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Th-island hopping – cycles in SW Thailand

Another instantly different as you cross the border experience. On our ferry there was a monk and a ladyboy. On land, the forests looked wilder, not the regular rows of plantation palms we had seen for much of Malaysia. People no longer wore motorbike helmets or their jackets on backwards as they zoomed around on mopeds. There were A LOT of pictures of the King. The alphabet is crazy and we were not totally clear how much a baht was, but the road was good and Satun seemed a friendly town. Most importantly, we found a motel with cable TV, to watch the mighty Imps play Burnley in the FA Cup. 

Two of whatever’s in there please.

After a winning first dinner of pad Thai and banana rotis, we enjoyed watching the winning Imps and looking at some island options. Tiny Bulon Leh caught our eye, so we pedalled to Pak Bara for the ferry service. It was a scenic boat ride, with towering limestone stacks, blue sea and Bulon’s beautiful curve of white sand. Getting on to the beach was a little trickier. We had to transfer to a long tail boat (just like in every travel brochure picture of Thailand) to get from the speedboat to the sand. Getting the bikes off the long tail needed one person on the boat passing the bike to the other, stood in the sea, to carry above the water and up the beach. Two bikes and eight panniers took a few trips. 

Travel brochure Thailand I – arriving on Bulon Leh

We hadn’t booked any accommodation as we had heard that you could make a donation to the school and camp just back from the beach. This turned out to be true, so we put our tent in one of it’s best spots of the whole trip. There were a few downsides to camping, mainly the ants and the heat, but the location made up for the discomfort. White sand, turquoise water, blue sky – like an episode of Death in Paradise without the ‘impossible’ murder, only four suspects and Ardal O Hanlon. (That’s right, we are fully up to date on all the big changes back home). 

Bulon is a great size for exploring and I would recommend a visit if you are in the area. It’s small enough to walk all the ‘roads’ in a few hours, yet developed enough that there’s a good range of accommodation and choices for eating. We snorkelled, saw lots of fish, and circumnavigated the island by kayak, only getting a little bit seasick. We also enjoyed hanging out with Andrew and Marcy, two cyclists we first met on a train in Kuala Lumpur. (They are on instagram @convenientlylocated where you can see some much better photos of some places we’ve been and lots more that we haven’t). Apart from the sweaty sleeping arrangements, it was like a real holiday.

island mini break
Travel Brochure Thailand Ii – one of the Trang Islands on our speedboat ride

It was tough to leave but the speedboat ride to Koh Lanta helped. Massive chunks of rock sticking out the the sea, dreamy islands and beaches, finally mangroves and precariously built restaurants as we approached the port. There were no cars on Bulon, only the odd motorbike and a few handfuls of people around, so it had been a very quiet island getaway. Arriving on Koh Lanta was the exact opposite. We had to transfer the bikes and bags to the main jetty via two other boats. Once on firm ground there were hundreds of people in vague queues with either extremely large backpacks or wheely suitcases. The wheely suitcase crowd seemed averse to rolling their suitcases for our ease of passage. Or perhaps we just make lifting 45kg bikes around them look so easy it appears there’s no need. We eventually emerged into taxi driver alley. They all thought they were the first to make the same joke. Point at bikes, say ‘Taxi?!’ Laugh. At least it wasn’t ‘How do you cross the ocean?’
Super cycling Krabi to Phangnga. Tiny cyclist in view

We escaped the port town and found a nice beach further south for dinner and sleeping. It was much busier here but brill to have a shower that wasn’t the sea and a room with fan still in earshot of the waves. Refreshed, we spent four days riding to our next island mini-break, via Krabi, Phang-nga, Khao Lak and Khuraburi. On the way there were some great little roads between limestone cliffs, villages with friendly people who thought we were nuts, mosques, temples, giant buddhas and all manner of other stuff to look at. We stopped regularly for fruit or iced tea or rice and vegetables. It was very hot. There was a bit of drag of touristic development along the Khao Lak coast. Imagine Skegness with tailored suits and massage instead of slot machines and chips. And a much better beach. We weren’t sure where to stay, and ended up at a bar with camping on the most scenic of the beaches. The downside was the ominously grey sky and thunder out at sea. The evening improved when my coconut shake arrived in a coconut. It then got even better when the bar staff said we could sleep on the massage platform so we didn’t have to put the tent up in the rain. We fell asleep to the sound of waves on what was essentially a school gym mat. 

Lightning from the beach at Khao Lak

In Khuraburi we spent some time finding out how to get the boat Phra Tong, our next island. Excitingly, we would see someone we knew there, a good friend from university on her own Asia adventure. We were given some detailed directions and a hand drawn map. 

“Turn right at the 7-11 (there were three), go past the school, 12km, turn right at the…Muslim?”

