Border crossing

January 25, 2013

We had a little trouble getting out of bed this morning. Something about Kampot makes us both move in slow motion. After a little reading and checking our email, we packed up and went for one last meal at Cafe Espresso.  We took our time enjoying a casual breakfast before finally hitting the road.

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Relaxing before the ride

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Mosque

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Racing with some girls

We were excited to get to Vietnam and discover a new culture, landscapes and food, but we were having a pleasant time getting there slowly. On the way we were able to finally fix the constant clicking in my bike. The bearings in my left pedal felt like they had some grit in them. Chandler unscrewed it and swapped it with his left pedal, and now no more clicking on either bike. We’ll have to take it apart and check out the bearings when we get somewhere with spare parts.

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Mr. Fix-it

The border crossing was pretty straight forward. Exit stamp, goodbye Cambodia; ramble through no mans land; get an entrance stamp and health certificate check (plus $1 for the health form), hello Vietnam.

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Vietnamese border

The differences were immediately obvious. First of all, Vietnamese is written in roman script, so we could at least read the signs and sound things out, if not understand what they meant. The border town of Ha Tien had a completely different feeling than anywhere in Cambodia. It was awake and busy, buzzing with activity. There were lots of motor bikes and freight trucks, but not many cars. It felt a little similar to Bangkok.

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Ha Tien

We spent the evening wandering around, trying out the language and sampling new foods. We had our first Ca phe sua da (apologies to anyone who can read Vietnamese, accent symbols absent) which is very strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk and ice, a fantastic hot weather “pick me up” drink.

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Ca phe sua da

We accidentally ordered two bowls of Pho with shrimp that was made with a beef based broth, so we discreetly swapped bowls until Chandler finished them both. We finished the evening by sampling a local soft drink, most of which ended up being sent down the drain.

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Gross licorice soda

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Against the wind

January 24, 2013

We got up early to find Johnny waiting for us. He took us to breakfast and insisted on paying. It was very generous of him, especially since he also insisted on paying for all the beer the night before.

Once we got on the road, the going was pretty tough as we were battling the wind that had helped us so much when riding the other direction. There were times we were both peddling so hard and barely going 8mph. This became demoralizing after a while. Chandler and I generally keep a good pace of 10 to 12mph, so we felt like we weren’t getting anywhere.

There were a few highlights though.

The weather besides the wind was otherwise perfect, cloudy and not too hot.

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Maybe it will rain, but probably not

We saw some water buffalo that were close enough to take a picture.

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Water buffalo

We also was another temple with an interesting roof.

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Crazy roof

I think our favorite moment might have come from hearing some music by a dude we quickly called the Khmer Phil Collins. This immediately had us singing the 8 verses from the 3 songs we know by Phil Collins on repeat for the next 20 miles. It was probably as musically magical as we thought it was.

When we finally hit Kampot, we went straight to Cafe Espresso for lunch. The food was just as good as we remembered. We also found a cheap hotel in town without a bar, restaurant or other western attraction nearby, which meant QUIET! It would be our last night in Cambodia and we didn’t want a repeat of the last time we were in Kampot (Drunk 20 year old australians or whoever playing the same two songs at maximum volume for several hours after midnight).

Slight change of plans

January 23, 2013

We spent most of the morning trying to find a ride to Kampot. Having already done the 100km trip to Sihanoukville once, we weren’t interested in a repeat. However, it didn’t look like that was going to happen. The $5 bus wouldn’t take our bikes and the private minivans and taxis wanted between $50 and $65. Our daily budget is $50, so that was completely out of the question. So we rode.

The riding was actually really nice. Chan and I were worried we would be a little bored doing the same ride twice. We ended up seeing a lot of interesting stuff we hadn’t notice the first time. We were also able to visit the same sugar cane lady for another tasty treat.

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More beautiful temples

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Dam bridge

When we hit Veal Renh, the town at the intersection of highways 3 and 4, we tried again to find a ride. Everyone wanted $60, which didn’t make sense since that was the same price for double the distance. Oh well. It was already kind of late in the afternoon due to our tardy departure from Sinhanoukville, so we figured we would just stay there and go to Kampot the next day. We found a decent room for $6 with a safe place for the bikes.

We also found Johnny. He is from Texas, originally from Vietnam, and visiting his brother. He immediately invited us to have a beer with him. Suddenly, we were at a party. The owner and two other friends came over to hang out. They brought more beer and stir fried duck snacks.

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Johnny (left) and gang

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Duck

We had a nice time even though we spoke no Khmer and they spoke very little English, besides Johnny who acted as sometimes translator. We did learn how to count to 20 though, which actually would have been pretty useful to have learned a few weeks earlier.

