Friday, December 26, 2014

So then I decided to go to. . .Cambodia.

Written from Siem Reap, western Cambodia. . .on Christmas night.  I guess that gives away a couple of things. . .first, that I didn't end up in Mui Ne or Saigon either one for Christmas, and second, that they did let me out of Viet Nam and into Cambodia and effectively didn't even take note of the motorbike.

Once I made up my mind to quit worrying about boat yards for a bit, anything else on the horizon became a possibility.  An afternoon email, a hint that I might go to Siem Reap, an evening of contemplation of the 740 km route Google Maps proposed (take careful note, all ye who trust Google Maps, the route was a spectacular bust once it got out into the countryside) and the schedule. . .3 full days available to make the meeting. . .it sounded too do-able, and I already had visa photos on board. . .4 years old, but I'm not that much uglier.  Anyway, I got up in the  morning, paid my bill, my host asked if I were going to Mui Ne-Phan Thiet and I told him no, I was going to Siem Reap.  It was comical.  The afternoon before I'd detailed my Mui Ne and then the Delta plans to him and this morning I'm leaving for Cambodia.  Western Cambodia at that.

Now's the time to admit I pulled out my new phone, opened "Maps", searched for Angkor Wat, and punched go.  The first choice was 740 km and some ridiculously short time for a car. . .11 hours, or some such, but I wasn't worried about keeping up with cars on the little horse. . .I figured 3 days or 4 if things got rough or not ever if they were too bad.  What I didn't do is pull out my faithful old map and walk through the proposed route.  If I had. . .it would have been purely evident that I had a big bad stretch in the middle. . .probably morning of the second day, but I didn't look.  I concentrated on getting out of Da Lat and did it without a mistake.  The last time I was in Da Lat I came back to the lake in the middle of town three times before I gave up and hired a moto taxi rider to lead me to the highway out of town.  The phone is good for the city I admit.  As for the countryside. . .maybe not so much if you don't do your home work.

So here are the contemporary reports to m'lady:

23 December, written from Cat Tien, Viet Nam:
"I took a wild hare (hair?) and have thrown over the traces entirely (how's that for mangling two unrelated cliches?).  There is an apparent route from Dalat over the top (north) of Saigon and even skipping Tay Ninh City, through a whole lot of highland country I've never seen, with one dubious stretch of 130 km en route. . .the rest is all main line.  So.  I've written polite RSVP's. . .not coming. . .to Ai and his friend Julia who has a sailing school in Mui Ne (champion sailor and canoeist, author, good grief, how'd she settle on Viet Nam??  The wind at Mui Ne I guess, it's kite surfing country of a rare quality).  Anyway.  I'm on my way to Siem Reap.  One of the people I met in Hoi An (the Polish Scotswoman) effectively bet I couldn't meet her there on the 26th.  It's only 740 km, 440 miles more or less, should be an easy 3 or 3.5 days, and all of it new to me.  It was too good to pass up.   

So tonight, after a partly sunny day (with a little rain in the afternoon, but not enough to get wet) I'm in cat Tien, which is approximately nowhere.  The part of the route that started to look difficult to me after I actually sorted it out on the big map is next in line.   If I can't get over the 130 km questionable bit in the morning it's a long back track anywhere else.  But I don't intend to push it.  If it's too rough I'll probably just back track to the highway to Saigon and proceed to the south after all.  I didn't bet anything anyway.  That said, the road today was wonderful, all small two lane with no shoulders, countryside road, but remarkably fast, able to hit 60 km often and long stretches around 50 km.  Some minor construction for sure, but nothing hard (except for about 30 feet of sand a few inches thick.  That stuff is HORRIBLE, nearly dumped the bike.  . .again.  I must be getting more cowardly as I age though.  When she tried to stumble and fall I already had the landing gear out to both sides and kept her right way up.  

