Sunday, December 22, 2002

Bangkok

Friends: This is it. The last one. I can't rail as strongly against the urban mayhem of Bangkok as I might otherwise after spending a day with the Thai wife of friend Mike from Facets. But still, I have to say the traffic is as much of a nightmare as I remember it. It is as thick and noxious, if not more so, as it was two months ago. It took me nearly two hours yesterday to bike twelve miles across this gruesomely congested city after I left the highway that brought me from Chon Buri and I hit the gridlock. I almost would have preferred the worst of Cambodia's roads to the traffic of Bangkok. It wasn't dangerous, just horribly slow-going. I, the lone cyclist in this clogged metropolis of some eight million, and the handful of motorbikes, had a slight advantage on all the four-wheelers, as we could edge forward through the cracks in the gridlock. If I had minded my manners and stayed in line, it would have taken me twice as long to do those twelve miles.

I was slowed somewhat by the periodic need to verify I was headed in the correct direction, as the main thoroughfares don't always go straight and there are a minimum of signs. I was headed to the backpacker ghetto of Khao Son, just a couple blocks from the Grand Palace. Khao Son is just three or four blocks long, so it isn't widely known among the locals. But the Grand Palace certainly is. Unfortunately I didn't know the Thai word for Grand Palace and there aren't too many English speakers about, especially among the traffic police. Not a one I asked understood "Grand Palace," and only a few knew "King and Queen." But I did discover the tuk tuk drivers could usually confirm I was headed the correct way or direct me the correct way when I came to a tricky intersection. For a while I could rely on the sun until it got too high, and the wind, though I couldn't trust that it hadn't switched directions on me.

My first forty miles yesterday were free sailing, but not exactly a picnic, as I alternated between riding on the shoulder of a four, then six, lane divided highway, and the two lane frontage road that flanked each side of the highway. The frontage road wasn't very well maintained and after a brief shower was riddled with puddles and lakes of water that forced me back to the main highway. The traffic was comparatively light, however, this Saturday morning and what there was helped create a tunnel of air upping my speed. As I neared the city, the frontage road grew to six lanes wide along with the highway. But even that wasn't enough for the Thai road builders, as up above were another four to six lanes for those willing to pay a toll.

Another of the banes of Bangkok traffic is the lengthy traffic signals. Each of the four arteries feeding the busier intersections must await their own green before proceeding. There are four cycles of lights rather than the usual two. Rather than a minute wait, it is three minutes. And I am frequently forced to guzzle the fumes from the motorbikes clustered around me, who have inched to the head of the pack. I've been so desperate at times to escape a particularly foul exhaust pipe, I've actually picked up and carried my loaded bike to extricate myself from the fumes.

I wasn't eager at all to go back out into the city on my bike after I settled on a guest house, but I wanted to check in with Supphawan, Mike's wife, at the dental clinic she works at as its accountant and bill collector. At least I knew where I was going and, unlike two months ago, I no longer freaked out when motorbikes all of a sudden swerved into my lane and came barreling straight at me. It is accepted behavior when there is a break in oncoming traffic for the motorbikes to take over the oncoming lane. When it first happened, I thought the street had suddenly become one-way without me knowing it. The motorbikes don't try to terrorize however, so I just hug the curb and have no worries.

Supphawan and I decided to go to the large weekend market the next day, Sunday. I needed to do some shopping for that holiday that has been creeping up on me with a minimum of fanfare. Its barely acknowledged in these Buddhist regions. The 25th is just another day, and certainly not a day off, though New Year's will be a four-day holiday--Sunday through Wednesday. I was planning on biking out to the market, but was glad to have the opportunity to sample public transportation with an adept. Since Supphawan would meet me at my guest house at nine I planned to get out early on my bike to see if there is a Sunday morning lull in the mayhem of Bangkok traffic. I also wanted to try to orient myself a little better to the city. I still didn't have a very good handle on it. There are a few scattered skyscrapers, including one of 72 stories, but they aren't clustered together and with the angled streets they aren't much good as landmarks. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to learn this city, but I did want to go out and have a nice bike ride, which I wasn't sure was possible here.

But lo and behold, there was a Sunday moratorium on traffic, at least until eight, and for the first time I could spin my legs freely in Bangkok for more than a few moments at a time and almost forget myself and feel the purity and joy of riding my bike, which is, after all, what I live for. It felt so good and was so unexpected, it was almost enough to make me think this metropolis could be livable, but I could not be tricked into such an admission. But it did allow me the revery of being reminded what a sublime pleasure it is to effortlessly glide along content and carefree. I felt as exalted as I do out in the hinterlands and on my traditional Sunday morning Marlboroing ride with Joan and Waydell in Chicago. I was almost sorry I couldn't bike out to the market, though I knew any time spent with Supphawan would be time well-spent.

Our bus was air-conditioned, a welcome surprise. And it came equipped with curtains to block out the fierce sun. But sitting in a vehicle just inching along quickly had me yawning uncontrollably despite the company of Supphawan. I felt like a trapped animal. No one who knew better, as I did, would willingly endure the insanity of being confined to this box. I wondered what sins my fellow prisoners had committed to end up here. I couldn't tell if they were heathens or infidels or simply the unenlightened.

It would have been faster to walk, that is if the sidewalks weren't so clogged with vendors and pedestrians. The streets are so wide it would be easy to give up a lane to bicycles, but no one rides bikes to begin with and a free lane would immediately be usurped by all the motorbikes. So this is another city that will choke itself to death unless petroleum runs out first.

The market is one of the world's great ones selling everything imaginable from puppies to antiquities. It is just a Saturday/Sunday affair, so many people make it an outing. I was sorry I wasn't hungrier, so I could sample the many foods available. It was mobbed, mostly by locals, but a fair number of travelers and tourists were there as well. It truly looked like the last weekend before Christmas with the mobs of shoppers. I was able to find enough trinkets to satisfy my obligations, but Supphawan couldn't find what she wanted for Mike for me to take back, so I got to experience a mall with Supphawan as well. It was equally mobbed.

There was a multiplex at the mall. Since it was a movie house, Facets, that brought Mike and I together, it seemed appropriate that Supphawan and I indulge in a movie. Our legs could certainly use a break. I was able to contribute six dollars for our two tickets to the international gross of the latest Bond picture. We saw it on a screen and in a theater comparable to any back home, except all seats were reserved. When we purchased our tickets there was a small screen by the ticket-seller showing all the remaining seats. Supphawan was shocked that in America people can just go in and sit anywhere. After the previews the screen flashed,"Please pay your respects to his Majesty the King." Everyone in the near full house rose to their feet and watched a montage of snapshots of the King and people holding up framed pictures of the king and billboards of the King as the national anthem played. It was quite well done, enough so that I felt like applauding when it ended. The only other difference between this movie-going experience and one back home is that the previews and advertisements for companies such as Nike, Honda, Nokia and McDonald's went on for half an hour. I didn't mind at all, as I was happy to have my time in this air-conditioned movie palace prolonged.

Supphawan took me home via canal, the same way she commutes to work, so I didn't have to contend with traffic, just the noise of the boat's souped up engine. As I walked home at dark I heard the national anthem again at six. It wasn't the music that first caught my attention, rather the people standing at attention on the sidewalk. I was almost exhausted enough to hit the hay, but I had this final obligation. I thank all of you for reading and for all your responses. Cheers to anyone who read all of them. Jim Redd calculated it came to about ten words for every mile I bicycled--3,529.

These are the musings only my journal would have been privy to in the era before the Internet. When I warily started sharing them with a few friends several trips back I would have been appalled and horrified to imagine it would grow to these proportions. I was able to do more editing this time, thankfully, before I had to click on the send button, but obviously not every time. It has been a pleasure to get all of this out of my head, leaving it space for other thoughts. I appreciate your indulgence.

