World by Bike 21: The Road to Mandalay - Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand & Myanmar
Cambodia was immediately carnage, with a completely unstructured switch from driving on the left to on the right, with people just simply driving into one another between the borders. The roads were already dustier, busier, less organised and made an even greater cacophony than neighbouring Thailand. Luckily I was helped by a friend of my soon-to-be sister-in-law (now current sister-in-law) who helped me get a phone plan for Cambodia, and explained why they use both US dollars and the Cambodian Riel as currency. He explained how the economy in Cambodia struggles because people don't trust each other to be honest in transactions, so people avoid banks and always watch over each other. He said part of this comes from the stain on the country's past that the horror of former dictator Pol Pot's caused. People don't fully trust one another.
The struggles in the economy mean that there are many western missionaries in the country, and I happened to bump in to many of them. It's nice to see people serving into other communities. Additionally, it meant I had more people I could chat to and get advice from.
My route in Cambodia took me past the tourist town of Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat sits, just a few kilometres north of the city. From there it was a quick stop in Phnom Penh and out north east towards Vietnam. A large majority of my riding was on flat, open farmland, making for some killer windy stretches. However, all the children in the villages rushed out to wave and greet me as I rode by. In one small village, a twenty-something nurse took me in after I had initially attempted to sleep at an empty hospital clinic building, after getting caught away from another accommodation options that night.
It's an interesting country with such a long and complex history that it would take me a long time to process and fit into the grand scheme of world politics.
You could already tell by the border gate, a huge 40ft high iron gate adorning the Vietnamese flag, made it clear that Vietnam could be an intimidating place. The huge statue of Ho Chi Minh, figurehead of the Communist charge in Vietnam, did nothing to add to the welcome to the country. However, leaving the city and embarking on the Ho Chi Minh road, things became a lot more friendly, much more rural and much prettier. There are two major routes running the length of the country, either the main highway which runs along the coast to up the east of Vietnam, or the Ho Chi Minh road which runs up the west of the country in the mountains. It's not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh trail which was the back-country route used by North Vietnam's soldiers to sneak into South Vietnam during the war, but it predominately runs through Laos and Cambodia, and still has issues with unexploded land mines.
The Ho Chi Minh road is outstanding, however. It's far too cliché to describe it as an opportunity to see the 'real Vietnam', but that's how the road was described to me. You're going through small villages, and on back roads with little traffic. On one particularly quiet section of road I saw only about five cars over 100km of riding.
It was tough going however, with some remote sections going 100km without seeing anywhere to get food or water. But being up in the mountains, alone, just slowly tapping away at the pedals up each mountain pass is what the adventure of this trip was all about. It was brutal at times, but upon reflection it was some of the best riding of the trip.
One particular section of the road is a national park filled with huge limestone cliffs, looking like scenes from the movie Avatar. Compared to the rest of the road, this part was incredibly tourist-focused. I turned into the park and found flash youth hostels, night clubs, pizza restaurants and a huge-spread of Western foods. Without wanting to some patronising, but the place did feel a bit strange. I found it interesting to think that if people travel to go and see the world, and see other cultures, but when they get there it's all set up to be just-like-home, what's the point of leaving home? I guess it is cheaper in Vietnam with better weather back home, and no work-life to get you down.
Vietnam was awesome overall. It's cheap, there's good food, places to stay are relatively clean and people understood a little English. For such amazing, largely untouched scenery, with engaging history and a developing nation, it's a great place to ride. The road quality is good enough too. My parting gift from Vietnam came when a father and son pulled alongside me on their motorbike and asked whether they could buy me coffee in exchange for reviewing the son's English homework. After doing poorly last year in English classes, they've both been working hard to improve. The father also told me that he'd once walked from Hanoi to Saigon - he still says Saigon, he wasn't a big fan of Ho Chi Minh. It's an interesting place, Vietnam.
Laos was a quick blast. I'd been told the roads were awful, food was challenging and places to stay were poor. There'd be no western brands available as I was warned, but I was able to find Nescafe coffee in a can - all important coffee. The road I took, bisecting the country across to the capital of Vientiane then south into Thailand again, was actually good. There were a few sections of sand where the roads were being repaired, and knowing my planning skills, I hit them after dark. But the mountains were great, and the mosquitos next to the Mekong weren't too bad.
