Day 29: Bangkok Eastern Station to Velo Thailand: The 1000 mile Journey

The final leg: Ban Phe to Bangkok

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Distance: 14km

Total: 1602.4km

Thai FOD: Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonized by an European country. In fact, in the Thai language, the name of the country is Prathet Thai which means “land of the free.

Everyday Randomness: on the day you end a cycling tour and you’re already missing the bike!

There was some kick off my chili soup for breakfast this morning so I was all prepped for our bus from Ban Phe to Bangkok. The journey felt like a quick enough four hours, but I suppose the snooze in the middle may have helped with that!

We were of course dreading the cycle from Bangkok bus station to Velo Thailand as it had been so grim the first time. However, I’m relieved to report that this time the commute was completed in half the time and with a lot less stress!

It’s not that we were more experienced or anything but more so the fact that the Garmin was able to navigate to Velo Thailand very easily and the traffic was so much less suffocating. In fairness in Bangkok, which I heavily critised on the first day, it obviously isn’t always horrendous to cycle there. In particular, motorists there really do respect the hand signals and are pretty obliging!

The handover to Velo Thailand was as smooth as they go so I would highly recommend them to anyone! That marked the end of our 1000 mile bike tour across three different countries, in so many different terrains and through so many varied ways of living. North Cambodia was all about the destinations and not so much the journeys. Vietnam was both, as well as being a wonderful trip down memory lane for us. Cycling in Thailand (let’s forget about Bangkok) was unexpectedly charming and excellent value! As Thailand is more developed in terms of tourism it is that bit more difficult to experience “real Thailand” so for me this aspect of the tour far exceeded my expectations!

Luckily the hostel was only 150m down the road (Back Home Backpackers) and is a great place to both relax and sample some of Bangkok’s night life! My final bit of advice is that I would highly recommend taking the local ferry in Bangkok as it is highly entertaining and extremely cheap and well serviced when compared to taxis/tuk tuks!

We’re currently here having some well needed rest and recreation:

It’s hard to know what to say at the end of such a vibrant and varied experience; just that money can’t buy a huge amount of what we saw and learned so get pedalling!

PS Currently considering a mini tour in and around Chiang Mai so stay tuned!

Day 25: Kampot to Koh Kong: A Good Decision

Kampot to Koh Kong

Cambodian FOD: before it became a member of the world trade organisation, copyright protection was almost non existent in Cambodian. This lead to a host of copycat fast food chains such as Khmer Fried Chicken, Pizza Hot and Burger Queen.

Everyday Randomness: having ice cream made from a type of sweet potato!

We had no yearning desire to go to Sihanoukville as it sounded like a more sleazy, less interesting version of the Thai islands we would be on very shortly. I’m not sure why but Cambodia seems to be a lot quieter in the low season when compared to Vietnam or Thailand. Therefore Sihanoukville could really lack any kind of atmosphere.

So instead we had decided to cycle Bokor Mountain yesterday and get the bus to Koh Kong. This turned out to be an excellent decision for a number of reasons: the nice 55km of the road was under construction and so would have been a nightmare on the bike, the views from the “nice” part of the cycle were no where near as good as those that we had seen from the cruise/mountain and there was a literal thunderstorm at about 11 in the mountains which to be honest would have been pretty scary and definitely uncomfortable! 

The bikes fitted into the mini van like a glove, once the front wheels were removed which brought considerable entertainment to the locals! The journey was a good bit shorter than anticipated and for a door to door service was an absolute bargain at $11 including a bike! The bus company was vibol transport which has an office near the bus and taxi station in Kampot.i had some time on the bus to do some running repairs on my Ireland flag patches after the sad realisation that I had lost my mini Irish flag! By far the worst thing to happen on the trip so far!

