by Chris Olson
My second Southeast Asian solo bike tour saw me again crossing the border to bicycle Cambodia. After my first trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2014, I promised myself a return for an extended tour. Fortune (and a little savings) smiled upon me and I returned for a 16-day solo tour.
Solo bike tour preparations upon my arrival
On this trip, late in November, I enjoyed one day in Ho Chi Minh City. This allowed me a chance to overcome jet-lag and tweaking my Surly Trucker DeLuxe for the 16-days ahead. I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Many residents continue to use the city’s former name and that use is reflected in signs throughout town. I stayed outside the tourist area, in a neighborhood northwest of downtown.
Attempting to synch my body clock with the time change and 22-hour flight, I drank plenty of coffee and assembled my bike. My Surly frame splits into two separate pieces, equipped with S&S couplers, that makes it easy to pack into an S&S suitcase. With this set up the bike can be checked as regular airline luggage with no additional cost. I spent the remainder of my first day taking in the smells and scenery of the neighborhoods, eating and most importantly acclimating to the heat humidity.
A slow start to my solo bike tour and it was a holiday at home
The morning of November 23rd, Thanksgiving Day, I was on my bike early. It wasn’t long before the heat and humidity began partnering with the jet lag for a troublesome first day. On my previous visit to Vietnam, I had four days of heat and humidity acclimation and conquered my jet lag before I began that seven-day tour.
This trip I had only 18 waking hours before pedaling. Shortly after I merged onto the busy street winding my way out of Saigon, I was joined by a young girl, about 16 years old, who rode up alongside me and wanted to practice her English. In her school uniform, with badminton racket sticking out of her backpack, we conversed for the next four miles while weaving through the morning rush hour traffic. After 36-miles of extreme heat, traffic congestion and many 30 to 60 minute rests, I realized I needed to stop for the day.
My first night
In the city of Go Dau, I found a guesthouse, registered and slept for 2 hours with the fan set on high. After I woke, the owner’s brother took me by car to his favorite pho restaurant. Virtually all restaurants are family run, this one no exception. I watched as the cook dipped the noodles, beef and veggies in broth for the perfect amount of time before serving. I happened to be the only one currently eating in the tiny restaurant and all seven family members gathered around to watch me savor a unique Thanksgiving dinner.
Hello Cambodia on my 16-day solo bike tour!
Today the air was thick with humidity from last evening’s torrential downpour. After a light breakfast, filling my water bottles and checking my map I was off for a full day in the saddle. Crossing the river and leaving out of town I suddenly braked when I saw waffles, my favorite treat from the last trip to Vietnam.
One of my favorite carbs
The young man making the waffles made me five and then invited me to join him at a “coffee klatch” down the hill. The two of us were the only men in a group of twelve, enjoying the famous Vietnamese drip coffee for a onetime price of 35 cents. With Google translate as our aid, we carried on for almost two hours before I was on the road again. I still had eight miles to ride to the Cambodia border.
The border crossing at Moc Bai, Vietnam and Bavet, Cambodia was not as busy as anticipated for the largest crossing between the two nations. Alerted to the various border scams by travel journals on “Crazy Guy on a Bike,” I ignored the money changers and visa “helpers.” The entire boarder process took only 30 minutes, leaving Vietnam and entering Cambodia.
Driving a bicycle in Vietnam vs. Cambodia
The traffic differences from Vietnam were immediately noticeable with many more SUV’s and large trucks on the road. The motto ruling Cambodian roads is “might makes right” and cycling in Cambodia is not for the fainthearted. I also witnessed a greater military presence than the last trip. This was prevalent throughout my trip due to political unrest building before the July 2018 Cambodia elections. The sky threatened rain for the last half of my ride and the clouds were welcome friends as they blocked the sun. Not knowing where I was exactly staying each night, I missed my destination town of Prasat. Continuing on I finished my 59-mile day ride in tiny Kampong Trabek.
Rats lurking near my room
Here, there were no clearly marked guesthouses, so by asking those in town I found a small bar and restaurant with rooms in the back to rent. The room I checked into had not been cleaned from the last guests so I laid my hammock across the bed. The bedding was used to plug the large gap at the door bottom. I convinced myself, this would keep the rats I had seen earlier out of the room. The proprietors made me dinner and after visiting with them and their two daughters, I retired for the evening.
Onto Phnom Penh with fewer smiles
The next morning, waking to the faithful’s call to prayer, I began riding toward my goal of Phnom Penh. Searching for food and coffee I remembered Cambodia coffee is usually in small cans of Nescafe, thick with sugar and milk. So, Nescafe it was, when I stopped at a bakery for breakfast. As I ate, I reserved a hotel in the heart of Phnom Penh, through Booking.com. Having clean bedding and air conditioning would be a welcome luxury.
