Back to reality: I miss my spork!

This post, like most, is long overdue. Spoiler alert: we made it back home. I (Jo) have just completed my second week back at work; Debs has been back almost two months. Life is very much back to “normal”, although we’re still not entirely sure what “normal life” is. For almost two years “normal” was not knowing where we might be at the end of the day, sitting on a bike seat for most of our waking hours and regularly eating sandwiches with crisps in. “Normal” is now knowing exactly where we will be every night this week (and month), sitting at a desk for most of my waking hours and trying to keep our calorie consumption within the recommended daily allowance. Sadly this means a serious reduction in the number of cakes in our new “normal” life.

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Enjoying a final slice of Dutch apple cake on the ferry

It’s actually more than three months now since we rolled off the ferry in Harwich and started riding our final week of the trip on English soil to get us back to Measham, Leicestershire where we first pedalled away from on 27th September 2015. Because of events of the last few months this was not the homecoming we had imagined for a long time – as we had only been in England two months earlier, this return didn’t really feel special or momentous at all, despite being the culmination of over 31,000kms riding and almost two years on (and off) the road in 30 countries on 4 continents. We can only imagine what it might have been like had things gone to plan. We didn’t expect our families to be particularly excited about seeing us after only a couple of months away. So without a grand homecoming planned, we were looking forward to finally completing what we had started and arriving home “properly” this time – by bike rather than plane. And enjoying some quiet English roads and scenery (and cake) along the way.

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There was no “welcome to the UK” sign so this had to do

We’ve done the ferry journey between England and the Netherlands a few times before, but always in the opposite direction – which is an absolute delight. As soon as you step off the ferry in Hook van Holland, you are bombarded with cycling signs and paths that present a myriad of options to ride wherever you might fancy in the country. Going to Den Haag? Well there’s two options straight away, a scenic ride along the coast through the dunes or a slightly more direct route a bit inland. Both as flat as a pancake, on dedicated cycle paths and signposted the whole way, of course. You’ll pass a Lidl at the start where you can stock up on cheap pastries and sit in a pleasant square. The arrival from the Netherlands into Harwich is pretty horrific in comparison. There’s a decent cycle path to take you from the port into town, but after that, you’re on your own. The road then climbs uphill out of town through a particularly unattractive estate, we were shouted at by at least three separate groups of alcopop-fuelled youngsters wandering around, a car sped past us and then cut us up on a roundabout…. The whole experience does not scream “come and cycle in beautiful England”. It actually screams “What? You left the Netherlands? *Sigh*! PS watch out for the potholes!” Dutch cyclists, used to their flat car-free paths and easy to follow routes, must feel like turning back after a few miles this side of the water. On the plus side, there are a few decent options for fish and chips, so it’s not all terrible. We celebrated being back on English soil in one of them.

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Cycling in England can be a pleasure. Our first full day back started with small quiet country lanes and blackberry picking. It became less of a pleasure when the rain started at about 10am and continued for 24 hours. We stopped early on under a shelter on the edge of a village green (a nice welcome back to England). This only increased the severity of the rain (a not-so-nice welcome back to England). At one point an elderly lady came out of the pub opposite and told us that the forecast was for heavy rain for the rest of the day. We smiled, thanked her, and said it was ok, we didn’t have far to go, only about 25 miles. We forget that to elderly ladies in villages that this is actually quite far, even without the rain. “You’ll never make it,” she said, deadly serious. You’d think we had just suggested doing backward rolls the whole way. “Go around the corner and catch a bus”. We didn’t feel like an in-depth discussion about the difficulty (impossibility) of taking bikes on buses in the UK, so agreed to give it some thought. Our survival was at stake after all. Ten minutes later we had eaten all of our allocated morning snacks. Sadly we had also eaten our lunch (it was still well before midday) and drunk our flasks of tea so there was nothing else to do other than put our waterproof trousers on and ride off. The next few hours were some of the worst in the whole trip. The rain bounced off the roads, our helmets, our hands, and flooded the cycle paths. We had two route options – a scenic, quiet and lengthy route on small roads, or the direct and easily fastest route which was a cycle path alongside the A12 dual carriageway. The weather made the decision for us – no more than the minimum mileage today – so we rode alongside one of the busiest arterial roads into London whilst the sky fell in around us. The cycle path/small stream that we had to ride on/through was on the right hand side of the road so we had huge trucks riding towards us and soaking us with their spray. Always a pleasure to be soaked from the side and above at the same time. Eventually we arrived at Debs’ aunts house, dripping everywhere, as excited about dry clothes, a cup of tea and a roof for the afternoon as I think I have ever been about anything, ever. The fact that she had made cake for us was… the icing on it I guess.

