Thursday, March 29, 2012

Going Back to Thailand

people crossing the border with handcarts
We are heading back to Thailand, either to stay for a while, or to bullet through to Malaysia, depending on the whims of the Immigration officer we encounter on the Thai side of the border. Since Colin is a fan of Formula 1, and the second race of the season is 25 March in Sepang (outside of Kuala Lumpur), and tickets for the race are cheaper than probably anywhere else on the circuit, it would be nice if we could go. On the other hand, we did just spend 40 bucks each on 60-day Thai visas whilst we were in Phnom Penh, so using them only for the three days it would take for us to ride from the Cambodian border down to Malaysia hardly seems cost effective. So, if I can explain our plight once we get to Thai Immigration, and if they opt not to stamp our visas and instead just give us the standard 15-day freebie visitor's stamp, we will head to Malaysia to see the race and go back to Thailand later.

Fully expecting another production at the Cambodian border, we left Battambang at 8:30am and rode for the border crossing at Poipet, which is notorious for being corrupt and problematic. The ride was hot, as expected,and brief (under three hours). Getting out of Cambodia, however, was easy and free, which we did not expect. No one had a hand out asking, demanding, even implying that we needed to pay a dime to get out. It was a nice change. While Colin looked for the Customs office to stamp our bike Carnets, I shopped in a small store, trying to spend all the riel we had left (under 5 USD worth). I felt like a winning contestant on the Wheel of Fortune when they still had the showcase of prizes (Oooh, I would like a soda for 3,000 riel, no, make it two cans. And then I'd like the peanuts for 3,500. How much do I have left, Pat? Okay, then I'll take a gum for 1,500, and with the final 500, I'll take that in the form of a gift certificate!). Once the retail pressure was off and our documents were all stamped, we headed for the Thai side.

We rode through no man's land, the strip of land between Thailand and Cambodia, belonging to neither, where casinos draw the Thai citizens to gamble their hard-earned baht away (since gambling is illegal in Thailand), and then we came to the “Welcome to Thailand” sign. We parked the bikes and got in the line for Immigration, along with about 3,257 other people. Seriously. There were two lines just to enter the building, and the guard would only allow ten people from each line to go in at a time. We stood outside for two hours before we finally made it to the front of the line. Yay! It's our stand in line inside...for another hour. At least I had plenty of time to practice my special request before I got there. Eventually, we did make it to the red line on the floor in front of one of the officer's desks. I said “sawadee kha,” or hello, to the woman at the desk, presented my passport, turned to the page with my virginal Thai visa, and explained that we would basically be transiting Thailand right now, but we will return and would like to use our visas for our return. She looked at my passport, repeated what I had just requested, paused a moment, and said....YES! She said yes! When she finished with me, I thanked her very much. Colin stepped up to the desk, and she did the same for him.

Our next stop was at Thai Customs to handle the bike paperwork. We were a bit concerned that we might encounter a problem when re-entering Thailand since we had neglected to get a form before we left. It turned out to be a non-issue though, and the Customs officers could not have been more helpful. Everything was filled out, copied, signed on the proper lines, and we had our copies in hand and were through the gate in roughly 30 minutes. It was now after 2:30pm. We are going to the RACES!

But first, we have to get all the way through Thailand, and halfway down the length of Malaysia. Our goal for this day was to make it as far as Ayuthaya, another 160 miles away. The roads in Thailand are, overall, beautiful, so we rode as fast as we could. We did run into a rogue thunderstorm and rode through the rain for about 1.5 miles. On the other side of the rain, the sky was much more overcast and made for a cooler, more pleasant ride. The sun was finally setting around 6:30 pm, and we still had 31 miles and a fuel stop to go. Several miles outside of Ayuthaya, we made our fuel stop and continued on to the city. By the time we arrived and found a place to crash for the night, it was already dark. We dropped our bags on the floor, washed our faces, and then went out in search of some grub. Had it not been such a marathon trip, we would have walked to the most excellent night market that sets up each evening in Ayuthaya. As it was, neither of us had the energy to walk more than a couple of blocks, so we found a small bar and cafe, sat at one of the tables outside, and ordered what turned out to be some really delicious curries and a big Chang. We slept hard.

Battambang and the Bamboo Train

submerged buffaloes
The next stop on our big adventure was Battambang. It's Cambodia's second largest city, although you'd never know it by visiting it. The city is on the south side of Tonle Sap, about 40 miles as the crow flies from Siem Reap. You can take a boat across the lake, but we decided to ride, so the distance is more like 100 miles. We got on the road fairly early, beating our way through the morning “rush hour” traffic of Siem Reap. The scenery included lots of rice paddy, lots of very dry fields, lots of flat land, and some water buffaloes and cattle. I did stop to take some photos of the water buffaloes that were submerged up to their snouts in what appeared at first glance from the road, to be just another green field. With the ease they moved through it, it must have been watery rather than thick mud, because one of them more or less bounded across the field toward another buffalo buddy. The ride was otherwise, fairly uneventful, with the exception of the strange whizzing noise (it makes me think of one of those clown whistles or something out of a Spike Jones and His City Slickers orchestral song) my bike made a couple of times. I have no earthly idea what it is. Colin thinks it may be a front wheel bearing. All I know is that it startles me when it happens, it happens when I am going about 45 mph, and that it stops when I slow to a stop and then start riding again.

Colin with his krolan
About halfway to Battambang, we stopped at one of a long string of roadside stands to buy a snack for lunch. At each of the stands, women sell bamboo tubes of various sizes which are filled with a combination of sticky rice, black beans, and coconut. This mixture is packed into hollow lengths of bamboo and a wad of leaves is stuffed in the open end as a seal. The bamboo is then cooked, or more like, smoked, over a fire for approximately 90 minutes. They then peel off the really burnt outer layer of bamboo, leaving the rice concoction in just the thin, inner layer of the bamboo. It's called krolan, and it is supposedly a favorite snack in northern Cambodia. The rice is very glutinous on its own, and when you add coconut milk to the cooking process, it really sticks together. To eat it, you peel the bamboo away from the rice and pop bits of it in your mouth. It's slightly sweet, slightly salty (I assume from the beans?), and chewy. We like it too!

