Changing sides

December 27, 2012

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Today was our last day in Thailand. We decided to cross into Cambodia at the relatively remote crossing at Prum, in the hopes of light traffic and a hassle free crossing. The planned route would be our longest ride yet, at 55 miles from Chanthaburi, Thailand to Pailin, Cambodia, (pronounced pie-lin we later found out). We tried to leave early but as usual, had a little trouble finding a restaurant that was open. There are always lots of street vendors open, but they mostly offer meat kebabs.

The road was pretty flat for a bit, but we hit a long gradual hill that slowed us down for a while. We didn’t take a lot of stops until the border. We did see other bicycle tourists for the first time on our trip. Unfortunately, we were going up a huge hill and they were going in the other direction. Chandler shouted with them across traffic enough to find out they were Europeans who had ridden from Hong Kong.

After a couple more hours of rolling hills we made it to the border. Things were pretty straight forward there. We found the departure office on the Thailand side and got our exit stamps. Then we meandered off into no-mans land where we crossed from the left side to the right side of the road. Luckily there wasn’t any traffic, it seemed like it could be chaotic if there was. After filling out our forms for Cambodian visas we paid $25 in US dollars for one visa and 1000 baht ($33 USD) for the other, because they rejected the $20 bill Chan had in his wallet for the past month because it had a 1/8 inch tear along the margin. Another form, another window and a stamp in the passport and we had visas to be in Cambodia for a month!

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Goodbye Thailand

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Hello Cambodia

We had covered 45 miles and it was almost 2pm = unbearable searing heat, so it was finally time for a break. The town on the border had a number of hotel casinos, so we were able to find somewhere to eat quickly. Chandler was able to get Lok Luk, a meal with the same name as his favorite meal from the “Phnom Penh” restaurant in Vancouver that his friend Sam and his fiancée Kat introduced him to. Unfortunately the border town casino restaurant, despite being slightly more “authentic” didn’t get such great reviews.

After our break we were excited to get back on the road to see what Cambodia is like. Some changes were obvious right away while others were subtle. Clearly there was the driving on the right side of the road thing. This actually took a while to get used to again, after a month on the left side, but it was nice to be able to rely on reflex instincts again around traffic. The landscape is similar but somehow more defined. Maybe it is because there is a lot more clearcut for farming corn and beans, maybe because the mountains are becoming more spread out and rolling.

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Cambodian countryside

The most striking thing is the contrast in the living conditions of the people along the road. We had been in some fairly rural places in Thailand, where people clearly lived with very little, but this is another level. Everything seems dustier, more ramshackle and worn out. Despite this, the people are friendlier, if that is possible. It seems that if there is a child within a mile of the road, they will see us and will yell “hello!”. At one point we heard repeated “hello”s coming from above us and finally we figured out a kid was up in a tree waving to us.

We read horror stories about the dust and potholes on the dirt road along this route, but we were surprised to find asphalt in very good condition, with quite a large shoulder in some spots. It must have been paved in the past couple of years. I think the worst thing we encountered was some roadside burning of the vegetation.

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Warming myself by the fire

When we finally got to Pailin, we saw a sign for the Bamboo Guesthouse which was a quiet spot with friendly staff and a nice restaurant outside of town. We rode a total of 56 miles, our longest day so far.

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Horses and girl

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Chanthaburi

December 26, 2012

We decided to explore around Chanthaburi for today. The guide books and internet reviews say the place is not touristy and implied there isn’t anything particuarly special to see. Maybe this is why the place seemed interesting to us. The city is well known for its gem stone market, which didn’t appear to be very active while we were there. Other than that it seemed like a normal urban center without the distraction of being a landing zone for masses of tourists. We found a vibrant street market serving all kinds of food which was fun to peruse. They were also in the process of gearing up for a new year’s celebration with a half assembled carnival and street fair that was about 1/4 already up and running.

Chanthaburi is also home to the largest Christian church in Thailand. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was built in 1909 in the location of the original mission from the 1700s.

