Monday, November 29, 2010

Our bicycle tour of Burma (Myanmar)

Date Destination Route Distance Km

Feb 22 Mandalay Rest day 0
Feb 23 Mingun Riverboat 0
Feb 24 Mandalay Temples 29
Feb 25 Sagaing Amarapura, U Bein Bridge, Inwa 43
Feb 26 Myittha 71
Feb 27 Myinayan ` 91
Feb 28 Bagan 75
Feb 29 Bagan 0
Mar 1 Bagan 16
Mar 2 Bagan Salaw 60
Mar 3 Mount Popa 54
Mar 4 Meiktila 115
Mar 5 Kalaw Tarzi 69
Mar 6 Kalaw Pindaya (van ride) 0
Mar 7 Kalaw Market 0
Mar 8 Yaungshwe Inle Lake 69
Mar 9 Yaungshwe Kakku (van ride) 0
Mar 10 Yaungshwe Inle lake boat ride 0
Mar 11 Yaungshwe 25
Mar 12 Thazi Train – upper class 15
Mar 13 Bago Train – upper class 10
Mar 14 Bago Golden Rock 0
Mar 15 Rangoon 92
Mar 16 Yangon 0
Mar 17 Yangon Kyauktan 68
Mar 18 Yangon 0
Mar 19 Perth Singapore 0
TOTAL 902km

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Our bicycle tour of Vietnam,Ho Chi Minh City. (Hanoi) to Saigon

Date Destination Route Distance Km


January 28 Hanoi 0
January 29 Hai Phong 113
January 30 Cat Ba Island Hydrofoil 41
January 31 Hai Phong 2
February 1 Thai Bhin 71
February 2 Ninh Binh 87
February 3 Thanh Hoa 65
February 4 Vinh 142
February 5 Ha Tinh 67
February 6 Deo Ngang 75
February 7 Dong Hoi 76
February 8 Dong Ha DMZ 98
February 9 Hue 74
February 10 Hue Rest Day 0
February 11 Danang Hai Van Pass 110

SUB TOTAL 1,021km


February 12 Hoi An 40
February 13 Hoi An Rest day 0
February 14 Quan Ngai 50
February 15 Sa Huynh 65
February 16 Qui Nhon 115
February 17 Tuy Hoa 112
February 18 Tuy Hoa Rest day 0
February 19 Nha Trang Dia Lahn Beach 128
February 20 Nha Trang Rest day 0
February 21 Phan Rang 110
February 22 Dalat Van up passes 64
February 23 Dalat Rest day 0
February 24 Boa Luc Gounan Falls 126
February 25 N of Bien Hoa Wedding Feast 133
February 26 Cantho Bien Hoa, Bus rides passed Saigon to Mekong delta 40
February 27 Cantho 50
February 28 Saigon Backroads van ride to airport 0

SUB TOTAL 1,042km


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Our bicycle tour from Bangkok, Thailand, through Malaysia to Singapore

Destination Route Distance Km

Bangkok 6
Nakhon Pathon 86
Damnoen Saduak Bang Phae 66
Petchiburi 80
Hua Hin 73
Praduap Khiri Khan 101
Bang Saphan 95
Chumphon 95
Chumphon Rest day 0
Hat Arunothai 101
San Mok Khapalarum Chaiya 110
Surat Thani 62
Don Sak 72
Hat Sichon 76
Hat Sichon Rest Day 0
Nakhon si Thammarat Tha Sala 80
Sating Pura Kao Seng 141
Songkla 34
Thepha 68
Pattani Nong Chik 54
Narathiwat Saiburi 108
Tak Bai 45

Sub Total 1,553km


Kota Bharu 35
Kuala Besut 67
Tapai Kampung Penarik 79
Marang Terengganu 56
Paka Dungan 80
Cherating 72
Cherating Rest day 0
Cembaka Kuantan 60
Pekan 45
Lanjut 84
Rompin 43
Mersing 68
Tengeng Leman 72
Kota Tinggi Falls 91
Desaru 69
Desaru Rest Day 0
Singapore Belangkor 65

Malaysia 986km

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Our bicycle tour of Sulawesi, Indonesia January/February 2009

Makassar Rest day 0
Takalar 50
Jeneponto 55
Bulukumba 68
Bira 47
Bira Rest day 0
Sinjai Truck ride for 30km 61
Paulette Watabone (Bone) 95
Sangkeng 83
Sangkeng Rest day (on lake) 0
Buntu Matabing 105
Buntu Matabing Rest day (Flores Sea) 0
Palopo Winding up into hills 80
Puncak Very steep incline 26
Tana Toraja Cool jungle, terraced rice paddies 36
Rantepoa Lemo, Londa Caves 0
Rantepoa Basar Bulo 0
Rantepoa Funeral Celebration 0
Batutumonga Steep winding ascent 24
Makala Steep decent 35
Ekrakang Karst mountains 79
Pare Pare Corn fields 82
Pare Pare Rest Day (on ocean) 0
Lejje Pools Batu Batu 73
Watangsoppeng Rice paddies 46
Malawa Many mountains 71
Bantimurung Huge mountains, humid jungle 53
Maros At Airport 33

TOTAL 1202

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Our bicycle tour of Southern India, February/March 2001

Chennai 0
Chennai 0
Mamallampuram 60
Pondicherry 100
Chidambaram Cuddalore 76
Kumbakonam 80
Thanjavur 42
Puddukkottai 63
Karaikkudi 41
Madurai 88
Madurai Rest day 0
Sattur 77
Tirunelveli 61
Kanyakumari 86
Kovolam 96
Kovolam Rest Day 0
Varkala 68
Verkala Rest Day 0
Kollam (Quilon) 36
Allepy (Alephuzha) Backwater boat 0
Cochin 62
Cochin Rest Day 0
Guruvayor 88
Guruvayor Rest Day Hartel 0
Kottokal 68
Calicut 66
Tellicherry 76
Nileshwar Hartel 86
Ulli Beach 79
Ulli Beach Rest day 0
Udipi Malpe 86
Udipi 0
Gangoli 61
Kollur 48
Murudeshwar 63
Gorkana 88
Palolem 106
Palolem Rest day 0
Colvo 44
Colvo Old Goa 0
Bomallo 27


Our bicycle tour of Sri Lanka, February/March 2003

Negombo 0
Chilaw 46
Puttalam 55
Anarudnapura 80
Anarudnapura Explored ruins 27
Anarudnapura Mihintale 36
Habanara 64
Polunnaruwa 47
Polunnaruwa Explored ruins 16
Sigiriya Climbed ruins 57
Dumbulla Explored caves 16
Matale 52
Kandy 28
Kandy Rest day 0
Nuwara Eliya Ride in van 0
Bandarawela 54
Ella 13
Wellawaya Waterfall 28
Tissamahara Kataragama 64
Hambantota Kirinda 51
Tangalla 43
Tangalla Wedding 0
Marissa 53
Marissa Rest Day 0
Unawatuna Galle 45
Bentota Hikkaduwa 58
Mt Lavinia 58
Negombo Colombo 36
Negombo 0

TOTAL 1,027km

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tour from Vientienne Laos to Bangkok Thailand, through Cambodia