We arrived in Battambang in the early afternoon and followed the GPS directions to the Royal Hotel. I went in to check out our room options and found myself pulled to select an utterly palatial room with a queen bed, comfy chairs, wood furniture, a fridge, A/C and a turbo ceiling fan, and a private balcony. The man at reception offered it first at 20 USD per night (very pricey for Cambodia) then at 18 USD when I hesitated, compared to 15 USD for the smaller and much less posh regular A/C room. We settled on 17.50 per night, and Colin settled in while I walked around the corner to check out the local market. I returned with fruit and some delicious iced coffee to snack on. Later in the afternoon, we went out for a walk along the river.

loading the Symbas for a train ride!
Battambang doesn't get a whole lot of attention in the world traveler market, which is a shame. It's kind of a lovely city, the people seem rather easy going and friendly, and there are some good Angkor-era ruins nearby. The reason we, and I believe most people, venture here, is to ride on the nori, or bamboo train. If you hadn't noticed, we look for opportunities to put our bikes and ourselves on or in unique transportation situations, and the bamboo train sounded perfect. All it is, is a platform made out of bamboo slats which is set on a pair of bogeys, one of which is belt-driven by an industrial engine. This setup runs on the old single track and is used by locals to transport goods and people to and fro. 

We're ready to roll
Since they are not tied to a “schedule,” the noris are bound to run into each other on the tracks. Problem, right? You would think so, but no. As single cars, and being so lightweight and simple, when they meet on the tracks, the one carrying the lighter load simply unloads and disassembles the nori, moving in off to the side of the tracks to allow the other to pass. Once the one has rolled past the disassembled nori, the driver stops and helps put the other one back together before continuing on its way. Cool, huh? You bet! The bamboo train these days is largely used to transport tourists up and down maybe a ten-mile section of tracks, but the locals do use it as well. 

playing chicken on the tracks with oncoming train
Colin and I rode our motorbikes out to the station and purchased one-way tickets for ourselves and our bikes from the tourist policeman. Then, two men lifted each of the bikes onto a nori, and we hopped on in the front, and off we went. It was an absolute kick in the pants!!!! the morning was sunny and hot, and the breeze felt great. 

disassembling the train
 The train only moves at maybe 10 mph, but it feels like you're rolling at 45 mph. No section of track is straight, and many of them don't actually even meet, so you bump and clank and clatter past cows, over really rickety, partially rotted away bridges, through the trees and shrubs. Shortly after we started moving, Colin and I were already plotting how to make one of our very own. We both smiled and felt like little kids the whole time! We are now in love with a new mode of transportation. We did meet two other oncoming trains on our journey, and both times, we won, being the heavier load. We watched as the passengers got off, and the drivers of our train and the oncoming one took off the motor, then set the platform to the side, then took the bogeys off the tracks. Our “engineer” got back on and we moved past and stopped again, while he helped reassemble the other train. It was awesome!

the view from the top of Phnom Sampeau
Sadly, our train ride came to an end, and two men rolled our bikes off the train. We rode down the dirt roads through fields and farms, to find Phnom Sampeau, which is a mountain with a temple complex about ten miles south of Battambang. We followed the GPS directions and soon found ourselves at the base of the hill. When we were flagged down by the parking attendants, my GPS said we were still more than a mile from the top of the hill. The parking attendants insisted that we were not allowed to ride up the hill and that we had to park our bikes. I gestured at all the other motorbikes and cars that drove by, but apparently, farang can't ride up the hill, because of course, there are handy motorbike taxis for you to take. Grr. Instead, we locked our gear and helmets to the bikes and walked up the hill under the noon sun. As my dad would say, only mad dogs and Englishmen... . We slowly trudged up the hill and eventually made it to the top. We stopped to see a wat partway up the hill that had some cool caves attached before reaching the Was Phnom Sampeau at the top of the hill. Here we were treated to panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and some pretty temples to boot.

the hidden valley
We also climbed down the steps to the hidden valley at the top of the mountain. I don't know how many steps it was down into the valley, but it seemed like twice as many on the way back up. Between the heat, humidity, and all the walking, we were both well and truly knackered. We decided to take a break and eat a watermelon before we walked back down to the bikes. For our return journey, we took the steps down the mountain, of which there were supposed to be more than 1,000. Once we made it back to the bikes, we were hot and tired. We rode back into town to cool off at the hotel and work on Thailand plans.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Truly an Adventure Ride to Beng Melea

The next day we got up, had breakfast downstairs, and rode out to see the temples at Koh Ker and Beng Melea. Koh Ker was supposedly one of the most difficult temples to get to until they recently built a toll road to it. Since it's only about 80 miles from Siem Reap, we figured it would be a nice, easy destination for a day trip, with a stop to see the temple at Beng Melea on the way. 

Our GPS map of the region did not show Koh Ker, so we consulted our map, which is apparently older than the road we were looking for. We knew from our reading that we should turn onto the new road at the town of Dam Dek, and that it is approximately 10 miles from Siem Reap. We rode east, toward Dam Dek, but never saw any signs for it. At about the 10 mile mark, we found a very new looking highway that would take us north, with signs for Anlong Veng. Knowing that's north of where we were, and that we needed to go north and east, we made the turn. We rode, and rode some more (about 20 miles) through the dried out countryside, without seeing any signs for Beng Melea or Koh Ker. Beginning to get concerned that we were not on the right road, I beeped my horn and signaled for Colin to pull over. “Are you sure we're on the right road?” I asked him. He shrugged, smiled, and said he didn't know. He consulted the GPS again and saw that we were due west of Beng Melea by about 15 miles.

Cambodia "Highway" 67
It also showed that the road we were on was Highway 67, and that about seven miles south, we could take Highway 66 to Beng Melea. We made a U-turn, headed back south, and shortly found ourselves on “Highway” 66. The road started out promisingly enough, it was two lanes wide and was hard-packed dirt and gravel. The hard-pack did not last long. We soon found ourselves on a road that continued to narrow, and the road surface was now largely two to three-inch deep sand. We slithered and snaked our way down the road and then came to an area of deep mud in the middle of a field. 

We continued on, and a short while later, we came to a very rudimentary bridge that crossed a narrow stream. The bridge surface was only inches above the water, and it was made out of scrap lumber and half-rounds of trees. Since Re's lighter, I sent her across first. At least we wouldn't have far to fall. Prior to this bridge, there had been tire tracks left by four-wheeled vehicles, but after this bridge, there were only motorcycle tracks in the dirt. The highway also narrowed to a single lane and wound its way through people's fields, past their houses, and occasionally, through the trees. We weren't making very good time as we bumped and bounced our way over the sometimes hard ground and slid our way through the sand washes. 

In the trees, we came upon another bridge that was a little scarier than the last one. It was made entirely of half-rounds of trees, but the ravine that it spanned was eight to nine-feet deep. This time, I elected to go first, and when I pulled out onto the center board, I was dismayed when the board flexed downward under my weight. But, I hate to backtrack, so over it I went. Of course, it held. I am sure that dozens of motorbikes cross it every day. Maybe a mile farther, we came across a small pond where the road should be. Not sure that we wanted to tackle this on our little bikes, we backtracked to see if there was an alternate route. No luck, there were streams on either side of the road, so we either had to go through, or we had to backtrack all the way back to Highway 67. 

