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The wrong way home

This post has been a long time coming. It’s a post I (Jo) hoped I would never have to write, a post that I felt I needed to write, but one that took a month to start writing. Two months since that all happened, it’s done. It’s not going to be easy reading, but I’ve been thinking about it for so long I’m hoping it will help me to put our return home into hard-to-find words. Many people reading will know this already. Two days after crossing into Southern China, we received the worst type of news – news which meant the immediate end of the trip. My dad had died. We were no longer on a cycling adventure – we had to get home.
When embarking on a long trip, you know that there is a (hopefully tiny) chance that someone you say goodbye to may not be there on your return. It’s a risk that you take, not lightly, but one that you weigh up as being incredibly small. After five months in Europe, we returned to the UK from Spain for a few weeks in March/April 2016 before flying to Boston. I spent some time with my dad during these weeks, including his birthday, and last saw him on the 6th April 2016 when I waved him goodbye. After over a year back on the road we crossed the Laos border into China. Less than 48 hours later, on the 19th April 2017, we woke up with the sun in a cheap hotel room to a couple of messages from the UK asking whether we were up. It was after 11pm at home, and I immediately felt that something wasn’t quite right. I replied and my phone started ringing straight away. As soon as I answered it, that feeling grew and I started to shiver. My sister was on the other end, talking through tears. “I’m so sorry. It’s dad. I’m so sorry.” Nothing else needed to be said. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I’ll never forget those words as long as I live, and I feel sick recalling them. The rest of the conversation is a blur. From that moment, in just one sentence, everything changed.

Taking a break on the road in China

A day that had started the same as any other on the road quickly became the start of something else – the “how quickly can we get home from this tiny Chinese town” challenge. A quick internet search showed that there were flights back to England from Kunming, 600kms north, on Friday. It was Wednesday morning. We couldn’t book anything as we had no idea how long it would take to get us and our bikes there. We weren’t on a train line. The day before we had been in a large town with a bus station, but now we were in a much smaller town that seemed to all be under construction – the main road was a muddy mess with rubble everywhere and we hadn’t seen any signs for a bus station. While I tried to digest the news and spoke to home some more, Debs set out with some (probably very badly) translated phrases on the iPad on a quest to find us a bus to Kunming.

Half an hour later she returned, covered in mud. She had wandered the streets showing people the phrase “where is the bus to Kunming” with no idea as to whether one even existed. Nobody spoke English and people kept pointing her to a phone number. Not much use when you can’t speak Mandarin and haven’t been able to buy a SIM card as a foreigner. Finally somebody walked her to what looked like an abandoned car park where a woman was sat at a plastic table next to a poster with a bus on it. Between them they established (probably) that there wasn’t a bus to Kunming until midnight, but (probably) that there was a bus to a city about halfway at 9.40am. It was now 9am and I hadn’t managed to do anything in the room except sit on the bed so we shoved everything into the panniers as quickly as possible, carried the bikes and stuff down several flights of stairs (standard morning practice) and ploughed our way through the mud and the beeping traffic back to the lady at the desk. We were there just before 9.40 but the lady had disappeared and there was no sign of a bus. The “road” was jammed with traffic trying to crawl through the construction work and every time two vehicles larger than a car wanted to pass each other there was a huge hold up. We weren’t convinced that a bus could even get down the road, and wondered about the possibility of catching a bus on the highway itself. There was nobody who could help us and we had no way of finding any useful information. All we could do was hang around and cross our fingers. We decided we would get on any bus going North, if nothing else we would hopefully get to a bigger town with an actual bus station (and actual buses).

Making our way through Mengyuan (“under construction”)

What seemed like an hour later but was actually 20 minutes, we saw a bus approaching. Yesss, we might actually be able to get out of this town! As the driver approached our outstretched arms he looked at us, looked at the bikes, shook his head and drove past. My heart sank. The bus was completely full. But as the saying goes, there was another bus right behind. This time with only a few passengers, so I ran out without the bikes and pretty much blocked its path so the bus driver had to stop. He said he was going to Jinghong, only a few hours away but it looked pretty big on the map so seemed a good bet. Not that we really cared, it was going in the right direction so we went to grab the bikes. He looked at them with a mixture of surprise and disdain but opened the luggage hatch anyway and helped us get the bikes and the panniers in. Mostly by brute force, but this wasn’t the time to be worrying about the bikes.

Once on the bus, the initial relief at finally beginning the journey back home soon gave way to overwhelming sadness. I thought about my dad, tried to remember the last time I spoke to him, what he said, what I said, how when I last spoke to him on the phone I told him we were planning on being back in a few months he started crying and said he couldn’t wait. I looked at my phone to the last text he sent me, just a few days before on Easter Sunday, to wish me happy Easter, finishing with “love you loads – take care xxx”. I’d written a reply but it wouldn’t send as I was out of credit. I stared at the screen through my tears, my unsent reply telling him I loved him too and the red “failed” underneath haunting me. I beat myself up about not just texting him from Debs’ phone, or topping up before we got to China, or not sending texts because they cost 50p each. I could have made him smile one last time, but I’d “failed”. My phone told me so.

