Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Angkor Wat

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

(Emily) It had only been a short stay in Phnom Penh but we’d visited the important sites of S-21 and Choeung Ek and we knew that with all the nice cafes, bars and shops so close to our guesthouse, our budget-conscious resolve would soon be in danger of weakening if we stuck around. All in all, it was better for both our wallets and our waistlines to move on! We rode out of the capital on a Sunday so the traffic, though equally chaotic, was slightly less busy than when we’d arrived on Friday evening. That said, we still encountered some maniacs once back on the main road and James had a particularly close call that saw him veering off into the dirt at 80kph when an oncoming truck took an inopportune moment to overtake. I had my heart in my mouth as I watched him struggling to keep control of the bike, convinced that he was going to come off, but he somehow managed to slow down before the wheels slid out from under him and soon joined me back on the road. Luckily, things became more sedate once we’d got a sufficient distance away from the city and we covered the 325km journey in good time, arriving in Siem Reap by mid-afternoon.

Siem Reap is the nearest town to Angkor Wat and, as a result of its serendipitous location next to one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions, it hosts more hotels and guesthouses than it does temples (quite a feat in southeast Asia!) There was almost too much choice but in the end we found a great place tucked away off the road with secure parking for the bikes, a leafy green courtyard and clean, if compact, rooms for $6. We were a little bit behind on the diary (who, us?!) so after a refreshing cold shower (we’d been riding in near 40 degrees humidity all day,) we sat down to type in the pleasing ambiance of the plant filled patio. We didn’t  get very far though, for who should turn up minutes later but Donato! Originally part of our China-Pakistan KKH group, our paths hadn’t crossed since early November in Agra when we visited the Taj Mahal together ( it seemed that we were destined to convene in locations of the ‘great wonders’ of the world!) We had a lovely evening catching up and hearing tales from his travels; it’s fair to say that Donato’s journey on his Harley has been about as filled with bike-related problems as ours has been trouble free! (James: not too surprising as it’s a brave man who attempts a journey like this on a Harley which certainly isn’t built for the job!) He’s pretty philosophical though, and accepts that it comes with the territory (unlike Juan who would swap his GS for one of our XTs in a heartbeat on the rough stuff, Donato remains steadfastly loyal to his beast!) In addition to the mechanical dramas which can always be sorted somehow or another, he did tell us about an altogether more alarming incident. Recently, when riding through northern Laos, he’d just parted ways with another two overlanders when he was stung by a flying insect as he rode along. He continued on his way but before long, started to feel faint and dizzy. He managed to pull in and stop at a small roadside village where he all but fell off the bike and within minutes he had lost his vision and was lying shaking on the ground – he said he truly felt that these were to be his final moments. There was no doctor around and no one spoke English but someone got him some asprin and water – not exactly first aid but luckily his condition started to improve and he seemed to have come through the worst of it. After resting for some time, he got back on the bike and woozily road back to the town he’d left that morning where he then spent 24 hours in hospital. Bloody hell! It seems he’d had a severe allergic reaction to the insect sting. Needless to say, he now carries antihistamines  and keeps his jacket zipped up when he’s on the bike! (After hearing his cautionary tale, I resolved to do the same but, of course, had forgotten by the next time we were on our bikes…)

The following day, it was James’ birthday! After a celebratory breakfast of omelette and baguette (admittedly, the same breakfast we had most mornings in Laos and Cambodia) we met again with Donato and all piled into a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat. Several fellow overlanders we knew had been through this way recently and we’d heard varying reports on the possibility of getting our bikes into the ancient site – John and Kelly had tried several routes in but been denied at every turn, Dean and Dave had tried a more sneaky approach and managed to get a few photos . We decided that it sounded like more trouble than it was worth and, although it would be nice to get that shot of the bikes in front of the main temple, we could live without it. We stopped at the ticket office where, after we parted with $60 for a three day pass (ouch!), they took portrait photos to print onto our tickets – tourism here is serious business! Then our tuk-tuk drove us the rest of the way down the road to the main entrance: I hadn’t quite realised it, even from looking at the guidebooks, but the whole temple complex is huge! We’d been planning to walk our way round the sites but it soon became clear that this would be an impossibility, especially in the current weather – it was over 40 degrees but even worse was the humidity. We’d only gone a few paces before the sweat was running down our faces (well, for me and Donato anyway – remember James and his non-sweating anomaly) which was pretty gross. We decided to just do a short route on foot that afternoon and arranged for the tuk-tuk guy to give us a tour the following day.

Anyway, ‘wat’ about the temples?! Well, the infamous Angkor Wat itself was the first one we could see and it is indeed pretty awe-inspiring. Nearly 1000 years old and remarkably well-preserved, it is certainly evocative of an ancient time. The outer wall is a continuous tableau of intricate carvings relaying battles and religious stories whereas inside, stone towers and endless arches give the impression of a labyrinth where you might easily get lost in time. The white sky wasn’t exactly playing ball for photos but James and Donato got pretty absorbed with their cameras nonetheless and when a trio of young monks obligingly appeared it made for some great shots. After cooling off over lunch (we’d managed to find an air-conditioned café amid the various food stalls), we went back into the sweat zone and walked over to Phnom Bakheng, a hilltop temple cited as the place to be for sunset. However, we were bemused to find, at the end of a long hot walk, that from the top of the stone steps, Angkor Wat was a mere speck in the distance visible only through the treetops so it wasn’t quite going to be the magical ‘sun setting over the temple’ that we’d anticipated. In fact, it wasn’t going to be a sunset at all because, as James pointed out, the sky was suddenly looking ominously full of gathering thunderclouds. We sat a while to rest and watch, amused, as hundreds more tourists clambered up the uneven and ridiculously steep steps to bag themselves a spot for sun down, completely oblivious to the fact that it was a non-starter. After a while, we left them to it – there must have been pushing a thousand people up there by this point – and sure enough, whilst on our way back to the guesthouse, we heard the first rumblings of thunder. We’d just got into our room when the heavens opened and we watched for two hours rain of an almost biblical nature (James: and had a quiet smile thinking about the chaos that must have been unfolding on top of the viewpoint as a thousand people descended the muddy slope to find just a couple of waiting tuk-tuks waiting at the bottom!)

