Sunday, February 07, 2010

Slow Times and Tough Times

Kratie, Cambodia

Its hard to believe that it was only a week ago that we enjoyed the quiet village life at Tad Lo and the cool evening breezes and the sweet smell of coffee plants of the Bolevan Plateau, and that we are now in Kratie, Cambodia, having had a monster ride getting here yesterday.

Our last few days in Laos were special. As soon as we got to the river crossing to Champasak we knew something extra ordinary was happening, as there were a dozen or so makeshift vessel, tied together long boats, some no wider than a canoe, strapped with planks, carrying cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and people, across the one kilometer expanse of the Mekong. Only on arriving on the other side, where on top of the embankment, where two policemen with arms flaying, like someone swatting flies, were trying to move traffic along on the one lane road on top. A line of cars was trying to leave, and with not enough room for the incoming to pass, things were at a standstill and the line of cars stretched well over a kilometer.

We were comfortably settled in our guesthouse overlooking the Mekong, when the “Swiss Couple” arrived. We named them as such since they left Switzerland last June and have taken about 11000kms to get here. Over the last several weeks, since we are traveling the same route, we have crossed path a half-dozed times, often staying in the same hotel. Needless to say we enjoy swapping road stories, especially since in India we met no other touring cyclists.

We shared a tuk tuk to the Wat Phu temple about 10 kms away. It’s a temple that dates back to the 5th Century, built on 6 levels on 3 terraces on the side of a mountain, with a long promenade leading up to the hill. The site is filled with mysterious structures and impressive carvings of elephants and crocodiles and it being a major pilgrimage, there were masses of people going up and down the mountain side.

At dusk, dozens of people lit thousands of oil lanterns illuminating the mountain side giving the effect of a giant birthday cakes. As it turned dark, a breath taking giant full moon, the colour of a bright orange-red egg yolk came up the horizon, framing the ruins.

The next day, we enjoyed the quiet village life, staring with a sun-rise that seemed to mirror the full moon, to a great massage, and a meal of fresh fettuccine, having earlier in the day convinced the northern Italian restaurant owner to make it for us. What could be more perfect?

In contrast to the thousands of people at the festival, not to mention the full complement of carnival events, the next day we took a short red {red for the colour of the dust}dirt road to the 9th century Tomo Temple, where the groundskeeper put on his official tunic, for our benefit, before issuing us the entrance tickets. The solitude of the remnants of this temple, set on a riverbank amongst tall trees, were a wonderful contrast to the throngs of the day before, and gave us a sense of what it might have been like to worshipers, arriving on the rive bank, centuries ago.

Later in the day, also on another red road, we went to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge, set next to a small village, in a National Forest. Beautifully designed and set next to meadows that evoked images of the Serengeti, we enjoyed staying amongst the villagers, who clearly live off the land and the monies brought in by tourists, who enjoy their fourteen elephants.
Descending from their ride, we met a couple who as it turns out live and know a friend of mine in Santa Rosa. California, proving once again, how small our planet can be. They turned out to be an interesting couple, she originally from Ottawa, he from Los Angeles and they "compromised" by chosing to live in Santa Rosa, having had one child in Ottawa and another in Karatchi, Pakistan.

As we were counting down the days in Laos, we went to the 4,000 islands and enjoyed the quiet of Don Khong Island. In the morning, we went to the river market which according to the guidebook was between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m. but alas its no more, cars and trucks supplanting the river travel. Still, we were treated by the needle-like fishing boats plying the Mekong, a great sun-rise and a realization that we must see more of world before it all changes.

Our last day, we went to Khonephaeng Falls, billed, not entirely unjustified, as the Niagara of south east Asia and stayed in the resort by the same name, not knowing in advance that it was also an up-market golf club as well. But who could not enjoy the swimming pool, and sleeping by the gurgling sounds of the rapids upstream from the falls, serenading us all night.

The next day it was only 10 kms to the Cambodian border, where my coup was getting the well established bribe of a buck per passport on both sides reduced to half. The ride to our first night’s stay in Stung Treng was uneventful.

Just as we settled in our hotel, again overlooking the Mekong, we met the “American Couple” who had been cycling, various parts of the globe, for the last 40 years, They had just arrived from Kratie, a distance of about 140 kms, and they both described the ride as “very hot and boring”. She had taken the bus and he for the last 30 kms of the ride.

Needless to say, Alison and I had a thorough discussion of doing the ride ourselves, recognizing not only the distance, the heat, but also that we would be facing headwinds. We decided to go for it with Plan B being a bus or a truck pick up should it turn out to be too much,

I was rearing to go by 5 a.m. the following morning, and after an in room breakfast of canned coffee, a bit of juice, a few baguettes and bananas, we were on the road by six fifteen. With a great lunch stop by 10 a.m. and frequent intakes of liquids we made the 144 kms in 8 hours of riding, and arriving in Kratie some 11 hours later, tired but elated. We endured temperatures which are now approaching 40 degrees but also reveled in the last 30 kms that follows the Mekong and all the life along it.

Looking back, I am reminded of the riddle, “why did the chicken cross the road?” to answer the question “why did the Canadian Couple decide to ride 144 kms from Stung Treng to Kratie?” “Because we could and we are glad that we did.”



Laura Jacob said...

Sounds good Andrew, I would have liked to see the birthday cake mountain. The 11000 Swiss couple could probably write a book!

Paul said...

GREAT STORY - which is to say, it's not just the content, but also the form - both marvelous

Julia said...

Andrew, once again I am transported to another world and am awestruck by your accomplishments. Your ability to convey the wonder of your adventure is a pleasure to witness. We miss you and love you.

agesnumbers said...

You did what? He exclaimed from the treadmill.

Andrew said...

Moon rises and sun sets in the jungle of Cambodia??? Paradise...

ronjacques said...

As usual, Andrew, I am transported by your descriptions of your travels. Those countries should hire you to boost their cycling tourism. You've certainly whet my appetite to return to that part of the world. Continued safe travels!