Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/1/2012 (1936 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In March, my partner and I cycled from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Bangkok -- a memorable two-week holiday that took us through three distinct countries in hot and humid Southeast Asia. The trip was both more and less daunting than it sounds.
So don't stop reading. You can do it, too, if you are reasonably fit (if you can easily cover 60 kilometres in a day) and don't mind traipsing through strangers' chicken coops to get to the outhouse. You don't have to be a buff 30-year-old, in other words.
Nor did we cycle every single kilometre. We covered some distance in riverboats, an air-conditioned backup van and even an antique "bamboo train." We also enjoyed regular rest days swimming in the hotel pool -- when we weren't drinking icy beer at cheerful bars, or poking through glittery, local markets filled with dollar-store junk and all manner of mutant fruits and vegetables.
But the cycling, about 570 kilometres in all, was the highlight. The road is often bumpy, but the terrain is mostly flat. The heat can be draining, but the reward -- as with every cycling trip --is an intimate encounter with the culture (including the barnyards, convoys of orange-clad monks who studied us gravely, scooters nearly buried under their cargoes of live chickens, smiling toothless women in cone hats and some very excited children.)
In fact, we rode so close to people's simple thatch homes on the twisting paths through Vietnam's Mekong delta, it felt as if we were pedalling right into their daily lives, disturbing the mid-day siesta or the friendly curbside cockfight. We thoroughly disrupted recess at countless country schools and caused a sensation on rural backroads, as squealing kids ran to greet us with high-fives and exuberant cries of "Hello! Hello!" (This must be what it's like for Justin Bieber.)
In the company of our genial tour group -- more on that later -- we swooped, like some species of exotic bird, through villages buried in jungle, past dusty farmlands, spring-green rice paddies, remote hamlets and into damaged and depressing regional hubs, like Battambang, Cambodia, that look as if they haven't seen a tourist since Pol Pot was mercifully defeated in 1979.
Yet people were unfailingly warm and curious -- although I did notice the odd amused smile. No wonder; it isn't every day a peloton of red-faced foreigners, dressed in their colourful native spandex, speeds past your shaded hammock in the noonday sun. Chased by the mad dogs.
Our route also hit the main tourist draws: the sombre temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the thriving nearby service town of Siem Reap, where fishes will nibble your toes in giant sidewalk tanks; and Phnom Phen, where a seedier form of massage is widely offered. Only $4. We stopped at a touristic silk factory (practically mandatory on an Asia tour, but fascinating), at stone carvers' yards and smaller, out-of-the-way, rice paper "factories" in simple bamboo sheds.
While cycle touring has become popular, especially in booming Vietnam, it still hasn't spoiled the region -- in fact, in 14 days we saw only one other western cycle tour, and, in many places, we were the only foreigners.
On a bike, you get to places those giant tour buses can't manage (and there were many buses; Asia is packed with western visitors). That includes potholed country lanes, or narrow scooter paths weaving through the Mekong delta -- not to mention the 10-person "ferries," made of rough planks roped together, that traverse the delta's thousands of rivulets.
Several companies now offer cycle tours of varying duration and ambition, with excursions along Vietnam's scorching coastal highway and in the mountainous interior particularly well-subscribed. (And more demanding than our ride, which only rated three chilies out of five in level of difficulty.)
We wanted to see three countries -- Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand -- and major attractions like Angkor Wat, along with a "quiet" Thai beach, so we chose a trip offered by SpiceRoads, a Scottish-owned outfit with good reviews and reasonable prices. Our tour cost about $2,500 each and included sumptuous meals, inscrutable snacks, adequate-to-excellent hotels, an air-conditioned support van, rental bikes -- serviceable Trek hardtail mountain bikes -- and three guides. (That didn't include airfare between Ottawa and Saigon, with return rates starting at about $1,400, depending on departure date.)
SpiceRoads turned out to be an excellent choice; the tour was well-staffed and the route well-chosen. The main guide, in particular, a 32-year-old American called Jonathan, was well-informed, professional and endlessly helpful. (So encyclopedic was his knowledge of local customs, languages, history, pharmacology and cuisine, he earned the tag WikiJon.)
We were 12 cyclists altogether, ranging in age from 27 to 63, from Australia, the United States and Canada -- including a young American working in Afghanistan. No thanks to me, we were an unusually speedy group: a combination of young riders and some seasoned veterans. Any pressure to keep up was mostly self-generated; ordinarily, Jon assured us, this particular trip proceeds at a more stately pace.
We stopped for picnic lunches at park-like Buddhist temples in various states of disrepair; at ramshackle roadside cafés that, in one unforgettable instance, offered deep-fried tarantulas and crickets; at open-air, but well-shaded restaurants where we watched, slack-jawed, as servers paraded out trays of South Asian specialties, each dish more enticing than the last. (The salty, tasty Vietnamese chicken noodle soup pho ga turns out to be perfect fuel for a sweaty ride through the tropics.)
The longest day was 92 kilometres (long if you are on a mountain bike), but more often we rode 35 to 65 kilometres, or not at all. Sometimes we were on corduroy dirt roads, sometimes on pavement, sometimes cutting across a rice paddy on a hard mud path, occasionally on busy city boulevards.
It was the heat, rather than distance, that was daunting. It was pushing 38 C at Angkor Wat, with intense sun and wilting humidity. In the Mekong delta, we were mercifully shaded by coconut and banana fronds, but on open roads the sun beat down relentlessly. Fortunately, on the longest day -- through dusty and impoverished farm country in Cambodia, approaching the Thai border -- it was unseasonably cool at 26 degrees and overcast.
