Saigon - BangkokA trip to Southeast Asia, crossing Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
This last trip was fomented a few years back when I had taken only a backpack, my bike and two friends along on a three month Euro tour in the most “do it yourself” way possible, entering in contact with people we hadn’t ever met and basically selling lunch to have dinner. During the trip, while pedaling through Hamburg, we met the hardbrakers crew, we immediately noticed how much we had in common and kept in touch, until two years ago when they came to Brasil to cycle São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro with us, our friendship only grew stronger. So when we received the invite to tour with them from Vietnam through Cambodia and back to Thailand we formed a team of three Brazilian riders, ready to face this new challenge through asiatic territories.
We did what we had to do to book our flights, and got some Velodeath t-shirts printed to sell and help us cover our travel expenses, keep in mind, just the price of the flights had us wondering if we would go or not. With my bike set to go and my backpack as minimalist as possible, with only three sets of underwear, two t-shirts, some personal hygiene products a sleeping bag and bike tools, I know, very bummy, but I wasn’t going to carry around extra weight in clothes for fifteen days. Soiled, cleaned. It took 40 hours and three planes to get to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). When we left the airport we were shocked by the amount of people! More than the interstate bus terminal of Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval! Right at the door we lost track of one another, but in no time, we were able to find a spot to set up our bikes and take off to meet up with our German friends.
One block from the airport and I had never seen so many motorcycles on the road and practically no transit regulations. Maybe the only law was to not die, so many motorcycles on the wrong hand of the road, crossing at inappropriate places, running red lights, kids piloting, people carrying fridges, animals or whatever they could on their motorcycles, pedestrians crossing through the middle of all of it. Surprisingly, I didn’t see one accident, I think it was the constant honking and the medium to slow velocity of the vehicles that made it all work out.
After some time, we were able to meet up with the Hardbrakers crew in the center of the city and grab a fast bite to eat, we had planned to take a night cycle through the city with yet another bike crew just to get to know it. There must have been around 40 people with us, all young and riding amazing bikes. Only a few spoke english (I also don’t speak so well) so you can imagine the level of communication, specially in a country where the official language is so different and the written language also changes drastically! I can’t even remember anyones name, I hadn’t been able to understand, nor pronounce them correctly for that matter, but we were able to learn to say “hi” and “thank you” through the places we passed during the trip. We rode around until late in the evening, when we stopped to talk and drink with a few of the riders. Before you get any ideas of your own I’m going to clarify the fact that smoking “Jah’s herb” is extremely prohibited where we were, with rigorous punishments.
Before beginning the official trip we had already taken a day off to get to know the city. We left on foot to buy food in the center of the city at a big outdoor market, similar to the ones we have in Brasil but a bit more diverse when it comes to meat. There were plenty of fruits and vegetables as well but the stands with guts and larva stuck out more to us than the giant tangerines. When it came to food I must admit it was rough for me, I follow a vegetarian diet and it was hard for them to understand me when I would ask for no eggs or no meat, even when I used google translator to show them in their language. There were times where I’d ask them something and they would answer yes and then I’d repeat the same question and they’d answer no. Luckily for me, sometimes there were pictures on the menu.
We left the center towards the slums. First we gathered nine people in a taxi and went towards the Monument of monk Duc, who set himself on fire in protest of the antibuhdist regime in 1963 (do some research, very interesting) and from there we got on the first bus we saw with no idea where it was headed and things got difficult. The bus driver thought we were invading the bus because we got on from the back door and everyone on the bus started laughing at us and we started laughing at them, the ticket collector didn’t understand a thing but it all worked out and we got off somewhere after a bridge where there were more street vendors, markets and people yelling, all while comunicating on the basis of the drinks they would offer to us.
It was interesting to go to the other side of the city, we got to see how things actually work. Eveyone with their own hustle, on their motorcycles or running street markets, the city flourishing. There were many people gathered in front of their houses, eating and drinking while their kids played on the streets. At night we pedaled to reencounter some friends we had met at a bike store. We took advantage of the pedal to resolve some quick issues and to have dinner. Since it was late and we were trying to spend as little as possible, my dinner was: rice, carrots and cucumbers, accompanied by a very “strange” green tea (to not say bad).
