VIETNAM and MYANMAR and CAMBODIA
November and December 2016
This adventure revolved around a bicycle journey with 20 others from Hanoi to Hue, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Given the expense and hassle of getting halfway around the world, and absent time constraints, it's efficient to visit other places in the region. As such, I spent four days in Cambodia prior, and two weeks in Myanmar after. This commentary is adapted from small messages sent home during the trip, and so is mostly expressed in the present tense.
Wednesday, November 24
Siem Reap seems to have been 'discovered' in the five years since my 2011 visit. No longer that bucolic, quiet little town, now traffic is intense, making it feel like most large Asian cities. I have been photographing ruins the past couple days, and it has been a constant struggle to keep the thousands of tourists out of the picture frame. There has been mumblings of discontent and other expressions of dismay.
Angkor Wat is the most famous 12th century Khymer castle in this region, but there are about 15 more, and all are rich with potential compositions.
Amazingly, there is now the Siem Reap Brewpub, and they make an excellent IPA. I only had a couple. The heat and humidity is oppressive, and we start bicycling from Hanoi in 4 or 5 days. Hope it cools down soon. All the locals are surprised by the hot weather this late in the season.
Sunday, December 4
Today was our 7th day on bikes, and this is much harder than I thought it would be. The first day, out of the Old Quarter of Hanoi , was only 30 miles. But imagine 18 people on bikes, trying to stay together and not get run over while negotiating traffic in a large Asian city, where traffic rules are truly just guidelines, lane markers just a suggestion. It was a hoot, and I loved every minute of it, though several in the group were terrified. We all survived.
It is an enjoyable group of people, mostly serious bicycle studs. Truth be told, I have no business being on a trip like this. My longest day on a bike was 50 miles, and it was many years ago. I usually bring up the rear. One woman from NYC, one from DC, a couple from Iowa City, another from Bend, three guys from Fargo, a geek from San Jose, and the rest of us from Portland. Two of the Fargoians are former Army officers who were stationed here in the years after my tours. They are good company. One is 74 !
Day 2 was my first century (a 100-mile ride), and no style points were awarded. It took a serious toll on my nether region, especially coming so early in the ride. This was a late modification to the plan, and did make good sense. But .. Oh my goodness ! What pain ! As fortune would have it, there are three doctors in the group. They basically told me to buck up and stop whining.
Our ultimate objective is Hue, but we are going south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail/Highway, in the highlands on the west side of the country. On Friday we swooped to the SE to visit Vinh on the coast. Then back to the mountains, now tonight on the coast again in Dong Hoi, in order to visit the famous Phong Nha caves for a couple days. And to do laundry.
Today was just awful on the bike ... Drizzle, light rain all day, muddy pavement thru several construction projects, and two hellish climbs of almost 5000'. Descents are always welcome, but when you are soaked to the bone, wind chill can take all the fun out of that ground speed.
The Vietnamese people continue to astound me with their openness, their quick smiles, the seeming absence of guile. There is a genuine appreciation for our presence, having chosen to visit their country. About 47 times every day, I will hear from small voices, sometimes way off the road, 'Hello!'. And I will respond in kind, or say 'Xin chou !'. Today I saw three little ones on a huge bicycle, grins ear-to-ear, just totally enjoying their private adventure. These might be the most beautiful children I've seen anywhere.
Wednesday, December 14
The Vietnam bicycling adventure is over now, and my ass is healing nicely. On the 12th I arrived in Mandalay to start the next part of this big caper. Minimal bicycling.
A cool thing happened several days ago, one that I think could only happen in Vietnam. I'm pedaling along through the village of Pho Chau and this young-ish woman on her motorbike comes alongside, and starts talking to me in very good English: "Where are you going ? Where did you start ? Where do you live ?" ... and cetera. Turns out, she is one of the local teachers, on her way home for lunch. We get to her house, right on the hiway, and she invites me in for tea. How could I say no ? I meet her two little ones, and the sister-in-law who lives next door, and her two kids. We continue to visit, have tea, and she says, "Won't you stay for lunch", well, I say, my mates will be looking for me forthwith. I should probably be moving along. Anyhow, she invites me to stay with her family next time I'm in the country. Who does anything like that ?
After our two days in the coastal town of Dong Hoi, exploring the famous Phong Nha caves and not sitting on a bicycle seat, we were punished with a nasty climb up toward Khe Sanh. There were some grades in excess of 10%. My chain broke THREE TIMES ! These rented bikes, which most of us used, were in a sorry state. Very poorly maintained. Every shift of my front sprocket was it's own little adventure. Anyhow, after the third break I gave the thing a hefty toss into the wilderness, having just summited and now being denied the reward of a nice long downhill.
Between 4:30 and 5 it went from twilight to dark, quickly. At the witching hour we were strung out from 100 km to 125 km, in all kinds of sorry states. One of the three Fargoians managed to find a small establishment, and was enjoying a beer when we found him. Most others were standing on the edge of a narrow mountain road, looking pathetic, but happy to see the sag wagon.
