Friday, 28 May 2010

South-east Asia

Time to think
I arrived in south-east Asia almost two months ago and it has passed by both quickly and slowly. Quickly, because I have not had much time to be bored as I have raced from one place to another, and slowly because it has been both expensive (compared to India) and often tiring. Unlike India, where I was travelling nearly always alone and would rarely meet another traveller to talk to, in south-east Asia I met many people, both foreign and local and sometimes it was hard to say goodbye. Right now I am hurtling along in a train with an average speed of less than 30 mph to the south of Vietnam on my way back to Bangkok, from where I plan to catch a flight back to India. Leaving India two months ago was almost a relief as I was tiring of being caught in a sea of people desperately pushing others aside so that they can "reach the top". But I now feel drawn back to the rat racing roads, partly so that I can continue my adventure on my own motorcycle and partly, I must admit, because I miss my bestest friend in the world, back in the UK. Returning to India will be the last stepping stone before I head back to England after being on the move for probably 10 months.

The prospect of returning is, though, also a little daunting because I still don't know what I will do when I get there. And I can't really say I'd be returning home because I don't feel I really have one. There is my parents' place but no job opportunities so I can't be more than a squatter. There is Brighton, which used to be my home but I don't want to work in a call centre. Then there is London where there is probably a temporary floor or bed I could use while I find a place of my own. In London I am sure there is a job to be found, but as expected, travelling has not brought me any closer to knowing what sort of job to look for. Right now, and I expect it might be the same in two or three months, I don't yet feel like settling down to a long term serious job. Maybe I need to find something part time where I can use my spare time to explore other interests such as sculpture. However, having a little money for a change also sounds appealing. With a job I would be able to afford to make more of my weekends: maybe buy a motorbike and ride anywhere in search of adventure. Windsurfing, kite-surfing, skiing - all those things that I couldn't do a lot of as a student with a near empty wallet. But I'm not sure if they really excite me as much as they used to. Am I getting old or am spoilt by my exotic adventures? What I dream of still is dramatic landscapes with high mountains towering over beautiful sea bays. Put me in such a landscape and it doesn't matter so much what work I do. The only problem is that such landscapes are a long way from friends and family - whom are good to see once in a while!

The train I am sitting in at the moment is taking me from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. I just returned from an adventure on a Russian Minsk motorcycle so finding myself back in an expensive hostel full of rich rowdy young people was a bit of an anti-climax. I wanted to catch a sleeper train south but I was not prepared to wait an extra day for an available birth so I have hopped on the next train where I'll only have to endure one night sitting on a wooden bench. The journey should take 35 hours. The floor looks quite clean so I expect I'll manage to stretch out for a few hours when it gets quieter. What I am impressed by and should tell Southern Railways - that even the bottom class of the trains seem to have electrical power points available to use.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai
After flying from Kolkata, India, I stayed a little over a weak relaxing at a friend's house in Bangkok after which I caught a train to Chiang Mai. There, I stayed longer than expected since, so it turned out, there was a water festival celebrating the Thai new year. Everyday for a week everyone goes crazy throwing water at passer-bys and many people ride their motorbikes or pile onto the back of pick-up trucks throwing and firing water at the crowds on the street. The jolly atmosphere makes it easy to make friends and I had a lot of fun riding a rented mountain bike around shooting with my water pistol at people.

At first I couldn't see what attracted so many tourists to Chiang Mai but by the end of the week I could see that it had a little for most people. It has quite a modern vibe where Thai and Western cultures intermingle. It took a little getting used to the seedy old men with young women on their arms but in the end I accepted them, as one couldn't say who was being taken advantage of more as both got what they wanted. The men get their pretty girl and the girls get access to money. The main negative aspect of such relationships is, as a man told me with a young girl on his arm, that it can feel like entrapment for the girl as she has everything to lose if the relationship turns sour. I think it is common for the Thai women to become a sort of servant. Having said that Thai women are not stupid and not as innocent as they might look. They know what they want and constantly use their charm that you spend more money than you intended. But they play the game fairly and usually genuinely become emotionally involved. I am speaking more generally now. An example of how it applies with their guest houses: where I was staying my host was very friendly and frequently provided us with free food and snacks, knowing all too well that her guests will probably stay longer and order more drinks. The drinks were not expensive - so why not? Female friends of the host would also drop by and chat with the guests, probably being compensated by the host with the occasional free drink and of course they have potential access to a "forang" lifestyle.