Later, George

Friday, December 20, 2002

Chon Buri, Thailand

Friends: I'm at the doorstep of Bangkok, just 50 miles away, and the end of this journey. I could have scurried in this evening, but will instead leave at dawn tomorrow and make it a noon arrival on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe there will be a little less traffic on a Saturday afternoon than a Friday evening, though gridlock is gridlock.

The last three days and 165 miles from Chanthaburi I have been following the Gulf of Thailand. Its mostly been inland but the road has occasionally swung close enough to the coast for some seaside riding. I have passed a variety of resort towns and industrial parks with massive factories that help explain why this country is riddled by four-lane divided highways. Most of the resorts along the way cater to Thais and are virtually abandoned right now. Two nights ago I camped at a compound of bungalows along the beach and had the place to myself. Just a mile away was Ko Samet Island, a place popular with the backpacker set. For two hours before sunset as I sat on the beach, I watched a steady stream of boats three miles away at the end of the bay ferrying passengers out to the island. That made me very happy to be where I was.

I had contemplated giving the island a look myself, since it does have a semi-glamorous reputation, but I wasn't in the mood for listening to all the backpackers trying to one-up each other on the quality and extent of their travels, although they were all on the Lonely Planet circuit seeing the same waterfalls and caves and ruins and staying at the same recommended hotels and eating at the same recommended restaurants. They'd all want to think they'd endured the worst bus trip in all of Asia and suffered the worst taxi rip-off ever. Their travels comprised surviving the transit from one safe haven to another. For me it was the opposite. I thrived on the getting there and once I got there I was eager to get gone again. I was sorry my fellow two-wheeled carmudgeon, good ol' Jim Red, Critical Mass guru, wasn't alongside sipping a beer echoing these sentiments even more emphatically in his inimitable Faulknerian/Algrenian rhetoric. He would have had me laughing and exalting and wanting to be nowhere else than right there at that moment, though I was anyway.

I've had some nice leisurely riding these past three days, thanks in part that the roads of Cambodia weren't as horrendous as I feared, allowing me to make better time than I anticipated. I am well ahead of schedule and have no worries of arriving late for my flight. The worry-free cycling has liberated my thought from the concerns of the moment to be able to roam free. I am already reveling in the memories of this trip--the surprisingly warm reception we received in Vietnam and the lark of biking down Highway 1, meeting other cyclists and our grand time with Esther in Chang Mai, speed-boating down the Mekong River and conquering the roads of Cambodia.

For two months Cambodia's "Roads from Hell," loomed in the back of my mind. I wondered how bad they could be. I was psyching myself up in anticipation of them, as if I were an athlete before a championship event, feeling a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety. Its nice now to look back on the experience with some detachment. At the time I was so absorbed in the doing of it, I had no perspective on what I was actually doing. It was the same as I bicycled the length of South America. Only every couple of weeks when I happened to see a map of the continent could I feel a sense of awe of where I was and how far my bike had taken me. Its at once no big deal, but also a pretty god-damned big deal.


Cambodia was merely 400 miles compared to the 7,000 of South America from Medellin, Colombia down the Pacific coast to Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan, but those were 400 hard fought miles and in a most unlikely place to be biking. Cambodia wasn't what drew me here. It was just part of the circuit. But I know in the years to come the memory of those miles will be most vivid and warm and they'll have my head shaking in disbelief and quiet satisfaction. Cambodia wasn't the highlight of this 3,000 plus mile trip however. That could well be the 160 miles from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in Laos through its stunning and otherworldly mountains and limestone formations with hardly any other traffic on a road we were told was too dangerous to bicycle. That was when we first experienced all the kids berserk with glee at our passing, showering us with a non-stop chorus of "Sabadees". Laos was the only country of these travels where the children said hello in their native tongue. Everywhere else they were delighted with the chance to use some English. A "hello" was nice to hear, though I'd much prefer a greeting in the local language. I'd be very happy to revisit the mountains of northern Laos. I'd also like to give the highlands of Vietnam a ride as well, particularly north of Hanoi, but that is all based on word-of-mouth. Angkor Wat too will try to beckon me and will no doubt frequent my reveries on the bike in the years to come.

Encounters with fellow cyclists are always a highlight and there were more on this trip than practically all my trips put together, excluding New Zealand. In six months in South America I only met two lone cyclists, both Frenchmen, one in Costa Rica as I closed in on the continent and the other in Rio, as I awaited my flight home. I met none in two months in India, though a couple in Nepal. I met none in four months in Australia and none in a month-and-a-half in Morocco. I did meet four lone cyclists in Scandinavia--a German, a Dutchman, a Frenchman and an American. I have met a handful of stray cyclists on my many forays into Mexico, including one over 20 years ago who is among those reading this.

All those encounters have left strong impressions. The dozen or so on this trip are no exception. The two days we spent with the daft Aussie duo, who were on their first tour and who were mortified of mosquitoes and malaria and the sun, were among the best of this trip. And the evening we spent with the pair of Germans, who'd come 9,000 miles from their homeland and who were both cloaked in the calm and elevated consciousness of a monk, was equally noteworthy. The likelihood of meeting other such touring cyclists is as good as any reason to return here for more biking. There aren't many who do this. I am always happy to meet the few who do, especially in the act, when they are at peak euphoria.

I spent last night at Pattaya, Thailand's largest resort. It was quite a contrast to the night before, when I finally had the chance to sleep in my tent in Thailand. Pattaya grew to its present proportions thanks in part to GI's on R&R during the Vietnam conflict. The city was crawling with old, fat white guys with Viagra bulging in their pants, trudging about hand-in-hand with considerably younger, slighter, and decidedly more attractive Thai women, whose attractiveness only barely shone through their underlying anguish over their present predicament. It was hard to say who looked more miserable, they or their client.

There were plenty of Go-Go joints along the beach but it was all very tame. I wasn't propositioned once, evidently not old or fat enough to attract. It was an expensive town. The Internet cost $1.50 an hour, three times what I'm being charged now 35 miles up the road. Ice was seven bhat at the 7-Eleven compared to the usual six. I used the occasion to finish off the jar of peanut butter that has lasted me over two months. I kept saving it for an emergency. I likewise have several of the two dozen energy bars I brought left. Food wasn't as hard to come by in the sticks of Cambodia and Laos as I feared.

I'm looking forward to my run-in to Bangkok tomorrow, but not the two days I'll have to linger before flying out. Hopefully my bike box is still at the hotel I left it at and I won't have to scramble to find a replacement. There are still sites to see there, though the biking will be a chore with all the traffic and pollution, nearly unparalleled. I hope to meet up with with one of the daft Aussies and who knows who else.

Later, George

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Chanthanburi, Thailand

Friends: I'd forgotten what an orgy of eating the night market of any decent-sized Thai town offers. Tonight I'm in a city of 100,000 or so near the ocean, but not on it, as I hoped. So instead of strolling the beach I can concentrate on a vaster than usual network of food carts that go on for blocks. The Chowhounds would be in ecstasy. There are all sorts of items on sticks--meats and fruits and vegetables, just about anything that can be poked. There are simmering pots of all sorts of stews and woks with stashes of innumerable ingredients. Some specialize in crepes. There are gelatins of all the Easter colors. Many people pull up to the carts on their motorbikes and take home dinner. The streets are thronged by a great conglomeration of people, school children on their own, young secretaries just getting off work, men in business suits, and everybody else. It all starts at dark when it is cool enough to walk about without baking.

