Mud in the Mekong

South East Asia part 10: Da Lat, VN – Saigon, VN

5 months in the humid climate of South-East Asia has made us really miss the English weather. Mild windy sideways rain is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but after long enough in borderline unlivable climates (at least for me) English weather is a dream. I can honestly say that the climate in the UK is my favourite in the world. It never gets too hot, or too cold. Yes, some might say the rain is a problem, but there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. We did not expect to find English weather in Vietnam, but we did.

We got off the bus to 18 degrees C and sideways rain. It was great, Josephine even put her trousers on for the first time since India! Da Lat sits at 1500 meters at the southern end of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. This altitude gives it a year-long mild climate enabling a variety of temperate crops to grow such as coffee, strawberries, cabbage and potatoes. We got ourselves a cheap hostel and planned our route for the next few days. We wanted to head up into the pine forests for a few days and finally enjoy camping again. The weather was perfect for it and the Central Highlands are drastically less populated than the coastal plains of Vietnam.

We packed several days of food including tomatoes, pasta and red wine, ready for a romantic few days alone in the forest (we were celebrating 5 years together don’t you know), but after leaving the hostel in torrential rain and cycling 5 km in the cold we decided to scrap our pine forest retreat and opted to descend a bit on the main road where it was a little bit warmer. This turned out to be a great idea as the rain stopped once we dropped 200 metes in altitude and we found ourselves a beautiful camp spot right next to a dam behind a coffee plantation. The weather was a balmy 22 degrees C with occasional showers, and we had a nice evening drinking wine and playing cards in the tent without the need for our USB powered fans, finally.

We took a small road the next day through further coffee, tea and rice fields and arrived at the edge of the Central Highlands. We were greeted with an incredible view of the lowlands all the way to the sea with the exciting prospect of a long downhill through the hills into the plains below. The temperature was in the mid 20’s and as soon as we started descending, we could feel the heat and the humidity rising. We stopped for a sugarcane juice and relaxed playing cards for a few hours to avoid the sun. A small tip from us, if you order a sugarcane juice in Vietnam, try and carry a lime or two with you to add to it, it takes the sweetness away and makes it even more delicious!

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An epic view across the coastal plains from the Central Highlands.

After a few more hours of cycling we arrived back at our least favourite road in the world, the QL1, the main highway in Vietnam running between Hanoi and Saigon. Luckily all we had to do was cross over it to get to the sea the following day. We got a guesthouse just off the highway and crossed over on foot it to get some food. Highways in Vietnam are not like they are in Europe. Shops, schools, markets and roads line the edge of the highway with kids playing on the hard shoulder and markets extending almost into the outer-most lane. All the while lorries and trucks are chugging past at over 80 kmph beeping and swerving around any obstacle. It’s abysmally loud and unpleasant and not a nice place to stop for food and relax, yet everyone does.

The next day we cycled into a landscape of sand dunes and dragon fruit plantations. Dragon fruit season is April to October in Vietnam and the fields were lined with crates and crates of harvested dragon fruit. They are roughly the size of a grapefruit bus cost as little as 5000 Dong each (£ 0.17). The roads went up and down over the sand dunes until reaching the sea near the town of Mui Ne. There was a strong onshore wind and the sea was choppy and turbid making the beaches look less tropical than the photos of Mui Ne on the internet show! We struck gold with a camping hostel where we could put up our tent under the palm trees for a very cheap price ($2 each).

We spent 3 nights at the beach hostel with a few trips into the town for some food at the market. The novelty of markets for us has completely worn off. After seeing markets all across Asia, visiting them becomes a chore now. Maybe if it is a huge city centre market might we get a bit of a kick out of it, but we tend to avoid them if we can. We found cheap coconuts though, for our morning rice pudding and made ourselves some noodles for dinner on our limping camp stove. The petrol we have been burning in Vietnam has completely clogged up the spindle in our Primus omni-fuel stove. So much so that I need to clean it every 2 days which is a real pain in the sphincter. It burns very inefficiently too, leading to all our pots being caked in a thick layer of carbon which is a nightmare to scrub-off.

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We boxed ourselves in with our bikes and 2 washing lines creating our own little space for a few days.

Following our mini-beach break, we smashed the road again hugging the coast towards the Mekong Delta. The following 100 km’s after Mui Ne were packed with resorts both new and under construction. There were obviously quite a lot of Russian tourists coming to this area with signs lining the road in Cyrillic, bringing back nice memories of Central Asia. I want to briefly mention how many seaside resorts we have seen in Vietnam. We have passed hundreds on our trip down the coast with about 80 % of them being half finished or abandoned before completion. I am not sure where the large demand for holiday resorts is coming from, but it is mental. I have a hunch it is the growing middle class in Vietnam allowing people to afford domestic beach holiday-breaks from their jobs in the cities.

On the note of a growing Vietnamese middle class, we have been shocked by the number of overweight children we have seen. It is extremely rare to see a fat adult in Vietnam, but fat children are available in abundance, especially the lads. I would hazard a guess at about 30 % of under 12 boys being overweight. You can see why too, every one of them have smartphones and I can’t recall a time seeing any children doing sport. Although the adults aren’t visibly obese, they spend a lot of time on their phones in cafes playing games and gambling. It is a huge contrast to other parts of Asia seeing so many people on their phones all the time and might be the cause of our feelings of limited personal interactions with the Vietnamese. Vietnamese people in general (with some exceptions) have felt very distant from us on both a cultural and personal level. I am not sure if this is because of their attitude to foreigners, or the language barrier, but we have never felt so different and isolated from the people in a country like we have in Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong, some people have been unbelievably friendly and open, but they are exceptions to the rule.

We spent the next 3 days following a somewhat boring coastline with vicious headwinds slowing us down and constant rain showers particularly at night. As I may have said before, our tent is not as waterproof as it was and constant rain at night leads to a few drips making their way into the tent.  Putting our tarp over the top of the tent normally helps with the leakage though. Some of the beaches we camped next to were also extremely filthy. They were isolated, but still covered in plastic rubbish, mostly originating from the sea and being dumped at the highwater mark. I am sorry Vietnam, but your beaches are riddled with trash and it is not a nice sight.

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This barge is surely 2 or 3 shovels off dipping below the water line?!

Our bums were starting to become quite sore from the long tough days in the headwind, but we had a solution. Yes, chamois cream helps somewhat but a better solution is distraction. During one of our coffee stops at a Ca Phe Vong (hammock café, these things are amazing) we stumbled across an array of new podcasts to download and listen to on the bike. This distracted us from the busy roads, headwinds and saddle sores and enabled us to get through to the start of the Mekong delta without being grinded down too much on the busy highways. We stayed at a Nha Nghi (guesthouse) at the edge of an industrial estate and were treated to a litter of brand new puppies less than half a week old. Unfortunately, the mum would not let us anywhere near them, but we could still look at them from a distance which was still nice. We got the room £2 cheaper than the price stated through some tough negotiation (we’re getting better at it) and had a tasty dinner of Banh Xeo (rice pancake, disgustingly delicious every time).

The next morning was a rainy one and we battled it out in our raincoats until the sun came out after 11 making it horrendously humid and moist. As we curved around the southern side of Ho Chi Minh City and got deeper south into the Delta the traffic slowly subsided and eventually reached a point where there wasn’t a single car anywhere. Vietnam has very few cars as it is anyway due to a huge import tax (200 %) on foreign vehicles to protect domestic automobile production. This means there are a lot of motorbikes in Vietnam, and I mean a lot. 45 million motorbikes in a country with a population of 96 million. The motorbike does everything. We have seen motorbikes transport animals, market produce, ice, construction materials, families, living room furniture and mattresses. We have seen motorbikes being used as candy floss stalls, knife sharpening workshops, bakeries, sandwich stalls, postal services and rubbish collection. We have even seen people napping on motorbikes (while parked, obviously). People drive into markets and buy a weeks’ worth of produce without even getting off their bikes. They drive up to food and drink stalls and get takeaway food without dismounting their bikes. The best thing is when it rains. All of a sudden, every single person has a rain mac which covers them and their bikes. And for the small percentage of people who left theirs at home, its not a problem, as street sellers magically (and seemingly out of nowhere) provide a bamboo stick with a selection of waterproof macs, coats and hats costing next to nothing. Even after 10 weeks in Vietnam, we are still surprised by what we see on the backs of motorbikes in Vietnam. It is NEVER boring.

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I counted 10 mattresses on the day, what do you think?

We were getting right into the maze that is the Mekong Delta. The Eastern region of Tien Giang province is lined with rice paddies and roads which come to an abrupt end at a river crossable by a ferry reserved for 2 wheelers only and costing about £0.20 each. We used about 6 of these ferries and the traffic and roads got quieter and smaller as we got deeper into the delta. We really wanted to try and camp in the Mekong but it was just impossible, at least wild camping. It is the rainy season and the afternoon showers make the ground completely saturated with water, especially the low-lying Mekong delta. We had heard stories of cycle tourers staying in churches or temples, but to be honest, we never tried asking.

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One of our many ferries lasting on average 4 minutes long each.

We reached a town called Go Cong in the pissing rain and found a guesthouse near the centre. After hanging all our stuff up to dry (as usual) we headed into town for some dinner. Now, when it comes to eating, I am the least picky person in the world and Josephine is, let’s say, more at the other end of the spectrum. To address our asymmetry in feeding preferences, I suggested that Josephine should always choose where and what we eat to avoid me picking something she doesn’t like. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for 2 main reasons; 1) I am extremely impatient, 2) Josephine finds it very very difficult to make decisions. Subsequently, this leads to me getting frustrated and Josephine sensing this and finding it even more difficult to decide. Recently it has gotten so bad that Josephine has been on the verge of tears as she is so anxious about making a decision on where to eat. Not necessarily because of my impatience, but due to a mixture of different circumstances. It’s an odd occurrence and we are not sure what is making her so anxious, but in the end, we always find delicious food and go to bed happy and satisfied. Our current plan is that I make the decisions on where and what to eat based on my understanding of what Josephine likes and doesn’t like. Writing this out, it sounds like a ridiculous first world problem, but for some reason it has become quite a serious issue in our day to day lives.

The following day we crossed yet another river by ferry into Ben Tre province. This province is famous for its coconuts, with an output of over 600 million coconuts a year. Additionally, Ben Tre province has an endemic species of coconut palm producing the unique Xiem coconut, a small and deliciously sweet coconut. Upon arrival in the province, you are immediately surrounded by coconut plantations. There are also fields of bananas, cassava and lemongrass making for some very beautiful cycling. We found plenty of small roads through tiny villages and markets and took a slow few days exploring the province. Some of these roads are rather unforgiving though. Remember I said it was rainy season? Yes, well some roads are made of concrete and some are not, and the ones that are not, do not drain rainwater very well, at all. We spent 2 hours pushing our bikes through 50 cm thick mud and clogging up our brakes and mud guards (not so good at guarding the bikes from mud when it’s everywhere). Luckily, a few local guys helped us the last stretch to the concrete path again and even assisted us in rinsing our bikes off in the canal (the wheels and chains would not even move due to all the mud). After this encounter, we decided to blow off another attempt at camping and stayed at another guesthouse where the owners kindly let us use their hose to clean the remaining crud off of our bikes.

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It’s not always easy.

We had slowly been waking up later and later these days as the heat has been less intense meaning we can cycle right through midday. We decided to get going at sunrise the next morning though and it was an awesome decision. Seeing the sunrise above the banana tree and coconut palms made for the most beautiful cycling of our time in Vietnam. Coupled with no traffic and tiny winding roads ensured we had smiles on our faces all morning. The abundance of coconuts also meant it was easy to pick them from the trees and chop them open with our coconut knife and slurp the sweet water with our home-made coconut straws from Laos. Man, we had a great time wheeling through the Mekong delta.

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Crossed one of the many monkey bridges (narrow bamboo bridges) to get ourselves a few coconuts.

Our fortunes improved further upon our discovery of coconut candy. This stuff is only produced in Ben Tre town from Ben Tre coconuts and is absolutely delightful (try the cocoa flavoured one). We bought ourselves a box of it and it was gone by the end of the day. After leaving Ben Tre town the traffic started growing as did the size of the vehicles. We took a small tour around an island before crossing a huge bridge with a crazy headwind and a freewheel down the bridge into the town of My Tho where we got our final guesthouse before reaching Sai Gon. A lot of the guesthouses in Vietnam are also known colloquially as “love hotels”. Many of them rent out rooms for an hourly rate and the rooms have red lighting and mirrors next to the beds. We normally get cheaper rooms if we say that we are leaving before 6 am and it works most of the time.

 

We had 70 km to our Couchsurfing host in Sai Gon (I use Ho Chi Minh City and Sai Gon interchangeably. The official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but the Vietnamese still call it by its pre 1975 name, Sai Gon) and for the first time in what felt like an eternity we had a beautiful TAILWIND. That breeze blew us into Sai Gon in record time and we were having rice in the centre for second breakfast by 11 am. We got to our host by midday and were kindly treated to our own room to dump our ridiculous amount of stuff and finally do some washing in a washing machine for the first time in ages. Strangely, we find Vietnam to be the only country we have been to where we prefer the cities to the countryside. Maybe this is because we did not have the best experience cycling the Vietnamese coast. Several reasons including climate and bike problems meant we were unable to venture into the hills inland and had to stick to the flatter coastal route, and this may be responsible for our rough ride through Vietnam. Our spirits were completely uplifted in the Mekong delta though. The cycling there is beautiful, the food is cheap and plentiful, and the people seemed to be a bit more open and friendly.

Despite Vietnam feeling very culturally distant to us, the extensive pollution and the tough climate, we are glad we stuck it out all the way to Sai Gon. The incredibly diverse food, numerous places to stop for a tasty coffee and lie in a hammock and the hilarious business we have seen on the back of motorbikes has kept us smiling and pedalling. A tough but rewarding place to travel, particularly by bike. Bike touring always shows you the “real country” and not just the highlights, and this can be both good and bad sometimes. We are happy to be finished though and looking forward to mixing it up in Cambodia and Thailand.

Trystan

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One horrible village

South East Asia part 9: Da Nang, VN – Da Lat, VN.

Things have been getting better for us as we track more south in Vietnam. The monotomy, heat, humidity and traffic have been thinning out with more varied landscape, smaller roads to take, cooler days and even quite a few rain showers. We’re not going to lie, we are finding Vietnam tough. Not because the cycling is difficult, or the climate is rough or the interactions with the people being distant, but rather because we don’t feel like we are getting any mental stimulation. The coast of Vietnam seems to all be the same and feels like it’s dragging on for ages. I don’t think that this is an inherent issue with Vietnam itself as a country. It is not a boring place by any means. Perhaps this problem stems from the fact that we haven’t spent so long in one country before. We’re coming up to our third month in Vietnam now and maybe we are longing for some drastic cultural change? Whatever the root cause of our moderate boredom, we are pretty sure it is only temporary.

Da Nang is a big city, with lots of hotels and high rise buildings. This was unexpected but it meant we could get some supplies from the big supermarket there whilst we stayed 2 nights with our Warmshowers hosts. Binh and Allesio (who we stayed with) were lovely and even gave us our own room with A/C, an absolute luxury. I bought some new shorts at the market for $5 without trying them on, despite a disappointed look from Josephine. I attempted to try them on, but as I pulled my trousers down there, in the center of the market, the sales lady (shocked to her very core) immediately stopped me and held the waist of the shorts around my neck as a measure of if they would fit me. I have never seen such a thing before. Anyway, when we returned to our room, they did fit, but they were as tight as my cycling lycra shorts. Oh well, good thing I don’t care much for my appearance.

The following day we cycling a short 30 km to the town of Hoi An. Josephine had been here before and it is a very popular tourist destination in Vietnam. It has a very well preserved old market town and it is probably best known for being a cheap place to get tailor made clothes. We stayed at a hostel for a few nights where the owner kindly gave us a private room for the price of a dorm bed. To our shock, a thunderstorm came in the entire afternoon and evening, the first rain we had experienced since Hanoi. This didn’t stop us though, and we donned our rain coats and went out after dark to see the pretty lights lining the streets. It was madness, like a music festival. There were literally 100 million people on the streets all wearing single use rain macs purchased from women on the street. We got some Banh Xeo (rice pancake) and returned to our room to watch a film. I used to think it was a bit sad at a hostel to hide in your room watching something but after cycling for so long and being outdoors almost all the time, there is nothing quite like sitting alone in your room away from people enjoying the A/C and relaxing.

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The middle of the day isn’t the best time to mess about trying to get a photo of us.

Hoi An was a nice place and definitely worth a visit. We had the tastiest Banh Mi of our trip there too at a place called Madame Khanh’s. But after 2 nights we were keen to get back on the road and continue down towards Saigon. We opted for the back roads out of Hoi An through the rice paddies and villages rather than the main road. This turned out to be a nice idea, the roads were empty and it was pretty scenic with dark green rice paddies lined by palm trees. This changed drastically though from one minute to the other turning into a long straight road through sand dunes with nothing to see except the odd ancestral burial ground and pile of rubbish.

We camped that night at an empty beach side resort which we found from another cycling couple on Instagram (@rollingeast). The owner spoke perfect English and was happy for us to pitch our tent so long as he could take a photo of our passports to end to the police, #Vietnam. The beach homestay had a family of legendary dogs who kept us entertained all evening and in the morning. We woke up early to an incredible sunrise and hundreds of people walking/jogging/running up and down the beach. It looked like it was their morning exercise. We have seen this before in Vietnam, large groups of people gathering for communal exercise. I am not sure if it is a scheme put forward by the communist government, or just something that has been done for centuries. Either way it is quite intriguing to watch.

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Mosquito net, hammock and chair. Our camps are pretty comfortable these days.

The cycling in Quang Ngai province was very enjoyable. There were plenty of small roads to take near the coast through lots of villages and paddy fields. All this with the backdrop of the hills characterising the Central Highlands in the distance. We were keen to find a nice spot to camp and I managed to find a beautiful, quiet beach on google maps just over a small sand dune. We pushed our bikes over the dune and into a small village full of people who genuinely looked like they had never seen a white person before. We took a tiny track through the centre of the village down a steep sand bank to the beach. It was perfect, blimming hard work to get to, but perfect. Most of the village came down throughout the course of the evening to swim and many of them came over to investigate our bikes, stove and tent. We had to put the tent up early before dark as it looked like it was definitely going to rain. It didn’t rain in the end.

After nightfall and a yoga session and swim later, we cooked up some grub and Josephine went down to the water to wash up. As I was tidying up camp in the dark, a woman squatted alone next to me, gazing at me intently and touching all our stuff. It looked like she was looking for something. I pointed at a pair of shoes a few meters away which someone had left, assuming she was looking for them. She skipped over, picked them up and threw them at me. Hmm, I guess a breakdown in communication. The crazy lady went down to the water and squatted next to Josephine who was oblivious to her existence. Josie later told me the lady tapped her on the shoulder to which she jumped and turned around, illuminating the ladies face and toothless grin with her head torch. It sounded like something out of a horror film, and quite funny to hear.

Our evening got even worse when a lady and a man came down with a torch and told us that we were not allowed to camp on the beach. The lady spoke perfect English, thankfully and was very polite about it. She explained foreigners were not allowed to camp in Vietnam and no-one in the village was registered to allow foreigners to stay at their houses. We had to go to a guesthouse which was 12 km away on the busy highway. Unable to accept our arguments and protest, we reluctantly packed everything away and pushed our bikes back up what I can only describe as a cliff. The policeman and the lady returned to help, with the entire village, but they didn’t really do much. We eventually got back to the highway and found the Nha Nghi (guesthouse) that the lady had told us to go to. Luckily, she had rang ahead and organised the price so we didn’t have to partake in any annoying bargaining. A very frustrating evening but thankfully the guesthouse owner gave us some food when we arrived, some jack-fruit and 2 boiled sweet potatoes.

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It’s been satisfying seeing that number get smaller and smaller as we get further south.

We continued south into Binh Dinh province and to a small village called Nhon Hoi with a quiet, cozy beach hostel. It was a quant little place with a bay surrounded by fishing boats. We had a few days off and the hostel allowed us to camp on their balcony for less than $1 each which was a bargain. Unfortunately, the sea was extremely polluted as the villagers seemed to use the ocean as one big rubbish bin. Every day we saw people walking out of their front doors and throwing plastic bags of rubbish into the sea. No-one cared at all. Despite this we went for a night time snorkel using our solar powered Luci light as a dive light. It worked well and we saw an array of strange creatures including a 1.5 meter long sea cucumber. We also ate sea urchin for dinner one night, which was surprisingly tasty, even Josie liked it!

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Sunrise from the balcony in the fishing village.

A few days previously I had bought a large knife/cleaver for opening coconuts. It was one of the best purchases I have made in a long time. Now I can open a coconut in a matter of seconds and we add the coconut milk and shavings to our rice porridge every morning, it’s great. Speaking of rice porridge, what is surprisingly hard to find in Vietnam, is rice! It isn’t sold everywhere as you would expect. It is only sold at huge supermarkets or small roadside shops called Dai Ly Gao (Rice agents). Like almost everything in Vietnam, these are not open between the hours of 12 and 4 as the Vietnamese have their afternoon lunch break and “siesta”. I am not kidding, everything closes down. If we haven’t had our lunch yet and it reaches 12 o-clock, we’re f***ed. I am warning you now, if you ever plan to cycle tour Vietnam, make sure you have a big lunch before 11:30 otherwise you will spend hours trying to find somewhere to get food.

We passed through the town of Quy Nhon where we spent the morning at a beach bar drinking coffee and swimming. This town was really nice. It had everything you need and was the perfect amount of busy. It also had nice views of the surrounding hills and a huge beach. It was definitely a place I could have considered staying for a while longer, but we didn’t. We camped on a beach a few hours south of it and had a wonderful nights sleep in the tent for the first time in months. Even with the rain cover on. Believe it or not, we also managed to camp again the next night! We squeezed out a 110 km day (which is a big day for us) and found a beautiful spot on the beach near a shrimp farm. No-one bothered us AND no-one rang the police. It was very quiet and we cooked up a tasty dinner and had another great sleep. It might not make sense to all, but our spirits are greatly lifted after having a good camp. Nothing is more demoralizing then camping in a dirty, loud place and sleeping terribly.

The road the next morning was absolutely beautiful. It hugged the coast of the far South-Eastern corner of Phu Yen province and gave us some amazing cliff-top views of sheltered bays full of fishing boats as well as some nice downhills on empty roads. The previous night Josephine and I had found a small island off the coast of a peninsula which apparently had some really good snorkeling. We even read that you could rent snorkels from the resort on the island. Having done all our research and brimming with excitement we headed off the main road 20 km to the end of the peninsula to spend a day or two on this tiny island. Or so we thought.

We arrived in the village around 11 am. We went to 1 of the 2 guesthouses in the village and were greeted by a horribly rude woman. She told us a price of 170 k. Playing the game, we tried to haggle her down to 140. “NO!”, she shouted, and walked away and started sweeping the porch. We had never experienced anything like that before, and subsequently left. If she had been polite about it we would have of course paid the 170k, we were just playing the haggling game. But she was so rude about it we didn’t want to give her the time of day. The kid at the next place was a lot friendlier, and we got a room for 170k. We packed a bag ready for an afternoon on the island and went into the village in search of food…at 12:30 pm…big mistake. There was no food and no-one at all willing to help us. The people in this village either shouted at us, stared at us, or laughed in our faces. Eventually I found a place to get some instant noodles for an extortionate price. After being  semi-satisfied (Josephine only had a mango for lunch) we went down to where the boat left to the island. 2 men were there playing games on their phones and pretty much completely ignored us. 1 woman was willing to try and talk to us over google translate and told us if we waited an hour, we could get the boat for free. Out of no-where someone handed me a phone with someone on the other end who could speak English (this happens A LOT in Asia). The guy on the other end said the boat would cost us $20 EACH! For a 900 meter boat journey! I told him that was far too much money and he said “okay”, and hung up. No-one bothered helping us anymore so we returned to our guesthouse (after being pointed at and laughed at by some more fat children) and decided we would ditch this “island excursion”, leave our guesthouse, and head the 20 km back to the main road.

Not everything goes as planned, and despite our research online about this island, it didn’t materialise as we had hoped. Luckily we hadn’t paid for the room yet so we just packed up our stuff and left. We even cycled straight past the 9 year old girl who organised our room and she didn’t even look at us, just stayed glued to her phone screen. Fortunately for us, we found some food near the highway and a cheap guesthouse for the night where we washed our clothes and met the best dogs of the trip so far (see photo). The boy at the guesthouse was super friendly and made a huge effort to try and speak English with us. It is such a mixed bag of people in Vietnam. We have met some incredibly friendly people and some absolute animals.

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These dogs were both 1 year old and had the most energy of any 4 legged creature I have ever seen.

We did a short day the following day and found a camp on a hill overlooking a bay right outside the city of Nha Trang. We also lucked out with our lunch eating a delicious vegetarian meal for under $2. If you are in Vietnam look out for signs that say Com Chay, it means “vegan rice” and there is an incredible variety of dishes to be had, and all for so cheap! That same day Josephine spotted some hanging bags of dark green fluids outside a seaside shack. I knew exactly what they were and turned around to have a look. They were bags of microalgae being grown as food for shellfish larvae. It was an oyster hatchery where oysters are spawned and the larvae are reared until they are big enough to place outside in the bay, grown to adulthood and then harvested and sold at markets. For those that don’t know I did my PhD on this kind of thing so I was very interested to see how they did things there. It was an incredibly basic facility but they still seemed to have a huge output of algae food and oysters.

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Mmmm tasty microalgae food for the oysters.

We only had 15 km to do the next day through the city of Nha Trang to get to the bus station. We didn’t want to spend any time in Nha Trang as we would be coming back here in 3 weeks with Josephine’s family. Also, we were getting fed up with the hot humid weather and had decided we would go up to the town of Dalat in the Central Highlands up at 1500 meters asl. Unfortunately, I was unable to cycle up the hill due to my bike gear situation and Josephine was more than happy to get a bus up the hill. It was only 150 km so we wouldn’t be missing out on too much. We rocked up to the bus station with a pre-booked bus ticket and the staff took one look at our bikes and said “no”. We were used to this and simply smiled and said, “We will make it work, don’t worry!”. “NO.”, we were told again. Obviously, in the end it worked and we got both our bikes on the bus without any issues whatsoever. We were even helped with translating by a lovely elderly man. Again, an example of the extreme differences in temperament of the Vietnamese people. One individual can be horrible and the next an absolute legend. Vietnam is as mad as a bag of frogs.

Trystan

Will we make it all the way to Indonesia?

South East Asia part 8: Hanoi, VN – Da Nang, VN

Our last few weeks crossing Laos and entering Vietnam were super exciting. We were looking forward to seeing our old friends, but we were also looking forward to having a significant amount of time off the bikes and attempt to integrate ourselves into a slightly “normal” routine, albeit somewhat mildly. We had a lot to do in Hanoi; many things needed repairing such as my saddle, my backpack, my phone, my laptop screen, some of Josies clothes, the bikes etc. We also had many things to buy or replace and with over 8 million inhabitants, Hanoi was the ideal place to sort these things. We were also receiving a visit from my brother Alex who we hadn’t seen since Budapest. It was a fun filled month and we ended up really liking Hanoi as a city. There is so much you can do if you know the place (as our friends did) and also, many places outside the city to explore. I won’t go into great detail about what we did but our favourite aspects of Hanoi include: Bia Hoi’s, Pho, the train tracks and old quarter, cycling around Tay Ho lake and all the food.

We had our bikes serviced at a shop called Lam Velo near Tay Ho lake. We purchased new rear tires as ours were very badly worn, new handlebar tape (mine was starting to stink from all the sweat), new cables, new chains and a serious clean and service. The bikes felt like new and we were more than ready to get on the road again. We were a little bit itchy to get back on the road again our last week in Hanoi and it was very strange riding the bikes again after almost a month driving a motorised scooter around the city.

We decided we would get a bus the first 250 km south of Hanoi to a town called Vinh, very close to where Ho Chi Minh was born. We opted for this as we had already cycled 150 km of this road and it was very dull, flat, boring and full of industry. The cycle to the bus station in South Hanoi was absolute madness. The road ran parallel to the train tracks and every time the barriers went down the traffic would extend across the entire highway bringing everyone to a standstill. Luckily, as nimble as we are on 2 wheels, we are always able to weave in and out of the traffic and never have to wait too long. Finding the right bus was a bit of a challenge but once we found it we loaded our bikes underneath with ease and sat on one of the most comfortable busses I have ever been on. The seats are basically reclining beds, there is fast WiFi and the A/C is cranked up to full blast. It was bliss.

To our frustration, we were chucked out of the bus on the highway a few kms south of Vinh and had to backtrack a little to get on the road towards the beach. It was only 10 km to the coast and after picking up a few coconuts on the way, we finally made it to the beach for the first time in almost 10 months. I could smell it way before we even reached it and it was one of the best feelings in the world running into the ocean for the first time. That night we camped under an abandoned beachside shack but unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the warmest nights we have ever had in the tent. The future did not look good for Josephine and Trystan’s camping prospects along the Vietnam coast.

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It’s a bit of a slog from the highway to the beach in some places in Central Vietnam, but it’s always worth it

The next few days were scorching hot and Vietnams land gets very slim in the middle of the country leaving us with no option but to cycle on the highway for several hundred kilometres. We did take a few detours to the sea, but we always had to return back to the main road at some point. One of our detours took us to quite a nice sea side town called Cam Nhuong. We arrived at around 3 pm and the heat was so intense I was starting to feel a little bit delirious. A man pulled up claiming to be an English school teacher and offered to take us to his mother-in-laws guesthouse. We followed him but they wanted a ridiculously high price for a room which they wouldn’t budge on. Frustrated, we back tracked down the coast and found another guesthouse (guesthouses are called Nha Nghi in Vietnamese) only to be quoted the same ridiculous price. After a bit of haggling we managed to get a room for €11 and went down to the beach for some food and a swim. Luckily our month in Hanoi with Charlie and Jordyn armed us with some VERY useful and essential phrases when ordering food. This means we don’t even need to see a menu and can order some delicious cousine without too much confusion. The restaurant we went to had an array of seafood for sale still alive and swimming in the tanks. From squid to scallops, crabs to crayfish, they had it all. But the price was extortionate; €20 for a plate of shrimp?! We decided to save our sampling of seafood to another day and not in this expensive town.

It’s amazing what a night in A/C can do to you. We felt revitalised the next morning, zooming across the river and through the rice paddy fields back to the highway. To our dismay, the heat got us again as intense as ever around 9 am and by midday we were struggling with dehydration and some mild heat exhaustion. It’s odd, some days I am coping well with the heat and Josephine is struggling, and other days, its vice-versa. We were drinking upwards of 10 litres of water a day each AND rehydration salts and we were still finding ourselves doing only 1 wee a day. It was not an enjoyable period, and it was only going to get worse.

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Sun cream is redundant in Vietnamese sun. It sweats off and you would need so much it would cost you a fortune. The best solution is to just cover yourself with a long sleeve and hat. 

We stopped at a red light on a quiet road off the highway but standing around in the sun was slowly killing us, so we decided to skip the red light like 16% of Vietnamese drivers do anyway. We pulled into a petrol station and a policeman pulled up behind us telling us to stay put. He was not friendly at all and called his boss over who explained to us on google translate that we skipped the red light and had to follow them back to “their office”. I repeatedly asked them what they wanted form us and if we had to pay a fine and he shouted at me “No money, no money, no money.”. Taking this to mean that we wouldn’t need to pay them we followed them 100 meters back to their little squat on the roadside and I was shown a google translate message saying “Now we will work on you.”. A different, disturbingly serious officer asked for our ID’s which I foolishly handed over, expecting not to have to pay any money. Now, I have never been in this situation before and over the last year of cycling around the world, never once have we encountered genuinely evil or bad people. Until now. I handed over our passports which they immediately pocketed and said we need to pay a 500,000 Dong (£17) fine. Okay that wasn’t too bad, but I wanted a receipt. “No receipt”, they said. I explained I wanted official paperwork to make sure this wasn’t corruption. “1 million Dong”, they said. “Look, I just want a receipt officially stating the value of the fine I am paying”, I said getting more and more frustrated. “NO!”, they shouted, “2 million Dong”. It got more and more out of hand and after almost an hour I said to them that I had serious suspicions that they were trying to steal from us. They lost their shit. They threatened to put us in cuffs and take us to the station. They were clearly very, very offended I had suggested they were criminals (which they absolutely were).

To diffuse the situation, I agreed to pay them and got them down to 1 million Dong (£34) and got our passports back. It was not a pleasant experience and there were many things we should have done differently in hindsight. We should have given them photocopies of our passports rather than the real ones, we should have probably been more polite in the beginning and when it got really heated I should have started filming them and taken their names. Josie and I were fuming as everyone lost in this situation. We had our money stolen, the citizens have to live with corrupt, greedy, criminal law enforcement and the police who are so proud of their country are in fact destroying its justice system. How can you enforce the law of your country by breaking it? The whole robbery (I don’t care what anyone says, being intimidated and forced to bribe a policeman is robbery) episode left a sour taste in our already dehydrated, dry mouths for a few days after.

The next few days were very tough. The cycling was horrendously boring, the driving was retarded, dangerous and idiotic, the climate was unbearable, and the food was monotonous and tasteless. We put all our options on the table and considered that we would reconsider our trip and route after seeing Josephine’s family in Saigon at the end of August. We just simply were not enjoying ourselves. There was a silver lining though in the form of a middle-aged Dutchman called Eric.

We bumped into the cycling Dutchman Eric, 20 kms outside of Dong Hoi. He was on a solo world bike trip and said he hadn’t met a single cyclist on his trip so far! We teamed up for a few days and he was such an energetic and optimistic man. He really brought our mood up. We made our way to Dong Hoi and found a fairly new and cheap guesthouse near the beach. The owner used to work in Birmingham and had his mates round in the evening treating us to wine (I know, wine!), delicious seafood and a lot of funny antics. Food in Vietnam is cooked in a different way to how we cook in the west. They normally cook without any added flavour, which you, as the eater, add yourself at the table. For example, our host Huy had cooked several fish (guts and all) and put them on the table with a variety of flavoured salts, sauces, ginger, lime, chilli and other flavourings. It’s a nice way to eat and we had a nice evening with them and Eric. The next morning involved some more boring roads but we felt better that the struggle was shared with Eric. He was also finding the cycling and the climate a real challenge and expressed how happy he was that we were also struggling! Sounds strange but knowing other cyclists are also finding it tough makes you feel a little better.

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There are a hell of a lot of Vietnam flags in this country, and also some interesting murals and paintings encouraging workers and subtly enforcing nationalism.

One of the best things about Vietnam is the coffee. Most of the coffee produced in Vietnam is the coffee species robusta rather than what is normally consumed in The West, arabica. Robusta as a bean is less explored in terms of selectively bred flavours and is considered a little bitter when compared to the “more tasty” arabica. I love it though and Josie and I both have our favourite coffees which we drink at least once a day. Mine is called a Nâu Đá which translates to “brown ice”. Basically, a cold coffee with condensed sweetened milk. Josephine likes a Sữa Chua Cà Phê, translated to “milk sour coffee”, yoghurt coffee! A round of these would cost no more than £0.90 for both.

After 2 short days we waved goodbye to Eric as he headed in search of a guesthouse and we tacked down to the coast to assess the camping situation. After a swim in a warm ocean we sacked the camping and found a cheap guesthouse back on the main road. In the morning we crossed the old demilitarised zone which used to separate North and South Vietnam during the war and arrived in Dong Ha at a Warmshowers host, our first since India. We stayed one night with Tao and his family who made us delicious vegetarian food and gave us a room for the night. I also helped him out in the garden wheelbarrowing soil back and forth, which I strangely enjoyed. It was very hot in that house without aircon but after seeing the children and the granny sleeping on the tiled floor all night without pillows or bedding, I didn’t feel like I had had such a rough night. I am not sure why, but they do that in Asia. We saw it in Myanmar too. They sit on the floor and sleep on it. I guess comfort isn’t as important to them as to us, or maybe they are not phased by it at all.

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Josephine standing in the middle of the old partitioning zone between North and South Vietnam.

The next few days were semi-interesting, cycling through rice paddies off the main highway. The majority of Vietnamese (at least what we have seen) or not Buddhist, but they rather follow their own folk religion which involves ancestor worship and offerings to multiple gods of air, water, earth etc. They bury the dead in elaborate tombs spread all around the countryside interspersed with temples and shrines. We attempted to read about it and understand it. We even asked our Warmshowers host Tao about it. But neither he, nor Wikipedia could really explain the complicated rituals and details of this religion. We decided to leave it as a “known unknown” in our chapter of Vietnam.

The final 2 nights before Da Nang we camped, and it wasn’t too bad with the heat. The first night on the beach we slept without the tent at all, in an effort to catch some of the sea breeze, which worked. However, Josephine suffered an armada of mosquito bites to our surprise. We haven’t seen any mosquitos since arriving at the coast but somehow they still manage to find Josephine in the night. The following night Josephine slept under the mosquito net and I in my hammock. We decided to buy 1 camp chair in Hanoi between 2 of us. I know, risky right? But so far it has worked great as 1) I like the floor and 2) my brother brought out my hammock, so most of the time we have a chair and a hammock on the go, and we can switch between them.

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Josephine always has 20 minutes or so extra sleep in the mornings.

The night I slept in the hammock was an experience. We found an abandoned resort on an empty beach and set up our nest for the night. Then, 3 skinny old men turned up with 4 bottles of rice wine and some meat for dinner. They moved Josephine’s bike without asking and when I intervened one slapped my ass. They proceeded to get drunk through the night and started gambling which ended in shouting and a fist fight. One stumbled away alone into the darkness never to be seen again while the other two drove away but returned twice to look for something they left behind, apparently. It was annoying and kind of ruined our night, but they left at around 8 pm giving us enough time for some slumber. Looking back, I actually felt quite sorry for them.

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There is no messing about when we get to the sea, we’re straight in there even with our clothes on.

In the morning we woke up at 0345 hours to get up the Hai Van pass and into Da Nang before the sun got us and turned us into a Brooks saddle. The climb (490 meters) was sweaty and a little dull but not too bad. My lower chain ring has worn and therefore I couldn’t use my lowest gear meaning I had to bulldoze up the hill at a minimum of 12 kph leaving Josephine in the dust. We were passed by a load of trucks carrying pigs to slaughter as well as a truck load of dogs. We had already seen a good number of dog trucks but never this close. They were packed in so tightly I was sure they couldn’t breathe. They were squealing, whining and the truck absolutely stank. I am sure they were likely on their way to the North to be slaughtered and eating in North Vietnam and China. The downhill into Da Nang was absolutely stunning. The road was perfect, the view was amazing, and the traffic was minimal. It made the Hai Van pass totally worth it and we arrived in Da Nang at our warmshowers host around midday.

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The entrance to Lang Co lagoon before the Hai Van pass, near Da Nang.

The next few weeks look more promising. We have a few nice places of interest marked on the map and the cycling gets (apparently) more interesting regarding landscapes. We also can spend less and less time on the highway AND the climate is supposed to get a tiiiiiiny bit cooler. We are feeling a bit better now about our trip and at this moment are still planning on cycling all the way to Bali. Although the last 10 days have been tough, a lot of interesting and funny things have happened and as I write this and we look back on our experiences, we are still learning and still enjoying what we are doing, and that is the whole point isn’t it?

Trystan

Good morning Vietnam

South East Asia part 7: Xam Neua, LA – Hanoi, VN

We left Xam Neua knowing that the worst of the hills in Laos were over and it was pretty much flat or downhill towards the Vietnam border. We were 100 km from it, but our visa didn’t start for another 5 days, meaning we would probably reach the border a few days early. We had heard that they would probably just let us through anyway, but there was always the thought in the back of our mind that we may get stuck in limbo between Laos and Vietnam waiting for a few days until our Vietnam visa officially started.

The road out of Xam Neua was beautiful. The temperature was perfect, and it looked like it was going to rain which was good, as it made Josephine realise that she had left her raincoat in the hotel 11 km back. I had to change our brake pads anyway, so Josie hitched a lift back to the hotel whilst I sat under a roof and did the bike work. About 10 kids (3 – 8 years old) crowded around me pointing and giggling to themselves. They kept running past me and even knocked my bike over after which I shouted at them to leave me alone and they eventually did. An older kid arrived and started encouraging them all to fight which ended in tears and a beating for some of the kids by an adult who came out of a house holding a chicken. 50 minutes after leaving, Josie turned up on the back of a bike with her raincoat. The guy went completely out of his way to drive her and didn’t even ask for any money!

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There is always a layer of cloud wrapping the hilltops in Laos

We rolled through the paddy fields stopping in a village to get some food. There was a restaurant owned by an Indian which did delicious Indian food, although it had nothing on the food in India. The village had a market where we could get ourselves dinner and also hide out from another afternoon rain shower. The rainy season was now in full swing and hiding out under a petrol station or in an eatery had now become part of our daily routine.

That evening we found a wooden shack in amongst the rice paddies to put our tent for the night. We were surrounded by paddies and we were expecting another evening being kept awake by the thousands of frogs. Luckily this wasn’t the case, but we were treated to another thunderstorm just before we got into bed. We thank the paddy farmers who built the wooden shacks, they are so perfect for camping in the rainy season.

The following morning was the day we would arrive at the border, 4 days early for our visa. The final 30 km to the border was some of the worst roads of our trip. There was a small pass before the border and the downhill after it was through mud 50 cm deep with a river running through it. Not easy cycling at all. As we had now dropped to lower altitudes the heat was back and we took refuge in a shop out of the sun to eat some mangos. We met an older gentleman (around 60) who spoke a little bit of French and so were able to partake in some very basic conversation stretching our school French to its limits. Looking back, he was actually the only older person we had seen in the whole of Laos.

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The road leading to the Laos/Vietnam border.

By the afternoon after gravelly, muddy and bumpy roads, we finally arrived at the border. We got our Laos exit stamps easily enough despite having to fight off a bus of Vietnamese people who violently shoved us aside to get their passports stamped. We rolled 500 meters to a gigantic fancy building where the Vietnamese guards looked at our passports and stamped us straight through, 3 days early. I think because UK passport holders get 15 days visa-free, they just stamped us in early for our 3 month visa. One of the guards asked us to put our bags through a scanner but after looking at our bikes, just gave up and told us to go, much to our relief. I told Josephine we were swapping to the left side of the road again, “Ohh that’s confusing!”, she said, switching to the left side of the road. I told her it was a joke pretty soon after though, it could have ended badly.

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Goodbye Laos!

Vietnam! A country that uses the Latin alphabet meaning we could finally read (or attempt to read) signs again. We stopped from some noodles and exchanged some dollars with a woman in the eatery at a moderately good rate. Thankfully, Ian (another cycle tourist we met in Luang Prabang) had given us a Vietnamese sim card so we were able to get google translate up and communicate with people. On the way out of the border town we picked up some stuff for dinner, vegetables and eggs. Josephine saw duck eggs and we thought that would make a nice change from chicken eggs, so we bought 4 duck eggs to make an omelette that evening.

The first 50 km in Vietnam were on perfectly asphalted roads through lots of villages and valleys. We stopped for a bit to wash some clothes at a well and wait out another rainstorm, before getting to the start of a climb and looking for somewhere to camp. We struggled a bit and eventually found a bumpy gravelly patch by the side of the road. A man came out from a house and said we could put our tent under his roof to escape the rain which we gladly accepted. We were not sure if he would feed us and we didn’t want to assume he would so we asked if we could cook on our camp stove. After a confusing 15 minutes communicating using hand gestures, we gave him our eggs and expected him to make omelettes for us.

He came back 30 minutes later with boiled duck eggs and that was when we realised we had made a catastrophic error. They were not eggs, but duck fetus’ or “Trung vit lon”, in Vietnamese. They are a fully developed duck embryo complete with beak, fur/feathers and feet. As hungry as I was, I just could not muster up the courage to put it in my mouth and of course, neither could Josephine. We left the eggs for the cats and ate a basket of sticky rice washed down (me, not Josie) with home made rice wine, the perfect night-cap.

We woke up early and climbed a steep hill into the next valley. We could sense it was starting to get a lot more populated with more and more bikes on the road and more paddy fields. In Laos, they were just starting to plant the rice crop but in Vietnam, they were already harvesting it. I guess in Vietnam they are able to get 2 rice harvests a year, which they probably need with over 90 million mouths to feed. Leaving the hills has its advantages and disadvantages. Although it gets busier and flatter, there is a bigger variety of food available, which we had been looking forward to. Vietnamese food is the best, we stuffed our face with banh cuon, pho with quay, bun cha and so much more.

Camping was getting very difficult now so we knew we would have to start asking at houses if we could put our tent somewhere. We asked at a garage one night which was perfect as it had a roof and plugs to charge our phones and have a fan in the tent again. The following night was a little more difficult. We asked at a government building (which had plenty of free space) and they went to get the big boss who said we could stay but he needed to sort things out for us first. After a frustrating hour and a half, we said to him we would begin setting up our tent to which he responded (all through google translate) that we now couldn’t stay there and had to go. It was super annoying as we had waited around for ages for no reason. Next, we were rejected by a college and as a final resort we asked at a house where we were given our own room and en suite! The neighbour was an English teacher and helped us out loads with translating. The family made us a delicious dinner and we had a funny evening through google translate including reading the phrase “Does your Iphone need a shower?”. I’m sure something was translated wrong there.

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Sheltering from the rain in a garage, where we eventually pitched our tent.

We had squeezed out a 100 km day the day before to give us a shorter day into Ninh Binh to meet our friends Charlie and Jordyn for a few nights before reaching their house in Hanoi where we would stay for a month. The roads were super busy now, and we weaved in and out of motorbikes laden with a variety of things including, but not limited to, gold fish in bags, house plants, furniture, pigs, pineapples and pieces of other motorbikes. The road snaked through huge pineapple plantations and the humidity was off the scale. I was really struggling and had to take several pit-stops in the shade to prevent myself from passing out.

We reached Ninh Binh and spent a great few days with our mates. The last time we saw the two of them was the day we left my house in the UK when they saw us off! They have lived in Vietnam for 5 years, so know the language and the food which made things a lot easier for us. We stayed near the town of Tam Coc which is surrounded by limestone cliffs and little rivers and lakes, it was really beautiful. It was also strange to see so many western people again. When cycling we get so used to being the only westerns around and having a lot of attention on us that it seems strange to see a lot of western faces again and have no attention from the local people. Don’t get me wrong it is quite a nice feeling, but it takes some getting used to.

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Can you guess the fruit growing here?

After a few days in Tam Coc, Charlie and Jordyn drove back to their place in Hanoi and we cycled the 110 km in 1 day. This was a huge day for us but we wanted to get there in one day to just get it over and done with so we could have our time off. The road was not very exciting and was pretty much all highway with lots of traffic and buildings lining the road the whole way. One small stretch of road was full of butcheries where goats were being slaughtered, gutted and skinned. We saw every step of the process from the live goats being delivered to the eyeballs being removed. It was not the most pleasant stretch of cycling we’ve ever done.

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Wide roads and sky scrapers means we’re in Hanoi!

After a very sweaty and humid cycle we finally reached Charlie and Jordyns flat. They technically don’t live in the city of Hanoi, rather 20 km outside the centre in a neighbourhood called Ecopark. They are both English teachers and have a huge apartment with A/C (best thing ever after 3 months in a tent) and a double bed for us. It was a huge milestone for us reaching Hanoi, this was one of the only definite way points we had before leaving on our tour. Cycling in South East Asia up until this point had been amazing, but the most challenging of our trip so far. It’s hot, humid, populated and hilly making any physically exerting activity difficult. If we didn’t have the plan to visit Charlie and Jordyn in Hanoi, we probably would have headed south after leaving Myanmar and gone straight to Singapore and on to Australia. But we were happy to arrive in Hanoi and very excited for the following month spent off the bikes and the 2 months after that cycling down the coast towards Saigon where Josephines family were flying out to meet us!

Trystan

 

Two hungry Falangs

South East Asia part 6: Luang Prabang, LA – Xam Neua, LA

If you have ever been to South East Asia you will probably have tried a papaya salad. I certainly remember my first Papaya salad on the way out of Luang Prabang in Laos. I don’t really know how, but I think whoever made it thought it would be funny to add enough chilli to burn my tongue out of my skull and she was almost successful in doing so. I could not feel my tongue for about 3 hours, much to Josephine’s amusement. Upon surviving the subtle attempt on my life by the roadside foodery, we followed the road heading North out of Luang Prabang which is busy with few places to pitch a tent, so we asked at a monastery and they gave us a small wooden platform with a roof. It was great as we were able to hang up our mosquito net instead of putting up our tent. However, we weren’t prepared for the lighting storm in the middle of the night which literally almost blew us away.

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The monks watching Trystan make breakfast in the morning

After a morning chatting with the monks through Google translate and showing them our passports (they always find this fascinating), we headed off along a busy road with lots of trucks and construction work going on. China are in the process of building a hydroelectric dam on the Nam Ou river and we could see the area of land which was being prepared to be flooded for the dam’s completion. It’s nice to see a hydro power station rather than a coal one and it’s no surprise that China are building it. The road was horribly dusty, and it was a swelteringly hot and sunny day. After pushing on through we found somewhere to get some noodles before looking for a place to put our tent. We struggled for hours and ended up going on a 2 km detour to find a tiny shack for our tent. We were beginning to like these shacks. They are used by the paddy farmers for sheltering in from rain or sun when they work in the fields, and they are perfect for us to pitch our tent and escape both the rain and the pesky ants.

The next day was pretty smooth and the last of the flat part of our route. We arrived in the small town of Nong-Khiaw which was surrounded by tall limestone cliffs. We found a restaurant on the river owned by a lovely family. After we ate, we asked if it would be okay to put our tent there for the night but to our surprise, he said no. He explained he would love to, but he’s let people camp there before and the police had turned up explaining it wasn’t safe for them to camp and they had to go to a hotel. We get this a lot; people telling us it isn’t safe to camp, but it is always just paranoia. We continued through the town, visiting the market and thought it would be a good place to have a day off before tackling the first big climb the following day. We found a shack just outside the town where we camped both nights and spent our day off swimming and washing our clothes and camping equipment. In the evening we bought some beers (BeerLao, the national beer – actually quite tasty) and cooked dinner on the riverbank whilst watching the fisherman at work and the kids swimming.

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One of our many “tent shacks” which we were thankful for on rainy nights with our semi-waterproof tent.

We woke up at sunrise and headed into the hills. We expected the climbs to be very steep and on bumpy, gravelly roads, but the first climb was more than pleasant. As soon as we started ascending, the traffic disappeared, and the villages started to look more and more simplified and traditional. The previous town of Nong-Khiaw had a few Western tourists but now, it was just us and the locals. Every single kid would scream at us “Falang! Falang! SABAIDEE” (Hello) and wave as we cycled past. “Falang” is the Laotion word for French people, a relic of the French colonial period. In one roadside shop a 3 year old kid pointed at me and screamed Falang over and over with his parents and grandparents laughing in the corner. Pretty much every child would wave and scream at us but the adults did not seem phases by us and would either ignore us or just stare at us in bewilderment.

The views going through the hills were stunning but, unfortunately, slightly ruined by the black scars of burnt patches of forest spread out among the hills. At the end of the dry season, farmers burn patches of land in a controlled way and leave them for the wet season as a form of fertilisation. They will then plant crops at the end of the rainy season and do so for a few years before using up all the nutrients in the soil and moving on to another patch. For a small scattered population, it is quite a sustainable way to farm, but it would definitely not be possible in more densely populated regions.

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Cloudy morning in the hills.

The villages were also full of baby animals. It must have been the time of year we were there, but every village had piglets, chicks, ducklings, puppies and other tiny creatures. Every time we entered a village we had to be careful not to hit any of them as they waddled and hopped across the road. The humans were also very young. I don’t remember seeing so many children anywhere before. We eventually found out that Laos has one of the youngest median ages in the world at 23 years old. To give some perspective, the median age for the UK is 41 and Germany is 47 years. That means over half the population of Laos is under the age of 23!

We timed our ascents and descents pretty well for our first few days in the hills. We always woke up early to do the big climbs at the coolest part of the day and camped in the valleys at the bottom of the hills, often near a river where we could wash and cool down. In one village, we spotted several shacks situated in the river itself, the perfect place to put our tent. We would later discover however that it was a night-time bar and a few locals came down after sunset to drink, eat and listen to loud music. We had already put our tent up and one of the men came over and tried to explain that we could not camp there, even though the bar owner said we could do it, no problem. “Camping, no, no, no, no, no”, he kept saying. We eventually ignored him but worried for a little while after that he might come back with the police. He didn’t, but lots of other people came down throughout the night, often families, to wash in the river, even after midnight.

We slept well enough, and cracked on over a few more big climbs, reaching our highest point since the Himalayas at 1800 meters. It was pretty cold up there and we had to put our long sleeves on, not for protection from the sun, but actually to protect us from the cold! Temperatures were becoming a lot more bearable the further up North into the hills we went with the heat only being a problem when we went through the valleys at > 500 meters. The valleys were also becoming more and more isolated and finding food was becoming a real issue. We spent a lot of the day hungry as getting vegetarian food other than rice was not so easy as a lot of villages didn’t’ have eateries or even shops.

After much discussing, we decided we would start eating meat again, for several reasons: 1) we were beginning to starve 2) eating meat in these isolated villages is not as destructive as in the western world. We see the animals that we eat, roaming the streets. Nothing is commercially produced, and no high energy soy food is flown in from South America 3) the animals live free, happy lives and are not reared in cages like we’ve seen elsewhere. We also felt that by being vegetarians, we were missing out on a huge aspect of the culture, food.

The next day we entered the Nam Et Phou Louey national park and after a very long day with over 7 hours in the saddle, we arrived at our first proper town in days. We found a cheap guesthouse and when we arrived the owner was in the process of slaughtering and skinning a duck. Next to her was a small bag with the contents wriggling about and quacking. The bag was still there in the morning, moving and quacking. I wonder how long the poor ducks stayed there until they met their end. We took a day off in the town to rest our legs as the previous few days had been tough. There was a festival going on in the town which consisted of 40 or 50 youths running around in circles holding Laotian and communist flags to the tune of some national song. A bit strange to witness, it reminded me of something you might see on the T.V. happening in North Korea.

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A snapshot of one of the villages in Northern Laos, not much going on except for a lot of kids running around.

The duck-death guesthouse was a little expensive for what it was, so we decided to camp the next night just outside the village before another climb. We asked at an official looking building but were laughed at and told to go to a hotel. We found a small path leading to several rice paddies, not perfect but good enough for us. We were treated to an incredible sunset, the sky was luminous yellow, pink and various shades of blue. We’ve now come to realise that when the sky goes these crazy colours, it means a storm is coming, and it did. We had torrential rain for hours and our tent has lost a lot of its waterproofness over the last few years. Even with our tarp tied to the top of the tent, water was still dripping in throughout the storm. It wasn’t too bad though and after a few hours the storm subsided making it quiet enough for us to get to sleep. Wrong. After the thunder and lightning went, a symphony of frogs in the adjacent paddy fields starting ribbeting like I have never heard before. It sounded like there must have been 40 million frogs. It was so loud we could barely hear ourselves think!

After a froggy nights sleep, we woke up to find the tent full of huge biting ants. As I got out of the tent with the ants biting my toes, Josephine noticed that they had actually eaten through the bottom of our tent and we now had about 80 ant sized holes spread throughout the tent floor. The ants were becoming our biggest pest in South East Asia, not the mosquitos. The frogs were not so accommodating either. The next day, I found one in Josies frame bag that had hitched a ride for 50 kms over a pass. I reached in to get the GoPro and it hopped out and off into the bush, much to our amusement.

Food was still a problem for us and started to dominate most of our decisions. Josephine had a good solution to the problem though, sticky rice. If you haven’t had this or heard of it before, it is steamed rice which Laotians cook at sunrise every morning to last them throughout the day. It is not sticky to touch, but sticky to itself, if that makes sense. In Laos they eat it out of bamboo baskets and snack on it throughout the day. I guess it is the equivalent of bread where we come from. It took us a few days to find a sticky rice basket but once we did, our problems with hunger were no more. Every time it ran empty, we would just ask at a house if they could fill it up for 5000 Kip (€ 0.50) which everyone was more than happy to do. It meant whenever we stopped for a break, we could take a handful of rice to keep us from wasting away.

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Rice planting involves the entire village working together.

Our final 2 days before arriving in the provincial capital of Xam Neua was some of the nicest, and toughest, cycling we did in Laos. The road snaked through the hill tops with some very tough climbs making one of the days the toughest we have had on the bike without one of us giving up. Every time we would reach the top there would be a steep downhill before another almost un-cyclable uphill. It seemed like we were not getting anywhere and our plan to reach Xam Neua in 2 days seemed very unlikely. Our motivation was helped that evening after we found a village to get some proper food (not eggs and instant noodles) and the perfect camp spot in another shack amongst the rice paddies. The rainy season had begun, and the planting of the rice paddies was in full flow. It seemed that the entire village would get involved with planting the rice plants. The men would cut the rice crop from a small, densely packed paddy and the women would plant it in the new, freshly prepared paddy all by hand. It was mesmerizing to watch, and Josephine and I half-wished we had stopped and offered to help.

We had a big downhill from the hills down into the valley where Xam Neua was. We arrived earlier than expected and checked in to a cheap guesthouse owned by a Chinese man (who would not budge on the price, despite his guesthouse being empty and it being the quiet season) and walked across the bridge to the local market to get some fruit. The market was bustling and contained some interesting products. Snake, rat, various insects, offal and most peculiar of all, a dead squirrel cut open with its organs on show. It looked like something out of a school anatomy class or a veterinary text book.

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We were invited to try some rice wine which some locals were drinking on the roadside out of long bamboo straws.

The hills in Northern Laos were tough and it was nice to be back in a town where we could eat good food again and just relax in a bed. The climate had been perfect, the roads had been good (for the most part) and the people had been friendly enough (although nothing like as in Myanmar). The only issue we had was finding enough good food to keep us going, and not just living off rice and egg. The scenery and isolation were incredible though and although we knew it would be a tough section, it was so worth it in the end. We had a rest day in Xam Neua before our final few days in Laos and across the border into Vietnam where we would finally see the sea again for the first time in 9 months!

Trystan

On the banks of the Mekong

South East Asia part 5: Chiang Mai, TL – Luang Prabang, LA

I really need to write these blogs more regularly; I seem to have pretty much forgotten EVERYTHING that happened in Thailand which was a whole 2 countries ago. Luckily, looking through photos and at my notes (which are near impossible for even me to read, let alone anyone else due to my handwriting) I seem to be able to remember all the fine details of our trip. We went through some photos with our friends here in Hanoi and we were surprised at how much we could remember of each day just by looking at a few photos. We’re so glad we brought the cameras with us just for our own memories. Anyway, back to our stories from the saddles, cruising through North Thailand and into communism.

After being truly rested up in Chiang Mai, Josephine was back on the bike and cycling like Wonder Woman. The antibiotics, rest and food definitely did her some good. We had a 900 meter climb not far from Chiang Mai towards Chiang Rai and our route took us East of Chiang Rai and across the Laos border near Huayxai. Like all Thai roads, the route was perfectly asphalted (apart from the 5 km around the summit which was pretty tough in the 40 + degree heat). Fortunately for us, we found the a huge container of ice at the summit used for the road construction workers on their lunch breaks and subsequently rammed our drink bottles full of ice. We got to the top earlier than expected and as it started to rain we identified a camp spot on the map within the national park so thought we would check it out. It was deserted and they wanted to charge us £25 to put our tent there for one night, more expensive than the campsites we stayed at in the UK! Naturally we sacked it off and continued down the road passed some natural boiling hot springs which had about 200 eggs hanging from sticks in plastic bags. An effortless and efficient way of boiling eggs right?

We had decided we would make more effort to sleep in guesthouses or monasteries for the rest of our time in Thailand to reduce our chances of having bad nights sleep in the heat and getting ill again. Luckily, the monks at monasteries are ALWAYS super friendly and do everything they can to make you comfortable, including supplying fans, water and sometimes food. One monastery we stayed at even gave us an extension cable so we could put the fan IN OUR TENT. This was by far our best night sleep in the tent since Nepal. A few of the monks could speak English but most of the time we used google translate and learned a lot about their meditation practices. Many times we were also given food, water, soap and even toothbrushes and toothpaste. However nice these gestures were, we felt bad taking the stuff as we didn’t need it and so often declined their offers.

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A selection of drinks one of the monks gave us at one monastery in Thailand.

The roads in Thailand are unbelievable. They are smooth as anything and the drivers are considerate towards cyclists. There are 7 Elevens in most towns and we often would step inside and pretend to look for something, but really just fill our bottles with ice from the ice machine and then leave. I saw one staff member looking at me oddly as I was doing this, but it turns out she was just waiting for me to fill my bottle, so she could fill hers and go back to the staff room. Another good thing about Thailand is that there are cafes everywhere, where you can get real coffee (not the 3 in 1 instant stuff that we got everywhere in Myanmar) and often A/C! Strangely though, despite the abundance of cafes, it is near impossible to buy ground filter coffee, nowhere seems to have it.

As we cycled North we left the main highway and went through some of the smaller roads the last 150km before the Laos border. The road led us through a small chain of hills with very gentle ups and downs and fruit EVERYWHERE. I have never seen so many different types of fruit grow in such a small area. We cycled past papaya plantations, bananas, lychees, coconut, dragon fruit, pineapples and limes. We even cycled past our first palm oil plantation. Roadside food is very good and cheap in this part of the world so we can easily afford to have 4 or 5 meals a day and still spend less than €15 between us a day.

After a peaceful stay in a monastery (the monks gave us our own room and shower) and a few stops for pad thai, we had arrived at the Thai-Laos border on the Mekong river! The Thai side of the border was a gigantic fancy new building which was deserted apart from a couple of locals crossing. They built a bridge across the Mekong for the vehicles which involves a sort of figure of 8 shape on the road as traffic needs to cross over to the right side of the road in Laos. We had heard that they do NOT allow bicycles across the bridge and we would have to pay for a bus to take us the 1 km over the bridge to the Laos side. We get quite stubborn in situations like this and were adamant we would find a way to get across the bridge without paying for the expensive bus (even more expensive with our bikes). Unfortunately, our stubbornness did not pay off. We tried to hitch a lift but were rudely told to f**k off. We tried cycling anyway but got chased by security and told to come back. We tried arguing with the security and bus company but they would just ignore us or walk off. Eventually after missing 3 busses, we caved and paid the €6 each for the 3 minute bus ride over the bridge. I am not certain, but I am pretty sure this bus thing is a scam between the two sets of border guards. They must make a killing from it.

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Streets of Laos are littered with these communist posters

Upon arriving on the Laos side of the border, we fully expected another attempt, this time by the Laotian border guards, to scam us for more money by either asking for a made-up “stamp fee” for the visa or some other baloney fee we had been warned of by other travellers. But no, they actually acted within the law and even smiled at use as they handed us our visa. Welcome to Laos!

We had a 11 km cycle to the town of Huayxai where we planned to stay a night and get a slow boat down the Mekong river for 2 days to the ancient Laotian capital of Luang Prabang (Vientiane is the capital city these days). The 11km cycle into Huayxai was not so different to Thailand. Still many pick-ups and still nice roads. The only major differences we noticed were slightly more motorbikes and lots of Communist artwork and posters around the place. Laos is a unitary Marxist-Leninist one party socialist republic with the government openly endorsing communism. Towns and villages have megaphones on the power lines which blurt out propaganda, national anthems and strangely (for an openly socialist state), advertisements for products to buy.

We rolled into Huayxai and got ourselves some rice which was quite expensive. Almost double the price of Thailand. We put it down to us being in a “backpackers town”, but in actual fact, street food in Laos is significantly more expensive than Thailand, throughout the entire country. Accommodation is still very cheap though and we got a private double room with a fan for €7. We did a few chores in the town including getting a sim card (the quickest, cheapest and easiest sim card we have gotten to date) and booking our tickets for the slow boat. I went to the ticket counter without my phone and subsequently forgot the exchange rate for USD to Lao Kip. Long story short I stupidly paid in USD when paying in Kip would have cost us $40 less. The both of us have spent so little time off the tourist trail that we have lowered sensitivity to being scammed by people. Our first week in Laos felt like almost everyone was trying to take our money and it took some getting used to.

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We got ourselves some baguettes and fruit for the boat and arrived a few hours early to get our bikes on the roof. They looked precarious, laid on the roof of the rickety boat with some pretty violent patches of rapids at various location down the river, but the bikes made it without falling off and sinking the bottom of the Mekong river. The boat was made up of about 60 % Western tourists and the rest locals who would be periodically dropped off at the most isolated and random points along the river. Some of the villages we chugged past on the banks of the river looked like they had no roads leading to them and the only access they have to trade, and transport is via the Mekong. The boat ride was relaxing and in the evening, we docked up at the village of Pakbeng where we would stay overnight before continuing to Luang Prabang the next day. We got our bikes off and cycled about 5 km south to a patch next to the river to put our tent. We also took the opportunity to have a dip in the Mekong which was surprisingly cold but very refreshing and chilled us down enough to sleep soundly through the night without sweating too much.

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Our transport for 2 days down the Mekong river.

We woke up early and cycled back to the dock to make coffee and breakfast before getting back on the boat. To our surprise, just across the river, we saw two elephants from the elephant reserve swimming and washing themselves in the river. We sat there for over an hour just watching them muck about with each other. They would submerge themselves completely underwater for minutes at a time with only their trunks poking out above the surface to breath. Sitting on the banks of the Mekong river at sunrise, drinking coffee and watching elephants have a wash has to be one of the highlights of our trip. After a few hours everyone else arrived by car from their respective guesthouses and we all boarded the boat again to continue down the river

We passed under a new railway link under construction by the Chinese to link Thailand, Laos and China. It looked like a big project with numerous bridges and tunnels snaking through the mountains of Laos. We’ve seen this quite a lot on our trip, countries like China, India and Japan funding transport and construction projects in smaller, poorer countries. At first glance it seems like they are just being kind and investing money in developing the infrastructure of less “developed” countries. But I have a more cynical view and reckon they are probably driven more by their own self-interests such as increasing their income through trade or increased political leverage. Either way, it is very clear that the world is very quickly becoming more and more interconnected. I wonder how different places like Myanmar and Laos would be in 5 – 10 years time after the new highways and railways are finished.

The boat docked 10 kms north of Luang Prabang, and subsequently we had an unexpected cycle to get to a guesthouse in the city. The ride was nice into the city over narrow bridges and past old French colonial buildings. We stayed for several days to sort out our Vietnam visa, which ended up taking 6 days as it was over the weekend. We had heard from other cycle tourists that there was a restaurant at a waterfall 25 km to the south where you can put your tent for a few days whilst waiting for your visa. We headed there after an initial 4 days in LP as I ended up getting ill and needed a day in bed to recover.

The Keo waterfalls were as close to paradise as we have gotten on this trip. We pitched our tent and spent 2 days swimming in the falls and just generally hanging out. To our surprise there were no other westerners at the waterfall. This is probably because they all visit the larger and more popular waterfalls (Kuang Si waterfall) about 1 km further up the river. We visited these too and they were also beautiful. At the top of the falls there is a small pool under the trees and a bamboo swing which you can swing off and jump into the icy water. We spent about 3 hours there flying into the water off the swing.

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Cooking up dinner at Keo waterfall.

After our “weekend break” to the waterfalls, we jumped back o the bikes and returned to Luang Prabang to pick up our Vietnam visa. We needed a 3 month visa as we would be staying in Hanoi for a month and then meeting Josephine family in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) at the end of August. We didn’t really consider the timings very well and we basically gave ourselves exactly 90 days from when we wanted to cross the border until the day Josephines family left. The visa turned out to be valid for 92 days (3 calendar months) which was a nice surprise but it meant we could have started the visa 2 days earlier. This was okay though as it gave us plenty of time to cross northern Laos to the Vietnam border with several days off in the middle.

We met Ian (Instagram: @Ian_cyclingaroundtheworld) who we had previously met both in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. We’ve been in contact with him since we left England and it was nice meeting him again and having a few drinks and some food for the afternoon before we left LP and headed up north. At this point we still had mixed feelings about Laos. We were not getting amazing vibes off the people but we put this down to having spent all our time in the touristy areas up until this point. Luang Prabang as a city was stunning and one of the nicest towns we have stayed at. We had 21 000 meters of climbing (yes, almost 3 times the height of Everest) to do before the border crossing into Vietnam so we prepared ourselves for the worst. Hot, humid, sunny, poor roads, very steep climbs and limited places to eat were what we were expecting over the next half month. In fact, only one of these turned out to be true.

Trystan

Hill fever

South-East Asia part  4: Mae Sot, TL – Chiang Mai, TL

Entering Thailand was a huge culture shock. At first, it felt like we had just entered the U.S. We were back on the left side of the road which had gone from a pot-holey 1 lane in Myanmar to a 6 lane immaculately asphalted highway with about 60 % of the vehicles being huge shiny pick-up trucks. Everything was big, the shops, the traffic lights, the advertisement boards, even the food and drink! There were 7 Elevens on every corner, huge petrol stations and even a TESCO superstore! When we arrived in the border town of Mae Sot the streets were empty, and it felt in some way like a ghost town. People are just not out on the streets as much as in Myanmar, because in Thailand they spend more time in their houses where there is A/C. Houses are also less “open” in Thailand with tall concrete walls between peoples houses and garages for their pick-up trucks. Privacy is more important and respected in Thailand.

We struggled to find vegetarian food our first few days as the Thai cuisine includes a lot of meat. However, we soon learnt a few phrases which make ordering vegetarian food easier. Asking for a meal followed by the phrase “Mung saw ee lat”, means meat free but allows egg. The local market also had plenty of interesting products including snails, toads, insects and bat. We weren’t interested in these though, the only reason we visited the market, was because it was mango season. You could get 1 kg of mangos for € 0.60, and we ate our weight in mangos. As I write this in Laos, I think we have probably consumed at least 25 kg of mangos between us in the last 3 weeks.

We hung out in Mae Sot for a few days over Josephine’s birthday where we could also live-track her dad whilst he ran the London Marathon, at aged 60! We also bumped into a German cyclist called Jan who had previously been cycling with Sebastian (who we had cycled through Myanmar with). Jan had also met Johannes (who we cycled Manipur with) and met a French cyclist we had been cycling with (Felix). The cycling community is such a crazy world, you can link everyone together somehow. Pretty much everyone we have met has met someone else we know at some point on the road.

We left Mae Sot heading North on the smaller road up towards Chiang Mai which straddles the Thai-Myanmar border. We were surprised to see literally hundreds of photos and shrines of the Thai King on every street corner or government building. It eventually transpired that the King had ordered this for the few weeks leading up to his coronation ceremony, which happened a week after we entered Thailand. The Thai king is a pretty powerful monarch as monarchs go, and there are some strict laws protecting him from negative press or public comments. I asked a Thai guy in one of our guesthouses if anyone really cared much for the new kings coronation. He said the last king was very popular, but not the new one really. He spends most of his time at his mansion house in Munich and doesn’t play much part in the lives of most Thai people.

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Some beautiful sunrises in Northern Thailand

The road North of Mae Sot travels through an area inhabited predominantly by the Karen ethnic group, the same group inhabiting the other side of the border in Myanmar. Due to some pretty tragic oppression against them in Myanmar, thousands have crossed the border into Thailand as refugees and we cycled past a huge refugee camp stretching for kilometres with families housed in tiny bamboo huts as far as the eye could see. These people are looked after slightly better in Thailand than they are in Myanmar, but unfortunately they are still not given equal status or rights as the Thai people in Thailand.

The days were very hot but luckily for us there were plenty of road police checkpoints along the way where the police were super friendly and always gave us cold water, snacks and at one of the checkpoints, the police saw the scab on Josephines knee from her crash in Myanmar and gave her first aid treatment! We heard from other cycle tourists that these checkpoints were good places to camp, but we found several wild spots near small streams which worked pretty well for us. Although one night we stupidly put our mosquito net and beds on a concrete floor which had been heated by the sun all day and was like a radiator warming us all night. Even in the morning, the concrete felt hot and was still radiating heat. We learnt our lesson after that, never sleep on hot concrete.

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Josephine not enjoying the steep climbs in the heat and humidity.

We had a few big climbs to cover before reaching Chiang Mai and the first major one was a short but steep 600 m ascent with several 18 %’ers thrown in for good measure. We woke up extra early to tackle this in the cool morning, but even this could not help us with this climb. This was the steepest road we have cycled up on this trip. We were sweating profusely even though it was 6 am and Josephine was not feeling too well at the start of the climb. After half an hour of pushing her bike, her condition deteriorated and she pretty much collapsed on the floor next to me in a state of dizziness. I wasn’t sure if it was heat exhaustion, or she had come down with a fever as she felt extremely hot. A pick-up truck kindly gave her a lift to the top of the hill and when I reached her, she was asleep on a bench with her sleeping bag, wearing her sunglasses and shivering. We tried flagging town several pick-up trucks to give her a lift to a village at a river at the bottom of the hill but no-one was able to take her. In the end, she had to cycle 40 km’s of short but steep climbs for the remainder of the day. It was hard, even for me, so I cannot imagine how difficult she must have found it. Eventually we reached our friends, the traffic police, and they organised a lift in a minibus for her to the village in the valley where we planned to spend the night. I continued by bike down one of the best downhills of my life reaching speeds of up to 80 km/h! Thrilling and dangerous in equal measure, sorry mum.

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Josephine spent a lot of time pushing this day, I even ran back down to cycle her bike up some of the hills.

We camped under a bridge by the river that night and in the morning, Josephine got a lift to the next town (Mae Sariang) where we decided to stay in a guest house to allow Josephine to catch up on the sleep she had missed over the last few nights. I cycled solo to the town which involved several ridiculously steep climbs (again) but made it there by 9 am and we checked into an abandoned, but nice guesthouse. We had had several discussions over the last few days about what our plan of action would be after Chiang Mai. Josephine was really struggling either with the heat, the lack of sleep, dehydration or a combination of all and we were not sure what it was. In contrast I was feeling as fit as ever on the top of the world and could not be persuaded to skip any of the stretches between us and Hanoi. We even thought about the possibility of Josephine flying to Hanoi from Chiang Mai and me cycling the rest of the way solo. It was a hard point in our trip where we both felt like we genuinely wanted different things and weren’t sure it was going to work out with both of us making it to New Zealand cycling together.

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Josephine after regaining consciousness to a water buffalo trotting past.

However, before we made any rash decisions, we decided to take a week off the bikes in Chiang Mai and rest our bodies and minds. Josephine got a lift with her bike the 200 km from Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai and I cycled it for what I originally planned as a 2-3 day trip. The first 80 km involved a 1 km climb followed by several steep 100 m climbs and descents. It was the very end of the dry/hot season and the landscape was looking very dry and brown. You may have seen it in the news recently, Chiang Mai has had some of the worst air quality in the world due to a copious amounts of wild fires in the area. The North of Thailand is exceptionally dry this year and the authorities have been struggling to keep the fires under control. I saw one fire come right up to a medical centre and led to the staff having to move their cars away from the building as the flames started engulfing their rear-patio area.

The 1 km climb was nice and gradual (nothing like the steep climbs of the previous days) and at about midday I had made it over the bulk of the climbs and the idea of doing the 200 km stretch to Chiang Mai in one day, started making its way into my head. After the 20 km long downhill and a cheap ready-meal from 7 eleven, I decided I would go for it and try to make it to Chiang Mai in one day (It took Josephine 5 hours in the minibus). The final 100 km was flat and on perfect highway so the only limiting factor was going to be me. After 180 km the sun was starting to set ,and I was beginning to get a bit dizzy. Despite me drinking several rehydration salt sachets, my calves were cramping up and as I arrived into the outskirts of Chiang Mai, every red light I stopped at made me feel like I was going to pass out. I eventually arrived around 8 pm, destroyed, and regretting my decision to cycle it all in one day.

When I arrived, Josephine was in bed shivering and in tears so we decided the best thing to do would be to go to the hospital to get her seen to. Our guest house owner very kindly offered to drive us to the hospital and Josephine was seen to in minutes. The doctor concluded she had a minor bladder infection and gave her some paracetamol and antibiotics (as well as antihistamines for her swollen and red mosquito bites), which all cost about £1. The next morning, I realised at some point  the previous evening, I had lost my wallet with several bank cards and about £ 70 cash in it. I returned to the hospital but no-one had seen it so I decided I would go to the police station and get a lost/stolen police report made, just in case I was able to claim something back from my insurance. My visit to the police station did no go well. The officer wrote me up the report in 30 seconds, then asked for 100 Baht (£2.50) for the report in bribe money. I told him I wasn’t going to pay him any corruption money and asked for the report he had already written for me. He got very defensive and told me to go to the tourist police to sort out my issues, ripping up the report in the process. He had no interest in helping me, he just wanted my money. Who do you turn to in situations like that when the police are corrupted? Thailand has been one of the most openly corrupt countries we have visited in our trip, with the exception of maybe Tajikistan.

We spent the entire week in Chaing Mai, relaxing and eating some very nice food at the street markets. Khao Soy became our personal favourite consisting of a coconut curry with noodles and crispy noodles. We also made an excursion to Decathlon to buy some new underwear and bottle cages as items of ours such as these are beginning to break down and decay. We are reaching that point in our trip now when everything seems to be breaking. Our clothes, tools cooking stuff, electronics and other things are slowly losing the will to live. It all seems to be happening at the same time as well.

Josephine had been given some money from her grandad for her birthday and she decided she wanted to spend it on visiting an elephant rescue centre (which I was all for, obviously). We found a very basic one with no riding of elephants or performing, just a handful of elephants, purchased from farmers in the border regions. Their daily schedule now consists of sleeping in the forest, waking up and eating, meeting tourists who feed them, washing with the tourists, eating some more and going back to the forest to sleep. Basically, what elephants do in the wild. They are looked after by a Karen family who nee to organise about 900 kg of food a day for the 6 elephants which is a task in itself. Our day with the elephants was one of the best days of our trip. These animals are like puppies trapped in gigantic 3000 kg bodies. They like playing, being silly, itching themselves and just wandering around looking for food. They were very gentle but at the same time, incredibly strong.

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These guys were so much fun to chill with for a day. We could have sat and just watched them all day.

Chiang Mai was the perfect place for Josephine (and I) to rest for a week and regain strength. After several days on antibiotics, Josephine felt a hundred times better and was ready to get back on the bike again and head North to the Laos border. We decided that to limit our chances of getting bad nights sleep again, we would try and stay in more guesthouses, or monasteries as they often have fans. The hot/dry season was also (supposedly) coming to an end and temperatures should be starting to decrease as the clouds and rain starts making more regular appearances. We were hopeful, but not relying on substantial relief from the 40°C + days.

Trystan

Power cuts

South-East Asia part 3: Yangon, MY – Myawaddy, MY.

We lifted our 6 heavily laden touring bikes into our own carriage of the Burmese train. To our surprise, we had been given first class seats, although the only difference between first class and standard class is that our seats had cushions and standard class were plastic. There was one fan in our carriage (broken) and 2 windows which we had permanently open. We also found the need to open the door as well to achieve maximum airflow during the journey. 9 hours on a train in 45 degrees is not most peoples idea of fun, and it wasn’t that fun to be honest. As we pulled into stations, locals would come up alongside the train selling cold beers, water and bananas which we devoured as we spent the whole train journey hungry, bringing with us only a few bags of roasted lentils and peas. Although the Thingyan water festival was technically over, this didn’t stop Josephine getting a surprise bucket of water right in the face through the window as we left one station. As we chugged into Yangon the landscape started becoming very urban. train tracks in Myanmar appear to fill the same role as city parks do in The West. People walk their dogs on the tracks, play volleyball, kids play and ladies and men sit on the tracks drinking tea. The closer we got to the central station, the more polluted the air smelt and the more background noise became apparent. Welcome to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city of 8 million people.

We spent our 3 days in Yangon soaking up the A/C in our cheap hostel in China town and sampling the vast amounts of street food. Beer and whiskey is astonishingly cheap, so it made sense to have one bender with the young Germans (Josephine stayed in to catch up on sleep, she loves sleep). The night was hilarious and culminated in Marian loosing his phone and wallet. Sebastian made some delicious kaiserschmarrn (Austrian dessert) and we ate a lot of the free biscuits in the hostel (as well as smoking some of the free Burmese cigars).

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One of the few photos we got from Yangon.

Josephine and I departed Yangon as a team of two again as the others had gone on ahead or stayed behind a little longer in Yangon. It took us a while to get out of Yangon but once we did, we found ourselves on extremely flat, straight roads through endless rice paddies. The young Germans caught us up and we asked at a monastery if we could pitch our tent for one night and leave at sunrise. The head monk rang the chief-of-police to ask permission but returned to us saying we were not allowed to stay and that there was a hotel a few kms down the road. We carried on and found a hidden small field with very little air flow and lots of mosquitos. Although we were undisturbed that night by people, it was disgustingly hot and in the morning, Josephine and I decided it was time to actively try and improve our camping set-up. We met a French cycling couple in Yangon (they had very kindly carried Josie’s saddle bag since India which we had left at a WarmShowers host’s place), who had bought a USB powered fan for their tent which they said had made a huge difference. That day we searched the town of Bago for one of these life-aving fans and to our avail, we found two! With bunny ears! Hopefully this would make camping more bearable in the heat.

More flat straight roads with lots of traffic through huge rubber tree plantations led us to a monastery under a bridge where we were offered a room for our tent. They weren’t very keen to let us sleep outside as I think they didn’t want the police to see that foreigners were pitching up there, as it’s illegal. We had a superb cold shower and as I was getting changed back into my pants, an odd man came down the hill (either drunk or crazy) and tried to shake my hand. When I told him I was naked and getting changed he assertively offered to help me put my pants on. I pushed him away and then he came back squeezing my arm saying how I looked very strong. He also came into the room where our tent was a little later and tried forcing more conversation but I told him I was asleep and one of the monks dragged him away with quite a bit of resistance from his side. I must say that throughout our 4 months in India, Nepal and Myanmar, I have probably received more inappropriate touching and harassment than Josephine. I guess it would be different if she was travelling alone, but it seems that people see Josephine as completely off-limits, but it is okay to invade my personal space because I am a man. This does not just apply to touching and feeling. People often talk only to me, completely ignoring Josephine, as if she wasn’t even there.

We both woke up in the morning with banging headaches (probably due to dehydration) having barely slept due to the noise of the child monks and the sauna like temperatures. Somehow the 15 or so monks slept in their robes, with no bedding or pillows on the tiled floor all night. We cycled 25 km to the town of Kyaikto and after being rejected at one hotel which didn’t take foreigners, we found a cheap hotel with A/C and checked in at 9 am and hid in the room for the afternoon relaxing and catching up on the sleep we missed out on the previous night. Unfortunately, the power went out every hour or so for 10-20 minutes meaning our room would begin to exponentially heat-up however, the power seemed to always come back on just as we reached melting point. I got my beard trimmed across the road (cost: £0.25) and picked up some vegetables for us to cook dinner. We met another cycling couple from Belgium who were travelling in the other direction. We had a nice chat with them whilst we cooked dinner in the hotel car park surrounded by the hotel employees, staring in amazement at our camping stove and utensils. The Belgians had bought a huge mosquito net in Thailand which they had been using instead of their tent and said it made sleeping at night more manageable in the heat as there was more airflow through the mosquito net. The next day we bought one straight away to test it out with our fans.

The following days cycling was through huge rubber plantations with very little on the roadside bar the odd eatery and pineapple selling stall. We passed through the town of Thaton and 10 km after found a field near a village to try our new mosquito net set-up. As we were cooking dinner, several men from the village came through the bushes and asked us what we were doing. We explained we would sleep here for the night and leave in the morning, which shocked them. “You cannot stay here you are foreigner!”, they said and after we insisted we would be safe, they made some phone calls (probably to the police) and we decided we would pack up and leave before the police came. 10 minutes later, a 21 year old guy who spoke good English came over and said we could sleep up in the temple up on the hill. We pushed our bikes up to the temple (it was now dark) and set up our mozzie net between our bikes. A young man then appeared with a walkie-talkie and told us he was the police and we could not sleep here and had to go to a hotel back in the town of Thaton. We explained that foreigners hotels were very expensive and it was dark now and we would not be willing to cycle in the dark. He could not be convinced though and said we had to go back to Thaton, but that he would arrange a motorized tricycle to bring us and our bikes.

The trike turned up and we loaded ourselves and our bikes on with one of the police men hanging off the bike. We drove back towards the town in the dark, following by the other police man and the English speaking 21-year old as well as all the original guys who had spotted us and phoned the police. As our convoy of about 20 people zoomed down the road in the dark, we passed by 2 elephants walking casually down the road with people sat on top of them. Our first real elephant encounter! We arrived back into Thaton and stopped outside a large Buddhist festival for apparently no reason. After 30 minutes we said we were getting tired and wanted to go to sleep and spontaneously, our motorised tricycle driver just drove away leaving all the villagers and the police at the Buddhist ceremony. We turned a corner down a dark alley and the driver pulled over outside a closed furniture shop. He told us to go inside, so we assumed this is where we would be staying for the night. There was a fan inside, so we were happy. However 10 minutes later another man turned up and said he would take us to a hotel and he would pay for us. Not sure who this guy is but okay! We followed him to a small guesthouse, it was full. We went around the corner to a huge fancy hotel and bumped into the police men again. They liaised with the receptionist and got us a room for one night with breakfast at their expense. We asked this mystery man who he was. “Immigration officer” he said. Well, thanks for the hotel room guys (the cost on the receipt was $40 a night).

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Th roads in the area surround Hpa-An in Kayin state.

Fully rested and with a disgraceful amount of hotel buffet breakfast overflowing out of our stomachs, we hit the road towards Hpa-An and were overtaken by a truck carrying another elephant. Can you believe it? NO elephants seen in India, and already 4 in Myanmar!? Of course, none were wild though. The landscape surrounding Hpa-An is pretty spectacular with huge hilly outcrops of rock up to 1000 m high topped with golden pagodas and statues of Buddha (just like every other hill in Myanmar, although the height and steepness of these hills makes it more spectacular). We decided to take most of the day off in Hpa-An as it was sweltering outside. However, the power did not come on in the town the entire day. We sat in several cafes next to dead fans hoping the power would come on even for 5 minutes, but it didn’t. South-East Myanmar is primarily inhabited by the Karen people. A Sino-Tibetan group who have their own distinct language, dress and food. We got the impression that they’re not really treated es equals with the dominant Bamar ethnic group. They are not allowed to vote unless they change their names to Bamar names and the infrastructure investment is minimal in these states, clearly shown by the distinct lack of electricity for the majority of the day. Their oppression is so severe that thousands of refugees have crossed the border into Thailand for hope of a better life (see my next blog when we cycle through the Thailand side of the Karen ethnic range).

After our shenanigans of the previous night, we were extra careful with wild camping that night. I think we were led into a false sense of security after finding camping so easy and issue-less in the North of Myanmar. The south is a lot more populated though, and also a lot more restricted to foreigners, so we soon learned we had to be very, very careful. We snuck into a dense rubber plantation and swept the leaves aside to limit the sounds our footsteps made on the crispy leaves. We spoke in hushed voices and every time a motorbike went passed, we dimmed our lights and kept silent until it was gone. We set up the mosquito net between the bikes and plugged both our USB powered fans into the power bank. The result was a pretty good (not perfect) nights sleep and we thought that with a few minor adjustments we would be able to comfortably sleep the night through.

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Our new “tent”. The mosquito net only cost about £4 and means we can also see the stars every night.

We woke up early and cycled through the dirt roads south of Hpa-An to the Saddan cave. The 20 km on these small roads was beautiful. Quiet and through lots of small villages with the steep hills in the backdrop. Saddan caves were kind of cool. The entrance cave possessed several statues of Buddha and a large statue of a reclining Buddha surrounded by flashing LED lights. Towards the end of the cave are thousands of bats which you can hear screeching away above your heads. I got crapped on by one of them which made me think, if bats hang upside-down, what happens when they poo? The road for the rest of the day towards Kyondoe was under construction and pretty tough. The traffic was crazy which is surprising as I thought it would die down the closer to the border we got, but this wasn’t the case. Just before Kyondoe we peeled off on a side road to find a campspot in a field. We found a small patch amongst some trees and sent Cloe our location as she was in the area, after leaving us 10 days previously to visit Inle lake. We set up our mosquito net again and Cloe her tent and after eating and catching up on each others experiences, we got into our tents. Only half a hour later we saw 10 or so torches in the field opposite pointing directly at us. They were spread out but very slowly getting closer and closer. Every now and then they would point directly at Cloe’s tent, but they never actually made it all the way to us. I think they were doing some work in the field and had no idea we were actually there. Although the whole experience kept us awake for a good 45 minutes.

We did a very short day the next day (30 kms) to Kawkareik which was the last town just before a big climb to the border town of Myawaddy. We had heard that foreigners were not actually allowed in this town, but we spent the day there and no-one batted an eye-lid. The electricity was off for a lot of the time and we had run out of Burmese money which was annoying as we didn’t want to be charged by the ATM to get money out just for 1 more day in Myanmar. I went into the bank (which had booming A/C, much to the joy of Josephine) and asked if anyone could help me exchange $10. Luckily one man could help and gave me some Kyatt in exchange for my USD at a nice rate. In Myanmar, there is always someone willing to help you, such a lovely bunch of people. We were pretty keen for a shower and after struggling to find a monastery to ask, we asked at some locals house if we could use their well. They filled up several buckets for us and gave us soap and shampoo. I can’t imagine knocking on someones door in the UK and asking to use their shower, but it isn’t so strange to do this in this part of the world. Although people own their houses and land, the concept of private land ownership isn’t as extreme as it is in The West. Although they consider it their property, neighbours, friends and family come and go as they please and from our experiences, they would never reject a polite request to use some of their facilities. In comparison, I have knocked on doors in Europe asking if I can fill up my 500 ml water bottle and been told to F off and leave as I was on their property.

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The tiny house where the family kindly allowed us to use their well to have a shower.

We found a beautiful camp spot by a river that evening (although the river was far too warm to “cool down” in) and after setting up, some guys came over with torches to see what was going on. “Oh no, Busted”, we thought, but luckily they just had a look and left us to it. Cloe had, to our fortune, managed to get someone to write down the phrase “I am a tourist, can I stay here one night with my tent please?”, in Burmese which saved us from any confusion and explaining with hand gestures (although hand gestures can get you surprisingly far). We woke up at the crack of dawn and smashed the hill in good time. It was only steep towards the end, but we got up and over it into the border town of Myawaddy before the hottest part of the day, which was our plan. Also luckily for us, the road quality was good, despite the stinking, polluting Chinese built trucks blowing fumes in our face and leaving the smell of rotting fish with us as they went past.

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During the early morning climb up to the Myanmar-Thailand border.

Myawaddy is a sprawling, busy and densly packed town, almost overflowing across the river into Thailand. It reminded me of those images of Mexican towns such as Tijuana pushed right to the border with the U.S., and just desert and a golf course on the U.S. side of the border. I guess this is what happens when poor countries border richer countries. The border crossing was quick and easy, even though the power cuts kept plunging us into darkness in the immigration office. Because of the Burmese new year celebrations (also celebrated on the same dates in Thailand but called Songkram festival), thousands of Burmese workers who live in Thailand return to Myanmar to spend the holidays with their families. As it was the end of the festival period, thousands of them were making their way back to Thailand to return to work and the border was the busiest I have ever seen. Fortunately for us, there was a separate queue (of 2 people) for “Western passport holders” and we didn’t have to wait longer than 1 minute. On the Thai side, the immigration official even brought us to the front of the queue and told everyone else to wait. I felt a little bad as these guys had been waiting for 2 hours in the 40 degree heat, and we were ushered through instantly just because of the nationality of our passports. A bit silly if you ask me, but that’s the modern world we live in, how very very very fortunate we are.

Trystan

 

Burmese New Year

South-East Asia part 2: Moneywa, MY- Naypyidaw, MY

April is the hottest month in South-East Asia, particularly in Myanmar. This is the last month of the dry season during which there has been pretty much no rain since the end of October. Everything looks dry, brown and lifeless. Even the rice paddies, which in the wet season are bright green and full of water and people tending to them, are nothing more than barren, empty plots of rock hard dirt, longing for some water. Daytime temperatures for us were reaching more than 43 °C making cycling quite dangerous during the hours of peak sun (10am – 3 pm) and we often stopped around 11 for food and to relax with some cold drinks and sit with our faces in front of a fan. This was not always the case however, as the electricity is often out (see my next blog for more about power-cuts in Myanmar) meaning no cold drinks and no fans.

The road from Moneywa to Bagan was surprisingly good quality with prolonged straight stretches through the flat plains of the Irrawaddy river. Having not showered for several days we were desperate to find a well to get some washing down. We found a small lake near a village on the map and arrived at a beautiful temple with an ice cold well under a huge tree, the perfect place to stop for a few hours and cool down. In the evening we found ourselves in a village with an array of monasteries and Buddhist temples, and decided to ask at a monastery if we could put our tent there for the night. It seemed abandoned, but the old man seemed happy for us to stay, so we put our tents up and went into the village to get some beer and dinner. When we came back to our tents, the police arrived and told us in broken English that we had to go to a hotel, which was 70 km away. We explained this was impossible as it was already dark and it would not be safe for us to cycle. After some convincing they allowed us to stay provided we put our tents inside one of the abandoned buildings which looked like it was about to fall down, as it was not safe for us to have our tents outside in the open. Judging by the state of the building, it was probably more unsafe to sleep inside.

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Even in April, rice can still be grown using irrigation systems which divert water from the Irrawaddy river

The next morning, we started before sunrise and arrived into the area of Bagan around lunch time. We re-joined, the main road, hoping to avoid a toll booth which charges 25 000 Kyatt ($40 each) for foreigners to Bagan, only for a period of 3 days. However, we cycled straight past another ticket booth (for foreigners only) which we didn’t see on the map and turned around to try and take another road into Bagan through the villages to avoid paying the fee. The road was very sandy and slow but after a few kilometres we met up with the main road again heading for the village of New Bagan and subsequently managing to avoid the entrance fee. Although it may seem a bit stingy, the way we see it is we will spend all our savings on this trip (most of it going to local people and businesses) no matter what, so we might as well try and make it last.

We had a nice and relaxing 3 days in Bagan, camping amongst the temples and exploring the many thousands of ruins by bicycle. Our favourite temple was the Dhamma-Yan-Gyi Pahto which hadn’t been spectacularly renovated like some of the other temples and had a lot of the old artwork and paintwork inside. A few of the bigger temples have been renovated beyond recognition and had numerous tour busses parked outside and thousands of people entering each day. We avoided these as there are many other smaller temples to visit with fewer crowds of people, it’s very easy to spend days here getting lost on the sandy tracks. The sunrises and sunsets are very magical and if you find the right spot, it’s nice to sit with a beer and watch the red glow light up the entire ancient city. Since we were here during the low season there were not a lot of tourists around, but it meant that the camping was very difficult due to the heat. Our final night was spent inside an old temple, but it was so hot that I had to sleep outside on a wall to get the slightest of breezes. Camping in Bagan was relatively easy but since we often had to push our bikes through bushes and shrubs to find a secluded camp site, we suffered several punctures at the hands of some monstrous thorns. The day before we left, we were searching for a well to have a shower and were kindly invited in by a family who let us use their water to wash. The girls also got some thanaka on their faces and the rest of us were able to give our sleeping mats a good clean as a lot of salt from us sweating had accumulated on them.

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The sandy tracks around Bagan made for difficult cycling in the heat.

The following week was the start of the Burmese new year (Thingyan festival) which involves the entire country engaging in one giant water fight. The purpose of this is to wash away your sins of the previous year and start the new year freshly. We had heard that all the shops and markets would be closed during the festival time, so we stocked up on food and supplies for a few days, only to find pretty much every shop was open anyway. We took the road towards Meiktila where we planned to join the Mandalay-Yangon expressway down towards Naypyidaw, pretty much the only proper highway in Myanmar. We spent one night in a very peaceful monastery where one of the monks spoke good English and could give us some insight into the life of a monk. They spend most of their day meditating and don’t eat any food after noon. They also adopt a different name after they ordain as a monk, so when I asked him his name, he gave me 2 names. We were also informed that we mustn’t sleep with the soles of our feet facing towards Buddha, as this is a sign of disrespect. After dark several of the younger monks came down to the large Buddha shrines and gave offerings of food and drink to their teacher. They then sat I a meditative state in front of the shrine for hours. It’s interesting to see such a strong devotion for his teachings, but for me this is a little extreme. Buddhism in its core essence is not a religion in my eyes, it is a way of life and this “path” has been intertwined with theistic beliefs towards Buddha seeing him as a god. I know he is not seen as a god, he is just a teacher and they honour his teachings, but the way Buddha is revered seems awfully synonymous to the worship of gods in other religions.

Days were starting to get very hot now and we were often finding ourselves scouring the roadside for cold wells to cool ourselves in. We found one such well, but it had no bucket, so, we managed to fashion one using some rope and our travel kitchen sink. It worked a treat and we spent the afternoon chilling out under another bridge and periodically cooling ourselves down in the cold well. The next morning was the official start of the Thingyan festival and in the town of Meiktila we met up with the others and spent the day at the lake side getting splashed and squirted with water, eating some delicious Burmese food, strange sweet drinks and having a couple of beers. It was a swelteringly hot day, so we were thankful for the water splashing which cooled us down.

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Soaking wet, walking through the Thingyan festival in Meiktila.

In the evening, a little tipsy, we camped on a field south of the town. Little did we know it was military ground and several army men came over after dark to see what we were up to. They had definitely been drinking, and we very chatty and happy to see us. After 10 minutes, their commander arrived seeming a little embarrassed by the behaviour of his soldiers. He informed us we were not allowed to camp here as it is military ground and there was a chance someone could shoot us! We explained it was dark and we had nowhere else to go and after a little bit of convincing he let us stay, provided we didn’t venture into the bushes where men with guns would shoot us if we didn’t utter the correct password.

The following few days we followed the secondary road to Naypyidaw parallel to the expressway. We decided against cycling the expressway as we thought it would be a little boring and we wanted to experience more of the Thingyan festival. However, we soon realised we might have made a mistake. Getting water poured on you with drunk, dancing locals is fun for one afternoon. But getting buckets of water viciously thrown at you on a bike for 4 days straight starts to take its toll. We stuck out like sore thumbs on our strange, spaceship like vehicles and crowds of people would pick us out to violently splash us as hard as they could. The traffic in the towns was horrible and everyone was driving on their scooters drunk. One man ran at Josephine with yellow coloured water which as a joke I said might have been pee. It ended up with Josephine swerving and crashing into the front of me and coming off her bike badly. She suffered some pretty bad scratches on her knees and after cleaning the wounds up and cycling for another 10 minutes, her knees started to swell up a lot. We stopped at a petrol station and the owners kindly managed to source us a block of us to put on Josephines knee. They also gave us two energy drinks called Shark (which everyone drinks) but tasted like cold petrol.

