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ESL Daily: Cycling without Boarders
Cycling without Boarders
With my legs stuck firmly in the mud, and my shoes having been swallowed by the red muck pretending to be the road, I had to pause for a moment to laugh. The self-inflicted suffering that a budget traveler seems to attract deserves no complaints. When you're cutting costs in foreign countries, ridiculous situations happen constantly: sleeping three-to-a-bed in a nasty beach bungalow (Ko Samet, Thailand), unwittingly eating “happy snake” minced-meat salad (Siem Reap, Cambodia), returning to your hotel to discover they've put out the red light (Sao Do, Vietnam), or taking a hot mineral bath deep within the rice paddy (Sam Neua, Laos). A SE Asian cycling adventure certainly includes a wide variety of moments!
The journey from rural southern Cambodia to the Vietnamese city of Ha Tien, right across the border, was supposed to be a leisurely afternoon ride, including a stop at a pepper farm, with the only time pressure coming from needing to cross the border before it closed. Our last day in Kep – the unofficial “crab capitol” of Cambodia – started on a bad note, as one member of our cycling squad woke up sick. That set off a chain reaction: our planned departure time of 10am was rolled back until noon; our breakfast plan at a local bakery became canceled due to a holiday; our plans of visiting the pepper farm were scratched entirely. In the town's main circle, eating some of the Larabars we carry with us while holding our bicycles, we re-examined the situation. With about 50 kilometers to go, a decent-sized town on the map (Kampong Trach, about 15 km from the border) seemed like a good place to eat lunch.
Off we pedaled then, into the mid-day heat, through several fishing villages, giving countless waves and greetings, all the while keeping up a decent pace despite the distractions. By the time we pulled into Kampong Trach, and finally found the non-English sign pointing towards the border, a lunch-stop sounded like a risky maneuver – showing up late at a land-border crossing isn't a good idea. We grabbed some sodas, a warm-and-flat Pepsi or Mirinda on ice is a wonderful source of sugar energy, before turning off the paved highway onto a red-dirt road. Cambodia has plenty of roads that aren't sealed, we'd cycled them before and never had any real problems, but this time around the entire region had been completely flooded just the week before. Within five minutes our speed had slowed, and swerving was replacing pedaling as our primary concern. The fifteen kilometers stretched out in front of us like one hundred, and the border started to feel like a distant dream, though we'd already biked over half our total distance for the day.
Amidst the fields of rice paddy the rut of a road dragged on, yet no one was upset or frustrated, not even us. Everyone was friendly: boys leading oxen paused to say hello, passing motorcyclists smiled over their shoulders, farmers stood up in their fields for a better view of the unusual parade of five mud-splattered Western mountain bikers. The terrain and time slowly passed by, avoiding potholes and mud-pits is an intensive process, one eventually destined for failure. As my bicycle came to a sudden halt, both myself and it turned a redder shade of brown. Wheels and shoes completely gooped, ankles and brakes totally caked, it was a sloppy and heavy unwanted mess. Dragging my bicycle out almost resulted in a total disaster, but at least that was narrowly avoided!
Heels heavy with a few extra pounds of mud, we pedaled onwards, eventually having to cross a sea of mud where the entire road had turned into a swamp. Tired and sweaty, an easy ride had become quite challenging, but at last we arrived at the Cambodian check-post. The guards couldn't help but chuckle at our plight, splattered with red and brown, we were a filthy mess but a living testament to the willpower of foolhardy foreign travelers.
A border crossing is usually a two-stop affair, first to get stamped out of the country you're departing, second – and more time consuming – is entering the new country. However, we required a third stop, at the Cambodian water-tank/shower/bathroom to get the abundant mud off of our bicycles and ourselves. Despite the slothful nature of a socialist country's check-in, we still spent more time trying, and failing, to actually get clean.
The remaining ride to Ha Tien, about five kilometers on a decent paved road, went smoothly as dusk approached, as did finding a hotel, though by then we were too exhausted to search much. Our bicycles had to wait until the next morning to get clean, but we weren't that patient. After a long blissful hot shower each, we staggered next door to a restaurant. Our first meal in Vietnam appropriately involved rice, along with mixed vegetables and fresh shrimp in a garlic sauce. While we could only manage one beer that night, it was necessary to toast to my fifth wedding anniversary. Celebrated in two countries, it was tougher and sweatier than the years before, but certainly the most fulfilling and adventurous yet!