The children along the way were always entertaining to watch
Pedaling through the countryside I stopped and watched as three young children herded a flock of goats across the busy highway. Further along roadside vendors began selling interesting foods including: bowls of chicken heads; piles of deep fried frogs; and beautiful fruits. Fruits we could only hope to see in grocery stores in the U.S. Sadly, the most noticeable difference as I came closer to Phnom Penh were fewer smiles, waves and “hellos” from people along the road.
Mid-afternoon with 55-miles pedaled I arrived at my hotel. In the luxury of air conditioning I immediately researched the locations of the Cambodian Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. These were my two must-see memorials of this trip. I discovered the museum was only a mile walk from my hotel and the Killing Fields about ten miles. After laying the groundwork for a Sunday in Phnom Penh, I ventured away from the hotel and took in many sights. Along the way I found a tiny coffee shop making lattes that I could enjoy while watching the activities in the neighborhood!
An to get some valuable travel advice
I had also arranged to meet a fellow Warmshowers host from New Zealand that evening. She has been living in Cambodia for four years while completing her Doctorate in pediatric dentistry. Her bicycling and travel advice was invaluable as was her insight of the current political unrest. Knowing tomorrow would be extremely difficult day emotionally, I returned to the hotel to organize my panniers and get to bed early.
Bearing witness to genocide and the need to stay an extra day
This Sunday morning I walked a mile to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. A former Phnom Penh High School, the campus was used to imprison, torture and kill those who were perceived as threats to the Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1975 and 1979, over 17,000 Cambodians passed through Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as Security Prison 21.
Approximately 525 non-Cambodians were also tortured and killed here, including two Americans victims, one born in Minnesota. Of the seven people known to have survived this prison, two were on site. Selling their autobiographies, recounting the few stories they wish to share with visitors and urging all to never let this happen again.
Advice on renting a tuk tuk
After spending over three hours at the museum, a solemn walk brought me to a small café for lunch. While dining, I met two European travelers visiting family. They advised me on costs of renting a tuk-tuk, a motorbike pulling a small cart to transport people. This is the equivalent of an American taxi. Returning to the hotel, I rented a Tuk-tuk to take me to the Killing Fields, also known as Choeung Ek, southwest of Phnom Penh.
It was here the Khmer rouge murdered 8,900 of their fellow Cambodians. This site is now home to a Buddhist Stupa containing over 5,000 of the victim’s skulls. Total, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for a genocide claiming the lives of one in four Cambodians, or 2.2 million between 1975 -79.
A needed one more day in Phnom Penh
As I headed back to the hotel I realized I needed one more day in Phnom Penh to uplift my spirits. A day riding free of panniers and discovering the city. I returned to the hotel, then rode my bike and rode along the waterfront. Entering a vibrant market district, I discovered my destination – Vicious Cycle– a bike repair, rental and organized tour shop. Owner Stephen and head mechanic Soporn, both of Phnom Penh, welcomed me and insisted on a photo. They had not seen an S & S coupler before and thought the engineering was significant. From here I rode to the French Alley Cafe’ where I had agreed to meet the European couple for dinner.
Monday’s city ride and Tiny Toones
Planning for my boat ride up the river
My second day in Phnom Penh began hot, humid and sunny as usual. Strolling through the neighborhood I had to sample a few different lattes then back to the hotel where I arranged a Tuesday morning boat transport. This would be a full day, eight hour, speed boat ride up the Tonle Sap River, then across the lake of the same name. With the passage for tomorrow’s journey reserved I grabbed my trusty steed and I decided to try to get good and lost for a couple hours. I saw a fair portion of the city this way. Then, with the help of Google maps I was able to wind my way through the Phnom Penh traffic back to my hotel.
In the afternoon, I hired a tuk tuk to bring me to Tiny Toones. This is a school for homeless and at-risk children in a “more difficult” area of the city. Yesterday, when I shared with the European couple where I planned on going, they advised caution. The tuk tuk driver raised his eyebrows as I showed him on my map. The “roads” in this section of Phnon Penh were mere alleyways and it took over 40 minutes of searching, along with a phone call to the administrator of the school to finally pinpoint the entrance.
More on Tiny Toones
Shhort the school’s Administrator, along with K.K. the schools founder met each other as kids in Kentucky. Their families resettled there after fleeing the Khmer Rouge. They returned to Cambodia to help the children in Cambodia who, most likely, were not going to be as fortunate as them. Tiny Toones uses dance, music and visual arts as the common learning thread throughout the school. In Cambodia, families pay for schooling and often cannot afford to send or bribe school administrations for a much sought-after education.
