I continued biking from a bike store in Bangkok on Saturday February 11th, 2012. It is the same store that put my bike in a box 9 months ago. The road was flat and only a slight headwind but it soon became evident that so much time off and too many Christmas meals meant some struggles ahead.
I am starting off by heading east and back to Cambodia. When you fly into Thailand you are given a 30-day visa on arrival and that is not long enough so I am making a border run. If I apply for a Thai visa in Phnom Penh, I can get a 60-day visa that will allow me to attend a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in the south starting on April 1st.
The road east was familiar but the difficulty of biking a few hours on a flat road was something I hadn't experienced in a while. It's the point of contact between your body and the bike that take some hardening up so to prepare it's best to take it relatively easy but bike every day. The consistency will build fitness easier than going hard and then suffering for a few days.
It wasn't long until I stopped for my first lunch on the road and again the simplest of foods in Thailand still far exceed my expectations. This plate of rice and pork looks plain but it was delicious.
In the 9 months since I have stopped cycling I can count on one hand how many bottles of Coke I've consumed. I was hoping to make it 60 days without drinking any as I wanted to reduce my sugar intake and it is far better to just avoid sugary drinks as they don't actually give you energy but deplete it. I almost made it too, just falling 59 days and 22 hours short.
The first day was short in terms of mileage but perfect for me to start. I entered the small city of Chachoengsao and stopped at an air-conditioned coffee shop on the main street. I take advantage of this now because once I cross the border into Cambodia, there will be a noticeable shortage of air-conditioning and nice cafes. Here is what my large iced coffee looked like.
I am carrying that book as I only have a few pages left. While biking I was thinking it should be titled, "Too big to carry" but I finished it that night and left it for other travellers at the hotel. As mentioned before I always like to read about the countries I am in so have just started "A History of Cambodia" by David Chandler. I had focused on the Khmer Rouge years (they were in power between 1975 and 1979) but this book will provide a detailed understanding of the politics and people since the first inhabitants settled here.
The lady at the coffee shop reminded me of the kindness of perfect strangers. I walked in and clearly did not look that good despite the short day. I ordered an iced coffee and she also gave me some iced water. She then carried her pitcher of water outside to my bike and filled one of my water bottles. Then she came inside and grabbed a handful of Mentos candies and gave them to me. I didn't have the heart to say I had only biked from Bangkok. I didn't want her to take my candies away.
Here is a very typical scene as you bike on the good roads of Thailand. These arches are found as you enter different provinces or cities and are adorned with photos of the King.
I had a few close calls in the short drive to the border. On the first day a truck carrying large plastic pails brushed the side mirror off a small pickup truck, as both were right beside me. A few large heavy pails flew off and bounded past too close for comfort. At that speed I would have no chance to get out of the way. The next day a truck went by and just ahead swerved into the ditch. It appears that the 2 tires that are visible at the rear simply came off. I arrived a few seconds later and the driver was already out of the truck calling for help. It's time to get off this road.
I am starting to enjoy crossing borders because I'm getting used to the nonsense that typically occurs. I went into the building on the Thai side to obtain my Cambodian visa and knew in advance that it would cost $25 US or about 750 Thai Baht. I took a seat in front of a smiling young man and he started filling out the paperwork for me. He then said I had to pay and when I asked the amount (you know to be careful when there is no posting on the walls showing the cost of the visa) he said 1,500 Thai Baht. I told him that I am on my own and the price is 750 Baht for one person. He smiled sheepishly and said oh yes, I thought you were applying for 2 visas. I then asked why he thought that since I was the only person in the entire room but he simply smiled and continued on as if nothing happened.
The interesting thing about this border crossing is the immediate change when you go across a small line. Gambling is illegal in Thailand so many relatively wealthy Thais cross here to take advantage of the casinos located in Poipet on the Cambodian side. You have modern cars crossing in one direction and people pushing handcarts loaded with goods going in the opposite. Some of the carts are really loaded down.
They will only serve one meal so there is no need for a menu. I just sit down and say I am hungry and they take care of the rest. Here is a delicious breakfast of rice porridge and chicken.