“Mosque?”

“Yes, for Muslims, 200m, ferry. Get there early, 9am. Sometimes if no water, 11am. Be early.”

We took the advice and rode early. At 8:15am there were two English cyclists and a small crowd of fisherman at the… port? Boat area? There wasn’t any water though, and the boat would clearly not be going at 9am. Jo went back up towards the Mosque to find some second breakfast. The water started rising, and some little fishing boats paddled in, adding to the crew hanging out drinking tea. A larger boat arrived, we established that this was our boat and keenly lifted the bikes on. A truck arrived with what seemed like a year’s supply of juice cartons in. These were also going to the island. Eagerly, we helped with these, thinking that once the loading was complete we would set off. In fact, once the boxes were on, the captain told the three Thai women waiting we would leave at 12 or 13. It was 9:55. Another couple who were waiting got on the boat ready. We retired to some shade, but didn’t leave the area completely as we didn’t trust the ’12 or 13.’
Our captain wandered around for a while, checking out a boat that was being built nearby, getting a snack, chatting to some fishermen. We wrote our diary, read some of our book, wondered about another trip to the breakfast place. All of a sudden, at 11:15, he pointed at us and the boat. It was time. Unlucky the three ladies who were coming back for twelve.

No departure boards here

We toured through mangroves and saw monkeys swinging around. On Phra Tong there didn’t seem to be a great deal. We found the road from the jetty village, not so tricky as it’s the only one on the island. It is concrete and just the width of a pick up. More mangroves, more monkeys. We rode for about 45 mins and saw one lady on a moped. There were no signs anywhere, our offline map helped us to identify that a sandy side track should take us to an area with a couple of accommodation options. We selected Mr Choi’s. He is quite the character should you be passing. Our bungalow was on stilts, the floor made of thin boards with big gaps between. Great for air circulation, rubbish if you drop something. Or several things.


It was weird but awesome to walk down to the beach and find someone we knew. This was one of the least easily accessible places we have been on the trip, there was hardly anyone else there, yet one of them was someone we had known for many years. As with the rest of the country the tap water is not drinkable but 4g and wifi was excellent despite the sparsity of population. We spent four days walking the long, empty beaches, kayaking to other small islands, eating pineapple fried rice out of a pineapple, and laying in hammocks reading. Now this was a holiday. Even on the last night, when there was no electricity to our row of bungalows (usually running 6-11pm) because as Mr Choi explained, the generator was “kaput” and he had to choose between keeping the electricity for our row or the row with a family and baby in and “I choose baby of course”. The next morning we joined the kaput generator on Mr Choi’s boat for a private ride back to the mainland, to the real marina this time with other boats and everything. If the dream of an unbroken cycle to China by 2nd May (last entry date for our visa) was still on, it was time to stop lazing in hammocks and start pushing the pedals round. Fast.


Sliding doors: Cycling home from Bangkok

The other day we saw the sea for the last time in a long time. This will be the third major land crossing of the trip, and the biggest by far, after Netherlands to Italy (1 month) and Boston to Anacortes (3 months). Right now I’m not even sure where we will next find the sea. Best guess, visas allowing, it will be in St. Petersburg.

The bikes have had enough salt water, so our feet got a ceremonial dunking

Before the trip, it was never our intention to ride all the way across Asia. A long distance train was always part of the plan, and it is only every so often one of us says “Well, we could ride all the way…?” We could. For sure. Bangkok to London is less than half of the distance we have ridden so far. Google tells me I could walk it in 98 days. The thing, is I don’t really want to cycle it and neither does Jo. There are a few reasons for this, mainly time. China is extremely big. We would spend a long time riding there. This is not a life ambition, and doing something to say you’ve done it isn’t often a good motivation. We have reached a point in the trip where we have started to think about doing other things, like cycling LEJOG, going to an English pub, seeing live music, riding our fast road bikes, eating a roast dinner, going back to work (just me) and – most importantly – seeing our family and friends.

China: chuffing huge, 1 month visa. Those sums don’t work.

I’m still excited about the next bit of pedalling. I’ve even spent some time today looking at a route in Southern China with some big mountain passes. It’ll be great to eat Chinese food. Though remember there they just it call it food, Friends fans. In the shorter term, we’ll visit Angkor Wat next week. Lucky people indeed. There are also still lots of places I’d like to cycle in the future. This probably isn’t the only long tour, though I suspect it will be the longest.

