Toughing it out around Lake Toba

A flat route round the world I had never expected to find but gratuitous hill climbing is not for me.
We tasted hills near the start of our trip with a slice of ‘the castle route’ in Germany and after an extended trip along the Danube we were reintroduced to arduous peddle pushing when travelling south through Bulgaria. Since then we’ve travelled across Turkey, woven our way across the high lands in Azerbaijan, missed the Pamirs and the Himalayas due to ill health, visas and snow, gone up and down again through Myanmar and into Thailand before reaching my high spot – cycling along the coast looking out through the palm trees across the golden sands to the waves gently tickling the shoreline. But then I always have been a sucker for the sea.
Gid was trying to tempt me into agreeing to the mountain range in Northern Sumatra so we bargained – flat in Malaysia, missing the, I’m told, beautiful Cameron Highlands but seeing the historical towns along the west coast and going for the volcanic mountain range in Sumatra.
From Singapore we took a quick ferry to Batam, where an Indonesian cyclists, Zainal, and his family, kindly hosted us for three nights, while he helped us sort out our long ferry journey to Medan in Sumatra. After disembarking from the PELNI ferry, we headed west to Bukit Lawang, one of the best spots to see Orangutans. It used to be a rehabilitation centre for them, and a few still hang about, though living wild. It was another guided hike, and another expensive day, once the guides had finished arguing in public about who was to book the guiding. Excellent jungle walk and sightings though.
With the Orangutan spotting done and dusted we moved on the meat of the island tour; the volcanic mountain range that forms the north-south “spine” of Sumatra. Having assiduously tried to digest the verbal instructions from Matthew and Hans, as the smaller roads are often not on either electronic or paper maps, one wrong turning led to two days of savage conditions. Despite what I’ve said above I don’t give up easily but thought I was finally beaten here. Tracks that are more like river beds with smooth mini boulders and large rounded stones combined with a heavy downpour and the going gets tuff. At slow speeds tyres fail to grip and heavy bikes slide sideways. The local’s small motorbikes coped admirably, but we saw no three or four wheelers for hours.
Mid afternoon and our 100 km destination was light years away. Gid retorted that we knew it was going to be a long day as he grit his teeth and set to.
Taking shelter from the rain at a local eatery resulted in a fabulous outcome. The locals agreed there was no way we were going to reach Berestagi but one young lad said we could stay the night at his family home. One hour later, with even more muddy tracks and bike pushing, we arrived to a fabulous welcome.
Jusia, our young hero continued his good deeds the following day when he helped us both push our bikes up even more impossible tracks with the finale, a 1km long 1 in 3 track covered in slime which took our young muscle bound hero and two other helpers to get us to the top. It took all morning to get clear of the tracks and reach the road. We were shattered. During lunch, at the bottom of Berestagi hill, it started belting down again and didn’t really stop. Two tree branches and a fence came down as a squall went through. Once the worst had passed we set off, but caved in as soon as we saw a place to halt. Matthew later told us we’d been in Sumatra’s main brothel district, which explains some oddities of the accommodation. Midday day three we finally reached Berestagi … but hey – ho we knew it was going to be a long day.
Berestagi is one of those towns that tries to make a tourist’s silk purse out of not a lot. See the picture of the monument below, unusual in that it depicts Dutch troops … and is still standing. We saw a great grey plume over Mount Sinabung, to the west, but failed to take a photo as it was behind a load of overhead wires. By the time we’d cleared those, the plume was dispersed. Closest we’ve been to a real eruption!
Finally we began to reap the rewards of our labours. Our first accommodation was a campsite looking down above Lake Toba where we dusted off the tent and admired the curvatious mountains emerging from the waters edge. Well, “mountains”, actually they’re the edge of the gigantic volcanic caldera (crater) that Lake Toba fills. We couldn’t see the far side, it’s that big.
We easily found the ferry from Parapat to Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island, glided across the lake for a sunset hour, before collapsing into one of the many guest houses for a two day rest. The guidebooks were right; Tuk Tuk is ideal for doing nothing, and very scenic.
After two days rest, we started to make our way round the island; the panoramic views from the top of the volcanic mountain range stretching out across the water were truly spectacular. The frequent recession of mountains disappearing into the distance and cloud covered peaks a stone’s throw above our heads. Lush and varied foliage folding it’s way in and out of the grooves ascending from the water. Trees, creepers and even ferns at lofty heights above our heads. Occasional terracing attesting to man’s diligence.
Coming back down to the waters edge we saw entire villages out working the paddy fields: reaping, thrashing, threshing, ploughing, planting to keep the rice yield going.
Finally, I had to agree, it had been some of the most spectacular cycling we’ve done.

