Well, I’ve finally gotten around to writing an update after four months of settling in here in Phom Penh. The visa issue became problematic as once you start using tourist visas it starts to become a hassle having to report to the gov’t every 60 days and then having to leave the country after another 30 days where the process starts over again. Many people live like this in Thailand long term, but the rules recently changed to make it harder to continually renew visas returning to Thailand. So I left for Phnom Penh where $280 gets you a year visa multiple entry.
Living on the Mekong was great for ten months but after a certain point I had had enough of being in such a remote area. The small was great as was the family that owned it and I, as usual, became part of the family playing the village idiot with the kids every day.
I studied Thai (reading) two hours a week reading luktung songs and read a great deal of Thai history/culture & a bit of avant garde literature.
Phnom Penh has taken some time to get accustomed to. Cambodia is less developed than Thailand and Phnom Penh is the quintessential developing world with the nonstop sounds of construction all day and night everywhere. I finally got a cheap place to live for $80/month which serves as a simple room where I sleep on a yoga mat with no air con and cold water for showers. The biggest expense is food which ain’t cheap here.
Below left to right/top to bottom:
1 Satcheroo sai muan (pork/egg/chicken) breakfast
2-5 A stray kitten I found on the street near death & then his life at a shelter.
6 Madonna & child outside my apartment every morning.
7-8 Endless construction in Phnom Penh.
9 North Korean singer at special N. Korean restaurant.
10 A family outing at the mall.
11 Roast dog. A delicacy for tuk tuk drivers.
12 The guesthouse where I first stayed built by former French colonists.
I started looking for work at the end of July and picked up two part-time teaching positions: teaching creative writing at Pannasastra University & teaching various classes at ICS, and English institute. I need to find more work to break even, another 4hrs would be good which would put me at around 12 hrs per/week.
Most of my time is spent at coffee shops during the day reading or at riverside restaurants in the evening also reading. Studying khmer one hour/week. So now I’m living the life of the proverbial freelance writer working just enough to survive and trying to get as much done in my free time. A real battle. Just spent three months reading Francis Fukuyama’s two volume masterpiece on the development of states throughout the world. About 5-6 more texts before I start drafting. Perseverance is all.
That’s all for now…
Bike Trip: Tha Uthen, Thailand—Phnom Penh
My trip commenced January 19th the day before my visa expired from Thailand. I left my guesthouse in Tha Uthen a small village about 26 km north of Nakhon Phanom, a major northeastern city on the Mekong across the river from Tekek, Laos. My route would take me from across the bridge to Laos then to Tekek and southwards to Suwanaket then to Pakse and then to the Cambodian border and then further south to Treng—Kratie—Kampung Cham and then finally to Phnom Penh. All told we’re talking about 1200 km, a respectable tour. As it’s not the rainy season this would be a big help as I’ve heard that the roads are hard to navigate during the rainy season. I would sleep in guesthouses and, if necessary, camp if I couldn’t find a guesthouse.
Cycling in southern Laos down to Phnom Penh is ideal cycling territory as much of it has little traffic and certain parts run along the Mekong River winding through small villages. Water is no problem and there are plenty of air pumps to top up tire pressure. This route is a study in SE Asian agriculture and the world economy with the endless rice paddies, cassava being dried out on the roads, fresh corn on the cob and watermelons being sold, and rice being planted. One crop I couldn’t identify, I learned later after a bit of research, was cassava, a major source of food in the developing world prized for its use as either a subsistence or a cash crop. It’s also one of the more durable crops to grow as it can thrive through droughts or bad soil. Cassava needs to be properly prepared, cooked, before eaten. A Cambodian man told me that the Chinese buy all of the cassava from Cambodia and use it to make noodles. The Chinese buy everything in the Pacific Rim nations. Actually, they buy everything everywhere.
Rice paddy burning
Rice paddy burning is something else periodically seen this time of year in Southeast Asia and something I have been always curious about so I did some background reading. Farmers do it to dispose of excess rice straw (half of all straw is burned in Thailand and all of this straw is burned in the Philippines, for example). Some straw can be used for livestock and composting, but simply burning the rest of the straw is the most cost effective way of dealing with it. This open-field burning of this biomass, or rice residue, controls pests and returns nutrients to the soil many argue. Others argue that long term burning deprives soil of nitrogen and carbon and leaves soil less robust thus causing water runoff and soil erosion. This massive burning every year causes a lot of air pollution. So now I finally understand why I see these fires in the fields.
