Leaving Vietnam On the Fumes - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

January 2, 2017

Leaving Vietnam On the Fumes

Ha Tien to Kep, Cambodia

Dear little friends,

The new year passed while we were asleep, and we can say the same for the neighbors because nobody woke us up with any sort of noise or fireworks or carousing. Everybody got up the next day and things seemed exactly the same except that the hotel owners dismantled the gigantic Las Vegas manger scene and were stuffing all the strings of blinky lights into cardboard boxes by the time we even came downstairs.

January 2 seemed like a safe bet to enter Cambodia and go to Kep, a beach town renowned for its crab and abandoned 60s and 70s mansions. We were excited to go to a new country, two months is the longest I’ve ever spent in one country and believe me, we needed that long and could easily spend our one-year visa seeing everything in Vietnam. But I was ready to leave, too. The restlessness of seeing what comes next is probably the traveler’s strongest propellant.

We had spent our dong nearly to nothing because we weren’t planning on coming back to Vietnam any time soon and it is very hard to exchange outside the country. We had just enough to pay the hotel and either two banh mi or one banh mi and maybe a water. We were 1000 dong short of a water.

After several days off of the bikes it felt wonderful to cruise down a curvy street in Ha Tien and find the main road to the border. At the crossroads we stopped to buy a banh mi (or two) and after parking the bikes we realized there were three other loaded bikes parked there. They belonged to three shy Russians, one of whom could speak English so she translated for the others. They had motorbiked from Hanoi to Saigon, where they sold their motos and bought mountain bikes and bags. They were heading to Pattaya, Thailand to take the brand new ferry to Hua Hin. Brand new, as in the service started the day before on January 1.

We had a lot to talk about and one of the guys gave Bruce 1000 dong so we had enough to buy a bottle of water to go with our one banh mi. They took off on their bikes and we didn’t see them again until Cambodian immigration.

There are a couple of touristy karst formations along the way with lots of vendor stalls and places you could spend your last dong if you had any, which we didn’t. As we neared Vietnam immigration we noted that the staff there were burning piles of garbage and branches and leaves, and somehow it seemed appropriate to go through a wall of stinky smoke to get to their office. A sort of purification rite if you will.

One last karst formation before Cambodia.
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We always mentally gird our loins for borders with Cambodia. They never fail to disappoint but this time we were resolved that we were not going to argue or fuss over anything. We knew the official visa fee is $30. From reading recent blogs we knew they would charge $35. There would be some sort of malarkey with a health check. Knowing this beforehand you can settle in your mind that this is how it is, and if somebody else would like to take a stand for $5 let them have at it but we weren’t going to, not this time.

Approaching Cambodia immigration.
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Bless their hearts, the Russians were hanging near the visa desk looking things up on their phones and the trollish dude behind the counter was ignoring them. We paid our $70 and filled out the form and pulled out our immunization cards (No fee! What!) for the health guy who pointed a thing at us that may or may not have checked for a fever. The Russian trio had now moved to some seats and were still furiously checking their phones. Did they need US dollars? Cambodia requires that and they better be crisp and clean, too. No, they said, they didn’t want to pay the five extra dollars, that it was corruption.

My heart swelled for them. I wish I knew more Russians that spoke English. I have a million questions to ask them. I was proud and impressed that they were, indeed, taking a stand. But again, I had gotten a good look at the visa guy and he was definitely an immovable object. We broke it to them gently that on our last trip we tried to accuse a Cambodian border guy of corruption and that did not go well and we nearly did not get into the country. Cambodia is corrupt, no two ways about it. But the average traveler is only going to encounter that at the borders and nowhere else. They had come a long way, they didn’t want to have to turn back.

We left them with that decision to make and got on our bikes and rode past a stupidly big and cheesy casino and then suddenly, we were in Cambodia. It was a beautiful day. Immediately we passed wooden houses on stilts playing Khmer music, which we adore. The number of vehicles and motorbikes dropped to nearly zero. After two months of constant motorbike activity my heart rate slowed and my smile widened.

Seriously, Cambodia?
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Spotting our first spirit house. These house the spirits of the land that were displaced when the house was built.
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A typical rural Cambodian home.
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We like these little houses and their traditional decorative elements.
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Bruce had forgotten to tuck the straps of his backpack under the bungee and one of them got embroiled in a dispute with his chainring. Before we had time to say Jackalope there was a Cambodian guy leaning in and helping pull the stupid strap out of the cogs, laugh and smile and thank him, and we were on our way. Birds sang and dipped over us, people rested in the shade and called out hellos. At the first Y in the road a guy called out, “Kep!” and pointed us in the right direction, a shortcut we hadn’t known about.

An enticing back road.
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Schoolchildren statuary at a crossroads.
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It was a gorgeous day. The sky was so blue and the trees so lush. Kep is more spread out than we realized, and as we passed a plaza it was evident that we had chosen wisely when we skipped the New Year’s celebration there because the fireworks litter and other garbage was truly fearsome. There were still tons of people eating and playing on the beach and so on, but our guest house was beautiful and quiet, the cashew trees and birds and flowers like a wonderful dream. It really is amazing what happens when you cross a border and nearly everything changes at once, music, traffic, food, currency, and even the plants and landscaping.

Visions of a beautiful coast in Kep. Ignore the trash.
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Wasn't there some sci-fi flick from the 60s where the people are walking on the back of a giant crab? Maybe I dreamed that.
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Kep has a smallish beach that is much beloved by local Cambodians still on their New Year's holiday.
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Our sa-weet room in Kep.
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We rode to the seafood shack section of Kep and had an Angkor draft beer and watched the sunset from a little table in a bar playing 80s American music. Then we went next door and had dinner. We aren’t big crab eaters so we skipped their specialty and had fish amok and squid fried rice, noting once again that Cambodian food is the most expensive in SE Asia and that we will definitely miss the spectacular coffee and food in Vietnam.

One must look at all the menus.
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Happy hour in Kep. A draft Angkor is 75 cents, payable in Cambodian riel. Anything more than a dollar is paid in US dollars. People with weak math skills beware.
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But it’s good, to change the swirl of good and bad of a place with a different combination every day. Crossing a border is almost more about crossing it in your head than the actual geopolitical one in space. We are far along in this trip now to look back at a map and be impressed with ourselves and how far we have come by bicycle, using our own four stupid little legs. The bubbles of our fify-cent beer glow in a sunset we don’t deserve and we clink our glasses and wink away a little tear.

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I'm not really much of a beer drinker but this was mighty refreshing.
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With a 75-cent draft beer comes a free side order of beautiful sunset over the ocean.
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Hello, Cambodia.
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Today's ride: 21 miles (34 km)
Total: 1,322 miles (2,128 km)

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