Route: Bukit Lawang, Namo Kelling (home), nr Sikiben (brothel) , Merek (Sapo Juma campsite), Parapat (just for ferry) , Tuk Tuk (rest stop). To exit Samosir we cycled to the south of the Island, stayed a crummy night at Nainggolan, before catching the morning ferry to Belige (Balige). This ferry isn’t on any map, another gratefully accepted tip from Matthew. From Belige was 6 days of hot, hilly, wiggly cycling to Bukittinggi, simply following the main road. A couple of days out of Belige we’d left the Christian area behind, and encountered the difficulties of cycletouring through Ramadan. All the roadside and small town eateries were closed during daylight. Shops were open, but finding somewhere lonely to eat “discreetly” was blooming hard on the Trans-Sumatran Highway as there’s houses and people everywhere. Not too many places to stay, either. The actual road wasn’t too busy on this stretch.

Heading south – Malaysia

Along the jungle road and across the Malaysian border and we’ve left behind Thailand’s hotpants, obesity crisis and nasal sing song, where intonation is everything. The differences are sudden and quite stark.

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The Malaysians often wear more, especially the ladies, dressed head to foot in something voluminous and Islamically modest. Many men wear little pill caps, as we’ve seen before in the ‘stans’ and a few places in India. It’s not universal though – there are still shirtless men in rural areas, and hotpants in towns. Malaysia is a predominantly Moslem country, compared to Buddhist Thailand, although as we saw later it has very substantial non-moslem minorities. There are many mosques, but also numerous Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian Hindu temples and some churches.

On the road, Thailand’s population of 8 motorbikes and 2 pickups in every 10 vehicles is replaced, unfortunately, with a more European mix: lots of cars. It makes the roads feel a lot more cramped and dangerous, although the driving is nothing to complain about.

Trying to avoid the main roads has lead to some delightful routes along minor coastal roads and weaving across the plentiful lanes dissecting the numerous and expansive paddy fields; water monitors to the left, water monitors to the right.  Occasionally one has scampered ahead of us before taking the plunge.

As we progressed south it became more difficult to avoid the ‘principle highways’ full of roaring traffic especially as we were all squeezed between the mountains and around the many inlets and rivers.  At one point, two of our three electronic navigation devices said, ‘No’, to a way across the river avoiding a main road but Maps.me clearly showed there is a passage. At lunch we quizzed a local guy who spoke reasonable English but he was not interested in the idea of a river crossing. Nothing on the other side except palm plantations, he said, and was clearly in favour of the main road up and round the inlet.

An inner glow welled up inside me, on the other side is a palm plantation: small lanes, no traffic, trees for cover. It couldn’t be better! But did a ferry exist, as there evidently wasn’t a bridge? We set off with our fingers crossed. 1.5 km wasn’t too far to go to find out. As we rounded the corner onto the waters edge the ramp on the other side was clearly visible. Flapping arms directed us further along the road where we came upon an opening between workshops and boat houses. Initially it didn’t look too promising but tucked in at the edge of this broad, rope-strewn slipway was a rickety jetty with a short, dumpy, roof topped boat with a section cut out of its side – the ferry. In a jiff we’d jiggled the bikes across the random, ill fitting planks of the gang way, through the hole onto the ferry, to the amusement of the folks already on board with their small motorbikes lined up ready to go.

There’s a lot of unhappiness worldwide about the way the rainforests are being cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations. Malaysia is a prime example. The same comments probably apply to the old rubber plantations too, and coconut palms. But although they’re undiverse compared to rainforest, they’re not so bleak. Other plants and trees crowd the edges of tracks and irrigation ditches, we see monitors, monkeys and squirrels. Brahminy kites and crested serpent eagles patrol the treetops, while purple herons and kingfishers line the ditches.

After all our careful planning the South Westerly monsoon has come as a bit of a surprise. Cycling in it has thrown up new challenges. We’ve always attempted to set off early each morning but regularly fail (Gideon sez that’s not a new game, we played it with sea kayaks too).  Now there is further motivation. Not infrequently, as the day progresses the black thunder clouds chase us along the roads, the rumbling of thunder close behind, snapping at our heels. The first drops of rain quickly develop into rigid rods beating down upon our backs. Heads low peering forwards as we spy for somewhere to cower; we’ve been remarkably lucky at finding shelter. Mindful of the time however, eventually we have to grit our teeth and set off again. Cars whizz past through newly formed pools and suddenly we’re wearing them. It’s warm of course, but the soggy shorts chafe.  Bikes gears and brakes pick up destructive grit and grime.

