Bangkok to Saigon Cycle Challenge 2003

Organisations: Tourism and Charities

Tour organiser Symbiosis

The trip was organised by Symbiosis Expedition Planning, a very small company. They are based in the UK (so that EU consumer protection legislation applies, important for credibility), but now operate out of Phnom Penh, with only a single person in the UK office (Dee). Owner Chris Gow has moved to Phnom Penh in 2002 to be closer to the action (and because he is fascinated with Cambodia).

Chris Gow (right) with Ali and Reggie

The company, while required to turn enough of a profit in order to feed Chris and his employees, really represents a grass-roots approach to development aid. Chris is using his access to western tourists to provide work for local operators. While attending many trips himself (including all the previous BSCCs, but only half a day with us) he always contracts local guides. The idea is to help create a tourism industry that is owned by locals.

The Bangkok-Saigon Cycling Challenge is actually a fund-raiser for four South-East Asian children's charities. Some of the tour fee goes to them, and the participants are encouraged to collect additional money for those charities. All of us did that, but for Australian residents things weren't straightforward as those charities are not registered for tax-deductible donations with the Australian Taxation Office, but more of that later.

Symbiosis is definitely high on enthusiasm, but not always quite as high on organisation and reliability. We appreciated its enthusiasm both for the approach to development as well as to showing us tourists what is worth seeing. When Chris joined us in Udon (halfway between Kampong Chhnang and Phnom Penh) to ride with us to the capital, he took us via beautiful back roads. This was much to the disapproval of the local guides, who didn't think it was a good idea to ride on dirt roads, and had sometimes problems following with their bus.

The reliability issue was demonstrated when dealing with changes as a result of the slow sign-on to the trip (presumably mostly due to SARS), and a few last-minute cancellations (health and family reasons), which made things worse. In the end there were only four of us participating in the event, and Chris was forced to do some quick reorganisation to keep costs down. There is nothing wrong with that, and we were certainly happy that the trip wasn't cancelled on us after having made all the arrangements. However, it would have been helpful to let us know prior to departure; instead, we found out when meeting Chris at Bangkok Airport. The most significant change with respect to plans was that Tanin, the Thai guide, would not be with us past Thailand (normally he would have accompanied us all the way to Saigon). This was important in so far as Tanin and his company have significant experience with cycling tours, while all of the other local operators have essentially none. The result was that, once we left Thailand, we didn't have as much as a pump beyond what we brought ourselves. Because we were assured that a cycle guru would be with us at all times, including extensive sets of tools and basic spares, we took almost nothing with us, essentially just a pump (which we seem to have lost at the transfer at the Thai border) and a basic puncture repair kit; Reggie had slightly more on her. Under such conditions any minor equipment problem could have easily turned the trip into a disaster.

We got a demonstration of this when Ali took a fall, and the guides did not even have a standard automobile first-aid kit with them—fortunately Reggie had a small backpacking one.

Local operators

Thailand: Bike & Travel

Tanin (centre) with the rest of us

The Thai tour company is known under several names and URLs, Bike and Travel seems to be the generic one. It is owned and operated by Tanin Rittavirun. Tanin is very professional and(!) enthusiastic. He always has everything under control, well planned, well equipped (tools, spare bike, GPS, walkie talkie), knows the quiet back roads and knows what his customers like (for example, he always takes us to very good restaurants but nothing touristy, or at least only local tourists).

Tanin with his van and the peasant
who gave us the pamelo fruit

Tanin rides with us the whole way. His main drawback (if any) is that he pampers us too much. For example, he plans all the rest stops (usually at some beautiful location). He sends Ouh, the driver of the support vehicle, ahead to set things up, so cold drinks and fresh fruit (different fruit each time) wait for us when we get there, while Tanin drops back to make sure no-one gets lost. At the end of the day he likes to have a beer with his driver Ouh (and forces a “reluctant” Gernot to join in ;-)

Tanin has been on the BSCC since the first time it was run (and this is the first time he isn't going all the way). He massively tempts Gernot with his End-to-End Marathon, cycling all across Thailand from North to South, 1900km in ten days!

Cambodia: Hanuman

Dara among kids admiring our bikes

Hanuman Tourism Voyages is symptomatic for Cambodia: a lot of work is still ahead. While Vietnam and, in particular, Thailand have decades of recent experience with a wide breadth of tourism, the Cambodian tourism industry is still in its infancy. Tourism, and the expertise of the locals, is clearly focused on Angkor Wat and mostly short stays. Their guides have little appreciation that we want to see what else the country has to offer, and that we prefer hangouts of locals over tourist traps. And they have definitely no clue about the needs of bicyclists.

Our first guide, Dara, is based in Siem Riep and accompanied us from the Thai border to Kompong Chhnang. He seemed low on motivation and clearly didn't know how to read his customers. For example, he always took us to the most touristy places. He was also quite status conscious: Lon, the driver, was definitely just that, and when not driving he had to act the role of gofer. On the other hand, Dara would always eat with Lon at a table separate from ours and never share a drink with us. Quite a contrast to Tanin, who treated Ouh (his employee) more like a colleague, and both would normally share our table.

