Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Day 371 - Chumphon

Judging by the map the first 60km heading south from Cha-Am looked just my sort of road, right next to the sea, bliss. Actually, no, it wasn't bliss, it was 60km of shite! A dualled road, though not a busy one, but only for about 2.5k could I see the sea, the rest was big hotels and resorts that had a monopoly on the beach. Three times I made attempts to get to the seafront, each time I could see it on the horizon, but I couldn't get to it, so I gave up and stuck to the main road in a grump. The rest of the day was boring and uneventful until I got to Prachuap Kirikhan where I checked around a few hotels just at the wrong time, the rain was lashing down and a hotel with a sea view became "What sea?". It didn't last long though and I was soon off for a wander, it was pleasant along the seafront and on the pier. I went along to Mount Thingy as the views were supposed to be good from the wat at the top. Just as I was about to go up I saw a couple of cyclists parking their bikes, they were Joelle and Clement from France and we ascended the steps together. The whole place had been taken over by monkeys and they were a little bold to say the least, keener to show their teeth rather than move from the steps, so we went up catiously. The views from the top were good, but you had to keep an eye on the monkeys the whole time as at times they bounced of our backs and one clung to my leg. I was a tad concerned it would go on the wrong side of my shorts, not something I wanted having seen it's teeth. I wasn't sorry to go down, but on reaching the bottom Joelle and Clement found that their bikes had also been a target for the monkeys, though no damage done.
So the following morning I had a lie in and then headed of south with cycling companions for the first time in over 6 months. It turned out that from Vientiane in Loas to here Clement and I have been on exactly the same route other than around Bangkok, but I have always been a day or more behind. We tried to avoid the highway and very early on had to go through a checkpoint where we had to write our names and sign a form for some reason. Shortly afterwards we crossed a very wide road with no traffic on, thankfully, as I soon realised we were crossing the airport runway. After about 20k we stopped at the house of Theiry, a Frenchman now living here with his Thai wife who J & C had met the previous day and would give up some information on the roads ahead. Having departed we once again tried to get off the highway but it resulted in a deadend road at a lovely beach, then another track that ended in a footpath that dropped into a river, we were having as much success as I had yesterday. Back to the highway we went and tried again later, only to end at a pier (photo). More highway, then as it was getting late we turned down to the coast again. J & C went for a dip in th sea (I really should learn to swim) whilst I went in search of somewhere to stay. We were lucky and found a guesthouse nearby at a reasonable rate. It was by now completely dark.
We had an earlier start the following day, most of which was off the main highway, but not always with the sea in view, though when there was one it was usually really nice (photo). We decided on a short day and aimed for the next village by the sea, but there was nothing there, nowhere to stay and nowhere to eat, so as it was still early we carried on having been told there was another beach 6km further on. Sure enough after 8km we reached a beach and J & C went for another swim whilst I forced down ice cold drinks. We were told of a guest house 6km further on and a map was drawn in the sand. After 6km we arrived at a village to be told the nearest was still another 8km further on, it was going to be one of those days. Two guys on a moped showed us the way but once on the coast again we told them we would be ok. I enquired at some bungalows whilst J & C checked some others, though I was told they were closed as it is the low season, but when J & C arrived she obviously decided it was worth her while to let us stay. We ate dinner at a shorefront restaurant whilst providing a dinner for the mosquitos.
Today was a nice relaxed day, meandering down the coast to Chumphon. We found a lovely long sandy beach with nobody on it and stopped for a few hours, bliss, I even got my feet wet. Chumphon is a little away from the coast and a lively town. I suspect that tomorrow we will split up again as J & C want to take it leisurely down the east coast then take a bus to Phuket, whereas I think I will head to the west coast from here and arrive at Phuket in 4 days time. When I get to Phuket I am sure I shall wonder what the hell I am doing there, a fish out of water, but I want to see the 'other side' of Thai coastal life.
It's been good to have compant for a while, but once again I am put to sham with my inability to speak a foreign language. J & C have also picked up a few words of Thai which has proved useful. The only two word I know are Nok and Noi which means little bird and has proved to be about as useful as I expected.
Thanks again for all of your comment and emails. Dan, I am not sure if I know you or not, but if you drop me an email, my contact email is on the right hand side at the bottom, I will give you any information you would like. Jackie, thanks for another comment and for reading this waffle. I have been meaning to mail you but just haven't got around to it yet, but now I regret that as we were both in Bangkok at the same time and it would have been fun to have met up. From reading your blog I assumed you would be well away by now, but I guess you have flown from Bangkok. Those who have sent emails, I have read them, but not being the fastest typist, these things take time, but I will reply to you, thanks.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Day 367 - Cha-Am

Blimey, another post already, some people don't know when to stop.