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Our first stop was at Georgetown, a UNESCO listed ex-colonial town on Penang island. Penang was British long before Malaysia’s sultanates fell under the control of the East India Co. or the empire. The island was nominally uninhabited when the sultan offered it, in 1786, to the East India Company in exchange for protection from Siam (which the EIC failed to provide). The EIC brought in a lot of South Indian labour, whose descendants are still running microcosms of India all over the state, and attracted a lot of Chinese, who to this day are the largest ethnic group in Georgetown. It seems quite often in Malaysia that the ethnic mix, and therefore culture, in the cities, is quite different from the country, which is more Malay, and more Islamic.

Whilst I found it fascinating that in such a small area it was possible to find half a dozen architectural styles of shop-houses spanning 300 years it was the clan jetties that captured my imagination most. From cargo landing jetties to the addition of cargo stores to workers shelters to family/clan residences in a little over a hundred years. Built on stilts at the waters edge they cunningly avoid the land tax. Today they sit at the base of immaculate white towering sky scrapers making an awkward mix between old and new. Each clan jetty traces its origins – and the origins of its inhabitants – to a particular province/region in China.

Alas, while on a bus up the coast of Penang, thieves struck, and Gideon’s phone and bank card were stolen. Gideon spent the next couple of hours using Clare’s phone to lock out the old one, change passwords, and call the bank. It was easy enough to replace the phone nearby, and there was little data on it that wasn’t stored online. A new bank card was ordered, which, thankfully, Hailey sent out to our planned Singapore stop. The only ongoing difficulty after a few days was the loss of the UK SIM card, which unfortunately being Vodafone, meant hours and hours of meaningless and useless “customer service” before establishing that probably it couldn’t be replaced without visiting their shops in the UK. The other loss was the really nice phone case I’d made myself – the new phone has to make do with a batik souvenir one, helpfully modified by a little India tailor.

From Georgetown south along the west coast, the Malaysian peninsula is populated and urbanised.  The lengthways hills limit the small road options. Little gems like Pontian Kecil,  which still encapsulate the Malaysian seafaring and fishing heritage, are few and far between, without unwanted detours. Still, it was our choice, to avoid the hilly Cameron Highlands in the middle, and if we hadn’t wanted to see the cities, the quieter east coast was available. So the cycling latterly has been a bit crap, even though Malaysian drivers are generally slower and more considerate than British ones.

Our second stop in Malaysia was the capital, Kuala Lumpur. With over 7 million souls in its greater area, it is around the 50th biggest city in the world. We’ve increasingly been using Travelfish for city information, as it’s helpfully concise. In this case, it directed us to Chinatown, where we easily found a cheap and comfy hotel.  When we strode out in the morning, we stumbled over a good selection of the city’s sights.

British Empire architects seem to have enjoyed themselves with Mughal styles and motifs. These Edwardian low rises are now at the foot of steel and glass towers, many of which, again, refer to Islamic forms. Weaving around the buildings is a modern throng of international people appearing from busy roads, pavements, metro system, monorail. The heat outdoors under the sun is intense, but tall buildings provide shade; shops, malls, hotels and up-market restaurants compete to impress with their sophisticated air conditioning.

Melaka (Malacca) was our final stop in Malaysia. Unlike our other halts, it seemed single-mindedly a tourist town, and little else. Being the weekend it was crowded with tourists from KL and Singapore, pushing the already high prices up a notch or two. A one day dash was sufficient to see yet more notable houses of worship, China town, the Jonker Walk night market and, from multiple other choices, we ventured into the maritime museum. A smaller version of Nelson’s Victory provided the setting for an informative trail through the passage of time in Malaysian sea faring.

Some very pretty cycle rickshaws in Melaka, each with a sound and light show.

After Malaysia, to the city-state of Singapore, a simple bridge/border crossing, no visa complications, and one of the wealthiest places in the world.

Camera Club Special – Let’s Play ICM in a Cave!

Post dedicated to all our friends at Worthing Camera Club.

The limestone caves near Phetchaburi are lit up with coloured tubes. Beside the cave temples, there’s plenty of interesting drippy rock formations. But how to make a picture of them?

Needs to be a bit more alive, perhaps…

Ok, but only ok. And quite tedious, in a cave, without a tripod or flash gun. Hey, unlike an English cave, tripods aren’t banned 🙂 But I haven’t got one. My camera’s tiny detachable flash is, err, detached. And anyway no help, far too weedy, boringly white, and boringly stuck on top of the camera. So thank you Olympus for making a tiny lens that’s f1.8, that saved those photos. But I still had to get Clare to stand still for way longer than is normal. And can only shoot from an ideally placed stalagmite. And they’re not terribly exciting.

