“How many bikes have you used?” is a surprisingly common question when we tell people how far we’ve ridden. It never ceases to amaze us what the trusty steed has put up with over the last 18 months on some of the worst roads and with a hefty load of luggage on board, but it’s still going strong. Apart from changing the consumables like tyres, brake pads, chains and cassette it’s kept us going through rain, sun and snow. OK the front rack mounts have had to be welded a couple of times. Oh and I took a drill to my saddle the other day so that I could lace the sides back together. But other than that it’s all good.
If you ignore the rear hub that is. To be honest this old thing has had a hard life lugging the two of us up and over all those mountains, revolution after revolution, in first gear straining away. It has a right to complain a little from time to time, a call for fresh grease and new bearings. That hub had been serviced several times so far on this trip but of late the complaints have become louder, more frequent and an irritating pitch that is hard to ignore. The next reliable address we have is in Hanoi where we can pick up the new parts (new cones) but there’s nearly 2000km of road to ride before we get there. It doesn’t matter how good the rest of the bike is, if we haven’t got a functioning rear wheel it’s going nowhere. Come on hub, you can make it!
19th January – 20th February 2016
Out of Phnom Penh the wind is behind us and we speed along following the Tonle Sap river on a flat plain. Highway 6 is a friendly place with smiles, waves and ‘bye byes’ a plenty from pyjama clad women and children. You can find mobile ‘shops’ that serve up refreshing iced coffee in a bag from the side of a scooter or sugar cane juice freshly squeezed in the markets. To combat the high summer temperatures the houses are built on stilts to catch the breeze, hammocks are slung underneath for lazy afternoons in the shade.
There’s music all the way too. Every few km marquees by the road, or sometimes on the road, contain wedding partys that last for days. It’s a young country with 68% of the population under 30 so it’s not surprising there are so many couples ready to tie the knot but it’s like hosting your reception on the hard shoulder of the A4.
At one point we ride into a dust cloud caused by some road works and emerge 20km later a fetching shade of mahogany. It’s not much fun for the people who live along that stretch as entire villages are coated in dust. Even the temple we stay in on the first night, which is 300m back from the road, has a few cm on every surface.
Siem Reap comes into view after 3 days and we’re greeted on arrival by Seyha, our Warm Showers host who offers us a bamboo hut to stay in. Overnight the countryside around us reverberates to the sound of Cambodian pop music as several more weddings reach the ‘dance till you drop stage’ but we’re tired and ready for a few days rest so let the beats lull us to sleep.
Siem Reap has grown to serve the two million visits to what lonely planet described as the best tourist attraction in the world: Angkor Wat. Days could be lost exploring the vast area of dense jungle that makes up the main site. Wandering through some of the many hundreds of temples that hide in the undergrowth, some of them now engulfed with tree roots, is mesmerising. We’re never alone but manage to avoid most of the crowds by following advice from Seyha on where to go and when. A second day of exploring with one of the guides from Seyha’s tour company, Sokha, on mountain bikes is even better as he shows us some great single track through the woods linking up some less visited sites. Joining us is Ola, a Norwegian spending time teaching in Siem Reap and with plans for his own bike tour expanding into something more ambitious after speaking to us. In the words of the famous sports brand “just do it!” we tell him.
Seyha is a busy man. As well as running a company offering mountain and motor bike tours around the region he also helps out at a local orphanage and church. We’re invited to attend their Saturday service, as they’re 7th day adventists. Afterwards we help distribute some food that has been gifted by some generous visitors. The children live in several houses as large families with adoptive parents looking after them, the idea being that they feel a greater sense of security by belonging to a defined family. It’s the life’s work of Tim, an Australian literally on a mission, who has built the project up from scratch over the past 20 years. It looks to be a wonderful environment that he’s created and there are many more plans to keep developing the project including a butterfly farm that will take shape this year.
A familiar bearded face arrives in town on our last evening in Siem Reap. We last saw our Irish friend Will in Bishkek back in July. Since then he’s been robbed in Kazakhstan, fought off a drunk Mongolian and narrowly avoided freezing to death in China. He’s just arrived in Cambodia with Elana and we have a few stories to swap so dine out at Bugs Café. Run by an imaginative Frenchman, this restaurant offers a unique menu of ‘insect tapas’ with the battered tarantulas and scorpion salad being particularly tasty. Will paints a bleak picture of riding China in the winter so we hope our experience will be more enjoyable. In the meantime here’s an ode to his endeavours in the traditional form:
Across China Will wanted to pedal
A challenge made hard by the devil
The weather was poor
His bum became sore
But he did it so give him a medal.