Returning to the hotel, I picked up my fresh laundry and met the European couple at the rooftop restaurant of their hotel. Five hours of stories and contemplating the future of Cambodia found me arriving to bed late, with great anticipation for tomorrow. –
A day on the Tonle Sap River
Leaving Phnom Penh, Tuesday morning, I aged a year watching the deckhand cautiously nudge my fully loaded bike along the edge of the boat. I took one photo of what I thought may be the last time I see my Trucker. I then turned my back and knew if I heard a splash it was “tour over.” Settling in for a look back upon a unique city I may never see again, I breathed a sigh of relief as the boat (with my bike) left promptly, 20 minutes late.
Floating villages along the Tonle Sap River
We passed three floating villages along the way to Chong Knaes , our destination. These villages are populated by people who fish for a living or transport goods along the river and its tributaries. While occasionally getting fresh air, I did use the opportunity to catch some needed sleep and prepare for the days ahead. Arriving at Chong Knaes, I relived the anxiety of the morning as they successfully unloaded my bike.
A low tire in a small town
As I wheeled up the boat landing I noticed the front tire was extremely low. Luckily, most Cambodian towns, no matter the size, (throughout Southeast Asia as well) have at least one motorbike repair shop. The mechanics, boys no older than 12 years of age, filled my tire and sent me on my way after refusing an offer of payment. Chong Knaes is the gateway to Siem Reap and the Ankgor Wat temple complex. The small village is located 16-miles south of Ankgor Wat. I had reserved a room at a “boutique hotel” run by an Australian couple and their French Chef.
Here I repaired my flat and was directed to the non-tourist area of town where I found dinner, again beef and rice. Watching a soccer match between local schools proved to be the highlight of the evening. I then wound my way through the maze of streets to the hotel for conversation and advice on how to experience Siem Reap tomorrow.
Pedaling the world’s 7th wonder
I found my breakfast ready and in the fridge near the hotel desk. The chef had prepared it to take with me today as I planned to leave before dawn. Leaving the hotel I rode through the maze of dark alleyway streets to the main road through Siem Reap. Last evening’s advice included directions to the only building where $36 tickets are sold to enter the Ankgor Wat complex.
A huge area with only six gated entrances
Imagine an area many miles square with only six gated entrances where tickets/passes are checked – I think you have a rough idea of the complex. The entire archeological area set aside by the Cambodian government encompasses 154 square miles that includes forests and small villages. The area is home to both the famed Ankgor Wat and Ankgor Thom temples built in the 12th century by the Khmer King Suryyavarman.
The day was cloudy so hopes of a brilliant sunrise over the temples were not realized. The silver lining was arriving before the throngs of tourists to this seventh wonder of the world. These grand temples and stone carvings built with ancient engineering mesmerized me. Here were many tourists on bikes; there are bike rental shops in Siem Reap and no lack of bicycle racks at either complex.
Trees growing throughout the temples remains
I rode the “ring” roads around each complex entering at the main walkway at Ankgor Wat while riding to different ruin access points in Ankgor Thom. Thom looked much more ancient with its iconic trees growing through, around and over the remains of temples, walls and walkways. The vendors here were more aggressive than other areas I encountered along this journey. Most bicycle tourers, I know, travel to meet people and experience cultures. Purchasing souvenirs can become problematic while touring. I did purchase a $1 coffee, the most expensive coffee of the entire trip.
A close shave
After lunch I scouted the non-tourist area of Siem Reap for a barber shop. After making a shaving motion with my hands, a young lady kindly pointed to a shop down the alley. My beard was the longest ever and I had not shaved my head for almost two weeks. The young barber, under tutelage of his father, produced a straight-razor in which he slid a new, long blade. Now I became nervous. The young man proceeded to give a fine shave and really got enjoyment from people crowded around him as he shaved the “barang.” I spent the final two hours of sunlight mailing postcards and meandering through the city markets tasting different foods.
Cambodian version of Danish Abelskiver
I came upon what some westerners would believe to be Danish Abelskiver. Not being able to pass on this tasty treat, made with rice and coconut milk, I bought four. To my surprise each contained either a small piece of green onion or single kernel of corn.
With approximately 30-miles on my tires, viewing the 7th architectural wonder of the world, receiving a fine shave and enjoying Cambodian taste treats, it was a fulfilling day!
Into the countryside with several coconut stops
Every morning on this trip I have woke to a rooster crowing, even in the hearts of Phnom Penh and Saigon. This Thursday was no exception, though I managed a little more sleep before my tires hit the pavement again. My goal was to be in Stoung , about 61-miles away, this evening. The earlier starts had an enormous impact on my daily riding. The cooler sometimes cloudy mornings allowed me to stay a step ahead of the humidity as it mixed with a high sun later in the day. I also could allow longer, shaded breaks to enjoy a full coconut.