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Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Since Chanthaburi is famous for gem trading, especially sapphires and rubies, the church has a figure of Mary encrusted with gemstones, which was very beautiful. When we went into the cathedral to see the bejeweled Mary a young Thai kid working there immediately approached us and told me to take off my sunglasses. He then went off and interrupted a man praying in front of the statue of Jesus and made him pray in a pew. He then proceeded to follow us around talking very seriously in Thai or saying the word “beautiful” the entire time. There seemed to be a lot of rules that we needed to know about. It was a little frustrating to not be able to enjoy the cathedral quietly, without our little chatterbox rule boy escort.

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Mary

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Inside view

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Serpent under Mary's foot

The next item on our busy to do list was to get a massage. Chandler’s parents gave us a very generous gift for Christmas, which we decided to spend on massages and save the rest for Europe when things get more expensive. We opted for the 2 hour massage at only 200 baht or roughly $6.52 each. We were in the same room and had a really nice conversation with one of the women who spoke English. She could not believe we are from Alaska and thought it was funny how cold it is there. We learned how to say hot and cold in Thai (something like “laoun” and “now” in case you were wondering)

We were also able to find a place to get passport photos. We were officially ready for Cambodia and had completed the only chore we needed to do. We spent the rest of the day wandering around town.

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Buddhas for sale

A Thai Christmas

December 25, 2012

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I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas and holiday season.

The morning started with a chat with my best friend, Lindsey and her husband, Nick. Chandler and I rode 20 hard miles in a constant headwind to Chanthaburi. We found a room at a brand new hotel called “Inn Chan” which suited us well. It was the nicest place we have stayed in so far. We had a little trouble finding it, but a very nice couple on a motorbike led us around until we spotted it.

We decided a good way to spend the holiday would be to see a movie. In touristy areas Hollywood movies are usually in English with Thai subtitles, but Chanthaburi is off the tourist track enough to have all the movies with Thai soundtracks. We had planned on seeing Life of Pi, but the only thing with English subtitles was a Thai produced movie called Yod Manut Nguen Duen or Super Salary Man. It wasn’t the best movie, but it was interesting to watch a movie made by and for Thais.

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Super Salary Man

During the movie, we each got giant tubs of popcorn. Chan got original flavor and I got kettle corn. It was really good, but gave me a major, major stomachache. So, I spent the remainder of the evening moaning in bed while Chandler got a little lost trying to find dinner.

All ended well though when he finally made it home and my tummy gave me some rest.

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2012

Today was one of those days were everything was just great.  The alarm went off at 6am and we both jumped out of bed no problem. We were on the road before 7, which is a great start. We had 10 miles under our belts before we stopped for breakfast. Even though there is a lot of activity in the morning, we have had a difficult time finding restaurants open before 8am or so. There are usually some grilled chicken stalls open, and places selling fried dough twists, but usually that’s about it.

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Heading out of town

After we stopped we found put the roadside restaurant only made one dish, raw egg and mystery meat porridge with tons of ginger which we late found out is called “jok”. I tired to explain that we only wanted one dish, but the cook interpreted that to mean we only wanted one of the dishes to have an egg. So, Chandler got two breakfasts. A few miles up the road, we came upon a small store which also had a little restaurant attached. My vegetarian sign was used and I got rice, veggies and egg for breakfast. Very spicy but perfect fuel for a long bike ride.

We had 40 miles to cover to get to Chao Lao, which is a beach town near Chanthaburi. It was like we had jet packs on, we covered the miles in under 3.5 hours. It did help that the road was flat. We did have a major headwind for the last few miles, but it didn’t seem to affect us too much. Our route took us along the highway mostly which had a wide shoulder specifically for bikers. The most exciting part of the ride was when the GPS took us through a maze of roads amidst a bunch of shrimp farm lagoons outside of town. We got a little lost, but a friendly farmer gave us arm wavy directions that worked out perfectly.

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Bike Lane

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Shrimp farm

We found a really nice bungalow and spent the rest of the day relaxing. The first thing needed to relax were some iced coffees. We noticed we don’t really need coffee in the morning, but after riding for a few hours and with the heat, a coffee is in order around noon. Then lunch: stir fried morning glory and fried crab with garlic.

