Cambodia & Vietnam
Since the early 1990s Iív been wanting to cycle around Cambodia and Vietnam but for some reason or another didnít manage it until in January 2014, when I spotted a chance.† Admittedly, it wasnít going to be perfect air travel, with long overnight stops in Qater on the way out and back; then a non-direct flight from there to Phnom Penh on the outward trip, and a non-direct flight on the way back there from Hanoi.† Still, it was cheap enough for me to manage a month away from home during the least pleasant time of the year Ė mid January to mid February.† I was on my way at last.
†Having read what a beautiful city Phnom Penh was I decided to get out as quickly as possible as all the heavy traffic put me off the place immediately; because Iím not a city person I tend to head for the country at the first chance, and was soon heading north when the reasonable road surface of the city centre changed to massive potholes that brought the heavy traffic almost to a standstill. Away from the city the road conditions improved and soon the hard shoulder existed on both sides of the road, and as usual in Southeast Asia, bicycles and motorcycles would head towards me on the Ďwrongí side.† The decent roads were not to continue, there is an ongoing drive to rebuild almost all of Cambodiaís main roads in one go. Much of the top surface has been removed so that clouds of dust hang in the air long after its been disturbed by traffic; and on a main road itís constantly disturbed.† I even attempted to ride with a facemask but found breathing extremely difficult for more than an hour or so each day, and within a few days I had the cough of a fifty-a-day man, and I havnít had a fag since I smoked one behind the bike sheds when I was eleven.
A decent load
The grand plan was to follow the Tonle Sap River, then the lake on the west side, before crossing from Battambong to Siam Reap by boat.† However, I was told that these passenger-carrying boats were travelling at high speeds and disrupting local fishermen. At first sight it looked as if minor roads would allow me to travel north by road. A detailed look on the map showed that the roads heading north did not join with those heading south Ė there were lots of roads without bridges. It therefore made sense to avoid not only the trip on the water, but any attempt to navigate north on minor roads. Therefore I followed the number 5 main road almost to the border with Thailand, before heading east on route 6 to Siam Reap, an extra couple of hundred km.
Most lakes change in size with varying rainfall over the year, but the Tonle Sap is not just the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia, but is exceptional in many ways. My ride was in the dry season, but during the rainy season the Tonle Sap River no longer flows towards the Mekong, but the excess Mekong water forces the flow to go in the opposite direction and greatly increasing the size of the lake.† This great area of flooded forest makes it great for bird life and, very importantly, an exceptional spawning ground for fish; so much so that it is thought to have an effect on the fish stocks as far as northern China.
A restored head
The temples of Angkor Wat are spectacular both because of their size and the area they cover. It is difficult to get around the fact that while London was just a large town, the Angkor Wat of a thousand years ago was many, many times bigger and the centre of a massive Khmer empire, covering not just the present Cambodia, but parts of Thailand too.† Its roads and waterways provided a complex transport network. The day I spent wandering around the temples was well worthwhile, although it is very much a tourist hot spot with elephant rides and ice creams. Siam Reap itself is a town of many hotels and restaurants, with a large proportion of the population earning a living directly or indirectly from the templeís tourists.
Next I headed southeast, almost parallel to my outward journey, to meet the Mekong River near Kampong Cham as it flowed south from Laos. My route followed it north towards the border with Vietnam.† Leaving the 7 main-road, and riding on a small riverside road was a good move.† Despite what was shown on the map, it was well surfaced and took me through very pleasant open countryside, almost unspoiled by traffic and road repairs.† I did make a mistake by stopping at the small town of Chlong.† Not that it was a bad place to stop, but that I had only ridden 90km, and by not going a further 34km to Ou Ruessei, which not only turned out to be a place with lots of hotels and restaurants, but would have cut down on the 175km distance the following day to the next hotel/guesthouse along the route.† Of course, all this is with hindsight, up to that point it had been easy enough to find hotels on main roads.† Another 140km rolling, dusty, but good and almost empty roads, took me to Ban Lung, quite a decent sized town with a lake, a near by sleeping Buddha, and much more importantly for me, places to eat and sleep.† This was the last place of any size before the Vietnamese border, and beyond the town km signs no longer gave a distance to the next place, and it was a bit of a shock when I found I was there after only riding just over 70km of countryside that was just starting to get a little more hilly.