Choosing to start going home has been easy. Choosing a route home is a bit more problematic. Visas are tricksy, especially as Jo has only a few clear pages in her passport. We really don’t want to fly so are page-saving where possible. Some visas have expiry dates (China by May 2nd, the race is on) and for some we need to have booked train tickets etc., but as yet have no idea of dates. Roughly, we’ll get trains from China to Russia via either Kazakhstan or Mongolia. From St Petersburg there’s a ferry to Helsinki. Helsinki to Hook van Holland is about 2500km with some ferries. We’ll be in Harwich eating fish and chips in no time. Or more likely, in July.

Pedalling along, looking out for crazy stuff.

With all this in mind there a lot of decisions flying around at the moment. It is hard not to see them all as super important trip changers. I think this happens at home too. Luckily, every so often the universe has a way of helping to put these things into context so you can concentrate on the ones that really are important. Like, when to cross the road in Bangkok traffic. THAT is important. A slightly longer route to Vientiane? Probably not such a big deal. Stopping early one day because you see a nice beach? Definitely ok. It’s like sliding doors, you just get something else instead. Because we stopped early (3pm, not really that early, but we could have got one town further) the next morning was different, and it turned out to be brilliant different because we went to a Thai wedding with some Malaysian holidaying cyclists. If we’d ridden on, we would have missed it. Who knows though, if we had ridden on, there might have been a cake festival in the next town… So whatever route we go, it will be great trip home.

Enjoying the wedding breakfast.

I still love riding my bike every day and seeing new and awesome stuff. I’m just starting to get a feeling of needing to contribute more than instagram pictures to the people who are important. For us, the cycle touring lifestyle has an expiry date. It’s not even about the home comforts, though I can’t deny it will be delightful to make tea with real milk from a fridge and I absolutely cannot wait to turn the tap on and drink the water that comes out of it. See you in July UK!

Saving the world, one plastic bottle at a time. Race you to the tap in Helsinki.

Cycling North in Malaysia TrulyAsia

Riding North through Malaysia we didn’t have much of a plan other than to stay near the coast and to go to some islands. Penang and Langkawi are the well known Malaysian islands on this coast but our first island stop was Pulau Pangkor, described as “where Malaysians go on holiday at the weekend”, so on a Wednesday we thought this might be a good bet for some quiet beaches. We got to the ferry port in Lumut at mid afternoon and got the what was to become normal look from boat staff when we turn up with the loaded bikes to take them on a ferry. It’s a look that is a mixture of “what on earth are you crazy white people doing with bikes” and “challenge!” This is a foot passenger ferry, and there is obviously no bike storage area, so a bit of imagination is required for getting the bikes on and stowed. We have since learnt that the key in this situation is not to watch the precarious loading of the bikes. On this occasion they were pretty good as there was also the odd moped to carry.


A short ferry ride later we were on our first South East Asian island. The port town was fairly busy with mopeds buzzing around everywhere but as soon as we got out of there the roads emptied out and there was nobody about. We had to ride up our first serious hills (>10%) which made us nearly melt. We were aiming for a small resort on the west coast with budget accommodation and there were so few people around we could name our price for a room steps from the beach. That evening we had dinner overlooking the sea, watched closely by a hornbill (it felt like being on the Lion King). There was a decent sunset as we were facing west and walking up and down a near empty beach (just us and a few hundred washed up plastic bottles, sadly) we were pretty happy with ourselves. 


Hornbill on Pulau Pangkor. Like having dinner with Zazu

The next morning the place was even quieter. There was nowhere open for breakfast and even the mopeds had thinned out. I sent Debs into a hotel to ask if there was something going on that everyone was at but no, it was just midweek on Pulau Pangkor. An afternoon ferry got us back to the mainland and we spent the evening in the fairly nice “resort town” (but we were still the only white people) of Lumut. From there it was a few days ride inland to Penang. First stop was Taiping, a decent sized city famous for having 61 ‘firsts’ in Malaysia – first newspaper, railway station, prison, museum…. for us it was our first experience of eating at an outdoor market and the food and atmosphere set the bar high. It also had some nice lake gardens, overall a nice stop off and totally off the tourist trail.

Lake gardens, Taiping

Taiping night market

That day was mostly memorable for our closest brush with fame yet. We are getting quite used to people wanting to take selfies with us (we always wonder how these photos are explained to their friends. How we imagine it: “I saw these two amazing women today, they were on bikes carrying all of their stuff, how incredible is that? They had really muscly legs and didn’t even look tired!”. What probably happens: “I saw the weirdest thing today! Two white women riding bikes wearing strange hats, they were so pink and sweaty they looked like they were about to collapse, where on earth were they going? They must be mental! I had to take a photo!”) but this was a new high. We had stopped for cendol (will be explained in a future food-related post) and were about to leave when a bus load of middle aged women and children got off. Pleased we’d timed it to avoid the queue, I went to get my bike and noticed Debs being mobbed/hugged. Not wanting to miss out I went over to see what was happening and all of a sudden we were swamped with selfie requests, the women pushing and shoving to get their turn to take a selfie with the weird (amazing?) cyclists. We rode off smiling and wondering how this interaction would be explained to the husbands later. 