I never have enough of an appetite to try as much as I'd like, so I always take home a bag or two for snacking and breakfast. Even after 101 miles today I only had enough appetite for three meals, at least so far. When I sign off I'll go back for more. This is the longest I've gone on any of my many many tours of better than 1,000 miles without a 100 mile day. Many tours through long desolate stretches, like the Australian Outback, or down the Pan-American Highway through South America, I do 100 miles day after day after day and am happy to be somewhere that offers no reason to stop so I can keep riding and riding. Being on the bike is where I most long to be and gives me the greatest happiness. That is my bliss


I began today intent on 100 miles, as my destination was 98 miles away. In my wanderings trying to find a hotel I got those extra miles and some. The Lonely Planet guidebook had no mention of this town, so I was on my own trying to find a hotel. I had arrived by four so dark was no threat. I was quite thirsty and famished. Its always tempting to just plop down, or collapse, at the first restaurant I come to and start refueling, but it's a higher priority to make sure I have a place for the night. Today, like usual, I picked up some street food, three hard-boiled eggs, to take to my room so I could start getting some food in to me before and after my shower.

I had a little more work than I anticipated reaching the 100 miles today, as there was some unexpected climbing along the way, nearly 2,000 feet worth, more than I've done cumulatively in the over 600 miles since I left Saigon twelve days ago. The one benefit was that at even the modest extra altitude the temperature was a few degrees cooler. I was also the beneficiary of several batches of cloud cover, making an even more marked difference in the heat. I was carrying a little extra weight, however, as I'm now back in a country that has coins, unlike Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. And the Thai coins are fairly hefty. I've startled myself a few times these past couple of days by a clatter in my pocket, forgetting what it is.


One thing I do miss from Vietnam and Cambodia are the sugar cane drinks and coconuts along the road. There is no such thing here, just soft drinks and bottled water--badges of affluence evidently. I managed to cross Cambodia having only once to resort to a fizzy drink, a luke warm 7-Up, when I was truly desperate for a flavored drink in the shade along a rough stretch when I had vowed to stop at the next stand offering fluids no matter what. The closest thing to a coconut I had today was a watermelon. I was holding out for a papaya, but once again after a couple of hours in the beating sun there are times when one must stop.

Today is the first day in weeks and weeks that I had no bicyclists or motor-bikers pull up alongside me and begin with the interrogation--"what is your name," "where are you from," "where are you going", "how old are you," "are you married...?" There are no bicyclists to speak of in Thailand and there is enough fast moving traffic that it wouldn't be advisable for those on motorbikes to pull up alongside. There is usually enough of a shoulder though, that if they truly wanted to they could slow down alongside me for a chat, but the Thais are too respectful for such an intrusion. Nor do they pounce on me as I'm strolling and eating at the night market, even though I am most vulnerable and accessible.

I was surprised that even after Laurie decided to bike no further and I was single, that I was still asked the marriage question. For the 53 days that we were together that was as frequent a question as any. For a while we followed Lonely Planet's advice not to be an affront to the local's morality and say we were husband and wife. We even had fun concocting tales of our children and our marriage and honeymoon when pressed for details. We'd occasionally have to do some backtracking. Laurie once said we'd been married ten years but then said our children were 18 and 16. About halfway through Vietnam we grew tired of the routine and decided to say we were "just" friends, a qualifier I cringed at, as any woman does who has been referred to as "just a housewife".

People always looked a bit deflated to learn we weren't married, so I would immediately say, "Ho Chi Minh never married and he was a great man. I want to be like Ho." That would appease most people until we neared Saigon and people would dispute Ho's greatness. One shop-owner told me I looked like Ho with my long straggly bleached and whitening hair. White, or even gray, hair is an extreme rarity here. When the age question comes I sometimes turn the question on whoever has posed it to me and have been surprised at how men can seem a decade or two older than I would have ever guessed. I'd like to comment further on Ho but I'm beginning to feel a gnawing in my stomach and I can smell all those great aromas from the nearby night market. I read a biography of him as I biked Vietnam and there is much to be said of the man. I'll only mention that Ho Chi Minh wasn't his real name. He adopted it when he returned to Vietnam in the '40s after a 30-year exile. It means, "Bringer of lightness."

Later, George

Monday, December 16, 2002

Sa Kaew, Thailand

Friends: I don't know if its possible, but the Thais seem even friendlier than they were seven weeks ago when I left Thailand and crossed into Laos. From the woman who gave me my visa at the border to the food vendors along the road and everyone else I've encountered, I've been bathed in warmth and welcome. Its great to be back. I can understand all the more why Esther chose to settle in Thailand after traveling all over Asia. The landscape and the weather don't much appeal to me, but the civility of its people most certainly does. It is remarkably refreshing.

Once again my morning started out with over twenty miles of paved, or what passes for paved, road in Cambodia. For an hour the cycling was fairly tolerable, but then as I approached the final town in Cambodia several miles before the border, it turned into a severe washboard, almost as if it were a hardened lava flow. It wasn't anything anybody would want to drive or bike or walk upon, and no one was who could help it. All traffic stuck to a dirt corridor to one side of the road, unless forced on to the corrugated pavement. It was the roughest going yet. It extended three or four miles beyond that last town, all the way to the border. Through the town there was one worn strip of pavement a couple feet wide that was relatively smooth right in the middle of the road. I battled motor bikes coming from both directions for that premier strip. Jagged fist-sized rocks protruded from the worn pavement. Some looked as if they could be coral sharp. I didn't dare go faster than three miles per hour, about the slowest possible without toppling. But I knew Thailand, the promised land of smooth roads, was imminent, so I just bore with it.

The Cambodian customs came after thirty miles. I arrived at nine a.m. I had been warned of thieves but I was able to keep my eye on my bike as my passport was processed without any attempt of extortion. The only occasion of that on this trip was our entry in to Vietnam. I had ridden to the border without stopping to eat, so once I crossed in to Thailand I stopped along the road under some shade and ate the spring rolls I had purchased in the market last night. As I ate, a pick-up truck overloaded with pineapples lost about half its load right in front of me. I thought, "A godsend. What a nice welcome back to Thailand," but the driver came back to reclaim his loss. People out of nowhere stopped and helped and there was no one with sticky fingers among them.

When I resumed riding, I felt as if I were floating on air, the road was so smooth. It felt as if my bike had just gotten an overhaul from Joe of Quick Release, as good a mechanic as there is. The Thais love to build roads so much and are so good at it, I couldn't understand why they hadn't offered to lay at least 100 miles of pavement for the Cambodians from the border to Seam Reap. It would serve their interests as well, as it would then be an easy half day bus trip from Bangkok to those famed ruins of Angkor Wat, bringing all sorts of extra tourists to Thailand. Now no one with any sanity would attempt such a crossing. It would also aid in getting goods into Cambodia and maybe drop the price of a can of coke in Seam Reap.

Within five miles I saw my first red and green 7/11 sign with 24 hours along side it. Two doors down was an Internet cafe. I wasn't overheated yet, but I had to have a Big Gulp crammed with as much ice as I wanted, something I'd been dreaming of for weeks, ever since I had left Thailand nearly two months ago. And while sipping it, I could make a quick email check. It doesn't get too much better than that. Even if 7/11 hadn't sponsored the first American team to participate in the Tour de France over a decade ago, I'd be a loyal devotee after all the pleasure it has given me on this trip.

While at the computer, a couple of guys, including the Internet operator, respectfully admired my dust-saturated bike. When I exited, one pointed out my front tire had ruptured and there was a slight bulge in my rear tire. I had been aware of the rear tire but hadn't replaced it with my lone spare, saving it for a greater calamity, which I now had on my front. I was lucky it hadn't blown out on me. It needed immediate replacing. This was the Vietnamese tire I had purchased for $1.50 after my day of four flats just before My Lai. It lasted a little over a thousand miles, much of it on quite horrendous roads. The guys watching me replace the tire were pleased to point out the spare I had purchased in Saigon said "Made in Thailand" on it.

The slight bulge in my rear wheel didn't even cause a bump as I rode, so I wasn't pressed to go out of my way to buy a spare. But less than ten miles down the road, I came upon a bike shop and it had a few 27 x 1 1/4" tires, which aren't all that common here. I was also able to buy three of the orange-tinted patches I prefer for eleven cents. I would have stocked up for the next decade at that price, but that was all they had left.