Which got me to remembering some of Worthing Camera Club’s winter lectures a few years back. Intentional Camera Movement is a respectable (ish) discipline that isn’t only “I forgot to bring my tripod to the bluebell wood”. So here are my Thai rocks:

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PS: Most of those are colours as shot. A few are rather mucked about with in Lightroom.

Thanks for looking!

 

Thailand – Choices, Choices

Having gone from snow to snow across Europe to the Stans and flown into India, missing the frozen Himalayas, where we cycled for three months in idyllic Indian ‘winter’ weather we’re now back to sizzling temperatures, on our way down south to the equator.
We need to be on the road early; by nine o’clock it’s starting to feel pretty hot and the early cooling, apparent wind is replaced by a healthy head wind as the day progresses. Heat and hills conspire to limit our mileage. Regular drink stops replace the litres dripped along the way until we cower in the shade as temperatures reach the fierce forties.  All reducing our progress.
We’ve had to make some choices, keeping to a more direct route rather than the meandering around we did in India, and our backtracking in Myanmar. From Tak, when we were finally through the border mountain range, it was our first real decision time – where to go in Thailand? We knew our exit point would be Thailand’s southern extremity, at the Malaysian border, but how to get there, what to see?
Searching the electronic Lonely Planet guide throws up ‘must see’ places but it seemed that culture was in the northern half of Thailand while numerous National Parks were down south. And, beaches, beaches and more beaches, many offering world class dive sites spanned the length of the east coast while the west coast boasts the best island nature reserves … and yet more beaches.
Directly south led to Kanchanaburi, of ‘Bridge over the river Kwai’ fame whereas slightly further east and then south was the route to the Ayuthaya, the once capital city of Siam and now a vast UNESCO listed temple complex.
We selected the infamous WW2 site knowing we would catch up on temples in Phetchaburi. Whilst the ‘Bridge over the river Khai’ is a fictional representation made for the big screen it did raise awareness of the plight of many prisoners of war during the making of  what is frequently known as Death Railway. Dipping into the history here revealed some horrific tales of abuse, deprivation, torture; a total neglect of any human rights resulting in thousands of deaths in Japan’s pursuit of a land route through from Thailand to Burma. But also, reading about it, and then deeper, leads one into much more understanding of this region’s history than one gets from a traditional “British Empire” historical view. European powers did substantially invade Indo-China – colonies aren’t usually voluntary – so it’s far from a simple narrative of “natives” and “masters” against Imperial Japan. Much of the European expansion was within living memory in 1943. In much of Asia, substantial portions of the colonised saw the Japanese as Asian liberators, an impression the Japanese naturally were keen to propagandise. However, although over 12,000 Allied PoWs were driven to death on the railway, an estimated nearly 10 times that number of Asian impressed labourers also died on it, in even harsher conditions. There are no cemeteries for them.
Bangkok had to be done but cycling in major cities is time consuming as there are endless traffic lights, traffic jams and roundabouts and it’s scary with the high density of traffic all impatient to make it to their destination. It wasn’t en-route anyway, so we abandoned our bikes in Kanchanburi in favour of a bus to make the journey in air conditioned luxury.
Bangkok is on several levels. There are sky trains, sky walks and sky motorways criss-crossing the centre of the city. Many sky scraper shopping malls are interconnected by air conditioned walk ways making the shopping experience, whilst hecticly busy, cool at least.

Bangkok is stuffed full of temples and historical buildings, as you might expect. Thai Buddhist temples are richly decorated, bright, dripping with gold, and always seem to have a fresh coat of paint. The murals inside are usually worth a study too. All the splendour doesn’t imply overformality of use though. As we’ve seen across the east, temples – including mosques – are places to meet and be, as well as worship. While making phone calls during the service isn’t done, there’s plenty of checking for messages. Perhaps they’re all buying devotional gold leaf on eBay?

More temples…
Back on the road and cycling south down the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, we stumbled across the claimed 5th best caving system in Asia. It was indeed spectacular with dramatically lit stalactites and stalacmites, but unbearably hot. Gid couldn’t see much through steamed up glasses, so took them off in the end.
Our second caving experience was to see the cave shrines at Tham Khao Laung, Phetchaburi.  Vast open caverns, lit by beams of light penetrating through the roof top onto Buddha images made for a very spiritual aura. The extended cave was again dramatically lit with multicoloured tubes.
Gid decided the cave was a great place to experiment with ICM – Intentional Camera Movement. Posted separately, this blog is getting too big!
Later, still in Phetchaburi, catching up on our palaces and temples, we walked up a hill to visit the breezy summer palace of Thailand’s recent kings.

