Archive for June, 2007

Greetings from Bumrungrad Hospital - Bangkok

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Yo folks,

I’ll get straight to the point and give the details later so no one is worried. Corinne contracted Dengue Fever about 10 days ago which is a disease transmitted by mosquitoes which kills thousands every year. The chances of it killing you is seriously reduced providing your aren’t in a third world country like Cambodia which is ummmm…..where she contracted it. She’s been in hospital for over a week now and is on the mend and we’re hoping she’ll be flown home to Switzerland tomorrow. Her original plan was to cycle down to Singapore when I fly to the States but Dengue leaves it’s victims exhausted for up to 4 weeks so even though she’s bitterly disappointed it’s time for her to go home.

My last email was from Siem Reap which is where we believe she contracted the disease. We cycled past the local hospital and it warned of a Dengue epidemic but we were taking plenty of precautions as part of our malaria prevention programme so hoped it’d be enough. Turned out it wasn’t.

We left Siem Reap for the capital city of Phnom Penh; 320kms to the south-east. Our aim was for a 4 day ride and then a day off in Phnom Penh before heading south the sihanoukville. The going was tough as the rainy season hadn’t started and the temperatures were usually around 40C. I was also still recovering from my illness from the week before so Corinne had to take the front more than normal so we could get through each day.

Along the route we got to meet plenty of ordinary rural Cambodians as the people are incredibly friendly and curious by nature. Every time we stopped for a drink the owner of the shop would ask to look at my map and then it’d be a half an hour discussion on where we’ve been and what our plans are. Men seem to love maps no matter where you go in the world and they’re great when you don’t have a shared language.

The people of Cambodia have a great nature, always smiling and trying to communicate which is amazing if you consider their history. In the West we really only became aware of Cambodia in the late 70’s when the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge caused mass famine and the death of millions. Even after 1979 the civil war continued right up until the end of the 90’s with the resultant death of even more people.

It’s a tough place because you see the people trying to improve their lives but with such a recent trauma you still have the constant reminders of the war with hundreds of amputees and orphans begging in all the major urban areas. It’s heart breaking because you feel powerless in the face of it all and you can only give to the worst cases or you’d have nothing in a second. On a positive side you can see a real future for the country. Trials are on the cards for the former Khmer Rouge leaders and tourism is on the rise every year. The place has enormous potential which will hopefully be fulfilled in the coming years. We went to the Killing Fields or Phnom Penh and Tuel Sleng prison. Both are horrific places but if you’ve spent anytime with the people of Cambodia you feel it’s the very least you can do.

Phnom Penh feels like the wild west of SE Asia. Coming in from the north, the city is probably the worst for traffic I’ve encountered in SE Asia. Corinne was cycling in front and I lost count of the number of cars that were inches from taking her out and presumably the same was happening to me. You can’t do anything but keep moving and hope.

Phnom Penh has a ‘anything goes’ feel to the place. A five minute walk and you’ll be offered enough drugs to last a lifetime. On the way to the Killing Fields our happy-go-lucky tuk-tuk driver asked if I liked to shoot. Apparently I could go to a shooting range right near the Killing Fields and shoot live animals with everything from guns to rocket launches. I have no idea what type of sociopath would think a ‘Killing Fields - shooting cows with an AK-47′ combo sounds like a great day out but I’d rather not meet them.

After Phnom Penh, Corinne and I headed south to the small town of Takeo. We both had a terrible day, both struggling to turn the pedals. We arrived in Takeo and Corinne was exhausted. I put her straight to bed and took her temperature which was running at 39.5C. We figured it may be similar to what I had suffered from in Dalat so decided to sit it out for a day. Next day things weren’t any better and when other symptoms started to appear which sounded like Dengue we took the decision to taxi it back to Phnom Penh in the morning and get to the nearest hospital.

At the hospital they diagniosed Dengue but there’s different strains with the haemorrhagic strain being the dangerous one but we wouldn’t know for a few days which it was. We settled in and waited while the hospital took daily blood tests. If the platelets hit a certain level then it’s haemorrhagic and because they don’t have blood transfusion facilities in Cambodia you have to be airlifted out to Bangkok. By the third day Corinne was found to have the haemorrhagic strain and her insuarce company swung into action.

