Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anderson has a new article up on Travelfish:

Cycle Asia: Ko Samet Vs Pattaya.

In other news we just got back from the War Remnants Museum - will post some photos from there in the near future, but for now we're all getting our teeth cleaned at a nearby dentist (only $15), doing some shopping, and about to grab some dinner once the rain stops. Also managed to get our bikes to a repair shop this morning, so they should be good as new in another day or so, and it looks like the Cu Chi tunnels are next on the tourism agenda...

Peace for now,

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We have cycled across the Mekong Delta, and then bussed it from Can Tho to Saigon – to avoid the notorious traffic of National Highway 1. Per usual, that was your one-sentence up-to-date tease, and now comes the detailed journey through the last six days of our Vietnam adventure:

Last Thursday was quite a surprising day, full of more than our usual level of frustration – which actually ended up significantly altering our plans, though undoubtedly for the better. The day before was our last full day on Phu Quoc – we stayed for the late afternoon body-surfing, and though the waves weren't as ferocious as the day before, they were still definitely worth it. There's something magical about paddling with a crashing wave, and then hitting the “sweet spot” and getting rapidly propelled forward 10 or even 30 meters. You should try it, if somehow your life is lacking such an experience.

We paid our hotel at night, having to hit the ATM on our way to our final meal at Phu Quoc's night market, and then we awoke before 6am to get an early start – our ferry to Rach Gia left at 8am, and we had to cycle about 15km across the island first. Somehow we were actually ready on time, if not even early, and cruised across the island rapidly, against the flow of well-dressed students going to school. The uniforms showed their ages, though whomever picked pure white for the university girls wasn't quite thinking things through all the way...
We pulled up at the same ferry terminal we'd arrived from Ha Tien at five days before, and after perfunctorily verifying “Rach Gia,” we sat down to enjoy some breakfast – though the soy sauce equally perfunctorily dumped upon our eggs didn't quite improve the flavor at all. Soon it was past 7:30, and we pedaled down the lengthy pier, negotiated the fee to load all of our bikes (150,000 Dong, down from 300,000), got them and our luggage on the boat, and were just about to sit down, when disaster struck.
No, aliens didn't attack, nor did crazed Phu Quoc Island dogs (they all seemed far too cute for that), but we were on the wrong boat. And at the wrong pier. Ultimately it was our fault, but our hotel told us wrong, the people we asked at the dock didn't say anything, and how were we supposed to know that we needed to be saying “Super Dong” - the name of the boat company? So our tickets instantly became worthless, since the boat departed right on time, which meant instead of being in Rach Gia around noon, we had to sit at a shanty-town restaurant near the correct pier – 4km away – for almost five hours. Lunch was, as Liz astutely put it: “a feat of communication but not of culinary arts.” Our new tickets were even more expensive, since the boat was apparently better and faster, and the whole thing threw our entire schedule out of whack, since we'd planned on cycling at least 50km out of Rach Gia that day.
Instead the 1pm boat, which graciously only played silent Charlie Chaplin films amidst its bouncing amongst the waves, arrived on time at 3:30pm, so after we'd loaded up, gotten our bearings, and eaten some much-needed food, it was practically dark and therefore time to find a hotel. At least the hotel was decent, and we then had plenty of time to sort out our new simplified Mekong Delta route: head primarily due east through Vi Thanh en route to Can Tho, instead of our much lengthier initial plan of going much further south. By changing our path we saved 2-3 days, so with the one day “wasted” we were still in the positive, since due to Vietnam's enormous length, there is a definite sense of a time crunch at virtually all times. The 30 days on our visa our rapidly ticking away, and currently we only have about 20 of them left, with the vast majority of the country left to see. So we will be trying to cycle as much as we can, but will definitely have to use alternate transportation a few more times due to time constraints, and we are also weighing the possibility of even extending our visa so we can spend another week or ten days exploring the north. Don't have to decide on that quite yet, but it is certainly on our minds.
Riding through the Mekong, thankfully, was very enjoyable, and has improved our views and opinions on Vietnam in general – apparently the over-saturation of tourists has had a profound impact on the less-than-smiling island folk. But the chorus of “hello” returned amidst the rice patties and occasional water buffalo, and in two days we crossed the entire delta, along with its numerous bridges.

The second day, from Vi Thanh to Can Tho, was by far the best, as we rode through villages on a small single-lane paved roads, and since it is harvest time we got to see the rice crop first hand. It was all out drying on the road, in the varying stages of being processed, and the sights and sounds of real village life were a far cry from the tourism on either end.

A particular highlight was taking our bikes through a market, the path jammed with motorcycles coming the other way, such that we had ample time to enjoy the scenery:

Arriving in Can Tho, it took a literal eternity to make it the tourist quarter, right by the river, from which early the next morning we took a wooden boat trip out to a floating market. Our hotel was directly across from an enormous statue of Uncle Ho, as in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's Socialist/Communist hero and first leader.

We enjoyed some snake wine with dinner -

and though the canal part of our boat tour ended up being lengthy and boring, it was interesting to see all the boats bustling about, loaded up with fruit and other goods in massive quantities.

The boats displayed their wares on sticks, though as tourists coffee was the only thing we purchased – buying a lifetime supply of sweet potatoes seemed a bit presumptuous and wholly unnecessary.

After breakfast we called our friends back home in Iowa, who were all celebrating the wedding of Joe & Hannah outside Iowa City. We luckily got to speak with the bride and groom, as well as a few other of our friends, so for a few moments at least we didn't feel quite so far away from normal life and the people we love so much. The fact that Joe and Hannah are departing for Greece in a few days, to enjoy an amazing honeymoon, made even us globe-trotters quite jealous!
We then checked out of our hotel and cycled to the bus station, since four days of highway cycling didn't sound that appealing or sensible. Our bikes actually cost more than us to put on the bus (we were 50,000 Dong, they were 60,000 Dong, total of about $6/person+bike), and after a strange bus-stand lunch, and getting hassled by the bathroom's lady-boy attendant, we were on our way to Ho Chi Minh City.

It's probably worth noting that the entire city once known as Saigon, but renamed by the conquering Communists from the north after their deceased leader, is still usually called Saigon by its inhabitants, and the main District One is actually technically called Saigon itself. Un-digressing, our bus went about 1km before stopping and sitting in a line, for at least 20 minutes. Turned out the line was actually a queue for an enormous transport ferry that our bus and numerous others rolled onto.

It was pretty interesting viewing the last stretch of the Mekong from on-board a ferry, though even more interesting was how a man told us to stop taking pictures. His angst was explained to us by a kindly English-speaking engineer, who said that the man didn't want us to show the pictures back in our home country. Apparently he thought that the modern bus we were riding, with A/C and flat-screen TVs, never-mind the huge equally modern ferry and the relatively well-coordinated system of transit, was somehow embarrassingly inferior to whatever high-tech miracles must surely exist in the fantastic land of America. We quickly explained that America actually lacks most modern mass transportation, since everyone drives private cars, so the idea of a nice bus (sorry Greyhound) just doesn't really exist, and due to our bridges almost the entire country is devoid of ferries. While we're not sure our message was thoroughly conveyed to the man opposed to our photography, handshakes were at least exchanged as we returned back to our bus.
The remainder of the bus ride went well, though darkness and rain decided to simultaneously descend, scrapping our plans of cycling the 15km (or so) from the bus station to the main “tourist ghetto” of Pham Ngu Lao. Instead we stayed at a slightly rundown hotel/flophouse, down the street from the station, which provided a surprisingly comfortable night of sleep, for a low 170,000 Dong/Room. The next morning we awoke, and by asking directions at many an intersection, were able to pedal our way to touristic nirvana quite easily. Now we're staying in the land of travel agents, t-shirt boutiques, art galleries, internet cafes, guesthouses, international restaurants, eager moto drivers, book/sunglasses salespeople, etc.
We'll be here for a couple of more days, seeing some museums, doing some shopping, eating until our bellies hurt, and on one day taking a tour out to the Cu Chi tunnels. Our post-Saigon plans aren't totally determined, the choice seems to be either take a bus to Nha Trang, or cycle out of the city for a few days of riding on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Either way sounds awesome, just have to make up our minds...

Trying, and failing, to avoid eye-contact with a sunglasses/lighter salesman,

Here's your moment of zen, a rural roadside cock fight mosaic:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

(Anderson's latest Travelfish story is posted: Muay Thai Night)

Vietnam has arrived!

Or, perhaps more accurately, we've arrived in Vietnam – it's been here for a good while, after all. As indicated by the sidebar, it has yet to completely “wow” us, although yesterday was a very enjoyable day. But chronology, that cursed literary beast, must be obeyed, so let's rewind back to our Cambodian departure:
We left Kep rather late, partially due to our activities the night before, partially due to Luke unexpectedly feeling ill, and undoubtedly partially because we didn't really want to go. There's something magical about Cambodia; maybe its the rugged rawness, or the endless amazing places, though surely the delightful people and delicious food are also quite key. Whatever it may be, we miss it already, and urge you to go experience it for yourself, before the country changes even more than it already has. The government is literally selling the land away to foreign investors for development, so waiting a mere five years may make all the difference.
As for Vietnam, the road getting there alone was quite hellacious.

From Kep to Kampong Trach was paved and reasonable, but as we turned south towards the border (and then Ha Tien on the Vietnamese side), the disaster began. At times the road was merely full of enormous potholes, the type that slow even a bicycle down to a wobbly crawl, but more often than not what was supposed to be red-dirt road was actually a muddy sea.

With plenty of other traffic coming from both directions, avoiding the muck proved impossible, and as the 20km slowly passed by we only got dirtier and dirtier. By the time we finally reached the border, our bikes were virtually completely covered in mud, our packs were too, and we riders were filthy, especially our shoes.

The Cambodian border police were definitely amused, but after we were officially checked out they nicely showed us a water tank where we could clean ourselves off a bit. Only 'a bit' because without a pressure-washer cleanliness was only a fantasy, but at least our shoes were a color besides brown, and our brake-pads were able to make somewhat proper contact with our wheels once again.

Getting into Vietnam, despite having already obtained our visas, proved more time-consuming since the guard was initially off grocery shopping, and then we had to wait even longer as socialist bureaucracy apparently demanded a very lengthy check-in process.

At least there was a military volleyball game happening right across the road, so between that and our exhaustion we didn't mind sitting around for a while.
Our approach to Ha Tien, about 8km from the border, quickly became shrouded in darkness, but thankfully the road to the center of town was easy to find. After checking out a few hotels, we found a good deal, along with a friendly, helpful, and English-speaking owner. One big room, with three huge beds, cost 300,000 Dong, about $18. The initial change of currency is always confusing, and it doesn't help when the exchange rate is hard to calculate: about 18,000 Dong – yes, that's really what Vietnamese money is called – is $1, though since we get most of our money from ATMs we are never quite sure of the exact rate. The owner recommended a tasty nearby restaurant, where we were able to tiredly celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, still muddy since food decisively took precedence over showering.

One beer and a few toasts was all we could manage, but that's how life goes sometimes. At least all of our anniversaries have been more than exciting:

1st – Iowa City, IA, USA (saw a Shakespearean play)
2nd – Hamburg, Germany (partied it up on the Reeperbahn)
3rd – Kathmandu, Nepal (relaxing with our cousin Reannon)
4th – Busan, Korea (oddly enough, this is the one we can't quite remember)
5th – you have been reading this whole thing, right?

Anyways, after dinner we managed a brief walk about, during which we found some snacks and stumbled upon a crazy “adventure-land” for children, the highlight of which was a tiny skating rink, packed with talented youngsters doing all sorts of impressive moves. Made our previously exciting peanuts and chips seem rather tame. Showers and then bed ensued, an early boat-ride to Phu Quoc awaited us.
The boat ride, “local” because the high-speed boat was undergoing repairs, was affordable at $9/person (including bikes), and thanks to Liz's early morning initiative we not only got the last seats, but also managed to get our bikes cleaned to avoid being “those dirty foreigners” anymore than we already are.

Our bicycles were thrown on the roof of the deck, along with all sorts of other miscellaneous cargo, while we sat below on the uncomfortable benches with the twenty or so other passengers.

We later learned that most whities just fly into Phu Quoc, but at the time we were a bit surprised to be the only foreigners on the boat. The promised 4+ hour journey proved delightfully short at only 2.5 hours, though we then spent that remaining 90 minutes cycling across the island, in the mid-day heat, to get to our destination: Long Beach.
Yes, we'd already been to Long Beach (California) the day we left the States, but here on Phu Quoc the beach is much longer and very relaxed. At least right now in the off-season, when it borders on dead. For sure, there are a decent number of people around at all times, but in general things are quite empty. Based on the advice of a Vietnamese man on the side of the road, who later turned out to be a rather infamous Phu Quoc character named Tony – who operates a snorkeling company amongst other ventures (what a foreshadowing... :-) – we sought out a resort called Tropicana in the middle of Long Beach's hotel row. For $50/night total, we got a private family bungalow, complimentary breakfast, free wifi, as well as easy beach access and a 24-hour pool. Not as cheap as we usually roll, but in this case the amenities have well been worth the additional expense.
Truth be told, our love of the resort has been on a steady decrease since we arrived, something about rats in the room eating food left out, shoddy breakfasts and the food in general being pricey, plus the friendly cleaning staff waking us on several occasions all adding up to be a bit frustrating, though we are still happy to be here! The staff is nice and helpful, the pool is clean and warm, and the far-from-straight pool table is at least fun enough to play. When you're traveling, the bad comes with the good whether you want it to or not...
As for Phu Quoc, there's not much to do but relax, in the sun when it's around, or like today in the shade. So we've been reading a decent amount, and now that the moon is waxing, we've finally been able to do some great bodysurfing – it was so fun last night that it was the main motivator for us staying for another night. But we've bought boat tickets to Rach Gia for tomorrow morning, so we are definitely leaving in about 20 hours... what a sad countdown. Phu Quoc also has a great night market, with plenty of tasty and cheap food, plus an amazing smoothie stand, as well as some Western-style desserts that really hit the spot after barbequed shrimp, scallops, or boar – lots of variety on the grill here.
Yesterday was surely an island highlight, as we took an all-day snorkeling trip with Tony's Travel. His son, who has decided to choose the hilarious English name “Chicken,” was our guide for the expedition.

First up was a local pearl farm, which was interesting enough though most of the prices, especially when compared to the night market, were frighteningly high. But quality has a cost, even in Vietnam. After that we made our way to the dock, boarded our boat, and took off to the first of two snorkeling spots.

At first the water was murky, but as we swam away from the boats and closer to the rocks, a plethora of fish and coral emerged.