We’re staying at Ritthy’s Retreat Guesthouse which is a scandalous €6 euro a night for a private double!! We went to the wildlife cafe for lunch and I had what I assume will be the first of many Pad Thai, the squid was easily the highlight of the meal! Although the ice cream dessert was both very good value and tasty. The lime packed a punch but was perfect when combined with the strawberry! The taro (sweet potato type) was surprisingly good and admittedly did not taste at all like a vegetable!

After a few games of pool, we went to get an actual bag of cans. Not for the alcohol per se but because a lot of the bars don’t serve much variety in terms of beers so we wanted to taste the stout. We got a 6% and a 8% stout so maybe the trip was for the alcohol!!

We needed some street food in our lives and the local place at the roundabout was doing a roaring trade! Seemed like we were definitely bottom of the rung in terms of priority because it took an age for the food to get to us! It was ok though because a friendly neighbour was teaching us all the Khmer words for chopsticks and anything he could see really, all of which were instantaneously forgotten! After, we tried to see if there was any craic to be had but it turns out that our own place was one of the busiest places in town so we headed back there!

To Thailand tomorrow!

Day 24: Bokor Mountain: 30km Ascent

Cycling up Bokor Mountain

Distance: 90.2km

Total: 1295km

Cambodian FOD: the building of the original road through dense jungle up to the top of Bokor Mountain (1080m) claimed 900 lives in 9 months during its construction.

Everyday Randomness: getting our first sugarcane juice in the most remote of places on top of the Bokor Mountain!

Sustainance was the focus this morning as we presumed food options on a 30km ascent of a mountain would be few and far between. A noodle soup in Jack’s Place was good value and the coffee was generously poured. They also have an adorable dog 

Bokor National Park is 7km from Kampot which is the perfect warm up for the legs. We passed a house that was completely purple,even the roof and I was half expecting to hear “Purple Rain” proudly bellowing from the window! It’s free to enter on a bicycle probably because they already know how much pain you have ahead of you! 

We passed the English couple we met last night sitting cross-legged in the grass; their motorbike had broken down! Fortunately, another one was on the way but as they were leaving for Pnomh Penh at 2pm it wasn’t ideal. “Race to the top” we said as we pedalled on.

The ascent was sublime. By far thee best ascent (and longest) I have ever completed. The new road is only 3 years old and is in excellent condition and is perfectly graded (sloped) all the way up. There is a steep kick at the very top but that’s necessary for a climatic sense of achievement.

The weather was ideal as we rose for the first 20km or so; overcast with a cooling breeze and a hint of an eery mist as we got closer to the abandoned town. The mist became less of a hint and more of a reality, like cycling through the clouds, until eventually we were in proper rain. Thankfully, some of the heavier downpours occurred when we were at the one water stop on the mountain so we were sheltered.

You start to get cold alarmingly quickly, so we braved it and headed out. It began to clear up shortly after that and we had most of the climbing done at that point so it really wasn’t that grim at all! You couldn’t be homesick for Irish weather after it, that’s for sure!

Throughout the ascent we were greeted with downright shock, disbelief and admiration. One tourist on a motorbike bike just nodded his head a few times as he went past in a tone of “fair play”. Little do they know that I have struggled far more with climbs in Ireland, where the gradient and road conditions are so much tougher. When we reached the summit we even had a few people come up to us and congratulate us, I’d say they thought we’d never make it!

The top of the mountain was once a resort for the wealthy French who wanted to retreat from the humidity. It was then abandoned, but became a strategic point in the battle between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese as it had unobstructed views of a large area. The Khmer Rouge held out in the old casino while the Vietnamese shot at them from the Catholic church. Evidence of both of these times as well was King Shinanouk’s retreat are still present and do have an innate sense of timelessness about them. However, Sihanouk built Cambodia’s first casino and unfortunately that trend continued when this most obnoxious of resorts was built. Worryingly the old casino is being renovated/restored and another casino and hotel are being built which will definitely negativly impact the ambiance but for the moment most of these developments can be ignored and the original atmosphere sampled. 

