154 days cycling through 8 countries in Southeast Asia

Just one year after two journeys of cycling from Vietnam to London for 10 months and traveling around Scotland during the cold winter, i yearned for traveling again. After many trials and hardships, i completed my 154-day trip through 8 Southeast Asian countries in mid-2017, the journey of finding happiness with my companion, who is also my lifetime partner.

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VIETNAM – RETURN TO LEAVE

In 2015, we cycled through Vietnam for a month on the journey to Paris, departing from An Giang to Mong Cai border gate (Quang Ninh) bordering China. We rode bikes through the Mekong Delta with its vast rice paddy fields filled with fresh scent, bustling Saigon, and Central Vietnam where we admired the ancient Hoi An and the shadow of Hindu temples in My Son sanctuary. We enjoyed peaceful moments, biking on the hills with hidden caves along the rivers in Quang Binh, as well as going across Trang An with poetic scenery, Hanoi with ancient buildings, and traditional villages in the North.

For this journey, we departed from Saigon in mid-January and headed to Tay Ninh in the direction of Dau Tieng Lake. Sometimes the wind blowing from the lake made me feel a strange excitement. Then we arrived at the dark green Ba Den mountain and crossed the endless green rubber forest. Saying goodbye to Vietnam, I knew that I return to Vietnam just to leave again, but wherever I go, someday I will yearn for returning.

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CAMBODIA – THE GOOD OLD DAYS ARE OVER

Cambodia’s dry season with the burning sun and dust sometimes made me downhearted. However, the moments when we slowly passed through the countryside helped me feel relieved. I loved Cambodia because of the happy smiles of the children on the way to school, their saying “arkoun” (thank you) while sincerely putting their hands together, and the boys – Khmer monks with golden umbrellas begging for food in the land of pagodas.

We bought a three-day ticket to explore Angkor, but for the first day, we hired a local tour guide to take us into the forest. In the forest, there were many narrow trails under the cool canopy; sometimes we had to carry the bicycles crossing a bridge to the other side of the trails where the scenery was lush green and beautiful. After cycling for more than 30 minutes, we stopped at a gate by giant trees where the Garuda statue was spreading its wings to the sky, and the Brahma with three faces was gazing into nothingness. After exploring Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm temples, we went to Preah Khan Temple to admire the immense lake. It was incredible that just with the huge number of rocks and their talent, the ancient Khmer created such marvelous works by stacking stones together firmly and artistically.

Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world at that time. The most eminent kings of the Angkorian period were Suryavarman I, II, VII who built Angkor Thom (Bayon), Angkor Wat and defeated the invasions of Cham and Champa. Angkor survived centuries until being invaded and affected by the climate change.

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The empire with its brilliant civilization disappeared, but its vestiges still remained hidden in the silent old forest. From the outside, Bayon looked like a mess, but it was built with an extremely sensible arrangement. Giant stone faces eroded by time were said to be the faces of Brahma or King Suryavarman VII – who defeated the invaders, won the victory for the Khmer and gained the throne at the age of 50. I watched Angkor Wat in silence because at that time every word was powerless to express my feelings – a mixture of admiration to the predecessors and fear towards the mystery of the Khmer empire. People were rushing to leave the temple. You should come to Angkor before the final rocks fall because Angkor is being gradually destroyed over time.

LAOS – THE MAGICAL NATURE IN THE LAND OF A MILLION ELEPHANTS

My first stop in Laos was Si Phan Don, the water area with 4,000 islands, attracting visitors from all over the world. We chose to stay at Don Det, a peaceful island with roosters crowing behind bamboo trees in the village and the cool breezing from the river, away from bustling places where young Western backpackers had parties all the time. Visitors were lying on the sand to watch the golden sunset on the Mekong River, dancing barefoot to the lively music and enjoying wonderful moments at the end of the day.

Arriving in Vientiane, it is a must to visit Patuxai (Victory Gate). Patuxai was built to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Anti-French Resistance War. On the walls of Patuxai, the decorations feature Laos cultures such as the Kinari – a half-bird half-woman statue or the relief of Ram Epic. When going inside, you can see some clothing and jewelry stores. We left our bikes at the hotel and explored the streets. Vietnamese Lunar New Year’s atmosphere still lingering at the Bang Long pagoda suddenly made me feel homesick. When the darkness fell, we wandered to the river bank to watch the sun diving into the Mekong River. We sat down and looked at the afternoon shadow, discussing the future. Every silent moment in the journey helped both of us to have more time understanding each other, perhaps that’s why backpacking travel is a good way to develop or end a relationship. Life is a journey, and though knowing that we will encounter many unexpected circumstances, we need to arrange them together.

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Vang Vieng town by the Nam Song River welcomed us on a hot and sunny afternoon. Wandering around for a while, we decided to stay at a hostel which was just a few kilometers away from the city center and would also save us money. Crossing the Nam Song River, we followed the riverside trail to look at the tourist town with visitors from all around the world sitting by the shore, drinking Laos beer and eating barbecue. Quite a lot of tourists went kayaking and went kayaking and drifted along the river flow on the tubes. Wild weeds were overgrown by the riverside, in some areas they were up to 2 metres high. Hot air balloons floated in the air like some highlights to the sky. The Nam Song River flowed sluggishly in the afternoon light, covering the dark green winding mountains. We had dinner at a restaurant right next to the river, while watching lanterns flying at night and breathing the cool air of this mountainous region. The next morning, the kayak floating on Nam Song River made our souls immerse into its flow, and although our skin was sunburned, we were really happy.

The most beautiful memory we had in Laos was a 4-day ride from Vang Vieng to the ancient capital Luang Prabang. The hills and mountains in Northern Laos were terrifying; however, thanks to that, the charm of this land left a special impression on tourists. Leaving Vang Vieng in the early morning when the moon was still shining in the sky, we rode in the freezing atmosphere of the mountain. Nature showed its beauty through white flowers blooming along the road.

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Sunlight gave colour to fields and villages. The town is located halfway up the mountain, looking as a crossroad with the way up to leading to Luang Prabang and the way down leading to other regions. The cold seemed to swallow my little body. Vendors were still waiting for the final guests to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, and grilled fish before closing the stalls because of the darkness about to spill over the highlands. The next day, we cycled with a French couple in their travel around the world and stopped at the houses precariously lying on the slopes; they looked so fragile as if a strong wind could sweep them away. We went behind the houses to watch the sunset on mountain ranges. As the sun went down with the mysterious red-orange color giving way to the dark-blue color, everyone was silently watching the beautiful sunset in Laos. At that moment, I understood why Laos was so fascinating to visitors from all over the world. We successfully crossed the mountains to go to the world heritage town of Luang Prabang. The Mekong River and Nam Khan River embraced the ancient capital along with its multi-tiered curved roof pagodas, French colonial buildings, and traditional Lao stilt houses. Luang Prabang night market was bustling with tourists watching all kinds of unique items of Laos. However, the road became surprisingly different during the day. Walking in the old town of Luang Prabang, I felt like I was wandering in Hoi An, although the ancient town of Hoi An was smaller. That afternoon, I visited the wooden bridge on Nam Khan river, which made me reminisce about the ancient capital Luang Prabang.

We said goodbye to the land of a million elephants, and from Luang Prabang, our boat glided on the sparkling Mekong River to Thailand. On the way, woodlands appeared with all kinds of colors of nature including green, gray, and red. At about 6 pm, the boat arrived at Pakbeng, a tiny village filled with tourists even without any attractions. At about 8 am the next morning, the boat left the dock in the misty morning. Most of the visitors would go to Thailand, while others also intended to visit Vietnam. I looked over their shoulder to the stern, in that direction another ship was preparing to turn around the corner as if it was swallowed by the mountains in the fog over water and space. The Mekong River was like a scene from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.

SEND MY GREETINGS TO THAILAND

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Chiang Khong is a stopover for tourists from Laos to Thailand and vice versa. We walked to the pagoda as well as wandered through restaurants and bars on the road. Talking to middle-aged owners, I realized that they were the first people to adopt the Western culture when Hippie people came here to propagate in the 1960s. The landlady lived in a large wooden house; she was a supporter of the Red Shirts. Wearing Bohemian style attire, she welcomed me to Thailand with a warm smile and said “I thought you were a Thai person”. She was the second person who made me love this country, with the first person being the border police officer who said the same thing and wished me an interesting journey in his country.

The city of Chiang Rai near the border was quite busy. The Mekong River has become an attractive destination that brings beauty to any cities it passes through. At 8 pm, visitors gathered at restaurants and stalls around the clock tower to listen to music and watch the water show. The next day, we rode more than 13 kilometers from the hostel to the suburbs to visit Baan Dam, the famous black house in Chiang Rai. The large area designed by artist Thawan attracted a large number of visitors. The interior design of traditional Thai stilt houses made me feel like it was a mixture of Thai and Mongolian Buddhism. We left Chiang Rai in the early morning. On the way, we visited Wat Rong Khun, the well-known White Temple designed by talented visual artist Chalermchai which had contributed to the reputation of this city since 1997. Looking from the outside, the White Temple reflecting shimmeringly on the lake overwhelmed everyone with its unique look, but from the first steps on the bridge over the lake, horrified hands and skulls appeared. Inside the temple, there was a huge Buddha image on the wall, Buddha statue and a statue of a Buddhist monk with a serious look on his face. The funny thing was that the decorations of heroes in Hollywood movies and manga such as Doraemon, Batman, Pikachu were hung everywhere. Yellow and white colors covered almost all of the architecture of the White Temple area. Tourists threw money in the lake and wrote their names to hang on the prayer tree.

Leaving Chiang Rai, we continued the journey to explore northern Thailand. Cars ran on the left lane. Green rice fields appeared to soothe away the dazzling sun. Each bunch of hand-sized yellow blooming flowers, hung on the trees like lanterns or were scattered on the road. The road was as beautiful as a picture with winding uphill and downhill bends. Yellow falling leaves gave color to the road, bringing the autumn beauty to the scenery in the middle of spring days. Every day we woke up quite early, departed at about 5 am, and took a rest for 15 minutes at about 9 am. That day we enjoyed a coffee in the garden at a large resort that featured English architecture surrounded by rows of giant shade trees.

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Returning to Chiang Mai, we stayed with a family we become acquainted with through the Warmshower website developed only for cyclists. Biking helped us to connect with the tourist community, so we could minimize hotel costs and learn more about local life. Like most areas in Thailand, Chiang Mai was the city of pagodas. The pagodas around the ancient town with many types of architecture such as Prathat Doi Suthep, Pra Singh showed the creativity in Buddhist art of the Thai people.

Leaving Chiang Mai, we continued riding the route to Northern Thailand and set up tents overnight on the mountainside to enjoy the clear atmosphere of the highlands before cycling to Myanmar. After nearly a month of exploring a country with a closed economy, we returned to Thailand to continue the journey. On my arrival in Bangkok, the bustling city welcomed tourists flocking to walk on Khao San Road. I crossed the royal palace, wandered the streets of Bangkok, and then watched the sunset in Wat Arun Pagoda. Coming back to the beautiful bungalow, hidden in the green garden in the center of the capital, my heart sank when seeing the words on the wooden door “Do not allow Thai women to step in.”

The mid-April Songkran Festival became a popular festival that attracted a lot of tourists; however, this was not the ideal time for cycling on the road. We decided to go to Ko Chang, a small island in the north of Andaman coast near Ranong province, to spend a relaxing week reading, swimming, and climbing in order to make up for a hard time in Myanmar. Nevertheless, we could not avoid the children in the village splashing water and applying cool din sor pong powder on their faces.

We rested at the Ranyatavi resort on the way to the border of Malaysia. Compared with the excellent service of this resort, staying in cheap motels or setting up tents in pagodas or schools was so different. In the afternoon, we went to the beach, lying in the hammock dangling beneath coconut trees to enjoy the wind and listen to the waves telling the most loving words about Thailand.

W.TIPS

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– Visa: Vietnamese citizens are not required to apply for a visa when entering Southeast Asia countries with the length of stay depending on each country.

– Trave budget for 5 months: USD35 per day for two people. Visitors should buy travel insurance against unforeseen circumstances.

– Preparation: When travelling by bicycle, it is recommended to take less stuff as it will help you ride faster and avoid wasting energy. You should also take the weather in the area into consideration and prepare thin clothes and raincoat.

– Explore a new land: I often spend time visiting museums to learn the history and culture of the region. Use offline maps like Google map or Maps. Me to search for walking trails without a tour guide.

– Eat & drink: Siem Reap Night Market, Luang Prabang and most of the cities in Thailand have local cuisine and specialities which always attract visitors. If Cambodia has grilled fish, then in Thailand, spicy Tom Yum and Som Tam green papaya salad will satisfy food lovers. Especially, when travelling to Laos, you will enjoy sticky rice everywhere; however, do not miss the noodles, which is quite delicious.

– Communication: When travelling to other countries, you should learn some basic words such as numbers, names of food, hotels for easy communication.

– Costumes: When travelling to religious countries, except for in large cities, you should not wear revealing clothes.

– Some places where females are forbidden: Some temples in Thailand and Myanmar have separate areas where females are forbidden, and women are not allowed to enter the temples when they are menstruating (such as in Bali island).

– Shopping: You should visit night markets on the weekends in Luang Prabang (Laos).

Nguyen Kim Ngan | Wanderlust Tips

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