Bangkok to Saigon Cycle Challenge 2003

People and country

Children (oodles of them!)

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One of the strongest and long lasting impressions we have brought back from the trip are the many faces of children, particularly in Cambodia, which seems to have incredible numbers of them. The country is obviously going through a baby boom. In fact, population has more than doubled since the overthrow of Pol Pot, and it seems reasonable to suspect (and consistent with our impression of the age profile) that much of that growth has happened in the last ten years or so, since the end of the bloody civil war.

gernot/0335.jpg Overwhelmingly the children look well-nourished and healthy (and incredibly cute!), but there are exceptions. Which is not surprising, given the poor hygiene standards in Cambodia, with garbage lying around everywhere and water generally being quite polluted. Also, availability of medically trained people and medication is apparently poor in country areas.

gernot/0383.jpg reggie/3757.jpg While in "civilised", built-up areas like Sydney most of the children are hidden away from the public, here they are around us from early in the morning until late. As we hop on our bicycles and ride along the roads, we encounter kilometre-long processions of hundreds and hundreds of children, all in the same uniforms on their way to and from school, mostly biking, sometimes walking. But they are also lining the streets when at home, as they are playing in front of their houses right next to the street (and not tucked away inside in front of a TV or computer as often there is no lighting inside; nor are they being driven around in cars or buses out of sight and reach).

There is an interesting difference in school uniforms between Cambodia and Vietnam. In Cambodia it's always a white shirt and blue pants (boys) or skirts (girls). The younger ones wear shorts or short skirts, while the older ones wear longs or ankle-long skirts. In Vietnam the school uniform for the girls is (white) traditional ao dai, which consists of loose ankle-long pants and a blouse with long panels that also drop down to the ankles, looking like a skirt. They manage to cycle in this without getting it dirty!

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In Cambodia, when children (and often also adults) see us on the road from a distance, they would wave with their arms, shout "hello" or "bye, bye" (!) and run towards the street, the more daring ones holding out their hands for a clasp. In Thailand and Vietnam there is some hello-ing too, but in Cambodia no child seems to want to miss the chance to greet us.

gernot/0321.jpg Every few kilometres there is a village stretched along the road with shady trees. For our hourly rest stops, we typically pick such a shady place. Within seconds of stopping children would accumulate around us, just gazing and observing what we are doing. It's a bit of a feeling of being in the zoo, but now on the inside of the cage ;-). Gernot is reminded of when as a child he experienced a Porsche being parked on the schoolyard, the event of the week...

Maybe not all that surprising, really, given that for most of them we would have been the first white people they had seen close-up in the flesh, as opposed to on television or driving past in cars. Apart from the capitals and Siem Riep, we ride through very rural areas with little reason for a motorised tourist to stop.

Sometimes someone tries to exchange a few words in English. Occasionally some older boy would ride along with us for a while and try to make some conversation. However, it is always a challenge, and most seem to speak no English at all. While everybody is incredibly friendly, most children are extremely shy -- once when a local adult tried to group them around us for a photo only few dared to. Very rarely someone tries to touch Trudy's bare skin, which reminds her of her own experience when, as a nine-year-old living in a village in Switzerland, she first touched the skin of a black person from Africa.

Houses and life around it

gernot/0345.jpg People in the Cambodian countryside live mostly in traditional Khmer houses -- single-room and built on stilts. The stilts are, supposedly, not to protect against flooding, but against wild animals. The houses are entered via a retractable ladder (although these days it is often fixed or replaced by stairs). It seems that the houses are mostly used for sleeping (they are dark, as there is no electricity), much of daily life happens under the house, protected from the sun and the monsoon. Underneath the houses there are typically tables, benches and hammocks.

The interior of the houses (judging by the few occasions when we got a glance inside) is kept very tidy and clean, in strong contrast to the outside, where garbage seems to lie around everywhere.

reggie/3659.jpg At Lake Tonlé Sap many people live in house boats, most of them are probably fishermen. The lake is incredibly rich in fish, which is supposedly a result of the unusual way the lake is fed with water. It normally drains via the Stung Tonlé Sap River, which joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. However, during the wet season, the Mekong cannot drain all the water fast enough, and it backs up, reverting the flow of the Stung Tonlé Sap into the lake, which grows to more than twice of its minimal size. A big festival marks the day when the river reverts to "normal" flow.

gernot/0375.jpg Large towns feature a mixture of wooden and stone houses. In some places there are remnants of French colonial townhouses, like the ones in the provincial capital Kampong Chhnang shown on the left.

gernot/0478.jpg gernot/0498.jpg By contrast, in Vietnam we encounter almost only stone houses like the ones to the right. The huts we pass just after the border are an exception, we have seen only very few of those. They are also markedly different in style from the Khmer houses.

gernot/0482.jpg Interesting street sign. Wonder where Hot Toc lies ;-)

Pagodas (also lots of them)

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Thailand: First rest stop at the public grounds of a pagoda. An other rest stop (still on the first day) at the public grounds of a pagoda, now in the company of cows. Cambodia: Pagodas on the hills of Sisophon.
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Another rest stop at a pagoda just before reaching Phnom Penh.

gernot/0389.jpg gernot/0390.jpg An over-sized, brand new pagoda is being built to house one of the most important relicts in Cambodia (a toe of the Buddha?). It is next to a hill, on top of which is an older pagoda, majestically overlooking the surrounding flood plains (but apparently not quite good enough to bear the honour).

It is amazing that there is money for such luxury when it is clearly lacking everywhere else. Supposedly the funds all came from Cambodians living abroad.

Street- / village- / town-life

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There are many small shops along the road, many selling basic groceries, like the two pictures on the left (the first is in Thailand, the second in Cambodia). The stuff in the green bottles isn't soft drinks, it's two-stroke petrol for the many mopeds. At other places there are proper mixing pumps, but they apparently feel the heat too ;-)

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At some stands they simply sell pieces of sugar cane, like in the left picture. And the right picture actually shows a bicycle shop!

gernot/0371.jpg gernot/0374.jpg Kampong Chhnang lies at the bottom of Lake Tonlé Sap, at least when the lake is at its maximum size, as it was when we were there. A fair bit of everyday life evolves around water: people trading at the edge of the lake as well as washing their vehicles in a flooded piece of road.


gernot/0221.jpg Most areas we are riding through are extremely flat, with rice paddies along both sides of the road. However, in Thailand some section are through undulating country side, all very green being so soon after the monsoon season. Especially in Thailand we also see some large tapioca and sugar cane plantations.

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Where Lake Tonlé Sap drains into the Stung Tonlé Sap River there are many houses which, during this time of the year, are only reachable by boat.

gernot/0462.jpg gernot/0395.jpg West of Phnom Penh is dotted with many beautiful lakes largely covered with water lilies. In fact, throughout Cambodia we encounter over and over again small bodies of water full of beautiful plants and flowers -- right next to the road!

Animals and Plants

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Impressive Yellow Hooded Hornbills are only one of the many attractions in the (royal) bird breeding station we visit near the border in Thailand.

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A rubber tree plantation in Vietnam.

gernot/0296.jpg Rice is dried wherever there is space, including along or on the middle of the road (seen both in Thailand and in Cambodia).

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At a rest stop in Thailand, close to the Khmer border, an elder lady sieves the rice chaff again for any leftover grains and feeds them to their chicken. We didn't enquire why the chooks couldn't have done it themselves...

Practical observations


People will happily charge you "gringo price", at least a 100% mark-up if you don't bargain. Is fair enough: if in Rome do as the Romans do, and the Romans of South-East Asia bargain for every purchase. However, we have never seen any sign of someone trying to actually cheat us, nor did we ever have any disputes about return change or US$/Riel exchange. We have not experienced any attempt to steal or snatch anything off us (including Saigon, where we were explicitly and repeatedly warned of pick-pockets). There was never any attempt to only take the money without delivering the product or service. To the contrary, the service was always delivered in full before we have been asked to pay for it.

Modern communication

Phone land lines seem to be a real luxury in Cambodia, but, assisted by the flat topography, the country has leap-frogged the need for this by embracing cellular phone technology. Mobile phone coverage is excellent in most places, and Ali and Reggie have used it extensively to stay in contact with their families via SMS. Mobile phone usage is also widespread among the population in towns, particularly with businesses. Wherever we go we could see booths advertising mobile phone contracts.

Internet access is available in all significant towns, although we did not try it out -- if you receive 100 emails a day, then checking it is a perfect way to spoil a great holiday...

Trudy & Gernot

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