It’s easy to see why two horror movies have been shot up here as the mist seems to cling to the buildings:

The view from the old casino is as expansive as it gets with the dense jungle occupying most of the neighbouring area. It felt like a through back to what a huge portion of Cambodia used to look like until the massive problem of deforestation took a hold of the country. 

We managed to get some pot noodles to keep us ticking over as we explored the top of the mountain. We gifted ourselves with some extra climbing by going to the waterfall but it was a worthwhile excursion! The river was unexpectedly powerful given that I presume it’s source was located nearby. It was a beautiful setting for many of the locals who were picnicing. They would put our flasks of tea and crisp sandwiches to shame as they cracked into piles of rice and enough crabs to feed a couple of families!! Seriously impressive! 

A free drink came with the waterfall entry ticket (which was 75cent) so we opted for the sugarcane juice as we have been meaning to try it since last year! It’s like honeydew melon juice but that bit sweeter and thus that bit nicer! I can see why the locals love it so much as it’s refreshing without being sickly sweet! I got a picture of the juice extracting process; it’s really surprising how much liquid comes from the deceptively dry looking canes!!

With 45km done it was about time to head down the mountain and get some real food into us! I’m pretty sure the reason I love cycling is because of the feeling of descending on a bike. When you’re good and lean into the turns it feels like the movement you make while skiing and you can get into a satisfying swinging rythm. Of course there’s just the raw thrill of it as well. Wind rushing past you, the concentration needed which each turn and the speed of the straighter sections. The headwind acted as a natural pacer meaning that brakes were seldomly required. The road was quiet as we had missed the minibus tours, so we could choose our lines coming into the turns which is a rare experience! I haven’t even mentioned the views! The sun was shining at this point and the views were uninhibited by the mist so we had asecended in cloud and descended in the sun; ideal.

Pedaling back to Kampot gave us a bit of time to take in what was one of my best days on the bike. An epic of a day.

Speaking of epic, the club sandwich (essentially) we had at Jack’s Place was quite epic in itself and a great option for a 3:15pm lunch! After showering, we said we better actually buy some Kampot Pepper before we left! Supermarkets sell pepper thats actually from another part of Cambodia or even Vietnam so weavoided those. We tried the Kampot Pepper shop as we wanted something that was real but not the top end stuff as we’ll leave that to the Michelan star restaurants. Ideally, they had grade B real Kampot Pepper which was pretty much exactly what we were looking for. I’ve an extra 500 grams on my bike now but sure it’ll be worth it for the extra kick in taste for our cooking at home!

Lebanese was what we had for dinner which was an unexpected and highly enjoyable meal to say the least. Unfortunately, I was too hungry to take a picture but we ate a chicken schwarma and falafel plate with a very generous serving of hummus and seriously good garlic. The owner of Aroma house has a very homely friendliness and the restaurant’s pet chicken is just hilarious. It was a much appreciated meal after a busy day!

We headed to the Magic Sponge for some live music, where the staff are super attentive in a good way. The singer-“songwriter” was well quite mediocre and his own songs were pretty cringe for someone nearing 40. The guy who followed him was absolutely outstanding on the guitar. Even though his lyrics weren’t too inspiring, his guitar melodies more than made up for them! The two guys formed a impromptu duo which was probably the best part of the evening! A seasoned expat brought his saxophone along and endearingly chimed in with a few notes every so often after patiently waiting his turn. The music ended with a medley of songs, in fairness to them you couldn’t fault them for effort and it can be tough to get live music in Asia so it was an entertaining ole night all the same! 

Day 23: Kep to Kampot: Pepper Plantation

Kep to Kampot: Pepper Plantation

Distance: 36.5km

Total: 1204.8km

Cambodian FOD: Kampot Pepper is famous all over the world and kilo of it in France can cost €200! There are four types of pepper. Green pepper is harvested unripe, red is harvested just ripe, black is dried on the stalk, and white pepper comes from rubbing off the outmost layer of the red pepper corn.

Everyday Randomness: going into the pepper drying room and coming out and feeling cool in 28 degrees!! 

