Sihanoukville – Bangkok – Singapore

The goodwilling but disastrously disorganized owner of Bungalow Village managed to book us and another two French women on a bus to Siem Reap after one failed attempt (and a resulting extra day in Sihanoukville – thankfully free, though). We’d inquired at a nearby agency and been given a better price, including pickup, for a non-stop sleeper bus to Siem Reap but decided to book with our hosts instead (it was going to be more or less the same deal, we thought) just to give them some extra business to repay them for keeping an eye on our stuff while we were off looking at old rocks.

Having left our stuff in a pile outside her room as instructed (there wasn’t a luggage store facility but the owner agreed to keep our stuff until our return in her own room) and our bikes locked to eachother behind the kitchen, we sat in the cafe terrace from an hour beforehand, waiting for the bus tickets. Fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure of the bus, and just as we were getting one of the staff to phone her mobile, the owner showed up on her motorcycle. We were marched to a tuktuk with the other two, the tuktuk driver had a brief argument with the owner about where to take us but resigned to her insitence and took us past Sihanoukville town to Serendipity beach. It was now the scheduled departure time and a different company’s bus was pulling away while ours was nowhere to be seen. The tuktuk driver had a look at our tickets and drove us back to Sihanoukville town, where in an inconspicuous parking lot a bus waited for us.

It was not a sleeper bus. It took off just as soon as the four of us were seated and made its way north, stopping here and there to pick up and drop off passengers. Around midnight the bus stopped again but this time we were the ones who had to get off.  Us and all of the other touristy types. By the time we’d figured out that we had been dropped off at a bus terminal in Pnom Penh, the bus had vanished and the promised ‘change bus’ was nowhere to be seen – the terminal was deserted but for a swarm of tuktuk drivers who made tireless attempts to sell us their services. A Justin Timberlake lookalike (down to the white cap and figure-hugging wifebeater top) and one of the French women came forward and began dealing with the situation, tracking down an employee of the bus terminal. A few people including Dave listened in to the ensuing negotiations (it’s possible that we were first told to buy new tickets from Pnom Penh to Siem Reap, arguing ensued, eventually something clicked and the staff demanded everybody’s tickets so they got handed over)  and helped collect everyone’s tickets. I slouched with the remaining few on the benches feeling drowsy and grumpy.

Some time later, our delegates returned bearing a new stack of tickets and the news that we were to be ferried by free tuktuk to a bus that will take us to Siem Reap.  And so it happened, we piled into tuktuks in groups of four and rode through the empty streets of sleeping Pnom Penh. Me and Dave sat across from Justin Timberlake and discovered during our brief tuktuk ride that he was the proud owner of two sets of bungalows on Otres beach, Sihanoukville, and one of these establishments boasts a Star Wars theme, sporting design in the form of geodesic domes. I inquired how he came up with this fascinating idea, to which he modestly responded ‘I don’t know.. dreams?.. imagination..!’.

It was another hour or so until the bus departed, which gave me and Dave just enough time to have a cocktail in a swish establishment just across the road from the bus, and then we were off. Dave’s sleeper bed was shortened to accommodate the engine, or something, so he didn’t have the comfiest night but at least it was better than the last time, when he had the air-conditioning system gushing cold water all over him.

With the first rays of morning light, we arrived into Siem Reap, tumbled out of our bus and were greeted by a young local with chiselled features and a Rosy hotel sign bearing our name. So they’d got our message after all. Here’s how it works in Siem Reap – your hotel will provide you with free collection from your port of arrival, which is good advertising for them considering they don’t pay the tuktuk driver, who presumably volunteers for this job knowing that it will give him a brief opportunity to make a sales pitch of his services. The temples of Angkor are scattered over a swathe of national park at a scale that is not realistically walkable but for the most intrepid pedestrians with a 7-day pass. The rental of motorcycles to foreigners is forbidden in Siem Reap, so you’re left with few options, the most popular of which is to hire a tuktuk for the day (costs around $15 after bargaining, i.e. outside our budget). We weighed up the options and decided to DIY it, hiring rickety bikes from our hotel for $2 each.

After checking in to our tiny but neat top-floor room and spending some time basking in the hot showers, we ate breakfast and perused the borrowed guidebooks. The sheer number of temples and sights in itself is intimidating, let alone the amounts of information relating to all this. We gave up quite quickly, packed the books and cycled off towards the Angkor complex with the last and laziest of the morning rush, mostly young hungover-looking lads and lasses. Halfway to the complex we stopped at the ticked booths where we got photographed, stripped of $80 and issued with personalized tickets and stern warnings of what terrible things befall those who lose or sell on their tickets.

We started our visit at some of the lesser ruins along the ‘long’ circuit on day one, making our way north past Angkor Wat and through Angkor Thom, parking our rented bikes outside the perimeter of Preah Khan. What little I remember about this place suggests that it was built in the 12th century as a walled (and moated) city which existed more or less exclusively in order to service the expansive Buddhist (later Hindu) temple in its centre, once a hub of knowledge and spirituality. Much like the rest of walled cities in the Angkor archaeological park, the temple and other buildings of religious significance are all that remains – stone was a building material reserved for the gods, while the mortals had to make do with timber, which has over time devolved into mature jungle.

         

From there we moved on clockwise, stopping to see the tiny temple of Krol Ko, the fountain-endowed water temple of Neak Pean hidden in a mangrove swamp, then Ta Som with its dramatic sequence of portals, some crowned with giant peaceful faces others with tree roots, and on to the Eastern Mebon, what would have been a Hindu temple standing on an artificial island in a giant manmade reservoir. It had the structure of a mountain, with four long and increasingly steep staircases leading to the pinnacle, whence one can just about play spot-the-next-temple, and made us once again very aware of the sheer size of the archaeological site. Opposite the road from all major sites in Angkor, there will be a selection of stalls that will sell you anything from cool drinks and tourist-friendly food to umbrellas and toys. It was lunch hour so we succumbed to the cries and beckonings of one of the quieter ones of the shouting and beckoning stall owners, and sat down to a refreshing cool drink and an undercooked meal.

         

After this break, we got back on our rickety bikes and laboured on towards Prasat Pre Roup, which was very similar to the last temple, then on to the swimming pool of  a certain Kavindrarimathana, Srah Srang, and through to Banteay Kdei, a beautifully ruined labyrinthine temple densely populated by touts. By this stage we were getting really quite tired, so we made a last stop at Prasat Kravan to quickly check out what turned out to be a blissfully tiny temple and pick up some cold beers on our way to Angkor Wat.

         

We settled just outside Angkor Wat on the eastern embankment of its substantial mote overlooking the bridge and the dense foliage into which the hot fat sun retired as tourists streamed out of the temple and onto their buses, while monks with shaven heads and orange robes made their way single-file towards a Buddha recessed into one of the external pavilions of Angkor Wat. We sat on stone blocks the size of a small room, weathered by centuries of tropical storms into a round-cornered rough-textured submission and warmed to a cozy glow over the course of the scorching day, overhanging the opaque surface of the water that reflected the changing hues of the sunset.

        

We cycled back to Siem Reap in the dark. After a quick shower it was time to seek out the ‘night market’, which turned out to have been multiplying uncontrollably and it felt like every corner of the town centre had a night market of its own – a maze of brightly lit stalls selling souvenirs ranging from regional arts and crafts to t-shirts and chocolates. There were quite a few massage parlours staffed with armies of keen uniformed masseurs, offering a 15 minute foot massage for one or two dollars, which seemed like a much more enjoyable experience than the even more ubiquitous dead-skin-eating-fish-treatment that was being offered literally on every street corner. Thus we spent a quarter of an hour in foot heaven, during which time we also had the chance to discover (there was a documentary on loop on the screen) that the big water moats that surrounded the temple cities actually acted to prevent the movement of the soil due to dry-season shrinkage and wet-season expansion, thus significantly bolstering the longevity of the Angkor buildings made of mortar-free stone. Clever.

I bought a scarf, we ate, rubbed shoulders with throngs of tourists on the main street lined with resort-style bars and went home early. There was another day of hardcore sightseeing ahead of us and we still had last night’s sleep to catch up with.

The next morning we had to move out. The hotel’s budget rooms were all booked up and we were too stingy to pay up for an a/c room, so first thing in the morning we went in search of a new place to stay. After trying a few places we’d looked at online it became apparent that Siem Reap is a very busy tourist destination indeed. Everywhere was booked solid. Fortunately, the last place we went to and the newest addition to Siem Reap’s budget accommodation scene, a Hostelling International outlet, had a lovely room for us that even came well within our budget. We chucked everything in our room and headed back outside – Angkor was waiting. Within ten minutes (8 of which were spent bargaining) we had engaged a tuktuk and were speeding towards Angkor Wat, our first stop for the day.

         

Angkor Wat, the archaeological crown jewel of Cambodia, was scorching hot. By the time we’d traversed the generously proportioned moat, inspected the gateway pavilions and travelled across what would’ve been the walled city but now an empty plain, punctuated only by two extraordinarily grecian looking library buildings, it was a relief to find refuge in the outermost rung of the temple – a shady corridor ensquaring the pyramidal temple inside. Along the inner wall, possibly several kilometres long in total, ran intricate carvings in stone, depicting epic battles, the gods and the kings of the ancient empire of Angkor in scenes of cosmological and mythical representations. The sheer scale of the effort was so epic that we had to stop halfway around for lunch (this time we’d been clever and brought packed lunch from the hostel).

Eventually we made it to the top of Angkor Wat, big mountain-like monument with a few more galleries, each smaller and higher up than the previous. There was an awful lot of Russian tourists, who appeared to only be noticeable when arguing loudly among themselves. Chinese tourists stuck together in groups, the only people organized enough to bring some serious sun protection – hats and umbrellas creating miniature islands of enviable shade.

Our tuktuk to Angkor Wat had been a one-way ride, so we had to carry on by foot. We walked north towards Angkor Thom, the biggest walled city of the Angkor area. It took us half an hour just to get to Angkor Thom’s moat bridge, flanked by stone demons carrying Naga, the seven-headed serpent, equally petrified. Later we found out that the reason a lot of these demons looked this well preserved was because the Cambodians had rounded up all the best-looking demons from around Angkor archaeological park and used them to replace the more battered original demons on this particular bridge. Tour guides obviously thought this was a good idea, as all tour buses pulled over and ejected crowds of snap-happy tourists onto the bridge. There was a portal in the city wall that ran along the inner side of the moat, and on this city wall we met a family of very unafraid chimps.

         

A little way down the road was a stall that promptly supplied us with a plastic bag full of miniature bananas. The moment this bag changed hands, the ten or twenty chimps who were previously scattered around either side of the road minding their own business, got up and advanced determinedly towards Dave, who was just about able to tare bananas from the bunch fast enough to throw them at the nearest monkey all the while backing away at full speed, to prevent what horrible thing would no doubt had happened if the monkeys reached him from happening. The chimps caught the bananas in mid-flight, expertly skinned them and injected the flesh into their mouth all in one fluid motion, without stopping their advance. I in the meanwhile was charged with photographing what was meant to be a happy-clappy isn’t-this-cute slow and mellow monkey feeding session. Instead, I was scared and then it was over. Within seconds, the banana bunch had ran out and the monkeys dissipated as quickly as they’d come. We sighed relief.

         

Onwards and upwards, we ambled for another half hour or so until we came to the central area of Angkor Thom, where a number of surviving monuments were scattered in the jungle and in the surrounding parking lots. Yesterday we’d seen small (well big, but small for an elephant) leathery black elephants ferrying happy tourists around on their backs. Instantly, we wanted to be the happy tourists on their backs. Unfortunately, the elephants were nowhere to be seen and even the mounting platforms (staircase to nowhere)  were unmanned. Oh well. Maybe some other time.

         

We’d saved the best for last. After exploring the monuments of Angkor Thom, we set out east towards Ta Prohm, better known as the backdrop to the busty videogame and film character of Lara Croft. When restorations of the Angkor ruins began in the beginning of the 20th century, this temple was singled out to be left ‘untouched’ as ‘a concession to the general taste for the picturesque’. And picturesque it is, with gigantic trees enveloping whole structures with their muscular roots. The angled late afternoon sun filtering through the canopy of the surrounding jungle helped lend this already theatrical stage set a truly dramatic quality.

         

         

By the time we emerged from Ta Prohm there was no doubt about it – we were all Angkor’d out! The place really was magnificent but it was physically and mentally exhausting. Plus, it felt like it would have been hard to beat the dramatic last impression that Ta Prohm had left on us. With a sense of accomplishment and also quite happy to get away from the sightseeing overload, we headed home. A breezy ride back sandwiched on the back of a moped (excellent value for us, not so much for the local who really ought to have his suspensions replaced after that) and we were in the buzzing touristy haven of Siem Reap once again.

We headed straight for the little square in the middle of town that functions as a kindergarten playground by day and densely packed street food restaurant by night. The only member of staff not wearing a uniform was the grill chef – a tall lad made even taller by his high-heeled shoes. The other two chefs manning the outdoor kitchen looked well under 16, but then it can be very hard to guess the age of slight people. We ordered lots and paid little, had a yummy feast washed down with a variety of street cocktails priced at about two dollars a pop, and left, feeling positively too full to even attempt fighting the day’s tonne-of-bricks fatigue. It was home time.

The next day we slept in, knowing that the third day on our Angkor tickets would remain unused and feeling pretty good about it. We had a slow day, writing blog posts and wondering around the deserted streets of Siem Reap. Everyone was out sightseeing. In the early evening, the bus company had a tuktuk fetch us from the hostel and deliver us to the bus, stationed just over the river from the hostel. This time we weren’t made to change buses and just slept through until dawn, when the bus rumbled to a halt in Sihanoukville bus station.

We fought our way past the tuktuk drivers and, rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, ambled towards Bungalow Village. It wasn’t far and we were soon lounging on the terrace that functions as a bar, restaurant, reception desk and admin office all in one. Nobody else was about -it was still very early. Me and Dave took turns showering in an outhouse behind the bar and changed into our cycling gear. Not too much later we succeeded in procuring a hot breakfast and all of the stuff we’d left with the owner, including our bikes. Well before noon, we were back in the saddle.

Sihanoukville is essentially on a peninsula and most of the traffic that comes in, comes back out via the same road that it took to get here in the first place. We were less than keen on doing that, especially since there would be quite a number of hills involved, so we decided to loop around via a smaller road that rejoins the main road just after the point we’d originally turned on to it. The road took us past a ferry terminal, then a fishing village with tiny jetties projecting into the sea from every other house and clusters of homes seemingly floating on the water some way out, past a few large plots of land fenced off for development, a giant refinery and a string of plots with ‘land for sale’ signs in English. Then we were well and truly back in Cambodia – probably the most sparsely populated country we’d seen on the journey, with a very complex relationship with the land indeed. What on Google Maps appeared like a settlement equivalent in size to, say, Nottingham, in reality turned out to be a village of a few houses and a stall selling the very basics of supplies, if you’re lucky.

We cycled through most of the scorching hot day, stopping only for lunch, another couple of quick breathers and in a village to buy some food for dinner.  It rained, but that only took the weather from scorching hot to scorching hot and sticky humid, to the point where the air became heavy with water.

Finding a camping spot in Cambodia had none of the challenges of, say, Vietnam or China where an unused scrap of land is almost impossible to come by, but presented us with a whole new challenge – the fear factor. All the guidebooks we’d read, the landmine survivor orphanages and museums advertised as tourist attractions in Siem Reap, the landmine survivors themselves begging for money in tourist spots, everything silently screamed of the possible repercussions of straying off the asphalt. We knew the chances of us stepping on a landmine would be smaller than a number of things we’d braved during this trip, but there was still very much an air of giddy  terror as we pushed our bikes off the road and into a clearing in the forest all of 10 metres from the road, and set up camp just as it got dark. Even as I turned in the tent, waiting to fall asleep, my mind churned out scenarios of limbs lodged in tree branches in a ten metre radius. Fortunately we’d splurged on a bottle of Cola to mix with our Thai rum and the remnants of a giant ice block we’d got sawn off from a truly epic ice block in the last village. This helped and soon both of us were sound asleep.

In fact so sound asleep, that by the time we finally got up, breakfasted and got ready, it was approaching noon – the sun was absolutely beating down to a point where even cowering in the shade of a makeshift parasol (our tent footprint) failed to provide relief from the sweaty heat. This is when we convened and decided to go native – to go against all intuition and wear trouser legs, hats and long sleeves. In order to pull this off we had to spend some time and finally put that fabric glue we’d brought with us to use – we cut up our Snoods and I used mine to make a pair of sleeves (my white ones had gone missing) while Dave used his to make fingerless gloves and a flap for his helmet to shade his neck from the sun. At a shop just down the road I was able to procure the Cambodian apparel masterpiece – the wide-brimmed baseball cap with swathes of fabric that shield everything between your eyes and torso from the sun at every conceivable angle.

And so we set out into the hottest part of the day. The road wove solitarily through forest and the occassional village, climbing slowly into the southern reaches of the Cardamom mountains. This area is another one of Cambodia’s swathes of land designated as national park. We stopped at a village that had put together a makeshift tourist information centre, where the schoolchildren had painstakingly drawn a map of the vicinity detailing where the cashew trees grew and where one could take their rented bicycle for a ride. In fact we ran into an Eastern European couple who were pottering about on their rented bikes, extatic about the ecotourism adventure they were having here.

There was a lot of posters lining the road showing a poacher behind bars. We hoped to see or at least hear elephants but all we heard (Dave saw them too) was some monkeys in the treetops just as it was getting dark. We rolled into the next village and sat down for dinner in an eatery by the road. The woman serving us inquired whether we were sleeping here and when we nodded frantically, she called over a man from next door who was apparently responsible for running a community tourism scheme that included but was not limited to a community homestay scheme. It was still in its pilot stages but they’d already had each of their ten host households involved at least once or twice. Part of the proceeds go towards the community’s efforts to raise awareness and curb poaching through positive action. It was all very noble and I would really encourage anyone needing a holiday to look into Cambodia’s budding community-driven eco tourism. It’s cheap, its pristine, there’s a lot to do and a lot to see and a real opportunity to learn how these people live. If you don’t like living in someone else’s house, there’s a few hotels in the area that also specialize in eco tourism and adventure tourism.

We told him about the monkeys we’d seen and he told us there was a group of chimps recently released from the zoo that had a habit of hanging around the roadside and begging for scraps much the same way they used to at the zoo. Things must’ve been getting tough though because they’d recently got so desperate as to jump a French cycle tourist and made him tumble. Doubt they got any food out of that.

We stayed in a single-storey concrete house with two bedrooms, a bathroom with a big tank of water and a plastic ladle, a big pantry of a kitchen where all the cooking was done outside on a coal/wood-fired stove. Our hosts spoke no English, so me and Dave spent the evening washing our clothes in a giant aluminium bowl out in their garden by a group of water barrels,  connected by a hose to a pump atop a well. By morning of course nothing had dried, in fact our laundry seemed even more damp than when we hung it up. We bungeed the wet clothes onto the top of our baggage and set off towards the tallest mountain we were going to climb in the Cardamoms.

On the way up we ran into a cycle touring couple from America. They were dressed in lycras and were shocked to see us clothed from head to toe. We told them that we really felt cooler cycling fully clothed as it stopped the scorching sun from hitting our skin while the breeze generated by ourselves cycling seemed enough to provide some evaporative cooling too. I don’t think they believed us. Even though they were sweaty on a downhill while we weren’t on an uphill. Well it is a rather counterintuitive notion to be fair.

Eventually we got to the top of the mountain, rolled down the other side, back up the next hill and down again, then several more times in diminishing magnitude until we were on a straight and narrow to Koh Kong, the frontier town to Thailand. The sun was setting as we got into town and we quickly abandoned any hope of getting into Thailand today. Instead, we stocked up with provisions from a supermarket (first since Sihanoukville) that carried quite a lot of imported goods and had price tags in Baht as well as Rial. In the supermarket Dave got chatting to a tourist who recommended a hotel, which is where we headed next. It was indescript but inexpensive, and we were able to roll our bikes in and park them in the superwide corridor just opposite our room, saving us the usual hand-hauling of panniers up and down stairs.

Sometime around this time was Chinese New Year, which expressed itself in loud fireworks popping and big gatherings in buddhist temples, as well as a mass migration of Cambodians into Thailand for holidays, which we discovered the next morning as we tried to cross the border into Thailand. Even though the border consisted of two booths and a few links of movable fence on the road, it took us in the region of two hours to get through. The people working in the booths had clearly decided to give themselves a day off despite being in the workplace and four out of five officials on the Thai side could be seen using Facebook, playing computer games or chatting with eachother as the fifth official leisurely processed the ever-expanding queue of incoming tourists.

Eventually we emerged on the other side, right into a busy shop-lined street that appeared to be filling with stalls for a festive street market. Then we realized that the traffic in Thailand was on the other side – on the left as opposed to Cambodian right-side traffic. Diligently we proceeded to tackle Thai roads. They were remarkable in that the freshly laid asphalt made no effort to level itself horizontally, instead following every hill curve up and down like a crazy rollercoaster. And there were a lot of hills. We stopped for lunch in a fancy restaurant that had an italian coffee machine that the staff didn’t know how to use but were otherwise lovely. While we lunched there was a torrential downpour.

In the afternoon the weather was bipolar, pouring down one minute and dry the next and then pouring down again. As it was getting dark we found ourselves hiding in a bus shelter from the heavy rain. The chief mode of public transport in that area seemed to be pickup trucks with seating and railing welded into the back. For a while we tried to flag one down and charter it to deliver ourselves and our bikes to the next town down the road – Mueang Trat, but that didn’t work out so we had to wait till the rain was tolerable and just cycle it ourselves. By the time we got there, it was pretty dark and pretty dry. We found a large assortment of attractive-looking backpacker-oriented hostels here, all booked up to the eyeballs. Eventually we found a hostel that was very new and consisted of three rooms and the family accommodation upstairs with a cafe/bar, bathrooms and kitchen downstairs, all set into a beautifully crafted light-as-a-feather timber house with an internal courtyard.

We met the occupants of both the other two rooms that night – the British gap-year girl teaching English we talked to before we went out for food, and the male half of the French couple we met after, when he was forced to get out of bed, come downstairs and unlock the door for us – we had overstayed the 11 o’clock curfew by 10 minutes and spent another twenty knocking and trying to break in.

In the morning despite our best intentions, we didn’t start cycling towards Bangkok or even do anything of touristic merit. We went to the market (which was an absolute marvel of health and safety – no flies or puddles of goop underfoot), had some food, bought some treats, begged a bagful of ice shavings from a corner shop which consisted of three men in rubber boots and gloves who were feeding giant blocks of ice into a woodchipper and shovelling the resulting ice shavings into black bags. By the time we’d got back to our room, set up the stove, boiled some water and dripped it through our Vietnamese coffee, there was just about enough ice left to make our coffees lukewarm instead of hot. It was still delicious though.

The next day we were up and on the road so early that we were 70km down the road in Mueang Chanthaburi before lunch. We stopped for pre-lunch coffee in an expensive roadside cafe that served proper Italian coffee and free internet. There was an awful lot of overengineered exposed timber in the garden furniture and a shoe rack full of slippers next to the door to the main cafe and another one outside the toilets, which as a result were the most pristine public toilets EVER. Dave was sorting out his work-related paperwork for which, it turned out, he needed a printer and a scanner so we headed into town and found an internet cafe. Eventually we turned our sights to lunch and lo and behold Carrefour was at hand, so we parked our bikes with all our stuff but the backpack, in the supervised parking lot. It was even more convenient than I’d expected as there was a food court in the same building so we ate first, then went shopping.

At the till we discovered that we no longer had a wallet. It had vanished from Dave’s backpack (zipper ajar) in between the foodcourt and the checkout counter. It wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences but it could certainly have been worse. There was a great deal of cash in the wallet and all of Dave’s cards, but fortunately I had some emergency cash and my own cards tucked away, so a few frantic phonecalls and a visit to the police station later, we had the documentation necessary for our insurance company and access to money to fund what little remained of our trip. By the time this whole ordeal was over it was late evening and we needed rest. Unfortunately Chanthaburi isn’t quite there yet as a tourist destination (even though they have a charming waterfront old town with signs in English and everything) and appeared to only have two hotels – one that was way too expensive and one that was way too crap, even for us (it came recommended by Lonely Planet nevertheless). As we were circling the city centre trying to chance upon a miraculous middle ground, we were approached by a young French couple who turned out to be cycle tourists on a lengthy escapade from France to Austaralia. They walked us to their hotel which was a great deal, helped us with our stuff and took us out to a stylish cafe to use the internet.

The next day we cycled together. It was only 60km to Klaeng, where we parted ways, but I managed to fill the day with coffee breaks and toilet breaks so that by the time we arrived in Klaeng it was concievable to stop for the day and camp together, which I love. We were stood considering the options when an old lady approached Dave and told him that we should go sleep in the Buddhist temple just over yonder. And so we went just over yonder, which turned out to be a spatious monastery complex adjacent to a school in typical Buddhist manner (well I don’t really know but we’d certainly seen quite a few schools attached to Buddhist temples). There were very few people out and about but we eventually found two monks and asked them if we could camp somewhere in the temple grounds (we had our eye on a thin grove just outside the temple’s fence).

Unexpectedly, he said no. Ok, so I guess it was meant to happen at some point, etc. As we wheeled around and made to leave, he equally unexpectedly changed his mind and beckoned us back. He showed us to a sheltered area – apart from not having walls it was like a fully habitable guest space – there were toilets attached, a shower room and sinks, plugs, lights and even fans overhead as well as a few tables. Me and Dave set up the inner of our tent for protection from the insects on the floor while the French couple hung up a mosquito net above a table and slept on the table.

In the morning we popped to the shops and bought some eggs to fry, all the while wondering if Buddhism objects to the eating of unfertilized eggs. By the time we’d finished breakfast, the monks were out and about. At some point one of them had informed us that a monk had died in the night, but we weren’t quite sure what to do with that information.

Then the monk who had allowed us to stay came over and decked our wrists with an incredibly awesome woven bracelet (with a bullet shell woven into it) each (colourful for the girls and black for the boys), with the words “from Buddha”. Then they came and beckoned the boys away, and just as we sat there letting our imaginations run riot with the possibilities, they returned carrying a big plastic bowl full of food. Also at some stage lots of water bottles had appeared. We thanked them profusely, took some of the food (some of the bestest and most unusual food on the whole trip!) and returned the rest, packed up and got going, all the while trying as best as possible to verbalize the extent of our gratitude.

Me and Dave cycled over 120km that day, failing to find accomodation in Mueang Chonburi as intended but settling instead for a last night of camping within sight of the motorway that extended on two storeys towards Bangkok. From there it was only about 30km to the airport (in the vicinity of which we’d intended to find accommodation) and about 60km to central Bangkok (where we ended up staying in a humongous and very formal hotel but at an absolute bargain from an online booking website). The complex system of roads, with highways both on ground level and lifted above ground, was not the easiest to navigate but by late afternoon we were locking up our bikes in our hotel’s parking lot and getting ferried by golf buggy, a few personnel and a luggage trolley, towards our room on the xteenth floor.

      
      

We stayed in Bangkok for two or three days, doing very little in terms of sightseeing, short of visiting the  house of Jim Thompson, an American silk merchant trained as an architect, who collected and collaged a large number of vernacular Thai houses from across the country to form a generous enclave where he and all his house staff lived, until he mysteriously disappeared in the Malaysian jungle. We wandered and cycled around the city, ate in its foodcourts, checked out its malls and the Chinatown Sunday market, and thought about the end of our trip.

On Tuesday the 31st of January we cycled to the airport, checked in our bicycles and flew to Singapore, ending a six month journey of discovery, endurance and chance, to begin a brand new chapter in our lives. Thank you for your support and we hope you’ve enjoyed our story!

Please check back for updates to some of the feature content (facewatch etc. plus an exciting video coming by the end of next week, sunday the 22nd of april, hopefully sooner).

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Ap Giong Ke – Sihanoukville

Half an hour before sunrise, one after another, the fishing boats we hadn’t noticed in the dark last night started their rattling straining engines, tearing methodically into the silence of the night. The tent stood in a clearing near the bridge that spanned the canal and was the infrastructural centre of the village, which gave us another reason to rush our morning procedures – soon it would be swarming with people. The other reason was of course the ferry – even though it was only around 30km to Hon Chong, there was no telling what the roads would be like – and if they were anything like last nights roads it could take us hours to get there. From vague sources we figured the ferry would be leaving around 11, the alarm went (just after the boat engines) at 5.30 and we planned to be on the go by 7.

I stumbled out of the tent first, as usual, and set about making coffee and eggs for breakfast. The handful of shops around us opened as we put away the tent, and a group of women and children gathered to watch us eat. A handful of people from last night came over to say hi but otherwise it was a whole new cast of people. A kid holding a strange exoskeletal sea-creature with a long straight tail pointed at it and then our frying eggs, we smiled and waved our hands in protest. He didn’t insist. Yesterdays hairy clams had been infested with ants overnight so I had to throw them away, which I was somewhat relieved to do, seen as I never got my head around how they could be cooked and closed and edible at the same time.

By the time we’d packed everything away and were ready to go it was half past seven. We waved goodbye to yesterdays benefactors, who weren’t looking, crossed the bridge and picked our way through the already-busy market, where skinny dark-skinned locals squatted in front of baskets overflowing with large-caliber seafood items, fish, dewy greens and chubby vegetables: eyeing us with curiosity and crying out greetings – I even got a cold, wet but cheery slap on the arm from a lady who’d just been washing her veg. We rattled down the uneven road, just wide enough for two mopeds, past the affectionately ramshackle homes of the village and onto a wide, dusty and empty track that, despite being unsealed, was a huge improvement over last night’s overgrown footpaths.

We sped down the road, interrupted every kilometer by a wide canal, bridges over most of which were bizzarely offset from the road by a hundred meters or so, and the occassional roadworks (most of which looked like giant clay quarries with narrow planks at incredible angles paving a narrow path to the other side, viable only for two-wheeled traffic). As we got closer to Hon Chong Cape, the track improved first with concrete paving then into a legit unsealed road suitable for four-wheeled traffic. Houses began to crop up either side of the track and we passed a couple of fishing villages, with their bright turquoise fishing boats crowded in the canals.

I noticed that one of my barbag bolts had vanished and was in the process of trying to wrap the shoulder strap of the barbag around the handlebars to give the compromised barbag more support, while still pedalling through the larger village on the approach to Hon Chong, when I lost control and flew onto the roadside. I landed in the dust on hands and knees and yelled after Dave to get him to stop. He didn’t hear but a passing moped caught up with him and got him to come back. A small crowd of locals gathered around to watch, silently, as me and Dave cleaned up and dressed my scrapes, finally putting those first-aid kits to work.

The road continued along the seaside, lined with houses overhanging the stormy sea. Soon enough we reached the crossroads with the sealed road and after making some locals very confused with our requests for directions to Phu Quoc, we picked a direction and set off again past Hon Chong’s aged and mostly deserted seaside resorts towards the port. The term ‘port’ can only be applied loosely to what we found – a deserted junkyard of scrapped boats with a single jetty of rotting timber, with several planks missing. The three boats docked there were clearly fishing boats, and another one was somehow associated with the regional government. The ferry wasn’t meant to be for another hour or so, but there was very little evidence of any ferry-related activity there, only a few men on the boats and one fishing for tiny crabs off the jetty. We made cupped hands at them to represent a boat and enunciated ‘Phu Quoc’ to our best abilities, but to no avail. Eventually one of them gestured us towards a small concrete building in the distance, where we found a man who smelled violently of tiger rub and spoke English. He explained that there no longer was a ferry from Hon Chong to Phu Quoc and we’d have to continue on to Ha Tien to catch a ferry from there. We thanked him and got on our way.

It was another 30 km to Ha Tien and getting to the hottest part of the day. The man had said the trip took him 2 hours by motorcycle, which either meant that he had a terribly slow motorbike or road style, or that the road was going to be horribly hilly/bumpy/potholey/headwindy. We went for the hidden option, assuming that the goodwilling local must be wrong, and took to the road in a somewhat leisurely manner, pausing for a few breaks – first, to chat to a prim lady with a heavy American accent and limited vocabulary, who said she worked in the States but was back to visit family (she even offered hospitality and a lift – first hospitality offer since Uzbekistan!); then we spotted some French filters for Vietnamese coffee at a roadside market and stopped to add four sets to our travel kitchen; then there was a sunblock reapplication break; then we stopped to down some sugarcane juice from a roadside cafe (and decanted the remaining ice into our water bottles to cool them down – they’d get really hot in the sun); later we picked up some delicious bananas (short but fat bananas tasty tasty) from a lady with a baby sat behind a table laden full of bananas on the roadside along a strip of stately houses recessed into a thicket of century-old palm trees. All the while the road surface was decent, traffic non-intrusive, the landscape dry and seasidy, smelling of beach (with the occasional whiff of fish), wonderfully flat (except for the bridges, raised high to give clearance to the stocky fishing boats), with the occasional sprinkling of buffalo or limestone formations eroded into stunning filigree (not the buffalo, yikes).

Before we knew it (and several litres of sweat later) we were in Ha Tien harbour, tickets in hand, bikes strapped to the roof of the hydrofoil, whiling away the hour or so until departure drinking ice coffee and coconut water with ‘bahn mi pate’ (soft roll with cucumber, soy sauce, pate, slice of lard (?) and something coconutty) for lunch. The petite harbour was buzzing with tourists, who appeared freakishly tall, meaty and luminously pale. I can’t remember how long the boat ride was because I think I slept though most of it, as well as the ride back, but I think it’s in the region of two hours.

We disembarked onto a wooden jetty that stretched what felt like at least a kilometer into the sea. By the time we’d collected all our bits of luggage and mounted them on the bikes, all the other passengers had vanished and we followed a moped-drawn trailer full of hydrofoil crew down the jetty towards the island. There was a tiny village hiding behind two rows of shops selling live seahorses and other aquarium pets, shells, snacks and bottles of alcohol containing a baby cobra and scorpion. Beyond the village the road climbed a hill and became surrounded by fenced-off subtropical shrub/midget forest. Most of the island is a national park, you see, but apparently that doesn’t stop locals from squatting in it (not my words) or hunting for monkeys (we only ever saw one pet one, but apparently there used to be hundreds of thousands roaming the island). To be fair the island was much more sparsely populated, including resorts and towns, than the rest of Vietnam, and great bit swathes of inland island did appear very much virgin.

Sealed road ran out as we turned off towards Long Beach. I’d expected this to be lined with resorts, but all we saw was a fishing harbour, a handful of simple timber houses and a seaside bar housed in a ramshackle hut. We got a couple of cold beers, ordered some seafood and settled in to take in our surroundings. A narrow strip of crunchy white sand lined the clear playful sea on one side while a wide sandy bank sprinkled with dry grass and coconut palms separated the beach from the road. The sun was falling through a cloudless sky towards the water, casting a mellow shade of orange across the landscape. As if this image wasn’t idyllic enough, a retired westerner rolled up in his all-terrain open jeep and unloaded two hysterically happy dogs onto the beach. We chatted to a couple of backpackers who were sat at the next table and they said they were paying 20usd for the cheapest place they’d found. This was quite pricey for Vietnam so we decided to do as the tent perched on the beachfront (some way from the bar) did. We went over and said hi to the owner of the tent, a Korean cycle tourist, and continued further along the beach to find a secluded spot for ourselves.

We stopped to chat to a Kiwi bloke who was supervising the construction of a commercial pearl gallery in the shape and likeness of a cruise ship. He gave us a map of the island and told us a little bit about it – apparently he’d been coming here for decades, hence was a bit of a veteran. A few km further down the road we found a spot that was completely secluded – not a building in sight. It was getting dark as we put up our tent and went for a blissful dip in the sea before making a fire on the sand. That was nice but we had to move it a couple of times, edging it further away from ourselves as the flames were making us just too hot.

The next day we realized that we were out of food supplies and water, but instead of sending one of us on errands (we were a bit far from everywhere) we decided to pack up camp and go together. We cycled north and into town, grabbed a bite at a western cafe and stocked up on food at the big and busy fish market (which sold everything imaginable and not, both in the fish realm and beyond – look closely at the photo on the left and you will see giant colourful sea snails). From town we continued up towards the northern beaches, annotated on the map as ‘deserted’ (which sounded a bit self-sabotaging but turned out to be true enough). On the way there we passed a few more large all-in-one resorts and their patrons whizzing around pink-fleshed on rented scooters, a few fishing villages, got extorted for money by a stringy old woman with a bicycle who’d volunteered to guide us  along narrow sandy paths through a section of forest back to the main road. Tarmac ran out without ever reaching the seaside and we trundled along a network of unsealed roads, around a shut-for-the-day ferry crossing and over a bumpy bridge made of twigs, all the way up to the beach where, exhausted, we picked a spot and called it perfect – well shaded by mature trees that are grouped in such a way that we could hang up our hammocks, on a wide beach of fine sand deserted for miles. We set up the tent in the white light of the moon, made dinner and a fire and had a swim before collapsing into sleep.

The next day was rest day and we weren’t going anywhere. Instead people came to us – just as we’d finished breakfast and were putting up our hammocks, a group of local men on motorcycles wheeled out onto the beach right next to us. This was obviously their spot, and they were confused to find us there, but after a little while they eventually conceded to move a little way down the beach, leaving their motorbikes parked next to us. They had a swim, emptied a bag of charcoal on the sand and barbequed some tiny fish, then a plastic bag bulging with at least a litre of rice wine emerged and a shotglass made trips from the bag to the individual members of the ever growing group. When we failed to be waved over they sent a delegate, and we couldn’t say no. And so we sat for a little bit with them in a circle around the fish barbeque, drinking the murky but smooth rice booze. When we and they all had exhausted our hand-gesture vocabulary, had a few jovial laughs and turned to the fish that we couldnt possibly deprive them of, we felt it was a good time to thank them as best we could and slip away back to the hammocks we’d been pining to unleash since we’d bought them. The men carried on with the drinking, swimming, wrestling and general merrymaking, trying occasionally to involve the tourists that arrived on mopeds via the road behind the beach. Groups of foreigners spilled out onto the beach around noon to enjoy the sun and beach while me and Dave happily cowered in the shade, swinging in our hammocks and sipping rum-and-fanta from the shell of a conveniently oblong watermelon we’d had earlier.

Then it was time to mix some business into the pleasure. I plunged into laundry-doing with sea-water (and discovered why you’re meant to put more detergent in hard water), while Dave cycled off on a provisions errand. By the time I’d hung the ever-so-slightly-cleaner-than-before laundry up to dry, Dave was making a triumphant return, bearing amongst other things.. a shark. Apparently that’s all that was left at the village market. It was a small beast, just over a kilo in weight, but it was still a shark, with the big teeth and wide jaws, and a slimy scale-less exterior. Because it came whole, not even gutted, I half expected it to suddenly come to life and maul me to death as I attempted to prep it for dinner. I sliced open its stomach and a bloody mess full of strange spherical organs came out, somewhere in the digestive tract one could also make out the oval bone of a squid. I chopped off the head, fins and tail and boiled them with a bit of lemongrass to make a soup, made a stew out of most of the body and fried two fillets, serving up a three course shark meal.

Shark was actually delicious – hearty yet tender, not chewy nor flaky, and the fact that it had no bones (well the spine was  kind of gelatinous and crunchy while the rest of the bones must have been so gelatinous and so thin that they were just not noticeable at all) was a mega bonus in my books (ever since the day I had a fish bone stuck in the back of my throat). I do wonder why it’s only the fins that conventional gastronomy is interested in. It had got dark by the time the shark feast was over and all the cleaning up (mostly hanging things that smell of food off a tree) was complete and we lounged briefly under the stars before succumbing to the full-belly sleepiness that follows a big meal.

There were ferry times on the map, and we’d decided to catch the afternoon ferry from a dock that seemed closest to us. It was only about 30km in a straight line so we took our time in the morning, having a leisurely swim and a shower in what remained of a 21L bottle of drinking water we’d brought with us. Then we had a long song and dance about the giant spider that had made a home in my shoe while it lay there unused for two days – I’d seen the web he’d woven, gave the shoe a good shake and pulled out the web, then assuming he was out I put my food in the shoe and felt him curled up in the front of the shoe with my toes. Dave had to bash the shoe against a tree or something to get the spider out and he stood there, half his legs poking defensively upward for a few minutes before disappearing.

We thought we still had plenty of time when Dave’s crankset sprung out of shape as we retraced our tracks to the village, making it really tough to turn the pedals. Thankfully there was a bicycle mechanic in the village, and he took happily to Dave’s bike with a hammer and flathead screwdriver that he appeared to be using as a chisel. I was horrified at first but upon closer inspection it turned out that he was in fact using these instead of a proper crank tool to tighten the crank axle  without having to remove the cogs or the cranks. Clever. We paid (something silly in the cents) and carried on into the jungle, following the unsealed track up and down as it traced the hilly terrain. By the time we reached the ‘main’ axial road of the island, it was becoming clear that the road was much longer (far removed from direct) than anticipated and we were now pressed for time. There was of course a road that went from where we were to where we needed to be almost directly, but it was closed ‘because it’s a national park and foreigners not allowed’, said the guard and refused to let us through. Never mind, only a 30km loop instead. At least the road was going to be sealed.

Wrong. The road wasn’t sealed for long, very quickly degrading into a veritable roadworks, where we, a bunch of trucks, cars and mopeds, all had to play dodge-the-excavator on the one open lane of gravel and dirt. By the time we got to the coastal road we were already knackered, but there was another 15km to go and just over a half hour. We sped off down the unsealed road, feeling rather uncomfortably strained in the heat. On our last legs we plummeted down into the harbour just to see the back of the ferry as it set off for the mainland – our ferry-catching luck had finally run out. By five minutes.

