Tyres and tribulations! After putting new Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on the Pino in Phnom Penh (the ones we’d been carrying for 6000km since Chengdu) we thought we would easily make it to Bangkok before needing to think about buying new spares. Even taking the longer route via Siem Reap to see the sublime temples at Angkor it’s only 720km. Oh how the god of cycle touring inconveniences must have laughed at our naivety!
We got to Siem Reap just fine (albeit rather damp as the rainy season is well and truly upon us with torrential rain most afternoons) but as we left Siem Reap we noticed the front brake pad needed replacing (worn down by the gritty muck that’s thrown up off the drenched road every day). The terrain was very flat so we didn’t need to brake much that day and decided to defer replacing the pads until the following morning, at which point Keith spotted a couple of bulges on the front tyre. Yup, after just 300km the brand new tyre had begun to split where the sidewall meets the bead. Keith finished changing the brake pads and I, almost on a whim, checked the rear tyre. Surely the problem with the front tyre was a fluke, a freak occurrence….er, no. The rear tyre was bulging ominously as well.
We have been carrying a lightweight folding rear tyre as a second spare since setting off on our first Pino tour in April 2011 and had actually been thinking of sending it home as in almost 30,000km we’d never come close to using it….until now. How glad we were that we still had it with us and didn’t need to worry about what we’d do when the bulge in the rear tyre eventually blew. However, we definitely needed to do something about the front tyre. In the first town we came to that morning (Sisophon) we got chatting to a school principal who said we might get a tyre in the market (a 6km detour) but we’d do better if we could wait until we were in Thailand, which was only 45km away. As the bulges in the front tyre weren’t getting any worse we decided to keep going towards Thailand, but on the way we passed a bike shop and bought a cheap front tyre for £3. The Schwalbes were still holding up so rather than fiddle around changing them we decided to push on for Bangkok, secure in the knowledge we now had replacements for both front and rear. We crossed into Thailand (quickly noting that we needed to switch to the left hand side of the road as we watched the trucks ‘do-si-do-ing’ on the no-mans-land between the two border points) and as the day wore on it started to rain (of course) and then, BANG! If you’ve had a sidewall blow out you’ll know the sound.
It was the rear one so out came the spare folding tyre and after some deliberation about whether there was any chance of fitting it inside the Schwalbe for extra puncture protection (no there wasn’t a chance, but it was a nice idea Keith) we were all fettled and off we went again. We’d hoped to get 120km done that day, but what with hunting for tyres, crossing the border, replacing the rear tyre, and battling with a headwind, we weren’t going too well. We decided to push on until as close to dark as possible…..but as time ticked on towards 6pm, BANG! Ah. That’ll be the front tyre then. At least it was only drizzling rather than bucketing down. Keith quickly switched it for the one we’d bought that morning and we gave up on the idea of trying to get much more pedalling done that day. The light was starting to fade, the road was pretty busy and visibility wasn’t great due to the rain. We reckoned we’d pushed our luck far enough and as there hadn’t been much sign of places to camp we treated ourselves to a guesthouse for the night.
As well as being able to dry out comfortably in a guesthouse, having wifi also came handy for letting our friend in Bangkok know that we were a little behind schedule. The next day we set off feeling re-invigorated and had a much better day, pushing out 150km to bring ourselves back on target. We camped about 55km from Bangkok and if it hadn’t been so damnably airless and sticky in the tent we would have slept well in the knowledge we’d got an easy day ahead of us. We were on the road by 7am, somewhat itchy and uncomfortable after a night drenched in sweat, but hey, we’re drenched in sweat (or rain) when we’re on the bike so whilst it’s not pleasant in the tent it doesn’t make too much difference in the grand scheme of things. The first 20km of the morning disappeared with satisfying alacrity but then, BANG! B*gger, b*gger, b*gger. The rear tyre had blown. We knew a lightweight folding tyre would never hold out for long against the abuse that a loaded tandem dishes out, so we’d never intended it to be used for anything more than a means of getting to the next place where we could buy a better tyre…in this instance Bangkok, but clearly even 200km was too much to ask of it. Keeping a lid on our frustration we put a new inner tube in and used a piece of truck inner-tube (that we’d picked up in China as it looked like it might come in handy) as a tyre boot to cover the split in the sidewall. We didn’t trust it to carry our weight but we could at least now push the bike (for 5km) to a bike shop where were able to buy a rear tyre (for £4). Pedalling once again we made short work of the remaining kilometres to Bangkok, where we’re staying with a friend of ours and looking forward to a few days off the bike.
Our friend in Bangkok is heading back to the UK soon, which is why we’ve been in a bit of a rush to get here, but we’ve still managed to fit in a couple of nice days sightseeing on the way. The day before we left Phnom Penh we rode out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Of course, ‘nice days sightseeing’ is not the right way to describe this place. A harrowing journey into the darkest recesses of the human condition is probably more accurate. But, as we have when visiting places like Auschwitz and Matthausen, we felt compelled to go. The only way for there to be a positive outcome from genocide is for it to be kept in the public conscience in the hope that it will never happen again. Sadly, at some point, I expect it will.
The other place we really wanted to visit in Cambodia was the temple at Angkor. We’d heard of Angkor Wat as a ‘must see’ tourist attraction, but knew little about it and it was only when we delved deeper into the guidebook that we realized that Angkor Wat itself is just one of over 100 temples in the area that lies to the north of the town of Siem Reap and which the Lonely Planet describes as there being ‘no greater concentration of architectural riches anywhere on earth’. Angkor Wat is listed as the largest religious building in the world, and it is certainly impressive, standing isolated in the centre of a huge moat almost 200m across and measuring 1.5 x 1.3km. Like all of the temples we saw almost every surface is engraved with pictures or patterns. How many stonemasons worked there?
Restoration work is an endless job but Angkor Wat at least has the advantage of being protected from the encroaching jungle by its huge moat. The same definitely cannot be said for the temple at Ta Prohm which was used as a location in the Tomb Raider movie. Enormous boles rise up from the crumbling masonry and roots like giant serpents ooze over and around every wall. It was like walking into a legend. If you blanked out the thronging tourists you could almost envision sword-wielding warriors swinging down from the trees or charging from behind an ornately decorated wall.
I think our favourite temple though was the one we went to last: Bayon. Built later than Angkor Wat, in the late 12th or early 13th C, and certainly not as large as Angkor, nor as excitingly jungle-wrapped as Ta Prohm, Bayon is nonetheless, quite simply, sublime. A pyramid of towers dominates your vision as you approach, then once inside, a maze of rooms and corridors confuses the senses and heightens the sense of mystery. Finally, climbing steeply to the upper levels, you come face to face with the huge stone visages which beam beatifically from the four sides of each of the multitude of towers. All around is sky and jungle, and before you are lichen-mottled faces, smiling at you over the centuries. There’s something special about Bayon.
Siem Reap itself is a fun place to hang out in and we were sorry we didn’t have more time (although with food, drink and accommodation all significantly more expensive than in Phnom Penh perhaps it’s as well we didn’t). We had little time to wander the enticing markets but did treat ourselves to a pizza and a traditional dance show, and, best of all, we enjoyed a cold beer whilst a tank full of hungry fishes made short work of any dead skin on our feet. Our tootsies have never looked so beautiful! Hopefully our time off the bike here in Bangkok will be just as relaxing.