Hail the Helinox – the almighty lightweight camping chair

Right, let’s not beat around the bush. We are both basically in love with our Helinox camping chairs.image

To many touring cyclists they are an unessesary luxury, contributing to the weight on our back wheel and putting us in the ‘glamping’ category of tourers.

But we don’t care, because after 8 hours in the saddle and completing 100km, relaxing back in our chairs, away from the dirt, insects and damp ground is quite simply; sublime. Let’s face it, camping can suck a bit sometimes so you need to make things as easy as possible for yourself.

  
Weighing just under 900 grams each, they are hardly heavy, and they pack down into a lightweight durable bag (roughly 14x4x5 inches). We permanently hang ours off the handles of our ortlieb rack bag with cable ties so they don’t take up space in our panniers. Our 1.5L water bottles sit very nicely on top.

  
Paddy and I enjoy having ‘chair set up’ races. They practically fit together themselves and our best record so far is just over 40s.

They are SUPER comfy (you can property lie back) and the mesh material ensures you don’t get too hot. The only improvement we might suggest is that they add a couple of mesh pockets to the sides…image

They are not only useful for sitting in too. They come in handy when keeping food away from ants (by placing each leg in a dish of water at night) and they acted as a brilliant ‘scare shield’ when we needed to shoo away some vicious monkeys while having lunch one day. We also used them as deck chairs while enjoying a day on the beach.

  
We’re 5 weeks in so we’ll see how they hold up after 6 months on the road. 

If you are a cycle tourer reading this, think again about investing in one of these… Granted, they are pricey (£75 each) but they have genuinely improved our camping experience and we probably camp more with them, saving us money along the way.

You deserve some comfort, so sit back and enjoy the view after a long hard day in the saddle.

  

Flying Our Tandem by Air to HCMC

We started planning early how to get the bike out to Asia. It had to be a direct flight to reduce any chance of it getting lost in transit and we had to find an airline with a clear policy on taking bikes.

Vietnam Airlines was our choice, their website stipulated that the bike be in a box less than 203cm in length and weigh less than 32kg. We got in touch and they explained that once we booked a ticket they would be able to enter the package on their system and confirm it – but that it should be ok. Not taking any chances we only purchased Paddy’s ticket in case there was a problem and we needed Annie to try with another airline.

In the end they did confirm, and issued a new ticket which included the agreed dimensions. No extra baggage cost – Great!

Target:
200 x 50 x 120 cm
30KG

Now the fun part: building the box.

You can pick up old bike boxes in shops or buy expensive ones online, but not for a tandem. So a plan was formed to build a box:

1. Measure up – by taking the wheels and racks off, and breaking the bike down it would just fit in the length and other dimensions.

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The bike laid out ready for packing. Just under 2m lenght

2. Purchase a stack of Styrofoam insulation boards from Wickes. I used a selection of 25mm and 50mm. I would only use 50mm if doing it again.

3. Wait for Annie to go to Berlin for a girls holiday, then clear the living room and get out the jigsaw, stanley blade, Hoover. (I was meant to do it outside but it was November…).

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Stacking it up

4. Then put the first 2 board down, lay out the bike, in parts, on top and ‘trace’ around it onto the second board. Then cut out that layer.

5. Be amazed at the volume of Styrofoam floating around your living room in tiny fluff and balls. Then attack it with the Hoover.

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Penultimate layer

6. Eventually you get a bike sandwich which gets taped up with a lot of duct tape.

7. Try to get rid of all Styrofoam balls before Annie returns, alternatively, make best efforts to achieve this and pick balls out of couch for weeks.

8. Purchase a few rolls of commercial clingfilm and wrap it all up.

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Ready to go at Heathrow - before having to re-open

Matt very kindly drove us to the airport at 6am with the package and at check in they knew we were coming. We were 3 hours before the flight but needed it!

Next up we tried to get the box through oversize baggage – too big. This means that the box can’t be x-rayed and has to go down stairs to be checked manually; That means opening it up and swabbing for Semtex. Luckily we had bought along more tape and cling film just in case.

The Heathrow staff were great and very interested in our plans. We said goodbye to the box and headed for the gate absolutely exhausted by the packing up, moving out of our flat, Christmas festivities and associated travel all over the place… We were off!

Ho Chi Minh city airport is a much swisher affair than Hanoi, the city really is a modern metropolis compared to the Vietnam we visited last year. We had decided in advance that we’d figure out how to get the bike to our Warm Showers host when we arrived and sure enough it was fine. The box was stuffed in the top of a modern minivan and we were away.

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Safely arrived in HCMC

No hassle. Even the ‘use only once’ nature of the box was improved – the security guys at our host’s house took it away to re-use, probably as fishing floats.

All up in cost about £100 to make the box. About £70 for the insulation sheets and the rest on tape, cling film and new Hoover filters!

VeloVixen – Urbanist Brigitte – Savvy on PR, terrible shorts for cycle touring

My first gear review had to be my Velovixen (company based in Oxford, UK) padded shorts because I can’t let another day go by without telling other female cycle tourists TO NEVER BUY THIS PRODUCT.

Cycle tourers really should have at least 2 pairs of padded shorts with them and as space was limited I wanted to find a compact, comfy and hard wearing pair to complement my longer B-Twin shorts.

After reading a comparison review which led me to the VeloVixen site I decided that this was a garment which deserved some investment, so I duly dished out the cash (£45!!!!!!). 

All I can say is, whoever wrote that comparison review, had either been paid a nice ‘Christmas bonus’ or had done no more than sat on their sofa for 10 minutes wearing these shorts drinking a cup of tea. Because as far as I’m concerned, no cyclist in their right mind would wear these things on a bike!

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The only way to wear your Velovixen shorts is with another pair of shorts underneath…
I should have been weary from the start – never buy a product which has ‘urban’ in the title.

 VeloVixen describe their product as the following however:

The Holy Grail!, for medium/long rides, with exceptional quality 

That ‘high quality’ they mention; stitching which is already coming loose (and the shorts have spent most of their time stuffed at the bottom of my ortlieb), padding which pokes out into your groin and material which doesn’t breath.

The main problem with these ‘briefs’ though is that they are fundamentally flawed in terms of their design. Cycling shorts should aim to reduce chafing but the seams on these just dig into your groin creating angry red lines and chaffing on your behind area. The back of the shorts also pulls down to show more than you’d like while on the bike. And yes, I did follow the size guidelines correctly. 

In the interest of being fair, I have approved Velovixen’s response to this blog below but, having tested this product for five weeks, I’m afraid I will continue to tell other cycle tourers to spend their precious travel savings on another product.

Phnom Penh to Siem Riep: 5 days. 400km

We were all set for an early start from the hostel in Phnom Penh, that is until we met Jo from Clapton the night before leaving and one thing led to another…so we had a 10am rather than 7am start. The benefit was that we met an expat cyclist at breakfast who pointed us to the Giant shop in town.

Our main purchases there being dry lube and a bike computer which has turned Annie into a hard taskmaster – regularly calling  out average speeds, distances covered and time on bike as we zip along. It turns out we travel quite a bit faster than we guessed – around 22km/hr over the ~400km since we left PP.

Our first stop out of town was at the NGO school which our Warm Showers host Raphael runs. It was interesting seeing the kids running around doing English lessons and sharing lunch with the volunteers. A small way up the road we found two Wats – one didn’t let us camp, but the second did – providing a very, very welcome bath (big tub of water and a bucket).

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Annie and the friendly English speaking monk at our overnight Wat
The next morning we did set out early and racked up miles fast, that is until we hit an unpaved section of the main highway. It was tough, very tough. We bought some surgical masks (standard local attire) and dug deep for an hour or so waiting for the end of it…it didn’t end for at least 20km, truck after truck engulfing us in dirt. Eventually we couldn’t bear it and had to stop – checking the map it was only 3km to Kampong Thmar, so we climbed back on and the paved road did thankfully return in the town.
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Filth!
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Masks!

The other side of town on a pleasant paved road we crossed paths with a Belgian couple cycling the other way – they were 8 months into a basically identical, but reverse tour as ourselves. Over the course of 10mins we soaked up some great advice on routes and countries. It’s very reassuring to meet kindred spirits, we are not insane! We reached our stop in Kampong Thom with 105km on the clock, a tough day.

That night we realised we had an extra day to burn before our host could accommodate us in Siem Riep so we decided a 60km run out and back to the Sombor Prei Kuh temples would be worthwhile. They were the capital of the Angkorian empire before (7th Century) the famous Angkor Wat and they felt like a nice little warm up for the many temples still to come. It was very peaceful strolling through the woods seeing crumbling ruins in competition with nature.

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At the virtually empty site we could really appreciate the temples properly…

Day 4 was a good day as we turned west and the NE wind came slightly behind us, could we fashion a sail to harness this on the bike – hmmm. George Dadd, get thinking!

95km was gobbled up easily and we stopped at the Spean Praptos bridge which is an 85m long arched bridge dating back to Angkor and is still in use. A perfect place to camp beside; or so we thought!

  
Half way through cooking our pasta some torches wandered down to meet us, Perun introduced himself and warned that in this town the gangsters drunk in the bar close by. He also mentioned the words ‘murderers’ and snakes. SNAKES – Judas! (incidentally we’d run one down that day accidentally and didn’t fancy any playback). Perun very kindly led us up the bank to the front of his sister’s shop where we re-pitched the tent. Then two local police arrived to check what we were up to. These local visits were made complete with the police chief arriving to double check we were ok and to offer the use of his station to camp instead.

The lesson – don’t pitch the tent in a big town – but it was nice to feel the warmth of Perun’s family and the police towards the crazy westerners. I guess the same would happen if two Cambodians pitched a tent in Hyde Park. Would it? I’d like to think so anyway.

It was the first cold night we’ve had in our tent and we got to use ‘Big Agnes’, our double sleeping bag for the first time. We fell sound asleep to the howling of dogs and shouting of drunk gangstars and their women close by.

Day 5 and we only had 60km to cover to Siem Riep. It went quick and by midday we arrived at The Roluos Group of temples east of the city. This is where the temples of Angkor start and a wonderful spot for lunch. We took a tour of the Bakong temple and it really was impressive – no stupid shots riding a lion here – this was a spectacular sight.

  

  
After looking at some great scale models of the major Angkor temples which locals had carved close by we left for Siem Riep ready for Temple mania.

 Floating Potential – ‘The Boat’ Project

Written by Annie Sheen – @AnnieMusicEd

  

We make our way through the maze of empty rooms and long hallways, poking our heads behind solid teak doors and ascending grand colonial style staircases, clouds of dust created with every step. This place is wonderfully eerie and we feel we could be in some sort of adventure video game.

  

At first you might ask why Paddy and I are visiting a collection of rubble filled rooms connected by dark corridors and step ladders instead of strolling around Phnom Penh’s Russian Market or relaxing in the shade of The Royal Palace. But this isn’t any old building on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, it is in fact the chosen space for Cambodia’s first major arts centre. And its no building, it’s an abandonned boat.

Lower deck with garden space beyond

With its total of six floors and earthy facade which, from afar looks like rust but is in fact red paint, the structure certainly commands your attention.

    

Originally built to be a luxury floating hotel, but left half complete, the boat now sits on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River, north of the city. There is no doubt it’s an amazing space, brewing with unlocked potential – even the harshest cynic couldn’t help getting a little excited.

Naturally, the project sparked both our interests, me having worked in the arts for 8 years and Paddy being a chartered Marine Engineer. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever find another project which marries our two interests quite like this one – indeed, if the project takes off, as far as I know, it will be the first floating arts centre in the world (at least on this scale).

Three international ex-pats, who together bring representation and expertise from the hospitality, business and artistic sectors, are the brains behind the project. I came across their plans while doing some research about Cambodia in Vietnam and instantly made contact with Dana who has lived and worked in the Cambodian arts scene for 17 years and leading on the creative side. We were lucky that her schedule allowed us time to visit the space. 

  

While Paddy donned his headtorch and climbed down inside the hull to examine the engines, watertanks and quality of the welding, Dana and I headed skywards (via a rickety ladder) her explaining the overall vision for each floor as we go.

  

As we move up she takes me through where the education and library/archive spaces would be housed, where she’d ideally like to knock down walls to create group workshop spaces and where there would be office space for a number of in-resident arts organisations. A whole floor would be dedicated to offering a range of artists affordable studios and the deep bow has the potential to be turned into a tiered garden.

Small studio

As we continue to move up, the spaces become more and more ‘finished’ and you begin to really see the potential for where impromptu performances and installations could take place. The upper floors would be dedicated to what we call in the arts ‘commercial activity’ – an essential lifeline for any arts space, and an important ingredient when mixing leisure with cultural activity. Most people are unlikely to visit any building unless there are some great places to socialise and be merry with friends, and I’ve visited some arts centres where the designers have forgotten that food and drink can also be counted as important cultural capital.

Cafe balcony looking down to foyer performance space

The top floor which houses some of the three largest spaces, would be used as an open performance space/cinema, dance studio and huge gallery. There is also an open top pool already installed which would offer a paradise like retreat for sun worshippers, offering spectacular views across the city.

  

The project has a huge number of hurdles to jump before it can really start to take shape however. Currently, these mainly consist of construction questions – Paddy is trying to help with this. Surveys to determine any issues require a certain amount of seed funding, and as one might expect, sponsorship and/or central funding are hard to drum up for an arts project which is still in it’s infancy… ‘harbour trials’ is hardly a sexy phrase when talking to philanthopists…

After the little I’ve learnt about Cambodia’s arts sector during my short stay in Phnom Penh, I’m genuinely excited about this project. The artistic community has been desperately recovering from the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s when 90% of all Cambodian artist and arts academics were rounded up and executed. Entire art forms were very nearly wiped out (many of them ancient traditions) and the past 40 years have naturally focussed on rediscovery and consolidation, with an emphasis on passing these art forms on to the next generation. From the looks of things, organisations such as Cambodian Living Arts have played their part well in ensuring the survival of this cultural heritage.

However, Cambodia (particularly Phnom Penh) now feels it’s on the crest of a new phase of cultural development; one which focusses on innovation, creativity and artistic exploration. Led by a new generation of artists who can drive Cambodia’s cultural sector forwards and who will mirror the Cambodia of today.  But these young artists need a dedicated space, somewhere which will act as an incubator for ideas, skill development and artistic dialogue. A space which will support a diverse melting pot of current creative thinkers, audiences and businesses and which will help to support both the old and the new. A space which will support the social and environmental sustainability of Cambodia’s capital and which can attract swathes of foreign visitors as well as bring the local community together.

Apologies, perhaps getting a bit too ‘arty’ and utopian in that last paragraph, but I can’t help myself!! 🙂

I’m so pleased I was able to see this space and if you are interested to know more or wish, (perhaps?) to contribute to the crowd funding campaign to help get this project off the ground please click the link below. Please help to share with anyone who might also be interested.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-floating-art-centre-for-phnom-penh#

That’s it for Phnom Penh for now, time to get back on our tandem and head north towards Angkor Wat, Thailand and beyond!

  

Exploring the Arts and Cultural Scene in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh really is a fantastic city buts lot of travellers will stop here for a few nights, only having time to hit the main tourist attractions such as The Silver Pegoda, The Palace and S-21 Museum before moving on.

As well as needing a stop to re-charge our batteries and stock up on a few essentials, I was particularly interested in exploring Phnom Penh as it is known to have an industrious and developing arts and cultural scene (my line of work). Cambodian arts have a particularly sad history as they were virtually eradicated by the Khmer Rouge. The city has a vey high percentage of people under 30.

I had already read about this project (The Boat) before arriving, which has big plans to turn a 6 storey floating boat into Cambodia’s first multi-disciplinary arts centre. We were lucky enough to meet one of the founders and have a tour of the space. Separate blog soon to follow!

We ended up having nearly a week in the city (waiting for Paddy’s Thai Visa) and we are so glad we did as those few extra days enabled us to escape the main tourist areas and explore the local ex-pat arts scene.

Phnom Penh has a large and very active ex-pat community (especially French). Many of them are here running or working for various NGO’s. Others have come to set up their own hotels and bars while others are artists, writers etc.

The best way to tap into this more local scene is to locate the monthly listings. You can pick up a copy of Asia Life or a Pocket Guide:

  or alternatively visit the these websites:

http://www.cambodianlivingarts.org

http://www.lengpleng.com

http://www.kumnooh.com

http://www.amritaperformingarts.org

http://www.culturalcenter-cambodia.com

http://www.epicarts.org.uk

Alternatively here are a few places we visited during our time in the city:

Java Arts Cafe, near Independance monument

A great cafe/exhibition space – often filled with expats who go to catch up on email. Make sure you explore upstairs too. They have events running in the evenings.

META House, Sothearos Blvd.

Exhibition space downstairs with a covered but open cinema space, restaurant and bar upstairs. Food is good. They have DJs playing regularly (although it was pretty quiet when we were there) and screen some great independent films and documentaries earlier in the evening.

Cloud

We went to a live music night on a Friday night at cloud which is a converted house South of the city. Large bar downstairs with a small performance and balcony space on the second floor. We saw 3 local bands who were all at a pretty good amateur level. Got very busy with a mixed international ex-pat crowd from around 10.30pm

FCC

Directly on the river front and has a special mention in the Rough Guide so naturally attracts a strong tourist crowd but it has spectacular views from both balconies over the river. Exhibition spaces and an info desk. They often host live music, a good singer songwriter was playing when we went.

Traditional Dance Show at the Museum

Again, naturally a complete tourist trap, but this dance show is fully supported by Cambodian Living Arts and it’s a good thing to go and support. The show is an hour in length and showcases a mix of traditional court and folk Cambodian dances. It’s tastefully done and didn’t feel too chliched or pander too much to the tourist crowd. 

 

Thai Visas in Phnom Penh

Because Paddy has an Irish passport and we would be crossing the Thai/Cambodia border by bike we knew we would need to apply for a 30 day visa for him at the embassy in Phnom Penh. (My British passport allows me a 30 day exemption visa, see our section on Visas under ‘Before We Go’ for more info).

A warning to other cyclists/border crossing travellers, do not listen to agents who say you need proof of either certain bank funds or flights into Thailand to get a visa. They are trying to swindle you. Guys hang outside/in the embassy and will try to convince you too. You can do it all yourself.

Simply go to the embassy with a passport photo and complete the form (before 4.00). Our visa cost $40 and because we are travelling by bike we needed to write a brief letter detailing our general travel plans – e.g what border crossing, wherel we plan to exit etc.

We found the Embassy very friendly and efficient. Visa pick up is currently (Jan 2016) between 3-4.30pm week days.

Good luck!

Bike Shops and Repairs in Phnom Penh

During the ride into Phnom Penh we ran over a particularly large bump and the cross bar of the right side of our front rack broke cleanly off.

We were able to do a good temporary fixing job with 2 large cable ties (well worth taping a stash of these to your frame along with your spare spokes) and some gaffa tape. 

We had had concerns about the front frame for a while; the make is Avenir and its made of aluminium meaning its a lot harder to weld back together. Our back frame is solid steel.

To add insult to injury, just before heading off to seek out a bike shop we managed to shear the bolt inside the frame – now we had two things to fix…

Phnom Penh has a few bike shops near where we are staying (close to the Royal Palace).

The Giant Bike store near the Olympic stadium is the best store we found. The multi-storey store has an excellent range of new bikes, spare parts, helmets, tools, electronics, tyres, Degreaser etc. The clothes are very expensive though and they don’t stock much for women and we couldn’t find a front rack.

  

Flying Bikes (mainly a workshop) and its counterpart store down the road, Flying Bikes 2, have a range of mountain bikes as well as a fairly good collection of accessories – if you’re in need of a new helmet, clips, gloves etc. Again, they don’t stock women’s clothes so if your female don’t get your hopes up. They didn’t have any front racks either.

There is also Vicious Cycles on street 144 who run cycle tours – the guys there have a small workshop, speak good English and could probably help cyclists with minor problems such as broken cables and spokes but they were unable to help us with the bolt and told us that it was unlikely that we would find a new front rack in Phnom Penh, apparently you can’t get them here. 

It became clear that what we needed was a good garage and mechanic followed by a welder who could work with aluminium. 

After stopping at about ten different motorcycle garages someone suggested we head to the back of the new market and try there. 
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Alumiun welder in action.

SUCCESS! After enlisting the help of a very helpful tuk tuk driver to translate, one of the guys at the main garage extracted the bolt (by simply tapping a groove into the bolt end to screwdriver it out) from the frame in about two minutes and Paddy was pulled onto the back of a motorbike and taken up the road to a guy who could weld the aluminium. The whole thing cost

$5. 

If this happens to you, wherever you are, be sure to have your rack on the other side reinforced at the same time (even if it doesn’t seem to need it). If one side has broken, the other side is sure to follow – this is what happened to us on the road to Seam Reap and we had to go through the same process all over again in a different town!