My favourite place I liked to eat was because, apart from the fact that tasty satisfying brown rice was served, the lady who runs the place is so warm hearted. Jacky's Place - check it out if you are ever there. On her sign board outside it says "Food made with [heart]" and it feels like it is, which is why I wasn't the only person to come back for more and I miss eating there.

My favourite place to have a drink, not for the prices but for the music, was the North Gate Jazz Bar. Whenever I went and they had some locals jamming with the leader from a band called the New City Gurus (which unfortunately I missed). I thought they were absolutely ace. The second time I wish I could have recorded them. There were some beautiful parts where they really came together, but being created at that moment will probably never be repeated. And no, I was not drunk - I had only had the cheapest drink - ginger ale.

Renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai was cheap, at less than £2 per day, but it took a long time for me to find a bike that I liked to ride that was not much more expensive. I wanted a fully manual bike with, ideally, a gearing system of one down four up. I eventually found one, a Honda Sonic - although it was shaped like a scooter. It was a bit sportier than most scooters having a liquid cooled 125 cc engine and although it felt a bit small for me but was a nippy machine to ride.

The long way to Pai
On a day trip I had spotted a sign to Pai being 170 km away. It was clearly a different route to the main road and about 60 km further. Pai is another popular tourist destination so I decided to ride there to see what all the fuss was about. The road was not marked on my google map so right from the beginning it looked like I was in for my first adventure since India. The first 80 km the roads were superb - winding higher and higher into the mountains. Then without warning the road suddenly turned into a dirt track and progress became slower and slower. On my Eee I could see that I was heading west and not north west in the direction of Pai. I began to feel a bit foolish as I found myself an hour from the last village in the mountains with lots of small forest fires burning around me and only a quarter of a litre of water in my bag, no food and a dwindling amount of fuel. I was usually in sight of a remote house or two down in a valley but it did feel very remote. I took some comfort in the fact that every half an hour I had passed someone going the other way - also on scooters. When I stopped them to ask the way to Pai they always pointed in the same forward direction. What I couldn't tell though is if they thought I was a nutter or that I special survival powers.

Eventually I passed through a village that consisted of about 10 wooden houses, a shop, a restaurant and a petrol station consisting of a couple of barrels and hand pump. I was glad to restock with fuel and provisions, particularly fuel, as my petrol tank was only large enough to take me 120 km. I pressed on and passed through a couple more villages as the track condition increasingly degraded. On the steep inclines there was sometimes almost a foot of fine dust hiding ruts and pot holes. Progress was very slow and it increasingly looked like I would have to ask for a place to sleep in one of the remote villages. In a few hours I had only covered 30 km and still had another 60 km to do. But again without warning I suddenly found myself back on fresh tarmac and the remainder of the journey, which was all down hill, took no time at all. The whole journey had taken about 7 hours. Compare this to the return journey on the normal route, which took me 2.5 hours. The return journey, although less of an adventure was actually extremely fun, with very steep bendy roads where I could safely chase and over take the tourist buses.

Beyond Pai and bad observation
When I arrived at Pai I met an Indonesian girl who was also looking for accommodation and we became travel buddies for the next few days, exploring the surrounding area with my motorbike. On one day we accompanied another male motor biker a further 125 km north-west to visit some villages that continued the long-neck tradition, which involves placing as many metal rings around the necks of the women, forcing their shoulders to drop - apparently originally to safeguard a families gold and silver. We only had time to visit one village and it was a bit of a strange tourist trap, but just the ride made the trip worth it. Normally I try to ride as fuel efficiently as possible but this didn't enable me to keep up with the other rider, particularly having a passenger. I was careful to break early as I didn't feel the grip of the tires were particularly good and I didn't want to risk slipping on a bend. So it was here that I grew a liking to pushing an engine to its limits. I was surprised how much power I could get out of the bike with sufficient revs. The European made Honda engine also sounded so much smoother than my Indian built Yamaha, which sometimes sounds like a spoon being scraped over a cheese grater. With revs close to maximum we were able to keep up with the other rider by being quick out of the bends.