The following morning, the plan had been to leave at 5am to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat but a combination of a late night celebrating James’ birthday and an overcast sky at dawn was all the excuse we needed to stay in bed! Later on though, we explored the temple complex a little more thoroughly thanks to our tuk-tuk chauffeur service! Once again we were amazed by how many structures are spread over the site, all impressive in their own way. The one I’d been looking forward to most was Ta Phrom, an Indiana Jones-esque temple over-run with vines and trees whose roots have ruthlessly pervaded the stone work to produce a wild, abandoned aura as if you might have just stumbled upon the ruin yourself. It was an atmospheric place, though the sense of wonder was somewhat diminished by the hordes of tourists and the huge work team currently doing extensive repair work to some of the outer walls. I have to say, I was also slightly disappointed that the temple wasn’t quite as overgrown as pictures had suggested it would be – apparently the undergrowth has been cut back in recent years, perhaps in an attempt to preserve what’s left of the temple from the destructive force of nature. That said, it was still pretty cool! Once again the humidity was almost unbearable so we relished the short rides from site to site when we could get a little wind in our hair (or beard, in Donato’s case!) One of the most impressive sights is the gated entrance to the walled city of Angkor Thom, where huge stone gods are posed in a perpetual tug of war with their stone demon counterparts, apparently representing the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism can be found  all over the temple complex, indeed  many of the ancient kings of the Khmer dynasty believed themselves to be earth-bound representatives of Hindu gods. Self-aggrandisement, much?!  

After another rainy night, our sleep interrupted at times by a deafening cacophony of what we assumed must be frogs, we woke up bright and early, eager to get going: we were returning to Thailand, our home from home! The map indicated that the road to the border was ‘under construction’ but we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had smooth tarmac the whole way, plus the added bonus of a return to more conventional driving by our fellow road users. It was pretty much one long, straight road for 200km so our last experience of Cambodia wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute but we did manage to get photos of some more ‘unusual’ moped loads such as a wardrobe and a couple of large, live pigs! We had a bit of a wait at customs on the Cambodian side of the border – it seemed that the entire staff had gone to lunch (there literally wasn’t one person around, we could have had the run of the place should we have wanted to!) – but once they’d returned and signed off our carnets it was a pretty quick process to leave. One notable thing was that the area between the Cambodian and Thai border posts – essentially no mans land – was chock full of casinos. Why? Because gambling is illegal in both countries so they solve the problem by building mega casinos in the space in between. So hypocritical!! Once we’d got through to the Thai side, a couple of police were throwing their weight around a bit and telling us we’d have to get a bus into Thailand to buy some insurance before coming back for the bikes… er, how about no? Having already been into Thailand at least twice, we knew this was rubbish but kowtowed a suitable amount to put them at ease and then promptly ignored their instructions, did the usual paperwork without them and went on our way. We’d thoroughly enjoyed our loop through Laos and Cambodia but it has to said were excited to be back in the ‘Land of Smiles’…

For latest photos click here.

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

(Emily) When we awoke the next morning in Kratie, Juan was still feeling in need of rest after the Cambodian wilderness adventure so he decided to stay on another day or so whereas we resolved to get ourselves to Phnom Penh. It was another boring day of riding on straight roads in the heat and dust (with yet more slash and burn in evidence), and this time we had the added delight of some pretty erratic driving from our fellow road-users, dare I say, ‘Indian-style’ driving… (James: Funnily enough we had both already commented on how ‘Indian’ it felt as we rode along. The people looked less south east Asian and much more southern Indian, and wore what could only be described as traditional southern Indian clothes.) It was the first time in a while that we had to be on high alert for kamikaze bus drivers and errant mopeds, and it’s amazing how the mental energy required drains you so much more that the physical act of riding alone. All in all, not a fun day on the road. About 40km from the centre of Phnom Penh, the traffic jams started so we were a couple of sweaty betties by the time we made it into the centre, though on the plus side, riding in through the traffic was a lot less scary than the more open main road had been – equally crazy driving but much more manageable at slower speeds. We found a street chock full of guesthouses but almost all of them were quoting $18 and above for a simple double (I guess that’s the way it goes being the capital city). We really didn’t want to head out into the traffic again to find another place which would just as likely be the same price (or more as you got nearer the river) so in the end, went back to the only place asking $10; we’d originally dismissed it as it had no parking, not even on the street. However, it was run by a bunch of giggling young women who were very friendly and they moved a bit of furniture around so we could ride in through the bar (James: always fun seeing the surprised look on the faces of any customers enjoying a beer!) We inched our way in and parked up against the wall right next to the pool table; result!

Phnom Penh itself is a lot more developed and cosmopolitan than we’d expected. Just the road where we were staying hosted about fifteen very cool European style café/bars and there were plenty of trendy clothes shops (‘Just keep walking, Emily’…) The guidebooks were full of temples and markets to visit but, being all ‘templed out’, the main thing that interested us was learning more about the terrible atrocities committed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s regime. James already knew quite a lot about the short but devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge (he is the fountain, after all) but I was fairly unaware of this period in history. Well, I was certainly to learn a lot over the next 24 hours. In 1975, following years of civil war, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (members of which were known as the Khmer Rouge), led by Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia and proceeded to subject the country to radical social reforms in an attempt to create a completely classless, self-sufficient, agrarian based society. The Khmer Rouge were extreme in their communist views and resorted to equally extreme measures in order to enforce their ideology. Within days of the start of the new regime, the entire population of all cities, including the capital, were forcibly evacuated (urban dwellers were seen as corrupted) and their inhabitants marched out to the countryside (regardless of age, sex etc) where they were made to labour on farms. Furthermore, money was abolished and books destroyed, whilst schools, banks and even hospitals were all closed down.

The Khmer Rouge was largely made up of uneducated rural peasants but increasingly, children were recruited into the regime as they were seen as ‘pure’, untainted by the greed, knowledge, and views of their ‘capitalist’ influenced parents and more likely to be utterly loyal to ‘Brother Number One’ as Pol Pot was known. These children were essentially brainwashed to reject the concept of family and were often ordered to kill relatives to demonstrate their devotion to the Khmer Rouge and its ideals. Stark evidence of further atrocities carried out by the regime are still to be found at Tuol Sleng prison, a fifteen minute walk from where we staying. Better known as Security Prison 21 (or S-21), this former high school building was commandeered and used by the Khmer Rouge to detain, interrogate and torture anyone seen as enemies of the regime. The crimes of those arrested?  ‘Capitalist activity’ (James: a sufficiently broad and generic term that effectively meant anything the Khmer Rouge wanted) or ‘free trade’, though the list of those deemed a threat quickly escalated to include anyone with any education or professional training; ‘signs’ of intellectualism included speaking a foreign language, having soft ‘unlaboured’ hands or even wearing glasses (the irony being that Pol Pot and other senior figures in the regime were educated at universities in Paris and spoke French). Other perceived ‘subversive elements’ included members of the former government, civil servants, teachers, policemen,  and those practising religion (Buddhists monks, Muslims, Catholics, and ethnic minorities from  Vietnam, China and Thailand were all arrested). In the four years of the regime, over 17,000 such people were held at S-21 alone (there were many other detention centres but S-21 being in the capital, is the most notorious). There they were subjected to torture and degradation before being summarily executed.

Today, S-21 is the ‘Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’ – chillingly frozen in time to leave the visitor in no doubt of the horrors that occurred there. We walked through dozens of rooms containing just a iron bed frame, shackles and various crude weapons or implements for torture, while enlarged photographs on the walls depicted that very same bed with an emaciated, bloodied body slumped on it, not always clear whether alive or dead. The rooms have been left completely as found, including large ominous dark reddish-brown stains on the floors underneath and around the beds. Yes, it seems that the Khmer Rouge took real  pride in documenting their barbarity (they also took head shots of every single prisoner that entered the prison, now on display in the museum: row upon row of thousands of men, women, children (including babies) and even a few European faces all sitting in the same chair. Barbed wire is still in place along the front of the classrooms on the upper floors – installed to stop prisoners from taking the more favourable option of committing suicide by jumping – and many of the rooms contain hastily constructed make-shift partitions which formed tiny coffin shaped cells where prisoners would spend all day, everyday in complete silence, only being let out for interrogation or to be executed. It was a chilling and depressing experience to walk the halls where such atrocities had taken place just three decades ago.

Such was the volume of prisoners coming through the prison – let’s face it, pretty much anyone could be found guilty of some ‘crime’ or another, not to mention the fact that towards the end, increasing levels of mass paranoia even led to the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge itself being accused – the orchestrators of S-21 devised a convenient method for dispatching their victims. They were trucked out to sites outside of Phnom Penn at night, known collectively as the ‘killing fields’, executed and buried in mass graves. Some prisoners were even thrown in atop the bodies and buried alive, and babies were swung by their feet against trees, all to save bullets (James: and in the case of infants, to prevent them from growing up and avenging their parents). It was, and I’m aware of what an understatement  this is, horrendous. Following our sobering visit to Tuol Sleng, we went to one such site, Choeung Ek, located on the outskirts of the city, now a memorial dedicated to those who died so needlessly. Formally an orchard, it is thought that at least 17,000 people were executed at Choeung Ek, the vast majority of whom were prisoners at S-21. The site now is a peaceful oasis of green – at first glance a pleasant place to have a stroll in the shade of the trees – but closer inspection reveals placards marking dozens of sunken beds were thousands of bodies were discovered in unmarked mass graves, some containing the remains of several hundred bodies. Nearby there is also a commemorative stupa in the grounds where over 5000 skulls of victims are displayed. It was difficult to comprehend that this is all part of such recent history; perhaps deep down we want to believe that this kind of thing was done before our time, in less ‘enlightened’ ages, so are more shocked when faced with the harsh reality that it does (James: sadly we don’t learn and it continues, more recently in Rwanda, and currently in Darfur and DRCongo). Information at the small museum at the grounds was somewhat lost in translation and quite difficult to follow, and there seemed to be no information regarding the consequences for the perpetrators except to say that many of the regime leaders had died and that Comrade ‘Duch’, the chief of the S-21 prison, was put on trial for crimes against humanity in 2007. Overall, we didn’t really get the sense of an appetite to prosecute those involved. Perhaps the collective conscience of the country focuses on  honouring the memories of the victims rather than seeking persecution of the people responsible simply because so many Cambodians still alive today have culpability; anyone over the age of 40 or so is likely to have been involved to some extent on one side or the other.

Needless to say, we were shocked and saddened by everything we read and saw. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge were eventually ousted in 1979 after the Vietnamese army invaded. With the liberation of the city imminent, the guards at S-21 quickly abandoned their posts for fear of capture, though not before following out orders to liquidise all remaining prisoners; Vietnamese soldiers arrived at the prison to find fourteen bodies all bearing signs of torture and a hasty execution. The graves of these last victims are situated in the former school playground, yet another reminder of the horrors that occurred there. Only seven people are known to have survived the living hell that was Tuel Sleng. All possessing skills of some sort another, they were picked out by high ranking officials to perform their bidding, such as painting portraits of the leaders, documenting prisoners’ statements or taking photographs. Their testimonies make for harrowing reading. To date more than 20,000 mass grave sites have been identified throughout the country, containing the remains of an estimated 1.3 million victims of the regime. By the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, almost 2.5 million Cambodians had died, either killed by the regime or due to disease and starvation, the result of the disastrous failure of Pol Pot’s  master plan. This figure becomes even more incredible given that the total population of the country had only been an estimated 8 million!

We left Phnom Penh, shocked and, unsurprisingly, subdued but certainly glad that we’d learnt more about what had happened to the Cambodian people and buoyed by the fact that on the surface, at least, they seemed happy and eager to move on towards a more positive future. We were also excited as our next port of call would be far less sinister – we’re were heading to Siem Reap and the world famous Ankor Wat!…

For recent photos click here.

Ban Lung and Kratie

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

(Emily) What we really needed after our little adventure into the wilderness was a clean, friendly guesthouse with decent showers and good food but unfortunately, on arriving in Ban Lung, it soon became clear that the town was a bit of a sh*thole!! Never mind, never mind, we came to see the lake, remember, not the town. We went to the bank to finally get some local currency and while the boys were inside, I stood watching the bikes and was approached by a middle aged guy wielding business cards. ‘Looking for accommodation?’ he asked eagerly.  Somewhat guarded, I confirmed that we were and he proceeded to tell me about his newly opened hilltop hotel just five kilometres out of town. To be honest, it did look pretty tasty from the pictures. ‘But how much?’ I asked (it looked way out of our budget.) ‘Special offer – just $10 per bungalow.’ SOLD! It’s slightly more than we usually pay but much better than expected and hell, we deserved a little treat! Besides, we’d hardly spent a thing over the last 48 hours so it kind of evened out. It turned out to be one of my better decisions (perhaps redeeming my ill-fated ‘Let’s take this small road…’ of two days before); we followed the guy in his landrover out of town (no regrets there) and up into the hills to find said hotel which looked, to our relief, just like the picture on the business card (James: time and time again we’ve found that a photo is not necessarily a true guide to how a place will really look!). It was better, in fact! Gorgeous teak bungalows in perfectly manicured grounds, fresh white linen and beautiful views. A sign by reception indicated that prices were usually $35 (still a steal quite frankly) so we felt very pleased with ourselves.

