Sleazy Pattaya City

7th APRIL 2019

There’s no breakfast option at The Halabala Resort, despite the claims of my accommodation website. Instead I cross the busy main road and visit a 7-11 on the opposite side, stocking up on mayonnaise-themed sandwiches, pineapple pastry and nut snacks. Well, technically I don’t stock up; I scoff the whole lot in the car park outside.

Carrying on I’m able to leave the crowded main highway after 5km, turning inland through bustling Ban Chang and it’s mad tangle of overhead telecom wires. Once I’m through town things become quieter, and for a while I cruise along effortlessly on minor roads fringed by jungly forest. When my small road is bisected by a busy dual carriageway I’m left with two choices – I can either detour 8km to get to the other side or walk my bike across and lift it over the central reservation barrier. I’ve made more difficult decisions; I take all of five seconds to choose the laziest option. The last time I pulled this trick I struggled like a skinny weightlifter, straining to hoist my fully loaded bike over two sets of barriers. This time I simply detach the panniers and lift everything over in instalments. Why the Hell didn’t I do that before ?

Once I’m across the highway, my road rises sharply through a section of thick, shaded woodland. It’s intimidatingly steep, so I feel no shame whatsoever in jumping off to push. This gets me thinking about my first forays into cycle-touring, where I would almost ruin myself just to say that I cycled every inch of the way. However, I’m far more relaxed about cheating nowadays, and I’ll happily hop out the saddle to push if I need a breather. As it happens, this steep little climb has me stopping for a break anyway, despite the fact that I’m pushing. At the top I see that I’m heading towards an ugly band of dark clouds, but at least I’m rewarded with some easy freewheeling past forest and farmland to get there.

A pointy, triangular mountain is looming large up ahead. As I cycle closer, it almost looks like a giant gold Buddha has been carved into one face of the mountain. Then, when I reach the landmark, I realise there actually IS a giant gold Buddha carved into the mountain ! The area was originally used to quarry rock for road construction, which left a sheer cliff face on one side of the mountain when the mining stopped. In an attempt to beautify what remained, laser technology was used to carve a one hundred metre tall Buddha image into the rock face. All the laser carving took place at night, while during the day gold leaf was painted into the freshly cut grooves. Today the place is swamped by dozens of tour buses, some selfie-taking tourists and a few Buddhist types who have come here to pray. It’s an impressive, yet magnificently surreal sight.

I leave the Carved Buddha Mountain for a straightforward glide down to the coast, rejoining the main road about 10km South of Pattaya. By now conditions have become horribly dark with heavy, fat raindrops splattering all around me. I notice two kids with scooters are already sheltering under a bus stop, so I pull over and sit below the awning of a shop that’s closed on Sundays. For the next thirty minutes I watch as the dry road out front becomes inundated by small cascades of streaming water. Within an hour it will be bone dry once again. That seems to be the pattern with rainshowers here – heavy and intense, but only for a short time.

When I move on again I’m cycling past luxury hotels, resorts and condominiums on the Southern approaches to Pattaya. This must be a more affluent area that allows richer residents and tourists to put some distance between themselves and the sleaziness of Pattaya city. I’ve never visited the city before, although I feel I know what to expect just by reputation alone. Pattaya is most famous for seedy sex tourism, which is perfectly illustrated by the tacky range of businesses on the street where I’m staying.

My accommodation is right next door to Ping Pong Beer Bar 3 and opppsite the tastefully named Beaver Bar. To access my second floor room I have to go through a ground floor ‘massage parlour.’ A couple of the girls offer me a massage and say it’s safe to leave my bike outside as they will watch it for me. Nonetheless, their chatter doesn’t inspire much confidence, so I chain the bike to railings outside a language school across the narrow street. What a language school is doing in the middle of all this debauchery is beyond me. Once I’m through the massage parlour I realise there’s an alleyway and rear entrance to the building, so I walk straight back round to retrieve my bike from outside. Despite all the surrounding depravity, my room turns out to be surprisingly nice.

After showering I go for a bit of a wander, just to see if Pattaya is as awful as it’s reputation suggests. As I walk down my street towards the beach I must pass a dozen massage parlours and receive plenty of “Hello, you like massage ?’ offers. The street also houses English Bars, Norwegian Bars, Swedish Bars and a further two outlets from the Ping Pong Beer Bar franchise. The next street along is predictably similar, with another horde of massage parlours and a handful of Western-style bars advertising Premier League football matches. It feels like I could be on the Costa del Crime in Spain. The place is swarming with Russians, chavvy tattooed Brits and creepy old foreign guys with very young Thai girls on their arm. It’s an absolute shithole.

On the way back I have seafood fried noodles in a Westernised restaurant surrounded by other Westerners. Why the Hell would I travel to the other side of the world to that ? I had toyed with the idea of possibly spending two nights in Pattaya, but my short stroll tonight has already convinced me otherwise. Tacky sex tourism surrounded by a depressing herd of drunken Westerners really isn’t my scene. I’ll be out of here tomorrow.


Mae Rumphueng Beach

2nd APRIL 2019

Somewhat predictably, my plans to stay at Mae Rumphueng Beach for only a short time are soon reconsidered. It’s such a cracking spot that my intended two day visit quickly evolves into four. These relaxing days off the bike generally start with breakfast in the bar at the villas, under a corrugated iron roof that amplifies the sound of occasional tropical rainshowers. Yoghurt with fruit and muesli becomes my staple, followed by toast with jam and always finished with a long, slow iced coffee.

I’m at the beach every day; swimming, floating, sunbathing and belatedly attempting to tan my white feet to match the colour of my brown legs. On one particular afternoon the sea is a little more choppy than normal, leading to a wondrous ten minutes in which a juvenile reef fish tries to use me for shelter and protection. The fish is only a tiny thing, with yellow and black vertical stripes and obviously feels a lot safer beside me than in open water. It swims a few centimetres away from my chest, using me for cover like I’m a piece of driftwood in the ocean. Any time I try to turn or move away it follows, swimming back towards me when I stop to check where it is. This is such a cool little episode, but eventually I have to get out and let it fend for itself.

I continue my animal interactions when I return to the villas and sit down for dinner on their comfy wicker sofa. What could very well be the same lizard as before pops up onto the bench behind me and scampers along to eat small scraps of pork that I drop onto the wooden surface. It’s not exactly tame, but it’s not exactly fazed by my presence either. I’m having Penang Curry tonight, which is a bit like Thai Red Curry, although sweeter and with peanuts. It seems to go down a treat with the hungry, inquisitive reptile.

I don’t touch my bike for three days, save for making a short trip back to see the aquarium at Ban Phe, which turns out to be a little gem and probably the best 75p I’ve ever spent. Quite often attractions will have one price for locals and a higher price for tourists, but at this aquarium it’s just one flat rate for everyone. The next time I use my bike I don’t even make it away from Mae Rumphueng Beach, simply moving from the fully booked villas to a hotel further along the seafront. I say Goodbye to Ulrika and her posse of friendly local bar staff and check in to the Wellington Hotel, which is larger and cheaper, but without the character of the villas I’ve just left behind. At sunset I take my last walk along that wonderful beach, the ever present horizon clouds blocking the sun’s final descent over the sea once more. Strangely, as clouds amass out to sea around this time of day, the skies inland always seem to be clear.

In the evening I realise I must have been devoured by mosquitos the previous night, an irritating memento of my time at the MM Villas. Their air-conditioning was so cold and powerful that it would keep mosquitos from landing on me, but after a while it would become so chilly that I’d have to turn it off. And of course, once the air-con is off, the mosquitos venture back out to play. I must have drifted off to sleep with my legs sticking out from the covers as my feet, shins and calves are now covered in ugly red spots. And they itch like Hell !

When I go to retrieve my bike the following morning, I find the large empty hall where I left it has now turned into a conference room full of students. I walk in, trying not to attract too much attention to myself and offer a few apologetic nods and hand gestures. My bike is chained to a table, which I need to bend over to see the combination lock, completely forgetting that I have a gaping hole in each butt cheek of my shorts. As I’m wheeling the bike out of the room I notice one girl giggling with her friend and pointing at me, having obviously noticed the undignified holes in my shorts. I just smile and give a Thumbs Up, which leads to her putting both hands over her mouth and giggling even more in that way Asian girls do when they’re embarrassed.

Once outside I notice my front tyre looks slightly deflated, so I stop in the shade, upend the bike and begin pumping with my Presta valve pump. Things seem to be going OK, until the pump’s rubber ring works it’s way loose once again. I don’t have the patience to try and refix this, so just remove the wheel and put on a Schrader valve inner tube, which I know can be inflated with my second pump. This now leaves me with one spare inner tube. I’ll be back onto puncture repair kits after that.

Then I trundle slowly away, a little wary and conscious of my front tyre for the first few minutes, like I always am after a change of inner tubes. I roll gently along the seafront to begin with, hotels and restaurants to my right, beach and shimmering blue sea to my left. Then I turn inland and rejoin the main road, which gives me the choice of a fast, direct route to Bangkok or a quieter route through Rayong City. I choose the latter, although Rayong itself is a bustling little city that takes a while to get through. To celebrate crossing the city I stop at a roadside Plastic Chair Cafe for some lunch. The owner lady speaks English fairly well and asks if I’d like some Fried Rice with pork. Then, as an afterthought, she asks if I’d like egg to go with it too. That all sounds good to me, so I sit and wait while draining a huge jug of iced water as she cooks my meal from scratch. The result is delicious and filling, with a surprisingly peppery taste. I’m halfway through my food when she has another afterthought, asking if I’d like a bowl of clear soup to go with it. Hey, Why Not ?

After lunch the heat intensifies horribly. My hands are now so sweaty that I can barely grip the handlebars, even though I’m actively trying to avoid wearing gloves to even up the tan between my brown arms and white hands. I have to revert back to cycling gloves after a few kilometres though, my hands looking like they’ve been dipped in water with the amount of sweat glistening on them. I’m a hot, sticky mess by the time I reach my destination, reflecting that The Halabala Resort makes my accommodation sound far more grand than the group of motel units that it actually is.

The reception girl, after trying to scam 100 Baht from my change for herself, tells me there are some restaurants up on the main road, but they don’t open till 7.00pm. Nonetheless, I need to find a stall that sells water, so I take a wander anyway and chance upon a restaurant that looks like it’s already serving. I’m so used to Plastic Chair Cafes being open-fronted that it’s almost a shock to find an enclosed roadside restaurant with glass windows ! The place is run by a middle aged lady, who can speak pretty decent English, and her twenty-something son, who can’t. Mother takes my order and shuffles off to cook it, while the son decides he’s going to put on some English-language music to entertain their Western guest. He’s trying to make me feel at home, bless him, but to my absolute horror he begins playing Country Music songs. He looks over to see if I approve, so I just nod politely and try to force a smile, while some redneck singer whines about regrets, guns and cheatin’ country hearts. I realise he’s trying to do the right thing and we’ve had a bit of cultural misunderstanding, but I’m still mortified that someone might think I’m a Country Music fan.

Mercifully, my food arrives quickly and diverts my attention from the music. It’s fried noodle and pork, loaded with oodles of fresh veggies. Again, like my lunch, it has a distinctly peppery taste, which I’m guessing must be some kind of regional quirk. I head back to my accommodation and drink an entire large water bottle while being driven to distraction by my itchy mosquito bites. These motel units in the middle of nowhere are supremely quiet, which I know will be in direct contrast to where I’m heading tomorrow. The next leg of my journey to Bangkok will see me stopping in Thailand’s infamous sex capital of Pattaya. It’s not often you have to adjust from Country Music to Ladyboys within 24 hours. I’m still not sure which will be the most disturbing.


Once More To The Sea

31st MARCH 2019

It’s just before 9.00am when I say Goodbye to a tired, bleary-eyed Peter at the Traveller Hostel. He has only just risen from his bed behind reception, having waited up till the small hours so he could check in a late arrival. I get him to take a picture of me before I depart and, although he’s half asleep, he’s still sharp enough to make sure his hostel name is included in the shot.

For breakfast I return to the same cafe as yesterday, choosing a carb-heavy pork and macaroni soup to set me up for today’s 80km. I follow that with a minced pork baguette, which is washed down by an iced coffee just to get me buzzing. After fuelling up I avoid Chanthaburi centre and it’s rabbit warren of one way streets, heading past parks and industry on the outskirts of town instead. Then I’m back on the main road towards Bangkok for a while, which is getting noticeably busier as I edge towards the capital. The increase in traffic doesn’t make a huge difference though, as I still have a big, safe buffer zone at the edge to cycle in. The first 50km whizz past, with flat roads and a tailwind helping me speed along effortlessly.

For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe which is open on all four sides, giving it the appearance of a giant wedding gazebo. I’m struggling to order, even with Google translate, so the owner lady gets me to point to the food I’d like from a handful of metal trays on display. I choose a meal that looks like slices of aubergine in a curry, served with rice, which seems marginally less baffling than some of the other options. When the food arrives it still looks like aubergine to begin with, but I quickly discover that it’s actually cross sections of fish, complete with spine and an assortment of other little bones. And Bloody Hell it’s spicy ! It takes me ages to finish the meal due to a mouth-searing heat and spending time pulling long, thin fish bones from my mouth. I’m only charged 25 Baht (60 pence), which seems like a bargain until you realise you can no longer feel your mouth.

When I carry on there’s sweat dripping from my face after a few kilometres, a combination of my spicy intake and an intensifying afternoon heat. The traffic has been building too, even from this morning. If I continued on this busy Number 3 road I’d have less than 250km to cycle till Bangkok. Nonetheless, I’ve already decided on a quieter route and want to spend my last ten days in Thailand pootling along the coast. I get to the decent sized town of Klaeng, leave the main highway behind and head back towards the sea.

Once I’m off the big road I slow down to the pace of my rural surroundings, languidly trundling past villages, temples and forest. The final 15km to the coast pass very lazily compared to this morning’s brisk progress. Then I’m at Mae Phim Beach, a 5km stretch of wide, surprisingly clean sand flanked by hotels, shops, seafood restaurants and street stalls. I’m staying on the fourth floor of the oddly named Pimpimarn Hotel, which has a great beachside location but definitely looks like it’s seen better days. My bike is left in what appears to be the hotel’s karaoke room, chained safely to a table, before I go for a late afternoon wander along the beach. I walk towards the setting sun, until it dips behind a low band of cloud and hills on the Western horizon.

On the way back I notice a cafe bar that does massaman curry, which is just the sort of mild, mellow dish I need after heat-blasting my mouth at lunchtime. I settle down to chicken thigh in a gorgeous, creamy sauce mix of peanuts and onions. All this is washed down by a luminous green-coloured Fanta, which looks disturbingly toxic, yet tastes addictively delicious. On the way back I visit a 7-11 for some supper snacks and also some munchies for tomorrow’s breakfast. Needless to say, I return to my room and devour the whole lot.

When I wake the next morning I regret last night’s greediness, having to return to the 7-11 once more for some breakfast sandwiches. Every filling seems to include mayonnaise – crab mayonnaise, tuna mayonnaise and even the unpleasant sounding pork mayonnaise. I buy one tuna and one crab, but am not curious enough to try the pork.

Today’s trip is an easy 30km, so I faff around till the latest possible check out time and then begin an unhurried trundle along the coast. This ride sounds like it could be stunning, though in reality the view is often blocked by upmarket, private resorts on the beach side of the road. About halfway I’m able to stop at a public beach and see what I’ve been missing. The island of Ko Samet sits just offshore and away to the left are a group of three much smaller islands. These miniature land masses look idyllic, with sandy beaches that I can see from my vantage point on the mainland. One of the islets is cone-shaped, looking almost like a perfect triangle. I stay for half an hour, before heading towards the bustling little town of Ban Phe and its multitude of piers jutting out into the sea. My final kilometres involve detouring round a headland that’s home to a scattering of exclusive hillside resorts, before I glide back down to sea-level and Mae Rumphueng beach.

My accommodation is at the MM Villas, about two minutes walk from the beach and run by a Swedish lady named Ulrika who’s lived in Thailand for the past fourteen years. She tells me she saw my booking, noticed the Anderson surname and thought I might have been Swedish myself. If she’s disappointed by my non-Swedishness she hides it very well. I sit and have a chat with her while having minced pork with rice. As we’re talking I notice a small lizard has popped up onto the benchtop beside me. I chuck a couple of scraps of pork down on the bench and, to my surprise, the lizard scuttles along towards me to eat them. For a brief moment I feel like some sort of Lizard Whisperer.

By late afternoon I’ve made my way to the beach, my flip-flops now in hand so I can walk in the sea. My God it’s warm ! The beach here slopes so gently that the sea is still incredibly shallow even twenty metres from the shore, meaning the water has heated up nicely by this time of day. I’m walking along in a sea that’s as warm as bathwater and as clear as gin. This is lovely !

I stay until sun down, but again it looks like sunset will be thwarted by that weird horizon cloud that seems to appear at this time every evening. However, with brilliant timing, a gap forms between sea and clouds just before sunset to show a fiery red ball dipping into the ocean. I keep walking along the beach after dark, then cut back up to the beachside road on my return. Back at the villas there’s a group of middle-aged Swedish blokes at the bar, but they’re really rather civilised and by 11.00pm everything has gone quiet, save for the occasional and dramatic crack of thunder. I like it here. I’d originally booked two days, but within an hour of my arrival I’d already extended that to three. Now, with all this time on my side, my stay here might turn out to be even longer.





29th MARCH 2019

My second leisurely breakfast in Trat is a carbon copy of yesterday’s tomato and onion scrambled egg, washed down by a strong filter coffee. I leave town around 10.00am, heading North-West on smooth, flat roads that have a safe, one metre buffer zone at the edge for cycling. The morning part of my ride is refreshingly easy, as I cruise past brilliantly green jungle under an increasingly cloudy sky. Up ahead there’s an ongoing display of lightning flashes in the direction I’m heading, followed by long, heavy rumbles of thunder. Before long I’ve cycled into the rainstorm, so take shelter beneath a roadside canopy that looks like it normally covers a fruit stall. Scooter riders are stopping to pull wet weather ponchos over themselves or to hide under bus shelters as heavy rain batters noisily onto the ground. Half an hour later I emerge and continue cycling in a dripping environment that has been cooled down nicely by the deluge.

Language barriers abound when I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch, but two guys who look like students step in to help. One produces his mobile and gets me to say words out loud into his phone so they are google-translated into Thai. Then it becomes a bit of a game where they will say Thai foods so I can read the English translation. What flummoxes me is that the Thai word for pork sounds like ‘Moo,’ when all my instincts tell me that ‘Moo’ should be cow. It’s all good fun, although we’re not progressing very far with ordering my food. In the end I just point to what the two students are eating, give a Thumbs Up and hope for the best. A tasty bowl of noodles duly arrives, complete with chunks of ‘Moo’ and some small, puzzling meatballs. Not the worst result.

The afternoon heats up once the clouds have dissipated, but I’m still feeling quite fresh when I roll into the riverside town of Chanthaburi around half past two. I reach the Traveller Hostel, just across a bridge into town on a narrow, busy street. The owner is a friendly bloke with excellent English, who calls himself Peter in the same way that many Asians choose a Westernised version of their own name. I leave my bike at reception, chain-lock through the back wheel, and head upstairs to what must be the tiniest room I’ve seen on the whole trip. My consolation for overnighting in a large cupboard is that the effects of air-conditioning kick in almost immediately in such a confined space.

For dinner I walk back over the same bridge I rode in on, finding a Plastic Chair Cafe for a basic rice meal with chicken and pork strips, before stopping at a 7-11 on the way back. I stock up on snacks, and also manage to find the elusive large bottle of sunscreen I’ve been searching so long for. It costs the equivalent of £10, which means I’ll be paying much the same price as I would in the UK. Still, I don’t think sunscreen is a product you can compromise on, especially if you’re a Scottish guy cycling in the tropics. At night I try to plot an itinerary that will take me round the coastal route to Bangkok. I work out that I’ve got around 350km to cycle and have twelve days left to complete the distance. This is a pleasingly comfortable ratio, even for me. With this in mind I eat all my intended road food snacks for tomorrow and mark the day down for exploring Chanthaburi instead.

The next morning I have such a lazy start that I almost miss my morning meal at a cafe that stops serving breakfast at 11.00am. After stuffing myself I wander back through the narrow alleyways of the Old Town, awash with tourists, gem shops, stalls and cafes. At the river’s edge there’s a community of old wooden shacks on stilts, looking a little out of place, but now protected and occupying prime position in the trendiest part of town. I amble through the tight, shady streets and visit a handful of Buddhist temples, leaving my shoes outside at the entrance to each one, before making my way back to the hostel via a milkshake bar.

Peter is there at reception to greet me, saying he can take me out for food tonight at his favourite street food cafe at the night market. I’m more than happy to agree as you always discover much better places with the help of local knowledge. We go there by motorbike to find the night market is absolutely jam-packed with people, and so stupidly busy that there are no free seats at his chosen cafe. We hang around for a while, but have to resort to a Plan B as the tables just aren’t clearing. He takes me to a restaurant a couple of kilometres away that looks far more upmarket, a place he normally comes with his family for Sunday lunch. I’m asked if I would like to try some regional Chanthaburi food, which is music to my ears, and Peter orders three dishes to share between us.

The first plate is a crispy appetiser of what appears to be fried green beans with tiny dried shrimps, which has a nice crunchy, seafood taste. I enjoy the starter, although it turns out to be fairly mediocre compared to the main courses that follow. The first looks like a large version of the clear chicken soups I often get as a side dish in Plastic Chair Cafes. However, when I take a spoonful I’m just not prepared for the mixture of flavours ! At first I get a lemony, sour flavour that makes me suck my cheeks in, before I start to experience an unexpected sweet taste. Then, about twenty seconds later a warm spiciness kicks in. Blimey ! How the Hell do they make a dish that goes from sour to sweet to spicy in one mouthful ? Peter has obviously watched tourists trying this before and is sitting there grinning, waiting for my reactions to the taste changes.

The third course is my favourite though. It’s a dish that’s local to the Chanthaburi area called Moo Chamuang, which is a kind of sweet and sour pork-belly curry in a thick brown sauce. What makes it unique is the use of Chamuang leaves, only found in this region of Eastern Thailand, which add quite a sour flavour to the sweet, tender slow-cooked pork. I can say without any doubt that these three courses add up to the best meal I’ve had on the entire trip !

While chatting over the meal I find that Peter has had an interesting life. He’s forty-five, from Chanthaburi originally and spent ten years working as a tour guide all over the country. His career came to an abrupt end when he fell foul of his employers, who just happened to be in cahoots with the Russian mafia in Pattaya. When he unwittingly took on a driving job for one of their rivals, his employers took him to an uninhabited island offshore and beat him up, knocking out a couple of teeth in the process. He pauses his story at this point to show me the gaps. The Russians were just going to abandon him there, so he said they could take all the money in his wallet and he’d also pay them his fee from their business rivals. The thugs were happy with this and acted like they were all mates again, but this episode had shown Peter what they were capable of. Wisely, he decided to get out immediately and move back to Chanthaburi. His decade in the industry wasn’t a complete waste though – he is currently providing material for a Thai novel which explores the seedier side of being a tour guide.

It’s been an enjoyable and fascinating evening, and all the better for some local insight. Peter insists on paying for all the food, which is a bloody decent gesture. The bill comes to 350 Baht, which converts to less than £10 to feed two people in a posh restaurant with probably the best meal I’ll have in Thailand.

I’ve enjoyed my time in these Eastern provinces, a little bit away from the regular Thai tourist trail. Trat and Chanthaburi have both been unassuming, yet very likeable towns, and I’m glad I was able to spend an extra day in each. My new, relaxed schedule for the rest of the trip means I’m now able to get a proper feel for the locations I visit instead of just rushing straight through. Kind of how a cycle trip should be.


Pings and Petanque

27th MARCH 2019

It’s 9.00am when I leave the Grumpy Indians Motel, back-tracking into town for breakfast at a street food Plastic Chair Cafe. As usual I don’t have much clue what I’m ordering, so just point to a curried meat and veg mixture, mostly because the remaining choices look far too daunting for breakfast. The meal comes with steamed rice and is smaller than I would have hoped for, but My God it’s spicy ! By the time I’ve finished I’ve drunk an entire jug of water, poured over ice, in a failed attempt to extinguish the fire in my mouth. I’m sweating before I’ve even begun today’s ride.

With my mouth still burning I leave Klong Yai and rejoin the gloriously smooth main road towards my destination of Trat. After the last two months I’m still a little shocked to be cycling on such perfectly surfaced, litter-free roads. I pass through a lot of roadworks on today’s cycle, the excavations suggesting that most of this route will be upgraded to dual carriageway in the future. The construction workers are a friendly bunch; I receive far more random Hellos than I would have expected in either Vietnam or Cambodia. The ‘Land of Smiles’ is living up to its reputation today.

The morning passes smoothly, although by afternoon things have started to get sticky and humid under a blanket of oppressive cloud cover. I’m trundling along, my thoughts turning to the possibilty of rainshowers, when a sudden and almighty ‘Ping’ resonates from the rear of my bike. My first guess is that it might be one of the elasticated bungee cords used to tie down all my gear, but then I realise it was probably the sound of a spoke breaking. It was. All that extra weight on the back of my bike takes such a toll. The spoke has snapped cleanly in two, and now the rear wheel has a distinct wobble when it rotates as a result. I always seem to get these mechanical issues towards the end of a trip, as if fate is tempting me to just keep going without repair as ‘I’m almost there anyway’.

Nursing the bike along slowly I reach a Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch, where an English speaking customer translates what they have on offer. My helper asks where I’m from and what my name is, although he has to settle for ‘Lob’ after a few struggles trying to say ‘Rob’. He tells me his name is ‘O’ which, even for me, is not too difficult a mouthful. It’s not often I can pronounce a local’s name better than they can attempt mine. My lunch choice is chicken noodle soup, which arrives with the gruesome spectacle of a chicken’s foot resting on the surface. Remembering my previous experience with this cuisine, I simply remove the appendage and leave it to one side. Nevertheless, the soup and noodles have a nice homely taste to them, despite all the bony chicken morsels.

The afternoon is a slow motion ride towards Trat, with my back wheel appearing slightly more warped every time I look at it. There are distance markers at every kilometre for the final 15km, which only seems to make my progress even slower. I’ve become quite adept at judging distances by now, so I’m disheartened that the markers are always a couple of hundred metres further on than I’d expect them to be. This slow progress continues until my destination, where I find my accommodation up a cute little side street flanked by guesthouses and restaurants. The street has white lines painted down the middle, yet is barely wide enough for a single car. I check into the Residence Guesthouse, my bike chained to a concrete bench outside with the promise that I can bring it indoors overnight.