As for adopting a grand daughter (Ed. note:  This is something I'd proposed while back in Hue but which m'Lady gently discouraged),  As for adopting a grand daughter as I was saying, I've had an interesting observation thrust on me the past few hours.  Yen Nhi (the prospective adoptable grand daughter) is 11 and is still a "little girl", no figure, plays like a kid with other kids etc etc.  I had the bike worked on for 2 plus hours this evening. That 130 km leg is not only dubious, it was too far to the next town too late in the day to keep going into the late afternoon. . .so I stopped before 4:00 at Cat Tien, which after all is a pretty good town, three guest houses, two bread bakeries, a gas station, a bit of a market, two noodle shops, not bad at all.  In any event, after I checked in to a small guest house, I went across the highway to a good looking mechanic's shop and had the whole drive train replaced. . .front sprocket, rubber hub bumpers (already ruined, just like on the old bike first year), that brand new chain, which had a kink in it, the wheel bearings and. . .I forget what all.  Anyway, there was an 11 year old child watching, just a little kid (4 of them, but 3 were equally little boys and they were just like Yen Nhi.  However, the 16 year old daughter of the house came home midway through the project and stood around watching her brother work and trying little bits of awkward English on me (Yen Nhi's is a great deal better).  But my point--At 16 she is an absolutely stunning young woman, drop dead gorgeous with a figure. . .well anyway.  It would seem that if we adopted an 11 year old, in 5 years we'd have our hands full.  That's Scary.  I'm getting over it as we go here.  

So as I head deeper into the South and farther west than I've been in several years, I'm defining my new big objective for the second half of the trip. . .to get back to those monstrous bamboo water wheels up in the Far northwest of Viet Nam, somewhere north of Dien Bien Phu, and east a little I think..  (I shouldn't tell you this. . .I'm as likely as not to fail miserably trying to find them again)  And after I find hem. . .to document their construction in close ups.  Considering their siting (on a river bank on the far side of the river on the far side of the valley from the highway. . .), that won't be easy even after I find them if I do.  But after Siem Reap-Angkor Wat-Banteay Serai (or however that's spelled)--(3 days max, it will be past time to head north.  I'll go through Cambodia (if I make it to Cambodia in the first place) then cross back into Viet Nam most likely. . .or maybe go into Lao as far Savannakhet--and then cross over to Hue and thus home via the HCM road, which should take me past those water wheels.  It says here.    The trip through southern Lao on the main road from Cambodia would let me stop at the falls of the Mekong and try again for really appropriate photos. . .now that I appreciate the impact the falls had on the formation of the  countries and so forth.   It will all work out, one way or another.  I'm bound to see something interesting.

And, after the 130 km rough stretch attempt on Christmas Eve:
"
Writing tonight from Memot, Cambodia by golly, crossed the border at Hoa Lu (on the Vietnamese side), though the nearest large town on the VNese side is Loc Ninh.  My route was from Cat Tien, also known as Dong Nai (in Dong Nai province actually). . .through tiny burgs called Duc Pho, Phuoc Hai and Phuoc Thai. Back tracked a little and was directed carefully to the ferry landing I needed. . .holy cow. . .anyway, the start of the day was maybe five or six km of glassy smooth narrow beautiful countryside road.  It ended abruptly and became a double track trail.  About Phuoc Hai it became a single track, and it was down to a narrow foot path when two ladies blocking it with a conversation and a loaded motorbike stopped me and told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn't going any further 'cause the trail only went to one of their houses and quit.  I need to re-emphasize that this was a google CAR route.  As I crossed two separate bridges that were barely wide enough for a single motorbike I contemplated that.  As it turned into a skinny footpath I checked the phone and the gps on the map display said I was right on track.  So, it could be I missed a turnoff to a bridge some where. . .I can't imagine where, but I turned around and very fortunately met a gentleman coming the other way and asked him about ferry landings.  He assured me there was one, but  my Vietnamese wasn't up to his instructions.  More fortunately, another party (3 people on 2 bikes) came up behind me, he explained my problem and the twosome gestured for me to follow them, which i cheerfully did.  It was about 3 km back down the trail,  an infinitesimally small foot path going down the riverbank, surfaced part of the way down with little concrete tiles. . .to make a maybe 2' wide but tilting and unstable route down the bank. . .to the ferry.  $1 to get across, and wow, you should have seen the trail on the other side. . .very steep, sandy and rutted. . .but otherwise nice.  Did I say narrow?  Anyway, that trail crested in a couple hundred feet onto a fairly wide rock and red dirt roadway with a fair amount of traffic moving on it.  A forest ranger sort of fellow was riding by as I emerged from the bushes and pointed me down the road the right way.  I don't know, there was maybe 25 km of that, pretty rough, even when it went through a couple of fairly noticeable towns, but it Teed suddenly into QL14, one of my main roads going north and south on the western side of the country.  

