Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bicycling through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

Biker in Paradise

Published on August 12, 2007

Michael Deveney takes his readers on an amiable ramble by bicycle through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

A middle-aged Brit expat with wife and kids and job in Ho Chi Minh City, he took up cycling to gain a modicum of fitness.

"I do what I can to make sure the tones are not quite jelly and are a bit firmer than blancmange," he writes. "I am aiming for a midriff that's not so much a six-pack but more a bag of shopping. From nice shops."

"Lollipop Fury" is the name of his book and he'll explain why. The author adopts a breezy, jokey, conversational tone throughout which can be greatly entertaining but also irritating as he rambles off on maddeningly irrelevant tangents.

But the main trunk of his story is fascinating: four glorious bike trips from Ho Chi Minh City to Pattaya, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, from Ubon Ratchathani to the Bolaven Plateau in Laos, and from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Rai.

On his first trip he leaves home at six in the morning and reaches the Cambodian border in three hours.

"Miracle rice, miracle irrigation, work, work, work - Vietnam is a verdant and vibrant advert for the earth's fecundity. Doing! You cross the border and the green turns to brown. Mile upon mile in every direction, tough, unforgiving villages. No rain for ages, no crops in sight, not a plant, not a worker; the contrast couldn't be greater. This is Svey Rieng Province in Cambodia, one of Cambodia's poorest at the best of times and now as raggedy-ass as could be."

On the beach in Sihanoukville, he checks into a hostel where Rule No 1 posted on his door reads: "No condoms, no sex". And behind the reception desk are "a dwarf, a transvestite and a man in a black vest with a body-builder's physique. How did I miss this?"

On he pushes to Pattaya where he devotes 20 pages to the mores of bargirls. Nothing new here but he does show a keen understanding of their dear mercantile hearts.

He comes into his own in Laos where he's overwhelmed by sheer joy as he cycles alone through the mountains outside Luang Prabang.

"One thing I notice is that I am listening to the sound of silence, something that I have not heard for a long time - a tautology but you know what I mean. After living in Ho Chi Minh City for a while this is like brain medicine. Let's call it aural therapy. Happy ears, happy thoughts. It's more like a kind of gestalt therapy commissioned by the music of the void. Wow, who said that? Kerouac? Teilhard de Chardin? Me?

"This is a beautiful stretch of road, the limestone peaks soaring ahead of me - it's a bluetooth landscape. The descent, when it comes, is an adrenaline rush so I let go of the brakes to see what it's like but when I pass 60kph I rein things in … This is almost perfect cycling: warm sunshine, the fields being cultivated, the air smells alpine fresh and it looks like Grindelwald or somewhere. You wouldn't be surprised to see this vista as the subject of a 1000-piece jigsaw."

He is equally exhilarated on trips along the mountainous Burmese border in northern Thailand, and in the Bolavan Plateau in southern Laos. And in his intimate, chatty style, he brings the reader along with him.

"It is green up here on the plateau with lots of trees and bushes … Everyone has got coffee beans drying in front of their houses which are sturdy and made of a kind of clapperboard. A steady income lifts the life-chances up a notch or two and you can see it in the dress, the gardens and things lying around in them - like satellite dishes instead of antennae. Gardens even have hedges and ponds; the houses look like homes. The cool air smells like an English country lane in spring …

"Everyone on the plateau shouts hello and beams a huge smile, even the adults - these are the best farang wavers yet, they positively rush to the road when they see me, as a family; 'Come on Grandpa, look lively - all together now, helloooo!'

"It's as if the plateau is a Conan Doyle lost world where innocence has survived intact. Their happiness is so infectious it has left me in a carefree mood. 'Helloooo!' I yodel back."

Where Deveney loses the reader, or at least this one, are his boring asides about his favourite books, movies, TV shows, football games and family jokes. We really don't want to hear it. You feel the urge to thump him and say, "Get back to the story!"

But this is a minor irritant. When he's on track, Deveney tells his stories well and I can't wait to hear more of them.

James Eckardt's eighth book, "Singapore Girl", published by Monsoon Books, is on sale at Kinokuniya, Bookazine and Asia Books.

No comments: