Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
The Japanese don’t care to,
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to,
Hindus and Argentines
Sleep firmly from twelve to one
At twelve noon
The natives swoon,
And no further work is done
At twelve o’clock
They foam at the mouth and run
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
Our first day on the road started promisingly enough. The cycle tour was organised by Spice Roads and we met on the first day in Thailand on the border with Laos; myself and four ladies, Charlotte and Lisa from USA, Sandra from New Zealand and Son our tour leader .It was there I discovered Lisa and Charlotte had done the Boston Marathon and Sandra was a veteran of 160km rides back home. The next day we crossed the border into Laos and started cycling along a pleasant road , crossing the Mekong for the first time to a small town for lunch. It was here that Charlotte started throwing up spectacularly and opted for the bus and Lisa who was worried about her kept her company. Son told us quietly we had a 20km hill to follow and by then the temperature was stoking up and the sun blazing down. Then Son started throwing up as well whilst cycling on her bike so it was two men down and counting and Sandra was finding it all a bit much having just come out of an Auckland winter .We would pedal up for a while but when our heads threatened to burst it was best to find some shade, take off the helmet and gloves, down an ice cold coke from a road side stall and slowly but surely recover. Near the end of the ride the clouds came over, there were a few rumbles of thunder and it started to rain; blessed relief.
We stayed each night in a good quality hotel, some wonderful, others more basic and ate each night at the hotel or in a nearby restaurant. The food was always great; of course one has to like eastern cuisine and on the whole trip I never once had trouble with my stomach .Lots of fresh veggies, spices and always fruit for dessert. We had a back up vehicle and had regular stops with cold drinks, snacks and wet wipes to keep us going and always stopped for lunch at a restaurant or if none was nearby would hunker down in a temple or a road side stall, sometimes with a pig sniffing round our ankles looking for scraps. On average we did about 70 kilometres a day, some days longer, some days shorter, some of the rides on the road, often on dirt and sometimes on muddy single tracks through the paddy fields.
Things started looking up the next day, the sick girls had improved and we rode up further into the hills and visited three spectacular waterfalls plunging sheer 200meters down through the dense forest, one with a wonderful rainbow. This was coffee and tea country and we rode through plantations in amongst the forests. Whatever goes up must come down and we had an exhilarating 30 kilometre plunge down the hill where we never had to crank a pedal.
It was along this road that I was passed not once but twice by pretty females on scooters who drew alongside and gave me wonderful come hither looks, which hasn’t happened to me for many a long year.( and not likely to happen again). They would then zoom off into the distance with me pedalling furiously trying to catch them up.
We then took the first of many ferries across the Mekong River. On all these ferries I normally said a quiet prayer before embarking. Some took vehicles which looked as though they would sink the boat immediately into the murky waters , other were no more than nailed planks with a lawnmower engine at the back and just big enough to take us stood up and the bikes.
We cycled on to Wat Phou , a Hindu archaeological site dating back to the 5th century, 200 years before Angor Wat. This is a wonderful lost city with ruined pavilions next to a lake and leading up the hillside to the main sanctuary with views over the countryside. We had this more or less to ourselves. We went across to the island of Don Daeng and stayed at the wonderful La Folie Lodge, built by a Frenchman like a lodge back home, all open plan with bungalows fronting the river and a splendid pool next to the beach and with the first of many beautiful sunsets Again we had this and the island to ourselves and felt like kings (and queens), being waited on hand and foot by attentive friendly staff. Honestly everything was done for us, loading and unloading the bikes off the ferry, cleaning and oiling them, plied with drink and food; all we had to do was pedal.
This area is known as the four thousand islands and the next day we cycled around the first of a number of them. Most of the time we cycled on muddy tracks with vistas of people working in the bright green paddy fields with palm trees on the skyline dodging geese, dogs and on one memorable occasion two guinea fowls that were obsessed with following us trying to cross right in front of our wheels. Then on we went through villages and houses made of wood and often on stilts to keep above any floods. And everywhere smiling people and particularly children running next to us shouting “sabaidee” like a chorus from houses, gardens, trees and surrounding us when we stopped in villages, smiling shyly. Charlotte took a couple of tumbles in the mud and we succeeded in dodging low cables strung across the track and I rode once into a low flying bunch of bananas.
Then back across the river and up one of Son’s “little hills “ to Phu Asa. This was a low point for me; we had a walk in ferocious heat up and up to an archeological site Xe Pian with strange stone towers. I struggled to walk and only found out later that my feet and ankles were badly swollen.
Later we watched children playing in the river whilst we took a ferry to our hotel.