But I write today as I have now been on the road for exactly a year, and that is pretty amazing in itself. I shall never forget the day I set off. I set off from my sister Aoiffe's house in Aylesbury having left home a few days earlier. As I pedaled away I can clearly remember turning around and waving to her, but it was strange as I waved never expecting to be away for this long, in fact I hardly expected to be away more than a couple of months. Australia was the destination, but I didn't truthfully expect to get outside of Europe. The problem was that I had a little heart rythm problem, something I had had for a couple of years prior to departure. It started of as Atrial Fibrillation and got worse over time to the extent that I had a little operation in 2006. It did the trick and cured it completely, though it seemed to trigger Atrial Flutter in it's place and the last couple of months prior to my departure it was getting worse and worse, to the extent that I thought it was a total waste of time going and very nearly didn't bother, but in the end I decided that if I didn't at least set off I would forever think "what if?'. So I left with a pretty negative outlook, but at least I would find out the answer. It's has been well worth it too, as despite regular "attacks" early on it never stopped me cycling, though I expected the Alps to put an end to it all. It did cause some problems through the mountians, but nothing that stopped me for too long. Then I reached the Black Sea in Turkey and on one particular day it certianly gave me something to think about. I really struggled that day and with just 4km to go to my destination I thought "How on earth am I going to get there?" it seemed an impossible task, and hardly a sensible one. But I pushed on very slowly with regular stops, I had no choice but to keep stopping, not that there was much difference in the pace between cycling and having stopped, but at last I got there only to find nowhere to stay. I knew I couldn't go any further and I managed to find a house to stay in. Strangely enough that was the last time it has really been a problem and my heart hs been almost perfect ever since, so now I know the answer and I am so glad I made myself leave. If anything it has improved my health and that has to be a good thing.

But although I have been away for a year, to me it really only feels like 5 or 6 months, it has gone that quick. I have met no end of people who have been able to get a year off work to travel and early on I would have said it was plenty enough, but now I have changed my mind, it isn't nearly enough. Modern transportation has shrunk the world in size, but for many like myself it has made it a bigger place as there are so many places to visit, the more places you go the more it fires the imagination. If a country becomes a little dull after a while, cross a border and there are a full range of new sights, sounds and smells to bombard the senses, new people to meet and talk to and new experiences to be gained, some good, some bad, but generally exciting. I have always wanted to go on a long overland journey. but only in recent years have I had the desire to do it by bike. I rather assumed that an extended period of travel would finally put that desire behind me, but the opposite has happened. Now I know just how good it is, I suspect I am going to want more of it once I return, unless something else can put it to the back of my mind. The best thing about not have a set duration to the trip is that you never have that feeling that you are half way through, or that you time is running out. It becomes a lifestyle in it's own right, and a damned good one at that.

Even after a year I still get up every day with relish. I normally wake a little before 6, get up almost straight away and set off before 7. Nick Barlow will find that pretty hard to believe as in my backpacking and camping days with him, on more than one occasion he resorted to literally tipping me out of bed. Each day is there to be lived, each day is different and I don't know what's in store, though in reality it is still pretty similar to the previous day. But I love moving on, seeing a new destination, and I still get a wonderful feeling of satisfaction on arrival, of dumping my stuff in the room, knowing I have had a good few hours exercise. I still enjoy the days most when I have no idea where I will be staying, though again, it nearly always falls into place really easily, normally just by cycling on until I find something suitable, but even so, it's still more rewarding than the places I know have half a dozen guest houses or hotels.

I have to admit that I would have epected to have been a little further on than this in a year. I have cycled 23,351 km, but have also taken my time, stopped and seen places when I have wanted to visit and hardly taken the most direct route. Though setting out without an exact route and no schedule, even in my mind, I suppose I can't really be behind schedule can I?

When it rains here by heck it rains. Last night I dashed to the internet cafe as it started to rain, I thought I might as well sit out a storm there as anywhere else. When I came out it had eased but was still raining heavily. I started to run the 300m or so back to the guest house. After a few metres down the lane there was surface water, hang on, that's more than surface water! It was over ankle deep the whole way and with no pavement to walk on. It somewhat slowed down the running, in it's deepest spot it was just under knee deep, not bad for a little over an hours rain. Most people seemed to have taken shelter but others like me on the move were soon totally drenched though it made for a jovial atmosphere.

Thankfully by morning it had drained away. Heading out of Bangkok was just about as easy as heading in, though this time I was carrying a better map of the place, a freebie I hasten to add, I am still a tight git when it comes to things that aren't really necessary and all that is necessary is food, plenty of food! My new sandals got their first outing and I have to say I still prefer the old ones, so I haven't thrown the away yet. The new ones cover more of the foot, a sort of shoe without toes. It defeats the point a bit and my feet felt hot and sweaty, but no doubt I will adjust to them.