I found, after drinking an entire coconut full of juice, heat and humidity had no effect on me for the next couple hours.
Another joy of bicycling through Southeast Asia is seeing uniformed children biking to and from school. This morning, I saw hundreds of children riding along the highway waving and shouting “hello!” Early on I attempted to be one of the friendliest tourers on the road, but I stopped waving. During my first three days of riding I came upon the scenes of two fatal accidents that may have been avoided if those poor souls had paid more attention.
Playing it safe around the kids
The distraction of waving and the careless drivers, coupled with no enforcement of traffic laws brings danger to these children. The children are packed together in their own unique peloton, many giving rides to other siblings or friends.
I did not want to see children losing control and creating an accident with highway drivers who do not care. It was along this stretch of road I experienced an oncoming tour bus passing a semi-truck, which was passing another tour bus. I of course, found myself far in the ditch as I saw this happening before my eyes.
Another coconut before finding breakfast
Out of town I realized I had not eaten yet. The coconuts being very filling, I rode to the next town, Dam Daek where I stopped for breakfast. Though I could not communicate through words, the chef made me the most delicious and welcoming meal of the trip. Here the custom of cooks and restaurant owners serving you. Then sitting across from you and watching you eat is a little unnerving and takes some getting used to! Though the friendliness is enjoyable!
I stopped later on this leg of my journey to enjoy another coconut. Encouraged by two young children, with their waves and shouts I surprised them by my highway U-turn. They could not hide their excitement of this foreigner at their mother’s roadside stand. Though we could not communicate through words, when prompted by their mom, they began to sing the children’s song “Head, shoulders knees and toes!” This “concert” was captured on my phone and continues to be one of the trip’s highlights.
Trying to avoid the trinkets
Riding into Stoung, I took the first guesthouse available. It was first and foremost a restaurant for Ankgor Wat tour buses. Tourists could purchase items to remember their travels without the bicycle’s conditions of limited space or weight. At this inn, $15 got me a clean room with air conditioning and a fan, though the fan proved more effective. Stoung’s roadside vendors primarily sold dried fish hung on roadside racks.
Riding through the town, I found an unmemorable dinner, passed a group of young monks on their walk back to the Wat and stopped to get a bottled tea for my morning ride. The girl selling beverages from her cooler reminded me of a lemonade stand back home; as she opened the cooler to display her wares I saw a mix of bottled teas, pop and beer. After purchasing a tea and a 10 ounce Black Panther stout from the 8 year old, I made my way back to the guesthouse. After journaling my day, I slept well.
Cultural differences and travel warnings on my solo bike tour
The guesthouse owner had opened the gate early since I had said I was leaving by 6 a.m. Riding through town, children were already on their bikes heading to school. I made 20-miles on one bottle of tea and a Cliff bar which propelled me to the town of San Kor. Here I ate breakfast at a communal table outside a busy market. Though I am open to trying most any food, the meat in this morning’s soup consisted entirely of intestines. I savored the noodles, veggies and broth and managed to let the intestines fall from my chopsticks to the dirt under the table. Here the town dogs lounged waiting for a morning snack.
Dealing with dogs on my journey
As a cyclist, I noticed dogs along the roads in towns and cities posed no threat but dogs in the countryside would snarl and give chase in an instant. From other cycling travel journals, I knew to be cautious of the Cambodian canines. Travel warnings from the U.S. State Department make it clear. If a person is to travel in the countryside, remote areas or spending a large amount of time outside, getting the rabies vaccine before your trip is wise.
In 2017, Cambodia saw the largest increase in rabies cases ever and the vaccine can only be found in the three largest cities. It was also in San Kor where I witnessed a dog get hit by a truck and just left in the road. I did not witness anyone come to the dog’s aid and it continued to get hit by subsequent vehicles. I can understand a person not wanting to risk their life in these dangerous roadways for an animal that may most likely die; there is a different value and perception placed on animals in Cambodia, than in the U.S.
The luxury resort & spa that was erie and virtually deserted
I managed to book a room at a resort four miles outside the town of Kampong Thnor, arriving about 1 o’clock with 60-miles ridden for the day. The pictures of the resort betrayed what truly laid in wait for me. I arrived at an almost vacant, eerie and vast lodge complex. The 200 plus hotel was more of an abandoned office building. I was one of the two rooms booked for the evening.
This building I was in was a half mile from the main office and restaurant. The immense concrete parking lot was covered with weeds and looked like it had not seen a vehicle in years. I told the manager I would not stay here and asked for an alternative. Costing $10 more I was reissued a small cabin that was much closer to the restaurant/office and had wi-fi. I showered away the daily dirt, napped then decided to get an early dinner. Being the only patron in this vast dining hall, the best part of my stay was the food. The feast included a fresh salad with beef and salted crab.
