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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Closing the Loop

That next day out of Vientiane was indeed a long one. It was an 86 mile ride to the little town of Xanamkhan, following along the Mekong River the whole way, but it was not the distance that proved the difficulty. The city traffic died fairly quickly as highway 13 (which I had been on for most my time in Laos) turned north and I continued west along the river. While I was relatively close to the Mekong at all times, sometimes I had a spectacular view of it, with its sandbars and large rocky islands, and others it would be gone from view behind vegetation. I rode through many small villages that seemed to get further and further apart as I went. There were multiple signs along the highway that said "Beware Bicycle", a good warning to drivers, though it amused me that it made it sound like we cyclists were some kind of threat. 

40 miles in, there was a stretch of construction, the road got narrower and rougher, and stayed that way even past the construction. It felt like those "Beware Bicycle" signs were more needed here, but were no longer to be seen. There also weren't really cyclists to be seen other than me either. The road also went from flat to having more short hills. But I was still moving at a quick pace, and I felt increasingly sure that I could relax and not worry about time, as I had been most the day, moderating myself in my stops.

But then when I had about 20 miles left, the road turned to dirt. For awhile it wasn't bad, but soon it got increasingly wash-boarded and rocky. Every vehicle that passed by would throw up a blinding cloud of dust, and my bike and I were quickly caked in it. It no longer seemed like I was nearly as close to the end, as my pace was cut nearly in half, with my hands aching from the rough ride. I may have been getting closer, but the approximated time to the end seemed to be remaining the same. Then, finally, 10 miles from the end, I crossed a bridge into a little village and saw pavement to my right, more dirt to my left. I was very tempted by the pavement to go the last bit of the way, but it would mean retracing my steps the next day, as Xanamkhan was a bit out of the way down the river bend, actually over a short bridge that puts the town on a dead end path. I am not sure what compelled me, but I stuck to the gravel. It looked better than it had been at first, but it quickly turned rough and rocky again, and I questioned my sanity. But at least now I had the narrow, up and down, road along the river all to myself, no more damned cars and horrible dust. After awhile the dirt got decent, and it was a beautiful, fairly downhill ride to the end. I made it, dirty and tired, to the guesthouse, with the sun low in the sky. I walked around in search of a restaurant, but found myself giving up and just buying some grocery items instead for dinner.

The next day, much to my surprise, ended up being an even harder day. It was half the mileage of the day before, but many of those miles were very hard earned. It started easy, on a fairly flat road. Then I turned west to head over the mountains to Pak Lay. When I saw the sign that said "blasting area", I knew I was in for trouble. Sure enough, I soon hit heavy construction. It was rough going. Every vehicle that passed kicked up that blinding cloud of dust that quickly had me and my gear covered, and made me wonder why I bothered cleaning my bike the evening before (tediously, with baby wipes that I purchased in town and would continue using the rest of the trip). I got confused and concerned when I saw signs that said "road closed ahead", because this was literally the only road. But when I asked someone stopped in a truck, they indicated it still went through, gesturing and saying "Pak Lay".

I've rarely felt such relief as I did seeing the sign that said "end road work". Now I just had the extremely steep hills over the mountain to deal with. ...But I shouldn't have gotten so excited, because all too soon I saw another "blasting area" sign, and shortly thereafter I was back into construction. It would come and go, sections of pavement, then more construction and rutted dirt road, sometimes the dirt getting so deep on the steep climbs that I had no choice but to walk. It's a bad feeling having a truck coming up behind you as you struggle, up to your ankles in dirt, to get up the road to somewhere you can get out of the way. Eventually, I saw a bike tourist coming the other way. He told me to hurry, because the construction crews were on lunch (which I had noticed in the last segment I had come through), and I wouldn't be able to get through ahead easily once they got off. I noticed he was riding a black Disc Trucker just like me, but there wasn't the time for chatting. Sweat burned in my eyes as I made the brutal climbs as fast as I could. I got through the true final stretch of construction just before they started stopping people, feeling totally wrecked. Some folks had a stand at the top, and I guzzled some orange juice. A guy there offered me a ride on his motorcycle to Pak Lay. I don't know how I would have carried my bike and gear on the back of a motorcycle, but I have seen people do it here. I wasn't calling it quits when I was heading into the downhill though.

I saw a sign saying 15% grade on the way down (which seems about what the up was much of the time). Brakes needed tightened that night with all the turns and massive potholes, plus getting stuck behind a truck. Finally out of the mountains at last, I rode through beautiful pasture land on a much smoother road. Then at last I crossed a bridge funded by the Netherlands over the Mekong (which is not the border once it turns north, that job served by a tributary), and shortly then on to Pak Lay, exhausted but triumphant. I got dinner at a restaurant next to the hotel and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Mekong.

It was a much needed short day the next day, over the border and back into Thailand! I had originally planned to spend more time in Laos this trip, but staying in Vietnam to get my shots altered my plans a little. I still considered crossing into Thailand further north to extend my stay in Laos a little, but ultimately decided crossing there was most practical given my remaining time.

That morning I stopped at several places to fill up my trunk bag with junk food, in order to spend as much of my left over kip as I could before leaving Laos, since it is not an easy currency to exchange. I went up and down some steep hills on the way to the border, but all well paved, and not nearly so steep as what I was on the day before. My understanding is that Thailand helped finance the road heading to the border on the Lao side, and it definitely had the look and feel of a Thai road, with a nice shoulder and all. The border crossing (my fourth and final!) went fairly smooth, though there was a bit of a delay when Lao immigration became concerned Thailand wouldn't let me in. On the Thai side there were no issues, and the immigration official even asked to have a picture taken with me (I've totally lost track at this point how many people have pictures with me on their phone from this trip).

I only went a little over 30 miles for the day (though with 2500 feet of elevation gain), a few of which out of the way to the "resort" I stayed at that night, which I had to backtrack the next day. It felt like I didn't make much progress, but I knew I needed to stage myself for a tough ride over the mountains. I got the friendly resort owner to make me one of my all too usual meals, rice and an omelette. And her husband brought me tamarinds to eat too (which I find an interesting experience to eat, breaking the shell, then tearing off the roots like some alien spine, and chewing around the seeds). It was amazing being in Uttaradit province, less than a hundred miles from the city of Uttaradit, where I arrived on the third day of the tour, feeling so close to full circle. But I wasn't retreading my steps just yet, as I was on my way up to see Chiang Rai before finishing the loop to Chiang Mai.

I had looked at the topography for that next day and prepared myself for some climbing. It started off going up and down small hills, good warm up for the bigger hills to come in the mountains. It was beautiful riding through forested mountain land on a 4 digit (regional traffic) road that had next to nobody on it. The first portion of the ride was a lot of ups and downs, climbing up to immediately come back down. Until I eventually made a big descent into a river valley, where I got to take it easy for awhile as I rode several miles that were mostly flat. Despite being very close to the river, my view of it was generally blocked by trees in the heavily forested area. But I got an opportunity at one point to take a little side road to see it up close, and another good view crossing a bridge over it. 

At last, out of the valley came the true climb of the day. I more than quadrupled my elevation from just 600 feet down in the river valley, up to 2700, in one mostly continuous climb over about 6 miles. It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. The road was well paved, it had virtually no traffic, it was well shaded for the most part, and the grade was always reasonable, never above 8%, so it was mostly a stress-free slow grind, just settling in to it at a snail's pace I could maintain. Then from the top it was a quick descent down, another 6 miles flying by where the last had taken so long. I got a strong headwind coming down the mountain, but I was still going plenty fast enough. Though the last couple miles into town on the flat felt a little bit uphill again going into that wind. They must get a good amount of it here, with all the pinwheels I saw along the road. I knew I was back to civilization when I saw a 7-Eleven in town. I got myself a victory soda before heading to where I was staying that night, another "resort" spot, just around the corner, really nice and clean after a lot of places that hadn't been. The day ended up being 54 miles, with 5700 feet of ascent. I yet again got rice and egg for dinner from a restaurant that night, and supplemented with snack food from 7-Eleven. Damn it was good to have them back in my life.

The next day was another day of big climbs on mostly quiet roads. I got off the regional highway to take a shortcut on a side road that took me through farmland and jungle. It came as a surprise when the pavement suddenly turned to dirt. But while it was a little rough at points, it was a mostly good dirt, and certainly nicer than what I was recently on in Laos. And before long it turned back to pavement as I came upon a small village. Eventually the side road spit me out onto the main road of 101, which I'd been on briefly before on my way to Den Chai on my second day riding. I was only on 101 briefly yet again that day, before getting onto another side road to head over the mountains to my destination in Ban Luang. 

Much like the day before, there were ups and downs, then riding through a river valley for awhile, before a final big climb at the end. Unlike yesterday, it was not a continuous reasonably graded climb, but one that was absurdly steep. I struggled in my lowest gear for as long as I could, before having to stagger to a stop from a pothole, and then I had no choice but to walk, as there was no hope to remount. Things leveled enough I could get back on again, but I soon reached a point where I was forced to dismount, and I was not so much walking as just planting my foot forward, and pulling my bike to meet me, one step at a time. I don't know if I ever have been on a road that steep. It seemed insane to me that anybody would drive on it. ...But then, probably not many people do. I was really grateful I didn't see a single vehicle for the whole time on the long ascent. I was grateful too that the downhill while still steep and potholed, was not as intense as the climb up had been, and that I only met one truck coming up. It was essentially coasting all the way into, and through, town from there. It was a little less overall climbing than yesterday, at a little over 5000 feet.

Google Maps steered me to a cool place for tonight, extremely nice and very well priced. They were surprised I found them though. A construction worker working on building another room, told the family who owns it next door I was there then a lady who speaks English (lucky break) came over with her kid and explained the place is run by her aunt, and asked if I wanted a room. Apparently they don't advertise and it is mostly accomodation provided to just friends and family. Usually I find somewhere and see Google Maps has no clue it's there, but this time it happened to know a good hole in the wall. I walked to the 7-Eleven along the highway and I got a bunch of random stuff to have for dinner, as there felt too much effort in finding a restaurant.

