A Travellerspoint blog

Four Days with Easy Riders

Vietnam's Central Highlands by motorcycle.

sunny 68 °F

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Vietnam was quite an experience. As Sam mentioned before, we had been warned that it wouldn't be as friendly or easy as Thailand or Cambodia and those warnings were well founded. The culture is so incredibly different. Most people we encountered are what we would call rude by our Western standards. They shout at each other in restaurants, hotels, buses and trains. They don't cover their mouths when they cough! They spit anywhere they want and they refuse to stand in a line, preferring instead to scramble and shove one another in almost every instance. And the scamming and rip-offs there are in their own league compared to other countries we've visited. I hate to think that Vietnam is actually a country full of rude, inconsiderate con-artists, so I'll chalk it all up to cultural differences and leave it at that.

It's difficult to overlook all of the above but with those grievances aside you're left with a BEAUTIFUL country with incredibly diverse landscapes and lifestyles and a even a few good people. My favorite experience, by far, was the four days we spent with two Easy Riders that we met in Dalat. The Easy Riders are a motorcycle club based in Dalat that will take you anywhere in the country if you're willing to pay.

We hadn't been in Dalat more than five minutes when I met Nghiep (Pronounced: NEE-IP). At the end of every bus ride in SEA it's normal to have to fight through a crowd of taxi, motorbike, tuk-tuk drivers, and touts handing out flyers for hotels, tours and restaurants. There were a few of those in Dalat, but Nghiep stood out in his signature blue Easy Rider Club jacket. He wasn't fighting for attention but he was looking our way and waved when I spotted him. I'd read about his club before and thought I'd get some info on the tours they offer.

I walked over and said something dumb and idle like "Easy Rider!", not knowing that Nghiep speaks English very well and there was no need to avoid speaking in full sentences. "The original!" he assured me. I thought I could get a brochure or something from him and then mull over the options in our guesthouse but Nghiep had other plans. Not wanting to rush us into anything, he asked where we were going. I told him we didn't know, party because I didn't want to commit to a tour and partly because we really didn't know. We hopped in a cab to go find a place he followed us. He waited outside two hotels while we looked around and checked in at the second. I have to be honest I was really hoping he would just leave, but I felt obligated to at least hear his pitch after making him wait and I'm really glad I did.

We were looking for a day tour and Nghiep had just the thing. He showed me the route we'd take and then produced a few journals filled with testimonials from other people who had hired him, putting special emphasis on other Americans he'd recently guided. Having been hardened by Southeast Asia, I didn't say yes right then. I told him we'd have to look around before deciding. Despite my stressing that we would not commit to a tour with him, he promised to show up at 8:30 the next morning, just in case.

Two of the hotel's employees/ owners had seen me talking with Nghiep and when I came back in they were eager to show me their tour offerings. They assured me they would take us to the same places, even pointing out their "Easy Rider Tour", although it had nothing to do with Easy Riders aside from stealing their name. They also put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they had an office space in which they sold tours and the real Easy Riders "just hang out in a coffee shop." That part is true, but I didn't see why that was supposed to be a selling point. I went back to the room and laid out the options for Sam. About ten minutes and a bit of internet searching later we knew Nghiep's tour was the way to go. I sent him an email at the address on his card and he confirmed back to me within a couple hours.

===The Day Trip===

The next day, as usual, we slept in too much, moved too slowly and showed up late. Nghiep didn't seem to mind and he was waiting for us across the street from the hotel, where he introduced us to his friend Lan who would be driving the second bike for the day. I don't know what the rest of the Easy Riders are like but Lan and Nghiep were a great couple of guides. They both had a great grasp of English and spoke it well except for talking a little quickly sometimes, making a whole sentence sound like one word. Nghiep was in his late 40s and Lan in his mid 30s. Nghiep's family is originally from North Vietnam and Lan was a country kid in the south before moving to Dalat to study English and tourism. Between the two of them they had a very impressive breadth of knowledge and they seemed eager to share it.

On that first day we cruised the countryside, stopping over a dozen times for our guides to tell us what we were seeing or to give us a little tour of an area on foot. We saw a huge monastery home to hundreds of monks and nuns. There were countless farms patching the mountainsides, terraced fields and greenhouses growing mushrooms, roses and of course rice among other things. In the more flat lands we rode for miles between fields of coffee, cacao and rubber trees. Lan and Nghiep traded off giving the tours when we would stop. Lan, with his country upbringing, tended to talk more about the fields and crops, their seasons and the lifestyles of the people who lived on the land. Nghiep knew more than a fair share about the crops an land as well but I'll remember his history lessons above everything else. I don't think Nghiep went to college but he loved to read and it was apparent. He's been an Easy Rider for over 20 years and knows the land as well as anyone. "Only two other Easy Riders know everything I know," he told us at one point, and I believe it. Everywhere we went he looked right at home. He could always tell us something about the history of the land and the people, the politics that influenced the area, the folk tales and an incredible amount of info on what role the different areas played during the Vietnam War, or the American War as it is more often referred to here.

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That first day with the Easy Riders was one of the best things we'd done up to that point, and we knew we wanted to spend more time with our guides. At the end of the day, when Nghiep asked us if we'd like to do an extended trip with the two of them, we'd already made up our minds that we would. It was nearly double our daily budget but we knew we had good guides and there couldn't be a better way to see the country than a few days on the back of a motorcycle.

===Long Distance, Dalat to Nha Trang in Three Days===

The next morning we managed to get ourselves together on time. We met Nghiep and Lan outside the hotel again, this time carrying our backpacks. We'd agreed to a three-day, two-night trip ending in the coastal town of Nah Trang on the South China Sea and would not be returning to Dalat. The two of them expertly wrapped our bags in tarps and bungee cords and strapped them to the backs of the bikes, creating a comfy backrest that made the next couple of days even more enjoyable.

The next three days were "Same same, but different" from the day trip. We'd ride for a half-hour or so at a time, taking in the impressive views that awaited us around every curve the mountain road. I'd inevitable be lulled into a kind of trance by the sound of the wind and the awesome landscapes and then snap out of it when we stopped at a seemingly nondescript spot on the road where Nghiep or Lan would always have something interesting to say about what we were seeing. We also stopped at people's homes, farms and factories along the way where we saw people going about their work and Nghiep or Lan would tell us what they were up to. We saw a silk farm, a wood-carving artist and a blacksmith, as well as traditional brooms, rice paper and instruments being made. Between the educational stops we visited a couple of waterfalls where there wasn't much to say or learn, but we'd sit with our feet in the water and enjoy some fruit purchased from a roadside stand.

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On the second and third days as we closed in on Nha Trang, Nghiep pointed out more and more battlefields or hills that were key spots to control along the main roads during the war. He continued to impress us with his knowledge of the war, the events that played out in those same hills and the military tactics used. Sam and I didn't really know how we would be received as Americans in Vietnam, but Nghiep assured us that we were welcome there. He said that most people now, "don't forget the past one hundred percent," but they have tried to move on.
He told us in more eloquent speech than I can remember that there were no hard feelings and openly discussed the politics and circumstances during the war, again impressing us with his objectivity and knowledge of the different perspectives held by Americans, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese during that time.

One of the most interesting stops we made was on the last day. It was a memorial for North Vietnamese soldiers that had died at a battle on that spot. Nghiep, pointing out the different roads and hills involved, described to us how the North had tried to come down one of the main roads but had been defeated in that particular battle by the South (supported by Americans). "This is the part of the country the government doesn't want tourists to see," he told us. I'm not sure exactly what about it we weren't supposed to see, maybe it was the sheer number of Vietnamese that died there or the fact that the North had lost that battle. The interesting thing about it was that it brought to my attention the fact that Central Vietnam's tourism really is focused on the coast. There are plenty of tours and transportation if you want to go up the coast, but it's more difficult to get around in the Central Highlands where there are countless battlefields and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I don't know if that's just because more people would rather see the coast or if visitors are intentionally encouraged to stick to the Beach Towns (Nah Trang), the preserved french-colonial towns (Hoi An), and the kitschy hill tribe "villages" (Sapa). Either way, that monument made me wonder.

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We said goodbye to Nghiep and Lan in Nah Trang. The dropped us at a hotel they were friendly with and even helped us get some info for our onward travel before taking off. After our motorbike tour in Cambodia and those four days with the Easy Riders I'm convinced that hiring a biker as a tour guide is the best way to see Southeast Asia. It was more expensive than taking a bus but absolutely worth it. We got to know two great people and learned a lot about their part of the country. It's sad to think of all the tourists just shuttling from one tourist town to the next and missing out on everything in between. I'm grateful for our time with the Easy Riders, it was the best thing we did in all of Vietnam.

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Back to the beach in Nha Trang.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 3/23/12 04:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains landscape vietnam countryside tour sightseeing central sights motorbike motorcycle minority dalat highlands farming riders easy easy_riders must_see day_tour must_do cultural_experience minority_people local_lifestyle Comments (0)

Miss Saigon? Probably Not.

