we have discovered to Thailand and Vietnam and Laos have all been paved. One indication of this is that there is a near solid line of hotels built or under construction, west of the city of about four kilometers towards the airport which we only discovered as we were leaving town.

Beyond the hotels, there is a huge tourist infrastructure of eating, drinking, massages and of course shopping which we also got used to, especially the ability buy foods for an early in-room breakfast our favourite being whole wheat baguettes, and European style pastries which very conveniently were half price after eight p.m.

It took us six days of adjustment but we not only coped but thrived under these demanding conditions, building our touristic abilities. During the three days we ended not only bicycling about 175 kms between sites but enduring walking and climbing steep temples that were designed to humble the supplicants and sure provided an ideal training ground for rock climbing, often in the heat of the day, such that by early afternoon we would return nearly exhausted to do battle the following day.

Of course the mental stimulation is one that is most difficult to describe as one contemplates how without the benefit of modern tools and even local stones, over a 1000 years ago the Khmers built an empire that must have required untold amounts of money, labour, planning and execution, all the while fighting internal and external wars.

This wonderment was shared by most of the people who we saw and spoke to but there were some annoyances. The loud speaking foreigners, the groupies who would take ages to pose solemnly in front of a particularly impressive monument, followed by the remaining busloadful of their compatriots and the occasional young eastern oriental women in their slinky, silky, fluorescent outfits, with splayed arms and fingers, struggling to strike sexy posses for that trophy photo to preserve their experiences.

The variety and complexity of the structures and the details of the history are nearly impossible to absorb in such a short visit but left an enduring impression on us. Its also not possible to ignore the question of the decline and fall of major empires, such as the Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Mayan and ultimately our own as we see how in a relatively short period of time, a civilization can thrive and then decline to ruins.

While the comparisons may not be entirely appropriate, I am always stuck by, especially in South East Asia, the contrast between the monuments governments and near government agencies build for themselves and the way people around them live. In Vientiane one of the most imposing, pyramid like structures is the home of the Mekong Commission, with a parking lot full of fancy cars, while the people nearby live most modestly. In Siem Reap I donated blood to a wonderful children’s hospital, established and run by a cello playing Swiss Dr. Beat Richner and is supported by mostly private donations and yet the Ministry of Health is housed in a five storey, palace like structure.

Of course the contrasts within this society are even more striking. In a land like Cambodia where most travel by motorcycle or by bicycle, not counting the few eccentric tourists on two wheels, where if there is a private car, it is a soon to be recalled, beaten up Toyota Corolla from the 1980's and naturally, the typically black high end Lexus SUV, with blaring horns, is bound to stand out.

We could easily have stayed longer but the road called and what a ride it was to Sisophon, on a recently paved near flat, smooth surfaced highway with a paved shoulder, such that with the benefit of a tail wind, it felt like we flew the distance of 110 kms in 4.5 hours. From Sisophon to Battambang was another 70 km and enroute, I recorded 69,000 kms on my odometer marking also that we have since leaving Toronto, travelled more than 4,000 kms on our trusty two wheeled vehicles.

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, on the Stung Sanke River, and we elected to stay in an international class high rise hotel, not because of the wonderful room with all the conveniences, the second floor pool which two days running we have had to ourselves, but to avail ourselves of the buffet breakfast with both western and eastern food options and to take a well deserved rest day after all the tourist challenges of Siem Reap.

Tomorrow we leave for Pailin, not the home of the political wonder woman, but a town near the border of Thailand which is the shortest route to the Gulf of Thailand, where we will be able to squeeze in about a week of sea, sand and sun while we contemplate and try to integrate the wonders of Angkor Wat and prepare ourselves to ride to and to fly home from Bangkok.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Culture Shock Siem Reap Angkor

After our 144km ride we had a well deserved rest day in Kratie which was devoted to some essentials like laundry, reading and just walking around this small town on the Mekong, and of course, since it attracts a fair number of tourists, it also provided a great culinary diversion of a steady diet of noodle soups and fried rice. Not that we are in any way constricting our food intake, but it is quite evident that each day we burn far more calories than we take in, and yet are energetic and as might be expected are shedding a few pounds, not that I am complaining. Likewise with the food, while our ability to point and articulate is limited, we have yet to have a meal that did not taste great. In the back of my mind I can hear diners at home commenting how the pasta was not quite done right, or the egg was not quite runny enough etc. where as here, just the ability to have a meal can at times be a challenge so its culinary quality is hardly noted.

The next day’s ride, while only 36 kms to Chhlong, was quite demanding, since most of the road was either under construction or was a bumpy, dusty red road, that might have made any cruel Khmer Rouge proud. Still, it was most enjoyable since the “road” hugged the Mekong most of the way, with dense habitation on both sides: tall palms and bamboo plants and signs of fishing activity on the river side and rice, tobacco and corn being cultivated on long flat fields away from the river and of course, everywhere the universal greeting of “hello” from people who are at times invisible.