I may have mentioned my aversion to backtracking. We scouted the water and could see that there were some motorbike tire tracks in the mud, but we could not tell how deep the muddy water was in the center. The right shoreline looked like our best opportunity, but it was choked with trees, brush, and some prickly vines. I walked out part way and removed some of the dead branches that hung into the water while the mud sucked my boots in. The water didn't appear deeper than ten inches or so near the shore, so we decided to go for it.

 After giving Re a quick pep talk about water crossings, I jumped on my mighty Symba and crawled toward the water. For the first 15 or 20 feet, I was able to stay reasonably close to the shoreline but then had to steer into deeper water to avoid some tree limbs sticking out from the shore. I didn't stop to measure the water depth, but I did hear the eerie sound of my exhaust system being completely submerged. I leaned back in toward the shore and promptly got hung up on a tree limb. The limb was about 1.5 inches across and had either been broken or cut off. It was stiff enough to stop my forward momentum, and as a result, my front wheel sank farther into the mud. I stayed on the gas the entire time, as I reached over with my left hand to move the branch. Re said the rooster tail was impressive, but that she had stopped taking pictures in anticipation of having to help me unstick my bike. Once I was free of the branch, I was able to drive the remaining ten feet up onto drier land. Before Re made her attempt, I fought my way back to the offending limb on foot and pulled it out of the way. That seemed to help, as Re made it through without bogging down or having to detour into the deeper water. Once she was on drier land, we assessed the next obstacle. 

Between us and the road was a muddy area approximately ten feet wide, with a small stream running through it. My attempt was unsuccessful and my rear wheel got stuck in the stream channel. I tried to power my way out, but instead, sank the rear wheel up to the swingarm in the mud. I got off to assess the situation and had to laugh when I saw my bike standing on its own and the stream running through my rear wheel. Re lent a hand, and we were able to pick up the back end enough to shove it onto firmer ground. The ground was too muddy for me to risk getting back onto the bike, so instead, I started it up and walked it to terra firma. When it was time for Re to try, I walked behind her bike and was able to help lift the rear wheel through the stream and muddiest areas. 

After another relatively dry and sandy section, we came to another shallow water crossing, and Re decided to show me how it is done. We continued down the single-track road and came to another muddy area with a number of streams running through. We picked the driest and shallowest areas we could, and made it through with no problems. 

Then, we came to another scary, narrow bridge, but this one was actually made out of cut lumber (so it has to be better, right?). Wading in the muddy water below, were several people fishing. They seemed to find us more interesting than catching fish and stopped what they were doing to watch the two crazy farang ride across the bridge above them.

 After this last bridge, the road got even narrower, and then we came to an area of rice paddy. Just when we thought the road couldn't get any less road-like, the tire tracks we were following veered up a ramp and onto the narrow, earthen dikes that separate the paddy. The ramp up was about two feet wide,ten feet long, and rose a distance of at least four feet. I hit it first in second gear and did not make it to the top. I could feel the bike lugging and opted to roll backwards down the ramp. I kicked it into first and told Re to do the same. The ramp was tricky because from the path, you had to turn left onto the ramp, ride up the ramp, then make a slight right onto the dike. Once up on the dike, I found myself on a narrow strip of dirt approximately two feet wide and at least three feet above the surface of the surrounding fields. I stopped to watch Re not make it up the ramp. As she neared the top of the ramp, I saw her bike slow drastically. Oh no, someone forgot the first rule of motorcycling: when in doubt, gas it. Yes, I forgot Rule #1. I didn't give it enough gas, and once the bike felt unsteady, I tried to put a foot down. Unfortunately, my foot only met with...nothing. Realizing where the situation (and I) was going and that falling was, at this point, inevitable, I did my best to get out of the way of the bike. Successful in this endeavor, I fell on top of the bike and managed to escape with no bumps or bruises, other than my ego. I could see the panicked look in her eyes when she reached out with her feet and found air. Not wanting to see the inevitable outcome of Re's latest encounter with physics, I instead, found a place to put my kickstand down, shimmied off the bike, and turned to see Re standing next to her Symba. Fortunately, she was fine, and the bike was too. After taking the, “look what I did” photo, we got the bike upright and walked it up the ramp. I did my best Captain Morgan pose, with raised foot on the bike for the picture. We continued through the rice fields for another mile or so before rejoining the single track that eventually led us to the paved road near Beng Melea. 

When we arrived at the pavement, I parked my bike on the side of the road, got down on my knees, and kissed the beautiful, smooth, flat, wide, hard, gray surface! A check of the odometer and the watch revealed that it had taken us about two hours to cover the last 20 miles. It was a fun ride, but we were now both very tired and soaked to the skin. I was truly exhausted after this ride. My heart was racing, I was panting like a dog, and my clothes were completely drenched- even my riding gear was soaked from the inside. We turned north, and after about five miles of lovely pavement, we reached the tollgate that led to Koh Ker and Beng Melea. Since it was another 50 miles to Koh Ker, and it was already after noon, and since Beng Melea was only two miles away, we decided to visit it instead. We paid for the admission tickets, rode through the tollbooth, and a couple minutes later, parked our bikes at the entrance. 

Beng Melea is another Angkor-era temple complex built in the 1100s with the same layout as Angkor Wat. The temple here is massive, and while some of it remains intact, much of it is just a jumble of gigantic, carved stones. We walked around, climbed over, and took many pictures over the next two hours. By the middle of the afternoon, we were both thoroughly hot and tired, so we trudged back to the bikes, put on our still damp gear, and headed south.

