road surface

Back to the Future

A long, long time ago (in March), I put up a post based on my (possibly slightly over-stated) surprise at finding myself in the year 2558, Thai style.

What I didn’t know then was that fate would decree a second visit to the the future.  Within a couple of weeks of that post, I’d been squashed by a truck, sampled the Thai healthcare system, and returned home to the UK to recover.

And yet, here I am again, back in 2558, and soon to tick into 2559.  I rolled across the Mekong into the country which temporarily thwarted my round-the-world ambitions on Sunday (27th December).  It still seems like a nice place, just like it did nine months ago.

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After spending over two hours negotiating the holiday carnage of the border crossing from Laos (what a contrast to my entry to that country, where I was the only person at the border post!), I was across the Mekong, back on the correct – that’s the left – side of the road, and pushing on.

No uncontrollable fear when I heard big diesel engines behind me, which was good (although not entirely unexpected, as I gave this a good dry run in the UK in September).  I am spending a lot of time glancing over my shoulder, though.

The roads up here in the north are just as silky-smooth as those I rode earlier in the year.  Thailand (at least in my experience, so far) has the best road surfaces in south-east Asia, which is saying something, as there are not too many bad surfaces to be found in the region nowadays (except in Indonesia).  UK local councils take note; it is actually possible to build decent roads!

Unfortunately, the miles I’ve ridden here so far have also been just as dull as the main roads in the south, as today’s pictures will testify.  They’re a pretty accurate reflection of quite how visually stunning the last few days have been.  Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Laos?

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Still, that should all be about to change.  I’m hitting mountains tomorrow.  It’s about 300 miles (maybe 470 km) from here to the border with Myanmar.  And it looks like there are four big ranges of hills before I get there (plus another one after the border).

Two of those ranges are on the menu in the next couple of days.  Two long (70-plus mile), and probably hot, days with 600 vertical-metre ascents (and descents, of course!) through National Parks.  I’m hoping that this will mean less traffic and improved scenery.  I’m also hoping that the hills won’t be quite as steep as some of the Laotian versions.  And that I won’t make any more amateurish hydration errors.

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And look!  I saw my first Thai hill on the way into town this afternoon!  Things are definitely looking up already…

Those long days through the hills should drop me back onto the flat in time for whatever New Year’s Eve celebrations happen over here.  I’d imagine that I won’t get another post in until New Year’s Day.  So, let me pre-emptively wish you all the best for 2559 (or 2016, if you prefer).

The big New Year’s news, by the way, is likely to be the shaving of my explorer’s beard.  It’s begun to catch its own food, and that must stop…

Betrayal and Photo-Mugging

You might have got the impression from recent posts that I’d fallen for the happy madness of Indonesia’s National Road 3.

You’d have been right too.  But not any more.  It’s let me down badly.

Maybe I expected too much, and tried to push too hard (I have been trying to increase the mileage since Yogyakarta).  Whatever, by yesterday afternoon (Friday), I was sat at a level crossing watching a train flash smoothly by, and wishing I was on it.

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It’s not the scenery, which has remained pleasant and lush and green (if a little hilly as I approach the inevitable volcanic passes I need to clear to get towards the north coast and Jakarta).  It’s not the people, who have remained lovely throughout.  And It’s not the traffic, which I’m well used to by now.  Or even my standard bugbear, the weather.

No.  It’s the road itself.

Ever since Yogyakarta, the surface has deteriorated.  There have always been a few rough spots, but it’s got kind of ridiculous for the last hundred and fifty kilometres or so.  For long, seemingly endless, sections it might as well be ploughed.

Potholes, ruts, tree root damage, odd ripples which look like the road’s melted and then stuck together again in waves.  I actually hit some roadworks this morning, where they had stripped the surface off the top of the road.  The bare gravel was much smoother than most of what I’d been riding.

Down goes the speed, up goes the effort.  It’s like mountain biking, having to use your whole body to keep moving while keeping the bike and bags in one piece.  Constantly out of the saddle to absorb shocks.  Constantly un-weighting the front, then the back on every lump and bump to avoid damaging the wheels.  Constantly concentrating to find the smoothest line, and make sure you can take it without getting rear-ended by a bus.

It’s hard work, is what I’m trying to say.  And I’m getting a wee bit tired of it.

There may be a little hope.  The Beast and I rattled and bumped to the border between central and west Java this afternoon.

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The road has been a little better since the border, though it’s only been a few miles.  I’m not counting my chickens yet.

While the road might have changed, one thing has remained constant since I was at Borobudur.  Being photo-mugged by the locals.  It never happened before Yogyakarta, but it’s been pretty much constant since.  Indonesians don’t do the full-on gawking, ‘staring at the weird foreigner’ thing which happens in other places.

But they pretty much all have camera phones.  And they do all seem to want a photo with the weird foreigner.  A couple of local tourists got me at the border.  Before that, a bunch of scootering girls caught me at a shop at lunchtime.  And then another school football team got me at my final drink-break.  It’s nice, but a bit odd to be a tourist attraction when I’m the one on tour.

I guess I’ll just have to get used to the road and the photo-mugging, and try not to let them distract me.  There are still a few miles to go, after all.  And I need to focus on the big hills in the next few days.  Just hope that road surface holds up…