One enormous buffet breakfast with the typical suspects and we were away to the dock to be picked up by a couple of long tailed boats. I’d expected a short trip to the Royal Palace but this turned into a waterways tour of Bangkok and a suburb as we cruised along a surprisingly choppy river in search of flooded villages, Buddhas by the shore and even a 2 metre long water monitor that are safe to people but not to the fish in these parts. Living in the sewers they appear daily at the local zoo where they hoover up the scraps, much like the catfish which we fed from the boats with bags of what looked like, but didn’t quite taste of monster munch.
Onto the Royal Palace where it seems that the Chinese Empire had decided to vacation. It was absolutely packed. In the past 5 years, 70% of visitors are Chinese and frankly it showed. Different to Westerners it was very much about the selfie as they posed all over the place. Relief could be sought to the edges for if you stepped away from prime selfie spots you could have the occasional 2 metres to yourself though even our guides were in the swing of it, inviting us that this was a good photo spot before instilling information.
Lunch at a sailor’s café (yes really) after which we walked the 700 metres to Wot Pho and the 46metres reclining Buddha. Being one of the 6 principle temples in Bangkok (they are graded 1-10 and this was a 1) the stupas were magnificent as they sored to the sky in celebration of 9 previous kings, the last one recently passed.
Our guides were ever so amusing, so when asked if we were hungry we were whisked to a street food seller where we devoured radish, cauliflower and other vegetarian delicacies out of plastic bags topped with a sauce.
Bussed out of the city and bikes lined up, Keith set about the pedals, removing them whilst we all bolted on the saddles, bags and other paraphernalia.
Along an excellent road, through the flatlands of Thailand. A large irrigation canal one side, eucalyptus on the other. Tao at the front, an ex champion of Thailand he had the legs to match and he set a good pace as we cruised at 24km/hour.
First stop and there were biscuits, crisps, nuts, pineapple etc with juices as well, fabulous. We were to the south of Ayutthaya and as we approached, Wat Chai Wattanaaram lured us in. Built in a Cambodian style with a central highpoint it was a picture of brickwork falling into disrepair with a ring of headless charred buddha’s which the Burmese had set fire to over 200 years ago, forcing the King to move to Bangkok to create a new capital. Further floods in 2011 added to the chaos
Into town to smile at the reclining buddha with a peculiar expression redone in 1954 and following a trip over the bridges in the park where Robin spotted three water monitors we finished at Wat Phra Mahatat with the buddha’s head in the tree. Easy to spot, look for the tree and the throng of Chinese with cameral phones
Breakfast on an open planned lodge, stir fry, pineapple washed down with loads of toast. Ambient temperature and flat with wind which is unusual for Thailand. The roads were in lovely condition and traffic very light as we zig zagged the minor roads and lanes with views of the hills and paddy fields all about, to reach the giddy heights of 50 metres as we crossed a bridge Dividing into 2 groups with 48km still to go and 3 hours to do it in. One (the sensible bunch) decided that the hotel with pool and air con was the place to be, which seven of us pushed on, For both groups it was a great decision, the air started to cool as we headed along red roads, past water culverts and paddy fields. The group including both cycling guides hit quite a pace as I took one photo then couldn’t latch back on. 15km later I made it, though the back up lorry ominously trailed me like a Top Gear banger in case I failed.
We finished with a Thai meal at the hotel restaurant, the only place where Western Starters (a simple salad) was more pricey that the main courses if they were Thai and the pork red curry was delicious.
Flat morning passing rubber plantations with their small buckets to catch the cuts in the bark. 20 million tonnes of rubber exported a year to China drives the trade. As the sun rose we arrived at Tha Krabak where the large lake invited a swim. It was warm, sandy and everyone went for a dip. A real bonus was the local lunch using ‘local people’ for there on the table were 4 platters of Thai food, 3 vegetarian and 1 meat (chicken) One in a coconut sauce was particularly good, though the end note of chilli had quite some kick.