After a lovely ride the next day on another island we eventually crossed to Don Khong where for the first time we were back in a touristy area with rather hippy bedraggled backpackers hanging about. It made us realise how lucky we were to have the freedom to cycle away from all this and see the country as it should be seen. In this area the wide Mekong River plunges down a number of impressive waterfalls which defeated the French colonists’ efforts to navigate by boat and we rode to a number of these. We also took a boat to the middle of the river and saw the rare and endangered Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins, quite a sight to see these wonderful creatures seemingly so far from the sea that we associate them with. Near the hotel was a village and here I watched village life. The ladies together prepared food for the children which they all ate together. No fast food here, all fresh veggies and fruit. Later some of the children took food and left it in the temple and the novice monks duly came and took it to their quarters. A boat came down the river and dropped off supplies which the children carried to the village. It made me realise that communal living like this has disappeared in our Western society. My Mum had it in her neighbourhood in Manchester where the community looked after each other but where I live now it’s every man for himself and nobody cares a hoot for his neighbour.
The next day we rode to the Cambodian border and said goodbye to Son. She was a great tour leader, helpful, caring, and happy and on top of it all a good cyclist. That evening, next to the hotel, I explored a temple and the head monk came out and greeted me. He ran a school for the novices and the number one subject is English, we promised to keep in touch after I returned. I knew that my friends would never believe me that I made friends with a monk.
In Cambodia we rode along dirt roads next to the river, over rickety wooden bridges and through traditional Khymer villages. Now we were followed by cries of hello, hello and as well as rice there were other crops and general subsistence farming. We also rode by a large rubber plantation. The heat in the afternoon was intense and I suffered from sunburn on places like my fingers and patches on my arms and legs. I sweated so much that the sun lotion was washed off and putting it on top of a film of mud and sweat was disgusting. Lisa said that she thought it was appropriate that we were going through hardships because it was in line with the suffering that the local people have been through and still have to endure.
We had another cruise to see more Irrawaddy dolphins, I find it remarkable that they appear to stay in one small area of the river so they are not difficult to spot but they are a critically endangered species and with all the pollution in the river one wonders how long they will survive.
We rode to Sembor Prei Rok , built between the 6th and 7th centuries ; a number of temples scattered around the jungle with spectacular fig trees , interspersed with giant craters from the B52 bombings in the Vietnam war. This was also the area that Pol Pot initially operated in before he took over the country. Again we had the place to ourselves, we were way off the tourist track . By now I was craving steak and chips and after our normal Eastern lunch was astonished to see another Spice Road group served with just that. My eyes nearly popped out of my head.
From there we transferred to Siem Riep and Ankor Wat. Siem Riep is a town catering for the mass tourism business and reminded me of similar towns in Phuket. This really only came on the mass tourism map over the last ten years after the Tomb Raider film But during our three nights there we ate well, had a fish massage where small fish to nibbled away at our feet with an extreme tickling sensation and watched traditional Khymer dancing with beautiful willowy girls in traditional costume doing graceful things with their arms and hands. I reckon after the show they put their jeans on and buzzed off on their scooters. The town also has a large night market.
Ankor Wat itself is the largest religious monument ever built and was established in the 11th century and was the centre of the Khymer Empire and there are many other temples extending in a 25km radius .We cycled around the area , along walls, past temples and through extensively carved gates.
We saw the sun rise behind the main temple with its five giant towers and later walked around it. It’s simply too vast to take in on one visit, it has galleries, terraces, towers intricate bas relief carvings, a moat and of course the five sandstone towers.
The empire crumbled in the 14th century and the jungle took over and was only discovered by the French in 1873 .Apart from looting many of the greatest carvings they commenced restoring the complex which is still going on today.
Ta Prohm is the most spectacular temple as the strangler figs have taken over and the roots have forced their way through the foundations giving the unique sight of nature overcoming and destroying mans’ finest efforts to tame it. In many cases it looks like the roots are growing out of stone. We also cycled through the carved gate to the royal palace of Angkor Thom.
By then we were getting a bit templed out. We rode in traffic around the town; quite simply the road rules are that there are none, particularly at intersections. The predominantly scooter traffic just goes for the gap; you just hold your line and say a little prayer.
On our last day we rode 50 kms to Kbal Spean , walked up a thankfully shaded wooded hill and saw submerged carvings under the river and a small waterfall. Our guide told us that in the forest there is another ruined temple but it’s not accessible due to land mines in the area. Afterwards we went to Banteay Srei which has exceptional bas reliefs and carvings.
In the evening was had our farewell dinner and then at 07.30 the next morning we went our separate ways; the American girls to the Thailand beaches, Sandra to New Zealand and me to Phnom Penh. It had been wonderful sharing this with such great companions