Friday 1st April
… April Fools! Ho! Ho!
As much as I have loved Cambodia, it’s scenery is nothing to write home about, unless you are complaining… which I kind of am. Sorry, Cambodia.
We left at a late-ish 8AM from our guesthouse in Siem Reap, because there was no way we were going to miss the complimentary breakfast. We headed out onto the long, straight, flat road.
I was pretty bored today, and so was Eric. One of the nice things about being on a tandem is that it’s easy to talk to each other, but this boring landscape seemed to make us just as dull. Several times I thought: let’s talk about something interesting… and then… my brain basically did a bored shrug. We mostly cycled in silence.
We glugged litres of water and fizzy drinks, and stopped at midday to eat some leftover bananas. It was hot.
An annoying headwind cut our speed by about a third for most of the time, and we arrived in Sisophon at 3PM feeling shattered, checking in to the excellently-named Botoum Hotel (sounds like a sort of Hyacinth Bucket equivalent of the word “Bottom”).
Let the good times begin! Nap, TV, junk food, shower, restaurant, wifi, SLEEP.
Saturday 2nd April
We had originally planned to go north into Laos and have three days relaxing in the 4000 Islands region… but we changed our minds when we realised the route would involve several enormous distances all in a row. There’s not much point going somewhere specifically to relax for three days, if you have to kill yourself for four days in order to get there. So to Thailand we go!
The Poipet/Aranyaprathet border is notorious for corruption and bribery. Luckily we were travelling in the un-corrupt direction of Cambodia to Thailand, and didn’t have to use a bus, which is apparently where a lot of the scamming action happens.
It was quite straightforward, but as borders go the atmosphere was much less pleasant than the other borders we’ve crossed. Everyone seemed stressed.
We were required to have all of our fingerprints scanned as we exited Cambodia. I didn’t really like it, but making a fuss at a notorious border crossing seemed like a terrible idea.
We were finally back in Thailand after three months spent visiting Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. I have some relatives and friends here, so Thailand feels like our South East Asian home away from home. It also helps that I can say more than just “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Sorry” here as well!
The glorious homecoming was literally deflated by our back wheel inner tube, just a mile from our booked bungalow. Bollocks.
We changed the inner tube in the full glare of the midday sun, feeling quite grumpy about it. After arriving at our accommodation the grumpiness continued as we went through a whole mundane episode of trying to tell our bank that we were now in Thailand in case they blocked our card (which happened to us in Laos). It all worked out fine eventually – the details are incredibly boring – and we cheered up when we ate lunch.
“I can finally eat raw vegetables again,” said Eric, referring to the cucumber that came with his fried rice.
“You could still get diarrhoea from that,” I said.
“It’ll be fine,” said Eric.
Sunday 3rd April
Eric has a bad stomach.
I have no comments on this except to say that I am very sorry for him.
I imagine you have heard of “the butterfly effect”. Well, how about “the cucumber effect”? It’s the same thing, but with a cucumber.
Let me explain.
Eric eats a piece of cucumber and gets an upset stomach. We take a day off from cycling. Hanging around our guesthouse, we have the time to get around to a few jobs that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Eric spends some time carefully inspecting the bike, and he happens to see a crack in the rear wheel hub cup. Lucky, isn’t it? OR IS IT?
While he is lying in the recovery position (that is, splayed out on the bed, holding his phone and watching YouTube videos) I pop into Aranyaprathet town centre with the back wheel to see what I can find.
Google Maps told me that there was a bike shop along the main road, but I had read a bad online review (which I sort of assumed was about this shop). So when a local person pointed me in another direction I quite happily went with what they suggested.
The next twenty minutes were quite fun. Every few minutes, someone who I passed by would ask what I was looking for. I would tell them that I needed to repair my bicycle, and they would point me in a direction. Normally a different direction to the last person. In another situation the contradicting directions might have been annoying, but I was quite happy to walk around and see what turned up. I had faith that by the wisdom of the masses I would eventually be pinged in the right direction.
And I did find my way to a small bike repair shop on Ban Aran Alley. The man there took the hub apart and had a look. The hub cap wasn’t cracked after all, it had just looked like it. This was good news.
He replaced the ball bearings, gave the whole thing a clean and then put it back together again slowly, checking all the time to make sure that the wheel wasn’t wobbling on the axle. He switched the positioning of some of the nuts to help with this.
Later that afternoon, Eric reattached the wheel to the bike, and after a lot of fiddling to get it in the perfect spot, we found that the wheel had become untrue. In other words, it was wonky. This means that there is a risk of broken spokes, and a possibility of the wheel rubbing the brake pads. It wasn’t the handyman’s fault as he had a wheel to work with, not a wheel and a bike. But something he had done – or the mere act of removing and reattaching the wheel – had changed the wheel’s alignment.
The fact is that the slice of cucumber really screwed us over.
Monday 4th April
Now there’s a pilot who I can respect.
The bike’s wobbling back wheel was our biggest worry. It was all going OK until about 25 miles in, when it loosened enough to start rubbing hard against one of the brake pads.
We got back on. The wheel came loose again.
We got back off. Eric tightened it again, and this time widened the brake pads.
Now the wheel wasn’t rubbing anymore. Just.
We cycled on, slowly. We are meant to be heading to Khao Yai National Park, but Eric was talking about just getting a train to Bangkok. He hates it when he “Can’t rely on the bike.”
“We can still make it!” said the person who doesn’t fix the bike (me).
We had planned to travel around 60 miles today, but decided to stop early in Sakeo to try and find a bike shop. After a hot and stressful search we found a place. What a relief. (You can find it along road 33 on the side with vehicles travelling in the direction of Aranyaprathet.)
We pointed to our axle and made a wonky finger gesture to describe our problem. The mechanic took a look and went with trueing the wheel instead. The wheel was now turning straight, which was a great improvement.
But our bike worries are not over. The wonky wheel is a symptom. The bent axle is the CAUSE. So… the cucumber is exonerated on this count, as the bent axle must have been a while coming. But it was a good story, wasn’t it?
Luck dealt us a pity-card in the form of a hotel room (River Resort & Spa – a bit expensive but quite nice) near to a Big C supermarket, which had a KFC and an MK Restaurant attached. We discussed what to do from the comfort of an air conditioned chain restaurant that evening.
Tuesday 5th April
Email communication with the owner of Mong Cycles, who had helped us out in Chiang Mai, had confirmed our suspicion that soldiering on with a bent axle was a bad idea. It wasn’t going to last long. We needed to get it fixed.
Internet research told us that the nearest bike shop (that we hadn’t already tried) was in Nakhon Nayok, 63 miles away. The plan was to hire a songthaew there and get it fixed up. Upon telling the hotel receptionist our plan and asking for some help in finding a taxi, I received a dubious look.
“Nakhon Nayok… you know we are in Sakeo?” she said.
Not a good sign.
The staff discussed options, but it was clear that a taxi was not one of them. The tone of the conversation was reaching “What are we going to tell her?” when a short, grey-haired man with a moustache walked in. And what do you know, he was an organiser of a cycling group. He knew of a bicycle repair shop just a couple of kilometres away. In fact, he was heading there now, and could take us in his van, if we wanted?
Sakeo Bicycles is such a useful shop, and you would never suspect its existence unless you were told about it, as it pops up out of nowhere along a road full of private residences. So for anyone out there who needs to know – here’s a screen shot of Sakeo Bicycle’s location as determined by our GPS (it might not be 100% accurate, mind, but it should send you in the right direction).
We arrived at Sakeo Bicycles and met the cycling group. They were taking part in a twelve day cycle from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, with the benefit of a support bus to whizz them past the boring bits. I have no doubts that I prefer a DIY trip, but as we had just experienced, a support vehicle comes in handy now and again! Anyway, it was nice to meet these guys.
(In case you’re wondering which guy it is, it’s the one that looks like an ex-champion cyclist.)
One of the other group leaders provided detailed translation between us and the bike shop owner. At last, we could be confident that we were fully explaining ourselves. After a couple of minutes’ search, the shop owner came out holding a new hub and axle, declaring that he had the right part. Yes!
The group bid us a cheerful goodbye and got on their way. After a few more minutes the drivers of the support vehicles departed with our many thanks. We settled down to watch our bike being fixed.
The mechanic took the wheel apart. We saw him look from our axle to the new axle, back to our axle… back to the new axle. He shook his head. It wasn’t the right part after all. It was too small.
“Find part only in Bangkok,” he said.
The fact is that our old, bulky tandem needs an unusually long axle.
The mechanic carefully cleaned and reassembled our wheel, which was all he could do. “Ride to Bangkok… maybe,” he said. We all laughed.
In this blog, I can report events as if one naturally followed the other. In reality, as with most choices, every decision we made involved the rejection of other possible solutions, and we were second-guessing ourselves all the time. Now, finally, after three visits to repairmen in the last three days, this news felt like a doctor’s order. It was time to go back to Bangkok. And not by bicycle.
We had been so close to making it all the way! If only poor bikey had held on just a little bit longer…
That evening, in our hotel room I was down in the dumps. I didn’t want our cycle tour to end this way… broken at the very last leg. “Make me feel better,” I said to Eric.
“There, there,” he said.
“Maybe we would have died if we’d cycled in,” said Eric.
“I suppose,” I said. That did make me feel a bit better.
“Maybe the bike knew. We tried to fix it three times and it just kept breaking down. Maybe it’s PROTECTING us.”
Further discussion confirmed the likelihood of this theory, and eventually I did the only decent thing and made a heartfelt apology to the bike for ever doubting it.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the bike.
We take the train back to Bangkok tomorrow.