Snack stops at temple complexes (always toilets) fuelled us through. As the border area approached, the voices from the side of the road got more numerous and friendly, almost the Asian culture to which I was so accustomed. In England in a group, shouts of ‘car’, ‘bus’ were replaced here by ‘dog’ ‘chicken’ and ‘football. The final part took us through the border town and into the cool of the air conditioned Indochina hotel. The bikes dismantled we waved good bye to the Thailand team and prepared for dinner. The final flourish was a trip to the next door Western Bar. Inside a band were in full swing. Robin and I entered first, that was a mistake, 2 mature Western men in a Thai bar? 3 ladies greeted us, so I rushed back out beckoning the rest of the group in.
Across the border and into Cambodia where we were transferred to Siem Reap, gateway to the World Heritage temple at Angkor Wat. However, there are so many other less visited temples, so with our new hire bikes we headed for Wat Athlea to the south. Through the suburbs we went passing sleeping pigs, open fields and even passing through a wedding tent that used the road as solid area for guests. Wat Athlea was built for funerals, facing west it allowed the dead to walk west without having to alter their course to the afterlife.
Heading north we quickly found the side roads as we went past the shutters of the shops and turned onto a 1000 year old highway linking the temple complexes. Trouble was through no-one told the locals as after 200 metres they’d closed it by building a fence and letting it overgrow. Second attempt ended up with a couple of fences along a single track path but it all added to the sense of adventure as after all we were seeking out temples buried in the jungle for hundreds of years.
Our first was Ta Prom. Discovered or as Channy described ‘made aware of again’, as locals had been here all the time in 1861 by a Frenchman, it hadn’t been stripped of all the fromage trees which clung onto the walls. Fascinating place with the outer walkway falling like confetti.
Next a fantastic ride around the ruins along single tracks that led past old temples that anywhere else would have been the star in their own right. As for the reservoir that supplied the complex it was enormous and only one of 5 in the area (others dry) It helped feed the 750.000 residents who abandoned in the 16thcentury for Phnom Pehn after war took its toll
Bayon next with 34 towers and their smiling faces on 4 sides, simply stunning. After that a 3km ride to lunch opposite Angkor Wat we entered the main event and wondered at the high level walk where only monks could go in days gone by to the fabulous murals along the walls, all 400 metres of them
The outer temples beckoned as we set out from Siem Reap heading NW towards Bantrey Srei. Along the dirt roads to our first temple at Banteay Samre which was a welcome respite after Angkor Wat because of the lack of crowds. However, Bantrey Srei was the star. Rediscovered in the 19thcentury, its fantastic intricate carvings had survived a thousand years due to hardening over the years and being buried in the jungle. Our return home took us via a landmine museum. 1 in 300 Cambodians are affected by these, a remnant of the Vietnam War as Cambodia was involved. A fast ride back to Siem Reap with a meal at street stalls for dinner.
Transfer day to Phnom Pehn as we loaded up and headed south along route
Kompong Krei was one of 22 bridges built over 1000 years ago. This one has survived both the age, Khmer Rouge trying to destroy, and a river that can get to just under the road. With 22 arches and built of larva stone it was pretty solid
Skun or spider town was basically a tourist spot with spiders. Our guide Channy hired a spider with fangs removed that crawled over me whilst local children tried to entice us with anything for $1. The real bonus though was the coffee in the coffee, from a proper machine and wonderful
Into the capital and 10 minutes to get changed for the tuk tuk tour of the capital. First to Wat Phnom, the only hill in the place complete with huge clock, then the deserted French Concrete Railway Station, a buddha building dwarfed by sky scrapers and finally the central market.
Onto the Mekong for the sunset trip. I thought it was a quick trip up and back but it turned into a fabulous trip round the small island back past a floating village and back to shore in the dark. In the time, drinks on the deck, whilst I sat at the bow watching the boats, building of the worlds tallest building and all the Chinese money flowing in, with huge hotels. He riverside condo at $150.000 will surely be a bargain years from now?
You need a local guide in Phnom Pehn, so we now had 3 guides, though Channy was away to have his teeth fixed
The Royal Palace had a prime riverfront location or at least the gardens did. With a smiley Buddha on the 4 sides of the tower it contained the usual suspects. A private prayer area, a coloured wall from 1907 explaining Buddhas history, a Jade Buddha and a central palace decked with snake scales, tails and the 9 headed snake. Most interesting were the photos at the end, with numerous elderly statement trying to curry favour though the Chinese are definitely the flavour of the month.