We leave Siem Reap as a cold snap takes hold. Seyha’s mum is wrapped in a scarf, gloves and hat and fears for us riding in this weather. It’s 18 degC so we pull our socks up a bit.
The Angkor Wat ‘city’ covers a vast area spread over 154 square miles so we find a couple of other sites far from Siem Reap including the curious Kehal Speam, a set of Hindu carvings in a stream bed and a couple of days later the hill top ruin of Preah Vihear. Access to this one up on the border with Thailand is via the steepest hill we’ve ever seen (from the back seat of a scooter).
Meanwhile the rear hub has been particularly unhappy. I found that the freehub was loose when I had the bike in bits at Seyhas house but it’s still making a racket. I dismantle it again on the forecourt of a tool shop with the owner handing me alan keys as I perform the surgery, but it only takes 50km before it all comes loose again. Having to do this twice a day is not an exciting prospect.
The road is now heading east towards Stung Treng. If the ground wasn’t scorched enough from the sun its also now on fire. They use the slash and burn technique to clear old scrub before the new season of planting begins. The fires are left to do their thing without any control and often come very close to houses and huts. We’ve slept in a couple of abandoned buildings and spent half the night sniffing the air for smoke. The other half is spent brushing away irritating biting ants.
From the huts that are occupied and haven’t been bunt down children watch us quizzically. They’re naked up to about the age of 2 when they get a T-shirt to wear until earning the right to be fully clothed when they’re 4. These communities live from hand to mouth and it wouldn’t surprise me if their diet included some of the spiders and grubs we thought were just a tourist novelty in Siem Reap.
We cross the mighty Mekong just before Stung Treng, sadly not by boat as the huge bridge has killed the ferry business. Our last night in Cambodia is in a welcoming riverside temple with the monks watching with interest while I pull the hub apart yet again.
Then we reach Laos and the fluttering flag bearing a hammer and sickle announces that it’s our first communist country. On top of the cost of the visa we’re liberated from an extra $2 at the border “to pay for the stamp”. It’s a known scam but for such a small amount we don’t spend much time arguing.
Straight away the shouting starts: “SABADEE!” “SABADEE SABADEE SABADEE!”. The kids love shouting the Laotian greeting for hello whenever they see us and it becomes a constant chant as we spin past each house. The scenery is much like the northern parts of Cambodia with shallow hills and not much colour. Off to our right is the Bolavan plateau where a lot of the excellent coffee we’ve been drinking is grown.
We find more greenery as we come back closer to the river. The Mekong broadens out and fractures through 4000 islands just north of the border. We catch a boat across to one of them: Don Det, which is the allocated tourist island. The most popular past time here seems to be drifting down the river in an inner tube while drinking beer. As we ride up to the top of the island we hear one gap year traveller ask “Do you think they’re using that bike to travel around?”.
We use another boat to travel the short distance to the next island Don Som. More a few planks strapped to two canoes than a boat but it gets us there safely. In contrast to Don Det this island doesn’t get many visitors and when we arrive at a small temple they’re happy to help us out by letting us set up our bed on an outdoor platform. The wide river is a stones throw away and begins to light up with reds and oranges as we take our evening dip with a few of the monks. They bring us candles and pillows later while we settle into our al fresco bedroom.
After the rural and roadless Don Som comes the biggest island Don Kohg, linked to the mainland by a bridge and much busier as a result. It’s easy to forget that we’re in the middle of a river as we ride the 10km to the northern tip of the island. We decide to have an easy afternoon after several long days in the saddle so I spend the time relaxing with the hub in pieces again. But this time there are far too many pieces. The interface where the freehub sits against the hub itself has disintegrated with a set of broken teeth that a bare knuckle boxer would be proud of. In short it means we have no ability to drive the rear wheel and no means to fix it. I begin to wonder whether Max’s idea of towing a canoe might not be such a bad one for this scenario as we could take to the water instead.
Squeezing a tube of super glue into all the offending parts and trying to tighten it up buys us another 37m before it packs up completely. The pedals turn uselessly while the bike stays still.
A long walk, a short hitch then an 100km bus ride and we arrive in Pakse, the nearest city. Some people run away scared when I begin enquiring about bike shops. Most others know they can’t help before I’ve even finished asking them.
“Do you know where…” “No no no no!”
“Do you have a….” “No no no no!”
“Where can I find….” “No no no no!”
It’s a frustrating reaction as I can’t even begin trying to mime or point before they turn me away. Even a mountain bike hire company unhelpfully tells me that there are no bike shops in Pakse which seems highly unlikely.
I want to replace the entire rear wheel as there is zero chance of finding a hub with the necessary specification to suit a tandem. It should be easy to find a new wheel though as the bike has 26″ wheels, a size chosen for being ubiquitous around the world. Except in Laos it seems where almost all bikes have 24″ wheels. When I eventually get to the main market and find a shop filled with roughly bicycle shaped items there’s a stack of the small wheels in the corner and my heart sinks. But then, up on the wall like some kind of trophy hangs a single bright red hoop with a shiny black rear hub laced onto it. It’s 26″, this could work! They screw on a 5 speed block for me, I hand over $20 and everyone leaves happy.
After an hour sanding the red paint off the braking surface then with some careful bodging I get it onto the bike and a brief test spin brings positive results. It’s 900km to Hanoi, where a new hub that I’ve ordered from The States should be waiting for us, and ‘the red menace’ has a weight of expectation to get us there now. This will be tougher than anything the Chinese manufacturers had ever imagined possible when they built this wheel but we have to hope it’s been massively over-engineered.
Seeing me fixing our bike outside a café a man turns up with his bike and asks if I can take a look. A few tweaks here and there and I’ve got it running smoothly again so we celebrate with a Beerlao. A career as a mobile bike mechanic joins the possible job options list.
We share our monastic accommodation in Pakse with fellow temple touring cyclists Jacob and Alex and enjoy stories from each other’s journeys in the town’s only Indian restaurant. They have come up against the “No no no no!” response a few times too in cafes that clearly have food but refuse to serve them. Jacob’s theory is that perhaps the state looks after their businesses so they don’t need the hassle of trying to help troublesome foreigners. Communism at work perhaps?
Back on the road everything seems to be going smoothly again. The wheels go round when we pedal. People in the villages seem to be friendlier than the townies and enjoy serving us the now staple noodle soup occasionally livened up with some BBQ chicken feet or an embryonic boiled egg. A policeman invites us to join him for a beer where he keeps telling me how pretty Kirsty is and how handsome I am. We’re not sure if we should be more worried about his advances or the loaded pistol on his belt given his state of inebriation.
The turning for the next town, Savannakhet comes and goes. We decide to skip it as we’re preferring the rural roads. But a couple of km later there’s an ominous ‘ping’ from the back wheel. Picking it up and giving it a quick spin produces a sound like a tinkling wind chime. There are 3 broken spokes and we don’t have spares or a tool to take the freewheel off. But we’d always wanted to see Savannakhet so hitch a lift in a pickup to see if we can find a spoke vendor.
“I’m too busy” is the unexpected response when we arrive at Holier bike shop. “Don’t worry, I just want to buy the tools and spokes and do the work myself”. I can see the freewheel tool sat in a locked cabinet. “My wife has the key and she’s not here so you can’t have it. We’re closing now so you’ll have to leave.” Confused and annoyed we’re bundled out of the shop and told they open again at 9 tomorrow.
This is the only decent bike shop in town and though 2 other shops try and help they don’t have what we need. We have no choice but to stay the night and try again in the morning, hoping they’ll be more helpful after a nights sleep. We spot a patch of ground in a park by a derelict café and begin setting up the tent.
“No no no no no!”, the now familiar Laotian greeting is being shouted at us through the tent walls. We’d been given the thumbs up by some men who are living nearby but now someone else has turned up and wants us to move on. “Yes yes yes yes yes! ” I reply. The man mimes an attacking animal, then an axe murderer so it appears he’s worried about our safety. But we’re not scared so tell him we’re happy to take our chances. He gives up and reluctantly says “OK OK” before leaving us in peace.
At 9 the next morning I wait for the shutter to come up at Holier bike shop. At 9:30 a women in a helmet peeks out, pushing a scooter. “No no no no no!” she shouts when she sees me. I’m not giving up that easily though so get past her and point at the tool and at a wheel they have hanging from the ceiling. “No no no no no!” She repeats. I drop to my knees and muster the most desperate, pleading look I can, hands pressed together in prayer but she now won’t even look at me. “No no no no no!”. I’m back on the pavement as she locks the door and scoots off leaving me close to tears and standing helplessly with the broken wheel. Was it too much to ask for a bike shop to sell me a bike tool? Is she afraid of tall men with beards?