Today I had an early start at the floating market, but once again I was a little disappointed. I guess without us tourists it wouldn't exist. There were lots of boats selling tourist tat, some selling food cooked on the boat and other selling fruit and veg, but the buyers of the fruit and veg were the boats cooking food for the tourists. Still, it is a wonderful sight and the people are all very friendly. I made my way to Cha-Am and saw some mountains for the first time since Vientiane and also saw the sea for the first time since Oman. There are plenty of places to stay here but it took a while to find a place shabby enough to be in my price range, but I guess as I head down the coast I will have to face the fact that I will have to pay more for less. It's a gentle introduction to Thai beaches though as their is hardly a foreigner in sight. Walking along the shore having a paddle, which incidently I didn't go in as deep as I did on the flooded roads of Bangkok, I saw more elephants on the beach than all the bikinis, swimsuits and swimming trunks put together. Ok, so I only saw one elephant, but it was still more as people go into the sea wearing long shorts and shirts, basically their normal clothes. As I paddled I didn't feel overdressed, but I did feel overage as it's generally teenagers around here.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Day 365 - Bangkok

Well it was worth a day or two in Ayuthaya of anybodys time. Things were pretty spread out so cycling was the ideal way to get around. It was pretty amazing to see so many ruins and temples in what is now a modern bustling city. When I got back to my guest house I got chatting to a German guy. He was older than me, isn't that amazing. It didn't take me long to dislike him and feel uncomfortable in his presence, he was the questioning sort and became very annoyed when I answered his questions incorrectly, his fists would clench, his whole body would tense up and frustration was etched all over his face. Mind you, it was his fault for asking the wrong questions, for example he asked me how long I had been in Asia when really what he wanted to know was how long I had been travelling for. "No, no, no" he said "I want to know when you left home". Then his wife arrived and he introduced me to her, and I just couldn't help thinking "you poor woman" and for the remaining time I was with them I couldn't stopped wondering how she coped with him. I made my excuse of needing a shower and got away not a moment too soon.

Monday was a day I have been dreading for a long time, a ride into the centre of Bangkok. Each time I have met cyclists that have come through Bangkok I have asked them about it and they always say they took the bus or train. Well I made my way south on a road a few k west of the main north/south motorway and it wasn't too busy to start with, the junctions not to bad and I just followed the signposts. As it started to enter the city signposts were all to suburbs, none of which were marked on my map, so I just followed the compass south or westwards if that was not possible as the river would stop me going too far wrong. The road was dualled all the way, but a busy city road rather than motorway style, so most main junctions were traffic lights which was slow going but at least pretty safe. I wasn't technically lost, but nor did I have any idea where I was, I was just waiting to see a landmark, then I would find out where I was. Then I saw a signpost to Banglamphu, the area I was aiming for and a few minutes later, to my amazement I was at the end of the road I was looking for. I hadn't taken a single wrong turn, how can you if you don't know where you are, no back tracking, I had given up using the map and yet I had arrived far more easily than I could have ever dared to wish for. I checked out a few guest houses including the one where I stayed when I was last here, before opting for a very big but clean place that offered far better value for money than all the others. I went out in the evening to roads that were closed to traffic and thought it was normal until I saw crowds of people behind railings waiting for something top happen. Enquiries informed me that the Queen was in the wat, so I waited around too, but it was so still and hot the sweat was pouring off me. I decided to wait another few minutes until 8pm and sure enough out she came. Lots of other people came out first but she was the only one escorted by a huge umbrella despite it being neither sunny or raining. She even came around to our side of the car to wave to the adorring crowd, no mean feat, it was a very long car and she is a very old lady! I carried on down the Khao San Road, the main backpacker hang out in Bangkok. It was exactly the same as when I was last here, only more so. A mass of neon lights, bars, hotels, shops, all the usual stuff. It's only 200m long and get to the other end, turn the corner and it's dark and not a soul around, very strange.

The following day was a complete waste of time as I went to pick up my bike bits from the post office. I went there on the river ferry, a nice change from the hectic roads and just a 5 minute walk either end of a 30 minute boat ride. I found the Poste Restante easily, not even a queue, found the details of my stuff and then was told I had to go to the customs house, that could only mean bad news. It took me half an hour to get there, the place was packed, I filled out some forms and collected my queue ticket and sat and waited....and waited....and waited. Lunch hour stopage didn't exactly help, but after 2 hours 45 minutes I spotted the parcel and was called over. I opened it up for them to check through it, then out came a calculator. The calculation took too long with far too many number being put in for my liking, but at last they came up with the final figure 4106 Baht, I had expected to pay 2 for a parcel at the post office! That's 68 pounds. I was staggered, my worst estimation had been 10 pounds. I threw a wobbly and refused to pay, so they fetched a manager and once again I had to show him the contents of the parcel, and I asked why I had to pay import tax on the postage as well. I also pointed out that I wasn't really importing it as I was taking it with me and out to Malaysia. Without the aid of a calculator he said I would have to pay at least 2000 Baht. At least 2000! What's that all about? Surely there is a fixed import tax rate, but I decided to try my luck anyway. I suggested 1000, but they wouldn't budge below 2000. Now for a bit of a fun and a gamble, I said I would pay no more than 1000, put it on the desk, took the package and went to leave. I got as far as the door before being stopped and told to go back. Back I went but still no less than 2000, so this time I went with the real intension of leaving, I got out of the door but was then stopped by security and told I would be arrested if I went any further, back I went. More negotiations followed and I eventually agreed to pay the 1500 they were now asking for, that is still 25 pounds but somewhat better than 68 pounds. I don't really know who got the better deal as I am not sure if I should really have had to pay at all, but I made sure I got a receipt. The people of Bangkok seem to be duty bound to rip off a foreigner, aren't we lucky? I paid with a large note in a shop and soon realised I had been short changed and as I was about to mention it the rest was handed to me with a receipt, a slick operation that has clearly been well rehearsed. Then I went to buy a mango off a little fruit stall, but declined at the asking price of 83p. I bought 2 for 12p in Cambodia and got a 3rd one free. Later on I had a sticky rice with coconut milk and mango, a whole mango, yet it only cost 30p, work that one out. Incidently it was absolutely delicious and it is safe to say it wont be the last one I have.