Maybe time for a few more general Thailand pictures:

Culture gave way to beaches and parks as our route took us further south. Both of us were keen to see wild elephants but the odds weren’t looking good. We hoped for more success than on our futile tiger safari. The Lonely Planet mentioned several places but sightings were all in the lap of the gods until Gid found a small National Park – Kui Buri -whose TripAdvisor reviews ‘guaranteed’ near 100% success rate.
A quick 60km dash back north got us to the reserve but my heart sank, as we set off in the truck, when our guide excitedly exclaimed, ‘There’s an elephant!‘ Disappointment coursed through my body; I couldn’t believe that the trees moving some 30 or 40 metres away in a dense thicket was going to be our sighting. Gradually we saw more and more shapes in the undergrowth until the unbelievable happened. A lone male sauntered out into the open while we were standing on a ridge up above it. Our guide sped us along a footpath to get a better view as it continued dawdling on its way. The moment was capped by a herd of gaur (also known as Indian bison) grazing in a clearing on the other side of the valley. At that point our luck changed. From this sighting we went on to get several more clear views of family groups as well as a pair of elephants who seemed to be on a mission as they sped across a meadow. The finale to our day was 100m from the center when the motor bike a head of us rapidly u- turned, frantically waving us down. Back he went as a herd of elephants, with at least two babies in their midst, alarmed by our close proximity, trumpeted across the road dust flying, some 20 m ahead of us.
For the first time in ages we camped at the park. Although the kit all unfolded fine, and the facilities were adequate it was horribly uncomfortable – way too hot and no airflow. Back in the bags it all went!
Conscious we’d rather screwed up by having backtrack to see the hefalumps, we pored over the map, google, etc, to plot our course. As we went further south, the majority of interest switches to the west coast of the peninsular. Not to mention a wee bit of political violence in Thailand’s extreme south east; one day, maybe, we’ll find another country everyone wants to be in. Not the UK, obviously, although that nice Ms Sturgeon shows no interest in AK47s, fortunately. Anyway, Phuket is the famous Andaman Sea resort, but we aimed a little further south, to Ao Nang, for our beach stop. Blue sea, check. Spectacular limestone islands, check. Golden sandy beaches, check. Following a surprisingly rainy spell, it’s still cloudy and often grey, but hot when the sun gets through, enough to entice some wonderfully wobbly derrieres out of jeans and into, or at least, almost into, itsy bitsy pieces of coloured Lycra (sorry, no pics).
 Boats between beaches…
We’re planning to linger in Thailand until after the Thai new year on April 13-16. So we’ve hunkered down in the coastal town of Krabi, for a few day’s rest, and to join in the water fights. Apparently it’s a good time to keep off the roads – road casualties double over the period. There’s the same drink driving issues as at home, and also not everyone can concentrate….

Splat!

Travelling the world isn’t what it was. Not only are we frequently referring to the Garmin bike navigator, Kindle’s lightweight version of Lonely Planet’s weighty and dog-eared tomes, online sources, and Google Maps and Open Street Map, but Gid (foolishly?) joined a WhatsApp chat group, which generates a background hum of mostly European gap-yearers on bikes in SE Asia, all discussing the best roads for each segment, and how to get a wheel fixed in rural Cambodia. It’s all good info, but we all seem so unromantically well informed, compared to long haulers tales in books (not blogs!) from the eighties and nineties. Plus many of these smooth asphalt roads didn’t exist back then… So, we make our choices, based on a deluge of information. And skip by so much, waving and crying out, “Can’t stop there this time“. I wonder if there will be another?

Thailand

Thailand was initially, following on from our route across the ‘Stan’s’, India and Myanmar, extraordinarily ordinary.

