CYCLING SAIGON TO BANGKOK

I’ve previously written a blog post on a Saigon to Hanoi cycling tour my wife, Agnes, and I did in March 2015. ( Vietnam Cycling Tour ) As can be discerned from that screed it was an enjoyable experience with our group of cyclists bonding into a unit which has kept in contact via Facebook. It was only a matter of time, then, before someone came up with the idea that we should get together again for another cycling tour. And sure enough as the two year anniversary of our initial ride started looming on the horizon such a suggestion was made. It only took about a week of toing and froing before we reached broad agreement to another Saigon cycle. Instead of heading northeast to Hanoi, however, we were going to head northwest to Bangkok.

As should be expected with a group of 15 people timing could not be right for everyone so we unfortunately lost three of our previous members: two Australians and the sole American. This hurt was mitigated to an extent by their replacement with four Canadians. The meant the upcoming tour was going to be comprised of 6 Aussies and 10 Canucks: a definite shift of the personality scale away from crude earthiness toward apologetic niceness. The Aussies were going to have to work harder on their earthiness to restore the previous tour’s personality balance.

Two years on from our first cycle the reconstructed gang convened at the rooftop bar of Saigon’s Majestic Hotel. This meeting was, jointly:

  • a grand reunion of the old guard;
  • a toast to the fallen; and
  • a welcoming of newcomers to the gang.

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We only tarried in Saigon for a day as most of us were already well acquainted with the city from the previous trip and frankly I find it too charmless to waste much time in – certainly so when compared to Hanoi. However, that day did allow me to explore a few Vietnam War sites I had previously missed; specifically:

The Presidential Palace – I instantly recognised the Presidential Room  from news reports I had seen during the late 60s.

The memorial where Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in 1963.

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I think I can now say that I have satiated my curiosity regarding Vietnam War sites, although I still  keep abreast of new documentaries as archives are de-classified and new insights of that era are developed.

The cycling tour started in a southwest direction through the Mekong Delta. Being a river delta there was much lush vegetation and numerous distributaries to traverse via ferries and bridges.

I enjoyed this part of the trip the most; many sections of the route were underpopulated giving us the opportunity to cycle through lush jungle.

The narrowness of those bridges did test my cycling abilities and nerves.  There were a few times where I was close to ending up in the drink.

As we began to curve northward, however, the climate became more arid and the foliage thinned out. It was still good as we passed through areas I had never been before, but the enjoyment I get from being enveloped inside a tropical rainforest was gone.

Heading towards Cambodia also meant an increasing awareness of the legacy of the appalling Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s. I fully expected to learn about the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields when we were in Cambodia but I was surprised to learn that Viet Nam had its own killing field as a result of Khmer Rouge incursions.

The barbarity of the Khmer Rouge era was transformed from the merely abstract to reality as we entered a memorial displaying victim’s skeletal remains.

 

After four days of cycling we came to the city of Chau Doc/Can Tho which marked the end of the Vietnam leg of our trip. The next day we were scheduled to motor up the Hau River (Bassac River in Cambodia) by boat to Phnom Penh. A new country and adventures awaited us but our departure was tinged with sadness as it was time to say goodbye to our Vietnamese guide Hai.

Hai was one of our guides on the 2015 Saigon/Hanoi trip and our group was fond of him – that’s why we had specifically asked for him to be our guide on this tour. We had all been impressed with his knowledge of Vietnam, interesting stories and good humour. (We had also requested that trip’s second guide, Tuan, but he had moved on to other employment.)

 

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Farewell to Hai.

 

Also adding to my melancholy as the boat set off was the certainty that I would likely never return to Vietnam – an interesting country but just too many other places and experiences to be had.

For someone who had been up the Hau River a number of times the journey would have been monotonous but for a first timer like me it was intriguing. I enjoyed studying the contrast in the water levels between loaded and empty barges; particularly, how low in the water the loaded barges sat. It had me wondering how susceptible the barges were to being sunk by a rogue wave, if say a storm unexpectedly blew in? It certainly looked to me that it would not take a large wave to swamp the vessel. Heck, it even seemed that the wash from a closely passing ship could be hazardous. Obviously, such a loaded barge would not last long on the open ocean before it was swamped and sank to the bottom.

Also, the subsistence fishermen we passed by had me wondering about their seemingly simple lives and their knowledge/curiosity of the outside world. No doubt, however, this knowledge has been greatly enhanced by the satellite dishes which stood on the roofs of many of the riverside huts.

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As we made our way upriver toward Phnom Penh I expected the city, given its history, to be an underdeveloped, poverty-burdened townsite. So I had troubles believing my eyes as a sparkling skyscraper-clad city began to emerge on the horizon.

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To be sure there are dirt poor areas of Phnom Penh but that was not our introduction to the city. We disembarked at the port and were escorted to an ornate waterside restaurant for lunch where I guzzled a much-needed beer or two. Clearly this was how the other half lived in Phnom Penh and it impressed me.

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After lunch we were driven through the city and I remained much impressed by the beautiful temples, newly-built commercial building and luxury car dealerships – but I also suspected we were being taken by a route that purposely showed off the city’s best aspects. No sin in wanting to show off the best side of one’s city.

As our bus moved on to Phnom Penh’s outskirts Cambodia’s horrific 1970s legacy made its appearance. We disembarked at the Choeung Ek killing field where, as in Viet Nam, there was a memorial displaying bones of the murdered. I don’t think such a memorial is something I will ever get used to. Nor would I want to as I fear that becoming desensitized to such sights would also signal a loss of a portion of my humanity.

From the memorial we walked the grounds to other heinous sites such as the mass graves where the bones of the dead were being gradually exposed by soil erosion. The most barbaric site of all was a stout tree against which Khmer Rouge soldiers smashed babies’ skulls. Even though there was thankfully no physical evidence of the tree’s history, one cannot be left untouched by the knowledge of such an atrocity being committed at that spot. (Photos below.)

We were driven back into the city to the Tuol Sleng detention centre. Not only were the prison’s torture rooms open for exploration but the pictures of the souls detained and eventually killed within the prison were on display. The horror inhabiting those photos virtually screamed out at you across the decades. (below)

 

Even after witnessing these sites and others – like Auschwitz – I still cannot understand such inhuman cruelty. I can fathom no sane reason for such barbarity. There may be twisted ideological reasons, but no sane ones.

Unlike Auschwitz, this genocide occurred during my lifetime and I was made aware of the horrors from contemporaneous newspaper reports. While I was enjoying a life of relative ease at university, these horrors were being inflicted on the people of Cambodia, with no regard given to gender or age.

If you are unaware of this history of Cambodia (or Kampuchea as the Khmer Rouge renamed it) I encourage you to Google its tragic history. The movie “The Killing Fields” also provides a troubling journey into this period.

Mercifully by afternoon’s end we were herded back onto the bus and on to our hotel but there was only a bit of time to settle in before we re-boarded the bus for dinner. By the time we got back to the hotel it was late and there was only time for a night cap but our hotel did have a grand rooftop bar.

 

I was going to include a photo of the bar but in retrospect, given what we had witnessed earlier in the day, it seemed  sacrilegious to end my description of Phnom Penh on a light-hearted note.

Too quickly the morning came and we were back on the bus by 8 am and whisked out of the city to our next cycling departure point. So there was very little time for exploring Phnom Penh on our own which still sits poorly with Agnes and me.  What we saw from the bus window hinted that a day or two spent visiting Phnom Penh’s palaces, temples and side streets would have been a rewarding adventure. I feel very put out by this lost opportunity as Phnom Penh is off the beaten track and I have my doubts that I will be in the area again.

Regardless of my dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, it was time to get back to some serious cycling and the onward journey to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The tour to Siem Reap was a fairly easy ride over both bitumen and dirt roads and passage through numerous settlements where the most common element was poverty. Poverty and ragged clothes did not prevent the children from being overjoyed at the sight of Westerners, however. The children often ran out of their yards to greet us with wide smiles whenever we passed by. Surprisingly, they all seemed to have perfect gleaming teeth. Lack of sweets and other bad Western eating habits are to be credited, I suppose.

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The other constant, in both Viet Nam and Cambodia, was that children on their way to school were always well presented. Their outfits were immaculate even if they were cycling along a dirt road: an indication I’d think that the children had a very respectful attitude toward learning and their teachers. This is something that is sadly missing in many Western schools, if I may get a tad preachy for a moment.

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Siem Reap was our base for a 2 day exploration of Angkor Wat. Like Phnom Penh Siem Reap was a surprise – but not necessarily a pleasant one. It is a rapidly expanding tourist town that is facing environmental problems such as a precipitously falling water table. To be sure there are environmental issues that will need to be sorted out in the not too distant future if Siem Reap is to continue thriving as a tourist destination.