Bangkok hasn't changed much since I was last here, though transport is noticably different. There is now a metro and a skytrain, very few boats of the river and very few tuk-tuks. Boats before were every few minutes and the river was like a motorway, but this time I had to wait 20 minutes during which time nothing else passed. Tuk-tuks seem to be aimed at tourists and they are sound as they should be on a race track and have big wide tyres to add to the image.

My first day of sightseeing included Bangkok's highlight, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Grand Palace. No description of mine could ever do the place justice, but I have so say it was jolly nice. There are more photos opportunities there than you can shake a camera at. The Emerald Buddha is the most reveered image in Thailand, yet he is only a little chap, no more than a couple of feet tall in a seated position, but it sits on a whole stack of gold stuff, pushing him well up towards the ceiling. Added to that the walls are covered in wonderful frescoes, all of which you are not allowed to photograph. In the afternoon I went of to some of the further away sights so took the bike and tested the sandals. The soles must be thicker that the other ones so I might have to raise the saddle a little, otherwise they were fine. I didn't manage to see anything that I hadn't seen before, but having stayed here for a week last time I think I pretty much covered the place. I went to the Vimenmek Teak Palace, the largest teak building in the world. When I arrived I was told the English speaking tour had just left, so I was lead at break nack speed whilst being given a quick look at each room and brief description. Even though it had "just left" we still had to overtake 2 other groups. Once with the English group the guide wasn't hanging around and I was heading out of the place before I had even realised I had arrived. Phew!

Today has been my third and final day in Bangkok, only 2 of which have been for sightseeing, and to be honest I struggled for motivation this morning, I have too many other things on my mind at the moment. But I forced myself out, and it was worth it, though once again I didn't see anything that I hadn't seen before but I did have a ride on the Skytrain which was good. Wat Pho was a highlight, really a complex of wats with the main attraction being reclining Buddha, 85m long and 15m high, with wonderful feet inlaid with mother of pearl. I took a walk through Chinatown, then went in search of the Buddha which is 5.5 ton of solid gold, before heading back by boat again.

So tomorrow I move on. I am heading for.....hmm, I have forgotten the place name, but it is where the floating market is and about 105k from Bangkok, so an early start the following morning will see me at the market well before the tour buses arrive. From there on in I am new territory the whole way, and the beach beckons. I can hardly wait for a paddle!
I have just uploaded another load of photos, are you a lucky lot!

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Day 360 - Ayuthaya (Thailand)

Ouch! more pain please.

Well, I was just about to leave Siem Reap and was carrying my too many bags down stairs when I studdenly did something to a muscle in my left thigh that made it painful to walk and very painful to lift my leg in a cycling motion. But I got my priorities right and ordered breakfast which included a wonderful banana pancake, though not so wonderful when you put French Fries Sauce on it instead of Honey, they look very similar. Surprisingly the pain had really subsided after about 20 minutes and after a bit of walking I decided to give cycling a go. It was ok, so I carried on at a gentle pace and thankfully it was fine, though I could feel it all day. As expected the road was really good as far as the airport, then from there onwards it was old tarmac getting worse all the time. The roadworks began and small bridges were being built which meant lots of slippery muddy diversions as it had rained a fare bit overnight. Soon the tarmac was covered with a thin film of mud which made it slippy the whole time. Then I said goodbye to the tarmac and hello to the dirt road. Actually it wasnt too bad, muddy in places but generally dry, though some long stretches were really bumpy like a washboard which made progress really slow. Then I could see Sisophon, my nights destination ahead, I had got away with it very lightly, but there was a sting in the tail and the last 2km were really muddy and very wet, a real quagmire that again left me trailing mud through the guest house.