When the day finally arrived to begin our pedal, we finished setting up our bikes, bags and clothes. It took a while for nine people to get ready, there’s always one person that wakes up last but it all worked out. In the beginning, the roads were broad and very busy with motorcycles and small trucks, but on the second day; the roads were thinner with houses between the road and the river. The backside of these houses were on top of wooden stilts that went all the way down to the water, they used these to protect the houses during flood season. The streets were extensions of the houses with tables out front on the calmer roads.
We took a route towards south Vietnam, passing by the Delta of Mekong, so there were plenty of bridges and fairies a long the way. It was the best route to pedal because there were many small streets further away from the cities, and the people were way more receptive too. I think all of the children in Vietnam said “Hello” to us and the adults wished us a happy new year, it was the year of the pig in the Chinese calendar, a year of celebration.
We would pedal from 110km to 240km everyday, depending on what we had planned for the next city or if we knew there was going to be an upcoming hotel. We’d stop every hour to drink cane broth, it was very cheap, and it would give us enough fuel to keep going. It cost R$1,50 for a giant cup with lots of ice, water was even cheaper. There was a myth to not drink the tap water because it could be bad for you, but after the third day I pretended to have never heard it. When we would stop at a bigger commerce, we would eat rice, noodles or anything we were able to understand. Everything was cheap in Vietnam, even when something was comparatively expensive, it was cheap. On one of the days, between the fairies and the bridges, we took a route with many dirt and rocky roads and with this one of the guys got a flat tire which normally takes ten minutes to fix but this one took more than an hour because an older gentleman saw us and came to see what we were doing and brought with him a jar of a homemade destiled beverage to offer us.
We weren’t able to communicate but everyone was able to understand one another, more and more of his neighbors would show up bringing fruit, beer, pictures, everyone was laughing and having a good time. We gave the kids some stickers to put on their bikes and went on our way. We stopped twenty minutes later to buy something, and other people stopped us to offer drinks, another hour went by fueled by laughs, fruit and alcohol. With this the sun began to set and there were already people drunk sleeping on their bikes. It was a bit tense and very funny but we were able to make it in one piece and a little late. We took an unplanned day off because one of the German riders wasn’t feeling well due to all the pedaling in the hot sun. I wanted to kill him (just kidding).
I was itching to pedal as much as I could and the day off would tardy everything we had planned, but in retrospect it was completely worth it! The city where we had stopped had an enourmous street market and it was the most bizare. This market had even more unatractive varieties, like, frogs in buckets on the ground, octopuss, full roasted animals, dogs, crustations, different fruit and pigs that they would leave hanging up all night. basically if it moves it’s food. Even if I ate meat, I wouldn’t accept the hung pig but the history and the necessity fueled the hunger in these parts. We wandered around until late evening observing the intense movement of the city, we even took rides on a motorcycle in exchange for a picture with a group of locals. It was amazing because me and two friends were lost and they brought us to the hotel where we were staying.
With our team recovered but nothing rested we continued the trip and a few minutes before the Cambodian border we were stopped by the Vietnamese police (by motorcycle, of course), but none of them spoke english and no one understood a thing.. until a local appeared and helped us out. We were guided to the police station, where once again, no one spoke english but we were able to understand what they said about our passports. We got out Vietnamese visas before traveling, theoretically everything was okay. After a while, the guy that had helped us out on the street appeared at the police station and saved us with the translations. With this, the police chief said that we couldn’t pass through there, only locals. We had already lost and hour of our day with this nonsense and we would have to go a distance back to take the longer route. It made no sense, but who were we to argue, we just wanted to leave and drink some cane broth. I even tried to play with a police baton that was on the table but no one found it funny.
Finally, when we were arriving at the border: more problems. The police asked to see the German riders visas to enter Cambodia, which in theory and legally they didnt need. The other Brazilians and I had already gotten the visa before traveling and were okay. For the Germans to enter we had to go all the way to another border to get an electronic visa, so we pedaled for a while, got on another fairie for the police to now totally fuck us, they had us pay for another visa, because according to them the ones we had “didnt count” and there went more of the money we had fought so hard to get. Paying in dollar is fucked.