This time, we took the sealed road all the way back to the pool. After soaking in the water for a while, we queued up photos to load to Smugmug and then walked out to dinner at the market. Re had amok with chicken, and I had the “Cambodian taco,” which is really more like banh xeo. The restaurant was having a special on draft Cambodia beer, so Re and I enjoyed a few before calling it a night. Between the exercise and the libations, we should sleep well tonight. 
Both of us woke up audibly groaning when the alarm went off the next morning. I, for one, felt much older than I did before yesterday's ride. Since neither of us felt much like getting back in the saddle so soon, we took the day off. When I opened the door on the bureau which held our riding gear and boots, it emitted a veritable miasma. Between the foul water and mud we trod through, and the thorough sweat soaking from the inside that our boots endured yesterday, I decided I should at least try to wash them out. After removing and washing the insoles, I filled the boots with water and a dollop of shampoo, sloshing it around and trying to work it through to the outer surface. While I was working on this, Colin removed the liners from our helmets. Once I was finished with the boots, I squished some more Flex shampoo and water through our greasy, sweaty, thoroughly nasty helmet liners to “refresh” them as well. Then, I went outside, climbed the ladder to the rooftop and set everything out to dry and air out in the sun. After that task was accomplished, we did a bit of writing before making our way out to locate some lunch. When we got downstairs, in the lobby were Allen and Maureen, the Australian couple we met when we first arrived. We sat and chatted with them for a while and then decided to go to lunch to a place they frequent. Over our meal, we learned that Allen and Maureen are working at a school and orphanage outside of Siem Reap, planting gardens and orchards to supplement the needs of the school. They are a very nice, interesting couple who have lived and traveled in many different places, and we all had a great time sharing our stories. After lunch, Allen and Maureen continued to the market, while Colin and I went back to the hotel to sit in the pool. We divided the rest of the afternoon between lounging in the sling chairs, writing, and lounging in the pool.

On to Siem Reap

Once we'd gotten the bikes running smoothly again, bought everything we needed, and eaten all the cheese we'd craved, we decided to move on to Siem Reap.  Siem Reap is best known as the home of Angkor Wat, a massive complex of intricately carved temples that actually stretches across much of Cambodia.  Angkor Wat was the highlight of our last trip, but we didn't want to see it again so soon, to not lose its impact. The temples are overwhelmingly beautiful, and it is difficult to believe that all the work was done by hand. 

 Traffic leaving Phnom Penh was heavy and hectic, and again, it was hot already by 9:00am. But Colin's bike ran smoothly, and mine purred right along as well (I forgot what it should sound like!). The traffic lightened as we put some distance between us and Phnom Penh, and the highway was nice and smooth. Toward the middle of the ride, the landscape greened up quite a bit, and we rode through small towns, farmland, orchards, and paddy. Traffic picked up again as we neared Siem Reap, and driving into the city itself was an eye opener. The area seems to have exploded since we were here! 

We arrived at about 3:30 and went right to the Angkor Friendship Inn. We spent several nights there last time, and when we decided to return to Siem Reap, we knew we'd stay there again. Why? Because the staff is friendly, the rooms are nice, and...they have a pool. We pulled into their parking lot and removed our helmets, and immediately the manager, Sophea, recognized us. After we'd caught up a bit, we checked in and started schlepping our gear to the room. As we were unloading the bikes, an Australian couple came up to ask about our adventure. Here we met Allen and Maureen. They spent a month at the Angkor Friendship and come by to visit every few days with the staff. We chatted with them for a little while, and then headed in to change into our swimsuits and jumped in the pool for an hour. Once we had soaked long enough and cooled off, we went inside to clean up before dinner. 

Fabian and Tanja with their local guide in stripes
We walked to the old market, where there are small, "hole in the wall" restaurants that serve up some really good, cheap, Khmer food for dinner. As we were finishing our meal, a couple sat down at the table next to us and asked, “Aren't you the people riding the little bikes in India?” What?!?! No, we are not international celebrities, it is just an incredibly small world. Their names are Fabian and Tanja, and we first met them in Hampi at Christmastime, riding their bicycles with Tanja's parents. The four of them would come to have breakfast at where we stayed, and we had some interesting conversations with Tanja's mother about traveling in Africa. Fabian and Tanja left her parents riding somewhere in India. The two of them recently flew from Delhi to Bangkok and had just arrived in Siem Reap that day. They have only been cycling for seven months, but Tanja's parents, who are in their mid-60s, have been at it for over five years, covering more than 60,000 km and camping rough most of the time. Upon hearing this, Colin and I decided that we are punks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bike Maintenance, Cameras, and Pigging Out in Phnom Penh

Our ride to Phnom Penh was only 80 miles, which we covered in about 2 hours. People here drive fast, pass erratically, and again, the bigger you are, the more right you have to the road. The traffic is reminiscent of that in India, but with a much smaller population, it is much more manageable. Although the ride was still hot and chaotic, the scenery did change, becoming much greener. We passed expanses of rice paddy and huge ponds of lotus flowers (the pods and seeds were being sold in bundles at roadside stands along the way). 

Ouch, my poor rack
We made it safely into the city and found our way to the Sunday Guesthouse, where we stayed when we were last here, and which would be our home for the next six days. Yes, the wheels started coming off our trip here. We really liked Phnom Penh last time, and since it's a large, bustling city, we figured it would be a perfect place to accomplish some things. 

I'd poked around on the internet a little and found some reports that Phnom Penh is good place to buy a camera since there aren't any taxes on them (unlike Thailand, which has a VAT). So our first day, we found several camera stores and did some comparison shopping, finding several models that would meet our specs. The list prices were substantially lower than even in Bangkok, but since we wanted to research the individual models, we didn't make a hasty purchase. The following day, though, after reading a bunch of reviews, we went back to make a deal. Our top two models were available at stores in the same block. We went in, tried the cameras to make sure they worked, checked the boxes for all the accessories, and made an offer. At the first store, the salesman was unwilling/unable to bargain, so I went into the second. After haggling for a few minutes back and forth, the shopkeeper gave her very best price, which was acceptable to us, and I carried our brand new, Panasonic Lumix TZ18, 16X optical zoom, 14.1 megapixel camera out to Colin. Struggling with our “point and hope you get something in the frame” until we got here was worth it for a savings of well over a hundred bucks!

Sidewalk welding shop
Another order of business we needed to tend to was bike maintenance. My bike needed a new chain to hopefully solve its lurching issue, so we went to Psar Tuol Tom Pong, aka the Russian Market, where one can buy virtually anything. One whole corner section of the market is devoted to motorbike parts and accessories, both new and used, and we were able to buy a new chain for 4.50 USD. It is a non o-ring (they don't seem to have o-ring chains here- nobody has even heard of them) chain, and who knows how long it will last, but changing it should answer the question of whether the chain is the problem. 

Also in the Russian Market is an entire section devoted to clothing for sale. Many of the US clothing brands are manufactured in Cambodia, and at the market, you can find heaping mounds of clothes for cheap. They're typically seconds that have been deemed unsuitable for sale in the US due to some tiny flaw or other. What we needed was cotton pants. Between the high heat and long days in the saddle wearing our riding pants, our butts and legs are looking (and feeling) chafed and rashy. So after wandering through the warren of stalls, we found some genueen Calvin Klein (it's actually spelled correctly on the waistband elastic, although the tag says “made in the USA,” not Cambodia, so who knows) 100% cotton boxer shorts. We also had some delicious noodle soup and passionfruit shakes for lunch in the market, and I bought myself a nice krama (traditional Khmer checked scarf that can be used as a towel, a sarong, head scarf to protect against dust and wind, a hammock, a brooch,...the list is endless) to replace my towel which flew off the back of my bike somewhere in rural Tanzania.