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Much of the scenery could have been back in Sussex; fields dotted with trees, some ploughed others left to scrub land. A few oxen, occasional sugar cane fields and the odd palm tree marked it as different. The homes and shops were frequently brick built. The shacks, when they existed, were now a more up market version of log cabins rather than the flimsy woven bamboo affairs frequently seen in Myanmar. Actually, we haven’t seen much bamboo growing, perhaps that’s why?
There is also no evidence of a national or historical costume. Way back we have seen traditions that have marked the different nations: the occasionally worn Lederhosen in Germany, shoes with curled up toes right back in Vienna, scull caps – square, Uzbekistan, scull caps round, Kazakhstan,  tall felt hats – Kyrgyzstan or buzzbeee style hats –  Karakalpakstan, and saris in India of course.
Having just crossed the border from Myanmar, where more men than women wore long wrap around skirts called longees, it was a surprise to see in Thailand we’re back to western clothes and hair styles. If there’s a national costume, it seems to be the mini-skirt, at least for the ladies.
And the road traffic features fewer local oddities as seen in the ‘stans, India and Myanmar. On the wide main roads mostly modern vehicles travel at developed world speeds, unlike their western neighbours.
We knew that Thailand is more Westernised than its western neighbours but it felt rather disappointing. Although it is nice to dive into the frequent 7-11 or Tesco Lotus for chocolate milk shake and other goodies.
Gradually, like opening a Pandora’s box, we’ve uncovered Thailand’s unique delights.
Keen to keep off the main roads, we’ve, as often, relied upon the Garmin to weave us a route along the minor roads. At times this has lead to the occasional dirt track which has so far been well compacted and manageable. We drew the line at the ‘path’ where a narrow trail led off across the grass next to a field and luckily found an alternative track. (After all these month’s I’ve finally learnt how to scroll between visual maps on the Garmin and step by step written directions so we can now check out what delights our route has in store and reject  ‘bad track’ options.)
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It’s been along these minor roads that we’ve discovered Thailand’s delights. After crossing the border we were, as in India, in the midst of the sugar cane harvest. Then pineapple farms were a nice surprise followed by waterways where wooden longtail boats power past less sophisticated shacks bringing home the reality that economic development hasn’t reached every corner of Thailand.
Oh yes – another reason it’s a bit familiar – as you can see in a lot of these pictures, around week #3 in Thailand,  April got rather cloudy and rainy. In a way, that was a relief, as it wasn’t so hot and we could go further and faster. Air-con rooms meant we dried out overnight. But after a few days the heavy rain showers got tedious, and certainly the bikes’ gears and brakes didn’t appreciate them. 
Coconut palm plantations were another delight where we wove our way through small lanes between furrowed waterways densely planted with palm trees. The tall palms cut out the light giving it a real jungle feel with lots of birds calling from the under growth.  Homes are dotted amongst them where people busily welded machetes chopping off the husks and splitting the coconuts – milk one way , flesh another.
Markets, many floating in this maze of water ways, also have a few treasures. Frogs, half gutted of course, chickens feet, fresh or on the café menu, pig’s trotters or whole face if you’re feeling hungry, together with a large assortment of fish and shell fish, are now all available.
As well as the above we now have salt farms and fish farms. The latter in an array of inland lakes or with fishing huts out in the estuary, which add a different take on farming. Some we think may be shellfish or crayfish as the dug out pits whilst aeriated are quite shallow.
As we have cycled further south the dominant crop is coconut.  Unlike Myanmar where bamboo ladders were used to climb the tall trunks, here our primate cousins are exploited as it’s monkeys who agilely bound up the lofty heights. A bit of chewing, a bit of twisting and down thumps another husk while the owner, looking on, makes a few encouraging noises from the ground.
These harvesting teams travel about in style; monkeys are pillion passengers, in the shopping baskets or on the side-cars of motorbikes. It’s not the dog peering out of the utility trucks, monkeys are keen to see where they are going. On these rural roads the traffic is less like home – everyone seems to ride a small motorbike, almost all commercial traffic is in pickups, and there are the distinctive Thai open sidecars with a fringe on top.
The wildlife has also taken off. In Myanmar even the trekking guides carry catapults, so the wildlife needs to keep its head down. Thailand doesn’t seem to have that problem – and has many national parks – so we’ve seen a lot more. Also, now in southern Thailand, we’re definitely in a different ecosystem – tropical rainforest – even if a lot of it is replaced with monoculture palm or pineapple plantations and hotels. More about wildlife in the birds and beasties log (update coming soon).

 

Out of Myanmar

After the strenuous riding to get to Inle Lake, before moving on south we studied the map, and profiles, carefully! Thus we decided to turn initially west, to get out of the hills. We had to start by climbing them, but they got even bigger further south. It added about 70km to the route to Kyaikto, our next planned stop, but avoided a lot of climbing. It did, alas, expose us to the apparently regional, afternoon south to north wind, reducing our daily range.

Some of this route was on highway #1, which was a bit busy, but bearable. Main road traffic in Myanmar is mostly largish trucks, with all sorts of cargo. Very few buses, but lots of smallish trucks and pickups crammed with folk and allsorts. A fair bit of agricultural machinery, mostly looking rather improvised. Loads of motorbikes, and a very few cars and bicycles. But even on highway #1, there were enough gaps that drivers usually waited before overtaking, and birdsong could be heard. Other parts were on very quiet country roads, wide or narrow, sometimes dirt but in good condition.

Transports

Country Life By The Road

Urban Life

Temples

Look Who We Met!