The post where Sam babbles about scams, buses and sights in Vietnam

overcast 65 °F

Ah, here I am again, being force fed terrible Asian pop music as the headphone jack on this computer does not work. Oh, now the guy at the desk is singing along. Do the Vietnamese think foreigners love their renditions of love songs sang by teens who are in desperate need of a bang trimming? I'll never know. I do know that this is going to be a terrible post because not only do they force every one to listen to their favorite songs, they force it at the highest level. Subwoofers in my ear. What? You want to hear an example of the teenage love songs that bring me to my knees (and not in a fit of passion either)? Okay, you asked for it.

OH MY GOD. HE IS REPEATING THE SONG. Please. Stop. Singing. Ah, the treble...the treble is so terrible. I apologize for how bad this post is going to be. I can't even hear myself think.

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as everyone but the city's officials call it. When we arrived in Saigon, we liked it. It's a nice city. The traffic is terrible with scooters and taxis and people buzzing about like worker drones in a bee hive. But it's still (relatively) clean and well laid-out. It's hot and slightly smelly, but still nice. Or so we thought.

Our first night there, we got in a cab. Our hotel receptionist had warned us before leaving, "Be very careful if you are taking a taxi. Just be VERY CAREFUL." It was a little nervewracking. She didn't care to explain what to be wary of, just to be wary. Err? So we got into the cab we thought the hotel had called. After about one kilometer, we noticed the meter was high, okay incredibly higher, and ticking higher and higher with every block. It was a rigged meter. Obviously, most people would say something like stop, we can get out here. But it was our first night in Saigon! We were lost, confused, maybe even a little hurt by this scammery. We didn't get out of the cab until the meter reached over 200,000 VND ($10). It should have been a $2 ride at the MOST. We kept asking, "That's a lot of dong. Is your meter broken?" And he kept pointing and yelling "METER! METER!" I just kept saying, "Wow, that is very expensive. Lots of dong." And then he started yelling in Vietnamese and shouting, "METER." If you've never been shouted at by someone speaking Vietnamese, let me tell you -- it is not pleasant. We should have paid the $2 and left, but hey, we are new to this scam business. So we paid the inflated fare and pouted. We had been had. Turns out, there are fake taxis that copy the logos of the reputable companies. If you're in Vietnam, watch out for the fake cabs. Only take Ma Linh and Vina Sun. And make sure the logos are not copies. Also check for the drivers' IDs and rates on the cab's dash. At that moment, it was like a giant banner was rolled out, "WELCOME TO VIETNAM SAM AND AVERY! HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAAAY." It was just a sampling of things to come.

So here's the deal: All throughout our travels, we were warned by other travellers about Vietnam. They told us about the scams, the rip-offs, the negative attitude toward travellers. Remember the French dude in Bangkok -- "They (the VN) treat you like dogs!" So we thought we were prepared for it. Nope, two months in SE Asia did not give us the knowledge to travel through Vietnam without being ripped off.

Anyway, we couldn't find the restaurant. So we negotiated with a motorbike driver, who asked me if I "had baby inside" of me, to take us to a second place. Uh? Motorbike drivers have no tact. I knew that dress made me look fat. He brought us to the wrong place, asked for 20,000 more dong to take us to the right place then wouldn't give us our change. I was lucky to have enough in small bills to pay him his stupid 30,000 VND.

After those experiences, we walked. We walked all over sweaty, humid Saigon, feeling more than a bit slighted by the transportation system there. We went to the War Remnants Museum, which was both sad and interesting. What I know of the Vietnam war I learned through American movies, a couple books and my father. So it was interesting to learn about the war through the stories of survivors, photos and artifacts. The Agent Orange exhibit was disturbing. Babies are still being born with birth defects. I had no idea the destruction of the chemicals were so recent. I nearly cried during that exhibit. They spare no gorey details in the photos, which they shouldn't. We also visited The Reunification Palace and an art museum. Both interesting.

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(He is still singing.)

A big thing in Saigon's backpacker district is drinking ridiculously cheap beer (50 cents for a bottle) on the street. Yes, on the street. Foreigners pay to drink beerand sit on child-sized plastic stools in the sidewalks and streets. It's funny to see so many large Westerners nearly breaking the tiny hot pink and bright red stools beneath them. For a 1.50, I had some decent local beer and some great people watching. Best part? When the police drove up to make sure no one was sitting in the road. Of course, everyone was sitting in the road. So the husky Vietnamese shop owners began throwing the pink and red stools onto the sidewalk as the confused and slightly frightened tourists stared. I've never seen women of that size move so quickly. When the police left, everyone moved back into the streets. Too funny. I didn't get a great photo, so http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-photo/haz14/1/1261578939/more-street-drinking-it-s-the-vietnam-way.jpg/tpod.html) (< ERROR: the link title is too long!) is someone else's! Ha.