Once we’d reappeared after a much needed shower (prompting the staff to do a double take – are they the same people who just turned up dirty and dishevelled on motorbikes?), we sat down to enjoy a long, cold beer in the glow of the evening sun. Already the last two days were a distant memory; did it really happen? (James: the aches, pains and general lack of energy were a decent reminder though!) Service at the hotel was super attentive and we took full advantage of the complimentary fresh roasted peanuts – we were the only guests and they seemed quite happy to keep refilling the bowl (James: this might sound like a minor and inconsequential detail to you but the nuts were the main subject of conversation that evening!). Despite having not eaten anything but a packet of biscuits since breakfast the previous day, peanuts were all we could manage at the moment – our bodies had moved beyond hunger! We decided that the warmth of the evening air, the setting sun and our elegant surroundings all combined to make this very much a Gin and tonic moment – amazing what you can convince yourself you ‘deserve’ after a few days of hardship (no wonder our friend Dean drinks so much beer – he’s constantly at the end of a long day off road!) But sadly, the plethora of spirits behind the bar did not include gin so we were denied (probably just as well – unlike the rooms, the drinks menu was not offering discount prices!) No matter, the beer was going down nicely!

Not long after a simple dinner of mixed fried rice, we retired early and were pretty much gone by the time our heads hit the pillow; aside from being woken in the early hours by the extra-ordinarily loud mating call of a large lizard who’d taken residence behind part of the wooden frame in our bungalow, it was one of the best night’s sleep we’d ever had. The next morning we took things easy but eventually rode down to the lake at Boeng Yeak Lom, the description of which – ‘a crystal clear, perfectly circular crater lake and the best natural swimming pool in Cambodia’ – is what had us coming way out east in the first place. James jokingly told me that it’d better be worth it after the palaver it took to get us here… and it’s a good thing he was joking (James: er, was I?!) because it really wasn’t!! Crystal clear? Was it b****cks! I mean, it was nice enough, and we had an enjoyable dip, but worth going 500km out of your way? Not so much! Still, we all agreed that we were glad we’d come out this way – it had certainly provided some great experiences and there was no doubt that we’d had a taste of rural Cambodia at its finest!

Two nights relaxing in the luxury of the hillside retreat did just the job after all the excitement of our little detour but now it was time to hit the road again. We knew that the route west from Ban Lung back to the main highway south was dirt track but the guys at the hotel assured us it was pretty good so we parted ways with Juan, who went off ahead planning to blitz it all the way to the capital Phnom Penn (500+km away) that day, and started on our way. Leaving the outskirts of Ban Lung, it was funny to see the tarmac end abruptly and the dirt begin – here we go! The road has been ‘under construction’ for the last three years but there certainly wasn’t much indication of any work going on along the way (I guess that’s why it’s taking so long…) However, despite the lack of paving, it was in essence a main road – wide and fast with plenty of trucks to kick up dust into our faces. We pootled along at about 70kph; we could have gone faster, and indeed Juan is an advocate of hurtling along at top speed on this sort of road as it’s actually more comfortable to fly over the bumps and stones, but occasionally there were patches of gravel hidden amid the general dirt so we wanted to give ourselves time to clock them and slow down (in fact, we heard from Juan later that he nearly had a serious accident when caught out by one). After 60km or so, about half way to the main road south, the road suddenly became much narrower and bumpier and we realised that no other vehicles had passed us for ten minutes or so. It was really strange – we were sure there hadn’t been any junctions or turnings but it really didn’t seem like the same road we’d been on all morning. We pulled over to consult the map but sure enough, this was the only road west. Eventually, a car came in the other direction and we waved them down to ask if this was still the way to Kratie and Stung Treng: affirmative. Oh well, we shrugged and set on our way again, wondering where on earth all the traffic had disappeared to. Bizarre!

It’s amazing how quickly you forget things– when we’d been struggling in the sand a few days before, we’d have given anything for this sort of road but now we were cursing every bump as the rutted track jarred our spines to pieces. There’s no pleasing some people! Not a moment too soon, we finally got to the junction where we turned south onto perfect tarmac – yes! From this point we made good progress and were in Kratie, a sleepy town by the Mekong and one of the possibilities for a night stop, by 2pm. We found a stall for lunch and a fruit shake (I may not have mentioned it before but Juan and I were literally obsessed by the yummy fruit shakes in Laos and Cambodia, carelessly disregarding the inevitable tummy troubles due to the unfiltered water!) and discussed our options. Kratie didn’t seem to have huge appeal so I was all for cracking on to Kompong Cham, the other potential night stop… until we looked at the map and saw it was still 250km away (as the crow flies it was a lot nearer but on closer inspection we saw that the road would take us on a much longer route). Sod that!! So it made sense to stop here despite the earliness of the hour, and anyway, I’d been having some problems with my bike – it was cutting out every time I came off the throttle to change down a gear – which we could do with sorting before heading off again (not to mention my bent handlebars!) We asked about rooms at the four or five hotels located handily across the street and settled on a $7 double.

Later that afternoon, we doing a bit of maintenance on the bikes – oiling chains, tightening bolts and addressing my stalling problem  – when another overlander rode in through the gates. Coolio! It was Masa, a Japanese guy on a very beat up and well worn Honda Africa Twin, who’s been on the road for three and half years and counting. (Funnily enough, it was the second Japanese overlander we’d met called Masa – the first being the round the world ‘walker’ we’d met way back in Montenegro.) He’s a lovely guy and while we were chatting to him, who should turn up but Juan!! Of course! We were a bit confused – hadn’t he left before us that morning with the intention of bombing it to Phnom Penn – but it turns out he’d he stopped for lunch in Kratie, got chatting to some fellow Spaniards and was still there three hours later! It’s fair to say that our four big, muddy motorbikes got more than a little attention lined up as they were along the front of the hotel! We’re always pleased to see Juan but it was particularly fortuitous this time as we could ask him about my engine problem (Juan’s a mechanic by trade and worked for Yamaha back in the day!) He suggested we start by looking at the air filter – perhaps with all the dust from the last couple of weeks, it was having difficulty getting enough air to the engine. It did indeed look a bit clogged up and Juan was horrified to discover that we’d only cleaned our filters three times before on the trip… apparently we should have been doing it every 5000km, oops! Luckily we had the right stuff to clean them with so we set to work, doing James’ too for good measure, and sure enough, the engine seemed to run a lot more steadily after that. Thanks, Juan! Masa, who designed engines for Honda, confessed that  he was even worse when it came to maintenance so that made us feel a bit better! (James: Juan, ever the mechanic, could only shake his head!)

