So, I'm starting out a new planned trip, cycling through Southeast Asia with my mother. Well, I don't know if "starting" will be the appropriate word by the time this posts. I'll be honest, I've been putting off writing this entry - just haven't really been in the mood. If you remember my discussion earlier about "Plan to Do", "Do", and "Review What's Been Done", I have definitely been in the planning state of mind. So that's definitely part of it. Or maybe the last enormous entry has drained me a bit. Whatevs. The fact is, I started writing this on the first day of the cycling trip; you'll probably figure out when it was posted by the end of it. [EDIT: As of me posting this, it's now Day 12 of the trip, more than halfway through the entire thing, meaning that "starting" couldn't be less appropriate. In fact, I should have just changed this opening paragraph.]
I know, I know, I'm rambling. I'll get on with it.
I woke up on the 25th, went down to have some breakfast, bringing down my laptop with me. I continued doing what I'll just be referring to as "Internet Stuff", which is a lot more responsible than it sounds, because as mentioned, I've been a bit on a roll/binge lately when it comes to planning for the upcoming parts of this trip. I basically sat there, making full use of the Internet available, until about 11:45, when I had to go upstairs, get my bags, and check out. The hostel stall presented me with a small keychain, which I found incredibly kind and charming. In fact, it made me a tad sheepish about the question I was going to ask, which was if I could sit in their restaurant and, for lack of a less accurate term, leech off of their Internet. "You can stay forever," the hostel owner said. I quickly pondered if this was kindly or creepy, then proceeded to continue doing Internet Stuff for, I dunno, another hour or so. (My main goal was to make sure I knew exactly how to get to the hotel I was meeting my mom at.) At that point, I figured I shouldn't push my luck, so I said my goodbyes to the hostel staff and left.
Now, I had asked what the closest train station was, and they said it was one that was, give or take, three miles away. In hindsight, maybe it would have been more prudent to hire a taxi for that leg of the trip, but pride got in the way of prudency. I was committed to walking, and I was going to walk. In 92-degree heat. With a 40-pound backpack. I'd hardly consider it an exaggeration to say I was torrenting sweat. I had to squeegee my face with my hand, and when I whipped my hand down, there was a very clear wet line. It was no way to live, lemme tell ya. But still I walked, down streets, down the sides of old railroad tracks, past guys halfheartedly trying to scam me out of money. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs (by which I mean sweat) in my wake. When I finally got to the metro station, I decided to stop in the connected mini-mart. I decided to get myself a small chicken katsu(-ish) meal, with an ice cold soda. While I do drink soda (and have done so more on this trip than in normal life), I usually don't recommend it. However, ice cold soda on a hot say is unequivocally the best thing. That, and air conditioning, which I also soaked in as I sat in the mini-mart. Upon finishing my meal, I hopped on the metro (actually the "Skytrain", but who's counting), and took it over to Sukhumvit Road. Once I disembarked, I saw that my mom had called me and said she'd check in. Good timing. I walked the numerous blocks until I reached Soi (side street) 29, where I turned and went to the Legacy Suites Hotel. I spoke to the reception, almost fully encapsulated in salty water at this point, and asked to call my mom. They rang her up, she came down, and we officially meet up in Thailand.
...You know what? I'm really not feeling typing that much. I think part of it is that when other people (in this case, my mom) are around, I can't just get away with spending time type-typing away. So I'm actually going to commit a Wandering Loon sin and blast through all of this, including details only if they're really good. Once I'm caught up, and if I'm in the mood, maybe I'll be more detailed later.
So, upon meeting, we went up to our room, and upon seeing that we were given a single queen-sized bed, asked if we could get two twins instead. They agreed, telling us it would cost an extra $10. What we didn't realize until check-out was that they meant an extra $10 per day, which added up quickly. Additionally, we were moved down several floors (to the second), so whatever view we may have had of the city (I never had a chance to look out) was lost. Still, the room (or suite, as it was) was still quite nice. We spent some time in there, basically reacquainting. Y'know, the general what's-been-up talks you have with your parents after not seeing them for a couple months. In my case, it was a little odd as she already knew a number of my stories. After some hours of this and figuring out our general plans for the town, we decided to go out to eat. We didn't have an exact plan; my mom had a craving for a steakhouse, and I didn't care, so I took out my TripAdvisor Bangkok app (not to direct me, just to recommend something), named a few options, and we just decided to figure it out as we went. So first, we decide to go to the Siam Paragon, one of the many, many la-di-da fancy shopping malls in the area. I had read good reviews about it, particular of the movie theater. I hadn't seen a movie in theaters since, I think, The Avengers (or The Dark Knight Rises, whichever came later), so I figured it would be good for a lark, as VIP tickets would cost the same as for normal tickets in the US. We went in, got lost in the clean, sterile high-priced stores lining the mall, but eventually made it to the top floor, where the theater was. We decided to get tickets to see Gravity the next day, as I had heard some pretty good things about it. We ordered them for the next day, and continued looking for food. We tried to find a couple different steakhouses near the mall, but one mall led into another, and it was so easy to get lost, and so we decided to call it a day and go to the Brazilian-style steakhouse that was, maybe, two buildings down from our hotel. (We had passed by it on the way out, and decided to keep it as a Plan B.) It was...good. It wasn't the best meat-on-swords place I've ever been to (and now that I think about it, I've been to more than I care to admit), but it accomplished the goal, which was to push meat down our collective gullets.
We got back to the hotel, and I was disappointed to find that they only had a single wireless router in the entirety of the building, situated in the lobby. I can imagine that those on the upper floors wouldn't have gotten any semblance of signal, but we on the second floor had it worse, I think, as we were teased with a weak, sometimes-in-sometimes-out signal. That might be one of my biggest pet peeves, at least insofar as computers are concerned. I'd rather know I had nothing, y'know. Anyway, because of this, I went down to the lobby and continued some of my future planning, before heading off to bed.
The next morning, we got up, had a standard, respectable hotel breakfast buffet - my favorite part were the silver dollar pancakes - and then went to the main lobby to make our plans for the day. We already knew what we'd be doing in the evening; we just needed to figure out the rest. So, we got out my laptop, looked up some things, figured out our general schedule, and headed out. On our way to the metro station, we passed by a spa which offered, beyond the normal fare, fish therapy. For those unaware, fish therapy is when you stick your feet into a tank of doctor fish - or nibbler fish, or one of a half-dozen other names - and they start eating the dead skin off your feet. There's a whole bunch of controversy (admittedly, low-intensity controversy) about both the efficacy of the treatment, as well as sanitation and all that. But our feeling was, hey, the novelty of having these little fish go at your feet is worth the five bucks even if it doesn't work. And the sanitation? Eh, seemed clean enough, and we'd only do a 15-minute session. And I'd say it was worth it. I loved the feeling, and while it may be a placebo effect, my feet did feel slightly softer afterward, so take that as you will.
We then took a couple metro trains (one above ground, one below) to get to the Chatachuck Weekend Market. While I'm sure I butchered the spelling of the name, this thing is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) outdoor markets in the world. Despite this, we couldn't find what we were looking for, which was a nice set of sarongs for my mom to take back to California for gifts. We did get some food though: a decent Thai iced tea, a less-than-decent bowl of coconut ice cream, and a fatty piece of pork-on-a-stick. When we realized that we weren't going to find what we wanted, we decided to head back to the hotel for a quick sit-down, because we had something fun planned next. It was a short distance (which I judge via metro stations [this one was half a station-length away]) to get to a Citibank shopping center, where we went down, past a creepily empty food court (it was a Saturday afternoon, mind you), and into this thing called "Escape Hunt", which is actually the #1 Bangkok activity on TripAdvisor. Has almost nothing to do with Thailand or Thai culture. Hell, the owner's British. But it's a good idea (a role-playing murder mystery/room escape game) in a touristy area that didn't have anything similar. If that's not filling a niche, I don't know what is. My mom and I had one hour to solve our mystery, and while we were told we were going really well at first, one I started having to decipher codes (busy work, really), we suddenly saw how having five people instead of two can make sense. Still, our game master started giving us some really heavy handed hints in the last ten minutes, and we escaped with two or three to spare. I would have loved to have solved it with no hints (albeit with a longer time limit), but it was great fun regardless. Additionally, the owner spoke with us afterward, talked a bit about the company, and then gave us the most detailed listing of good places to eat in the area. Lemme tell you, when you go out of your way to print out a list of restaurants to people who, more than likely, which never patronize your establishment again, that's good service.
At his suggestion, we went to a nearby place called Hemmingway's, an American-style restaurant with 1920s aesthetics (except for the music, which seemed to be from the early 60s. I got my first legit, non-McDonald's cheeseburger in quite some time, and it made me nostalgic for a wonderful summer barbecue. We then headed off to the theater, where we had to first have our tickets amended, because the guy who printed them gave us a 12:30 showing instead of a 19:30 showing. Their means of doing this was just crossing out the time and seat numbers on our ticket and filling in the new one. Considering there was no approval signature or anything, it seemed a little suspect, but whatever. We got in, I remembered just how large IMAX screens are, and we got up to our seat, a comfy two-person couch with a blanket sitting on top. We didn't get the popcorn and drink that I was partially expecting/hoping for, but what can you do. The movie itself was pretty good, my main praise being for the intensity and the cinematography. After the movie, we went back to the hotel, I did some more planning for Australia and New Zealand, and went to bed.