Staying at the Sunday Guesthouse as well, was a couple named Torsten and Marin, who we learned, are riding their bicycles from Cologne, Germany to New Zealand. They've been riding for a year and a half so far and have been in some interesting places and situations. One of the first questions we asked them was if they smile when they ride. The laughed and said yes, they do. They have a great sense of adventure and seem very excited by and interested in the places they go and people they meet. We spent several hours over a couple of days talking with them about our trips. On our third day in Phnom Penh, while enjoying coffee and breakfast conversation, Torsten mentioned that they had been in Phnom Penh for five days waiting for their Thai visas to be processed, and they were going that afternoon to hopefully pick them up... ohmygodthat'soneofthereasonsweareinPhnomPenhinthefirstplace! In our excitement to be here, we forgot all about needing to go to the Thai Embassy here to apply for visas to re-enter Thailand. Whoopsie!  We quickly excused ourselves and rushed about to get to the embassy before 11:30, which is when their consular service hours end for the day. Since the embassy was a couple of miles away, we decided to ride the bikes instead of hoofing it. Colin's bike didn't want to start. It finally did, but was really rough. About three blocks from the guesthouse, it stalled and would not restart. Since we were going to miss the consular hours at this rate, I took all our documents and rode to the embassy, got two applications, filled them out, forged Colin's name (don't tell), and handed the pile to the man through the window. When he asked if we had onward tickets from Thailand (you supposedly need either tickets or you have to prove that you have sufficient funds to cover your stay) I told him we were riding motorbikes, so no, we don't have onward tickets. He asked to see the documents for the bikes and wanted copies of them, which I didn't have. He then told me I could bring everything back after 2:30 pm and submit it then. So I left, intending to get the copies made and return after 2:30, as he said. But just down the block from the embassy, I saw a sign for photocopies. I slammed the brakes and rode up onto the sidewalk (just like the locals do), went inside, had copies made, and decided to head right back to the embassy to hopefully avoid having to make another trip later in the day. When I got back to the embassy, there was no one in line, so I walked up to the counter, handed the copies along with the other paperwork and fees, and asked if I could submit everything now. He took it and gave me a receipt with a date to return five days later. I smiled and asked if there was any way it could be done sooner, and he paused and said to come back in two days. Yay! I thanked him profusely in English and Thai, wai-ed deeply, and left as the guard turned out the lights and locked the door behind me.

I rode back to the guesthouse and told Colin the good news, and we got to work on figuring out what was wrong with his bike. We unrolled the tarp, got out the tools, and dropped the bowl off the carb. In the bottom of the bowl, there was a drift of fine, whitish powder, and we also found that the pilot jet was partially blocked. We were able to clean the jet and then reassembled the carburetor. A quick thumb of the starter button, and my bike started up and settled into a nice, even idle. I am puzzled by the crap in the bowl, because we just installed a new fuel filter that claimed to be a genuine Honda part less than a month ago. Oh well, as long as it's running. Since we already had the tools out and were grubby, it seemed like a good time to get Re's rack welded. We removed her top case and undid the four bolts that secure the rack. Once we removed it, we could see the extent of the damage, and it was bad. One of the men who works at the hotel pointed us in the direction of a welder, so we walked out to find him. A few blocks from the hotel, we found an area where old motorcycles are made into new motorcycles. Many small shops here take the best parts out of five bikes and make four very good looking bikes out of them. Everywhere, people were painting, polishing, and cleaning up secondhand underbones. We spied a man sitting on the side of the street making a crashed kickstand look like new. Once again, our welder spoke no English, but understood what we needed done. After he finished the kickstand, he immediately set to work on the rack, and 20 minutes later, he handed us back a freshly welded rack. This time, the repair cost a whole 2.50 USD. Cambodia is very expensive! We tromped back to the hotel and reinstalled the rack and top case. When it breaks again, we'll have to get some steel added, since there's not much left to weld.

Colin's bike was still not okay after we cleaned the carburetor. Two days in a row, we cleaned the carburetor, blew crap out of the jets (the pilot and the main, but each was plugged on different occasions). The third day, it was still bucking and acting up. The fourth day, we cleaned everything- the jets, the fuel lines we could get to. We replaced the new fuel filter with the old one. We cleaned the air filter (which was extra super nasty with a dirt-paste stuck in it) and also cleaned mine, while we were at it. After all this but before we put the leg shields back on, Colin took his bike for a several mile ride to see if it was all better. When he returned, he pronounced it good. Yay! On one of our bike maintenance mornings, we also replaced my chain. Since the chain we got for my bike was too long, I walked around the corner and found someone at one of the repair shops who could take out four links. Colin said they should use a grinder or a file to remove one of the pins, and if they tried anything else, to take the chain back and find someone else to do the job. Well, the guy I presented the chain to had an ingenious method that didn't involve a file or grinder. He had a small metal plate with a nut welded to it. He placed the link pin over the nut and tapped the pin with a small hammer. Once the pin started to move, he then took a small screwdriver to the pin, using it more like a punch, tapping the screwdriver with the hammer to push the pin through. It worked and didn't damage the chain, and he only charged 50 cents! My bike is now running great- smooth, no lurching, quiet like a sewing machine, with its new chain.

Tuol Sleng classroom/cell
One morning we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum. When we were in Phnom Penh two years ago, I went by myself since Colin was sick at the time, but he decided he wanted to see it while we were here. The Tuol Sleng Museum is an old high school that was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge used S-21 as a detention and torture facility for suspected enemies of the cause. After the prisoners were tortured into outlandish confessions, they were transported to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where they were murdered. By the late 70s, they were killing as many as 100 victims a day. We arrived in time to watch a French documentary about the Khmer Rouge before touring the grounds. The movie and museum were sobering, and I kind of wish I had not come here. On display in some of the old classrooms were the bedframes that the victims were chained to while they were tortured, and many of the original pieces of torture equipment were also on display. But the most haunting part of the museum is the, literally, thousands of photographs of the victims that were taken the day they arrived at S-21. When you consider that only seven prisoners left this place alive, it is very sad to see the faces of the people who did not. I expected to see the faces of adult men, but what I was not prepared to see was the women with babies in their arms, and children who appeared to be as young as five years old. All enemies of the state, and all murdered. Even though I was here before, the sight of all the photos of men, women, and especially, children was really distressing. I cannot for the life of me figure out how a five-year old child can be an enemy of the state, and I will never understand how people can be so cruel.  

The other very important thing we did in Phnom Penh is, of course, eat. I suppose it's because of all the western NGO folks in the city, but you can get some really excellent western food here. Our favorite spot last time was a restaurant called Nike's Pizza House. They make incredible calzones that ooze the moment you cut into them. They must hijack the cheese shipments once they arrive in Cambodia, because they have not only mozzarella, but bleu, garlic cheddar, parmesan, and feta. They ask if you would like them fried or baked (of course, fried, why would you order it any other way). We ate many dinners there, enjoying calzones filled with cheese, spinach, ham, salami, mushrooms, mmmm, and pasta, fresh pasta with more cheese, yummy homemade tomato sauce with vegetables, mmm, so good! 
drinking iced tea at the Java Cafe
Our favorite lunch spot was the Java Cafe, which is upstairs, with a balcony overlooking the promenade and Independence Monument. This is an atmospheric place with great food (again, mainly a western menu)- juicy burgers, pastrami paninis, roasted vegetable paninis (with emmenthal- Nike's let them have it), perfect, custardy quiche, and the best iced tea drinks with fresh citrus juices. It's a bit of a splurge, but worth every penny. 
noodle soups and green beans!
Our other favorite place, the non-western one, was the Chinese Noodle Restaurant, where they make, you guessed it, noodles. At a stainless table in the entry, two men stand, kneading, stretching, and cutting fresh noodles. You can get them fried, boiled, in soup, with meats, or vegetables. We tried them stir-fried with beef, in soup with mushrooms and greens, in soup with pork, all ways were heavenly. The very best thing on the menu was the fried green beans with mushrooms and garlic. The beans were cooked to tender-crisp, with a wrinkled skin, with sliced shiitake mushrooms and a ton of sauteed garlic, all in a very light soy based sauce. I could have eaten them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfasts came from the market every morning. Just up the street from our guesthouse, a large market set up each morning, where I got fresh fruit, delicious iced coffee, and either still hot baguettes or right out of the fryer dough sticks. It really doesn't get any better.

Kampong Cham and the Bamboo Bridge

wood shutters at Kampong Cham "Home Depot"
After another breakfast from the market (accompanied by an Azithromycin tablet for Colin), we headed out for a stop in Kampong Cham on our way to Phnom Penh. The journey was uneventful, very hot, and dry. I know the seasons here are hot and wet and hot and dry, and this is the hot and dry season, but everything looked incredibly parched. My bike did seem to be riding more smoothly after the sprocket change, chain adjustment, and clutch adjustment, and it was much quieter also, at least at the start of the journey. The farther we went, though, the louder it sounded and the more it started to lurch again. It was still rideable and better than before, but we will need to look for a new chain sometime very soon, since it seems that it may be the root of the problem.

We made it to Kampong Cham in the middle of the afternoon and scored another nice room overlooking the Mekong River. Colin still wasn't feeling particularly well, so once we carried our gear upstairs, I left him in the room to snooze for a while and went in search of the market. I didn't have to search hard- it was only a couple of blocks away. I love the markets in this part of the world. You wind through dark, narrow aisles of stalls selling everything from toiletries to housewares to very fancy fabrics, loose cut gemstones to machetes. The food part is typically near an entrance, and often the meat/fish is contained to one area (thankfully, since the aromas that waft from raw meat in hot weather can overwhelm the olfactory sense in short time. we try to bypass the meat when we can avoid it). I found the fresh produce right away and bought a small watermelon and some juicy feeling mangoes for later. On my way out, I happened to notice a couple of stalls which had giant plastic bags full of biscuits, crackers, and...banana chips. I went in for a closer look, and sure enough, one of the bags held those delicious, crunchy, sweet, and addictive as crack, dried banana chips. I asked “how much?” and was told, 6,000 riel (1.50USD) per KILO. I bought 1,500 riel worth and took them back to the room. Colin was awake and feeling better when I returned, so I produced the bag on banana chips.  When Colin saw it and heard the price, his response was, "that's all you bought?"   After devouring half the bag, I announced that I was going to walk back and get some more (hello, my name is Rebekah, and I have a banana chip problem). On my return to the market, I stopped to get our Swiss army knives sharpened by a man sitting on the sidewalk with a whetstone, since I basically bludgeoned our last pineapple to death with the blade. He took the knives and sharpened them in about ten minutes time, while I waited, and he only charged 50 cents for both. It didn't seem like enough, so I tipped him an extra 25 cents. I did make it back to the market before it shut down for the evening and bought another half kilo of banana chips “as a good snack for when we're riding,” (yeah, that's the ticket).

By the time I got back to the room, Colin was feeling much improved and ready for some dinner, so we went out to a place around the corner for some delicious Khmer curries. After we'd finished, he headed back to the room, and I went to a small store for some cookies on the way. Inside the shop were two large and sturdy looking cats, one sitting on the floor, the other sprawled on the counter. In our experience, it's uncommon to see cats inside businesses here, so I stopped to pet them and talk to the man behind the counter. He told me they are his cats, pointing out that they are not food (odd, but appreciated, and duly noted), and they were both about seven years old, which I imagine is fairly ancient for a cat here. 
looking at the bridge from the Kampong Cham side
The next morning, we rode for Phnom Penh, but before we left Kampong Cham, we made a stop to see the “bamboo bridge.” It is exactly what it sounds like- a bridge constructed entirely out of bamboo, and it connects the island of Koh Paen to the mainland during the dry season. In the rainy season, they disassemble the bridge and run a ferry, but once the water level drops, they rebuild the bamboo bridge again. It's a single-lane, with a couple of wide spots to pull over in case of oncoming traffic, and is about a half mile long. The surface of the bridge is made of slats of split bamboo that bounce as you ride across them. It's not exactly level, with three lengthwise supports, and the bamboo slats kind of slump between them. The sound when you are on the bridge is an interesting and scary creaky, groany, and sometimes plinking sound, like you're driving over thousands of sets of bamboo windchimes or panpipes (for all you Zamfir haters). There is no guardrail, so as you drive and the bridge bounces, you hope to not get bounced right off the edge. It was great fun! We both made it across fine, but then ran into the fare collectors, who grossly overcharged us. We paid the toll and then rode across bamboo mats that covered the sand until we reached firmer ground. I wondered as we rode on the mats if they were last year's bridge surface. Riding on them was soooo much easier than riding in deep sand. I now understand the “sand ladders” desert drivers carry in their trucks and wish there was some way to carry one myself! 

typical Khmer wooden houses
pony carts crossing the bridge
The island itself is very large. We rode for at least 10 to 15 minutes and never came to the other side, and in fact, my GPS showed a network of roads (floating magically in the water, since my map doesn't actually show the island). After riding through small towns, past a couple of wats, and through rice paddy, we turned around and headed back to the bridge. The return trip was no less nervous for me, since the right side of the bridge seemed to be even less level than the left.  I waited for a trio of pony carts carrying loads of dried tobacco to go ahead of me across the bridge, not wanting them breathing down my neck as I rode.  They appeared to be "momentum" vehicles, and I didn't want to slow them down.  Plus, the tobacco smelled good!