If only we had an underwater camera this part of the post would surely be much more interesting, but the undersea life was numerous and exotic. The first spot we snorkeled, Phu Bo, depressingly had too much bleached and dead coral, although the fish were still in abundance. The second spot, Shadow Island, seemed to have a healthier ecosystem, as the coral was so large and plentiful that seeing fish was actually more difficult because they had so many places to hide. The reality is that sustainable aquatic tourism is practically an impossibility, especially in a place where fourteen-year-old boys are allowed to freely catch sea urchins with hooks – though those at least tasted good, and are in more than one sense a scourge of the ocean.

Lunch was delicious, and oddly enough the low-light of the trip was our visit to another beach, the much-hyped Sao Beach, which was actually quite, boring, and full of small urchins in the water that pricked our feet. But that was the end of the day, so we were tired from snorkeling anyways. As we approached our hotel by road, the waves looked huge, and they indeed were – we spent the last hour or so until total darkness riding endless huge waves, the type that are so large you almost need a board to fully enjoy them... almost!
Today then, is lounging until the waves show up again in a couple more hours... wish us luck bodysurfing until exhaustion and darkness strike!

We don't know how much internet access will be available in the Mekong Delta, but we just got some assistance from Tony in sorting out our route, so we will (most likely) travel from Rach Gia → Tac Cau → Thu Ba → Thu Bay → Vinh Thuan → Ca Mau → Nam Can (maybe, but only as a daytrip) → Ca Mau → Bac Lieu → Soc Trang → Can Tho. From Can Tho we plan on taking a four-hour high-speed boat to Saigon, avoiding several days of cycling on the notorious Highway 1... which is not exactly meant for foreign cyclists since it is the main trucking route (from China) that runs the length of Vietnam.

If you're going to Joe & Hannah's wedding this weekend, have a wonderful time, our happiest thoughts are with them (and you), and we all wish we could be there to celebrate!

Peace & Much Love
Anderson, Liz, Luke, Christine, & Blaise

And now for your moment of zen, ducks in bags:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We have now spent several idle days in seaside Kep, where though the rains have poured down, our enthusiasm for crab has not yet waned. Sleepy Kampot makes Kep look dead – there are hardly any other people here, at most a handful of other Western tourists, and since it isn't a weekend there aren't even very many Khmers here. Our hotel has only one other guest, and he is only staying here while he renovates and repairs his own house right next door. Thankfully, relaxation is the name of the game here regardless of business, so we're just doing what we're supposed to.
Tomorrow, however, our entire demeanor will change, as the 18th is when our Cambodian visa expires and our Vietnamese one becomes active. We plan on crossing the border at Ha Tien, Vietnam, and then taking a boat to Phu Quoc island for a short beach session before cycling towards Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Just like here in Cambodia, we know we will experience time pressure to see and do all that we want to in the 30 days that we have, so although we'd love to spend a full week at the beach, it's simply not feasible.
For now though, it's just relaxing at our hotel, the garden-filled Botanica, playing pool and reading books, and then a bit later we'll take another ride around town. We've eaten crab everyday we've been here, and plan on keeping that streak alive tonight, since $4 for a tasty plate of Kampot Pepper Crab is simply unbeatable. The peppercorns are green and fresh, still on their slender stems, full of a robust flavor that lacks the sharpness of fully grown black pepper. To say it is delicious is practically an understatement.
Kep also has some other unique cuisine, particularly given how rural this area of Cambodia truly is. Yesterday we enjoyed some fresh bakery goods from the new Salt + Pepper Bakery, their chocolate cake and granola were particularly scrumptious, the former soft and gooey and full of flavor, the later baked well with seasonings and quite crunchy.

El Dorado, Cambodia's only Hungarian restaurant, is also serving up fine letcho and gnocchi stew, as well as wood-oven pizzas. We also found some great hammocks by the sea, perfect for lounging and drinking in the late afternoon. The town is known for its spectacular sunsets, of which weather has denied us all but one, though tonight's is shaping up to be pretty impressive given the current blistering heat.


So now we've taken our sunset ride around town, and it was certainly quite successful:

We went on a dirt trail through the national park here, which gave us a great vantage point to photograph Mother Nature in action.

Now we're back to relaxing, after enjoying a fantastic Kampot Pepper Crab dinner (again), drinking a few Klangs and we're about to enjoy some tasty cheese and salami. Yum.

Next time it'll be from Vietnam,

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Most surprisingly, the monsoon actually cooperated with us, enabling us to leave Sihanoukville as planned early on Friday. We had a somewhat hilarious breakfast at a restaurant owned by an absent-minded and cantankerous French-Canadian, before departing in a cool breeze for a long day of cycling. The first 15km out of S-town were hilly, but our fresh legs and morning enthusiasm enabled us to conquer them with relative ease. We kept up a good pace, managing to arrive in Veal Renh for lunch just before the rain. For ten minutes a flood emerged from the sky, and then that was it – the day of monsoon (for us at least) was finished!
After lunch, once we'd switched from NH 4 to NH 3, we did see some rain in the distance, but it managed to outrun us, despite our best efforts to catch up to it and get soaked.