At breakfast the next morning, we decided that day would be somewhat of a "rest day", in the sense that we wouldn't really plan out to go anywhere specifically (we considered the Grand Palace, but figured that it would be especially crowded on a Sunday). So we hung around the hotel a bit, doing our own little things, until we decided to go out for lunch. One of the recommendations we had received was for a healthy Thai food place near or at a hostel. We went into the hotel, sat down in the dining area, and waited. And waited. After about ten minutes without so much as someone asking us if we wanted water, we figured we were either in the wrong place, or they were just bad at their jobs. So instead we went to a Mexican restaurant next door. (Keep score: we're in Bangkok, and our meals have been American and Mexican.) I got myself a burrito, and for coming out of the middle of Southeast Asia, it was really good. After heading back to the hotel for a tad, we decided to go out shopping. Specifically, we wanted to try to get some sarongs at a roadside stand that we had seen when we were looking for the steakhouse our first night together.
At this point, I've forgotten some portion of this trip. I don't know if it was a big portion or what, but the next thing I know, we stopped inside a mall. We didn't mean to; we thought we were going into a grocery store. But it turned out to be a huge department store, and probably one of the nicest, most classily decorated ones we had ever seen, with trellises and sandlewood-esque horses and things like that. Lemme put it this way: would you take photos of a Macy's? That's how nice it was. We finally made it to the grocery store section, and after walking around, with my mom getting excited at all the familiar brands she was seeing (the number one being the Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bar) (also, aren't I the one who's been gone for six months? Shouldn't I be the one getting excited?), we settled for some fruit and snacks, and headed out again. We continued walking, much to my mom's displeasure (and in that humid place, who could blame her). When we got to where we had found the stand before, we now saw nothing. Well, there were a couple other stands packing it up for the day, but none of them were what we were looking for. Having completely missed out on what we were looking for (and getting covered in sweat for our troubles), we took the metro back to the hotel, where we relaxed. After debating where to go for dinner, we just decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, where I got some green curry. What was most interesting about that dinner is the fact that the waitress almost exclusively addressed me. I know it's a patriarchal society, but it definitely got on my nerves a bit (and I think on my mom's as well, though I don't think she'd admit it). Afterward, I grabbed my computer and got to planning again. Having successfully booked all transportation and accommodation for Australia and New Zealand (yay!), I now turned my attention to South America, and lemme tell ya, that's a whole new can of worms. Once my brain started hurting from all the considerations, I decided to call it a night.
We got up early(-ish) for breakfast the next morning, and then headed out to see the Grand Palace at about 8:30. We took the metro to one of the rivers, and then decided to take a water taxi from there because, hey, why not, water taxi? My mom had actually done one the last time she was in Bangkok (four years ago) and really enjoyed it, but apparently things have changed in that time, as instead of a quaint old water taxi with standing room only, this one had bright yellow and orange plastic chairs, reminiscent of something you'd see out of Disneyland. In fact, it even had a Jungle Cruise guide on the front with the microphone. Kind of. He wasn't making jokes or shooting hippos, but rather explaining some of the sites we passed by (and using "Madam" to refer to everyone). When we finally got to our stop, we hopped off, and walked the short remaining distance to the Grand Palace. (And I will note that we passed by a cop wearing a facemask and some fingerless gloves - he looked like a total badass.)
When we got inside the Grand Palace, my mom was immediately told to put on a long skirt, which she did (she had one prepared). But, oh wait, the person telling us this also happened to be a guide. She offered to take us around for $25 ("I'm not bad," she said), but I felt that was more than was worth our time, so we decided to reject her offer, and instead got a set of tickets and audio guides. Lemme tell ya, this is no cheap place. All told, we paid over $45 to tour this place. It's an impressive place, to be sure, but still, that's really pricy. And it all had to be done in two hours, because that's when we had to return the audio guides. (On the subject of which, I was pleased to listen to the audio guide to one of the sites, then see that same human guide that we'd seen before walk up with another group, and deliver the exact same description, word for word, for more than double the price.) As it turns out, we were able to get through the place in the two hour limit we had, and probably wouldn't have gone that much over even if we had no such limit (and my mom wasn't enjoying walking in the humid heat, so that was its own limiting factor). I will say, the Emerald Buddha, which was one of the main attractions of the place, and is only available for viewing for about four hours a day, was a bit...underwhelming. I know size shouldn't matter (hi-yo!), but this things was so small, and wasn't even made of real emerald. Yes, it's supposed to be over two millennia old, but I dunno, the Reclining Buddha made me say "Wow" while this made me say (quietly) "Oh..."
We left the palace, got a couple waters, and decided to grab a taxi back to the hotel. I was expecting to argue with the driver, and was pleasantly surprised to hear him agree to using the meter from the very get-go. And the traffic Buddha was with us that day, because we pretty much coasted through to the hotel with only a couple stops. In fact, it ended up being decently cheaper taking the cab than it would have been to use public transit, and it required no extra walking, was faster, and had air conditioning the whole time. It's nice when things work out like that. Anyway, back at the hotel, my mom decided to get a massage at a place down the street. I was pretty much done with massages for the time being (my still-burned shoulder notwithstanding), and so decided to get something to eat. I bought a large bottle of Diet Coke at a market, and immediately upon opening it, trip and drop the bottle, losing half of the drink. After salvaging the remaining half, I got a big bowl of pork noodle soup, which only cost 35 baht. I then went back to the hotel to, you guessed it, do more future planning (as well as some downloading that needed doin'). This was mostly with regards to South American volunteer opportunities, and I think I'm leaning towards a gig in the Galapagos. After a couple hours, my mom returned, and later still, we decided to go to dinner, again at the hotel. After a decent meal of Szechuan chicken and salad, we went back to our room. My mom was feeling tired, but I wanted to stay up to pack, because I hate packing last-minute in the morning. Once I did all I feasibly could that night, I did some last-minute things on the Internet (going on the assumption I wouldn't really have any for the next three weeks) and went to bed.
We were supposed to be picked up at 8am the next morning, so we woke up early, had breakfast, and then finished packing. At about 7:30, I get a call from our guide, saying that the traffic in the city is bad, so they'll be another half-hour to hour. He also asked to speak with the receptionist, which made me think he also didn't know where our hotel was to begin with. At 8am, we decided to bring our bags down to the lobby and check out. We sat in the lobby, talking and wasting time, with me noting what I am currently considering my homecoming date to be (April 18, in case you're curious). Finally, at 9am, the van comes, and we meet Pheap, our guide. We pack our stuff into the van, and we drive out of Bangkok........or rather, we drive for about an hour, get to the edge of the city, and then Pheap gets out of the van to talk on the phone. We then have to turn around, because apparently we had another two people who would be traveling with us. See, I had imagined that this was going to be a group tour - y'know, us and maybe five other folks. Nope, it was a private tour, just the two of us. Except, wait, there was a couple who would be staying with us until we reached the Cambodian border, and now we had to go pick them up. This ended up being a bit of a disaster, because on the way back, traffic seemed to have doubled, with our van at a standstill most of the time. On the way, we made bets on this mystery couple - my mom thought they'd be in their 20s, while I said they'd be middle-aged. Turns out, we were both kinda right, as it was a mother/daughter team. But even after picking them up, we still weren't done, because we needed to pick up bikes for them. We ended up not even starting to leave until noon, putting us three hours (or more, if you consider the original late pickup) behind schedule.
We drove for some time (and between our speaking with our new companions and my nodding off, time lost all meaning), until arriving at a "Tesco Lotus" shopping center, where we had some lunch (my mom and I both had some boiled chicken breast with rice), and then waited for Pheap and the driver (whose name I forget) bought snacks. I was tempted to visit an arcade we passed in the center, but decided against it; I didn't want to be part of the reason we were late. When we eventually did get going again, they said it would be another couple hours of driving before we began. At that point, I didn't even bother to avoid dozing, except for a brief stop at a gas station, where I picked up a milk green tea (I actually wanted a taro milk tea, or failing that a melon milk tea, or failing that a strawberry milk tea, but despite having thirty flavors listed on their sign, they only had three available). Finally, we got to the starting point, where we got on our bikes. Pheap told us something like, "We'll be cycling for 15 minutes." I don't know if this was a joke, or a bad translation, or what, but it wasn't the case at all. We actually cycled for 40k. This wasn't bad - the road was fairly flat, it was along a beach, and it wasn't terribly hot. I will say that I've learned biking is not the optimal method of transportation if you want to take photos of the amazing scenery you pass by. In fact, it may be the worst in that regard.
