I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Free Wheeling Faster Than a Ford 5000

My prevailing memory of Thailand is the smell. It actually stinks. Open sewers, piles of rotting fruit and veg and an huge increase in decomposing animals by the side of the road all add up to an indescribable stench. That's not to say we didn't like it, we had a great time. On our first night in Thailand we found ourselves pitching the tent at a beautiful beach resort which had once been the Red Cross refugee site for Cambodians fleeing the Pol Pot regime. We spent our first week or so riding by the coast among the palms and getting into the swing of things eating fried crickets and tom yam in the night markets.

Our first camp spot in Thailand
We've met quite a few cyclists in the last couple of months. The first were Eric and Amaya who overtook us as we were riding the last few days into Bangkok. They have been cycling the world for the last six years and their aim is to cycle to every country. They're getting on quite well. It turned out that Julian had emailed them years ago about the route they were proposing to take through Africa and Eric and Amaya remembered him. They have a cycling touring website full of information for and about long distance cyclists. They interviewed us and you can listen to it here:

http://www.worldbiking.info/wordpress/2012/04/cycling-around-the-world-podcast-touring-talk/

We lost Eric and Amaya on the day we met them but as we were waiting for them at a traffic light, a Thai boy passing by on his Giant (fitted with a Rohloff) stopped and asked us about our trip. He very kindly cycled with us to a cheap hotel and went on his way. When we returned from dinner we found not only him but his friend Ton sitting in the hotel patiently waiting for us. Ton is a cycle enthusiast and is one of only a few people importing Rohloffs into Thailand. He fits them into old mountain bike frames. Ton told us about Bok Bok Bike, a touring specific bike shop in Bangkok and even rang up Hma, the owner, to tell him we were coming. They were very sweet guys.

The next day we rolled into Bangkok and to my brother Ben's friend Tom's house. Tom has been living there for eight years and is married to a very lovely Thai lady called Mam and has two very sweet girls, Zoe and Naomi. They took us in and looked after us wonderfully. We were fed amazing meals, splashed around in the swimming pool, had massages and generally took advantage of their incredible generosity. It was brilliant.

Tom and Mam and family
Zoe showing us how it's done
In the meantime, we found Bok Bok Bike shop owned and run by Hma (Dog) with help from his friend Cob (Frog). Hma imports Thorns and Surlys among other bikes and plenty of Rohloffs and Brooks. It was an amazing bike shop and the guys were incredibly helpful.We ended up spending most of our time in Bangkok in the bike shop, having a great time drinking beer and eating fiery curries cooked by a poet while the guys and Julian struggled with his seat post which hadn't been moved since Julian was in Argentina. It was well and truly stuck. It could not have been more stuck. The guys tried pouring oil into the frame, drilling a hole into the post and bashing it, pouring acid into the frame, taking it to a mechanics to blast it out with air pressure and finally spent hours sawing at it with a hacksaw blade and a strip of bamboo. We all took turns sawing well into the night, night after night, fueled by beer and steely determination. When it finally came free everyone was overcome with relief. Hma charged ten dollars for all that work. Bok Bok Bike is the best bike shop either of us have ever been to. They don't have a website yet but you can see some more photos here:

http://www.thaimtb.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=264&t=321753&start=1155

Tense times with Dog and Frog
Good job Cob has his protective sunglasses on
Snacks
The seat post when it finally came out, very rusty
Big smiles all round
Nook and I and Hma
We managed to fit in a bit of sight seeing around Bangkok but if it wasn't for the bike shop and staying with Tom I don't think we'd've spent very long there. The whole city is teaming with rats, I actually stood on a live one. We also moved into a cheap guesthouse when Tom's parents came to visit and it was overrun with cockroaches, they got into our bed! One ran up my arm and I won't say where Julian saw one looking up at him from.

The huge gold reclining Buddha
Big feet
Guards
Guards
Of course as we were in another country I had to check out the local hospital. I was still getting stomach aches every day and thought that my ulcer must still be there. I went to the Seven Day Adventist hospital which was the nearest one and Jesus, with the help of an endoscopy (where they stick the camera down your throat into your stomach and take photos), diagnosed me not with an ulcer but with a hernia which I had probably been born with. It had been aggravated by the doxycyclone anti-malarial we have been taking and by some common infection I forget the name of. The Seven Day Adventist hospital is the most expensive in town but once the insurance people had confirmed that my stomach problems were not related to my previously broken elbow they paid up. Also, after a whole year of writing letter after letter to my old insurance company and their telling me there was no way they would pay up for my flight back to England when I broke my elbow in Japan, the Ombudsman rang twice, once to say they were taking my case and once to say we'd won and we will receive the 1000 pounds no arguments! All hail the Financial Ombudsman! Never give up fighting with bastard insurance companies.

Our next long stop was on Koh Tao island, a place which couldn't be more different from Bangkok. I really wanted to go there because my old school friend Darren is there doing his Dive Master course. Koh Tao is a diving island, with fifty dive shops squeezed into the 17 square kilometers. It is a bubble of travellers diving and partying, people who arrived and have never left, and Burmese workers manning the boats and cleaning the dive equipment. Julian had never dived before so he did his three day open water dive course while I did a refresher course and tried to find Darren. It was Songkran (Thai New Year) while we were there. The Thai people celebrate by throwing a LOT of water at each other, I stepped onto the street and was absolutely soaked immediately. I hitched a ride in the back of a truck full of very wet Thai people and tanks of water to the other end of the island. The truck stopped every time it passed another truck and we all threw water at each other. It was slow progress. Not having come equipped, one person generously gave me a small plastic cup with which to throw water at passers by but it was not much defense against the buckets and hoses everyone else had. I found Darren in his dive shop and we spent a pleasantly drunken afternoon being periodically soaked. Someone had the bright idea of using food colouring and we all changed colour every few minutes. It was great. I hitched back down to our end of the island to find Julian dry as a bone doing his homework. The next day the sewers had overflowed from all the water.

Fire poi on Koh Tao
Julian fell in love with diving and we decided to stay a bit longer and spend a bit more money and do our advanced water course. This meant doing a deep dive down to thirty meters when you start to feel a bit drunk from nitrogen narcosis and a night dive. Our night dive was more like a rave dive with about thirty people down there each with a torch but we saw an octopus and giant hermit crab and the phosphorescent plankton glowing when you flap around was amazing. We left Koh Tao on a ferry packed with travelers, it was more like a slave ship. We found our strip of floor to sleep on and hunkered down for a few hours. We arrived at four am and sleepily set off again towards Malaysia.

Salt farms
Even the kids had little bamboo baskets

The next cyclist we met was Troy Cobb from Pennsylvania. He's been cycling across China into South East Asia. On the first day we met he clocked his 10,000 kms. We cycled together and had a beer in the evening to celebrate. We'd be camping in the Buddhist temples quite often so we set off there together to ask for sanctuary. A man at the temple stopped us and invited us to his home to sleep, his name was Pa and  was very friendly. He set us up a bed in his music studio among the drum kits, guitars and Chinese two stringed violins which was all had a go on. He bought us beer and crackers and sang for us and his little girl Proy, not Troy, brought us a beetle to play with and tried to teach me Thai. In the morning we woke to the sound of Pa playing his wooden flute and his wife went to the market to buy us porridge for breakfast. The whole family were lovely.
10,000 km!
We rode with Troy for a few days, it was great. He had a small set of speakers he would stick in his pocket and play music for us and best of all he had a coffee flask and supplied me with fresh coffee throughout the day. He also flicked a switch on my bike which I didn't even know existed and completely fixed my slipping gears. He kept us amused with very funny stories of his travels and working in his bike shop back home. We decided to ride with him a bit longer and cross the border into Malaysia on the island of Langkawi (the Island of Eagles). Troy was looking for passage on a yacht to anywhere and made a flier advertising himself as the Human Remora, a fish which swims underneath bigger fish and eats their poo. Amazingly it only took him one day to find a yacht willing to take him to the Maldives and so Troy was gone, transforming himself from cyclist to sailor. So we set off all by ourselves on the ferry to Penang Island and George Town, a colonial city from the East India Company Days. You can read a bit of Troy's blog which describes Julian as six foot with a balding crown here:

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=1&page_id=280757&v=19

Troy eyeing up Julian's rather phallic desert
A new country means a new hospital. I ate something fishy in George Town. I don't think I have been so sick in years. Explosive diarrhea and incredibly painful stomach cramps for a whole week! I went to the hospital after a few days and they gave me some painkillers and told me to wait it out. We were staying in a rather dingy hotel which for some reason was decked out like the inside of a tanker and only had one toilet which wasn't exactly sufficient for my unpredictable toilet emergencies, I actually had to poo in the sink once. The hotel also turned out to be more of a brothel. Julian was diligently washing the salt off our bikes and was invited by a gang of lady boys to go into their rooms for some fun. It was not the best place to be sick. George town itself was very nice though, and full of exciting foods which I couldn't eat. The population of Malaysia is 25% Chinese and 7% Indian, making for some very exciting different food, we've been eating rotis for breakfast every day and both have podgy roti bellies. George Town was founded by Francis Light from Suffolk. In the state museum I found a small window pane from Woodbridge school which Francis Light had scratched his name on when he was boarding there, it had been donated by the Seckford foundation. We stayed a week in George town waiting for me to get better and met Patrick, a German cyclist we'd met twice in Cambodia and twice again in Thailand. Unfortunately we didn't get to ride with him as he was in a rush to get to Singapore and I couldn't get out of bed.

The Mosque in George Town
A HUGE six inch scorpion I spotted on the climb to the highlands
So so so sweaty
Beautiful butterfly at a sanctuary in the highlands
Chameleons 
What're you looking at?
Rhinoceros beetle! Look at that horn!
We did meet Rene though on our way up to the Cameron Highlands where there is a wonderfully refreshing cooler climate and a lot of tea. Rene is a Swiss cyclist who took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk and has been cycling through Asia towards Australia. His aim is to travel the world on boats and bikes and the occasional train. We lost Rene on the climb up to the highlands but found him again the next day. We also met Jet, a Dutch girl who decided she'd had enough of buses in Laos and bought herself a bike. We spent a pleasant day or two visiting tea plantations and eating cake. It was wonderful to be somewhere cool, I had a jersey on for the first time since January. We all rode down the big hill together back to the suffocating heat and met Leigh and Stephen from New Zealand who have just spent the last year cycling through Central Asia. It was fun riding in a big gang and I did my biggest day of 150 kms. Rene, Jet, Julian and I were all knackered the next day and decided to take it easy after doing a whopping 35 kms. Rene clocked his 10,000 kms and we celebrated with some very cheap lychee flavoured vodka. The next day we all went our separate ways and Julian and I are all alone again.

That's a good cup of tea
Jet and her tea
Wheeler dealer Dan and his cup
Rene clocks his 10,000 km!
A very beautiful descent from the tea lands
Very sad to say goodbye!
We've finally made it to Melaka, another colonial town and are staying at Ringo's Foyer, a hostel and warm showers host. It is great, we're staying for free and Howard the owner takes us out each evening on his bicycles for dinner. Tonight there is a down hill mountain bike night ride which Julian is trying to persuade me to do but I think it would be tempting fate. We're getting the ferry to Sumatra in the next few days where we'll do a loop into the volcanoes before heading to Singapore.

The Year of the Dragon in Melaka
On the river front
The bikes ALL the cool kids have in Malaysia, I want one