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Lunch

We were also able to Skype with my step sister in France and Chandler’s family in Vermont! It was nice to talk to our family instead of just exchange emails.

Along the coast

December 23, 2012

Today, we didn’t really have a planned destination, we were just heading East along the coast. We broke down camp pretty quick and left just after Mr. Satellite started blasting Sunday morning programming from his beach front campsite.

After a few miles, we stopped for breakfast. The usual omelette and rice. We both slather it with the most delicious chili sauce that all the restaurants have here. Chili peppers in fish sauce is always on the table too. While the peppers are delicious, they give me a stomachache so I skipped them while Chandler did not.

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Along the coast

The road along the coast was nice and flat. There was a breeze the entire time, so even without shade, it was comfortable riding. We were moving along pretty quickly when Chandler slowed down and stopped in the shade. He wasn’t feeling well.

After his wave of sickness passed, we continued riding, taking it a little slower. When we reached Laem Mae Phim, a beach side town, Chandler had to stop again. We had covered 20 miles already so I made the decision we should stop for the day. With his stomach being out of whack, there is no need to push it too far.

We checked into a decent resort and relaxed for an hour in the air conditioning during the heat of the day. After a little bathroom break, Chandler felt better and we went out for a fruit shake and ice coffee. We meet a retired Norwegian couple on holiday and spent several hours socializing with them. They generously shared their fruit with us- we tried a bunch of stuff we had never had before including some red watery fruit that tasted like very sweet red bell pepper.

We spent the evening strolling along the beach and taking pictures. We broke our usual dining tradition of eating at Thai restaurants and stopped in at a western style sports bar with British soccer playing on a big screen. They ended up having a most amazing thin crust pizza that rivaled a lot of good pizza we’ve had in the states. It was pretty small but we enjoyed a little taste of Western food again.

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Boat and rooster

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Crab eating sand

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Fishing in the sunset

Seaside

December 22, 2012

After the last couple of 5am mornings, it felt good to sleep until 6. Breakfast was included with the room, which saved us from our usual half hour routine of searching for a meatless meal. We have learned that “orange juice” here seems to refer more to the color of the beverage than the actual fruit content. After some eggs, toast, nescafe and tang we were ready to head out.

Chandler had a shortcut to the ocean which “may go through”. We ended up biking through an industrial area. First a propylene plant and then a nitrate plant, which smelled really bad. Even though it wasn’t the most scenic or direct route, we were so happy to be on the bikes again. The short cut was cut short with a large barbed wire fence, so we had to jog back inland to get back to the coast.

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Very scenic

After some pretty leisurely riding we made it to Ban Phe and decided it was time for a pineapple break on the beach. We biked on the beach for a bit, but gave up on that idea pretty quickly.

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Chan and the bikes

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Biking on sand

We realized that the Cambodian border is only 120 miles away and we have 8 days left on our Thai visas. We don’t really feel any rush to leave Thailand yet, so we decided to camp in another national park, Khao Laem Ya – Mu koh Samet.

After setting up the tent and having a cold beverage, it was time to swim. The beach was sandy and the water was clear. The moment we jumped in the water, two little girls came swimming over to us. They must have been about 9 years old. We spent about an hour playing with them. Mostly swimming around, picking them up and launching them into the water and at one point they braided my hair. We had fun figuring out everyone’s name and trying to communicate in different languages.

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The girls playing

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Our new friends

At some point, we realized one of our metal water bottles had gone missing. Chandler agreed to go back to where we had our pineapple snack to look for it. I stayed near the tent to keep an eye on our stuff. I also got to watch a number of Thai people set up their camping areas. It was impressive the amount of stuff they brought with them. Barbeque, brooms, tables, all sorts of totes. One couple even brought a satellite and TV and another couple brought their birds along. It looked like people were moving to the campground, not spending a weekend.

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Camping bird

Chandler came back empty handed which is annoying because now we’ll have to get a new water bottle. Oh well.

He picked up a hammock in Sangkhlaburi and finally had an opportunity to set it up. We took turns relaxing in it until dinner.