Thankfully, we did get a stop to take pictures of the sunset, but this basically signaled that we'd be riding in the dark from there on out. This didn't seem so bad during the twilight hour, but once it started getting really dark, that's where the nervousness came in. I actually wasn't so much worried about traffic; I was worried about potholes and other road hazards which suddenly became more difficult to see. (I was especially worried for my mom, who doesn't have the LASIK-enhanced eyes I have.) Thank God for our van driver, who not only drove shortly behind us, shielding us from traffic, but also used his brights to illuminate our path. Would we have managed without him? Possibly, but we all agreed that we wouldn't have wanted to. So, arriving at the hotel in Rayong was quite a relief. What was a complete surprise, though, was how nice the hotel was. A beachfront property with a pool, you could hear the sound of the breaking waves from your room. Really, it was pretty evident that we were supposed to arrive earlier in the day and enjoy what the place had to offer. But alas, it was not to be. We got to our room, took some showers, took a stroll down to the sands of the beach and around the grounds, and then met up with everyone else for dinner. We all hopped in the van and drove to a local side-of-the-road seafood restaurant. Pheap offered to order for us, and we ended up with, no surprises here, a lot of seafood. Now, I think I came to this conclusion after eating in a seafood place in South Africa, but I now believe that seafood, while fine of its own merits, is both overpriced and overrated for what it is. While I like fish and shrimp and lobster, chicken is cheap, widely available, and quite delicious. Anyway, the food was still fine, and there was plenty of it. I wasn't a big fan of the octopus soup (I'm not a big tentacle fan), but there was enough variety that I could avoid those little bits. While eating, it did start raining plenty hard, so we were thankful the clouds had the courtesy to wait until we were off the bikes to open up. We drove back to the hotel, and I tried getting some organizing done, but it wasn't long before both my mom and I went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up around 6am or so, and my mom and I went to a 6:30 breakfast. I think it was here that I really started noticing the difference in our morning styles. I am not a morning person, and I like to spend as little time in the morning as possible. Because of that, I get ready fast, eat breakfast fast, and am ready to go before too long. For my mom, though, the morning is a ritual. As such, she has courses to her breakfast - first a coffee and a couple small pieces of fruit, and then she goes for more substantive fare. Me? I just put everything I plan to eat on a plate, grab at least three drinks (tea, water, and juice, or maybe just a tea and two waters), go through it, and am ready to leave. Not this puts any sort of rift between us; it just means we finish at different times, usually with me bring first. Anyway, after that was done, we went back to our room, packed, and then met with everyone in the parking lot at 8:30. The day began with us driving in the van for forty-five minutes to an hour, until we reached our starting point. We then got on our bikes and started going.
See, I don't know how many times/ways I can say "We were cycling" before it gets old. Unless I otherwise mention, you can assume we were cycling after I say "we began cycling" for the day. In fact, maybe that's going to make this all fairly ho-hum. So I'll do it this way: I'll post the excerpt from the itinerary, then tell you how accurate this ended up being, then noting some things we saw/did along the way.
Day 2: Rayong - Chantaburi (60km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Start biking to mangrove study center around 60km. On the way we stop and pay visits and talk to local people, see how they earn their livings. At the mangrove, we can walk around and visit one of the most successful forest restoration project of Thailand. Then check in and spend the night in Chantaburi. Dinner at local restaurant.
Truth be told, I hadn't looked at this itinerary in months. So looking over it now seems quite quaint. Anyway, we did in fact, stop at the mangrove forest, but it was more like at the halfway point. It was a nice little place to stop, though quite confusing to navigate, mainly because the signs were almost exclusively in Thai. We did take one path which took us - quite unexpectedly - to a huge lake (or maybe it was the ocean?) with a nearby tower we could climb for a better view. I also had one of my most bittersweet moments in this forest, as I was in the back of the group at one point, and as we pass by this one area, I see a two-foot water monitor, just sitting on the side of the road, right next to us. His calm demeanor screamed for a photo. I took out my camera and got in front of him. However, as I did so, I said, "Did you guys see this?" And the mother of the other pair of folks said, "What is it?" walking boldly up to where we were. This scared the monitor away a fraction of a second before I could take my shot. Lesson learned: take your pictures, then talk to your companions.
We also stopped at a beach restaurant, where we could get some more seafood (yay?). We opted to order for ourselves, which turned out to be a complete mess, as we needed Pheap to translate, as the restaurant staff couldn't speak a lick of English. Example: I asked for Shrimp Curry. This ended up as squid soup, because Pheap thought that "Shrimp" meant squid, and...I dunno about the curry=>soup part. I quickly corrected myself and said "Prawn", but even then, the soup was mediocre and way too large for one person. But hey, I also got green papaya salad, which is never bad, and I ate like nobody's business.
On the road, we passed by some water buffalo with enormous horns, a bunch of ice cream truck/scooter hybrids, and probably a bunch of other stuff I don't remember. Unfortunately, things got a little hairy. On the second half of the trip, we were told by Pheap that we had 2km to go. And I should note, it was hot, so this was quite welcome. But then after 5km went, easily, my mom's core temperature went up too high, and she had to stop. Again, thank God for our van driver, who stopped and brought out cold water and cold cloths and other things to keep her cool. After getting enough cold on her, she was back on her feet (and bike), and as it turned out, we only had about 200 meters before our next break. It was the first indication that Pheap was a horrible judge of distance. But mom survived, and managed to go the rest of the way.
Oh, and all that talk of "pay visits and talk to local people". Nope. Nothing even close.
But! The hotel we stayed at that night may have been one of nicest hotels I have personally ever been in, located in the nowheres-burg that is Chantaburi. The place was huge, well-groomed, had everything from a pool to a jungle gym, there were little geckos all over the place (which I consider a plus), they gave us cold washcloths to wipe down when we arrived - it was all great. But the Wi-Fi. Not only was there Wi-Fi in the room (which can be a luxury in some hotels), not only was it a decent speed (which is a luxury in third-world countries), but it was nearly as fast as the Internet I had in my US apartment! I know it's weird to get so worked up about Wi-Fi speeds, but the options you have when you have a good connection is so liberating. I actually wanted to upload travel photos to Facebook, as I'm backed up to China, but unfortunately never got the time to. Man, if we had had a free day there, the things I could do. (By the way, this place is called the Maneechan Resort.) Now, at the first hotel, I had begun thinking to myself, I was expecting much a much cheaper, rattier hotel than this. Maybe I'd have been willing to have a cheaper place if the whole trip cost was a few hundred less or so. But this night, I realized that I did pay the price I did, so I should hope to get every luxury I can out of the deal.
Anyway, after a lovely dinner (in the hotel, not at a local restaurant), we discussed what was happening with the other couple. They were basically told that they'd have to take a shuttle from the beginning of the day to get to their resort for the night, meaning that the three-day trip they had paid for turned into a two-day trip. Needless to say, they were planning on contacting the company. Afterwards, we went back to our room, and my mom fell asleep soon thereafter. I tried staying up to see what I could get done, but I unfortunately was beginning to feel a bit tired myself.
If there was anything I could say against the hotel for that night, it's that their breakfast the next morning was middling. Also, none of the breakfast staff spoke English, which made it really difficult to order eggs-to-order. But at 9am, we brought our luggage to the lobby, I soaked up what Wi-Fi I had the time to soak up, and we said our goodbyes to the other couple as we went our separate ways. Here's the official itinerary.
Day 3: Chantaburi - Pailin (47km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Transfer to Pongnamron and start cycling to the border 27km. After the immigration, lunch at local restaurant. Then cycling 20km to the Pailin town located on the foothills of the scenic Cardamom mountains. Pailin used to be Khmer Rouge Strong-hold survived by trading gem stones. Until 1998, Khmer Rouge has demobilized their forces into the government army, then the town had got completely peace. The town is now home to some of the former Khmer Rouge leaders who are now in jail awaiting for international court After cycling on the dirt red bumpy road, we arrive in the small dusty town of Pailin. View sunset at Phnom Yat to overlook Pailin. This temple of on Phnom Yat hill is more for Kula Muslim minority who earn their living with gem stone business. The Muslim minority made up 5% of the whole population in Cambodia. Return back to the hotel for shower and welcome dinner. Overnight in Pailin.
This one is generally pretty correct. The one thing I can note from the get-go is that we were going at a much slower pace than we had the days before. When we were a tour group of four, my mom and I were in the back (mainly because we were looking to relax and enjoy the environment; also, I have found that I really like being in the back, so as to see everyone). I guess Pheap saw us as the weak links, and so overcompensated his speed, going unbearably slow, especially on downhills. I hate breaking on downhills, but had to do it every time in order to avoid crashing. Also, Pheap likes to do this thing where he hits a piece of trash on the road to the side with his back wheel. I think half of it is to clear the road, and two-thirds of it is to show off (because honestly, it's easy to avoid). However, at one point he whips a flip flop, directly into my path. It was obviously unintentional, and thankfully I was able to go through it without issue, but I'd rather he not do that.
The border was...confusing. I don't know what it is about land borders, but they are always so disorganized that I never know what's going on. Really, you should really have two lines, one going from Thailand to Cambodia, and vice-versa. Each of these lines has its own building with four windows or so, which stamps your departure, gets you a visa, stamps your arrival, and then solves any miscellaneous issues. Bing-bang-boom, done. No, instead this was multiple buildings quite a distance apart, with signs that pointed every which way and people who pointed in every other direction. I barely managed to get everything sorted out. My mom, in fact, never got her Thailand departure stamp. Nobody stopped her, questioned her, did anything really. (Well, someone eventually did, but it took a while.) In short, "haphazard" would be a generous term. But we both got our visas, and got into Cambodia, but not before saying goodbye to our Thai van driver (who everyone seemed to like) and saying hello to a new, Cambodian one. We then went to a nearby restaurant where we had more-or-less the same fare we'd been having. (I wonder if I'm going to get sick of this kind of food by the end of this all.) We then continued riding.