Southern Laos

January 7 – February 5, 2010

Date Destination Route Distance Km
Jan 8 Udon Thani Bangkok 0
Jan 9 Nong Khai 69
Jan 10 Vientiane 29
Jan 11 Vientiane 0
Jan 12 Ban Naxay 68
Jan 13 Paksan 84
Jan 14 Vien Khan Pakkading 104
Jan 15 Na Hin 40
Jan 16 Vien Khan 49
Jan 17 Tha Khaek 111
Jan 18 Tha Khaek Than Pha Po Cave 54
Jan 19 Xeno (Sino) 104
Jan 20 Savannakhet That Ing Hung Temple 40
Jan 21 Paxsong 77
Jan 22 Xedone (Sedone) 110
Jan 23 Pakse 66
Jan 24 Pakse 0
Jan 25 Tat Fan Bolavan Plateau 40
Jan 26 Tat Lo Paksing 80
Jan 27 Tat Lo 0
Jan 28 Tat Lo 0
Jan 29 Pakse Banana Junction 88
Jan 30 Champasak Ferry across Mekong 37
Jan 31 Champasak Wat Phou and back 28
Feb 1 Kiet Ngong Tomo Temple 48
Feb 2 Don Khong Si Phan Don Island 90
Feb 3 Don Khong Around island 25
Feb 4 Khon Phapheng Khon Phapheng Falls
Voen Kham border crossing 39
TOTAL 1,480

1,480km in 21 full cycling days = 70km per day (average)

Cambodia & Thailand

Feb 5 – March 2, 2010

Date Destination Route/comments Distance Km
Feb 5
Stung Treng Dom Kralor (border crossing) 63
Feb 6 Kratie Flat, hot, very long 144
Feb 7 Kratie 0
Feb 8 Chhlong Dirt road 36
Feb 9 Kampung Cham 91
Feb 10 Kampong Thon 111
Feb 11 Kampong Kdei 91
Feb 12 Siem Reap 63
Feb 13 Siem Reap Angkor Temples 15
Feb 14 Siem Reap Angkor Temples 48
Feb 15 Siem Reap Angkor Temples 37
Feb 16 Siem Reap Angkor Temples 36
Feb 17 Siem Reap 0
Feb 18 Sisophon Dirt road 109
Feb 19 Battambang 69
Feb 20 Battambang 0
Feb 21 Pailin Dirt Road 90
Sub Total 1003

Feb 22
Chantaburi 73
Feb 23 Laem Mae Phim 91
Feb 24 Laem Mae Phim 0
Feb 25 Pattaya Rayon, Sattahip 135
Feb 26 Pattaya 25
Feb 27 Pattaya 0
Feb 28 Pattaya 15
Mar 1 Pattaya 0
Mar 2 Bangkok, Bombay 0
Mar 3 London, Toronto 0
Sub Total 339
TOTAL 1,342
(excluding India 1,270 kms)

The route of our trip last year in Rajasthan

Date Destination Distance Km
Nov1-10 Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune 0
Nov11-13 Mumbai 0
Nov 14 Udaipur 0
Nov 15 Udaipur 0
Nov 16 Udaipur 15
Nov 17 Nathdwara 53
Nov 18 Kumbalgarh 62
Nov 19 Kumbalgarh 10
Nov 20 Ranakpur 55
Nov 21 Ranakpur 25
Nov 22 Pali 85
Nov 23 Luni Fort 60
Nov 24 Jodphur 42
Nov 25 Jodphur 0
Nov 26 Osian 65
Nov 27 Phalodi 85
Nov 28 Pokaran 70
Nov 29 Minerva 65
Nov 30 Jaisamer 62
Dec 1 Jaisamer 0
Dec 2 Sam Sand Dunes 54
Dec 3 Jaisamer 42
Dec 4 Bikaner 5
Dec 5 Bikaner 0
Dec 6 Naguar 118
Dec 7 Merta City 82
Dec 8 Pushkar 62
Dec 9 Pushkar 0
Dec 10 Pushkar 0
Dec 11 Pushkar 0
Dec 12 Ajmer 16
Dec 13 Dudu 71
Dec 14 Jaipur 66
Dec 15 Jaipur 0
Dec 16 Delhi 0
TOTAL 1270km

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Planning the next trip

After cook books, diet books, and financial self-help books, travel guides have to be one the most popular book genres, and as an avid traveler I devour them like chocolate, and were it not for the fact that my main mode of travel is by bicycle, I would be fat like a sumo wrestler and poor like the beggars of mid-town Toronto and needing the aforementioned diet and financial aid books. But as much as I consume guide books, I don’t actually read them carefully, lest their detailed descriptions spoil the reality to be experienced, but I do mine them for content, mostly to divine accommodations to be had and sites to be savored along the way. While I could write volumes about planning an independent bicycle tour, having a place to sleep at a reasonable day’s riding distance apart, is one of the important considerations. There are of course considerations of weather, topography, road conditions etc.

Still, every once in a while a description raises the wanderlust barometer, as did the following in the first and only 2001 edition of North India, by Lonely Planet: “Khajularho’s temples were build by the Chandelas, …most date from a one century-long burst of creative genius from AD 950 to 1050. Almost as intriguing as the sheer beauty and size of the temples is the question of why and how they were built here. Khajularho is a long way from anywhere and was probably just as far off the beaten track a thousand years ago as it is today.”

While nothing on the plant today is truly off the tourist path but the prospect is still enticing, and I Andrew Jacob, self-appointed Chief Explorer of Andrew’s bicycle tours, am ready to pump up tires and lubricate chains, to visit the three groups of World-Heritage listed temples, as much as for their remote location, as for their prolific Kama Sutra carvings, which are reputedly among the finest temple art in the world.

As might be expected, as I am in the midst of planning this winter’s tour, which will take us from Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Nepal and various places along the way, it will most definitely include Khajularho.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Back home in Toronto

What one fool can do?

We have been back in Toronto for a few days, and not that I am complaining or looking for sympathy, but having been away four months, and travelled 4,500 kms on two wheels, I am finding the adjustment tough.

On the positive side, having slept in nearly a hundred different beds recently, short of anyone, ala George Washington, placing a sign that “AC and AJ slept here” there is something to be said for sleeping in your own bed.

It’s also a comfort to come home to a house that has been cleaned by our house-sitters, Alison’s cousin, and there is now a fridge full of familiar foods and shortly, I will get used to the pleasure of drinking tap water and not polluting the planet with plastic bottles.

It is also comforting to have access to family, friends via reliable local telephone services and my computer keyboard that does not suffer from terminal tropical stickiness.

Then there is the weather, which fortunately has been sunny, but the drop in temperature of about 40 degrees had me shivering for a number of days. Saturday I got on my bike to go to the gym, the Spring Bicycle Show that we always miss since we are travelling, and to do some errands and with numerous layers, I survived, albeit chilled to the bones. Having acclimatized to the tropics, I am now appreciating why in Rajasthan locals were buying Tibetan woolens when the temperature hovered around 15 degrees.

There is also the usual adjustment to dealing with four months of mail, and thousands of emails, mostly junk but there are those nasty bills that need to be paid and all the papers to prepare tax returns: a far cry from the care free days of riding on quiet roads, savoring the local cuisine or watching the sunset over the ocean.

I also miss all the exotic sites and smells that come with the open road and destinations that unfold with each twist and turn of the road and the simplicity of living with possessions that fit into two small bags and enjoying meals after a day's ride and actually feeling hungry.

Now that I am back, I am replacing one routine with another: my near daily attendance at the gym of the local Jewish Community Center, where the morning regulars are there exactly like four months ago. There is the usual jockeying for the two elliptical machines with stationary arms that I like and the usual suspects are running or pedaling furiously going nowhere on treadmills or stationary bikes.

Since I am back to my old routines, I can be hardly critical of others’
given the limitation of time and climate and the desire to maintain some level of fitness. I do however wonder about the treadmill of life that cages so many wherein they always seem to have some reasons or other why they cannot get away from work and break patterns that tie them to home and their daily routines.

There were many cyclists and travelers that we met on the road, that become inspirational: the Swiss couple who had been on the road for about nine months, the Dutch couple who had been riding for about a year, and they all rode through the “stans” Kurdistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan etc. and the couple from Spain that rode their bikes through Central Africa, parts of the globe, which till know for me had been a great void, like the New Yorker’s view of the American mid-west and of course are now tonic for future travel plans.