I planned to leave early again in the morning, so lights out at 8 p.m.
Dangerous roads and the bamboo bridge on this solo bike tour
This Saturday morning found me packed and leaving the most bizarre excuse for a resort/hotel ever imagined. I rode around the maze of empty cabins to the cavern of a restaurant. The door was open so I walked in, said “hello” a few times loudly and received no response. Setting the key on the reception desk, I left. A mile away, through the small village and almost to the main road, a motorbike pulled alongside. It was the young manager from the hotel accusing me of leaving without paying.
I really couldn’t get angry, he was probably fearful of having to cover the costs if I got away. Showing him the receipts from last evening’s dinner and the separate paid receipt for the stay, he was embarrassed. He urged me to return for the breakfast included with my stay. If last evenings dinner was any indication, I wouldn’t be back on the road until after noon so I passed.
The most dangerous ride of my life
On the return ride through the town of Kampong Thnor (or Thma; Thna depending on which map, website or sign was being read) I found a coffee shop for the earliest caffeine of the trip. Two cliff bars later I was out on Cambodian Provincial Highway 71 experiencing the most dangerous riding of my life. The roads had no shoulders and at least a foot of the road edge was crumbling enough to force me farther into the traffic lane. Here again I witnessed a double pass, drivers having no concern for human life.
Though I love Cambodia, this day I knew if I ever returned, I would not tour by bike on this highway. I believe it needs to be said; if you are planning a trip to a destination where traffic/driving is heavy, research that area. The site Crazyguyonabike.org has incredible firsthand knowledge of riding conditions the world over. From my research I knew this stretch was dangerous. Though I am an experienced urban/highway shoulder rider I did not expect the callous disregard for human life on the roadways.
Cambodia’s 3rd largest city
There were two trip ‘firsts’ today: first a youngster who said “hi” instead of hello; and another wearing a bicycle helmet. Wheeling through areas of logging and rubber plantations, I entered Kampong Cham, Cambodia’s 3rd largest city, from the west. While here three years ago, I never rode through the city, just along the waterfront.
The bamboo bridge
One of the most unique tourist attractions in Kampong Cham is the Kaoh Pen Bamboo Bridge from the city to the island of Kaoh Pen in the Mekong. In March of 2014, I rode the bridge to the island and relaxed at Kampong Cham beach. This tour, now early December, I saw the bridge in its annual rebuilding. During the Mekong region’s rainy season the bridge washes down river each year and is rebuilt in a Sisyphus type scenario. Splurging on a room at the new LBN Hotel, five stars by Western standards, I spent $36 dollars. The room had a view overlooking the Mekong and its river walk, plus breakfast was included.
The Riverwalk in Kampong Cham was entertaining, with many dinner options
Saturday night on the Riverwalk offers many food vendors, organized calisthenics, live music, families playing games, strolling monks and only a handful of western tourists. I ate dinner at the Smile Restaurant on the Riverwalk. Smile is a project of the Buddhism for Social Development Action. They train disadvantaged youth in service and tourism industries giving them marketable skills and education.
At dinner I was joined by a 74-year-old Australian of Sri Lankan descent. He assesses Cambodian projects being funded by German banks and reports if the investments are attaining the desired goals. Foreign investment in Cambodia is everywhere. Many corporations and countries are attempting to gain a toehold of influence in this poverty stricken and increasingly graft run country.
Returning to my hotel, my locked bike had been brought inside by the 24 hour hotel guard. Most places I stayed allowed me to bring the Trucker inside for the evening though those that did not had a 24-hour guard watching customer’s motorbikes. It was there the Trucker was snuggled under the watchful eye of the guard on duty.
My last night in Cambodia on my solo bike tour
On my last Sunday in Cambodia, after a delicious omelet in the hotel and a final 40-minute ride through the city, I turned east and rode the Kizuna Bridge over the Mekong River. The Kizuna is one of many bridges funded by Japan. This evening’s destination was Kraek and today I encountered three Khmer weddings.
After inquiring, I understood these Khmer celebrations usually last three to four days with music and food throughout. The music was earsplitting, I could hear noise three miles away before reaching the party. The wedding rental business must be one of the busiest and profitable in Cambodia. The sad reality is the amount of trash generated, abandoned at the roadside with no infrastructure to collect it.
Still noticeable remnants of the “American” War with Vietnam
The road continued in its narrow and crumbling state, though undulating rollers, which were welcome from the flat terrain so far on this trip. Finding tonight’s guesthouse I unpacked, reorganized and embarked on a ride through the town. This area of Cambodia saw years of conflict during the “American” War with Vietnam and the subsequent invasion and occupation by Vietnam in 1979 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge.