I was surprised to feel a little chilly the next morning. I don't think I had felt that since I was in Dalat, up in the mountains in Vietnam. It was a high of 95° yesterday and the day before, yet that no longer seemed so terribly hot. And here 60° saw me shivering that morning. It would seem I have acclimated to the weather. ...It will be a rude awakening when I get home.

The cool weather was perfect for the morning mountain climb. It was effort, but not like the last couple days. It was a shame to see the view obscured by haze, as it had been the last few days. Smoke from stubble burning and forest burning in slash and burn farming in the region makes Northern Thailand like that this time of year. After stopping to rest and see what of the view there was at the top, I came across a cyclist coming up right before I started down, perfectly timed. We chatted a bit about our routes and the region before each making our own descents. It got fairly flat after that, interspersed with a couple more big climbs on the way to my destination.

When I got to where I had seen a homestay on Google Maps, with booking website options and everything, I absolutely couldn't find it. A sad coincidencr after Google Maps led me so well the day before that it turned me wrong the next day. I asked locals and got directed one way and then the other. Eventually I stopped at a grocery store, where the owner addressed me to a passing motorcyclist, who took me to a barbershop, where I was soon welcomed by the owner of a completely different homestay from the one I was looking for. It wasn't what I had planned, but the owner is so friendly and accommodating. With some Google Translate use, I explained I was a vegetarian. She told me to wait a bit, and before long, she came back, and I got served a good vegetarian meal. She made so much effort over making sure I had everything comfortable for the night and could make breakfast for myself in the morning, it was really sweet.

Sadly, the electric kettle seemed out of commission for making said breakfast in my room the next morning. It had been working the night before, and I had no idea why it wasn't any more. It was frustrating, especially since I had so many things provided for me if only I could boil water, but after a few attempts, I threw in the towel and hit the road. The day's ride was everything I needed it to be. It was scenic, not too hot, blissfully flat for the most part, I only had a bit of a headwind, and I was on my way to Chiang Rai, a city I had wanted to see since first arriving in Southeast Asia. First thing that morning, on a whim, I took a small detour, past some beautiful rice fields, to go see a temple I saw signs for. The museum there was closed, which was a small disappointment, but it was still a nice temple to see. It was definitely a day for seeing temples, as I stopped at multiple on my way to Chiang Rai, and walked around to see several more once I arrived in the city. 

I realized how long it's been since I'd rode in city traffic as I got into Chiang Rai, having only been in small towns since Vientiane. But it was a small city as cities go, and traffic is pretty light. I got a nice guesthouse in the middle of the city, but tucked away down an alley where it is peaceful and fairly quiet. After getting settled in, I spent the afternoon into the evening exploring. I went to a few temples, saw the impressive gilded clocktower (as well as the old, basic one), got dinner at a nice Jain Indian restaurant, and checked out the local night bazaar.

The next morning after breakfast I went straight to the general hospital here in Chiang Rai to get my last shot. It was quite an ordeal. I wandered for some time, lost in the maze of endless numbered departments. Eventually I found someone to ask where to go, and they directed me to Bloodwork. I found my way there, showed my vaccination card, and they told me I needed to head to Emergency. Of course, I went and got lost on the way there. I asked for direction from someone I thought was hospital staff, but I now doubt, who ended up leading me to Gynecology. Oops. I managed to find my way to Emergency, which was apparently not actually the place to be, but someone there had an actual staff member escort me to the proper place, which seemed to be a segment of the Surgery section, but I wasn't sure. I was at last where I needed to be...but wait, I was a new patient and I hadn't done paperwork yet. So I got directed to Medical Records. ...I got lost again. But someone was kind enough to escort me once again. Then I went back to the place I needed to be, only to find out that now I had to go to Pharmacy to wait and pay for the drugs I needed. With all of that over, finally, I went back one more time, and I got my shot. It was a heck of a way to spend what ended up being about two hours. But there was a sense of relief and triumph to have finished what started all the way back in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

I used the rest of the day to see temples in Chiang Rai. I went to Chiang Yuen near the hospital. Then after lunch, I got a taxi to Huay Pla Kang. It features a beautiful white temple with intricate reliefs, an amazing seven story pagoda, and most notably, an enormous Buddha that you can take an elevator to the top to explore its interior and take in the view from 25 stories up. I got another ride from there to the Blue Temple, which was also incredibly beautiful, but a little too crowded with tourists for me. On the walk back I saw Klang Wiang, which apparently sits at the city center, giving it special significance. Sadly, it was under construction and I was unable to see inside. I got a disappointing dinner (can you guess what it was? Oh yeah, rice and egg). But I got a great, pricy dessert at a cute cat cafe where after a bit of a wait, I was able to sit in a room full of cats chilling out, and people admiring them as they drank coffee and ate desert. It was a really chill end to the day.

So, anyone familiar with Chiang Rai might be saying "But wait, you didn't go to Wat Rong Khun?" To them, I say, have no fear, I visited the iconic White Temple on my way south the next day. It is strange, stunning, and far from your standard temple, as it is the project of a famed local artist that features not only beautiful architecture but also art, fusing traditional Buddhist iconography with popular culture and apocalyptic visuals. Photography is not allowed in the main temple, which is a shame, because there is simply no describing the surrealism of seeing figures from Superman, to Goku, to Neo, to Pikachu mixed with Buddhist imagery amidst scenes of human destruction, missiles, pollution, and the like. Beyond the main temple, there is also a sculpture garden with various figures arranged throughout, Alien, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many others (probably my favorite part overall actually, as there always seemed something more hidden in the rock), a large golden building, an exceptionally adorned bathroom, an art gallery (that also doesn't allow pictures), and more. The whole place is an incredible work of art and I am really glad that I got to see it. I had really wanted to ride around Singha Park that morning as well, but it doesn't open until 9, and I knew I just wouldn't have time for both. I am happy with the choice I made.

After visiting Wat Rong Khun, the last big place I wanted to see on my ride, it really hit home that the tour was almost over. It wasn't much further along busy highway 1 before I turned onto 118, the Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai Road, my final highway to take me to the end. It was 65 miles today of fairly flat with a few hilly sections, and not a lot I wanted to stop for. I passed a couple touring cyclists headed the other way, but they didn't seem super keen to come to my side of the road, and I wasn't to theirs. It was a day for riding through, getting to the end. I got a nice room at a homestay for the night, where the owner has an interesting collection of eclectic, old memorabilia throughout the space. And I got dinner at an overpriced local chain because I knew they would have food for me and I was too lazy to go looking elsewhere (and I decided I deserved it). 

The next day was the one, my last day riding in Southeast Asia. It was a solid final day's ride, with a little bit of everything. It was cool that morning as I set out, perfect for the coming climb. I got breakfast at the 7-Eleven, and then made my way out of town. Not far into my ride, there was a hot spring and old temple tourist attraction on the side of the road, where I stopped to look around. From there, the climbing started. And then all too soon, the construction... There were some rough sections on the way up the mountain. 

Thankfully, when the main descent came, it was a stretch that was mainly free of the construction that dominated the ascent, and I got to enjoy it, barely needing to brake. It started up again soon after though. There was one segment where I was stuck behind a spray truck turning the rutted dirt in front of me into mud right before my eyes. And there was another where I was trying to pick a line through thick gravel, while also trying to not be in the way of vehicles passing in the small space. The GoPro was giving me trouble, so I didn't get any pictures of the gnarly parts. It's a shame too that the construction kept me from being able to stop to appreciate or take photos of the beautiful scenery.

I came out of the construction and mountains into smooth, easy riding the rest of the way to Chiang Mai. It was a great feeling crossing the Nawarat Bridge I had crossed on my way out of Chiang Mai at the beginning of this trip now two months ago. It was great too, on my way through the city to the hotel, realizing that the traffic that had seemed so nerve-wracking when I set out, now felt run of the mill, the city that seemed so large and daunting, now felt small and tame. A lot can change through perspective, and that has been perhaps the most important lesson of this trip.

The journey was done. The loop of 2700+ miles was closed. All that was left was four days in Chiang Mai to make sure I was ready to leave and to have some fun. The first day was mostly taken up by getting stuff done. The bike shop indicated to be right next to my hotel seemed to not actually exist. And the next closest shop didn't have bike boxes. So I ended up having to walk to the Old City for a shop that actually had boxes, and make a 1.25 mile walk back carrying it. That was an interesting experience. I definitely got some looks from locals and tourists alike. Once I got the box back, I spent a chunk of time getting my bike boxed up, and I still worry I didn't do as well as I could have. A lot of the evening was spent obsessing nervously about it. I'm trying this very moment to just not think about it.

But the next two days I was able to do fun things! I walked through the Old City, stopping at one temple after another that Rachael and I had missed when we spent most of a day walking there together those two months ago. There are always more temples. Then, after somehow missing it once (taking the opportunity to see another temple), I hopped the public bus to the Chiang Mai Zoo. It's a nice enough zoo, good enclosures, beautiful scenery, and even a few Asian animals you won't see at the Omaha Zoo, including a giant panda. But boy, it requires a lot of walking up and down steep hills and steps that make the Henry Doorly seem flat. The zoo has roads all the way throughout that allow you to drive a vehicle right to whatever animal exhibit you want, and it almost seems as if it is structured more for that than it is for walking. Even if I was tired out afterward, it was still a lot of fun.

Back in town I hit up a restaurant that (I kid you not) I was able to get a burrito, something I have sought my whole time here in Asia. It had tofu and was covered in lentils and was absolutely delicious. Then I headed over to the night bazaar. A little early. It looked different in the daylight, many vendors still getting set up, none of the magical look it held in the dark those months ago. I had hoped I might get a replacement for the passport cover I lost crossing into Cambodia. But I didn't see the same vendor, and with my hotel much further away than it was on my first visit to Chiang Mai, I didn't want to wait for dark to see if she hadn't set up yet. It was a disappointment, but I accepted I am not getting another.

Then yesterday I did something that I have wanted to do since I first came to Chiang Mai, before I started my bike trip. I took a tour to Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest mountain.