Debs and her fans

Anyway back to the cycling. From Taiping we followed some small roads for a while which was a nice change but soon we were back on busy highways. We stopped for an ice cream at a petrol station (our new favourite air conditioned break) and a pump attendant looked over our bikes for ages, before giving the tyres a squeeze (why does everyone do this?) and insisting we needed them shining. We didn’t. That evening we were staying with a warm showers host and stopped in his town to buy some fruit. I walked back from the fruit shop to find Debs chatting to Wendy, who had good English and insisted we came to her shop to meet her family. Sure we said, they were all so excited to meet us, we ate pomelo for the first time and there was much hilarity over the fact that I couldn’t peel it (being a failure is funny in any language it seems). Wendy was excited to have “real life white people” in her shop, we were excited to be invited in, generally there was much excitement. Wendy said to me “your eyes are so blue”, I hadn’t really thought about how strange blue eyes look here. We were asked to stay for dinner but had a host to get to (bad timing, we never usually do) and we spent the evening with David and his wife who cooked us a great curry (they were Indian-Malay). He had cycled in England and the USA. Our favourite story was how he went into a shop to buy bread, they asked what kind of bread, he said he didn’t know, just bread, they showed him a list of breads, he chose one, then they kept asking what he wanted in it, “there were all these raw vegetables, do you want cheese? I just wanted bread”, and we realised he had walked into a Subway. It must be quite confusing in there when you only want bread.


Fishing boats

A horrible, busy, smoggy, black-bogey-inducing ride and a short ferry the next day got us to Penang, an island just off the Malaysian coast which was colonised first by the English. It was a cool place to hang out and wander around for a few days. The first day we were there was the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations (15 days in total, not counting preceding days, it makes me feel like we are missing out on something only having one day) which is also a kind of Chinese Valentines Day where single women throw mandarins into the sea. I’m not sure why. But this was fun to watch and there was a great firework display at the end. [We were at our hotel earlier and a guy called Tony turned up with a large backpack and checked in. Debs told him there were fireworks down at the fort later to which he curtly replied “oh, I’ve already seen some”. When is this ever a reason to not watch a firework display?! We imagined Tony at home. “Hey Tony, want to come to the pub?” “No, I’ve already been.” Odd.]

Sharing the ferry to Penang

The chucking-a-mandarin-in-a-bucket ceremony. Nearly as many mandarins in the sea as plastic bottles….

There’s some cool street art in Penang and lots of old fancy colonial buildings as well as the usual mix of churches, mosques and temples. It kept us busy but our main reason for staying so long was to get visas for Thailand, as currently 60 day visas are free and we were worried about only getting 15 days at the border. On our way back from the Thai embassy we saw our fourth crash in Malaysia, a motorbike going straight into the back of a car, flipping up and throwing the driver onto the ground on his head. We stopped and helped collect his belongings from the road as he dragged himself to the side. The amount of crashes we are seeing here, either happening in front of us or riding past the aftermath of ambulances and upturned vehicles is quite frightening and a reminder that we are at the mercy of other drivers and anybody can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We just cross our fingers that it won’t be us and keep our wits about us.

Street art in Penang

One day in Penang was filled with risking public transport to visit a hill-top temple with a huge statue and a good view of the city. Despite Chinese New Year finally being over the temple was decorated with more lanterns than I ever thought possible. Just as I was wondering how many lanterns it takes to decorate somewhere like that I saw that some had numbered tags – 19,000 and counting. That’s a lot of lanterns. Someone makes a killing selling these once a year. It was all very colourful. The bus ride back was eventful, our female driver wore a headscarf and aviators and spent the whole time on her two phones. We clung on for dear life and wondered whether it was better to be cycling or on public transport. Not sure.

Chinese lanterns on Penang

Instead of going back to the mainland and riding north we could take a three hour ferry straight to Langkawi, our final stop in Malaysia. This is another popular tourist stop but more for the beaches than the towns. Again we tried not to watch as our bikes were lifted onto the top of the ferry and had a very unpleasant ride as we had to sit downstairs airline-style, could hardly see out of the windows and definitely couldn’t go out on deck for some fresh air or enjoy the scenery. Langkawi was also fairly disappointing at first glance, hotels and tour agencies everywhere, and riding round to Pantai Cenang, the main resort, we were sad to see it look more like Benidorm. The beach was nice but full of bars, sun loungers, jet ski operators, people selling boat tours and backpackers taking selfies. We treated ourselves to a beer on the beach (being a largely Muslim country, alcohol is heavily taxed in Malaysia – it would cost us more to buy one beer than a huge meal for both of us – but Langkawi is duty-free) and found a quiet spot at the end of the beach to watch the sun set but we weren’t tempted to stick around and rode off the next day to find a quieter beach on the north of the island. 

The quest for the perfect selfie

Pantai Cenang sunset

This was achieved successfully, we found a lovely motel right on a quiet beach where you could also camp. After one air-conditioned night we tried out sleeping in the tent for the first time since New Zealand. Despite a cool breeze outside it was like trying to sleep in a sauna and we both laid in a pool of our own sweat trying to sleep. It finally cooled off about 5am and we had a couple of hours until the sun was up. Camping was not something we would be making a habit of. 

Northern Langkawi

We were sad to leave Malaysia. We had enjoyed the food a lot, everybody speaks English well and it’s an easy place to travel around. We had learnt what we needed to get by on a bike – key words for survival (water, danger, ice cream, fried), how to find decent cheap accommodation, what and where to eat, getting drinking water, what to expect from towns, how much things should cost… I always find it quite unnerving to have to enter a new country and start all of this again. 

Even accustomed to following the moped lead in how to get to the front of the traffic
We enjoyed the variety of mosque architecture

Acceptable in the 80s? Cycling (and hairdressing) in Malaysia

After the excitement of the first twenty four hours in Malaysia where we achieved a lot and slept very little, we had a few relaxing days at Pete and Ghill’s place just south of Kuala Lumpur, catching up on sleep, trying different food and getting used to the heat (and sleeping under air con all the time. I find it takes some adjusting). As our passports were with the Chinese embassy for a week (we’d managed to time our visa application with the Chinese New Year holiday, unlucky) we decided to ride to Malacca and back, a popular town south of KL so not on our onward route. As we were returning to KL we could leave everything we didn’t need behind so set off with only two small panniers each and felt like we were riding carbon road bikes.


It was 110km to Malacca and our first test of riding in the heat, and it nearly wiped us out. The sun wasn’t as strong as in New Zealand but the humidity is high and as soon as we carried our bikes out of the house we were dripping with sweat. I didn’t find the riding too bad, as long as you’re not riding uphill there’s the breeze you create for yourself, but as soon as we stopped at traffic lights it really hits you. It’s like standing in front of an open oven door. Standing still, I thought I could feel insects crawling on my stomach but it was just sweat rolling down. And my back. Nice. And at traffic lights there’s the heat of car engines and the exhausts of the hundred mopeds around you to add a few degrees to the temperature. We stopped several times for food or cold drinks. At the 95km point we were particularly weary, after not riding much for the last couple of weeks it was quite a struggle in the heat, so we had a well timed coconut shake stop and mustered up some energy from somewhere for the final push. 


The roads hadn’t been too busy all day, we even rode on a toll road for a bit for the first time ever but nobody batted an eyelid (a police motorbike went past and gave us a friendly toot), the road was smooth with a wide shoulder and low traffic, but the last 15km into Melacca at rush hour were pretty bad. The only bright spot was stopping at Tesco and buying a packet of custard creams for the first time since leaving England. We arrived in Malacca exhausted, soaked in sweat and starving. Luckily an Indian restaurant was two doors down from our hostel and we ordered tandoori chicken, paneer butter curry, nasi lemak (a rice dish), extra veg, extra rice and a couple of naan, and just about squeezed it all in. With drinks this feast came to just under £5. 

Malacca had enough going on to keep our interest for a couple of days, but we didn’t overdo it. A lot of time was spent reading the paper (there is an English version, we haven’t got that good at languages), eating anything we fancied and acquiring an addiction to Malaysian tea (it come with sugar and condensed milk and tastes amazing). The curry served on a banana leaf was a particular highlight. Malacca has experienced British, Dutch and Portuguese occupation and also has lots of Chinese and Indian settlers so there is a real mix of buildings and architecture. 


It’s also on a river, and by the sea, has street art and our favourite thing, decorated trishaws (like rickshaws, but it’s a bicycle with a kind of sidecar). There seemed to be a trishaw driver contest for a) the most cuddly toys and b) the loudest music, complimented at night by c) the most extravagant lighting. Seeing a grown man pedal a bicycle covered in Frozen toys and flowers and blasting out “let it go” is quite the spectacle. Chinese New Year celebrations were in full swing which meant great decorations and an evening of fireworks and dragon dancing. I also had my hair cut. I’ve explained this at the end of the blog post for those who are interested. It’s quite long but I couldn’t leave any detail out…




We didn’t fancy riding back the exact same way and any other route would be more than a day’s ride so we took a train for half of it. KL trains have ladies only carriages, though this rule seems to only be loosely followed. It depends on the presence of a strong willed woman to banish any men who try to enter the ladies carriage (which we have seen on a few occasions). Otherwise men wander on aimlessly, sometimes sitting right under the ladies only sign. It’s a nice idea that worked about 50% of the time from what we saw.