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Cambridge

The rest of the final week passed fairly uneventfully. We visited friends in Peterborough, Hinckley and Market Harborough, and stayed with some lovely warm showers hosts. The very impressive Scott (as in Captain) polar museum in Cambridge made an interesting diversion one afternoon. I think we ate a cooked breakfast five days running. We rode less than 40 miles each day and had lots of tea and cake. I suspect we put weight on in this last week. It was all very enjoyable. We woke up in Hinckley on the final morning knowing that we had less than twenty miles to ride to Measham, and then the trip would be over. It was a strange feeling. The ride itself felt like nothing special, but something in my head knew it was, and willed my legs to slow down, savour it, enjoy the repetitiveness of turning the pedals that had become more familiar than walking over the past two years. Debs was riding in front, as usual, and as I stared at the back of her head and panniers I wondered how many thousands of hours I had looked at this exact view, and that tomorrow I wouldn’t have it, or the next day or the next day. Then my stomach rumbled and told me to man up, crack on and get there in time for lunch. Again, a familiar feeling.

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Before we knew it we were sat eating lunch with Debs’ parents, trip over. The bikes were unceremoniously dumped in the garage. In the interest of symmetry we took a trip (in the car, treat) to Cattows Farm for cake, where we had a final meal before we left in September 2015. It seemed an appropriate end for brakes and cakes that we spent our first couple of post-trip hours at one of our favourite places for cake ever, just a few miles from our start and end point.

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On the ferry back to England, in an attempt to get over the sadness of the trip coming to an end, we wrote a list of things we were looking forward to. We would miss many aspects of this lifestyle – not knowing or caring what time it is, being so physically tired at the end of each day that we would often fall asleep mid conversation once we laid down, being outside for most of the day and night, eating as many cakes and pastries as we liked guilt-free, to name just a few – but it’s not all glamour. We might make it sound it, but life on the road has its downs as well as its ups and some aspects, particularly those relating to hygiene, we would not miss at all. Yet eating cereal out of a bowl rather than a cup, sleeping in a bed, cooking on a hob, eating cheese sandwiches that aren’t sweaty, were all laughed off the list, as they were things I felt we would definitely miss. So here it is. Three months after writing it, I can genuinely say that although I now have these things back in my life on a daily basis, it’s hard not to get a bit misty eyed at (most of) this list.

Things we were looking forward to coming home for:

  • Knowing that the spoon you are about to use has been washed rather than licked clean (and not necessarily by yourself)
  • Drinking water from a glass rather than a dubiously clean water bottle that has definitely had algae growth at some point in its life
  • Not having to squirrel away extra toilet paper every time you go to the toilet for fear of not seeing any for the rest of the day
  • Opening panniers/unrolling clothes/unwrapping food and being confident that an earwig won’t crawl out
  • Not having to wash underwear by hand every evening
  • Wearing clean socks every day
  • (Usually) knowing where the toilet is
  • Real milk in tea rather than powdered milk, or worse, coffee creamer (or worse, powdered milk or coffee creamer that an earwig has crawled out of)
  • Having my own plate to eat off rather than sharing a pan full of food
  • Using a full set of cutlery for meals
  • Not having to spend what feels like an hour every evening trying to get into a sleeping bag liner that is now more hole than material
  • Not having to blow my bed up
  • Chopping vegetables with a real knife rather than a Swiss Army knife which has previously been used for every other food item that needs chopping/slicing and also….
  • Washing greasy pans etc with warm water and washing up liquid every time
  • Putting a dry pair of shoes on in the morning rather than the ones that are still wet from the day before
  • Understanding whether supermarket checkout workers are asking us whether we want a receipt, a bag, have a reward card, or something totally different
  • Being inside when it rains, rather than trying to shelter from a downpour under a tree and not knowing if this is keeping you drier or making you wetter
  • Always being able to wash our hands with soap before eating
  • Boiling water by flicking the switch of a kettle
  • Eating lunch somewhere that isn’t a bus shelter.