It felt a little strange after being accustomed to traveling solo by bike, having the freedom to do my own thing at my own pace, to give up my personal agency as part of a group, ushered from place to place on a strict schedule. It also felt strange to go up such a big mountain without being able to feel its steepness, without the sense of triumph at the top. Whenever I go places by other means, I am reminded why I go places by bicycle.

That said, it was still a really fun time. It was cool up on the mountain, but not quite enough I felt the need for the jacket I packed. Apparently in the mornings it gets down to almost freezing, about as cold as you will see in Thailand. We saw two different waterfalls, the second of which we were able to see much closer than the first. We went to a small village populated by people originally from Myanmar, see the impressive fabrics they make, and learn a little about their culture. We had a veggie friendly lunch, where I learned I have apparently developed some tolerance for spiciness that some of my fellow Westerners on the tour have not. We saw the tallest point in Thailand, and learned a little about the last king of Chiang Mai for which the mountain was (re)named. We walked a nature trail through a forested region covered in moss. Then we went to see the famed Queen and King Pagodas, which were absolutely beautiful, not only the buildings themselves, but the gardens as well. And last, we stopped at a local market, where I picked up some fried fruit (which I am eating as I type this in fact), before making the long drive back to Chiang Mai. That evening I went to the 7-Eleven and weighed my bag to see that it is within restrictions (weight is limited for carry-ons with EVA Air, not just size), and made sure that my boxed up bike will fit in the hotel shuttle to the airport.

And today, well, it probably says something that I finally have found time to update this. I have spent the day, in all honesty, largely regretting that I didn't spend one more day on the road (I had originally planned on 3 days at the end instead of 4). I did some final packing, went out for brunch, walked around a bit, and have mostly been at the hotel. I am at the end of my adventuring, and while it has been immensely fun, now all my thoughts are on getting through what will be a miserable trip home (it has a 19 hour layover in Taipei for one thing) and getting home to my wife, friends, and job. It sure was nice in my tour to Seattle and to Pittsburgh when the end of the trip was also the destination, no more travel necessary. But hey, the flight can't be worse than that foolish bus ride I took back from Florida... As long as my bike and I arrive intact, I will be happy. The loop is closed, the tour is done, and it's time to go home.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Life in Laos

It wasn't the easiest ride getting out of Vietnam. The road to the border was narrow and had interspersed sections of smooth, rough, and really rough. At one point early on, the road turned to a broken mess, and I went through a flowing pool of mud. My bike is still caked in dirt from that moment. I kept expecting to hit the last Vietnamese community before the border, and yet there kept being just one more. A sign that had the English words, "Frontier Area" let me know I must be close. Seeing a couple more guesthouses I hadn't known existed, I found myself wishing I had gone further the day before, if I'd just known.

When I did pass the little village, I soon began the switchbacked climb through the mountains. With the narrowness of the road and the lack of visibility around many turns, getting passed by traffic was often worrisome. Thankfully, this being a road up a mountain to a remote border crossing with nothing in particular on either side, there at least wasn't a lot of traffic. The bad part is that most of that traffic was big trucks transporting goods across the border. At one point I had no choice but to pull off and get the heck out of the way (luckily there was a place to do so) as some construction happening on the road ahead had caused a jam up of semis vying to go in both directions. I waited ten minutes for that mess to resolve, as they lurched forward and backward, turning inch by inch, to clear a path for themselves. There were a couple other moments when vehicles came whipping around corners from the other direction, completely in my lane. It was a climb that was often quiet, taking in the beautiful tree covered mountain scenery, punctuated by nerve-wracking moments as traffic suddenly materialized. I kept checking my Garmin, looking at how close the border was as the crow flies, yet how far with the winding road.

It was a real relief when at last I reached the border. Just my luck, right as I was about to get my exit paperwork done to leave Vietnam, there was a sudden power outage. It really wasn't that long, but I felt like I waited forever before power came back and I got my exit stamp to go on my way. On the Laos side, I filled out my paperwork, waited for what seemed another age but really wasn't, got my photo taken, paid my $39, and got my stamp. I asked what I do now, not sure if there was anything more involved. The immigration officer smiled and said, "You go to Lao." Those were the four best words I heard all day. There was another truck jam at the border, but seeing no movement at all, after getting emboldened by a couple women riding through on scooter, I roo rode right between it, and coasted downhill free and clear on the surprisingly smooth road along a river valley this side of the border. I squandered some of my traffic free time taking pictures by the river, but it was well worth it.

It was easy, scenic riding from there to Lak Sao for the night. I got a little nervous when the first couple ATMs didn't work for me, but thankfully the third did. My hotel was really quite nice for the night. I went to a restaurant that should have good food for me, sitting down in the large space devoid of patrons, with a couple workers cleaning. One handed a menu, then continued cleaning, ignoring every attempt I made to signal I wanted to order. Then they were both outside and I was alone in the huge space. Eventually I went outside, talked to someone else, and they handed me a menu. I asked if I could order...and they said no! There was no one working. I was really hungry and was more than a little annoyed to be handed a menu, twice, without explanation that ordering was in fact impossible. Thankfully there was another spot nearby, and I was able to get my usual vegetable fried noodles, hopes of variety dashed.

It was an eventful 67 mile ride the next day. That morning I woke to find the karst mountains that had the previous night looked like a cut out dominating the skyline of the town I was in had vanished, into endless white. It was very foggy, and I had my tail-light flashing bright to make sure drivers could see me through the haze.

About twelve miles in I arrived at Dragon Cave. For a small admittance fee, I got to explore the cave and surroundings, having the place all to myself. A wide but short passage that required me to duck opened up into a large open chamber that made for an incredible sight. I spent about half an hour exploring the cave. A combination of man-made stairs and natural rock led out another exit from the cave. It was then a fun trek through the jungle, that involved things like walking over a wooden plank between boulders and using a bamboo pole as a hand rail while scrambling down rocks. It was fun I should say, except for all the mosquitoes, that swarmed all around me at every step. After making it back, I got brunch served at the restaurant next to the cave.

After that, it was fast, easy riding on the flat or gradual hills, while karst mountains jutted up on either side. I saw the signs for Kong Lor Cave, and with great struggle, continued straight. I had really wanted to see the cave, which apparently a boat takes you through,u basically an underground river through a mountain. But I just wasn't sure if I could afford the extra day it would take to see the cave the next day. It made me resolve that I would have to come back one day and do this area, called the Thakhek Loop, seeing all its many caves. It was all easy going until I hit the big climb of the day not long later, wickedly steep and switchbacked, forcing me into my lowest gear with sweat dripping into my eyes. But when I finally reached the top, there was a great view, with a viewing site where I was able to get a couple drinks, and where I took selfies with some folks at the observation area. Then of course there was the blazing, thankfully straighter, descent. There was one more, much lesser, climb after that, and then I was free and clear on the flatland (which was good, because I was getting low on daylight). That night I got a roughly $6 room in a speck of a town called Thongnamy. I would learn that was standard price for a fan room at a guesthouse in Laos, which is hard to complain about. The cleanliness though left a little to be desired.

For some reason, maybe the wind, I was riding the struggle bus a bit that next morning. I got passed by a family on an old school tractor of the sort I became accustomed to seeing in Cambodia, and usually that goes the other way around. But after I got some breakfast in me from a mini mart and the road changed direction, things turned easy again and my pace picked back up. It was a very exciting moment for me when I reached the Mekong River, the highway running right along side it for awhile. The Mekong marks the border from Laos to Thailand. I looked out across that river and could see, now three countries later, the country I started this trip in, even if a part of it I have never been to. I have in fact crossed the Mekong once already, far downriver from here, in Cambodia, the day I left Phnom Penh. Going across the Tsubasa Bridge to ride high above the river was easily the most memorable part of that day, and it felt fitting that meeting the Mekong was the biggest part of today too.

Soon I arrived in the little town of Paksan. I got a cheap room at a guesthouse and an expensive meal (but one that had me bursting to the gills) at a bar/bistro by the river. The owner, who apparently lived in the US, chatted with me a little, and kept coming over to make sure I was good. The owner of the guesthouse was really nice, but the room was less than clean, but I figured standards had to change when in a small town in Laos.

I felt a little differently when I got bitten in the night. It was not a good night's sleep. I got on the road in not the best mood that morning, but then I had an experience that turned it all around. Eli here. I am glad that I set out that day with a short distance in mind (just 36 miles) in order to stage myself about 60 miles from Vientiane for the next day. It worked out quite well as I ended up with something other than biking to do that morning. While I was visiting a temple in Paksan, right at the start of my ride, a monk approached me. We talked for a little bit and he asked me if I wanted to come with him to see his school. Of course, I said yes, and so we walked the short distance just across the road to Phianchalern College. The monk, Bosca, spoke to his teacher, and then soon showed me into the classroom of second year English students. I spoke English conversationally with them to help them get practice with a native speaker. I don't know if I did a very good job of it (actually I think I can say pretty well I didn't), but it was a fun, unexpected experience.

Afterward, Bosca briefly brought me into the first year class, and then we chatted for awhile outside. I learned about him and his country, and he even taught me some useful phrases in Lao. He gave me some snack food for the road too as we parted. I hope someday we get the chance to meet again.

The ride itself today was fairly uneventful. I rode through some pretty country and saw some more beautiful temples. Toward the end, I did run into some other bike tourists, who made my trip look quite small. There was British couple who had started in Australia, rode Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and were now on their way to Vietnam, ultimately planning to ride all the way back to their home in the UK. And then there was a man who said he set out from his home in Africa (he didn't say where in Africa), and had been on the road for four years. It's always good to remember that a trip like mine is very minor in terms of what a lot of bike tourists do.

I got what I thought was a nice guesthouse that night. I also got a good meal (getting to put what I learned from Bosca to use in the process), though with flies getting all over it at every moment, which I can't say I enjoyed. ...The guesthouse room turned out to be more superficially clean than actually clean, and worse than that, or the cockroach I saw on the wall, was that I again woke up with bites. I have been practicing smart moves to keep bed bugs (which is what I guess they were) from getting on my stuff, but everything is getting quarantined when I get home.