Later on we found a bar selling cold beer (and G&Ts – it was run by an American ex-pat who was camp as Christmas! The on sale calendars of ‘Kratie’s Handsome River Men’ were somewhat disturbing!! ) and the four of us had a chilled evening talking bikes and swapping stories. The next morning we would do the remaining stint to the capital, Phnom Penh…

Latests pics.

Emily has a cunning plan: part 2

Friday, March 18th, 2011

(James) It soon became clear that crossing the river hadn’t brought us back to civilisation as we’d hoped; within 100 metres we were riding along a narrow rutted, dusty track that clearly didn’t get much use any more. Sighing, we resigned ourselves to more of the same but after just 400 metres Juan, the lead bike, came to a sudden stop. By the time we’d pulled up behind him, he was shaking his head. In front of us, for as far as we could see, was sand, thick thick sand! This was not good. We’d had pretty thick sand on occasion before, but this was ridiculous. It was not only deep but fine enough to shift around a lot. Sand is a nightmare to ride on as your front wheel doesn’t ever go where you point it, it just slides with the shifting grains. The only way to ride it is to give it enough power to allow the rear to dig in, which lifts the weight off the front wheel. Once the front is ‘light’, it’s about keeping the power on (even if you feel the front wheel being ‘guided’ off course) and using your body and the power from the rear wheel to keep you going straight. It’s a tough thing to get your head around when you first get to it (Em: tell me about it!) because it’s counter-intuitive to hit the power when your brain is telling you to take it easy. We all knew that for however long this lasted, we’d be spending most of the time in first gear with our feet down on the ground, just paddling along trying not to fall off. Hopefully it wouldn’t last too long….

Sadly it did, and all too soon Emily became our first faller of the day. She was, of course, fine – she’s amazing unaffected by falling off road and no longer thinks that a fall is because she’s not up to it – and was straight back on the bike (Em: once we’d managed to get it upright again!). The sand just kept on going, limiting our speed to less than a walking pace which, given the heat, humidity and the concentration required, was absolutely draining. When the sand did eventually end a kilometre or so later, the track became incredibly uneven with ruts over a metre deep (Em: out of the frying pan, into the fire!). Riding on the top of the ruts was impossible as we couldn’t put our feet down so we had to ride through them requiring us to raise our feet up to ground level. This, of course, other than looking completely ungainly, gave us little control – not ideal as so deep were the ruts that the bottom of our panniers were grounding out. After 200 metres or so, the ruts came to an end only to be replaced once more by narrow tracks covered in thick sand. We battled on, riding in bursts of ten to twenty metres and experiencing a lot of near falls. After what seemed like an age, Juan stopped under the shade of a tree and asked if we could have a break, something we were all more than happy to do. Whilst the last of the water was shared around, I looked at our progress – it didn’t make particularly good reading. In the last hour we’d managed a staggeringly difficult 4km! We lay on the ground for five minutes or so before I tried to get everyone to get moving again (it was all too easy just to lay there and the idea of even putting our jackets and helmets back on really wasn’t appealing!) We continued on and managed a couple more kilometres before stopping for  another break. This became the pattern for the rest of the afternoon. We’d already given up any hope of reaching Ban Lung that day and had set the next village of O-Samong as our target for the evening.

As the afternoon wore on, fatigue, brought on in no small part by the workload, heat and lack of any food or water, became our biggest problem and the gaps between our breaks decreased. Mistakes were also starting to creep in and we were reduced to getting the bike just five metres or so before stopping and going again. We continued to have plenty of ‘near misses’ and before too long Juan went down. In our shattered states, it would take both Em and I to help Juan pick his heavy GS back up so he just sat thereby his bike for a couple of minutes whilst Em and I tried desperately to find somewhere suitable to put the side stand down on one bike, then find some stones or wood to place under the side stand of the other bike before we could help. Juan, drenched in sweat, was a wreck so we agreed to stop for a couple of minutes again (our breaks were now coming every 500 metres or so). We hadn’t gone too far when Em went down again and we again agreed to stop. Juan and Em both remarked that had we had water, we would have happily stopped and camped right where we were but both map and GPS indicated that O-Samong was just three not-so-short kilometres away. It was now gone half four and we knew that if we could do the last 3km in an hour we’d be in a better position with the possibility of a shop selling water and even a guesthouse. We pressed on through more deep sand after about 40 minutes, the sand turned to harder packed dirt and we saw a couple of dwellings through the trees. To say we were relieved would be a mild understatement. We rode through the village and to the top of the river bank where a  few curious villagers stood watching us in amazement. We tried to ask if there was a shop, somewhere to get food or even a guesthouse but were met with the kind of blank looks that suggested they didn’t even know what a guesthouse was! A quick look round established that we were out of luck and, seeing that there was no bridge across the river, we rode down the bank to find a fording point.

The river itself was slow flowing and about forty metres wide but didn’t appear to be any more than waste height at its deepest point, with the odd sand bank creating an island mid stream (thank god it’s the dry season and levels are low!). It was now about 5:30 and the whole village appeared to be down at the river washing, collecting water and playing so our arrival at the water’s edge caused something of a stir. We got off the bikes to find a suitable spot to cross and luckily a man on a scooter (we’d have all given anything to be able to ride that little scooter the rest of the way to Ban Lung!) approached from the other side and managed (just) to cross near us, indicating to the crossing point with the hardest ground and, rather importantly, the least chance of underwater rocks – falling off in the water would mean flooding the bike and killing any electronics that weren’t kept in waterproof panniers such as the cameras and laptop. Juan went first and indicated that the riverbed was smooth, if a bit soft (just give it some beans then!) so we followed across. By the time we were all over, a large crowd of perhaps forty villagers had gathered and Juan had discovered one teenager who could speak a bit of English, enough to tell him that there was no shop and no guesthouse anywhere nearby (and the food situation was also a bit of a grey area). Great!

We quickly agreed that with darkness approaching and our energy reserves nearly depleted (Juan was quite literally a broken man!) we were going no further and so, having got permission from some locals (it helped that most of them were standing watching us so we didn’t have to go looking for someone in charge!), we pulled our tents out and began to put them up, an act that astounded our audience! Juan, still unable to move, just sat there for ten minutes before summoning the strength to make camp. With tents up, we left Juan to sit on a log while we walked upstream a little (the kids all ran screaming and laughing as soon as we started to walk towards them!) to what appeared to be a spring on a sandbank in the middle of the river and began filtering some much needed drinking water – again an act that shocked the crowd of locals that followed us, partly because of the small hand pump we were using, but mostly, I’d imagine, because they couldn’t understand why we weren’t just drinking the water directly!