I should have known with the French influence that we would get crepes today as opposed to pancakes. They were light and limey; a suitably light breakfast!

It was then time to say goodbye to our lovely bungalow retreat and head to the pepper plantation on the way to Kampot. Not before we got our Dragon fruit cut for us, which I was very happy about because it actually weighs quite a lot!

Down a dirt track, which is a road compared to the sand of yesterday, resided the organic pepper plantation; sothy’s pepper farm. It’s run by a German and Cambodian which explains the impressive solar cooker. It was a peaceful spot when we arrived and our tour was given by a French guy who was volunteering there for a week. I’ll describe it in detail in the next section but as a summary: a very educational experience which describes the whole process and the farm had a very communal atmosphere.

I had no idea there were four types of pepper. In my mind it’s black, and I have used white pepper the odd time but that’s the extent of it. We tasted all types, the green was my favourite as it is softer due to the fact that it is fermented. It means you can eat the whole peppercorn in a dish without wincing.

The others pack a punch and would definitely bring any meal to the next level, flavour wise. The red is a bit sweeter as it’s skin is kept on and that’s where all the nutrients are. The pepper vines are about 2 metres tall, pepper is picked when 20% has turned red (that’s why the red pepper is so expensive as 80% of the stalk goes to green/black pepper). The black pepper is dried at 58 degrees which I can say from experience is quite, quite hot! 

We got to taste lemongrass which was literally like eating the flavour of lemon zest in a grass form; unexpectedly tasty! They had just made mango jam on the farm the day before so we sampled that as well and it had a perfectly natural sweet taste. Mangos themselves are so sweet that only 5% of sugar was needed! As mentioned, the pepper is really expensive as every part of the process is done by hand, while being substantially cheaper here ($60/kg) we still didn’t have that kind of money so we’ll be going for the lower quality stuff in Kampot itself!

The 26km to Kampot flew by as we passed throngs of school children leaving school. Our guesthouse is pretty central, seems to have free laundry (!!!), and is only €7 for a room! Really friendly owners as well!

We ate lunch at Captain Chim’s for a return to Khmer food and conviently it was were we were booking our sunset cruise! It was a tasty return to coconut milk-based curries, something that Vietnam doesn’t have at all.

After we stopped off for a coffee in the Epic Arts Cafe which hires and supports people who are disabled. It’s a cosy, happy spot with every smiling staff!! We finished with a vanilla cheesecake which was creamy and deliciously flavoured.

Sunset cruise with the opportunity to see fireflies and all while having a beer for $5? Definition of good value. Photo opportunity of me with a “bag of cans” which is a uniquely Irish thing and quite topical in Ireland  at the moment! There was a really chatting couple from London who were good craic and much better company than the other travellers on the list boat. Whatever the people, the views themselves would have been sufficient. Breathtaking and they changed with each corner we rounded.

As the sun set and it suddenly became dark our boat started backing quite forcefully into a tree. Alas, this was not due to the driver struggled with navigation but a method of “activating” as such the fireflies. They were tiny sparks in the trees which after some time glowed at the same frequency; eminating Christmas tree lights but all the more subtle and with an endearing tinkling. It was a mesmerising scene.

A relaxing float back to the town and a trip to the night market (well a street food stall) for a delicious beef and egg stir-fry for $1.50 was the next thing on our agenda. We walked along the riverfront taking it all in but there wasn’t one particular spot that took our fancy so we headed back to a bar with a pool table and a quick beer and a not so quick game of pool! 

Day 22: Ha Tien to Kep: Coastal Cruising

Ha Tien to Kep

Distance: 40.9km

Total: 1168.3km 

Cambodian FOD: there is a legend that cats are thought to be too perfect. As only Budda can be perfect, cats tails are chopped off! I don’t know if it’s true but there are a lot of cats with no tails here!

Everyday Randomness: Literally cycling through sand:

A fry for breakfast. Not a sentence I thought I’d be writing! This place is infamous for its breakfast and after tasty it I know why. The owner of the Oasis bar goes to Cambodia to buy real sausages and rashers from a British butcher who operates there!! The rashers would rival ones that you get at home and the entire meal was thoroughly enjoyed! The tomatoes were both plump and juicy; a step above the soggy version one usually gets at home!

We had our final Vietnamese coffee before crossing the border into Cambodia. We had been convinced to go to Kep along the Cambodian coast instead of spending as long in Kampot. It was an easy decision because the views around here are the best we’ve had so an opportunity to see a few more was one that we willingly took.

We almost got drawn into a common scam on the Cambodian side where they bring you into qaurantine for a “health check”. The form they get you to fill out is surprisingly official looking but once he started telling us to go over to the temperature sensor and with that we said thanks but we don’t need that, took our passports and walked out! Thankfully that was the only hassle we got and we were on our way in search of salt fields and the coast road.

One of the locals in the Oasis bar had told us how to find the coast road because the road wasn’t on open street maps and I can understand why! We turned onto a fairly standard Cambodian dirt track and literally battled through the head wind until we took a turn and saw these kids in the salt fields:

From there the road was sheltered by trees and we returned to a more acceptable pace. 

We found ourselves at the coast, and an expansive view fairly quickly:

From here, the “road” we were  supposed to take became quite ambiguous. Fortunately, the destination name of Kep is pretty easy to say so many locals pointing us in the right way as we traversed, sometimes by walking, to the coast road. It was some adventure!!

It was great to be on an actual road of sorts but we were seriously exposed to the unconstrained winds! We knew we were doing a short day on the bike so we were relaxed about going half the pace we would usually but it was tough enough going! There was randomly a massive horse statue which is beyond odd considering we haven’t seen an actual horse over here! 

The coast road joined with the main road which was empty besides tuk tuks transporting tourists to see the Crab statue (yes the tree does indicate wind strength):

We sailed along the smoothest surface we had all day into Kep’s main attraction: the crab market. We shared an enormous plate of crab while having the most spectacular views of the Gulf of Thailand. The crab was absolutely delicious in and of itself but the satay style green pepper sauce was also superb. Entertainment was provided by this fellow smacking the sea like there was no tomorrow! Apparently, it’s some form of fishing…!

We cycled out to our bungalow accomodation, the Rusty Keyhole! It is a beautiful spot in the middle of the grassy hills, with comfy chairs and a relaxed, friendly French owner.

After a beautiful sunset we decided to order a local dish (pepper and seafood of course) and their own speciality which is ribs! The seafood dish had a nice but subtle flavour and I’m not quite accustomed to eating about 100 whole peppercorns! The ribs, though lacking in actual rib none were scrumptious and there was plenty to go around as well! Served with a particularly good coleslaw! Looking forward to pancakes in the morning!

Day 12: Svay Rieng to Cu Chi

Svay Rieng to Cu Chi

Distance: 83km

Total: 688.6km

Cambodian FOD: Cambodia is economically weaker than Vietnam, leading Vietnamese people to refer to Cambodia as “its little brother”.

Everyday Randomness: meeting the morning ice block deliveries, sawing ice is not something I can get used to seeing!

We had our first Banh Mi of the trip for breakfast today, quite different from the ones we had previously but they were the only good breakfast option going!

We weren’t on a highway road until the Vietnam border which was very enjoyable even if the road surface was quite slow. We reached the border a bit after 10. We stocked up on water just before crossing as we didn’t have any Vietnamese Dong with us and didn’t know when we get to an ATM.

We sailed through border control with no issues. They had a separate area for motorbikes/bikes to the huge tour buses so there was virtually no queue.

Entering Vietnam instantly put a smile on my face. It’s great to be back in Vietnam. The first sight that greeted us as we cycled over the crossing was a guy in an Asian squat. It was so tough not to stop for a coffee in the myriad of places offering it but because we had no money we couldn’t!!!