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One morning in Saigon, I decided it was way too hot for sight-seeing. So I hauled Avery and I onto a local bus (ticket price: 25 cents) to the waterpark! For five bucks, we spent the afternoon going down slides, intimidating children, floating down the lazy river and whatnot. Good fun. We went down this slide with a Vietnamese guy, and I think my screams of horror/delight terrified him. Poor guy. That slide was the boooommbbb.

We went to the big market in Saigon as well. There, we were blown away by the prices. In Cambodia, vendors start at $3 for a t-shirt. We usually paid $1-2. In Vietnam, vendors start at $15 for a shirt that is only worth $2-3! It's ridiculous how much they go up. It takes about 10 minutes to negotiate them down, all the while they are trying to make you feel guilty. As one lady told Avery, "Just buy the shirt! We are tired and want to go hoooome!" :p I've just stopped buying things in Vietnam because the negotiation process is just so grueling. So everyone, you'll be getting your souvenirs from Laos!

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A nice demonstration of weasel coffee in a Saigon market. Did I try it you ask?! MAIS BIEN SUR! It was okay. Kind of sweet.

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After this photo was taken, we were forced to buy a coconut.

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After the heat, scams and pollution (enough that my throat started to ache), we went north to Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. There we met up with two great guys from the Easy Riders, a motorcycle club that shows tourists around that part of Vietnam. But this is for another post, as there is so much to say. Avery will be writing that one.

After Dalat, we ended up in Nha Trang, the big tourist resort in Vietnam. It was full of Russians. So many that the restaurants print their menus in Russian! Avery got a sunburn; I got owned by a massive wave.

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Then we got on a night bus to Hoi An.

Oooh the dreaded night bus. I had refused to take them in Vietnam, as I'm already terrified of the Vietnameses' driving practices during the day. I was sure I would never wake up from a night bus. NIGHT BUS STRAIGHT TO HEEELLL.

Okay, I exaggerate. We may not have departed in hell, but the bus ride was straight from the bowels of hell itself. I do not exaggerate here -- I will probably be needing chiropractic services in my old age from that ride. It was that bad. On these buses, you're forced to lie at a terribly awkward 45 degree angle on a foam pad. A human's back is not built for this. There are three rows of beds, stacked two high. There are no emergency exits; there are two doors, but one is blocked by luggage. Are you hyperventilating yet? No? I'll keep trying. So you and 29 other people have only one exit to all fight for if your bus driver: falls asleep during the 16 hour ride, goes off a cliff, runs into a tree, runs over a biker/pedestrian/chicken/cow/all of the above,etc. It's terrible. And the roads! I rode a country bus for nine years. Those roads were like gliding on ice compared to what my poor spine experienced during those 16 hours of lying in something akin to a coffin. I digress. It was terrible.

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We arrived in Hoi An, slightly shaken and quite bruised but gloriously alive. Hoi An is a cute city in the middle of the Vietnam coast. It's so cute that UNESCO named it a world heritage sight! Other than get a suit made and see "the countryside," there isn't much to do. Well, after three days on a motorcycle, we were all countrysided out. So, we went shopping! I had a dress and a coat made. Avery had a suit made. He looked damn fine. Even the seamstress thought so, as she kept stroking his butt and saying, "These pants make your bum look so nice." Then the seamstress and I would high-five, and I'd be like yeaah, that's mine. Okay, not really. But she did say that, and I did smile and nod at her when she asked if I thought his "bum" looked good in those pants. She was like 8 1/2 months pregnant, so she could grab his butt all day for all I cared. Haha. Some quality work! We went to Kimmy's by the way, if you're reading this and wondering how long it will take for me to get to the point.

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MEOW.
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After Hoi An, I said NO MORE NIGHT BUSES AVERY. And we took the train to Hanoi. It was pretty expensive, but my claustrophobia has been so exacerbated by this trip. I don't even care if I have to pay $20 more to avoid having a panic attack.

The train is much more comfortable, unless you have noisy cabin mates...

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My discussion of the train and the finer points of Vietnam are for another post. There is no heat our current location, the misty mountain of Sapa, and I can't feel my fingers anymore. Oy. This tropical weather has really made me into a cold-weather-fearing pansy.

Tomorrow, we take the night train to Hanoi then fly to Vientienne, the capital of Laos! How excited am I to go to Laos? Well, I am so excited that I called Laos Airlines today and said, "Get me out of here! Can I switch my flight date?!" And now we leave on the 15th. Caaan't wait. Why am I so excited to get to Laos? Well, you'll have to read the next post.

Ciao!