Having filled a couple of bottles we headed back to give some to Juan, who was now sat alone in a near vegetative state. Apparently the guy who spoke English had walked off into the trees – along with any chance we’d had of getting some food! Still, at least we had water. All we wanted to do now was have a wash but we were still such a novelty that we’d have to wait until dark when hopefully our audience would go home for the night. Fortunately night falls fairly rapidly at this latitude; by 7pm it was pitch black so Em and I waded into the river near the fording point where there was a boulder to put our towels and soap on. We took turns – Em washed first with me on lookout duty and then it was my turn – and that’s when the comedy of errors began…..

Having stripped off  (don’t try picturing it – it was pitch black!), I was standing in the stream washing the accumulated dirt and sweat from my hands when suddenly my wedding ring slid off my finger! (Our diet on this trip means that I’m quite literally half the man I used to be!) Cursing, I quickly but carefully got down on all fours and blindly felt around the riverbed for it. Em went back to the tent for a torch and soon returned with Juan to help look. Juan, of course, didn’t know I was butt naked; a fact that didn’t remain unknown for long! So, there we were the three of us, two torches and me, on my hands and knees in my birthday suit scrambling around in a river! Just when I thought my humiliation couldn’t get any worse, we heard the unmistakable sound of a scooter and seconds later, not one but two came into view and rode down the bank to the fording point, which, of course, was right next to me! All I could do was sit down to retain some degree of modesty! All three of us were in hysterics as the scooters rode by, I hope we didn’t offend anyone (Christ knows what they’d have thought had they’d seen us seconds before!) After they’d disappeared up the other side, we continued the search but it was fruitless and we had to give up. Even though the ring was only very cheap (bought specifically for the trip at Covent Garden market), I was sad to have lost it but Em was pretty philosophical (frankly, I think she thought it was worth it for the laugh that the whole sorry episode had provided at the end of what had been a really tough day.) Then, just to rub salt in the wound, as I got up to walk back to the bank, Em (still on torch duty) noticed that I’d sat in what must have been an old oil rag or filter and had thick oil all over my backside! Not exactly my finest hour!……

With nothing else to do, and being totally shattered, we were all asleep by 8pm and woke at dawn the next morning  eager to get going. Our early departure was made quicker by the fact that there was nothing for breakfast and, whilst packing the tents up, we kept trying to ask people from our audience if the road improved from this point or stayed the same. The few who understood our sign language smiled and indicated ‘yes, it’s good’ but we’re old hands now and knew all too well that this was in all likelihood a case of someone saying what we wanted to hear (people throughout Asia say yes if you ask a leading question so as not to disappoint you – sweet but not particularly helpful!) After I’d given a regretful glance back towards the river to say one last goodbye to my wedding ring (cheap it may be but I’d become rather attached to it), we were ready to hit the road by 7am, which would hopefully give us a chance to get some distance under our belts before it got too hot. Upon riding up the bank, our worst fears were confirmed when we were met with yet more sand – it was clear that we, quite literally, were not out of the woods yet! There was still 80km to go to Ban Lung, and 40km until we reached the next river where, on the other side, there would be a main road.  According to the map, between us and the river there were three villages, each about 10km apart. All we could do was set the first village as our target and hope that they had water or food there (Em: despite the long rest, we were still completely lacking in energy. We’d have given anything for some noodle soup!)

We battled on through the sand covering a tough six kilometres in the first hour (yes, a mammoth 4 miles!) before taking a much needed break. Not taking any chances, we rationed the water and not wanting to waste any of the cooler part of the day, set off in anticipation of the settlement ahead and the possibility of a drink and some much needed food. The ‘village’, when we got to it forty minutes later, was a crushing disappointment; well, what  was left of it was anyway. All that remained of said village were a couple of long abandoned huts on stilts that were leaning badly and would surely collapse any day now. We just laughed (Em: somewhat hysterically), and continued on our way – now we understood why this was an ‘ex-road!’ The lack of food and water was clearly starting to get to us as both our strength and our concentration were faltering and more mistakes were creeping in. First Emily went down in a deep patch of sand, and then a kilometre or so later so did I. Just twenty minutes later I was down again, this time having been propelled into an old thorn bush (always nice!).  The second village when it came was much like the first so we continued on having already prepared ourselves mentally for the fact that village number three would be no different.  At this point, the terrain started to vary a bit more. We were still getting deep sand and rutted tracks (they were getting worse leading to much scraping of panniers!) but now the jungle started to close in on us much more (offering us some valuable shade) and we found ourselves having to ride down very steep banks, through old dried out riverbeds and up steep banks on the other side. As we approached each new bank, we’d hold our breath as they were so steep that until we were right on top of it, it appeared as if it was a sheer drop. Too steep to brake on, we’d pick a line and roll down, trying to maintain momentum for the other side. Em came a cropper on one of these when the bank back up required a sharp turn midway up. In true style, she gave it the beans only for her handlebar to catch the side of the bank, which then threw her into it – it looked spectacular! (Em: my handle bars were twisted out of alignment after that – not ideal when you’re riding slowly and doing lots of nifty manoeuvres round obstacles!)

We stopped once more with three hours gone, during which we’d managed 24km and all of us had fallen at least once. We were taking regular breaks not only to rest ourselves but to allow the bikes to cool down. Juan (who had laid his roll mat out on the floor such was his need to lie down) was starting to have concerns about the abuse the clutch on his BMW was getting – at least our XTs could cope at very low speeds in first gear. Whilst we were sitting there, a local came along on a little scooter with motocross tyres – it was the perfect bike for here and we’d have all gladly swapped at that moment, but what caught our interest was the large polystyrene box leaking water on the back. In it were dozens of little foil bags containing fruit drinks (Em: the sight of which was like a chest full of gold!). We asked how much they were but there was obviously a language barrier (not to mention the fact we still had no local currency!).  Juan then showed him a $20 bill and the guy was soon piling drink after drink into our hands (Em: perhaps it’s his army survival training from back in the day but James was saying the situation wasn’t desperate enough to fork out so much money – sod that, Juan and I would gladly have paid $20 for just one drink!!) The guy must have seen the desperation in our faces and could quite easily have fleeced us but, after we indicated that ten pouches should be sufficient, he counted out some Cambodian riels and handed them back to Juan. So honest! He rode off and left us slicing the corners off and drinking one after the other! These sickly sweet drinks are genuinely disgusting, but right at that moment, they were one of the nicest things we’d ever tasted!