Unfortunately, though, my inexperience of Thai roads showed up half-way through the ride. Up until then the roads had been perfect, save for the odd sandy patch, which I am accustomed to spotting. For some reason there are two hazards that fail to register quickly with me. One is pot-holes and the other is speed bumps that are not marked with paint. Perhaps it is because I am used to riding by myself and don't worry if I fail to spot them in time since by simply taking my weight off the seat enables me to glide over them - so I don't normally consider them a hazard. Unfortunately it does not work like that with a passenger for whom it is a lot more difficult to stand up. Perhaps it was that I was too relaxed having just five minutes earlier tasted some locally produced rice whisky and then glanced too long at the beautiful view. Whatever the reason, I spotted the pot-holes too late. By the time I had registered where and how deep they were I had no time to swerve without risking losing control or break without coming to a stop inside a hole, which would certainly have sent us head over heels. The hole we were heading for was big and deep enough for the whole front wheel to fit inside. My mountain biking experience instinctively told me to maintain my speed and to throw my weight back to limit the impact on the front wheel. Our speed was not so great and I had a vision in my mind of the weighed down suspension popping the front wheel into the hole and sending us flying. My evasive actions worked for me as I easily took the bike over the pot hole with no damage to myself or the bike. Unfortunately I can't say the same of my passenger. By throwing my weight back I almost knocked her off and when the back wheel passed over the pot hole the pillion handle badly bruised her bum. It was the first injury I had caused someone or myself since the start of my motorbiking adventures, which I am not proud of. But perhaps it will serve as a useful reminder of how dangerous motorbiking can be. My friend was sweet and said she trusted me not to make another mistake, but if I did that she'd ride on the other guys bike. We passed more pot holes after that and thankfully those times I was looking. Although I still think I am the safer rider, I let her do much of the riding after that to help take her mind off the pain and maybe give her an opportunity to get me back!

After Chiang Mai I continued on the tourist trail to the Laos boarder and caught the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The town was pretty with its French colonial buildings but it was difficult to find anything of interest that had not been turned into another way to capture some tourist money. Every building in the centre was something like a guest house, restaurant or internet cafe. Any bridge that led anywhere more interesting you had to pay a tourist fee equivalent to about $1 to cross. It was a taste of things to come. I paid about $5 to see a waterfall, which I must admit I was impressed by, but soon felt, "get me out of this tourist trap". What was clear to me was that I required a motorbike to explore more rural areas, but I couldn't even find an expensive one that I was prepared to ride.

Nearly all Laos motorbikes are semi-automatic, that is, have no clutch and also the gears increase in the opposite direction to the bikes I'm used to and after you hit forth or fifth they go back to neutral! I can never make those bikes change gear smoothly, particularly going down gears to help control my speed before entering a bend. It is not that I can't ride them, its that I don't find them enjoyable to ride. They are clearly designed for ladies. With the rear break operated with the right foot like a normal motorbike the left hand is completely free and is usually used by the ladies to hold an umbrella to shield against the sun or rain. Otherwise the free hand is used to hold a mobile phone and I've even spotted someone picking their teeth with a tooth pic. Come on, give me a man's bike! In my desperate search for something better I heard about the Minsks of Vietnam. There, I was told, they have male bikes with clutches and gears of 1 down 3 up. I had to go to Vietnam.

I headed in that direction stopping off on the way to view some boulders carved into jars. There I was surprised to find a proper motorbike, but I don't think it was quite the man's bike I was looking for. It was a Shineray from China that looked a bit like a Royel Enfield but the steering did not feel balanced and it felt a bit cheap and ponsy to ride. At $10 per day I decided not to make it my own and would have continued on to the Vietnamese boarder if I hadn't discovered that I could not get a visa at the boarder. Durr.

I back-tracked a bit down to the capital Vientien, but not before stopping off on the way at the famous village, Vang Vieng, where everyone gets drunk and floats down the river, stopping at bars along the way to swing on massive swings into the water, drink more and eat mushrooms and then watch videos of themselves in the Q-bar in the evening. The perfect place for the typical Westerner, but by myself I felt a bit old and boring for it. I joined a day tour where I was taken tubing in a cave and then kayaking down the river having a taste of the swings. The trip took longer than needed because of long periods waiting to be carted about, but in the end I felt it was worth the money. Another day passed with a cycle ride into the countryside in search of a blue lagoon, which was also worth the entrance fee. There you could swim in a crystal clear mountain stream with fish and there was also a swing and tree to jump from.