The four days it took to get home were probably the hardest I’ve ever had. In some ways they passed in a blur, but in others they dragged and dragged. We had spent the past couple of weeks planning our route home, and we were only going to ride a few more days before catching a bus to Kunming. We’d then spend the next month travelling by train – crossing China to Beijing, sort out a Russian visa and then to Moscow and on to St Petersburg where we would travel by boat to Helsinki. From there we could ride home, achieving our dream of travelling overland from Malaysia to England to finish off our round-the-world trip. The riding had become tiring and we were ready for a break, so were really looking forward to a month of train travel and being normal tourists. We were going to visit the panda base in Chengdu, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an and the Great Wall from Beijing. I’d spend my birthday on the train to Russia. We’d have a couple of days to explore Moscow. The night before had been spent planning the trains. It was hard to get our heads round how 12 hours later this was all gone and we would be home in a matter of days. Obviously I was struggling to deal with the fact that I would never see my dad again, and this was the hardest thing, but having our dream taken away at the same time just compounded the sadness further. Once home, this faded more into the background, but whilst on that four-day journey, it was raw. We were still in it, still on the trip that we had spent 3 years planning and saving for, and 18 months doing. We were still making our way home, but in a very different way to that plan. It’s hard to explain – I’m sure anybody reading this thinks “but it’s only a trip, things like this put it into perspective” – and that’s true, of course, but on that bus in China it was hard to step outside of what was happening and see that. 

Sharing the road in China

Three hair-raising hours later (driving in China leaves a lot to be desired) we pulled into Jinghong bus station and with the symbols for Kunming on our phone screen, set about finding the right bus. From the timetable it looked like one left at 2pm but at the ticket desk we were only offered 6.30pm, an overnight trip that we were keen to avoid as they were sleeper buses (with bed bunks not seats, surely sickness-inducing) and having seen the standard of driving, seemed the least safe option. I wandered back out to the row of buses with my symbols to try and find one that looked like it might be leaving for Kunming, when I heard a voice saying “do you need some help?” Amazingly I had found (probably) the only person in Jinghong with enough English to help us – a lady in a headscarf hanging out at a food cart outside the station. I don’t know why she thought I needed help… but I grasped onto her and blurted out that we needed to catch a bus to Kunming, with bikes, as soon as possible. With her help we established that the 2pm bus was full so the overnight bus was our only option if we didn’t want to wait until the next day. Reluctantly we bought the tickets – at least we’d arrive first thing Thursday morning giving us a full day and half to sort out boxing the bikes and getting to the airport. 

Typical lunch on a tiny stool in the street

Unsurprisingly for anyone who knows me I hadn’t lost my appetite so we had our usual Chinese lunch of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, rice and some unidentifiable sloppy green vegetable perched on a small stool along with middle aged men staring at us, smoking and spitting. We hadn’t quite got used to the Chinese eating etiquette. Finding food in China is easy – finding wifi is less so. Without a SIM card we couldn’t use mobile data, and without a Chinese mobile number we couldn’t use wifi in the usual failsafe places like McDonalds or Starbucks. We wandered around until we found a hotel, and asked whether we could have a room for a few hours. (Cheap hotels in this part of the world usually have an hourly rate – probably not for people to use the internet. Well, not for booking flights anyway….) With a bit of miming and pointing we were given the wifi code and told to sit in the lobby. Which we did for a few hours. I’ve seen films and TV programmes where people rock up to an airport and get on the next flight, but it soon became clear that there is a bit of artistic licence involved in this. Skyscanner has a lot to answer for – what look like good flight options ended up having at least 3 stops, 17+ hour waits for connections, self-transfers, multiple airlines or just didn’t have seats once you clicked through to try and book. Throw in the complication of travelling with bikes as extra oversize luggage and we struggled to find anything leaving Kunming in the next few days. 
Finally it looked like we found a flight with only one short connection (in Beijing) to Manchester (closer to home than London) for a mere £1500 each before the extra bike charge. Ouch. We booked but made the mistake of informing the agent about the bikes in the ‘special request’ box. Do not ever do this. The agent wouldn’t book the flight without the exact dimensions of the bike boxes. That’s right, the bike boxes we were yet to obtain. Debs sent an email explaining that we knew the luggage size restrictions for the airline (at this point she could recite the bike rules for all airlines flying out of Kunming) and would obey them but that was not enough. It’s time to board the night bus, so by good old SMS we explained the problem to Team HQ UK and they took over to cancel the bikes but confirm the seats.

Back at the bus station, as we waited with our bikes we gained quite a crowd wondering how the strange white people were going to get these huge heavy things on. There is no concept of personal space in China. The driver turned up and said we couldn’t take the bikes, so we just took the front wheels and all the bags off (luckily we knew the drill from the morning journey) and proceeded to put the bikes in the luggage compartment ourselves. We were getting on that bus and we were taking the bikes with us. Debs played her best “angry white woman” as the crowd got bigger, the men got closer and the driver started pulling the bikes around, putting her hand practically in his face to stop him. There was a dog in a cage under the bus so we didn’t think the bikes were much of a problem. The driver insisted on money, we didn’t think that we had to pay but we just wanted him to leave us alone so I gave him 100 yen (about £12) for both bikes and we pushed through our crowd of onlookers to get on the bus
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The 13-hour trip passed slowly. It was possible to sit up on the bunks but not particularly comfortably, so I mostly laid back and thought about how shit this all was. It went dark pretty soon after we left so there was no scenery to enjoy. About an hour into the trip we were stopped at some kind of police/army checkpoint, a group of men in uniform were doing a drill with guns in the yard and a couple of uniformed and stern looking women with rifles got on the bus and asked to see ID. We were the only foreigners and she didn’t really know what she was looking at in our passports. We were a little concerned when she marched off the bus with them but they didn’t take long to come back. Unlike one woman who was hauled off after some issue with her ID card, a couple of uniformed men came on and did a thorough search of not just her bunk but the bunks to the side and above hers, stripping the sheets and checking everywhere. A while later another bus turned up to take the attention off us and our passenger was returned. The same thing happened an hour or so later – same armed search of the bus, same puzzled looks at our passports, same grilling of the poor female passenger. I can only assume we went through a military or autonomous zone. The bus didn’t stop to buy food/drink at any point so we had to ration our one bottle of water between us. At one point we pulled into a car park, the driver cut the engine and everyone got comfy. We slept there for a few hours – later we found out that buses are not allowed to be driven between certain hours.