We spent a long long time recovering, sat around a set of plastic garden furniture near a stall that provided us with endless drinks and a hot meal. We’d have to take an earlier boat tomorrow to make sure we cross into Cambodia on the same day, as our visas were about to expire, but that meant that we’d have to cycle further south to one of the other jetties. Reluctantly we unglued ourselves from the seats and got back on the road. Unfortunately, just past the ferry port, the road effectively ends, eroding into a series of streams and limestone caverns with sandy tracks and botch-job bamboo bridges picking out a narrow truly motocross-style track suitable only for transport on two wheels (not even wide enough for a quadbike). Thankfully, this didn’t go on for too long, and soon we were back on a regular unsealed road.

As the sun edged towards the horizon and we edged towards the hydrofoil jetty, it was getting to that time of the day when we need to find a place to camp. We got through the palm forest and to the beach past someones house, planning to just walk the bikes some way further down the beach. What we found is that the tide had gone out and revealed a great swathe of the incredibly shallow seabed, that was wet enough to cycle on. So there we were, cycling on wet sand as the purplish sunset reflected in it and the skeletal mangroves gave a spooky tinge to the already surreal landscape. Eventually the incoming tide made it impossible to go any further, so we turned inland and nestled on some dry land in between some coconut trees and not so far from a bunch of graves.

In the morning a very surprised looking woman showed up at sunrise to tend to the coconuts. We mimed how we’d come from the sea side and slept here, she grimaced, mimed something along the lines of you should’ve come slept at mine, whether we’d like a coconut and how to get to the road and we parted with smiles. We finished breakfast, picked our way to the road and made our way to the jetty. It was mighty windy and the great big group of Korean cyclists we came across there said something about the possibility of the boat getting cancelled, but thankfully that didn’t happen. What did happen was an extremely bumpy ride back to Ha Tien, where we got our bikes washed and had lunch before rolling up to the border, which was manifest primarily in a group of buildings with giant ‘Casino’ signs looming over a chickenwire fence.

Vietnam stamped us out, Cambodia overcharged us 5$ each for visas on arrival and stamped us in, all in a matter of a half hour and no baggage checks were involved at all which was brilliant. The land of bloodthirsty landmines looked thoroughly farmed and well-trodden, differentiating itself from Vietnam in the kramas (checkered cotton scarf worn on the head for shade or as a sarong or as a baby sling etc), white humped cows and houses on stilts. Guidebooks warned that there would be no sealed roads to speak of but after a brief (and well maintained) section of unsealed road, the rest of Cambodia’s roads we encountered were asphalted and in good shape.

The landscape for the brief stretch between the border and Kampot was flat, buzz-cut yellowing rice fields extending either side of the road for miles, punctuated with the occassional tall palm or pig or cow. Cambodia did have some epic pigs, the size of an old Mini, tethered to a giant pot full of water – which was an exception to the rule, as most pigs in Cambodia appeared to be free-range. A few compact islands of dense tree canopies appeared to enclose Buddhist shrines, recognizeable by their ribbed golden domes that narrow to a tall spike and the elaborate entry gates facing the road. The salt fields of Kampot came into view shortly before we reached the peninsular hill around which the once French seaside resort of Kep is scattered.

There wasn’t really a town centre to speak of as there was no town as such – it was more a network of roads with the occasional hotel or resort occupying a plot here or there. We tried a few budget places which, while cheap, were just too grubby and a few nice places which, while nice, were just too expensive until one where we were on the brink of caving in to general exhaustion and succumbing to the entreaties of a nice hotel on the outer orbit of our price range, when a chatty Frenchman at the bar said something about a place that does treetop bungalows for cheap. Of course, we had to go there. It was not far, just at the foot of the mountain, far removed from the coast (which is fine, because Kep has no beach to speak of anyway), set on a spacious plot of land amongst a forest of trees. There’s an immense range of bungalows, all of them vernacular in construction, timber frame with light breathable walls of different kinds of thatch. There were two artfully built up a tree, a variety of bungalows on stilts, some without, and a couple of longhouses that contained the cheap rooms with shared bathrooms. Even the cafe/restaurant was sat on tall stilts, open on the two sides facing the plot and the sea. In the evening wicker lanterns bobbing in the wind off  long bendy bamboo poles just above the forest canopy were lit up creating a rather magical atmosphere.

We got an ensuite bungalow on a slope, with two stilts supporting the terraced front and the bathroom tucked around the back, perched on solid ground. It had been a long day and a cold shower (I reckon we only had hot showers available once during our whole time in Cambodia), a couple of cold beers and some decent food from the restaurant helped bring us back to life. Kep closes at 11 though so there was not much left to do but crawl under our mosquito net and think about how wonderful mattresses and pillows really are while we drifted off into a restful sleep.

In the morning we cycled down to the crab market – one of the few attractions in Kep, the other one being a large statue of a mermaid. There, after some confusion about cash (it took a while to get used to the fact that in Cambodia prices will be quoted in dollars if you’re an obvious tourist, and payment is universally taken in dollars and/or local rial) and procedure (what do we mean we don’t want the crabs cooked? what are we gonna do, eat them raw??), we obtained breakfast (sugarcane juice and waffles made in huge old cast iron forms held over a coal fire) lunch (beers and a bag of smallish live crabs, kept in a big cage floating in the sea up until the moment of sale) snacks (spicy crab jerky and less spicy dried prawns) and dinner (a ray fish exactly the size of our frying pan).

We put our hammock up on the balcony of our bungalow and spent most of the rest of the day there – staring into the watery horizon over the rippling canopy, figuring out how to give a crab dignified death (the internets said that is by skewering the crab through its poo hole, ironically), drinking warm beers and hot vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, trying not to burn down our bungalow made of kindling as we cooked our market catch on our travel stove. The crabs were tasty tasty and surprisingly filling – we just boiled them in salted water – the ray interesting, its fatty white meat coating a dense fan of long ribs, the coffee divine as per usual. To our great disappointment, Vietnamese coffee hadn’t spread into Cambodia nor Thailand, where we were back to espresso-latte-americano coffees for many moneys. Thankfully Dave had taken the clever precaution of stocking up with a giant kilogram bag of Vietnamese coffee just before we’d left the country, so we made our own coffees wherever possible for the rest of the trip.

The town of Kampot is only some 30km away from the part of Kep where we were staying, so we took our time checking out of Treetops and didn’t get back on the road until noon, the hottest part of an already hot day. The buffalos and a trio of local children shared a cunning strategy of coping with the heat – mud, the former to compensate for a lack of sweat glands (i think? that’s why pigs do it anyway) the latter for the sheer fun of it. There were quite a few tourists in tuktuks and on motorbikes and even rented bicycles going back and forth between Kep and Kampot, we got the occassional thumbs-up as we sweated our way towards Kampot.

We’d read in Lonely Planet that there was a cave temple along the way that was worth visiting, so we took the unsealed road over the train tracks (apparently Cambodias old derelict train tracks that were home to a unique moped-engine-propelled-bamboo-raft-on-rail-wheels mode of transport were in the process of being ripped up country-wide and replaced with trainworthy new tracks) up to a modest but rugged limestone hillock where a couple of local children efficiently got our bikes parked in a shed nearby and marched us to the entrance of what turned out to be a stunning and extensive network of caves. There wasn’t a temple to speak of, more a collapsed stairway and a small pile of bricks (thanks again to Khmer Rouge) where an important and historic Buddhist place of worship used to be. Instead of a cultural hit however we had a fantastic cave-climbing adventure, following our underage guides through narrow passages, swinging off a ten-metre-long liana, squeezing through impossibly narrow cracks and bat-spotting in the tall cave halls. God bless health-and-safety-free havens. Breathless, dusty and jittery from the adrenaline we emerged almost a full hour later, negotiated the fee with the kids, gave a rave review of the experience to an older French couple who seemed little tempted by the prospect of cave-climbing (their loss!) and fled before we got blamed for letting them in on the fact that there isn’t really a temple to see in there.

Cambodian letters are very confusing, partially because they all look so darn similar to eachother and different from latin and cyrillic but not recognizeable as pictographs, like with Chinese. There wasn’t a language app for Cambodian in the app store, and the few words I’d written out from a phrasebook in the back of a Rough Guide, didn’t seem to make any sense to Cambodians. We were entirely language-less for the first time since the start of the trip. On top of this, the country is very sparsely populated compared to Vietnam and appears less inclined to eating out, which meant that we struggled to find an eatery at all, and when we did find one we’d struggle to order. Often it would be a case of pointing to the desired ingredient (usually the raw meat and veg would just sit in bowls in a glass cabinet collecting flies) or miming the act of eating, holding out two fingers for two portions and waiting to see what they come out with. Thankfully BIIIAH and COFFEEEE still worked most of the time.

After lunching in a fly-infested eatery (concrete floor, tin roof, plastic garden furniture and a food stall at the back) in a muslim village, we continued on to Kampot, a smallish town with small apartment blocks and a big market. All we saw of it was in passing to the other side, where, secluded on the edge of the river was the tiny plot crowded with basic bungalows that was ‘Ollys’, our accommodation for the night. There was only one bungalow available for one night, but we took it, planning at first to transfer to someplace else in Kampot for the next night. We spent most of the rest of the day sitting out on the riverside terrace, taxing the kitchen and drinking cold beers, doing some blogging and watching Friends. Mm.

The next day, around check-out time, we decided to go for it and do the 100 odd km to Sihanoukville the same day. The road looked reasonably flat, skirting a giant mangrove forest before joining the much busier Sihanoukville-Pnom Penh road. We pressed on, stopping only for the occassional snack or drink. Angkor beer trucks painted red all over kept trundling by and I joked that the nation was straining to supply the merrymakers in Sihanoukville with sufficient beer. As it turned out it was the other way around – Angkor, the nations favourite brew, is made in Sihanoukville. By sunset we’d reached Sihanoukville airport, but were still some 10km from Serendipity beach and had decided to take a track dotted on the map rather than climb the 200m on the main road. At first it didn’t look too bad – just your average unsealed road. Then after a rocky stream crossed the road, it turned into a bouldery mountain path that twisted and turned, climbed and fell over the terrain, crossing a few more streams in the process. It was getting dark and my light wasn’t working (so sad, my diy headlight had lasted most of the adventure but wouldnt see the end) and we were pretty tired from 90km of determined cycling – still, there was a certain amount of fun in this offroad track, dodging rocks and splashing through streams, a real handling challenge. Soon the path straightened out and widened into an unsealed road, with the occassional house leading off of it. Great, we’re nearly out onto the proper roads of Sihanoukville (they appear to be so on Google Maps, with the white infill of streets and minor sealed roads in other countries), we congratulated ourselves way too early. It turned out that these ‘roads’ were nothing but crumbly sandy embankments, with narrow sandy paths snaking along the top amongst trees, shrubs and tall grass. There was no lighting at all of course, save the flamethrowing barrels that a bunch of locals and cows were having a bit of a party around.

We picked and skidded our way out of this dark mess eventually, passing tourist-bearing tuktuks (a four-person carriage welded from steel hollow sections and harnessed onto a Taiga motorcycle, in the majority of cases), a densely populated slum lining a construction site, a handful of quiet hotels set amongst empty plots until we arrived at the buzzing central street of Serendipity beach area, and then we were no longer in Cambodia anymore. We were in any  budget-package-tour-seaside-resort, could be in Greece, could be in Spain, could be in Turkey somewhere. There are several areas in Sihanoukville – Otres beach, peaceful and picture-postcard with a bunch of bungalow hotels; Serendipity, as described; central Sihanoukville, the town where locals live and work; Victory beach, where every grain of sand belongs to one pretentious-but-cheap resort or other; Victory hill, the nearby former backpacker ghetto, now turned naughty retirement village for said former backpackers.

It turned out that there was no accommodation available in Serendipity. We had dinner and reluctantly got back on the bikes to cycle to Victory hill. When we arrived it was late. Keeping my eyes glued to the ground in an attempt to avoid the endless potholes, I could only see rows of platform-heeled legs sticking out of short skirts in the periphery of my vision. Curious. There was a power cut at the time that further complicated our accommodation-seeking efforts but just as we finally checked into a cheery-looking little French place for the night, the lights came back on, just in time to switch the fan on and collapse in front of it.

The next day we moved to Bungalow Village. For 6 USD per day we got a basic but roomy bungalow on stilts (which failed to deter visitations from a fluffy little mouse/rat thing) with an ensuite hole-in-the-floor toilet and cold shower. We put our hammock up on the terrace and made ourselves at home for the next few days. We ventured out a few times to Victory hill main street, past the Frenchman’s boulodrome bar halfway up the hill and the corner on which tuk-tuk drivers never failed to try to sell us cannabis. At Art Cafe, where we took to eating the delicious ‘Crepe Complete’ (pancake with an English breakfast inside is how I remember it), we got to watch French retirees congregate for their morning beer. Once we saw a man with an underage local girlfriend wobble off on his bike only to return a quarter of an hour later with blood coming out of his head and a dented bike, both of which he was too intoxicated to be aware of. Once a man offered to share his giant blunt with us. Another time a wobbly policeman with a breath that stank of booze stumbled out of a corner shop in front of us just as we were on our way to breakfast. All day young local women would idle in cafe chairs along the side of the main street, but at night their numbers rocketed. It was pretty much just them and retirement-aged men occupying all the cafe and bar seating of the strip. Once a group of monkeys rattled across the roofs of the bungalows and set about eating the fruit in the bungalow village until they got chased away by one of the French people that runs the place (he was holding a stick and said that they can get in the bungalows and steal stuff). Another time we were overtaken on our way home by a herd of cows. Once we hired a scooter and saw a bit more of Sihanoukville.

The whole time we were tortured by the question of whether to do a giant loop and go via Siem Reap and see the Angkor Wat that most people swear by as a must-do, or carry on along the seaside. Eventually we came up with a plan – we would leave the bikes in Sihanoukville and bus to Siem Reap and back, then carry on cycling along the coast.

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Saigon – Ap Giong Kè

The sleeper bus – or should I say buses (we had to change in Na Trang, despite what we’d been told when buying the tickets) took almost 24 hours to get us from Hoi An to HCMC – the highlight of the trip being when the first bus decided to empty all the water from the A/C unit on my lap just as I drifted off to sleep – the ‘conductor’ tried to laugh it off but quickly changed his mind when he saw my expression… the A/C was turned down, the puddle on my seat moped up and I was assured all would be fine. A few light showers while the unit emptied its dregs and it seemed the wet season was over, although it did leave me perched nervously (and irritably) above my chair trying to keep myself out of the path of an imminent downpour.

Needless to say, we were glad to unload our stuff in Ho Chi Minh City – hopefully for the LAST time (I’ve thought, and said this many times recently, but we are running out of miles and months so theres a chance it may be true!) and pedal out of the bus station far enough to pause in peace and orient ourselves. It had been a while since we last offloaded in a large terminal and I’d forgotten what a stressful experience it can be – you pile off the bus eager to oversee the offloading of your treasured bike before someone dumps it to one side into the hands of any would-be thieves, only to find yourself surrounded by touts eager to withdraw money from your wallets in exchange for, well, anything – if it becomes clear you aren’t interested in a taxi to the Mekong they waste no time in offering the ‘best hotel in the city’ – when we make it to the bikes the touts become our audience and huddle around, often blocking the path to half of our luggage in their haste to prod and poke at us and the bikes. We take it in our stride now, but im sure that if we took enough buses one of the hapless touts would end up with a fist in the face from one of us (probably after prodding the buttons on Anya’s dynamo charger, which may as well come with a big red ‘DO NOT PRESS’ button to complete the irresistable draw it seems to emit.)

Anyway, out of the buzz of the depot we quickly worked out we were still 10km from the city centre and set off to find a cheap hotel. Soon enough we were on the hotel strip and Anya tracked down a good deal which featured not only air-con but, to our immense relief, a lift! We dumped our luggage, had a shower to rid ourselves of the twenty-four hour bus trip and set out to explore the city and find some dinner. Wandering the streets of Saigon we stumbled across an Indian restaurant – something I’ve been wanting for some time – so decided to satisfy my cravings and headed in. It was worth the wait – ok it doesn’t stand up to the mouth-watering feast of Indian I am eagerly anticipating on my return to Singapore, but by any regular measure we had a sumptuous dinner (the naan was still calling out to us at breakfast the next morning). Fed and watered, we wandered to the local night market (no self-respecting city, town or large village in SE Asia could face its mates without one of these) to soak up the familiar scene of locals and tourists drifting between the rows of stalls selling imitation clothes, bags, sunglasses and toys, all the while dodging the mopeds who’s owners for some reason ride not just up to, but into each stall to the point that they have to throw themselves backwards off their bike rather than dismount into the stacks of clothes on either side – getting the bikes back out takes considerably more effort. On our way to the market we passed through a park which was lined with expo-style stalls, some of which were advertising new apartments, others selling various local specialties, but most just competing to produce the most sound from their hifi’s to draw in punters (how this works I’ve never quite understood but there seems to be some correlation between volume of music and desirability of whatever is on sale – many a time we’ve cycled past a shop or cafe which, on seeing our approach, cranks up its speakers past 10, past 11, to ‘ear bleeding’ to entice us nearer. They always look so surprised when we speed past). The clear winner of this battle was a stall which had a live band and what I hope was karaoke for the sake of live music everywhere.

We wandered down to the expensive corner of town where the pirate DVD, motorbike spares shops and roadside food stalls give way to Prada, Gucci and Vertu (who will happily sell you a mobile phone at a price that makes the iPhone look like a kinder-suprise freebie) where christmas was still in full flow despite the lack of Christianity in the region, and christmas-light presents and snowflakes stretched between streetlights in a city that hasn’t seen snow since the last ice-age. Down by the river we found ourselves feeling uncomfortable as we walked past couple after couple perched on the bank on their scooters – the intimacy of their dates spilling out into the world due to the lack of privacy afforded by mopeds. We decided we wanted a drink before heading back to the hotel so wandered through the streets back towards our home looking for a tempting bar – nothing appeared until we were back on the tourist strip so we popped into ‘Le Pub’ – the sister establishment of a bar in Hanoi where we’d found ourselves in a lock-in. This being South Vietnam, the draconian regulation of anything perceived as entertainment which had resulted in the closure of every bar in the North at 11pm was blissfully absent in Saigon, unfortunately, our fatigue remains, so after one drink we made a hasty retreat to bed.

In the morning we set off into the city with a list of missions to achieve before loading up and cycling into the rural Mekong Delta – waterproofing spray had to be found for our tent which had revealed a certain tendency to leak when we last camped before Hoi An, when the heavy rain had not only penetrated our tent but also my iPhone, killing off the backlight, speaker and power button before eventually murdering the rest of the phone – meaning a cheap replacement also had to be located. Then there was the laptop which had somehow killed off its second power lead of the trip, as well as the usual matter of breakfast. A replacement phone proved simple enough – I even found one which offered not only mp3 playback for when the barrage of truck horns needs a soothing buffer, but also dual SIM slots giving me a backup when credit or network impeeds my international sim – the power lead was also quickly sourced by one of the many PC repair shops we’d tracked down, but camping supplies proved impossible to locate and any requests for waterproofing spray were unsurprisingly met by blank expressions. We gave up, content that we were unlikely to encounter any serious downpours having made it this far south.

A great eggy breakfast later we were ready to go and set off from the hotel, pausing only to barter for a new pair of shades to replace Anya’s pair which had mysteriously vanished – irritatingly a local smuggly pointed out that we’d paid far more than we should have for them (they were still cheap!)  so feeling slightly cheated we set off. Once we cleared the city we quickly found ourselves back in more comfortable territory as we cycled past market stalls, meat vendors and the usual roadside fare. We stocked up on baguettes (I love the ex-french colonies for these if nothing else!) and delicious crackling-covered roasted pork and were making good progress until we discovered a feature of the southern Vietnamese highways which has crippled our progress ever since – roadside cafes began to spring up at an alarming frequency, all of which offered delicious iced Vietnamese coffee (served with copious quantities of sweet condensed milk) under shaded canopies – a combination made entirely irresistible by the presence of endless hammocks! Mercifully we had the draw of the roast pork to drag us away, otherwise we may have made it no further than our morning coffee – instead we were eventually able to drag ourselves away for a 10km cycle before stopping for late lunch of pork, cucumbers and bread by a small lake just off the road.