We lost a lot of time that day with all of this police and imigration stuff, so we left in a hurry because it was still a long way to get to where we would sleep that night. The sun was setting. After the border the landscape changed a little, the houses were higher off the ground as if there were garages underneath them, the vegetation wasn’t so dense and there were less motorcycles, almost none to be honest. There were many budist temples on the street and it went on like this throughout all of Cambodia: Some were enormous, others hidden in the vegetation. Further down, we arrived at a random city with a theme park which is the crowd point: loud music, everybody drinking and a busy ferris wheel.
We still had 60km to go and our German friend that had felt sick before, handed himself over to Jah. Fuck! We had no where to sleep correctly, we hadn’t eaten all day, and he couldn’t pedal anymore. Everyone had sleeping bags and a thin mattress, but the idea was to only use them when we really needed to and we hadn’t found anywhere to stay before. During the discussion a guy passed by on a motorcycle with a metal cart attatched to the back and convinced him to give us a ride to the next city. We put nine built bikes, our bags and ourselves into the metal cart and went down a few kilometres to the capital Phnom Penh, and there, it was a whole other reality. We were a motorcycle on a narrow road with no lights when all of a sudden a whole bunch of buildings, cars that cost millions and a beautiful giant arch in the middle of the avenue. We found a place to eat and to finally get some rest. The next day, we pedaled around the city, went to a super crowded temple and stayed not even ten minutes. The entire city full of foreigners but the prices were in dollars so it wasn’t so good for our budget.
We had planned to continue to Siem Reap, a two day pedal. We would always wake up early to escape the hot sun, resting five hours a day. No one cared much for sleeping. We would stop many times to cool down and have a quick snack, there was almost no internet and we were always on the mission to try to understand the locals.
The locals enjoyed interacting with us, as difficult as that was, but it was amazing! Towards the outskirts of the capital we went into an enormous temple with a giant statue of buddha. I didn’t photograph it because one of the riders had told us a myth that something bad would happen in a next reincarnation. I didn’t register the moment so not to upset our friend. Between these two days, we slept in a hotel that had a giant restaraunt on the ground floor with french fries, so we were able to eat like kings and have a good sleep.
Arriving in Siem Reap the amount of cars gradually increased. Due to the Angkor Wat temple, there were many tourists. It’s the biggest religious structure ever built, so imagine how many people want to see it. The afternoon we arrived, we stayed more towards the center of the city, there were a lot of bars and commerces in general. Everything in dollar. In the evening we went to a night club, everyone got pretty hammered and we were even able to start a fight afterwards. Emotions ran high. Also on this night one of our litterbug friends threw a can on the floor and a young street vendor (twelve years old at most) cussed us out and yelled “This is Cambodia, man!!” and with reason, the city full of tourists and everyone making a mess. The next day we went to the temple, at first we were reluctant to enter because of how expensive it was to enter. We decided to pedal around the structure but some guards stopped us and said that we could only go near the building if we paid or at five o’clock when it was closing.
Every will has a way and we returned later when it was closing while people were leaving the building. We had to finesse our way in through the exit, pretending to not understand a thing. The temple was enormous so we weren’t able to see all of it specially because it’s a complex of structures. Still, it was an amazing hour spent there, observing it’s architecture, surrounded by a lake, giant sculptures, all in the middle of a dense forrest. There were even monkeys midst the people. Since it was dusk we got to see an amazing sunset.
We left at night through the forrest trail and made our way back to the center of the city, still with the mission to eat something before going to sleep, and this night I ate well! We found a place with many vegetarian options. I think it was the best meal of the entire trip. We had spent so little that night we even got dessert. We woke up with our minds set on Thailand. One of the German riders handed himself over to Jah once again and we weren’t going to leave him behind so we got a micro bus that helped us out a bit of the way towards the frontier. It was good because we were able to recover one of the unplanned days off we had taken. When we arrived at the border it took forever because we had to go through two border control offices even though we didn’t need visas to enter the country, since there are so many tourists.
The landscape changed once again: Denser vegetation, broad streets with two hands, few houses but all of them very big and expensive looking. You could tell that the countries residents had more structure. On this route we passed our first hills, since we all ride fixed bicycles when we got to the downhill parts we would go to the middle of the avenue and surf down with our feet off the pedals. It was the best route to travel when it came to road quality. We even rode on a giant bicycle lane that followed the coast of a river and we also got to see the ocean for the first time during the trip going over a beautiful bridge. We had taken the micro bus late evening and spent the entire day pedaling, so we were exhausted. We continued until we found a place to rest but since it was a coastal city and full of tourists everywhere was booked full. We passed by weddings, parties, the works, still we didn’t find anywhere to sleep. We decided to keep pedaling a few more kilometres at night to the next city, which was very cool, many steep downhills, a very dense vegetation and a smooth road. Obviously us Brazilians hadn’t packed good lighting so we had to partner up with our German friends until we found a descent place to rest and a horrible place to eat, but still it’s always amazing to eat with everyone together planning our next moves.