In the Khmer culture, it is more acceptable for members of the same sex to show affection than a husband and wife. It is not uncommon to see men walking with their arms linked with each other, or to see them hug each other, whereas such behavior between men and women is not a typical public sight. So, as everyone had more to drink and the guys became more comfortable with us, they were more and more friendly with Chandler. Coming from a society that tends to shun affectionate physical interaction between men, it was a little unusual to see them holding his knee or trying to hold his hand.

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Winning beer tab

Once it got dark, we couldn’t keep drinking if we wanted to ride the next day. So, we plead hunger and left to find some noodles and then went to bed really early.

Scuba diving

January 19-22

We woke up early to get a good breakfast in before our boat ride to Koh Rong Samloem at 730. After stowing our bikes and gear at the dive shop owner’s house, we were driven to the dock with 7 other people. We were informed we would be on the “little boat” and the ride to the island would be about 2 hours.

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The little boat

While docked, the boat was rocking a lot. I went ahead and preemptively took the anti-seasick pills that Andy, the dive instructor, was passing around. I hoped I would feel better once we got moving. Wrong. I managed to keep it together until the last half hour of the ride. There was an Australian guy who kept his head between his legs the entire time, but managed to save his breakfast. I was the only person to puke, and Laura, a dive master, was teasing me about a memorable birthday and at least I wasn’t hungover.

P1000910 from Chan Engel on Vimeo.

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Looks safe

Once we got off the boat, everything was good again and it was time to start. First up, a physical. Swim 200m and tread water for 10 minutes. Not too hard, but the surf was pretty big even in the protected bay. Both Chandler and I swallowed some seawater with the big waves hitting us. Next, snorkeling techniques. I really didn’t enjoy the morning, because the water was all stirred up from the waves and you couldn’t see anything.

After lunch, the water was a little calmer. We spent the afternoon learning how the SCUBA equipment works and going over skills in the water. Skills included retrieving your regulator, clearing your mask, hovering on the bottom and communicating underwater.

The next two days were spent diving. One dive before lunch, one dive after lunch. It was amazing! The water was clear and the waves were never as bad as the ride over to the island. Our dive instructor, Greg, was an excellent teacher and pointed out anything interesting, including a sting ray, barracuda and scorpion fish. I do think he got some sick pleasure from torturing us with the full mask clear. This is where you have to fill up your facemask with water, then clear it out by exhaling through your nose. We found it was really hard to not breathe in through our nose when it’s not really an option, like when you are 8 meters under water.

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Descending

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Chan and Jenny, underwater portrait

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Nemo

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Volcano plant

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Greg looking very cool

The owner joined us on our last dive and brought her camera along! Ha, Proof. In the end, we are now open water certified and came dive down to 18m. And, I didn’t puke on the ride back to Sihanoukville. We had a fantastic time diving and relaxing on the quiet island.

Early birthday celebration

January 18, 2013

We spent the morning on the beaching relaxing, sort of. A Khmer woman wandered by with a basket and offered me a $5 mani/pedi. I immediately took her up on the offer. When she was done, she asked if I wanted my legs threaded. It had been more than two weeks since I last shaved them and Chandler encouraged me, so I said why not. That is when the relaxation ended. While it wasn’t very painful, it certainly wasn’t pleasant.

My only requirements for my birthday were to not do any biking, to be on the beach and to have a drink with an umbrella in it. Chandler had put the idea of SCUBA diving into my head a few days earlier, so we started to look into open water diving certification. The cost of obtaining an internationally recognized certification in Cambodia is remarkably less than most other places. Plus, is there a better way to celebrate turning 30?

After lunch, we headed over to EcoSea Dive to get an idea of prices and what we would actually be doing. We talked to Andy, one of the instructors, about the different types of certifications and decided to go with SSI. We were going to shop around a bit, but got such a good vibe from Andy, we signed up. Soon, we were in a truck heading to the owner’s house to watch a movie and start on the desk study part of the training.

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Open water manual

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Chandler hard at work

We studied and reviewed our questions until 530. We had a few more sections to go, but would complete those later. We had another pizza dinner and called it an early night. We were going to have a busy couple of days.

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Veggie pineapple pizza

Tomorrow we head to Koh Rong Samloem Island- about 2 hours by boat from Sihanoukville.

Cruising to the beach

January 17, 2013

Kampot and Sihanoukville are 105km apart so we tried really hard to go to bed early, but the western backpacker’s guesthouse next door was blasting music until midnight. Not just an annoying variety, but the same two songs, over and over and over, for hours. When we woke up at 530am, Chandler and I actually discussed our mutual dreams of cutting the power or throwing the stereo into the river. Despite our annoying neighbors, we woke up in good moods and ready for a long day.

