Monthly Archives: December 2012

“Do you want to blow up a cow?”

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I met a German couple in Kompong Cham who planned on taking a road less travelled along the Mekong to Phnom Penh, and given how busy the main road is I decided it was a good idea and took the same route. The 60km of unsealed roads was a real introduction to Cambodian roads. Dusty, bumpy, pot holes so big you struggle to get out of them – this road had it all. The dust is so fine, it gets absolutely everywhere.

Road to Phnom Penh - the  bridge offered a nice 5 seconds of smooth surface...

Road to Phnom Penh – the bridge offered a nice 5 seconds of smooth surface…

I thought it would improve when I got to the main road to Phnom Penh, however, the entire 45km section of road was being upgraded. The end result was a very dusty, dirty Johnny arriving in Phnom Penh. As a result, I got more than a couple of strange looks when I stopped at a smart looking cafe for a fruit shake at the end of the day…
Little village by the Mekong    with a rough road

Little village by the Mekong with a rough road


Phnom Penh is full of extremes. Poverty is apparent here more than anywhere else I have been in the last couple of months, yet at the same time, I have seen more $100,000 cars here than I have anywhere else. And I mean anywhere, not just Asia. It’s quite remarkable. Hummers seem to be a particular favorite.
Remains from the Khmer Rouge times

Remains from the Khmer Rouge times

I couldn’t help but notice that there didn’t seem to be a single car older than 3-4 years old on the roads here either. Lots of new money about that’s for sure. I won’t speculate where it is all coming from!!

The funniest thing I've seen all day!!

The funniest thing I’ve seen all day!!

Poverty, new money and pagodas.  Quite a mix.

Poverty, new money and pagodas. Quite a mix.


I spent a lot of time today wandering the streets soaking up the vibe – quite different from anywhere I’ve been before. There is a huge surplus of tuk-tuk drivers here, all wanting to get their slice of tourist $$. On the subject of dollars, all prices are quoted in dollars here, which makes things confusing – a beer costs $US 0.8, though there is nothing less than $1 in circulation, so your change is usually given in Cambodian riel.

The tuk-tuk drivers here are more pushy than I have experienced elsewhere. Admittedly, I probably looked like I needed a lift. Upon declining a lift, I was offered women (as is the norm for single blokes), drugs (of various types), then “you want to blow up a cow?” Well obviously if I’m not in a tuk-tuk, abusing drugs or sleeping with a prostitute, then I MUST want to blow up a cow. WHAT ON EARTH!! I asked him how much (out of intrigue just so you understand) and he said $600 (though I’m sure I could have got him down to $400). I won’t lower the tone and give you a link to a video of such a cruel mindless thing to do. Crazy, place. And I thought Vietnam was nuts…

Kampong Cham, Cambodia – still off the tourist trail & a true gem.

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Shortly after starting on my last Vietnam day I passed a pretty unique temple in Tay Ninh – I made a point of stopping, not just because of the impressive building, but the religion itself is quite unique. Cao Dai (click here) takes from several religions and is less than 100 years old.

Showing the first few steps up to heaven...

Showing the first few steps up to heaven…

In the picture you can see steps leading up towards a huge sphere
Cao Dai temple.  I had the place to myself as it was early morning - tourists from Saigon are apparently  bused in later in the day.

Cao Dai temple. I had the place to myself as it was early morning – tourists from Saigon are apparently bused in later in the day.

. These steps represent the 9 steps to heaven. I was only allowed up to the 5th step. A man was standing on the 8th step, cleaning the 9th with a duster – I’m not so sure what made him so special that he was allowed up that high!!
I managed to get over the border to Cambodia without any bribes which I was pretty surprised about. The border control on the Cambodian side was particularly relaxed, though they asked for an extra $5 bribe to which I denied them.
Impressive Vietnam side of the border

Impressive Vietnam side of the border

He almost apologetically asked for an extra couple of dollars instead, but his boss came over so he handed back my passport pretty quickly. The Cambodian side of the border has turned into a bit of a mini Las Vagas – full of Casinos. I’m guessing gambling is illegal in Vietnam.

I instantly took a liking to Cambodia after the madness in Vietnam. I found the people genuinely friendly as opposed to the aggressively friendly people (if that makes sense), I met in Vietnam. There were exceptions of course. Kampong Cham is a large town by Cambodian standards, with the only sizable bridge crossing the Mekong river in the entire country. It has a very photogenic bamboo bridge crossing to a small island which gets washed away every wet season and rebuilt every dry season. I have to say though that cycling over it felt like cycling on a large, soft mattress. Apparently trucks have even crossed it.