While difficult to generalize, it seems that this part of the world is still highly agrarian since there was a preponderance of ox carts, small ponies pulling wagons and many adults riding bicycles, clearly going to work or to a market. Kids of all ages are also on bikes in long lines in the mornings, in their white shirts and blue skirts or trousers, heading to schools, often on bikes that are too small or big, carrying a passenger and more often than not, pedaling bare feet. Large ice-blocks are manually sawn and kept in plastic coolers for refrigeration which hearken back to my childhood of a half century ago in Hungary, as do the numerous hay stacks in the country side and the presence of all types of domestic animals everywhere.

Chhlong in the 1920’s was an important French administrative center, with numerous once handsome buildings that are now in various state of decline, from being completely abandoned, used for storage and some just as a store front, showing how quickly decay can set in, albeit Chhlong is not anywhere near the scale that we have tasted in the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat that date from the 9th Century.

The next day we continued along the Mekong to Kampong Cham, taking a ferry at one point and watched the dramtics of trucks scalling the steep sandy embankement. What made this streth of particular interest is the present of several Muslim villages, and one with quite a large mosque, the first we have seen in this part of South East Asia.

In town, we stayed in the third or fourth hotel called "Mekong Hotel" one that is popular with group tours. As luck would have it, we met a group of 10 cyclists on an organized tour, who as fellow cyclsits are always impressed by the distances we have covered and afforded us an opportunity to share experiences on the road.

The next day, we were headed in the same direction as the group and we found out that they would be having lunch in Kampong Thom, some 110kms away and which was our overnight destination. The group cycled half the distance before being ferried by bus where as we did the entire stretch, carrying our own gear, and yet, we arrived just past noon, just as the group was in the middle of their lunch. Needless to say they were properly impressed by our feat and the fact that we were still reasonably fresh on arrival! Clearly, we are in pretty great shape and after our monster ride earlier in the week, this seemed pretty easy.

With a 90 km day to Kampong Kdei and another 60kms to Siem Reap, we knew immediatly that we arrived someplace very special not only because of the endless line of hotels large and small, but the the frantic traffic around the new market, not doubt enhanced by anxious shoppers stocking up for Chinese New Year, the following day.

We knew of course that Angkor is a World Heritage Site, but somehow we had imagined that the town of Siem Reap would be like other larger towns in Laos and Cambodia. Our expectations were severely challenged when we discovered a several square block area near the Old Market which is straight out of New Orleans, without the jazz. with endless two-storey restaurants offering the cuisines of the world. What made it particularly special for us is that we had the 18 year old son of friends of ours, who has been living here for three months, speaks a passable Cambodian, had friends everywhere, and in a short time has becomea local, and matured way beyond his age, show us around.

Its definitely a happy place and time for us, having not only reached this destination, but for finding a place, appropriatly called Smiley's Guest House, where the rooms are not only well appointed around a central landscaped courtyard, the food and bar are on a self-kept tab, the service is always with a smile and they included us in their celebration of Chinese New Year yesterday, as if we were part of the family, plying us full of chicken, duck, suckling pig and of course as much beer and wine we cared to consume.

Some of the other tourists in town seem to get happy from the "happy" ingredients in their food, 50 cent beers, happy hour that starts at noon, and the latest rage being Dr. Fish Happy Massage, which consists of dangling your feet in a small tank in which small fish, the size of goldfish, nibble at dead tissues with apparently a pleasing effect on all. The tab is $2 for twenty minutes or $3 for thirty minutes, with a free can of beer or pop included.

The fact that everything here is quoted in US dollars and there is life on the streets after eight in the evening, markets where the asking price is twice or three times the proper selling price of goods, where tourists are mildly pestered by vendors, there are well airconditioned supermarkets with foods from every part of the world, is turning out to be a shock, as much as the scale, grandeur and the sheer magnificance of the ruins which we have now visited in the glorious setting sun yesterday and in the morning today. There is still a huge territy of far flung ruins to see and we will spend a few more days here, since this is the kind of culture shock that one can easily get used to and I would recommend to all.



Sunday, February 07, 2010

Slow Times and Tough Times

Kratie, Cambodia

Its hard to believe that it was only a week ago that we enjoyed the quiet village life at Tad Lo and the cool evening breezes and the sweet smell of coffee plants of the Bolevan Plateau, and that we are now in Kratie, Cambodia, having had a monster ride getting here yesterday.