Unfortunately, much of my time in Laos was preoccupied with the insane number of punctures I was getting. Although the roads didn’t feel too bad, my tyres were just giving up. It'd been 2500 miles since Singapore with no punctures, but now my rear tyre had just given up.
I managed to find a bike shop in Vientiane, pick up some puncture protection tape and some more inner tubes. It'd last me until Mandalay with no further issues. The other lucky find, aside from the bike shop, was bumping into a Dutch couple on the banks of the Mekong. They'd just come from Myanmar and we discussed border checkpoints and they told me about issues just beyond the northern point, the one I planned to enter. A quick google search that evening revealed that although I'd be able to cross the border, the police would stop me at a checkpoint just five miles beyond it and turn me around. It was very fortunate meeting these guys, as my tight schedule meant that an issue with the police in Myanmar would have set me back, and would have jeopardised my flight out of Mandalay.
After a short hop across the relatively luxury of Thailand (how my perspective changed after Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos), it was into Myanmar. After initial shock at prices after the country's currency inflation issues, and after getting out of the way of the many police convoys on my first day, I was pretty battle-weary. The road from the border was terrible, with 5 inch deep pot holes littering the road, and impatient trucks rushing both ways on too narrow, too dusty and too crowded roads to and from the border with Thailand.
After surviving the first day, things became easier, but not that much cheaper. I descended from the brutal mountain climb to the border and down into the flat valley that creates a channel between Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, right up to Mandalay. Most of my time in Myanmar was spent trying to understand the place - so many things seemed so bizarre.
For example, they now drive on the right side of the road after the former leader made them switch from the left, for fear that the country was leaning too far to the left politically. This is despite the fact that the whole road system was designed for driving on the left. Buses now let passengers off into traffic, and even at the border checkpoint all the buildings for arrivals are on the other side of the road to the one on which you arrive on.
There are additional rules to follow in Myanmar too, like the fact that it's illegal to camp and it's illegal for locals to host a foreigner in their homes. I didn't mind these rules too much, as I was trying to organise my visa for China, and put the finishing touches to my brother's stag do / bachelor party back home, which meant that I needed access to wi-fi. Also, the risk of malaria and the humidity didn't make camping seem that appealing anyway.
The best example of my experience of Myanmar, was visiting the new capital of Naypyidaw. It’s a city dug out of the forest and paddy fields, in the middle of nowhere, almost directly in the centre of the country. The former dictatorial leader moved the capital there after taking wisdom from an astrologer. There is also reason to believe the move was prompted by a fear of a US invasion at the sea port of Yangon. The country's government was moved to the new capital, and a massive area has been dug out for the ambitious predictions of the city's growth. The area given to the city is given to seven times the area of Greater London, despite there being very few people in the city. There's massive investment in tens of large, westernised hotels which are largely empty all year round, except when the Chinese arrive once a year for the large jade emporium. It's a bizarre use of money in my view, to have empty hotels with swimming pools and fast Wi-Fi, when villages in the surrounding areas struggle with getting electricity or roads. However, the people there were lovely, as I found across Myanmar. Enough people understood a little English to get by, and people generally seemed optimistic about where the country could go under a new, supposedly democratic system. It's a strange place, with empty 10-lane highways, but with people diligently sweeping the streets and tidying the flowers in the central reservation to keep the capital looking pristine. There's beauty in how the people were working, and how pleasant the city looked, but surrounded with the poverty outside the city, and the questionable decisions in creating the city in the first place, it's a little bit of a hollow experience. It’s interesting to see, but sad to think about living under that regime. It does make me grateful for the freedoms I experience at home.
Unfortunately, the old military regime is still in control of many aspects of government, and there's still a lot of violence in the north, east, and far west of the country. The country has got a lot of potential, being the richest country in the South East Asia when the British left in the mid-20th century, but questionable governmental decisions means that Burma is now one of the poorest countries in the world. For a country so rich in oil and precious jewels, it's hard to see how certain people groups have been so left behind.
Leaving the capital I pushed up to Mandalay to end my ride in South East Asia, tired and broken after 4000 miles in 44 days, including 2000 miles since Phnom Penh, Cambodia without a rest day. I found myself almost running on auto-pilot and starting to make questionable decisions on the roads, so I was glad to call it a day and finish my road to Mandalay. The trip total reached at 13,007 miles - China awaits!