south east asia

To the Border – the Hard Way

I moan when it’s flat.  I moan when it’s hilly.  I haven’t really moaned enough about the 30C heat yet, but I’ll get round to it, I’m sure.  Or when it’s too cold, or too wet, or too windy somewhere else…

I’m fully aware that I moan too much.  Especially when I’m having a good time (at least in retrospect; it’s that Type 2 Fun thing again).

Off the central hills of Thailand in time for New Year, and it then looked like a pretty easy run to the edge of the country, and the Myanmar border.  Three relatively short days, two flat and one (today) a bit lumpy.  And the ancient Thai capital of Sukhothai to have a poke around on the way.

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Well, in three days of extremes, it was only really Sukhothai which delivered what was expected.  Stacks of ancient stupas and temples from Thailand’s ‘Golden Age’.  I got on there on Saturday afternoon, in time to have a shower, some food, and then a stroll around the historical park (tick off another World Heritage Site) as the sun went down, and it was beautiful.

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The reason I was there so early was simple.  The single flattest ride I’ve ever done on a bike.  I know I was having a little whine about how flat it was when I first arrived in Thailand, but this was ridiculous.

In all the 300-and-odd days on the road touring (including the UK Tour), plus every short ride I’ve ever done, I’ve never finished with a climb count of 0 metres before.  There’s always, always one little ramp or even a bridge, or something.  Not on Saturday, there wasn’t.  Not a single metre climbed.  A record.  And one which is unlikely to be beaten, too…

After a much more average ride to Tak yesterday (a few ups and downs, a lot of sunshine, a handful of trucks and exuberant dogs), the switch was firmly flicked today.  Where I couldn’t find a single metre before, there was suddenly a glut.  I’m not actually sure if you can have a glut of climbing.  But there was definitely a surfeit of metres.

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The road started to rise straight out of town, and pretty much just kept on going.  A few relatively gentle miles, followed by two ranges of steep hills (one climbing to around 900 metres, the second to nearly 700).  And a lot of bumps in-between.  The Thai border with Myanmar is nothing if not hard to get to…

You can tell you’re in serious hill country when your average speed takes a beating.  Across central Thailand, I was still averaging around 20 kph (12 and a bit mph) through the hills.  Today, I was 20% down on that; every steep ramp followed by a typically grudging Thai descent, followed by another ramp.  Urgh!

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Still, there were some fairly decent views.  And a really testing ride always leaves you feeling like the massive dinner you trough down afterwards is well-earned.  Perhaps more importantly, it also boosts your morale.

Because while I may moan about the hills, the non-hills, or the weather, it’s days like these (when they finish well, at least) that make the trip worth doing.  Testing myself is part of the whole experience.

And never knowing quite what’s coming each day is the whole point.  There won’t be many days where I’m less sure about what’s next than tomorrow (Tuesday).  Just six kilometres (call it four miles) down the road is Myanmar.

I know they only began to open up to the outside world a few years ago.  I know they drive on the right, but that most of their cars are designed to drive on the left.  And I know that the border post at Myawaddy is reputed to be one of the friendliest in the world, for some reason.

But apart from that, I don’t know much.  Should be quite exciting.

Can’t moan about that, at least, can I?

The Hills at Last

First things first…  A very happy 2016 to you all.

I got my New Year’s wishes early.  I was moaning last time about the extreme dullness of the Thai roads I’d so far encountered.  Ploughing along for hours in a straight line, on the flat, is a very efficient way to get around.  But it’s not especially interesting.  Or interesting at all, in fact.

Still, that changed on Wednesday, as I hit the hills.

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You could see them coming from a distance.  And, with the temperature over 30C, I knew things were going to get harder.  Things did.  After 30 miles of flat road to soften me up, a 600-vertical metre hill on a brutal gradient got things started.  There wasn’t even a descent at the end of it; just a heavily-forested, bumpy plateau infested by wild animals:

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Although, in fairness, I never actually saw any wild elephants.  There were some ‘signs’ on the road that they were about (which needed severe swerving, while checking behind for trucks).  But thankfully, having had my route obstructed by cows, goats and dogs already in south-east Asia, there were no elephant roadblocks to deal with.