Safely back on dry land, we headed to Wat Nokor, which is an 11th century ruined temple made of laterite and sandstone. The construction was similar to the temples at Angkor, but these were built by Mahayana Buddhists. We pulled into Wat Nokor, parked our bikes under a big tree, and then explored the grounds on foot. A modern Buddhist temple has been built in and around the ruins, so it's a bit of an odd juxtaposition. We spent 30 minutes or so walking around and sweating our asses off. Since it was getting too hot to stand around anymore, we hopped back on the bikes and rode off in search of some air flow.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Our 'garage' on the sidewalk in front of our hotel
The next morning, I bought the makings of breakfast in the market. We had fresh baguettes, fruit, and iced coffees (strong enough to put hair on yer chest!), and then got down to work on my bike. Colin was wise enough to include sprockets in our spares kit, so we set about to change the front and rear sprockets on the sidewalk next to our hotel, in hopes that it would solve my oscillation and lurch. The original front sprocket looked fine, but as I compared the old and the new rear sprockets, I noticed that one of the bolt holes in the old one wasn't quite round anymore. Colin took a look at it and thought it probably happened when the bolt backed out and locked the rear wheel waaaay back when in Namibia, and he also supposed that it might be at least part of the problem. We put the in the new sprockets, even remembering to reinstall the chain, and Colin also adjusted my clutch and front brake (he did say it was almost unrideable)before he pronounced the job finished.

Irrawaddy dolphin, from the web.  Our pics were of water.
Later in the afternoon, we took the bikes out for a ride north to the village of Kampi, in order to hire a boat on the Mekong to try and spot the very rare, freshwater, Irrawaddy dolphin. This particular area, between Kratie and the Laos border, reputedly has population of about 100 dolphins living in its waters. On the ten-mile ride to Kampi, I was astounded how much better my bike handled! Even though the pavement was uneven and made for a bouncy ride, I felt like I was riding a new bike. Shifting was much easier, and the motor no longer sounded like a garbage disposal with a fork stuck in it.

the distant specks are dolphins
We arrived at the boat launch area, bought our tickets, walked down to the water, and hopped into another narrow, wooden boat. Our boatman took us out onto the river, where a cluster of other boats had formed. About halfway to the other boats, we spotted a pair of dolphins in the distance. The boatman shut off the motor and switched to an oar to get us closer to the dolphins. I dug the camera and binoculars out of my bag, and we took turns scanning the water's surface for fins. Over the next hour, we saw a either a whole bunch of dolphins, or the same four a bunch of times. Either way, it was pretty neat to actually see them. I recently read that there used to be thousands of them in the Mekong, and the local animist people believe that the spirits of the dead inhabit the dolphins. During the Khmer Rouge reign, they killed the dolphins to frighten the locals eradicate the animist beliefs and also for oil. Irrawaddy dolphins are odd looking creatures. Colin (and I) thought they looked rather phallic. We tried to take some photos, and even some video, but between the erratic appearances of the subjects and the fact that we aim the camera as best we can and shoot, we got a lot of pictures of where the dolphins just were
sunset on the Mekong
On the way back to town, we detoured to a hilltop temple at Phnom Sombok, where we climbed to the top for a view of the surrounding countryside bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. It was beautiful. 

Since our market dinner was so good last night, we decided to repeat it tonight. Unfortunately, our vendor's cart was nowhere to be found. Since we didn't have another plan, we walked along the food stands, looking for something good, until we settled on some fried noodles. When the food arrived, I had another one of those premonitions that I should not eat this, but instead, I did. The meal wasn't sitting very well, and to make matters worse, when we went to pay for our food, the bill was much higher than it should have been. Shame on us for not asking, but whereas every other stand's price for beer was 2500 riel, here our friendly, smiley cook was charging us 4000 riel. It's not the money, since the difference is less than 1 USD, it's the feeling of being taken advantage of. And the funny feeling in my tummy. Later in the evening, my tummy wasn't feeling very good, and just before I went to bed, I had to make a mad dash for the bathroom.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Making a Stand at the Border

Bikes on a Mekong ferry boat
Our original plan was to spend two full days on Don Khong before moving on to Cambodia, but we were antsy (we can only relax for so long) and got back on the road the next morning. Actually, before we were on the road, we were on the ferry. While we loaded the bikes and waited for breakfast, Colin noticed a vehicle ferry that was tied up right below us. There was a group of men sitting around waiting for something, and he asked them about the boat, if it could take us across, and how much it would cost. The answers were yes, it could take us, and 40,000 kip, which was what we paid for the ferry to the island. Colin agreed to the price, and the men immediately started laughing. I think there might have been some wiggle room in the price. We rode down the steep, sandy hill and onto another multi-hull (this time, two) boat with a wood platform across it. We both made it on safely and rode slowly back to the mainland. Once across, we rode off the boat and into the sand, then up another steep, sandy hill. 

21 of the Four Thousand Islands
The Four Thousand Islands area is less than ten miles from the Cambodia border, and we made it to Lao Customs, got our Carnets stamped, and then moved on to the Lao Immigration office by about 10:00. This was where things got interesting. This particular, Dong Kalaw to Don Kralor, border crossing has a reputation for being corrupt, so we expected to be asked for “some off the books” payments. When I approached the Immigration window, I smiled, said hello, and handed our passports to the man inside. He examined our passports and then told me to pay two dollars per person. Trying my best to look perplexed, I told him I was confused and asked what the money was for? He said it was a stamping fee. So, in order for him to stamp us out of Laos, we needed to pay him. I smiled and told him that according to the Laos government website, we do not need to pay, “since we are American,” (thus giving him an easy out and a way to save face: “Ah, yes. Americans don't have to pay,” was what I imagined he might say). But he then frowned, and told me that yes, I must pay if I want him to stamp them. I said no, I would not pay, and he slid our passports back through the window and closed it. 