I'd had very strong advice from an articulate and deliberately helpful gentleman at breakfast to go via Dong Xoai rather than the route google had plotted for me, which totaled a bit less mileage, but wandered among some more little roads.  I took the advice, especially after the morning.  It is apparent that Google never drove a driverless car down the route I took.  There were 2 bridges only just over handlebar width. . .not even close to car width, and very lightly built, though steel.  Anyway, the takeaway from all this is that you have to coordinate Google's instructions with a real map to check their validity once you get out in the puckerbrush.  

This will do, I think, as my Laotian swamp for this year, though it was almost entirely enjoyable. . .just not well researched.  Well. . .really, by the time I left Cat Tien I'd talked to a number of people and was pretty much prepared for something like I found.  Not including the ferry.  I asked about the river and one informant assured me that there was a bridge.  It was danged well concealed if there was, but that's possible I guess.  Anyway, after that there was quite a bit of construction going on to the border.  Dong Xoai, Chon Thanh, Binh Long, Loc Ninh and finally the border crossing which is itself named Hoa Lu, though there's no town there, just one hotel for people who arrive too late for the formalities.

Crossing the border was a pure pleasure.  Helpful older officer showed me where to park and then took my elbow (sweetly) and lead me into the long hall and showed me which window to go to.  Bright young officer took my passport and processed it through the computer and showed me where the WC was, back down the hall.  That was it on the VNese side, no issues with the moto at all.  The Cambodians had a designated English speaker, a big serious looking gentleman, all business, but very friendly.  When we were finished he shyly remarked that he really liked my beard.  He had a pronounced shadow at 3:30 in the pm, so I replied he could certainly have one as good!  He looked a little sad about that.  I'll bet their uniform code (snappy army-ish uniforms) doesn't allow a beard.  

The road from the border onward has been utterly splendid.  Easy 65 kph sort of road, wide 2 lane with shoulder, straight (it's pretty flat country, rolling hills or hills off to one side) and very light traffic.  At first it was sort of scrub brush and fallow rice paddies for a while, soon turned into enormous plantations of rubber and some other orchards.  Very good looking plantings, though, like all orchards, rather a lot of straight lines.  

I had thought to stop at Snuol for the night but there were only 2 hotels and they looked way upscale, so I kept on going, hoping for reasonable places a little further along.  The next little place, which doesn't even show on my big map, was way too small.  But Memot, where I arrived well before sunset and had a chance to look around, has 3 guesthouses and one of them (I'm in) is really quite a good sized hotel.  I have a quite nice room with a fan for $5 USD.  US is used for everything here but purchases under a dollar or two.  It's been $4000 to the dollar as long as I've been coming here, so effectively pegged to the dollar.  

I was too late for a bike wash.  Both carwashes in town were backed up with enough cars and vans to take them past dark.  So I got a $1.25 haircut instead, much fussing around, razor trimming the back of the neck. . .rather more fussing around than I'm used to!  The guesthouse I ended up in includes a customer service lady who hangs out out on the big front parking area and people bring her problems, including non-Khmer speakers like me.  She organized my new Cambodian sim card and took me around the corner to a phone shop to have the necessary settings done to get internet directly here.  It's .2 cents per  100kb or some such thing.  Most people here just use wifi, which is everywhere, but it's no help running Google maps.  Really, until I get to a city, all I need is my big map. . .there aren't that many highways to get lost on. In Phnom Penh, if I were to go there, the maps and gps will be very sweet.  We shall see.

