Month: March 2015

Oops!

Well, I got hit by a truck.

From behind.  Cowardly truck…

I’ve spent the last 48 hours or so in hospital, mostly comically spaced-out on painkillers: 

Sadly, this means the trip’s over.

Happily, I’m still alive, with only a smashed collar-bone and some heavy bruising and scratches to show for it.

The Beast’s at a police station in unknown condition (guessing not good).

Will update you on how things are in another few days.

And what happens next, of course 😉 

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The Back Roads

After the days on The Slab (and I’d been on that road, and its gargantuan identical siblings for far too long), the back roads finally beckoned on Wednesday.

It was a nice change.  Virtually no traffic, an almost total lack of diesel fumes to breathe, and time to stop to admire the view.

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But before that, there was the mystery of the multiplying bikes to work out.

I parked up at the cheapest hotel in Chaiya on Tuesday evening, just before sunset.  The Beast was accommodated in the lobby, tied neatly to the railing on the stairs, and completely alone.

By the time I returned from grabbing some food, there was another bike trying (unsuccessfully, I hope) to mate with The Beast.  And two more (very expensive) adventure touring bikes nestled together on the other side of the room.

It was all very disturbing.  I didn’t see them arrive, and I didn’t see the owners.  It was like The Beast had just spawned a whole family in the time I’d been away.  Terrifying.

I didn’t see them leave, either.  Disembodied voices were all I heard, the next morning, as they all scooted off a few minutes before my alarm meant I was ‘officially’ awake.

Well, I did say I was a little slow in the mornings, didn’t I?

I never did meet the Dutch couple who owned the adventure tourers.  They were heading south.  But, having struggled out of my pit with my usual enthusiasm, I rolled north on the back roads, hours later.  And eventually saw a figure on a bike by the side of the road.  A familiar bike; the one that had been cuddled up to the Beast.

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The figure turned out to be Ringo Zheng, from Shanghai, who’s riding north from Malaysia.  He’s a really nice bloke.  Amazingly enough, his name isn’t really Ringo at all.  He picked it out of a list when he discovered his real name was hard to pronounce.  And only then found out that he’d named himself after the least famous Beatle.

Anyway, after a bit of chit-chat and some water melon, we got down to business.  It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to share the work with someone else, and it’s amazing the difference it makes.  We took turns on the front, and were zipping along between 25 and 27kph (16-17mph) for a good few hours.

Ringo was nice enough to shoot a video of me putting in a turn on the front, which, if you’ve not seen it on FB already, can be found here.  I’m not sure it’s worth it unless you’re really interested in seeing what I look like from behind while riding.  But I couldn’t have shot it myself, so it’s nice for me to have.

We rode together until late afternoon, and then went our separate ways.  Ringo wanted to push on, while I’d made my target for the day.  I don’t think we’re that far apart still, so there’s a fair chance we’ll bump into each other again.  Though I’ll try to keep the bikes apart next time.  Don’t want any ‘accidents’…

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For me, it was back on the Slab on Thursday, making a dull but efficient run to Chumphon, where I had a day off on Friday (and finally got my clothes washed – well overdue).

And then, back to the back roads today.  Hopefully, I can stay on them for the next few days.

Apart from an increase in dog chases, which I haven’t had to worry about for ages, it’s much more pleasant riding.  Being by the coast, you get the chance to have a look at the beaches (mostly empty) and the scenery without having trucks and buses constantly bearing down on you.  And there always seems to be more interesting stuff to see away from the main roads, wherever you are.

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I’m still waiting for the hordes of tourists to emerge.  Everything seems suspiciously quiet so far.  But I’m edging into the resort areas now, so I guess it’s only a matter of time.  I should only be a couple of days to Hua Hin, where I was once part of those hordes myself.

Not sure whether I will be again?  It would be nice to think that being on a bike and going around the world makes you a traveller, rather than a tourist.  It certainly feels different on the small roads and in the little villages.  But in a tourist resort, with a load of other foreigners?

We’ll see, I suppose…

Celebrations and Coincidence on The Slab

Dull but efficient.

There are hardly any worse words with which to begin a post, I’d imagine.  Sounds like a lecture on German public toilets, or something.

However, it’s the only way I can describe Thai Highway 41 (also known as Asian Highway 2).  And it’s dominated the last few days.  It’s a pretty flat, very smooth, unnecessarily wide and interminably long lump of tarmac that runs all the way up peninsular Thailand.  It’s got me pretty much all the way across to the east coast.

But it’s crushingly boring.  And it’s hot.  And it just goes on, and on, and on.  I’m calling it ‘The Slab’.

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Thankfully, other events have taken my mind off it in the last couple of days.

To start with, I stayed up too late on Sunday, and had an extra drink.  Or two.

I should know better than to have too much beer on a school night (especially now that ‘school night’ implies that the next day will involve a vast amount of sweating).

But it was a momentous day, as I’m sure you’re all aware.  Bristol City were playing Walsall in the FA Trophy final (now named after an otherwise obscure paint company) at Wembley Stadium.  I spent ages trying to find a live stream.  I ended up listening on internet radio.  Not quite the same as being there.  Still, City won 2-0, and will now forever be the first team to win the trophy three times.  So you can hopefully understand why a small over-indulgence was called for.

An entirely predictable consequence was that I didn’t get enough sleep.  But, given no obvious hangover (and more importantly, a tailwind), yesterday became a low effort, high-speed rush along The Slab for 90-odd kilometres.  I even had enough time to grab a picture of the one interesting thing I saw; a huge, lonely Buddha waiting on a huge building site for a temple to be built around him:

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The lack of sleep (and, just possibly, a touch of delayed dehydration) caught up with me this morning.  I felt abysmally rough, and failed to get out of bed with anything approaching enthusiasm.  It was baking outside already, so I did some emergency re-planning, and settled on a much shorter day to give myself a chance to recover.

I was, therefore, only about 60km down the road by three o’clock this afternoon, and nearly finished for the day.  I saw a loaded touring cyclist, decked out in Thai flags on the other side of the road.  He didn’t notice me, but I noticed a cafe behind him.  I trundled over for a drink.  And saw another loaded bike hiding in the shadows.  It belonged to Colin.

And, get this…  Colin is from the UK.  From England.  From the West Midlands.  From Walsall.  What are the chances?

Bristol and Walsall meet twice in three days.  Once at Wembley Stadium in London, and once (with bikes) in a cafe in southern Thailand.  And all because of that extra lager on Sunday.  Isn’t that remarkable?

No?  Well, it’s as remarkable as this post’s getting, anyway.

The only other vaguely remarkable thing to happen to me in the last few days is my discovery of the range of room quality that you get in Thailand for more-or-less the same price.  A few days ago, my room had an improvised washing facility involving (spotlessly clean) dustbins.  Yesterday, I was in a brand new motel unit.  With (slightly alarmingly) mirrors on the ceiling:

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That picture looks odder the more I see it…

Now, the sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the title of this post implies that more than one celebration should have been featured.  The second has nothing to do with me, at all (not sure that the first one had that much to do with me, either, come to think of it).

But it’s still well worth celebrating.  My cousin Jess, and her husband Jay (though I’m guessing he’s getting less of the credit), have just had a baby girl!  Congratulations and love to all three of you, and I’m looking forward to meeting Winnie when I get back home.

And that seems like a good place to leave it for now.  My dependence on The Slab should lessen from tomorrow onwards, as smaller coast roads link the various seaside resorts and hotels along the shore.  There might even be something interesting to write about next time.

The Future?

It’s the year 2558.

Mankind has evolved away from using letters.  People make do by scrawling impossibly long lines of runes on incredibly detailed signposts.  Nobody can drive very fast, as they need so much time to decipher the signs.  Oh, and there’s very little cheese in the shops.  Although there’s plenty of everything else, including sweet – very, oddly sweet – shredded chicken buns.

Yup, that’s chicken.  Sugary chicken.

Normal life appears impossible.

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Or maybe I just crossed the border into Thailand.

I did check, you know.  They said it was an hour behind Malaysia.  Nobody said anything about Thailand being five-hundred-and-odd-years ahead.  Less the hour, of course.

But it really is 2558 here.  I know, because the date is one of the very few things you can understand after putting the Thai language through Google Translate.