Back at Petes we had another day in the city picking up our passports – and they were handed back to us with Chinese visas inside. Despite not having any tickets booked into or out of the country the visas were granted. Next challenge, Russia. To celebrate we spent yet more time on a train and visited the Batu Caves north of KL, huge limestone caves with Hindu temples and crazy decor inside (and a huge gold statue outside). Climbing over 250 steps was even more sweat inducing than cycling in the heat, but it was worth it.


Passports in hand it was time to finally leave the comfort of friends and hit the road proper, with all of our panniers this time. Luckily it’s pretty flat around the peninsula (we had no intention of going into the hilly interior, riding uphill in this heat would be no fun at all) so the riding was not too taxing. We were heading north for Thailand, via a few west coast island stops. The scenery comprised mostly of palm tree plantations, for palm oil. I do love palm trees, I think there’s something quite exotic about them as a Northern European, they are always associated with holidays, and not just any old holiday to France or wherever but to somewhere considerably warmer and far away. But after a few days of riding alongside them, they lost their novelty a bit. Luckily we passed through towns regularly enough which are interesting. These are not tourist towns, but places where people live and go about their daily activities. The towns that visitors would normally bypass on a bus or a train. We spent our first two nights in the towns of Tanjong Malim and Teluk Intan, not mentioned in any guide books. We were pleased to find cheap hotels with air con in both and the leaning tower of Teluk Intan. 


You learn a lot about a place by riding through on a bike – there’s enough time to take notice of the little things. The moped repair shops, the washing machine repair shops and the sewing machine repair shops. The old men sitting drinking tea, the children playing, the moped riders carrying anything from several children to wheelbarrows to strimmers. The pregnant cats (I have never seen so many). The holes at the side of the road you could just fall down. The fruit stalls selling things we have never seen before. The numerous cafes offering different things at different times involving a lot of guess work and welcome shade. The many mosques, Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist temples. The lizards squashed in the road (and the odd live one crossing in front of us). It’s all new to us and we love it, it’s great fun.


The actual cycling here is pretty good. The scenery hasn’t been spectacular, but the drivers are fairly considerate (there are so many mopeds on the road there seems to be a certain level of tolerance for slow vehicles). Road surfaces are mostly good. On the whole,the road experience is an improvement on New Zealand. But everyone stares at us. Properly stares. This hasn’t really happened since Southern Italy over a year ago. Moped riders in particular slow down and stare, their eyes not leaving us as they ride past. This results in a particularly impressive skill of rotating their heads almost 180 degrees to be able to keep staring when they are in front of us, and somehow maintaining forward control of their vehicle. Most truck drivers that pass hoot their horn and wave at us. Cars with families in the back do the same and there are often several hands hanging out of the back window waving as they pass. Kids by the side of the road stare, we wave, they look even more confused. Who are these people with strange coloured skin, eyes and hair? It’s not surprising really. It would be like someone with green skin, pink eyes and red hair riding an unidentifiable object along Leicestershire roads. Or a driver and his Hello Kitty trishaw cycling in Bradgate Park. People would stare. So it’s ok. It’s strange to think that even in SE Asia, well set up for the tourist, we can ride through towns on our bikes where white people are a rare occurrence. We are getting used to being the only white faces in a restaurant, on a train, in a park. But it’s not a problem – on the whole people are interested, welcoming and want to speak to us (the level of English here is very good which makes life easy). Despite the sweat, it’s all fun so far.
The hairdressing incident

