3 November 2007—25 November 2007
BACK INTO THAILAND
Contrary to information I had received in Bangkok from the Laos embassy, I discovered that visas aren’t in fact available on entry at the Cambodia-Laos border on the Mekong River, which had supposedly been recently upgraded to International Status. This meant I had to make a visa run to Phnom Penh—a six hour ferry ride one way, and a several day wait. Other than providing the opportunity to see the Capital city, which I’m pleased I did, the trip turned out to be a waste of time; because the roads are so dreadful in Cambodia I returned to Seim Reap deciding to take the shortest route out of the country, which was due north and back into Thailand. Suffice to say it was nice to be back in Thailand where conditions are good and roadside food stalls are numerous and always dish out a reliable feed for about a dollar.
A few days later when I pumped up my tires, my rear rim blew out. Despite my efforts to seal the bike parts for transport on the yachts, seawater had corroded the rims and the pressure from the tube finally tore one of them open. It was good fortune that this happened out the front of a bike shop, which no doubt saved me a lot of time and effort. And it wasn’t difficult to choose a replacement as the shop only had one 26” MTB rim available. In true Thai spirit, the middle age lady from the bike shop gave me coffee and mandarins to have while I waited for the wheel to be rebuilt, and her husband, who did the work, scrubbed down my bike—caked with mud—before handing it back.
The wheel episode had set me back several hours (better than several days considering), and as I was inwardly moaning the fact that I would be soon riding into the night, two Thai sisters, by the names of Tage and Ae, rolled up beside me in a new tinted black Mitsubishi Ute—DVD player, the works—and invited me to stay with them in their small town. Clearly this was an opportunity not to be past up, so without a moment’s thought I threw my bike in the tray and jumped in. On the way they stopped at a convenience store, Tage ran over and returned handing me a cold can of Chang beer. ‘Here, for you,’ she said. This was getting better by the minute. One moment I’m lamenting my situation, the next I’m whipped away by a pair of gorgeous Thai women and reclined in the tray of a speeding Ute, beer in hand, wind in my hair and all that, off on what one may refer to in the overall scheme of things as a sub-adventure.
By now, however, we’d passed the town where the girls had said they lived, and were speeding away back out into the boonies. It was at this point that it crossed my mind that this may not be such an innocent encounter after all. I pulled my compass from my shirt pocket to get a bearing just in case I was being lead into the lion’s den—not that it would have done much good. I was mostly curious, although, it probably didn’t help that I’d recently seen the horror movie Hostel, which incidentally, before departing on this trip, one Melbourne friend had said to me with a sarcastic snigger, ‘With what you’re about to do I would not see Hostel or Wolf Creek’. It was sound advice. Hostel just happened to be playing on cable TV in the guesthouse in Siem Reap. Of course these girls turned out to be 100% genuine and couldn’t have done more for me during the two days I spent with them cruising around the region on Ae’s motorbike and partying among ourselves.
Difficult moments are inherent in prolonged solo travel, especially in regions where communication is limited at best; small issues like asking for direction can develop into a major frustration, I may not have a genuine conversation in English for weeks, and my biggest battle is often dealing with too much time spent with myself. But these moments are offset by times of bliss when I feel like I’m free-falling through cotton wool clouds of freedom, because often my reality is so abstract and uplifting all I can do is relax and be taken with the current. One extreme cannot exist without the other so I try to keep a philosophical attitude regardless. A by-product of all this is the strong bond that can develop with certain people quickly, as with the days I spent with the sisters. Naturally, it is difficult to move on and leave those encounters behind.
The next stage was to cross the Mekong into Laos. Because it is forbidden to cycle across the bridge I had to hitch a lift after passing Thai immigration. Laos is a nice change of pace from other countries in Southeast Asia. A small, friendly population and great scenery makes it a dream country to cycle through. I took Hwy 13, which runs parallel with the Mekong and began heading east into the mountains from Thakhek, where one returns to crumby, unsealed roads. A large hydroelectricity dam project up in the plateau means these roads are currently being upgraded (sealed). Road works are just an added annoyance to deal with but the small primitive villages constructed of grass and timbre, and natural scenery abound with limestone hump-like peaks, is spectacular. When these roads are complete I’m sure the region will be a world class cycling destination.
My friend Peter, who I stayed with in Bangkok put me in touch with Mike, an engineer working on the dam project, allowing me the opportunity to visit the camp for a few days and learn something of the circumstances of a huge foreign technological project setup in a relatively poor and undeveloped country. The hydroelectricity project is funded by international investment primarily for Thailand’s power supply.
One day Mike and I went mountain biking around the plateau. We rode across areas soon to be flooded indefinitely and visited the resettlement village. A major reason the project was granted to a western corporation as opposed to the Chinese, Mike explained, is because of the quality of social management following the social upheaval and the benefits that would be gained at the ground roots level by the local people. In other words, the project is not just about building a dam, it is also about doing it right so that the people are looked after and their society can develop. Ultimately it is up to the government how well the economic growth of this asset is managed and how it will benefit the people, because corruption is endemic in Southeast Asia.
I love the frontier atmosphere, the mountain jungle roads and the take-it-easy attitude of Laos, and as with the rest of this part of the world, the markets are always fascinating living museums that I never tire of visiting. In Lak Sao the large market is the heart of the town. It is covered in a patchwork of low strung tarps and you need to duck and weave to get around. There you can find the usual fruit and vegetables; stinking meat and carcasses of various animals being gutted and chopped at the eastern end; squirmy little fish in the primordial stage of life having their guts pinched and scraped out; and rats, for the second time in as many days I saw rats for sale as run-of-the-mill produce. One, looking less appealing than it already would have, had been whacked a little hard and a swarm of flies were buzzing around the head injury.
I suppose it is a reflection of my culture that I should turn my nose up at the prospect of rat on the dining table, but in the reality of subsistence living it makes perfect sense to eat a meaty little rodent, especially one that is a prolific procreator. I’ve eaten some pretty weird tasting meat that I’m sure didn’t fit the chicken, pork or beef categories. Horse, buffalo and dog are also commonly available.
The mountain pass up and over the Annam Highlands and down a steep winding descent into the jungles of Vietnam is a stunning ride. Drizzle and mist shrouded the pass causing extremely poor visibility, but the peaceful scene was disturbed by four truckloads of yapping, squealing, distressed canines, soaked to the bone as I was, but at least I could move. Two or three dogs crammed into tiny cages stacked five or six high and a truckload deep and wide. Obviously these animals weren’t being taken for a stroll in the park and a game of fetch.
The differences among the countries of Southeast Asia can be subtle, but Vietnam is quite unique culturally and visually. And it provides a fascinating change of pace. The beauty of Vietnam is deeply impregnated with the human factor. The mountain jungles merge into the rice paddies and again into the grid of society.
First, I notice the French influence; the tall, narrow, colonial terrace style housing with high ceilings and plain fretwork. The contemporary architecture is still modeled on the old, but like any replica they don’t have quite the same character—more a crude reproduction—and the living room isn’t a private family area but a public affair open to the street and displaying proudly a large blaring television.
I have enjoyed most of every country I have traveled through on this trip (and others)—even Indonesia, where I was robbed, suffered a nasty bout of food poisoning and almost snuffed it with malaria. Vietnam however, has been the exception. It’s not that the Vietnamese aren’t friendly. For the most part they are, but I found the men to be pretty difficult to deal with.
Interpreting foreign maps, deciphering road signs (when they exist), generally trying to figure out where you are and where you’re going is a day-to-day battle. Most people are obliging most of the time despite the language barrier, however Vietnamese men often seemed to be distinctively unwilling to help. The problem was they would be quick to flock around me at any given opportunity but often made little effort to communicate in any meaningful way. On several occasions, helpful female members of the community were immediately silenced. Instead of allowing free communication it seemed to be preferable to sell me one of these unsuspecting women, which wasn’t the kind of assistance I was looking for. It was just a frustrating game that didn’t make much sense.
Another concern relates to the horn-happy road culture—a cultural anomaly that for whatever reason seems useful only scare the crap out of every living thing and noise pollute all the way from Cambodia to China. It didn’t matter if I was the only thing on the road and balancing way over on the edge of the shoulder minding my own business, because I had already learnt it was either that or die in Vietnam. Just in case I had the sudden, inexplicable desire to come veering out onto the road and terminate my own life, every single last vehicle was compelled to blast me out into the distant rice paddy with its mighty air horns. So far, Vietnamese drivers claim top spot on my list of: most careless, aggressive and downright atrocious drivers I’ve shared roads with.
Vietnam was a mixed bag. One drizzly day I was hunched in the rain eating mandarins when I was waved across the road and invited into the house opposite. I tried to take my shoes off but the family wouldn’t have it. I was ushered to the coffee table, trudging mud across the polished tiles of their immaculate home and sat down opposite the man of the house, who immediately pored two shots of some kind of homemade grog. And indeed it was a pretty good flavorless white spirit. As his stunningly beautiful daughter was practicing her high school, textbook English with me, I noticed two huge black blowflies floating in the beer glass containing the decanted spirit. I picked it up to take a closer look and tapped the glass. Although I wasn’t concerned for the obvious reason that distilled spirit is sterile, I was mildly alarmed that such a blatant lack of hygiene was possible. But my thoughts were soon silenced. The father grabbed the large pear shaped flask from which he’d decanted the spirit and handed it to me. Inside the flask, immersed in the alcohol, was what appeared to be about a kilogram of dead, ordinary honeybees. I was delighted. I knocked back another shot and another of this superb bee spirit and eventually wobbled off down the road—to the discontentment of my host—a little light headed.
It was about a weeks ride to Hanoi from the Laos border. My stop there was a necessity to organize my Chinese visa. I liked Hanoi. From there it was another couple of days to the Chinese border, where the tempo of my journey has change once again.