Yesterday I rode to Vientiane, where I spent the day off today. I saw a lot of temples, both on my way to the capital and within it. At one of the temples I stopped at, a Buddhist monk struck up a conversation. He gave me water and corn on the cob, and we ate together while making our best effort at communicating. He asked for a selfie and we shared contact info. As nice as taking pictures of the beautiful wats and stupas is, the even better part of visiting temples is the friendliness of the monks and getting a chance to talk with them.

Riding into Vientiane was quite easy and stress free. The highway became divided and gained a shoulder closer to the city, and traffic was still relatively light. I felt far safer riding into the city than I have on the highway in the countryside, where cars often come by fast and close. Once I arrived at the hotel and got checked in, I went wandering about a little. Vientiane is a very small city, especially as a capital, with a population of only around 800,000, and it has a quiet and peaceful feel to it compared to most cities I have been to. It has wonderful sidewalks and little traffic by Asian standards, making it extremely walkable. I went to a halal Indian restaurant (there is a small Muslim population here), and got masala and naan. It was not only delicious, but a a very welcome variation to my usual meal. I checked out a few temples. I walked along the waterfront, seeing a children's carnival of sorts, many restaurants, an outdoor dance class, and all sorts of fun things as the sun got low. Then I wandered through the night market and splurged $3 on a t-shirt as a practical souvenir (though not that practical, since now I am up to five shirts and not as many of anything else).

I was so excited to do laundry this morning at the laundromat I have known to be in town since I was in Vietnam. I had read the reviews, and found to my delight I had the baht coins needed for the dryer and wouldn't even have to buy them at a loss from the owner. I was so ready. I waited impatiently to get breakfast at the hotel, and afterward I put on my rain pants and rain jacket as my pants and shirt, feeling ridiculous, and walked to the laundromat to launder almost all my clothes. ...Only to find it closed. It was majorly disappointing, with how much I had built up the idea of using a washer and dryer in my mind. I had the hotel do my laundry instead, for a little more money, and knowing it wouldn't go through a dryer, but needing it done. I then wandered around the city, enjoying the low traffic, and marveling at the crosswalk buttons, which seemed so novel after not seeing one for so long. Much of my time was spent checking out some of the city's many beautiful temples. I also saw Patuxay Monument, which is beautiful and offers a great view of the city, but it feels strange that its interior is filled with stalls selling trinkets. I hit up a Buddhist vegetarian place for lunch, which was quite good, though I was disappointed their buffet wasn't currently going. And I wandered the peaceful Chou Anouvong Park. Then I headed back to the hotel to just chill in anticipation for the big ride tomorrow, which looks like it will be nearly 90 miles out of necessity to reach a guesthouse. Oof. But we are getting close to the end now!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Vietnam Vaccination Saga Finale

It's been awhile. I best get this caught up before I feel overwhelmed and let it slip. So where were we? ...Ah, yes. I was headed toward Da Nang where I would get my day 7 shot, shot number 3.

I took some narrow, rough, and interesting back alleys to start that morning. I remember after some meandering, passing a sandy cemetery and suddenly coming out on a big, brand new road that neither my Garmin nor Google knew existed. I've seen that a number of times here as the country is constantly under construction. It's always tempting to follow those roads to find out where they go, but I had a different route planned. I was headed, on a whim, to a little coastal town where the government had commissioned artists to paint murals. It wasn't anything too grand, but it was a fun route and there were lots of locals excited about seeing a foreigner. "Hello." I have heard that word so many times since coming to Asia. A couple days, it seems like the only English I hear. I hear it shouted by children, as they walk along the road, from atop bicycles, from the back of motorbikes, from their homes, from their schools, exclaimed urgently, begging for a reply in kind. I hear it from adults too, often with childish glee. Hello. That simple, pervasive word and its impact was on my mind a lot as I heard it over and over that morning by folks off the beaten tourist path. Sadly, the road I turned off onto after that was extremely flat and boring. I was just glad the wind wasn't against me any more, so at least it wasn't slow and boring. Then, all of a sudden, on that boring stretch of road there appeared a theme park in the distance. It felt a little surreal, a theme park with pirate ships and a castle and typical Disneyland stuff, out on this lonely road. I hadn't any interest in the park itself, but I did stop for drinks at a stand across from it. Once I got closer to Hoi An, I knew I was officially back in tourist region (I mean, the theme park on the way should have been a clue), as I saw Westerner after Westerner on rented bicycles, often in large groups. At a certain point I stopped by the side of the road, and a woman on motorcycle came up and asked if I was headed to The Marble Mountains. As it turned out, that was indeed my plan. She said I could follow her there. Once we arrived, she directed me to park my bike in front of her family's jade shop, and that she would keep an eye on it. I am very glad that I looked up The Marble Mountains, and that I got out early enough this morning to be able to spend a couple hours exploring. If you have no problem going up and down a lot of stairs and doing a little climbing up rocks, and you enjoy seeing beautiful temples and statues inside massive caves, well, it's definitely the place for you. I had a great time clambering up through one cave, staring at the massive scale of another, and walking up a lot of steps to stand at the highest point and take pictures of the beautiful surroundings. It was a wellspent afternoon, and the cost of admission was quite small. Of course, I then had to get myself talked into buying a gift at the jade shop... I was distressed to see white marks on my bike when I returned, only to learn they were chalk with the lady's name, to indicate she was watching it. She had me look around the shop, and became really pushy when I indicated I didn't really want anything. I ended up talking her down to a price I felt I could afford to take a small jade and amethyst bracelet for Rachael. Afterwards I came to my homestay in Da Nang,  went out to a little pizza place for dinner, before heading to bed thinking I was ready for the morning.

I wasn't. Eli here. I got my third rabies shot that morning, but it proved to be a bit of an endeavor... I went to the International Hospital right when they opened at 7, and was told not only did they not have the same vaccine I had been getting, but a doctor wouldn't be available until 10. I was not waiting until 10 with the miles I had to go that day, over a mountain pass. I trekked over to the Family Hospital. ...Where they also didn't have the vaccine, and directed me to a preventive clinic, a good ways away. Thankfully, when I finally got to the clinic, it was a quick 20 minutes in and out, and $9 to get my shot. I got a hasty baked goods and Nutriboost breakfast, and hoofed it back to the hotel quick as I could, really wishing I had taken my bike, but I'd had no way to know when I started that I would be doing so much walking. With all that, I ended up with a late start at nearly 10am, a little concerned I wouldn't have the time I needed. The view of the ocean in Da Nang was gorgeous and I wish I had more time to enjoy it and stop for pictures, but I hurried to begin the big climb up to Hai Van pass. Along the way to the top, I met a couple bike tourists, and I encouraged myself that if they were going from Da Nang to Hue with as much gear as they were carrying (it was quite a lot, including a solar panel, as it was clear they were doing a lot of camping and quite self sufficient), I certainly could with my minimal load. It was work getting up, but not nearly as bad as I expected, and the views were incredible. I got a tourist to take a few photos of me, something I don't get often. The fog rolled in while I was at the top and restricted view, but it cleared during my the very quick descent (though slower than it could have been, because I got stuck behind a tanker for a little while). I was on flat ground from there all the way to Hue, with the wind in my favor at last, and I flew right along the whole rest of the way to Hue. Down an alley full of hotels, I arrived at mine, showed my booking, and got a room not quite what I expected, with a shared bathroom for one thing... Only to get a surprise knock at my door to explain that I was in fact, not in the right room, or even right hotel, and the sign I saw for mine was for the next one over (the receptionist who saw my booking couldn't actually read English). Oops. I apologized profusely on my hurried way out the door, unlocking my bike and going just a few feet over. I then got settled into the right hotel, where I was given a very different reception, a welcome drink and fruit while being told about my tourist options for the next day.

I spent that next day exploring Hue, with a little over 20 miles of biking and a lot of walking. I briefly considered taking a bus and boat tour because I wanted the time off the bike, but then decided that would limit my freedom too much, and kept to what I know and stuck to riding my bike. I started the day by crossing the beautiful Perfume River and heading to the Imperial City. I paid a small fee to park my bike, and they chalked it and gave me a claim ticket, something I would get used to (unhappily, as when they did it on the saddle, it didn't come off easily at all), as it was the same at each stop. The Imperial City has some interesting architecture and history, though sadly the majority of the buildings that once stood there were destroyed during the Vietnam War. I wanted to be excited, but for some reason I honestly just wasn't feeling it that morning. Leaving the Imperial City, I rode along the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda, an impressive temple with an iconic seven story pagoda, and my spirits rose a little there. Then it was a beautiful ride along QL1A to get to Minh Mang Tomb, that section of riding actually one of my favorite parts of the day, making me glad I took the bike. You don't actually get to see the tomb itself, which was a little disappointing, but the grounds that surround it are quite scenic and well worth peacefully rambling through. I took the long way around the lake though, and it probably wasn't worth the walk, though at least it was devoid of other tourists. The man who held my bike for me had said that there would be no charge if I bought something, but he seemed to have forgotten that by the time I got back, hah. Then, truly saving the best for last, I came to Kai Dinh Tomb. What it lacks in the expansive scale of the other sites I visited that day, it more than makes up for in grandeur and commanding presence. For an emperor who was short lived, short-reigned, and not terribly well liked, Kai Dinh has an impressive mausoleoum, with a unique blend of Vietnamese and French influences in its design. It was by far my favorite part of the day. A vendor there had called out to me when I was parking and then watched my bike for me, and actually did hold to the agreement to not charge me if I bought a drink. After that, I rode back to the hotel, feeling a bit of Deja Vu as the final part of my loop took me on the exact same road I took through the city to get to my hotel yesterday (at least I knew the way this time!). Back at the hotel, I relaxed with a bath, an exceptionally rare opportunity as this is the first bathroom with a tub I've seen all tour. Then after a nice dinner this evening, I treated myself to a couple scoops of icecream at none other than a Baskin Robbins on the street right near my hotel. It cost as much as dinner, but it was definitely worth it. It was hilarious listening to a patron there singing along to a Disney song to the annoyance of the workers. It was ultimately a restorative day, despite my early ill mood.