A quick example.  I’ll give you all the help I can.  This is part of the first (almost infinitely long) text message I received from the mobile phone company (True Move) after putting my shiny new Thai SIM card in.  I assume it’s a welcome message of some sort, but it might as well be in Martian:

‘Heard good Shepherd get to True Move H.  K or the 3G a fire 1 to have actually cover cover all over the United States number means of you is [phone number], use of work has to day at 18/04/2558′.  It goes on for a while longer, then the truly enlightening: ‘the First 99 Star Link to Bora Nasser the call Bt 20 use has long 60 day pin scrap!!’

While it’s good to know that we’ve managed to develop a Star Link to Bora Nasser by 2558, the rest of this makes very little sense to me.  Even allowing for Google’s less-than-legendary grasp of language, it should be easier to understand than this, shouldn’t it?

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Anyway, despite the language issues and the future shock, the first couple of days in Thailand have been promising.

I’m really in the deep south of the country at the moment; it’s very rural, and with very few tourists (I’ve heard that most of Thailand is over-run with them).  The roads are nice and smooth, and the drivers are civilised, not unlike Malaysia.  The weather’s hot and humid.  Again, not unlike Malaysia.  The countryside’s a bit more interesting here, though.

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The biggest difference on the road is that there are hills on the Thai side of the border.  Not especially big ones, and with space between for the road to snake through with minimal climbing, but hills, nonetheless.

And the biggest cultural difference is that I’ve moved from a majority-Muslim democracy to a majority-Buddhist constitutional monarchy under military control.  They take their royals very, very seriously here.  I think there must be some sort of significant event or anniversary on at the moment, as the place is festooned with flags and portraits.  I’ll probably work out what the fuss is all about while I’m here.  I’ll let you know if I do.

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Well, there’s your first bulletin from the future.  I’m off to check on the next few hundred years of football results, so I can get some bets on, if and when I make it back to 2015.

Malaysia – The Last Post

Well, hopefully the last post from Malaysia, anyway.

Barring accidents, sickness, natural disasters or other catastrophes, I should be boating across the border to Thailand tomorrow (Wednesday), via the island of Langkawi.

Also assuming that the ferry takes bikes, and that I can find the jetty (the website’s worryingly vague on such points; effectively just saying, “turn up at the port and it’ll all be fine”).

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I seem to be developing a bit of a thing for boats in northern Malaysia.  A couple of days ago, I was on another ferry, heading across the water to George Town, the capital of Penang.  It’s the second city (after Melaka / Malacca) on the coast with a major colonial history.

Unlike Melaka, George Town was all about the British Empire.  It was Britain’s first colony in south-east Asia, and, along with the rest of Penang province, remained in British hands for well over 200 years (apart from a few years’ Japanese occupation in WW2).

You can see the imperial influence throughout the city.  There’s the old fort, the Victorian clock tower, and the war memorial next to the imposing city hall.  It’s a bit like a mini version of Singapore, with the old relics of a global superpower now overshadowed by shiny banks and tower blocks.

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It all felt a little strange to me, as if these items (most of which, with the exception of the city hall, would be perfectly at home in any medium-sized town in the UK) have just been dropped randomly into the tropics.  They look out of place, especially now that the only Europeans around are a sprinkling of tourists.  I guess I’ll need to get used to this before I get to India, where there’s a whole lot more colonial architecture to ponder.

I’m looking forward to Thailand, now.  It’s one of the very few countries in Asia that wasn’t colonised by someone or other.  So the history and culture will be different, and without the ever-present reminders of home.  Though they do still drive on the left, which is nice.

But Malaysia’s been really good.  I was thinking about a little summary of good points versus bad points.  But then I realised it was a bit lopsided.

The good stuff covers everything from the culture(s) to the history, from the roads to the people, and from the food to the prices.

The bad stuff?  It’s been a little bit warm.  Oh, and there’s been a nagging head-breeze.  Hardly even a wind, really.  Not much to moan about at all.

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Although…  Speaking of barely moanworthy things, I have managed to end up in a slightly eccentric hotel this evening.  I’ve travelled fairly extensively in my time, but have never been told to remove my footwear before even being allowed in the lobby.

I assumed that news about the stinking state of my cycling shoes (not at all nice after eight months on the road) must have reached Alor Setar before I did.  Or possibly that the foul odour itself had drifted ahead and appalled the staff (but how could that be, with the headwind?).

But it turns out that they make everyone take their shoes off.  For ‘cleanliness’.

I worry a little about what they might do to them in the night.

Remembering How to Ride

It’s funny how you can forget how to do something you’ve been doing perfectly well for eight months.

Though, I suppose it’s no stranger than Tiger Woods forgetting how to play golf, or the England cricket team…  Well, the less said about them, the better, I think.

While I was moaning about the sweating and the headwinds last time, it also turns out that I’d forgotten how to ride in the heat.  I think it was the month in Indonesia; maybe ten degrees celsius cooler than Australia, but much steeper.  I got used to being able to go harder (and having to go harder over the hills) than I could before.  And then I forgot to readjust to new circumstances here.

Anyway, I’ve remembered in the last few days.  Start a little earlier, go a little slower, stop for a little longer in the shade.  And the miles will come.

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The last vaguely hilly section of road so far was just south of Kuala Lumpur, as I passed the motor racing circuit at Sepang (above).  I seem to be just missing a couple of big Malaysian sports events by a few days: Sepang will host the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix in a couple of weeks, and the country’s biggest bike race (the Tour of Langkawi) is on this week, but sadly nowhere near where I am.

Once past Kuala Lumpur, and having stopped, as expected, at Klang (not as noisy as I’d expected), the roads became pretty much pan flat, and the Beast and I have made some decent ground up the coast.

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The only vague complaint is that the scenery is a bit dull; billions of palm trees and not a huge amount else.

But the towns are as interesting as ever.  It’s still hard to get my head round the diversity of the Malaysian population, with every large-ish town sprinkled with mosques, churches and Chinese temples.  I’ve had a rest day today (Friday) in Sitiawan, which seems to have a large Indian population, and I’m just across the road from a large Hindu temple here:

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What’s surprising (to me, at least) is that there’s no real sense of tension or separation between all those different groups, unlike the immigration / ghettoisation / race-relation issues you tend to see in Europe and the US.  Everyone seems to get along with no major problems.  I guess there may be some underlying difficulties which are hard to sense just passing through, but it feels like it all works pretty well from my cycling outsider’s point of view.

Speaking of cyclists, I’ve started seeing a few other tourists on the road (I’d started wondering when I’d meet any more; half of Australia and the whole of Indonesia had passed without seeing any).  There were a trio in Singapore on my way to the border.  And then two yesterday south of Sitiawan.  All heading the other way, but it’s nice to know there are some others out there.

And finally, you expect to find a few oddities when you’re outside your own culture.  But this was just plain confusing:

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So, is it coffee?  Or tea?  Or something else altogether?  I can tell you’re on the edge of your seat.  Well, it turned out to be a mixture of coffee and tea.  Which is entirely peculiar.  And an innovation which I’m fairly sure nobody ever asked for.

I know it’s hard to see how things can get much more interesting than coffee-tea.  But I’ll keep you posted; you never know what’s out there…

Beside The Seaside

I’m running slow again.

Not for the first time on this trip, despite flat terrain, I’m struggling to make decent daily mileage.  And putting in a 100-plus kilometre day on Friday left me feeling dreadful when I tried the same again the next morning.  After a day off yesterday, I’m hoping that I’ve recharged enough to push on north at a reasonable pace.  But it’s fair to say that I’m not exactly flying up the west coast.

It’s the heat.  And the fairly constant headwinds.  I guess you’ve heard more than enough about my sweat patterns and water consumption (only the location changes; Spain, USA, Australia – all the same old, self-pitying whining).  So I’ll trouble you no more about it.

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One thing I am enjoying enormously is the Malaysian town names.  I’m not sure if it’s just me (or the heat, dehydration etc), but a lot of them sound quite entertaining.  For example, the fountain / crown arrangement above was in Muar, which is definitely requires ‘har-har-har’ adding to it, to make a rather splendid evil laugh.  And, assuming I get my riding skates back on (so to speak), I should be spending tomorrow (Tuesday) evening in Klang.  Which will, ahem, probably be a little noisy…

OK…  It is just me, isn’t it?  Erm, best get on with what I’ve actually been doing for the last few days…

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Well, I hit the coast more-or-less as planned.  Though as with the coast roads in Indonesia, it’s not that often that you get a decent view.  The terrain here is pretty flat, and tends to be covered in trees, which doesn’t make for many great sweeping vistas.