The following morning I was greeted with what I really didn't want to see, wet roads from more overnight rain, but I guess that is better than wet roads from actual rain. There was some new tarmac and other than another muddy diversion the first 20km were fine, then it was bye bye tarmac again. From here on in it was horrible, mud the whole way. Thankfully it was pretty wet as the slightly drier mud was the worst and really stuck to the wheels and I could feel myself instantly slow down. My favourite mud resembled fresh juicy cow pats, cycling through that mud was great as it didn't stick and even helped clear that mud that had stuck. Worse was to come in the form of big potholes. I never have a great desire to cycle through them so naturally avoided them, though passing cars didn't and that resulted in me getting regularly showered in mud, which was surprisingly warm. At last I arrived at the border town of Poipet, but once again some of the worst was saved for the towns. Here the entire road was flooded for about 200m and it was deep too, not muddy but big stones. I really didn't want to cycle through as I didn't know what would be under the water, so I took it in stages, watching the routes other vehicles took and seeing if they dropped into potholes. I used the entire road to chose my best route, but other motorists were fine and nobody complained. I arrived as immigration covered in mud, most people stopped for a look and some made comments. Now I have always wanted to see what would happen at a land border like this as the 2 countries drive on opposite sides of the road. I suppose something happened between the 2 border controls that I missed, but I soon moved over as I was heading straight for a lorry. Once into Thailand there was lovely smooth tarmac, oh joy, deep joy! As I passed through town I looked for a jet wash but when I found one they wouldn't let me use it. I kept my eyes peeled for the 50 odd k to Sa Kaeo as I felt that if I turn up at hotels in my state I might find them all 'full'. At last I found a tap and hosepipe and was given permission to use it, so I cleaned the bike, all my bags, my sandals feet and legs. Now what happens as soon as you clean your bike? As I set off again I was heading straight for a huge black cloud, there would be no missing it. As both me and my clothes would be cleaned when I arrived I decided to carry on as it was only about 11k away. The cloud was up for a real fight and quickly it whipped up a very strong wind that tried to force me back to Cambodia, 1-0 to the cloud. Then the rain came, very hard and I was very soon drenched, 2-0. With the wind in my face and the hard rain I could hardly see where I was going, I just hoped the motorists had a better view, 3-0. But I wasn't going to be defeated, there was no way I was going back to the mud of Cambodia, 3-1. Then the cloud scored an own goal as there was so much water, some of which was poured over me from passing cars that my clothes were cleaned and I had showered before I had even arrived, 3-2. But it rained all the way to Sa Kaeo and I had to wring my shirt out before going into a hotel, but still left muddy footprints across the floor, 4-2. Well done cloud, I suppose you think you are clever. Hmmm! May be I have been travelling alone for too long.

The next day was a whole day of tarmac, bliss. Actually it wasn't very exciting, though I did pass some nearby hills and a Nationl Park. There were lots of signs to waterfalls etc, but I was really intrigued to see one to an "Amazing Mound", though I wasn't intrigued enough to actually go and see it. But what can possibly make a mound amazing, and when does it stop being an amazing mound and become just an ordinary hill?

Today's cycling wasn't that great either, though Ayuthaya is just 75km north of Bangkok and that means the road and junctions are getting bigger. Having looked at the map I had a choice of 2 routes, one which went though a very big junction that I decided to avoid. My other route was on much smaller roads, but then I hit a big road that I thought my road would go under but I couldn't get across, so I had to join the main road. It was motorway like and I wondered if I should really be on it, but then you see motorcycles and cars coming towards you on the hard shoulder and I guess that even if I wasn't supposed to be there, nobody would actually care. Ironically I ended up at the junction I had tried to avoid. But I arrived reasonably early and as there as plenty of temples to see here I went out on the bike and saw some of the further ones (photo) which gave me a real taster of what is in store for tomorrow. It is strange, but having visited northern Thailand for a few days, arriving back it all feels very familiar. What is also strange is that as I make my way around Ayuthaya I am sure I came here before in 19??, but with the memory of a goldfish I am not surprised that I can't remember.

For some reason lately I have been on a bit of a downer and I don't know why. I can think of a number of reasons, but nothing that I can really say that is the reason. I am not too worried about it though, I am sure I will pull through quickly enough, and besides, it's been a long time since I have had a rough patch, so it's only right that I should have another one.

Thanks for all your comments on the last post, I enjoyed reading them all. Funnily enough I have got a picture of my sandals (see photo). I am not sure that you can technically see it, but it's under the mud somewhere. Perhaps the idea of cleats in wellies should be taken up, I would by a pair. Odd isn't it, I write what I think is a pretty boring post and it gets more comments than I have had in a long time.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Day 355 - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)

I am finding more and more that when I arrive at a place I am disappointed in it. I hear or read about it, then it just doesn't live up to my expectations and I seem to enjoy the getting there rather than the being there. Not so with Angkor and all it's temples, highlighted by the fantastic Angkor Wat. It's actually a place that for years I have wanted to visited, and I can assure you it has been worth the wait.