By the following morning I’ve decided to spend an extra day in the large-ish town of Trat. I head downstairs to an outside table beside the quiet road for a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast. Seated next to me are an English couple in their thirties, waiting for a taxi which will take them to the town’s pier for a ferry to the nearby island of Koh Chang. The guy asks if I’m on a pushbike, and then reveals that he cycled almost full circle round Australia a few years ago. It also turns out that he cycled the same Adelaide to Darwin stretch that I rode on my first big cycle trip in 2006. Small World. They tell me they are both teachers who quit their jobs last year to go travelling, which is very liberating to hear and something we all have a good belly laugh at. We chat for a bit before they head back upstairs to pack, while I slowly sup a filter coffee and say Hello to any locals that wander past.

My first port of call today is a bike shop to see if I can get a replacement for my broken spoke. There are a couple of options, but I just make for the closest one and show them the damage. An English speaking girl at the counter is assigned to me and offers me the tiniest of red plastic chairs to sit on. She’s a local, but is wearing blue-coloured contact lenses over her brown eyes, which gives her an unexpectedly striking look. I spend a while chatting with her, distracted by her stunning eyes, while a bike mechanic deals with my wheel. The repair process is a long one as, once again, this shop doesn’t have spokes to fit my UK-sized wheel in amongst their stock of spares. The guy has to cut one to size, then threads it onto my wheel. I’m in the shop about forty-five minutes.

Once the young bike mechanic is finished the old shop owner inspects his work carefully and thoroughly, like Mister Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid. He puts my bike on a stand and spins the back wheel, clearly showing that there’s still a slight warping as it turns. He grunts, then seems to be giving the young mechanic a bit of a telling off for not getting it perfectly straight. He shows the kid which spokes are contributing to the wobble, and together they take the bike away to ‘true’ the tyre by adjusting the tension on spokes that need it. When they return the wheel looks perfectly curved, solid and smooth. Mr Miyagi advises them to charge me 100 Baht for their efforts, which means that all my wheel problems have been expertly fixed for only £2.50.

In the afternoon I ride my newly fixed bike to a Buddhist temple that I’d seen on the way into town yesterday. The site is dominated by a huge golden dome, shaped like an enormous shiny hand bell, while a pair of ornate serpents twist round the railings on each side of the steps leading up to the shrine. The main temple in the centre is long and tall, under a steep, decorated roof with upturned, curved corners. Standing either side are it’s warrior guardians, fierce looking golden statues with green faces, red eyes, tusks and fangs. I spend ages exploring the peaceful surrounds, feeling like I’m a million miles away from the busy highway just beyond the outer wall.

By late afternoon I’m sitting in a hairdressers, about to face the lottery of asking for a haircut with a language barrier. I’m getting really woolly at the sides and on top, so try to mime Number One clippers and a bit of a snip, snip on top. The lady seems to understand the universal language of hairdressing and does a grand job, in between answering her phone and nipping out to pick up her daughter from a friend’s car. She trims my eyebrows too, as hairdressers are prone to do with men of a certain age. Freshly shorn, I move a mere two doors down for a mild, creamy massaman curry and my second pineapple shake of the day.

On the way back I stop at a 7-11 for some easy-option Western munchies and chance upon a group of locals playing what looks like petanque in a park. At first I think it’s an odd sight to see this French version of bowls in Thailand, but I later discover that Thailand are currently second only to France in the sport’s World Rankings ! I also learn that the sport forms a compulsory part of Thai Military Service, so I guess I won’t be quite so surprised the next time I see it being played.

I’ve had quite a productive day for a Rest Day. My bike is fixed, my hair is cut and my clothes have been washed. Tomorrow I plan to make for Chanthaburi as I continue creeping my way slowly towards Bangkok.




The Smooth Road to Civilisation

26th MARCH 2019

Ironically, my final hours in Cambodia pass under glorious, wall-to-wall sunshine after two beach days blighted by cloud, wind and rain. I have scrambled egg on bread for breakfast, pack up all my gear and say Goodbye to my Polish hosts. They are in the middle of their morning routine of picking up any litter from the beach and around the bungalows. If every beachside business in South East Asia followed their example it would make such a difference. The Hula Hula Bungalows beach looks pristine, but the sand right next door is sprinkled with trash and plastic. These Polish newcomers are putting the locals to shame, and showing what can be achieved with just a little bit of effort.

From my beachside accommodation it’s only 4km back to the main road, and then a further 8km to the border. This short morning trip turns into a microcosm of my ride through Cambodia – cycling rough, bumpy roads under a hot blazing sun. I move past a couple of glitzy-looking casinos, looking absurdly out of place by the dry, dusty roadside, before reaching a jumble of markets and money changers at the border.

On the immigration office steps there are the usual clamour of locals, ‘helpers’ and folk selling goods on cross-border day trips. Twice I manage to stand in the wrong queue, before eventually working out the correct lines for Arrivals, Departures, Passports and Border Passes. It’s a fairly routine process, although I’m glad I kept the second photocopy of my e-visa as the official needs that to stamp me out of the country.

With my passport successfully stamped, I walk my bike through a weird two hundred metres of No Man’s Land in between Cambodia and Thailand. This section looks messy and disorganised, as every person crossing into Thailand will go from driving on the right hand side of the road to driving on the left. In direct contrast, those arriving from Thailand will be doing the opposite. I’ve always wondered about the logistics of moving between two countries that drive on different sides of the road. At what point does the crossover take place ? The conundrum here is solved by barriers, which are raised so only a handful of vehicles are let through at a time. When drivers get into the No Man’s Land between nations they simply move to the side they are due to drive on in the new country. I do the same.

At the Thai immigration post I chain my bike outside, fill out an Arrivals Form and receive a month in the country with no fuss whatsoever. A hundred metres over the border I stop to withdraw some Thai Baht, which thankfully means I’ll no longer have to work out the double exchange rate of US Dollars and Cambodian Riel for every transaction. Then, with the border post commotion behind me and local currency lining my pocket, I cycle into the Thailand leg of my journey.

When crossing some borders you’d be hard pushed to spot major differences between the two countries. Often the people, scenery and atmosphere are so similar that the nations almost feel like they have morphed into one. The changes can be so gradual that I usually have to cycle some time and distance to notice the slight variations. However, in Thailand I only have to travel one kilometre to feel like I’ve been magically transported to another world. What was a bumpy, dusty road in Cambodia this morning has now been transformed into an immaculate new dual carriageway, surfaced by the smoothest black asphalt. There’s even a wide, litter-free buffer zone at the road edge to protect me from passing traffic. After a while though, I begin to realise that there’s really not that much traffic ! There appears to be a larger incidence of private cars here, but the buzzing scooters that were so prevalent in Vietnam and Cambodia have become far less common. I’ve only just arrived, yet I can already tell that Thailand has a richer, more developed feel to it.

The following kilometres pass effortlessly, with me cycling cheerfully along a road surface that feels like polished marble compared to the last few weeks. Apart from this beautifully modern road, the surroundings are relatively natural and unspoilt. Below me to my left I have the flat, blue Gulf of Thailand, and rising to my right a steep hill covered by verdant green jungle. Before long I reach a long mirrored sign, making it useless for photography, which proclaims this location to be ‘The Narrowest Point in Thailand’. Apparently the Cambodian border lies just inland, and runs almost parallel to the Thai coast for about 60km. At this point there’s less than five hundred metres between the coastline and the Cambodian border. If I wanted, I could trek up over the hill and be back in Cambodia in no time.

My ride to Klong Yai passes smoothly and quickly on lovely, gleaming black tarmac, even though the dual carriageway returned to normal road not long after the border. Perhaps Thailand was just showing off to Cambodia with dual carriageway at the border. My accommodation is at the Klongyai Hotel, a group of cheap motel units run by a grumpy Indian family. I choose the most basic room, but presently return to reception and stump up a further 100 baht (£2.50) to upgrade to air-conditioning and Wi-Fi that actually works.

Most of my afternoon is spent lounging and catching up online following five days of Wi-Fi wilderness. I stroll into town for some food and celebrate my arrival in Thailand by ordering my first Pad Thai of the trip. This mixture of noodles, egg, prawns, peanuts and fish sauce is a staple for Western travellers in Thailand and is always a dependable, filling option. I sit at a large, open Plastic Chair Cafe near the town’s river, slowly becoming aware of a huge brown rat skulking around underneath the cooking stands. If this creature appeared in a UK restaurant I’d be horrified, but out here it doesn’t seem to faze me too much. I put my hygiene and rodent concerns aside and watch the owner bloke cooking my Pad Thai from scratch. It’s such a simple process, taking about three minutes and the result tastes so bloody good. No wonder the rat has taken up residence here.

On the way back I stop at a pharmacy for some sunscreen, to find they only stock the dreaded ‘Whitening’ version. The woman behind the counter phones her sister (who’s the pharmacist) and hands me the phone so we can talk. In the language confusion she initially thinks I want aloe vera for sunburn, but then tells me of a 7-11 store in town that should be able to supply me with sunscreen. A 7-11 ! I’m irrationally excited by this prospect as, along with Pad Thai, they are another safe, familiar cop out for Western tourists. When I arrive at the store I do find genuine Nivea sunscreen, and also see that I can indulge in brand name pizzas, chocolates and crisps. It’s good to find familiar products for a change, and even better to see prices displayed on the shelves below them. It’s not often I’m able to make such well informed food decisions in South East Asia.

