This blogpost’s highlights include: two very different capital cities (one former, one current), an easily-refused offer to shine Keith’s toes, a comical border crossing, two split tyres, quite a lot of rain, and a tent full of holes (nibbled by sparkling green beetles). As we cross from Vietnam into Cambodia Southeast Asia continues to surprise us.
At the end of the last post we’d reached Mui Ne, where we were about to enjoy a day off from pedaling and blogging. Well, we couldn’t quite stay off the bike and used it to pedal around the non-tourist fishing village (Mui Ne proper and about 10-15km from the main tourist drag). It was a hell of a lot nippier without all the luggage. After we returned to the beach Keith hired a windsurf board for an hour, and reported that was harder than he remembered. We also had a lovely time chatting with a Russian-Kyrgyz woman working at the surf shop. It was quite an emotional conversation for both parties as we have such fond memories of Russia and Kyrgyzstan and she was missing her homeland a little. As well as windsurfing, Mui Ne is really popular for kitesurfing so we also had a nice chat with Drew, a Welsh kitesurf instructor, about expat life and the technical challenges of kitesurfing. It sounds like fun.
From Mui Ne we headed inland and picked up route 1 again, following it through field after field of dragon fruit all the way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Along the roadside stalls sold nothing but dragon fruit, which at 5,000dong (about 15p) a kilo, immediately overtook lychees as our favourite snack.
In Saigon we headed for the cheap guesthouse area, which is a maze of tiny alleyways packed with hostels, guesthouses, noodle stalls, convenience stores, trinket stores, laundries, parked motorbikes and local people’s houses. It was practically impossible to avoid looking straight into living rooms that open right out onto the alleyway, which made us feel a little uncomfortable, but I guess the locals are used to it. Tourists and locals wove their way around each other, their lives criss-crossing but rarely meeting unless to conduct some pecuniary transaction. Washing was draped over any suitable post or pillar, saleswomen touted everything from cheap fans and bracelets to books and hammocks. Out on the main street, vendors cooked and sold a variety of foods from mobile kitchens precariously perched on the back of bicycles and motorbikes, and around it all, a thousand motorbikes beeped and honked and swerved and somehow avoided colliding with each other or the milling tourists. You could spot the new tourists in town by their frozen postures and ‘rabbit in headlights’ panic on their faces. Old hands just strolled casually into the melee and prayed that the bike riders were paying attention. Honestly, motorcycle display teams don’t come half as close to each other as the average bike rider on a Saigon street.
Oh, and a quick aside, if you’re wondering why the blog started by referring to Ho Chi Minh City but then swiftly lapsed into using Saigon, it’s because it’s quicker to type. We saw both names being used (usually HCMC on road signs, and Saigon on business premises) and asked a local which was preferred. He said using either was fine, so there you have it.
We did the usual tourist sightseeing, including a visit to Reunification Palace (a 1960’s architectural delight frozen as it was in April ’75 when the tanks of the communist north Vietnam troops drove through its gates), a gruelling afternoon at the War Remnants museum, a traditional water puppets show, and a stroll round the bustling market, where we met Lynn from LA who joined us for beers later that evening. Her boyfriend arrived the next day and they invited us to see a Cuban band that evening and treated us to a beer – thanks JJ, very much appreciated. It was one of the few relaxing moments we had in Saigon, which is a rather ‘in-your-face’ city. When walking around, or even sitting at a bar having a ‘quiet’ drink, you’re constantly having to fend off offers of a motorbike ride, a massage, crappy trinkets, hammocks, books or a shoe-shine. The last one particularly amused us as Keith was wearing fabric sandals. The guy wouldn’t give up even when we pointed out the incongruity of his offer, in the end Keith asked him to buff up his left toe a bit and we walked away laughing.
We left Saigon on the day our visa expired, and the plan had been to try to squeeze in a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels en route to the border, 80km away, but a slightly late start, and also the realization that the tunnels are actually about a 20km detour from Cu Chi meant that we ran out of time. We meandered down little lanes trying to work out where we were in relation to the appalling map on the tunnels leaflet, but after having detoured for almost an hour with the tunnel sites still some distance away we decided to scratch that plan and return to route 1 to head for the border.