Having had a slow start to the day, and a leisurely break in the middle, we hadn’t done much distance by the time sunset approached and so decided to carry on to the town of My Tho, taking us to a more respectable 70km cycle and keeping in sync with the cycle itinerary we are following in the Mekong (taken from a Lonely Planet cycle touring Vietnam, Cambodia + Laos guidebook we got cheaply in Hoi An, which unfortunately is very outdated) so when we arrived it was already dark. It took some time to find the town centre, which stretches out along the Mekong but as soon as you move a few streets back from the river you’re back in the countryside, but soon enough we had a few hotel choices – we decided to cycle down the main street and see what else appeared but quickly realised all that was on offer were hotels with karaoke blaring from the bar and huge flashing advertisements for ‘massage’, neither of which is exactly a selling point for us when looking for a bed. The few places we tried turned out to be full (this bemused me as I could see very little reason for people to spend much time here rather than in HCMC or deeper into the Mekong Delta) so we headed back to the cheapest room I’d been shown – it lacked hot water but thankfully had an A/C as well as a very precarious-looking ceiling fan which thrashed about violently when turned on or off. After a quick shower we headed round the corner to a promising bar I had spotted while scouting for hotels. The bar wasn’t quite as lively as we’d like – whereas it had been full earlier, the ground floor was now entirely empty besides the lone bartender and the upstairs terrace was no better, with a lone couple keeping us company. Still full from the roast pork we agreed to skip dinner and go straight to dessert, ordering two ice creams and some coffee which we had barely finished before the waiter started giving increasingly blatant signals that he wanted us to pay up and leave so that he could do the same – first chairs were tidied away, then bills were bought out to both us and the other couple, before finally the lights were turned off around us – taking the hint we made our exit and, realising there was little entertainment left for us we went back to the room and did our laundry, stringing a washing line up underneath the fan and switching the aircon to ‘dehumidify’ mode before falling asleep in what must be the windiest room we’ve slept in.

A wander around the block the following morning eventually rewarded us with a breakfast stew (Pho) after which we loaded the bikes back up and set off (with lovely dry laundry by the way) on an alternative route to the one suggested by our guidebook which mostly followed the main road all the way to Can Tho. We’d spotted a more direct route which ran along the river from My Tho to a town called Cai Be – Thankfully our route turned out to be a fantastic little road, too small for trucks and even cars to navigate leaving us with almost no traffic to deal with on a smooth, straight, scenic road. Bliss!
Sadly our rebellious route planning came back to bite us in the afternoon – We’d arrived in Cai Be in good time and were in the middle of chatting to a Belgian cycle tourist when we spotted a ferry loading up with passengers – we hastily said our farewells and dived onboard – our plan was to cross the river here by ferry, saving a 20-30km detour on the main road to the nearest bridge. Unfortunately for us, our map entirely neglected to mention the network of hundreds of islands which lay between Cai Be and the opposite bank – our ferry dropped us on the first of these and off we went, confidently striking south towards the main road our map assured us was only a few km away. What started as a concrete road soon gave way to a well-riden earth path but we cycled on, following the path as it snaked along the banks of the Mekong, here and there dropping into the water where, sure enough, a ferry could be found endlessly shuffling passengers to and fro. We were on our third island when the track disappeared, turning instead into a path which simply ran to various houses in either direction. Looking at the map we had been diverted so much by various waterways that we were mostly just moving sideways, and while the road we wanted was tantalizingly close I realised there was no easy way of reaching it – attempts to ask the locals for directions had already resulted in conflicting info and many confused faces. I decided that we were wasting more time circling this labyrinth of islands than it would take to cycle around the main road so we looped back round and made our way back to the ferry to Cai Be, having got nowhere but still happy we had taken the detour which had presented us with a fascinating network of islands to explore with not a tourist in sight!
Back in Cai Be we were starving and wasted no time in grabbing a couple of cane juices from the nearest stall then tracking down a cafe with Pao. By the time we had cooled down, refueled and rehydrated, it was late in the afternoon and we had only a few hours of daylight left to cycle – it wasn’t far off dusk when we bought another serving of roast pork from a roadside stall and pulled off the road into a large paved area which looked onto a lake. Across the water we could see a restaurant/bar and down the road to our left was a ‘massage’ parlour. We sat by the water and ate our pork, as well as drinking our way through four coconuts we’d picked up for pennies from a stall stocked with thousands of them. Over dinner we decided this was a reasonable spot to camp and so, as the sun was setting, we wandered over to the parking attendants of the restaurant to ask for permission to camp nearby.

They said no.

So, with the sun barely visible over the horizon, we set off down the road in search of somewhere to sleep – fast – before it got dark. Diving off the road at any promising path we’d given up on three or four sites when we came across a concrete path which weaved off the road past a number of houses and into the countryside beyond. We came across a graveyard and discovered just beyond it lay a nicely hidden patch of land divided by waterways. We manhandled our bikes past one site – Anya spotted a large snake skin which quickly put us off – and had just reached a suitable spot when three tipsy (if not flat out drunk) locals emerged from the path behind us. We went through our usual mime act to convey our intentions to camp the night and were surprised to again be told ‘no’, this time accompanied with long drawn out explanations (in Vietnamese) and lots of gesturing. We tried repeatedly to explain we wanted to camp but making no headway gave in and turned around. They followed us back to the path at which point the most vocal of the group began asking for money, suggesting 5$ was a good figure. I suggested that 0$ was equally good, not feeling hugely inclined to pay for the privilege of being kicked out – they half-heartedly tried again but soon enough gave up when it became clear I had no intention of paying them for their services. We agreed we didn’t want a second visit from these three so rejoined the main road and set off into the rapidly fading light.. A similar concrete path a few km down the road seemed promising, but by this point darkness had fallen and any potential campsites were impossible to spot – again we returned to the road and carried on to the bridge we’d been trying to bypass earlier in the day.

The bridge is, im sure, a very impressive sight during the day, and the view from the middle is probably stunning – even in the dark the twinkling lights of boats, villages and fires was impressive even though I barely took it in, as focused as I was on finding somewhere to sleep. Happily, after we crossed the bridge we soon found ourselves cycling past a large construction site and while in the UK this would mean a big fenced off enclosure, here in SE Asia it usually just means a patch of land with some piles of precast concrete stacked somewhere. We had a quick look around and came to the conclusion that no huge bulldozers were going to appear at dawn and flatten everything in their path and so we could probably camp here safely. A cafe on the far side of the site was still open and the owner was stood watching us and so we decided to try a different tact – I left Anya pitching the tent while I wandered over to say hello, explain our intentions and bought a couple of beers – mercifully the owner was fine with us camping, albeit a bit shocked to see us, and was more than happy to sell us a few beers to take over to the tent. I was about to make my exit when the other two customers pulled themselves away from their karaoke session to offer me a pint which I was unable to refuse – after a sip I tried to thank them and explain we would both return shortly once I’d helped Anya offload the bikes but when this message failed to translate, I smiled, downed the beer (this seemed to be what they wanted and certainly pleased them) then thanked them again and returned to the tent where we sat down with our beers as it began to gently rain.

The next morning we were mid-breakfast, pondering the bizarre setting for what we realised was New Years Eve when someone we assume was the site manager wandered over and greeted us, even offering us the use of his facilities before wandering off to carry on with his morning routines. We ate and packed quickly and were back on the road, headed to Can Tho where we planned to greet the new year.
Our evening hunt for a campsite the night before had resulted in a very productive days cycle leaving us a gentle ride to Can Tho – we were there by early afternoon and quickly found a hotel room which offered everything we wanted for $12 (a place across the street was offering an inferior room for $25… We’ve become experts of hotel window-shopping at this point) including a fridge! This gave Anya the idea of having a mini private cocktail party for new years eve and so, after a very satisfying set lunch (I had a 7 or 8 course feast while Anya had a snake-based meal) we set off to the supermarket in search of supplies: fruit, spirits, soft drinks, ice and most importantly a cheap blender. Supermarkets here in Vietnam seem to have a unique and, frankly, ridiculous setup in which the store is split over two levels with separate tills and security systems so that if you want any non-food items you have to check out twice, leaving your shopping with security in a bowling-alley shoe-storage setup. This being the case I left Anya downstairs doing the complicated shopping and went on the hunt for a blender for under the 10 quid we were willing to spend on something we may have to abandon. Searches for a hand blender proved futile but sure enough I soon found a beautifully 70′s baby-blue blender, complete with coffee grinder, for under a fiver. Anya had successfully sourced a bottle of sparkling red to stand in for champagne, as well as some rum, a range of fruits and various other blendable foodstuffs to experiment with so we eagerly ferried our purchases back to our hotel.

While in Can Tho we wanted to take a river tour to see the floating markets which appear daily around the city – Anya met someone in our hotel lobby as we checked in who was keen to sell us tickets to tour two markets as well as explore some of the canal network which stretches out for miles in all directions – all for the price of $50! We were sceptical so told her we would tell her that evening if we were interested. We had already had a wander down to the river to get an idea of prices – the best we were offered being $15 a head, so when we got back with our supplies and found her waiting for us in the lobby we decided to pass on the trip – primarily because we planned to be up most of the night celebrating the New Year both here and in Athens via skype (at 5am local time) so a 6:30am start for a boat tour seemed unwise. Not long after we had returned to our room however, we had a phone call from reception – on the other end was a cycle tourist we had met while having lunch and recommended our hotel to – they had followed our advice and were now calling to see if we wanted to join them on the same boat tour, with a discount for four people. Keen to spend some more time with the couple (and slightly pressured by the discount offered) we said yes and promised to pop down shortly to pay. I was still wary of the woman selling the tour and with the pre-barter $15 tour offer in mind felt our ‘group rate’ of $20 each was probably too steep (granted our tour offered slightly more than the cheaper one) so decided to try and barter more – I wasn’t sure if we’d misunderstood and the rate was $10 each so we agreed I would ‘play dumb’ and try to pay $20 total then appear shocked if they expected more. By the time I got downstairs the cycle touring couple had gone out, but I and the ticket selling woman played our parts well – my shocked proclamations lay the groundwork for bartering the total price of our tickets down to $30, but she would only agree to this price on the understanding that we pretended we had paid $40 to the other couple. I grudgingly agreed to this figuring that either we paid 30 and they 40, or we pulled out and they paid 50 for a 2 person tour, leaving them worse off – I realise the moral ground is a bit iffy here but we felt somewhat bullied into the tour so weren’t willing to overpay too.

Feeling somewhat smug that I’d saved us 10 bucks I went back upstairs and, realising that the only time we would be able to get any sleep was the window between then (7 or 8pm) and 11ish when we’d want to be getting up to start the celebrations, we went to bed.

Our night from that point on was a slightly bizarre blend of homemade (very strong) cocktails and skype calls interspersed by brief periods of sleep – we celebrated New Years in Vietnam, and celebrated again when it arrived in Athens. We drank our fizzy red to toast, but otherwise left it untouched as it seemed to lack any redeeming features – the cocktails were a mixed success, with various odd local fruits, bananas and dragonfruit, guava juice and pomelow juice as well as rum, strawberry syrup and coconut flesh, blended in variations which ranged from ‘drinkable given enough time’ to ‘Mmmmmmm, where did that all go?’. At any rate, come 06:30 when we had to get up for the boat tour we were both feeling somewhat hung over, and definitely sleep deprived. We snoozed our alarms as late as we could to the point that we pretty much fell straight out of bed into some clothes and out the door. We met our fellow cyclists in the lift on the way downstairs – they had wandered down to the riverside for new years but were disappointed to find nothing happening there and no one around. Waiting outside was our English-speaking Vietnamese guide for the day (at this point you may have noticed I’ve refered to no-one by name in this post – this isn’t intentional, my memory for names really is THAT bad – sorry everyone!) who led us down to the river, through an alley which opened out onto a narrow concrete ramp down into the river. Moments after we arrived our boat appeared, driven (do you drive boats? Probably not.. captained?) expertly by a middle-aged Vietnamese woman – as indeed were all the boats now that I think about it.

We climbed aboard and set off upstream, quickly waking from our sleep-deprived stupor as our new vantage point revealed a new side to life on the mekong, full of timber structures perched precariously along the river banks, floating petrol stations, and in typical Vietnamese style, DIY motorboats created from stripped down motorcycle engines (many with half the bike still attached – including brakelights) with their driveshaft welded to a long metal pole with a prop on the end, creating 100+cc megablenders. (Top Gear would love them – Health and Safety departments no so much)

A western couple motored past on a boat like our own and we were amazed to see their pilot steering with one leg while she crafted something from a piece of bamboo. I was still pondering what she could be making when a hand reached out from behind us, proudly bearing a bamboo sculpture of two crickets – the significance of which escapes me now although it was explained by our guide at the time. Our captain had, of course, been working away behind us just like the other boat, and she continued to for most of the tour, presenting both us and our co-passengers with bamboo crafted into : crickets, a snake, a basket carrying two birds, and a set of rings! We found ourselves ‘boarded’ by a drinks shop which provided our morning iced-coffees as well as some tiny but very tasty bananas, then our guide pointed out the boats which we were approaching each had a tall pole attached – we had reached the wholesale floating market and because each boat had most of its stock hidden away below deck they simply hang a sample of anything they are selling from this pole – most boats were only selling one thing, but some had a whole grocery store hung from their flagpole. Our guide explained that farmers from hundreds of kilometers around will load up a boat full of their crops, sail to the market and drop anchor until they sell their stock, as such the market is a pretty much 24/7. Further up river the second market we visited is a different story, starting up early in the morning each day and winding down by 10 or 11am. There all kinds of boats were buying and selling, from bigger shops which sold a range of fruit and veg again displayed on a pole, down to canoes which were piled high with produce, each drifting about on the river while yet more boats maneuvered between them buying and selling frantically.

Once clear of the markets we diverted off the river and into the network of canals which feed off in all directions, pausing briefly to tour a noodle-making factory where our guide took us step by step through the process, interspersed with tales of life in the war – where he flew and serviced helicopters – as well as explaining that it was hard for him to find work post-war when there was supposedly a bias towards Northerners, eventually deciding to study to improve his english and become a tour guide. Back on the river we drifted past scenery which very closely resembled the network of islands off Cai Be we had lost ourselves in a few days previously, our progress briefly halted as we took turns to row with the bizarre crossed oars the locals all seem to use, our craft crabbing from bank to bank as we each struggled to get to grips with the illogical configuration. Anya did a better job than I did and we managed to reach the drop-off point where our walking tour would begin.

Wandering along the bank, we were back in similar surroundings again, but this time with the benefit of a guide who pointed out local flora and fauna (though we still arent sure the luminous pink thing he described as a snail wasn’t just a fungus) and explained how the locals live. We were only slightly disturbed when we were led to a ‘bridge’ which consisted of a narrow log propped on a few long legs, with a flimsy handrail projecting from one side.

After crossing it was revealed that a fairly large American tourist had recently attempted to cross and had fallen into the stream below. We continued to wander the bank until we came upon an eatery with a number of other tourists milling around, their boats docked alongside ours on the bank outside. We grabbed a drink, deciding to eat later back in town, and sampled some local fruit we had been puzzled by for some time – the ‘milk apple’ as our guide described it is a sweet milky fruit, but VERY sticky.

The ride back to town was uneventful, taking an hour or two in which we all fought to stay awake (some more successfully than others – notably our guide who was asleep within minutes and dosed for most of the return trip). Back at the dock we unsuccessfully attempted to ‘forget’ our bamboo gifts, said our thanks and set off in search of food.

After wandering the streets for a while and finding nothing that appealed we realised that in our hung-over, tired state what we really wanted was some junkfood, preferably in bed. Remembering a KFC we had passed on our cycle into town we were soon enough back in the hotel, armed with a set meal which, judging by the number of drinks it included, was intended for 4. Unphazed by the task we, of course, ate our way through everything – to be fair we were catching up on a day of food having not eaten the previous evening or that morning other than a mini banana. We spent most of the day watching stuff in bed until to our surprise we found ourselves hungry again in the evening. Wandering through town again we were bemused by the lack of restaurants in such a popular tourist spot, eventually giving up and returning to the restaurant we had lunched at the day before.

The following morning, after a lie in, Anya created a very tasty fruit salad from everything which remained from our cocktail experiments (as well as finishing off any alcohol which had been overlooked) and after checking out we cycled round the corner to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. By the time we had finished shopping and set off on the bikes it was already past noon and there was no way we would be reaching the coast, so cycling into the countryside we were preparing ourselves for another tough time finding somewhere to camp. We decided again to ignore the main roads and strike a more direct course – unfortunately we soon found ourselves cycling on sand as the road we were on was being relaid – our already slow progress was hampered further by unexpected deviations in the road caused by unmapped rivers, diverting us further and further off course.

We asked for directions to a nearby village, from which we could see a slightly more major road ran fairly directly to the coast – following the locals advice we were disturbed to find ourselves cycling on a path which crossed bridge after bridge – bridge being a fairly generous description of what were essentially a few pieces of wood haphazardly strapped together and thrown across a gap, creating a pretty terrifying crossing. At any rate, we made it to the village and sure enough found ourselves back on tarmac, headed in the right direction. We were already on the lookout for campsites when we cycled past a cafe which opened out into a large garden on one side – lined with trees from which hung hammocks with tables and chairs nearby, there was plenty of space for a tent and the bare ground, natural shade and provision of coffee and water nearby made this a seriously attractive campsite. We rolled up to the cafe and tried our luck asking permission – having struggled so much in our last few attempts we were amazed and relieved when they instantly said yes! We wasted no time getting the tent set up, strung up our own hammocks and collapsed into them with a couple of iced coffees.

We cooked dinner and went to bed, had a quick breakfast and after a morning coffee said our thanks and set off, enjoying a steady cycle along the pleasant road when a local teacher called Huyen slowed down on her moped to chat to Anya and we suggested a coffee. She led the way to a cafe by her school and over coffee we chatted about our trip – when we told her where we were headed she eagerly told us how wonderful the island of Phu Quoc is – with its sandy beaches, beautiful swimming and beachside seafood. We’d been told about the island already by (other) Dave in Hanoi, but had decided we didnt have time to go there for long enough to make it worth the cost of the ferry having spent an extra day in Can Tho, but hearing a local rave about it made it hard to resist, and the existence of an afternoon ferry that Huyen told us about ment we could potentially be there by that evening. So, we would try to reach Rach Gia, roughly 70km away from where we had camped, in time for the afternoon ferry to Phu Quoc which would probably leave at 1pm.

With an early start, decent roads and no hills ahead, we made excellent progress, travelling faster then we have ever managed previously and finally able to comprehend the cycle tourists we’ve met who average 30km/h while we barely manage half that. The miles fell away and we rolled into town just before 1pm. Sadly, when we eventually tracked down the ferry the ticket price was higher than we’d like and the surcharge for the bikes was more still. so pondering our options we decided it was best to continue up the coast to catch a slower ferry. We knew there were daily boats from Rach Gia, near the Cambodia border, but had also read about a ferry from a tiny town on the coast half way there. It was only about 40km away in a straight line, unfortunately the only road which appeared on any of our maps involved a huge detour which doubled the distance. After lunch we found some wifi for long enough to study google satellite images and spotted a road which led to the coast, where a road, track or path of some description clearly ran all the way to the town. The info we had for this ferry suggested it left early – around 8am – so we had to get close before camping. We set off at speed again, with plans to camp on a beach roughly 10km from the morning ferry. We were not far from our turn off the main road when, for the second time in one day, Anya found herself joined by a local on the road – this time a student, who was again keen to stop and chat – we were already past the 100km mark for the day so were glad of the break and gladly took her up on the offer of a drink. We told her about our trip and explained that we were trying to catch the ferry down the road – she wasn’t aware of one from anywhere other than Ha Tien and Rach Gia but explained that as she was still at school it could easily exist anyway. I was getting sceptical at this point but we agreed that the detour we were planning would be interesting and we wanted to visit the coastal town anyway so may as well try to reach the ferry in case it did exist. We said our goodbyes and set off as the sun was beginning to set.

We didn’t get far down our detour before it got dark, and hadn’t got much further before it turned into a pothole-covered track. Cycling in the dark we bounced along, making slow progress and praying for the road to end. Instead it seemed to drag on and on until we finally reached the bridge which led over a river to our coast-hugging path. The sun long gone, there was no rush to camp as it would get no harder being dark already, so we cycled on, over the bridge and through a village, ignoring the few locals who tried to redirect us back to the main road, until we found a footpath that led off in the right direction. The path was clearly not a major route, but did show signs of moto activity with numerous tyre tracks reassuring us that there was probably a route through. Foliage encroached the track to the point where both our feet hidden in long grass as we weaved our way down the narrowest stretches, relieved when the grass would fall back again and give us a more navigable track. It was too dark to see the cycle computer so we had no idea how far we’d travelled, but on the GPS we had bookmarked a route to a potential beach campsite ahead – this gave us a target to aim for, but when we reached it there was no clear path through the undergrowth which separated us from the sea. We carried on until we saw a promising path which led past a light-filled hut towards the coast – we could hear voices as we approached and were watched by a group of men as we cycled past, to what turned out to be a dead end into boggy ground and undergrowth. As we passed the hut again a couple of men appeared, one clutching, of course, a shot glass. I thanked them and had a drink, pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of whichever spirit they were drinking, and then tried to explain that we were looking for a beach while one of the two men set about refilling the glass for Anya. She saw off her shot and we were directed onwards down the path along the coast. We carried on a few more kilometers until the path began to widen, turned into a track and led past a cluster of buildings including a couple of shops, surprisingly still open. We were now close enough to the port to be confident we could reach it by 8am comfortably, so Anya popped into a shop to buy some supplies for breakfast while I watched the bikes. She had only been gone a few seconds before one of the locals who had been watching us from a table across the street wandered over and dragged me back to their table – expected to be bombarded with shots I was relieved when instead an Iced Coffee was placed in front of me.