It was a short, easy ride from Hue to Dong Ha that next day, without much to say about it. There I had my first Warmshowers host since leaving Thailand. I had a little trouble finding the alley they lived down, but a neighbor kindly directed me. It was a really good experience staying with him and his family. He has plans to travel around Thailand, and amongst other things, we chatted about my experiences there and the differences from Vietnam. He directed me to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant, recently open, unknown to Google Maps, at a beautiful location by a pond full of water lilies. After coming back, I met his friend who lives there, and got to see his collection of war artifacts. He would buy them from local merchants and homes (a picker as we might call him in the US, like that show). It was impressive, though also difficult to look at his collection of things like US mortar shells as anything but a sad remnant of a bloody war on this beautiful country. He looked at my belt, and gifted me one he said was better, US Army issue. He had me put it on right there, while I felt humbled and a little awkward. My host and his family shared a nice dinner with me in the evening, sitting not at the table inside, but on the front porch, legs crossed, a bit of a different experience for me. I embarrassed myself with chopsticks and was offered a spoon. My host didn't know they used fork and spoon primarily in Thailand, with chopstick use being rare there. During dinner we watched the TV as they talked about the Iranian missile strike. I am very far from Iraq, but somehow being abroad, the dread of possible war, after seeing those remnants displayed just hours before, felt even more potent. I was invited to go to a fair with the family, but I felt the need to retire to my room, talk to Rachael, and prepare for the next day. The bed was hard, and the dogs woke me at times, but the good evening was well worth it.

As my host headed for work, I got back on the road, headed to Dong Hoi. My shorts and my damned waterproof socks I am not sure why I took this trip were not quite dry from the line (I had gotten to machine wash my clothes that night for the first time since Thailand!). So, looking ridiculous, I rode with my shorts clipped to my backpack and my socks on my wrists... No one ever said I won't be a dork to get the job done. It was a little further ride that day, but still flat and easy-going. About midday I encountered a British tourist, doing a trip similar to mine, but starting in Bangkok (my shorts had dried and I had put them away, but I sure wondered what he thought of me wearing my socks on my wrists). We chatted a little while riding, but he was keeping a pace just a little faster than mine, and he carried on his way. He stayed in view for some while until I stopped for some pictures and then he was gone. After arriving in Dong Hoi, in true Hobbit fashion, I had first and second dinner (you could call the first a late lunch, but that is less fun), hitting up a pizza place, then walking along the river for awhile, before going to another Western catered restaurant before returning to the hotel for the evening.

It was another easy 50 mile ride from Dong Hoi to the little town of Ky Long the next day. I took a very slight detour that morning to ride on a side road along the ocean and check out some neat sand dunes where I'm told people do some sand surfing. From there it was all highway, mostly inland along fields, but coming up against the coast at a couple spots (ones I would have paid more attention to had I realized then they would be my last glimpses of the Pacific here in Vietnam). At one point I saw a large group of cyclists who appeared to be on a guided tour, headed south on the other side of the divided highway. I shouted hello and waved, but not one of them seemed to notice I existed. I thought I might see the British cyclist from the day before, since he is headed this same way, but no such luck. I stopped at a cafe that evening and struggled with Google Lens to figure out what I could order, cheese sticks and strawberry shake, not the best. Afterward, a couple women approached me and asked to take a photo with me, for no other reason I can guess aside from being able to say they ran into this Westerner in town. Of course, I said why not, and smiled for the camera as I always do. It made me feel less bad about the Westerners doing the same sort of thing with Buddhist monks and the like. My hotel that night was really nice, except I somehow ended up with a smoking room, and the smell was pretty bad (but hey, not mold or bed bugs right?).

It was a beautiful, just over 70 mile ride to Vinh, my last city in Vietnam. It was fairly uneventful until about mid-ride as I neared Ha Tinh. I passed some more churches and remnants of manger scenes as I got to town. At one point while I stopped to open and eat a bag of candy, a woman came up on motorcycle and asked for it. I offered to share, but she made it clear she wanted the whole bag. I was a little dumbfounded, but reasoned she must need it more than me and gave it to her. Though it left a little sour taste in my mouth losing that sugar I was craving. A little later, while riding through Ha Tinh, a motorcyclist came up beside me and chatted while we rode. Our conversation was strained (he heard me saying I was from the United States as Switzerland instead, but that's somewhat my fault, as I have learned no one understands United States, only USA, or better, though less accurate, America). He offered for me to come back to his home, but I declined politely, having miles to make. He turned off, as I rode on out of the city. Most of my problems with dogs in Asia have been while walking, but there was an exception late in my ride that day. I had a pack of three dogs come after me and drive me off the shoulder, a semi blaring its horn behind me. I'm actually thankful for the semi, as I think it's what finally scared them off. Then of course, right when I relaxed, I heard that terrible panting, and saw another dog in my mirror running after me. I sprinted at over 20mph to not let him catch up. Dogs... But they were wiped from my mind quickly as I then rode through a gorgeous valley of rice fields with mountains on either side, by far the most scenic part of the day right before arriving in Vinh. I got a fancy hotel (central air!) with a great view from my room. Though when I went to dinner at the hotel restaurant, I found myself barraged by every kind of meat option and almost nothing for me. And the hotel is a little far from everything else, so I felt some regrets.

I took a personal day the next day with nothing but a couple chores planned. So far every day before that I haven't been on the road has involved a lot of walking around, often some biking, and a great deal of sight seeing. I finally opted for a day doing none of that. I woke a little late, stuffed myself at breakfast, and came back to the room to chill and watch a movie. A little before noon I went out into the foggy, rainy, and windy weather, which I actually found quite welcome. I found the clinic that I hoped to go to the next day, closed, but hopefully open in the morning. I walked to Central Park, and also found it disappointingly closed. I got a large lunch at a vegetarian place, stuffed myself to bursting. Then after a short walk, I got doughnuts at a bakery (can't say I'm not at least trying to put my lost weight back on). I then shopped at a convenience store to get a bunch of junk food for when I soon won't have access to it in Laos. Somehow, I ended up paying for and getting hot sauce that I never set on the counter and have no idea where came from. A mild irritation at best, but it bugs me a little that I have nothing to really do with it but throw it away. By the time I got back to the hotel it ended up more walking than I planned, but I still had quite a bit of time in the evening to just relax.

This morning after breakfast I successfully got rabies shot number 4 without any difficulties at all. Somewhere in Thailand I will have to get my 5th and final shot in two weeks, and then I am done at last. Today was a very short 30 mile ride, to stage myself closer to the border, ensuring I can get across and to a place to stay tomorrow. It was a beautiful ride. Google directed me along some wonderful side roads through scenic countryside and small villages. I saw impressive cemeteries in the midst of rice fields. I got to see water buffalo being used to work fields and to pull carts down the road, as well as other glimpses at rural life. I had the chance to stop at an interesting temple with not a tourist, or anyone else for that matter, to be seen. It was a short ride, but not an uneventful one. I got to my hotel in the early afternoon. I thought it was the only option, but some after the fact searching shows there is another, seemingly far nicer hotel just a bit further, which also would have put me closer to the border for tomorrow. Oh well. It is far from the best (the bathroom is fairly moldy), but cheap, and not the worst I have been in so far by far. As I walked through town here, a group of women called me over to join them at their meal. I could only eat the oranges, but it was really nice and I enjoyed chatting with them through a neighbor boy who came and served as interpreter. I am going to miss Vietnam, the people, the chay restaurants, the walkable sidewalks, vending machines, the beautiful scenery... It will be hard to say goodbye tomorrow. But Laos will be a new adventure, and one that will bring me closer to home.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Vaccinations in Vietnam

The 85 mile ride from Dalat to Nha Trang, despite being overwhelmingly downhill overall, was not an easy one. I was at 4500 feet up in Dalat, and would climb up to well over 5000 after leaving the city, and I knew that I would end the day at the ocean, sea level, so I knew there was a massive descent coming way sooner or later in the day. And yet, mile after mile up and down hills, that big descent did not seem forthcoming. I stopped at a cafe outside a small zoo up in the mountains (the zoo itself I had not the time or interest for), and got some overpriced icecream and soda. I sat on a bench in the corner where I could see my bike, which happened to be where a mangy dog took residence on a fly covered blanket. There was a small child who wanted very much to pet the dog, and kept clutching at my knee while he did so. The dog was his interest, I was just something to hold onto while he bent toward the dog. His parents seemed concerned that I would mind, but I just kept eating my icecream as the kid clung to my knee and petted the dog. Something about the innocence of the incident and the way that child had no reason to think of me as anyone different (or as anything but a handhold) stuck with me. After I finished eating, a zoo worker approached me to tell me about how he had ridden his bicycle up the coast of Vietnam himself. I asked him if the descent was coming soon, and he indicated it wasn't too much longer. When it finally came... Oh man, that really was a monstrous descent, and amongst the most memorable I've had. It was a real test of my brakes too, as I wound down the mountain on some serious switchbacks. For awhile I was stuck behind a forerunner (I found its name funny at the time as I was following it) that was less confident on the turns than I was. It was a lot of fun and the views were breathtaking. I was able to take video for the first 15 minutes, when I came to the first slight plateau where I could stop, checking to see that 15 minutes had burned most the GoPro battery. I saw a couple bike tourists on their way up, getting relatively close to the top, but I had time only to wish them "Good luck!" before flying past, wondering in retrospect if I shouldn't have said something more encouraging and if it would be taken wrong. After getting to the bottom, the last 20 miles were mostly, blissfully, flat. But I had the East wind from off of the ocean making it feel like I was back to a gradual climb. I made it into Nha Trang with very little sunlight left, 85 miles, 4000 feet of up, and we'll over 8000 down. I got set up at my hotel and then went out to get dinner. On the way, I stopped to look at my phone for directions...and a dog ran right up and nipped me on the leg. I cursed, and someone called the little jerk off. It was really minor, barely broke the skin, but the thought of rabies swelled in my mind. I hoped to wash it off at the restaurant, but they said there was no wash room I could use. I was given some tigerbalm to put on it, whatever that was supposed to do. I ate quickly, went back to the hotel, washed thoroughly, and then started researching. I ultimately decided I needed my shots, especially considering the low vaccination rate for dogs here. Late at night, wanting nothing more than to sleep, I headed to the hospital. ...I got directed in circles, realized my only hope that late was the emergency room, saw the line, saw the long form with no English, couldn't get anyone to talk to me, and gave up. I got chased by two more dogs on the way back... I went to bed stressed at the end of what had been an awesome day.

