Saturday, 31 March 2012

90. With Dog and Frog in Bangkok

Thirty kilometres before the Cambodian border town of Koh Kong, in the verdant tropical rainforest of the southern Cardamon mountains, the first rain we've seen since leaving Vietnam in December could be heard before we felt it. The towering cumulonimbus had been building all morning and by mid-afternoon the black sky closed over. As we pedalled towards the only offer of shelter - an empty bamboo building by the roadside - the downpour roared through the canopy, crushing the leaves on which it fell. Unusually for Cambodia the highway we were travelling on was not dotted with ribbon settlement patterns where poor households hack away at the surrounding forest to turn it into agricultural land. This important biome has been preserved as both a legacy of the war years and the associated threat of unexploded ordnance, as well as by recent co-ordinated action by environmental groups and local groups to curtail the rampant illegal logging that was so widespread in the 1990s.

Back in Thailand. Back to fridges. Fresh milk and yoghurt. Anonymity. Our first night is on a beach at La Ratchakarun about 40 km from the border post. As the sun sets over the Gulf of Thailand we swim in the steamy sea water. I've had cooler baths. We pitch up under a shelter and cook our vegetable curry whilst watching the rain thunder down. Thirty years ago the beach was a Red Cross refugee camp, where those who had managed to escape the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia came to sleep under a plastic tarpaulin. Photos of skeletal youngsters in their mother's arms adorn the walls in the administration building.

Past Trat the highway widens and the traffic thickens. A night in the gem town of Chanthaburi and then Klaeng. Riding out along Route 344 the following morning, past the roadside fruit stalls selling jackfruit and pineapple, we're overtaken by Eric and Amaya - another pedalling couple. They've been cycling for the past six years and I recognised Amaya straightaway from their website. We had been in contact via email a few years ago when I was setting out across west Africa and they wanted some information about Lesotho. And five years later and here we meet. Before the end of the day we meet again as they are having tyre problems and we lend them our spare so they can ride to Bangkok, where we meet again for dinner. Later Amaya interviews us for their Touring Talk series. Interestingly I see that they interviewed a fellow cyclist Tyson in Alaska, whom we cycled with for a couple of days in Oaxaca, Mexico. A small world? Somedays.

Arriving in Chonburi, an unloaded Thai cyclist pulls up. We both have Rohloff gear systems. Blood brothers. After showing us to a cheap guesthouse in town, he fetches his friend Mr.Ton, the man responsible for the Rohloff epidemic in Chonburi, where he has built up eight bikes with the internal gear hub. That represents over half of the total number of Rohloff hubs in Thailand Ton muses later. His job at a nearby Mitsubishi electrics plant doesn't leave much time for cycling trips. And his partner doesn't like cycling he laments. Others will have to do it for him. Ton gives us the name of a touring-specific bike shop in Bangkok that imports Thorns and Surlys and calls the owner to tell him we'll be paying a visit.

Eighty kilometres from Chonburi to Bangkok. After a frantic ride along Highway 34, we turn off onto the relatively subdued Highway 3 and skirt along the coast, past the salt workers and into the metropolis. Our first couple of nights in the city are spent with a friend of Ellie's brother. Tom and Mam bring us into their family and make us feel wonderfully welcome. Zoe and Naomi want to come cycling too.

We had anticipated a hit-and-run visit to Bangkok but it was the place to get things done and our weekend has turned into a week. Most of the things to be done involved pushing tubes in and out or up and down. Ellie had a gastro endoscopy to determine whether her innards were faring well. A combination of factors had been causing problems, including perhaps a negative reaction to the anti-malaria pills (doxycycline) that we've been taking. She's on another industrial strength regime of antibiotics and antacids but hopefully it will be all sorted now. The bikes also needed some loving and we eventually tracked down Ma (means 'dog' in Thai) and Kop ('frog') at the Bok Bok bike shop (662 Krung Kasem Road, near Wat Sommanat. Tel: +66 (0) 87 6822236) which has filled all of our social as well as cycling needs over the past few days.