The downhill was incredibly grudging, dropping a few metres at a time before presenting me with another 15% incline.  It hurt by the time it started dropping properly.  On the plus side, the countryside finally opened up a bit, and I got some proper views of Thailand.  It’s not a bad looking country in places…

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The next day (yesterday) was New Year’s Eve.  So, of course, I’d set myself a little end-of-year challenge.  The same sort of amount of climbing, but with the eminently sensible additional aim of putting in 130km (around 80 miles).

And, despite the hard miles in my legs from Wednesday, it went much easier.  The road reminded me of some of the big climbs in the Rockies, back in 2014 (without the effect of altitude, of course).  Wide, perfectly surfaced roads on reasonable gradients.  Another big uphill slog, but with masses of encouraging honks and waves and thumbs-up from festive Thais.  There was even a big Buddha at the pass, which gave a nice target to aim for.

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There were a few more ups and downs along the way (and the ups in Thailand do seem to be especially steep).  But, after a lovely, long, gently downhill run, back onto the plains, I made it to Phitsanulok just in time for the last sunset of 2015:

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A nice day off today, and a chance to catch up with my family, thanks to the magic of the Internet.  It’s amazing to think that the first time I went outside Europe, you had to go to the post office to make a call home…

Anyway, tomorrow it’s back on the road, westwards towards Myanmar.  Hopefully, three more days should do it; still a long way to get home.  Plenty of miles still to come in 2016…

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…

The Mekong Cheese Obsession

Three days, just under 300 km.  Out of the hills, then a nice flat run along the Mekong river, then Christmas dinner in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

Couldn’t be easier, could it?

Well, it could have been.  Just a little bit.  If I hadn’t somehow forgotten everything I used to know about riding a bike in the heat.  It didn’t help that I was trying to push the average speed up.  It certainly didn’t help that I’d only marginally upped my water intake from Vietnam, where it was about  15C cooler.  This was especially dumb, as I know full well how much I need to drink when the weather gets warm.

But what really, really didn’t help was the brutal little climb as soon as I started on Wednesday morning:

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I say ‘little’, but it was actually around 300 vertical metres.  It was 30 degrees C.  And yes, it really was as steep as it looks in the picture (maybe a bit steeper, in places).  But it still shouldn’t have been a major problem; I’ve done plenty worse.

Trouble was, that I was already dehydrated.  And that the hill was just 5 km into the ride, and after a rest day.  So I hit it cold, hit it hard, and blew myself up spectacularly.  I’ve been recovering slowly ever since.  And giving myself a good mental kicking, as well as massive doses of water.

On the plus side, the view from the top was spectacular.  And that was the biggest lump in the road before Vientiane.  Highway 8 from Vietnam eventually dropped me onto the flat, flat flood plain of the Mekong river, so I could take it gently to recover.  Just one turn right onto Highway 13, and that was all the navigation done to get to the capital, too.

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I hit the Mekong itself at Pak Kading (above – the river Kading about to enter the Mekong).  It’s just been a case of following it ever since.  Me on the Laos side, Thailand waiting for me on the other side of the river.

Two more uneventful days (heat, straight, flat roads, cheap hotels and litres and litres of water) saw me rolling into Vientiane on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

I’d developed a slight obsession about cheese after leaving Vietnam; rural Laos really doesn’t have any, and I’ve always had a bit of a habit.  Towards the end of the ride to the capital, a large, cheesy pizza and a large, cold beer had cemented themselves as the centrepiece of my ideal Christmas dinner.  The reward at the end of Highway 13.  Not exactly turkey and roast potatoes, but it was what was required.

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Just an hour after hitting town, I was sat looking at exactly my fantasy dinner.  An hour-and-a-half after hitting town, I was absolutely stuffed.  Possibly, the side dishes were unnecessary.  I waddled back to the hotel, lay down, phoned my Mum in the UK, and crashed out.  That’s what I call a proper Christmas Day; 93 km on a bike, one large pizza, one beer, and passing out.  Don’t say I don’t still know how to live…

Today was spent poking gently around Vientiane on foot.  It’s a really small capital city, and very relaxed.  There’s a very European feel to it, too.  So I drank a few coffees, ate a few pastries, and generally loafed about elegantly.  Or as elegantly as one can in creased, plastic travel clothes.