Riding through endless paddy fields was interesting, we saw boys on buffaloes and all too many dead snakes, but the lush cloud-filled hills looming over all the other scenery were definitely the most interesting.

Soon enough rice turned to water, as the mangrove-filled coastline appeared. Plenty of boats, out catching seafood, were visible from the road, and at times we saw mixed piles of crabs and shrimp laying out to dry.

We finally got to Kampot before sunrise, so our jaunt through town to find a hotel was blessed with a fantastic pink sky, as it appears every night here is. We looked at several sleeping options, but finally decided on a cheapie by the river, only $5/room, with a restaurant right on the water, and 4-foot-high flood marks on all the walls. The entire town apparently flooded earlier in the week, a dam up-river was opened up and a deluge of water followed. So things smell a bit of mildew, but we like the location and plan on leaving town tomorrow anyways.
The reality is there's not much to do in Kampot itself, other than the proverbial chillaxing, though there are several activities available outside the town. We've actually chosen to skip the main attraction, Bokor National Park, because the road is entirely closed, so we cannot cycle up it like we had planned on. We could've taken a pricey ($20 each) group tour, starting with hiking and then riding up the 2nd part of the mountain in a truck, but that's just not our style. Plus, after seeing the photos of the abandoned French hotel at the top (the main reason for going), we were a bit unimpressed to say the least. Maybe next time, when we can explore it on our own terms, but we don't feel like we're missing out on much. Blaise, Christine, & Luke did decide to book an alternate tour, a cycling/hiking trip to a nearby waterfall, but we Muths opted out in order to relax, read, write, and get a blind-massage. All over Cambodia there are blind massage parlors, we've just been putting it off until now, but Kampot is our last chance, and as verified yesterday by Luke & Christine, it's certainly an experience not to be missed.
Tomorrow then, the plan is to leisurely cycle the 25km to Kep, Cambodia's unofficial seafood capitol, and on the way visit one of Kampot's famed pepper fields and an ancient 7th century Funan cave temple. Just another day :-).
Right now we're relaxing in Blissful Guesthouse's restaurant, taking advantage of their $2 all-day internet. Safe to say we've been chilling here for a while, after enjoying some scrumptious food: a burrito and a salad ($4 each). Cambodia's food prices might not be as cheap as India's, but the diversity of dishes that is available more than makes up for the slightly steeper price tag.

Keep on keepin' on wherever you are,

Here's your moment of zen, our bikes getting loaded up last week into a shared van-taxi during the rain somewhere outside of Kirirom Nat'l Park:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The monsoon has become more of a "monnow," which has definitely been dictating our travel plans over the past couple of days, to the point that we have even ended up in a city we weren't planning on visiting. While Sihanoukville does have decent beaches, and plenty of foreigner-friendly nightlife, due to its distance from the Vietnamese border, we had decided to cut it out of our travel plans and focus instead on spending time in Kampot and Kep. Kampot used to be known for its pepper, while Kep is arguably Cambodia's seafood capitol. Plus around each is the usual array of touristic endeavors (temples, national parks, etc.), so the remaining 9 days on our visa could be spent quite easily.
However, fate and Mother Nature united to make alternate plans for us, though the downside of that is we are now getting poured on further west then we had any real desire to be. So how'd we get to a place we didn't plan on seeing? Well, it all started from Kirirom National Park...
After leaving Kompong Speu, we began a 50+ km ride, primarily on National Highway 4. After a vegetarian lunch, served with delicious iced coffees, we then headed 11km off into the wilderness on a muddy and at times flooded dirt road. At the base of the national park we found one of the two available hotels, Kirirom Hillside Resort. We knew it would be a bit swanky by Khmer standards, but we'd read that it had tents available, which was a) more our style and b) more our price. Cycling into the massive compound, it was clear we were in some sort of nice Cambodian resort. In addition to a plethora of rooms, with prices up to $200/night, there was a swimming pool, sauna, zoo, zip-line, and all sorts of other accouterments. Of course their tents were gone for repair, and upon finding out that the next available hotel was 17km up a steep mountain, given that it was already 4pm we had to work something out.

Thankfully, the General Manager was most kind and understanding of tourists on a budget, and with some negotiations we worked out quite the deal: rather than paying $50/room/night, with us needing two rooms plus an extra cot ($17), which comes out to $117 night – about $100 more than we usually spend – we were graciously allowed to all pack in to only one room, with the additional mattress provided for free. And they dropped the price to $40, all five of us got the included breakfast, and we could use all the facilities as much as we wanted.

So for $8/person, we got to stay in deluxe but cramped accommodations, eat fantastic food (especially the wood-oven pizzas), drink $2 beers poolside, and enjoy a relaxing sauna in the evenings! Probably going to the best deal on lodging we'll ever find on this trip, so at least we got to enjoy it for two nights.
During the day, we rode up the intimidating mountain that makes up Kirirom, which meant we literally pedaled uphill for about four straight hours. The winds that were often against on the main highway were at least not a factor, but the rain oozing out of the heavy clouds certainly kept us chilly and focused.