After training as a metallurgical engineer and then being released from industrial bondage a couple of years ago, Ma followed his passion and set up a touring-specific bike shop and began importing Thorns, Surlys and other beasts of burden. He carefully examined our bikes between an almost constant stream of phone calls and the occasional walk-in. He talked us through things carefully, showed us where the wear and tear was and made recommendations for what needed changing or replacing. It seemed like a good time to attend to some overdue jobs such as my stuck seat post that last moved two years ago. Ellie is getting a new rear wheel built and her cranks had to be replaced when the crank bolt was found to have seized on. Hubs and headsets serviced, cables replaced and for the six days a different strategy has been adopted each day in an effort to release the offending seat post from Rocinante. So far rubber mallets, industrial degreaser, drilling and small amounts of acid have all failed miserably to set Rocinante free. Today its time for the saw. Ma's shop is as much a social exchange as a commercial enterprise and there are always a couple of friends lingering around, sharing food or a beer in the evening and mostly coming up with new ideas for removing the seat post or new tunes for the ukelele. Come Saturday night, it's party time and new frames and old tyres are set aside and a couple of fold-out tables emerge as people gather with their offerings for the evening feast.

Bangkok is a crossroads as we run out of land and passable borders. Whilst neighbouring Myanmar (Burma) has slowly begun to open its doors to the outside world recently, it's still not possible to continue past their border towns by bicycle and coupled with the travel restrictions in Tibet, the Indian subcontinent is impenetrable overland from this side of Asia, except via the Karakoram highway through Pakistan. This was our original intended escape route from south Asia, over the Himilayas and into western China and central Asia. The traditional overlanding route via southern Pakistan and Iran is now made difficult by visa and travel restrictions (the former apparently not being issued outside your home country at the moment and the latter involving long enforced bus journeys through Balochistan and eastern Iran - hardly an inviting prospect for a glorious finale). So that leaves the most promising option being the increasingly popular route from south east Asia, through western China to central Asia along the fabled Silk Road routes. While ancient traders may have had other challenges to surmount, the legacy of the Russian Soviet state lives on in the consular offices responsible for issuing visas to this area. So for now, our plan is to follow this route home - taking about 12 months from the end of this year to reach the Celtic isles. In the meantime we plan to continue southwards to Malaysia and Indonesia (Sumatra) before returning to Bangkok in mid-July where Ma has kindly offered to store our bikes and gear. After a visit back home to get new passports and wish Ellie's grandfather a very happy 100th birthday, we plan to return bikeless to the Himilayas in Nepal and northern India to walk in the clear autumn skies before returning to Bangkok and resuming the ride home.

Bangkok, Thailand
Pedalled: 58,944 km

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

89. Sex, drugs and genocide

Four flat and sweat-filled days brought us down Route 6 to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. Hours of steady cruising was interspersed with friendly encounters while taking rest or eating some more delicious Cambodian fare. Usually it was older school boys coming up to practice their English on us and it was great to chat and get some perspective on what life is like for them as they near the end of their schooldays and think about the future. Traffic increased steadily after Kompong Thom where unbeknownst to us at the time, we passed by the home village of Saloth Sar, later to become infamous to Cambodians and the outside world under his nom de guerre of Pol Pot.

Drying fish

Our first task on arrival in Phnom Penh was to apply for a Thai visa as the 15 days granted now at land entries isn't enough for our journey to the Malaysian border. Some online research revealed the embassy has a poor reputation for being awkward with granting tourist visas but once we'd failed their initial requirements of providing proof of onward travel after Thailand, a bank statement satisfied the stern lady behind the desk, although she didn't notice that it was over a year old (and significantly depleted). We were told to return on Tuesday, leaving us six days to explore a city that can at times appears to be most famous for its genocide centres and prevalent prostitution.

With Italians Marco and Alexandro on Route 6

We're staying opposite the hectic Orussei market in the Capitol guesthouse, where for six dollars a night you get a large room with a bathroom, two beds and two fans. Mice and cockroaches are complimentary. Cardboard walls ensure a surround sound experience and a variety of horn ensembles can be heard from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. as traffic attempts to negotiate the narrow streets three floors below. A policeman's whistle blazes away furiously in a display of dismal failure at achieving any success, so instead the irate officer will halt an unlucky motorist deemed to have committed a serious offense until sufficient compensation for the officer's lunch or evening tipple has been handed over.

Carving Buddha

When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge (KR) forces liberated the city on 17th April 1975, they were greeted as heros. Yet just 48 hours later the city streets lay still as the three million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were forced to leave the city in a bizarre Maoist attempt at rebuilding a society from scratch. Despite several of the leadership, including Pol Pot himself, having previously worked as teachers, the KR targeted those they deemed as useless to the new society including professionals, intellectuals, former government staff, monks, artists, musicians among others. City dwellers were forced to designated parts of the countryside to grow crops but many died or were killed in the few short years that the KR were in power.