No matter when you travel in this region it is going to be hot, but December to February may be the smartest choice. We also took care. We stopped every 20 kilometres for salty snacks, fresh pineapple and watermelon, soft drinks and water. When it got to be too much -- sore knee, bad tummy, imminent heat stroke -- there was always the air-conditioned van trailing discreetly behind, equipped with water and yet more pineapple.
If you don't want to do the whole ride, you might consider a shorter trek through the Mekong delta, to me the most fascinating part of the trip. The delta is a lush maze of thatch homes, mango farms, temples, banana groves and hamlets that is home to 17 million people. It isn't the sandy, flat farmland, interspersed with broad Amazonian rivers that I imagined. (It looks like an inhospitable venue for a war, by the way.)
A hundred spidery trails lead through this jungle -- many paved and wide enough to accommodate two scooters, which, along with local cyclists and pedestrians, are the only traffic.
The twists and turns force you to slow down; so do the many small bridges, that rise suddenly, over chocolate-coloured, slightly menacing currents. One day, we crossed 51 of these little arched bridges; it felt like a tropical skateboard park. On top of one such bridge, we had to ride over drying rice while dodging young boys eager to show us the live mice they had dangling from strings. We momentarily lost one rider in the swamp, but she had never been on a mountain bike before.
Best of all are the small ferries -- which are really just rafts with tattered canvas coverings. Sitting on the plank floor, crossing a turbulent channel the width of the Rideau Canal, eight bikes leaning on the flimsy bamboo railing, the driver operating the small submerged engine with a string tied to his bare toe, I thought to myself: I can't imagine a more exotic destination.
Cambodia was immediately different: poorer than Vietnam, drier, less forested and still haunted, somehow, by the memory of Pol Pot's brutal social experiments of the mid-'70s. I will always associate the country with human skulls and fanatically insistent child vendors.
We cycled to and through some of the famous killing fields -- park-like, mass graves of the victims of Pol Pot, with glassed towers of skulls arranged according to gender and age.
The roads in Cambodia were mostly packed dirt and we shared them with water buffalo, scooters and luxury SUVs bearing Phnom Phen plates -- evidence of a deeply inequitable society. We passed wooden houses on stilts and many, many children with torn, dirty clothing and poor teeth -- but wide, excited smiles.
Despite the obvious poverty, we encountered few beggars. Instead, children swarm tourists like killer bees at every temple, or roadside attraction -- thrusting their scarves, T-shirts and trinkets right through bus windows or into your face. They set up an irritating drone: "One dollar. Only one dollar, madame." (They don't get much education, but speak a confident English, tailored to ingratiate. One bright nine-year-old identified "David" Harper, as prime minister of Canada, when we quizzed him. Not bad.)
For many visitors, the celebrated rubble of Angkor Wat -- the largest complex of religious buildings in the world, dating from the 12th century -- is a historic and spiritual highlight. Maybe, but it was a fiendishly hot 30-kilometre cycle around the sprawling sight.
We arrived before sunrise -- along with a few hundred other international tourists and early-rising coffee vendors -- to watch the gloomy temples emerge from darkness in the rosy dawn. (It's one of those tourist fetish things.)
We breakfasted, wandered around, but by the time we got on our bikes at 10 a.m. to see the rest of the complex, it was already unbearably hot. Fortunately, it was only seven kilometres back to the hotel pool in Siem Reap.
What I will remember just as vividly is the less exalted "bamboo" train -- a removable bamboo raft attached to rail wheels that whistles down a crooked track between two remote villages, an easy 10-kilometre cycle outside of Battambang. When you encounter a similar contraption coming the other way, one "train" stops, the driver moves the platform and wheels to the side, lets the oncoming "train" pass, then reassembles his own rolling platform.
There is no bug screen, no sides, no seats -- just boards on wheels, travelling at bone-jarring speed. It was particularly exciting when a wandering cow got her rope caught in the track right in front of us and jerked free only moments before collision.
Travelling from this forgotten part of Cambodia to Thailand was like journeying from the Third World to the First. The moment we traversed the rural border crossing, the roads were better (than here, actually), the food exquisite, the mango groves lush and the bathrooms much fancier -- even rivalling those in chic restaurants in Toronto. (We used all manner of toilets on our journey, mostly ceramic standups in sheds behind cafés, temples or farmhouses. They were basic, but, unlike in India, did not smell.)
Our trip ended with a couple of days at a Chantchalao beach resort, mostly frequented by residents of nearby Bangkok and relatively free of the sex tourism so common throughout this part of the world.
A final easy cycle ride around the sleepy resort (including a visit to the King's mangrove swamp, a restoration project) and a magnificent, final moonlit banquet on the beach -- featuring a stunning array of Thai seafood and yet more beer and pineapple -- and our trip was over.
As I watched a rosy sunset over the ocean fade to black in the company of convivial new friends, sipped my Thai beer and felt the cooling breeze, I had to admit: that wasn't really daunting at all, as cycle tours go.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Tour company: SpiceRoads
Cost: About $2,500 for the cycle tour, accommodations, meals, support van, rental bikes and guides, but not airfare to Asia.
Getting there: Return flights between Ottawa and Saigon start at about $1,400.
When to go: December to February may be wisest in terms of temperature.