So it was that Anya emerged to find me happily sipping on my refreshing drink while 5 or so local men sat smiling around me. She came to join us and we decided there was no point in trying to camp secretly anywhere nearby at this point, so we asked if we could camp there in the middle of their village. Again, to our relief, they said yes – by this point many more locals had arrived (including what seemed like the entire teenage population of the are) to see what was causing the commotion so we decided to entertain the growing crowd by cooking our evening dinner – they were impressed by the stove, fascinated by our flint for lighting it (our lighter had run out a few days previously) and fighting for a decent view of Anya preparing our food. I meanwhile was keen to document the largest audience we’ve had for a wild camp and to give Anya some room by distracting some of the crowd so pulled out the camera and let the kids take turns playing with it. When dinner was ready we made our way to the (now empty) table and sat down, trying not to be intimidated by the crowd which had now formed a ring around us to observe us as we ate. Thankfully, our audience backed off and gave us some room and we were able to eat without feeling like animals in a zoo. After dinner we pitched the tent with the help of the locals, locked the bikes up and said our goodnight to the remaining teens who departed on their mopeds as we climbed into the tent and fell asleep – When showing the locals our various bike gadgets I’d had a look at the cycle computer – we have a new record for distance cycled in one day – 143km.

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Hanoi – Saigon

At 10 in the morning the cleaners invaded the dorm. They pulled the curtains apart and opened the windows and the younger one of the two found herself on the receiving end of a verbose flirtation from a hungover Englishman. The few people who were still asleep in a handful of the 12 beds, made a timely escape leaving only the cleaners, the flirtarious Brit and ourselves, desperately trying to prevent the unsticking of the eyelids – everything else was remediable. Unfortunately it was not to be. Reluctantly we got up, washed and went to Kangaroo Cafe just down the street for proper hangover cure – giant breakfast Aussie-style for me and giant burger for Dave with Kangaroo’s special coffee – milder but much bigger Vietnamese coffee with fresh milk.

Through the cafe window I’d spotted a man selling hammocks and approached him on our way out. It was a basic thing made of nylon rope but it only cost us a few quid even after we’d gone out and got rope to tie it to a tree with. This was my Christmas present for Dave – he’d got me a beautiful tribal embroidered handbag the day before. After a few hours of sitting on our hands, we decided to bring Christmas forward and exchanged gifts. Dave immediately rigged up the hammock between bunk beds to see it in action.

We’d made a last-minute arrangement with Dave and Soraya from last night to meet at our hostel for the rooftop barbeque but even my Dave forgot about it, so it was hardly surprising they didn’t show up. Me and Dave occupied a couch in the living-room on the fifth floor that opens onto the roof terrace, ordered some pizzas and got posting. That was pretty much that for the day.

The next morning we got up early, had our jammy bread hostel breakfast, packed, checked out, asked after sleeper buses to Hue all over town, booked with our hostel, went back out to HSBC to accuse them of a forged note that the hostel wouldn’t accept (turns out it was just old and worn – Vietnamese notes are printed on transparent plastic and the paint begins to rub off revealing transparent edges  with age), stocked up at the supermarket, walked all the way to the old Hanoi Backpackers Hostel for the free burgers but couldn’t be asked to queue for an hour, got the beers and went to KFC instead only to become convinced that portions here definitely are smaller than in Europe, even the burgers. By the time we got back to the hostel from all that there was just enough time to get our stuff from storage and wait outside for an hour, when the bus guy showed up. He walked us and a handful of others from our hostel to the nearby main road, me and Dave struggling with eight panniers, a barbag, handbag, backpack and giant tarp bag containing everything else, like tent, helmets, sleeping mats.

The bus itself had three rows of double-decker beds and was occupied almost exclusively by other tourists. After an uneventful dinner stop I lapsed into sleep and woke up just in time for our arrival in rainy Hue at 10 the next morning. We hurled all our stuff into a taxi and got delivered to the Hue branch of Backpackers Hostel. This was a small, two-storey establishment with a handful of rooms on the first floor and reception, bar/restaurant and pc’s on the ground floor. Savvy to the options this time we checked into a double dorm bed (yep, just like a bunk bed but wide enough for two people – clever huh?) and went sightseeing.

Back when Vietnam was an Empire of its own, for a short space of time it was decided that Hue was where the Imperial Citadel would be and so they built something rather large and grandiose, a city within a city where the Emperor and his nearest and dearest lived and performed their Imperial duties. Then a few centuries later, the Americans came along and bombed the shit out of it and the Vietnamese haven’t had the cash to spare on restoring (mostly rebuilding tbh) it ever since. This being the case, there wasn’t much to see there really, aside from a sterling digital reconstruction video paid for and made by South Korea.

A fine drizzle was still spraying from the sky, making the mossy terracotta paving tiles into a slippery death hazard and the numerous unpaved paths into muddy marshes. Quite quickly we decided to call it a day and headed for the market instead, which was a wondrous labyrinthine place where we discovered and bought tabi socks (big toe in a separate compartment so they can be worn with flipflops), dried fruit (for Christmas pudding) and a delicious lunch, squatting on tiny stools in front of a toy-sized table with the womans cauldrons and pots of ingredients towering above us. What started out as a very tasty noodle broth with many different parts of a cow and flavourful fresh herbs was soon overshadowed by a mountain of sticks off which we’d pulled succulent barbequed pieces of marinaded flesh and minced spicy flesh with our teeth.

Back at the hostel we watched what felt like the entire series of Coupling sat in slingy bamboo chairs on the balcony while the rain carried on outside. The weather forecast looked grim too. The next morning our bikes got delivered before breakfast but the weather was grim once again and we ended up staying. In the bedseat downstairs. Watching Friends and finishing the Kunming-Hanoi post.
The fine cold mist carried on descending on and off through the night and into the morning, but this time, we estimated, we really had to leave if we were to be in Hoi An for Christmas. We washed down a couple of jammy breakfast baguettes (banana and pineapple make excellent jams!) with 3-in-1 coffee (well it was free), hauled all our luggage onto the bikes and set off towards what looked on a map like a beachside road.

Cycling out of Hue along one of the quieter roads, we watched shophouses thin out and give way to small but very elaborately decorated (dragons and clouds prancing on the roofs and gates, just like the Imperial Citadel, where they stood to represent the harmonious relationship of the Emperor and his people) houses. With fewer buildings crowding the roadside we could also begin to see into the countryside, which, it quickly became obvious, was somewhat flooded – many fields were underwater, with the occasional canoe being punted along using a long stick or an oar that doubles up as a fishing device (we saw a few locals determinedly and rhythmically delivering full-body oar blows to the water and fishing is my best guess for why) – but not more flooded than normal, as all roads, houses and groups of graves remained above water, just, like islands.

We picked up some barbequed pork belly from a streetside stall and took the first sideroad off the coastal road to get to the beach. The rain had been on and off all day and wind was rampant on the east-facing beach, driving giant murky waves crashing into eachother. Still it was great to see the sea and a stretch of crunchy white sand trailing off into the horizon in two directions. A few deserted seafood restaurants stood on the seafront with a handful of raised bamboo ‘huts’, one of which we sat down in for lunch. There’d been a break from the rain while we ate but in the afternoon the rain resumed and got slowly heavier towards evening. We talked about checking in to a cheap hotel for the night but as it got dark we hadn’t found one and were on a beach at the end of a long dead-end road, lined only by village houses, fishing on one side and a mountain on the other. There were some skeletal structures on the beach and we used them to support the groundsheet, forming a somewhat waterproof roof above the porch of the tent. We collected some driftwood from the beach and made a few attempts with a lot of petrol at lighting a fire, but every time the flame would die down as soon as all the petrol had burned out, leaving the wood still damp. Every time but one time, when one little spark hid somewhere in the pile of wood, igniting the petrol as it was being poured, leaving Dave in the unsavoury situation of standing there holding a bottle of petrol on fire.

Thankfully our petrol bottles are made of steel, otherwise we may have lost ALL the exposed hairs on our bodies (I’m pretty sure we were too drenched by the rain at that point to catch on fire) and our tent. Dave’s first reaction was to try and blow out the fire in the bottle, which worked for a fraction of a second after which it spit a new and bigger flame back at him. This may be the point at which he lost the arm hair on his right arm. If not, it would have been when he proceeded to hurl the bottle sideways, away from the tent, onto the wet sand a few metres away, leaving a trail of giant billowing flames where the petrol had sprayed itself out of the bottle. For a second it felt like the whole shaky timber stick structure around us and the clumps of seaweed on the ground would suddenly forget that they were too wet to burn. After inspecting Dave for flames and damage, we stared, gawping still in shock, as the flames, contained to the petrol-soaked sand, died down and extinguished. Phew.

We spent the rest of the evening trying to light our wet wood on the stove instead, all to no avail. Wet and plagued by sticky sand granules that seemed to just get on everything, we retreated to our tent only to find that the floor was wet – our tent was no longer waterproof. It’s possible that we washed some of the waterproofing off when we gave the tent a clean in Kunming. Big drops of water collected slowly on the outer of the tent and then splatted down through the mesh of the inner. Great. Back out into the rain I went, taking down the groundsheet from the timber structure and laying it out over the outside of our tent. Thankfully this trick worked and we were soon able to retreat into the comforting eventlessness of sleep.

In the morning our stove refused to make breakfast for all the mistreatment it had got last night with the logs, the blackened but alive fuel bottle was retrieved, the rain was very very light and we saw a dog, a man and a woman, in sequence and with a sequentially increasing interest, emerge on the beach from the village. The woman even said hello (probably), stood around a bit, did a mime conversation with us to say that ‘oh you slept here? weren’t you cold? you should’ve stayed at mine, you know’ and went away again. We packed our wet tent, doing our best to shake off the sand that clung to it for life, climbed into a dry set of clothes, packed up and got back on the road.

We cycled back through the village, where tens of tiny fishing canoes had erupted into the water, through a number of other villages, where sensible locals wore big plastic ponchos when venturing outside (especially on bikes and mopeds), and rejoined the A1 highway, that pretty much goes from the northern tip of the country, near Lao Cai where we’d crossed from China, to the southernmost, somewhere near Ha Tien, where we’d be leaving into Cambodia. On one of the passes we were caught up with by an American couple who were cycle touring all over the place, catching flights in between. They’d done the clever thing and stayed in a hotel last night. We stopped for lunch together and later found ourselves on the same transport through the 8km tunnel piercing a mountain just before Da Nang, the alternative means of crossing which is the Something-Something pass on which Jeremy Clarkson has his teary-eyed sublime moment on the Vietnam special of Top Gear, which comes as highly recommended viewing by the way.

On the other side we got out of the passenger bus, a few minutes later the flatbed truck delivered our bikes along with some 20 mopeds, which were all promptly collected, and off we went, through dreary old Da Nang, alongside the beachfront crammed with seriously garish (half of them looked unfinished while their ad posters had faded with age) resorts which trailed out to give way to little villages where roadside markets were now heaving with seafood, and inland into Hoi An. We’d planned to splurge a little on our Christmas accommodation, but after doing a comprehensive survey of accommodation available (a few high-end resorts with attendants for your vehicle and manicured lawns that charge European prices, a couple of eyewateringly authentic and beautiful hotels tucked away in the old town were fully booked, unsurprisingly, and everything else just charged different rates for essentially the same, so we took the cheapest, ending up with a big room with two double beds (no idea), a fridge, giant flatscreen tv, balcony and bathroom at 10 USD per night.

We jumped in the shower, handed over a giant bag of laundry to reception and went out into the night, me wearing swimsuit, fleece and my baby-blue travel towel for a skirt – everything else was getting washed. That night we found out that Hoi An is infested with tailor shops and made-to-order shoe shops – about 90% of all retail outlets in the ‘old town’, where most foreigners choose to spend most of their time in Hoi An, will try to add garments to your suitcase. The rest are restaurants and cafes, and we soon stumbled upon one we’d had in mind for Christmas dinner and booked a table for two, a little taken aback by the fact that they were doing Xmas dinner on the 24th rather than the 25th. Next we pottered to the riverfront of Hoi An, where the colourful lanterns festooning UN World Heritage old town shophouses that line the riverside, reflect in the water where candles bob in little lilly-shaped boats. Really romantic. We grabbed an outdoor table at a cafe nearby and had a bottle of local wine (not bad) with local dinner (also not bad, but as usual suffering from small portions). A woman selling aquatic lanterns caught our stare and relocated her stall to right opposite the road from us, where she spent the night waving ominously at us over her tray of lit candles in between coercing other tourists into launching the flickering lights sailing into the river. We had to sneak out the side of the restaurant at the end of our meal in order to avoid her.

The place we were staying didn’t offer any free breakfast, so morning found us charging out on an urgent mission – food. Even driven by such a momentous desire, we still somehow found ourselves within minutes sat on a bench in front of a pair of laptops, a smiling and courteous attendant looming behind each screen, making it seem like the most natural and obligatory thing in the world, that on a slightly muggy Christmas Eve morning in central Vietnam we should be sat in Kimmy’s, a recommended tailor, ordering clothes. I would like to stress at this point that ordering clothes or shoes was in no way something we intended or even seriously contemplated doing. But somehow being the holidays and smart tailored clothing seeming a sound investment for both of us, recent graduates, over the next three days David became the proud owner of two suits, four shirts, an autumn coat and three pairs of shoes, all tailored, and myself two dresses and six pairs of shoes, also getting one of my cycling trousers adjusted, mended and taken in. All these came from 6 different shops, and the days came and went in a whirlwhind of window-shopping, fittings, alterations, more fittings, more alterations, waiting and collecting.

In between all these tailor-related events we did make it to our seven-course Christmas dinner that had lime sorbet in the middle, just before the turkey, and a fantastical creamy chicken pate on toasted brioche as one of the starters as well as roast pears with gorgonzola and black forest ham starter that still contest for first place among the 7 courses of the night. We were duly full and merry when we rolled home that night to make an impromptu non-bake christmas pudding which involved brandy, cream, butter, condensed milk, desiccated coconut, raisins, prunes, cinnamon, ginger and peanuts, chilled in the fridge overnight.

The next day we were just headed home to drop off some freshly collected shoes before popping out to another fitting, when David suddenly startled in the street, I followed his gaze and saw a completely unfamiliar couple ahead, who were clearly familiar with David. After the exclamations of disbelief and hugs and shoulder slaps had been exchanged, it precipitated that the man was in fact Miguel, a project architect with whom Dave had worked in the Singapore office of Broadway Malyan last summer, and he was holidaying in Vietnam for Christmas with his Singaporean girlfriend Ling. Small world indeed. We chatted briefly and arranged a dinner date.

It was our last evening in Hoi An and we’d just picked up a few of our shoes and most of our clothes, and dinner out seemed like a good excuse to wear some of them before we parted ways (the parcel to Singapore, containing only our new clothes and shoes, came to 15kg if I remember correctly). A little overdressed, therefore, we met Miguel and Ling and took them to Green Mango, Hoi An’s most pretentious lounge bar / restaurant in order to offset our own overdressedness. The food was good though and we enjoyed a thorough interrogation on our travels, relishing as one does the opportunity to talk about oneself. We parted, joking that we would no doubt run into eachother on the sleeper bus the next day – they were heading to Mui Ne and ourselves to Saigon, all in an attempt to outrun the muggy and drizzly weather that was besetting central Vietnam.

We didn’t run into them again but we did outrun the weather, and by more than we’d hoped. The afternoon after next we disembarked from the sleeper bus into the hot and humid air in which Ho Chi Minh city was submerged. We’d hoped for something in between really but there was no turning back – from now on it was going to be too hot and too humid pretty much until we get back to the UK.

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Update

Well, after a month in Vietnam we’re into the last month of the trip, and have crossed into Cambodia – It’s bizarre to think the trip is coming to an end soon!

We’re working on more posts for our time in Vietnam (including Christmas in Hoi An, New Years in the Mekong Delta, and a trip to Phu Quoc where we made a home for ourselves on the beach, fed the local mosquitoes and dined on shark!) so watch this space…

(Also, we promise to do a new face/thighwatch soon – really – sorry forgetting it for so long those of you eagerly watching my beard progress :P )

One more thing – someone pointed out that the donate button on the site was broken and has been for some time - its now fixed so if anyone is feeling generous and wants to help us fund the website upkeep or generally assist with the mounting debts we’ve accumulated over the trip, we would be hugely greatful – thanks again to those who have already contributed!

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Phu Quoc panoramic

Testing a panoramic photo app – here’s a pic of where we camped last night.

Neat huh? Oh and before we get any bad karma, I have to concede that its too hot for comfort – weather app says its 29 feels like 38 and it DOES feel every bit like 38. And this is mid-winter. Lovely island Phu Quoc but don’t come here – you’ll melt by day and feed swarms of vicious mosquitos by night.

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Kunming – Hanoi

The start to the day on Sunday the 4th of December was a slow one. It was cold and rainy outside, we hadn’t gone to bed till late the night before and by the time we’d packed and reorganized our panniers (again), run our errands at the post office, had breakfast and watched our fill of Friends / Family Guy on our laptop, it was hard to deny the obvious – we were staying another night. Again. To compensate we decided to do something cultural and something useful, and so we set out in the damp but warming afternoon to Kunmings art quarter, the Loft, only to find it closed on Sundays and redirected ourselves towards Carrefour via the centre. A moped slipped on the wet pavement (don’t ask what it was doing on the pavement in the first place – mopeds are the mechanized holy cow of China – they have the divine right to go anywhere and do anything they like, no questions asked) and slid horizontally to a halt at my feet – narrow escape, phewie. The man was fine. We discovered a strip of souvenir stalls in a reconstructed old-style type district, but more importantly discovered a souvenir shop that sold pomegranate wine, and this time I memorized the brand – it’s ‘Chateau’ Hetian. A bakery specializing in Yunnan rose cake (fairly successfully, judging by the post & delivery desk in the corner and other customers ferrying stacks of boxes to their cars) provided us with mid-afternoon snacks – puff pastry pucks filled with sweet rose petals (in my case) as well as a cooked egg yolk in Dave’s. Yum.

After involving a large number of Carrefour staff in the increasingly frustrating game of seek-the-artificial-sweeteners once again to no avail, we tried a couple more shops and finally resolved on an alternative plan. We marched to the shopping district and into the centrally located Starbucks franchise. Tidy young staff with good English and manners served us our cheapest-coffee-on-the-menu and triple-chocolate muffin. We floated over to the sugar-milk-etc station with our pretext coffee and hovered while I methodically, handful by handful, moved 88 sachets of complimentary sweetener from their stainless steel housing into my (as it later turned out, semi-translucent) shoulder bag. At our little table in the corner we then sat, sipping and masselating, gloating over Dave’s ingenious solution to the problem of sweeteners in a country that doesn’t stock them. While we were at it, I googled the problem to see if the expats had a solution (as they had had when I’d discovered that China doesn’t do tampons, recommending a western supermarket in Chengdu that stocked them) but instead found that China has a native fruit called Luo Han Guo, the flesh of which is saturated with a natural sweetener several times more intense than sugar therefore with few calories per serving of sweetness. This fruit’s been part of Chinese culture and herbal traditions for a long long time and is used in herbal medicine to treat coughs and a variety of other ailments. Naturally, we headed for the nearest pharmacy, got redirected to a proper herbs & roots shop next door, and were handed three brown furry golf-balls in exchange for some 20p worth of yuan.

As we left the shop back in to the shopping district, I opened the bag, took our one of the dried fruits, broke into the egg-like shell to reveal a fibreglass-wool-like flesh, pinched off the tiniest bit, placed it on my tongue, grinned in amazement as an intense sweetness fill my mouth and was just in the process of pinching off some more for Dave to try as I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a small child attached to his leg. A little Chinese girl with a blank facial expression was in the surreal process of going from grabbing his trouser leg in a fist to having both her arms around his leg, just above the knee, then reacting to his continued efforts to continue walking past by sliding down his leg to the floor as she clamped his ankle between her knees. Dave’s face screamed shock at the absurdity of the situation while his body, not knowing how else to react, just ploughed on trying to continue walking. Grown man versus child – Dave won and the child, face blank the entire time, remained squatting balled up on the pavement motionless for a while, a few cellophane-wrapped bouquets of flowers still clutched in her other hand.