Golden Rock

Kyaikto was our rest stop, the nearest town on the highway to the famous Golden Rock. From there it’s 28km to the famous rock and the pagoda atop it. After seeing it we’d then have to backtrack to the main road. An ideal scenario for a rest day and a bus trip. Even more so when the profile showed that the last bit of that 28km ascends nearly a kilometre into the sky. In fact, it seems private vehicles aren’t even allowed on that bit; There are dedicated buses for the pilgrims (and tourists). Actually they’re modified trucks with benches six wide, a roof, and open sides. And pretty powerful engines and brakes, as that road is mighty steep and full of hairpin bends and narrow bits. The truck drivers clearly enjoy the challenge, there was a fair bit of oohing and aaaahhing as the driver hurled the truck round the hairpins, rubber squealing a protest at times.

The rock site was home to many stalls, sub-temples, and hotels. Sitting up on its narrow ridge, it reminded me (Gid) of England’s Lands End complex; but unlike that dour monstrosity, the bright decoration here gleamed in the sun, the colours glowed, the folks were brightly dressed and cheerful. Alas for us, although we deliberately got there approaching photography’s evening “golden hour”, this cast the sun from an unforgiving direction, and we were disappointed by our pictures. It looked like many folk just dossed down there, maybe that’s a better plan for keen photographers.

Over and Out

After Golden Rock, we headed for the Thailand border, between Myawaddy and Mae Sot.  I had read about the famous border road that corkscrewed over and through the border mountains, so tight  it was only open in one direction each day. About two years ago it was bypassed with a newer, wider, lower, straighter highway – oddly, it’s in OpenStreetMap but not yet in Google Maps. But the day before we met, coming the other way, two English cyclists, Katie and Joseph, who said “you have to go the old road, it’s fabulous..”. The rotters. We decided not to, to spare our legs. Got up early, cycled 2km out of town to where the new road started, looked at the smooth, broad, almost empty, tarmac, sighed, and turned back into town for the old road. Which was, duly, fabulous. We climbed for maybe 2-3 hours. It was indeed narrow, it was indeed very up, although actually reasonably graded (it used to be the main truck route). It had lots of bends, and in a few places was failing to gravel or encroached on by the jungle. We saw about 3 motorbikes, 5 people, and a few houses in the entire way up. There were a few more folk in a village at the top, houses outnumbered by abandoned refreshment shacks from the trucking days.

The way down was only slightly less peaceful (we saw one agri-truck, parked). The road was in good enough shape for a speedy descent.

Although it’s kind of the border road, it’s all inside Myanmar. Reunited with the new road, broad and smooth, we continued to Myawaddy, swapped the last of our Myanmar money, and into the border post. All the terrible internet warnings about Myanmar’s complicated border rules came to naught, and we wiggled through waiting trucks as the 4 lane road squeezed over the 2 lane Friendship Bridge, complicated by changing from right side driving to left side driving over the middle of the river. From there it’s a short flat cruise to the Thai town of Mae Sot, which usually gives its name to this crossing.

This is one of the main crossings between the two countries. It’s really remarkably quiet. I guess this reflects partly the tough terrain, partly Myanmar’s underdevelopment and isolation (although I’m not sure the Thais participated in the sanctions during the long junta years), and maybe also that the history of this border mostly seems to involve sending armies across it, to cause mayhem on the other side. Mostly Burmese, but some Thai, and latterly British and Japanese. And yes, now we’re reading our Indochina history lessons.

Memories of Myanmar

Lovely warm smiles. Monks. Slim, smiling, people in longhis or pencil skirts. Myanmar buffet. Stir fried vegetables without chilli. Sane drivers. Elephants. Not much wildlife (guides with catapults!). Hills. Wanting more time.