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Tomorrow (Sunday), it’s back to the road, and another border crossing, just ten miles down the river from here.  I’ll be leaving the ‘Communist’ world behind, and re-entering my nemesis, Thailand.  Back onto the correct side of the road, but with a little trepidation after what happened last time I was there.

Fingers crossed, it goes a little better this time…

The Wet, Muddy and Slightly Spooky Way to Perfect Cycling Country

The story of a day of two halves (and the day after, too)…

Sunday started damp in Vietnam, at the foothills of the mountains which form the physical frontier with Laos.  It had rained most of the night, so the roads were wet.  Which translates into dirty.  But, by the time I was ready to go, the weather had decided to restrict itself to low, dark clouds.  So I set off.

The road deteriorated into mucky dirt for a little while.  Then it turned into a four-lane highway for a few hundred metres.  Then it stabilised into a normal, average road.  Gently rising through smaller and smaller villages.  With very little traffic, which was a plus.  If a little odd for one of the main routes between Vietnam and Laos.  Maybe it’s busier during the week?

Then the climb began.  I knew it was about a 15 km, 600-odd metre haul to the border.  Which is just a little different from the Dutch-style flatness of the Vietnam coast, but I was prepared for that.  Jens and Bjorn (the two German cyclists I’d met the night before) had said that the hill to the border was really steep on my side, but that I’d have a great run on the other side in Laos.  So I was prepared for that, too.  And in the end, it wasn’t too bad; three or four steep sections of around 10-12%, with decent stretches of false flat in-between to get my breath back.

What I wasn’t so happy about was riding more than half the climb in the clouds.  Which really means light drizzle, with visibility down to less than 50 metres near the top.  I ended up putting the high-viz jacket and lights on to give the logging trucks half a chance of seeing me.  Several sections of the hill, where the surface had been removed for repairs, had deteriorated to mud and slimy puddles.  One of the muddy puddles was deep enough for me to get my feet wet.  Grr!

And, if I wasn’t happy about it, the Beastlet was even less so, as it clicked and ground its previously spotless drivetrain (and even the disc brakes) on mud:

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I finally clattered and wheezed my way to the top of the hill to find the spookiest border crossing I’ve yet encountered.  The visibility was down to maybe 20 metres, and I spent a while on the Vietnamese side circling parked trucks, shouting “Lao?” at the handful of ghostly figures who emerged from the gloom from time-to-time.

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Eventually, I found my way to the apparently deserted border post on the Vietnam side.  I checked a couple of empty rooms which might have been passport control.  I began to worry that I might accidentally leave the country and enter Laos without even seeing an official, let alone having visas or stamps or anything in my passport.  About the fifth ghostly trucker I asked finally pointed me to the passport desk.

I knocked on the glass to wake up the sleeping border guard (as you do), who dealt with my stamp very efficiently, and then, slightly bizarrely, offered me some chewing gum.  I’m still not sure exactly what he was trying to say, but I was out of Vietnam.  Almost.

There’s about a mile of no-mans-land between the two frontiers, with another huddle of parked buses and lorries, and a massive building, which I guess will one day be a new Vietnamese border post.  It’s still completely deserted at the moment, but with near-zero visibility, cost me another few minutes trying to work out if I needed to do anything there.

I gave up in the end, and started down the hill, hoping to come across a border post for Laos.  The clouds began to lift almost immediately.  By the time I glided in to the well-staffed and friendly Laos border at Nam Phao, sorted out my visa on arrival, and had my passport stamped (all of which all only took about 15 minutes, but cost me an extra $2 because it was Sunday), it was dry, and the sun was threatening to put in an appearance.