Dinner in Memot was a stroll through the street food around the hotel. . .wonderful fabulous bowl of various fruits and. . .er. . .some sort of potato-ish root sort of thing, a sweet potato maybe?. . .all swimming in coconut milk sweetened with good old condensed milk.  Just glorious.  Then a banh bao (steamed bun anyway, stuffed with sausage, no egg) a too-expensive sliver of roast pork and a quarter-hatched duck egg.  They serve the eggs with some herbs, a slice of lime, a little bowl of fine ground salt and pepper mixed and a sweet sauce (fish sauce and water, with sugar and garlic maybe. . .the garlic is obvious anyway).  Also they use egg cups, but so do the more formal Vietnamese vendors.

And that's about the evening.  Washed 2 shirts and one dusty body.  No hot water here. . .it comes out of the tap about 75 or 80 degrees I guess, quite nice, just a little cool to the touch.  I had red dust in the darndest places.

Written on Christmas Day a little while ago, from Siem Reap:
"I really didn't think I'd make it all the way to Siem Reap today, was prepared to spend the night en route somewhere, but a) nothing in the way of a nice guest house seemed to jump out at me as we rolled through the afternoon towns, and I was getting pretty close anyway (88 km last time I saw a sign about 4:00) so I just kept coming.  I thought maybe I'd make it by 5:30 based on distances and speed indicated over the ground, and it worked out about perfect. . .sunset is about then and I was just into the complex of highway signs for the city as the sun was setting behind and then below some low clouds in the west.  I knew I had to be close, there were two hot air balloons in the sky off to the right and ahead a little.  Things they are a-changing

It was a good day for riding, or rather, the weather was dry, wind not too strong, temperature somewhere in the 80's, so it was comfortable in shirtsleeves as long as I kept the speed over 40, which was easy except in a total of about 40 km of not too terrible construction.  Your choice. . .mud from the dust control water trucks (I got thoroughly splatted once by a truck going the other way. . .oddly not too muddy, he must have hit a fresh puddle.  Other choice, dust worse than fog.. .bad enough that trying to pass a big slow truck was definitely a questionable maneuver. . .but hanging out behind him in his dust cloud was unbearable.  Traffic was light enough it was a fair risk.  Anyway, I had no close calls during the day.  My sit bones are a little tired, and i definitely shocked a few locals riding by, standing up.  I can't quite straighten up on these little horses like you can on the tall Kawasaki.. .but it's still a nice relief.  Terrain was dead flat almost all day.  In places it feels for sure that you could see the curvature of the earth it's so flat so far.  Lots of fallow, recently cut rice, and a few paddies still lush and loaded with grain. . .gorgeous to see such abundance.

I got in late enough to come in last in the hotel lottery and this town is definitely full tonight.  I ended up with a not bad, but not lovely room above a very nice restaurant, where I've just ordered chicken in coconut milk with veggies.  We shall see.  Funnny that the restaurant is so nice and the room so. . .well. . .adequate.  I might have them turn on the air-con later, though the fan will probably be fine and my respiratory system doesn't need any challenges.  I'm still flirting with a cough and a somewhat runny. . .(trotting?) nose. 

So, Cambodia after Viet Nam. . .First, the people are a lot darker on average, starting about where a dark Vietnamese person stops and ending about as brown as a fairly dark African American.  Second. . .wavy hair!  Not all the time, but often enough to take note. . .surely a sign of the distance to India, where wavy black hair is common. . .Along with wavy. . .more volume to it...but that's only if it's wavy. I suppose 90% of the ponytails are pretty straight.  3. and color, fairly often apparently naturally brownish, especially in the sun.  Now and then a hair color like pulled vanilla taffy. . .sort of glowing yellow.  Hard to describe, and I'll bet it's not easy to photograph, but it's noticeable.  4.  The country ladies wear bonnets with big round visors and a wrap around face cover.  If you can find the eyes, that's it. Alternate solution, a floppy hat with a plaid scarf wrapped around and knotted on top of the head.  Actually, the plaid scarf works lots of ways, even around he neck if nothing else is needed, or wrapped sort of like a turban, but maybe mixed with the hair.  5. Traffic.. . a lot lighter over all, but still with a good few murderous truck and suv drivers.  