With spirits lifted and sugar rushes all round, we continued on our way. The track offered up a rare stretch of shallower sand and we managed a record breaking 4km before the next stop. We were now all keeping a keen eye on our odometers and knew that when they reached 42km for the day, we would be at the river. That magic figure was getting tantalisingly close. We were just into the low 30kms when suddenly the narrow track became hard packed and we were able to get the bikes into 2nd gear (still only doing about 15kph but beggars can’t be choosers!). Moments later we spied a roof top in the trees. We were trying not to get too excited as we’d been here many times before on the trip, but the track stayed solid and when we saw a pick-up truck pass what must be a junction up ahead, we knew we’d made it. We got to the junction, and sure enough there was beautiful smooth red dirt in both directions and, more importantly – other vehicles! We stopped at the junction, parked the bikes and walked straight to the nearest stall that not only had cold drinks but packets of biscuits – we ate one each (Em: a packet that is, not just one biscuit!).

Fully refreshed, we continued on the beautiful road that ran alongside the river enjoying the novelty of third gear and hoping that the inevitable small riverbeds that would be running down to the main river would have working bridges over them. They did, and just twenty minute later we arrived in the main village where the crossing point was. The boat dock was at the bottom of a ridiculously steep 30 metre dirt ramp and given that it would be impossible to park on it, we sat at the top to wait for the boat to come back over. When it came over, we could see that, although still the usual  kayak affair, it was a little bigger so would fit all of us on at once. I went down first, and quickly found that there was no traction. The brakes were pretty much ineffective and I started to skid and slide down towards the water. In the end I had to settle for a rapid skid all the way down and then release everything and roll on to the boat at speed, hoping I’d be able to stop before exiting the other side and into the river! I made it, but only just. Having seen this near miss, Em decided that she’d let someone else do her bike (Em: aren’t I generous !) and when Juan’s turn finally came, I had to drag along behind him acting as an anchor. With everyone on board we headed across, excited by what might be on the other side. The dock, when it came, was an ‘interesting’ one. A narrow plank ramp sat in the water at the edge of a sandbank which our boat pulled up next to. We lined the bikes up on the boat before riding down the plank on to the sand bank which left us just 300 metres of thick sand and a couple of small water crossings to contend with! We hopped from one sand ‘island’ to another and suddenly we found ourselves climbing off the dock and onto a village street complete with cars and  trucks! (Em: hurrah!) We stopped and rewarded ourselves with another cold drink and, having confirmed that we were just 40km of good solid dirt road from Ban Lung, sat there under a tree and reminisced about the last two days. Juan, who has years of off-roading experience, paid Emily quite the compliment, saying that anybody who could do what we’d just done was ‘a f**king good rider’!! I couldn’t agree more, but it meant more coming from Juan than me, as there was no bias, and as anybody who knows Juan will testify, he doesn’t say that much and rarely gives out compliments. 

We set off and just as we’d hoped, the dirt road was, for the most part, fine (Em: just the usual dust clouds and a few maniac drivers!). Just an hour later we arrived on the outskirts of Bang Lung where, in line with the first building, the tarmac started. We all stopped and just stared at it. We’d originally expected to be here at lunch time on the Monday but here we were at almost 5pm on the Tuesday  – tired, hungry and absolutely exhausted, but despite everything, filled with a sense of adventure and achievement. To be honest, we’d sort of assumed that the ‘adventure’ part of our trip had ended when we’d arrived in southeast Asia and that it would tend to have more of a ‘holiday’ feel to it from that point on (that’s why we’d given away our emergency rations!) so it felt nice to have one last little wilderness adventure before we headed back to the developed world – well, unless that is, Em’s put in charge of navigation again!…..

Photos for this entry here.

Emily has a cunning plan – part 1….

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

(James) Now that we were in Cambodia, our intention was to head to the far north east of the country to visit the small town of Ban Lung which, we were led to believe, boasted a lake of such startling clear waters that it alone justified our riding almost 500km out of our way. Our plan had been to ride the 70km or so south on the main highway to Stung Treng before turning east on to highway 19, the 150km dirt road that connected Ban Lung with the outside world. We were just about to head off after completing the border formalities when Em, looking the map, (Em: a rarity in itself!!) had a suggestion; ‘Instead of riding down to Stung Treng and then heading east, why don’t we take this small road east, it can only be about 5km from here?’ She wasn’t joking when she said it was a small road; it was marked as a ‘minor road, cart track’ – never a good sign, but at least the map indicated that there were two or three villages along the way where we’d be able to get lunch. (Em: the new route meant that we’d be doing a circuit round to Ban Lung then back again, rather than taking the same road to and from – surely preferable? And Juan agreed with me…)

We set off and having located our side road, turned off the main highway to find ourselves straight away on dirt road. Fortunately it was hard packed and pretty smooth for the first 20km but after that it gradually started to narrow and deteriorate and before long, we were riding along the top of a raised embankment. It occurred to me as we rode along the top, that our ‘road’ might not be quite what we’d hoped (we were hoping for an emphasis on the ‘minor road’ rather than the ‘cart track’ element) – the fact that it already seemed highly unlikely that any 4×4 could drive here wasn’t a promising sign. Confirmation, when it came, left us in little doubt. A ten metre break in the embankment, spanned rather worryingly by a very fragile, not to say narrow, bamboo footbridge. If it was looking bad for us, it was worse for Juan whose big BMW weighs maybe 350-400kg (with rider). We watched Juan walk over to the bridge and conduct some standard tests to gauge structural integrity (jumping up and down on it and shaking it from side to side to see how much it moved!) The results were not promising, but Juan decided to give it a go and very gingerly edged forward. Ordinarily I’d tell you how we held our breath and watched as the bridge inevitably buckled under his weight (which it did) but our concern was focused more on the way the bridge started to lean to the side! It really did look like it was about to keel over, taking Juan and his bike down with it into the dry rock bed five metres below. Two thirds of the way across, he came to a point where there were a pair of bamboo struts sticking up and had to come to a standstill. They were almost exactly the same width apart as his panniers. A centimetre narrower and he’d have not made it and I’d have had to add my weight to the bridge (yeah, yeah, very funny!) to try and pull them apart, not something I wanted to do as they, no doubt, were an important part of the bridge’s structural strength. As it happened, Juan was able to very gently ‘lean’ a pannier up against one of the struts, moving it enough to allow him to squeeze through and make it to the other side.