Colin heading to Laos Customs- no problemo
Quite a line of other travelers who were waiting to leave Laos had formed behind me. The man inside studiously ignored all of us as he glued photographs to applications for Laos ID cards for people who weren't even there. The natives were getting restless, and I motioned to the man in line behind me to go ahead, because I wasn't paying. This prompted him to ask what and why, and I told him. He was rather offended by the idea of paying a bribe, but the thought of missing his bus was worse, so he grouched at the official, took his picture, and paid. As did the rest of the busload of people.

the future Laos border crossing
Once their bus left and the next bus had unloaded its passengers, I stepped back up to the window, slid our passports across the counter, and tried again. The man said, “two dollars per person to stamp.” This time, I smiled and asked as nicely as I could for a receipt. His eyebrows rose to his hairline, he animatedly shook his head as he said NO, and gave me back our passports. The couple in line behind me was Belgian, and the man asked what had just happened. I explained to him that I was refusing to pay a bribe and thus could not get stamped out of Laos. He thought this was outrageous, and when he handed over their passports and was told to pay, he refused. The Dutch family behind them did the same thing, and then, a young French couple refused to pay. They were all riding to Cambodia on the same bus, and the Dutch woman started referring to the older Belgian man as “Che,” which caused great hilarity among the group. The seven of them decided to try to cross the border without getting stamped out of Laos, so they took off on foot down the road to Cambodia. 

I sat on the railing as the rest of the travelers in line paid their money and went on their way. As the morning wore on, it just got hotter. There is no shade, no water, nowhere to escape the elements. I tried again at the window, and this time, the going rate for the use of a rubber stamp dropped to one dollar each. I said no. A few minutes later, Colin came over and sat down next to me on the rail. He suggested leaving our passports at the window next time. So once again, I approached the window and said, “We have been waiting a very long time. May we please have our stamps?” The man said pay one dollar. I said no and left our passports before I sat down on the rail. Several minutes passed, and finally, he took our passports off the counter, stamped them, and motioned for me to take them away. After an hour and a half, I guess he finally got tired of looking at me and figured he'd lose even more money when the next busload of people arrived if he didn't get rid of us. 

Now sweat-soaked, we got on the bikes and rode to the Cambodian side. Colin went in to the Customs building to handle the bike paperwork, which was an effortless process. Next, we stopped at the quarantine counter to have our temperatures checked. This cost a dollar (a bribe). We paid it. From there, we went to apply for our visas. I filled out the brief application for both of us and place them with our passports, photos, and 20 USD each on the counter. The two men behind the counter then said, it is 23 USD. Once again, I smiled, said I was confused, because the Cambodian Immigration website said the visa fee was 20 USD. One of the men said that was correct, but they charge 3 USD per person for their “processing.” I tried again, “I don't understand. I thought Americans didn't have to pay any additional fees.” He then told me that if I wanted a visa for 20 USD, I needed to go back to Vientiane in Laos and apply for one there. Okay, that wasn't going to happen since it would take us a couple of days of riding just to get there, which would cost a helluva lot more than the three bucks each they wanted, but I did not want to pay it to them. I asked if I could have a receipt, and the man offered to give me a printed receipt for 25 USD, if I paid 25 USD (which I was definitely not going to do). I sat down, and Colin gave it a whirl, with his smooth, lawyerly tongue, saying something to the effect of, “I know many Cambodian borders have had problems with corruption in the past, and the government is trying to crack down on it. I know the cost of a visa is 20 USD at the border, can we please have our visas?” They gave us our visas. 

Next stop: getting stamped into the country. Here, they wanted another 3 USD per person to stamp our passports (those must be some fancy rubber stamps and inkpads they use). Through clenched teeth and more of a grimace than a smile, I plead stupidity again. “I don't understand, your website says, no stamping fees for Americans. Thank you, but I am not going to pay.” Somehow, somewhere, the gods of border crossing smiled down upon me, because this time, the man just stamped our passports and handed them to me. HOOOOrah. I don't want anyone to think that when I specified that we were Americans, that we expected any special treatment because of it.  In southeast Asia, losing face is very bad, and the reason I tried bringing up our nationality is that it gave the officials an easy out (as in, "Oh yes, Americans don't have to pay, so I will not continue to harass you as will everyone else in this line) or excuse to not collect the "fee" from us without losing face.

Now on the road in Cambodia, we headed toward the town of Ban Lung, which is a small, provincial capital city with a volcanic lake on its outskirts. The road from the border was sealed and relatively smooth and we got to the turn off for Ban Lung in about two hours. Northern Cambodia is unlovely, at least during the dry season. All the vegetation is scruffy and brown, and there are few large trees. Making it even less attractive were all the bright red signs with a skull and crossbones and “Warning! Land Mines!” that were posted on many of the trees, even near people's homes. I cannot imagine living with that kind of worry looming overhead every day. 

We turned off the main highway onto the dirt road to Ban Lung. The first mile or so was smooth, but then it got rougher, more corrugated, and more trafficked by buses and trucks. After about ten miles, Colin pulled over and asked how much we really wanted to go to Ban Lung. Considering that we had another 70 miles of this road just to get there, and we would have to return on the very same road, it seemed much less important to go. So we turned around (yes, we backtracked). On the ride back, the wisdom of our decision was confirmed when out of the dust we saw an oncoming minibus overtaking a truck and coming right for us. It was shades of India, as we dove for the soft edge of the road, and I distinctly heard the clank of the minibus hitting Re's rear view mirror. Remember, our mirrors only clear the ends of our handlebars by about an inch... . Yes, it scared the pants off me. I had pulled farther to the right than Colin and actually came to a stop, and still I got clunked by a minibus. 

We now headed to the city of Kratie, which is on the Mekong River and is a good place to spot Irrawaddy dolphins. Riding along on the nice highway, I all of a sudden, heard a strange, airy, whirring sound. It happened twice before, somewhere between Madras and Prineville, on the very first day of our trip, but never again. I pulled off the road, and Colin circled back to see what was wrong. I told him what happened, and we swapped bikes so he could hopefully figure out what it was. Well, my bike didn't make the same sound for him, but Colin found other issues with it. Apparently, he deemed my bike virtually unrideable because of an oscillating noise and lurching problem. I hadn't noticed it was bad, I guess because it's progressed over time. The noise I'd mentioned to Colin and we thought it was just the chain rubbing on the chain case. The lurching? I dunno. We've been riding on a lot of really rumbly roads lately, so I didn't notice it. Anyway, we made traded back (bummer for me- his rides much nicer) and made it to Kratie by about 5:00 pm. I found a small hotel with a very nice room right across the street from the river and the market. As an added bonus, they let us pull our bikes into the lobby overnight! We schlepped our gear upstairs, guzzled half a liter of water each, cranked up the A/C, and hit the shower. After dark, we crossed the street to the night market for dinner.