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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 warned 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 was certainly 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 lf 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 atrocities 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.