Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"

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First published 20th October, 2009

As we planned our ambitious cycling journey of SE Asia, we envisioned the bicycle being our primary, if not only, method of transportation, excluding the occasional ferry trip to an island. After all, the bicycle provides a liberating method of transportation, freeing us from the hassles and costs of trains and buses, allowing us to see rural countryside and bustling city alike at our own pace. Such bold optimism, as we learned even on our first day of riding, doesn't account for a myriad of unanticipated factors: time and visa constraints, weather, distance versus terrain, and even the unexpected kindness of locals.

We've mostly managed to avoid self-induced laziness or a lack of motivation, after all a key focus of our trip is to improve our fitness before returning home -- a tan beer-gut is just as undesirable as its pale counterpart -- plus we all share an unwavering belief that the journey is often just as fantastic as the destination. However, having passed the 1,200km mark on our bicycles, yet travelled about the same distance using alternate modes of transportation, the proposed question of transitory cheating certainly deserves a further look.

Let's lay out a few key facts of long-distance cycling, to put the situation in the proper context. Our pace is unavoidably slow, given the weight of our luggage (at least 15kg each) and the abilities of our bodies (none of us are cycling champions, though we are all healthy and reasonably athletic), so we have a 100km/day maximum -- and even that amount is being more than a bit indulgent, since the reality is that our current daily average is around 65km. Why so little, you may ask, while in comfort from behind your computer screen? Well, in addition to the multitude of distracting sights along the way, and of course the muscular pain and severe inner-thigh chaffing, plus the often unhealthy combination of heat, exercise, and last night's alcohol, there's been more than a few unexpected factors that have forced us to alter our initial lofty aspirations.

Confessions Of A 'Cheating' Cyclist

Unexpected Kindness

We departed from Bangkok around 7am, hoping to beat both the city's traffic and Thailand's oppressive heat. Given that we were instantly covered in sweat and surrounded by a variety of vehicles, we clearly failed on both counts. Our planned destination was Rayong, a good 70 km away, perhaps a tad ambitious but we figured our fresh legs should be thoroughly utilised while we had them.

After 50km, one flat tire, two lungs full of exhaust, and three failed attempts to locate a vegetarian lunch, a pad thai stand was finally found, and thanks to some linguistic assistance from a man named Yan we actually had some food in front of us. Yan, it turned out, works for Kyocera, and actually shared our mutual destination, he was going there for a business meeting, and gave us his name-card so we could call him when we arrived and perhaps meet again for dinner.

Mid-day is a wise cyclist's worst enemy, so after our meal we all laid out to rest beneath a covered shelter, mercifully located next to a well-stocked petrol station where we could obtain the additional liquids our parched bodies required. Even if you drink four litres of water per day, the luxury of a proper toilet break is usually elusive. Mid nap, Yan returned -- apparently his meeting had been cancelled and rescheduled for the next day, leaving him with the entire afternoon free. His insistence on giving all five of us a ride -- with the bikes in the back of his pick-up and us crammed into his extended-cab with its blessed air-con and pop music -- would clearly have been rude to refuse given that he drove back to the same random roadside restaurant for the explicit purpose of giving us a ride.

After a brief team-meeting involving ethics and ambitions, we loaded up, figuring that covering the remaining 20 km quickly would grant us some unexpected time to actually explore Rayong. Though as we drove and chatted, the kilometres flew by, and the signs soon stopped announcing the town. After exchanging confused glances, we inquired, and Yan explained that he was taking us to Pattaya instead, since it was further along and actually on the coast. We're not sure what that means he exactly thought of us, given the notoriety of the town, but we eventually found ourselves being dropped off at a 7-eleven outside a sex-tourism haven we had no intention of visiting...

Ready to leave Bangkok

Distance Versus Terrain

After extensive debate between two possible routes out of Thailand and into Cambodia, we chose the more northern road, skirting Chanthaburi to cross at Ban Pakard / Phsa Prum to then access Battambang via Pailin. To do so meant a hilly approach via Hwy 317 to reach Pong Nam Ron, which we hoped had a guesthouse -- since our initial destination of Khamen, while appearing on our map, proved quite phantasmal in reality. Our whole day of riding, beginning from our countryside hotel outside Na Yai Am junction -- past Klaeng no towns seemed to exist -- had proved peaceful, the smooth, flat, well-paved Thai roads perfect for cycling. We even managed to squeeze in some agro-tourism, visiting a local apiary (bee hive farm), but shortly thereafter a drastic change in topography took us by surprise. Not to say we weren't expecting hills, but the series of relentless climbs, 10km in all, began to annihilate our calves and our pace: we can usually average about 18km/hour, but were slowed down to half that.