Along with straw, cow dung is also found everywhere in Laos and Cambodia. Everywhere I camped I faced minefields of cow dung. More background info: If not used for manure, this dung is broken down by fungus, earthworms, or dung beetles. If the dung is left untouched cows avoid grazing in the area and thus a new environment is created with tall grass creating biodiversity. Cow dung has been used as fuel, for electricity, burned as a mosquito repellent, and used as a thermal insulator. I would be interested to ask why so much of this dung is left standing all throughout fields in Laos and Cambodia and not turned into manure.
Mekong River Dams
The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world and drains into six countries and is home to a diverse aquaculture. Millions of people rely on this river for their way of lives, the fish it provides. That it touches so many people and nations it is inevitable that there would be problems. The main problem is the conflict for hydro power in the form of dams on one hand, and sustainability of the environment on the other. Dams disrupt Mother Nature, most importantly migration of fish and their breeding, and China, and now Laos, have or are in the process of building more dams.
Islam & Buddhism
I was surprised to see so many Muslims in Cambodia. Past Stung Treng and all the way to Phnom Penh I saw Muslim people, though mostly between Kratie and Kampong Cham. I was even more surprised to see Muslim students going to school in an abandoned Buddhist temple. I assume that the school is a state school merely using this temple. Still, girls wearing these hijabs entering a Buddhist temple under an entranceway filled with symbols of Buddhist cosmology carved into it was quite ironic. Buddhism went through its own hell under Pol Pot’s infamous Khmer Rouge regime where people were discouraged from feeding economically unproductive monks and those monks refusing orders were simply killed.
I met two couples and two solo cyclists in my travels. I met a Dutch couple in Takek, Laos as they were heading north onwards to northern Laos then to Vietnam to China Tibet and then on to Holland. Exciting trip indeed. And they were sort of winging it not particularly well prepared. Unfortunately no picture. These guys are in for some surprises when their bikes break down in the middle of Tibet.
I next met a He was experienced and had taken many trips before. A real cyclist. Did the perimeter of Australia. in southern Laos heading north on a world tour for 900 days.
I met this Chinese man, though I forget exactly where. The Chinese are known in SE Asia as just being nuts as tourists. Throwing scalding water on flight attendants, desecrating Thai temples, among other things. This guy decked out in his polyester one piece and his Chinese made bike looked a bit odd on the cycling circuit, but a trooper nonetheless. He told me he does 120-200km a day. 70km in mountains. Off to Malaysia from Beijing he was going. Never understand the purpose in riding that much a day unless you have to. I do about 60-70km per day though I can pull a 100km if needed.
I met this French couple in Stung Treng, Cambodia with their custom bikes. They were heading up north to northern Laos and Thailand. I warned them of the steep inclines in northern Laos. What a cool couple traveling like this every year all over the world. Funny how we all checked out each others’ bikes as they were parked at the hostel. We all knew without even seeing who the owners were that we were dealing with real cycling tourers. Cyclists are a fraternity unto themselves and it makes for very interesting meals as inevitably I know who they are and they know who I am and we just sort of approach each other and then join each other’s tables. Amazing all of the information and ideas I’ve heard from international cyclists.
This is what you see traveling in remote villages. You are the circus for all of these kids. The bearded lady. Exhibit A.
Technical Aspects of Touring: Cycling Notes
Thorn Nomad MK2
I looked quite a while to settle on a serious expedition touring bicycle several years ago and finally decided to go with the Thorn Nomad MK2, built in the UK. The other two contenders were the Santos and the Koga Miyata, both Dutch brands, but these bikes I couldn’t get online. My Thorn has a steel frame, couplers, and a Rohloff Hub and has performed mightily on the few trips I’ve gone on (which is to say just one serious tour (1200km) and several smaller trips (300-350km)). This Nakhon Phanom to Phnom Penh trip has tested the Thorn’s ability to carry heavy weight on roads, dirt, and gravel. What a difference to feel this bike sway to the weight as I steady it in different ground environments. I used Schwalbe Mondials for tires and they seemed just the fit for the combination of road/dirt I saw, though I had punctures in the rear wheel that became a problem. My Brooks 117 saddle appears to be finally molding to my bum. I keep fenders on because of the heavy rain in SE Asia though they weren’t needed on this trip. I plan on adding foam padding on the parts of the frame that have gotten banged up with locks banging against it and getting scratched leaning against things.
Another problem is not having an adequate lock for city living in places where there is nothing to lock the bike to. My handcuff lock was useless in this environment where a chain/wire type lock would at least lock the frame to a wheel.
