Sitting by our Thai resort pool catching the last of the sun before dusk. Beers at hand. Thoughts of the buffet dinner. Just your average tourists? Not a chance! Back in our room are two well travelled bicycles. We are at the end of a 5,333 km cycling tour through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. It is the perfect time to reflect on our journey.
There is an old French colonial saying that the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow, summing up stereotypical traits in the people. It could be said that in the modern world, Thailand does all three and sells the rice too.
When slowly cycling the countryside it’s easy to observe all manner of behaviour, but it’s also a time to gauge your own reaction to the environment. So, we have our own rules for cycle experiences here.
1. In Thailand, do not attempt to cycle on highways numbered 1-10.
2. In Cambodia, expect dishwater soup and fatty, bony meat on the road (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh excepted).
3. In Vietnam, never rely on the highway code, there isn’t one.
4. In Laos, expect to wake up the vendor when making purchases.
Cambodia has a lot of rice, paddy fields as far as the eye can see from on hot dusty plains. Long, straight, quiet roads interrupted by occasional villages and the ever present red Cambodia Beer advertising hoardings. Fuel in the form of food is a basic necessity for hungry cyclists. Sadly, it’s hard to find decent fare. To the delight of the old women roadside vendors, there is a treat for us in the shape of banana fritters. We buy up the entire stock for pennies, bid our farewells to the sounds of laughter and delight. Yet still we can tell that they think us mad, two wrinklies on loaded bikes.
We were not prepared for the tourist extravaganza that is Siem Reap, city to the world famous Angkor Wat. Entering the city we are amazed by the glitzy hotels and international restaurants. It is almost a Las Vegas strip. At least we had our fill of western food and it was a short hop to Phnom Penh.
The biggest form of employment in Cambodia seems to be exclusive for NGO’s and foreign government agencies. We were flabbergasted to see a huge new gated EU delegation in the city when most countries are already represented with their own consulates. We left behind the UN 4×4’s and headed for Mekong Delta by boat.
Vietnam is a country on the move, almost like a disturbed ant’s nest. For the cyclist, the towns and cities are an assault on the senses. Your eyes smart, your throat burns, your nose objects to exhaust fumes and your ears are deafened by constant hooting. The paradox is a stunning countryside, lush green paddy fields, golden beaches, towering misty mountains, incredible ocean views and warm friendly people waving and shouting hello goodbye at every opportunity. Development is everywhere from cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City all along the coast northwards, attracting tourists, especially Russians and Australians. Yet the Communist Party will not let you forget who is in control by blaring loudspeaker propaganda at 5am every morning.
The French colonialists left a legacy that is a joy for fuel starved cyclists, bread baked daily and readily available at every opportunity. You can see the ground rice required for baking it on small roadside mills which creates another hazard for us on two wheels. Every spare piece of land is used for drying the rice and stalks, and that includes the wide shoulders of roads, even highway 1.
As we cycle north to Hue, we negotiate the spectacular 500m Hai Van pass of the ocean clouds in bucket loads of rain and mist. It’s not called Foggy Street for nothing! This is the area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one cannot escape the remnants of the conflict that the Vietnamese call The American War. It is particularly poignant in My Son site of the My Lai massacre. A sad and sombre reminder of the gross atrocities and senselessness of war on innocent people. The ride across Vietnam to the Laos border show how impossible it was to subdue the resilient NVA. Deep ravines, raging rivers, impenetrable jungle and hidden trails and tunnels are not the training grounds of US troupes. We were sad to be leaving Vietnam, a vibrant country so different from our expectations.
Sleepy, laid back Laos is an understatement. It took an age to be served our first taste of the omnipresent Beer Lao but well worth the wait. However, the Lao maintain a sense of tranquillity and peace despite all that has been thrown at them in the past. As in Vietnam, the schoolchildren continue to race us morning, noon and after school, weaving and waving, always with a smile on their faces.
Roads in Laos can be a mixed bag with stretches of new smooth foreign funded tarmac to poor narrow highways, rough and sandy. There is lots of new construction underway and it feels like there is a new petrol station being built every few miles, but it’s difficult to see how this demand will be met and how the present roads will cope with much more traffic.
The Lao seem to embrace music at every opportunity. From busy karaoke bars, loud house parties, street gatherings to impromptu dance classes. Even the invasion of tourists in Luang Prabang, Vientienne and the 1,000 Islands, so called party towns, does not appear to have impacted on the Lao enjoyment for their own music. Then there is the magnificent Mekong. Stunning sunsets best viewed from riverside hot pot restaurants in towns such as Savannakhet, Tha Khek, Pak Kading and Paxxan.
Vientienne is no longer the sleepy capital described in the guide books Traffic has outgrown the narrow colonial streets. The old charm has gone. Yet still the Mekong riverfront provides the Lao plenty of entertainment. A place for youngsters to meet, the venue for more dance groups and of course, the music. The city does boast an Arc de Triumphe style edifice built from US donated concrete destined for the airport, hence it’s nickname “vertical runway.
For us, the lure across the Mekong is Thailand to be accessed by Friendship Bridges. From Vientienne to Nong Khai we cycled across without hitch or toll despite a railway track running down the middle of the road. The new bridge from Mukdahan to Savannakhet was a different story. Bicycles and motorbikes are not allowed which denies two thirds of the population of a crossing. We were lucky to hitch a ride in a pickup, one of only two vehicles an hour using the bridge.
Returning to Thailand was a joy for cyclists especially if you stay off main highways. Touring along the little visited Mekong flanked roads is full of surprises. Sunrises and Sunday roasts dominate. Of course, it is a little more expensive, but the availability of convenient stores, food and accommodation make cycling a dream. The Mekong area is growing but we noticed a good number of local cyclists so here’s hoping that facilities for two wheel travel will only improve.
Our journey ended along the South East coast of Thailand but was tinged with sadness when we learnt of the death of a young round the world couple from Guernsey. They were killed by an out of control pickup on a busy road not far from our own route. We know we face danger every day on two wheels on unfamiliar roads and it’s always the cyclist who comes second best. so caution has to be the watchword despite our anger and frustration.
Contemplating our experiences in modern resorts and relaxing by inviting swimming pools only whets our appetites for more. Cycling certainly gets you closer to the land, the people, the sights, smells and sounds of each country. Rain, sun and wind are to be loved and disliked in equal measure. Food becomes a necessary fuel not just a gastronomic delight and beers are well earned at the end of the day. When you step on your bike first thing in the morning and the wheels start turning, who knows what the day will bring, but you can bet your bottom dollar, it won’t be disappointing.
This article has been written to recognise the author’s contribution to travel and tourism by Avis Car Hire on the A-List Awards 2013.