One thing I will say about Cambodia - the kids are quite vocal. "Hello!" "Hello!" "Hello!" Every single time we passed by a house, or a school, or anywhere there was a kid, that kid would wave and yell "Hello!” It's the kind of thing that makes most people go "D'awwwww". And I'll admit, it was cute...at first. But I got over it super quick. Like, before the end of this day I was over it. I think it's just my misanthropy kicking in. And when we stopped for a photo opportunity at these giant golden horse statues, I basically completely ignored the children that tried coming up to me and saying "Hello!" (and most likely hoping for some sort of sweets). My mom, the kind-hearted person she is, stopped and, I dunno, showed pictures to the kids. I just walked away, trying to do so as neutrally as possible; I didn't want to scare/offend the little kiddies.
Also, Cambodia is very green and jungle-y. Even more so than Thailand. My mom said it was more like Northern Thailand.
Anyway, after some time, we arrived at the Memoria Resort in Pailin. The place was one of those nature resort-style joints, with individual huts. I knew that meant it wasn't going to have Wi-Fi that was nearly as good as in Chantaburi. What I didn't know was that it also meant we had a single bed, and no way to get out of having a single bed. Though I will say it was an impressive bed; a king-sized with a teak (possibly) frame, fancifully decorated, that had to have weighed an honest 500 pounds. My mom decided to go to the pool, whereas I just decided to take a shower, hoping to get rid of the monstrous helmet-hair I had developed. I then relaxed for some time, until it was time to visit the Phnom Yat which, for a holy temple/shrine/place, seemed a bit...tacky? I dunno, "tacky" may be too strong a word, but the place was way too over-decorated. There were statues in front of statues in front of paintings in front of statues. (And I know I said I liked statuary, but this was over the top.) There was a giant Buddha, and a section dedicated to statues of people being punished for their sins (one guy getting his tongue pulled out, one with a chakram in his head, etc), a statue of...let's just say it went on and on. Don't take it the wrong way, it was a fine place, with a great view; it was, in the words of my good friend Kanda-san, "Too much. It's too much."
Pheap had places to be for the night (I think his mom's friend died), so he had us taken back to the hotel, but not before stopping at an ATM so my mom could take out some cash. But not Cambodian Riel. No, this ATM would only give her US dollars. Why? Who knows. (Though my guess is because their money is at 4,000 Riel to a dollar, so they want a more stable currency.) We then got back to the hotel, where we had dinner. I wanted to sit in the main dining area (mainly because that's the only place that had Wi-Fi), but it was apparently karaoke night there, and there was a bunch of loud music and people singing poorly in Khmer (when it's another language and you can still tell it's bad, it's bad). So, we had a private table kind of out of the way. In addition to some spring rolls, I got some steak, and my mom some chicken, each coming with fries and veggies and such. As if the universe was trying to scold us for not eating local, the food was, to be honest, pretty bad. We finished it relatively quickly and hurried back to our room (as we were also faring with many a bug, seeing as this resort housed a fairly big still-water pond). We then went to bed. Or rather, my mom did, whilst I tried doing some writing. But I think I might have been bothering her, because she eventually told me - quite straight up - to go to bed. So I did.
Also, did I mention that the day had been Halloween? Interesting note: this was the first Halloween in which I didn't dress up. And I plan for it to be the last, as well.
Next day, day four! Here's what the itinerary says...
Day 4: Pailin - Battambang (85km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Fill the water and briefing on the road condition and water stop. After the town, there are a few climbs and then downhill. Watch for large potholes, and cows might be crossing the road with the string so there might a trap. We cycle along this Cadarmom mountain range passing the rice field and we won't be tired as the kids like to say hello and waving from their houses. Recently, the road from Pailin to Battambang has been improved. We stop for water, snack and drink under a big shad of a tree. Then continue cycling another 20km before stopping for lunch in Sneung overlooked a nearby a temple near the road. A little rest on the mat would be good. After lunch we cycle another 25km to Phnom Sampov, overlook the hilltop pagoda and the cave. Just 15km to Battambang, we do a bit of transfer as to avoid the busy traffic in town. Battambang used to be second biggest city but now become a relaxed town where Siem Reap is getting more boom. Situated on the bank of Sangker River, Battambang has many French colonial building and traditional Cambodian house. It is worth to take the Bamboo train as the local railway is running only twice a week for passenger train and cargo train is running more often. So local people enjoy taking more bamboo train. Overnight in Battambang.
Well, I'll start by saying I've become too accustomed to buffet breakfasts. Actually, no, I think I've become too accustomed to eating breakfast anytime in the morning. But we couldn't do that here; we were told that we should have breakfast at 7:30, and then be picked up at 8am. We thought there was some specific reason for this time, so we told the hotel that this was when we'd eat. So, when we decide to eat at 6:30, we go up to the dining area and...nope, nothing and nobody there. We had to go back to the room for an hour, and then have breakfast. After this, it was time to roll out from the hotel, no van ride. We had a long day ahead of us. It says in the itinerary that there are a few climbs and then it's downhill. I can confirm there is both uphill and downhill, but dammit, the downhills never last as long as the uphills. It made me quite wistful for cycling Haleakala in Maui. Did run across some cows, but no string trap. Some things we did see:
-At a water break stop, we saw a crate of water which had the tagline "Water in the Hight Quality". There were ants crawling within the case's plastic. Hight quality, indeed.
-More temples and giants Buddha’s.
-A number of spots where we could stop for photos. I think we became a bit pushier on stopping at these points. I mean, hey, photos are one of my goals.
-I saw my mom finally get tired of all the "Hello!" calling.
Now, at our first water break, we were told we were halfway done. Then, about 15k later, we pass a sign saying that Battambang is 50km away. Meaning that Pheap was telling us something that wasn't true. And I think I should mention that we weren't terribly in love with him. In fact, we could say we were already over him. I'm sure he's a nice guy (isn't that phrase always a death knell?), but it didn't seem like he cared about us or our trip all that much. Just putting in the time, and waiting for it to be over. And the new van driver? Honestly, he was a little twerp. But one of the main things that bugged us regarding Pheap is that he just gave us these distances that turned out to be wrong, and severe underestimates, despite us telling him multiple times, "If you don't know for sure, overestimate." But anyway, we got some coconut water at this place, served in two enormous coconuts, and Pheap gave us our options. We could either continue cycling into Battambang, or we could take the van from there and make a side trip to a temple called Wat Banan. My mom and I discussed the options. We eventually came to the conclusion that we're here to see things just as much as to cycle, and I'd honestly spend my time looking around a cool locale than cycling through farmlands in 95+ degree weather (which it was). So, we took our coconuts and got in the van, and began driving the next 50km, plus another twenty or so to get to the temple (all the while thinking that it was a good decision). Along the way, we passed by a number of tuk-tuks filled with white people. I wondered where they were all going.
As it turns out, the same place we were. We white people are so predictable.
[Note: At this point, I'm writing on Day 7 of the trip. I am really not feeling this. The days are long, I am tired, but every day I don't write is another day I get backed up. This is clearly not going to be my best entry. Anyway, I'm just going to blast through this in a way I've never done before.]
After paying for the privilege of using the world's dirtiest bathroom and having a fried noodle lunch, we walked up some 350 stairs to get to the top of this hill. We also had to deal with these little kids using fans to try to cool us. My mom tried to tell them no; I flat-out ignored them like they'd never been ignored before. My method worked better. (And I've found that my stoic head-shake makes vendors go away much faster.) Still, the top was worthwhile, because the place, called the "Mini Angkor Wat", was amazingly cool. Old, dilapidated, and with a sense of history to it. Not going to describe it in detail, but it definitely seemed like something out of Tomb Raider. After going back down the steps (assisted by a naga handrail). We took a drive to a "winery", and I use the quotes because it was the most rinky-dink operation I've ever seen regarding wine. The "vineyards" were maybe 30 feet wide and 150 feet long, and that's being generous. We declined doing a tasting, and instead went back to the new hotel. This place had signs everywhere, mainly of what was prohibited in the hotel (everything from knives and AK-47s to prostitutes and puppy dogs).
Later, we were supposed to be picked up at 5:30 to catch the local Bamboo Train and watch the sunset. But our twerp driver was late, so we missed our chance. Pheap said we could go to the market to make up for it. We drive a short distance away and get out of the van to see - a large street market that looks remarkably similar to every other third-world street market. We got our money exchanged for Cambodian Riel (and mused that a beggar's choice to set up shop there was a good one), almost got my foot run over by a motorcycle, and then walked a good half-hour until we finally reached our dinner location. After a completely unmemorable meal, we went back to the hotel and got to bed early.
We did so because we also had to wake up super early (5am). We had a boat to catch. According to the itinerary:
Day 5: Battambang - Siem Reap (18km)
An early breakfast before cycling for 15 minutes to board on the boat to Siem Reap. The boat has toilet and life jacket and takes about 6 - 7 hours. It is one of the best boat trip in Cambodia to cross the Sangker river viewing the fishermen and all their activities on the river. Then crossing Tonle Sap lake (South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake). It is the main reserve for water when the Mekong is flooded, without the lake, Cambodia will be flooded every year. In rainy season, the water reaches 10,000 square Km when it is only 5,000 square Km in dry season. The lake is as important as for the human-being and the fish, birds and other wild animals. One hour before reaching the dock, the boat passes Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary home and breeding area for some thousands of water birds. After crossing Tonle Sap lake, we arrive at Chong Kneas floating village. The village combines of Cambodian, Muslim and Vietnamese and they move up and down depends on the season. All the houses are floating with support of the bamboo. After arrival at the dock, get off and prepare to ride bicycle 15km to our hotel.T Overnight in Siem Reap.
This itinerary doesn't say much, other than, "You're on a boat, and then you cycle a bit," but I guess it would have been accurate. The boat left at 7am, so we had to leave by 6:30, and thus eat at 6am. In fact, it was so early that they were still bringing food out by the time we left. We quickly drove over to the dock, where we got on the boat and immediately realized that it was full of white people (primarily non-English speaking Europeans). This water taxi was clearly meant for tourists, or at least that's how the cards fell. The ride took about six hours, and though I had brought my Kindle along, I found that I didn't feel the need to read it. Whenever I wasn't dozing off, I had plenty to look at and take pictures of to keep me occupied. I don't recall any bird sanctuary, but we did see a number of floating...I think "towns" is a more appropriate word than "cities". (In fact, our water taxi was making grocery deliveries to several of the local businesses.) The main thing that struck me about these places is...well, that they exist. How can people just live in these little shacks floating on the water, surrounded by nothing and no means to access anything except by boat, even just to cross the "street"? I also seriously wondered about the gene pool in such a small society. We also went through this open part of the lake, which basically looked like we were in the middle of the ocean. It was that big.
When we got to the other side, it was quite hot, and we decided to skip cycling for the day. We got in the van (though not before Pheap got his phone stolen by a tuk-tuk driver) and went to the Siem Reap hotel, where we'd be staying for the next several days. It's an okay place, but the Wi-Fi (one of my key concerns) was spotty at best, telling us we had a full strong connection, only to correct itself when you tried to log on by telling you the signal was too weak to connect. These troubles were forgotten when we went out to dinner, and saw that we had a new van driver, Mr. Tree (that's how it is phonetically, at least). Spoilers: we love Mr. Tree. He's much more like our Thai driver than the little jerk we'd been dealing with the last couple days.
[Note: Now it's Day 8 (yeah, I know, I didn't write much on Day 7; I was literally falling asleep at the keyboard), and my computer crashed as I was writing, losing me everything I'd written. As such, I'm now even less inclined to write stuff. So, even shorter and sweeter.]
We had dinner, the most interesting part of which was a coconut smoothie. I then got a new, Cambodian SIM card from a lady at a roadside display case, which may have been the most insect-covered object in existence. Unfortunately, our hotel room here seems to be a dead zone, unless I literally prop the phone up to the window (which is what I'm doing, whilst doing a USB tethering, do get Internet to my computer). A while later, I went to bed, in what was probably the most comfortable bed I'd slept on in Southeast Asia so far.
Day 6: Siem Reap - Angkor (25km)
Depart from the hotel on the main road and cycling through Angkor pass check point. Cycling through the shady road with a little pumping because of the a few pot-holes. There you will begin to see Kravan temple, Banteay Kdei, and stop at the famous Ta Phrom, embraced by the roots of enormous fig trees and gigantic creepers. Visit Ta Phrom (45 minutes-1 hour). It was built in 12PthP century by the famous King Jayavarvan VII indicated to his mother. While clearing back the forest archaeologists decided to leave the vegetation of Ta Phrom in place to serve as a reminder of how the original discoverers found it and the other Angkor temples. Many of the trees have grown around and through the remains and soar high above the temples. Continue the cycling through small circuit passing Ta Keo temple, Chao Say Tevoda, Tommanon before reaching to Angkor Thom city. There you will see, Terrace of Leper King, Terrace of Elephant, Baphoun, Phimean Akas. Stop at Bayon temple and start the visit (45 minutes-1 hour). Angkor Thom built by Cambodia's great king, Jayavarman VII. Overnight in Siem Reap.
That morning, we got up, had a fairly nice, complete breakfast (I think I mainly liked it because it had hash browns, albeit in a very peculiar form), and then met two new people. First was Biam (or something that sounded like that), who would be our English-speaking guide. I'll continue throwing in spoilers - this guy is a legend. We really wished that he was our full-time guide, because he is mature, very knowledgeable about Cambodia and its history, used to be a Buddhist monk, speaks good English and will actually answer the questions you ask, and has a good sense of humor. The fact that we only got to spend three days with him is a real shame, because he improved the trip 500%. The second was Al, a new cyclist from Melbourne, who'd be with us for five days, until we left Phnom Phen. He is a weird specimen, because he is a good-hearted guy, but he rubs me in all the wrong ways. He describes people as beautiful (don't ask me why that bugs me, but it does), will boast about all the places he's been in a way that makes even me blush, and has that loud, brash, over-confident attitude that I'm now beginning to associate with Melbournites. He also extolled the virtues of biking, "instead of sitting in some air-conditioned van." In some ways, I'd imagine he'd be one of those guys you meet in a hostel who say they prefer hostels because "I want to meet people and not be holed up in some single hotel room." It screams self-congratulatory. I dunno, it's weird; I've become somewhat colder towards people (as a whole) on this trip, and yet at the same time I've become more accepting of people as they are. It's a weird paradox. We then cycled to the Angkor ticket area, where we met Rachel, a British girl with such little memorability that I won't even go over it here. Needless to say, she's not made much impression on me.
We got our tickets (which is apparently a racket; all of the Angkor area parks are owned by this super-rich guy who also owns all five-star hotels in the country), and then cycled to Ta Prohm, which is a place that became famous when it was used in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (the movie, not the game). It was a remarkably cool place, with spung trees growing out of the walls, and collapsed bricks strewn about. Really, it did look like something out of a video game (specifically Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, one of my favorite games of all time, which actually does have a level in a Cambodian temple). Afterwards, we visited Angkor Thom, which was also really cool, having pillar after pillar with four faces, one on each side. I mean, these are the kinds of places that Disneyland would use as references for their Indiana Jones rides and stuff. If you didn't know it was real, you'd swear you were at a theme park. We also went to the famous Angkor Wat, which - while large and impressive - was not nearly as interesting (at least not in a visual sense) as the first two places. Still, with seeing all these amazing places, and hearing the history behind them by a competent guide, this day was much more interesting and enjoyable than this brief paragraph makes it seem. (Lemme put it this way: I took 450 pictures.)
We eventually biked back to the Ree Hotel, where Al and Rachel were staying, and then took the can back to our own. I took a quick shower, and then tried to get some top-up cards for my SIM card account, but I guess the mobile store in front of the hotel decided to close at 6pm, which seems to me like kinda bad business. We then went out to dinner at a nice place, where we had another set menu ("I want the set menu," said Al, "I want to get a taste of the local flavor, not just some western food." It's weird how I can have the same sentiments but be annoyed when someone feels the need to express them.) and ate outside on a moonless night, and then went back to the hotel, going to bed shortly thereafter.
Day 7: Banteay Srei & River of Thousand Lingas (90km)
Depart from the hotel on the main road. Arrive at Angkor Wat and turn left to the west. Continue to cycle 2km before turn right to the rural road. The road is good for cycling as you can avoid the busy traffic but you can see rice field, village, pagoda. Arrive in Banteay Srei before lunch. Visit (45 minutes) Banteay Srei temple known as women citadel (built in 967 A.D dedicated to Brahma). While some of temples are impressive because of their sheer size, Banteay Srei stands alone in the quality of its construction and decoration. Its pink sandstone walls are decorated with what some consider the best carving of all, and still an excellent state of preservation. Continue cycling to visit Kbal Spean, the River of Thousands Lingas, lying under the river bed, people believe it brings fertility and blessing Angkor area as the river flows to Siem Reap. Walk 1,200meters to visit the Lingas and enjoy lunch and the water fall. On the way back, cycle on the main road to visit Landmine Museum of Mr. Akira. Mr. Ra is dedicated to clearing the Cambodian countryside of landmines laid during the years of conflict and relies entirely on visitors' donation to fund his work. Overnight in Siem Reap.
Let me just say, 90km (or 86km, as it actually was) is no joke, at least when you're out in the heat of the day and going along dirt roads. We had to wake up early for this one, and we just went. It was well over half through dirt paths, which eliminated the traffic concerns you'd have in the city, but added in the annoyances of dirt (my legs were painted a ruddy brown) and bumps and dips. At one point, we had to take a detour over a small bamboo bridge because the actual concrete bridge that was in the area had collapsed into a sinkhole, thanks to the rains last month. We were riding for a good four hours, with almost no shade or clouds, and by the time we stopped, I was aware of my legs, and I knew that was a bad sign. We did stop at the Banteay Srei temple, which - as the description above notes - has some amazing carvings - so nice, so detailed, and with such literal depth, it looked as though they were made of wood. (In fact, I didn't believe it was stone until I illegally touched one of them.) We then stopped to have lunch, and my back was absolutely killing me. We had cycled for something like 60km at that point, and it felt like more. Lunch was at least in a nice place, and I was able to treat myself to a coconut juice (in coconut) to try to recharge my electrolytes. We decided against the set menu (primarily because we didn't want fried spring rolls again), and I made sure we got the green papaya salad, which I may declare as my al-purpose favorite Asian dish.
We then biked a short distance to hike at Kbal Spean, which is a foresty hill/river area filled with boulders and tree roots. I have to admit, this was where I felt in my element. On my feet, in a wooded area, with the sound of birds and rushing water in the background. This was where I could go at whatever speed I wanted and not get sore or exhausted. Clambering up the rocks, or hopping down from them, was not an issue. The place itself was pretty cool; there were a number of carvings along the river (including a bunch of circles, or "lingas", which were under the water, giving the river its name. We stopped by a waterfall, which several of us poked our heads into. I think I was the only one who did so neither looking to get refreshed by it, nor feeling particularly refreshed; I just wanted to try it out. On the way back down (it's about 1.5k downhill), I practically ran/jumped down, but it all evened out, because I kept stopping to look at interesting plants or insects and other such stuff. We then went a short way to go to the Landmine Museum, which is about as depressingly interesting as you'd imagine. I mean, you want to think of a high-stress job, imagine being a de-miner. But I can also imagine it being highly rewarding, and the story of Aki Ra is very inspiring; I highly suggest you research it a bit. Basically, he was a conscripted child soldier in the Khmer Rouge who had to plant landmines, and afterwards, he basically dedicated his life to demining and helping the victims (and the families of victims) of landmines. (I will say, though, that it's a good thing I am highly supportive of his goals and happy to give my money to them, because the cycling company we went with was supposed to pay entrance fees for all itinerary items, which they refused to do in this case.)
After this, it was too late to go cycling back to the hotels, and we were all too tired to do so anyway. So we drove back, had about 45 minutes to take showers, and were then picked up for dinner, which took place at a very nice and fancy, but utterly deserted restaurant. Nothing really to note regarding the menu, other than that I think Cambodian food is a tad limited. It's not bad - on the contrary, it's quite good - but like, say, Morocco, there are only a few traditional foods, so you end up seeing them all the time. We ate, talked, decided we were all too tired to go to the night markets, made a quick stop at the ATM, and then went back to the hotels. I tried to do some writing (as evidenced above), but was just too damn exhausted, so I closed my computer and went to bed.
Day 8: Rolous Group & Tonle Sap Lake (50km)
Depart from the hotel, crossing the bridge at Old Market to cycle 15km toward Rolous Group. The first 2km, is on the tarmac road toward the bus station. Then, passing the rice field and the village. Rolous Group was the first capital of Angkor Empire during 800 A.D. Visit the Pre-Angkorian temples including Preak Ko, Bakong and Lo Lei. Afternoon, cycling to Tonle Sap Lake. Turn left at the crocodiles farm crossing the bridge. Then cycle on small road along the river through villages, pagodas and schools. This road is good for cycling as to avoid the busy traffic. After cycling 8km, turn right across the bridge to the main road as there is no further access on the small road. Continue cycling toward the hill about 3km (July-December) where the boat stop. (Note: January-June, the water is low and the boat will stop further 3km). Board on the boat to visit the floating village, floating school, fishing farm. After 1 hour boat drive. Return the Siem Reap on the main road to avoid cycling the same road. Overnight in Siem Reap.
On Day 8, we got a new member, Tate, a young guy from Adelaide, Australia. I find it interesting how similar he is to the Adelaide guys on my Everest Base Camp trek. In particular, I liked his laid-back attitude and easy-going nature. Also, he at least plays video games, so that's some commonality. We then met up with the others, and began cycling. We had to first stop to get Tate his Angkor ticket, and then got going. Looking at the itinerary above, I don't actually know if we went to the temples listed above. We did go to a couple temples, but I have to admit, they're sort of running together. (I blame this partially on the fact that a bunch of them were built by the same king (Jayavarman VII), who didn't like to mix it up when it came to design. I definitely don't remember a crocodile farm. We then stopped at a another temple, one which was surrounded by a very impressive man-made reservoir (900m x 3500m), though the actual temple was a bit of a short visit, seeing as it's been submerged in water for the last two years. We also - in a completely different place, and I think earlier in the day - had to cross a pond that was possibly ten inches deep. That was definitely an exciting moment, if only in the "I-really-hope-I-don't-fall-here" kind of way.
As we biked from this place to our lunch stop, I came to an epiphany - I don't really care for cycling. Actually, maybe I should qualify that statement: I don't really care for cycling insomuch as its use as a touring medium. I can attribute this to a few points.
- I feel detached from the rest of the world. This is actually going against one of the arguments people use for bikes ("You're more connected to the world than if you're in an air-conditioned van" or something similar). I don't feel like I'm really experiencing the world; I'm just rushing by it. I can't enjoy the sights, the sounds, the smells, I just gotta keep going. I can't touch the world...at least, not without crashing (and I will note, that the short-termers have all had spills at this point, whereas we have not [knock on wood] [also, my mom is halfway, because she fell, but that wasn't on bike; she just tripped while holding the bike]). Overall, I want to go at a slow pace, to enjoy the world around me. I think everyone else interprets this as me being a weak rider.
- In a similar vein, I like taking pictures, or as I'm pretentiously calling them now, scenes, little slices of the world that I can capture (just like a real photographer). You cannot do this on a bike. At least, I can't. I don't feel comfortable taking a picture whilst riding, and stopping to take a picture is an intrusive hassle, which either inconveniences everyone or puts you way behind. But man, there were so many moments I wanted to take that shot, of the water buffalo, of the rice paddy hats, of the pigs in trailers, of so much, all lost to time now.
- There is an undertone, intentional or not, of competition. It doesn't matter how many times you say "It's not a race," it still feels like it. Maybe it's just the kind of folks that cycling attracts, but I always feel that everyone is trying to show off, whether they intend to or not. At one point, we were riding around the walls of...maybe it was Angkor Wat? And we could go down this foresty area that I had absolutely no confidence in completing without crashing (and at one point, there was a one-foot drop with a large rock immediately following). I basically said, "I'm not trying to impress anybody," and just walked my bike. But generally, I feel there's a lot of hoo-rah biking here, and not enough la-di-da biking. (That may have been the worst sentence ever written.)
Long story short, I still think walking is the best. And this may definitely color my next big trip, which I was thinking of doing in the good ol' USA some years in the future. I was considering walking the continental US, but then thought maybe I should bike instead. Now I'm leaning back towards walking. But my coming to this conclusion isn't a bad thing, I think. This whole trip was meant to have new experiences. I mean, I didn't know if I'd like working at an orphanage, or working at a reserve, or hiking up mountains. I'd never actually done any of that before. So now I actually know. Which makes it a totally worthwhile experience.
Anyway, at lunch, my mom and I had agreed that we wanted to go back to the hotel. For one, it was a hot day, and she didn't want to push herself into exhaustion. Second, we just needed some time to relax. That's one thing this trip needs: more days just to not do anything. Every day we're waking up early, doing things all day, and only have a couple hours free time in the whole of it, and usually then we're too tired to do anything. And we'd already been on a boat, so we figured we wouldn't be missing that much. I'm sure the others were thinking that maybe we were weak links, but screw them. We took the van back to the hotel, and one of the first things we did was gather all our dirty laundry, which I took down to the lobby. There I was told that it would be ready the next evening. "No, we need it tomorrow morning," I replied. Instead of offering rush service at a higher price, they told me I could walk seven minutes down the street, and maybe it could get it done there. I became probably unnecessarily incensed at their completely unaccommodating attitude. They made no attempt to try to appease the situation for their guest. I've stayed at hostels which have had better customer service. Anyway, I walked out, and saw a place in front of the hotel that said "Emergency Laundry, 4 Hours". I went there with the clothes, but they told me, "Not today." The guy pointed me across the street to another laundry place, which told me (or at least I gathered after she repeated it six times) that I had to come back tomorrow. Seriously, this was at 2:30; there should have been plenty of time and reason for these folks to take my business and money. I eventually brought the clothes back up, and, separating the clothes that desperately needed washing vs. those that could wait until our official break day, went back to the good ol' fashioned process of washing them in a bathtub. I then wrung them out, and we strew them about the room, praying that they'd dry by morning. I then used the remainder of my pre-dinner time writing.
And I gotta say, having a break, even just a few-hour one, was very fulfilling. We then had a buffet dinner at this large, covered, pseudo-outdoors place, where we were also getting a cultural show. The food was pretty unremarkable, as mass-quantity buffets often are. And the show? Let me just say that this whole thing reminded me of the luau that my best friend Kris and I went to in Maui. And that was the most boring part of that trip. It was just an hour of dance-like performances with no context that all went on twice as long as they should have. And the crowd (of hundreds, impressively) was overwhelmingly geriatric. It was pretty obvious our table was bored with the proceedings, and afterwards, we decided to go out to the night market. As I expected, it was just like all the other markets everywhere. Everyone else bought something, whereas I amused myself by laughing like a maniac when someone asked me if I wanted to buy gemstones. Also, we passed by a ladyboy lip-sync performance in the most amazingly tacky massage parlor I've ever seen. After everyone bought what they wanted, Tate, my mom, and I got in a tuk-tuk to go back to our hotel. Once inside, we began packing, and my mom was worried about clothes not drying in time. I decided to put my outfit for the next day in my bed, and then went to sleep.
Day 9: Siem Reap-Phnom Penh (18km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Transfer to board speedboat to Phnom Penh. This boat trip takes 6 hours; the boat has life jacket and toilet. It is one of the best boat trip to cross Tonle Sap lake, one of the biggest fresh water lake in South-East Asia. When the boat leaves the dock, immediately you will be able to view the picturesque floating village. This community comprise of Cambodian, Vietnamese and Muslim minorities. The market, gas station and school are also floating. They move up and down depends on the season. In rainy season, Tonle Sap lake reaches 10,000 squre Km, but in dry season it's got only 5,000 squre Km. Arrive in Phnom Penh port, afternoon visit Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and National Museum. Overnight in Phnom Penh.
Uh, yeah, this one couldn't be more off the mark. Though to be fair, we knew about it beforehand, as we were told that the boat we were supposed to take did not have enough people booked, and so it was cancelled. So instead of "the best boat trip", we'd be taking a road trip in the van. Quite a downgrade.
Anyway, we woke up and went to breakfast, and I noticed that my mom had nearly no appetite, eating almost nothing. We then went back to the room, and felt out all our clothes. They were all at various levels of dryness, but none were what I'd call "dry", so we had about a 20-minute blow-drying session, for whatever good that would do. We then packed up, went downstairs, checked out, got in the van, went to the other hotel, and began riding.
We were going fine for about an hour, maybe a little less, when we stopped for a photo break. That's when my mom had to go to the side and sit down. After I saw she wasn't her normal self, I walked over and saw that she was hyperventilating (which was apparently also happening when she was riding). We deduced that she had gotten some sort of stomach bug, was completely ad utterly dehydrated, and was in no condition to ride. At that point, Alwin stepped in and offered to help, as he's a doctor and had some emergency medicines in his bag in the van. When the van finally showed up (it wasn't following us directly, as we were on a pretty underdeveloped back road), Alwin got his bag and gave my mom a shot and some pills. She then rested for some additional time (with her legs perched on my shoulders to get the blood flowing to her head), before getting up to lie in the van. Her bike was packed up, and she'd be resting for the remainder of the ride today.
(A side note: I considered, even while it was happening, how Alwin, who I had spending the last few days considering brash and somewhat annoying, was now helping my mother in a way that may have prevented the need to take her to a local medical center. Did that totally change my perspective? Not really; I still found him brash and annoying afterward, but I rationed that this was the Universe's way of making me remember that everyone has value, even if they may rub you the wrong way.)
So anyway, we kept riding for about 50km (since we didn't have a boat to catch, it was figured that we'd ride longer) along a very bumpy dirt road. Thankfully, by this time my rump had gotten used to being on a bicycle seat (or else had just become deadened to feeling, either-or), so it didn't bother me terribly much. It also wasn't a terribly hot day (just a moderately hot one), and the pace was not that fast, so I had more time to look around and enjoy the ambiance. That all changed once we hit the tarmac highway, because people felt the smooth road meant it was time to burst forward. So I fell behind a little bit, but we stopped shortly thereafter, so it made little appreciable difference. We stopped, had some water and snacks, and then everything got packed up. Now, this van, while decent-sized, now needed to fit three bikes (the rest, no longer needed, were taken back to Siem Reap), and seven people (one of whom needed an extra seat to lie down in), along with luggage for all those people. How we got it to work is a miracle that only Mr. Tree could accomplish. We drove a short distance before stopping for lunch (which was basically the same lunch we've been getting the whole time; my mom just had some soup and rice), and then it was time to drive for six hours.
And this wasn't smooth-sail driving, either. This road, perhaps the main national highway in the whole of Cambodia, was one lane each way, and in terrible condition. Let me put it this way: when cars have to drive off the road, onto unpaved ground, to have a better driving surface, you need to increase the upkeep. (The issue, though, being that the people who are supposed to be fixing the roads are using cheap materials and pocketing the money.) So we couldn't go terribly fast, and had the occasional big pothole that woke anyone with the audacity to nap (in whose ranks I was among a couple of times). However, the worst part was that the seats, with little room to recline, were horribly uncomfortable, and my back got more sore than when I was ever on the bike. I took every opportunity I could to get out and stretch, including this one spot where they were selling tarantulas, both alive (and somehow hairless), and fried to eat. I didn't bother eating any, mainly because I was making sure my mom was okay. Shortly after leaving that spot, the sun went down, and we were driving in the dark. On one particularly exciting moment, I saw a big rig coming directly towards us, trying to pass another big rig. This guy was not stopping for anything, and if it wasn't for the implacable Mr. Tree pulling off the road, we would have been hit head-on at easily 60mph. Oddly enough, my reaction to this - as it was happening - was just to smile and laugh, even as the thought went through my head that I could die at that moment. No fear or anything. Not sure what to make of that.
Anyway, we arrived in Phnom Penh at 7:30, dropped off Tate at his friend's place (which was an adventure in itself, as the address system here makes it near-impossible for a newcomer to navigate by intuition), and then finally got to the hotel. Which turned out to be another Frangipani hotel, just like we had in Siam Reap. Once inside, I had a shower, and then we (well, everyone except my mom), went out to dinner. As it was late and, now, raining, Pheap decided to take us somewhere close, so we went to a local Japanese ramen place that he'd never been to before. It was good food, to be sure, but man did it seem out of place. Afterward, we stopped by a mini mart (where a guy needed to get an enormous parasol to cover us as we walked to the door - the water was at least an inch deep on the ground at this point, thunder rolling), and on Alwin's orders, got a few large bottles of Sprite, which I had to flatten and give to my mom for her to rehydrate with salt and sugar. (I don't like flat soda, but that's still the easiest medicine I'd ever heard of.) We then got back to the hotel, and it was already 10pm. The day had tuckered me out, so I went to bed shortly afterward.
DAY 10: PHNOM PENH (35 km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Today be guided through this bustling city to explore the main sights by bike, including Wat Phnom and Cheung Ek killing field. Phnom Penh has got more than 1 million population and the traffic has become very busy now. There is another option to visit the city by van. In the afternoon, visit the Independence Monument, Tuol Sleng Museum and Russian Market. Overnight in Phnom Penh.
The next morning, we got up, and my mom was feeling...marginally better. Definitely better than the day before, but not yet well. Remembering my own experience getting a bug going up to EBC, I told her it would probably just be best to rest all day. We went down to breakfast, which to our mutual disappointment had a really low variety of food, far less than the other Frangipani (they didn't even have cereal). Later on, my mom got back into bed to let her body recover, while I went down to meet up with the others for a completely cycle-free day. I don't even know why the itinerary mentioned that you could cycle through; Pheap basically treated van-based transportation as the norm, and actively encouraged us not to choose cycling instead. It was for the best that we took the van, because it was raining, the place was busy enough that riding through the streets probably wasn't a good idea, and we also got more time at the destinations.
We began at the Cambodian National Museum, which was fairly small and forgettable, just housing a number of statues, carvings, weapons, etc. No match for the Smithsonian, I tell you what. I tried making the most of it by getting interesting pictures when I could, but we went through it fairly quickly, and walked (in the rain, covered by cheap $1 ponchos picked up along the way) to the Royal Palace, where a guide took us around and showed us the many buildings, as well as the artwork, including life-sized statues purportedly made out of solid gold. There was also an Emerald Buddha here, though I wasn't able to ascertain its connection, if any, to the one in Bangkok. I think my favorite part of the tour was when the guide was asked why the current king was still a bachelor, and his response was that it was because the king "used to be a ballet dancer." My least favorite part was when the guide was talking about the Khmer Rouge, and said that his older brother was killed by them.
That somber note continued for the next couple stops, beginning with the Genocide Museum, which was an old school that was converted into S-21, a prison where people were detained and tortured before they were taken away to be killed. (The reason they did that to a school was because Pol Pot, a horrific villain who is lamentably unrepresented in world history, banned all forms of education immediately after taking power.) I won't go into the grisly details of the place, but it was very moving. And again, the fact that I was so uninformed about the regime seems a failure of our world history courses. The numbers seem to vary from source to source, but basically, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered at least one-third of the Cambodian people (that is, their own people), for almost no reason. We were discussing how almost every dictatorship in history had some upside, at least before the dictator's true evil shown through. (Even Hitler, to invoke Godin's Law, was able to help bring the country out of its economic depression before he really became as focused on his own genocide.) But if you look up Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, there is nothing that made them seem attractive. From the get-go, they did terrible things for the county, basically setting them back a generation or more. With actual party slogans like "Better to kill an innocent die by accident than let the guilty live on accident" and "Having you is no gain; losing you is no loss", I can't imagine how anyone would have followed these people. This was made even more surreal at the Killing Field, a small area where thousands upon thousands of people were brought, slaughtered, and buried. (Killings were done using farming tools for adults, and horrifically, infants were taken by the legs and smashed against a tree.) The audio guide for the tour - one of the best I've had at a museum or site - painted a very vivid and disturbing picture of the terror. The chills that ran down my spine were frequent.
After that, we drove to the Russian Market (named for when the Soviets had some presence in the area - there are no Russians there now). I went in for a short while, but quickly got bored, as it was a market like all the other markets I'd seen, and I had no interest in buying anything. So I went back to the hotel, which was just a hop, skip, and a jump away. I got in to find that my mom felt she was finally turning a corner. I relaxed in the room until dinner time, when we all got in the van and drove to the riverside to have another Khmer dinner. I was fairly giddy, though, because there was a Tutti Frutti right next door, so I could get some self-serve frozen yogurt. The selection of flavors was a bit small, but hey, it's frozen yogurt! We then drove back to the hotel, where I went to bed sometime later.
Day 11: Phnom Penh – Kirirom (70km)
Breakfast at the hotel. We transfer to Kampong Speu and start cycling from the gasoline station on the road No.4 to Kirirom National Park to visit Chombok community activities with the representative of the project to learn about the indigenous culture and the history of the area and the daily life of the people living in the community. Overnight at home-stay and experience rural Cambodia at its most authentic.