It was time for a hair cut. The New Zealand supercuts job wasn’t so super and I was getting hot and sweaty under the helmet. How bad could an Asian hairdresser be? I’d seen a sign for 20RM (less than £5) ladies cuts at a salon the night before so got Debs settled with the bikes and some tea in a cafe and I went in search of my new stylist. It turned out she had trained in London in the 80s, had good English so could understand my request for ‘short please’ and wanted to charge me 30RM. The sign from the night before had disappeared so I agreed and sat down. Straight away I was brought two satsumas and a bunch of hair magazines. “Find one” my stylist said. I had a flick through. This was super trendy styling, way too trendy for me, and looking around the salon at the rest of the clientele, way too trendy for Malacca. But my stylist came over with great expectations, so I pointed at a style that was relatively short at the back and longer on the top. I explained I didn’t want to be sweaty under a cycle helmet all day. “I know what you want. I know what is good for you. A fresh style” she said. And proceeded to shave the back of my head. Now I don’t care so much about my hair, and it’s under a helmet most of the time, so I wasn’t fazed by this. She spent ages on the back of my hair. “Your hair line is like a fountain” I was told. Followed by “you have a nice shaped head. You should have a style to show it off”. The shaving continued. She didn’t show me what was going on. The top of my hair was cut normally (well normal for me, others might say it’s a bit Backstreet Boys these days, but I’ll repeat, I don’t care), I even asked for it to be a bit shorter around the sides only to be told “I know what is good for you. Fresh style. Very fresh”, so I left it at that. Finally the shaving and chopping was complete, and I was shown the back with a mirror. I didn’t know what to say, she had given me what I can only describe as a wedge cut, that I think was popular in the early 90s (I’m not sure, I had a mullet at the time). Maybe it was just coming in when she did her training in London in the 80s. “Do you like? Very fresh eh?” I agreed. It’s great, thank you. I went back to find Debs who looked like she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. My approach to hairdressers has always been ‘how bad can it be?!’ – as I said, I once had a mullet – but I think I now have the answer. Sorry,no pictures… you’ll have to use your imaginations …
Thanks to Pete and Ghill, and my stylist.

The Twin Coast Cycle Trail and some other roads North

Choices for riding out of Auckland: Heavy traffic, less hills; less traffic, extremely hilly. We went for option two, Dairy Flats Road (nothing flat about it) then Highway 16. The highlight was an excellent strawberry ice cream made with real strawberries and a brick sized ice cream block mixed together. This is not to say the road wasn’t pretty. Anywhere else it would probably have been a scenic drive. But this is New Zealand, scenery standards are high. 

Best Strawberry ice cream IN THE WORLD

After Wellsford we headed NE on some smaller roads. This should have been pleasant, especially when we got to the coast. Unfortunately it was mainly scary. Traffic passed us close and fast continually. NZ drivers do not give any consideration to waiting for a gap in the oncoming traffic to pass cyclists. Brill. The real low was a white truck that passed me very close in Waipu Cove. I was about to give some inappropriate had gestures, stopping myself just as I saw the logo note side – Police. What can you do when even the law enforcers don’t know how to safely pass a cyclist? Luckily, we met some extremely lovely kiwis over these few days, great warm showers hosts, and kind people that let us camp on their land. Their warmth and enthusiasm really helped us. We were also thinking happy thoughts about the two days we would ride traffic-free on the newly fully open Twin Coast cycle route, recently listed as one of the top five cycle rides IN THE WORLD by the NZ Herald.
Top: Biggest disappointment of the trip. L: Cicada skin. C: It’s a national pasttime to throw beer bottles out car windows. i got a puncture. R: Jo appearing on Waipu women’s hour. Bottom: Langs Beach

Meanwhile… In December we had treated ourselves to some new cycling shorts (Merry Christmas). Mine seemed to be causing some problems. After a particularly hilly ride between Whangarei and Russell (don’t take the unsealed road, I know it saves 16km, but it’s a beast) I developed a new type of saddlesore. I had full-on blisters on my sit bones. How this is possible after 14000+ miles on the same seat I do not know. Anyway, my backside benefitted from a day off in pretty Russell and some salt water bathing in the sea. On our day off we got a local walks leaflet from the museum and selected the coastal walk, along the beach at low tide. Just in case you are choosing a walk in the Bay of Islands area, please bear in mind that this is more accurately a scramble, sometimes a wade, and occasionally a climb over rocky outcrop. Seaside stroll it is not. It is incredibly beautiful though and we even got the 4th biggest cruise ship IN THE WORLD out of our eyesight.

From Russell we took a ferry to Waitangi and headed via Paihia (very busy) to Opua, the start of the Twin Coast (TC) bike ride, one of the top five routes IN THE WORLD. In Paihia we stopped at the tourist information to ask about the bike route. We asked “Are there any campsites on the route?” They said “No. Maybe there will be in a year, when more people use it.” I asked “How will people use it if there is nowhere to stay?.” Then I let the nice lady off the hook, asked her about fish and chips instead and decided we would just wing it later. 

Beautiful Bay of Islands, a scrable and a ferry ride

There was a hairy moment with a pick up truck and coke lorry on one of the 3 very steep difficult hills between us and the TC trail, so we were even more excited to reach Opua. The first obstacle was a man made structure designed to keep motorcycles off the bike route. Very valid installation. Poor design. Irrelevant of any panniers, our handlebars wouldn’t fit through. It required lifting the curly bar over the first bit of metal, keep bike lifted whilst you edge around the outside now lifting front end of approx 40kg bike in a reached-over position, then drag your bike through as your rear panniers barely fit between the metal uprights. A couple just finishing a short day ride told us there would be five or six more of these. Super.