I tried sleeping in my ultralight tent, but found that condensation was too much of a problem. Sleeping right next to a stream didn’t help matters. When I woke in the morning the tent was drenched in water and my sleeping bag was wet from condensation touching the walls of this cramped tent. When this happens everything must be sun dried, but the sun starts to heat up around 11am after I have been on the road for hours while a wet down bag is packed away in a pannier getting damaged. Thus the problem with down sleeping bags. Comfortable as they are they require vigilant maintenance which is difficult to maintain on a bicycle tour. I have read about liners that will trap moisture before it hits your sleeping bag. I’ve also read about opening up your tent as much as possible, placing it downwind of breezes, using groundsheets to stop ground moisture, simply wiping moisture off the tent walls, or placing your sleeping bag inside of a bag where your feet are to protect against dew on the walls of the tent. I’ve also read that these very small ultralight tents are breeding grounds for condensation. Looks like using the tarp part of the tent with a bug net is the best option, at least in the climates I’ve been cycling in.
Another alternative is using a hammock which I ended up using to great effect. Mine is a designed for tropical environments. These hammocks are easy to put up and with just a bug screen above me, less of a problem with condensation. They are also useful for taking power naps in the middle of the day to rest. 1 hour naps are great when you can actually lay down. If needed a tarp can be placed over the hammock and a storm shield can be pulled over the bug net to keep rain out as well as keeping more warmth inside. I definitely recommend them.
The Sun Shower worked wonders the few times I was able to use it though it was difficult to find a way to hoist it high enough. Using this portable shower requires carrying more water which adds considerable weight. Problem is, I don’t always know when I’ll need this contraption. My rule of thumb is three or more days camping in a row I’ll need to shower in the wilds. If a water source is nearby this works well for shower water, but finding available natural water like this is an exception rather than the rule. I learned that the trip that I took I had no problem with access to water for drinking along the way and I didn’t need to use my own stove to cook, which would require more water still for cooking and cleaning. Two quick showers are needed when camping: before sleeping and in the morning. Repeated use of a sleeping bag while dirty will ruin the bag even when using a liner. There are huge psychological rewards for showering after doing 50-80km in sweltering heat. Naturally, trees are needed to use this shower bag to hang it on. I carried 6 litres of water in 4 standard 1.5 litre plastic bottles and 2 litres in an Ortlieb bladder and felt I was carrying a donkey. The maximum water weight to carry is 23 litres and I can only imagine what that feels like. Cyclists heading into deserts do this.
You will be punished on the road if you forget to pay homage to the bike maintenance Gods. In my case I was careless about checking my pump and checking to remember to bring a tire patch kit. I got a flat in the middle of nowhere and when I realized that though I had a spare inner tube, the pump failed to work and so there I was with a broken down bike on the shoulder of a road next to a rice paddy with no Khmer language skills. The idea of even walking your bike to the next city/pump is not possible as your bike is carrying a lot of heavy weight and the tire itself simply falls of the rim if you try to move the bike. Then it’s time to make your pact with God to get you out of this. What I learned, thankfully, is that at least in Cambodia, there is a big tire maintenance sub culture with so many motorcycles on the roads. I was eventually liberated walking across the street where I found a guy that brought me down the road to a tire repair man with a proper pump. When I later got flats I was directed to the local tire guru who had his own recipe for solving the problem. Unfortunately none of these shamans patched my tire for a permanent solution to the problem. So I had eventually four different tire guys perform their magic while family and friends gathered to watch the “cooking” of the tire. Khmer don’t simply take out a patch kit in this most sacred of rituals. It’s a process that includes fire and partially melted rubber and a carefully chiseled piece of patch rubber. As you watch this spectacle you become part of the community, part of the family. Look to your right and it’s a child and mother swinging together in a hammock. Look to your left and over behind staircase is the local naked boy. A mother hen eventually appears with her little chicks. A cat comes to compete for scraps of fish bones. More kids come and stare at the alien white man. And so it is thus, traveling in remote villages in the developing world. I always feel like I’m that Garcia-Marquez character who washes up in that village that no one understands and then he flies away.
Exped pillow, air mat, visor
The exped pillow has been great while it worked the past several years. Problem is, it leaked on this trip so I would awake with it half full of air. I’ll check this piece of “kit” to see if I haven’t been properly closing the air plugs.
The air mattress started to delaminate one night sounding like a Hummer was approaching me in gravel, slowly. At first I didn’t know what the sound was. Spooky. Simplicity works better in the long run. Too many manmade ideas means too many opportunities for things to go wrong. I will look at simple foam mats to use as well as insulation options to place in the storage spaces on the hammock.
I need a visor for my helmet. The most important thing a helmet does is to protect your head from the sun I have learned, not protect it from crashing into the pavement. I paid a heavy price for forgetting to put on sun screen with my paddy white Irish skin.