There was a short break when my chicken in coconut milk came.  Veggies were sauteed with. . .green bell peppers and long beans, the beans crispy and the peppers not overwhelming, altogether lovely.  They just took my empty dishes and brought me a wedge of pineapple.  This will be Christmas dinner and it is just fine.  $3.50 plus whatever the big jug of water is worth.  Oh, and I'm now nibbling on a plate of salty peanuts.  Lovely

Let's see, 6. Lollipop coconut palms. . .round as can be at the crown, with fairly straight lollypop sticks.  Scattered here and there in the rice paddies and occasional dense tree lines.  H'mm the pineapple is sweet as can be.  Warm, everything is warm here if it isn't iced.

Speaking of which, 7.  bowls of sliced mixed fruit with light coconut milk and a healthy dollop of condensed milk. . .topped with micro-crushed ice.  Oh my goodness,  Did I mention that last night?  Twice a day minimum.  I think the potato like things are slices of some sort of yam.  Maybe two different sorts.  
8.  Coffee  is brewed somehow out of sight, not in the little drip devices, and may be delivered with condensed milk, or more likely with a good dollop of coarse sugar that mostly doesn't dissolve, comes up the straw more or less sweet and gritty, not bad.  9.  Currency.  most prices are in US dollars and that's what they'd rather see.  4000 local (Reals? like Spanish?) to the dollar, so that's easy.  The numbers on the local money are in the local script, and it all looks the same (shame on me, but it does. . .to me) One corner has western numbers, but that gives you 7 corners that don't.  Hunt and look dumb. Oh well. They use the money until it's illegible anyway, so what the heck. 10.  Tuk Tuks,  I love them, buggies pulled by 125 cc motor bikes.  Also farm wagons, with or without seats, pulled by the same bikes, but with reinforced hitch arrangements.  They move tonnage!  I passed a caravan of 7 such farm wagon arrangements, 7 men, 7 motor bikes and 7 large trailers, loaded with glass display cases on the bottom and stacks of mattresses on top.  clearly enough stock for a substantial shop.  The trailers were probably 20 feet long.  Amazing. All the pilots (and many tuk drivers) wearing full face helmets.  In general the full face helmet has more currency here.  Probably in honor of the dust.  Those without often use surgical masks to ride.  Dust is here just now. 11.  The roads themselves.  If they're good, they're really good.  If they're under construction they're generally better or maybe a lot better than Vietnamese roads under construction.  Almost without exception there's a decent roadway, even if it's dirt.  12.  The food.  For sure.  This isn't Viet Nam.  On the other hand, the gentleman at the bike wash this morning, a little younger than I, had a lot of VNese and spent much of the time the kids were working (a long time it seemed) chatting with me.  We had very little trouble, though it was mostly variations on the basic questions, which I do well.  Later a Vietnamese bike with two guys on it pulled up alongside and we rode along chatting for ten minutes or so.  They were impressed I'd come from Hanoi this far.  If they only knew!

I'll think about that. . .lots more differences. . .the script of course, and some of the new highway signs must not be paid for by "donor countries". . .they're only in Khmer!  Yikes.  I like the bilingual ones much better.  

Anyway, my sit bones don't like this chair any more than they were liking the saddle by the end of the day.  740 km plus a couple of wanders in 3 days riding.  Not too bad.  It was a lovely Christmas for sure!
Sun shiny morning in Da Lat, an old French residence, run down now and occupied by a platoon of police.  H'mm.

Outside my hotel room.  Bougainvillea and I know not what the orange one is.  