Another of Thailand's great luxuries are the abundance of service stations with all amenities including showers. I was mighty tempted to stop at the first one I came to and to rid myself of my last coating of Cambodian dust. I expected, however, to call it a day by mid-afternoon, so just used the service station to wash off the worst of the dust from all my gear. It was well-saturated, though my much-adored Ortlieb panniers kept the dust from penetrating even better than it kept out the rain. It will take more than a couple of downpours to wash all the dust out of my bike's many crevices. I no doubt will be transporting more than a few grams of Cambodian dust back to Chicago.

I am now little more than 100 miles from Bangkok. I could be there tomorrow, but six days in the big city before my flight home is the last thing I want. If I could be on a plane back the day after my arrival I would be damn tempted to get on it, as that week of messengering before Christmas is always the most fun and lucrative of the year. The city is all dressed up, the work force is in a festive mood, and I can ride my heart out. I am sorry to be missing it. I could earn enough in that week to pay for these two-and-a-half months of travel. But rather than attempting an early flight home, I will bike 100 miles south from here to the ocean and then follow the Gulf back to Bangkok stopping at which ever of the beaches I can't resist and polish off the two books I have left to read. I'll get to Bangkok by Saturday or Sunday before my Tuesday flight.

Later, George

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Sisiphon. Cambodia

Friends: I have closed to within thirty-one miles of Thailand. Already prices are initially quoted in Baht, the Thai currency and the preferred currency. As much as smooth pavement, I'm looking forward to all the 7-Elevens that every Thai town of any size has and their air conditioning and bags of ice for 15 cents and their drink machines dispensing crushed ice. Big Gulps here I come. And I'm looking forward to all the smiles and niceness. My bike especially will be glad to be no longer defiantly molested by all the malingering Cambodian males who love to grab its brake levers and stuff their feet into its toe clips and tinker with its shifters and just generally fondle it, frequently glaring at me to see how I'm taking it. No other of these Southeast Asians have been so belligerent.

My bike and I survived another 65 miles of the Roads of Hell today. The first 21 out of Seam Reap were paved and then hell was upon us. It was the most rutted, rock-studded obstacle course so far. I wasn't even managing five miles per hour. My mind was frantically calculating how long it would take me to finish off the 45 miles remaining to the next town. At five mile per hour, it would take me nine hours, one less than the hours of daylight remaining. In the blistering heat hell and I would become quite intimate. If I could increase my speed to six miles per hour, I'd only be out in it seven-and-a-half hours. If the road would relent enough to allow me seven miles per hour, I could chop another hour off my baking time. And if by some miracle I could get my speed up to nine miles per hour, still my slowest average speed of Cambodia, only five hours. Or if my speed fell to under five miles per hour I could ride with the moon. There was no telling. I only knew that this stretch to the border was said to be the most horrendous in Cambodia, so bad that buses didn't travel it. Travelers had to hire trucks to get them to Thailand from Siam Reap or take a boat.

I zeroed out the average speed function on my cyclometer so I could monitor my progress. Only rarely though could I sneak a glance at it, as my eyes remained glued to the many treacheries unfolding before me. After half an hour my speed had climbed to 6.1 miles per hour and the road did seem to have longer, smoother stretches off to the side. I followed a Cambodian cyclist who I couldn't pass and was going a tad slower than I would have been, which was encouraging. After he turned off, I had my speed up to 6.7 miles per hour and I was feeling some relief. The road was plenty dusty, but the passing traffic could barely clunk along at ten miles per hour so it wasn't stirring up the clouds I had choked on before Seam Reap. It felt good to be going at a steady, albeit tortoise-like pace, rather than my initial picking and choosing, braking and coasting and braking some more.

I kept waiting for a couple of fast-riding, light-traveling Dutch guys on mountain bikes to catch up to me. We had ridden for a while earlier in the morning until they stopped for breakfast. They came charging past me at 6:30 this morning about three miles out of Seam Reap. I was cruising at thirteen miles per hour on a nicely paved road when they blasted past with a mere "hello." They were a pair of grizzled 45-year olds in ratty t-shirts, cycling shorts and just rear panniers. They looked as if they could have been retired cycle cross racers with their smooth, yet ferocious, riding style drafting one another. I immediately sped up and latched on to their pace line. They rode as if they were intent on reaching the border today. After a few minutes I pulled up alongside the one drafting and asked if he knew how long the pavement lasted. He didn't. He said they only intended to ride 100 kilometers themselves and were hoping to be done by noon and out of the heat. I didn't think that likely based on what I'd heard about the road, but these guys looked tough and hardened enough to fly through anything.

They must have taken a long breakfast, as I never saw them again despite breaks of my own. I had hoped to hear more of their travels and maybe life in the European peloton. They had started this trip in Ventiane, Laos a month ago and came down through northern Cambodia. They hadn't liked any of Cambodia, not even Angkor Wat. They'd bike Asia twice previously, once in northern Laos and another in China. They spoke glowingly of both of those experiences. Hopefully we'll connect tomorrow and I can learn more of their exploits and add their photo to my gallery of cyclists met along the way. I liked their serious, intent look. They, like the Germans Laurie and I met in Vietnam, were cyclists through and through.

Though my average speed was increasing, the road still dealt me a few setbacks. A couple were due to road work. Some of it was mere maintenance and some was actual construction. There were stretches that had been dampened to still the dust, turning the surface into mud, clogging my fenders, a real nightmare. But after 42 miles the road actually smoothed out and my speed jumped to ten then twelve and even spurts of fifteen miles per hour, a veritable miracle. It gave me great pleasure to watch my average speed inch upwards from 7.3 miles per hour to nearly ten miles per hour in the final twenty-three miles. I escaped the dusty inferno by 1:30. I was greatly, greatly pleased to be able to ride hard and limit my time in the sweltering heat. I had a couple of guesthouses to choose from for my last night in Cambodia, though none were great shakes.

I am told that at least half of the remaining miles to the border are paved, another monumental reprieve. The roads here have been bad, but nowhere near as bad as they could be or that I feared. That 300 mile stretch in Bolivia preceding the World's Most Dangerous Road was much slower going, but there it was fifteen degrees cooler and I could camp and the scenery was splendid and the people were cordial and I had my friend Teresa awaiting me in La Paz. I would gladly ride those roads again. I'd ride these roads again too, but not so gladly

Later, George

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Angkor Wat

Friends: I've spent two full days ruin-hopping, and I still haven't seen them all. I was even at it by 6:15 this morning and nearly put in a twelve hour day at it. I thought I had to be among the first out there this morning, but the guard at the entry said a couple of people who were truly intent on seeing them at first light preceded me by better than an hour.

These ruins attract fanatics from all over the world, especially the Japanese. I'd seen virtually none in the past two months, but they are here by the bus load. Now when people ask me where I'm from it is a risk to say "Japan" as the asker might speak a little Japanese. I've long ago grown bored with responding to the "Where are you from?" question by saying"America", as its just a perfunctory question like "how are you". So I've taken to saying I'm from Japan to see what kind of reaction I'll get. Most don't react in the least, though occasionally someone will doubt me and want to know if I was born in Japan or if I speak Japanese.

These ruins may truly be "the most impressive site in the world of edifices" as they have been called. Their entry fee of $20 for one day or $40 for three days certainly puts them in that category. It is truly a king's ransom compared to the cost of other things in these parts. My hotel is three dollars a night, and rarely do I spend even ten dollars a day. I had been told that someone on a bicycle could see the majority of the ruins in a day if he got an early start. I had made a reconnaissance of them the day before by slithering in through a back entrance. It was a slight risk as there are signs posted that intruders will be fined $30. I had heard though that passes were only checked when one left the road and went wandering among the ruins. There was an 18-mile road linking many of them. There are dozens and dozens of Buddhist temples and shrines dating to the twelveth and thirteenth centuries spread out over seventy-seven square miles. Many of the outlying ones do not have a fee, some of which I visited yesterday as well. Another trick was to purchase one's pass at four the day before when they go on sale good for use the next day and use it for a couple of hours then. I was confident I could cover the majority of those in the fee zone if I didn't wilt from the heat or fatigue.