But, without our heavy packs the ride really wasn't too bad, we found drinks at the top, and even got to talk with a friendly monk at one of the hilltop pagodas. We also found the other hotel, and at $20/room/night it was a grimy, moldy rip-off.

The park does offer trekking, however due to the rain and the length of our ride we opted to skip them, but we did find our way to a pretty decent waterfall where we were able to relax in solitude.

Afterward, as evening began to approach, we headed down the mountain – which ended up being absolutely fantastic. We certainly hit our top speed ever, flying downwards so fast that it caused our brakes to sizzle. All our hard work getting up was repaid by the scant 30 minutes it took us to return home, as the agonizing ascent turned into quite a joyride, and to top it off we were able to head directly to the waiting pool!

By total random chance a cycling tour group, foreigners traveling for one week in a somewhat pampered, if not completely pampered, fashion, were also descending the mountain when we were. Whether they actually rode up the mountain, or if their transport cars and trucks dropped them off at the top, was up for debate. Some of the group were at least reasonably nice, though many seemed rather angry at having their every whim catered to, bordering on rude and disrespectful to the hotel staff. The experience certainly puts a different perspective on how you can travel, what money really gets you, and overall made us very appreciative to be traveling our pace, our style, on our terms.
That idea segues nicely into our next day, which began fantastically at our hotel, with a morning dip in the pool following breakfast, a jaunt through the zoo to see the monkeys again, and then our complimentary zip-line ride. Except for Anderson and Blaise, both too big for the Khmer-sized harness, everyone had a blast cruising through the tree for a 30-second adrenaline rush. Departing at noon, with kilometers of cycling in our heads, we retraced our path out of the park area, and ate at the same restaurant we had two days before. This time the vegetarian cuisine was even more impressive, a cold salad nicely complimented the stir-fried main courses and rice.
Getting back on the road became rain-delayed, as the skies literally opened up as we ate. We waited patiently for about 30 minutes, but it soon became apparent that no end was in sight, but darkness is always approaching, a relentless enemy of the laid-back cyclist. So off we pedaled into the rain, in search of a guesthouse we'd read about on the internet, located around the 90km-signpost. Of course the guesthouse proved to be a phantom, and as the weather got worse no alternative presented themselves, until we finally sought shelter at a petrol station to try and sort things out. The facts became readily apparent: no guesthouses anywhere, perhaps a temple we could stay in, and not very much English could be spoken. We looked into getting a ride to a place to stay, but everyone said either Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. Problem being, of course, we were coming from the former and had no desire to go to the latter, since it overshot our planned destination (after another day of riding) of Kampot by a good day of cycling. So, faced with waiting forever for the rain to cease, attempting to sleep while soaked at the temple, or heading to Sihanoukville, we picked the scruffy beach-town.
Liz managed to chase down a passing mini-bus, the main method of transportation in a country that has just been getting reliably paved roads over the past five years, and for only $25 total, the five of us and our bikes could ride the 125km. When the journey gets ridiculous, the wise traveler has to reconsider the options and make the best choice, even if is far from the original plan.
So here we are in S-town, near a garbage-strewn beach, where it is still raining much of the time, making it hard for our clothes to dry amongst other things. Today we're relaxing, getting some much-needed internet time in, and attempting to reconsider our remaining Cambodia schedule, but we will most likely be departing somewhat early tomorrow to get a move-on back east. We shall see, we shall see...


And now for your moment of zen:

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

So the post below is all about Phnom Penh, and might be a tad depressing. It's worth reading though, have no doubts.

We are currently in Sihanoukville, which is something of a long story. Needless to say, we did spend some time in Kirirom National Park, about which we'll have a post up tomorrow. In the meantime, here's some fantastic news!

Anderson's series of writings is now being hosted by Travel Fish, the internet's premiere source for all SE Asia information! Due to the collapse of Holiday Fu, and Iain's greatly appreciated assistance, the series is now going to live on in an even larger capacity. Every Wednesday a new article will be posted, so it will be a ways behind this blog, but the articles will deal with many things not addressed here. The "crazy" side of travel, and what things are "really!" like will be prioritized :-).

This is a great opportunity, so without further adieu, here's the link to the first article: Cycle Asia: An Introduction.

Enjoy it, much more to come as always,
Peace & much love,

This post was written a few days ago (as in Sunday 09-06-09), sorry about the delay, but internet has been unavailable until today:

In all fairness, you should be warned that today's post is about some pretty terrible things, but to fully understand and appreciate modern Cambodia, as well as what we are experiencing on our trip, you should obviously continue reading:

We thought that our recent time in Phnom Penh, witnessing the monuments to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, was the full extent of the deep contemplation that Cambodia requires. Having left the capitol city this morning, cycling south-west en route to national parks and beaches, even a rainstorm could barely dampen our enthusiasm to be back on the road again. However, the presence of the second dead body that we've passed on the road was extraordinarily sobering. Traffic was stopped, a crowd had gathered, the road was filled with glass and motorcycle shards, and on the side lay an unmoving man, mostly covered by a white sheet. People's shouts of “hello” made the scene even more surreal, as we feebly attempted to balance politeness with our own shock. It has been said that life is cheap here in Cambodia, but the price of death exacts quite a price on all those involved. While we undoubtedly feel verified in wearing our helmets, the reality is that the busy roads we ride on are just one mistake away from disaster, though that is obviously true no matter where you are in the world. What life gives must be appreciated always, since it can be cruelly taken away just as easily, as today's scene verified all too personally.
Since this post isn't attempting to be wholly depressing, let's touch on some of the recent more positive events. We spent four nights in Phnom Penh, which is a busy and mostly modern city, mostly recovered from the complete devastation it suffered in the mid-1970s when the Khmer Rouge came to power.