Sleeper bus

At 7.30am the next morning we got off at Kunming station and were instantly shivering in our shorts and t-shirts – my computer said it was 16 degrees. I don’t think it had said less than 20 since we left New Zealand – 3 months of cycling and sleeping in the 20s and 30s had turned us into wimps. It was going to be cold in England. After the usual problems finding wifi (hotel lobby) and our way around (guess work) we arrived at our kind warm showers hosts who had been hugely helpful after we contacted them explaining the situation and that we would need some help finding bike boxes and getting to the airport. The amazing Su family had organised everything for us and had a spare apartment we could use for the next 24 hours to sleep and pack. The bikes went to a shop to be boxed (we usually do this ourselves but… couldn’t be bothered), we attracted quite a crowd of people staring at us at the local food market, and the Su family kindly took us out for a Chinese BBQ dinner so we could try a load of different food, understand what we were eating for once, and have a nice final evening on the road. I even threw caution to the wind and tried a chicken foot – when in China and all that. (Verdict: not great.)

BBQd chicken foot. Not great.
The amazingly kind and helpful Su family and a Chinese BBQ. Very great.

Our final morning was spent packing and throwing stuff we didn’t need away, successfully getting our checked luggage down to two bikes and one bag of panniers. Luckily we left plenty of time to get to the airport as our booked “minivan” (empty transit with two plastic chairs in the front for us to sit on) was an hour late, all of which the driver tried to make up by racing through the traffic. Cycling is definitely not the most dangerous form of transport in China. Things started to go downhill as soon as we arrived – I managed to rip our one bag of panniers, it turned out that despite flying straight through to England with the same airline, we would have to collect and recheck our luggage in Beijing (in just two hours transfer time). This seemed a bit of a stretch, and we said so. The ground staff rang Beijing for advice. Verdict: probably ok. Thanks for that. Despite this being an international airport the wifi still wouldn’t work for foreigners so we couldn’t do anything about the seemingly impossible transfer time we had been given other than cross our fingers again. We used the last of the phone credit to explain the problem to Debs’ Mum (SMS before call: “Be ready with pen and paper for call. Don’t talk just listen”) hoping she could get the airline to meet us off the plane and help. 


By now the majority of flights leaving Kunming were delayed. I started to worry even more that we would miss our connection. All was going fine – our screen said we would depart on time – until we got on the plane. The engine started but we just sat there, not going anywhere. Time passed, I got more and more stressed, nobody seemed to know what was happening. After an hour we were not looking like making our connection in Beijing. After an hour and a half, this was confirmed when the flight attendants started serving the “in flight” meal. While we were still on the ground. This did not look good. I’ve been on delayed flights before but have never had a meal before take off. It was unbelievable. I was obviously going mental by this point, nobody could tell us what was happening and we had missed our connection before we had even taken off. All I wanted was to get home, and we were stuck on a plane miles away with no sign of going anywhere and nobody to ask for help. I cried a lot.

After three hours sitting on the plane and not moving, we finally took off – about the time we were supposed to be landing. Once in Beijing we had missed our flight to Manchester, so we were met by someone from transfers, somehow she identified us from the ground as soon as we exited the plane onto the stairs. Maybe it was our strong cycling legs. Or the fact that we were the only westerners on board. On the airport bendy bus we were offered the next direct flight to Manchester in four days time. Before I could start shouting about this Debs noticed “21” written down on her clipboard list (of Chinese symbols) – we were told we could fly to London via Berlin the next day instead (which as it was now 2am or something, was actually the same day). Yes please. By 4am we were in a free and only slightly grim hotel room with six hours until we had to leave for the airport. I don’t know how either of us were still standing by this point. I think we managed to squeeze in four hours sleep before searching out the breakfast buffet, only to be disappointed (watermelon in some kind of mayonnaise sauce was the lowlight. Verdict: wrong).

What happens when a white cycle tourist stops at a market…

There was time for some more airport fun. Our unhelpful check in lady said the airline wouldn’t take the bike boxes, they were too big. We insisted that we could, and in fact had already taken them with that airline. She said no, we said yes, and waited for her to get a supervisor who eventually agreed (after shushing Debs). At airport security we queued for ages to have a bike lock confiscated. I suppose it was pretty weighty.

Luckily our flight dramas were over (for now) and several movies later we landed in Berlin. It was a bit of a rush to get our connection to LHR as we were late leaving Beijing (seems to be standard practice in China) but there was no panic as we could understand what was going on and there was a level of order and system that the Chinese airports can only dream of. Before we knew it we were enjoying an orderly queue for our British Airways flight. There was however time for one more issue as when we landed in London and went to collect our bikes, they both came out with the bottom flap of the box wide open. Someone had opened them (I’m suspecting China) to do a check and hadn’t bothered taping them back up again. Seriously. Debs’ box was also badly damaged and it turned out under inspection the next day that the bicycle front fork had been bent so needed replacing.

Writing this I can’t quite believe what a hassle the journey was, the one time I was desperate for everything to go smoothly. It was the fifth flight of the trip and the first time anything had gone wrong. Hainan airlines do not come recommended, though looking at the departure board in Kunming, I think we would have been delayed with whoever we were flying with. Both airports were crazy busy and you get the feeling that they are unable to cope with the volume of flights. It was a relief to finally land in England. After three months of Asian manners I was amazed when someone held the door open for me. In the toilet, a woman came out of the cubicle, saw I was waiting and said sorry, in the usual British apologise-even-when-there-is-nothing-to-apologise-for way. I smiled. We were home.