I bought a 3 day pass, a slick operation if ever there was one. You have your photo taken and seconds later you are issued a ticket complete with mug shot. First stop I made the main attraction, Angkor Wat (photo). I dont like seeing the best first, but I wanted to visit it a couples of times if possible. It is supposedly the largest religeous building in the world and I guess if you include the massive moat, then it probably is, but the temple itself only occupies as smallish area inside the moat. Its reached by 2 impressive causeways, but for me the fine details in the carvings is what stood out. Thankfully it was far less busy than I had expected, so wandering around was quite peaceful. I then made my way to Angkor Thom, entered by gateways flanked by a series of figures with large faces over the gateways themselves and surrounded by a 12km wall. At the centre was Bayon, little more than a pile of old stones from a distance, but once inside there are some 250 plus large faces keeping an eye on you. I stopped for lunch nearby, where all the woman shout from a distance in a very high pitched drawn out call Water Sirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. The afternoon was spent at the temple of Bapoun. This was dismantled, then had all the plans destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and it still being rebuilt, a giant 3D jigsaw. Then there was the Terrace of the Elepants, Terrace of the Leper King and Prea Ko. The nice thing about all these sights is that they are all so very different to each other, no time to get bored or templed out. I made my way back to Angkor to get a good photo as the sun went down, but just got wet from the rain instead.

The next day was more of the same, starting from where I had left off the day before, although they were the lesser temples and nowhere near as impressive as the others. Ta Prohm was probably one of the highlights, not for the temple, but for the way it has been taken over by the trees growing there, both now need each other for their survival (Photo). The last temple of the day, Bantreay Srei, some 30k north of Siem Reap and fantastically preserved and with fine and detailed carvings. I managed to cycle 82k and that was on a non cycling day, something wrong there I think.

On the last day of my ticket I made my way to the Rolous group, defineately not as good as the others but worth a look. I went back to a couple I had passed the previous day but didnt have time to stop at and had no information on them. They were great, some of my favourites, the first being Kraven, a small brick built temple with some wonderful carvings into the bricks that made it look as though the subjects had been pushed through from the other side. The one across the road whose name I have forgotten and the moment, but frankly I am sure you wouldnt care about the name anyway, was very different, a tumble down affair, but just wandering around there were lovely little lichen covered carvings that made them look really colourful. I made my way back to finish my 3 days as I started, at Angkor Wat. This time I took a bit more time to look at the details including walking the whole way around the 800m of bas reliefs.

None of my posts would be complete if I didnt moan about something, nor should I go too long without telling you how much pain I am in. I can cover both by talking about my sandals. When I go into temples and have to leave them outside I am always concerned that they will not be there on my return, that somebody might have stolen them. I am a bit paranoid as they are cycling sandals, they have cleats in the bottom and would therefore be very difficult to replace. Then just a few weeks ago I saw them after a visit to a temple and I suddenly realised just how tatty they look and in reality they are the very last pair anybody would wish to steal. They were about 5 years old when I left home and other than a week in February I have been wearing them the whole time on this trip, consequently they are rapidly falling apart. Nothing is made to last these days! The left toe keeps flipping over and I am sure will break off soon, but now on the same sandal the heel has collapsed and sharp bits stick into my heel when I walk, very painful. If I walk in a very strange way it is just about bearable. As each day passes I am looking more and more like a tramp. Hopefully there will be a new pair in Bangkok when I arrive. Dont worry though Caroline, the 2 pairs of ill fitting trousers Ieft with are still going strong. They are iller fitting now and hang like a sack, but no need to replace them yet. Caroline has always said I was the worst dressed man she knows, but I am now the worst dressed man I know too, and that no mean achievement in places like Cambodia!

So what now. Well heading west towards Thailand, the direction I want to go is one of the few bits of road I knew about before I left as Lindsey and David had warned me about it. It is know as the boulevard of broken backsides, and that is just for people in vehicles with 4 wheels. The road is in terrible condition for the 160k to the border. So why is that. Well allegedly a local airline owner is paying an unknown amount to an unknown government official not to upgrade the road as it has been for the rest of the way to Phnom Penh. This is so that people will fly from Bangkok to visit Siem Reap rather than use buses. To make thing worse it is now the wet season and when it rains roads quickly flood and dirt roads become quagmires. It has rained all afternoon here today, just getting to the internet cafe I had to walk through flooded streets. There are other options though, I could head north on dirt roads, but that might be just as bad, who knows, may be even worse. I could head all the way back to Phnom Penh, then south to the coast and west to Thailand, all the roads are good, but I dont want to retrace 3 days worth, especially as I have already cycled the last bit twice already. Then I could head south on a boat to Battam Bang, that would be really nice, but Mr Too Stubborn For His Own Good refuses to use public transport. So I think I will head west on the crap road, but I am not 100% sure yet. Oh to be on the tarmac of Thailand, then I wont mind the rain. Rain when it is hot is quite nice, but I dont do mud! I will head off tomorrow weather permitting.

Its also about I replied to Tonys comments. Thanks for you continued comments, they are always appreciated. It is nice to have regular comment contributers as I then know that at least somebody is reading this stuff, but you are normally far to generous in my opinion. I am never entirely happy with the content of this blog, normally I just sit down and type in a rush, then when I have left I remember all the things I had meant to comment on. Also the photos are never as good as I would want them to be. I have always enjoyed photography, but carrying a small camera creates limitations, which is really a compremise, but means I never happy with the photos. I want them to be far better than they are. Also mud is relative. If you bike is covered in mud who cares about another patch of a few millimetres, but if you have just cleaned it that same patch is mighty annoying. But thanks again, and to all the others that comment, keep the comments coming, I always enjoy reading them.