I was absolutely enraptured just bicycling past all these incredible monuments. Equally awesome are the stately towering trees surrounding many of the ruins. Such trees I had not seen since the Redwoods. All such trees in this region other than in this protected area had long ago been logged. They attracted my camera as much as the ruins. They added a great degree of solemnity to the setting. Many had forced their way up through the ruins.

Despite the hundreds of tourists they were so well scattered they didn't undermine the experience at all. Even at the premier ruins, the actual Angkor Wat,where hundreds were milling about, they added to the grandeur of the setting rather than detracted from it. Angkor Wat alone comprises 500 acres. It is surrounded by a moat two football fields wide and a four mile wall. There is a half-mile promenade to the temple complex. Its centerpiece is a 213-foot tower flanked by four slightly lesser towers. It is the largest religious monument ever constructed. Over a million people lived in this region until the fifteenth century, when like the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan, the region was inexplicably abandoned. The ruins weren't rediscovered until the end of the nineteenth century.

There are dozens of other remarkable and significant edifices and complexes nearby, but they all pale in comparison to Angkor Wat like the many spectacular natural wonders near and within the Grand Canyon. Many still had my jaw dropping at their size and audacity. There seemed to be a competition among the builders and rulers of the time to outdo one another. There were massive gateways to other temples, some preceded by rows and rows of various mythical creatures. Many of the creatures had had their heads sawn off, however, by looters. One former Buddhist monastery had a hallway that went on for half a mile with doors to room after room along the way. There is much reconstruction to be done, but it is still fascinating to see them in whatever their condition. It is impossible for words or even photos to adequately capture the majesty and power of this place. I paced myself by sitting and reading a novel on preserving the antiquities of Venice in quiet corners here and there. The area is so vast it didn't even allow for much eavesdropping on guides or tourists. I had been forewarned that none of the similar ruins I had seen in Thailand could prepare me for these. If I had seen these first, none of them would have mattered.

Tomorrow I begin the last one hundred miles of Cambodia, said to be the worst of all. Back home in less than ten days.

Later, George

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Seam Reap, Cambodia

Friends: I pulled in to Seam Reap at five this afternoon after eight plus hours and ninety-two miles. When I looked in the mirror at my hotel I had the deepest, lushest tan of my life. Even my beard and hair were tanned thanks to all the dirt and dust stirred by the passing traffic. I knew I had to be a sight, as a woman mockingly laughed at me today. When I looked at her quizzically, she rubbed her nose. When I followed suit, my finger removed a crust of dirt. I could see my calves were caked with the brown dirt of the road, but I had no clue that the hue went all the way to my ears.

But it was a great day on the bike, the most miles of the trip under the most trying of conditions. I finally got a prolonged taste of rough road. The pavement gave out after 18 miles and then I had 64 miles of varying states of dirt until a glorious ten-mile paved romp in to Seam Reap. Fatigued as I was, I couldn't hold my legs back on the smoothest surface I've encountered in 300 miles across Cambodia. Only 100 miles to go and then 150 miles to Bangkok. When the end is in sight I start getting excited--excited to get home and excited to start thinking about the next journey.

The rough road varied from soft and sandy to solid and hard-packed. There wasn't a passing vehicle oftener than every couple of minutes so I could range all over the road in search of a smooth path. My eyes didn't look much beyond a couple of bike lengths ahead. Every so often I'd sneak in a glance ahead hoping to spot the end of the dirt and the start of the pavement. Like all these 300 miles so far across Cambodia there were no road signs or kilometer posts giving the distance to the next town. Without my cyclometer I would have been racking my brain trying to calculate my speed and how far I had come and how much further it was to my destination. It would have been torturous, especially with so much at stake. Asking people along the way would have been futile--they either wouldn't understand or wouldn't really know. So thanks to my cyclometer, one of my most valuable and treasured possessions, I knew exactly the miles I had ridden and the miles left to be ridden and could think about other things. There was only one town a little more than half way. Once again I had the dilemma of staying there or pushing on and hoping the road would cooperate and let me get to Seam Reap before dark.

I was on the road at first light at six a.m. to give it every chance. There isn't much motorized traffic that early, but there are plenty of bicyclists and pedestrians. People's lives in these parts adapt to the daylight hours. School starts at seven a.m., so there are streams of students on bikes in their uniforms of white shirts and navy blue pants or skirts. They are about the only cleanly dressed people I see all day. There are also many road side stands in operation at daybreak selling the traditional noodle soup breakfast or fritters. I was thrilled to see one of the fritter sellers cooking up waffles as well. I grabbed a couple to eat later when I had earned my first coconut of the day.

As all of Cambodia has been so far, the road was flat and through fields of rice paddies, though many are dormant as their irrigation has fallen into disuse disrupted by the spate of calamities the country has suffered the past few decades. It is decidedly poorer than Vietnam. I see none of the industriousness that was so prevalent there. Wherever I stop there are men and boys hanging about, looking downcast and downtrodden and a tad surly. I really wanted to push on to Seam Reap and avoid another night in a middle-of-nowhere town. Plus with the flies and filth so prevalent, I am wary of disrupting my digestive tract further. I usually don't pay much attention to such matters, but with the end of the trip nearing I don't want to be stranded somewhere sick and miss my flight. Likewise I never fear injury as I'm messengering until a couple days before one of my trips. I feel like a cop nearing retirement, suddenly being more wary and cautious on the job.

I reached the town where I had to make my decision after 54 miles by 11:30. I was still able to average ten miles per hour on the dirt, though there were short stretches that reduced me to half that. I didn't know for sure, but I was counting on the road improving as I neared Seam Reap, so I was fairly confident I could manage the final 38 miles in the six hours of light remaining. I had been riding hard, so there was always the danger of the bonk, especially in this heat. My first flat tire since my day of four over two weeks ago thankfully came near a patch of shade after I had come 67 miles. I munched some food as I replaced the punctured tube, but was snappy about it, intent on keeping my breaks short, focused as I was on the challenge of a ninety plus mile day. The sprawl of Seam Reap started after I'd come ninety miles. Two miles later I had found a hotel. I wouldn't have minded in the least if I could have ridden another eight miles with the road so nice and plenty of light and had the satisfaction of a one hundred mile day. But ninety-two miles was still most satisfying. I had feared Cambodia's roads could limit me to 50 miles a day as Bolivia had done for days at a time.

The ruins will have to wait until tomorrow. They are five miles away. I'll see how much these ancient temples grab me and how long I will linger here--a couple days for sure though I could make it three or four if I so desire. It'll take two days to escape Cambodia and then a day or two to get to Bangkok. My flight is at seven a.m. on the twenty-fourth. If I could time it, I would pull into Bangkok right then, but I need a couple day cushion to confirm various matters. I hope the miles I'll be earning on United won't be going to waste. I sent out an email last night that is floating around somewhere that hopefully will be forwarded to you all.

Later, George

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Napmonny, Cambodia

Friends: Another 106 miles down the road across Cambodia. I'm at the half-way point of this four hundred mile wide country. This last leg out of Phnon Phenh was all paved, the first seventy-five fairly good, but the last thirty-one an obstacle course of pot-holes. But the surface was hard and even, so I'm not complaining.