Returning to the hotel room I began noticing what looked to be dark cracks along the walls and floor. Upon closer inspection, it seemed every ant in Kampong Cham Province had found its way to my room lured by a stale piece of baked good I had placed in the wastebasket. Doing my best to secure my remaining food, I brought towels from the guesthouse desk to wipe up and rid the room of what ants I could.
Dinner with dogs
For dinner, I strolled along the highway to find the only open restaurant. Inside large tables, with pots placed in the middle, were chunks of burning wood to cook your meal. I was supplied with gray marinated beef and numerous vegetables by the young couple running the place. I was soon joined by the town canines who were not interested in competing with me for the food at my table. They had their dinner from the remains on the table next to me.
It is really an experience to see a dog eating at a table next to you while the proprietors don’t make a move to get them off the table or out of the restaurant. I returned to the hotel by 8, journaled my day and fell asleep.
Crossing back into Vietnam on my solo bike tour
Waking Monday morning I was itching and covered with mosquito bites. I didn’t remember swatting the little buggers during the night, but had the bumps to show for in the morning. The past few days I had noticed more mosquitoes, but this last evening was crazy. I am glad I took the malaria pills and Japanese encephalitis vaccine, before this trip.
I love riding in the early mornings here, children going to school, proprietors setting up shop and families sharing breakfasts at small roadside restaurants. My goal this morning was to arrive early at the border crossing as I entered back into Vietnam.
Passing through customs leaving Cambodia
Rolling up to the border I was able to rest the Trucker against a rail and walk to an open customs window. The Cambodian guards were having difficulty with their retina scanner. After 30 minutes of trying one, then another scanner, they finally found one that worked to their satisfaction. I refused to place “extra funds” in my passport receiving a cold stare as I handed it over. Locals lining up behind me had either U.S. dollars or Cambodian Riel peeking out from their passport as a way to ensure their border crossing.
Approaching the Vietnam customs, I locked my bike outside and walked through a huge building; more of symbolic puffed chest toward Cambodia than a practical government building. I took the long walk through this port of entry. Not seeing a soul, I passed the official passport check station and walked right up to the guards at the exit.
These guards panicked, alarmed that I had strolled right through to them, without being stopped by the custom official and having my passport stamped. As one guard escorted me back, the other was yelling for the person responsible for monitoring passports and missing me. Five minutes after handing over my passport, I was back at the exit station. The two guards there scrutinized my passport, since they had nothing better to do.
Back in Vietnam
Returning to the front of the building, I grabbed the Trucker and rode the 100 odd yards to the exit where yet another customs official scrutinized my passport. All cleared and back in Vietnam, I tucked away my Cambodian Riel and American Dollars and returned the Vietnamese Dong currency to my wallet. Though it is illegal for the Vietnamese to accept dollars, when paying for larger ticket items like hotel rooms, they will quietly accept it.
It could have been a marriage with coconuts as the dowry?
Today’s 62-miles were uneventful; keeping an eye on the traffic while dodging puddles from last evening’s rain. I did stop twice for coconuts, I swear they have an ingredient that rejuvenates, like no other. The second stop was run by a mother and her two adult daughters. This mother was very serious about me returning to the states with one of her daughters and hope of an immediate wedding.
After emphatically stating “NO” three-times I was back on the Trucker and gone. Riding through the large city of Tay Ninh, gateway to Ba Den mountain, I pondered whether to stay for the night or keep riding. Ba Den Mountain was used as a signal post by American forces during the war and is now an amusement park complete with vendors, rides and a tram to the top of the mountain.
Setting my sights on a guesthouse I had stayed at 11 days prior
Tay Ninh is also home to the Cao Dai Temple. This religion was founded here in 1926 and is formally known as “The Great Faith [for the] Third Universal Redemption”. The temple is adorned with paintings of the “Left Eye of God” the symbol of Caodaism. It was still before noon so I set my goal as Go Dau with hopes of staying at the same guesthouse I had 11 days prior.
When I arrived, the owner was very happy to see me and chatted again about his time in the U.S. He rode his bicycle with me to the restaurant. It was then I learned his brother had taken me to his favorite pho restaurant, not the one having a business arrangement with the guesthouse owner. During my fantastic dinner of shrimp fried rice, we were hit with a sudden severe storm which knocked out power to most of the town. This must be a common occurrence since all along the street generators fired up and it became business as usual.
Returning to the guesthouse (in the dark, rain and without a shoulder against oncoming traffic on the divided highway) I was met by the owners brother in law and a friend from Cambodia. They proceeded to tell me, as I quietly listened, all the problems with the American government today. After an hour of international insight I called it an evening and retired to my room.