As mentioned before, we stayed by the lake at the ironically named Green Lake Guesthouse. The water was dark brown, and full of trash, but the rooms were cheap and the ambiance otherwise decent, so long as we weren't looking into the water!
Our primary objective was obtaining our Vietnamese visas, so our first real destination was the Vietnam consulate, located at the southern end of the city, far from our hotel. Blaise and Anderson dropped off their bikes at The Vicious Cycle for repairs (B) and a tune-up (A), which ended up costing $8 and $2 respectively. This meant we needed to traverse the city by tuk-tuk, a pleasant change from our usual methods of transit. Thirty-five dollars later we'd filed for our visas, which we picked up later in the week without too much hassle. Thankfully, as North Americans, obtaining visas is quite simple, involving payment and a simple one-page form that is primarily information copied from our passports. We did have to specify our date of arrival, so we will definitely be in Cambodia until September 18, when that visa expires and our Vietnamese one begins.
We also went to two of Phnom Penh's sprawling markets. First, we explored the dark corridors of the Russian Market, where good deals on name-brand merchandise “leaks” are everywhere. The low prices on high-quality Western backpacks are well known, and we found a great supposed Lowe-Alpine 55-liter pack for $15. The stitching and padding look great, and with future travel plans always on the horizon, it seemed foolish not to invest in a new pack given that those we took to India are thoroughly thrashed. The market also has piles of Khmer trinkets and knickknacks, plenty of well-bootlegged DVDs, music CDs, and software, as well as restaurants and food sellers. Needless to say, while interesting to peruse, it certainly didn't smell very good. We spent much less time at the enormous Central Market, where clothing “extras” are piled up everywhere on the perimeter, and then the interior market – beneath a massive golden dome – is home to endless jewelry shops.
That leaves one day remaining, which we spent traveling around Phnom Penh's most famous and notorious sights. They were emotionally draining and often provocative, after all some of the worst human atrocities in recent history occurred there. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21) are certainly not light-hearted affairs, as the former contains mass graves of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge, while the latter was Pol Pot's regime's main prison and torture center. In between was sandwiched the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, making the whole day somewhat of an introspective and emotional roller-coaster.

For the entire day we had a delightful character named Peter for our tuk-tuk driver, who explained some of the history of each place for us before we visited, and acted as our guide when we went to the palace. He certainly made the day more interesting, and definitely said some hilarious things as well – the complexities of our English language are definitely hard to master! Some of the prime comments included his warning that the “black market, I don't do that,” and his offer of “if you like I can do, if you not like I not do.”

Our lunch was definitely made more enjoyable by his presence, and as we enjoyed some fine Ratanakiri (Cambodia's far eastern province) coffee after our sobering Killing Fields visit, we could take some solace in the fact that we bought his lunch, too – Peter usually doesn't eat all day long despite working at least ten hours, if he even is fortunate enough to have a customer. But the harsh realities of Cambodia's tourist economy pale in comparison to the things we witnessed while doing our small part in contributing to it.

The first thing you see when entering the Killing Fields, is a large modern pagoda. Incense and flowers are sold out front, but inside there are only two things: clothes and skulls.

Both were dug up from the numerous mass graves all over the grounds, where around 20,000 Cambodians were killed, often with blunt objects or sharpened palm leaves, by their fellow countrymen. The Khmer Rouge brutally exterminated all enemies, including countless members of their own Communist Party, in its hell-bent determination to cleanse the Khmer people of all outside influences and “return” to a socialist agrarian culture. Money was abolished, the intelligentsia massacred, people forced from their homes and marched to forced labor (farming) camps, and rampant starvation, malnutrition, and violence were mainstays during the four years of Democratic Kampuchea governance.
Now, Cambodia has hundreds of Killing Fields, the one at Choeung Ek is merely the most famous, due to it's connection to S-21, and the documentation of exactly how horrible the atrocities that were committed there.

Babies were beaten to death against a tree – teeth still litter the ground around it – and although about a third of the 129 mass graves haven't been dug up, the entire landscape is still littered with large pits where people were one unceremoniously dumped as music blasted from a loudspeaker to mask the noises of death. Signs describe where buildings once were, as well as stomach-churning details like these about the chemical room:

There was also a one-room museum, full of information, including details about Duch, the leader of S-21 who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity. After thirty years, a Cambodian-based international court of justice is finally convening, hoping to bring some closure to the shattered lives of almost every Khmer old enough to remember the 1970s.