My great dilemma was whether to attempt it in one day for my first 100 mile day of the trip, or divide it into two easy days. I had come 48 miles to a town with accommodations by 11:30 yesterday. Another 58 miles in six hours of light was feasible if the road remained good, but that was a big IF. I went back and forth over whether to stay or push on as I sipped the milk of a coconut. It wasn't as cold or as tasty as the sugar cane drinks, but it was much safer to drink. I've picked up an intestinal bug and since the hygiene leaves much to be desired in Cambodia, I'm avoiding the sugar cane drinks. They are served in a glass that sometimes is still dripping wet after having been rinsed and washed in water of dubious quality. The other day a woman prepared one for me after she had just pumped gas for someone's motorbike. There was no hand-washing before she started crushing the ice for my drink by holding the ice in her petrol-stained hand and pounding it with a metal rod.

Anyway, I was in a weakened state with my digestive system not functioning at optimum efficiency. When I noticed a guesthouse across the street, I took that as a sign that I ought to stop and not attempt to push on. It was the right decision, as my half hour afternoon nap, my first of the trip, lasted three hours. I did make it to the next town in six hours this morning, but I doubt I would have been capable of that yesterday, and if I had, I would have really been wiped out today.

I was hoping Cambodia would be another Laos, picturesque with welcoming people. Unfortunately it has been more like El Salvador--grungy and dusty with no real distinguishing character. There are flies and litter aplenty. Some restaurants bring the eating utensils in a glass with boiling water to prove they are clean. One sidewalk restaurateur gave me a napkin to wipe off the spoon I was about to use to insure its cleanliness. The clothing is much more ragged and dirty than I've seen elsewhere on this trip as well. There is also an abundance of begging, from ragged street urchins to elderly women. At the Killing Fields Genocide Center eight miles out of Phnon Phenh there was a trio of ten year old boys begging to have their photo taken for a dollar. They wrapped their arms around each other then counted one-two-three and smiled. I didn't see any one take them up on their offer. The most aggressive beggars have been the amputees. There were quite a few at a prison, that is now a museum, where people were tortured during the Pol Pot era.

But the renowned Angkar Wat ruins 100 miles down the road might put a shine on this country. The country is so proud of them they are featured on the flag. Thanks to email I connected up with the Aussies Laurie and I biked with in Laos. They had had some bad luck and had interspersed their biking with bus and plane and boat trips. The highlight of their trip was the sensational tail winds of southern Vietnam that attract wind-surfers from all over the world. Andrew gushed how he had his bike at 34 kilometers per hour for over an hour, the greatest tail wind of his life. Also thanks to email, I was able to meet the founder of Phnon Phenh's Critical Mass, Jen from Melbourne. She and her partner Dan had been in Phnon Phenh for a year-and-a- half. Jen introduced the Critical Mass to Phnon Phenh this past July. It attracts about 40 riders to its monthly rides. Jen and Dan were able to explain many of Cambodia's mysteries, including the hard-boiled eggs with an embryo. They are generally ducklings and are considered a delicacy. I couldn't bring myself to eat more than the yolk. I must send this now as the electricity is about to go off here in the middle of nowhere. I already lost one lengthy version of this letter.

Later, George

Saturday, December 7, 2002

Phnon Phenh, Cambodia

Friends: The sugar cane juicers dispensing that splendid nectar of the gods are even more ubiquitous along the roads of Cambodia than they were in Vietnam, at least for the first 100 miles. And they are even more welcome here, as these so-called "Roads from Hell" are plenty dusty and hot, though not as rough as advertised.

I still have 300 miles to go before reaching Thailand, but so far there have only been a few short stretches that have been truly diabolical. They would have been the worst I had ever encountered, if I hadn't bicycled Bolivia earlier this year. I went several days in Bolivia on roads so rough that I was unable to go faster than eight miles per hour. I was able to average that yesterday on the first 25 mile stretch after coming 45 miles to the border from Saigon. And then today I averaged 12.1 miles per hour over 76 miles, better than just about every other day of this trip. Most of today's stretch was even paved. I was able to draft a motorbike for 20 minutes at 22 miles per hour. It was like a heaven sent chariot. "This is not hell,"I kept gratefully muttering.

I knew today's road had to be in fairly good shape after a couple of Aussies traveling by bus yesterday afternoon told me it had taken their bus two hours to do the first 25 miles from the border, a stretch that had taken me three hours, but their bus driver said the next 76 miles would also take two hours. Both yesterday and today had some horrid dirt and mud stretches that clogged my fenders as in Bolivia and had me walking. Not knowing how long these stretches would last or when the next would occur was the toughest part of the ordeal.

Laurie was wise to bow out in Saigon. These roads are definitely not for neophytes or for those prone to wanting to bus ahead when the going gets tough. She had been dreading the roads of Cambodia even before we left the States. She had early on decided to only bike as far as Siem Reap and then bus it to Bangkok so she could have a few extra days of shopping. But after the rough roads of Vietnam she thought she only wanted to go as far as Phnom Phenh and then hop ahead. And then upon further reflection she announced, after we checked into our hotel in Saigon three days ago, she didn't even care to do that and would continue on by alternate means, partially to save some time so she could have a few days on the beach to spruce up her tan before returning home.

That was actually great news. Saigon had no allure for me whatsoever, unlike Hanoi and other places we have been. As we biked in I couldn't wait to get out. It didn't have the wide tree-shaded boulevards of Hanoi and the traffic was faster and more aggressive. We had planned on a rest day, which was hardly necessary after the brisk tail winds of the past four days since our last rest in Nha Trang. An afternoon was enough time to get a few provisions and a spare tire for those intimidating roads ahead and to see the few sites I cared to see in Saigon.

The first couple of miles after crossing into Cambodia were on a one-lane wide recently paved road. It soon degenerated into a dirt road with patches of mud and water-filled pot holes. There was so little traffic pigs were wallowing in some of them. There have been a few stretches of gravel and some washboard, but nothing that threatened the sidewalls of my tires as did the rock-studded roads in Bolivia that had me nervous about flats and breaking my spokes or worse.

Last night I met Henrik, a Danish cyclist who'd been meandering around Cambodia for the past month and loving it. He is the first cyclist I've met on this tour riding a touring bike with down handlebars and narrow tires, as I am, rather than a mountain bike. He'd had had no punctures or mechanical problems and was quite happy with his choice of bikes. He'd been bicycle touring for twenty years, half his life, though this was his first tour of more than a month. He'd just completed a two-year stint of teaching in Greenland and hadn't ridden his bike the entire time. Even though he was stationed in its largest city of 13,000, it had only one road seven-and-a-half miles long. He started this trip in Bangkok and was woefully out of shape, only biking 30 miles a day his first few days.

Henrik, like most veteran touring cyclists, knows that the early morning hours are the best for cycling, especially in the tropics when the temperature will climb in to the 90s. It only took Dwight one day to realize this when we biked Cuba four years ago. Unfortunately, this was a concept that Laurie was most resistant to. She never gets up before eight back home, so doing it on a "vacation" seemed inconceivable to her, though she managed it a couple of times.

Henrik and I both planned to be on the road by six the next morning and were already salivating over the pleasure of it. He was truly sorry that Laurie wasn't there so he could sell her on the many reasons of getting out on the bike early. He was an extremely committed cyclist who spoke with great passion. He was certain he could convince her of the great joy, not to mention practicality, of being out on the road in the cool, calm of the early morning as the mist burns off and few others are about. Getting in ten or fifteen miles before breakfast can be even more invigorating than the couple of cups of coffee she liked to start each day with.

I was sorry Henrik and I weren't headed the same direction. At least he was able to brief me on the road ahead. He thought it possible to make it to Phnom Phenh in the eleven hours of light available, though it had taken him two days. The Germans managed it in one, but they said they completed the last few miles in the dark. Henrik said the road improved the closer I got to Phnon Phnenh. He thought that if I crossed the Mekong by noon I ought to make it to Phnom Phenh before dark. But I had to cross the Mekong by ferry, and if I had to wait long for it, I could lose some valuable time.