We had already scoped out the restaurants and knew who would be open early for breakfast, a bakery in Kampot. We also picked up some cinnamon rolls for later.

The riding was great outside of town. Finally, we had a tailwind and were flying without too much effort. We passed through a few cute fishing villages.

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Fishing boat fishing

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Bikes looking good

One of the more interesting things I have noticed is that the further south we’ve traveled in Cambodia, the more Muslims and mosques we see. I thought Cambodia was only really a Buddhist country. The people are just as friendly and curious about us as anyone else.

The road was in pretty decent shape with a few stretches of highway widening construction. The shoulder disappeared when we hit the intersection of the two highways. Not too big of a deal because there was flat, dirt trail adjacent the road which was partially packed by motos.

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Sugar cane lady and friends

Whenever we have a really big ride, I try to mentally prepare myself beforehand. I knew there was a 6km hill right at the end of the ride, just north of Sihanoukville. I began imaging this one hill would be worse than the combination of the three hills we did outside of Sangkhlaburi. While there wasn’t any shade or a shoulder, so we were in the road, this 100 meter hill was a piece of cake. The best part was coasting down hill to town.

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The globe seems a little off

Overall it was a pretty easy ride despite being one of our longer distances – tailwinds rock!

We found a nice hotel, cleaned up and headed straight for the beach where we watched the sunset and enjoyed a pile of crab. Second dinner included pizza and pineapple shakes before relaxing in our room with some TV.

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Sunset

Pepper and Ginger

January 16, 2013

6am is probably the wrong time to ask me if I want to sleep in or get up and ride. I think Chandler knew the answer before I even opened my mouth. So, we slept until we woke up naturally, around 9am.

I think sleeping in and relaxing is just what we needed. Kampot is the kind of town that makes you want to relax and take it easy. Chandler and I got a really good feeling from the town.

We found a nice cafe with real coffee, not Nescafe! Cafe Espresso not only had delicious drinks, but also wonderful western food. We had a nice brunch and decided to return in the afternoon for some ginger beers.

Meanwhile, we went to the office at FarmLink which is an organization that aids pepper farms and workers in the Kampot region. We were able to learn the process of producing various kinds of pepper and have a small tour of the building were the girls sort the good berries from the bad. The girl we spoke to said they all really like their jobs because not only were they together, but they get Saturday and Sunday off. That is a real treat. Most people in Cambodia work 7 days a week.

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Girls sorting peppercorns

The pepper is grown on vines and start producing berries after three or four years. The timing of when the berries are picked partially determines the type of pepper produced. The green berries produce black pepper, while fully ripened berries turn red and are individually picked from amongst the unripe berries to produce red pepper. White pepper is made from black pepper that has had it’s outer skin removed through a boiling process. The berries are dried in the sun until hard and then combed through one by one by hand! During this process the workers remove rocks, stems or unattractive looking peppercorns. Apparently they destroy the peppercorns that don’t past the test, because they used to sell them as seconds, but competitors started buying them selling them to tourists as Kampot pepper, diluting the quality of the product.

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Grow me some pepper

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Black pepper drying

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Red pepper

The whole pepper scene here sounds pretty complicated- with Kampot Pepper recently receiving an official Geographical Indication status, which is apparently similar to the status enjoyed by farmers of Champagne grapes and Florida Oranges. This recognition has miffed other Cambodian pepper farmers from different regions as the value of their product has diminished relative to the “real” pepper. Additionally we heard rumor that some of the pepper found in markets catering to tourists may be supplemented with pepper from other sources, such as Vietnam. Farmlink makes a big deal about traceability in their advertising materials which are quite slick- all of their products have codes that can be traced back to the farm they came from- sort of like the Icebreaker merino wool farm tracing program. I’m not sure how much oversight the program has, but the products they offered were much more uniform and didn’t have any of the stones and stems that the packets from the souvenir shops in town had (which were half the price).

At the end of the tour we were given a little taste test of black, red and white pepper. They all smelled amazing, and each had a strong, unique flavor. Because we were going to be coming back through Kampot after heading down to Sihanoukville, we decided not to buy any souvenirs until later.

After our pepper lesson, it was time for ginger beer! We headed back to Cafe Espresso and ordered dinner and a few drinks. This was my first alcoholic beverage since we have been in Asia and it was probably the best ginger beer I have ever had. I love ginger beer, however most ginger beer in the US is heavy on the beer and light on the ginger. This drink was more of an alcoholic ginger ale and very refreshing. The owner of the cafe makes it himself in large water jugs, but it was very well done without a hint of homebrew tang!

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Gingers love ginger beer

Tomorrow, a long ride to the beach in Sihanoukville!