Horse and cart crossing the bamboo bridge at Kampong Cham

Horse and cart crossing the bamboo bridge at Kampong Cham


Later in the day when the sun was lower I visited Nokor Wat, chatted to a couple of monks and visited an orphanage attached to the temple. Picture tend to speak louder than words, so here are a couple more pictures…
Security guards taking an interest in my bike.

Security guards taking an interest in my bike.

Trees at Nokor Wat

Trees at Nokor Wat

Inside Nokor Wat

Inside Nokor Wat

Obligatory cute kid photo

Obligatory cute kid photo

Cambodian line dancing

Cambodian line dancing

North from Saigon to a guesthouse…somewhere, via Cu Chi tunnels

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So, the thousands of Santa Claws on motorbikes didn’t materialise, however tens of thousands of people did come into the city center for the evening, all on motorbike – apparently “just to look around and see the christmas decorations” as the owner of my guesthouse said. When even the locals are taking pictures of thousands of people on motorbikes, you know it’s busy…

Quite the experience crossing the road I can tell you...

Quite the experience crossing the road I can tell you…

Having seen/heard/smelled enough scooters, I returned to the area I was calling home for a few days and got chatting to a bunch of europeans/Mexicans/Columbians. This was the bar of choice on the street as it was half the price of anywhere else. I say bar, it was just a load of children’s plastic chairs set out on the road, but it was a cracking atmosphere. The normal street vendors selling you sunglasses and ripoff books were replaced by ones selling santa hats and fake snow in a can (the poor girl selling the snow ended up covered in chemical ‘snow’ every time she sold one, much to the amusement of, well, the entire street. Mexican waves, a countdown to christmas day, all very jovial.

Sore head the next day. Not a lot to say about that really….Oh, it was Christmas Day!!

I set off today (boxing day) towards the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi, and somehow stumbled upon the quieter of the two complexes (there can’t have been more than 10 people there). Quite interesting, though really set up for mass tourism, which takes away from the whole experience. I passed on the opportunity to fire an M-16 machine gun at 1GBP per bullet, and headed north hoping to get to Tay Ninh, though managed to get completely lost instead – a mother and child of 6ish (child with exceptional English) pointed me in the right direction though – they even drove out of their way to show me the correct road.

Not really many interesting pictures at the tunnels, though this in the gift shop caught my eye...  All rather strange.

Not really many interesting pictures at the tunnels, though this in the gift shop caught my eye… All rather strange.


I stopped just as the sun went down at some place, well, I’m not quite sure where it is. I think it’s near Tay Ninh, close to the Cambodian border. Looking it up online, there appears to be a good temple to visit there, which I’ll try and hunt down tomorrow showing a picture of it to random people and pointing in various directions with a confused look on my face.
Finally, here is a conversation I had with the owner of the guesthouse (and brothel by all appearances, though very clean) tonight over Google translate which was rather entertaining, and a bit uncomfortable towards the end – for me that is, she was perfectly happy.

are you asking what country i am from?
i live in Scotland. Do you know Scotland?
It is part of the United Kingdom
North of England
What country
Scotland
35
Chassis human
this is very funny to me ….
you said “frame of a car, person”

OK, Thank you very much
No Chilli though … no hot spice

I am cycling around asia for 3 months.
 Where Bicycles
I started in Thailand, down through Laos, to here, then back to Bangkok via Cambodia. Then I fly to New Zealand and spend two months there cycling
Where is Bike to o
Tomorrow? II cycle to Cambodia
eat delicious mi

How long have you lived here?
 locker
That makes no sence … You said locker, closet.
Have you lived here all your life?
You must have lived here through the war, yes?
miss
You are to young!!! sorry.
miss
you were born after the war?
but first Go online 55
I do not understand – you first use internet at 55?
55 years
You are 55 years old.
 Previously
you were born in 1958

The war was not over by 1958 …

miss
Because here was safe?
No fighting here? No bombing here?
safety
khong

I understand

At this point for some reason I felt uncomfortable, following the sights I have seen in the last couple of days thinking I shouldn’t have brought up the subject of the war. Khong, I’m guessing refers to the Vietcong.

Tomorrow I think I’ll head into Cambodia. I just checked in a panic that I can actually get a visa-on-arrival at the border crossing I plan to use!!

Happy Christmas from Saigon, Vietnam

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Since Bao Loc, I have enjoyed a couple of reasonably easy days down to Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon as it is still often referred to. One day down to Dau Giay where the road I have been for the past couple of days meets highway A1, then another into Saigon via back roads (many thanks to a blog on www.crazyguyonabike.com which took me along route 769 into the south east of the city). This entire area is undeveloped due to there being no bridge/tunnel to the area. I was cycling in open countryside with nothing but scooters until the last 8km or so, which for a city of 8 million people was a huge relief.

There were several of these road side drink stops among the rubber plantations approaching Saigon

There were several of these road side drink stops among the rubber plantations approaching Saigon


Google maps combined with my digital camera for quick reference during the day provided me a map of the route to take and I only got lost once. After a short ferry ride over the river (which cost all of about 3 pence), I was only a few km from the city centre and only hit real traffic in the last 10 minutes.
Downtown Saigon - exactly where I was wanting to get to, though I had to take a detour (a security guard prevented my going through the tunnel under the river).

Downtown Saigon – exactly where I was wanting to get to, though I had to take a detour (a security guard prevented my going through the tunnel under the river).

The tourist district of Saigon is much like other that of other cities, though due to it’s size and sheer number of people, Saigon doesn’t feel as touristy as other places. As expected, there are a ridiculous number of scooters – restaurants even employ people to squeeze them together when parked up to enable more people to stop and dine there. Most of the hotels in the backpacker area are no more than 10 feet wide and can tower up to 9 stories high. As a result, finding accommodation was a slight problem – not for me, but for my bike! I eventually managed to find one which would allow me to lock my bike to the bottom of their stairwell, squeezed between their reception and kitchen.
Today I walked out to the more affluent business district and sat outside an expensive coffee shop (by western standards even) people watching. Nearby were 2 of the city’s main attractions – Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica which amazingly was built only using materials imported from France. Adjacent to that was the post office – a tourist attraction in it’s own right, and quite deservedly so. If this were the UK, it would have been sold to a developer. I’ll give it 10 years.
Next was a trip to the war remnants museum (quite the tourist today huh!!). I had some idea of what to expect, having been to a similar museum in Nagasaki, Japan, in memory of the nuclear bomb, however this was on a different level altogether. Set on 3 floors, the higher up you get the more powerful the images become, and by the end, I was truly overwhelmed. Perhaps it was because the Vietnam war was fought more one on one, perhaps it is because I cycled through many of the towns effected in the past couple of weeks. It could also be down to the fact that walking about the city, you still see people who have suffered from the effects of agent orange which was sprayed all over the country 40 years ago.
Post office with newly married couple posing for their wedding album.

Post office with newly married couple posing for their wedding album.

Tonight, being Christmas eve is apparently celebrated with most of Saigon descending on the center of the city on scooters dressed as Santa driving like madmen. Should make for a good night.

21st century propaganda poster.

21st century propaganda poster.

Finally, to pester once more, seeing as it’s Christmas – the time for giving – please remember to donate to my charity if you have not already done so. http://www.justgiving.com/JohnnyMcManmon Any amount is much appreciated. My blog tells me who is viewing on a daily basis, so I know who you are!!!

Go where the wind takes you.

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The plan to cycle up to Dalat was a bit ambitious I found. I wasn’t feeling 100% anyway, but to be honest there was no way I would have made it even if I was. After 70km or so there was a road junction with a small town – perfect place to find a bus. After chatting to a local who had some basic English, I established there was only one bus per day up to Dalat, and it had already left. In the process of trying to establish where the truck drivers stop for food (in hope of finding one willing to give me a lift), a Ford Transit mini-bus screeched to a halt and someone jumped out. The magic letters ‘’DA LAT’ displayed on the dashboard prompted my to hurry over before it shot off again. Two minutes later and I was bouncing along what would turn out to be the worst road I have ever seen. The entire mountainous switchback road was full of roadworks with the bus having to drive over boulders and pot holes that sent all the passengers airborne. There were very few scooters up this road as it was so rough. It made me very glad I had taken the bus. The bus I was on didn’t have a working horn (essential in Vietnam – at least the driver attempted to fix it, by hitting the fuse box with a hammer. At another town, I was transferred to another bus, which appeared to be the local school bus, full of giggling children wondering what on earth this white person was doing on their bus.

Cheating by getting a lift on a bus.

Cheating by getting a lift on a bus.

Dalat is a bit of a strange city. It is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam (for the Vietnamese) and as a result is packed with cheesy hotels and has a lake with oversized swan pedalos (which appears to be the main attraction of the city). It’s significantly cooler at Dalat due to the altitude being 1500m – dare I say it, I was almost cold while sitting outside a cafe last night enjoying a beer. I managed to score a hotel with a bath which having not had one for several weeks was absolute bliss. The bed with it’s bright pink bed sheets and matching pillowcases weren’t exactly to my taste, though I’m generally more concerned about how bad the pillows smell than their colour.

Fantastic place for a puncture - an empty road on a sunny day.

Fantastic place for a puncture – an empty road on a sunny day.

Today I enjoyed another tailwind which was blowing me to Bao Loc, 110km down the road, including one section which was totally deserted (a new toll road). The only thing that slowed me down was my second puncture of the trip.
Finally, I have seen quite a few locals getting into Christmas, including this local petrol station, who has put quite a bit of work into his nativity scene!!

Vietnam Christmas nativity scene at a local petrol station

Vietnam Christmas nativity scene at a local petrol station

Nha Trang to Cam Ranh via somewhere I’m not sure of.

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Nha Trang is the most ‘touristy’ place I have seen since I arrived in Asia. As a result, being the tourist snob that I am, I departed and headed south. After a couple of banh mi of course. A couple of days ago I mentioned that I had a banh mi served on someones maths homework. Amazingly, exactly the same thing happened today. Twice! From different vendors who were at least 2 streets apart!

This kid caused serious confusion when the train to Nha Trang arrived.

This kid caused serious confusion when the train to Nha Trang arrived.

And this wasn’t just some long devision – this was really heavy maths. The only thing I can think is that Vietnam has a really good education system and the kids are rattling these equations out every night until their pen runs out.

Vietnam coastI managed to find a road following the coast south of Nha Trang which was totally empty and had the bonus of giving me a huge tailwind – much of the time I was cruising along at 35km/hr on the flat. There was a bit of confusion as to which town I was in at one point, even when asking locals. Most people don’t seem to know, even when you show them the place name on the map. I’m wishing they studied more geography at school and didn’t spend so much time on maths making banh mi wrappers.
IMG_2867
This afternoon after stopping at a hotel just outside Cam Ranh, I went for a wander around the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a white person has been there for a while. I ended up being invited to sit down with 3 generations of family for a good half hour communicating using basic sign language which was quite the experience. OOH, I just felt a little earth quake..

Boats at Cam Ranh

Boats at Cam Ranh


For dinner I took the advice of a Vietnamese staying at the hotel. “Cross the bridge and it’s about 200m – you can’t miss it” He was right enough – there must have been 10 places that looked like they could serve food with nobody in them, and one that had so many people crammed in that I had to squeeze on the end of a big group. Fantastic fish soup with rice.
I screwed up the picture posting a bit – the one with the beach is the amazing empty coast road to the Nha Trang airport, the other one is from the roof of my hotel/clothes drying area. The road in the foreground is the main A1 road that goes down Vietnam. Amazingly, the hotel has solar powered hot water tanks on the roof – having a shower with hot water was a nice surprise!!
Tomorrow I plan on heating up to Dalat which sits at 1500m altitude and is about 120km away. No prises for guessing how much climbing I’ll be doing tomorrow then! A long day ahead.

After 2000km, you get attached to your bike….. A nervous day!

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For the first time in several weeks I had to be at a certain place at a certain time (for catching the train south to Nah Trang). Normally travelling by pushbike, there is no stress. The only costs I have are food which is more often than not at the same price locals pay and accommodation that is often off the beaten track so not priced for westerners. I usually get nobody trying to rip me off at a train station, nobody charging 4 times the normal amount for breakfast that’s half as good as it should be. This morning made me really appreciate what backpackers have to put up with and to be honest, make me really glad I am on a bike (most of the time). I write this as I sit on the train – currently my bike is hopefully on a different train a couple of hundred km behind me. The train I am on does not have a cargo section so my bike had to leave on a separate train. I’m not sure if this is brave or just plain stupid. There seemed to be a good system in place at the station with receipts and baggage tags though, so fingers crossed.

Last night I ate western food for the first time in a couple of weeks at an Italian restaurant and even splashed out on the first glass of wine since I left home. You really appreciate these fine things we take for granted back home when you can’t normally get them.

Being the tourist destination Hue is, I encountered a fair few folk offering me drugs and women. ‘Hash’,’coke’,’lady, I have cheap lady for you’. Not tonight thanks, I’m not really into cheap ladies. Not that I’m into expensive ladies either, just so you understand… They can be quite relentless and saying no seems to encourage them to ask you more, though I have found wagging a finger, without looking at them gets the message through and they give up straight away.

Update – after dumping my bags in a hotel in Nha Trang I returned to the station to pick up my bike, where I was more than a tad worried it would have vanished. Thankfully, it came through no problem, but I’m not sure I could handle the nerves of that again! Putting my bike on a different train? What was I thinking!!!