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Willie Weir : December 24th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 19

I am not a morning person. The heat of the day has forced us to get on the road earlier and earlier. But the advantage is seeing the world in glorious morning light. Here, dyed silk hangs out to dry on the road south of Kampong Cham.

It’s wedding season in Cambodia and roads are springing up tents with bright sashes. Since we get on the road at dawn and try to finish pedaling for the day before sunset, we’ve yet to see a party in full swing. We can tell we are approaching a wedding party site since the sound system is as bold as the color schemes and they are required to blast music during setup and take down. -k.

Willie Weir : December 24th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 18

Those good, old machines don’t ever really die, they gets recycled in SE Asian markets. We passed at least 3 shops in Kampong Cham market that were floor to ceiling sewing machines for sale. Perhaps there is a garment factory close by keeping the second-hand traders in full supply. -k.

It pains me to look at this photo taken in Kampong Cham. For each and every one of those scooters represents a bicycle that will never be ridden by its owner again. Cambodia has the same problem that we witnessed in Thailand seven years ago. The entire populace adopts the scooter, and walking and cycling are history. Sidewalks become scooter parking areas. Bikes are ridden only by the very young or the very poor. And the dream of most scooter owners … is to one day own an SUV or pickup truck. The pollution, the dust, the strain on infrastructure is staggering. -w

Willie Weir : December 22nd, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 17

His name was Rity (pronounced with a trilled “r”), and about the most charming young monk you’ll ever meet. He was so exuberant, and wanted to be able to tell us all about the temple in a small village along the Mekong, completely adorned in mostly fresh murals. But the little English he knew was not enough to satisfy his desires to share with us. But we felt welcomed and privileged to be in his temple and his company. -w

Cane juice on crushed ice is now part of our daily life, and what a glorious thing it is. We now look roadside for the big wheel which turns the press and squeezes the peeled stalks of sugar cane. Those big wheels aren’t that easy to turn by hand, so Willie is known to jump up and help, much to the amusement of the locals. If you haven’t had fresh can juice, it’s slightly sweet with an earthy-grassy taste. Nothing cloyingly sweet about it. Simply refreshing, especially with just a squeeze of lime and a mountain of ice.-k.

Willie Weir : December 21st, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 16

Pajamas are all the rage in Cambodia. Often worn over a warm turtleneck sweater this time of year for extra warmth. For a while I even considered buying a cute set for my cycling kit. Usually they are in bright, cheery colors and flamboyant patterns that pop out, but here this vendor in the market blends in nicely with the cured meats. We’re a little obsessed with this fashion trend. -k.

After several days of dusty roads/paths along the Mekong, we took our bikes to a scooter wash. A team of four sprayed, soaped, scrubbed, rinsed, and dried our trusty steeds. They hadn’t been this clean since the day we got them. But another and another day of mud and dust awaits. -w

Kat Marriner : December 16th, 2012

Taking the Slow Road

In every trip there is a challenge and a part of myself is revealed or at least rediscovered, and this trip is no different. Over the years there are many things I struggle with, but one that pops up again and again, is that I am no athlete. I fail at the endurance test … well, the thought of the endurance test. Whether it’s climbing a mountain pass or pushing through long miles in the heat, or climbing impossibly steep roads up from river drainages, my mind tells me I can’t do it even when I have proven again and again that I can. It’s a flaw I wish I could change, but it’s part of my nature to doubt my own ability. When I meet other cyclists who think nothing of cranking out 100 kilometers day after day, I feel my own failing.

Foot bridge over a Mekong tributary.

Talking with cyclists who just came north along the road in Cambodia that we intended to pedal south left me with a pit in my stomach for that vary reason. Forced to ride 146km in one day between Kratie and Stung Treng, through road construction and mid-day heat pushing 100F, just to reach a place to sleep has no appeal to me. I don’t want to rise to that challenge. I don’t want to endure that kind of hardship just to get to the next place. Fortunately I have a partner who although capable of enduring just about anything, is also not interested in slogging through miles just to get to a bed. There is no joy in just getting through a place, but there is joy in discovering something along the way.

Farming along the Mekong tributary.

I stumbled upon the Mekong Discovery Trail web site that gave some hope that we could pick our way along the villages, take boats through the islands and find small tracks far from Highway 7. We could do in five days what others do in two by taking the slow road. It would mean greater uncertainty of finding food or where we would find to sleep each night, but this was a fear I could deal with.

Whole families paticipate in peeling, cutting, and drying cassava root so it can be sold to make a small livelihood.

Before even entering Cambodia the idea was put in motion to seek ways to slow it down and see more, experience more, learn more about local life. How does the ricer thrasher work? What are the people planting and tending in that field? Who is winning the game of boules? These are things seen along the small roads and tracks and not often right along the highway. Rather than coasting by with a wave, we stop, watch, smile and learn.

Charcoal is essential for cooking in rural parts of SE Asia, and charcoal is made in mud packed ovens left smouldering for days.

Still in Laos and traveling down the Mekong, we put the slow road to a test as we left Champasak. We found a thin white dashed line on the map and confirmed with a tour guide that we could indeed bicycle that route and eventually cross the river down stream to get to our destination. It would take two days instead of one long one on the main road. They were easy directions to follow: stay on the dirt track along the river as we leave town and keep the river on your left. We even looked at the route on Google Earth to confirm it was continuous.

What Google Earth didn’t tell us, but years of cycling did, is that life happens along these small roads. Our track ran past homes, through school yards, past shops, pigs in mud, charcoal in ovens, games of chance, laundry washing, noodles drying, families working. Some times the track turned to a footpath that looked like it hadn’t been used in some time, other times it was a street bisecting a village and children ran along with us. Ravines and creek beds interrupted the flow, but there was always a bridge — sometimes strong, new steel, others rickety swinging bamboo missing some planks, few were wide enough for a 4-wheeled vehicle. The small road knitted together village life and wrapped us in it’s warm embrace.

Change perfectly manicured lawn for dirt and the game of Boules is much like lawn bowling that we play at home in Seattle.

We only went 45km our first day on the slow road, but we experienced more life then we would have seen in 200kms of highway. It was on that quiet, small track that I fully realized and embraced that I am an adventurer and not an athlete. Travel is much more fun for me when it’s engaging with people, than it is when travel is an endurance test. No more apologies for my short-comings.

Willie Weir : December 15th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 15

Kat backs her bicycle on to a ferry to cross back over to the mainland. When you take a close look at some of these ferries, you have to be thankful that the Mekong is as calm as it is. Safely across, we pedaled along the east bank to the city of Kratie. -w

The 100-Pillar Pagoda in Sambour, Cambodia no longer has 100 pillars, but it has a lot of personality. What truly made this stop memorable is the group of Austrailians we met who were born Khmer and left Cambodia. They pooled their money and bought much needed food, clothing and medicine to distribute on their homeland tour. While those we spoke with felt that Australia truly was home, their hearts are deeply affected by the oppression witnessed every day here, and the pain and love they feel for Cambodia is palpable. -k.

Willie Weir : December 14th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 14

We are following some of the routes in the “Mekong Discovery Trail” and by far the most challenging is the ride down the length of Roungeav Island, the largest island in the Mekong river.  The route follows rough and sandy ox cart tracks, which sometimes fade away or come to intersections with no direction. We spent much of the morning pushing our loaded bicycles through sand, but after lunch and a rest in the shade, the center of the island had a firmer dirt track through the forest. -k.

The Mekong Discovery Trail is a project to bring tourism and income to the people who live along the river from Strong Treng to the near the Laos border. It includes bike routes and possible home stays in small villages that would never support a hotel. We read of an ox cart track you could cycle on an island in the middle of the Mekong. We hired a boat (same man whose home we stayed in the night before) and he delivered us to the beginning of the trail. It was a long day. Sand and loaded bikes don’t mix very well. But we managed. Here, Kat cycles under a gateway of towering snags in the heat of the day. -w

Willie Weir : December 13th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 13

The Koh Khnhaer greeting committee gathered as we walked through the village of one of our homestays along the Mekong. They joyfully say “hello” again and again and follow us as we walk up and down the one street town. The signs of poverty make it clear why NGOs are trying to bring tourist dollars to the upper reaches of the Cambodian Mekong. It’s a hard life, but you wouldn’t know it by the laughter from these children. Not a one asked for money or treats, they only wanted waves hello — to be seen. -k.

I know this is the cooler season. There are actually folks with wool caps on, and women in their winter pajamas. But it’s hot! All the more reason to stick close to nature’s air conditioning. For many of those who live on the river, boats are the only transportation they know. Just after I took this photo, I heard squawking up in a tree on the opposite bank of the river. The view through my binoculars revealed the silhouette of a toucan. -w

Willie Weir : December 12th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 12

We see all kinds of improbably things sold along the dusty back roads of Cambodia, and this is one of my favorites. This is the mattress and dresser salesman, toting stacks of mattresses and what I hope is plastic (not glass) dressers. And now that I think of it, there is no mattress store. Barely any stores at all that have more than a few packages of shrimp chips and sweet drinks. Everything and anything is sold by this kind of roving scooter salesman. -k.

There are moments during a Mekong sunset, when you’d swear that giant ball of fire was going to consume every tree on the river bank. We camped outside the police station (more like a police shack) at the river’s edge. A great place to see Irrawaddy dolphins. And we did! The police were all smiles and even gave us tips on where in the river to spot them. -w

Willie Weir : December 11th, 2012

Photos of the Day — Dec 11

As we crossed the border into Cambodia, we made the decision to follow the Mekong as closely as we could heading south toward Phnom Penh. The main highway is a wide boring stretch that cyclists bitterly complain about.

But the alternate roads, or paths, or tracks don’t connect all the way down river. So we had to go multimodal, and hired a boat and driver to take us to Stung Treng. Since this stretch of river is just below the large waterfalls in Laos, there is little to no boat traffic. This is no easy stretch to navigate. The Mekong sprawls out, and you need to weave through the trees, snags, logs, and sand bars. Our father/son boat team did a marvelous job. -w

I took a ride to visit Mekong Blue, the Stung Treng Womens Development Center and silk weaving training facility and this is the greeting committee.
Heart-stopping beautiful children attend a little kindergarten onsite , while their mothers learn life skills that can help them break the cycle of poverty. The facility now engages enough women and earns enough money through the sale of goods to fund the school in the village for the older children too. Women come from all over the region and spend about 6 months learning the skills to be a weaver or specialize in silk washing or dying. It’s a rare facility that provides education and employment … and it all began with the desire to do something and a $500 loan. -k.