Cherry blossoms in Harrogate

The first few weeks home were very strange. To be thrown straight back into “normal” life after almost a year with no time to mentally prepare was hard. We could choose what to eat from a fridge, understand what everything in the supermarket was, know where we would be sleeping every night, sit on a sofa, travel between places at speed, have conversations with people other than each other. But it was also difficult to adjust. Life on the road is so different – exercise is automatic, sleep comes easily after a day riding, we were in a routine of going to be early and waking with the sun, we ate freshly cooked food three times a day, had no junk food, no TV, and spent all day out in the fresh air. Being back home was a sudden end to all of this. The weather in England was pretty good – I think it only rained for one day in the first two weeks – but I couldn’t make myself go out on my bike. It seemed pointless. There was also a lot of sorting out to do for my dad’s estate, and a funeral to organise and attend. My dad was pretty well known in Harrogate, having been a radio presenter and heavily involved in both football clubs, and around 180 people attended his funeral. It was touching to hear so many nice words about the man who I last saw over a year ago. 


Gradually we started making plans to get back on the road and finish the trip. Initially I was determined to go back to China, to not allow this to change the trip. But in reality this would be difficult. We would need new visas, and for that I would need a new passport. Debs got a teaching job starting at the end of August so we had a time limit. A good compromise seemed to go to Helsinki and ride home, which would mean we would complete the cycling part of our world trip as planned. I don’t regret the trip, but I do feel guilt at being out of the country for the last year of my dads life. It is us, the ones who go away, who make the decision to spend time away from family and friends, not those we leave behind. My dad would never have chosen to go for over a year without seeing me, giving me a hug, going for a pint. I made that choice, and for that I do feel bad. But I also know how proud he was of what I was doing, how he told everyone who would listen what country I was in. I just wish he could have still been here to see us come home and celebrate our achievements with us.

I gave dad one of our business cards before we left for the US last April. Finding it framed in his house made me cry and smile… he was proud.

Do you think this has got bugs in?

It was fun arriving back in Thailand from Cambodia. For a start, our border police officer was quite the comedian as she stamped us back in. The next officials we met wanted a photo and by lunchtime we had found a functioning ATM and an appropriate roadside restaurant. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better our motel room had Hello Kitty soft furnishings.

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Welcome to Thailand. Smile.

We were aiming for Vientiane, Laos, but decided to take the scenic route via the Mekong to visit a few tourist sights. The next overnight was Ubon Ratchathani, still a way from the river. UR had a brilliant evening food market area – great meals and possibly the best fruit shakes of Asia. We headed East, to a point where the Mekong and another river confluence and are different colours. The different coloured water was clear to see, but it was possibly not worth the detour, especially when we found another similar confluence a few days later. It was fun cycling though, all small roads, hardly any traffic, and even a few hills. Strangely it also seemed to be Autumn, gold and brown leaves fell around us. Can’t explain that one.

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Night market in Ubon Ratchathani. Loved this lady’s TV. Even better when the soap started and her mates came over from their food cart to watch.

 

This whole area was completely different to beachy tourist Thailand. There wasn’t much English spoken, but there were awesome markets, pleasant towns, good hotels and a lot of monks. Our standard day involved mangoes and bananas for breakfast, eggs or veg and rice for early lunch, then a night market feast in the evening. We tried to squeeze in either a fruit shake or an iced tea too. Life was pretty brilliant, even with some long riding days. The only hazard was that we seemed to have entered a new food region – grubs. We started to approach banana leaf wrapped snacks with more caution…

A real highlight was visiting Wat Phu Tok, a temple built into the cliffside. It was an incredible network of wooden walkways, small shrines and many stairs. If you’re in the area, it’s unmissable. That evening we also had the best Pad Thai of the trip. It was in a town about 40km west of the temple, a total bargain from the smiley lady with the cart opposite the convenience store, (she’ll even do one without the peanuts). If you’re in the area, it’s unmissable.

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Tiny Jo at Wat Phu Tok

Nong Khai was our last stop in Thailand. We spent a few days relaxing, doing some bike maintenance, and treated ourselves to some Cadbury’s chocolate in the last Tesco of the trip. We were ready to cross the river we had followed for a week and start our Laos ride. Thailand is a great place to cycle. I would highly recommend it for any tourers, even for a first time bike tour. The distances between towns aren’t unmanageable, there’s plenty of reasonably priced accommodation and food, and the road surfaces are excellent. What are you waiting for?!

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Evening boat ride on the Mekong in Nakhom Phanom

An update and a plan

Happy Sunday morning. I’m enjoying mine with a brew and smug-feeling inducing carrot, apple and cinnamon porridge in my parents’ kitchen in Leicestershire. If I’d had to predict 2 months ago where I would be on June 11th my answer would have been west of Stockholm, but east of Copenhagen. Not much has really gone to plan in the last 7 weeks and for that reason the blog is now the most behind it has ever been. Jo will be writing to explain more about all of that, and i’ll be trying to catch up on the so far ignored bits of Thailand and Laos.

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Sharing the road in Laos

It has been good to have the chance to see lots of family and friends during our return to the UK. Being car-less that has meant we have spent quite a bit of time doing the same as being on tour. Riding bikes with panniers, staying only one night at various friends/family then going somewhere else, navigating new routes to get there. There’s been some brilliant cycling in Leicestershire, as enjoyable as anywhere in the world, so if you’re local, get out and explore some of the lovely roads. The area between Measham and Hinckley is especially good, pick the smallest roads and you will pretty much only see other cyclists, and loads of them.