Our last few days in Laos were special. As soon as we got to the river crossing to Champasak we knew something extra ordinary was happening, as there were a dozen or so makeshift vessel, tied together long boats, some no wider than a canoe, strapped with planks, carrying cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and people, across the one kilometer expanse of the Mekong. Only on arriving on the other side, where on top of the embankment, where two policemen with arms flaying, like someone swatting flies, were trying to move traffic along on the one lane road on top. A line of cars was trying to leave, and with not enough room for the incoming to pass, things were at a standstill and the line of cars stretched well over a kilometer.

We were comfortably settled in our guesthouse overlooking the Mekong, when the “Swiss Couple” arrived. We named them as such since they left Switzerland last June and have taken about 11000kms to get here. Over the last several weeks, since we are traveling the same route, we have crossed path a half-dozed times, often staying in the same hotel. Needless to say we enjoy swapping road stories, especially since in India we met no other touring cyclists.

We shared a tuk tuk to the Wat Phu temple about 10 kms away. It’s a temple that dates back to the 5th Century, built on 6 levels on 3 terraces on the side of a mountain, with a long promenade leading up to the hill. The site is filled with mysterious structures and impressive carvings of elephants and crocodiles and it being a major pilgrimage, there were masses of people going up and down the mountain side.

At dusk, dozens of people lit thousands of oil lanterns illuminating the mountain side giving the effect of a giant birthday cakes. As it turned dark, a breath taking giant full moon, the colour of a bright orange-red egg yolk came up the horizon, framing the ruins.

The next day, we enjoyed the quiet village life, staring with a sun-rise that seemed to mirror the full moon, to a great massage, and a meal of fresh fettuccine, having earlier in the day convinced the northern Italian restaurant owner to make it for us. What could be more perfect?

In contrast to the thousands of people at the festival, not to mention the full complement of carnival events, the next day we took a short red {red for the colour of the dust}dirt road to the 9th century Tomo Temple, where the groundskeeper put on his official tunic, for our benefit, before issuing us the entrance tickets. The solitude of the remnants of this temple, set on a riverbank amongst tall trees, were a wonderful contrast to the throngs of the day before, and gave us a sense of what it might have been like to worshipers, arriving on the rive bank, centuries ago.

Later in the day, also on another red road, we went to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge, set next to a small village, in a National Forest. Beautifully designed and set next to meadows that evoked images of the Serengeti, we enjoyed staying amongst the villagers, who clearly live off the land and the monies brought in by tourists, who enjoy their fourteen elephants.
Descending from their ride, we met a couple who as it turns out live and know a friend of mine in Santa Rosa. California, proving once again, how small our planet can be. They turned out to be an interesting couple, she originally from Ottawa, he from Los Angeles and they "compromised" by chosing to live in Santa Rosa, having had one child in Ottawa and another in Karatchi, Pakistan.

As we were counting down the days in Laos, we went to the 4,000 islands and enjoyed the quiet of Don Khong Island. In the morning, we went to the river market which according to the guidebook was between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m. but alas its no more, cars and trucks supplanting the river travel. Still, we were treated by the needle-like fishing boats plying the Mekong, a great sun-rise and a realization that we must see more of world before it all changes.

Our last day, we went to Khonephaeng Falls, billed, not entirely unjustified, as the Niagara of south east Asia and stayed in the resort by the same name, not knowing in advance that it was also an up-market golf club as well. But who could not enjoy the swimming pool, and sleeping by the gurgling sounds of the rapids upstream from the falls, serenading us all night.

The next day it was only 10 kms to the Cambodian border, where my coup was getting the well established bribe of a buck per passport on both sides reduced to half. The ride to our first night’s stay in Stung Treng was uneventful.

Just as we settled in our hotel, again overlooking the Mekong, we met the “American Couple” who had been cycling, various parts of the globe, for the last 40 years, They had just arrived from Kratie, a distance of about 140 kms, and they both described the ride as “very hot and boring”. She had taken the bus and he for the last 30 kms of the ride.

Needless to say, Alison and I had a thorough discussion of doing the ride ourselves, recognizing not only the distance, the heat, but also that we would be facing headwinds. We decided to go for it with Plan B being a bus or a truck pick up should it turn out to be too much,

I was rearing to go by 5 a.m. the following morning, and after an in room breakfast of canned coffee, a bit of juice, a few baguettes and bananas, we were on the road by six fifteen. With a great lunch stop by 10 a.m. and frequent intakes of liquids we made the 144 kms in 8 hours of riding, and arriving in Kratie some 11 hours later, tired but elated. We endured temperatures which are now approaching 40 degrees but also reveled in the last 30 kms that follows the Mekong and all the life along it.

Looking back, I am reminded of the riddle, “why did the chicken cross the road?” to answer the question “why did the Canadian Couple decide to ride 144 kms from Stung Treng to Kratie?” “Because we could and we are glad that we did.”