We’d allowed plenty of time for the border crossing as they can be unpredictable affairs – sometimes you breeze through in 20 minutes, sometimes you queue for hours and are shunted from pillar to post before being released into fresh touring territory. As it happened, the Moc Bai/Bavet crossing was pretty straight forward. The Vietnamese side was pretty hilarious to be honest. We entered a large building (via what was marked as the exit but was clearly the entrance) and were confronted by four desks, surrounded by glass, and with metal railings dividing the queuing area in front of them. There seemed to be little structure to the actual queuing though and after a few moments spent studying the process we worked it out. Step one, pick a desk, it doesn’t matter which. Step two, barge your way through the ‘queue’ of people packed in between the metal railings and deposit your passports on the pile of passports already on the desk. Step three, try to find somewhere to stand either between the railings or immediately in front of the desk so you can keep an eye on your passport but also allow other people through to deposit their passports. Step four, by the time your passport has been checked the constant movement of people to the front means you’re now a bit further back (it’s a bit like emperor penguins in the Antarctic winter, constantly moving from the cold outside to the warmer interior of the huddled colony and displacing those in the middle until they find themselves on the edge again), so you have to barge your way through the crowds to reclaim your passport and then pop like a cork from a champagne bottle out of the small gap beside the glass-surrounded counter. Show your stamped passport to the man lounging near the (real) exit and then off you go – Cambodia awaits!
The Cambodian system is a bit more organized. A small office outside the main buildings is marked as a visa service – fill in a form, hand over $20 dollars and get a visa. Nice and easy. Proceed into the main building and queue in an orderly fashion. When we got to the front we were told we needed to fill in an entry/exit card, which we’re not sure if we could have got outside when we were getting our visa – it would have been handy if we had. After filling in the entry/exit form we rejoined the queue (which was very short and moving quickly) and within a few minutes were stamped into Cambodia. We were waved through customs and that was that. Hello Cambodia!
The roads are quieter than in busy Vietnam, and although there are many things that common to SE Asia in general (noodle stalls and extraordinary things attached to motorbikes), a few sights and practices have struck us as particularly Cambodian:
This last one needs a bit of explanation. The official currency of Cambodia is the Riel (exchange rate currently around 6,000R to the British pound, or 4,000R to the US dollar). However, you cannot get Riel from ATMs, they only dispense USD. To get Riel, you have to look for a shop advertising a money-changing service (often by sticking some photocopied dollar bills in the window, or just look for stacks of cash sitting around in elastic-banded bundles). Jewelers are a good bet, but some convenience stores and market stalls also do it. You can now change you dollars into riel…..but don’t get rid of all your dollars, you’ll need them!
Prices for small items (lunch at a market stall, a can of fizzy drink, some fruit from the market) are usually, but not always, quoted in riel. Larger items (hotels and restaurant meals) are usually, but not always, quoted in dollars. Sometimes the menu can be in dollars but the bill comes in riel. You can often pay in either currency, but it depends on the vendor, and if you are given change then don’t be surprised if it comes in a mix of currencies. For instance, if lunch for two comes to $3.50, you might hand over $5 and be owed $1.50, in which case you will receive either $1 and 2000 riel as change (there are no coins here, only notes), or perhaps 6,000 riel. Our heads are aching as we try to get a sense of how much we’re paying for things and work out if we’re being ripped off or not. Is that item more than it would have been in Laos or Vietnam because we’re now in Cambodia or is it because we’re tourists and look like easy marks. Are those lychees more expensive because the season is changing? How many dollars to the pound? Or riel to the dollar? What did we pay for that in dong back in Vietnam (30,000dong to the pound). Arrrrgh!!! Luckily, Cambodia is not as frenetic as Vietnam so even in the capital, Phnom Penh, we have a little more thinking time when conducting transactions, but it’s still a struggle.