P.S. Can you believe we'll be back in less than a month?! Crazy.

P.P.S. Are you still reading? Your reward is a photo. I found the photos of stuck van in Cambodia. So good. Also, check out the views behind Avery. Ah, so pretty.

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Posted by Sam.and.Avery 3/13/12 04:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged taxi beach waves bus vietnam sun saigon hoi_an dress tailor scams ho_chi_minh nha_trang suits sleeper_bus night_bus war_remnants Comments (1)

Rolling on the Mekong River

Alright, this has to be a quick entry. In about 30 minutes, I have to get ready for....a SIXTEEN HOUR TRAIN RIDE. Ugggggh. I feel like we just got off the 12 hour bus ride from Nha Trang to Hoi An! But here we are, planning another long trip. I seriously doubted the length of Vietnam's coast. You win, coastline.

When we crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia, we cobbled together a transit strategy that went something like: tuk tuk to the border, motorbike through the border crossing and to the Ha Tien bus station, mini van to Rach Gia, mini van to Can Tho. I was pretty impressed by our fly-by-the-seat-of-our-sweat-wicking-pants-ness there. We also managed to avoid the scammer bus (if anyone w/great English and a smile approaches you at a bus/taxi/train station, AVOID.)

Can Tho, the name comes from "cầm thi giang" - river of poems (love that), is a city in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. The area produces 50% of Vietnam's rice and is famous for their floating markets, where people buy and sell things on the Mekong River.

We hired a boat and guide from our hotel. They sailed us down the Mekong, through the markets, to a rice noodle factory, past countryside and fruit trees, etc etc. The area around the Mekong is so lush and green. There wasn't too much trash on the water/banks, which was a nice and different sight after Cambodia.

Ah! I'm running late! Here are some photos! More on Vietnam and our motorcycle trip with the Dalat Easy Riders in the next entry...stay tuned! And the Internet sucks...so you'll only get two. Sorry! More when I get some reliable internet. We're off to Hanoi!

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Posted by Sam.and.Avery 3/5/12 18:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Biking in the Cardamom Mountains

Community-Based Eco Tourism in Cambodia

sunny 84 °F

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For a small, somewhat isolated village in the southern Cardamom Mountain Range, getting to Chi Phat was suprisingly easy. From Phnom Phen we bought a bus ticket to Koh Kong but made sure to tell the driver we needed to be let off in Andong Tuk. We were dropped off at a small shelter where a sign advertised longtail boat rides or motorbike taxis to Chi Phat. It was 45 minutes and $6 each by motorbike or 2 hours and $22 total by longtail. We'd heard the boat ride was nice and figured we could take the motorbike on our way out of Chi Phat so we could experience both ways and it worked out well that way.

As we weighed our options, a woman took notice of us and said, "I am boat." We got the point. With a few nods and gestures we confirmed we wanted the boat ride. She disappeared for a few minutes and came back with our masked boat driver in tow. He didn't say more than a few words the entire trip but he got us there just fine. The boat ride really was nice and I'd say it's worth going that route on the way in to Chi Phat. Earplugs are a must. Two hours listening to the droning song of the longtail engine is guaranteed hearing loss Once we got our plugs in the ride was very peaceful. The scenery was classic cambodian countryside with a few clusters of homes jutting into the river along the way, probably nothing unique for the area but beautiful nonetheless.

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We didn't exactly know where to go from the pier in Chi Phat, but it turns out there's really only one main road that tourists need to know. A few steps from the boat, a Community Based Eco Tourism (CBET) sign points the way to their office. CBET essentially runs tourism industry in this village. They've been around since 2004 if I remember right, giving the locals a way of making a living aside from poaching and logging in the jungle. It seemed like a stand-up organization and they made everything really easy. At the office we were greeted by a young woman who spoke pretty good English. She explained how they appoint tourists to the different guesthouses/ homestays based on a rotation so that all of the locals get in on some of the action. She also gave us a thick binder filled with possible itineraries for tours in the area. We chose a two-day mountain biking trip with an overnight in the jungle near O'malu Waterfall. Matt and Chris, a couple of guys from Portland, showed up just after us and wanted to do the same trip so we had a good group of four plus two guides for the next day.