Back on our Bikes and a Rude Awakening

‘Down hill all the way’ we were told by more than one person. Gid had pointed out the minor point of the Gokteik gorge, which we’d passed over on the railway’s spectacular viaduct. But once again we were living up to our title, within outdoor pursuits circles, of ‘Southern Softies’ .
At 40km into our 80km trip my legs were knackered from grinding up hills in my lowest gears. Once up on the plateau and greeted by a significant head wind our average speed was still a meagre 10 km per hour.  I was still peddling in middle gears to get down hill! Gid proclaimed he was in his ‘granny gear’ on the flat. I didn’t take umbrage.
At 22km the horizon line looked ominous. In a canoe it would indicate a weir as the river dropped away before you but here, with a dark mountain line in the distance, we’d reached the gorge.
As we started our descent I fantasised that I could see a wide valley through the trees at the bottom as we took a long sweep back along the hillside. I was beginning to wonder if we’d got it wrong. We weren’t going down a gorge but into a valley where we could cycle out the other end over a much lower pass. Dream on!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Gid adds: Clare hadn’t seen this then, from the top of the descent)
Initially it was a wide road with sweeping bends big enough for articulated lorries passing in both directions but it quickly got narrower and steeper. Soon there were queues of truckers in both directions at the cutbacks. At one especially tight turn a policeman was in charge, otherwise polite hooting indicated a driver was going to move. The rest tucked in.
We carved a route between them and stopped to quiver at the sight of the road winding up the other side. Our descent taking 40 mins. Disappointingly, we’d not yet glimpsed the famous Gorteik viaduct we’d been across on the train.
The ascent started well. The sections were well graded with long steady climbs. There was only the occasional steep hairpin that required a real effort. We thought we’d reached the top in an hour but then it went on and on, still climbing. Every time we thought we were there, another cafe, and someone hosing down their truck’s brakes (think about what that means), at yet another truckers stopping point would appear.  So the climb went on. At least heading south we got some shade while going up.
It was after 15 km that we yet again had the wind in our faces. And at around that point we finally saw the viaduct. After a further 2km we did indeed reach the top. Gid seemed OK but I was fit to drop. Fortunately a bottle of pop was enough to take me the remaining 2km to the hotel.
Only 84km, but tough ones. Or rather, 52 miles, as bizarrely, Myanmar uses miles.
Gokteik Gorge road (Myanmar road #3)
40 min. Descent
1hr 40 min. Ascent
Total distance 17 km.
Day two started with even more steady climbing. Very soon we turned left off #3, onto #43. Another 15 km passed before we reached a stretch that could be called undulating.  We were still waiting for the start of the promised ‘down hill all the way’. Gid started swearing, ‘When are we ever going to get to the top of this lot?’. My legs were reduced to jelly.
We’ve just had 5 months of flat cycling across the ‘Stans’ and India. Even the ominously named Snake Mountain, on the way to Pushkar – India, turned out to be little more than a South Downs bump. This was day two of some serious ascents.
We’d been enjoying the more peaceful smaller road, until we found out why. Gorge 2!
Forget the well graded gradients. This was serious stuff. Gid reckoned the steeper bits were 1:3, and kept stopping to let his rims cool – eventually letting his tyres down a bit to avoid explosions (and one old tyre had partially split its sidewall, we noticed a little later). I reckon it was serious shit. Down narrow gravelly hairpin bends where I could barely stop the bike at all I soon lost my bottle and walked! And, gave up all hope of cycling up the other side.

 

Crossing the bridge at the bottom Gid tried to convince me that beyond the first section the gradients looked better. He flogged up the first part, l pushed my bike from the start.
Trimmed down and super fit Gid did manage a gallant effort but had to admit in the end, that the gradients did not improve. Pushing 45kg of loaded touring bike, even on two wheels, isn’t an easy option but Gid was finally beaten and joined me on two feet.
Just over two hours later we reached the top. Spirits were very low. The hotelier in Hsipaw thought we’d be at Inle lake in two days. We weren’t even half way. Here’s the profile of this leg, provided by doogal. We were just at the third peak.
ProfileTsipawInle
X = Kilometres, Y = Metres. Spot the two gorges. Downhill all the way!
For anyone trying to (avoid) following in our footsteps, it’s road #3 from Tsipaw to the second peak, then road #43 and #41.
_ctf1385-1
One of many pagodas, linked to monasteries, along the route

It was a second exhausting day but every cloud has a silver lining. Deadbeat, at 6pm after the sun had set, we finally reached a village.

Camping is strictly forbidden. Apart from tribal warfare that continues, blocking certain roads and areas in Myanmar, there are still land mines in the countryside. The first port of call in a village with no tourist accommodation is the monastery. The monks will, apparently, frequently allow you to sleep over night. The locals quickly directed us to the monastery. On arriving there we were greeted by hordes of young monks. Both Gid and I were waiting for an elder to appear but a monk in his late teens directed us to follow two young lads on a motorbike. Little did they know how slow we would be.  They lead us off up the road turning off along a lane to a family home.
We had a lovely supper with the family who were kind enough to put us up for the night. Two English speaking young ladies, teachers from the local school, came to join the crowd. Charades finished, translations started, as we struck up some conversation. The two young ladies also offered a breakfast invitation which we gratefully accepted and were treated, again to traditional Myanmar fare. Just before we left they offered Clare a gift, a beautiful blue green longee. Oh dear, how to respond? Gid dived into a pannier for our tiny gifts; a bell with compass! The lady was a little nonplussed, not having a bicycle, or even, we learned, a motorbike but liked the idea that in time her children would like the bell on a bike.

 

Finally, the next day, the run into Nyaung Shwe on Lake Inle was unmemorable. But when it came to planning our departure, we checked the profiles in advance, and headed west initially, towards the big, flat, river valley that’s the centre of Myanmar, rather than the shorter route south, which turned out to look rather hilly!