I make a point of stopping at the stalls to get traditional food but also to interact with the locals in their environment. It is less intimidating for them because I'm not part of a large group and simply sit down on my own and try to communicate. I spoke with this young man for a while and he told me that he is currently taking English lessons and loved to practice but very few foreigners stopped in the middle of nowhere. I took the photo and showed them but since they do not have a computer I can't send a copy. His wife was putting on makeup for her daughters but she was too shy to come out and talk with me.
On February 13th I reached the Thai/Cambodian border and crossed over on Valentine's Day. Cambodia is the only country in the world with a symbol of a ruin (Angkor Wat) on their flag and the same symbol makes up the border crossing.
It is good to be back in Cambodia and other changes with Thailand were also noticed immediately. The relative poverty is first and foremost but there is also a change in the demographics with a noticeable increase in young people. Kids are everywhere, reminiscent of the Philippines and they are far more outgoing than those in Thailand. I think every child in Cambodia is taught to yell hello at foreigners even if it is the only English word they know. Their parents look on proudly as the kids run to the side of the road and wave.
It didn't take long to feel I was back in familiar territory. The national highway runs from the border to Siam Reap and then to Phnom Penh and if you ever get lost, you can simply ask for the paved road since it appears to be the only one in the country. The roads just off the highway are all dirt and more evidence of the poverty.
Here is a typical roadside stall where I eat my meals.
Here was another a little further down the road. They are all very curious about me and wonder what my wife and kids think of me biking in Cambodia. When they hear I am single and without kids they feel sorry and shake their heads mournfully.
I stayed in Sisophon my first night in Cambodia and left early in the morning. Here is a scene of an early morning market as I was leaving.
The town is at a main crossroad with the one branch going east to Siam Reap and the other southwest to Battambang. The roundabouts are interesting places to sit for a little while, as it never takes long to see a wide array of vehicles going past. Here is an old fashioned means of transport.
I'm not surprised when I hear that places like Cambodia suffer a lot of road deaths in a given year. You see lots of people riding on the top of pickup trucks and if the truck hits something there is nothing to prevent a disaster. Here is an example of a group ready to race down the highway.
I love the simple gas stations in Cambodia. No pumps, air-conditioned convenience store or toilets, just a large display of bottles of gas.
The poverty in Cambodia is obvious as you head into the countryside. If you see a nice modern structure you can guarantee that it is a government building or one housing a foreign aid group. After passing a number of poor houses in a small village here is the Ministry of Health that stood out from its surroundings.
I often wonder if any of the elected officials at the meetings to plan for the construction of these buildings ever suggests downsizing a little and using the excess funds to provide food and clean water for the people in the area. I doubt they think about it but the contrast is so severe that I can't help but wonder how it doesn't strike them as a little over the top.
Here is a pretty typical scene biking along the highway of this flat and hot part of Western Cambodia.
One day I followed a tractor that was moving along at my speed. If I bike really close I can take advantage of the draft and have the tractor block the wind making my ride a lot easier. I took this photo as I was right behind and kept hoping he wouldn't put on the brakes.
The little girl took a real interest in the foreigner, or more likely the camera, and I was able to take another of her. A little further up the road as they branched off I waved down the driver and motioned for him to stop. I then showed the pictures to the family and the little girl broke into laughter when she saw her picture. Another case where I would love to give the picture to her family but have no way to do it.
I passed over a bridge and notice a large group of men in the water. They were working together casting their fishing nets. The fish had very little chance of getting through the maze.
On Wednesday February 15th I entered the town of Battambang. There is a strong Indian influence here that you can see from the Vishnu statue on the main roundabout.
The City also has some good examples of the old French colonial architecture, the French ruled here for 70 years and some of the old buildings have been restored with this one now a bank.
A lot of the local restaurants and coffee shops here are operated by small non-profit organizations, the ones who actually do good work that benefits the local people. I ate dinner at a café that pays the young girls more than the typical low wages and they hire girls who are committed to attend University or College. When you sit down you are given a list of the waitresses and cooks along with a brief biography and each one comes from a poor family and they use their wages to go to school and to assist their families. The restaurant was run by an American couple and is called the Gecko Café. Here's a picture of art imitating life as a live Gecko poses in the same manner as the subject in the painting.
I will continue to Phnom Penh and plan to arrive in the Capital on Sunday February 19th. I will be there a few days getting my 2-month Thai visa and then head south and follow the southwest coast of the country back into Thailand.