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Lovely Leicestershire roads, nr. Shenton

Despite the fun at home, we very much feel that we need to finish (Finnish) the trip off properly, or as close to ‘properly’ as we can. There was never a fixed route for the ride, but 18000 miles was always in mind as a minimum distance – it’s what Guinness count as an around the world ride. Although we have not succeeded in our aim to cross Asia overland (we were always going to have some train help), we were pretty clear on still reaching this total. To make life easier with visas (and Jo’s almost full passport) we decided to restrict this final leg of the journey to Europe. Unlike the UK government, this week we made a plan for how we would tackle it.

If the original route had worked out, we would have arrived in Helsinki by ferry and ridden home. So we could fly to Helsinki, but that seems a little dull/easy/annoying with bike boxes. Instead, here’s a rough outline. When I say rough outline, I mean, here’s all of our planning to date:

Ferry Harwich-Hook of Holland : Ride to The Hague : Eat Dutch apple cake : Train from the Hague-Hamburg : Ride to Travemunde : Ferry to Latvia (I know, definitely NOT in the original trip schedule) : Ride to Tallinn, Estonia via Riga : Ferry Tallinn-Helsinki : Ride home from Helsinki.

Seems reasonable to me, though the menus need more work. We don’t have to fly and get two Brucie Bonus capital cities to visit. There’s at least 3 overnight ferries for pretending to be in an Agatha Christie novel. It should take about 7-8 weeks, back in time for the incredibly early school term start in Leicestershire, and takes us comfortably over the magic 18,000. Route advice always welcome if you have knowledge of the area.

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But which way is Finland?

Once again we have only a few days to go, and virtually nothing ready. Seriously. We currently don’t have a tent –  somehow the poles got left in China. Yes, I agree, it is a wonder we got so far unsupervised. Friends should feel relieved at this point that for this trip we are not moving out of a house. You will not be required to install carbon monoxide detectors, search through piles of our disorganised paperwork, or felt the shed roof. This time we thank you instead for driving out of your way to see us, giving us places to stay, taking us to train stations, squeezing bikes in your cars and generally being kind and wonderful during the return we didn’t plan for.

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One of the many Leicestershire – N Yorks train trips. Some train bike racks are brill. This is one is rubbish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riel-y dusty cycling in Cambodia

Leaving Bangkok we had acquired a third wheel to our group – Greg, who we first met in California and then saw again in New Zealand. He had been cycling in Thailand and also planned to go to Cambodia so we joined forces and two became three. Riding out of Bangkok was as horrible as riding in, but not for as long. We we keen to get there as fast as possible so took a direct route, following flat, quiet highways for two days to the Cambodia border. It wasn’t particularly interesting, although on the second day we stopped early as a storm was forecast, we could see it coming as we pedalled madly back to the hotel after lunch and as we were riding a lightening strike hit a lamppost at the side of the road. We don’t mind a bit of rain (though can also often be found sheltering from it) but lightening is pretty scary so we were pleased to have stopped early and have plenty of time for speed scrabble. This was Gregs stag do so we even had an extra mango and went wild.

Leaving Bangkok

If crossing from Malaysia to Thailand was like Switzerland to Italy, Thailand to Cambodia was like Montenegro to Albania. It was like entering a new world. A crazy, noisy, dusty one. We rode up to the border past a queue of big trucks that was at least 2km long, and were stamped out of Thailand along with people pushing hand carts packed as high as possible with goods. When I think of no mans land – the piece of land between exiting one country and entering another – I often imagine a barren, empty wasteland. And I’m sure that what it is usually like. It was in Europe anyway. But not here. As soon as you are out of Thailand the craziness begins. People are selling things from the back of motorbikes, tuk tuk drivers touting for custom, the road was packed with traffic and people. Throw in the complication that Thailand drive on the left and Cambodia on the right and you have 500m of chaos. Getting into Cambodia was fairly straightforward, we already bought visas online to save one of my few free passport pages so we just had to queue with the bus passengers to be stamped in. Strangely many of them seemed to be slipping notes over the desk with their passports and then giggling when they exited the building – maybe it’s some kind of “backpacker must do” in SE Asia to give a bribe but we didn’t bother and all was fine.

No photos inside no mans land, but I took a sneaky one

I stood with the bikes while Debs and Greg went to sort SIM cards which took at least as long as the immigration process. In that time I saw a load of cows crossing the road between traffic, a side road that was actually a river so people were wading or driving through, lots of litter, and a lady carrying several trays of eggs balanced on her head. Kids came up to the bikes and played with the flags. It was just after lunch by now and it was extremely hot, the riding wasn’t too nice as the road was dusty and trucks would spit a nice mixture of exhaust fumes and dust as they sped past. The landscape was much more barren than Thailand, no trees, so no shade, which seemed to add to the heat. We stopped at one place for a fizzy drink but could only see beer or water. It was great to see schoolkids riding home on bikes. One size bike fits all in Cambodia, so there were some small kids on really big bikes. The other great thing was how excited every child seemed to be to see us. Every single one would shout hello and wave, sometimes we couldn’t even see them so just had to shout back in a general direction. Kids here seemed to have the biggest grins ever, their whole faces beamed as they waved. 

Sharing the road

We made it 50km to the next big town, Sisophan, checked into a guesthouse for the princely sum of $10 for an en suite air con room, and walked to the night market. We soon discovered that the people of Sisophan do not walk. We were the only ones trying to dodge the mopeds. Getting our first meal was a bit of a challenge, we found a stall with vegetables on display, asked for vegetables, and were told no. The same happened at the next one, but we were pointed next door. First we were offered beer, but then finally got a yes for vegetables. As the cooking started Debs had her usual peanut panic (they like to sneak them into dishes in Asia), went over to check there were no nuts going in and was asked “do you want cigarettes?” Wherever food is served, even if it’s the smallest cart, there’ll be cigarettes for sale too. 