However, I was most struck by Pete, the Dutchman, 64 years old, who with tears in his eyes would recount to all, how he and his wife had planned to travel on retirement. Unfortunately, Pete’s wife died four years ago and he is now travelling solo and trying to find solace on the road. His tale reinforced for me the belief that what one old fool can do, others can too and to do so while they still can?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jomtien Beach, Gulf of Thailand

When I tell friends that we are off on another bicycle touring adventure, the response often is an incredulous, "You're going where, to do what?" Now that we are a couple of days before returning, I am also starting to question myself by asking "You've gone where and did what?". But I am a bit ahead of myself.

From Battambang in Cambodia, we decided to head to Thailand and its beautiful beaches, which took us on another less travelled road to Pailin. I use the word road'' advisably, since about half of the 90 kms was dirt or under contruction and Pailin itself, was like a construction zone on all the main streets. As such we wanted to get to a guest house which was described as about 3 kms north of town but without any road signs the only clue that I followed was that there was an unexpected paved cross road which suggested that this may be the Bamboo Guest House we were looking for and would eventually lead us to the Thai border.

Intuitition proved right and after a comfortable night's stay, we headed for the border, only to discover that the last 15 kms were not only like rough tracks, but the terrain was also hilly such that the appearance of several multi-storey buildings, hotels with casinos, were a welcome sign, since they indicated that we were just a few meters from Thailand, and the casinos and hotels were built to attract gamblers from just across the imaginary line.

The crossing was nearly effortless, as we were not asked for a bribe at this location and with a quick visa from Thailand, we were soon on our way on well paved roads with smooth shoulders, manicured medians but alas, non of the warm greetings of "hello" we had become accustomed to in Cambodia and Laos. Even swithching to the left side of the road came naturally, as we had ridden thus in India and Australia.

Our ride to Chantiburi was quite easy as we could avail ourselves of the modern gas stations with convenience stores and eateries so we were well fuelled and fed. Chantiburi turned out to be much larger than anticipated but it still had a charming row of shops along the river, dating from about a hundred years ago.

Eager to see the sea we left early to Ban Leam Phim, which deserved a one line mention in Lonely Planet, to discover a well developed beach community with kilometer after kilometer of hotels and restaurant on one side, and umbrellas and chairs and simple foodstands on the beach side. Seeing the turquise ocean for the first time, after so many months of inland riding, was a spectacular feeling.

Our accomodations, Bali Villa, also did not disappoint as we stayed in this cosy development of 20 cottages, each named after a tropical fruit tree which was grown at its front steps. Ours was the Mango and it was truly reminiscent of Bali with the open air feeling shower and the teak construction everywhere.

After a two day stay on the beach we wanted to go to a similar setting and road along the ocean for nearly 50kms to discover that our possible destination Rayong was a bustling industrial town and not at all inviting. I knew that further along the coast there were several options but using some basic logic, I concluded that the best chance of finding a place would be around Sattahip which not only has a military and civilian airport as well as a major naval base. The town proved to be a charming fishing village sorounded by a few block of stores and the aforementioned uses, but alas, only one hotel, that by northern Laos standards would have been quite good, but having enjoyed the comforts of Bali Villas, we only had the option of going further still towards the famous beaches of Pattaya.

After turning off the main highway several times to follow signs, we would either end up at some multi-story condo develpment or a massive hotel, such as the Ambassador with 4,000 rooms, we ended riding another monster day in the heat of 135kms to the smaller community of Jomtien just south of Pattaya, thinking that it would be quieter and less commercial.

We looked at several standard and luxury hotels but after such a long ride, none seemed inviting, when at the southern end of the Jomtien, on a small side street, a few doors from the beach I came acrossa pizza restaurant, guesthouse and pub with the unlikely name of "Miracle Mirage" owned by a Dutchman Gerard and his Thai wife, Kwan. It only has three rooms but has a European feel of a guesthouse or as we soon discovered, more like a guest home, where at each turn, they anticipated our needs, including the offer to use their computer.

Their pizza lived upto its billing as the "Best Pizza in Thailand" according to the Pattaya People TV and their pasta was equally good. Our plans were to ride to Bangkok Airport, about a 130kms from here, but we discovered that Monday is a public holiday, so elected to use our time here by sampling all the great cuisine and enjoy the beaches and all of the major hotels with such inviting pools, with Gerard driving us in his truck, directly to the airport for Tuesday's departure.

We did ride into Pattaya which is truly an urban jungle and even mid-day it lives upto its notoriety for sex tourism, discos, outdoor beer bars, go-g- clubs, that attracts its share of prostitutes of every shape and form.

We were happy to return to the quieter beaches of Jomtien where last night, as we watched the sunset over the Gulf of Thailand, for the third night in a row, and as I looked back in the opposite direction, I notice a brilliant full moon, did the realization hit me that the previous full moons we had enjoyed were in Jaisamer, India, camping in the desert where it was a brilliant white globe, and in Champasak, Laos, where during the full moon festival, it was a red globe as it was framed by Angkor era ruins, that we have been gone for a considerable time.

The four months seemed to have by so quickly; that we had travelled in five countries, India, Australia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, that we had cycled about 4,500kms, is only now raising the question in my mind of where we have been and what we have done.

With a few minor exceptions, the trip seemed effortless and needless to say extremely enjoyable and stimulating, with each day a minor revelation. Looking back, Alison and I are astounded that the trip is nearly at its end and that we went on bicycles where we did. Still, I know that soon after we board the plane, to Mubai, then London and then to Toronto, the first thing I will do is browse the maps at the back of the airline magazines and contemplate the few inches of ground we have covered, and how on four wheels, we uncovered yet another small piece of the planet and that it will be time to plan the next trip as there is so much more to see and to experience.

Happy travelling

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Battambang, Cambodia

Tourist Times

The culture shock of being in Siem Reap, the contrast of experiencing one of the true wonders of the world and the commercial trappings of all the material goods and services available here, after travelling for many weeks mostly on quiet rural roads where people live off the land, took us six days to overcome, but we did not only managed, but triumphed with great enjoyment.

With apologies to those who have been here and seen it all, its truly a challenging task to encapsulate what Angkor is about. It is much more than Angkor Wat one of the most famous landmarks that is applied to this area. Angkor in fact is the Capital City or the Holy City of the Khmer Empire that existed between the 9th and 12th centuries and it encompasses not only three or four centuries of massive buildings but an area that spreads over hundreds of kilometers, with ruins that are in various stages of preservation: some well done and others intentionally left unrestored with giant building block size stones scattered like mammoth lego pieces, with equally massive tree roots, like elephant trunks hugging them.

The Khmers also constructed massive water works, for many kilometers, and constructed temples dedicated to the gods, places of worship, as well as cities worthy of their military, economic and cultural dominance of a region that spread over an area that covers modern day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Early in our travels, even though we were moving at a relatively slow pace, covering modest distances and had the benefit of two digital cameras and lots of memory cards, Alison and I agreed that we can't visit all sites and capture every photo opportunity, a promise we had to remind ourselves when we toured Angkor. We had a three day pass, which included an evening tour and we soon discovered that it’s nearly impossible to beat the crowds. The guide books all comment on the monuments and which is the best light to photograph them and then go on to suggest the contrarian strategy of doing them at reverse times, but its all to little or no avail. We would rise around five in the morning and were on the go by sixish, and this gave us a couple of hours of relative quiet but by eight or so, at least at the nearby ruins the buses would disgorge their passengers who eagerly followed their tour leaders' flag.