The next morning we woke up early. Later than we should have due to an alarm clock failure, but still pretty early. We ate a quick breakfast of noodles, bananas and sticky rice and were given our backpacks for the trip. The packs were ridiculously huge, bigger than the 48L Osprey I brought for our entire 3 1/2 month trip in SEA. Each of them contained our supply of water, a hammock and a blanket. When we were ready to go we were introduced to our guide, Paeng. He gave each of us a mountain bike. They weren't anything special but they did the trick. The going was easy at first since we stuck to the main road but I was sweating anyway in the early morning sun. After about 10 minutes we turned off on a small trail. It was rough from there on out. Initially I was doing my best to power through the ruts and mud and sand and rock and brush expecting the hard part to end and an easy trail to open up, but it never happened. The next 1.5 - 2 hours were a steady incline on consistently rough terrain. It was hard work. So hard that I had to question whether I was really enjoying it. Looking back on it, of course I did have a good time, but in the moment it would have been hard for me to say why. Most of the time I was too busy biking to think of looking up, let alone snap a picture, but here are a few:

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The ride was way more intense than we expected. It was listed in the itinerary as medium difficulty but Paeng kept describing the way ahead as "very difficult." Which we definitely thought was more accurate. After two hours or so of pedaling through hills, fields and prairie with the Cambodian sun bearing down on us relentlessly, Sam decided to turn back. I can't say I blame her. At that point in the ride the idea had probably crossed everyone's mind at least once. Sam turned around and headed back with one of the guides leaving Me, Paeng, and the two cousins from Portland to tear on.

Shortly after Sam left us, the trail and the trail got a little more interesting, although it didn't get any easier. We biked on, sometimes pedaling hard up-hill and sometimes cautiously descending on trails of loose rock, tree roots, sand and mud. The open hills and prairie gave way to dense jungle and bamboo groves. It was so thick at some parts the only way to get through was to crouch low over the handlebars to avoid hanging vines and shuffle through while trying not to get your foot snagged under a tree root.

A little under four hours in we arrived at O'malu Waterfall. Matt, Chris and I took to the water to cool off while the guides set to work on lunch and making our camp for the night. Camp consisted of a tarp with our hammocks slung below it. The food, some noodles with egg and veggies, was equally simple but satisfying after that ride. There wasn't much to do the rest of the afternoon but I was grateful for the opportunity to sit and take in the scene. Paeng joined me for awhile. His English wasn't the best and I don't speak any Khmer but we're both patient guys so we had some broken conversation between long stretches of staring at the water. We told each other about our countries and each learned a few new words in the other's language. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.

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That evening we went for a leisurely walk in the jungle, had some more food and then just relaxed and chatted away the daylight. Cambodians tend to get up early so the guides were ready for bed by about 8pm. The rest of us (Me, Chris, Matt and a couple German girls who'd hiked to O'Malu for the night) played cards for a few hours by flashlight before calling it a day.

The next morning we had another noodle breakfast followed by one last swim under the waterfall before taking off back to Chi Phat. The ride was a lot easier this time. We took a different route from the way we'd come in so it was only 15 mins to the main road that took us all the way back to CBET. Sam and I spent one more night in Chi Phat and then got on our way to the coast for a little more island time.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 2/28/12 05:02 Archived in Cambodia Tagged rainforest mountain cambodia jungle rural waterfall biking overnight chi_phat cbet community_based_eco_tourism cardamom cardamoms cardamom_mountains Comments (2)

Reflections On Cambodia

sunny 85 °F

Hello from the beautiful town of Dalat in Vietnam's central highlands! Avery and I were having so much fun in Cambodia, we forgot to write. Oops. Hope you weren't worried that we were eaten by a cobra or lost in the jungle or some other terrible fate. Just having too good of a time. ;)

DISCLAIMER: I put all of my photos on CDs. This computer does not read CDs. So these are Avery's photos. Thus, I am prominently featured on this blog. More photos of Avery when I find a functioning CD-ROM drive!

So now I am going to do a huge disservice to the country of Cambodia and condense our travels into one post. It's a shame because we had such an amazing time there and had a wonderful experience. But...yeah, here it goes. (AND DON'T YOU DARE JUST LOOK AT THE PHOTOS AND NOT READ THE TEXT. I spent a whole bus ride writing this one damn it!!)

After Siem Reap, we traveled to Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, where we hired two locals to drive us around the city and surrounding countryside on their motorbikes. Saw some beautiful country, fruit farms, a bamboo train, kids walking to school, farmers tending their fields, the only winery in Cambodia. My driver Odom (or Mr. Excellent as he introduced himself) was an excellent guide, telling me all about himself, the Khmer culture, the local crops, the history of the area. He definitely lived up to his self-appointed name.

NOTE: Picture of our drivers and us is on my CD. Boo.