As with other overrun tourist towns it is chockablock with shops selling all types of cheap souvenirs. Still, there are plenty of enjoyable bars and good eateries to be had. And, as with most other South-east Asian towns there is an abundance of massage parlours – but without any suggestions of “extras” or “happy endings”.  If I was forced to summarise my impression of Siem Reap it would be that it reminded me of a puritanical version of Phuket.

 

Although our hotel was situated just on the edge of the city’s tourist district we did benefit from being across the road from a beautiful Buddhist temple complex.

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We were also lucky enough to be able to see a Buddhist ceremony. I’m ignorant when it comes to Buddhist rituals but it seemed to me it was a graduation-like ceremony for young monks.

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I was concerned that the ceremony was a solemn occasion and that taking photos would be an intrusion, however, the monks were very welcoming and even encouraged me to snap their photos.

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In particular, the fellow in the photo above was very friendly and even gave me his name so we could become Facebook friends. Unfortunately, in the tumult of travel I lost his name so in the off chance anyone recognises him please leave me his name in the comments.

The tourist numbers in Siem Reap gave us a hint that the entrance to Angkor Wat would be overcrowded, so this scene wasn’t surprising.

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What was surprising though was the many modes of transportation people used to pass through the entry – cars, motor bikes, bicycles, tuk tuks, elephants…

While some temples inside Angkor Wat were crowded, for the most part we were able to wander through the grounds with little hassle thanks to the ability of our bicycles to take us off the roadways and onto less travelled dirt paths.

Quieter moments enabled me to envisage, with the use of some imagination, how parts of Angkor Wat might have looked upon their completion in the 12th century. It was staggering to contemplate the amount of time, treasure and craftsmanship a past civilisation devoted to the creation of such intricate structures.

Our last days of cycling brought us to the Khmer Rouge’s final territorial holdout in northern Cambodia and although the Khmer Rouge have been liquidated, signs like the one below at one of our hotel’s gave me pause for thought as to exactly how demilitarised the area is.

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The sign also had me wondering as to exactly how deadly the smell of duriani is?

Our last night in Cambodia was spent at a former Khmer Rouge outpost which had been converted to an environmentally-friendly lodge. At dinner, we were given a talk by the former Cambodian human rights lawyer who had built and maintains the lodge. His speech outlining his hopes for Cambodia and an easing of its suffering was very inspirational.

The next day we set off on our bikes for the Thai border. Even though it was a mere 12 km ride I knew it was going to be a difficult for me as I felt not quite right from breakfast. It was only morning but already the sun was starting to bake as we cycled along a red dirt road. I could feel myself flagging with every kilometre but I was determined to make it to Thai customs. And that’s where my day ended. I collapsed while waiting in line for my visa at the border.

As I stood in the claustrophobic line I knew I was going to pass out at some stage but wanted to stave off the inevitable until I made it across the border. I was afraid if I collapsed before I got my visa that I would not be let into Thailand for fear I had something contagious.

Fortunately, the border guards were sympathetic and even provided me with a seat and smelling salts to bring me around. I guess Westerners losing consciousness is not that rare a border occurrence. I was also indebted to a couple of my fellow cyclists who grabbed me by my elbows and guided me to the chair. Another of my colleagues offered that she had never seen a face so white. Quite a feat as “deathly pale” is not an easy shade to acquire after 10 days of cycling in the Asian sun.

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This wasn’t my only mishap on the trip though. A few days earlier while cycling I hadn’t been paying sufficient attention to obstacles ahead of me and I clotheslined myself on a volleyball net. I escaped with only a few scratches and scrapes but was knocked back off my bike and landed pretty hard on the back of my head. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet I fear I would have done myself some significant cerebral damage. I was already a firm believer in the benefits of wearing a helmet but this accident has reinforced that belief.

Anyway, our group made it across the border without any further incidence but I had to leave them to their afternoon cycling while I dragged myself onto the bus and went on ahead to that night’s hotel. While grateful for the ride it felt endless; all I wanted to do was sprawl across a bed and drift off to sleep.

Whatever it was that laid me low had disappeared by the next morning and I was keen to get back on the bike as it was our last day of cycling and I wanted to redeem myself for the previous day’s poor performance. I am pleased to say that I made it through the day and I was in high spirits for that night’s celebratory drinks.

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The next day we were all bussed into Bangkok but that wasn’t the end of our travels. Agnes and I spent a few days in Bangkok afterwards but as our cycling tour had ended those Bangkok experiences more properly belong in another post, so stay tuned!

 

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