But the roads remain well-surfaced, the drivers remain generally pretty decent, and the locals remain friendly and laid back.  Which made for relatively trouble-free progress to Melaka (used to be called Malacca in the olden days), with the exception of the weather, of which enough has already been made.

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Melaka’s got a lot of interesting history and culture going on.  There were local people there originally, using the harbour, but it was established as a sultanate, trading with the Chinese and others in the area, and was then controlled by the Portuguese and the Dutch for hundreds of years.  And that’s before the British Empire, Japanese occupation, and finally (so far) independence.  Phew.

You can see a lot of these layers from a quick stroll around Melaka: churches, mosques and temples piled in around the old harbour area; old warehouses and traders houses, and a huge (if somewhat over-touristed) Chinatown area.  The town and its history are both pretty representative of Malaysia as a whole, I guess.

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Back on the Beast this morning, I was heading north again towards Port Dickson.  Within a few kilometres, I was in beach holiday country.  There are bundles of enormous hotels and nice houses all the way along the road.  I’m now close enough to Kuala Lumpur that I reckon some of the houses must be weekend places for some of the more affluent denizens of the big city.

You can see why; the seaside’s really nice here:

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I’m not intending to hit Kuala Lumpur itself of this trip; I spent a day or two there a few years ago, and don’t think that piling through the biggest city in the country on a bike is necessarily worth it.  I might see the Petronas Towers in the distance; they’re pretty tall, but it depends on how the land lies between the seaside and the city.

So I’m just trundling up the coast for the next few days.  And sweating and drinking loads of water.  And going via Klang, which I still think sounds funny, even if nobody else does.

A New Thing – Border Control on the Bike

It’s a little astonishing.  Well, I think so, anyway.

In nearly 13,500km, and heading into country number twelve, yesterday was the first time that the Beast and I got stamped through an international border together.  Thanks to the EU’s lack of internal borders, the ferry crossing between Canada and the US, and arriving almost everywhere else by plane, it just hadn’t happened before.  It certainly won’t be the last time, mind you.

It wasn’t especially traumatic, despite the immigration officials on both sides of the causeway between Singapore and Malaysia struggling to peer through the sunscreen melting all over my chops.  Thirty seconds at each end, and I was through.

In fact , it hasn’t been an especially traumatic few days.

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After the slightly chaotic rush of nearly a month on the road in Indonesia, Singapore had a vaguely surreal and calm feeling about it.  It’s always reassuring to find a true mark of civilisation like a cricket club.  And I’ve been to Singapore before, so was prepared for the diversity, the prices, the smooth, orderly way of life, and the equally smooth roads.  The relative tranquillity was nice, for a day or two.

I had a wander around their giant sport park on Tuesday, which reminded me of a (slightly) smaller version of the Olympic Park in London.  An aquatic centre, kayaking area, and recreational cyclists whizzing around.  A bunch of fit-looking people in tracksuits, and serious-looking expats studying tablets (presumably coaches).  And an enormous stadium with a domed, retractable roof.  Which some poor council employees were either finishing off, maintaining, or repairing.  Rather them than me, I think:

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On the way out of town yesterday (Wednesday), I rode through the concrete-and-glass canyons of Singapore city centre.  There seemed to be a few more towers there than last time I was in town, but the biggest noticeable change was that the Marina Bay complex now dominates the shoreline in front of the city (it was still being built the last time I was there).

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Whatever you think about the architecture (the bit lying across the top is supposed to look like a boat – but with trees on it, apparently), it’s now an instantly-recognisable symbol of Singapore, and just as massive and deliberately impressive as those monuments in central Jakarta.

Anyway, I’m not at my most comfortable in big cities (especially when riding a bike), and a country which is basically nothing but city is a little too claustrophobic for me.  It was time to get moving.  Through the seemingly endless tower blocks, across the causeway, and into Malaysia.

I’ve been taking the riding easy for the last couple of days.  Easing back into oppressive heat and humidity seemed sensible (it’s nearly 10C hotter here than in Indonesia, and nearly as sticky as Queensland).  So it’s tricky to grab together a sensible set of first impressions of Malaysia; I haven’t really seen enough or covered enough ground yet.

It feels richer than Indonesia (most people are in cars, rather than on scooters, for example), but the prices are only marginally higher.  Which is good.  The main roads are generally well surfaced, and the driving seems pretty reasonable.  Which is also good.  It’s hot, and there’s been a nagging headwind.  Which is bad, but might change (probably to storms, knowing my luck so far).

The locals are quite a mixed bunch ethnically (mainly Chinese and sub-continental) and religiously (it’s another secular Muslim country which has been busy celebrating Chinese New Year).  And they seem friendly and laid-back so far.  I’d heard that Malaysians were quite reserved compared to others in South East Asia, but I’ve had several long-ish conversations already, and if ‘reserved’ means ‘prone to having a chat without pestering you for a photo because you’re foreign’, then I’m pretty happy.

I’m heading up the west coast of the peninsular all the way to the Thai border.  I should get to the seaside tomorrow (Friday), all being well.  The border is probably a fortnight or so away.  And the Beast and I now have a little frontier-crossing practice under our belts to stand us in good stead for it.

Beast in a Box (Again)

Well, the ‘slow boat from Jakarta’ plan didn’t work out.

It proved to be too many things: too complicated (the Beast being treated as cargo and sent separately); too time-consuming (endless running between offices near the port); too tiring (language barriers and miming can wear you out) and too relatively expensive (24 hrs on the ship would cost the same as the ridiculously cheap hop between Jakarta and Singapore).

And so I flew the Indonesian coop this morning, popped back into the northern hemisphere (just), and arrived safely in Singapore just over an hour after leaving Jakarta.  The Beast, while whining as usual about being dismantled and packed in cardboard, appears to have survived once again.  I’ll know for sure when I put it back together tomorrow.

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I did have time for a poke around the more monumental end of Jakarta before I left.  It reminded me a bit of some cities in the Former Soviet Union (albeit without the same apparent risk of being topped for being rude about the government), or maybe North Korea, with everything laid out neatly and then massively oversized to emphasise the importance of the place.  The Istiqlal Mosque (above) is hard to get a scale on.  My estimate is that the vertical part (below the dome) is about seven or eight storeys high.  It’s a big mosque.

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It’s a little easier to appreciate the largeness of the National Monument.  It’s a monster.  And the enormous, carefully tended park around it was an idyllic setting for families enjoying a Sunday stroll yesterday.  Or at least it would have been, if it weren’t for the fleets of hired mini-motorcycles being raced around and around by manic, grinning teenagers.

Now, I’ve seen so many abused bicycles in Indonesia, overloaded to breaking point to carry everything from reeds to dumpling stalls to multiple sacks of rice, that I felt it was time to expose the practice (although, sadly, I suspect that simply pointing it out will not stop the exploitation).

I’ve switched off my hypocrisy filter, by the way.  The Beast actively enjoys being loaded until it creaks and then thrashed across thousands of miles of mountains, deserts and crumbling tarmac.  Honest.

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Anyway, this pitiful example was being used as a coffee shop in central Jakarta by a particularly villainous owner.  An owner who insisted on being photographed with his poor, worn out victim.  And then tried to charge me five US dollars for a coffee to cover his modelling expenses.  Bearing in mind that the normal price of a coffee is 5000Rp (around 40 US cents), and that $5 will buy you a meal in a decent restaurant, I declined his kind invitation, and gave him a twenty percent tip on the coffee instead.  I didn’t want a picture with his mug in it anyway.

For the first time on this entire trip, I walked away from a conversation with what I can only assume were carefully selected curses and threats ringing in my ears.  I wasn’t looking back, but I reckon there were probably some less-than-flattering hand signals involved, too.

In fairness, he was the first and only unpleasant human being that I met in Indonesia, which only accentuates how lovely people generally were there.

Let’s hope that Singapore, Malaysia and points further north are as interesting, and the people as nice, as Indonesia has managed in the last month (though preferably with slightly better roads and less manic traffic).