The TC trail is mostly on an old train line and the first section was very flat, firstly through mangroves and then through some average countryside (for NZ). We got though the five or six bike gates and reached Kawakawa, home of some famous fancy toilets. We used them (rude not to), ate some fish and chips and refilled our bottles at a handy water fountain. 
Evidently the couple on the bikes had only been to Kawakawa and back. There were loads more gates on the next section and for the first 15km or so it was very dull, almost all on a just ok gravel surface alongside a gravel road. It was 6 or two 3s as my friend (a maths teacher) says… Either the ok gravel, have to keep stopping and lifting bikes (did I mention there was a new type of bike gate with bollards and cattle grids that required a two person lift?) OR the gravel road which had an appalling surface and threw up loads of cough inducing dust. At least it was good training for SE Asia. In the end we did a mixture of the two and got increasingly frustrated at our lack of progress. We wondered how this had got into a top 5 bike rides IN THE WORLD list which included ‘Mountain bike the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia.’ I don’t want to name drop, but we have done this, and it is awesome. 

The obstacle course

Just when we were considering sacking the route off, there was a good bit. Back on a train line, away from the road. Where we had been trapped between hedges there were now sweeping views. The hills looked beautiful in the soft evening light and we loved cycling again. There was even a new infrastructure challenge – we had to post our bikes through gates. The only downside was that it was getting towards sunset, we had hardly any water, hadn’t seen a stream for ages and there were no campsites.

We struck off the route and onto the Kaikohe road. We picked a house with hanging baskets and pot plants (always a good bet). You would not believe whose house it was. It was Bruce and Shirley’s. You don’t know them? Well you might soon, because we had knocked on the door of people who wanted to set up a campsite for cyclists on the TC trail. What are the chances. They were great to chat to and I hope we were able to assist with the needs of cyclists. Good luck with the campsite guys.

The next morning, the TC wooed us with a good stretch where there was information signs, good scenery and a MTB skills area. Obviously there were still a lot of infrastructure obstacles but we tried not to get too angry at these. Okaihau won points by having a place you can stay in railway carriages (cool) but lost points when a cafe didn’t want to fill our water bottles (not cool, though they did eventually). This type of contradiction sort of sums up the TC trail. If you want a bike trail to bring tourists to the area, local businesses need to be prepared to supply their needs. This applies to getting to the start and end (if you are not like us crazies riding everywhere), getting drinking water, and the route itself being suitable. I mention the latter because the entire trail is graded at 1 or 2 by NZ cycle trails, that’s Easiest and Easy. From Okaihau there was a very steep descent. On loose gravel. With hairpins. Tight Hairpins. I ride my bike nearly everyday and I found it tricky. It would be tough for families or irregular cyclists. 

After this the trail undulated along a river. We had lunch and paddled. Then there was a boring bit alongside a road. (It’s in a top five with the North Sea Cycle route. The whole 6500km thing). The road was gravel. The bike route was slightly better gravel but kept going up little hills. Things improved when we hit the longest bicycle boardwalk IN THE WORLD. Actually, the brochure didn’t say that. It is the longest one in NZ though, and it was a brilliant finish to the trail riding through the mangroves on it. Hopefully the trail will provide a tourist boost to the towns along it, like the Otago Rail Trail. If people are as enthusiastic as Bruce and Shirley I’m sure it will be fantastic long term. In the meantime I suspect Vietnam’s coast road and the Tour de France mountain stages still edge it.

From Horeke we headed West to Opononi. Thumbs down to the horrible gravel road at the start. Thumbs up that it only lasted for about 10km before the seal started. The massive sand dunes were awesome and the fish and chips the best of the trip. We had got to town early enough to be smugly in our tent reading when heavy rain hit in the afternoon. It’s a good job we were well rested because the first half of the ride to Dargaville was hard, as in 800m of climbing in 30km really hot day hard. The big trees were very nice though, and so was the flat bit towards the end of the day. 

Jo and the biggest kauri IN THE WORLD

We made it back to Auckland in one piece, and rested up before our flight to Kuala Lumpur. We squeezed in two more fish and chip suppers, a trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi Island, plenty of Whitakker’s chocolate, a walk around an old volcano, the baking of a coffee cake and some time hanging out with our fave New Zealanders in Hillcrest. Oh, and about 2 litres of Hokey Pokey ice cream. Which is definitely the best IN THE WORLD.

Thanks to: Steve & Lynda; Roger & Laurie; Kathryn & Family; Christophe, Heidi & Carol; Lisette & Eoin, Bruce & Shirley, Fami-Lee.

Beautiful Tiri Tiri Open Sanctuary. Shows that a group of committed people really can change the world.