Shopping and breathing in Saigon on the last leg of my solo bike tour
Enjoying acclimation to the heat, humidity and exhaust day 14 was my last planned day to ride. As I repeated the tour’s first day of mileage and divided highway, I happened upon a grand opening. Here at the 7-mile mark a new combination coffee shop/ motorbike/car wash just opened. This idea makes great sense in Vietnam. Ready to pay for my latte, the woman behind the counter thanked me profusely for coming. She insisted my morning caffeine was free as long as I came back some time – I just might!
Closing in on Saigon, I rode past the usual grouped retail shops. A stretch of landscape shops would give way to a mile of woodcarving artisans, then motorbike repair shops followed by pharmacies. No rhyme or reason that I could tell, though it seems to make it easy to negotiate and fix prices. The shops I hated to see were the ones selling caged wild birds sold as pets. It was along this group of shops I saw a man on a bike with a platform on the back selling beautiful birds of prey, each tethered to a board.
The air thickened as I rode into Saigon
Each mile closer to the city center saw the air thickened to the point of being able to grab it, a sickening exhaust-humidity cocktail. The buff across my face was worth its weight in gold. After a fried rice breakfast in Cu Chi, I stopped for another coffee. It was here the young lady behind the counter brought me three large green teas as I chatted with the owner and drank my coffee. As I said goodbye to them both, she brought me another bagged tea to hang from the handlebars!
After checking into my hotel in the early afternoon, I immediately took all my dirty clothes over to the laundry. By the early evening they would be cleaned and folded for $3.50. With time to relax, I walked to a fancy new restaurant serving Vietnamese and Cantonese dishes. The shiitake soup was wonderful and the entire staff was dressed in Santa or elf outfits for the approaching holiday.
Then I returned to Amy’s coffee a short walk from the hotel. The owner seemed surprised to see me again. He immediately brought an iced coffee without asking. Though I paid for it, my system could take no more caffeine today. Instead I ordered apple juice and was very happy with that as my nightcap.
The last two days of my solo bike tour were spent walking Saigon
Leaving the Trucker behind, I put on over nine miles walking on Wednesday as I made my way to Ben Tanh Market and other sites around Saigon. I purchased a few items to bring home, ate well throughout the day and arrived back at the hotel during rush hour. To show others what the road was like at this hour, I donned my helmet and jumped on Trucker to record an 11-minute video. Here I am, with a Go Pro attached to my helmet, riding from the hotel, down the neighborhood street to the main road and around the huge roundabout at rush hour.
Later, I washed the evidence of Cambodia and Vietnam from the Trucker’s frame and let it drip dry overnight. Tomorrow I will take it apart to be packed for my flight back. If the stars align, I will see it in Chicago when I arrive.
Shopping for tea and packing
Thursday morning scouted for various teas to enjoy back home and was pleasantly surprised to find lotus flower tea. Soon after, the bike came apart and the components were smuggled past the front desk and into my room where I could pack without a crowd gathering to watch. Re-wrapping fragile components with bubble wrap and padding the corners of the cloth case with clothing proved again to be a tight fit. Then it happened!
The cloth along one side of the zipper on the top side of the case ripped the entire length. All I could do was finish packing and grab a roll of canary yellow duct tape (it’s in my DNA, I carry duct tape) and proceed to reinforce the case. Now the hope was airport security would not decide they need to open it?
I challenged myself the rest of the day to find different street vendors and sample their foods. One reason being, I may not return to Vietnam for a while and the other is to spend my remaining dong since it won’t go far in the states.
With gear loaded, 22 hours later I was back in the U.S.
With my new Deuter backpack I purchased in Saigon, as my carry on, I went to bed early preparing for a 5:15 a.m. taxi to the airport. Checking in for the flight to Narita Japan, the counter agent did not weigh either my cased bike or my checked bag so no worries there. I also watched security through a propped door as they x-rayed my bag. I believe the protocol here was to wait until a passenger’s luggage was screened and if all was well you could proceed to the gate.
My bags passed and 22 hours later I landed at Chicago ‘s O’Hare for an evening with my daughter and son-in-law. Now for the last leg of my journey, a five hour drive home, from Chicago to Minneapolis for the Holidays.
Practical details and tips for planning a Cambodian journey
Think I travel light? The joke with all my past travel companions is “where is he hiding the kitchen sink?” Being called a pack mule doesn’t begin to describe me; never a boy scout yet always prepared. This trip I attempted to turn a new leaf by limiting the items I packed. The following items were not necessarily used, but carried with me.
But first let me start with:
- The Surly Long Haul Trucker; 26” wheels; outfitted with S & S couplers , Dynamo front hub and Sinewave converter for devices.
- An S & S carrying case for the bike. So I can check it in as normal airline baggage -using: bubble wrap, pipe insulation and tennis balls to slide over frame ends.