I wander aimlessly along the street not sure what to do next. My saviour appears from a small, grubby shop front, behind him sits piles of bike bits. “Can you remove this free wheel and replace the broken spokes?” I ask. “Yes, no problem, do you want it done right now?”. This is the polar opposite of the Holier experience and without wanting to cast aspersions the difference could well be that this shop is run by a Vietnamese man.
Soon after, with a full compliment of spokes on a true wheel and a few spares for good measure the tandem is off again. It’s sunny, we’re smiling and nothing can stop us now.
‘Ping’. 10 km later another spoke breaks. Shouting and kicking the bike would not help in this situation I calmly say to myself. The spoke is on the free wheel side again and we still don’t have the tool to get it off. But having only 5 gears means there are big gaps between the cogs. Possibly big enough to pass a spoke through and with some careful bending maybe I can thread it up into the wheel? It works! We’re off and riding yet again.
In total 11 spokes broke during our time with the ‘red menace’. All of them on the drive side and on the leading edge so it seems the torque from the tandem going up hill was the problem rather than the weight. By feeding new spokes through the gears they could all be replaced on the road without taking the wheel off.
As we move quickly north on Highway 13 there’s an evening with Mr Kong, an English teacher, involving an aborted rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at a karaoke bar. A lucky escape for all concerned. Then we arrive in Thakek in time to watch the celebrations for Chinese new year from the bell tower of a temple as the town’s skyline blazes with fireworks.
It’s fair to say Laos hasn’t been our favourite country so far but it’s ready to try and redeem itself. From Thakek we’re joined by Jan from Belgium who we’d met outside a cake shop. Together we ride into the limestone karst landscape that Laos is famous for. Huge, vertical towers of rock loom alongside us, there are inviting swimming holes and interesting caves. This is much more pleasant riding than the flat main road that had brought us here.
As lunchtime approaches we spot several tables outside a building filled with people eating so stop to investigate. It’s actually someone’s house rather than a restaurant but the owner invites us in anyway. He’s throwing a party for the new year celebrations and wants us to join them. More food and drink arrives than we can possibly get through, even 3 hungry cyclists are beaten.
Our stomachs are heavy once we manage to get going again and winch up a long steep hill to a large reservoir. Jan continues on to the next guest house while Kirsty and I stop at a small temple.
From a house behind the temple an old monk appears at the window and beckons us up to see him. Hapengun seems thrilled to meet us and we sit cross legged on the floor while he serves up some coffee and biscuits. Next the bedding is brought out and he climbs under the covers to demonstrate how this is where we should sleep. The rice cooker goes on, he switches the TV to one of the karaoke channels and we spend the rest of the evening trying to converse through hand signals and laughter.
In the morning there’s more karaoke and he presents gifts of toothpaste, washing powder and soap. It must be time for our weekly wash. Finally he hugs me and places a pendant with a small brass figure around my neck. This has to be the nicest monk we’ve stayed with. He wants us to stay longer and we’d dearly like to but Jan is waiting for us and there’s more road to ride so reluctantly we say our goodbyes.
Winding round the petrified forest that sits in the reservoir we then climb up and over another ridge, bump over some roadworks and arrive in Lak Sao. Sat outside a café are two loaded touring bikes and two dusty figures are sat just behind them. We last saw Sven in that great cyclists meeting place, Bishkek and like many others he chose to ride through China to get down to SE Asia. With him is Mike, an American who has accidentally found himself riding around the world. He has spent the last 4 years working in Vietnam as he fancied taking a break from the bike, but now he’s on the move again. His is an open ended plan with no fixed agenda or time scale so I suspect it’ll be a very long time before he’s back in New York.
After lunch we all go our separate ways as Jan, Sven and Michael are continuing in Laos while Kirsty and I head up towards the Vietnamese border. On the way we get given some banana leaves filled with sticky rice while I’m busy replacing a spoke. Then we’re dragged into another new year party to drink something green and strong while throwing bean bags at each other. A camp spot overlooking a stream is the scene of our last night in Laos. We’ll be leaving with mixed emotions but if the last two days are anything to go by this country deserves a second chance so we may well be back one day.
It’s a climb to the border in the morning and once up and over we try and coast down the other side. The chain goes slack and there’s a nasty grinding noise. The freewheel is jammed so now we can’t stop pedalling! This should make the next stretch through Vietnam more challenging.