As our own counter, counter maneuver, we would start at some of the most distant sites which allowed us some of the best undisturbed viewing opportunities, but these would also be relatively short lived. Not that its a complaint, but having others around did take getting used to but it was still a most awe inspiring experience, and one that is not only worth doing but perhaps even repeating, not withstanding the fact that Angkor's popularity will not only increase but will grow rapidly as the roads, as we have discovered to Thailand and Vietnam and Laos have all been paved. One indication of this is that there is a near solid line of hotels built or under construction, west of the city of about four kilometers towards the airport which we only discovered as we were leaving town.

Beyond the hotels, there is a huge tourist infrastructure of eating, drinking, massages and of course shopping which we also got used to, especially the ability buy foods for an early in-room breakfast our favourite being whole wheat baguettes, and European style pastries which very conveniently were half price after eight p.m.

It took us six days of adjustment but we not only coped but thrived under these demanding conditions, building our touristic abilities. During the three days we ended not only bicycling about 175 kms between sites but enduring walking and climbing steep temples that were designed to humble the supplicants and sure provided an ideal training ground for rock climbing, often in the heat of the day, such that by early afternoon we would return nearly exhausted to do battle the following day.

Of course the mental stimulation is one that is most difficult to describe as one contemplates how without the benefit of modern tools and even local stones, over a 1000 years ago the Khmers built an empire that must have required untold amounts of money, labour, planning and execution, all the while fighting internal and external wars.

This wonderment was shared by most of the people who we saw and spoke to but there were some annoyances. The loud speaking foreigners, the groupies who would take ages to pose solemnly in front of a particularly impressive monument, followed by the remaining busloadful of their compatriots and the occasional young eastern oriental women in their slinky, silky, fluorescent outfits, with splayed arms and fingers, struggling to strike sexy posses for that trophy photo to preserve their experiences.

The variety and complexity of the structures and the details of the history are nearly impossible to absorb in such a short visit but left an enduring impression on us. Its also not possible to ignore the question of the decline and fall of major empires, such as the Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Mayan and ultimately our own as we see how in a relatively short period of time, a civilization can thrive and then decline to ruins.

While the comparisons may not be entirely appropriate, I am always stuck by, especially in South East Asia, the contrast between the monuments governments and near government agencies build for themselves and the way people around them live. In Vientiane one of the most imposing, pyramid like structures is the home of the Mekong Commission, with a parking lot full of fancy cars, while the people nearby live most modestly. In Siem Reap I donated blood to a wonderful children’s hospital, established and run by a cello playing Swiss Dr. Beat Richner and is supported by mostly private donations and yet the Ministry of Health is housed in a five storey, palace like structure.

Of course the contrasts within this society are even more striking. In a land like Cambodia where most travel by motorcycle or by bicycle, not counting the few eccentric tourists on two wheels, where if there is a private car, it is a soon to be recalled, beaten up Toyota Corolla from the 1980's and naturally, the typically black high end Lexus SUV, with blaring horns, is bound to stand out.

We could easily have stayed longer but the road called and what a ride it was to Sisophon, on a recently paved near flat, smooth surfaced highway with a paved shoulder, such that with the benefit of a tail wind, it felt like we flew the distance of 110 kms in 4.5 hours. From Sisophon to Battambang was another 70 km and enroute, I recorded 69,000 kms on my odometer marking also that we have since leaving Toronto, travelled more than 4,000 kms on our trusty two wheeled vehicles.

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, on the Stung Sanke River, and we elected to stay in an international class high rise hotel, not because of the wonderful room with all the conveniences, the second floor pool which two days running we have had to ourselves, but to avail ourselves of the buffet breakfast with both western and eastern food options and to take a well deserved rest day after all the tourist challenges of Siem Reap.

Tomorrow we leave for Pailin, not the home of the political wonder woman, but a town near the border of Thailand which is the shortest route to the Gulf of Thailand, where we will be able to squeeze in about a week of sea, sand and sun while we contemplate and try to integrate the wonders of Angkor Wat and prepare ourselves to ride to and to fly home from Bangkok.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Culture Shock Siem Reap Angkor

After our 144km ride we had a well deserved rest day in Kratie which was devoted to some essentials like laundry, reading and just walking around this small town on the Mekong, and of course, since it attracts a fair number of tourists, it also provided a great culinary diversion of a steady diet of noodle soups and fried rice. Not that we are in any way constricting our food intake, but it is quite evident that each day we burn far more calories than we take in, and yet are energetic and as might be expected are shedding a few pounds, not that I am complaining. Likewise with the food, while our ability to point and articulate is limited, we have yet to have a meal that did not taste great. In the back of my mind I can hear diners at home commenting how the pasta was not quite done right, or the egg was not quite runny enough etc. where as here, just the ability to have a meal can at times be a challenge so its culinary quality is hardly noted.

The next day’s ride, while only 36 kms to Chhlong, was quite demanding, since most of the road was either under construction or was a bumpy, dusty red road, that might have made any cruel Khmer Rouge proud. Still, it was most enjoyable since the “road” hugged the Mekong most of the way, with dense habitation on both sides: tall palms and bamboo plants and signs of fishing activity on the river side and rice, tobacco and corn being cultivated on long flat fields away from the river and of course, everywhere the universal greeting of “hello” from people who are at times invisible.

While difficult to generalize, it seems that this part of the world is still highly agrarian since there was a preponderance of ox carts, small ponies pulling wagons and many adults riding bicycles, clearly going to work or to a market. Kids of all ages are also on bikes in long lines in the mornings, in their white shirts and blue skirts or trousers, heading to schools, often on bikes that are too small or big, carrying a passenger and more often than not, pedaling bare feet. Large ice-blocks are manually sawn and kept in plastic coolers for refrigeration which hearken back to my childhood of a half century ago in Hungary, as do the numerous hay stacks in the country side and the presence of all types of domestic animals everywhere.

Chhlong in the 1920’s was an important French administrative center, with numerous once handsome buildings that are now in various state of decline, from being completely abandoned, used for storage and some just as a store front, showing how quickly decay can set in, albeit Chhlong is not anywhere near the scale that we have tasted in the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat that date from the 9th Century.

The next day we continued along the Mekong to Kampong Cham, taking a ferry at one point and watched the dramtics of trucks scalling the steep sandy embankement. What made this streth of particular interest is the present of several Muslim villages, and one with quite a large mosque, the first we have seen in this part of South East Asia.

In town, we stayed in the third or fourth hotel called "Mekong Hotel" one that is popular with group tours. As luck would have it, we met a group of 10 cyclists on an organized tour, who as fellow cyclsits are always impressed by the distances we have covered and afforded us an opportunity to share experiences on the road.

The next day, we were headed in the same direction as the group and we found out that they would be having lunch in Kampong Thom, some 110kms away and which was our overnight destination. The group cycled half the distance before being ferried by bus where as we did the entire stretch, carrying our own gear, and yet, we arrived just past noon, just as the group was in the middle of their lunch. Needless to say they were properly impressed by our feat and the fact that we were still reasonably fresh on arrival! Clearly, we are in pretty great shape and after our monster ride earlier in the week, this seemed pretty easy.

With a 90 km day to Kampong Kdei and another 60kms to Siem Reap, we knew immediatly that we arrived someplace very special not only because of the endless line of hotels large and small, but the the frantic traffic around the new market, not doubt enhanced by anxious shoppers stocking up for Chinese New Year, the following day.

We knew of course that Angkor is a World Heritage Site, but somehow we had imagined that the town of Siem Reap would be like other larger towns in Laos and Cambodia. Our expectations were severely challenged when we discovered a several square block area near the Old Market which is straight out of New Orleans, without the jazz. with endless two-storey restaurants offering the cuisines of the world. What made it particularly special for us is that we had the 18 year old son of friends of ours, who has been living here for three months, speaks a passable Cambodian, had friends everywhere, and in a short time has becomea local, and matured way beyond his age, show us around.

Its definitely a happy place and time for us, having not only reached this destination, but for finding a place, appropriatly called Smiley's Guest House, where the rooms are not only well appointed around a central landscaped courtyard, the food and bar are on a self-kept tab, the service is always with a smile and they included us in their celebration of Chinese New Year yesterday, as if we were part of the family, plying us full of chicken, duck, suckling pig and of course as much beer and wine we cared to consume.

Some of the other tourists in town seem to get happy from the "happy" ingredients in their food, 50 cent beers, happy hour that starts at noon, and the latest rage being Dr. Fish Happy Massage, which consists of dangling your feet in a small tank in which small fish, the size of goldfish, nibble at dead tissues with apparently a pleasing effect on all. The tab is $2 for twenty minutes or $3 for thirty minutes, with a free can of beer or pop included.

The fact that everything here is quoted in US dollars and there is life on the streets after eight in the evening, markets where the asking price is twice or three times the proper selling price of goods, where tourists are mildly pestered by vendors, there are well airconditioned supermarkets with foods from every part of the world, is turning out to be a shock, as much as the scale, grandeur and the sheer magnificance of the ruins which we have now visited in the glorious setting sun yesterday and in the morning today. There is still a huge territy of far flung ruins to see and we will spend a few more days here, since this is the kind of culture shock that one can easily get used to and I would recommend to all.



Sunday, February 07, 2010

Slow Times and Tough Times

Kratie, Cambodia

Its hard to believe that it was only a week ago that we enjoyed the quiet village life at Tad Lo and the cool evening breezes and the sweet smell of coffee plants of the Bolevan Plateau, and that we are now in Kratie, Cambodia, having had a monster ride getting here yesterday.

Our last few days in Laos were special. As soon as we got to the river crossing to Champasak we knew something extra ordinary was happening, as there were a dozen or so makeshift vessel, tied together long boats, some no wider than a canoe, strapped with planks, carrying cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and people, across the one kilometer expanse of the Mekong. Only on arriving on the other side, where on top of the embankment, where two policemen with arms flaying, like someone swatting flies, were trying to move traffic along on the one lane road on top. A line of cars was trying to leave, and with not enough room for the incoming to pass, things were at a standstill and the line of cars stretched well over a kilometer.

We were comfortably settled in our guesthouse overlooking the Mekong, when the “Swiss Couple” arrived. We named them as such since they left Switzerland last June and have taken about 11000kms to get here. Over the last several weeks, since we are traveling the same route, we have crossed path a half-dozed times, often staying in the same hotel. Needless to say we enjoy swapping road stories, especially since in India we met no other touring cyclists.

We shared a tuk tuk to the Wat Phu temple about 10 kms away. It’s a temple that dates back to the 5th Century, built on 6 levels on 3 terraces on the side of a mountain, with a long promenade leading up to the hill. The site is filled with mysterious structures and impressive carvings of elephants and crocodiles and it being a major pilgrimage, there were masses of people going up and down the mountain side.

At dusk, dozens of people lit thousands of oil lanterns illuminating the mountain side giving the effect of a giant birthday cakes. As it turned dark, a breath taking giant full moon, the colour of a bright orange-red egg yolk came up the horizon, framing the ruins.

The next day, we enjoyed the quiet village life, staring with a sun-rise that seemed to mirror the full moon, to a great massage, and a meal of fresh fettuccine, having earlier in the day convinced the northern Italian restaurant owner to make it for us. What could be more perfect?

In contrast to the thousands of people at the festival, not to mention the full complement of carnival events, the next day we took a short red {red for the colour of the dust}dirt road to the 9th century Tomo Temple, where the groundskeeper put on his official tunic, for our benefit, before issuing us the entrance tickets. The solitude of the remnants of this temple, set on a riverbank amongst tall trees, were a wonderful contrast to the throngs of the day before, and gave us a sense of what it might have been like to worshipers, arriving on the rive bank, centuries ago.

Later in the day, also on another red road, we went to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge, set next to a small village, in a National Forest. Beautifully designed and set next to meadows that evoked images of the Serengeti, we enjoyed staying amongst the villagers, who clearly live off the land and the monies brought in by tourists, who enjoy their fourteen elephants.
Descending from their ride, we met a couple who as it turns out live and know a friend of mine in Santa Rosa. California, proving once again, how small our planet can be. They turned out to be an interesting couple, she originally from Ottawa, he from Los Angeles and they "compromised" by chosing to live in Santa Rosa, having had one child in Ottawa and another in Karatchi, Pakistan.

As we were counting down the days in Laos, we went to the 4,000 islands and enjoyed the quiet of Don Khong Island. In the morning, we went to the river market which according to the guidebook was between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m. but alas its no more, cars and trucks supplanting the river travel. Still, we were treated by the needle-like fishing boats plying the Mekong, a great sun-rise and a realization that we must see more of world before it all changes.

Our last day, we went to Khonephaeng Falls, billed, not entirely unjustified, as the Niagara of south east Asia and stayed in the resort by the same name, not knowing in advance that it was also an up-market golf club as well. But who could not enjoy the swimming pool, and sleeping by the gurgling sounds of the rapids upstream from the falls, serenading us all night.

The next day it was only 10 kms to the Cambodian border, where my coup was getting the well established bribe of a buck per passport on both sides reduced to half. The ride to our first night’s stay in Stung Treng was uneventful.

Just as we settled in our hotel, again overlooking the Mekong, we met the “American Couple” who had been cycling, various parts of the globe, for the last 40 years, They had just arrived from Kratie, a distance of about 140 kms, and they both described the ride as “very hot and boring”. She had taken the bus and he for the last 30 kms of the ride.

Needless to say, Alison and I had a thorough discussion of doing the ride ourselves, recognizing not only the distance, the heat, but also that we would be facing headwinds. We decided to go for it with Plan B being a bus or a truck pick up should it turn out to be too much,

I was rearing to go by 5 a.m. the following morning, and after an in room breakfast of canned coffee, a bit of juice, a few baguettes and bananas, we were on the road by six fifteen. With a great lunch stop by 10 a.m. and frequent intakes of liquids we made the 144 kms in 8 hours of riding, and arriving in Kratie some 11 hours later, tired but elated. We endured temperatures which are now approaching 40 degrees but also reveled in the last 30 kms that follows the Mekong and all the life along it.

Looking back, I am reminded of the riddle, “why did the chicken cross the road?” to answer the question “why did the Canadian Couple decide to ride 144 kms from Stung Treng to Kratie?” “Because we could and we are glad that we did.”


Friday, January 29, 2010

Slow Time in Tad Lo, Laos

At times I seem to forget that I am on a bicycle journey and that some people might be interested in the details of where we have gone, things we have seen but at each juncture, I seem to come back to the joys of traveling, especially on two wheels.

We are now back in Pakse, having done a triangular detour of about 220kms to the Bolevan Plataeu. The first leg was the most challenging climbing steadily to about 3,600 feet and for the first time having to do a constant, but moderate climb of about 40kms.

But it was all worth it. First night we stayed in a true, tropical lodge set amongst the trees within hearing distance of a couple of waterfalls at Tad Fane and within a short walk from the actual falls which consisted of two small streams, cascading quite dramatically over the escarpment of about 400 feet. Since the lodge is at the end of a short dirt road, its truly in the wilds of the plateau with virtually no development nearby affording a true get- away experience. As I noted earlier, there is something very basic about the sight and sounds of water, and it certainly kept Alison and me captivated as we had dinner in an open air restaurant, with brilliant stars and a near full moon to accompany the water music.

The next day we rode about 90 kms to Tad Lo, which as a place may not exist, since there are no signs of any description when one approaches it from the west, and only one sign indicating that Tad Lo Lodge is 1800 meters off the main road. But the fact that there was a one lane paved road, a small market and a few stalls alerted me and inquiries confirmed that indeed about 2 kms away, were the falls and the place, which consists of a couple of dozen frame, thatch roofed dwelling and a handful of places to stay, is indeed an entity on the land, if not marked on any map that I have seen.

We first went to the Tad Lo Lodge, where laid back is an understatement since it took me some considerable efforts and strenuous "sabaidees" to rouse a very disinterested young woman off a couch, who tried hard not to understand that I was disturbing her slumber mid-afternoon, to inquire about a room. She did find a key, and handed it to another young woman, who flipped flopped me to a very nice looking cabin but on further inquiry it had not amenities and hardly deserved the US$45 price the first person quoted me.

At this point I produced a business card that says I am Andrew Jacob, Chief Explorer, Andrew's Bicycle Tours, as an entre to negotiating a discount. As she did not seem to respond, I asked for the manager, who she pointed vaguely as being in the gardens.

He seemed like a more professional person and was willing to reduce it to $38 but fortunately for me, I had no intentions of staying there under any cirumstances, he did not have a room for two nights that I had wanted.

The Lodge did have one compelling feature, two beautiful and very tame elephants that Alison instantly loved, but they were on public show and we got to enjoy them freely over the next several days.

Given our relatively late arrival, we ended up at the other lodge, on the other side of the river and falls for which the place is famous, paying about half the discounted rate and staying once again the a raised cabin, looking into a forest of trees and a tropical garden, with a location that was closest to the falls and yet still in view of the river and the narrow bridge that we crossed. A true tropical paradise with windows on all sides and since for some reason they damn up the river during the day, the increased flow at night makes a tremendous roar thats somehow seems to facilitate sleep.

I call this piece "Slow time in Tad Lo" since we ended up staying three nights not only to recuperate from the extended cycling we have been doing, but also to soak of the lifestyle which is like living in a local village where time has stood still existing in full harmony with a few dozen tourists who seem to do nothing but laze about.

The highlight of our stay was, and yes again it is about food, "Mama Pap" and as her simple sign says, "Big Eats, Small Kip". For once this is an understatement and indeed we had more food than we could handle, coming from a tiny outlet of four small tables, where "Mama" as she is called by everyone, dishes out food of gigantic proportions: the banana pancake is on a platter, her fresh Lao coffee is served in small beer mugs, her rice and noodle dishes overflow the bowls, but she also dishes out warm welcomes in Lao, French and English and some philosophy and advice as well, all from a giant of a person standing well under five feet, who seems to do everything herself.

Since our late arrival for breakfast at about 7:30 meant that the place was "full" with four or five other fans of her food, we spent nearly two hours enjoying that extra mug of coffee and watching the village life roll by.

We saw the kids, mostly under five, with hand made sling shots, spears and small motor cycle tires heading toward the river, and we later saw them frollicking in the waters and playing by themselves, not an adult in sight, laughing, giggling and having a good time jumping from a ledge and then rolling in the sand.

Then there were the vendors, carrying fresh picked vegetables stopping at each small stall and the handful of restaurants, returning with empty baskets.

The pigs, dogs, ducks chickens,one of which was so domesticated that it jumped on the tables and helped itself to some of the breakfast of the guests, all wander freely.

A young girl of maybe eight, was learning to ride a moped and she accelerated and braked until she returned with a wide smile on her face.

And the adults all going about their daily lives, happily returning a greating with a smile.

Later in the day, we explored going up the river to series of rapids and swam in the pools below.

The highlight being the washing of the elephants as they responded to gentle tugs on the ear and submerged like submarines with their trunks acting as periscopes to take in air.

We ended staying three nights, just wandering about the village and of course returning to Mama's for more food and share traveling tales with the others who wait patiently for her magnificent offerings.

There was the Jesus or Don Quixote look-alike who stood out at another diner in Pakse, who turned up here with two buddies and a Swedish girl. All the guys turned out to be Israeli and she, in her soft cotton dress was I am sure causing a 'Jimmy Carter' on a number of people present. Each of their lives unfolded quickly as it always seems to do in these type of settings, an soon to be 21 Jessica has traveled to 26 countries, an envy no doubt to many an adults twice or thrice her age.

Then we met a couple, who had just met the day before in Pakse. He 43 yuear old, a former Peace Core Volunteer, Phd, graduate from various business venutures, including a Boston Hedge Fund, thrice divorced, teaching in China, She on her own, with an overprotective mother in Italy, just quit a demanding job etc.

There were many others whose stories were served up as easily as Mama Pap's offerings.

Such is slow time in Tad Lo.

Tomorrow we are off to Champasak, where there is a full moon festival around some Angkor Era ruins, and then to Cambodia in a few days.

Wishing all slow times,


Sunday, January 24, 2010

on the hunt in Pakse

One of the benefits of not being distracted by a guidebook full of places to see that as I wrote earlier, its easier to focus on the journey and the simple joys of the road and how the experience is possessed. We have now travelled about 1000kms on this leg of the trip and head for the hills for a few days and then Cambodia awaits.

It took a while to register that for instance there are virtually no billboards advertising on the roads so that the few we do see merit special attention, but more importantly the awareness is heightened about all the the persuaders we are subject to, thanks to the constant market research to probe our psychological defences to create needs, when there is none, or to chose between brands of identical properties.

One that we have seen with some frequency, usually when entering a larger town said ""25th SEA GAMES, LAOS 2009". It took a while to reflect on the message, since Laos is a land locked country that, sea games would unlikely have taken place on the largest body of water, the Mekong, but that the sea in this case, was South East Asian, games which obviously was of considerable national pride and there has not been a message to replace it since the year's end.

Instead of market research, we engage in considerable market search, usually for the basic staples: water, bananas and the opportunity to have yet another noodle soup or friend rice. Once challenge being that Alison does not eat meat and its almost always added to each serving here.

This search also applies to finding places to stay, which at time involves the simple comparison of guest houses, especially if there is more than two that offers hot water, which seems to have some priority on the scale of desirability.

The bigger challenge is when there is no congruence between the place names on the map and the villages on the ground and the choice is to stay at the best place in town, meaning the only one that present itself.

This searching or hunting is a skill that hearkens back to our primeval roots. In fact, I recall one university course that argued that our brains evolved over about 5 million years and that we have only become the sedentary, urban dwellers over the last 50,000 years and modern only in the last 5,000 years or so, and that our brains are wired as that of the primitive man, so the pleasure of learning the day after, that the decision to stop at the guest house, with the next one being some distance away, is immensely satisfying.

The course on environmental psychology also talked about the pleasures we derive from water, green associated with foods, fire for protection and cooking, and of course the act of "hunting" and sex.

That water is the lifeblood of the land is so apparent from the irrigation channels that flood small parcels of rice fields to water buffaloes and children frolicking in mud holes, although usually not in the same ones.

There is so much more to share but so little time.

Happy hunting to all,

its about the journey

Tha Khaek, Janiary 18

At the end of each day, Alison keeps a brief summary of the highlights of the day, which at the end of the trip, she puts in the form of a diary and description of our trip.

Lately, its been like the parent asking the child coming home from school, "what did you do today" and the child responding "nothing". Since leaving Vientiane, I could easily describe the day as nothing of significance happend and yet, when we arrive, find a place to stay, shower, do some exploration on foot, have dinner etc. we are always elated and energized about the events of the day, even though nothing of great substance happened.