With darkness approaching, the chilly air covered our sweat-soaked bodies with goosebumps, and the ever crucial team morale quickly began crumbling. Certainly the increasingly present snake-cakes were hardly encouraging, nor was our dwindling water supply, the trucks zooming by, or the inevitably of our situation -- we had to reach Pong Nam Ron even if it killed us. Thankfully it didn't, the shining beacon of a 7-eleven finally indicated our arrival, and by coincidence the town's sole foreign resident was shopping and able to help us find the only available affordable lodging. But the lesson was definitely learned, that the distance on the map can mean little in regards to the difficulty of the terrain.

Hilly days


Asia's monsoon season is all-too-often misunderstood. It does not rain all the time, and usually not even every day. Three days can easily pass without a drop, or it can drizzle sporadically for days on end, or the rain can pound down mercilessly for over 12 straight hours. With dark clouds almost always on the horizon, a drastic change in weather can come within a moments notice, a gorgeous day for riding unexpectedly changed to a sloppy mess. Even the locals can't accurately predict the fickle monsoon's behaviour, the pounding rain disrupts their lives and plans just as dramatically as ours -- they've just grown accustomed to the chaos of the skies.

We've escaped certain drenching -- enjoying a dry lunch as the skies open up just outside a restaurant's tin roof, sought shelter beneath overhanging trees while trapped in the proverbial middle-of-nowhere, and delighted in a soft afternoon shower after a brutally hot mid-day ride. But leaving Kirirom National Park in Cambodia, Mother Nature simply got the best of us as we travelled towards Kampot.

Kirirom is located just off of NH 4 about 100km outside of Phnom Penh, but we'd stopped for lunch in the junction town 11km from the park. Our dining apparently had sent a signal upwards, as the skies opened up. Several times we were about to take off, only to have the downpour strengthen. Finally, during a long and calm sprinkle, we took off into the unknown. Twenty kilometres later the rain really began to pour, more like a flood falling from above than any type of usual storm. Long since soaked, with traffic dangerously hydroplaning all around us and the wind slowing us down to a virtual crawl, a petrol station appeared like a lighthouse in the storm.

Undoubtedly our arrival provided much amusement to the Khmers protected from the rain beneath the blessed shelter, they all appeared dry, clearly having been there for a good while. It soon became apparent why, workers aside, as everyone else was waiting for one of the numerous shared vans that ply the roads south of Phnom Penh providing regional transportation. Through gestures, the repetition of key words, and one man's minimal English skills, we attempted to figure out how far away a more permanent roof and a refreshing shower might be -- the temple within sight should've been able to provide a bare-bones interpretation of the former, but probably not the latter.

As the deluge relentlessly continued, Sre Ambel was proclaimed to lack guesthouses, and apparently while we were in internet-less Kirirom both Kampot and Kep had flooded so severely that the roads were closed. Everyone said Sihanoukville was our only hope, a cyclist's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Faced with the grim wet facts, and with the sky so dark visibility was rapidly decreasing despite sunset being hours away, we chose to try our luck with a shared van. More than a few passed, and then Liz managed to chase down a miracle: a half-empty vehicle that agreed to transport us and our bicycles all the way to Sihanoukville for only $5 each. Disaster was avoided, another unintended destination got added to our itinerary, and our bug-ridden bungalows by nasty Ochheuteal Beach seemed surprisingly tolerable.

Rainy days

Time And Visa Constraints

One month per country sounded like ample time, since compared to my home country of America, Southeast Asia is virtually microscopic. Even with plenty of time for cycling built-in, we thought there would be abundant time for proper touristing. How foolish. The reality is that most destinations are several days ride apart, and then an additional few days need to be spent actually enjoying the places we've worked so hard to get to. Do some quick math, and the 30 days of a typical Asian visa are all-too-quickly spent which means that a judicious balance between cycling and experiencing must be found.

Thus the paradox of a cycling adventure, that the incredible journey -- and the numerous days required to undertake it -- must not be allowed to take priority over enjoying the destinations themselves. But even then, if it takes three days of cycling to get somewhere and two days to soak it all in, only six places can be visited in one month. Sacrifices must be made then, in order to squeeze in more adventure and sightseeing, and lengthy days of cycling are where the cuts are made.

Take Vietnam for example, which is around 1,600km in length. Even at the relentless pace of 100km/day, over half your visa time would be spent cycling, and that isn't even taking into account the width of the country in both the north and the south, the often hilly terrain, or the numerous winding roads. Including all those factors makes twenty-five days of riding a more reasonable estimate, which doesn't leave much time for exploring the country. Clearly that is an impossibility, forcing a cyclist to make use of Vietnam's reliable and extensive network of buses and trains simply to visit most of the country within a month.

The journey is equally valid, no matter how you get there, even if it means packing the bike up a few times. So, as our Saigon-bound bus horn reverberates in my ears, the idea of "cheating" on a cycling trip can safely be regarded as simply ridiculous -- unless you have the eight months or so available that it would take to thoroughly cycle all of SE Asia!

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every Wednesday for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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