Although Corinne could fly to Bangkok on a normal commercial flight providing she had a doctor as an escort the paperwork involved makes it a poor option in emergency cases. Instead the insurance company arranged for a medical team to fly out to Phnom Penh on a chartered plane and then fly back to Bangkok on the same plane and then an ambulance direct to Bumrungrad Hospital.

At the Phnom Penh end the ambulance driver arrived earlier than expected so it was decided he’d take the bikes and load them into the airplane. Anyway this guy has the ambulance parked in the middle of the street, sirens on, blocking the traffic and I go in to get the bikes. Obviously loads of people start gathering round for a morbid look at the sick patient. Out comes me with two bikes which are loaded into the ambulance and then driven off without anyone in it. Locals must have thought Westerners are the most spoilt people on the planet. Later when we were driving to the airport the doctor from Bangkok could believe the madness of the traffic. When people from Bangkok start worrying you know you’re somewhere special.

It was a strange feeling having an 80 seater Bangkok Airway flight all to ourselves. The air hostess looked a bit confused with only myself and the doctor to serve and kept on offering my orange juice every 30 seconds. Corinne joked that this is the closet we’ll ever get to being rock stars and having our own plane.

We arrived in Bangkok and Corinne was whisked off to the hospital and I was left to get the two bikes from the airport. I got myself a taxi and marvelled how Bangkok had now come to represent safety and civilisation to me. I remember arriving for the first time, 9 months ago and being awed by the place. Now after where I’ve been, the places I’ve slept and the things I’ve seen it feels like normality. Strange how traveling just destroys your sense of what’s normal.

As I said earlier Corinne is now on the mend and it’s just a case of the insurance company sorting her flight out of here for tomorrow hopefully. I fly to the states today and start the final leg of my journey. Recent events have meant I have very little chance of completing the challenge in under a year but Corinne’s well-being obviously far more important. I’ve worked out I have about 25 full days on the bike but 3000kms left to cycle. It isn’t impossible but with my recent health issues probably not a good idea. I’ll probably do it at the pace I can and then any remaining miles I have left to do I’ll do in England before I head home. Anyone fancy a weekend in the Lake District?

Anyway best go as I still have a few things to sort out before I fly to LA.

Catch you all later,

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX

Greetings from Siem Reap - Cambodia

Monday, June 4th, 2007

Yeah I know it’s a bit confusing. Logically I should still be in Vietnam and I was, up until last night at about 7pm, but I’ll explain everything later in the email. First Vietnam.

Vietnam, whereto start. I read a quote in Lonely Planet about Vietnam before I came here. They said you either love or hate the place but I disagree. You love AND hate the place. Your opinion changes from day to day, hour to hour minute to minute. It’s the people and the place. One day you can be cycling along some of the most spectacular coast line you’ve ever seen and the next day you’re stuck on a hard shoulder with trucks honking their super powered air horns two inches from your ear. One minute you’re sitting, laughing with some curious villagers, using a globe to explain where you’re from and where you’ve traveled and the next minute you’re being ripped off blind by some street vendor who obviously hates you and everything about you. Then there’s the other variable which is you. With all the noise, all the aggression and the curiosity of the people you have to be feeling 100%. Have a bad day on the bike or wake up on the wrong side of the bed and you’ll hate everybody and everything. It’s a place of endless possibilities both good and bad.

We left Hue about 20 days ago and it was back to the madness of Highway 1. No description of Vietnam is complete without explaining the driving. It’s utterly insane. Maybe they drive worse in Laos but they have 6 cars in the entire country so it matters less. There are more cars per 30 metres of tarmac in Vietnam. Someone told me driving in Vietnam is like playing a video game and the analogy couldn’t be more accurate. You need fast reactions. The noise will make your ears bleed. You need to concentrate 100% and of more relevance is that you only need to worry about what’s going on in front of you. As a Westerner it’s a completely alien concept. We’re taught to be aware of what’s going on all around us. You change lanes you look over you shoulder. You turn right or left and you look behind you. You use your mirrors before every manoeuvre. Doesn’t work like that here. You just look in front and make sure you don’t hit anything and let the people behind worry about you. It seems to work although when you see what’s going on in front it makes you skeptical about the people behind you. I reckon we see 3 or 4 incidents a day where you think there’s going to be an accident but somewhere everyone seems to avoid them. Maybe without all the safety trappings of Western society people concentrate more on the road.

It’s the honking that drives you crazy. Honking in most places means that something bad is about to happen. Honking behind you usually means something bad is going to happen to you. You hear someone leaning on the horn back home and you get off the road. It’s a reflex action but you have to break it if you’re to spend more than 5 seconds cycling in Vietnam. Here honking the horn can mean anything from ‘I have a very small penis and I’m trying to compensate by intimidating people with my massive horn ‘to ‘hey you on the bicycle, I think what you’re doing is really cool and want to lean out my window at 100 miles an hour and wave to you as I go past’. In fact the last thing it means is that something bad is going to happen behind you. You think you’ve gotten used to the horns but sometimes you’ll find yourself dreaming and a truck will catch you unaware and let off their high powered air horn two inches from your head and the old instinct comes back and you head for the bushes.

The horn also serves as a warning that a driver is about to do something incredibly stupid. Over take on a blind bend for example. The ideapresumably that in the event of an accident the guy who did the dumb ass overtaking manoeuvre can say I told you so if anyone survives. The real problemis that you have no idea if the horn you hear coming round the corner is a guy with size issues if it’s a 20 ton truck on your side of the road. We usuallyplay it safe and get as far to the right as possible but it makes for some hair raising descents.

From Hue we headed south towards Danang. Just before Danang is the famous Hai Van Pass which is a ten kilometre climb up the side of mountain with the Gulf of Tonkin shimmering a perfect blue on your left. The climb isn’t easy but you barely notice it and I’d put that stretch of road in my top ten favourites of all time. Just a warning though if you’re ever tempted to do the climb. Don’t stop at the top. The top is populated by the most aggressive business women I’ve come across yet. They offer you cold drinks and before you know it you’ve bought all manner of utter dross you don’t need.

We skipped Danang and headed for Hoi An which is one of those towns where you feel you’ve stepped back in time except the shops all seem to sell the same T-shirts you can buy anywhere else in the world. We got ourselves a room over looking the river and spent 3 days sampling the famous Hoi An cuisine. We even booked ourselves into a half day cooking course so you can look forward to my squid in chili and lemon grass when I get back.

After Hoi An we headed back onto the highway and either we’re getting used to the madness or the traffic is improving. I suspect the former. Our route down the coast of Vietnam was decided on after much consideration by yours truly. I’d read that the wind blows from the north-east which would give us some much appreciated tailwind for a 1000kms or so. Turns out this isn’t actually the case. We’ve had a head wind about 90% of the time in Vietnam. Hey ho.

Another thing that amazes you when you cycle here is what people manage to carry on their bikes. We have state of the art racks with waterproof panniers with lightweight equipment and you feel slightly humbled when you go past a guy carrying three pigs on the back of his bicycle. So far I’ve seen someone carrying an entire tree, a whole bicycle (which is taking the carrying of spares to the extreme), three pigs, three dogs and someone carrying what looked like 10 ducks strapped to the handlebars. That’s ignoring the run-of-mill people I’ve seen carrying what looks like an entire crop in two baskets on either side of the bike.

We kept heading south and eventually ended up in the town of Q. Nhon where we spent a sleepless night in a bedbug ridden room. Luckily we intended to be up early anyway as we’d read in Lonely Planet about a great little beach 30 km south and we were due are laxing day. Things didn’t quite turn out as planned. Appears that LP got their town names mixed up and we eventually hit the town they mentioned after 50 km. Unfortunately they got a lot more than the names mixed up and the town turned out to have zero accommodation. We were offered a hammock for the night by one of the locals but it was one in the afternoon so we figured we’re press onto the next decent sized town which turned out to be another 60 km down the road. In total, our 30 km easy day turned into a110km slog. On the plus side the room we got in Tuy Hoa got my vote as my favourite $12 room ever with a bath tub I could do lengths in.

It was another 160 kms to Nha Trang and we decided to split it up into two days as we’d been putting in some big days without any rest. The road to NhaTrang is fantastic. Some of the best scenery I’ve had in SE Asia. The traffic had calmed down a fair bit as well so it was a great ride into Nha Trang.

In Nha Trang we made the decision to cut west into the highlands as we’d been on the coast for 10 days now and fancied a bit of a change. The heat was also becoming more of an issue as we headed south and gaining some attitude would lose us some heat. The plan would be for me to leave Nha Trang the day before and Corinne would catch a bus up. Dalat was 1500mabove sea level and we weren’t sure if it could be done in one day fully loaded so Corinne would take some of my gear on the bus and I’d tackle the mountains on my own. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake.

I hadn’t been feeling 100% for a few days before. Hills I’d normally race up were proving tougher than expected. On the ride up to Dalat things got worse. It’s a tough climb anyway with two nasty alpine style climbs of about 15 km each but normally they wouldn’t be a problem. By the time I got half way up the second hill I could hardly turn the pedals. I had to lie down and rest every km and eventually I had to push the bike. After walking for 10kms and still with 25kms to go I couldn’t even push the bike anymore. Eventually I conceded defeat and caught a taxi the rest of the way.

I got to Dalat and by the time I made it to the hotel I was shivering like it was below zero. Corinne took my temperature and it was running at 39.5Cwhich isn’t healthy. It was bed for the next 3 days. Losing three days at the moment isn’t ideal for me. I’m hoping to do 4500 kms in SEAsia which would leave be 2500 kms to do in America in about 25 days. The fewer miles I do here the more I have to do in America and once it starts getting over 100 kms a day then things start getting tight. I still want to do the 25,000 km in under a year and time is getting short.

After Dalat, we started the 300 km ride down to Ho Chi Minh City. I still wasn’t feeling great but we needed to get going. As I said earlier, Vietnam isn’t a place you won’t to be when you’re feeling below par and Ho Chi Minh City probably the last place in Vietnam you want to be. As we got closer to HCMC the madness of Vietnam just seemed to intensify. In the four day ride I can safely say there wasn’t a30 second window of peace from the blaring horns. We got to within 30 kms of HCMC and then formulated a plan which would get us some extra cycling days in SE Asia. Crossing into Cambodia from Vietnam using our original plan would involve a day on a boat and then we had the problem of getting from Siem Reap to the Thai border as the road isn’t sealed.

So we decided on a spur of the moment change of plan. Fly from HCMC to Siem Reap and then travel south east to the coast and get a fast boat round to Thailand. It has the added bonus that it also means we should have enough kilometres between us and Bangkok.

Anyway, so that’s how we ended up in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We arrived last night after a nervous flight. Not because of the flight itself but because in our rush to get to the airport we forget to check out thevisa regulations for Cambodia. As with most things though we got here and an ATM dispensing the required American dollars was located two feet from the visa desk.

Today we did the usual tourist stuff and cycled out to the amazing Angkor Wat and back again. I like Cambodia so far. People are helpful and friendly even though we’re in a major tourist area. Tomorrow we head east to the capital city of Phnom Penh. It’s around 320 km and we’re looking to do itin 4 days. It’ll be interesting to get out into the countryside as that’s a better measure of a country’s character.

We were talking today about what our favourite country has been so far in SE Asia. 10 days ago, Vietnam was mine and Corinne’s favourite. Today Laosis my favourite whereas Corinne’s is still Vietnam. I think it’s just indicative that I got ill in Vietnam and it’s not a forgiving place. If I had been 100% all the way through Ihave no doubt that the people and the place would have made it a firm favourite. As it is I have mixed feelings. I have some great memories but I also have some negatives. Maybe that’s what makes for an exciting place?

I’ve booked my final tickets back home and will arrive back in Manchester Airport on the morning of 20thJuly. I have 2100 miles left to reach my target of 16000 miles and around45 days. It’s doable but I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself if I still want to finish in under a year. There isn’t much room for error there. For the last 1600 miles I’ll be on my own again and it’ll be back to sleeping under bridges and in ditches again.

Anyway best be off as it’s late here and we have to get an early start. Here’s hoping for tailwind.

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX