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.

DSC_0493
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.

DSC_0494
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.

DSC_0504
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.

DSC_0508
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.

DSC_0518
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.

DSC_0525
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.

DSC_0534
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

Advertisements

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!

DSC_0384
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.

DSC_0388
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.

DSC_0405
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.

DSC_0429
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.

DSC_0450
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.

DSC_0458
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.

DSC_0215
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.

DSC_0250
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.

DSC_0319
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.

DSC_0324
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.

DSC_0333
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.

DSC_0335
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.

DSC_0147
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.

DSC_0156
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.

DSC_0185

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.

DSC_0161
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.

DSC_0190
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.

DSC_0011
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.

DSC_0009
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.

DSC_0027
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.

DSC_0023
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.

DSC_0057
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).

DSC_2511
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).

DSC_2532
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.

DSC_2560
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.

DSC_2555
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.

DSC_2573
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.

DSC_2315
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.

DSC_2361
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.

DSC_2426
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.

DSC_2450
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.

DSC_2486
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.

DSC_2106
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.

DSC_2192
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.

DSC_2186
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.

DSC_2253
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.

DSC_2259
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.

DSC_2279
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

What we learnt about India.

Whilst sitting on my balcony in Germany before we left on the trip, I recall vividly our decision to change our route from crossing China, to crossing India. We were always reluctant to accept that we wanted to go to India and I’m not quite sure what factor(s) eventually led us to choose this route south of the Himalayas, rather than cycling North of them. I don’t tend to read peoples blogs about their experiences cycling in other countries before going there myself. I don’t feel it helps me and I like not having any expectations before arriving in a new country. Josephine is different to me though. She likes reading up and hearing about other peoples experiences in countries before we visit and I’m sure there are many other people like her who do the same. Josephine read quite a few blogs and spoke to people who cycled through India and what we generally got from them was that India is hard work. It seemed the general consensus from people was that you would not really enjoy your time in India, but you would be nonetheless glad you went anyway.

There were several aspects of our time in India which no blogs or peoples personal experiences could have prepared us for, and I want to summaries these aspects briefly for anyone else considering cycling in India. Of course, everyone’s experience in India is different, but there are some things which I feel everyone will experience and it may be good to be prepared for them before arriving in India. I hope the few things written in this blog don’t put anyone off going to India, if anything, my aim is to target people who are sitting on the fence and give them that final push to commit to visiting this incredible country.

Selfies

The selfie-craze reached a new level for us in India. It was okay for our first few days in India but after a while it began to grind us down. We would get between 30 – 50 requests a day often from people riding alongside our bikes on their scooters asking for selfies. People come and interrupt your meals to ask for selfies, some would drive past us and turn around to come back and ask for a selfie. 90 % of these requests were done without even saying hello first. Sometimes people would not even ask and just get their phone out and start snapping. They never smile and sometimes they don’t even know how to take a selfie on their phone. It seems like they are just doing it because they think its trendy. When you ask them what they plan to do with the selfie, they can never answer, they don’t know. I think most of the time they just put it on Instagram or Facebook to “show-off” their new white “friends”. We eventually came up with a set of our own “selfie rules”: we would only allow a selfie with someone if we weren’t cycling and they had first said hello and had a conversation with us. After even a basic conversation we felt the selfie was justified. Unfortunately, this meant we declined about 98 % of people selfie requests. Almost everyone would accept our answer, however a select few would follow us persistently asking  “Why, brother? Why?”. I lost my cool with these people a few times. My advice is: Have a lot of patience, be polite and it shouldn’t ruin your experience of India. I wonder what everyone did 15 years ago before the boom in smartphones?

Roads

Because we are travelling by bicycle, the roads play a huge part in our experience of a country. If you are backpacking, things such as road quality, traffic and driving won’t affect your perception of a country. However for us, it does. Indian driving is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. I cannot impress how lazy, ignorant and stupid people are on the roads in this country. The driving is suicidal. Lorries drive on both sides of the road and vehicles overtake on blind corners with rogue cows and dogs wandering across the road. Once, I witnessed Josie being overtaken by 4 vehicles, at the same time. A motorbike was overtaking Josie whilst being overtaken by another motorbike which was being overtaken by a car which was being overtaken by a lorry.