During one of our passes by the crowds of water throwing people, I filmed the carnage on the GoPro which was violently smashed out of my hand by some kids with buckets of water. I turned around to see a truck almost run over the camera but managed to rescue it. When I turned around, I saw in the back of the truck, with my own eyes, an elephant. Josie and I tried desperately to catch the truck but it was too quick for us and the elephant disappeared off into the distance amidst the water hoses and sprays. After looking back at the GoPro footage, the camera was still filming down the road when the truck drove over it and you can briefly see the elephants bum in the video. Not award-winning footage, but still good to watch.

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Around every village, 10’s of kids would gather to splash any vehicle that went past.

After a relatively cooler night in the tent (due to a bit of a breeze) we awoke early and absolutely smashed the last 60 km to the capital city of Myanmar, Naypyidaw. We went straight to the train station to book ourselves a train to Yangon for the following day. There were not enough spaces for all 6 of us, just 4 of us and 4 bikes. Marian and Gerrit (who like sleeping in later and leaving later – typical 18 year olds) had not arrived to the station yet, so we booked 4 tickets and thought we would find a way to get them tickets later when they arrive. When they eventually arrived, they were also told that the train was full and they would have to wait several days for another train with seats available.

Naypyidaw is an odd place. It is a planned city, built between 2006 and 2012 by the military government at the time, with no-one living there. No-one knows the real reason why the capital was moved from Yangon. Some say it was to centralise the capital geographically, some say it was to avoid areas hit by cyclones, and some say it was because the military leader at the time, Than Shwe, just fancied it. The latter is understandable as in 1970, the then leader General Ne Win changed the country from driving on the left, to driving on the right, on the advice of a wizard.

The city of Naypyidaw is like a huge park made up of several small villages connected by huge 8-10 lane highways, with no traffic on them. The train station is 12 km’s from the main attraction (Uppatasanti Pagoda) which is another 9 kms from the main government buildings. The Uppatasanti Pagoda despite being around 99 meters high, was not as impressive as we expected (maybe it’s because we have seen so many pagodas in Myanmar already). You also need to remove your shoes to walk up the steps which were so hot you could probably have fried an egg on them. The 20 lane highway towards the government offices was even stranger. There were no vehicles on this highway at all, just a few gardeners keeping the immaculate hedges and flowers neat and tidy and every 500 meters a small box with a security guard inside on his/her phone. It was like cycling an abandoned airport. I think the purpose of this huge highway is for military parades as military dictatorships tend to like that kind of stuff.

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The Uppatasanti Pagoda, nearly 99 meters tall and 30 cm shorter than its replica, the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

We showered and washed our hair from a hose outside a supermarket (yes our shower locations are getting stranger and stranger, but people are so happy to help we never feel bad about it) and found a camp spot in a field 2 kms from the central station to catch our train in the morning. This shows how strange Naypyidaw is, the central station is 25 kms from the geographic centre of the “city” and there is so little in this city that we were able to camp in a field just a few kilometres from the main station with no bother at all. That night was the hottest I have ever experienced. In the day it was pushing 45°C and that night I could not sleep a wink from the heat. I must have sweated at least 2 litres of sweat onto my completely drenched sleeping bag and ended up having to sleep outside on the dirt to try and catch the smallest of breezes. We knew we had to find a solution to this camping business as the heat was starting to make us not enjoy camping, and we love camping.

The following morning, we all arrived at the train station a lot earlier than we needed to. Marian and Gerrit had organised a lift to Yangon with a truck the previous evening, but that fell through after a miscommunication meant the driver wanted to charge them $150. They came to the station with us in the morning to see if they could somehow manage to get on our train. Nothing at the train station was done electronically. The entire train booking for all the passengers is done on several sheets of A4 paper. However, because of this, I think things can be a lot more flexible and after 20 minutes of moving and re-arranging passengers and seats, voila, 2 extra seats and bike spaces became available. We were all going o be riding the 9 hour train journey to Yangon together in our own carriage. For the price of about $4 each.

Trystan

The land of smiles

South-East Asia part 1: Tamu, MY – Moneywa, MY

I have been meaning to write this blog for a while now but I never found the motivation whilst in Myanmar. The temperature and humidity was so high that I felt almost hungover at times and found it near impossible to gather the motivation to get the laptop out and start typing, especially in the tent where we would sweat uncontrollably for hours after settling in for the night. We are now in a hostel in Thailand for a few days with air conditioning for  Josephines birthday, so this is the perfect time to try and catch up on the Myanmar blogs and share with you all what is probably our FAVOURITE country yet.

The border from India to Myanmar (Moreh – Tamu border) has been open to foreigners for a few years, but only with prior clearance from the state, an expensive permit and a guide who needs to be with you at all times. Luckily for us, this border opened for foreigners for free and independent travel in August 2018 which meant we didn’t need to fly from India to Myanmar as we thought we would. First impressions of a country often relate to where you were previously. So in our case we were finding ourselves constantly making comparisons to India, which we tried to limit, after we realised we kept doing it. However, the contrast between culture across this border were probably the biggest on our trip.

Myanmar has had a troubled history with years of a military dictatorship attempting to implement a system labelled “The Burmese way to Socialism”. An economic and political disaster which, coupled with economic sanctions from The West, resulted in a severely disconnected nation from the world and extreme poverty and lack of basic infrastructure. The country recently transitioned to democracy and has become a lot more open to foreigners, but you can still sense that life is very traditional in Myanmar with very little cultural influences from outside.

We did a few small chores in the border town of Tamu, such as getting Burmese money (Kyatt – pronounced Chatt), trying some food and visiting the local market before hitting the road heading South. We were cycling as 6 people at this point and the roads were free from traffic and in pretty good shape. Unfortunately every 10 kms or so we would need to cross a very questionable single lane bridge with slippery wooden planks and nails poking out, but we soon mastered the method of crossing them without getting too injured.

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Crossing the Tropic of Cancer and officially entering the tropics!

Camping is illegal in Myanmar and foreigners are forbidden from staying with locals, so we were expecting to have to sneak around cautiously in order to find a camp spot for the night, especially with 6 of us! The first night we found a clearing in a forest and snuck in one by one from the road with someone keeping watch to make sure no motorist saw us going into the bush. We survived the first night, and second without being caught by anyone and it turned out that camping was actually super easy in Myanmar and as our confidence grew we found ourselves not bothering to hide our tents anymore and sleeping wherever we wanted.

Myanmar is super cheap and its easy to find a meal for under £1. The food is the halfway point between India and South-East Asia. It sounds good right? Not so much. I would say that it is the worst aspects of both cuisines. It has the oiliness and heaviness of Indian food without the flavour and the ingredients of South-Eat Asian food without the freshness. Every now and then however you would find a delicious meal on the road side consisting of rice and several plates of curry and other vegetables.

On our second day in Myanmar we bumped into another German cyclist going the same way as us, Sebastian. Now there were 7 of us and lunch stops and evenings were pretty enjoyable. We took a small detour to a town called Kalay to try and find a supermarket to stock up on some supplies. We managed to find porridge, but that was it. Supermarkets are very hard to find outside of big cities and pretty poorly stocked. You really have to adapt your diet to the local and somewhat limited produce in Myanmar.

After 9 months on the road our equipment was slowly starting to degrade. The valve on our fuel pump broke (luckily I had a spare) and the day after the tension pin on my Brooks saddle snapped in half! I managed to temporarily fix it with inner tube, cable ties and gaffa tape, but I wasn;t sure how long it would last, 10 km? 1000km? (As I write this it is 900 km later in Thailand and the saddle is still going strong! Iv’e order another pin here too which I should pick-up in Chiang Mai).  Still though, we have been very happy with our bikes and equipment and have not yet had any major breaks, malfunctions or losses.

Our road veered East through some hills and along a river which gave us the perfect opportunity to have a swim next to some water buffalo who were watching us and probably thinking, WTF? We found a hidden camp spot by the river that night but didn’t spend much time out of the tent as a thunderstorm came in and almost blew Sebastians tent away! The heat in the day was also starting to get pretty high so we started setting our alarm for 0400 am in order to avoid cycling in the hottest part of the day. We love doing this as we get to see the sunrise every day and cycle on the roads when they are super quiet.

At Kalewa, the road turned south through a beautiful valley with perfectly straight mountains either side going off into the distance. Unfortunately, the road deteriorated here into absolute carnage. The road infrastructure in Myanmar is pretty poor, particularly near the border areas as the border have historically been closed for so long. India is funding a new highway to be built to better connect the 2 countries, but we cycled this road during the beginning of this construction period. Josephine had also come down with a pretty bad cold, so the next few days were quite hard, especially with the heat.

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The house of the family we stayed with. Josephine was given thanaka for her face, its a cross between sun cream and make-up that 90 % of Burmese people wear on their faces.

We stopped early one day near a river to set up camp and as we were cooking dinner, a lady came over to Sebastian, Josie and I offering us food and a bed at her house. We were surprised as we weren’t allowed to do this, but kindly accepted and followed her to her village. Her house and family were lovely; her daughter spoke a little bit of English and she made us some delicious food. All her neighbours and family turned up in the morning to say hello, get photos and just generally see us as I don’t think they had seen foreigners here before. After showing us around their village and giving us a LOAD of bananas (and Josephine getting thanaka on her cheeks – the traditional sun screen used from tree bark) we got back on the bikes and cycled a few km down the road to meet Cloe who had told us to stop at a Buddhist pagoda where there was a small ceremony going on.

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The whole village.

As we arrived at the Buddhist pagoda I went to get the solar panel out to charge my phone but then realised I had left it at the river 12 kms back along the terrible road. There was no way I could bring myself to cycle back there, so I asked one of the monks if he could help me arrange a motorbike which I could drive back to get it. Eventually, a man offered me his bike as long as he sat on the back with me. The bike had 4 gears and the monk asked if I new how to drive it. “Yes of course”, I said but in actual fact I had no idea. Luckily, it was very simple and after 2 hours of driving and having basic conversations with the guy on the back I returned back to the pagoda with the solar panel and I gave the guy some money for petrol. A few minutes later the monk came back and told me to give the guy more money, 10 000 Kyatt (~ £5) which I thought was quite a lot to pay for a litre of petrol. Eventually I haggled them down to 5 000 Kyatt but I got the impression that everyone else was on my side and were trying to reason with the monk that he was asking for a bit much. After paying the guy, another old man appeared out of nowhere and gave me a 5 000 Kyatt note which I found hard to accept, but he wouldn’t let me reject it. He and his family also gave us lunch and more bananas for the road. We had a lovely afternoon with these amazing people.

It is worth mentioning at this point, how warmhearted and friendly the Burmese people are. Immediately after crossing the border we were greeted with happiness, smiles, waving and offerings. Everyone looks and felt so happy. Despite most people having almost nothing, they were by far the happiest people we have met on our trip. Even though the language barrier is huge for us in Myanmar, it didn’t feel like it at all due to the smiliness and relaxed vibes the people give.

The next day was one of the toughest of our trip. The terrible roads and steep hills made for slow going and we passed nowehere to eat or to set up the tent. We had spotted a river on our map but by 7 pm we were still 10 km away and it was getting dark. Josephine ended up having to hitchike to the town 10 km away whilst Cloe, Sebastian and I slogged it out into the night to get to the town for dinner and somewhere to sleep. We made it after 8 pm and had a delicious meal and found some flat ground right in front of the river. The next morning we woke up to a load of people coming down from the village to the river to collect the vegetables they were growing on the river bank. Children were bringing the cows to graze and the men brought the water buffalo down. The whole village was hard at work and no-one batted an eye-lid that we we wre camping right next to the river. In the late morning the women started washing their clothes in the river and we decided to take a day off in this quiet village and do washing of our own. The rest of the day was spent hanging out under the bridge to escape the sun and leaving our tent and clothes to dry in the warm wind.

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Sebastian and Josephine on a relatively good stretch of road.

The following day was an early one as we had a very steep 600 m climb to tackle before the peak heat of the day. The roads were (of course) terrible but we made the top in good time, however, the downhill on the other side took more time than the uphill. The road had turned into chunky boulders and sand which meant our hands and wrists were aching from permanently squeezing the brakes. Half an hour into the downhill I was starting to miss the uphill! After a few kilometers of soft sand which led to us having to push the bikes for a bit, we arrived in the village of Yargi where we were able to give the bikes a rinse with a hose, have some food and tea and continue on PAVED road.

After crossing the hills, the landscape started to change drastically. We had gone from rice paddy fields and forest into semi-arid steppe, similar to what we cycled in Kazakhstan! It was extremely dry, almost desert like with no fields or hills around. Fortunately, finding a camp spot was not too hard, however more rain came in and we had to take shelter under a bamboo and grass shack until the rain passed.

The next day, Sebastian, Josie and I reunited with Cloe who had gone on ahead when we had our day off. We stopped in the town of Moneywa and found a huge supermarket (not huge by European standards though) where we were able to find some very important supplies. Porridge, coffee, peanut butter and honey. The contrast between the super market and the small shops”we had been in the previous week was immense. There was also A/C in the supermarket so naturally, we didn’t want to leave.

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I don’t think this little legend was for sale!

The town of Moneywa is famous for having 3 prominant statues of Buddha a few kms south of the city. There is a 116 m tall standing Buddha statue, a 90 m long reclining Buddha and another sitting Buddha statue currently under construction. They are really impressive and can be seen from miles away on the cycle towards the site. We walked around the Buddhas for an afternoon and it really hit home how religious the people in Myanmar are. This site is somewhat of a pilgrimage site for many people and I soon realised that the endless stalls selling clothes, food and other stuff were not directed at “western tourists”, but rather more likely for the Burmese pilgrims and domestic tourists.

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Rolling up to the huge Buddha statues near Moneywa.

We left the Buddhas in the evening and after an hour of searching, found the perfect camp spot next to a small lake with a temple in the middle. My stomach was not in a good state and I had to run into the bushes several times to relieve myself, but Cloe had some strange Indian medicine for me which seemed to do the trick. Although we were again spotted by some villagers, we were not bothered after dark and had a semi-good sleep as the inside of the tent was like a sauna. I am not sure if our tent is hot because of the design or because there are 2 of us emitting body heat in it, or both, but camping was starting to get very difficult now that night time temperatures only drop to about 28 degrees.

We were only a couple of days from the ancient city of Bagan, the capital of the former Bagan empire. This was the only actual place we had identified to visit before coming to Myanmar, and we were pretty excited about it. The three young Germans (Gerrit, Marian and Johannes) had gone ahead of us to Mandalay a few days previously, but we had agreed to reunite again in Bagan and camp for a few days amongst the ancient temples.

Trystan