 

Yes, life back home has a greater level of hygiene and far fewer earwigs. These are good things. We are enjoying many things about being back home, particularly spending time with family and friends. I’m even looking forward to our first British winter since 2014 (mostly for Christmas, but I don’t mind the dark and cold yet so far). But there’s definitely a part of me that would happily trade the electric kettle for a tepid cup of tea made with powdered milk, drunk out of a flask that has not been washed for a week, sitting in a bus shelter listening to the rain, because the next moment we could be enjoying the thrill of a great descent, some amazing fresh food or the enthusiastic conversation of a stranger. We’re not done yet, that’s for sure.

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Quiet English roads, rolling countryside and sunshine. Yes please.

Thanks to Carol and Martin; Stephen, Debs and neighbours; Charlie; Tracey; Curry, Lisa and friends; Lucy and Kirsty; Chessie and Sarah; and our families for being excited at us being back despite only seeing us two months earlier.

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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.

Back in the saddle in Latvia

After our unplanned return from China and two months at home we were itching to get back on the road, so we had planned a final European loop to get us to Helsinki, from where we would ride home, completing the round the world cycle trip. It is now a few weeks since we pedalled away from Measham for the second time. As with our initial departure in September 2015 we were aiming for the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, and as the first time, we rode in glorious sunshine through beautiful English countryside. There really is no better place to ride when the sun shines. We mainly followed national cycle routes on small country lanes, though with a few more hills than our out of practice legs and lungs would have liked.

An overnight ferry (full of other cyclists, none of whom spoke to us – strange lot us Brits are) landed us in the Netherlands at 8am on Debs’ birthday. What better way to celebrate than to stock up on pastries at Lidl and head to the beach for a birthday breakfast. The sun was still shining, the wind was behind us and we were back on the best cycle paths in the world (not confirmed) surrounded by elderly Dutch cyclists on their upright bikes. The paths are almost totally flat, but can have a short steep(ish) incline and then drop at times. On one of these, one of our Dutch cycling friends warned us that “there is about another ten of these steep hills on this path ahead”… a Dutch steep hill that is. Two or three hard pedal strokes and you are up and over the peak. Rocky Mountains they are not. We were pleased to be back in Europe.

We had a lot of time on the ferry

A short ride to Dan Haag (we will be back…) and four trains later we were in the port of Travemunde on the north east coast of Germany, via Hamburg where we stayed with a friend for a couple of nights. The ferry from would take us to Leipaja in Latvia and we were mostly in the company of truck drivers. We settled in with a Lidl picnic and enjoyed the sunset from the boat. It was the smoothest sailing I have ever experienced. A mere 28 hours later we were in Latvia. 


As we arrived at 10pm I had booked a cheap hotel room to save us having to “ride around a strange town in the dark” looking for a place to stay. Rolling off the ferry at 10.15 pm, the sun was still above the horizon. We were five days from midsummer and the days were long. Ah well. The Sport Hotel was the bargain of the century at only €14 for the biggest room ever, with the answer to every British cyclists dreams, an electric kettle. There was even a sofa. Welcome to Latvia.

Shops were sometimes hard to spot. Few windows. The signs helped at this one.

Finally we were back in the saddle, and set off the next morning with no idea what to expect from Latvia and no real plan, other than “ride to Estonia”. Riding up the coast seemed a good place to start, without realising we were apparently following a Eurovelo route (though we are a little sceptical of some of their “routes” that are often just someone’s nice idea) and before we’d even left town we saw five other touring cyclists. That’s more than we saw in the whole five months in Europe at the start of our trip. Cycling in the summer is more popular than the winter then. 