That night I persuaded Dave to go out.  So we headed back to the night market area, with its bright lights and its giant soft toy stalls (giant stalls and giant soft toys both) and its delish skewered snack stalls. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to pay cover charge, so we picked an entrance that was busy but not too flash and navigated in through a winding timber-decked passageway with theatrically lit caged Chivas bottles and other pirate-themed paraphernalia (the toilet cubicles were styled to look like giant barrels) to a large low-ceilinged room densely packed with tall round tables around which young locals stood in small groups while staff piled dozens of beers in front of them. There was no bar or dancefloor, just a dj stage and a ‘vip’ section into which we were promptly ushered by the staff who convened for a while but failed to produce an english speaker. We wrangled with the language barrier for an unexpectedly long period of time but eventually managed to agree that we’d have two beers. That accomplished we noticed that the place had filled up with people, none of them obviously foreign. They were chatting, drinking beers and playing dice games. Our table, like every other one in the room, had two dice cups on the table. Our beers arrived along with a bucket of ice and small glasses, only one bottle was opened for us and poured into our respective glasses. The atmosphere was jovial but the music painfully cheesy, so we didn’t stay for another beer. Instead we headed across the square to a large and flash looking building called ‘David’ in big golder letters. This club was basically a larger, fancier version of the previous bar, with a steampunk theme conveyed through funky baroque costumes on some of the door staff, steamgauge-gadget decor on the dj deck and around the ceiling and big pistons or fans or something. A very very enthusiastic young man with excellent English handed us the menu and encouraged us to order expensive stuff. The menu had bottles of spirits at around £100, beers by the dozen or half dozen and fingerfood. We ordered two beers and people-watched. The music was definitely better here, but the crowd was sedate, huddling in small groups around their little tables creaking under dozens of beer bottles perspirating waiting to be drunk. As much as we’d have liked to see what happens when all of those beer bottles ARE drunk, there was little for us there so we finished our drinks and went to bed – the next morning would definitely be departure day.

The morning we left Kunming was damp and bleak despite the forecast. With an inexcusable reluctance (after all we were meaning to have left three days ago) we rolled our shiny clean bikes out into the muddy puddles of the great outdoors and got pedalling. China being China and Kunming being somewhere in its top 50 of cities by size, we were prepared for a long noisy trek to break out of the multiple ring roads and had readied ourselves by placing headphones  full of soothing sounds in between the traffic and our ear membranes. It was on the outskirts of the city that a ‘hello!’ broke in to our insulated sound bubbles from a figure on a bike that had crept unnoticed into visual periphery (Kunming was swarming with bikes).

Gauthier is French and had quit his banking job and got on a bike in spring last year, cycling to SE Asia via a route similar to ours but with more Eastern Europe and Caucasus. He was headed to Laos and we were headed to Vietnam but the roads didn’t diverge for another 200km or so. He’d also spent a day in Kunming cleaning his bike but by the end of our first day on the road all three of our bikes were once again caked in mud. Most of the day had been taken up getting out of Kunming, its suburbs and neighbouring towns and into a hillier Yunnan terrain. We camped together at the top of a hill overlooking the mountainside with tomorrow’s road winding down into the valley below. A few Chinese men came, one by one, responded to our hello’s and stood a while, observing. Gauthier had his staple instant noodle while I cooked a meaty stir fry. We shared stories and went to bed.

The morning was damp – a cloud was impaled on the mountain tops just above us and a fine drizzle descended from it as we breakfasted – me and Dave on eggs and dinner leftovers, Gauthier on another bowl of instant noodles. We descended into a valley strewn with cabbage leaves as trucks, mopeds and wheelbarrows piled high (really high) with freshly picked cauliflower heads and other veg delivered and flogged  the produce on  crossroads, in villages and markets. Intermittent drizzle came down as fully fledged downpour just as we sat down to lunch at a Hui (Chinese muslim minority) restaurant. Men smoking fine Yunnan tobacco out of aluminium or bamboo bongs congregated around our bikes, staring and poking as per usual. The sun emerged as we left town and did another little climb into the next range of mountains, where a narrow river crease in the landscape afforded us a beautiful, long and gentle winding downhill, complete with airborne waterfall that floated, backlit by the sun, into view as we turned a corner.

A string of Hui villages ensued, with shiny onion-domed mosque roofs and headscarves, still we managed to buy some beer just in time for camping. We managed to find a quiet spot on a hillside among young pines, out of sight and surrounded by bits of dead wood. Naturally we made a fire, I cooked for everyone (one of the ingredients was a seriously giant Chinese radish, probably 2kg in weight) and we stayed up late talking, looking at the stars and keeping the fire going.

The next morning we woke up early but didn’t get cycling until much later, waiting for our tents (draped over nearby bushes and trees for ventilation) to dry in a sun reluctant to peek from behind the clouds. The weather improved as we cycled onwards over the rolling hills more reminiscent of Tuscany with their midget conifers and dusty orange soil, that had unexpectently replaced yesterdays vertical boulder-mountains covered in jungle. The sun was blazing down, we slapped on the sunscreen and almost instantly sweated it off, all of which only reinforced memories of cycling through heat-wave France. We stopped at a village to buy water and all similarities were dashed – locals in conical hats and collared shirts gathered in a circle and stood watching while we decanted water into our drinking bottles and filled our shower bladder from a hose, anticipating that we’d need a shower that day. A few blocks down, a giant carcass (to this day undecided whether it was a water buffalo or one of those sturdy cows that are used as all-in-one farming machines in those parts, ploughing, transporting carts or luggage or people, massaging the rice paddies with their hooves apparently, as well as more conventional cow things like giving milk and calves and meat) was being skinned on the street (the road surface is a lot more multifunctional around here, this time of year we’ve seen it used a lot for drying grated/sliced cassava root and corn before grinding it into flour, sorting giant piles of plastic bags, drying large sheets of rotary timber veneer). A few more blocks down was a large market and we stopped to get dinner provisions, picking up some fresh mushrooms out of a large selection (I love China), beansprouts and a lump of pork, which we had the epiphany to ask the butcher to slice for us and gone are the days of me spending the evening attacking ingredients with a blunt pen knife in the dark (also because we got a machete-maker in Vietnam to sharpen my swiss penknife into what is now a collapsible machete – about one third of the steel is gone – but on the plus side we can now use it to shave with, as the machete man demonstrated on his leg).

We stopped for lunch in Jianshui, the town at which our ways parted. Lunch was tasty and we made arrangements to meet in Bangkok at the end of January, wished eachother lots of downhills, tailwind and other cycle touring pleasantries, and said goodbye to Gauthier. Me and Dave turned towards Hanoi along a secondary road, which weaved up and down a hilly terrain roughly in parallel with the motorway and a railway under construction. The area was relatively densely populated with a new village every few kilometres and farming everywhere in between. It had been a hot day with lots of climbing and we needed a scrub-down and laundry so we looked up a river on a map and headed for it. It was at the bottom of a narrow valley, very picturesque but also densely farmed and sprinkled with settlements. The day was coming to an end and the water buffalos were being walked home along the narrow paths, leaving giant turds. We settled for a small patch of uncultivated land right by a side stream, next to a bridge, that had evidently been used as a watering area for livestock. We waited for a herd of goats to leave, pitched our tent, cooked in the dusk and washed in the dark. The next morning we did laundry as the occasional passer-by stopped on the footbridge above to watch. It was a muggy day, but we were glad of it as we struggled to push our bikes back up to the road along a narrow crumbly dirt path some 150 vertical metres.

The road continued to weave through small settlements and farmed valleys, and we’d gotten so much into the routine of climbing, rolling down, weaving and climbing again that we failed to realise, until after we’d finished doing a gruelling continuous several-hundred vertical metre climb, Dave on painkillers for his knee, that we’d taken a wrong turning at the base of the mountain. Bummer. Anyway, instead of going back we took a turning to cut back through to the road we were meant to be following and lo and behold somehow ended up on the motorway. Noisy, yes, fumy and a little bit scary what with all the shockwaves from passing lorries pushing and pulling your bike. The motorway ran out quite quickly though and after a toll station turned into a double carriageway with, surprisingly, a cycle path – somewhat out-of-place for a road that only feeds into a motorway on which bikes are prohibited. By the time we got off the motorway, we were starving. We tried a couple of tiny roads coming off the main road – both led us to a sparse grove of fruit trees surrounded with tall grass punctuated with the occasional tombstone (a particular kind of tombstone we’d seen in fields, sometimes in groups) and paths that were filled in tightly with buffalo turds laid out to dry. I suspect they crush the dried turds into a powder that is diluted with water on demand and used as a fertilizer – we’ve seen locals carrying slopping buckets of gooey liquid smelling like the turds smelled to their fields, two big buckets hanging off either end a shoulder stick (karamyslo) and make the carrier walk in funny teeny-tiny steps so as not to spill the goop.

Finally we stopped by the side of the double carriageway, set up a laundry line between our bikes to air our damp laundry while we ate, got out the stove and cooked lunch. The villagers from the nearby village looked on with interest and had a bit of trouble herding their buffalos that got distracted by us and all our flappy clothes in the wind (the day before a buffalo ran off around the edge of a cliff just to avoid passing us on the narrow path even though we’d pulled over to one side).

I had big plans for the town of Mengzi (supermarket shopping wise) but by the time we got there it was getting late and we had to find a spot to camp. For a couple of kilometres before and after the town the road was lined with stalls selling individually wrapped pomegranates on a backdrop of pomegranate trees. Under the bridge and in between stalls were piles of mouldy dried up pomegranates, still individually wrapped. Here’s an idea for anyone looking to invest: slap a winery in Mengzi and give the world pomegranate wine. Yum.

We camped near an abandoned house in between a water reservoir and the road. In the morning we discovered that Pedro was gone. In many ways it is amazing he stayed with us this far – having made repeat attempts to leap free from his home no matter where we secured him (He’d have been lost on the Turkmen border if an Iranian guard hadn’t been kind enough to point out the abandoned toy lying 100m behind us) It was traumatic briefly but soon we replaced him. (Our new companion will make an appearance here soon I’m sure.)

We’d been looking forward to the days cycle – the terrain map seemed to promise a picturesque but downhill cycle in the narrow valley between tall mountain ranges, past a mountain lake and alongside a river. The landscape did not disappoint (except for quite a number of unanticipated climbs) – the terraced farming, banana plantations, waterfalls, river, thatched huts clinging to impossible gradients were all stunning. The real bummer was the weather – what started as a fine mist (which turns into a freezing horizontal shower at any speed) turned into a full-on in-cloud cycling experience after lunch (the chef took a shining to us at a fancy small-town restaurant and fed us delicious things to the point of bursting and then gave us a pair of pomegranates as a parting gift – whole ginger pickled in chili oil ROCKS btw) which was completely surreal and a little bit frightening, knowing as we did that on one side of the slaloming narrow road was a several-hundred-metre-near-vertical-drop. Most of our descent took place in this cloud, braking hard (I even had to replace my rear brake pads) to keep ourselves from accidentally driving into something and getting wet through to the bone. When we emerged from the cloud it turned out that it was raining underneath the cloud and the road was still wet.

On one of the sharp turns I heard a loud scraping noise behind me  and it sounded like it could be nothing but David, and unfortunately it was – his rear wheel had skidded and he’d found himself suddenly meeting the road surface with his helmet (proud at last to say we’re two of the VERY few cycle tourists that routinely wear helmets) and chest. We got him and his bike and bottles off the road and surveyed the damage – he was pale and in shock (a hot sweet milky tea with biscuits took care of that) but generally unharmed, save for the thumb of his left hand, which was very painful and very swollen at the base. Gradually we dismissed fracture and dislocation as possibilities and Dave said he was ok cycling down to the next town (it was some 15km downhill) where we’d track down a health professional if he  needed one.

We’d been noticing some women in highly ornamental ethnic dress this day, but towards Lianhuatanxiang we came across whole settlements, sandwiched between the road and the river – the day was ending and men and women were leading horses loaded with bananas home from the banana tree plantations covering the hillsides. We think they belong to the H’mong ethnic minority, the main identifier being the pleated and highly ornamentally cross-stitched skirts of the women, calves often wrapped in equally ornamental ribbon, in bright colours, mainly pink.

In the town we checked into a simple but clean and cheap hotel, tracked down some flipflops for me (I’d been looking for a pair to replace my hole-y ones since Uzbekistan to no avail!) at the market, bought some provisions and had a lunch of barbequed meat and tofu on sticks and coated in chili from a street vendor.

The next morning Dave’s thumb was looking blacker but less inflated and with a tad of painkillers Dave was able to cycle again (albeit with compromised braking capacity and limited speed-switching). We wove alongside the river with Vietnam on the other bank. We crossed the border just as the day was ending – it was the easiest and simplest border crossing since Greece-Turkey and within some twenty minutes we were in a different country. With a confidence and skill that surprised us both (practice makes perfect), we bartered a currency tout into a corner and left him sighing and grumbling over our Chinese Yuan as we set off, alongside crowds of Vietnamese motorcycles (loud and fumey after all those Chinese electric ones) towards Hanoi.

We camped in a large fenced-off plot of land, probably waiting for a large development, in between the road and the river. That night was finally my turn to stay up with a food poisoning. This slowed us down a bit the next day, but we made it to Pho Rang before 5 and decided to just call it a day and checked into a cheap but nice hotel. Vietnam was beautiful. Most of the houses were vernacular, built out of timber, sometimes with wicker screen walls and thatch roofs with big overhangs. The region between the border and Pho Rang had a lot of Hmong women in their beautiful colourful clothing, being shuttled around on the back of a motorbike or walking with other Hmong women and children. We later found out that the vernacular homes we saw in this area reflected Hmong traditions with bare ground floors whereas the homes on stilts high enough to create a whole extra storey under the house, that we saw after Pho Rang were more characteristic of the Dao minority that lived in that area.

We stayed for two nights in Pho Rang, just relaxing and finding out more about Vietnam, wandering around the village market (that’s where we first saw dog meat on sale, dark red meat with small ribs), eating pho with the locals (herby meaty noodle soup) and getting Dave a haircut (which involved an actual razor and foam to the neck and around the ears, and he had to turn down ear-cleaning services). It was also around this time that we had our first Vietnamese coffee in a small roadside cafe / shop. A small lady brought out two small white cups with aluminium constructions balanced on top – individual filters. There was a wait until all the water had filtered through, then there was the addition of sweet condensed milk to the super-strong bitter coffee and finally the sampling. It was divine – strong, spicy and sugary, as if someone had melted bitter chocolate into a cup. It’s also quite nice a bit more diluted and with hot fresh milk.

After we left Pho Rang we entered Dao territory. While the majority of the people and houses we saw were still Viet, there would be the occasional settlement or group of women wearing black capri trousers with black hip-length caftans and hair folded into a cloth on top of the head. There was something about their faces – a particularly emphasized forehead somehow and a particularly grave mouth expression. At first I noticed they had dark lips, then I realised a lot of them had blackened teeth, particularly the older women. Later I noticed that they didn’t actually have eyebrows, and it wasn’t until the Ethnology museum in Hanoi that it became clear that they must also shave their hairline back, especially the bit in front of the ears. The children started adding to their usual screams of ‘HELLOOOOO’ with ‘money! money!’ and the occassional mimed shooting. They started walking and cycling to and from school in their uniform jackets before 7, continued throughout the day and didn’t finish until 7pm, so we think there must be a shift system in the schools here, perhaps as many as three shifts per day.

We stopped for lunch in a tiny roadside shack of a restaurant. On two of the walls hung altars with flowers and candles dedicated seemingly to the living members of the family that run the restaurant. The chairs were child-sized, as in all Vietnamese eateries (I think they prefer to squat even when they sit) and so was the tea set that was briefly given to us by one of the group of men who were eating (and definitely drinking) there until it was taken away by one of the owners of the restaurant, who spilled the tea out of the cups, turned them over on the tray, and then proceded to serve the next customers tea into the same unwashed cups. While we lunched, a man came over from the next table with two shotglasses and drank with David, shook his hand and retreated. Later, another man did the same but hesitated just before the drinking, fetched another shotglass, and jovially poured a half-shot for me, all the while laughing and nudging David. We drank. It was actually quite smooth alcohol. Later they tried donating us some tofu, then half a bottle of rice vodka, both of which we unsuccessfully declined but just left at the table, paid and left after a lot of handshaking and bowing and waving.

That night we spotted a decent uncultivated field for camping but there was only access through the grounds of a nearby house, so we deployed a phrasebook sentence for ‘can we camp here?’ upon the young family living there. They consented and came to watch us set up our tent, drifting over one by one, the boys first of course. We showed them our gear and how we cook. They seemed quite interested and didn’t leave until we were minutes away from eating. This night we had stir-fried pork again with the more recent addition of apple sauce, that we’d recently realized was as easy to make as steaming some chopped apples in a tiny bit of water and them smashing them up with our wooden spatula. Yum!

The next day was sunny once again. We cycled through Yen Bai, our first decent sized Vietnamese town, picking up provisions on the way, and joined the riverside road to Hanoi. This area was much less densely populated, which was surprising seen as the flat river valley seems like much easier farming grounds than the mountainous region we’d cycled through previously. There were suddenly fewer buffalos and more stocky copper-brown cows with a hump between the shoulders. On crossroads, locals sold snails, clams and a black root-like thing. By the side of the road veneer wood drying racks were replaced by wicker trays on which translucent rice noodles dried in the sun.  The people who gathered around us while we waited for our saleslady to slice our pork, expressed some shock at how we were not wearing the face masks that are so ubiquitous in China and Vietnam, some of them suggesting that I should wear long sleeves and a face mask to stop myself from tanning, I think.

We camped right by the river, with a few fields between ourselves and the town. In the morning some women working in the fields noticed us and came over to watch us pack away and poke our gear. We were beginning to get really close to Hanoi now. Roads converged with ours and the traffic got busier, more and more shops (there was a long long row of shops selling exclusively fresh milk at one point) surrounded the road and the houses became denser. The plan was to get as close to Hanoi as possible while still being able to camp and then cycle the rest of the way to the hostel in the morning. We made it to the outskirts 20km from the old town – cranes were raising giant multistorey housing blocks left and right and the frontage of shops to the road was pretty much non-stop. There was a row of roadside stalls selling dog – whole or with chunks already taken out of them, hairless cooked dogs with their legs and tails outstretched. We snuck behind the shops into a patch of damp field and put our tent up there. I couldn’t eat that evening – at first I thought I may be incubating a food poisoning but no, perhaps I did just get all revulsed by the dog corpses.

The next morning we joined in all the rush hour traffic (traffic in Vietnam generally consists of 90% motorbikes) heading into Hanoi. We stopped for a morning coffee with wifi and picked a hostel. Hanoi Hostel was fairly well located, on the outskirts of the Old Town, and was reasonably priced. The hospitality industry in Hanoi is fiercly competitive, so places like our hostel offer things like free breakfast and free beer hour to try and entice potential customers. First thing we did after checking in was to jump in the shower, then we handed most of our clothes and our sleeping bags to the reception for laundry service.

Hanoi (Old Town in particular) is officially the worst city for pedestrians of all the cities I’ve ever been to, and I grew up in Athens. All pavements are taken up by mopeds at all times (except late late at night) and the space between the mopeds and the shopfronts is where the shopkeepers and their wares hang out. The roads are narrow and suffer from thrombosis via delivery vans, cyclos (bike taxis), moving street stalls and hawkers. What remains of the road surface has to be shared by pedestrians and mopeds, and there’s a lot of both and very few regulating forces such as traffic lights or road signs. Chaos ensues.

The next day  we chucked all our stuff in the luggage store, checked out, got on our bikes and made the substantial trip out to the Ethnology museum – me for the costumes, Dave for the baguette cafe. The museum itself was located in an interesting cylindrical modernist building and was a fairly interesting wonder but facts-and-figures-overload was not long in the coming and we found ourselves in the cafe. Wikitravel turned out to be right, and this disadvantaged-children-training restaurant left us delirious with satisfaction despite the tourist-oriented pricing (fate was making up for yesterday’s unbelievably overpriced bland tiny fish dish we’d had on Lonely Planets recommendation).

After lunch we discovered the outdoor exhibits that provided us with hours of enjoyment – a collection of authentic houses from a variety of ethnic minorities. There was a house that looked like it had been stretched vertically by 500% in photoshop, and there was another that had been stretched horizontally instead. There were lightweight wicker houses with scarily fragile floors, there were sturdy adobe huts, there were houses made of generous slices of trunk and combinations of the above. There were houses where tens of extended family members all lived in one room save a tiny ‘honeymoon suite’ box in the corner, a longhouse with lots and lots of rooms for lots and lots of families and a tiny little house for a small family unit decorated with some very crude but very naughty sculptures. A world of fun.


On the way home we stopped off at a camping shop I’d researched the day before and replaced some equipment that had become destroyed. Back at the hostel our laundry was clean, dry, folded and waiting for us – what a joy. We loaded up our bikes and moved to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (the new one). The Weatherspoons of hostels: cheap, reliable, decent and highly efficient. Moreover, it was quite nicely decorated. There was a lift and five floors of accommodation, a bar/restaurant on the ground floor with the reception and travel desk, a living room with an outdoor terrace and a bar on the fifth floor. The guys only started in 2004 with a tiny hostel in the old city, now they had this super-busy money-cow too as well as a hostel in Hue. Best of all, everybody staying there was having fun and meeting people and having fun. Win win.

