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Entry to Cambodia

Posted July 15th, 2008

80km Sangkha to Anlong Veng

Flying down the hill, past where Pol Pot livedPlenty of people out in the streetsWe set off for Cambodia this morning, slightly concerned about the roads ahead but encouraged by the ever-smooth asphalt on the last part of our journey through Thailand. The last few kilometers went steeply uphill and not so long ago we would have been climbing, or more likely pushing, on gravel but now it was reasonably easy to inch upwards in low gear. Only the hot sun beating down our heads gave us trouble. For the first time, we didn’t see any bus stops to seek shelter under and it was a good thing we had plenty of water on board, both to drink and to pour over our sweating bodies. This would be a very easy section of road to get heatstroke on.

A small wave of jitters ran over us as we entered the last tiny village on the border. The nicely surfaced road ended abruptly, leaving a dusty dirt track in its place. We weren’t even sure where the border crossing was. No signs indicated the way and any one of the forks in the road could have been the right path but on local instruction we headed for a cluster of huts. In the distance we could see a Cambodian flag fluttering on a makeshift building but first we had to get through Thai customs. (more…)

Running for the border

Posted July 14th, 2008

Just a few things on this bikeA half-planted rice fieldWe are off again and running for the border. Can you tell that life is much easier on the visa front now??! No more waiting around for days, weeks even, at embassies, pushing and shoving to get to a little window and deal with a grumpy official. Here in Southeast Asia it’s all much simpler, just show up and get a stamp. So, that’s what we’re going to do. The Cambodian border point of Chong Sa-gnam is only about 100km away and theoretically there’s a lovely new road leading past Pol Pot’s old house and directly to Siem Reap, where the temples of Angkor Wat are. Well, that’s what we’re told anyway. We certainly hope so! It’s the rainy season and if the road is in bad shape (we’re told Cambodia is a definite candidate for the world’s worst roads – will it take Turkmenistan’s crown??) we’ll arrive in Siem Reap covered in mud. Hopefully things will be a bit easier than that. There hasn’t been much rain here in Surin lately and we’re crossing our fingers the same has been true just a little bit further south. In Siem Reap we’ve already found a hotel with free wireless internet so from there we’ll tell you about all our shenanigans here in Thailand, including doing just what the UK Foreign Office always tells you not to do: getting involved in political demonstrations. So that’s what we were doing when someone said ‘hold this flag’…. don’t worry it all worked out well and we aren’t running for the border chased by Thai authorities! Stay tuned for the next installment from Cambodia.

Doing what we shouldn’t do

Posted July 14th, 2008

101km Praset to Sangkha

Wat Suwanwijitara where we stayed the nightWe woke up with a little less spiritual tranquility than we might have hoped for after a night in a monastery. Novice monks were running in and out of the large hall we were given as a sleeping space until late in the evening, giggling at us and every so often attempting a few questions in broken English. As they came and went, a few mosquitos moved in and with we went to bed tucked well into our cotton sleep sacks despite the heat, trying to hide from the malaria virus.

We decided long before we arrived in southeast Asia that we wouldn’t take any preventative malaria medication. Too many side effects, too many regions where the virus has already become resistant to many of the drugs and anyway, our motto on this trip has always been do as the locals do and they certainly don’t pop pills year round, nor do many of the foreign NGO workers living here long-term. Avoiding bites has been our tactic but that’s a little difficult when someone has let the mosquitos into your room for you. Thankfully the risk in Thailand is very low so we didn’t lose too much sleep over it.

We did spend a bit of time though thinking about the local couple who showed up and started setting up their home for the night near the picnic tables just outside the hall where we were sleeping. We watched this obviously reasonably impoverished man and woman spread out their meager belongings and contemplated how lucky we were to be spending a night in a monastery by our own choice and because we were on a marvellous world tour while some people come to the monastery because they really have no other option.

When we finally got to bed, it was a few short hours before dawn arrived to the tune of a metal grate being rolled up and pots banging around in the adjacent kitchen, where local women were cooking breakfast for the monks. We packed up quickly and then searched for a place to make a donation to the monastery. We didn’t see any donation boxes so we asked in the kitchen by waving our money around. “Tamboon, tamboon,” the women said, looking pleased and rushing off to get one of the young monks-in-training from the night before. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old and was very shy as he sat down, legs tucked behind him, and placed his large silver offering bowl in front of his lap. We dropped in a few bills, attempted a clumsy ‘thank you’ in Thai and ran off to the local market for an iced coffee. By this time it still wasn’t even 6am but there were plenty of people in the market, who all had a good laugh at the crazy foreigners trying to wheel their bicycles between fried rice sellers and people lugging tons of pineapples on little carts. (more…)

Pedalling and perspiring in Thailand

Posted July 11th, 2008

169km Chok Choi to Praset

Phnom Rung main entranceDawn had already broken when we first cracked open our eyes, remembered our pledge to make an early start the evening before and then rolled back over for another hour of sleep. Getting a move on before the heat rises is easier said than done but it’s a habit we should probably work harder to form.

The cycling is pleasant before 8am in Thailand. Up until 10am it’s still reasonably comfortable but afterwards even the mildest exertion has us breaking out into a puddle of sweat. Our skin itches. Our shirts are soaked. Our faces are so wet they shine. To the Thais, who never seem to sweat, we must look a real mess when we get off our bikes for a bite to eat or to see a temple.

All we read about cycling in this part of the world before we arrived was universally positive: fantastic food, friendly people, a cheap cost of living. Those things are all true but for us the humidity and high temperatures are taking their toll. We still have to come up with a good strategy for offsetting the weather’s less appealing side effects.

Until then, we’re likely to arrive at most places like we did the historic temple of Phnom Rung this morning – perspiring all over. It’s built on top of an extinct volcano so there was a steep climb to the entrance from the rice paddies down on the plains. We quickly found the toilets and after a splash of water we felt refreshed enough to explore this amazing site. The temple itself isn’t so big but the detail is breathtaking. Every tiny square is covered in carvings, going up many levels into the sky. (more…)

Ant Attack!

Posted July 9th, 2008

169km Pak Chong to Chok Chai

Ants!!!It was past midnight and we were in our tent. We should have been asleep but we were listening to the rain come down and wishing it would go away. And between the drops of water pitter pattering on our home we also heard the birds having a late night chat in the trees and thunder rumbling off in the distance. Then we checked the time and realised we really should try to get some sleep so we rolled over to doze away. Andrew brushed his cheek just before we turned in our beds. “What’s that?” Friedel asked. “Oh, just an ant,” Andrew mumbled. Just an ant. We’ve camped plenty by now. One ant roaming free is no big deal, we thought, as our eyes closed.

What happened next was like a scene from a horror film where the pincers of a giant ant reach out around a beautiful woman and slowly squeeze the life out of the heroine. In our nightmare scenario we saw not ‘just an ant’ but a whole ant highway. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of ants, flowing in through a minuscule crack where the zippers come together to seal the door to our sleeping area.

Out went the lovely, warm, fuzzy feeling of just waking up and in came shock and disgust as we realised the full scale of the invasion. Ants were everywhere. On our sleeping mats. In our clothes. On the tent roof. On the floor. When we finally shook enough ants free to get dressed, we noticed everything else we owned was crawling too. Our shoes. Our panniers. Even our water bottles. (more…)