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Phea Rak (with impeccable shirt) at lunch, and at the farewell

Phea Rak Prom, the guide of the second Cambodian support crew (based in Phnom Penh) was quite different. While initially not much more knowledgeable than Dara, he is very ambitious and keen to learn and adapt. He quickly found out what we wanted and generally tried to provide this. His ambition for giving us the best value went a bit overboard at times. For example, he was unimpressed when Chris insisted that instead of dinner at Phnom Penh's expensive FCC we only had drinks there and then went to a restaurant popular with locals—Phea Rak thought we were silly saving the company money. However, we are sure it was worth it ;-) Btw, the other dinner in Phnom Penh was—a Thai restaurant. Needless to say, Thai food is better in Thailand... Nevertheless, Phea Rak can be recommended as a guide, but given his ambition he will surely move on to other things soon. (He also was much less hierarchical and had a more relaxed relationship with the driver and with us.)

Chris tells us that he's working with Hanuman to make them more bicycle-aware (including mechanic backup). So we'd expect that this aspect will have improved by the next trip.

Vietnam: Vidotour

Gernot, Choam, Reggie, Ali and Trudy

Vidotour Indochina Travel looked after us in Vietnam. Typical for (what we saw of) Vietnam, they are well organised and professional. At the border, our tour guide Choan had us spotted before we could start looking for him. And, while not really a cyclist (he claims he hadn't cycled for almost a year) he had organised a bike for himself and came riding with us.

Unfortunately he had been given quite a lousy bike and of an unsuitable size, which made it unnecessarily tough on him. When we went cruising the last 20 or so km from Cu Chi, he actually fell trying to keep up. We should have told him not to bother ;-)

Like Tanin, Choan understood what we wanted. For example, he took us to excellent (and locally immensely popular) restaurants where we were the only whites.

Vidotour cleaned our bicycles after the trip. We dropped them at their HQ with a thick crust of dirt that would have sent an Australian quarantine officer into a coma. They returned them to us spotless and neatly boxed. (Needless to say, in Sydney the quarantine official wanted to have a look inside the box, and we proudly showed off our shiny bikes ;-)

There is, apparently, a Saigon to Hanoi bicycling trip, which we would be interested in, although we didn't find it on Vidotour's web site. Also interesting is a trip someone mentioned: the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail by motorbike (although we are sure it'd be even more fun on a good MTB).

Supported charities

Symbiosis used the tour to support below four charities operating at grass-roots level in the three countries. UK residents can make tax-effective donations to essentially all of them, but for Australians the story is different, unfortunately. As we could not confirm tax-deductible status for any of them before the trip, we instead raised funds for Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, who have been heavily involved in support programmes in SE Asia for many years. Back in Sydney we found that it was after all possible to make tax-deductible donations to Friends in Australia, so we directed some of the collected funds to them (with the explicit agreement of the donors, of course).

Cambodia: Friends / Mith Samlanh

A textile class at Friends

Friends / Mith Samlan takes in street kids and provides them with basic schooling and vocational training. They train hair dressers, metal workers, bike and car mechanics, electricians, chefs (plus a few others we have forgotten). At the same time the children learn the Three Rs. The training program has four stages and lasts a minimum of three years. However, there is no time limit, they keep the kids as long as it takes.

Some of the courses are apparently extraordinarily successful. They say that they never graduated a metal worker, as all of them got jobs before they finish their training.

Attached to the school is Friends — The Restaurant, which serves tapas-style Asian and Western food. It was clearly among the best quality food we had in Cambodia, prepared by the students. Trudy reckons that their fresh citrus fruit juice was the best refreshing drink she ever had. Service was also very professional.

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Class rooms at Friends

We were actually slightly embarrassed by the amount of respect, almost deference, we potential donors were shown by the staff there. It is clear that they are totally dependent on foreign donations for their work. It was also clear to us that they are a very worthwhile cause. Certainly, the donation dollar goes a long way there.

Friends is the only one of the four charities which can be given tax-deductible donations in Australia. They are associated with Save the Children Australia, which is an ATO-recognised charity. Donations can be given to Save the Children with a request to direct the funds to Friends.

Cambodia: Krousar Thmey

Krousar Thmey focuses its efforts on child welfare but also supports eduction and schooling. The place we visited in Phnom Penh was a multi-storey house that operated as a refuge for street kids. It has an open door policy—children (from as young as 6 up to around 16 years old) come and go at any time. During the day, Krousar Thmey offer some basic schooling, but also training of social, family and personal skills (like setting and clearing the dinner table or basic hygiene like washing) to make up for the lack of family experience of many of these street kids.

While the children can stay there overnight, the place tries not to be overly attractive as a home, and therefore does not offer any unnecessary luxuries. After all, the aim is to re-integrate the kids with their families, once the reason for the child leaving the family has been addressed.

In fact, Krousar Thmey provides a lot of assistance to removing the underlying causes of family break-ups. For example, they help families to get farmland so that the family has a place to live and enough food for everyone. A frequent cause of breakups is that they lost their land, moved to the city and then did not find enough employment to feed all the children, pushing some of them onto the street to make their own living.

Vietnam: Saigon Children's Charity

Saigon Children's Charity is the Vietnamese beneficiary of the tour. Reggie and Ali tried to visit them while in Saigon—unfortunately they had just moved. Ali and Reggie did, with some difficulty, find the new address, but in the end didn't get to see anything. Hence we have no first-hand experience of their work, and can only refer to their web site.

Thailand: Rejoice

REJOICE Urban Development Project is the organisation Symbiosis supports in Thailand. They operate in Chiang Mai, a northern Thai city with population of over a million. Since this was far away from our route, we had no chance to see them in action.

Trudy & Gernot

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