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First use of the hammock

It was a thoroughly relaxing day, and it felt great to be back on the road and back on our own schedule.

Trains and buses

December 19 – 21, 2012

We woke up at 5am to make sure we didn’t miss the early bus which supposedly leaves at 6am. When we got to the bus station it was such a relief to see the driver and the baggage boy look at the bikes with a “no problem” expression. They helped us pull the bikes on board through the back door of the bus and tie them off to the window frame. They told us to sit in the back next to the bikes, but right after we did a very young monk and a very old monk got on board and we were obliged to give up the back seats of the bus to them as is customary here. It was a great relief as we really didn’t want to bike over those huge hills again. When we got to the first hill on the bus Chandler and I exchanged grins as the bus barely crept up in first gear, motor hammering the whole way.

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Bikes on a bus

After that, the ride got really boring really quickly. It was nice to cover so much ground but it just wasn’t fun like biking. We stopped about forty times in 3 hours, as our bus also served as a sort of school bus. We asked to be dropped off at Hellfire Pass and after we were pretty much tossed overboard onto the grassy shoulder we headed off to a nearby museum.

The museum is actually a memorial dedicated to the allied prisoners of war and indentured asian workers who died during the construction of the “Death Railroad” during WWII. The railway was intended to create a supply line to the Japanese/Allied front in Myanmar. Due to a lack of machinery and a sense of urgency, most construction activities including rock excavation were done by hand. Hellfire Pass was the deepest rock cut done on the route. It took 20 months for 415km railroad to be built with more than 100,000 men dying of disease, starvation and torture (10,000+ POWs and 90,000 Asian workers/slaves). The museum displays indicated that most of the allied POW were British, Australian and Dutch troops captured during the surrender of Singapore. There were also a few hundred American POWs who were captured in Java.

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Hellfire Pass

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Hand tool

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We spent some time walking through the actual pass trying to comprehend how unbearable the conditions and the work must have been for those forced to be there.

After the museum, we rode our bikes 15 miles to the train station in Nam Tok. Again we were lucky that the bikes weren’t too much of a problem. The train was exciting at first, but it also lost its appeal after an hour or two.

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We finally made it to Nakam Pathom where we needed to transfer to get to the main Bamgkok train station. Our train had already gone, so we had to take the morning train. We found a Chinese hotel which was kind of scary, but it was cheap and right next the station. We also got to see the largest pagota in Thailand which is apparently a “must see”.

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Pagota

We got up early again to catch the 6:20 train to Bangkok. Everything went smoothly until we got to Bangkok. The train to Rayong province had already left and we would have to spend the night in town. That was not ideal but we had some errands to do anyways. I decided to hang out and get a few of the blog posts done because we are about a week behind while Chandler did our chores.

Our wonderful host at the Hidden Holiday House had warned us that biking to Rayong is a little miserable because we would be on busy highways almost the entire time. He suggested to just take the train. All of his suggestions and warnings have been correct so far, we were going to follow his advice again.

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Train at the station

The next morning we got up to the train station early. Chandler purchased our tickets and the agent told us to go to platform 10. Chandler then went to talk to the guys at the scales to make sure our bikes could go on the train. The officer said our train had already left from platform 6. What?

We went to talk to the ticket agent and sure enough it had already left. They also refused to refund the ticket or reissue it for the next day. We were both getting super frustrated at this point. We decided to first go check out a buses, otherwise we would just deal with biking to Rayong.

Luckily, there was a bus that could take us and our bikes to Rayong no problem. We had to hang out for a few hours and wait. We did have a lovely chat with an American visiting his son. The bus ride was a little uncomfortable for me because I got carsick. But, we were so relieved to finally make it to Rayong with our bikes.

That night we had an amusing dinner. I tried to explain that I was vegetarian, and the waitress started pointing at things on the menu that had meat in them. I kept saying “no meat” but it turns out this was misinterpreted and we ended up getting all the things she pointed to with no meat. It was a big dinner and Chandler was nice enough to eat the whole bowl of bean curd soup we nicknamed “Velveeta marshmallow soup” if you can imagine the texture.

We are excited to start biking again tomorrow.