Baltic/Brilliant Cycling in Estonia *

*delete as appropriate

At the risk of repeating myself from previous posts, even in Schengen Europe where borders are just ‘Welcome to’ signs at the side of the road, there are usually instantly noticeable differences when you cross into a new country. In Estonia, people waved to us and smiled. This was a marked difference to the previous week (sorry Latvia) where one of our best interactions was with the old lady who was worried about our cold forearms outside a shop that didn’t look like a shop. In the first large town in Estonia, one group of people waved and cheered so vigorously that they nearly fell off their seats. They were outside a bar though, and there was a lot of empty glasses on the table. There was a helpful map of bike routes with distances., and even better a sudden increase in availability and quality of public toilets. Not exciting or glamorous, but extremely useful. On the downside, cheese had somehow doubled in cost. The cheese fiend half of our team was very disappointed.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Welcome! 2. Remains of midsummer partying. 3. A whole cake to make up for the lack of cheese. 4. Actual bike routes, not beaches. 5. Quiet roads.

Keen to continue its new reputation for stimulating encounters, on day two Estonia gave us all of the weather. All of it. Except snow. The wind blew strongly all day with unpredictable gusts. After 2 hours and 13km we sat in a bus stop for partial shelter and questioned our life choices. Later, we spent an hour huddled in an old woodshed that we found open, while torrential rain and hail smashed the road. The saving grace was the pack of hot sausages I had bought at the supermarket, which just about made up for the nasty smell in the shed.

It was definitely not this bright. And the hail was as big as melons. Well, grapes at least.

By evening things had calmed down. We were heading for the islands off Estonia’s west coast, as recommended by a Swiss couple in a camper van who made me a lovely cup of coffee in a campsite in Latvia. The ferry trip was smooth and sunny, it was like a different world. Jo continued to get some come-uppance for telling everyone about how few punctures she has had, with another as we rode off the ferry. It was getting pretty late by this point but as we were now further North it didn’t really get dark  so she managed a quick roadside change and we enjoyed another good campsite on Muhu Island.

The sun came out, the roadworks went on forever, Jo got a puncture.

The plan for the next day was a 45km ish ride, a ferry to another island, then another 45km ish towards the next ferry for the following day. There were only three ferries per day, so if we missed the 1pm it would be a seven hour wait for the next one. I’m sure you can see what’s coming here. Obviously we left the campsite a little bit later than intended. Then we got a bit distracted reading the history of a cool causeway bridge thing. And by some kangaroo signs. Then there was a cute town (with lovely toilets). Leaving town, Jo’s puncture bad luck continued. We executed an extremely slick tube change but by this time it was after 11am and the ferry was still 30km away. Cyclists will read this and think that’s not sure a tall order. On road bikes or even unloaded hybrids it wouldn’t be. However on hefty 45kg touring bikes when you don’t really know where you’re going it’s a bit of a challenge. Add a killer headwind (we had turned westwards) and we were not feeling super confident. We made a quick start after the repair, until a few minutes down the road I realised the sun was in the wrong place/we were going the wrong way. Minor setback – we had left town on the wrong road. U turn required. Still 30km away, the race was on.

Lies.

We pedalled hard, with just one emergency banana stop and made it with almost ten minutes to spare. It was a beautiful ride, and should you be in the area I would definitely recommend taking a trip to the islands. Quiet roads, loads of great campsites, lovely coastline.

Riding really fast. For us.

Back on the mainland, ruins were turning out to be another fun feature of Estonia. Most were signed from the road and had information boards with stories about the previous inhabitants. These seemed to have been written by members of the Soap Opera Writers of Historic Buildings Association, they were usually about controversial marriages, grand gestures of love, and murderous family members. Our favourite though was one that gave details of the St George’s Night Uprising of 1343. This described the killing of 28 monks and the burning down of a monastery as ‘only a minor setback.’ Seems like we should all reassess the barriers in our lives. Other than the odd buttress for safety the buildings had been left as they had been found, and were great to explore. The weather had cheered up and we were almost always on quiet roads. We were also meeting a lot of people doing cool trips – a German family with two toddler age children doing a three week camping tour, an Estonian family who moved to Austria for snow sports back visiting family, and in towns lots of retired Brits sailing around the Baltic (#newlifegoal – though I may need to improve on my RYA level 2). It was pretty dreamy cycle touring, and that was before we got to Tallinn.

Brill ruins
Chilling in the castle, Haapsalu

People ask us a lot ‘what’s been your favourite place?’ It’s an almost impossible question, as everywhere is so different, and fun/interesting/awe-inspiring in different ways. I can however quite easily pick out the cities that are worth going out of your way for (Rome, Granada, Tokyo); those that are good if you’re in the area (Riga, Bergamo, Seville, Malacca); and those that you could avoid and not feel like you’ve missed out (Napoli, many US cities, Vang Vieng, Siem Reap). Tallinn is definitely in the first group of awesome ones – there’s just so much to look at. Incredible old buildings, brilliant city walls, interesting food, and it’s a manageable size for walking. We had two days wandering around, helped on the second day by the lovely Toomas and Veronica, who we met in Laos some months earlier, and had recently returned to their home town. Go if you get the chance. If you don’t get the chance, go anyway.

Terrific Tallinn

We said goodbye to Estonia on a rainy Saturday morning, though it’s probably more of a ‘see you another time’, there’s a lot there still to see. Horizontal rain smashed into us as we cycled along the exposed ferry access road to board the ship to Helsinki. Once there we would be back on the route proper, finally turning back south west and towards the UK.
Thanks to: Toomas and Veronica, Anna, Federico.

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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! 

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.