Impressive temple entrances

It took a while to get to grips with the money in Cambodia. The official currency is the riel but dollars are also accepted and commonly used for anything over $5. So if you buy anything for less than a dollar, you use riel, anything over a dollar you can use either, or a combination if you wish. Equally you might get your change in either or both. It’s 4000 riel to the dollar, so if something is $1.50, and you pay with $2, you’ll get 2000 riel change. If you pay with $5 you’ll get either $3 and 2000 riel or 14000 riel or something in between. It is very confusing and impressive how well everyone here knows their 4000 times table. I still didn’t really get it when we left the country. It does mean that for ease, a lot of things seem to be $1, which makes a fried noodle and egg dinner from a food cart a great deal.

Never a dull moment

The next day was another early start for the hot 100km ride to Siem Reap. Our main reason for visiting Cambodia was to see the Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, probably our only ‘must-see’ sight in Asia. The highway remained hot and dusty but the waves and hellos continued. It’s hard to get bored here even on a highway because there is so much going on alongside it. It’s not like riding on the A1. This is the only road in this area so people live by it, trade by it, go to school on it, travel on it by whatever means. You’d hear a slow moving vehicle behind and wait to see what overtook you, or more interestingly, what it was carrying. These guys deserve and award for innovation in what can be carried just using a motorbike. Trucks went past piled high with mattresses, tables, melons, people, live pigs, you name it, it can be carried. People would sit on the top of whatever was being carried on the back. Families squeezed onto mopeds. With that and all the waving, and being alert for cows or goats wandering across the road, the miles flew by.


Approaching Siem Reap, everything changed. Posh hotels started emerging, the litter decreased, and we joined a well kept road with a line of trees in the middle. This was clearly a place designed for people to come and spend money, and it couldn’t look less like the Cambodia we had spent the last two days riding through. Kids stopped shouting and waving. Western chain restaurants, coffee shops, and nice bars lined the roads in. It was all quite surreal. It seemed like it had just been transplanted into its surroundings, a bit like when you drive into Las Vegas. We spent a day relaxing and wandering around the sights, of which there are practically none, because people come here to go to Angkor Wat. We actually got a bit uncomfortable being surrounded by all of this money in a country where so many people live in poverty. Even in Siem Riep there are people so thin they can hardly move, laying down opposite a coffee shop where a cappuccino costs enough to feed a family for a day. I don’t know what the answer is as the town and Angkor Wat brings in a huge amount of money but it just made us very uncomfortable. And we were of course a part of it – we were there to visit the temples and we also bought postcards and fruit shakes. We even went to a (non-fancy) coffee kiosk, where Debs was surprised to be offered breast milk in her coffee. I suggested it was more likely to be fresh milk. Panic over. This place isn’t that weird.

Angkor Wat at sunset

The next morning we joined the hoards of people at the main Angkor Wat temple for sunrise. It was a special sight, only slightly tarnished by the number of tourists sitting on areas you are not supposed to, brandishing selfie sticks and complaining loudly about how tired they are after flying in from Chang Mai the day before. We found Angkor Wat the least impressive temple to actually walk round, and soon moved on to Ta Phrom, the temple that has been left to be consumed by trees and was used in the film Tomb Raider. Seeing the trees simultaneously push apart and hold together walls and other parts of the temple was amazing. It made it more atmospheric, and it was hard not to be impressed at the power of nature to overtake the buildings. Having the bikes was great as we could just ride around between the temples, we also visited the other of the ‘top 3’, Bayon, and stopped at a few smaller ones that were just by the side of the road – we usually had these to ourselves. The heat got up and we realised how much harder it is to wander around than ride a bike in the afternoon sun so by 2 o’clock we were templed out and went back for a nap. It’s also very tiring being shouted at “hey, lady, buy trousers? Drink? Scarf?” and fending off the very cute but incredibly resilient children who surround you and try to sell you things. It’s so sad, these kids should be at school, and the first English they have been taught is how to ask for money. One was so small she couldn’t even form the words properly but she was saying “two for one dollar, three for one dollar” by using the same tone and rhythm as the (slightly) bigger kids. Anyone who manages to wander around from sunrise to sunset on the same day deserves a medal. 

Angkor Wat at sunrise
Bayon. Spot the faces…
Looking down from Baphoun
Ta Phrom

Three became two again the next day as Greg carried on east towards Phnom Penh and we turned north to return to Thailand. After about 10km of Siem Reap outskirts we were back into small villages and children were back to smiling and shouting “hello” rather than “dollar”. We stopped for second breakfast at a table full of army men who gestured we sat down. Two of whatever they are having please, and we got two bowls of noodle soup. On the table were a few colanders with flowers in, nice table decoration we thought. There we were eating our soup when one of the military men came over and strongly suggested that the flowers were to go in the soup. Not wanting to argue with a man with a gun, Debs threw in a few stalks, only to be told (despite us not understanding the words, the meaning was clear) that the petals were the best bit. So in they went. I somehow got away with eating regular non-floral soup. 

No those flowers are not a table decoration…

That day we passed through the most basic villages we had seen yet, and it was sad to see people living in such conditions. Wooden shacks were built on stilts, with streams of sewage and litter running underneath. There were many foreign aid signs. Kids were not at school. But the people kept smiling and waving. Our final destination was Anlong Veng, close to the border with Thailand, and winner of the most dusty town we visited award. 