There is a whole bagful of photos uploaded of the various temples here, there is just so much good stuff here that I thought I would put a load on, but rest assured I took far far more! Hopefully it will bring back a few memories for you David and Lindsey.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Day 350 - Siem Reap

Siem Reap, literally translated means "Siam Defeated", so I suspect diplomacy in Cambodia in the past left a little to be desired.

Well my original plan was to cycle from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in 2 days, that meant 168k and 147k, but when I got up in the morning I thought "Sod it! I can't be bothered", so I just had a short day of 80k to Skun. The problem with that was it was 80k of retracing my route into PP, and I didn't enjoy it the first time. Actually heading out wasn't as bad as heading in as you start of fresh and the traffic gets lighter as you go along, though I still struggled to get excited about any of it. For some strange reason there were a number of motorbikes towing trailers stacked high with cane furniture (photo), I am sure a puff of wind would have spelt disaster for them. Still, at least I had a choice of guest houses on arrival, though I steered clear of the one with a big building at the back that housed lots of little karioke rooms. I suppose I could have joined in, that would have emptied the place. I arrived in the calm sunny weather, but it soon became overcast and the wind really picked up, and what's more it would have been a tail wind, typical. I bought some mangos before I arrived, they are delicious and dirt cheap and a real treat on arrival. For some reason I started to belch the taste of rotten eggs again, I feared the worst.

The following morning I was still belching rotten eggs and as expected I had the trots. This time I have no idea as to the cause, I certainly hadn't eaten any moldy cake. I really didn't want to hang around in this little town of no interest, so I popped a couple of immodium and hoped for the best. It did the trick. The ride to Kampong Thom was much more enjoyable as I wasn't leaving a big city and I was on new territiry. The countryside is never exciting, always very flat, but there were roadside houses most of the way to keep the interest levels up, but would have been a major problem if the trots had continued. I stopped for a juice and took a photo of a wonderful old lady with her baggage on her head (photo), though for some reason when I went to pay they charged me for her drink too, telling me she was a bit scatty and had left without paying, I declined the offer. I am sure if I were to start to leave without paying that they might just remind me.

Today I was still left with 147k to Siem Reap as I suspected there would be no guest houses elsewhere, still I would rather have a long ride than camp in a country were there are still an estimated 4-6 million landmines to be cleared. I didn't want to assist by clearing one for them. The whole way from Phnom Penh was very flat, that normally means wind and true to form I had a head wind in the afternoon. The last couple of days I have seen no end of pigs being transported on motorbikes, mainly groups of piglets in wicker cages, but also fully grown beasts strapped unceremoniously unside down to the back of a bike. I also passed about 5 weddings today, at least I assume that is what they were. The very loud distorted music gave me ample warning of what was ahead. So I arrived in Siem Reap and it has to be one of the easiest places in the world to find a room, there are probably hundreds of guest houses and hotels due to its famous attraction of Angkor Wat just a few kilometres to the north and the whole area scattered with hundreds of other temples. I plan to buy a 3 day tickets, I think that will be enough to get "templed out".

Despite my bad times and experiences in Myanmar is still saddens and distresses me to see a country I have so recently visited, hit in such devasting fashion by a cyclone. Knowing just how flimsy the houses are that most people live in, it comes as no surprise that the death toll has been so high. It doesn't come as a surprise either that internal and external aid will be such a problem in a country where the infrastructure is shaky at the best of times. There are some wonderful people there and my heart goes out to them, especially the family I stayed with. I hope they can recover from this quickly.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Day 347 - Phnom Penh

What a difference a day makes! The road into Kratie was really quiet, almost deserted, then the dirt road to Kampong Cham had little traffic, but departing Kampong Cham was a different matter altogether. It was a busy road all the way to Phnom Penh, the first busy road in a long time and it came as a shock. To make things worse as I ate breakfast it started to rain. I left when it eased up a little, but it wasn't long before I stopped to put a jacket on. Thankfully it only lasted an hour or so, but it made me think I had made the right decision in avoiding the dirt roads, despite the heavy traffic. 45k from Phnom Penh I had to turn on to another road, I expected it to be bigger and busier still. Busier yes, but it was smaller. Where as before I had a bit of space with a small hard shoulder, but now it had gone and it soon became apparent that the standard to driving is bad to say the least. They drive by the horn here, slowing down for nothing, regardless of the hazards in front of them and it all rather reminded me of cycling in India, but not quite as bad. Once across the river it was only a very short distance to the city centre and very easy to navigate, just stay beside the river. For some reason I had decided I wasn't going to like this place, but my first impressions were proving me to be very wrong. There are wide boulevards, open spaces in front of monuments, a nice wide grassed walkway beside the river, lots of people strolling and relaxing and playing with thier kids, I liked the place. I soon found the guest house I was using as a 'benchmark' but it was in such an exceelent location near the river and all the space and sights, that I decided to stay there.