My first few miles this morning were on smooth gravel until I came to a makeshift bridge that had been slightly washed out. It was semi-blocked by a truck that had gone off it the night before. Only two-wheeled traffic could presently cross the bridge until the truck was moved. There had been a hard rain the night before, so the dirt section ahead was muddy and slimy. I had to stop and clean my fenders all too often. I was on the verge of removing them, as I had done in Bolivia, just when the road improved.

After an hour-and-a-half and thirteen miles I stopped for breakfast. As I was eating a young girl came by with a basket full of potato and banana fritters on her head. I jumped out to buy one of each. I handed her 25 cents not knowing if I was to get change or not. When she started packing up, the woman running the restaurant interceded and made the little girl give me full value--three of each.

Henrik the night before had raved about how good the Cambodians are. Several times he said, "They will not cheat you." I had been cheated at the border, however, by some woman changing money. She tricked me by including several 5,000 riel bills among a stack of 10,000 notes that she counted out for me. They are the same blue color, and she had turned over the 5,000 notes so that I couldn't see that they weren't tens. She short-changed me 25,000 riel, about six dollars. But getting cheated at the border doesn't really count.

The road improved after breakfast and I soon had my average speed up to over ten miles per hour and then after drafting a motorbike to over eleven miles per hour. I made the forty miles to the Mekong by ten and was sitting very pretty, especially if the next 36 miles were better than the first forty. I only had to wait ten minutes for the ferry, which was plenty long as a couple of ten year old boys smoking cigarettes clung close to me. I'd seen ten year olds driving motorbikes in Vietnam, but none smoking. The people here are nice, but many are as disheveled as the roads.

Henrik was right about the run in to Phnom Phenh being good. There were only a couple of short breaks in the sealed road. The road was narrow, which made it perilous the last few miles as traffic increased. I nearly suffered culture shock when I suddenly turned on to a six-lane wide, boulevard, smooth as a baby's fanny, with each lane marked but a freshly painted dotted white line. It followed the Mekong into the heart of the city. It was shockingly modern, and equally shocking was the abundance of SUVs. There was more four-wheeled traffic than Hanoi and Saigon combined. But there were hardly any motorbikes, so the roads were relatively calm. I was liking this place quick and look forward to immersing myself in it for a couple of days, doubly glad not to have been stuck in Saigon for an extra day. My early start and determined riding got me to Phnon Phenh by 2:30. After fretting I might not make it by dark, I felt genuinely triumphant. It was another great day on the bike.

Later, George

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Xuac Loc

Friends: December arrived and the rains have left us. We headed inland today and for the first time in four nights we won't be spending the night by the beach. Last night we camped for the first time in Vietnam and the night before we had a bungalow at the edge of the beach. But it is hot. We are south of Bangkok and we are being fried, though not baked as we were when we arrived nearly two months ago.

The road turned wide and smooth once we got within 300 miles of Saigon, fairly comparable to what it was in the north. We had been warned there was more traffic in the south. Wrong information again, at least so far. Besides having less traffic, it is also much more peaceable than it was in the north. There is minimal horn tooting and minimal recklessness, though we did see an overturned semi-truck this afternoon that had been hauling sugar cane.

Sugar cane juice has been our special treat the past two days. There are carts along the road with a machine that squeezes the juice out of the stalks. Poured into a glass of ice with a squeeze of lime, it is a heavenly nectar that we are always happy to come upon. Its impossible to have only one glass and hard to stop, even after three or four. Its not always easy letting the vendor know we want a second glass, but after we've had a second glass, all we need do is hand our glass back and hold up a finger. Evidently not many touring cyclists come this way, otherwise the sellers would recognize a bonanza whenever he saw one.

It was a pair of Germans cyclists who told us about them a couple of days ago. We met them as we were checking in to the beach bungalow. They were heading the opposite direction and were also ready to call it a night. They had been on the road eight months, biking all the way from Germany except hopping over Burma from India to Bangkok. They were on a much tighter budget than ours and weren't willing to pay ten dollars, even for such an idyllic setting. They were in the process of bargaining for a tent space. They were willing to pay three dollars. If denied, they would just go down the road and pitch their tent. They were actually on one of the few stretches along Highway One where that was possible. We were hoping to share their company this evening and were delighted when their resolve was rewarded. We were even more delighted to learn that they had biked through Cambodia and were nonplussed by its so-called horrendous roads. They acknowledged they were bad, but they were not a horror they were still trying to recover from. They had actually biked the 150 miles from Phnom Phenh to Saigon in two days. From the stories we had been hearing, we thought we'd be lucky to do it in three days.

They were very drained and tired, having battled a strong head wind all day, one of the worst of their trip, while we had enjoyed the best tail wind by far of our trip on our first rain free day in over two weeks. They said they'd only averaged 19 kph for 120 kilometers (just under 12 miles per hour for 75 miles), and they had battled tooth and nail, heads down, wheel to wheel, drafting one another in all all out effort as if they were chasing after Lance Armstrong towing their countryman Jan Ulllrich in the Tour de France with their national honor and millions of dollars at stake. They weren't looking forward to the same wind the next day and were quite angry at themselves for not researching this part of their trip better. If they had known the winds prevailed from the north they would have chosen a different route.

Their average speed was quite good considering the conditions. They wanted to know how fast we had flown with such a hefty wind at our backs. It had to be better than 20 miles per hour they were certain. I was sorry to tell them our average speed was only a little better than theirs, 12.7 miles per hour. We had simply drifted along with the wind rather than seizing it and frolicking. I knew it was a dangerous thing to waste such a rare wind. The biking gods so very rarely grant such a wind, there could be repercussions for not taking full advantage of it. I have let Laurie set the pace in our 2,000 plus miles so far and though she has exceptional stamina, easily sitting on the bike for stretches of up to three hours without stopping, power is not among her strengths at this point. With a little exertion we could have averaged 18 miles per hour and spent less than five hours in the heat rather than the nearly seven hours it took us to come 84 miles. The Germans were quite bewildered and sympathetic.

They were the most seasoned of the touring cyclists we had met and had all the right sensibilities. It was a pleasure to watch them patiently await the verdict on where they would be spending the night. They had not a hint of desperation about them. They were perfectly content to go down the road and camp for free. And there was no quibbling between them. They were both 26, the same age I was when I took my first big trip, coast-to-coast across the US, 25 years ago. They had been touring together since they were 17 when they went from Berlin to Nice across the Alps. They laughed remembering how little they knew on that first trip, and also that none of their friends or family thought they could do it. They'd had several other bike trips together since then. The longest had been 1,200 miles up to the Nordkapp of Norway, the northern-most point in Europe beyond the Arctic Circle, a road I biked the summer before last. They knew of "The World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia and wanted to know all the details of my experience biking up it.


One of the highlights of their eight months of biking was crossing the highest pass in the world, over 18,000 feet, in India's Himalayas. We met someone else on this trip who had also biked it. It is now on my list of places to bike. Iran too after hearing how well Sebastion and Tobey had been treated there. They were invited in to someone's home practically every night and fed dinner and breakfast. Their hosts frequently called a friend down the road and arranged for them to stay with them the next night. The people were phenomenally friendly and generous. During their six weeks in Iran they spent only $60. In the market they were often undercharged as an act of hospitality.

After dinner at the restaurant in the hotel where we were staying, we were all still hungry, so we went down the road to another restaurant for another dinner. Touring cyclists don't bar hop, we restaurant-hop. After our second dinner, we retreated to the beach for more conversation. They by-passed the renowned ruins of Ankar Wat in Cambodia, as they didn't care to pay $20 to see them. Plus they try to avoid areas that attract tourists. Like me, they skipped the Taj Mahal in India even though they were within one hundred miles of it. They had evolved as touring cyclists to such a level that they enjoyed prolonged climbs. Sebastion had achieved such a consciousness before this trip began, but it wasn't until they came to the Himalayas that Tobey could now say he no longer dreaded the mountains and could enjoy, or at least find some satisfaction in, prolonged climbing. It happened to Laurie too on this trip, as we climbed the Sea Cloud Pass. She discovered it wasn't as demanding as she feared it would be, and could end the climb with a smile of accomplishment.