Leipaja had a few sights including a very shiny Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a soviet-era prison but soon we were on the open road and navigating by keeping the sea on our left. The sun was shining but our legs were weary from riding the loaded bikes for the first time in a couple of months. Ride all you like at home but nothing prepares you for carrying the weight of the bags. The first night in the tent since February was strange, it didn’t get properly dark at all so we had to use our buffs as a blindfold to give the illusion of night time. After a night camping by the sea we turned inland and with the help of an amazing tailwind that we savoured every minute of – as most of this leg will be riding west into the wind – we were in Riga two days later. Latvia was flat, green, and mostly well kept. Towns had attractive parks, old wooden buildings, castles and were very pleasant indeed. There was the odd soviet style concrete tower block but not as many as we had expected. 

Making friends with the locals.

It was a rainy morning’s ride to Riga, and included a comedy moment of hiding in a bus shelter when the rain was particularly fierce only to be completely soaked by a truck riding through a huge puddle/lake that had formed next to the kerb. By the time we arrived in the picturesque capital the sun was shining again. Riga is mostly known these days as a stag party destination thanks to Ryanair and cheap beer, but the old style buildings are ornate and the different pastel colours makes the whole place very easy on the eye. I say old style because most of the city was destroyed during WW2 and has since been rebuilt to look old. It’s actually pretty compact, we had a day to walk around but found that we had covered most of the old town in a few hours. Including sampling a couple of bakery treats.

Great fancy buildings in Riga
Great fancy cakes in Riga

Luckily we had arrived on party weekend. Midsummer, or ligo (pronounced leegwa, strangely) in Latvia, is celebrated on 23rd June and is said to be bigger than Christmas. Though most people celebrate by heading out into the countryside, lighting fires and drinking all night, there was a music festival in the city which had a nice atmosphere, even if it was like being in the middle of the Eurovision Song Contest. Latvian pop music is not to our taste. People were drinking and dancing, we saw at least three people fall over they were so drunk, and at one point there was a circle of women close to us who were all at least six feet tall. Apparently Latvian women are the tallest in the world, and on that evidence, I wouldn’t argue against it. 

An annoying-to-navigate ride out of Riga (as most cities are) had us riding up the coast towards Estonia. Our mistrust of the Eurovelo bike route deepened as the bike signs seemed to direct us into the sea – it actually went along the beach for 6kms. The sand was mostly hard packed but the bikes are so heavy it was tough going. Once off the beach the rain returned and we hung out at our usual bus shelter, watching as youngsters stumbled past drinking and singing, the beach party clearly rained off but not their enthusiasm. It was still the holiday weekend and we pulled in to a campsite that evening to find groups of Latvians keeping the fires burning and the alcohol flowing. One guy could speak fairly good English so spoke to us at length about immigration policies (“your mayor, she doesn’t want Eastern Europeans in the country but she lets all the Muslims in”; “do you see any brown people in Latvia? No, we kill them”) before rejoining the party. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of more Latvian tunes, hoping that when we crossed the border into Estonia the next morning the music as well as the weather would improve. I’m not sure I can ever watch Eurovision again.


Latvia had been a nice return to the cycling lifestyle. Flat, easy camping, cheap food, tailwinds. It was good to be back on the bikes again, although I found the first few days quite tough mentally. I had optimistically assumed that normal life would fall back into place as soon as we were cycling again, but in reality everything had changed and it was hard to focus on what we were doing rather than what we would have been doing if we hadn’t had to return home from China. Cycling also gives you a lot of time to think – I had spent most of my time at home busy and suddenly my mind was empty and I thought a lot about my dad and what had happened over the past two months. Even though I often felt sad, I knew it was the right thing to be back cycling and finishing the trip off in the best way we could.
Thanks to: Svenja, David and Zane.

Do you think this has got bugs in?

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

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Welcome to Thailand. Smile.

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

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

 

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

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

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Tiny Jo at Wat Phu Tok

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

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Evening boat ride on the Mekong in Nakhom Phanom

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.