The money here seems a bit odd, but once you accept the way it works, it's fine. The currency here is the Riel, but the US Dollar is in full use alongside it, infact if you get cash from an ATM, all you can get is dollars, very useful for the traveller. You can pay in riel, dollars or a combination of both, then recieve change in the same way. The dollar seems to be pegged at a fixed 4000 riel, which is probably a poor rate, but there seems to be no way of getting large amounts of riel, so there is no point in bothering about it.

I am also amazed at just how many different types of rickshaws and tuk-tuks there are in this world. Here the cycle rickshaw has 2 seats infront of the rider who sits very high up and looks over the top of the passengers. The tuk-tuks have 4 seater units with seats for 2 facing each other, the unit then bolts on to an ordinary motorcycle that tows the thing around. Clever and versatile really.

I am also amazed at what my body is doing. My rib cage seems to be getting bigger and bigger to the extent that it is making the rest of me look very thin. I am beginning to look like somebody that is only getting 4 decent meals a day. Added to that I seem to have aquired a new favourite pastime, picking my nose, the outside that is. It seems to peal a layer every day and must be getting very thin. I am a bit concerned it might drop off at some stage, perhaps I should put an elastic band around it.

Well my first day in Phnom Penh I did nothing, but I think I needed a day to relax and chill out. The following day I went to see a little bit of Cambodia's recent and very dark history, in the form of the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. This was once a school but it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and turned into the biggest prison in the country where 1000s of people were tortured before being taken along with their entire families to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, murdered and dumped in mass graves. At it's peak in 1978 an average of 100 people a day died there. The classrooms were turned into cells, some large with just a single bed inside (photo), then others were devided into brick cells and more into wooden cell. The top floors were group cells were people were chained to metal rods and had to ask to urinate or even move, failure to do so would result in lashings. No talking was aloud. A number of regulations had to be observed, one of which emphasises just how bad it must have been there: "6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all". It reminded me of the Auschwitz camp in Poland and once again gave me a clear reminded of just how sheltered my life has been. I am one of the lucky ones.

I overslept the following day, just the first little problem in what was to prove a bad day. I was heading out on a day trip from Phnom Penh when I suddenly had an very loud and fast puncture on the rear, I expected the worst, and it was. The rear tyre had a hole in it, but thankfully I had remembered the puncture outfit and did a repair, then limped back with a very underinflated tyre. I had only just put some more air into it for the first time in over a month, so I guess the extra pressure was enough to push the tube out through the hole then puncture itself. Well at least in made carrying a spare tyre worth the effort. I knew it would need changing soon as it is pretty well worn, but I suspect the compacted mud from a few days ago was enough to finish it off. Heading out of town I came to a junction with no sign, so made a guess later to be confirmed as correct by a couple of motorcyclists that stopped for a chat. At a roundabout I made another guess, then stopped to check only to be told I had to go all the way back to the other junction some 8k back. So much time was being wasted, I wasn't going to able to see alot. Finally I arrived at Choeung Ek, the village that is sadly only famous for the location of the Killing Fields. This is where prisoners from S-21 were brought, they were then bludgeoned to death individually, whilst loud music was played to disguise the noises. There are some 129 mass graves there and a white stupa which contains the skulls of all the corpses that have been retrieved with the injuries clearly visible. Only a very few were killed by bullets as they were considered to be too expensive. Whilst I was there the heavans opened again. I sheltered until it was over and asked for a cane juice at a little group of stalls to be told it was 3,000 riel. I refused it and told them I normally only pay 500, to which I told them I was stingy. I retorted that I thought it was disgraceful for people to profiteer from a place that is now a memorial to the thousands that were so vilently killed. As I made my way back through the busy streets there were often flooded roads. As I sat in a cafe football was on the television. I guess it was local as there was nobody in the stadium and the pitch was totally waterlogged with every step creating a splash and the ball stopping without a bounce as soon as it touched the ground. In the evening I bumped into Jane and Trevor wh I had met on Khong Island and have come here via Siem Reap.

Today I have spent on foot visiting the wonderful National Museum and the Royal Palace (photo). The museum had lots of historical artefacts and gave a little information, date, where it was found etc. Most came from Angkor Wat area but I was surprised to see was from the the International Airport. I assume that was at the time it was built rather than being retrieved by customs. There were also some elephant seats made from wood and ironically ivory. The Palace was well worth a visit I was glad to have left it until last. You can't go around the whole of the vast area as it is still in residential use, but there is still plenty so see, though typically no photos are allowed inside. Also in the complex was the silver pagoda, though really it is refering to the floor, little of which is on show as it is covered for protection, but even the silver that is visible seems to be kept in place by selotape!

So tonight I will meet up with Trevor and Jane, we are going for an Indian, well in makes a change anyway. I expect it will be a late night before I set off on the road again tomorrow. Phnom Penh has been a really nice place to stay for a few days, good things to see, even if some of them are for bad reasons, and a nice place to take it easy as well. I shall take away good memories of the place.