We were now on Saturday night, so a few drinks felt in order. We popped out to Mao then on our way to Le Pub ran into a couple also looking for Le Pub – Dave and Soraya. Le Pub was having a lock-in but we got in and got chatting. Apparently they’d been backpacking around the world for nearly 9 months of which they were in their last few days. Le Pub closed at midnight and as we wandered in search of a new watering hole, a guy with flyers approached us. He said that in Hanoi the police shut down all bars at midnight, going around and kicking everyone out, but that his place had payed them off and we’d be able to go back in and resume the partying once they’d gone. So we went. It was an ok little bar actually, with some good tunes for dancing and 2-4-1 Long Island Iced Teas. As promised, the police turned up just after midnight and everybody got kicked out. A host from the bar herded us all into an alley to wait for the police to leave and then back to the bar. The party was back on. An hour later, however, the same police trio made an appearance again but this time they kicked everyone out AND took the speaker. A Polish girl we got talking to outside recommended a place called Lighthouse that would be open till late – and it was. We didn’t get to bed till 5. It was a good night.

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Urumqi – Kunming

The sleeper bus came to a halt. It was dark outside but the street outside was busy with people. Our phones showed 8a.m. – later we read up that all of China lives by Beijing time officially, but it was so far off convenient for the western province that they had an unofficial ‘local’ time zone as well, so one always had to specify ‘which’ time as well as ‘what’ time here.

We unloaded our bikes, panniers and onboard bags onto the pavement and the bus vanished. It was surprising how, after the Stans, there was no more mud – just immaculately asphalted road, paved sidewalks and landscaped public space, even where we’d anticipated a neglected frontier town. We reassembled our bikes and set out in search of the hostel that Lonely Planet recommended. It grew light towards 9. The hostel was hidden in between a giant shopping centre, a school and a restaurant – we’d circled the block some 3 or 4 times before we finally found it, despite all our attempts at asking the locals for directions. We later read online that the Chinese are prone to giving false directions – not maliciously, but in the event when they don’t know where what you’re looking for is, they’ll point you in a random direction rather than lose respect. We carried our bikes up two flights of stairs into the living room of a laid-back hostel, scribbled all over in marker with chirps by previous travellers. A young man sat with a box full of kittens in his lap and fed them from a bottle. They were subsequently kept behind the bar, wailing and screeching through the day. We weighed up the options and opted for a double ensuite which at £12 was a bargain after the Stans, especially considering that everything was clean and in a working condition (did I mention that Gulnara’s b&b, the only backpacker option in Tashkent, required you to report to reception whenever you required a shower and at the end, so they could switch on and off the pump that took the water supply from a feeble trickle to a slightly less feeble trickle, was run by a grumpy old man who told us that our panniers were too dirty for his clean rooms which we ignored obviously, and had prehistoric beds that are too short for anyone over 170cm; all this for $40 – four times the price we’d paid in Bukhara) . There was even some Japanese-themed artwork on the walls and giant beds.

Just as we finished ferrying our panniers into our room, a familiar tune reached our ears, flowing at a loud volume in through our window. We peeked out of the curtains and discovered that our room backed onto the playground of a school. The song was an instrumental and child-voice cover of Coldplay’s hit Fix You. It was followed by more similar covers of western and Chinese music. Later we observed the whole population of the school spill out into the playground, line up in ranks and perform a kind of callisthenic dance routine to a series of songs, following the lead of two girls on a balcony while the teachers walked the ranks and reigned in the naughties.

We hung around the room for a little while, using the internet to catch up and just chilling, when the smell of burning plastic crept into the room. Dave opened the door to find the corridor filled with a thick smoke – there was no panic, just a sort of confusion as to what to do. Without too much hesitation however, we threw our valuables in a bag and sprung into the corridor, where an innapropriately calm young woman emerged from the thick smoke and told us that there was no problem and that we could go back into our room and open our window. So that’s what we did, mentally assessing the jump height from our window down to the school playground.

Soon thereafter we decided to venture out in order to sightsee and primarily buy train tickets to take us somewhere warmer (the temperature was hovering around 0 all day and it began to snow in the evening, with a further drop in temp the next day). What I’d expected to be a small impoverished frontier town of the Peoples Republic of China, described in Lonely Planet as a hotbed for separatist clashes between the shipped-in Han and native Uygur (there was a noticeable presence of armed police walking the streets in groups of 4 and more) was in fact a modern high-rise megapolis, glittering with neon signs and alluring shopfronts. After the Stans it was a relief not to be constantly stared at or yelled to, but we very quickly found that the Chinese have a revolting habit of spitting on the ground after collecting a gob so noisily you could hear it across the street, even in temples and stations, even women and children. We meandered through the city in search of a train ticketing office that proved very elusive indeed. Eventually we tracked one down and lamely enunciated ‘Chengdu’ and ‘Lanzhou’ at the lady behind the glass. She repeatedly made the gesture for no, and it turned out that that said it all – the info board on the wall showed that tickets to most destinations including the two we required, were sold out for the next three days.

Hunger had caught up with us by that point and we diverted our efforts to finding a hotpot place to feed us. What we had in mind was something similar to the hotpot we’d had in what seemed like a very authentic Chinese restaurant in Nottingham – a buffet of raw foods that you’d collect and cook in your personal bowl of broth at the table. What we got was an A4 sheet densely packed with Mandarin hieroglyphs and tick-boxes. We gave up and tried again, got the same thing and gave up again. Instead we ended up in the Uygur (regional people related culturally to the Stans) neighbourhood eating both of the only dishes on offer in the restaurant packed with locals eating them too – dumplings on their own and dumplings in a flavourless broth. A small group of women sat in the corner of the dining room, packing mince and spring onions into dough parcels at the speed of light all the while chatting incessantly.

It turned out that there was a Carrefour supermarket in the same block, and we found there something that we haven’t managed to track down since – wine made somewhere in the region out of pomegranate juice (apparently it’s made in Armenia too). It was simply delicious. The French supermarket was packed to the gills with exciting Chinese culinary items. Chicken feet (China’s favourite snack), pre-cooked pre-salted (oversalted) eggs (of hens, ducks and quails), endless spices and mushrooms (hallelujah), tofu silken, tofu pressed, tofu fried, tofu noodles etc, gelatinous puds, pick-and-mix tea components (flower heads, dried berries, spices, tea leaves etc), seaweeds, live fish and bullfrogs and crabs, fluffy rice-dough buns and almost inevitably flavoured milk in tiny portion-sized sachets (perfect for coffee).

The next day we took ourselves down to the bus station and bought tickets for the 48-hour non-sleeper bus to Chengdu, leaving that same day at 5pm. We stocked up on snacks and battery life, disassembled and loaded our bikes, and braced ourselves for the longest coach journey ever. As opposed to the coach from Almaty, this one made infrequent loo stops mostly in places not equipped for it, and didn’t stop for food until 2am, requiring that everyone vacate the bus for the duration of the stop and freeze outside the tiny eatery if they weren’t eating. Morning was heralded by Chinese pop music pumped at high volume into the bus. The man behind us started singing along (as we later discovered, a common phenomenon – probably something to do with the nations favourite pastime – karaoke). Very little was outside the window – flat desert-like landscapes with the occassional high-rise village or town. The TV showed a few films, including one in English about some Australians that have an unfortunate run-in with a very large and very vicious crocodile. There was a food stop at 11, when me and Dave played menu roulette and got a plate of tofu with greens (which we had to share) and a plate of salted peanuts (that we took with us back on the bus).

At around 8pm the bus jumped and shook everyone awake, mostly painfully, then slowed down and came to a halt. It took about 2 hours for the bus to be repaired from its encounter with poor road surface (very rare in China, what bliss) in which time me and Dave and a handful of others got dinner at a nearby eatery serving a broth with large square noodles and greens. A couple hours later the drivers stopped for dinner.

Morning found us up on the edge of the Himalayas. Snow blanketed the landscape as far as the eye could see, peppered with infinite herds of big hairy Yaks and tiny villages often decorated with multicoloured flags. The descent was dramatic and probably picturesque when there’s trees and water in the riverbed below. Soon enough we were unloading our bikes into the mild and mellow climate of Chengdu.

We cycled to Sim’s Hostel, highly praised by Lonely Planet as possibly the best hostel in China. It was nice indeed, with two outdoor couryards – one zen and the other one social – a lively pub that served excellent food of many origins, a travel help desk and an unwanted gear exchange rack. The dorm rooms all had an ensuite bathroom and furniture affording storage and drying space to each of the beds. We checked in to a four-person dorm for two nights and spent the evening winding down in the pub, anticipating the English Breakfast from the menu. We also met Dave our roommate, a Canadian who works for Google and confirmed all the rumours about pets at work, free foodcourts and various other facilities that pretty much make work a five-star all-inclusive hotel. Lucky man.

In the morning we had our English breakfasts, arranged a dinner date with an American couple we’d met the day before and cycled out for a spot of sightseeing. A word on Chengdu’s cycle paths – it’s nice they’re there, unlike Urumqi, they’re wide and busy with bikes and electric mopeds, but the downside is that you often find traffic going in the wrong direction in them, sometimes even cars, they’re also used by pedestrians hauling giant loaded trolleys, and there is a widespread disregard for traffic lights which the government tackles with ‘friendly’ slang-filled road signs (read about this ‘innovative’ policy in the paper) and armies of flag-wielding traffic regulators, four per intersection, who often have to physically block the way of urgent two-wheelers. In the next few days we were to see on the telly repeated news stories about how the prohibition on drink-driving, that was only introduced in May this year, was faring. Our experience of Chinese driving later on, characterized by a policy of routinely beeping at vehicles in front to say ‘I’m a-coming and now that I’ve warned you I can drive as badly as I like and it still aint’ gonna be my fault if we crash’, suggests to me at least that road rules here are either non-existant (suggested by how late the prohibition on drink-driving was adopted), not understood or not taken seriously, but definitely not enforced. Sort it out, PRC!

We’d read about widespread bicycle theft so were pleasantly surprised to find a manned bicycle parking (costing the equivalent of 20p) right opposite the entrance to the Buddhist Wenshu Temple we’d come to see. Clouds of incense, picturesque pavilions densely packed with energetic pensioners, zen gardens a study in experiential journey orchestration, statues of animals that all approximate a cube in volume and have toothy dragon-like faces, Buddhist monks with shaven heads and warm-hued outfits lurking in the background, casual Buddhists kneeling in front of this temple or that, all of them built like a filigree display case around a particular flower-adorned statue, most of them standing upwards of 5m tall, with a heavily ornamented curvy roof floating above. The temples and other buildings of the complex were arranged in such a way as to create a flowing, rectangular in plan, circulation linking a number of internal courtyards small enough to render them intimate. Spellbinding.

Outside, a renovated district of traditional-style architecture is packed with little shops, teahouses and restaurants, all of them doing a roaring trade despite us and another couple we spotted, being the only obvious foreigners in the thick crowd. We let ourselves be drawn by smells into an eatery where with a pleasant pavilion-like interior and ordered two of the set menus. What arrived was about 20 tiny bowls, each containing something different – there were super spicy vermicelli, thick cold noodles, several varieties of dumplings, mochi soup, pickled vegetables and other things. Yum and fun and filling.

The next stop on our itinerary was the People’s Park. By the time we’d managed to park our bikes with an attendant that didn’t pack up shop before we’d be done with dinner, it was dusk but the park was still busy, a couple of young men were practicing calligraphy in water on dark smooth paving tiles near the entrance, an amateur band was packing up their instruments, the teahouses still had some of the tables, dispersed along winding paths within their gardens, occupied. We ordered a bamboo tea and a jasmine tea and got two ceramic little bowls with lids containing our tea and then a giant thermos of hot water for endless top-ups. Rebrewing the tea leaves again and again and again seems to be the way its done here – maybe it’s down to the properties of the green tea they use. The lid is then used to prevent the free-floating tea leaves from getting into your mouth as you drink.

Then it was time for our dinner date. As arranged, we met Ken and his partner and their Chinese guide outside their hostel at 7. Andrea, the guide, took charge of all practicalities for the night, finding us a hotpot restaurant, filling out the form and helping us mix our own dipping sauce, then making repeated attempts at filling our bowls with items cooking in the hotpot – lotus root, potatoes, rice cakes, shrimps, calamari, squid, lamb, beef, fish balls, bok choi, enoki mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, brown mushrooms, meatballs. In the meanwhile the rest of us exchanged travel stories and general banter. Turns out Ken had been travelling China intermittently for years and years and said there was still plenty to see.

The next day we moved to the next hostel on our list of hostels to see while in Chengdu – The Loft Design Hostel. It was a converted 5-story printworks with a Tate-style giftshop, expensive cafe popular with a trendy local crowd, a sizeable and densely populated studio on the middle floor and rooms with painted brick walls, clever design features and ikea furniture. On the downside, it was drafty, the showers and toilets were in an outhouse-style extension made of flimsy PVC and white tile, the courtyard was slippery and the cake wasn’t that great. We got a double room without a loo and upgraded the next day to an ensuite, for Dave’s convenience seen as he developed a food poisoning during the day. In the meanwhile he was still feeling ok and we ventured out for lunch to another one of Chengdu’s renovated old-style districts near the hostel, this one with pricier establishments of an inner-courtyard type, beautiful but not particularly conducive to a lively streetscape. There was even a Quing-dynasty style Starbucks.

We eventually found a busy eatery which turned out to be busy because of the relatively ok prices and not the quality – my dish was too salty to eat and drowning in Sichuan peppercorns (they produce a powerful tingling/numbing sensation along with a ginger spiciness, and me and Dave decided early on that we don’t like them) and Dave’s had the texture of an eraser. We did however get a giant bottle of multi-nut milk (soy bean, walnut, peanut, almond etc and quite a bit of sugar) which was delicious and well worth discovering. On the way there we saw an indoor market, quite small, but with an isle of fishmongers, with large fishtanks on display with live fish, sea snakes, bullfrogs, snails, crabs et al.

At this point Dave was beginning to feel worse, so we headed back to the hostel and put Dave in bed. In the evening I ventured out to KFC and fetched Dave a bucket of chicken – but sadly no coleslaw or beans were available. Dave had a bad night but was feeling a bit better the next day, so we ventured out to see the Taoist temple in a park a reasonable walk from the hostel. We’d hoped to lunch at the vegetarian restaurant in the temple complex but we were late and they’d wrapped up for the day. Instead we headed deeper into the park in which it stood – a park packed to the gills with pensioners sat in fours around tables sipping tea and playing mahjong – and had a menu-roulette meal at one of the tea houses. We then walked to the Wuhou temple but by the time we got there, having stopped at a number of the outdoors shops nearby until we’d found me a suitable pair of convertible trousers, there was only about 20 minutes left until it closed and the admission fee was steep so we decided to skip it and walk in the third old-style district built just around the back of the temple complex. This one was probably the most picturesque, with ponds and bridges, weaving streets and a compelling streetscape. Next we crossed into the Tibetan district sprawling opposite the temple. The architecture was not at all telling, but the shops stocked with Buddhist and Tibetan clothing, golden Buddhas and Buddhist paraphernalia and the men in saffron-coloured outfits and women with a darker complexion, braided hair and massive jewellery, wearing quilted sash-fastened coats with one sleeve off and dangling down their back, they were pretty telling. We couldn’t help staring but also got stared at quite a lot, especially Dave as per usual. His beard is really filling in now.

We couldn’t wait for dinner, planned as it was to take place at a Tibetan eatery in the Tibetan district. We ordered butter tea (but probably got milk tea instead, because it didnt have a layer of oil on it nor did it taste cheesy as it should have according to the guidebook), barley wine (yummy live yeasty stuff) and butter wine (which did have a layer of oil on it, was hot and tasted like distilled rice alcohol), yak meat fried with potatoes (which was just that, little bits of black yak meat and potato cubes fried to death with no spices or seasonings) and what turned out to be a bowl of coarse roasted barley flour mixed with a small amount of butter (we tried mixing it into our tea as per wikitravel but it still had the texture of sandpaper and no flavour). It must’ve all been pretty authentic – we were the only non-Tibetans in the building. We didn’t like it. We caught a taxi home for only a couple pounds and got to bed.

The next morning we got up early, jumped on our bikes and made the hour-long trip out to the outskirts of Chengdu to see the Panda research and breeding base. It was rammed with tour groups and school groups who took autographs off Dave and yelled ‘hello’ quite a lot. We saw an adult panda, giant lazy bear chewing his way through bunches of bamboo, some ‘teenage’ pandas either eating, leaning back on their back and using all four feet to bend bamboo towards their mouths, or passed out, a large group of baby pandas, curled up into little black&white furballs on the grass while the one anomalously energetic panda baby playfully bothered another, which was trying to do its best to remain asleep. Then we saw lots of red pandas, who look much more like cartoonish foxes than pandas, and are about the right size for a fox. They’re less endangered because they are less picky about their food sources and don’t particularly mind reproducing, which seems to be the main problem with the giant panda. A museum elaborated on that and other things panda, including a display of preserved panda organs and babies, panda bones and taxidermy pandas. Apparently some Emperor some time ago had pandas trained as battlemonsters for use in war. Also they have the digestive tract of a carnivore.

By the time we got back it was check-out time and we piled our stuff back onto our bikes and moved on to our next Chengdu hostel – Traffic Inn. This one was tucked behind a dreary hotel of the same name on the riverfront, boasting a bungalow-like meandering layout, beautiful yet functional interiors with intricate artisanal wooden furniture, comfy beds, full-height shutters for doors and a double-height bar/cafe which did cheap but bland food. After a late lunch, we walked to the computer district just down the road with our laptop, which had had a slowly deteriorating charger problem for a while and was near impossible to charge by now. We got a new charger which solved the problem and went for a wonder around the great big computer department store – Sunning. On several floors stalls full of spiky-haired youth sell counterfeit and genuine computing and mobile goods and accessories. We asked around for the price of iPhone headphones and cases – the former to replace Dave’s and the latter mine, until we came across a helpful young man on the fourth floor who actually spoke english and understood that we weren’t made of money just because we’re foreign, slashed the prices by half (even for the genuine moshi case I got and registered online out of curiosity) and made a sale.

We wandered back past the hostel and across the river into the shopping district, which was kind of like Oxford street if you copy it in parallel and in perpendicular a few times and make the shops bigger and taller and the streets pedestrianized and wider. I was after a new pair of glasses (the ones I’d bought off ebay turned out to be fake & terrible quality, surprise surprise) and flipflops. The latter have been elusive since Turkey, where they first began to manifest wear, but the former we found in a crammed low-ceilinged but buzzing indoor market where young fashionistas browsed geek-style glasses (quite a few without glass at all!), furry jumpers, leathery leggings, false eyelashes and other items outside the range of the sportswear stores which dominate the shopping district. I could’ve stayed there for ever but Dave quickly got bored and claustrophobic so we took ourselves and my new £4 knock-off Ray Bans home.

The next day we only ventured out for lunch to a hotpot place around the corner – this time it was a buffet of raw foods skewered on little sticks, which make it easier to keep track of them in the hotpot. We got a separated pot – half spicy and half non-spicy broth. We’d failed to arrive within the narrow space of time that is lunch time, again, and were the only diners there along with three men at the next table. The food was excellent and quite spicy, clearing our colds temporarily. We did laundry and started to plan a route south – we were finally going to leave Chengdu and do some cycle touring for the first time in weeks!

The next day it took us a while to get ready, and we didn’t set out until after lunch. It was a lovely day – the sky, normally thickly hazy, dissipating sunlight and dulling the sun, was a lower density than usual and subtle shadows appeared on the ground. It took us over an hour to get out of Chengdu, it’s such a large city.

Beyond, the road weaved roughly alongside a river, both tightly flanked by cultivated land, little clumps of greens in tight rows crowding every inch of free soil. Towns and multi-storey villages appeared frequently, flanking the road with shop-front homes, where the whole bottom storey is an open plan workshop/shop/eatery/living room open to the street and closed off by means of two or three garage-door-style roller shutters for the night, while the upper storey(s) are the private home of the family.

We were aiming for Huang Long Xi, a village some 40km south of Chengdu (what we hadn’t realised is that it took another 30km to get out of Chengdu from the centre) where they’d filmed Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and boasting a number of original Qing dynasty houses. It grew dark and there’d been nowhere camping-friendly so we decided to keep going and try and stay in a hotel in the village. We cycled up to it along the other side of the river only to find that there was no bridge but a ferry crossing that had closed for the day. This meant going back 10km, over the other river, onto a tiny (thankfully concrete sealed road, marked as a cycle path although it was clearly just the main access road for all the villages strung along this road) road and through what may in daylight have been very picturesque countryside but in the dark just lots of weaving and up-and-downs. We got lost a few times but finally a local on a moped with his baby and wife on the back accompanied us to a village just the other side of Huang Long Xi again, where he showed us a hotel and took off. I moped but Dave took the ultimately right decision to just stay there and continue the next day. The next day it turned out that there were two bridges under construction but not yet usable so we had to cycle some 10km further upstream until we came upon a usable bridge (also new) and then back the other bank to Huang Long Xi.

Huang Long Xi was rammed with tourists (most of them Chinese) sampling regional delights from stalls and restaurants, buying black bean chili sauce, sichuan peppercorns, trinkets and souvenirs from shops flanking the streets, renting outfits (wedding dresses or Chinese traditional mostly) for photos, drinking tea on the riverfront, buying pet rabbits and deep fried insects from street hawkers. We left our loaded bikes at a manned cycle parking and went in. We had late breakfast, bought black bean chili sauce, checked out an old temple, did a supermarket shop for dinner and lunched.