When I return at night I turn up the air-conditioning, play on the internet and stuff a calorie-laden pineapple pastry into my gob. For the time being I’m simply enjoying being back in the comfort of a developed country. I remember when Thailand was a mysterious unknown to me, thinking how exotic and possibly dangerous it might be. Then, when I first visited in 2002, I discovered the country was really rather safe, Westernised and extremely easy for tourists. My thoughts are that Thailand’s popularity is mostly because you get alluring, exotic locations without stepping too far out of your comfort zone. After arriving in the country today it feels like I’ve made a return to civilisation after being away for a while. Apart from the rats, of course.




24th MARCH 2019

Unsurprisingly, I sleep like an over-tired log after my hardest day of cycling. I wake to the restful sound of tiny waves lapping against the sand about fifteen metres from my shack, before crawling out from under my mosquito net around 8.30am. Breakfast consists of scrambled egg on bread followed by a fruit plate, although I find things are a bit more expensive here than in a normal Plastic Chair Cafe. I eat slowly, still feeling weak as a kitten after yesterday’s hot, exhausting trek through kilometres of hilly jungle.

A large chunk of my recovery day is spent swaying gently in a hammock, suspended between two roof support pillars at my bungalow. Morning involves me drifting in and out of sleep, whilst listening to the sea and the comings and goings of locals. By luchtime I’ve decided to spend an extra day here, just to make sure I’m properly relaxed and recharged before moving onto Thailand. The beach bungalows are a lovely spot to unwind, set on a quiet sandy bay in this isolated and under-developed corner of the country. It’s one of those beachside places where the stunning location and easy-going atmosphere makes up for the basic facilities. Who needs Wi-Fi and a reliable electricity supply anyway ?

In the afternoon it clouds over and a refreshing sea breeze picks up, which is such a boon after enduring the hot, airless days further inland. By this point I’m feeling more rested and go for a walk along the road towards Bak Khlang village. Within a few hundred metres I begin to feel spits of rain, and as I cut back through to the beach it starts to fall more steadily. The downpour becomes torrential just as I make it back to the shelter of my bungalow. I raise the front bamboo blind and watch the deluge over the sea, which has now been joined by a chorus of thunder and lightning. The rain doesn’t let up all day, and by nightfall it’s still pouring. Yesterday I was wishing for showers to cool me down, but after witnessing today’s storm, I’m doubly glad I made the effort to get here in one day.

For dinner I have Beef Lok Lak, which is tasty beef, tomato and onion in a dark, slightly spicy sauce. The chef is a local guy, but the property is run by a young Polish couple who took over only three weeks ago. One of their friends in Poland is the business owner and asked if they would be willing to move out here and manage the place for him. The girl says that two months ago she could never have imagined they would be running a beach bar and accommodation in Cambodia. I have water with my meal, but stay at the end to drink beer with the managers and a German couple. It takes me a while to realise, but this is actually my first beer since arriving in Cambodia. In fact, I can’t remember having any alcohol since drinking with the alcoholic expats at Hotel California three weeks ago ! I’m in bed by 9.00pm, but I definitely feel far stronger after all today’s good food and relaxation.

Sometime during the night I’m woken by barking beach dogs and find I’m bursting for the toilet. Because I’m still half asleep, I take the lazy option of a short stroll down the beach to pee in the sea. I stand ankle deep in the warm water, pissing, while watching the lights of dozens of fishing boats on the horizon.

After a day of inactivity, I feel like I’m almost back to normal the next morning. I cycle the short 2km into Bak Khlang village for a look around, finding a messy collection of tin sheds and markets perched on the mouth of the Prek Kaoh Pao river. Most of my time in this run down fishing village is spent on a fruitless search for effective sunscreen, with me miming my requests to bewildered shopkeepers. First I point to the sun, then to my brown forearms, before rolling up my t-shirt sleeve to show the white skin underneath. The majority seem to understand my bizarre charade, but none of them have any sunscreen. Even the local chemist only has Whitening Sunscreen, which is more often used as make-up by Asian women so that their skin appears more pale. I can only imagine the reactions I’d get from wearing that and cycling along like a deathly white ghost.

On the way back I pass through Samotherean Pagoda, which everyone just refers to as The Black Buddha. This massive statue, sitting cross-legged and draped in golden robes, is unlike any other Buddha I’ve ever seen before. The tall, slim figure is painted entirely black, save for a pair of manic looking white eyes, that appear to be staring in two different directions. It would make a striking photo, but alas, it’s under renovation and covered in unsightly scaffolding. I ride out the main entrance through a corridor of one metre high golden buddhas, which remind me of the award statuettes given to Oscar winners.

Like yesterday, the wind gets up in the afternoon and the sea starts to become choppy. On the horizon to the South there’s an ugly, dark stormfront which appears to be heading our way. The Polish management couple run around fetching all the lounger cushions and other fly-away equipment from the beachfront, so I collect a few pieces to help them, and then settle down to watch the incoming storm. It’s all a bit of an anticlimax though, as heavy rain pelts into the sea fifty metres offshore, but somehow manages to miss us completely. It remains cloudy, windy and warm for the rest of the evening. For the third day in a row I miss out on sunset over the sea.

And then, a mere sixteen days after arriving in Cambodia, I’m getting ready to depart. Because I took the bus for my touristy side trip to Siem Reap, I’ve only cycled around 500km through the whole country. Mind you, 100km of that was my sweltering, energy-sapping trek of two days ago. I know it’s difficult to build up a true perspective of a country having only seen small parts in such a short time, but on the whole I’ve enjoyed myself. Cambodia seems less developed and less organised than Vietnam although, strangely, I’ve found it to be slightly more expensive. Physically, it’s been a challenge cycling through some of the flat inland regions, which is more down to me being drained by the heat in dusty, scorching dry season. The terrain has been relatively easy apart from the last couple of days. To make up for the barren areas between towns, there’s the modern vibrancy and cafes of Phnom Penh, the ancient temples around Angkor Wat and my current laid-back beachside location.

Like in Vietnam, the people have generally been friendly, warm and helpful. During the course of an average day in Cambodia, I would receive plenty of ‘Hello’s’ from the locals, which is always a good way to gauge a country’s friendliness. Part of me is amazed how the population and the country have bounced back so well after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. Although that era will always cast a dark shadow over Cambodia’s past, it’s probably a blessing that nearly 80% of today’s population are too young to remember it.

On my final night in Cambodia I fall asleep to the sounds of the sea, splashing lightly against the sandy shore outside my beach shack. It’s a great way to spend my last few hours in the country. Tomorrow I’ll be cycling into Thailand !






The Hardest Day

23rd MARCH 2019

The day I’ve been dreading for a week has finally reared its fat ugly head; a long, blisteringly hot cycle of 110km, with a bloody great big hill in the middle. I know that today is going to be a hard slog, so I thought I’d book myself into a beach bungalow for a couple of nights as an incentive and reward for making it. When the going gets tough I just need to motivate myself by the thought of feeling sand under my feet tonight and watching sunset over the sea at my destination.

My day doesn’t start brilliantly though, which turns out to be an ominous precursor for what’s about to follow. I had planned to get going as soon as I woke, attempting to get as many kilometres under my belt as I could in the coolest part of the morning. Alas, when I check the tyres I pumped up last night, I’m more than a little disgruntled to find that the rear one has deflated slightly. Bollocks. It must have a slow puncture to have gone down that much overnight. Grumpily, I sit cross-legged on the wooden floor, remove the rear wheel, prize off the tyre and take out the inner tube. Running my fingers round the inside of the tyre, I find the tiniest sliver of sharp metal poking through the rubber, protruding just enough so that it would re-puncture the inner tube. Lucky I checked. I remove the metal and simply pop in the second of my spare inner tubes, before rolling out the guesthouse a lot later than I intended to.

I pause briefly to stock up on cakes and water for the road, before leaving town and making for the dry, jungle-covered hills beyond. My rear wheel feels strange and wobbly as I depart, and within two kilometres I’ve stopped at the dusty roadside, courtesy of yet another flat tyre. For Fuck Sake ! Under the patchy shade of a young tree I begin that familiar task of removing the back wheel and tyre. Ironically, the offending tyre is the brand new one I picked up in Phnom Penh, purchased precisely because I was getting worried about puncturing the old ones. In the end I give up on the spanking new tyre, certain that it must still have a tiny, sharp, mystery object embedded somewhere that I can’t locate. This fragment would continually puncture any tube inside the tyre, so my best option seems to be a return to my old, worn original tyre. 

Now that the tyre conundrum is solved, all that remains is to pump up one of my inner tubes. Unfortunately, my Presta valve pump now seems to be ineffectual, it’s rubber-band ring having become too loose to operate. I’m faffing around, trying somehow to sort this, when a young lady on a scooter stops to check if I need any help. She tells me she had already ridden past, before deciding to turn round and come back to see if I was alright. By this point it looks like I might not be able to fix the pump, so she comes up with a couple of alternative solutions, including a taxi or bus to my target of Koh Kong. This is a distance of around 100km, but she seems to think it would only be a $10 taxi ride, a surprising revelation that I will certainly bear in mind today.

My helper is called Ul Sarann, a woman from the next village, who has that South-East Asian trait of looking at least a decade younger than her thirty-two years. Her English is excellent too, having spent time working as a home help for a rich family in Malaysia. As we chat I rummage through my panniers, chancing upon the forgotten pair of Schrader valve inner tubes I bought in Nha Trang a month previously. At the time I’d almost dismissed them as cheap rubbish that probably wouldn’t even fit, but now they might just be my salvation. I check I’m able to inflate the tube using my Schrader valve pump, before Ul Sarann helps me fit the tyre back onto its rim. She’s been brilliant, staying with me for over half an hour to make sure I get moving again. I take a selfie of the pair of us, before she rides off and I prepare to restart my day. Any thoughts I had of an early start are now long gone.

When I eventually get away from Botum Sakor, I find the road heading inland becomes a series of steady uphills and downhills. There’s one steep climb where I’m gradually caught by an oversized flat-bed truck, crawling slowly uphill with the burden of transporting a bulky digger. On the following downhill I’m then able to overtake the truck, as it can still only creep along. The driver gives me a big wave and an enthusiastic blast of the horn. He catches up with me on another uphill about ten minutes later. For the next few kilometres I fly along, aided by downhills and some lovely ‘false flats,’ which look level but barely require me to rotate the pedals at all. I reach the outskirts of Traepeng Rung village, just short of half distance, and pull into a large Plastic Chair Cafe set back from the road. Things seem to be going OK so far.

My meal is a surprisingly tasty fried rice with beef and onion, washed down by an entire jug of iced tea. There’s a guy at the next table who looks like a local, but tells me he’s actually a Canadian with Cambodian parents. He’s over here doing voluntary work as part of his university degree, monitoring the surrounding jungle and checking that locals aren’t chopping down trees to smuggle across the border to Thailand. He asks about my journey and which route I’ve taken, telling me the road I cycled in from Vietnam is the only ‘sketchy’ part of the country. We chat for a bit, before I head into the village after handshakes from all the blokes at his table.

Traepeng Rung village is only a small settlement, lined up along the main road with an incredible amount of food stalls for its modest population. There’s also a guesthouse, which I’d seen listed on Google maps, but couldn’t be sure if it actually existed or not. It does. And it looks a lot better than the mosquito-infested hovel I stayed in last night. Part of me wants to stop here right now, thus breaking a hot, hilly 100km day into two more manageable days of 50km each. I seriously consider this option, even though I’ve already booked my accommodation in Koh Kong tonight. However, I still feel pretty good at this stage, having just filled myself with food and tea after a relatively easy morning. I keep going.

On the way out of town I notice a few stalls that sell water, but I don’t stop as I still have two full bottles and a belly full of tea. About 5km later I meet a pair of cyclists going in the opposite direction, and stop to chat under a shady tree. They are a couple in their late 50’s or early 60’s who are heading to Traepeng Rung and staying at the guesthouse I had thought of stopping at. Again, a huge part of me wants to call it a day, turn round and go back to the guesthouse. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I should have listened to my gut instinct at this point.

From hearing them speak, I can tell the couple are from somewhere in North America. It’s only when the bloke talks about something being ‘ootside’ that I know they’re definitely Canadians. They tell me they began cycling in Singapore and have ridden up through Malaysia and Thailand to reach Cambodia. We all remark on just how bloody hot Cambodia is, with the old bloke’s crimson face illustrating this point perfectly. I ask about the big hill I’m about to face, to be told that the slope I’ll be climbing is long and gradual, whereas their side was shorter and steeper this morning. They are happy to hear that their guesthouse is only 5km away. I’m less happy to hear that the couple have already cycled 58km since leaving Koh Kong this morning. My accommodation is just past their starting point, which means I’m looking at another scorching 65km before I can stop. The guy asks if I have enough water, as there’s nowhere for supplies between here and some stalls at the top of the hill. Bugger. I knew I should have picked up more water in town when I had the chance.

When I carry on, the road does it’s undulating thing to begin with, so I’m never really sure whether I’m starting the big hill or not. I’ll begin climbing and think ‘this must be it,’ only for a downhill to arrive shortly after. However, the down slopes end soon enough, and the road starts to climb steadily, yet interminably, upwards. And My God it’s boiling now ! As I’m sucking oxygen into my lungs I can actually feel how hot the surrounding air is in my throat. I stop under the first shady tree I see, just to get out of the sun for ten minutes. Even the slightest waft of a breeze in this shade gives me some cooling respite. I’m chugging down my water too, even though I know I should be rationing it to get to the top.

The countryside is sawdust dry, with certain areas still scorched black after bushfires. I keep plodding sluggishly upwards, although I need to sit down under the shade of a roadside tree for another rest stop as I’m beginning to fade. I’m sweating so much that my three layers of padded shorts are saturated right through to my normal shorts above. Thanks to Google maps, I know that my reaching the summit will coincide with a sharp left turn in the road, but any progress I’m making on the map is painfully, tortuously slow. Of all the cycling days I’ve ever described as ‘a struggle,’ this is by far the toughest. I get to the foot of one slope and simply decide to dismount and push the bike up. It just looks too difficult. At the top I reach the shade of another tree and sit down cross-legged on the roadside gravel below. I’m absolutely ruined.

At this point I’m sincerely thinking about flagging down a passing vehicle and asking for a lift to the top. I’ve never felt so drained on a cycle before. I’m continually stopping, sitting and resting under shady trees to stay cool, although I now start to feel dizzy each time I stand back up again. My water supply is almost finished and I’ve still got about 5km of crawling, sweltering uphill left. I can feel a horrible, metallic taste in my mouth too, a sure sign that I’m dehydrating.

Another steep hill sees me getting off to push once more. I reach halfway, sit down at the roadside again for a breather and begin to think that I could be hallucinating. At the top of this slope there appears to be a large grey monkey sitting on the white line in the middle of the road. A couple of passing vehicles toot their horns, yet the creature is unfazed and doesn’t move. One car stops and the driver throws out an apple which the monkey accepts gratefully. Hey, I could have done with that ! I’m clearly struggling to push my bike uphill in a stifling, searing heat and now people are giving away their food to bloody monkeys ! I rest my head on my forearms for a few minutes, close my eyes and try to summon up the energy to resume cycling. About ten minutes later I open my eyes and look back up towards the top of the hill. There’s no sign of a monkey. Maybe I imagined the whole episode. I’m a wreck.

I get back on my bike and continue inching painstakingly forwards. A yellow warning sign alerts me to the possibility of elephants crossing, which would be an amazing sight, but is probably the last thing I need at this precise moment. The final couple of kilometres take an absolute age, with me spending far more time pushing, stopping or resting than I do cycling. Eventually the distance passes and the road begins to level out, until I’m spurred on by seeing the row of shacks and stalls which mark the summit. I feel like I’ve reached my lifeline, clamber off the bike and start rooting through a large container full of iced water like a man possessed, desperate for something to drink. A bottle of flavoured iced tea disappears down my throat in seconds, causing ‘brain freeze’ in my parched, messed up head because I drank so quickly. I’m still not sated though. I go back into the ice bin and pull out a pomegranate drink which is consumed just as urgently as the first. Goodness knows what the locals think, as they stare in bewilderment at this red, sweaty Westerner who’s guzzling their drinks like some kind of thirsty animal. I just sit there and chill for a while, letting my body absorb this rejuvenating liquid and trying to regain my equilibrium.

Then I roll off down the other side of the hill, steadily at first, before steepness and gravity have me speeding along beautifully. Since getting over the summit I notice that the vegetation on this side has become far more lush, green and jungly. This is the type of scenery I’d be expecting from a jungle, not the arid, scorched landscapes of the inland slopes I’ve just ridden. I fly down the steep hill that the Canadians had climbed up this morning, thinking that their short, sharp ascent may have been just as difficult as my prolonged, steady uphill. I’m taken all the way down to the riverbank village of Tatai, where I can see wooden stilt houses as well as modern resorts while riding over the bridge crossing. On the opposite side of the river I have to get off and push once again, which is a bit demoralising after my speedy descent. I know that I’ll be travelling generally downhill from here to sea-level, but it appears there’s going to be a few more tiring undulations on the way.

It’s almost 6.00pm when I catch my first glimpse of the coast below, the sun setting as a giant red ball in the thundery distance. With the way I’m feeling I’d love nothing more than to be caught in a refreshing downpour right now. It remains stubbornly dry however, with me being unable to focus on milestones for Koh Kong and my contact lenses sticking like glue to dry, blurry eyes. It’s starting to get dark by the time one final downhill and an easy flat section take me into the streetlights of Koh Kong. I rush along the town’s wide main street and cross a long, sloping bridge that takes me over a river and out the other side of town. At my turn off the streetlights stop, and I choose to ride by the glare of passing scooters rather than looking for the light that I know is lurking in my panniers. This isn’t the smartest move, but I’m not exactly thinking straight by this point and just want to reach my destination with the minimum of fuss. It’s almost pitch black by the time I reach the Hula Hula Beach Bungalows, a knackered and dishevelled mess.

I push my bike to the bar, order a bottle of water and down it in one go, before immediately ordering another and repeating the same trick. The young Cambodian barman shows me across the sand to a simple, wooden bungalow, raised on small stilts and with dried palm fronds for a roof. The design takes me by surprise as there’s only two solid, adjoining walls while the remaining two sides are covered by the flimsiest of bamboo blinds. The bed is just a mattress on the floor, shielded by a large mosquito net that hangs from the ceiling above. I chain my bike to one of the four corner pillars that support the roof and lie on the mattress for a while, trying to slowly recuperate after today’s efforts. The barman had told me about a barbecue tonight, but instead I just shower and return to lying in the bungalow, staring blankly into space as if I’m in some kind of shell-shock. I’m such a shambles that I can’t even be bothered to eat.

I honestly think this has been the toughest day of cycling that I’ve ever experienced. The 110km would be a long day for me anyway, and adding the big hill made it a slow, laborious slog. It’s when you couple both these factors with a blisteringly hot, high thirties temperature that the day becomes an absolute killer. Today is the weakest, most exhausted I’ve ever felt on a cycle and the closest I’ve ever come to jacking it all in and trying to flag down a lift. I peel the contacts from my moistureless eyes and basically don’t move from the mattress all night. I suppose when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be glad I made it and didn’t take the easy option of splitting the journey into two more comfortable days. Right now though, I just feel fucked. And I missed sunset over the sea too.


Welcome to the Jungle

21st MARCH 2019

I’m awake reasonably early, munching on a breakfast made up of last night’s bakery goods and the remainder of my mini bananas from Vanny’s. I pay for my $12 hotel room with my final $100 note, triggering a frantic search for change and a few headaches for the young guy at reception. He eventually manages to find enough notes through a messy combination of low value US Dollars, supplemented by thousands of Cambodian Riel. Once outside, I pause immediately to buy two large bottles of water and, with an unusual efficiency, that’s me ready to depart. It’s only 8.00am when I leave, so I’ll be able to ride the first hour in slightly cooler conditions, before having to cycle the bulk of my 100km in mid-thirties heat.

Like yesterday, the road is full of trucks and buses, most of which give me a warning toot on their horn if they’re about to overtake. My normal tactic is to move into the roadside gravel to let them pass, but only if there’s traffic coming towards us from the opposite direction. However, if there’s nothing approaching on the opposite carriageway I don’t move, figuring they’ll have ample room to get past me easily enough. After a while I get to know the size of the approaching vehicle by the sound of their horn; trucks and buses generally give a deep, hearty blast, whereas with cars it’s softer and more tinny. Some cars still toot though, possibly expecting me to get out the way and pull over for them. I find myself shaking my head and saying ‘Fuck Off’ a lot when hearing what I think is merely a car tooting behind me.

For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe and choose a rice meal containing various chicken bits. I’m using the word ‘bits’ as it seems like all the grisly chicken off-cuts have found their way onto my plate. As I’m rummaging through my food, a single chicken’s foot makes a grim, unwanted appearance. It looks revolting, but I decide to give it a try anyway as I think that tasting these challenging foods should always be a part of travelling. It’s awful. I can feel chicken claws scraping my tongue as I attempt to extract some meat from the scrawny, wiry mouthful. It’s back on my plate within ten seconds.

As my day progresses, the surroundings gradually change from flat, dry countryside to more jungly, undulating hills. I’m also drinking water like there’s no tomorrow, with repeated visits to roadside stalls to gulp down chilled drinks, cool water or flavoured tea. I stop to take on more liquid today than I ever have before, drinking litre after litre, and don’t think once about going to the toilet. I’m losing so much in sweat that my bladder is being bypassed.

I carry on, with regular stops under shady roadside trees, before I reach the landmark I’ve been waiting for – the Srae Ambel roundabout. It’s at this junction where the main body of traffic, especially trucks and buses, carries on South towards Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s main seaport. The road I’ll be taking swings North to begin with, before heading West through a hilly National Park and eventually all the way to Thailand. I’m happy to see the back of all that traffic, but less pleased about the slow, baking climb that takes me away from the roundabout. I crawl steadily higher, past shacks on a roadside of red dirt, until I’m up level with the town’s radio transmitter. A nice, cooling descent then drops me back down for my final, sluggish 10km to Srae Ambel.

There’s a choice of two guesthouses on the long straight road into town although, lazily, I just pull into the first one I see. My ground floor room has a steaming hot shower and powerful air-conditioning, but also a large, black scorch mark all round the main light switch. The owner catches my worried expression as I’m looking at the burn marks on the blue wall and responds with a slightly unconvincing ‘No Problem’. For dinner I take a walk towards town as I didn’t notice any food places on the road in, but I also remember reading that the other guesthouse had a small grocery shop underneath it. I arrive to find that their product choice can only be described as ‘limited’, so my makeshift dinner consists of nothing more than pomegranate juice and a zip-lock bag of sugary cereal.

The following morning I leave my guesthouse just after 9.00am, paying for my $15 room with 60,000 Cambodian Riel. I’m really getting the hang of this currency malarkey now, plus I want to get rid of all my Riel before leaving the country. US Dollars will be easy to exchange or pay into my bank account back home. Cambodian Riel won’t.

For the first couple of kilometres I double back, taking the same road I cycled in on and accidentally stumble upon a Plastic Chair Cafe within two minutes. How the Hell did I miss this yesterday ? I order a rice meal with chicken bits and sit down near two guys in their twenties who speak a decent amount of English between them. They stick out like sore thumbs in this dirt-floor local cafe, wearing immaculate white shirts, ties and trousers while everyone else is in shorts and flip-flops. It turns out they’re on a work trip to visit the Botum Sakor branch of the bank they work for. We ask each other all the usual questions, before one guy gets out his phone to show me his wedding pictures. Generally, the wedding photos of strangers are pretty boring, but I have to say I’m rather impressed with this gallery and the amount of colour-coordinated outfits that the couple wore. An assorted collection of yellows, reds, golds, blues and greens, all in matching pastel shades, make them look like a pair of Bollywood superstars. I’m told the couple’s wedding lasted for two days and involved ten changes of outfits. Just as I’m looking suitably shocked by this, the other bloke writes a figure on his hand to tell me that each outfit can cost $1,500 ! I’m less shocked to hear that they hired the outfits.

They both shake my hand as I leave, with one guy offering a ‘Good Luck with your journey, Sir !’ When I’m at the counter buying water I can hear the two of them telling the locals what I’m up to. I can make out the words ‘Scotland’, ‘Hanoi’, and ‘Thailand’ as I pay for my meal. Leaving the cafe I pass a large Buddhist monastery, set amongst trees on a hill above the road, and have the oddest sensation that I’m cycling in the wrong direction. Since I’ve been travelling continually West for a couple of weeks now, I’ve become accustomed to the morning sun shining straight onto my back. Today, I feel so disoriented with the sun’s rays hitting the right side of my face. It’s such a weird feeling that I have to stop and check Google maps to confirm I’m moving in the correct direction.

The morning is roasting once again, with me feeling drained and listless after yesterday’s long, hot ride. I spend the day plodding along, stopping for regular breaks in the shade and trying to dodge wandering livestock that roam freely around the road. The numerous skinny cows don’t cause any problems, although I’m far more wary of the occasional tank-sized water buffalo, giving them all the time in the world if they want to cross in front of me. The afternoon becomes a sluggish, weary trudge through increasingly hilly terrain, punctuated by regular stops under roadside trees for shade and rest. The heat is energy-sapping.

Botum Sakor is another town where I’m relying on the accuracy of Google maps, hoping that their one marked guesthouse does actually exist. If the map is wrong, or the guesthouse has closed, then I’m faced with cycling a further 40km in scorching temperatures to reach the next town. And, again, there’s no guarantee of accommodation in that town either.

A gently sloping parabola bridge takes me over a wide, slow moving river and signals the entrance to town. I pass wooden houses on the riverbank below with coloured, corrugated iron roofs and raised on stilts to cope with wet season flooding. There’s one final slog up a hill on the opposite bank, before I catch a glimpse of the guesthouse sign, instantly recognisable from screenshots I’ve taken from Google maps. The accommodation is on the main road, but set slightly further back down a red dirt slope. I’m greeted by an old crone, who appears to be the owner, and through mimes I’m told it will be $6 for the night. That’ll do.

From reading reviews I knew the guesthouse would be fairly basic, but I didn’t realise quite how basic. The accommodation is separate from the family home, and is essentially just a large wooden shed on stilts that has been converted into rooms. In my bedroom I’m able to look down through large gaps in the floorboards to the dry earth a few feet below me. Mosquitos are going to love this set up. I go for a shower, to discover it’s a shared bathroom with no shower attachment. Instead there’s a large vat of water in the far corner, with a big plastic ladel to spoon water over yourself bit by bit. Normally I love a hot shower, but this is a quirky novelty and so refreshingly cool on this sweltering day.

The old crone had mimed there were three food options further up the hill, so I take a wander and find that the first cafe looks quite welcoming. The owner lets me sample the food before ordering, which is a first, and I end up with rice and spicy chicken bits again. It seemed the best of an odd looking bunch. I spend the next half hour sweating like I’m in a sauna, through a combination of sizzling outdoor temperatures and munching on overly spicy food. By the time I return to the guesthouse I’m pooped, so have a late afternoon siesta, whilst unintentionally donating some of my blood to the local mosquito population. I find that lying underneath the mosquito net lessens the desktop fan’s cooling effect, so consequently I lie outside the net. And consequently I get bitten.

For dinner I’m back at the same Plastic Chair Cafe for beef and veggies with yet more rice. The tiny owner is struggling to change a light bulb, having difficulty reaching despite stacking half a dozen chairs on top of each other. I make myself useful by standing on a single chair and replacing it for her, rather than see her falling from the precarious tower of chairs she’s constructed. As I eat there’s about ten baby chickens running around the floor, with some scrabbling about outside and getting perilously close to the roadside. They all look very cute at that age, but in Cambodia they’ll only ever be destined for a cooking pot I imagine.

At night I notice my arms have taken on a slightly red colour, courtesy of me applying low cost Vietnamese sunscreen for today’s short trip. It did feel like cheap rubbish as I was putting it on, so I should have realised it would turn out to be useless. No wonder I was so affected by the heat today ! Before going to sleep I ponder how to get maximum benefit from the table fan, while still being able to protect myself from mosquito bites. In the end I manage to pull the fan as far as it’s cable will allow and take it under the mosquito net with me. I fall asleep to the hypnotic sound of whirring fan blades about a foot from my head. At least the cooling airflow will help soothe my red skin.

I have a nasty feeling that tonight is a ‘Calm before the Storm’ moment. I’ve left myself just over 100km to cycle tomorrow, through a hilly, jungly National Park in uncomfortably hot temperatures. It could be a tough old day …




Back on the Road

18th MARCH 2019

I’m up at 8.00am for scrambled egg baguettes and a cup of tea before leaving Siem Reap and saying Goodbye to the Cashew Nut Guesthouse. The place has been a tranquil oasis in an over-touristy town, just the sort of calm refuge I needed to recover from my second bout of toilet ‘inconvenences’.

It takes around six hours for the bus to reach Phnom Penh, through a dry landscape of brown farmland, skinny cows and dusty roadside towns. I don’t mind spending all this time looking out the bus window though, having missed most of the passing countryside when I was ill on the way up. A motorbike taxi gives me a lift from the bus station back to my accommodation at Vanny’s, where he greets me with cold water, mini bananas and news of a further power cut. It’s hot as Hell upstairs with a redundant electric fan, so I jump straight under the shower to cool off and freshen up after the long bus journey. As I’m getting out the candle-lit shower room, the electricity jolts back into life and my room fan begins it’s cooling rotations once again. For dinner I return to No. 72 Restaurant, despite my suspicions that their food may have been the cause of my stomach upset. I’m prepared to take the chance a $2 per meal. This time I avoid eating anything chicken based, and settle for a fragrant Red Tamarind Beef with rice.

The following morning my waking for breakfast coincides, unsurprisingly, with yet another power cut. Fortunately my breakfast must have been cooked just before the electricity went off, as it’s still relatively lukewarm by the time it reaches my gob. I’m served the standard steamed rice with egg on top, with today’s extras coming in the form of vegetables. I sit with a Mexican woman who has been working in Phnom Penh for three years as an English teacher. It gets me thinking about how many English teachers I’ve met on this trip, and how many of them don’t even have English as a first language themselves ! There’s hope for me yet.

My final day in Phnom Penh is spent doing little chores and organising things before I get back on the road tomorrow. First, I visit the local laundrette and get them to do a service wash of every garment I have, apart from the clothes I’m wearing. The dodgy electricity supply at Vanny’s place giving me a legitimate excuse for being lazy and not doing my own. Then I go to a bike shop I’d been e-mailing to pick up a new tyre, as I wasn’t sure my current worn pair would make it all the way to Bangkok. The shop had told me my size of wheel isn’t normally found in Cambodia, so they’d improvised and ordered a tyre from their supplier in Thailand. Annoyingly, this difference in wheel sizes also means they don’t have any ready-to-fit replacement spokes for my bike. This doesn’t deter them though, and they go about making one from their existing stock of spokes by cutting it down to size and threading it. I appreciate their efforts; I’m in the shop an hour and a half while they manufacture a new spoke and fit it for me. The replacement tyre looks a lot more substantial too, despite being skinnier than the original. I’m a lot more confident about my prospects now. 

By mid-day I’m back at Vanny’s guesthouse, where the electricity supply has been switched back on again. He’s so deliriously happy with this development that he loads me up with another handful of mini bananas in celebration. Later I visit an ATM, making what I hope will be my final cash withdrawal in Cambodia. Unfortunately, I forget to ask for an uneven amount, and am dismayed to receive my $200 in the form of two $100 notes. Bollocks. Notes that size will be awkward to get rid of. My plan for unloading the first one involves finding a nice, Western supermarket where they are much more likely to have change than in a Plastic Chair Cafe. I fill my basket with essentials like sunscreen and mosquito spray, but also splash out on a feta cheese and pumpkin baguette. Oh, how I’ve missed cheese ! The $3 price tag would be worth it for the cheese alone, but the bonus is managing to offload one of my pesky $100 notes.

In the evening I return to No. 72 Restaurant for the last time, having now overlooked and forgiven the likely food poisoning episode. On the off chance I ask for Red Tamarind Prawn, the elusive meal I’ve tried unsuccessfully to order twice before. I’m surprised to find that it’s actually available tonight, so I sit down happily to wait whilst drinking iced tea and watching some chaotic driving manoeuvres on the small crossroads outside. I pay for my $2 meal with 8,000 Cambodian Riel, finally getting the hang of this weird, triple currency exchange.

Most of the evening is spent working out distances and accommodation stops that will get me to the Thai border, a distance of around 300km. Normally this would be a straightforward task, with maybe four days of 75km pencilled in to reach the target. However, a lack of accommodation, inconvenient distances between towns and a hilly National Park means crossing this section will be far from straightforward.

The next morning I afford myself a late start as my accommodation searches have led me towards a town called Chbar Mon, meaning today will be an easy 50km cycle out of Phnom Penh. This kind of distance will break me back in gently after a week off the bike, but it will also leave me with a big day of 100km to follow. Breakfast is fried egg atop steamed rice again, this time accompanied by a few pieces of chicken nugget type morsels. I faff around till about 11.00am as I’d like to say Goodbye to the whole family before leaving, only to be told that Vanny is out this morning driving his tuk-tuk. Bugger. I would have liked to have seen him before I go, although I do get to farewell three-quarters of the family. 

I’m soon to discover that leaving Phnom Penh on a bike is almost as slow and tortuous as leaving by bus. At one point the road is completely gridlocked where two streets converge to cross a bridge, the traffic inching forward amidst a bedlam of fumes and horns. Being on a small vehicle like a bike is really no advantage here as there are so many scooters and tuk-tuks competing for the small gaps between vehicles. I edge out of town on crappy, bumpy roads, giving my new tyre an unwanted first work out. Vanny had advised me not to take this road, due to it being full of trucks and buses heading for the port of Sihanoukville, and I’m starting to wish I’d listened to him. I spend a lot of time pulling over onto the roadside gravel when I hear the warning horn of a large vehicle approaching from behind.

My big breakfast and mini bananas keep me going for most of the journey, although a roadside stall offers an excuse to get out of the traffic for a while. A young girl serves up beef slices with rice and two boiled eggs in a dark spicy sauce, while an old guy at the next stall brings me over a bottle of chilled water. The water is most welcome, even though today’s temperature is almost ten degrees cooler than the scorching thirty-five and above we’ve been having recently. I rejoin the busy road and find that there’s no let up in traffic, industry or roadside businesses all the way to Chbar Mon.

By mid afternoon I’ve reached my destination and am checking into a hotel I found on Google maps which, confusingly, also directs to enter by the rear of the building. Although I’ve arrived unannounced, they do have rooms and I’m able to chain my bike to a roof support pillar in the gated back yard. When I go up to my room I’m amused to find a sign that warns of a $10 fine for staining the bedsheets, so I make a mental note to behave myself tonight. I shower, crash out and then head along the wide, dusty main street in search of food. I’m finding that outside of Phnom Penh and touristy Siem Reap, Cambodia really doesn’t have much in the way of food and accommodation, and certainly nowhere near as much as there was in Vietnam. With limited choices, I end up in a place called Phnom Penh Bakery, stocking up on pizza slices and two pastries that look like they could be apple turnovers. I eat half of everything, keeping what’s left for tomorrow’s breakfast. I’m somewhat disturbed to find that the inside of my pastry is filled with a gruesome hot dog sausage, where I was expecting to find sweet apple.

Tomorrow is, I think, my third 100km cycle of this trip, which is a distance I had planned to avoid tackling in such exhausting heat. I don’t have a lot of choice over the next few days though; the distances between towns and accommodation means there’s going to be a couple of long, hot days ahead.