Bangkok to Saigon Cycle Challenge 2003

Traffic and Roads

Traffic

We could describe traffic in the cities as "organised chaos". While Saigon has traffic lights and street signs (which are observed) and thus creates a semblance of order, there is no such thing in Cambodia. The traffic just flows. People simply wait for a gap and then move. Since there are always a lot of people moving at once, this opens up a gap for others and thus creates a similar effect as achieved by traffic lights, only more efficiently. Of course, it helps that almost all traffic is two-wheeled. My estimate is that the throughput (in the number of people) of a road in Cambodia is at least ten times that of a road of similar width in Sydney. I wish the RTA would even start to understand this...

The important point about participating in this traffic is to go with the flow, never against it. To cross a road one looks for a gap and starts walking. Not too fast, not too slow, but most of all, keep walking and do not stop or back-track once you have stepped onto the road. Keep an eye on the on-coming traffic, but just do not stop and stand still. Essentially, the traffic will move around you as long as they can read from your unwavering path which direction you intend to go. If you stop or reverse you're likely to cause an accident.

Transport

reggie/3751.jpg In the Cambodian countryside carts pulled by a small motorcycle seem to be the equivalent of local busses. People use them to get to work or markets when the distances are too far for walking or cycling. gernot/0449.jpg For longer distances (between towns) incredibly overloaded pickups are used, with meal service at every stop ;-) This is obviously what we had been offered when people at the Thai/Cambodian border were trying to sell us pick-up rides to Siem Reap. We'd prefer the comfort and safety of a mountain bike any day...

reggie/3697.jpg gernot/0322.jpg It is, however, impressive what is being transported by two-wheeled vehicles. Three fully-grown pigs on a single motorcycle? No problem. The poor animals aren't all that happy, as one can imagine (rough roads and 30+°C). At every stop they get hosed down, but the RSPCA would have a field day. gernot/0414.jpg Or a basket that carries easily 20 piglets, stuffed in there without much space to move when the basket is full. Or a two-metre-high load of baskets.

reggie/3696.jpg On small country roads we also encounter more traditional ways of transporting goods like oxcarts transporting pottery. This was in the area between Kampong Chhnang and Phnom Penh, which is know for its pottery. There, you'll find pots everywhere and of every size, from a few centimetres to a good metre in size.

gernot/0411.jpg reggie/3693.jpg gernot/0443.jpg However, the primary means of transport in Cambodia is clearly the bicycle, which is part of the attraction of bicycle touring in this area. Bicycles are simply everywhere. Children ride to school in long processions. Small kids ride with their even smaller siblings on the back. More than once we saw a family of five on a single bicycle (unfortunately we haven't got a photo of that). And at every school there are hundreds of bicycles densely but neatly parked.

gernot/0384.jpg A slightly more unusual sight is the lady riding her tri-cycle, pushed not by foot pedals but by a hand crank. We had actually been told to expect see such vehicles for disabled people (mostly war veterans and civilian victims of land mines) much more frequently, but this was the only time apart from a few cases in the border town to Thailand. It seems that the visible signs of many years of war are slowly vanishing.

One interesting observation about the difference between Cambodia and Vietnam is that in the former country, between a quarter and half of the motorcyclists wear helmets, in Saigon hardly anyone. Needless to say, only tourists wear helmets on a bicycle (but we also tend to ride faster than the locals ;-)

Roads

Thailand

gernot/0251.jpg The roads in Thailand are mostly in good shape. Major roads tend to have fairly heavy traffic, including lots of heavy trucks, so it is best to stay away from them. Instead, Tanin took us through small country roads, which lead through many small villages tucked away between some big, shady trees.

gernot/0206.jpg gernot/0209.jpg In Khao Khiaw National Park we are riding on some nice MTB tracks through beautiful scenery, although parts of them are just a tad too steep for us...

Cambodia

Cambodia is fun for cycling not only because there being so many other cyclists, but also because the roads are great fun (on a good mountain bike at least).

Route No.5

gernot/0293.jpg The first stretch in Cambodia, Route No.5 from the Thai border to Sisophon (and on to Battambang, Kompong Chhnang and Phnom Penh), is in "good" condition. What this means is that the road is mostly smooth blacktop with frequent potholes, often several metres across and half a metre deep, where traffic slaloms around them. At times, the street narrows to a small dirt road with single-threaded traffic.

Route No.6

gernot/0308.jpg From Sisophon we are on the only slightly less busy Route No.6, which is the eastern route to Phnom Penh, via Siem Reap and around the east side of Lake Tonlé Sap. Here we understand why the previous road, Route 5, was called a "good road".