The next destination was Leshan, the town boasting the world’s largest Buddha. We took to the road, stopping briefly to pick up some Chinese radish and chives from an old lady by the road for a shocking total of 2p. As dusk approached, we turned off the main road and lost ourselves in a very picturesque network of unsealed paths weaving through fields and a village with actual single-storey houses without a shopfront, in search of a camping spot or a bridge to get to the other side of the river, which seemed less populated on the map. We tried asking locals for directions to the bridge but they all reacted awkwardly and we finally understood why when we got to the riverside just as it was getting dark – there wasn’t a bridge, but a ferry (a metal raft attached to a motorboat), loading up with mopeds just as we arrived at the riverside. We made a quick decision, powered down the ramp and onto the ferry just as it was casting off. On the other side, just a little way up the bank, piles of gravel sat next to eachother and a giant pile of gravel off to one side. The gravel piles were just bigger than our tent and would hide us effectively if anyone were to pass by, but the area was pretty deserted. The only sign of civilization was the soundtrack of a kung-fu film that drifted from over the giant gravel pile. It became evident that we’d taken the last ferry across. We set up tent, I attacked my brand new ingredients and we opened up a slim bottle of infused wine.

The next morning we entertained the ferry-man by catching a morning ferry back to the other side. It was now Dave’s birthday and the plan was to get to Leshan asap so we could get cake, champagne and celebrate properly. We had underestimated the distance (which came to 100km) and the rolling terrain took its toll but we were both pretty focused, had a packed lunch from dinner’s leftovers (Uzbek pasta spirals Chinese style!), were both feeling well (not that frequent an occurence lately!) and the landscape and weather contributed to elevated spirits. A group of Chinese cycle tourists passed in the opposite direction, waving their greetings and booming music out of speakers. We powered through and got to Leshan by 3:30, found a cake shop and piled in, dishevelled and sweaty. Two display cases were filled with cakes of different sizes, shapes and colours, decorations ranging from sugar tigers to flowers to arrays of fruit. Dave steered clear of the pink, green and purple cakes, choosing instead one that was bathed in chocolate syrup with a veritable fruit salad on top. We paid and slowly realised that the display cakes were plastic – the cake we’d ordered was going to be made from scratch in the nearest future. We managed to agree on five o’clock with the saleswoman, leeched some wi-fi to pick a smart-looking hotel on tripadvisor.com and cycled off to check in.

We went through the centre of Leshan, densely packed with shoppers and tricycle taxis. The tripadvisor map turned out to be wrong and we had to cycle back past the cake shop to get to the hotel, picking up the cake on the way. The hotel was new and furnished to a 3-4 star standard, with a clever shower cubicle (instead of a ceramic base there was a wetroom floor with an elevated slate platform to stand on while the water drained around the sides, also a cheeky full height window into the bedroom) and a kettle (in the cheaper places we’d stayed you get a large thermos of water instead – thats for pot noodles and endless cups of tea, in fact most Chinese come with a container full of tea attached). We went out for dinner and picked up champagne at Walmart (a big Chinese thing, sweet and mild) then returned to the cake. In several sessions, including before and after dinner and breakfast we managed to put away one of the largest cakes the cake shop had had on offer.

Breakfast served on the top floor of the hotel was … different – there were little mince-filled rice buns, dumplings and many many varieties of steamed greens in savoury dressings. Locals also had bowls of bland rice soup. We cycled to the park containing the Buddha (we’d tried to spot him from the opposite side of the river the night before but he wasn’t lit up by night), parked our bikes, climbed the mountain to the Buddhas head (crowded around with photographers taking pictures of punters ‘holding the Buddhas ear’ or ‘leaning on his nose’), descended the stairs to the Buddhas feet (70m down) and back up the other side. Then there was a pagoda, a drinking pavilion, a writers retreat, a Taoist temple and a garden full of koi fish. By the time we emerged it was lunch time, and by the time we cycled far enough to minimize our risk of getting ripped off at a tourist spot, it was past lunch. Just as the last of the locals finished off with their lunch, we sat down at an eatery and menu-rouletted ourselves a plate of cold chopped-on-the-bone chicken floating in a plate of chili oil and a bowl of sweet glutinous rice topped with some sort of cooked dragonfruit (hopefully).

At Leshan three rivers converge to one, and that is the river we would cycle roughly alongside to get to our next destination – Yibin. At first there was a string of towns, then villages, slowly giving way to industry (coal mining and gravel) and landscape (increasingly mountainous and forested). As it got towards evening we climbed halfway up a slope and camped in a very pretty clearing between thick trunks of bamboo and a thin grove that separated us from the main road. We were in sight of the minor road that led up to the mountain villages, but our scouting efforts hadn’t yielded anything better so we resolved to just go for it.

The next morning the traffic moved to the other side of the river and we rode in solitude through stunning subtropical landscape, bamboo groves, red sandstone cliffs, terraced traditional farming fields weaving up slopes on which traditional huts perched, fat healthy chickens and ducks roaming free, the occassional grey water buffalo wailing casually. The road vanished in an out-of-the-way town and we gambled on the mudtrack that led in vaguely the right direction. It was a slightly painful hour but our gamble paid off and a concrete road surface appeared. We hesitated to commit to a camping spot – none of them were quite right, but in China its hard to be picky – and looped back to a town where we found basic lodging for a fiver. The lady owner was pretty excited and even looked up our website (it’s on our flags on our bikes) but was forced to spend most of the evening doing paperwork with the local cop on our account – they kept taking our passports, once the cop even drove off with them briefly. The lady next door running an eatery fed us what may have been goat meat, a soup with lots of entrails processed in different ways and a plate of glass noodles. It was hearty and filling and the atmosphere was friendly and pleasant.

Late the next morning we asked around for a river crossing, got a couple of guys on a moped to accompany us through the town’s main street (it was a busy market day, yikes) to the river front where another ferry was filling up with people and mopeds. We thanked them and hopped on board. On the other side we paused, I went off to buy food off the street vendors and returned to find Dave besieged with a large crowd. Apparently they’d demanded to be photographed and then got drawn into looking at the other photos on our camera. It was nice to interact with locals. They pointed us in the direction of the road to Yibin and we pedalled off, waving our thanks.

There was more villages and farming on this side of the river, and we enjoyed scenes of subtropical country life until the day grew old and we started looking for a camping spot again. This time we attempted heading for a temple marked on GoogleMaps (presumably a lot of monasteries in China offer lodging for a fee) along an unsealed road, couldn’t find it, and finally just pitched our tent on a hill just above the road, surrounded by fields, in a tent-sized clearing among a grove of saplings. We could hear people pretty much the whole time we were there, but didn’t have any problems and left early.

The road grew busier and soon enough we’d emerged from the countryside into Yibin, a sizeable town with plenty of high-rise accommodation and a giant Walmart where we stocked up on food after eating out for lunch – three of the most delicious dishes we’ve had so far in China with beers for £3 – at a busy street eatery. We left Yibin and set out in the direction of the Bamboo Sea. We didn’t get far before it was time to camp and we headed for a reservoir we’d seen on the map. In practice, the reservoir was half a kilometer up a mountain so steep we had to push our bikes all the way up. At least there was plenty of space here where we could camp without crushing someones harvest of radishes or bok choy. We set up tent on a ledge overlooking the valley below and I broke out my recipe app, spending a couple of hours putting together a hybrid pork and veg stirfry with noodles. In the meanwhile Dave was overcome with symptoms of food poisoning and couldn’t touch dinner, which is a shame because it was the best Chinese I’d ever cooked. He had a terrible night and was feeling weak the next day. Fortunately it was only 40km to Changning and we took it slowly. Eventually we tracked down a reasonable hotel and Dave once again retired to bed while I did an epic load of laundry by hand and arranged it in our airconditioned adjacent mah-jong room to dry (which they stubbornly refused to do, grr).

The next day Dave was feeling a bit better, so we cycled the 600 vertical metres up to the top of the Bamboo Sea and checked in to a hotel there just as evening fell. The next day we ventured out for a stroll and took in the beauties of the bamboo forest with its waterfalls and temples, rivers and cliffs. After unsuccessfully attempting pot noodles the night before, Dave was barely eating and had a definite aversion to Chinese food which was unfortunate because there was nothing else in the Bamboo Sea. I lived off pot noodles and beer while Dave worked his way through the copious supplies of Snickers I’d got at Walmart and biscuits from the corner shop opposite the hotel. We’d found the Bamboo Sea an anticlimax, basically an expensive version of the stuff we see anyway on our day-to-day cycling, we weren’t looking forward to the mountainous terrain to Kunming and felt like we’d seen plenty of Sichuanese cuisine and countryside, so we decided to cycle back to Yibin and hop on a train to Kunming, so that’s what we did the next day. It was unexpectedly easy, considering our previous experience attempting to get on a train – we got into Yibin around 5 and bought tickets for the 9:30 sleeper train, checked our bikes and half the luggage into the cargo office, slept comfortably on the train, breakfasted on the train, hopped off, collected our bikes and stuff – lo and behold, we were in Kunming, capital of a whole new province – Yunnan.

We headed straight to Cloudland Hostel recommended by LP and checked into the 8-person dorm. In the courtyard where we parked our bikes we noticed a proliferation of touring bikes and later met their owners – a German guy travelling on his own, an older German guy travelling with a Brit to Vietnam and thereafter Singapore, a German couple who’ve already been travelling for 9 months and hope to keep going for one or two more years, and a later addition of a Canadian lady cycle tourist. Having ditched our stuff at the hostel we rushed to the Vietnam consulate, located ironically right next to the train station. We got our passports in, ran into the Germans, headed back to the hostel stopping off at the Carrefour to buy some food and run into the Germans once again.  In the evening we ventured out through the ‘night market’ (clubbing district) towards ‘Western street’ (lined with cafes & pubs) where we enjoyed a coffee and cheesecake that tasted suspiciously like La Vache Qui Rit.

The next day we spent giving our bikes a thorough clean and service, losing kilos of mud and grit in the process. By the time we were through with the ordeal, it was dark and we headed out to the ‘Western’ district for a treat dinner – pizza made by real Italians! The next day we popped to Walmart to get food and bits and bobs (by the way here in Kunming they make cured ham very similar to Parma ham, bit tougher and more salty), formatted our laptop, did laundry and reorganized our stuff. Then it was time to collect our passports from the Vietnamese consulate and we rushed off on our bikes, making it there just in time. On our way back to the hostel we stopped off for a stroll in the shopping district and the adjacent ‘bird and flowers’ (trinkets and souvenirs) market. Friday we finally went sightseeing – up to the picturesque Buddhist temple complex built around a pond, down through the city’s park rammed with locals practicing dance, music, tai chi, and feeding the Russian gulls, through the center of town and back. Today we’ve pretty much spent the whole day writing and illustrating the post, so enjoy and thanks to Danika for the prod :)

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Update

Latest: Uzbekistan post, Tashkent-Urumchi post (both below), up-to-date track-my-tour map posts here, a brand new installment of Pedro on Tour here and the updated Facewatch gallery here.

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Tashkent – Urumqi

Waking up in the dorm (which we had to ourselves) we were soon packed  up and ready to go, and after a quick shower in the slightly less feeble shared bathroom and another egg breakfast we were on our way. The road out of Tashkent took us through some of the modern shopping districts where tree lined avenues flanked by new buildings drifted by then as we reached the outskirts the suburban single story courtyard houses returned. The border crossing is only 20km from the city centre and soon enough we found ourselves rolling through a police checkpoint and weaving our way past hundreds of pedestrians – some pushing trollies with elderly relatives sat on them like makeshift wheelchairs, others lugging huge cases, but all making their way to the gate ahead of us.

The border consisted of a pair of large metal gates, with a third smaller one to the side – the first two for vehicles and the other for foot traffic. We were bemused to see that the gate on our side of the road was not only closed but locked and barricaded! The other vehicle gate was ajar, with a couple of soldiers guarding it and a slow stream of people emerging through it from the Kazakh side.

We barely noticed all this however because the third gate had our complete attention – hundreds of people were rammed between two concrete barricades as they fought to reach the front, where more armed guards were holding the gate ajar and seemingly at random, letting a small number from the hoard through (I wouldn’t be suprised if we’d discovered they simply wait until someone is on the verge of suffocating in the crush and then grant them mercy). Unsuprisingly, neither of us felt any great desire to fight our way through that crowd – our fully ladden bikes in tow – so we headed to the guards at the larger gate and Anya asked if we could go through. They gestured towards the pedestrian gate, muttered something about it being busy at the moment so ‘wait a few minutes and you’ll get through’ or words to that effect.

Unsure what we had been told to do, we stood to one side and waited to see what would happen, taking the oppertunity to observe the chaos more thoroughly. There was no hint of order to the proceedings with people forcing their way into a space which simply wasn’t big enough for them, until the guard who had spoken to us made his way over and climbing on one of the concrete barricades ordered the masses back (occasionally gesturing with his gun to encourage the more reluctant of the group. Order restored I realised progress was finally being made and within a few minutes the queue had been processed and we were able to make our orderly way through.

We were forced to join the foot traffic through the departures building as, although the infrastructure is in place, this crossing is closed to vehicles – happily things were more orderly from here on so apart from the usual tedious process of unloading the bikes to pass luggage through the scanners, waiting for a slow customs official to stand there while we open a few select bags in front of him, pull out the first few items and are sent on our way,  we were through the formalities with stamps in our passports smoothly enough – although there was a nervous moment when, having let me through without a second glance the passport officials requested to see Anya’s registration slips – we had more than one hole in the paperwork leaving the potential for hefty fines. Happily after a quick glance at the stack of recipts she was also waved through and we were free.

Queueing on the Kazakh side we were annoyed to find multiple locals trying to force their way in front of us – Anya told them off in Russian which they dismissed saying ‘we’re local, we don’t need to queue’. Another local joined us in expressing disaproval then engaged Anya in conversation while we shuffled slowly forwards – he informed us that we could catch a bus direct to Almaty from just outside the border rather than having to cycle to Shymkent as we had intended. Our bags were again scanned, bored officials again took it upon themselves to quiz us about our passports rather than doing their own jobs but, two hours after arriving at the Uzbek border we finally emerged from the other side, changed a small amount of our currency and set off in search of the bus, pursued eagerly by a gang of drivers fighting to give us a lift despite their inadequate vehicles. One guy was particularly determined to make some money out of us so, after multiple attempts to pursuade us his saloon could infact fit everything (physics be damned), switched tacts and took it upon himself to find us a money changer and lead us to the bus – as we had no idea where to find it we accepted the latter offer and Anya bartered a good price for ‘Us And The Bikes (said in Russian with very clear hand gestures to be safe). Sure enough, when we got to the bus is price doubled to which we protested and, tired of our new shadow, made to leave – at which point the driver emerged and we were able to barter to the original price.

At this point we were starving having eaten nothing since 7am (it was past 2 once we’d got the bikes loaded on the bus) and went for lunch in a nearby cafe before boarding the 14 hour bus to Almaty. The bus was in a bad state and our seats were far from luxurious – in fact, we had been given the worst seats on the bus in exchange for our discount – they had been squeezed in as an afterthought by a profit-hungry mind and as such we had zero leg room – neither of us could sit straight as our knees collided with the seats in front, and we were dreading the journey ahead when to our great relief two Kazakh men were suprised to find us in the seats they had been directed to. We gladly dived across to comparative luxury and feeling bad for the victims of our previous seats, we set off.

We slept little on that journey – unable to recline one of the seats at all, and both uncomfortable, a fact worsened by the overwhelming interest our seat saviours afforded us. Anya claims she will always remember the sight of a face smiling from ear to ear slowly sliding into view over my shoulder as she was talking to me towards the start of the trip – its owner then proceeded to bombard us with questions, declarations of eternal friendship, requests for contact information and more. The 14 hour journey was accordingly routinely punctuated by two things – first, regular stops to remove the floor from beside our seats so that repairs could be made to the undercarrage and rear axel as it was repeatly shaken to pieces by agressive driving on pothole-ridden roads, and second, our new friend trying excitedly to engage us in conversation regardless of the fact that one or both of us was asleep or trying to be.

Arriving in Almaty we offloaded the bikes and set off towards the city centre, the Himalayas looming over us just beyond the Southern tip of the city. We had only some very vague directions to the cheapest hotel on wikitravel and after spending an hour looking for it we arrived only to find it fully booked for the night. Happily we had cycled past a guesthouse in our search and, returning there, managed to barter our way down to a better deal than the hotel was offering anyway. Dumping our luggage we set off to the ‘Green Bazaar’ – a food market which offers not only fresh fruit and veg but also a huge range of meat and fish (from pork to horse, chicken to eel), fresh salads, cured meat and cheeses, and more varieties of honey than I’ve ever seen. We stocked up on supplies for a picnic – the highlight of which was ‘Kazy’ -  a piece of horse shoulder (possibly smoked?) wrapped in intestine.

We took our picnic supplies and went to a nearby park which features a Cathedral built without a single nail (or screw I guess…) and a very grand WWII monument. As we ate we watched countless white stretch limos pull up and offload wedding parties who then paraded around the park pursued by photographers and film crew – this custom of creating elaborate wedding photoalbums with cheesy photos in front of local tourist landmarks has been following us since Iran but never in such numbers as here! After lunch it was time for a journey into Anya’s family history – a walk across town to see her dad’s school and the home he grew up in! 70′s era buildings lined the approach to the intersection we hoped to find his apartment on, so I was half expecting to find a modern build in its place, but sure enough, there it was.We’d been told which window was his so stood there trying to imagine him as a small boy playing in the street before us. After taking photos we continued round the corner to the school – this had clearly been renovated and expanded fairly recently, but Anya was understandably still excited to get this glimpse into her parents past.

Trip back in time successful, our next mission was to explore modern Almaty so we headed to the street where any number of trendy bars and cafes can supposedly be found. We did eventually find one such coffee shop which unsuprisingly was both disapointing and overpriced, so we decided to change tact and engage in a bit of western living by searching out some English pubs and undertaking a mini-pub crawl, complete with ‘pub grub’ – bangers and mash, although this was a seriously disappointing dainty dish with bland sausages, minimal mash and NO GRAVY! Outrageous!

The following morning we set off on our unladen bikes on the 8km trip back to the bus station where we procured the tickets for the fabled ‘sleeper bus’ to Urumqi – a process that thankfully was actually painless, although the only bus was scheduled to depart at 8am, requiring an early start to be sure we arrived with time to load the bikes.

We’d spotted a sushi joint on our cycle into town the day before which offered a set lunch for a couple of pounds and having completed our morning mission decided to head back here for lunch. A delicious platter of sushi followed and we departed very contented to take in some more tourist sites, hunt for postcards and stamps (which we eventually found at the post office) before finding ourselves at another pub, this one claiming to be Irish. Following our pub visit we popped to a nearby Carrefour on our way home to buy a few essentials for the bus, as well as a bottle of Pomegranate wine which, as it turned out, was absolutely delicious.

The sleeper bus journey was a unique experience – after loading up our luggage we climbed aboard where I was shocked to see a long carpet stretching down the isle, between the two runs of bunkbeds, giving the bus more of the feel of a hostel dorm than our transport for the next thousand kilometers. Reaching our bunks we climbed in and were relieved to find that they were just as comfortable as we had hoped. The journey passed quicker than any we’ve had previously as we drifted in and out of sleep throughout, stopping regularly for toilet runs and dinner, as well as to clear the Kazakh – China border – it was a pain to have to unload the bikes and all luggage to pass through the checkpoints but we made it through them without any problems until we reached the last hurdle leaving the Kazakh side. I was allowed through without any problems but the woman in the passport control booth was entirely bemused by the fact that Anya had two passports – her Greek one containing the Chinese visa while her Russian granted her access to Kazakhstan without a visa. The complexities of this were too much for her and she ran off to seek the advice of her superiors… leaving us with a rapidly growing queue behind and a full bus waiting for us ahead. After what seemed like an age she mercifully returned, informing Anya that she would have to write a note ‘requesting permission to leave the contry’ and explaining the unprecedented double passports. A very bizare bit of beuraucracy but she did as she was asked and was let through. The Chinese border was much easier, and we passed through no problem.
On the Chinese side however we had no idea where to go – the bus driver had told us to meet them at the bus station, but on emerging there was no sign of it. Thankfully Anya was able to ask a local who spoke good russian and offered to show us the way, jumping on his moped and setting off. We got to the bus station but were concerned to find no sign of our sleeper – I set off around the depo frantically searching for it until Anya spotted some fellow passengers who reassured her that it was on its way here where a scheduled stop for food was planned, so we pulled out our stove and set about making tea while we waited.

Sure enough, the bus soon appeared, although we were forced to cut our tea break short as the restaurant was closed, o the drivers were keen to carry on – we threw our luggage back on board and continued on our lethargic journey to Urumqi.

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