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In front of a temple that was once a Khmer Rouge prison, he told us his story of living through the Khmer Regime -- how the Khmer Rouge murdered his father and two sisters, how he worked in the rice fields from age 8-10, how he survived the regime's brutality and a refugee camp on the Thai border. At the refugee camp, he learned how to be a medic, working in clinics and hospitals in the area. When he returned to Cambodia in the 90s, he could not find work, despite his desire to aid his country with his medical skills. Corruption and greed had blocked his path. He did not have the $1,000 to pay his way into a job in Cambodia. Now he works a motorbike driver in Battambang, barely bringing home enough money to feed his family. He is fluent in Khmer, Thai, English and French. Despite all of this, he was an incredibly warm, friendly, hilarious man. He had me laughing the whole time, especially when he told us how his wife locks him out of the house after he has been drinking beer and eating dog meat with his friends. Too funny. One of the best experiences of my trip so far.

After a couple days in Battambang, we took the bus to Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia. Beautiful city. Many bored (read: annoying) tuk tuk drivers. Good food and shopping. Fascinating and heartbreaking cultural spots.

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Poverty and luxury often residing in the same city block. If you're not familiar with the Khmer Rouge, read this before going on.

Our second day we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is located on the premises of the former S-21 prison. "Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes." (From Wikipedia)

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It was heartbreaking. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took incredibly detailed accounts of everyone who entered the prison. The prisoners' head shots from those records now line rooms of the museum. The victims' faces are blank; devoid of fear, anger, any emotion. They simply stare back from the past. It's haunting. I can still see the walls, picture after picture of man, woman, child -- no one was spared from the cruelty. Only seven people survived the prison. The rest were sent to the killing fields.

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In the beginning, the prisoners were buried near the S-21 prison, but the grounds soon filled with corpses. They began bringing prisoners to Choeung Ek extermination center, also known as the killing fields.

There, prisoners were murdered, usually by bashing them in the head as ammunition was expensive and scarce. Bodies were piled in top of each other in mass graves. Nearly 9,000 bodies were exhumed from the graves. There are more that lie in the field behind the tourist area. The government has decided that those graves will not be disturbed.

Now there are huge depressions in the ground, like small bomb craters, where the bodies once lay. Bone and clothing fragments can still be seen everywhere. I saw a lot of clothing, only a couple of bones. Hard to hold back my tears and disgust at what brutality humans are capable of. Felt sick for the rest of the day.

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That night I dreamed of being locked in the prison alone, at night. When I awoke, the streetlights filtered through our hotel room's curtains, casting a sickly, yellow glow that was too much like the peeling yellow paint of the prison's walls. I had nightmares throughout the night.

Maybe you're wondering why anyone would want to see that. Why would a country with such a brutal past turn around and put it on display? Because you can't understand Cambodia without seeing it. You can't fathom the cruelty that humans are capable of until you stare upwards at 9,000 human skulls. You won't understand the pain in your motorbike driver's eyes until you see the cave where his family may have been thrown to their deaths. And you can't understand why so many Cambodians suffer from PTSD and depression until you come face to face with the injustice the Cambodian people have been dealt.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was never put on trial for the murder of over 2 million Cambodians. He died naturally in 1998. Only recently did the UN begin to try other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Duch, the leader of the S-21, was just sentenced to life in prison -- more than 30 years after his crimes had been committed.

It makes you angry doesn't it? You would think that for all they have suffered, the Cambodian people would be bitter, depressed, angry people. But...they're not. At all. They are some of the happiest people I have met. To understand the strength of the Cambodian people, the sheer tenacity within their souls, you need to know their past.

Not saying everything in Cambodia is honky dory. There is still a lot of poverty, a lot of crime and corruption. There are things that need to be changed. But, I was still blown away by the spirit of the Cambodian people. Seeing things like this changes a person.

After Phnom Pehn, we headed to the sleepy village of Chi Phat in the Cardamon Mountains. Avery went mountain biking (his report on that later). I biked for two hours and decided I'd rather not suffer some terrible heart trauma hours away from a hospital. It was just way too hot for that kind of activity. New motto: "Quitters may never win, but winners spend their lives doing things they hate." Makes me feel better about quitting.

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Spent my time in Chi Phat talking to the kids at my homestay (their picture is also on that CD...grr), sweating and dreaming of ice storms.

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Our homestay:

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Favorite quote from homestay conversations?

(Homestay girl, me and her two friends are talking. One leaves.)
Homestay girl: We don't like her.
Me: Why not?
HG: She is always late for school. She likes to sleep in.
Friend: Yes, she is lazy. Sometimes she sleeps until nine!
Me: Oh...that's...pretty...late....

Then south to Sihanoukville. Met a couple from Minneapolis who just started a bar there. Listened to The Current. Felt homesick for The Wedge and cheese. Snookville is dirty; feels like all the bad of Thailand wrapped into one.