Basic wooden homes

Dusty Anlong Veng

A final dinner of fried noodles, vegetables and fried egg on top for $1 – we had grown used to these in our short time in Cambodia – fuelled us for a mean climb up to the border the next morning. Having ridden practically flat roads our whole time in Asia this was quite the challenge and we were dripping with sweat when we reached the very odd border town of Choam which was practically deserted apart from a few food and drink stalls. We spent our remaining riels on our first sugar cane juice, made by squeezing sugar cane through a mangle type piece of machinery. Leaving Cambodia couldn’t have been more different than entering – there was nobody else at the border so the Cambodian officer took his time inspecting every page of my passport at least three times before finally waving us through. Cambodia had been fun, but the thought of having trees to shade under and not being covered in dust every time a vehicle went past pleased us immensely.

Cycling from the beach to Bangkok

Bangkok was 700kms away from Phra Thong. We thought it was about time we did some “proper riding” – covered some distance in the direction of home rather than just cruising around – so gave ourselves until the following Sunday to get there. Sundays are good days to arrive in cities by bike. Not that this made any difference with Bangkok as it turned out, but it was worth a try. 700km in 8 days would be tough in the heat, especially given that our average over the past few weeks had been around 50/day, but we were up for the challenge. 


The first couple of days helped, as the spacing of the big towns made our first two rides 110 and then 125km. After lifting the bikes and luggage off Mr Choi’s boat, getting some breakfast at the marina and being pointed and laughed at by a small Thai child it was 9am before we hit the road proper, and already el scorchio. It was an uneventful sweaty highway ride to Ranong, though the traffic was light. Finding food that evening was a bit more of a challenge than usual as the Ranong speciality seemed to be all-you-can-eat buffets, outside Asia we would jump at the chance of this for around £5 but when you can get a large, decent meal for £1 the buffet seemed pricey. We ended up at our usual favourite plastic table and chair type restaurant full of groups of Thais enjoying their Saturday night, not for the first time we walked in and sat down and watched the ladies working there look at each other in a “no, you go and talk to them” way, mentally playing a game of paper, scissors stone to see who has to go and try to understand what the white people want. The loser came over and helpfully showed us some pictures. We are fine with pictures, although a few chilli symbols to denote spice level might help.


We knew the 125km ride to Chumphon would be hilly as well as long, crossing the country from west coast to east coast (Thailand is very narrow at this point so it is not as impressive as it sounds. In fact it’s about 12km at its narrowest so it’s not impressive at all). The road skirts the Thai/Myanmar border for a while, so we could gaze over in a “look but don’t touch” way that seemed strange after cycling in Europe and crossing from country to country often without even realising. Most of the hills were early on in the day when it was still cool (which means 25 degrees here) so were easy enough other than the fact that Debs’ front derailleur didn’t like changing down to the lowest gear so she kept having to get off and do it by hand. After weeks of flat riding this was annoying timing. We hadn’t been kind to the bikes recently with all the boats and beaches, and we vowed to give them a good clean to get off the salt and sand. There wasn’t much to see other than a decent waterfall right by the road, we passed signs to other waterfalls but these are now one thing we do not detour to see – without wishing to sound like Tony, we’ve seen loads, and it takes something big to impress us now. Oh there was something to see, pork bun alley. It’s fascinating here how you can pass stands and stands of vendors selling exactly the same thing at exactly the same price, presumably due to availability of produce. We’ve ridden past pineapple alley, watermelon alley, dried fish in baskets alley, kite alley, large ornamental rooster alley, salt alley (see below), but pork bun alley might have been the most impressive. We passed maybe 45 of exactly the same stalls on both sides of the road selling steamed pork buns, easily identifiable by the massive steamers (and the identical red signs). There’s no diversification in product or pricing. How they can all make any money we have no idea. Do locals have their favourite stand? How do they choose? We picked one at random and ate 5 between us, that will have tasted exactly the same as their business rivals next door. 


From Chumphon we were riding up the east coast to Bangkok and got into a good rhythm of riding early, stopping for food mid-morning, snacking on whatever was available (unfortunately pork bun alley didn’t stretch this far so those were off the menu) and finishing up some point in the afternoon at a beach town. These towns were usually small and mainly frequented by Thais at the weekend so mid-week were quiet with nice, empty beaches.


 There was a definite holiday feel to our evenings that you don’t get away from the beaches, with a few Westerners on holiday drinking beer as the sun set, kids playing in the sand, locals parked up in their trucks and sitting on the beach eating a feast. As we had dinner in beach front restaurants and walked along the wide beaches it felt a bit like we were gatecrashing a different holiday every evening, having a similar experience in each town but with slightly different surroundings and people. It was easy to find small, perfectly smooth roads, often right by the sea, and even the odd cycle path. 


We had swapped west coast sunsets for east coast sunrises, which was fine with us as we could watch the sun rise over the sea as we started riding. Early morning cycling is really nice, it’s a chance to see people going about their day – people start early here and then mostly tend to be resting in hammocks by lunchtime. We shared the small roads with farmers going to work, kids riding to school on mopeds and monks doing their morning alms walk, collecting food from villagers who wait with their offerings in woven baskets. The first couple of times we rode past monks in their orange robes it was quite mesmerising but it soon became a normal part of early morning life in Thailand.


We had a great evening in Prachup Khiri Kahn as it seemed to be some kind of special event, we love a good night market and this was one of the best, there were fairground rides and everything. We had some great scenery as we rode through Sam Roi Yot National Park with its huge limestone cliffs. It’s quite amazing how you can ride through mountainous scenery like that on a totally flat road. Other than that it was just very pleasant riding. 