Our goal the next day was to arrive in Rayong and relax on the beach for a little. Going to Thailand and not getting some beach time in is unacceptable, specially with the Hardbrakers, who are from Hamburg. We hit the road early morning but first we went to a 7 Eleven, a 24h convenience store there was on the road when it was still an urban area, to eat some junk food and drink lots of water. I think I had gone to thirty or more of these convinience stores during the trip. The day was very relaxed, we left early, didn’t get so much direct sunlight, the road was very pleasing. We went through small villages, dogs ran behind us, we found nice places to rest and eat. We arrived at the beach early afternoon. We had planned to take another day off.
The beach was beautiful, the ocean was calm, the tempeture was nice and so was the view but it was very dirty. While we were in Vietnam and Cambodia there was trash all a long the streets, people would throw their trash everywhere but in Thailand it was generally a lot cleaner up until now. It’s not a coincidence that there are closed beaches due to tourism. But we were able to enjoy ourselves, play with the dogs and I even found a sea shell to bring home with me. There was even an abandoned building that had around thirty floors that we went up to enjoy the sunset from the top. So stoked.
We left at four in the morning on our last pedal towards Bangkok. This was the longest pedal of the trip and we were in a bit of a hurry to get there. A few minutes later and we got to a giant freeway which stretched the entire pedal. Very tiring, hot and a lot of trucks on the road. On that day we popped a lot of tires, which hadn’t happened up until that moment delaying the trip even more. We also took a little detour to see a park with giant statues that represent how hell would be made up of human addictions. There were some crazy statues of human bodies with animal heads preaching the dangers of alcohol abuse, robbery, abuse and all of the wrongs you can imagine.
There was still a while to go and the heat didn’t give us any breaks, the avenues got progressively wider and there were many trucks passing by. We almost suffered a few accidents due to pot holes and we were also running short on money. It was late afternoon when we finally arrived, and during the week we had planned on meeting up with some friends to hang out before I had to leave, I was going to leave the next night so I wanted to do as much possible beforehand. We met up with two other friends and went out. There were a lot of people waiting for us it was sick. Everyone was happy that we had arrived. We went out for pizza at a place the bikers usually hang out at, afterwards we went for a late night ride passed the Kings Palace, there were some monuments, wide avenues with intense traffic. On this day we had pedaled at least 240km on one of the hottest days of the entire trip.
The next day we got our things ready for our flight back, we rode around the center of the city once more and we slowly said our farewells to our friends from the Hardbrakers. We had already made plans with a guy that worked at a deli/bike shop near the airport to get some boxes to help us organize everything for our travel back. We came a good way until we got there in the best style possible as the street owners among the cars, passing through tunnels and intersections. When we got there, we were very well received and feed while fixing the bikes.
What a trip! I already had that feeling of wanting more and not being able to continue. Arriving at the giant and beautiful airport, we thought our trip back was going to be easy: we had a stop in Israel where they individually asked us a million questions for like 30 minutes. A few minutes before boarding they had brought us to an isolated room to search our carry-on bags. When we got off they also sent us and a guy from Chile to an isolated room which was in the airport but had no exit to the outside world. Our next flight was at noon which ended up being at two in the afternoon, due to all of the interrogations, so we weren’t able to see the city of Telavive. In the airport we went into all of the stores, ate left over french fries from the food court tables, drank, slept and rolled on the ground until it was time for our flight.
We arrived exhausted, with our heads in another universe, starving for a plate of rice and beans. We would never have had this experience if it weren’t for biking, cycling more than a thousand kilometres during fifteen days, seeing both sides of the spectrum. The foreigners that go only to the capitals don’t see the roads and the shaqs that sell gasoline from 2 liter bottles, the alleys, the lady handmaking food, the amount of temples and the hospitality of the suburban locals. Let’s not forget that the struggle amplifies any story and opens your mind to new ideas.