By the time I’d negotiated my way around a comically aggressive miniature poodle, and got a couple of kilometres down the road, it was wall-to-wall sunshine.  On a perfectly smooth, almost empty road.  With a tailwind.  That is a decent recipe for a big smile on a muddy cycle-tourist’s face.

And I even got a nice sunset, just after I got into Lak Sao, the first town of any size (or the last, I suppose, if you’re going the other way).  I’d only been in Laos for a couple of hours, but I already liked it.

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If the first impressions of Laos were good, yesterday (Monday) blew me away.  I was only going 60-ish kilometres (still easing in to the ride, so not piling the miles on too hard).  But what a 60 km!

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The road from Lak Sao was stunning from the start, with mountains on both sides.  There was still virtually no traffic.  The sun was out, but up at around 400m altitude, the temperature was around 25C, and the humidity negligible.  And after the permanent haze, diesel fumes and clammy dampness of northern Vietnam, the air was crystal-clear.  Beautiful cycling in a beautiful country.

Towards the end of the ride to the little village of Na Hin (where I’m having my first full rest day of Part 2 today), there was a short, sharp 200 metre climb, with some properly steep (15% plus) sections.  So I got a decent workout.  And then, over the top, a superb, fast, twisty 400 metre decent to Na Hin.  I nearly hit a snake and a deer (not at the same time), and I did hit 40 mph on a loaded touring bike for the first time in ages.  An absolutely spectacular day’s riding.  I’m still smiling now, just writing about it.

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So, what next?  Well, it’s nearly Christmas, apparently.  In marked contrast to Vietnam (which left me never needing to hear Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, or any form of dance-remixed carols, ever again), it’s no big deal here in Laos.

I’m thinking at the moment of riding through the big day to Vientiane (I should be able to get there by Christmas afternoon if I can get across the mountains to the Mekong river tomorrow; it’s less than 300 km in total), and then having a mini-celebration and another day off on Boxing Day.

But we’ll see.  In case I don’t get another update in beforehand, I hope you all have a great Christmas.  I’ll certainly update this again before New Year.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this spectacular country on two wheels.  Which feels like a pretty decent present at the moment…

Stuck Between the Past and the Future

Another month and a bit ticks by…

It’s sixteen months (almost to the day) since I pedalled out of London to ride around the world.  Seven-and-a-half since my unfortunate vehicular mishap in Thailand, thirteen countries and 9300 miles later.  Two-and-a-half since I began my ‘comeback’ tour of the UK.  And one-and-a-half since I got home from the far north of Scotland.

I’m getting older and fatter.  Rapidly.

Summer’s long gone, and the UK’s experiencing the usual downsides of its location; constant streams of rain and wind whipping in off the Atlantic.  The clocks have gone back, so it’s dark by four thirty in the afternoon.  And getting darker every day.

Having cheated the gloom and damp of the last English autumn and winter by cunningly being on the other, sunnier, side of the globe, it’s especially depressing.

But…

The passage of time does have some advantages.  At the moment, it’s bringing me closer to resuming the round-the-world trip.  Much closer.

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For the last eighteen months, most of my days have looked something like the picture above.  In just a bit over four weeks, they will again.  The road’s calling.

In truth, there’s a fair chance that the road involved will look more like this, initially at least:

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Because I’ll soon be back in South-East Asian Scooter Madness.  I’m flying out to Vietnam in early December.  I’ll spend a few days acclimatising to the heat (I rode into it slowly last time, rather than being dropped straight into the sauna).  Then I’ll be on the road to Laos, then back to Thailand, then (assuming I get the visa sorted) to Burma / Myanmar.  Then India.  And then onwards.

This is the rough idea of how it’s planned to go at the moment:

This obviously depends on all the usual things.  Continued health, fitness, bike road-worthiness, visas, natural disasters and the weather.  Oh, and careful avoidance of physical contact with goods vehicles.  I might need to go south, rather than heading for the Silk Road through Central Asia.  It’s even possible that Iran might start letting Brits travel independently again.  Who knows?

But whichever way it goes, I should be back in the sun soon, and back on the road.  And back to peppering you with far more regular updates than has been the case of late.  The future’s good, isn’t it?

Fingers firmly crossed…