After the sleep, eat, ride repeat routine and not much else for a few days, we then had one day where so much happened it was hard to believe that it was all still the same day. After leaving our typical beach hut as the sun rose, we rode our 25,000th trip kilometre and then met some Malaysian cyclists who had stopped on the road by a wedding. It was 8am, and the party was in full swing. They suggested we go in and have breakfast with the guests. Even though we had only just made the most of a free toast breakfast at the hotel (8 slices each, they are only small…) we wanted to experience this and thought we could squeeze in an early second breakfast so accepted our invitation from someone who appeared to be in charge of the eating arrangements. We arrived just in time to see the bride and groom emerge from a room holding hands and having things thrown at them before going to the shrine to pray. We were very sweaty, the groom had definite beads on his forehead yet the bride looked as dry as a bone. Impressive. We were told to sit down in a marquee area and tuck in. There were two eating areas – one with people dressed smartly, and the other (where we were) with 150 seats at least where other people came and went. We were seated on a table of ladies who helpfully instructed us which order to eat things in and kept us topped up with water and coke to counter the spicy sauces. They didn’t seem to think it strange that two very sweaty women in cycling kit who couldn’t speak Thai had sat down at their table. This part of the wedding is very much a community affair, people came and had their breakfast and then went to work. A few looked to be making themselves more comfortable, particularly tables of men where the whisky bottles were already half empty. We left at 8.30am smiling at how things like this just happen out of nowhere. 


An hour later we passed a hill that you could walk up for good views of the coast, it looked shady so we thought it wouldn’t be too hard at that time in the morning. It wasn’t too hard, yet the humidity meant that by the time we had walked for half an hour we both looked like we had stepped right out of the shower fully clothed. Any thoughts of doing walks in the middle of the day were banished. This heat isn’t too bad for cycling as you create your own breeze, but we find walking or even standing in the full sun really uncomfortable. Back on the road we passed a park where Thailand really shows the love of its royals, with seven massive bronze statues of former kings towering over a beautifully sculptured park. We were in the Hua Hin area, a trendy beach resort for Bangkok residents and ex-pats as the royals have their summer palaces there. After riding through small, sleepy resorts with a scruffy charm, Hua Hin was a major assault on the senses – fancy malls, huge posh hotels and big highways to cater for all of the visitors. We had a great tailwind so flew through, stopping only at Tesco to stock up on a few essentials. Tesco was in one of the biggest, fanciest malls we had seen in Thailand, surrounded by Western chain restaurants and coffee bars selling food and drink at Western prices. We saw at least 8 middle-aged white men sitting on their own at a table with a beer. It’s a popular place for wealthy ex-pats to retire to, and after seeing so many beautiful, quiet places in Thailand we couldn’t help but wonder why you would want to move to what seemed to be a Western bubble that looked very little like Thailand to us. But, each to their own. 


Once past Hua Hin the coast became a bit less polished and we stopped for a late lunch at the less trendy beach town of Cha’am. There seemed to be a lot of kite sellers around, we were definitely in kite alley, but we just thought this was normal on such a windy stretch of coast. At the top part of the beach loads of cars were parked up. On investigating we found the beach to be fenced off and behind the fence, loads of huge, colourful kites in various animal shapes flying madly over the town. We had stumbled upon the Thailand International Kite Festival, music was playing and the crowds were gathering to admire the kites. It was pretty spectacular and we had a fun half an hour wandering around. We still wanted to do 100kms so rode on and found another beach town for our last night by the sea until we get back to Western Europe. We treated ourselves to a room with a view and took a walk along the beach. Were we really at a Thai wedding that morning?


From here to Bangkok was two days of increasingly busy roads. We had one morning of quiet roads left that wove through salt farms where we could watch the salt being piled up and collected and marvel at the early morning reflections on the pools. Unsurprisingly we then rode through salt alley, where stall after stall sold various sized bags of salt (all price matched of course). Then it was the highway all the way into the big smoke. It was horrible, busy, smoggy, loud and offensive for most of the way. At one point we were on a road with four lanes and a two lane frontage road on each side, so twelve lanes in total. After a night in a Bangkok satellite town (setting an alarm for 12.30am to watch Lincoln’s FA Cup match with Arsenal) we downgraded to a “smaller” six lane highway for the 40km ride to the city centre. This had a variable shoulder but it didn’t really matter because the lane closest to the outside, be it a lane or the shoulder, was a nightmare as it was used by various vehicles for driving, parking, pulling in to pick up/drop off passengers, and even for mopeds and the odd car to drive in the wrong direction so we were constantly pulling out into traffic. It was probably the worst riding we had done since Napoli and we were relieved to get to our Bangkok hotel for a couple of days off the bikes.


I’d like to say we spent our time in Bangkok wandering round the sights but apart from a morning visiting a couple of the more famous temples and taking a boat along the river, we were too tired to venture far from our hotel and it’s air conditioning unit. Bangkok was having a heatwave and wandering round was really unpleasant. Luckily we seemed to be on massage alley, there were at least ten massage parlours within a 50 metre radius so we treated ourselves to a Thai massage (only a massage) which was painful and amazing at the same time. The two women who did our massages were chatting away and laughing to each other, again we imagined the conversation as “wow have you seen these amazing leg muscles?! These girls are in great shape!” when they were probably saying “Jesus I have never known anyone to be this inflexible! And have you seen these ridiculous tan lines they have?” After an hour of being prodded, dug into with elbows, bent in ways we didn’t think we bent and being walked all over we emerged rejuvenated, more flexible (we could now lay flat on our backs with both shoulder blades on the floor, impressive huh?) and only slightly sore ready for the next leg – to Cambodia!