Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Day 4 - Short cutting into Vietnam

2012 has passed. Hope they are successful! 

The climb up Bokor yesterday ensured a very deep sleep for me. I would strongly prescribe a long climb for anyone who has trouble sleeping. Once again, I was sheeplishly late at the breakfast table but it was not a concern as today's ride into Vietnam was a very manageable 80km. There was a ring of excitement and anticipation among the team. I took my time to savour my lovely breakfast of baguette, bacon and eggs served with French made butter.

It was hard to say goodbye to Daryl and Natural Bungalows for we had a most delightful time at this top notch resort. Our train of 11 riders made our way slowly out of Kampot with the first stop, Kep at 25km only. This is the crab and seafood capital of Cambodia and a must stop for lunch. It was to be a most challenging ride as the road to Kep was absolutely horrendous. Dusty, pot-holed and with heavy vehicle traffic.

Every time a truck came, it created a dust-storm and there was no way to avoid it except to mask up and hope for the best. Still, it was fun as we met so many school children cycling. Their bright smiles and laughter could light up even the most deary of conditions. If they could take the dust storm in stride, so could we. I was intrigued to see 3 cyclists getting a free ride from their friend on a motorbike that I just had had to shoot this video.

The prominent landmark, White Horse roundabout came about an hour's of riding but there was nothing white left on us then. We re-grouped and rode into the seaside town of Kep feeling like Clint Eastwood and his posse. Only problem was there weren't any baddies as everyone we met just seemed so nice. Such are the warmth of the lovely Cambodians. Kep used to draw the upper class of the French socialites and Cambodians and vestiges of this bygone era is still seen in the many once luxurious villas now badly run down.

As I enjoyed a most superb lunch at a special hotel/restaurant by the beach last year, it was an easy choice to bring the gang there. I believe its called Star Inn and features Sokchan Spa. Its just 200m right of the T-junction.

We parked out bicycles neatly and the valet was kind enough to keep an eye on them for us. While the gang was mosing up the stairs and settling down for lunch, I wasted no time to strip and jump into the inviting ice cold pool.

This restaurant is particularly beautiful as it offers views of Rabbit Island from its elevated location and tasteful decor. Everyone was thirsty and famished from the hot ride. We must have drunk over 20 glasses of their lovely ice lemon drinks and when the food finally appeared, it was every man for himself. The Kampot pepper chilly crab was probably the piece de resistance and was literally finger licking good. The other dishes too were superb and this meal was one our stomachs will remember for a long long time.

Our lunch break nearly spilled over to siesta time after such a big meal and I had to almost crack the whip to get everyone back on the saddle. The restaurant manager was particularly interested in our journey and I showed him our route to Ha Tien,Vietnam. He pulled out a map and told me of a secret short cut through the salt fields that our bicycles should be able to handle (whatever that meant). This would cut our journey by at least 10km and I was as always, game for a challenge. So I broke the good news to the gang as we needed to make up for over extended lunch stop. For some strange reason, no one festered the thought of unexploded land mines, which was just as well.

Riding along the Kep coastline in the afternoon heat proved tough and our group was spread out thin as some simply couldn't get the engine running. We rode passed the famous Kep Crab landmark, put there to seal its identity as the crusty capital of Cambodia.

It was hard to lead with a map that wasn't too accurate but we managed by stopping to ask the locals where the turn off to the short cut was. What I love about touring is the unexpected change of plans that happen on the fly.  And I'm grateful to the team for being so sporting, so gung ho and ever so trusting.

The first part of our adventure was fascinating as we rode past vast areas of salt fields sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. The views were breathtaking and it was special being in such a remote part of the country. We were just soaking all the beauty in!

No traffic, no people, no signs of civilisation but the vast fields with just the sound of wind and a single dirt track that sometimes disappeared. The track was barely passable for a motorbike but we were fine until the compact dirt path became mush.

Here, we all had to ride gingerly and sometimes get off our bikes and push, hoping that we won't sink in too much. It was at this stage that I began to wonder if we took the right route. And the thought of land mines started to creep into my mind, but I kept this to myself, for now.

When the path suddenly led into the water, I knew we were done for. Fortunately, a quick recce yielded another route and that saw us carry out bikes over some ditches. I was amazed that the team was still in good spirits and enjoying every moment of this high adventure. It was great that Joshua our esteemed treasurer had a GPS and double checking that with my gut feel gave me the assurance we were making progress in the right direction.