My morning coffee spot.  The tea is free in bottomless thermos jugs, but the coffee is expensive and the glasses are tiny.  


Trying to get out of Da Lat, had to stop for these balconies.  Not really a typical Vietnamese scene at all.

Mom was making a considerable effort to get the young daughter to smile for me. . .but this was the best we could do, first night out from Da Lat, in Cat Tien.

Coffee drying in the yards.  Compared to the area around Buon Me Tuot, this isn't all that much coffee.  There, when they're drying the stuff there's hardly any horizontal surface that isn't covered.  They rake it and turn it over almost constantly during the day.

Recurring problems with the chain hopefully ended here. . .2 hour project in Cat Tien


These kids are 11 year olds and supervised the entire operation.  A neighbor brat decided to pick on me and these two eventually scolded him and made him stop.  

Night shift at one of the two French bread bakeries. . .making long baguettes as well as the typical sandwich rolls.

The smiles from the young lady came free with my egg sandwich, getting ready to leave Cat Tien

Just a ways down the road, lovely road out of Cat Tien, headed into the questionable zone.  The dog was handsome but mouthy.  Loud.  And persistent.

The first of two bridges that prove Google never sent a driverless car down this route. . .my gps kept telling me I was doing great, right on course.  Ya sure.

I still thought it was possible at this point.  It soon narrowed a lot, in fact, became nothing but the entrance to a lady's home.

A ferry by golly, costs $1.  Not bad

Bike on Boat.  The old horse crossed one river in Laos on a largish canoe once and another on a pair of quite small canoes made into a catamaran ferry. . .this was spacious by comparison

Gorgeous drying palm fronds of some sort. . .they were loading a large truck with rolls and rolls of them, just before the border crossing.

And this is where you say good bye to Viet Nam, the crossing gate at Hoa Lu.  Oddly, I didn't photograph the Cambodian side, which is a great deal simpler and smaller.  Both sides were delightfully friendly and helpful.

And welcome to Cambodia!  The military raising a flag on some battlefield somewhere, seems to be a universal human memorial theme.  That's a very tall pylon though
A dad and a daughter in Memot, Cambodia.  I just don't get tired of kid pictures.

The grandpa of the bakery. . .no English, but tickled to meet me.  Gee.

Houses in Cambodia are almost entirely up on stilts, usually concrete these days.  The space below is most often a living area, cooking facilities, a big wooden bedstead (the sort of platform without a mattress that people here often like to sit around on and talk or play cards)  a 4" thick slab of polished hardwood seems an odd place to sleep, but they're popular all over this part of the world

And here's a surprise in Memot, in the pagoda yard a long racing canoe in a locked shed.  I couldn't get in to measure or take detail photos, but found a few places where the screen mesh was loose.  As these things go she is rather a small boat, only about 45 feet long with 16 or 17 thwarts, and she's narrow enough there may only be 25 or 30 paddlers when she's racing. 

A pleasant little residence in the pagoda grounds...somebody important maybe?  Most of the monks live in a dormitory style building. . .one large room, very airy, and and open, full of young men in saffron robes

And yet another something I don't know what is. . .in the pagoda grounds (that is to say, a full city block) in Memot

He speaks excellent english, has been a monk for 16 years, and didn't know how to get me into the canoe shed.  Rats.

The inside of the main chapel--the pagoda in Memot.  This is really a very typical Khmer chapel these days, gorgeous painting everywhere a painter could go.

Quite a nice hotel really, my room was $5, with a very fine fan (no A.C. That would have been $7, but who needs it?)

Very ordinary load of logs on a trucktor. . .a tractor tied to a wagon.  These are much bigger wagons than the ones that carried me out of the swamp last year in Laos.  Cambodia is mostly dead flat.  

A nice old home out in the country, on the road to Siem Reap

In this village everyone seems to be a Michelangelo. . .lots of statues in progress everywhere.

And this is not all that unusual a home, very very nice, except for the front steps.

And this would be about the far opposite end of the spectrum. . .still a lot of front steps though.

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