Thankfully, I was in Nha Trang, where there's the Pasteur Institute and a vaccination clinic I could go to that morning. I got my first shot of many that morning for an astoundingly low $10 after a few hurdles. Then, with a bit of a late start, I hit the road. ...Well, kind of. And there, I decided to do something important; find a rock. It's a ritual of mine, that I've been doing since my second tour. Just a few days ago I had lost my wallet, only getting it back thanks to some serious kindness and luck, and now I had created a huge logistical hurdle to avoid a deadly disease all because I hadn't been paying enough attention to not get bit by a dog. In my life I have often been overwhelmed with self loathing over errors and failures of far lesser consequence. There have been many times I have even gotten so bogged down in self resentment, I have scarcely been able to function. And yet, now, huge of mistakes I had made, I found that I was able to forgive myself for them. I realized that I can forgive myself, even when I really mess up. So, I stood at the coast of the Pacific here in Vietnam, for the first time ever from this side. And it felt as if I had somehow come full circle from where I began when I set out for the Pacific on my first bike tour all those years ago. On my second tour, making my way down the American Pacific, I scratched my guilt into a rock and tossed it into the ocean. It would end up becoming a yearly ritual for me. I scattered my jealousy across the Great Lakes. I threw my shame into the Atlantic. I let go of my self doubt in the Gulf. And there, at the beach in Nha Trang, I released my self-hatred into the South China Sea. And it felt really good to finally be rid of it. Of course, much as this ritual has come to mean to me, I know it's just that, a symbolic gesture, substantive only in the mind. But that's where our inner struggles occur, and symbolism helps us make sense of them. When negative emotions rear up, I calm them by telling myself I have cast them into the water, and it doesn't matter that it's all in my head, because there's where the feelings are too. There will of course be times I falter and still fail to forgive myself. But the important thing is that I can forgive myself for that too. I tossed that rock into the big ocean waves, and with a lighter load, if only in my mind, I started that day's journey.

Luckily I only had a 55 mile day planned, so even with my very late start I managed. I saw some of the most beautiful coastline I'd ever seen. My favorite stretch was where just out of Nha Trang the main road went inland, and I stayed on the coastline along a road that was blissfully low on traffic. As the day progressed, more and more clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, giving me a bit of a fight, and it was evident a storm was coming.  Then finally, right before I arrived at the budget resort where I stayed in a tiny beach bungalow for the night, it began to rain. It felt good to see and feel rain, after going over a month without witnessing the slightest hint of precipitation. I tried to explain that to the receptionist showing me to my bungalow, but he didn't seem to understand. It was odd being at the resort seemingly alone, sitting down at a table in a huge outdoor dining space all by myself. The dogs who kept following me around, I admit made me nervous. The bungalow was cozy and would have been fine (even had a mosquito net of sorts around the bed), if it weren't for the ants... I should have taken the warning about not bringing food in for "sanitation reasons" (the warning that was only in Vietnamese I should note), because the little bastards got into my trunk bag. I would end up drowning them all in a shower, giving my bag a much needed cleaning in the process, the next night to get rid of them.

That day was largely uneventful as I continued my way up the coast, with only a short time of it was spent right along the ocean. I passed by flooded fields and through small towns, while fighting a headwind the whole way (something I have become accustomed to). I was glad I got a good breakfast at the resort and stopped for vegetarian banh mi for lunch, because I completely failed to find anywhere that would serve me vegetarian food in the tiny town I was in that night. When I stepped out to get food, the son of the hotel owner asked where I was headed. I explained I was vegetarian, and there was a lot of clamor between him and his mom on where I could go. I should have known then I was not going to be in luck. They suggested a noodle place I failed to find. I walked first one way, then back the other. One place I thought would have something for me, the man took one look at me and said, no, no, no, as he stalked back to the kitchen. ... Yeah, it's a great feeling being denied service (something that has only happened to me in that town), and I am wholly against the notion that we let people in the US refuse service to others based on their religious convictions or any other reason. If you ever face the feeling of being turned away in a small town where there is nowhere to go, and you don't understand already, you will. A woman at a cafe I thought would serve me also just pointed me away as soon as I approached. And every other place was very kind and happy to serve me...just not vegetarian. I at least managed to hit up a grocier right before they closed, and get some junk food to get through the night, but it was a sorry excuse for a meal and I felt pretty defeated, swearing off staying in too small of a town like that.

It was a short, beautiful ride the next day up the coast, just 40 miles, in order to put myself in Qui Nhon, to get my second rabies shot at the general hospital in the morning. One of the few moments from the ride that stuck with me was when I stopped off the side of the road to take pictures of my bicycle against the backdrop of the coast and two guys showed up on motorcycle. I thought they were going to judge me for some reason...but it turns out they were doing the exact same thing, taking pictures of their motorcycle with the ocean behind it. It gave me a good inner laugh. That evening I indulged a little and went to a pizzeria run by an Australian of Italian descent, bringing pizza as he is accustomed to it to the region. While I could have certainly gone to a chay (Buddhist vegan) restaurant for much cheaper, it was really nice eating pizza the way I'm used to (with delicious cheese imported from Australia), plus it was fun talking to the restaurant owner too. I got really lucky because they were closing early for New Year's, and I was their very last customer. The Aussie had spent the last five years in Vietnam, and we talked about the Christmas phenomenon (and how Halloween is apparently a thing here now too), pizza, the fires in Australia, and I even asked what to expect from the hospital (when I asked if I could ask a possibly unusual question as preface, he said he didn't have any weed, because he gets asked a lot, and I found it funny). He assured me the hospital visit would go fine. I hit Vin-mart and stocked up on junk food afterward (clear yet how after going hungry last night what I had on my mind?). Later when I went down to make sure my bike would be brought into the hotel tonight, I had a fun interaction via Google translate with the son of the owners, who explained he had also biked across Vietnam, and he gave me a wristband from that ride as a souvenir. It was a fun day.

I got rabies shot number 2 that next morning. It took a little more time than the first shot, as I initially went to the wrong part of the hospital, then after talking to a very helpful English speaking doctor, at the vaccination area there seemed some kerfuffle I didn't begin to understand over my paperwork, and after getting my shot I was asked to stay for half an hour to make sure I had no reaction (and believe me, waiting around at that point was hard). It also cost over double what the first did, but at $23, it's still shockingly cheap compared to what it would be in the US. I mean, it cost me nearly $1000 for my other vaccinations I got stateside... Once that was done with, I went back to the hotel, and quickly hit the road. It was cloudy all day and there was light rain on and off throughout most of it. I found it interesting watching as everyone else on the road donned their ponchos to stay dry, while I opted to enjoy getting wet and the cooling effect it offered (though I could have gone without all the mud). There were some small hills to climb and as always, the wind to face, but it wasn't a hard day, and with my late start, I was happy with the 65 miles I did. Before coming to my hotel, which is quite nice, but in an odd, out of the way spot from most of town, I hit up a Chay (Buddhist Vegan) restaurant. As a vegetarian in Vietnam, when I see "cơm chay" I know I am where I need to be. The food is always delicious, cheap, and I know I can eat any of it. The only shame this time was that the chef/owner had to go out before I could order a second helping! But at least I was able to get some vegan candy to go from her son (though sadly one of those items was a bag of green bean and durian cakes, which you would expect). I watched Rick and Morty and Lost in Space on Netflix at the really nice, and cheap, hotel room I had that night. It was hard to want to sleep.

Which caused me to stay up way too late and get a later start that morning and this one, a trend I am looking to put a stop to tonight. The last couple days' rides to Quang Ngai and then to Tam Ky were short, easy rides that were fairly uneventful. Today was just 40 miles that were so flat and quick, it was one of those days that I felt shamed to not be going further. But from a practical perspective, needing to stay in Vietnam until I get my fourth shot, my pace is fairly locked down, with no sense hurrying to Vinh to wait around. I hit up another super cheap Chay restaurant tonight, where I just walked in and she went back to the kitchen and came back with a heaping plate of food, which only cost me 15000VND. My room tonight would be simple but nice, if it weren't for the mold... Yeah, less than ideal, but at least I have no known allergies to it. Tomorrow I reach Da Nang, where in the morning of the next day I intend to get my third shot. Stay tuned for my Vietnam Vaccination Saga.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Hectic and Calm in Vietnam

So, last we left off I was still in Phnom Penh. I took a quiet, easy day for my second and last day in the city, just as planned. I just wandered around on foot, saying no to one tuk-tuk driver after another (they got really pushy at times, especially outside places that were closed). I loved walking through some of the nice green spaces and along the river, beautiful escapes from the traffic. I was disappointed to find out the Royal Palace was closed for lunch time, and wasn't about to stick around and wait. I marveled at the outside, politely told off the pushy tuk-tuk drivers (I mean, they were trying to walk in front of me), and walked the riverfront. There were countless flocks of pidgeons there and feeding them seemed a popular pastime. I checked out the beautiful Wat Phnom. I wandered through the Central Market, and actually bought a $4 cotton shirt saying Cambodia with an elegant elephant, produced from a bag full of the same shirts in every color. I had seen ones in Thailand just like it but saying Thailand. But I like it. I'm wearing it right now. It was a good walk and a fun day.