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We are going relatively slow, a leisurely 20km/h, and stay mostly close together. The riding is in most parts actually not very difficult, as there tends to be a narrow (~20cm wide) sandy strip which forms a relatively flat "lane" at the edge of the road, and where all the cyclists ride. The cars are, in fact, not much faster than us, we estimate they average 30-40km/h. Reggie, due to an inflamed knee and hip, has to pause and ride in the bus for half a day. Her comment: "travelling in the bus sucks!", and that didn't just relate to missing out on the riding -- we can see the vehicles swaying left and right as they negotiate the road.

The dust is actually normally not very dense, and we give up soon on riding with a face mask (which had been recommended to us) -- it's more of a nuisance than a help. However, over 80km we collect a lot of dust all over us, mostly on the legs, of course. We haven't felt so dirty in a long time!

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About halfway to Siem Reap, we are treated to a special event: a damaged bridge. It is only passable in single file, and that only slowly. Of course, there is a big traffic jam on either side, and total chaos. And naturally, this offers a business opportunity too -- people are selling fruit and drinks. It takes even us several minutes to make it through the mess, and we worried how long our support vehicle, a van, might be held up. Fortunately it catches up with us within an hour.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

gernot/0347.jpg gernot/0349.jpg Quite adventurous is also the road leading from Siem Riep to the speed boat landing area on Lake Tonlé Sap: narrow, unsealed, full of potholes, and garbage everywhere.

reggie/3688.jpg We have been riding on a number of other dirt roads, mostly around Kampong Chhnang and between the town of Udong and Phnom Penh. Most of them are in very reasonable shape, although one is never safe from surprises, such as when a big pile of dirt suddenly blocked the road. Not much of a challenge for the bicycles, but certainly for the bus.

Route No.1

gernot/0410.jpg From Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border we follow Route No.1. Out of Phnom Penh it follows the west bank of the Mekong. It is mostly good blacktop, but ever so often there are some nice potholes too. Nothing to slow us down, and there is usually plenty of space to sway around. Very pleasant riding in fact. (The potholes are slightly more of a challenge for cars or buses.) It is pretty much all the same for the 65km until the ferry across the Mekong.

gernot/0447.jpg From there the road heads East for another 60km to Svay Rieng. This road is all new, in excellent condition, probably built during the previous dry season. Must be a dream for Cambodian motorists, for us it's a torture. The surface is quite rough (meaning increased rolling resistance) and, unlike most roads we had been on, it is not lined with any trees. This not only means full exposure to any wind (and we had a slight head wind) but also to the sun. This is one of the tougher bits of riding, and it's certainly the least fun. Consequently, Symbiosis has now changed the route; from 2004 on, the BSCC stayed south of Route No.1.

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The last 20-25km to the border are again great fun. The road is being re-done, and at the time we go through it alternates between reasonably good, firm dirt surface and a very soft surface that isn't trivial to ride as it is, but would turn into deep mud in rain.

Vietnam

gernot/0477.jpg gernot/0489.jpg The difference between Cambodia and Vietnam couldn't be more dramatic as where we crossed the border (although, next season, with the construction of Cambodian Route No.1 completed, it will be much less impressive). The roads in Vietnam would put to shame almost everything NSW has to offer. Perfectly smooth surface, marked lanes, and an almost 2m wide lane for bicycles and slow vehicles. The buffaloes grazing at the side are the strongest reminder that we are still in South East Asia.


Waterways

Lake Tonlé Sap speedboats

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The speed boats across Lake Tonlé Sap and further down the Stung Tonlé Sap River to Phnom Penh are a modern, slick affair. The boat landing is reached via some poor stretch of road. Boarding is via a small wooden plank. We then have to carry the bicycles on a narrow walkway to the back of the boat, where they were safely tied down. We have to carry everything with us, since we leave the van and support team behind and will meet a fresh team at the other end of the lake (except that Dara accompanies us to the handover).

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The majority of passengers are tourists. We suspect that the ride is a fair bit more expensive than the (longer, much slower and less comfortable) ride on the road by bus or pickup.

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The ride itself is fairly uneventful. Once past the house boats in the mouth of the "litter river", we reach the open lake and see nothing but water and sky for about two hours. After about 100km of lake we see the shore again, and the boat continues at a much slower pace for another hour the 40-45km until we reach Kompong Chhnang. There it doesn't actually dock, it just stops in the middle of the river. We unload everything onto a small barge, which then gets us to shore, where we unload everything with the help of some keen volunteers. In hindsight, the whole transaction was not without a challenge, considering that we had to carry all our luggage and our bicycle across the narrow outside walkway of the speed boat, and then drop everything onto the barge in the middle of the river.

Mekong ferry at Meak Luong

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The Mekong ferry is again a truly Asian experience. Lots of passengers and heavily loaded vehicles get off and on, bicycles are actually in the minority here. The people don't even get off the incredibly loaded pickups, the patience of the locals is amazing.

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In the middle of the river we pass the ferry going the other way, so we can see how we look from a distance ;-) A few minutes later we disembark again in Meak Luong, in front of a backdrop of colonial architecture.


Trudy & Gernot


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