The border near Moch Den was a very odd sort of place and seemed to be a little used crossing point. As I rode away from the border, looking for a hotel, a minibus taxi drew alongside and tried to convince me the nearest hotel was 100 km away. In fact, it was only 10 m away on my right, so I didnít take their offer.† This was a very good move as the one next to me was a very decent hotel with a good restaurant.† The 100 km was again proved to be an absolute nonsense as the next day I found another hotel just 50 km along the road and yet another at 70 km. From the start it was obvious cab drivers in Vietnam were going to press possible customers hard.
heavy goods transport
Long before the border I had to change my eating habits.† I like to set off early after having had breakfast; have a snack around lunchtime, then a decent meal in the evening.† For quite a long stretch the only food available was noodles in roadside cafťs between about 9.30 and 11.30.†† In the evening there was often nothing at all, except once in a while a baguette with various fillings found on roadside stalls (no doubt from the old French days).† This was to continue into Vietnam.† Quite big towns like Gia Lai and Kon Tun seemed to have plenty of places to eat, but once inside these cafťs, only coffee and ice cream was available!† This coffee seems to be all the rage.† It consists of a gravity fed filter that drips coffee for about 15 minutes into a cup.† Already in the cup is very sweat condensed milk.† The result is about 2mm of the milk with 2mm of cold coffee on top.† In some places ice was provided to make a sort of iced coffee once the whole lot was mixed together.† The baguette, outside on the street, was a much better option!
Contrary to what the map suggested, the mountain roads in Vietnam were the best of the trip.† These were often new roads for quite long stretches, with patches of bad road between.† The bigger towns all had excellent paved roads, usually with duel carriageways. Out of the vibrant towns, with some western style shops, I really enjoyed the mountains ever-changing scenery as I wandered through a timeless way of life: as people with cone shaped hats, backs bent, were paddling in paddy fields planting rice; others were still using buffalo for heavy transportation.
The only problem with the mountains was the difficulty of assessing the distance to the next town.† As the roads wound up and down the mountains the apparent movement on the map was minute.† As a result of this my estimated time was about one week out when the coast was reached near Da Nang and it was then clear I didnít have time to make it all the way to Hanoi.
As I didnít want to go by bus or fly it was important to find a railway station in good time to book a trip on the east coast railway.† Hue seemed to be my best option, although I did have time to get much further north I wanted to play it safe.
The hardest dayís ride came as a bit of a shock as I was planning quite a short trip.† After wandering all morning around a very attractive peninsular just north of Da Nang, back on the main route north, I rode around a bay with a pleasant ocean view, before climbing around what looked like a small hillside on route 1.† As I looked down to see a tunnel being built through the hillside below, back where I was on narrow road, squeezed to the edge by large trucks, it turned out to be one small hillside after another, then another, all pilled on top of each other, until the coast below vanished as I climbed through the cloud base.† When after lots more climbing the top was finally reached I was soaked to the skin and had to find a place to stop so I could dig out the Gortex coat from the bottom of my bag.† It hadnít been planned to use it until I left the plane in Manchester to head for home!† Even with the coat on I was very, very cold.† As I broke through the cloud, on the coast below I could see a small town with hotels Ė I didnít go on to my planned stopping place some 40k further on, but got myself a shower and a bed.† That night I even found a floating-fish restaurant and had the best meal of the whole trip.
The railway journey wasnít far in distance, but 16 hrs in time!† I had booked a sleeper in car 11, however, the numbers came: 6,7,8 9, 10, 12Ö† In the end I did find an empty place so all was well, and I made it to Hanoi with plenty of time to spare before my flight home.† All in all, with an extra week, it would have been a first rate trip. But without that extra week, it was still pretty good!† Would I do it again?† In a couple of years the roads might be rebuilt in Cambodia making the ride even more enjoyable.† I wanted much more time on Vietnamís stunning coastline, and a ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh via the Mekong Delta would be one hell of a ride.† Yes, Iíd love to go back.