We have now covered over 600 kms in a week of riding, and my odometer clicked another 1000 kms so that its over 67,000 kms (and counting!) but each day is fulfilling despite not having much to write home about.

Feeling a need to continue the blog, a description of our days on the road is warranted, which leads me to the not so profound conclusion that its not about the destination, but its about the journey.

The road has been generally flat with gently rolling hills, albeit with moderate to strong headwinds, doing two 100+ kms days has been challenging, as has two days of only 40kms each but with severe hills, which caused us to push our bikes for about 10% of the distance so that the physicality of the journey is demanding and as always, at the end of the day it feels good to stop, but its not quite that pleasure is the absence of pain.

The scenery cannot be described as spectacular, but it can be quite riveting, especially when we pass brilliant green rice paddies or when reaching a peak on a mountain and the views are endless over jagged, black rock formations dotted with huge trees that reach to the sky.

Still its not so much the landscape but the active passing through it and slowly absorbing the essence of the lives that people lead and the inevitable questions that it provokes that starts to define the journey.

The people that we meet, most in passing as they, starting at the age they can barely walk, shout and wave vigorously, "hello, sabaidee" with a genuine smill and enthusiasm which only intnesifies as we return the same and there is almost a sense of loss when the fade over the horizon.

Beyond the fleeting meeting, one can quickly learn about the land, by observing the activities along the roadside. A huge hill of watermelons are an obvious indication of local agricultural activities, as are the make shift bamboo stands offering smoked fish, which are a signal that we are once again very near the mighty Mekong River, even though we are generally following the river south. As further proof, when we stop in the villages, and each will have a small market offering local produce, there is inevitably several plastic tubs with live fish flapping about.

We need to modify our eating habits and reduce expectations to find bananas in one area if they are not produced locally to find that the next village will have a half a dozen vendors offering a variety of one of our favourity consumeables (the variety of bananas, all generally small, are too many to describe in detail).

Since food is a constant pre-occupation as we are doing the equivalent of six or seven hours of aerobic classes in a gym a day, rule number one is to eat when there is an opportunity.

On this score, I am reminded how in our advanced society, shopping for food has become a bevildering array of choice, or pseudo choices, and a burden in light of our consciousness about calories, fat content, fibre, carb no carb, local vs.imported, impact on the envronment, global warming etc. Here, life is simple and we do eat almost exclusively local, organic and one that envolves virtually no options,and its all tastes great.

Breakfasts are a noodle soup with fresh local vegetables and an egg plus the classic Lao coffee with sweet condensed milk, although the coffee may have from a hilly region further south.

For a snack, it might be a couple of hard boiled eggs, still warm since it was prepared that morning and a few ears of corn on a cob, tied by their husk for packaging, and its not the perfect peaches and cream variety, but one that is a range of colour and has a wonderful chewy texture. The is no question about how you want your eggs done easy, over, sideways and the corn has no other fixings, so the focus is on the eating.

Lunch is usually in a simple place where the ingridients are all on a table and its cooked inview and once again no need to go through a complex menu that describes in glorious detail the repas to be had, the essence, and the rasberry reduct, and the stream of adjectives that are used the highten the expectation, and so often to disappoint, are all absent, and yet the end result, a simple fried rice or another soup is a culinary delight. An added bonus that one need not be concerned about food guides and portion sizes since if meat is included in a dish, its rarely more than the "recommended serving" and usually much less.

In towns and cities where more formal eating places abound, menus are often rare and its more a process of negotiotion as to what one gets to eat...

There are exceptions. We spent two days in Thankek, a small town with a French flavour, and I am willing to bet that the crusty baguette, was locally made but the highlight was the night market, where a dozen stands offered local meats, fish and deserts and we indulged by having a scrumptious whole barbequed chicken with rice, banana pancakes with sweet condensed milk, and freshly fried breads with a sprinkling of sugar, that beats a donut I have ever had.

A few days ago, we went on a 6 km trek to a well advertised waterfall through some pretty rugged terrain, and in the process I strained my ankle. It was for a good cause, with a tour guide for the two of us, that costs the equivalent of a nights stay in the local hotel and dinner for two, ie. about $10. The money went to the guide and to help preserve the trees in the national forest, otherwise they would be cutting down the trees. Needless to say, there was some water falling, but to dignified it as a waterfall would in most places constitute false advertising. But the walk was great and my ankle recovered in a couple of days(with bit of help from modern medicine)>

Such is our journey.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Four Days, Four Countries

We left Perth, Australia last Thursday afternoon, overnighted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew early in the am to Bangkok, Thailand and in the afternoon flew to Udon Thani later on Friday. Saturday morning we cycled a pretty easy 69 kms to the border town of Nong Khai and on Sunday morning cycled 30 kms across the four kilometer Friendship Bridge, over the Mekong River, to Laos and on to Vientiane.

Travelling in general, but so quickly in time and space, makes me not only sleep deprived but very conscious of the subtle and not so subtle differences in countries, not that we got a great sense of Malaysia from sleeping for about five hours in an airport hotel, but even the degree of humidity and the sense of colours were a considerable contrast to Australia, not to mention all the variety of foods offered in the morning breakfast buffet.

Thailand, and its our fourth visit to the country and the second to their new airport, is clearly the most advanced of the countries in south east Asia, but still retaining its exotic flavours, no more so than the food, which at the airport at least, is slowly being crowded out by the international favourites, sushi, pizza, burgers, Starbucks, while I crave the subtle and not so subtle spices of its national cuisine.

As I elected not to carry the guide book for Thailand, (the ones for Laos and Cambodia are heavy enough) and the one I read from an earlier trip was now about seven years old, and as such, the border town of Nong Khai turned out to be a delight. While not the sleepy little village that I expected, based on my reading, or fading memory, or perhaps just an image I conjured up in anticipation, it still retained a great deal of charm as the town continues to grow and develop about 5 kms along the wide expanse of the Mekong River due to the increased trade that resulted from the construction of the Friendship Bridge about 15 years ago.

We stayed in lovely, nearly new guest house just far enough away from the center to feel that we were in Thailand, versus another touring mecca and got good practice using sign language to convey the fact that the room did not have towels and toiletries, which were graciouscly provided. We also managed a long walk and view across to Laos in the setting sun and the mystical foggy dawn. Had some authentic food and after an American style breakfast headed to the border crossing.

For me, such crossings are a mix of dread and excitement. Dread because I hate bureaucratic procedures and excitement since crossing borders always has its anticipation of something new and different, even though in this case we were going to Vientiane, where we ended our trip through the northern part of Laos less then two years ago.

To enter the country it took almost an hour, not the least of which was getting the right form at window #2, submitting the completed form and the fee at window #1 and then waiting patiently at window #3 for the document itself and then going through two more check points and when finally on the road getting used to riding on the right, rather then the left, as we had been doing for the last two months.

Given the alloted time, I could not help but notice that the Visa fee for Canadians was US$42, for Americans $35 and for the rest of the world its was almost uniformly $30. Why?? To add insult to injury there was a surcharge, of one dollar in this supposedly communist country for processing the documents on the Lord's day, Sunday. The visa is only good for 30 days which is not a great deal of time, and at the same time Laos is promoting a campaign of "stay another day". Why not like India, allow multiple visits over a four month period?

I could also not help but hear the anguished pleadings and yellings of an elderly woman in French and English to be provided a visa only to be told repeatedly NO No NO! And after about twently minutes of heated exhanges and tears, I thought I saw another exhange, but this may have been my poor eyesight, and the woman was issued the document.

Speaking of documents, what do governments do with all the information they collect, often asking the same questions on two or three different forms, including the address and telephone numbers of the places you are staying, people one knows, profession and sex.

Speaking of which, in Thailand the entry and exit forms ask for sex, (as opposed to 'yes' or 'no please), on entry and leaving, I guess to determine the number of people having sex change operations in the country?