The ATM situation was not looking very promising as we cycled through the first village or two but then about 6km from the border we entered a large town which had a few banks. Just as a note: we’ve found Sacombank to be the best as it has the lowest fees and allows you to take out a reasonable about of money (3 million dong).

We stopped in a place which was popular with the locals, once we tasted the food we realised why. We had wondered whether we had been looking back on our trip to Vietnam last year with rose tinted glasses and that it couldn’t have been that good? I can say after one day back here that it is every bit as good if not better than I remembered. Better in that we appreciate it more having been in Cambodia and a bit of Thailand. Not that they aren’t great, but there is something special about Vietnam.

Maybe it’s that you really struggle to find a bad meal here. Liam is delighted to be back to Vietnamese food anyway:

Fuelled and bouyed with enthusiasm we continued to Cu Chi, stopping briefly for a toilet break in which I struggled to remember if I was a “Nu” or a “Nam”. This of course reminded me of Michael McIntyre’s hilarious skit on going to the toilet in Ireland.

Cu Chi is famous for the underground tunnels that we built by the VC during the war with the French and the US. We stayed in Levy’s Hotel which was a huge improvement on the accommodation from the night before. We had a relaxed evening on the rooftop:

For dinner we went to the only place recommended on TripAdvisor which specialised in beef. The place was huge and very full. After struggling through the Vietnamese menu we were given an English version and chose the beef and saffron dish. This was served with literal fried rice, which was cut into pizza slices. It was an interesting meal, and nice for something different but I probably wouldn’t have it again!

Day 11: Pnomh Penh to Svay Rieng: Debut on Cambodian TV

Pnomh Penh to Svay Rieng

Distance: 127.2km

Total: 605.6km

Cambodiam FOD: It’s estimated there are still 4 million landmines still to be cleared in Cambodia.

Everyday Randomness: doing an interview for Cambodian TV on the side of the road!!!

Today was a day of “firsts”. First puncture in Asia. First ever pot noodle. First time on foreign TV!

The clouds teased with us today. It was seriously hot.  We were about 40km out from Pnomh Penh when this guy on a motorbike with very good English started talking to me. Then he took out a recording camera and started to record us cycling!! I called up to Liam to let him know that he was on TV and the guy asked us to pull in for an interview!

The whole event was very bizarre as the three of us huddled​ underneath a shop’s umbrella while the locals looked on! I’d say we’ll be on the equivalent of Cambodia’s Failte Ireland at some point, that’s if they can put add some good subtitles to the interview!

We powered through the first 60km but hugging the treeline. Maybe we were slightly too close to the trees as that’s when we had our first puncture. Liam had it fix fairly lively though and we were hardly delayed until we got to this seriously impressive bridge built by the Japanese. It was here that I spotted that the puncture repair hadn’t been successful.

At this point we were extremely exposed to the sun with no sign of any kind of shade. We continued over the bridge with whatever air was left in the tires. On the opposite side of the bridge a quick pump of the tire was given just to last an extra 10 minutes of cycling.

Thankfully very shortly after that we pulled into a petrol station, relieved to be out of the sun. The only food they had was pot noodle but at that point we would’ve taken anything! We were well looked after and our glowing red checks provided them with repayment through entertainment!

After changing the tube we were on the road again, this time the clouds were finally providing some much needed shade. That pot noodle ended up being our saving grace because food places were once again non existent! We stopped for a coke to avoid the heaviest part of the rain but to be honest we quite enjoyed the coolness it brought.

When we finally arrived in Svay Rieng which is a nothing place, finding the accommodation proved difficult. Stray dogs barking down the road it was supposed to be own didn’t help. I was also suffering a bit as a result of the many many hours out in the sun! Eventually we found the place, it was alright but there wasn’t much choice to be had!

We got ourselves cleaned and had food in the nearest place that was busy as this place doesn’t even feature on the lonely planet.

This place is the definition of a transition town while touring.

The day will always be remembered as the TV debut though!