S21 provided a grim reminder of Cambodia’s past. From 1974 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge interrogated over 1.7million people in this and over 100 other prisons before slaughtering them 14km south in one of over 350 Killing Fields. Starkly done, the photos of victims stared out from photos that were taken as part of a process of strict documentation and process that is common to many endeavours of this kind, something that has been suggested removes the individual taking the photos, forcing the confession or even doing the killing from taking individual responsibility. Inmates lasted about 60 days, were shackled in rows and beaten if they sat up or spoke. A New Zealander was caught up in it having had his boat stopped and his confession cited Colonel Sanders of chicken fame as his operative, his home phone no as his CIA number and his mentor as his mother in what was an attempt to cope. With the buildings, barbed wire, cell blocks in wood and brick still in situ it was pretty graphic.
This naturally led to the Killing Field, 14km south. Truckloads of unfortunates were taken 30 at a time and bludgeoned to death with anything that came to hand for bullets were too expensive/noisy. The most poignant were the mass graves and the fact that if you looked closely, teeth, femurs and articles of cloth were coming up through the ground, worse after the rains. The evening was spent at a Cambodian show. 8 set pieces lasting 90 minutes were beautifully presented by dancers plucked from the annihilation that followed the Khmer Rouge
Bussed out to a temple (toilets and room) we set out along the main road to go left through a really trafficked area which calmed quickly revealing a large lake LHS with expansive views. After that it was red roads through the dead flat countryside, twisting this way and that until a drinks stop then the final 10km to Oodong. Home to the Kings from 1618 to 1866, it has numerous stupas atop the hills, the last being built in 2002 contains yet another part of Buddha.
Robin and I took the old steps up, all 630 of them constructed of larva stone that led to 2 older stupas before the short hop to the new stupa with views all around. A local guide informed that you could normally see mountains through the smog and as so flat Cambodia is never damaged by naturel events such as volcanos.
Descending the new steps, it was more red road to a final 8km along tarmac, a visit to a silversmith and back the 45km to the capital. Back at 1545 it was a trip to the pool, happy hour at the Foreign Correspondence club and a meal at Touk, red curry, lovely
Starting early, Channy took us through the traffic of Phnom Pehn to the banks of the Mekong as it zig zagged south. Houses clung to the bank on the left giving intermittent views of the water beyond. Heading west we took to the minor roads in a bid to avoid highway 5 that would have been the direct but more trafficked option. A couple of stops, once for ice cream and another for local weavers broke up the journey before a late lunch of pork dumplings and soup. The evening light sank over the lake as we arrived at Takeo our last night in Cambodia.
The 30km to the Vietnam border was flat and fast down the highway where we crossed the border to experience the sites and sounds of our third country. Stilted houses by the river and a cacophony of scooters were the order of the day as we finished at Chau Doc
We stood out like an orange sore thumb as our guides dished out life vests for a short ferry ride across the river. Through backstreets festooned in flags we pedaled for this was the run up to Vietnamese New Year with red flags and central stars hanging from anything that stood still. River life was in full swing, boats with brown keels and red gunnels littered the river as long tailed boats plied up and down. We finished by the river where we were transported to a homestay on an island in the Mekong. Mosquito nets down we settled down to make vegetable spring rolls to accompany a lovely dinner on the veranda
Our last day took us to Saigon, but not before we had enjoyed the last 35km of back roads and flags. Bussed to Saigon, New Year was in full swing. Loads of pigs for they were now in charge replacing the dog, lined a central boulevard whilst thousands of Vietnamese in their Sunday best stood in front to have their picture taken. A visit to the Chu Chu tunnels and the fabulous museum illustrated Vietnams darker past, but the fireworks at midnight and the colour of the crowds showed us a might brighter future for this communist country.
So, it was over, 3 countries in 17 days with 17 people, a variety of guides and a bunch of hire bikes, a wonderful trip.