After our break at the Royal Palace, which was overpriced at $6, especially given that photos were not allowed within the home of the very underwhelming Silver Pagoda (the floor, while made of silver, is 90% covered by carpet; the pagoda is merely in the center of the room, with plenty of nice carved Buddhas surrounding it), we then went to Tuol Sleng, to complete the Khmer Rouge's cycle of death in reverse.

This former high school was where “suspected enemies” of Pol Pot's regime were brought to have confessions tortured out of them. Every prisoner was photographed, and then for days or months systematically tortured until a “biography” had been extracted, naming names of associates and connections to foreign governments – without a doubt almost always false. Of the thousands of people held here, only seven survived. When the Vietnamese finally took Phnom Penh in 1979, ending the Khmer Rouge's rule, fourteen final victims were left, chained to the bed or dumped on the floor where they were tortured to death. In the current museum, those rooms were left as found, with only steel bed frames and torture tools remaining, accompanied by a stark black and white photo of the room's condition.

Those unfortunate people, the last to suffer at S-21, are buried on the grounds beneath simple unadorned white memorials.

Throughout the remaining three buildings are a variety of displays; thousands of haunting photos of the victims fill one entire floor, putting a much-needed human perspective on the awful events that happened here, about three decades ago.

Men, women, and children all stare into the camera, some already beaten, and all showing despair as they entered a horrible place from which the only escape was death at Choeung Ek. Words cannot really describe the experience of so many faces staring out at you, it's a very depressing yet necessary series of connected rooms that show the entire nation that was destroyed – the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million people, around 25% of the Cambodian population at the time. The 1% of those that that died who went through S-21 are the tangible representatives to the world of the atrocities that cannot be forgotten, in the hope that they will not be repeated.

Tuol Sleng is also home to several interesting photography exhibits. One that is very insightful, and regretful, shows photos taken by a Swedish Communist visitor to Democratic Kampuchea, paired with his comments from both now and during the visit. His former youthful optimism about communism and Cambodia's successful revolution have been replaced by disgust at being used as a propaganda tool and of being tricked by the many certainly staged interactions with people that he documented. Other galleries include stories and photos of former guards and Khmer Rouge members, who were primarily young and ignorant as to what was happening all around them. Pol Pot and his government used fear and hatred to run their country, and even S-21's own guards were frequently killed for inane infractions, or under accusations of being an enemy under Vietnamese control (or something comparable).
The Khmer Rouge gained power through years of guerrilla warfare fought, mostly in the jungle, against an inept and corrupt military government that itself had seized power (from the king) in a coup. However, upon gaining power, they had no ability (and perhaps little real ambition) to run the country, but rather continued to focus on fighting and killing their enemies, all the while seeing the peasants whom they were supposedly representing die from hunger and disease.
Truly it was the worst of humanity, and these words from semi-informed outsiders hardly do any justice to what happened.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of seeing all of these places, being Americans, is that despite our government's bombing of Cambodia for a year, and then its sending in of troops as well, nothing was done to stop the slaughter. In fact, despite all of our country's anti-Communist efforts (as heinously misguided as they were), it was the Communist Vietnamese who finally freed the Khmer people because they were weary of being attacked by Khmer Rouge guerillas and disgusted by what was happening to their socialist “brothers.” It's easy to judge in hindsight, but certainly the international community directly contributed to the political climate that allowed the Khmer Rouge to thrive, and then chose to sit by and do nothing once they gained power, even though knowledge of what was being done within Cambodia, to Cambodians by Cambodians, was certainly known. In fact, the UN continued to recognize the exiled Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia up until 1997 – almost 20 years after they lost power. Quite frankly, that's disgusting.

There are a multitude of excellent books available on the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodian history, and as most of them are available everywhere from children or crippled street-sellers, we have already read several. First They Killed My Father, by Loueng Ung, is particularly poignant, The Gate is written by the only Western survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and there are several accounts available of the goings on within S-21.

Currently we are in a town called Kompong Speu, about 50km away from Phnom Penh on NH 4. We spent our day riding first against the wind, and then later we got rained on! At least the warm water felt good, and all of our packs are waterproof, but even though we only cycled for about 3 hours, it was still a somewhat rough return to riding. After almost two weeks of not using our bikes as transportation, pulling all the extra weight was definitely a bit tougher than it was before. Nonetheless, it felt great to be back cruising on the dusty streets, completely in charge of our daily destiny. Well, as much as five sweaty pedaling whiteys, wearing bike helmets and strange clothes, can be. You never know what will happen, whether it be good or bad, but we are all excited for our upcoming visit to Kirirom National Park, where hopefully a day or two in nature will be good for our minds and bodies.

Here are some links if you'd like to educate yourself more about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge:

What was the Khmer Rouge?
Who was Pol Pot?
What was Democratic Kampuchea?
Who is Duch?
Want more on The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek?
Want more on S-21 / Tuol Sleng Museum?