- Surly Pannier racks; front, rear and handlebar Ortlieb bags.
- Coupler wrench & thread lube; 3 extra spokes; extra tubes; tire levers; patch kit; mini pump; extra brake and shifter cables; head/tail lights; helmet; bell (a must for answering the school children’s bells); bungee cords. Chain lube; extra chain links; adjustable wrench; spoke wrench; needle nose pliers; swiss army knife; and Allen wrench/screwdriver multi tool.
- Android Nexus 5; IPhone ; Go Pro Hero and 64 GB SD cards; Charging cords/adapters
- Keen sandals; pair of Crocs; pair wool ankle socks; 2 pairs padded shorts ; pair no pads; underwear, 1 pair long pants (zip offs); 3 long sleeve shirts , 3 short sleeve; 1 wool beanie; 3 Buffs (can’t live without ‘em); 1 yellow windbreaker.
- 6 epi-pens; malaria pills; z-pack, ibuprofen; Tylenol arthritis, Pepto Bismal, Neosporin ointment, toothpaste/brush/floss; liquid soap; hand sanitizer; deodorant; Misc. bandages/gauze pads/tape/Q tips; Katadyn Micropur tablets/ 2L Hydrapak container; washcloth/ towel; 50 SPF sunscreen; toilet paper
- Small mirror; clothesline; spork; ENO hammock; Chimes ginger chews; Nuun electrolyte tablets. Clif bars; G.I. can opener (the same one used on my first tour at 12 years old), hardcover journal/pen; People for Bikes stickers ( given to children in lieu of candy); 5 Sea to Summit various sized dry bags and back pack; Ziploc bags; duct tape; sunglasses and bifocals
- Passport w/ extra photos; medical information; decoy wallet; waistband pouch for money and passport; 9 million Vietnamese Dong (about $400); $400 U.S. cash
Reservations along the way
The only reservation I made before I left Minneapolis was for the Minh Chau Hotel in District 10 in Saigon. They had done a superb job 3 years prior and though the ownership had changed, the service was wonderful. Not a fancy hotel by any standards but a large room with a queen size bed and full bath was $19 per night.
This was about 3 miles from downtown Ho Chi Minh City where the costs climb slightly but the rooms, beds and baths shrink exponentially. The other plus was the Minh Chau was in the heart of a neighborhood; coffee shops, restaurants, 2 schools, laundries and morning markets made for an authentic, day-to-day vibe. The day after I arrived, I booked my final two nights here and they agreed to store my bike case and packing materials for my return.
I relied on Google maps as I looked ahead each day, searching for guesthouses or if the city was large enough, hotels. In the larger cities, I would scan for the words “guesthouse” or “hotel” as I rode through town. Only once I saw no indication of places to stay on Google maps or Booking.com. Of course, this was also the small town that most people waved me away after my game of charades to find lodging.
Guesthouses and hotels outside the large cities of HCMC, Phnom Penh and the tourist city of Siem Reap are rented by the hour, 2 hour or night. Most family living is multi-generational in a 2-3 room dwelling with extremely little privacy. These places offer an inexpensive getaway to couples looking to be alone. Sadly, this pricing and availability also enable sex traffickers and tourists to continue victimizing Southeast Asians.
In Phnom Penh
I spent 3 nights at the luxurious Mekong Dragon Boutique Hotel at $39 per night. This booking.com reservation was made from the road 5 hours ahead of time; they had all my information and an iced mango juice (in a martini glass!) as I walked through the door. This hotel was close to the sites I was to visit the following day and enabled me to experience the true feel of Phnom Penh city life.
Approaching Siem Reap
I made reservations for a small hotel and received the Booking.com confirmation number. For $16 a night, I stayed 2 nights in the clean and friendly Ankgor Beauty Boutique Hotel, 2 miles south of Siem Reap happily hidden in a maze of alleyways and roads.
The Samrith Hotel outside the small city of Kampong Thnor was questionable?
The booking site sorely misrepresented this location as a luxury resort & spa though it was eerie and virtually deserted. Booking.com also allowed me to make a reservation for a hotel that closed six months earlier. They notified me two hours later to make different plans.
The luxury LBN Hotel to the the Mekong hotel
Three years ago in Kampong Cham, the Mekong hotel was one of a handful of places to stay overlooking the Mekong River. I stayed here and marveled at the large construction project next door. Fast forward to this trip and that project is the luxury LBN Hotel, the tallest building in Kampong Cham. I stayed for one night at $36 with a delicious breakfast included.
If you decide to visit Vietnam or Cambodia, there are plenty of places to stay and sleuthing to discover them takes little effort. You may be surprised at their definition of “clean” but the hospitality more than counters most issues that may arise.