Next it was my turn (I tend to go through first so I can give a rolling commentary to Em via our intercom – great when I make it, but we also get to hear each other’s grunts and screams when things goes wrong!) Having seen Juan scrape through, I was already preparing myself for the bamboo struts but first I had to get there! When crossing dodgy little bridges and spans like this, the temptation is to either stop or try to get it over and done with by just giving it some beans. In reality both are pretty bad ideas. Stopping not only has you keeping the bike’s combined weight all on one spot for longer than necessary, it also means you have to put your feet down which either changes how you’ve spread the balance of weight on the bridge or risks you putting your feet down where there is no ‘floor’.  If you try ‘flooring it’ the bike’s weight transfers more to the rear and the drive of the rear wheel can pull the span apart ending your day very quickly. In the ideal crossing, you maintain a nice, slow but constant and predictable pace that doesn’t stress one part of the bridge more than any other. Sadly, this was not going to be possible here; although I had the bike rolling nice and gently across the bridge, I knew that I was going to have to stop mid way. I’d already chosen the spot where I was going to put my feet down (the planks that moved least when Juan was on the bridge) and coming slowly to a stop was able to edge the bike through  and up the other side. Next up was Em who, although having the advantage of having been talked through it all, had also had to sit, wait and watch. It’s never ideal going last as you have time to let all sorts of thoughts go through your head, but she made it look easy (which it most definitely wasn’t!) and along she came. Not having panniers to worry about, she rolled across the bridge and up the other side, let out a breath and said something along the lines of how she dearly hoped that that was the only one of those we’d be having to cross today (this being a family friendly site, I’ll spare you the exact quote!). Em, it would seem, is not afraid to tempt fate……

We continued on our way and the track continued to deteriorate to the extent that we were struggling to get out of first gear, never ideal for bike or rider when the temperature is a very, very humid 40 degrees (104F). We’d originally thought that we’d be sitting in Ban Lung with our feet up in little more than three hours but the last 10km from the ‘bridge’ had taken us an hour and we still had 100km to go including several river crossings for which there were no marked bridges! In the early afternoon, we arrived in a very small village and were relieved to find a woman selling bottles of water – we’d run out at least an hour ago. We continued on and soon reached the first of the aforementioned rivers where the track turned to run parallel with the river, just inside the canopy of the jungle, which offered us the odd bit of shade. Then, all of a sudden, the track abruptly stopped and the only way onward seemed to be through some trees to our right (confirmed by Juan’s gps). Getting off the bikes, Juan went to inspect the tree route on foot whilst Em, having been deemed the least ‘threatening’ (it was pretty remote), was ‘chosen’ to go and ask the small smattering of villagers who had been watching us with curiosity through the undergrowth . While we’d been mulling it over, the small crowd of maybe twenty or so villagers, mostly men and children (the women were probably working, they normally are!) had ventured closer towards us to see what these strange foreigners were doing. However, on seeing Em turn towards them (she had, for the record, removed her jacket and helmet!), they all turned and ran shouting, back into the tree line! I should make this clear, they didn’t shyly retreat – they ran in what can only be described as terror! It was a bizarre sight, and a slightly surprised Em turned to us as if to say ‘what now?’ She tried once more and again the same reaction but did eventually manage to corner a man who suggested we were heading in the right direction – although I’ll confess, it did cross my mind that he might be agreeing just to ensure that he avoided any possibility of disappointing the scary monster that is Emily Littlewood!

Having negotiated a ‘path’ through the trees, we weren’t surprised when after just a few hundred metres we came to our next obstacle – another ‘bridge’ much like the previous one but this one was spanning a gap where flood water had eroded the bank. Leaving our bikes at the top of the slope, we walked down to test it and then, seeing that it hadn’t collapsed under our own weight, agreed to go for it (our quality control standards may have been influenced by the fact that we were already shattered and had no intention of turning round and going back!) Once again it was heaviest bike first so Juan got ready but the approaching slope to the bridge (which this time was perhaps eight metres below ground level) was really steep and filled with deep sand, which for those who don’t know, is up there with wet clay as the worst thing to ride on. It was going to be impossible to edge down the slope without losing control so we each went down, engines off but in 1st gear, releasing the clutch when we needed to stop, and aided by someone acting as an additional break by grabbing the back of the bike.  Having made it down to the bridge we conducted one last walking inspection (the first had revealed that almost all of the planks were lose and most were really thin, flexing way too much even under foot!) We each crossed the bridge with one person walking a couple of metres in front testing and then pointing to different boards to indicate the very precise route required and which boards to not even touch. Although it was only five metres it was still a pretty hairy crossing, and it was worse watching the others doing it when you could clearly see each plank lift as one wheel touched it creating a space just big enough for the other wheel to drop through if you were off course by just a centimetre or two. Having all made it (Em: er, James is being generous here – he did my bike for me!), we powered up the steep bank on the other side and waved goodbye to the 50 or so villagers who had gathered at a safe distance on the far bank to watch what these strange farang were doing.

Within a kilometre we arrived at yet another bridge but this time, although it was a proper bridge, sadly it still under construction. The labourers working on the foundations watched us with interest as once again we got off the bikes and laid our jackets and helmets in the shade before walking down the steep sand bank to test the old footbridge which was the only way across (two bits of tree with some bamboo and wicker laid on top). Again the steepness of the approach would require two people for each bike but on the other side, we would be on our own; we had to climb a steep slope in a deep sandy rut, all in a narrow ‘tunnel’ through dense vegetation. It was going to be a case of hitting it with as much speed as you could, and then keeping the power on as much as was possible without flipping the bike safe in the knowledge that if you didn’t make it you’d only fall into the bushes and bank alongside the trench – it was so narrow and the sand so deep that you wouldn’t fall back down. One at a time we attacked it and just made it up by keeping the power on, even when the bike or panniers collided with the banks. At the top we all stopped for another break and sat in the shade, passing around the last few dregs of water (which we were now rationing). The combination of heat, hunger and thirst were really starting to sap our energy. 

Shortly afterwards we arrived in the village of Siempang, the point where we’d be able to cross the river. The river was perhaps three hundred metres wide and thankfully was served by the same system as at 4000 islands i.e. two kayaks lashed together with some boards thrown on top and a small motor stuck on the back. Again, the ‘skipper’, probably quite sensibly, said that he could only manage two bikes at a time so Em and Juan dropped down the steep slope and over the insufficient gang plank and set off while I sat in the sun and waited as the villagers looked on. Ten minutes later the boat was back and I crossed over and rode up the other side to find Juan and Em in the shade at the top playing with a couple of puppies (Em: so cute! The dogs were owned by a woman running a small stall but it only sold sugar cane juice so we thought we’d get some more water at the next village – not far on the map).  I think we all secretly harboured hopes that we’d done the worst of it and that now that we’d crossed such a big river, it would all ease off and our progress would improve; after all, the map indicated maybe three villages along the next 40km section, and given that we were still 80km from Ban Lung we’d have to get a move on just to get there before dusk, right? Oh, how pathetically wrong were we?

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