Below the Capitol guesthouse

A couple of days ago we walked to Tuol Sleng museum. Approaching the museum along a quiet city backstreet, the only suspicious feature of the former high-school is the elaborate barbed wire fence that surrounds the site. Inside we were led by a guide through the building and its horrific history was revealed. Known as S-21 during the KR period, the school became the principal interrogation and detention centre in Phnom Penh where perceived subversive elements to the regime were taken to be tortured and interrogated before eventually being brought 15 km out of town to Choeung Ek, one of three hundred so-called killing fields that were discovered after 1979. As powerful as the photographs, rusty shackles and torture apparatus was the story of our guide who was 13 years old in April 1975 and had walked three months with her family to Battambang province where her family were forced to work 12-hour days in the fields with little food provided. Her father was later taken away and executed by the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 17,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng on their way to their final bloody resting place in Choeung Ek. These perceived enemies of the state came in all ages and both genders and often included entire families, thereby hoping to avoid revenge attacks from younger family members in the future. One of the most horrific monuments to the terror and brutality of the period is the so-called killing tree at Choeung Ek, where babies were killed by being bashed against the tree by the young, indoctrinated guards. The rest were executed silently by simple tools and knives so as to avoid wasting expensive bullets and attracting attention from farmers living nearby. Today, a large stupa with glass panels is the central feature at Choeung Ek and contains over 9000 skulls that have been removed and forensically examined at the site, the remainder being left in the earth. Teeth and bones still rise to the surface when it rains.

Royal Palace

The civil war in the early 70s, the intense aerial bombing of the country by the US military from 1973 due to the neighbouring war in Vietnam and then the relatively short-lived Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left Cambodia devastated. As there are few records to assess the exact number of deaths, it's difficult to determine how many fatalities there were exactly but most estimates are between one and three million dead, with perhaps half due to executions and half due to disease and starvation. While the country has experienced sustained economic growth in recent years, it still struggles with the legacy of those years and remains politically stagnant (the current Prime Minister Hun Sen having been in power since the mid 80s) and a third of the populace still live beneath the national poverty line of $1.25 per day. Justice for those killed in the 70s has been slow in coming and todate only one significant figure from that period has been tried and sentenced when the former chief of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav a.k.a Duch, was initially given 35 years for his role in the killings but extended to life last month. Pol Pot himself survived until 1998 where he lived in a remote area near the Thai border.

Toul Sleng

Phnom Penh feels like quite a friendly capital and the warm Cambodian smile is often present. During the day and evening, lots of children tour the main street trying to sell bootleg copies of popular books. Yet many are vulnerable to exploitation, particularly with the arrival of tourism to the country and strolling around the downtown centre in the evening, you only have to walk down the side streets of the main riverside street to see sex workers awaiting clients outside bars with tinted windows and suggestive titles above the door. Older foreign men, sit surrounded by young women who are eager to laugh and gain favour with their potential client. Approximately a third of the sex workers are estimated to be underage and the HIV prevalence rate among them is about 13%. Even more appalling, however, is the amount of child abuse that occurs although estimates are difficult to establish. A high and rapidly increasing population of street children is a particularly vulnerable group although many children are also simply sold into sexual servitude by their impoverished families. Ad campaigns are now visible throughout the city, calling on tourists and expatriates to denounce suspected abuse to a telephone number or an embassy. Some embassies will actively assist local authorities in tracking down paedophiles, such as FBI officers in the US embassy who work with local NGOs and police authorities to detain suspects.

Bracelets left by visitors at the mass grave of children at Choeung Ek

As for drugs in the blog title I have less to say about that except that its apparently common for local dealers to substitute cocaine with heroin and last week this resulted in further fatal overdoses that appeared in the local newspapers. Heroin being produced nearby in the Golden Triangle, is a far cheaper alternative to cocaine.

Another cheerful post? I thought so too... :) Cambodia has been great. People are engaging and like many cities, its incredible to watch people making a living and keep smiling at the same time and all the more impressive when you begin to come to terms with their recent history. Khmer food is delicious, particularly the curries and amok dishes made with coconut milk. We've still a few days left as we head down to the coast and cross back into Thailand. 