Approaching Vientiane, I was reminded of a quote from Nelson Mandela, something along the lines that "going back to a place that does not change through time, allows us to reflect better on the changes in ourselves". We did walk through the town, full of charming old French buildings and numerous colourful Wats and monks in orange robes which are the constant and found most of the restaurants that we had enjoyed two years ago are still here and to our good fortune we found a beautiful, brand new boutique hotel, with gleaming hard wood floors and a top floor corner room, which only appeal to the physically fit, with great views of the city. And as luck would have it, on one of the side streets, just around dinner time, a new Japaneese restaurant was offering a 50% discount in their five day old, ultra modern eatery, to "train staff"! We also had a great massage at a price that again seems to stand still, albeit, even here, the US$ has depreciated by some 12%.

Given our fabulous digs at Vayakorn House, we decided to enjoy the city an extra night which alas will only add to the midsection, since this will be the last opportunity to explore the French influence on the food and the general charm of this city. Once again, I am feeling less pressured to move on and see every monument so carefully described in our guide book, but rather just enjoy the time we have, for who knows if there will be a third time for us in Vientiane?

I am also carrying two pocket books, which I bought used, and on the cheap, with a view of donating them to the first English speaking local who happens to come along, and hence they are not great literature, but do provide a different activity, and sure beats watching the news, with its staple of violence, reports of cold weather etc.

In Wilbur Smith's African saga, there is a quote attributed to a Zulu warrior which resonated with me. "when a traveller gets a thorn in his foot, if he is wise he plucks it out. The fool who leaves it in and says I will keep this thorn to prick me so that I will always remember the road which I have travelled".

As a cyclist, I recall my early days when getting a flat, just fixing it or installing a new inner tube, only to have another shortly thereafter, teaching me the lesson that its important to remove the thorn or more likely a piece of glass, the caused the puncture, to not have the puncture repeat itselt.

As a metaphor for life, what would all the therapists do, if we dealt with our emotional hurts at or soon after the time of the trauma, and moved on, and how much happier would we be rather than carrying our pain with us?

happy travelling and to leaving all our thorns behind,


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Decisions, Decisions or Zen and the Art of Plastic Bag Maintenance


We are now about 24 hours from leaving Perth and having been away for more than two months, a month of which was packing up and unpacking almost on a daily basis, getting ready and packing would to the uninitiated appear to be an easy task; in reality, getting ready is taking much longer than anticipated, including dealing with a few larger questions of where exactly or approximately will we be riding and should I ditch my favourite plastic bag, repair it or use it as is?

Those of you who remember my early advocacy to ban the use of plastic bags, might be horrified to know that I have an ongoing, acute and passionate love affair with plastic bags, especially in the context of bicycle touring. I have a huge collection of favourite plastic bags, which I keep reusing and mending and should I live to the day when they truly become a rarity, or collectible on E-bay, I will set up a foundation for their preservation and exhibition.

First and foremost, notwithstanding a few mishaps, I am a firm believer in packing our bikes in clear, industrial strength plastic bags when we travel buy airplanes, versus a cardboard box, which most cyclists do. Boxes are awkward to carry and require the bikes to be disassembled to a considerable extent, and at the end of a trip, necessitates their disposal and on the return leg, a search for a box to repackage the bike. The plastic bags fit neatly into my front pannier and can travel with us, ready to be used at any time. As well, my hypothesis is that the fragility of the bike is more apparent in a bag, and handlers will be more likely to handle them appropriately, rather than just toss a box around. So far my average is pretty good.

But what prompted me to reflect on this topic is my heavy duty LCBO bag, and those not familiar with it, they were until about two years ago provided by one of Canada’s largest monopolies, with selection and prices to reflect, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, but one good thing about them was that they provided “free” very sturdy plastic bags to carry several bottles. One such bag I have now used for several years to pack my shoes (the cycling shoes when we are walking and the sandals when riding) but they were to my great anxiety gone temporarily AWOL. As well, they were a bit worse for wear and needed considerable TLC.

Then there are four large clear plastic bags, one extremely durable one from a well known shop that sells upmarket china, that hold the twenty or so items of clothing that I carry, as they can easily be scanned for content. Small sandwich sized bags are great for stuff that’s likely to leak, which they inevitably do as they bounce around on our travels. And larger, freezer sized bags carry precious maps, travel info and guide books etc. I also have a couple of larger blue bags given out by a vastly overpriced, yuppie enterprise in Toronto, whose value in my mind stops at the very practical plastic bags with a draw string that I carry to hold larger items, including food we pick up on the road. In all fairness, the store was sporting enough to give three of those bags, free of charge the last time we asked so I should be kinder to them. I also travel with a similar bag in yellow, from a well know retailer, specializing in cycling paraphernalia, perfect to hold extra water bottles on less populated stretches of our travels.

Given that the movement to ban bags has gotten considerable traction, I am acutely aware that some of these bags are irreplaceable and they will have to last a long time’ hence my desire to keep them in good shape and mend them with a variety of tapes, a subject I am sure is well beyond the interest of most people but I am prepared to divulge my secrets if asked nicely.

More importantly, given that the main activity in Perth was visiting family and friends and despite my limited understanding of the local Ozzy lingo, I managed to survive the main local activity: eating and drinking. Although a time consuming pass time, fortunately there was plenty of time (between celebrating our arrival, Friday nights, Saturday nights, Sunday nights, Chrisy, Boxing Day, day after Boxing Day, New Years Eve, Alison’s birthday day and several sorry to see you leave commemorations), for me to reflect on the upcoming journey.

Given that I had the benefit of an extremely slow computer to work with, and some time between the main events described above, I could take full advantage of Parkinson’s Law, which roughly states that a task will expand to fill the amount of time allotted to it. As such, I decided to systematically go through my minimal possessions and also to do more research on our intended destinations in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

On the packing side, I decided to leave my own slow laptop in OZ. Having downloaded our photos I have substantially used up its memory bank and thus its even slower than before. As well, doing research on our route convinced me that internet access will be even more limited than in India, and therefore I will have to post more spontaneous and have a valid explanation for even less crafted thoughts on this blog, and at the same time stop worrying about charging one extra gadget and most importantly, reduce the load carried by about four or so pounds..

Once I reached the topic of weight, I decided to be more systematic, albeit not to the extent of cutting the long handle of a toothbrush, which some ultra-light bicycle tourists do.
In this spirit, I decided to leave behind a pair of dress-pants, a couple of pairs of matching socks, since even I feel some disdain for wearing socks with sandals, and as long as I was dressing down, I felt at ease about leaving a number of other items of clothing in OZ.

I was also cognizant of the need to create space in the panniers to carry some extra food, as the number and variety of eating opportunities in Laos and Cambodia will be few and far between, as such, some roasted nuts and nutritious crackers will be a welcome change or supplement to a diet of sticky rice and noodle soup, if and when available, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Lastly, with all the extra time in between digesting the many meals, I had time to search the internet and discover that, as in India, there are lots of off the beaten path places to explore, even if the paths are not that well beaten down, and are variously described as mud tracks in the rainy season that turn into dust bowls in the summer. As well, I have become more comfortable with the idea of deviating from the planned itinerary given the many places to explore on route. All the extra information, sheets of paper can really add up in bulk and weight, required space in the panniers, and I was once again forced to reconsider all the stuff I am carrying. The anticipation of less traveled roads caused me to also consider buying dust masks and how to carry additional water and food where even local staples may be unavailable.

With all the time to socialize and to ponder the future, the only weight that I can’t shed readily and leave in Oz is the belt around my mid-section; this will have to wait for the roads ahead.

Namaste, peace and love and soon, Sabaidi