I left Kampot on Monday morning after my breakfast and an hour talking with a British expat now living in town. He has been here for years teaching English and owns a small coffee shop so is pretty much doing my dream job. We had a long discussion about Cambodia politics, the school system and the quirks of living as a foreigner in the third world. It is always entertaining listening to people from the West who live in a country like this. Most have a keen interest in government and how things work, something most locals don't seem to care too much about. I have noticed in my travels that it is often the foreign people that take an interest in politics and I think it is because those who live here amidst the corruption often found in the third world are more accepting that things will not change so there is no point getting all worked up over it. Countries like the Philippines and Thailand in particular do have a history of people revolting but for the majority, they just continue with their daily existence.
The south coast of Cambodia is far different than the areas I have cycled in to date and the change is very welcome. The scenery is spectacular and I hardly notice the introduction of hills. I would gladly exchange a more difficult ride for one offering greenery and mountains. Riding on flat roads looking over rice fields is physically easy if you don't have a headwind, but there isn't a lot to see and it can get repetitive after 1,000 km's of the same.
So after seeing mostly dry fields it was a surprise to come across a small fishing village as I left Kampot.
I had a short day and stopped at a Guesthouse in Veal Renh. They had a small restaurant across the road so I went there for a late lunch. The young manager spoke broken English but we were able to talk a bit. I had my lunch of rice and vegetables and he pulled up a chair right beside me, close enough to eat off my plate, which he thankfully didn't do. We exchanged a few words and then he made a call on his cell phone. After a few minutes he handed the phone to me and said, "my father is on the phone so you can talk with him." I said why would I want to talk with your father? He looked at me as if I was really weird but just shrugged, hung up and continued staring at me. I guess I'm not up on all the customs yet.
On February 28th I was biking in the hills of Southern Cambodia and met up with Jose and Sara. They started their bike trip in September 2010 and came from Switzerland across Central Asia and are headed down to Singapore. We stayed at a guesthouse and cycled together before they went ahead towards Thailand.
There is a Conservation corridor in the South and it is very remote and without the regular supply of roadside stalls. They had signs for elephants but I didn't see or hear any.
This part of Cambodia is remarkably similar to the southern part of India, where I also would often come across monkeys. I'm always hesitant cycling up to them as I'm just not sure what they will do and how they will react to my bike. This one was very frightened and leapt on top of a hydro pole. Just after I took the photo he jumped about 15 feet back to the trees and disappeared.
This one was far more brave and sat right in the middle of the road. I biked by and he didn't even acknowledge my existence. He is clearly the leader and ready to show the others that he is in control and no foreigner on a bicycle is going to scare him. I biked by very warily and certainly kept my eyes on him.
The landscape in the southwest corner of Cambodia is decidedly different from most of the country. I spent weeks cycling in flat and hot agriculture areas with rice fields as far as the eye could see but here there are thick forests, rivers and beautiful scenery. This photo shows that despite the forest, it was still hard to find shade on the road and the little provided by the road sign was enough to convince me to take a break.
The roads here are hilly and remote and we had trouble finding places to refill our water bottles and at one point were concerned that we would run out. Here are a few pictures of the nice area in the south of Cambodia.
When a roadside stall did appear, we were typically met with more young kids curious as to what the funny looking people were up to.
There was a small village about 30 km's from the border and I decided to stay for the night. There was a basic restaurant and a guesthouse with a fan that cost about $3 for the night, what more do you need? After 100 km's of remote wilderness the hills suddenly stopped and Thailand appeared in the distance.
It was a little strange leaving the very poor area with people living in shacks and getting to the border with a very modern hotel around the corner. One again the gap between the rich and poor is stark and surprising when it hits you literally around the next corner.
I crossed the border without incident. Having a visa on hand is always easier as the guards have no chance to receive a bribe or arbitrarily increase the fees so they just quickly stamp my passport and allow me to go through. No point wasting time on someone you can't rip off when there are more unsuspecting foreigners following.
It's always interesting crossing from one country to the next on a bicycle because any differences can be seen slowly from ground level. The changes between Cambodia and Thailand are immediately noticeable. You move from remote roads with shacks to a country with air-conditioned 7-11's, air-conditioned coffee houses, smooth roads and children with shoes. I am also met with quiet and children that no longer wave and yell hello. I get a general sense that the people of Thailand are busy and have more to do than wave at foreigners on a bike. It is peaceful but you also miss the attention from the kids in Cambodia who were always excited to see you as you fly past.
There is a long sliver of Thailand that hugs the Cambodian border and the Gulf of Thailand. I passed a sign that read it is the narrowest part of Thailand. I went by but really couldn't see much with the Sea on one side and a mountain representing the border with Cambodia on the other but I will take their word for it.
The first 100 km or so were quite hilly. The hills were steep so your momentum from the downhill would carry you halfway up the other side so it wasn't difficult, just hard to keep a set pace and with the heat it starts wearing you down.
I had a few uneventful days cycling in the southeast. There were some nice towns but for the most part the roads were too busy and I started missing the peace of biking through the remote villages of Cambodia. Here is a picture of the Thai town of Chanthaburi in Southeast Thaialand.
A typical day would be biking until mid-afternoon with frequent stops for drinks as the heat is really building. April is the hottest month in Thailand but March has been very warm and it is feeling like early summer. The most famous city in this part of Thailand is Pattaya, located about 130 km southeast of Bangkok. It is known as a sex tourism beach and has all the foreign tourists, loud jet skis, western food and feel of being in Europe that you could ever wish for so it was exactly the kind of place I go out of my way to avoid. I biked an extra 2 hours one day just to get through this resort town and back to my smaller Thai cities that I love. I ended up in a small town and spent the evening walking around the food market. I enjoyed some fried rice and vegetables and then found a banana milkshake that was fantastic. Now that's how to see the real Thailand.
I am now in Bangkok and enjoying some of the sights. Here I am on the Chao Phyraya River.
This is a simple breakfast I often eat here in Bangkok. It is pork and sticky rice you can buy from a street vendor for about 60 cents.
I will be here until Sunday March 18th and then head south for 600 km to spend 10 days at a Buddhist meditation retreat. During the retreat, I will not have access to a computer, phone, newspaper or any part of the outside world. They serve 2 meals a day with the last at lunch and only a cup of tea in the evening to tie you over until the next vegetarian breakfast. It is the lack of food that concerns me the most. I usually eat 2 meals before 10:00 am. It will be a time to meditate and get some teaching on the Buddhist way of life and I look forward to learning a little about this important part of Thai life.
The retreat ends on April 10th and I have decided to then turn around and head north as the summer arrives. My plan is to cycle north to Laos and then into China. I will apply for a 3-month visa and bike from the Laos-China border up to Beijing and then back to the China-Vietnam border. I am working on a route that will encompass many UNESCO world heritage sites in that vast country. The distance from the borders to Beijing and back is the equivalent of a trip across Canada so I will be there for some time in what promises to be a physically difficult and socially challenging country. The language barrier will present a problem as I make my way through the small, or at least small for China, villages but it should be interesting. Once I get back to the China-Vietnam border I'll cycle Vietnam from north to south and then cross Cambodia or Laos again to come back to Bangkok.