Sweating it out in Southeast Asia
22 September, 2011 8 Comments
Since our last ‘proper’ blog post over two months ago (woops!) we’ve cycled through Vietnam, Laos and half of Thailand, and generally had a great time. Sorry for the lack of recent updates, but we kept finding distractions that stopped us finishing this post!
Rolling our bikes over the Friendship Bridge that marks the Chinese/Vietnamese border back at the end of July was pretty monumental for us. Vietnam had been our target for the 3 months that it took to cross China and it felt incredible to finally have made it. We spent our first evening in Vietnam watching the sun set over the river and had our last glimpse of China on the other side of the bank while sipping on a cold beer.
I love the first few days in a new country, when everything seems new and different. It had been so long since we’d crossed a border, and we noticed the differences with pleasure straight away – endless villages, roadside shack-style cafes serving iced coffee, kids sprinting out of their bamboo stilt house to shout ‘HELLO!‘ and bounding down the road cheering. We felt the weight of chasing a visa deadline lifting off our shoulders and knew that the next few months were going to be pretty different.
The heat in Vietnam (at a much lower altitude than parts of China) felt intense and we struggled to adapt, taking it in turns to crash out from dehydration or lack of sugar and salts during the midday sun. We stopped whenever we saw a waterfall or pipe by the road and lay underneath, soaking every inch of us before hopping to the next.
There were lots of small hills which meant low speeds and lots of effort – bad news for body temperature – and even when soaking wet it was difficult to cool off. Our water-drenched clothes would dry in minutes before quickly becoming soaked again, this time by sweat (Ryan created disgusting pools of sweat on the floor in every cafe for the first week!). Bursts of rain brought temporary relief, until we popped out the other side of the cloud and got another roasting. We tried to stop every hour for an iced coffee or a cornetto (how different it was to China!) and sometimes when it was unbearable found a shady tree and hung in our hammocks during the hottest part of the day.
The cycling days in Vietnam passed in a sweaty flash as we broke it up with a long rest in Hanoi with my Dad and sister. After a fantastic week with them eating amazing steaks and dodging the million beeping mopeds I woke up on the morning of their departure with a horrible feeling in my tummy at the thought of saying goodbye again. I know that as soon as they are gone I feel fine, and I very rarely miss home at all (sorry!) but after just getting used to being surrounded with people I love it was difficult to let them go.
As the taxi arrived and I had a last hug with Katy, her huge green eyes filled with tears and her lips started to wobble and suddenly I couldn’t keep the lump in my throat down any longer – my Dad bundled her into the waiting taxi and they were gone. I was feeling pretty blue and thinking about the thousands of kilometres left to go, but with a hug from Ryan and his promise of a curry for dinner (the food in Southeast Asia is awesome) it didn’t last long.
The hills started to develop as we approached the border with Laos which was only a few days cycling from Ha Noi. We’d heard plenty of stories about the hills in Northern Laos and they didn’t disappoint – the road constantly snaked up and down for the next two weeks, with stunning hilly landscapes stretching to the horizon in a million shades of green. It was so spectacular. Despite there being only one road across the country, hours would pass without any traffic – most Lao people are too poor to own a car. The villages were probably the poorest yet, consisting of groups of wooden stilt huts, with a comedy mix of chickens, dogs, cows, water buffalo and naked children all running free on the side of the road – cycling in Laos was never boring!
Physically the cycling was up there with the hardest so far, some of the hills were so steep that I struggled to go above 4kph (I was just about still upright), but the beautiful remote surroundings made up for the hard word. Cheap guest houses are easily found in even the smallest towns throughout Southeast Asia, so with the aim of travelling as light as possible we sent our camping stuff home from Hanoi (we can make do without it until Australia), which is lucky as I doubt I’d have made it up some of those hills had I kept all my panniers. We had to cycle more hours than we would’ve liked once or twice, but we’ve found a place to stay every night without too much difficulty.
In Laos it was quickly obvious that we were beginning to hit the tourist trail, for probably the first time since Istanbul (we didn’t see many holiday-makers in Turkmenistan for some reason?) and I felt like a kid in a sweet shop seeing so many Westerners as we rolled into the various tourist destinations on our route. I found myself wanting to chat to everyone! After so long in unusual places, it’s peculiar seeing writing in English, and sitting in cafés with English menus, with English-speaking waitresses, where they are playing Friends on the TV. At first it felt very weird… However, the beauty of cycling is that just 10km outside even one of the biggest tourist stops like Luang Prabang we’re back in thick jungle on tiny roads and the invites for drinks and conversation from locals begin once again.
During the Secret War in the 60’s and 70’s, Laos apparently became the most bombed country per capita in history. The statistics are virtually unbelievable – for example, Laos was hit with a bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day between 1964 and 1973. Around 80 million of these bombs didn’t explode which means that Laos still has a major problem, and every year adults and children are killed after stumbling upon unexploded ordnance. In most villages in Laos unexploded bombs (after being unarmed) are left on display on the side of the road, with some being transformed into things like plant pots.
The roads in Laos were paved and much better than I expected, yet they still caused us problems. Seeing landslides or rocks tumbling down the mountains was common, and at one point the entire road had fallen down a cliff face! We were stuck over night and had to haul our bikes over the top of the cliff before we could start pedalling again.
The result of these landslides was that parts of the road were covered by mud. Ryan had a nasty crash at 50kph as we flew down one winding decent, and a few days later I crashed on another slippy bend. Ryan was brave when he crashed, but when I did my belly slide across the tarmac he looked totally terrified and scooped me off the floor before I could get my breath back. In fact, I got more attention in those 5 minutes then ever before, maybe I should start falling off more often…
I’m in awe of pro cyclists now, they just bounce back up after really awful crashes yet my confidence was shattered. What I would usually think a thrilling decent now made me feel really shaky. I still can’t stop myself getting the sensation the bike is skidding beneath me round corners – and being nervous makes me so much more dangerous. I can only compare the feeling to that of being on a ski slope and not wanting to make the turn and your legs going to jelly. Any tips on how to get my confidence back up again are very welcome!
As the road flattened into gentle hills, we arrived at the border with Thailand and entered our third country in just over a month. Soon after, we were on huge pancake flat highways and flying from town to town. What would have taken us 10 hours of pedalling in Laos, we could do in 3 easy hours. It didn’t take us long before we were cycling into Bangkok, which is MASSIVE.
We spent two weeks off the bikes and had a whole gang of people come to visit us including Ryan’s family and some girlfriends. Having not had a good gossip in so long, the chattering between me and the girls went on long into the night – so much so that I could still here the babbling sounds as I went to sleep. We had massages, painted our nails, attended a Thai cooking class and I was given an entire pannier worth of fancy moisturisers and lingerie as birthday presents!! Thank you!! We also saw the sea for the first time since Turkey last December, four months after cycling through Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from an ocean.
Once again our break with friends and family flew by, and before we knew it it was time for another round of goodbyes. It’s been one year since we started pedalling, and although it makes me a bit sad that I’ve missed time with people I love back home, I’m having the experience of a lifetime here with Ryan and love every second of it….well, excluding the bits where I have to sleep in poo infested tunnels.
We’re both really excited about the next few months, and the beach:cycling ratio should be the best of the trip as we follow the coast down to Singapore (although we promise we’ll try and squeeze in a blog post or two). This is payback time for all those long hours spent slogging across deserts and mountains, and we’re going to enjoy them!