Soon, pockets of civilisation appeared as we rode past a small hamlet. Our little excursion took us through irrigated canals and rice fields but what stopped us in our tracks were squealing children playing in their own natural spa. It was great fun seeing them and we seriously wanted to jump in and join them. The rest of the villagers looked at us curiously, wondering what mischief these colourful strangers on small wheeled bicycles were up to. So did their cows.

I was overjoyed when I saw from a far distance, traffic flowing along what must be Highway 1332 towards the Vietnamese border. That got us cracking to ride towards familiar sealed roads and we all jumped for joy upon reaching it. At this point, we were only about 25km to the International border crossing of Prek Chak/Xaxai. I was elated to know that our little short cut was successful and yielded so much fun for everyone! 

As the sun was starting to come down, we up the pace and raced towards Vietnam. The scenery seemed to change and we saw lots of open spaces and padi fields, with plenty of water buffaloes to boot.

The road conditions though not dusty were pretty coarse. It was like the foundations of a highway was laid but there were no more funds to tar them. As a result, it was a rather bone jarring ride and our high pressure tires caused stones to ping everywhere. It was fortunate that I had my Schwalbe Marathon Supreme 1.6 tires on my Bike Friday and that took the terrain relatively well although Chris with his Big Apple was in his element.

A little incident happened along the way that is worth mentioning. Some of the guys Ying Chang and Roland who were on the tale end encountered a crazy man who demanded money from them. He grabbed YC's arm nearly causing him to fall but it was fortunate that everyone got away ok.

The border town was as expected abuzz with market stalls and people. But what was interesting was the glitzy Ha Tien Vegas Casino situated in no man's land. Apparently, casinos are not allowed in Vietnam so putting it just at the border seemed the smart thing to do. Clearing the borders was a breeze and the stark contrast between the Cambodian wooden huts and the Vietnamese grand concrete buildings were very apparent indeed.

It was so special to cross into Vietnam as straight away, we can feel the difference in prosperity, structure and formality unlike the easy going Cambodians.  Here, there was always the hurried pace of commerce and its easy to see the hustle and bustle of economic cogs working overtime. 

The ride to the coastal town of Ha Tien was only about 10km but it was very dusty until nearer to town where its like we time warped into the first world onto beautifully tarmac roads. The town of Ha Tien is situated at the river bank and is surprisingly very developed. Its a likeable town and surprisingly very developed.

We checked into the Du Hang Hotel as they offered us safe parking for our bicycles and an unbeatable rate of US$12 per night for an aircon room. Vietnam is famous for its Pho, rice noodle soup and we had that for dinner. 

Dessert was on the top deck of a restaurant boat where we had ice cream and coffee. What followed was dinner part 2, 3 and even 4 for some of our folks. Pete from Perth was really enjoying himself joining the ever hungry wolves hunting around for food at night. 

I stopped at Part 2 and retired feeling very happy in finally making it into Vietnam. I had to pinch myself to realise that we actually rode all the way from Phnom Penh, and came so far. Even the hotel staff were impressed at our feat. Try as I may to sleep, there was a wedding celebration on the next street causing a loud ruckus, much to our annoyance. This went on till midnight.

However, I brought my trusty MP3 player for moments such as this and for any room mate who gets somewhat too musical at night. Reflecting through the day, this must perhaps be the best day of our entire trip so far. At dinner time, everyone was commenting how much they enjoyed our little adventure through the salt fields. I couldn't agree more as we never had so much fun getting lost and riding in the mud. 

I sense we will still be talking about our short cutting into Vietnam for years to come.


Michael Khor said...

Cambodia and Vietnam are such contrasting countries. One is so poor and yet the people are some of the nicest I've ever met...and Vietnam, so kitschy and downright tawdry, including the people, but still, it's a great place to ride around :-)

Oldyonfoldy said...

Ya Mike, fully agree. We had to always be on the guard as we were overcharged several times! That said, there were enough nice folks in Vietnam to overcome the nasty ones. Cambodians are amazing folks - generous, humble and sincere.

Pete said...

Hungry wolves they may be but I can't think of a nicer bunch to go food hunting with. Thanks to Teo, Roland, Mike and Joshua for the invaluable lessons on late night street food. Still not sure what I was eating?...but it was all great. Lets do it again sometime soon...��