One night there then onto Koh Rong. White sand, blue water. So Beautiful. Got drunk with a couple Swedish sisters and a South African (Afrikaner). Played card games. Drank too many buckets. Played "Fuck the Bus," Sweden's version of the popular game. Went swimming at 1 a.m. in the warm warm waters. Played with the glowing phosphorescence like we were in that scene from The Beach.

Going for a swim!
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Then it pooped.
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Went to Koh Thmei. Nothing there but eight bungalows and a restaurant. Nice but got bored. Too much beach time.

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Planned to go to Kampot after Koh Thmei. It's an old, rotting French colonial town on the coast. We waited for our bus in the fishing village. No English. Van pulls up. Tiny Khmer woman in floral pajamas (the hit style here) and a orange plaid sun hat gets out. She has a gold tooth and gummy smile. Points to the van. "No, no. We are taking the bus," we say.

She rattles off something in Khmer and says, "no bus!" She points at the van again, smiling that gummy grin. I keep hearing "don't get in cars with strangers...especially ones who don't speak English." I am unsure. She is relentless. I am hot. I am defeated. "Kampot?" we ask. "Kampot!!" she says.

A friendly police officer (or just some random guy in a uniform -- you never know in Cambodia) claims the van is indeed going to Kampot. We get in. I laugh. That's all I can do at this point. I note that the windows open wide enough that I can crawl out if need be. I relax.

Every few miles, we pull over and let someone in. They always stare at us, say something in Khmer, then laugh.

At 17 people, the van is still stopping for passengers. A lady in a yellow blouse and white sun hat waves us down. We pick her up and head down a dusty dirt road, away from the main highway. Lovely, I think.

The van gets stuck. It gets stuck in some loose sandy, ashy substance. The driver spins the tires. We are really stuck now. Okay, everyone out. 1,2,3..push! Still stuck. We keep pushing and digging the van in deeper and deeper. I want to display my awesome snow bank rocking skills to everyone here, but the van is a manual. Don't think I could shift fast enough. I am sad.

(MY PICTURES OF THIS ARE ON THAT CD TOO....UGH.)

Finally, a man brings over a couple dried palm leaves and places them behind the back tires. All 17 passengers are pushing now. Pushing, pushing and ... the van heaves out and onto the packed road. Everyone celebrates!

There is an argument between the lady in yellow and the driver. We leave her standing in the yard. Everyone inside the van laughs. Avery and I imagine they are laughing at the lady in yellow and whatever ridiculous request she had.

In Kampot, we 125 CC Honda Waves and take them up Bokor Mountain. Beautiful views. Crazy road. No one crashes. Good thing because they have my passport as collateral. Ride out to the pepper plantations and through the countryside. It is so beautiful. Mountains, green crops, palm trees, giant white oxen. Potholes, loose gravel, homicidal traffic. We make it back a little sun burnt but unscathed.

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My "I am so getting a heat rash from this" face:
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Pepper:
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I surprise Avery with a really nice room at a boutique hotel. Air conditioning! Hot water! DVDs! CLEAN SHEETS. We are in heaven. We order room service all night and watch Dances with Wolves and Taxi Driver.

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Then we head out to the Cambodia and Vietnam border...

So what did I think of Cambodia? I loved it. Oh, I loved it so much. I was scared to travel in Cambodia. I had read terrible stories of scams, corruption, violence, etc. I knew that Cambodia was still unstable; a country still recovering from the toll of poverty, war, genocide. I had only wanted to stay there for a few days. We stayed for three weeks.

While Bangkok is an assault on the senses, Cambodia is an assault on one's emotions. So many days I was challenged to maintain my composure when I saw mothers and children begging on the streets, men and women with missing limbs because of landmines, the skulls of murdered Cambodians. It was very difficult at times. I was ashamed of my expensive sweat-wicking clothes that cost what some people made in a month. I was embarrassed to have ever complained about anything, ever. Because I have it so so good. Traveling in Cambodia taught me that. It taught me to be grateful for what opportunities, resources and basic human needs I have so readily available.

Cambodia also taught me how to be happy. Like I said, the Khmer people are so friendly, so kind. Like Avery's driver told him, "Cambodians just want peace. We want to be friends with anyone who wants to." It's so simple, right? I guess this goes together with remembering to be grateful for what you have in life. Be grateful, be happy. Smile. Talk to strangers. Forgive. These are the things I learned while traveling in Cambodia.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 2/28/12 03:12 Archived in Cambodia Tagged landscapes road_trip bus kampot motorbike scooters biking homestay van ecotourism phnom bokor mountain_biking battambang pehn killing_fields khmer_rouge community_based_eco_tourism cardamom_mountains Comments (3)

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