It was only a three day ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh so it seems quite soon to be in a hotel again, but we’re spending 4 nights here waiting for our Thai visas. If we’d flown into Thailand we could have had 30 days visa-free, but crossing a land border you’re only allowed a paltry 15 days visa-free entry (which you can only extend by a further 7 days once in Thailand). So we’ve applied for a 60 day tourist visa in advance, which we can extend once in Thailand by a further 30 days if needed. The form is fairly standard: name, address, passport details, reason for visit, date of entry etc. You must also put a proposed address in Thailand – we just picked a hotel at random from the Lonely Planet, much as we did when applying for our Kazakh visa back in Omsk. Our biggest problem came when we had to put our mode of entry: bus/plane/car etc. We, of course, put bicycle. Oh dear. “What do you mean you’re crossing on a bicycle? That means we need to see your most recent bank statements.” We just hoped they’d be less stringent than the Russian visa authorities who, when we applied back in the UK at the start of the trip, needed to see original statements stamped by our bank. Photocopies would not do! Now we’re itinerant cyclists we don’t even have any recent paper records outside the UK…all our banking is done on line. Luckily Keith’s own handwritten transaction record and balance details seemed to suffice. We pedaled around a few streets until we found a photocopy service (the embassy wouldn’t do it for us) and then returned to the embassy and got our applications in by the 11am deadline. Any later than that and we’d have to return the next morning (Tuesday) to hand in our applications, and we’d already been told it would be Friday before we’d get our visas. We’d really hoped for a faster turnaround as we’re meeting a friend in Bangkok (700 km away) on 28 June, and to be honest we’d really like to take a slightly longer route and see Angkor Wat on the way, so we smiled our best smiles at the embassy lady and despite them being ‘very busy’ at the moment she eventually said she could get the visas done by Thursday. We think if we leave here on Thursday afternoon as soon as the visas are in our sticky mitts then we can just about squeeze in a day at Angkor. Fingers crossed for good roads and not too much wind.
In the meantime we’re enjoying the sights and sounds of Phnom Penh. Today we strolled round the beautiful Royal Palace and tomorrow we’re going to pedal out to the rather less relaxing site of the Killing Fields. We’ve also been forced into doing some repairs, both to the bike and our tent.
As we approached Phnom Penh we stopped to investigate a strange noise (the trailer had come unhitched on one side as we’d somehow managed to lose the retaining pin, possibly at the jet-wash earlier in the day) and whilst sorting out the trailer we noticed that the rear tyre was bulging and starting to split where it meets the rim. This is a fairly standard problem for a loaded tandem. If we pump the tyres hard (eg 90+psi, for improved rolling resistance) we find they can split near the bead very quickly indeed (within 1,000km!) so we try to keep them at around 70psi, which gives us around 6,000km….and we’ve done over 6,000km since the last change so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but hey, time flies, who’d’ve thought we’ve come that far. Of course, the god of cycle inconveniences dictates that most problems will occur at the most inconvenient times, and having left the micro-climate of the Vietnamese coastline and come inland, we‘re now in the grip of the tropical rainy season and were being drenched by a torrential downpour at that point. Rather than change the tyre we just let a little air out and rolled on, dripping, towards Phnom Penh.
On the city outskirts the front tyre began to go soft, and whaddaya know…the tyre wall had split on that too! We sheltered from the rain on a garage forecourt and changed both tyres and the front tube (twice because the first spare promptly deflated with a duff valve….grrr.). Fellow cycle-tourist, Ian, who we met on the road back in Vietnam, recommended a bike shop in Phnom Penh so we headed there today (Giant bike shop #23 on street 169) and bought a new inner tube, a new chain and a large can of lube (which we’re going through rapidly in the rain). They didn’t have any Schwalbe Marathon tyres so we’ll have a look for those when we reach Bangkok. We’re not worried about that though as barring disaster we’ve got about 6,000km before we need to start to worry about replacing tyres. Another bit of bike fixing has been some work on our stand. A spring usually holds the stand folded away when not using it, but a week or so ago the weld holding one of the spring’s attachment points failed, so we’ve been having to laboriously bungee the stand in place every time we move off, which has been pretty annoying. To our great relief (it’s the little things like that that can really bug you) Keith got that re-welded today whilst I’ve been typing this blog.
More frustrating have been the repairs required on our tent. Because it packs away all-in-one (flysheet, inner and footprint remain attached to each other), we sometimes get the odd insect trapped between the layers. It’s never been a problem before and we’ve just flicked out the carcass the next time the tent’s out. This time though, twenty or so beautiful, sparkling-green beetles found their way inside, and rather than quietly dying they set about munching a series of holes in both our flysheet and inner tent. We are not impressed. I’ve sewed some patches of spare mesh over the holes in the inner tent, but we’re not sure yet if we’ve got enough tent-patch and seam-grip with us to repair all of the flysheet holes….we keep putting the job off. We’ve got to get it done though as the last two nights of camping were in torrential rain and we won’t be happy with a holey tent.
And finally….a few pics from Phnom Penh: