Feature: Mekong Meanders
Bicycle day-tripping along Southeast Asia's great river
Words and images: Hugo Gladstone
At over 4,800km, the Mekong is the tenth longest river in the world. From its source over five kilometres high in the Tifu Mountains of Tibet, it descends through the gorges of the Yunnan province of China, marks borders between Laos, Burma and Thailand, then channels across the plains of Cambodia to filter out into the South China Sea through its delta in southern Vietnam.
I'd like to tell you that I've ridden the length of the river on my bike; but that's simply not true. If that had indeed been the plan, I'd still be out there now; caked in dust, dripping with sweat and eating my umpteenth meal of rice and stir-fried vegetables.
Instead I'm sat at a laptop in a Suffolk cottage, sipping on a pleasant cup of tea. I'm reflecting on a less extreme journey up just a section of the Mekong. It's one of bus rides, boat journeys, motorbike outings, elephant rambles and cross country pickup-truck diversions. But during this two month excursion with my girlfriend Kate, we also made a number of daytrips on bikes.
In the wake of Pol Pot
Our first encounter with the river came two weeks into our Asian travels at Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Here the Mekong meets the Tonlé Sap (where such is its might during the wet season, it reverses the latter's flow). Breaking free from our habit of using motorbike taxis to get around the city, we accepted the persistent advances of a cyclo-driver for a ride down to the waterfront to see this confluence.
Being a cyclo driver struck me as a particularly hard way to make a living, especially in a city abuzz with madcap motos and where temperatures reach 40°c.
While two of us sat lazily in a chair at the front, the driver laboriously powered the rickety old bike on the back. Gently swaying like a boat, we were pedalled through the chaos of crossroads and around holes and debris in the road. While I found the experience quite embarrassing, our driver seemed more than pleased with his modest fare.
Cambodia is undeniably poverty stricken - Vietnam war bombings, genocide and subsequent power struggles have seen to that. Civil war and UN restructuring have left a legacy of landmines and high HIV rates, while just about everyone over 30 must carry mental scars from the insane Khmer Rouge era.
It's thought almost a fifth of the population lost their lives during the years of Pol Pot's crackpot revolution. For everyone else there was torture, forced labour, malnourishment and the disappearance of family members. I'm usually reluctant to make such sweeping generalisations but, despite this sordid history, the Khmer seem such happy people. They're so friendly, so smiling, so keen to run up and say hello.
This was never more evident than when we cycled on Koh Trong, a river island 200km further up the Mekong. Unburdened by roads and cars, it's a quiet, peaceful place, entrenched in the traditional way of life. The bicycle is the main means of getting around here.
The interior of the island was all dried-out rice paddies - irrigated in the monsoon months by rain and the river. The periphery seemed more accommodating: tree shaded and littered with stilted wooden houses. From the front yards, mothers and children waved as we rode the island's sandy orbital pathway. At the southern end of the isle we looked out over a Vietnamese style floating village. We later got caught in a Koh Trong traffic jam when some cattle blocked our path.
The scene was not dissimilar up across the border in Laos where we made two more rides around Mekong islands. Amongst six days on the super-relaxed Si Phan Don archipelago, a hot day of exploring the bridges, temples and waterfalls by bicycle was about as active as we got. The rest of the time was spent reading in hammocks, sipping on beers and mellowly floating down the lush river channels in an old tractor inner tube.
A touch further upstream, Don Daeng was equally chilled out. Less touristy than Si Phan Don, we had to charter our own boat (a platform strapped to two canoes), then push-up across a vast expanse of beach exposed by the dry season river levels. Riding around the dusty tracks that constitute the island's main lines of communication, we stopped to watch a woman collecting cicada insects for her dinner. In a deserted forest temple we found goats running riot with the offerings. Later a bunch of boys showed us how to shoot down mangos with a catapult.
There must have been something in the air that day, as three giggly schoolgirls separately blurted out "I love you" as we rode past. Just before reconvening with our boatman, a local invited us into the shade for a chat in broken English at his gatepost. What did he do for a living? "Fishing, farming," he answered. "Like everyone else here."
The river was his lifeblood.
It wasn't just on the islands that we rode bikes. Across the water at the town of Champasak we embarked on a 20km round trip to the old crumbling Angkorian temple of Wat Phu.
This is the kind of place they make Tomb Raider movies and an atmospheric place to spend a morning shaded from the fierce tropical sun. Riding back we passed pelotons of children returning from school on their bikes. While some of the boys got towed by friends on motorbikes, the girls made their way more elegantly: one hand on the bars, the other holding a parasol. Maybe Kate should have taken note. She burnt her hands that afternoon and had to spend the next day pedalling around with them shrouded with scarves.
The next time we rented bikes was in Vientiane, 500km further upriver. Like all things Lao, it couldn't get much more tranquil for a capital city. Although a trait generally refreshing to westerners, in times of sanctimony and frustration, the observation that the Lao are laid back can seem like a euphemism for lazy. That morning when I enquired about renting some bikes outside a hotel, the attendant on duty just moodily pointed at a sign. At another place I asked to get the saddle height raised. Not a chance.
Bikes eventually obtained, we pedalled out along the Mekong waterfront looking across to Thailand. It may just be a river that sits between the countries, but there's a gulf between their pace of life. Would a bike ride around bustling Bangkok feel this leisurely?
After briefly losing ourselves in the quiet backstreets, we paid a swift visit to Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triumph. Thankfully there's nothing like the traffic chaos you get around the monument in Paris.
Our final point of call on this ride was an exhibition at the national rehabilitation centre. Like Cambodia, Laos has suffered heavily from the ideological war that supposedly took place next door in ‘Nam.
Between 1964 and 1973 the eastern side of the country was subject to a $2 million-a-day bombing campaign in a US attempt to disrupt the North Vietnamese's Ho Chi Minh supply line. During this nine year period, over two million tons of explosives were dropped, making officially neutral Laos the most heavily bombed country per head of population in the history of warfare.
Inevitably a significant number of these failed to detonate and have lain rusting ever since. Despite the worthwhile clearance and education efforts of UXO Laos and the Mines Advisory Group, horror stories still abound of excited kids, farmers and scrap-metal prospectors coming across them in the jungle. Those who just lose limbs are amongst the lucky ones.
Needless to say our visit to the centre's exhibition was both tragic and inspiring. In the name of empathy you can try out prosthetic limbs for size or do a quick loop around the centre in an arm powered tricycle. Cycling without legs is no easy task, I realised.
Into the hills
Another long-lasting consequence of old cold war chess-matches was anti-government insurgency amongst factions of the Hmong tribal people who live in a mountainous tract of land to the north of the capital. It was to these rebels -originally armed and trained by the CIA in the 60s- that, as recently as 2004, two Swiss touring cyclists lost their lives. Their crime was riding through the wrong place at the wrong time.
We took a bus along the same spectacular, winding road that they had died on. Looking out of the window, we overtook more cyclo-tourists crawling up a climb. Since most insurgents have turned themselves in during the last five years, the heat and hills are likely to be the cyclist's biggest obstacle nowadays.
Further along the road, we saw more bikes: kids again on their school run. Four or five miles of fast freewheeling off a mountain certainly looked more fun than any of the means by which I used to use at home-time. One or two of the children had even folded themselves over their handlebars in Tour de France style aero-descending positions.
It was at UNESCO World Heritage city Luang Prabang that we made our final bike outing of this trip. Hiring machines from right off the riverfront, we pedalled through the quaint, narrow backstreets of this old town weaving between market stalls and saffron robed monks.
Out of town, we followed a lumpy, bumpy dirt road alongside a Mekong tributary. Cheap Asian-built hire bikes aren't made for these kind of tracks. My chain kept popping off which required a quick stop at a motorbike repair shop to re-tension the back wheel.
In the rustic village of Ban Phanom we stopped again. This time to shop for locally produced gifts for our families. One chap stepped forward and offered us opium. But we figured our mothers would prefer a silk scarf from the weaving co-operative or earrings from the silversmiths.
Although this was not cycle touring as it's traditionally known, there's a lot to be said for using bicycles while travelling. Kate would never have gone for the full blown panniers option, but hiring a bike here and there gave us some of the same benefits.
For starters, the greater range of a bicycle makes it so much easier to get off the beaten path than on foot. It gives you a freedom you don't get from public transport or even private hire cars. You can stop where you please and enjoy an intimate experience with the place you are visiting. You interact with the locals, hear the sounds, smell the fragrances and feel the ground beneath your wheels.
What's more, doing it this way negates some of the drawbacks of the traditional geared and bearded approach. Using buses and other means of transport means you can cover more ground and they provide more variety to your experience. You don't become preoccupied by the singular objective of constantly making progress, going from place to place. Packing doesn't have to be quite so minimal and there are not the restricting logistics of travelling to and from your destination with a cumbersome bike.
After returning our machines in Luang Prabang that afternoon, we retired to a restaurant terrace on the riverfront. With a cool bottle of beer in front of us, we looked out over the Mekong for the final time.
While the river will keep on flowing, we were off to make the most of our multimodal transport options. A couple of day's later we'd catch a plane out of town. Able to mix things up, the last few days of our trip would be spent on a Thai island - getting in some quality beach time.
Info: Basic bikes are available for hire throughout the region from travel agencies and guest houses. They typically cost between 50 pence and £2 per day. Better quality mountain bikes can also be hired in more upmarket destinations from about £5. Bikes often come equipped with a simple lock but no tools pumps or spares. In the event of breakdown, most villages have at least one motorcycle/bike repair shop.