At first it appears that there is no system or road rules in India, but I think there is. The rules are, if you larger, you have right of way, and that’s the only rule. Naturally this puts us bottom of the pecking order which is frustrating, but you don’t really have a choice. The roads are dangerous. But luckily not all is bad. They don’t drive fast (its rare to see a vehicle going faster than ~70 kmh), and there are plenty of smaller back roads you can take instead of the highways. Road quality is generally pretty good and there is always something to see when taking the smaller back roads. Cycling in India is never boring.

People

Its near impossible to summarise the people in such an ethnically and culturally diverse  nation. So instead, I will mention our take on certain aspects of the wonderful people in this country.

Before visiting India you need to remove all you preconceptions about manners. Manners as we know it (at least in Europe) are very different from manners in India. They spit, they stare, they don’t say please or thank you and they have no consideration for personal space. At first this gives you the impression that they are all rude, but they’re not, their manners are just different. I am sure this works in reverse and there are likely certain things we did that people might have found rude (wearing shoes in certain places for example). We also felt that it required a little bit of work to get a smile out of people, however giving the first smile and wave always resulted in people returning the favour enthusiastically.

In India its very hard for people to tell you “No”, and to avoid this they will tell you yes because they don’t want to disappoint you. “Is there Wifi here?”, “Yes”. There isn’t. “Can we eat here?”, “Yes”. You can’t. One thing we learnt in India is that everything is possible, and given enough assertiveness from your side, things can get done. In actual fact, we found many of the people in India to be some of the friendliest and most helpful on our entire trip. They want to look after you, they want you to be safe, they want you to be happy, they need to please you. This can sometimes be a bit much and at times we felt like we were being fussed over too much, almost as if we were being treated like royalty.

You also need to remove any preconceptions that Indians are dirty. They are actually very clean people and super hygienic. They wash their hands regularly and seem to be always brushing their teeth. They look after themselves very well. The problem is that there are so many of them living in such a small area, that their surrounding environment inevitably takes a hit. The streets are filthy, the canals and waterways are polluted. But this is just a bi-product of an extremely high population density.

Luckily for us, almost everyone in India has relatively good knowledge of English which weakens the language barrier compared to other countries. Unfortunately, this also meant we made no effort to learn Hindi or any other local languages, as it wasn’t essential for us. India has hundreds of languages and you would have to learn a new one every few days to keep up with the changing regions, especially in the North East. Communication though, was never an issue for us as it has been in other countries (eg. Myanmar, Azerbaijan) and this made for lots of interesting and entertaining conversations with people from many different walks of life, an experience we seldom received in other countries.

Food

India has a lot of food. Simply choosing something to eat can be a task in itself. Will it be too spicy? How long have those samosas been sitting there? Will it make me ill?  Yes, Josephine and I did get ill (the poops) but I am becoming increasingly less convinced that all illnesses encountered in India are a result of bad food. There is a lot of everything in India (people, rubbish, animals etc.) and this makes for the perfect incubator for viruses and bacteria. So although it is possible to get sick from eating bad food, washing your hands and keeping you fingers out of you mouth will probably do a lot to limit your chances of getting ill, rather than being more careful with what you eat. One tip we did hear from a host we stayed with, was to avoid eating street food cooked in dark-coloured oil as this means it has likely been reused for several days and might not be too good for you.

Because of Hinduism, vegetarian food is super easy to find everywhere, and is always super cheap and, of course, delicious. We found that the best bet when ordering food is simply asking for “rice”. This is a plate of rice with several different curries on the side. Every one is different and none of them are bad. We never had trouble finding food, it is available everywhere and if you don’t want it spicy, then just say, and they won’t put any chillis in. We didn’t have any trouble with getting food that was too spicy apart from one time, our first meal in India, which was so spicy that I couldn’t even eat it. Looking back, one of the highlights of India for us was the food. If you are a foodie, it is definitely the place to go.

Noise

We weren’t really prepared for how loud India is. Everything is loud. There is noise everywhere. The horn beeping is relentless. Trucks and cars often have enhanced horns which are extra loud so they can be heard over the sounds of the other horns. We found cycling with headphones or earplugs worked well. Whilst camping, we always heard dogs barking or music playing in the distance. Sometimes pumping music was played all night long. Even Hinduism is loud with horns being blown and bells being rang to scare aware evil spirits. It is almost impossible to find any real silence, and when you finally think you have, a cow will moo loudly right next to you. India.

 

I must stress again, our thoughts and experiences are only from our encounters in the Northern part of India. We didn’t spend any time in the South and if we were to go back to India, the South is where we would be heading. We have found though, that our route from Delhi, across the North and towards Myanmar is pretty common among cycle tourists and we hope this small summary will prepare people who are planning a similar route to us. Some things cannot really be stressed enough in writing, such as how terrible the driving is, how delicious the food is or how loud everything is,. You will just have to experience these things for yourself. It may also be possible that you read this blog go to India and have completely different experiences to us and disagree with everything I wrote in this blog. If this is the case, I will not be surprised at all. Everyone’s experience in India is different and you never know what you will see around the next corner. But if you like surprises, diversity and hard work for high reward, you should love India. We did, and we will definitely return again one day.

Trystan

If you want to see the route we took through India, it’s on our homepage!

Insurgents in the jungle

Southern Asia part 7: Shillong, IN – Moreh, IN

After being blessed with holy water by Winwards legendary mum, we left Shillong by immediately climbing 400 meters out of the city on a curvy, steep and traffic riddled road. It wasn’t warm either. We were in our rain coats and the scenery looked a little bleak. Empty hills with the occasional group of pine trees. At the top of the hill you could see a huge Indian air force rotating radar which added to the “industrious” landscape. It wasn’t the nicest of roads we have cycled on. We camped next to some rice paddys in an alpine forest and had a chilly night sleep since we sent all our winter clothes home. We hadn’t expected Meghalaya to be so cold, but it is! The climate reminded us of English summer. You expect it to be warm but you still need to wear trousers and a fleece. Looking back, as I write this blog in a cafe in Myanmar in 38 degrees C, Meghalayan climate was perfect.

The following day was the most depressing road we have ever cycled on. Thousands of huge Tata trucks were beeping us and overtaking us on the road. The landscape looked like hell, burnt pine trees and coal mines dispersed amongst polluting factories. Additionally, many of the locals appeared to be either drunk or mentally ill with horrible black and missing teeth from chewing the beetle nut which is sold at every roadside shack. We eventually found our beautiful downhill dropping from 1800 meters to 60 meters descending into thick humid and warm jungle and found the perfect camp next to a crystal clear river. Here, we had one of the best washes of our life and chilled out for the whole afternoon on the beach playing cards and drinking coffee. The jungle was exactly what we had imagined Meghalaya to be like based on the photos we had seen online. Unfortunately, our memories of Meghalaya will be scarred by barren hills, industry and horribly busy roads. The parts of Meghalaya you see photos of on the internet constitute about 2% of Meghalaya.

The final day of cycling in Meghalaya turned out to be great. There were two small climbs through the jungle passing by small villages with very happy, cheering children and plenty of waterfalls and rivers to cool ourselves down. Unfortunately, the traffic was still terrible and the trucks were really starting to annoy us. Most were from Punjab and waved frantically as they drive past us, A very friendly and warming gesture, but we had no more interest, motivation or passion to return the waving. India was taking its toll on us.

After seeking shelter in a road side shack to escape a crazy thunderstorm, we exited Meghalaya, arriving in the flat lands, back into Assam and back into super populated craziness. Coincidentally, it was the Hindu festival of Holi (celebrating the arrival of spring with lots of coloured powder) and our final 20 kms into the city of Silchar involved several groups of young people sabotaging us and covering us with coloured powder and asking for selfies. We were more willing with the selfies that day, as it was their national holiday and we were subsequently in a good mood. However, upon arriving in the city of Silchar around 4 pm, we witnessed the dark side of Holi. Groups of horribly drunk men savaged us with colour and aggressiveness attempting to get selfies with the white people on bicycles. Josephine was borderline assaulted by several men violently smearing colour on her face. Needless to say I made very clear to them afterwards, how I felt about their drunken actions. and they did not bother us gain after that. Josie ended up having to wield a bamboo stick to fight off the disgraceful behaviour by these drunken fools. After witnessing an angry mob smashing up a car and burning it with petrol (and almost beating up an onlooker (filming it on his mobile phone), we grabbed 2 beers and hid in our hotel room for the rest of the evening.

We rendezvoused in Silchar with a 19 year old solo German cyclist, Johannes, who was coming from Bangladesh and heading the same way as us into Myanmar. So we left Silchar as a three, and after 40 kms we entered our final Indian state of Manipur. We had heard mixed reviews about this state with many Indian people warning us it was unsafe and not worth visiting and foreign travelers and cycle tourists expressing to us how beautiful, wild and unspoiled it was. We were also told that this state has several active militant groups engaged in a long running fight for independence from India.

DSC_1996
A snapshot of the roads through Manipur, good quality with the occasional truck grumbling past.

Upon arriving in this state, we had to register with the police and military at the border and have our photo taken and passports photographed. That night we cycled past a local man with a rifle hung over his back and after struggling to find a good camp spot we were invited to stay with a family in a local village. It took us less than a day to realise why this state wants to be independent from India. It is NOTHING like India in Manipur. The people look South-East Asian and speak Tibeto-Burman and Austroasiatic languages (like Vietnamese). They also eat very unique food and interestingly, were historically their own Kingdom after independence from the British, one day before India gained independence.

DSC_1994
The family we stayed with in our first village in Manipur.

The roads in Manipur are pretty good. Mostly asphalted, with the occasional 40 cm deep mud hole and extremely hilly. We spent several days of climbing through humid jungle and slept overnight at an Indian army base (we pitched our tents on a helipad!) as we were unable to find any flat spot to put our tents. The army guys were awesome and gave us a litre of Guava juice each for the road when we left. I had a “conversation” with one of the generals about religion, as he as a Christian and I am an atheist. Originally upon our arrival in Central Asia and in the beginning of India, if people asked our religion we would say we were Christians to save ourselves from any awkwardness and problems due to the language barrier. However we have come to realise, that we need to tell people the truth when they ask, as they need to know that religion does not play as much of a major role in peoples lives in the West as it does in India. Interestingly, several people have actually told me that they think its good and aspiring that I am an atheist and no-one has given me any grief at all for not believing in god. After telling the army guy I was an atheist and that I didn’t believe in heaven he was shocked and asked “Why? Christianity is good!”. I won’t go into detail regarding my reasons for being an atheist, but he heard them all and he was definitely speechless afterwards. Whether this was out of shock, or a language barrier, I am not sure.

DSC_2018
Our camp on the Helipad of the Indian army base

We had one more long hot climb before descending into the plateau and into Imphal, our final Indian city. We met up with our Warmshowers host, Abow, who invited us into his home and into his family like no-one has before. Abow and his family felt like our own after just 3 nights. We didn’t stay long but it felt like we could have stayed for months. We were able to wash our bikes, clothes, selves and recuperate before our final push to the Myanmar border. There is too much to write about our stay with Abow and his amazing family, so I will summarize some of our experiences in a few sentences:

  • We discovered that bananas sold in odd numbers are considered lucky in the local pagan religion, and cost 4 x more than bananas in even numbers.
  • There is a female only market in Imphal, the only in the world, where all vendors must be married women. There are 4 market halls full of vendors. I won’t go into the history of this market but you should read more about it, it’s fascinating.
  • Abow’s family were the royal family (his great grandfather was the king of Manipur) until Manipur’s was incorporated into India in 1949 and the Indian government forced the royal family to abdicate.
DSC_2061
From left to right: Abow’s dad, Trystan Cloé, Abow, Josephine and Johannes

We also managed to recruit another member to our peleton (who was also staying with Abow), a 23 year old architecture student from France named Cloé, who was also travelling solo by bike. We left Abows place together equipped with new “dust masks” to prevent our lungs from suffering any more damage from Indian cities (in hindsight, we should have bought these when we arrived in Delhi 3 months ago). Cloé had been invited to the Manipur university by someone she had met elsewhere in India to have a brief informal meeting with the students, and she invited us along to join. Little did we know the four of us would be sat at the front of a lecture hall of 60 people and asked to give an hour presentation about our travels around the world by bike, with no prior warning! It actually turned out to be a great afternoon and I managed to steer the “presentation” into an hour long Q&A session with I think the students liked. They were super polite and had some really nice question about not just our trips but also about things like French culture (Cloé’s expertise) and what it is like to be a teacher in the UK (Josephine’s expertise).

DSC_2049
The women’s only market in Imphal.

We had an 800 meter climb to get over before a downhill into the border town of Moreh so we decided to camp at the bottom of the climb and tackle it in the early morning at the coolest time of the day. We were struggling to find a good camp spot on the Imphal plateau and after 30 minutes of searching we spotted what at first looked like a fancy hotel but later turned out to be a new hospital. There were perfectly kept green lawns out the front and we asked the security guard if we could put our tent there. He led us into the hospital and into an office where the owner sat us down and ordered someone to bring us coffee. After explaining a lot about his life in the army and his new hospital, he said he would give us a room of our own and got his wife to cook us an amazing dinner. He also had SUPER fast Wifi which was good as Josie and I had run out of podcasts to listen to on the bike. It also gave us a good chance to Skype our family with good internet connection for the first time since Siliguri.

The next morning was one of the best of our entire trip. The head doctor (also the owner of the hospital) had 5 white Labradors (1 mum and 4 puppies) which we met and played with before leaving. They had the best names too, Peter, John, Macey, Jessie and…I forgot the last one. They were awesome though and we left the hospital with huge smiles on our faces. “The doctor” and his wife were great and we massively appreciated their kind hospitality.

We started the big climb out of the plateau and down to the border town of Moreh and funnily enough bumped into two more cycle tourists! Gerrit an Marian (both 18 years old) from Germany were also heading to Myanmar and so we cycled together as a 6 for the remainder of the day. We also passed an Australian cycle tourist going in the opposite direction which was pretty crazy. Seeing 7 loaded up touring bikes together looked like we were partaking in an organised tour.

The Myanmar/India border in Moreh only opened to foreigners (without the need for a special permit) in August 2018. Therefore, this border and the road leading to it acts as a funnel for cycle tourists and makes encounters with others highly likely. The road to Moreh was not the best and we encountered several Indian army checkpoints where we had to show our passports (3 checkpoints in total) all of which close at 16:30 pm. Still, we ended up rolling into Moreh quite late and it soon came apparent there was nowhere in the vicinity we could wild camp. However, Josephine and I knew what to do in these situations, head straight to the police station. We hadn’t tried this with 6 of us before, but we did manage to convince them to let us pitch our 4 tents on their badminton court outside the station. That night we toured the town of Moreh but there wasn’t much. We had some rice in an eatery and after an hour of searching managed to find watermelon (Johannes and I were desperate for this) and milk which Josie “illegally” bought from a cafe off some lovely people who, of course, wanted a selfie with us. People are super helpful in Manipur.

DSC_2086
Josie’s attendance in the Police stations morning roll-call and exercise session.

The following morning we had to move our tents off the Badminton court before 6 am as this was where the police staff gathered for morning roll-call. Josie was invited to join in, and stood in formation with the 50 other staff for 20 minutes as the head officer gave a speech in a mixture of Meiti (Manipuri language) and English. They welcomed her by saying “and welcome to the English Police” with a huge smile.  It is incredible how prominent English is in India. Partly because of the British empire but also because there are so many languages in India (some very different) that English is the easiest language for people of different ethno-linguistic groups to communicate in.

Marian and I had a shower at the water well in the police station, which was incredible (after 2 very sweaty days of climbing hills) and we all hopped on our bikes and rode the two km’s to the India/Myanmar border. We had our passports checked by the Indian army several times and were then diverted to a giant ferry terminal-like building (which was completely empty) to get our Indian exit stamps. It still amazes me how old-school Indian Bureaucracy is. Everything was done in a gigantic notebook (both immigration and customs – nothing was electronic) and the immigration officer ended up writing down our Myanmar visa number instead of our Indian visa number, so we had to go through the whole process twice. Unbelievable. But that’s India for you.

DSC_2090
Crossing from India into Myanmar, the bridge over the stream which separates the two countries.

India is simultaneously so progressive, and so backwards. But that is the epitome of India. It is a roller coaster, you love it and hate it. You want to leave but you still need to stay. Some of your best memories are in India and some of your worst. We left India unsure about how to sum it up and how to tell people what our opinion is on it. You can’t compare it to other countries, its not a single cultural experience, its an explosion of euphoria, happiness, frustration, satisfaction, joy, fear, hatred, anger, shock and absolute bliss. Nothing we had read before our trip to India could have prepared us for what we experienced. The people were the friendliest and most helpful we have met on our whole trip but, also the most disgusting, rude and strange we have seen. I cannot sum-up India for 2 reasons: 1) It is too varied and diverse to classify our experience as a single entity and 2) we only had a tiny taste of this hyper-country. We entered 8 out of the 29 states without even touching the southern Dravidian regions or the “well-known” regions such as Punjab, Gujarat or Rajasthan. Instead what Josephine and I will do, is give a small summary of several aspects of our experiences and feelings towards this mammoth country in the next blog.

Trystan