I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Temple Run

We spent a few days in Thailand in shock at how developed it is and rather enjoying the arctic conditions of the air conditioned Tesco's in every town. With a brazen disregard of the law we cycled across the Friendship Bridge II by sneaking through the toll gates along side some lorries. The bridge is closed to cyclists but the boats are for locals only so we had no choice officer. We weren't followed however and arrived back into Laos feeling like smug fugitives.

Once there we turned away from the main road as we are wont to do and set off to look for the village Julian had stayed in ten years previously when he was working with the Irish NGO, Concern. We traversed some rough roads to find the village had grown, has electricity and the house Julian had lived in is now the police house. Jules remembers the jungle being lush and green but this time it was dry and very dusty.

Talking using my phrase book and her school book

The Concern NGO sign

Are you sure this is the right road Julian?

A couple of Rudys who followed us
Almost as a reward for our days in the dust, we reached Tad Lo, a lovely little not-too-often visited town with a few waterfalls at the base of the Bolivan Plateau. We had a great day off there, relaxing in our bamboo cabin, exploring the undergrowth in search of a waterfall and drinking BeerLao watching the children paddle their homemade rafts on the river. I think Tad Lo was my favorite place in Laos.

The view from our bamboo balcony

Indiana Jones bamboo bridge

Freezing waterfall

Tea and coffee at breakfast

Relaxing in our bamboo cabin

After having talked about the Bolivan Plateau for weeks as a must see, we were finally faced with a thousand meter climb into the wind or a gentle descent with a tail wind. We ummed and ahhed at the crossroads for about an hour while I scratched a pig and we tucked into our supplies. Finally, after another hour of fiddling around with Julian's bike trying to diagnose a clicking noise, we headed away from the Plateau, in a most uncharacteristically lazy mood and headed straight for the 4000 islands, another backpacker paradise known for its drink and drugs, on par with Vang Vieng.

On our way we crossed the Mekong twice more and visited the first of many ruins. We also met and cycled with a group of Australians, raising money for a hospital back home.



Lotus Buds

After a few days relaxing on Don Det, one of the 4000 islands, we crossed the Mekong once more and I clocked 15000 kilometers on the beach. We crossed into Cambodia, getting thoroughly skanked by officials on both sides, paying a dollar here for a stamp and a dollar here to prove we didn't have any viruses, and a dollar there for no reason at all. Once again we turned from the main road to take a jungle trek short cut. We'd heard that the road was literally a track through the undergrowth at times, but found that construction was underway, widening the road and cutting back the forest, mostly by burning it down. It was very hot and dusty with no shade. 
15000 kilometers!

Buffalo on the beach

Very dirty legs

Lunch spot
The forest on fire
We saw a few temples on our way to the Mecca that is Angkor Wat. My favorite was Beng Mealea where we were able to clamber over the fallen stones and find carvings among the collapsed galleries where the jungle was reclaiming the remains of civilisation.

Explorer Julian


Collapsed gallery
Monks among the maze of ruins
We enjoyed Siem Reap, the city nearest to Angkor Wat. It was geared up for the tourists, tuk tuks everywhere, a "Pub Street" with a great neon sign in case you missed it, and plenty of restaurants cooking delicious food (and 50cent beer!). We ate lots of Khmer curries, the best was fish Amok cooked in coconut milk and served in a banana leaf. We explored the Night Market, also with huge neon sign, where I couldn't resist buying a bag made from a recycled cement sack, when who should we see but Martaan and Lina (who was also buying the same bag)! We had first met them in China on my first day back on the bike, and then again in Hanoi for Christmas dinner. It was great to see them and we took them to our favorite fish Amok restaurant. 

We only spent one day at Angkor Wat. Many people spend at least three exploring all the different temples, but having seen quite a few already on our way we decided to just visit the three most major sights. They were quite amazing. Angkor Wat itself was most impressive at sunrise and just after when the crowds head back to Siem Reap for breakfast. We almost had a disaster when Julian's camera batteries ran out, then so did mine and my spare didn't work! Luckily we found a chap selling double AA's at $8 a pack. We got him down to $1.75. We saw Ta Phoum, where there are many huge trees which have grown straight out of the rocks and are holding the ruins up with their roots. Finally we saw Bayon, where over 200 huge stone faces look out over the land. This was my favorite, it was amazing to climb up and wander amongst the faces. We also had our photos taken with a big gang of Koreans. 

Sunrise at Angkor Wat (Naga, a seven headed snake, and headless lion)

The towers of Angkor (it only gets busier)

Bas-relief of warrior


This little man gave us bracelets for good luck

Tree at Ta Phoum

Huge roots

Structural roots
Gate to Bayon

Face at Bayon

Lots of faces looking North, South, East and West

On our way back from Angkor Wat, we stopped off in a local "beer garden" restaurant for some refreshments. We got chatting to one of the guys who worked there. We remarked on how cheap the beer is compared to Europe and he told us his wage is fifty cents an hour. He also told us he works at the restaurant until three am, then cycles an hour and a half home to his parents' farm. He waters the vegetables until 6am before going to bed until 10am. Then he's off to clean an NGO building for the morning and is back to work at the restaurant by lunch.

On our way to Phnom Penh we met and chatted with a few boys in their school uniforms. The first boy we spoke to spoke exceptionally good English. He looked embarrassed when I told him so and said he thought we were flattering him! He studies incredibly hard, public school from 7am - 11am and 2pm - 4pm, then private school until 7pm. This is every day except Saturdays when he only has school in the morning. On Sundays he takes English lessons from a volunteer NGO. He wants to study mechanics at university in Phnom Penh. 

Our road to Phnom Penh was hot and busy. Phnom Penh is much the same. The roads are chaotic, tuk tuks, motorbikes and cars clamoring for space. There are no signs and no right of way at intersections so everyone nudges out in front of each other until someone relents and traffic moves a few inches. The pavements are crammed with cars and carts and makeshift food stands. It is not a city for walking around or getting anywhere quickly, there is just no space. We've been here almost a week waiting for our Thai visa. We've visited the Royal Palace and seen the silver tiled pagoda and emerald Buddha. We've walked to the Toul Sleng Museum and seen the school turned prison where 20,000 people were held and tortured under suspicion of betraying the Khmer Rouge. We've also been to the Killing Fields where these people were executed. Cambodia's recent history is terribly bloody and gruesome and people are struggling with the after affects of suffering under the crazed paranoid dictator Pol Pot who's regime killed millions.

The Killing Tree at the Killing Fields

Bracelets left at the mass grave for women and children

A few of the 9000 skulls on display
We've also seen the effects tourism has had on the city. As well as bringing money and work, it has brought a demand for sex workers. Walking off the main street, we wandered into a bar promising free pool. About thirty women greeted us with great big smiles and very tiny dresses. It is common to see older Western men sitting in bars with three or four women each, looking very pleased with themselves.

All in all, we're quite looking forward to hitting the road again and heading for Thailand.

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