Well, sort of happy. Turns out, we are in a National Park, and our sort-of hotel was still 150 km ahead, over another huge 4000' mountain, and near zero-visibility fog. We didn't get settled in until after 10pm. Next day was a long pleasant downhill along a river to Dong Ha on the coast, me with a new chain and only a flat tire as an annoyance. Our last day on bikes was Friday the 9th, an enjoyable cruise south to Hue. Several of us ventured west to a coastal road which took us through some small fishing villages. Good decision.
The last two nights were in a resort on the Perfume River. I mostly blame the couple from Bend for this, but a staggering number of bottles of cheap Russian vodka were consumed these two evenings. We did tourist things on Saturday, departed Vietnam on Sunday. Everyone was headed home but me. I do admit to a little envy. One of the North Dakotans had a clever computer on his bike. According to his device, we pedaled 635 miles and climbed over 22,000 feet. Yes, we got to descend those feet too, but still ....
If you are imagining a trip to Vietnam I urge you to do it soon. The differences I saw comparing our 2011 visit to this one were astounding, in Siem Reap as well as the cities of Vietnam. Just too many tourists.
Saturday, December 24
Merry Christmas from Inle Lake in Myanmar.
This hotel is on stilts on the edge of a lake maybe 30 km long and 10 km wide. There is no escape, except by a long boat with a noisy motor and a reticulated drive train that extends to the rear and allows the boatman to lift the screw out of danger when water is shallow. This lake mostly disappears during the dry season, and all of these villages on stilts are then accessible on actual land. Tomorrow morning in the deep dark of 5:30 I will jump on one, steam north for an hour, then in some kind of vehicle for another hour to maybe go 25 miles to the airport. Off to Yangon for three days, then home. I do miss my little house, though this has been an amazing adventure. Ass is totally healed, by the way.
Roads here are not to be confused with actual ones. I've witnessed several road crews now, doing both repair and new construction. .. all by hand. Even the rock crushing. Some big equipment for bed-preparation, a roller for final grading, but all material including tar schlepped and spread by hand. Mostly the hands of women. I first noticed this in Nepal, then in India, and now here. Men stand around offering direction and helpful hints, but the women do the heavy lifting. I'm told it's because they get paid less than men. Imagine that.
Anyhow, I just came from the lobby and dining room, where every table had a lit candle and arrangement of real red roses. Complimentary rum cocktails were offered to all. There is a group of 10 or so loud Italians staying here, a small city worth of French with their offspring, and me ... the sole Canadian. They made a Xmas tree in the lobby and the small city of Francais with offspring actually had gifts for the kids, and a group of locals from a nearby village showed up with Santa hats and sang Christmas songs in French ! All this in a 90% Buddhist country. I was fairly moved.
Most Burmese not engaged with catering to tourists are a bit reserved, seemingly not sure how they feel about all these pink people tramping about snapping pictures. Most can be won over once they see your smile, and realize you've come in peace. It's sometimes hard to remember that since the British were evicted in 1948 they've been under repressive regimes almost constantly, until elections in 2011, and Ms. Suu Kyi assuming the head of government only last year. Everyone loves Grandmother and hopes she will improve their lot, but her list of problems is very long. Most people here are scrambling to survive. There's an oligarchy of wealthy ones, and then everyone else.
Last week I was in the Bagan archeological region. By far my favorite area, with over 3000 registered stupas, pagodas, and temples; all built in the 11th to 13th centuries. If specific history can be reconstructed, and a benefactor comes forward, then renovation may happen. Otherwise, not so much. But regardless, if Buddha is present, off with the shoes. I estimate having removed my shoes maybe not 3000 times, but surely 1000. All for the privilege of walking around this square structure of impressive architecture, with Buddhas facing the four cardinal directions, in the dark, stepping in bat guano, pigeon droppings, or monkey crap.
Ah, but the light !! What incredible light. For three days I was zooming about on this electric scooter, armed with a map, camera & tripod, terrorizing this 5 or 6 square mile area, getting lost on back roads of deep silt, visiting every temple or pagoda I could see. One I must have stumbled into four times, by accident. Was on a first-name basis with all the postcard and sand-painting vendors by then. "You again !" they would embarrass me with my lame navigation. One time my life was saved by this British couple who I brought up short with "Do you guys know where you are ?" They proceeded to kindly show me how to do Google maps on my hot-damned new Smart phone. What an amazing device ! I said, "Isn't this sort-of cheating ?" They said, Of course it is ! I told 'em I was just a dumb Canadian ... former hockey player. Long live the empire !
One evening in Bagan I have managed to climb up this very narrow, dark set of very tall steps in an old temple .. to gain a high perspective for sunset. There are 5 or 7 of us up there, and I'm the first to head down. Down is precipitous at best, maybe even a bit alarming. Get small, take a step, turn right ... Now there is a small candle burning on each step, lit by this young girl who is singing a quiet song to herself. One of those moments when one's life could end, and all would be good.