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Pedalled: 58,152 km

Saturday, 3 March 2012

88. Temple Run

Ellie's day-old Valentine rose was wilting fast in the thirty-five degree heat as we squeezed along the outside of a couple of trucks and made a break for Laos and avoided the Thai guardians of the Friendship Bridge II between Thailand and Laos who don't let pedal pushers cycle over the bridge. After a day on the banks of the Mekong in Savannakhet we rode down Route 13 until the provincial border between Savannakhet and Salavan. While the smooth tarmac of the main highway continued on south we contemplated the dusty gravel road that we were about to detour on to Toumlan and Salavan town over a bowl of noodles. Over the next couple of days we negotiated the 150 km dirt track to Salavan, through an area that is home to the Katang ethnic group. While I began to think that we had taken the wrong road, we eventually reached the villages where I had been in 2003 on the afternoon of the second day. The intervening period has been one of fast change in this part of rural Laos and along with the upgraded road that now saw a steady stream of traffic, from motorbikes and minivans to hand tractors and a lot less buffalo carts, there was also electricity, mobile phones, a small clinic, a secondary school and new wells. Where the Concern house and office had stood alone in a small clearing in the jungle, was now the centre of the bustling little village and several shops and many houses had been built surrounding it. Extensive logging has left less shade and undoubtedly had a big impact on the ability of the forest to provide. Instead of all-wooden houses whose planks were procured from the same valley, there was increasing use of imported building materials. As people shift towards a culture of consumption there will be an increasing need for cash to fuel the motorbikes and power the TVs. Yet no doubt there are more positive changes and with the provision of more accessible health care, hopefully there has been a decline in the infant mortality rate which very high when we surveyed the households nine years ago. Yet whatever the socio-economic arguments, my own feelings when we rode on towards Toumlan was one primarily of a sense of loss - a loss of knowledge from a culture that for centuries has evolved with the environment around it and gradually learned how to survive, to live together, to help each other and sometimes managing to achieve all this.

Juicing sugar cane

The building on the left is the former Concern office and staff house

Near Toumlan
Tad Lo
Morning chores
Crossing the Mekong at Champasak

Don Det island

After a brief visit to the Four Thousand islands, we crossed into Cambodia last week after getting fleeced by venal immigration officers on both sides of the border who refused to stamp us through without some compensation for their hardwork. As most travellers seemed to be happily handing over the few dollars that were extracted from each passerby, objection and argument didn't make good progress. At the next window I could hear two Russian men arguing in English that they would end up paying more in bribes than the visa cost in the first place. So for a few moments I was happy to have left Laos and sorry to have arrived in Cambodia but then the anger abated and we rode down to Stung Treng. People continue to be very friendly as we pass by and children run to the roadside to yell hellos and bye-byes. 

Crossing the Mekong again in Cambodia, from Stung Treng to Thala Boravit

Danger - mines

Homestay in Chheb village

Route 214 to Tbeng Meanchey

We had decided to try and follow a trail across to Tbeng Meanchey after taking a ferry across the Mekong and then on the newly paved road to Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor. Change is coming fast to this remote corner of Cambodia which had been isolated for many years due to the presence of former Khmer Rouge guerrillas but now roads are being built and paved and settlers moving in to clear the still heavily mined landscape of trees and establish farms. Because of the threat of landmines, wild camping was approached with a little more caution and most nights we either lodged in a US$5 guesthouse or stayed with a family. A couple of days ago we arrived into Siem Reap, the base for exploring the nearby Angkor ruins and we also met Maarten and Line, a cycling Dutch couple whom we had first met in China, then Hanoi at Christmas and again here, all by chance.

Yesterday myself and Ellie spent the day cycling around the temples, where despite the throngs of visitors in comparison to the remote Angkor-era ruins at Kor Ker and Beng Mealea that we had visited earlier in the week, were still fascinating to contemplate. Cambodia's gruesome recent history is as powerful as its ancient, and the country is still recovering from the impact of wars and the Khmer Rouge period in the 1970s. Recently the country's economy has been growing strongly but the front page of the Phnom Penh Post tells a story of the difficulties being experienced and covers recent protests by garment workers. The workers, who are making shoes for Puma, are looking for an increase on their meagre monthly wages of US$61 but their protest resulted in the town's governor shooting into the unarmed crowd. Last night on our way back from a day at the temples, we stopped by a small bar to sample some local draught beer and got chatting to one of the workers, who told us that us that he gets 50 cent an hour to work as a server at the bar-restaurant and on top of the eleven hour shift he puts in at the bar, he also cleans offices in the morning and grows vegetables to sell at the market. He usually sleeps from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. So while we're able to enjoy fantastic food here in Siem Reap at very cheap prices, for many Cambodian's its a struggle to make ends meet.

P.S. I'm still a happy camper despite the negative comments and trying not to get too grumpy in my old age.

Kor Ker ruins

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Pedalled: 57,802 km