It was a largely uneventful day following to Neak Loeung, with the most notable part being the ride over the big Tsubasa Bridge at the end and seeing the gorgeous view it offered. My room that night had a sink that looked about to fall out of the wall. To my great surprise, right after I got settled, I got a knock on my door. I was shown to another room with a functional sink, and also an upgrade to AC. I wasn't going to complain. I got dinner at a coffee shop that made me feel at home. I messed up and got seafood in my rice and egg. I learned, and I used my Khmer vegetarian card I had downloaded the next morning for breakfast and had no trouble.

I rode on to Bavet at the border. The road got very bumpy toward the end, and there was also a fair amount of construction going on. It was the roughest I had dealt with in Southeast Asia, though still better than many of the highways I have been on in the US. I had a nice hotel at Bavet Square, about the only option that wasn't a super expensive Casino. It is Chinese run, as are many of the businesses there. I had to park my bike outside with the motorcycles, but at least the security guard locked it the front wheel, so I supplemented with my own lock. The Chinese restaurant I went to that night started playing Country music after I arrived, which I found hilarious. After sundown, Bavet Square was really happening, with Christmas lights, live music, a miniature train for the kids, and all sorts of other things. It was fun to just walk around and feel the energy of it. It was interesting too come morning to see the space that had been so vibrant at night, completely empty, none of the lights on, all the magic gone, just a quiet, peaceful space.

I started my ride toward the border by immediately wiping out... It wasn't my proudest moment. I was trying to cross the highway quickly to get onto the shoulder...except the shoulder there isn't road, it's deep gravel the exact same color as the road. I scraped my knee, tore my bar tape a little, and scratched my front shifter. Nothing but cosmetic damage, but I still felt bad to damage my damn Dura-Ace shifter (don't ask why I have a Dura-Ace bar end shifter, I work at a bike shop and get pressured to buy nice things I don't really need). I quickly got on my feet, embarrassed, but fine, and kept riding. Compared to the crowded, hectic crossing from Thailand to Cambodia, entering Vietnam felt almost anticlimactic with how simple and uncrowded it was. I think I may have paid some sort of small unofficial fee I might not have been supposed to, but it also got me to the front of the line, so I am not complaining. It was quick and easy, and I was soon unceremoniously out of Cambodia and into Vietnam. Now riding into Ho Chi Minh City on the other hand... That was one of the most intense experiences I've had. It is a very densely populated city and the level of traffic is unlike anything I've seen before. There were periods of congestion where I felt like I was in a sea of motorcyclists, as far as I could see ahead and as far behind as I could see in my mirror. And as far as I would stick to the right, I always found them on either side of me, as they will even jump onto the sidewalk to try and get ahead of traffic. I think that was one of the things that truly got to me, how much they just ride on the sidewalk to get around traffic, with nothing done to prevent it save for some physical barriers put up on some sidewalks to deter it. I imagine that because of how slow traffic is usually moving, it is more scary than truly deadly, but any collision is most undesirable, and it feels amazing every moment you're NOT being hit when in such heavy traffic. And don't get me started on the chaos of round-abouts or the hazards of left hand turns. It  was more than hectic enough to make up for the easy border crossing, and I was very glad to finally arrive at my hotel, which I actually walked the last couple blocks to out of fear of making two left hand turns. I spent that evening in a failed attempt to buy useful things from a bike shop, with an ATM that wouldn't give me cash, only finding sleeves that were too pricy and in black (because my current ones are getting worn out), and then not being able to purchase even those because my card wouldn't work, and of course, then after it was too late to get back to the shop, finally finding an ATM I could actually get money out of, all while being stressed as hell about walking in that traffic. ...It was a whole thing. I should note, my trip to a different bike shop at the end of the next day was equally unhelpful, but I decided I will get by.

The hotel at least was quite nice, with the best breakfast I have had (outside of the stupid fancy place Rachael and I had in Chiang Mai). I spent the next day exploring the city, seeing Independence Palace, the outside of the Saigon Notre Dame cathedral (because it is undergoing renovation), the Post Office just across from the cathedral (a converted post office that is now a tourist haven), Jade Emperor Pagoda (which had turtles outside it, and it was delightful), and the War Remnants Museum. The museum was an important place to see, but not a fun one. It was a grim, honest reminder of the atrocities my country committed against the one I am in now. Of all the difficult things I saw there, seeing living victims of Agent Orange was definitely the hardest. I don't know what to say, that will be meaningful, nor whether I should in this blog. But I think it is a place that, as an American especially, if you get the chance, you should go.

I ignored the Christmas Eve partying going on that night (commercialized Christmas is huge here in Southeast Asia), for a quiet evening in the hotel. Christmas day I spent in a stressed effort to figure out how the heck to get out of Ho Chi Minh City, with a number of navigational troubles and changes happening to my original route. It was a big relief to finally get out of the metro area. Arriving in the peaceful town of Long Khanh that evening was probably the best Christmas gift I could ask for after the stresses of Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic was light (by Asian standards), kids were riding bikes down the street cheerfully, crossing streets was easy, there were nice green spaces, everything I could ask for. I went to a nice pizza place for dinner that required some serious Google translate to figure out, but was quite good. And my motel that evening was super clean and nice for a very cheap price. It was a good Christmas, even if a little lonely.

The first 40 miles of the next day were largely flat and easy riding. I passed through a small town that must have a large Christian community because it was full of nativity scenes, a sight I have seen here and there, but nowhere like that one town. There is a small Christian population in this country, less than 10%, but it many ways it feels more vocal than the more dominant Buddhist population. As I rode on a pleasant, low traffic road surrounded by stunningly green rice fields, with the mountains looming ever larger ahead of me, it seemed like I was headed straight for this immensely steep mountain, but then the road turned, and it was actually largely downhill for awhile on a very rough road through the jungle. Then sure enough, there came the inevitable climb, a steep but short rise up a rutted, winding road, to reach a resting spot where I could look below and see the straight stretch of road I had come down, before it began zigging and zagging up to where I was now. From there, things leveled out, with a few downhill stretches, taking me through small, peaceful villages where children waved and shouted hello with contagious enthusiasm. Then I hit the highway, with real traffic, but it was fine, because there was a big shoulder. Then the second, much longer climb of the day started, and right where I needed it most, the shoulder went away. It was the sort of situation that makes up a cyclist's nightmares, a long, steep climb on a two lane road with no shoulder, generally a guard rail that makes it so there isn't even a place to get off out of the way or rest, and heavy traffic that is full of buses and trucks, with lots of desperate vying to pass. A motorcyclist encouraged me with a thumbs up, and I was reminded how much the little things make a difference, even as buses are blaring their horns and blazing past way too close for comfort. At one point, I stopped pedaling, and hugged close to a guard rail as a bus passed me, looking like it was coming right at me, shockingly close and at high speed, to get around another bus in its lane. It was ugly. There was at one point what appeared to be a neat rest stop, with a large Virgin Mary statue, but I was in no mind to stop at the time. At one point, after I found a small space to pull over, a rarity on that stretch, when I got started again, the sweat poured into my eyes so badly I was temporarily blind, and I had the thought, what a dumb reason I am going to die over now... I didn't stop after that until near the top, where there were vendors selling desperately needed drinks. Just a little ways on from there, another motorcyclist would tell me, "Good job!" and it took me only a moment to realize what he meant, as I started descending at last. There was a little more climbing through Bao Loc but I had shoulder and life was good again. I was too tired to see much of town. But I had a good homestay that night, where I met an interesting English-speaking gentleman who was there longterm, while he was in-between living situations with his family, waiting for his house on an organic farm in the jungle to finish being built. That evening I also hit a great, unbelievably cheap vegetarian restaurant, where I thought the price was 50,000 dong, which seemed perfectly fair, when she actually charged just 15,000. It was a great evening after a tough day.

Which brings us to yesterday... Yesterday was one of the biggest roller coasters of my bike touring career. Much of the day was spent going up and down small hills (I had been told it was relatively flat before the big climb to Dalat, but I was glad I looked at the topography and didn't believe it). But there was some truly gorgeous scenery along the way. Things did flatten out right before the big climb. And it turned out it was much better than the one up to Bao Loc. For awhile, I was on a peaceful motorcyclist/byclist only road adjacent to the main highway, and I dared wonder if that would last. Of course, it didn't, and I merged with traffic on the two lane road up the mountain. It didn't always have shoulder, and it was a bit rough, but it was enough to make all the difference. Toward the top, I stopped at the paid entrance to see waterfalls. I parked and locked my bike, and reached into my belt bag to grab my wallet. ...But my wallet wasn't there. Frantic searching ensued, checking over and over as if it might magically reappear if I just kept digging through the same items in a small bag, quickly followed by panic. Trying to calm down, I reasoned that I was near the top of the climb, and the best thing was to get to the hotel, hopefully be able to pay with the little USD I had squirreled away in a pannier, and then see if I could get some sort of taxi to the spot I last remember having it, when I bought some soda from a small grocier before starting the climb. Of course, stressed, I got temporarily lost in the maze of Dalat, but I finally got to the hotel as the sun was getting low. As I awkwardly and worriedly explained my situation, to my amazement, the hotel manager calmly talked me through things and then said he would take me on his motorbike to where I thought I had lost my wallet. After a short time in the hotel room to get my wits about me, I was riding down the mountain in the dark on the back of a motorcycle driven by one of the kindest souls I've ever met. It wasn't a short ride down, and I feared I was wasting his time and generosity. After we got down the mountain, we made a few passes, before we identified where I had taken a photo by the grocery I had stopped at. I got off the motorcycle and walked along the road. And after just a few steps, there, by the light of my phone, I found my wallet, lying in the grass, by the side of the road, right next to where I last remembered using it to pay for soda. I made what were probably some embarrassing noises of excited amazement as I high fived my hero, whose name at that point I didn't even know. I got him dinner and coffee with another guest at the hotel as thanks (though it wasn't nearly enough to make up for what he'd done). It was a wonderfully unexpected end to the day, talking to Ha (the hotel manager who saved me), and Nick, his guest from Singapore he had become friends with in his short stay in Dalat, chatting and getting to know each other, and knowing we wouldn't have if I hadn't lost my damn wallet. It was a day of ups and downs (72 miles, 4900 feet of climbing), one major mistake, and the biggest rescue of my life. It was a reminder, partly to not be stupid and drop your wallet on the side of the road in a foreign country, but also to not lose hope, keep calm, and remember how good people can be.