Sebastion and Tobey spoke with no boastfulness. They had an inner satisfaction and felt no urge to impress anyone. It's always uplifting to meet such genuine monks of the touring cyclist brotherhood. I haven't met very many. It takes years and thousands of miles to gain such standing. They were the first of this trip. It is a joy to know that they have many years ahead of them to spread the gospel. They were both taking a year off from school before they completed their degrees in law and mechanical engineering. They have no idea what they will do when they graduate or how much cycle touring is in their future, just that it will always be an important part of their lives.

Later, George

Sunday, December 1, 2002

Nha Trang

Friends: Greetings from Nha Trang, the Acapulco of Vietnam, a city of 300,000 with a fabulous wide beach that goes on for miles and a bay dotted with a handful of mountainous islands. I don't know if there are cliff divers here, but there are dive shops aplenty and tourist agencies offering boat trips. There are also plenty of hotels and a few Westerners on the loose even though this is not the time of year to be in a beach town. We are overdue for a rest day, having come some 450 miles since getting off the train in Hue a week ago. The mileage isn't too impressive, but that much of it was done in the rain and on roads in various stages of repair and construction, made the mileage seem more like a thousand.

Laurie found us her dream hotel. We have a room with a bath and a balcony that overlooks the ocean. And right across the street is a vegetarian restaurant. We both immediately unpacked all our gear and laid them about to dry. Even my impenetrable Ortlieb panniers were penetrated by today's deluge, our worst yet as it was accompanied by a head wind that lashed the rain in to us. And to compound our misery, it came on the worst of the roads we have been on--a gravel road pocked with so many pot holes there was no clean, straight line through the maze. Passing trucks bouncing through the lunar landscape splashed mucky water on us from head to heels. Our drive trains (chains and freewheels) were grating horrendously from all the grit. Only if it had been a cold rain could it have been any worse.

Rather than counting from one to a hundred in various languages, as Laurie sometimes does on the more difficult climbs, she said she was imagining coming upon a couple of touring cyclists in the rain back in Chicago as she was driving in her pick-up truck and rescuing them. She said she put them in her truck and drove them to her apartment for the night. She imagined they were Swedish, so she could take them to her favorite Swedish bakery in Andersonville, and that they were movie buffs so she could also take them to Facets that night. And on and on she embellished the scenario trying to take her mind off our nightmare.

"At least its not as bad as the speed boat," I commented. Laurie wasn't prepared to make such a concession. She had more worries than I did, with her less than water-proof panniers and a bike that hadn't been cooperating--chain falling off, derailleur with limited range and flat tires. Still, she plugged on without a whimper. I couldn't feel miserable accompanied by such a courageous and uncomplaining traveling partner. If I'd been on my own, I might have been lamenting my lot, but since I wasn't alone in misery, I didn't feel so miserable. I could think of the cold rains I had endured in New Zealand and Alaska and Bolivia's Altiplano and Norway's Arctic and be happy I didn't have hypothermia to worry about here. Plus I knew I wouldn't have to camp in this rain or have to try to dry out my gear in a tent. Our only worry was covering the 76 miles we needed to ride before dark, which was becoming a concern as a head wind persisted. Eventually it relented and so did the rain, at least intermittently. For miles we had been plodding along at ten miles per hour. That computed to seven-and-a-half hours on the bike to go 76 miles. We had little more than nine hours of light, as we didn't start biking until eight a.m. After a late lunch our speed picked up, even though it was still raining and not lightly, and we did the final 30 miles, which included some climbing, in two-and-a-half hours, beating the dark by half an hour.

For 20 minutes we were accompanied by a quartet of teen-aged boys we could have done without. Even though we pass hundreds of cyclists every day, rarely do any try to ride along with us for more than a minute or two. As we approached these guys, I could sense they could be today's tormentors. They indeed sped up and began pelting us with the usual "What is your name?", then would snicker amongst themselves before we could reply. Even after we tried to disarm them by answering and asking their names, they continued the "What is your name?" barrage, much to their own amusement. They also took turns riding up along side Laurie and feasting their eyes on her bare legs and clinging bike shorts. And they, like others, pointed out the pair of tattoos on her right calf. Laurie paid no attention. Only once or twice has she cringed at someone who got a little too fresh. These guys, as 99.9% of the cyclists we have encountered, were riding one-speed clunkers. They had to pedal furiously to keep up with us. The Vietnamese aren't the best of bike handlers in such situations and always have us more than a little wary. Fortunately these aren't regular occurrences. Its just teen-aged boys being teen-aged boys feeding off one another. This occasional harassment is always a group activity, never that of a lone provocateur.

Once again we wish we were world travelers without any deadlines, as it would be nice to spend a week here or at least a couple of days. But we'll just have to content ourselves with one. We're 300 miles from Saigon and then its 400 miles across Cambodia to Thailand and another 120 miles to Bangkok. We have no time to tarry if we wish to make our Dec. 24 flight and see some of the sites along the way. Yesterday in Tuy Hoa we encountered a couple of 50-year old Vietnamese who were proud to tell us they had fought with the Americans. One had been a translator earning $1,000 a month. After the war his earnings fell to $20 a month. Dai Lanh had a most beautiful beach and bay itself. We could easily envision a Club Med sprouting up there one of these years.

The past couple of days the road has occasionally swung west towards the ocean and hugged or risen above a rugged coastline for a few miles. Rarely have we had a glimpse of the ocean, or South China Sea as it is called, as the road stays inland on firmer ground, passing through mile after mile of marshy rice paddies dotted with farmers and water buffalo. The terrain is green, greener and greenest and perfectly flat. Along this scenic stretch we passed two different groups of touring cyclists, about a dozen each, on supported rides, not having to carry their gear. One was a group of graying French men, who happened to be staying at our hotel one night. Unfortunately, none of them spoke English, or cared to admit to. Laurie was too flummoxed from a two-flat tire day to try her French out on them, so we weren't able to learn about their trip. As much as it is a truism that touring cyclists immediately bond, it is equally true that cyclists who are paying someone to carry their gear and look after their every need pointedly ignore the independent, unsupported rider. These French guys on their spiffy, light-weight, $2,000 racing bikes left the next morning by bus to pass up a rough stretch we had to muddle through, otherwise we might have been able to ride with them a bit and force them to talk to us. We both departed the hotel at the same time. Not even any of their wives ventured to have a word with us. We haven't had the opportunity to ride with another touring cyclist, legitimate or otherwise, since we left the Aussies back in Laos nearly a month ago.

We have spent three of our last four nights in rather nondescript cities of 80,000 to 180,000 people that have been virtually free of westerners. It has been a pleasure to wander their streets after dark and startle the locals by our presence. We do not tire of the suddenly blurted "hello" from a passing bicyclist, usually a young woman or small child who has spotted us ahead and are excited to use their English on us, almost as if it is a magic trick. And we are happy to respond and prove they do have the gift of magic. There is none of that here in Nha Trang though, as westerners are in ample supply and not a curiosity.

A very popular item in these parts this rainy time of the year are semi-disposable ponchos that sell for 33 cents. We first saw them being sold by strolling vendors in the tourist-infested town of Hoi An. I assumed they were one of those products meant for tourists. But ever since, we have noticed them dangling from road side stalls and sold by vendors even in areas unfrequented by westerners. The rains come and go all day. One can get caught out unprepared and the ponchos are a very handy item. We see many bicyclists and motorcyclists wearing these cheap and flimsy coverings. Some wear heavier and more authentic ponchos of various colors. People on motorbikes often drape these semi-translucent ponchos over their headlights. At night they give their headlights a green or blue or red or yellow hue. When they are in hoards, it is another of those surreal Vietnamese images.

Later, George