Yeah, I think things start going a bit off the rails with this one. See, at this point, it was just my mom and I again; we had nobody else to worry about, so we could tailor the trip a bit more to our individual needs and/or whims. That said, of the things on here, I think we may have visited the National Park, but that's about it. The rest of it has nothing to do what's written here. (And as far as the home-stay thing goes, that was fine with us; we were both not really in the mood for it, to be perfectly frank.)
Anyway, we woke up around 6am or so. This was about when we'd been waking up normally, but this morning, we wouldn't have the choice to sleep in even if we wanted to, as the walls in this hotel were paper thin, and we could hear some Chinese people in the hallway talking very loudly (and then at one point, a ballsy British woman saying, "Can you please be quiet?! People are trying to sleep!" followed about twenty minutes later by the more direct "SHUT UP!" Unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to escape this, as there were apparently two busloads of mainland Chinese who had arrived the night before, and all of them (at least 80) were filling up the dining area for breakfast. If a person liked personal space, this was not the breakfast for them. It was quite unpleasant, and my mom saw that my general...dissatisfaction with mainlanders wasn't all just me being a prickly pear. We got out of that as soon as we could, got our bags, and met up with Pheap. We got in the van, and he told us that because he was still a little worried about my mom, he wanted to change plans a bit, so we'd drive to this one mountaintop, and cycle from there. We said fine, as we were basically fine with any suggestion, and then drove for the next two or so hours. I really have little to say about that drive other than that it was hot; we didn't have the cloud cover and cooler temperatures from the evening before.
We got to the mountain (which may have also been the national park?), and began driving up and up and up. I didn't know if this part was originally supposed to be cycled, but I was sure glad we weren't, because it was basically a nonstop uphill. Finally, we stop at one point and get out. The weather finally cooled down a bit, and we got on our bikes and went, maybe, 15km, mostly through dirt and mud. I actually got stuck in a thick mud pile at one point, but thankfully didn't spill off. We finally get to this area which I thought at first was a village, complete with river and lake (and a half-sunken boat in that lake), but then soon realized is actually a tourist spot, filled with little huts where people can lie in hammocks and have lunch. We did exactly that, this time having a full grilled chicken and fish in addition to the other fare. Then it started raining. Hard. Too hard to go out in. So we just waited for a while. I lay in a hammock (an uncomfortable hammock, but a hammock nonetheless) and listened to more of my audiobook.
(Did I mention I'm listening to an audiobook? Yes, for at least the duration of this cycling trip, I've given in to another technology that I'd previously dismissed as anti-book. But it has its uses, like listening while cycling. I'm currently listening to One Summer, written (and narrated!) by one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson. Very interesting stuff.)
Anyway, when the rain cleared up a bit, we left the little tourist village and began making our way down. With the rains still fresh, we were a little concerned with the prospect of going downhill, but when we learned that it would mostly be on tarmac, we decided to ride the 18km down the mountain. And man, did we fly. It's a steep mountain, and I had to ride the brake the whole time. Not because I'm concerned about speed, mind you, but rather because the road had tons of potholes, and I was concerned about hitting one of those at speed. Even when I slowed down, it was only because of my long-suffering guardian angel that I managed to go over holes and cracks and such without getting onto the five-o'clock news. But it was fun. Wet - we had one major patch, about five minutes of hard rain - and dirty, but fun. The grease and mud on my shirt make it look like something out of Jackson Pollock's wardrobe. We all enjoyed it, my mom especially. And she was definitely feeling well physically and mentally.
We cycled to our "home-stay" for the night, which was actually one of those outdoorsy resort style places. It was absolutely gorgeous on the outside - it was part of a huge complex that allowed for fishing, horse riding, a dinosaur statue park for some reason, and lots of walking space - but the accommodations in the actual room were pitiful. But hey, it was a place to stay. We took our showers, I took a quick walk around the place to assess the level of bugs (there were a lot), and then went back to relax a bit. Just before dinner, we made a quick detour to the dinosaur statue park, but it was pretty much dusk when we got there, so we had to head back or risk getting lost (like I said, big place). Dinner at the resort was...probably the worst of this trip (which is the same thing I said at the other resort in Pailin). Everything was insubstantial, overpriced, completely unappetizing, or just nonexistent. In fact, almost none of the things we wanted were available, so we had to go with whatever they could scrounge together, I guess. Plus it was outdoors, so we also had bugs to contend with. I couldn't wait to get back to the room, and when we did, I used the time to write before going to bed. (Or tried to; it was a little difficult at times, as there seemed to be a bird inside the room chirping every now and again.)
Day 12: Kirirom-Sihanouk Ville (75km)
Early morning to see the bird and walking 1km to enjoy variety of different attractions including a 40m high water fall, variety of plants and animals while discovering the breathtaking nature and landscape. Continue cycling to Sihanouk Ville. We transfer by van at the junction road to Sre Ambel and keep the hill part for the next day when we are fresh.
I don't even know what half of this itinerary is trying to say, but anyway...we got up and had probably the lamest breakfast I'd had in some time (which wasn't exactly surprising), and then met up with Pheap. We immediately hopped on our bikes and started cycling along a pothole-laced dirt road, which also passed through a river where my feet got completely wet. It was a hot and exceptionally humid morning, but even taking that into consideration, I felt like it was an especially tough ride. Going uphill (and there were many uphill sections) completely winded me. The others were way ahead of me, and I could not catch up for the life of me without nearly dying. Even little brat kids were able to pass me up, giggling whilst doing so. It was only after we reached the entrance to the Chombok Park, some 12km of uphills later, that I realized that my front tire had been put on improperly, and the front brakes had been on the entire time. Additionally, we got a new member to our party. Along the way, a black dog began running after our bikes, following us at least a good kilometer to the park. Pheap joked that the dog was our guide. Turns out, he was only half-joking, because the dog (who Pheap called Khmao, or "Black") actually stayed with us the entire time in the park. (Apparently, Pheap had seen him many times before.) He turned out to be a decent guide, leading us the 3.5km we needed to go to get to the waterfall. Again, this was me in my element, so I had no issue navigating. I did have issue, though, with mosquitoes. I got devoured in this jungle, and amused myself watching the bites grow from a tiny dot to a huge, amorphous blob. (Curiously, my mom remained completely unbitten; I was the going meal, it seems.) Still, seeing the waterfall was quite worth it, as it was quite impressive, especially up close (although it pretty much provided a dead end to our trail). Not sure what bird the itinerary was talking about.
We walked out of the jungle, said goodbye to the dog, and then cycled back to the resort we stayed at the night before. I should probably note, my mom had her first on-bike fall at this point, on a rotten wooden bridge. To be fair, it was actually because she didn't like a portion of the bridge, and stopped, which made her lose her balance, and tip to the side. It was a completely soft fall, so she didn't have a scratch on her. After taking a quick water break, we continued on to get to the main road. We were now riding on tarmac, but it was still in really poor condition. We also had one interesting moment where we rode through a herd of maybe four dozen cattle. I came marginally close to hitting one, but thankfully didn't cause a stampede. The ride was supposed to be only 9km, but seemed much longer for some reason (possibly because Pheap has bad distance judgment). When we finally got into town, I suddenly became a lot less comfortable, making me immediately thankful I didn't ride in Phnom Penh. We stopped at a mini-mart, where my mom and I got some snacks (mainly rice crackers for her, as all the cakes that have been purchased for this trip seem to betray a lack of understanding of "allergic to wheat").
We then got in the van, and after a quick and forgettable lunch, were transferred to Sihanoukville, which was about a three-hour journey. We had to stop at one point so Mr. Tree could pray to some goddess for a safe drive, because the last two times he didn't do that, he got flat tires (and a different driver drove off the cliff, killing three passengers - if that's not incentive to pray, I don't know what is). We had a fairly brief but torrential period of rain, but this also allowed for some amazing clouds in the distance.
We eventually got to the beach town and our hotel, and made our way to our room. While not the greatest hotel in the world (they don't have a blow dryer, because they want you to use their hairdresser; I think it might be odd to ask them to blow-dry my mosquito bites for me), but it was leagues better than the place we were in before. And there were two queen-sized beds, which was a nice bonus. We took showers, my mom got a massage, I did some work, and then before we knew it, it was time for dinner. Shortly beforehand, there was yet another torrential rain, but this dissipated before we set out, so our pink and purple ponchos weren't terribly necessary. We stopped at a nearby restaurant, where we ate while listening to a Buddhist funeral going on (which sounded like the driest and most tedious thing ever). Still, the food was very good, and had prices that, while not Bangkok street food low, were very reasonable, and made the tour company's $7-per-person-per-meal budget seem a lot more practical. We also had company of a little cat, which was pleasant. We then got back to the hotel, walked down through a hallway that was actively being heated for no other discernible reason than to simulate the bowels of Hell, got to our room, and did nothing else of note for the night.
So there you go, from my mom and me meeting up to Day 12 of our cycling trip. Yeesh. Sorry about this overall entry; it isn't really my proudest one. (In fact, it may be my least proud.) But at least I'm still learning things through my experiences, and I got to see some really amazing ancient temples and jungles and stuff, so that's always pretty awesome. I'll see how we progress with blog entries on the remainder of the bike ride; hopefully it's a bit smoother than this, but we'll see. If nothing else, maybe by the end of this trip, I'll be used to the feeling of a hard, hard bicycle seat on my rump (it's getting there!).