Today, I walked around the beautiful city of Dalat, and went with Nick to the historic train station, where we took a train to this really incredible temple...and then got stranded because we somehow missed our train ride back, requiring us to get a taxi to get back. It was a fun day, and I will be sad to leave Dalat tomorrow. But there are many, many miles yet to go on this adventure, and I need to up the pace just a little to complete my loop back to Chiang Mai on time. Tomorrow it is onward to the coast. I'm excited to see the Pacific again, for the first time from this side.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Contrasts of Cambodia

My last night in Thailand was a good one. I stayed with a Warmshowers host about 10km from the border, in the little town of Aranyaprathet. She isn't a cyclist, but she sees so many cyclists coming through on their way to or from the border, that she just decided she needed to start taking them in. When I arrived, after being greeted by her rambunctious dogs, she helped me get settled in and provided me with this interesting bean soup, made of multiple kinds of beans, of her creation, then leaving for a little while to run errands. Before dinner, we headed to the nearby store on her scooter (my first ever time on one, and it was not as worrying as I expected), pumping up the low tire so it could get us there, where we each had a beer and shared some roasted watermelon seeds (which I couldn't seem to get the knack of eating). Afterwards we headed back for a really delicious and extensive vegetarian meal, and she scoffed when I said it was the best I'd had in Thailand. There were even banana leaves stuffed with sticky rice and pudding and cookies for dessert. She kept feeding me past the point I was full, which with the way I have lost weight, is probably something I needed. We had good conversations too, about how my state of Nebraska is dead last for tourism and our slogan of "Honestly not for everyone", which gave her great amusement, about how the roads are better in Thailand than the US and in a way, drivers are friendlier, none of which she could believe, about Thai culture, about how I apparently need to get home and have babies, about how Americans with our influence have a responsibility to figure things out, lots of things. It was a good night. I messed up my laundry by unwittingly hanging it on a dirty rack, and she felt way too bad over my mistake, but that was the only small source of stress, and I dealt with it the next day. She earned me that she wouldn't be up in the morning, and left things out to make breakfast. But I ended up getting around slowly, and by the time I headed out the door, her dogs barking at me like crazy, she got up to see me off.

The border was madness. I don't even know where to begin. I didn't have many miles to go that day, but I found it incredibly exhausting. There were huge trucks and cars and ox carts and motorcyclists, lined up for a long ways back, and this was apparently outside peak hours. As a motorcyclist or bicyclist, I learned that I was meant to weave my way through any available space to get to the front. I got in trouble a few times for not going through spaces I felt uncomfortable squeezing through, when the daring motorcyclists saw it as no problem. It was one of the more stressful experiences I have undergone, and I am not looking forward to future border crossings. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, and I found myself the ignorant American in need of constant direction. Going into Cambodia, my passport cover I had gotten together with Rachael at the night market on our last evening in Chiang Mai became an unfortunate casualty. It was taken to scan my passport and not given back, and when I asked the agent for it, he seemed to have no clue what I was talking about. I got it for 100 baht, and despite the sentimental value (and practical protection too), it just was not something I was going to make a scene about. I still find it sad to have lost it though.

Cambodia came as an immediate culture shock from Thailand, in ways that Thailand from the US just wasn't. Children of 5 or 6 walking barefoot in school clothes along the side of the highway, children of 8 or 10 riding motorcycles, children doing labor and selling me alcohol at the store... Trash everywhere, even at temples. Signs of extensive poverty everywhere I looked. As I was messaging my sister trying to process, she assured me it would get better in town and further from the border. It did in some ways, reaching Sisophon felt much different from the countryside before it, but there is no escaping the reality of the poverty here. There is also no arguing the beauty of the scenery here, the bright green fields partially submerged, the water sparkling in the hot sun. Cambodia is persistently beautiful across all the countryside I have seen across most the width of the country. It contrasts so sharply with the piles of trash and signs of impoverished living in the foreground of these gorgeous landscapes.

Toward the latter half of my second day riding in Cambodia, I got the rare treat of being able to ride with a couple other cyclists. They were Korean, father and daughter, on a bike tour vacation starting from Vientiane about the same time as I started from Chiang Mai, and they, just like me, were headed to Siem Reap. But unlike me, Siem Reap was not just one step on their route, but the end of their journey. Even if we couldn't understand each other very well, and most conversation was a bit of a struggle, it was really fun riding together, and they also kept me at a good pace. He was also nice enough to buy me a soda at one stand and a coconut at another, cut open with a straw, then cracked open to scoop out the innards. I found it sad to part with them once we got to Siem Reap, after getting to experience a little time not being all on my own. But well, that is the nature of solo bike touring.

Siem Reap was incredible. I hesitate to describe it because I can not do it justice. I enjoyed it immensely, from the vegetarian only restaurant I went to, to the beautifully lit up night market with too pushy vendors. It didn't hurt that I managed to get a really fancy boutique hotel on a deal for a lower price than most the chintzy ones I've gotten in small towns. And Angkor? Damn, I've never seen anything to compare. Even the roads there, lined by tall trees, felt magical. ...A little less on the second and third time, because I messed up and didn't get my ticket and had to go back a long ways to the ticket office. But it was an enjoyable ride all the same. I only had the one day (I really should have taken another), and I took it to see Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm. There are so many more temples I could have seen, but I at least managed to see many of the major ones. I'm not going to rant to you about the feeling of magnitude being amongst the multitude crossing the rubber bridge to reach Angkor Wat, the incredible detail of the reliefs all around it and the stories they tell, the wonder of the Hindu complex preserved by Buddhists so long, the sickening feeling of seeing all the Buddha heads missing from such a short time ago thanks to Khmer Rouge and other pillagers, the awe of seeing another temple after another... Just go. Of all the places I have ever been that I think everyone must see, it is Angkor. ...Also, if ancient temples don't do it for you, I saw a whole bunch of monkeys on the way to Angkor Thom, including parents with a baby. Every part of the day was incredible.

The next day I rode to the small town of Stoung, with not a whole lot happening on the way or once I got there. I stayed at the only overpriced hotel in town, and probably stressed a little unduly about leaving my bike in the hotel lobby, because as I have learned recently, the hotel staff usually sleeps in the lobby. I ate baked goods for dinner and breakfast because it was too hard to find anything else. That was pretty much it.

I had thought I had brought more USD than I did (that is the de facto currency in Cambodia by the way, 1 dollar equals about 4000 Riel, which is used in a lot of transactions just as change for dollars), and realized I desperately needed an ATM. I tried to hit one in town, but for reasons I don't understand, it rejected my Pin and a bank employee was looming over me while I used it. I got out fast and immediately changed my pin, before getting the heck out of town. About halfway through the day, I stopped and got lunch at an interesting tourist spot at a lake that is apparently a popular stopping point for tour buses, with a restaurant, overpriced imported food, and various tourist goods sold. When I got to my hotel, I had one of the most humbling moments of my life. I thought I had just enough cash, so I could get my hotel, drop off my bike (they gave me ground floor so I could put it in the room, which I appreciated), and then hit an ATM for real. But torn dollars don't spend here, and a couple of my dollars were rejected. I didn't have enough to pay the $9 for my room. I was allowed to go in anyways, and run to the ATM to get the rest of what I owed. It was really kind and I felt a warmth inside that was more than just embarrassment. That evening I went to the Love Cafe, a spot run by an American, who cooked me up a veggie burger and fries, my first real taste of home. It was damn good. ...Though the image of America was made a little too complete by the annoying crazy American patron who showed up on motorcycle playing shitty music, ranting about whether he could say Jesus or needed to say Buddha, and bitching that he spoke American, not English. Yeah...great look for my country.

Most of my impression of the next day was just feeling really damn hot. At one point while I was stopped in a town, a man walked up to me  and gave me a lychee drink. It was kind of him, but it also felt awkward. I had a bad experience accepting a drink from a stranger once that turned to the worst sexual harassment of my life (don't want to talk about it), and while I am generally trusting, there's some concerns taking things from strangers. I was thirsty and hot and didn't want to be rude, so I drank it as he urged me to drink faster. He kept pointing at indeterminate things as I kept my eyes toward him, and part of me wonders if there was meant to be a grift. I ultimately paid him a fair price for the drink, because it felt better than taking it for free, which he took, and I headed on my way. My overpriced small town hotel that night in Skun had a sink whose pipe was on the floor, so all the water that drained from it likewise ended up on the floor, the bathroom smelling terrible, and also an electric water heater with exposed wires. It was pretty bad.

Yesterday I arrived at last in Phnom Penh. It was a gorgeous and restful ride with the wind at my back for once on the way to the city outskirts. It was a stressful as hell ride through increasingly thick traffic once I got there. Finally getting to the hotel and getting off the bike was a considerable relief. It was more of a relief when I talked the receptionist into letting me put my bike inside the hotel with the words, "What is the hotel's responsibility if my bike gets stolen?" It was not a relief when I told him there are stains on my sheets that look a lot like blood, and seeing them he insisted they were something else and I was worrying unduly. ...Yeah, not great.

I checked out the local Specialized store where I got followed uncomfortably by the sales people who, even with language barriers aside, didn't seem to know too much, and suddenly offered 50% off on clothes when I was about to leave. I could use an extra pair of socks, so I said the heck with it, and got them. Then I made my way to the mall, which involved a number of problematic dead ends from Google's routing and took much longer than expected. They had a lot familiar imported food, but all at rather high prices. I wanted vitamins, but they cost 5x as much as in the US. After the hassle of getting there, I sucked it up and got a tuk tuk to get back to the hotel.

And was a lot. I went to S21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. I may talk about it here down the line. But not now. I need more time and distance before I can try to write about the attrocities I saw and learned about today. Traveling by bike often involves amazing reminders of the depth of human kindness, but today was a reminder of the depths of human depravity.

Tomorrow, tomorrow is another day.