From Vientien I could have caught a tourist bus for $20 straight to Ha Noi, Vietnam. The journey would have started early in the morning and I would have arrived the following day in the evening, interrupted by an hour or two break at 5am at the boarder. I decided against it and tried to see if I could make the trip in my own time for less - not including accommodation. It also took me about two days not including a days break to see a 7 km cave carved by a river through the mountains. Most rewarding about my journey was having my freedom back. It felt great to be finding local buses by myself and sharing them with friendly local people and chickens. I began to feel a lot more positive about Laos, but my sights where now set on Vietnam. Getting across the boarder turned out to be a challenge if I wanted to beat my $20 target, because local buses, of course, don't cross the boarder! When the cheapest I could find to go just 100 km to and passed the boarder was $13 I decided to hitch. I think I was lucky as I only had to wait 3 minutes before I was sitting in the cabin of a giant truck - almost as big as the ones they have in the USA. I say I think I was lucky because I tried to catch another lift at the boarder that was going more in my direction and nothing came in the two hours I waited while my truck driver had his lunch. Eventually my old truck came round the corner and I was given a lift to a point where I could catch local buses. Actually the last bus I took was a "VIP" bus which cost me $5, but in all my journey still cost me less than $15, so I won!

Minsk spotting
In the final bus to Ha Noi I was straining to catch a glimpse of one of those magical machines I heard were in abundance. At least a motorbike with a clutch. But everywhere I looked I saw that strange naked looking left hand grip. Then, as we headed north, I suddenly spotted one. An unmistakeably old fashioned looking bike with beautiful curves and round headlight. After that I saw a few more but more often caught sight of small Honda motorbikes, similar to the previous generation of bikes they had in India with the square headlights.

Clearly the Minsks were not as in abundance as I had heard. I discovered they were mostly being kept alive by tourists or the occasional local in the countryside that probably had never ridden anything else. Even in the countryside most people ride semi-automatic scooter bikes and those who want a bit more control ride small manual 110 cc Honda's.

I had come so far now to ride a Minsk that I was not going to be put off. I was even too impatient to shop around for the best deal and having decided to rent and not to buy that I could return the bike quickly and continue my travels I went for the first bike I liked the feel of, which was a slightly painful $10 per day. It was not quite the classic bike, but a sportier version with customised larger Japanese suspension that was much more suited to my size. And actually, food and accommodation probably came to $10 per day and fuel was even more expensive so the rent was not the largest chunk. But then it probably was the ride of my life, so what ever it cost it was worth it.

My Minsk motorcycle adventure
The ride was fantastic. The scenery was quite impressive, but for me the best part was riding the bike. Minsk motorbikes are designed to be tough and reliable as well as perform well off road. Although the suspension was little bouncy at times for the roads it handled beautifully and due to its good size and large tires I always felt in control when breaking. Having just a 125cc engine with no fancy electronically controlled fuel injection or timing I guess it is not surprising that it did not feel very powerful going up hill. Particularly in the thin mountain air the engine struggled to get out of second gear and on many occasion on the steeper gradients I had to drop down to first. Having been told the engine is indestructible - to get the most enjoyment out of it I pushed it to the limits, frequently reaching maximum throttle as I tried to gain sufficient revs that the engine could cope with the next gear. Minsk motorbikes are ridiculously noisy when you push them so I tried to ride politely in villages. Out on the open road my engine was constantly screaming - making an easy 30 mph feel supersonic. On the down hills I mostly ruled the roads, still with screaming engine as I accelerated and then braked quickly between the bends. I wish I had a video camera attached to my front wheel recording some of the views, the corners, the ease at which I felt I flipped the bike from side to side as if skiing down the mountain, and of course the sound of the engine. Because the distance between each bend was frequently short, with one bend leading into the next (hence the feeling of skiing), I was never actually going very fast. However, it required my complete and sustained concentration and my adrenaline levels were probably continuously high, that afterwards it left me with a sensation of being spell bound. All I could think was, "wow... ...that was fun!".

Of course I was never quite the fastest. There was always one Vietnamese riding a scooter or driving an empty truck who would pass me - doing their best to maintain their speed on corners. It was keeping an eye out for such drivers that I tried not take any chances on the bends. Even at a slow speed, reactions had to be almost instantaneous to head for the grass verge, as frequently, particular car drivers, would cut the corners leaving very little space for one to pass. Being really tight on the right bends (in Vietnam they drive on the right) I think was essential to staying alive. Yet, so frequently I would see locals casually taking a corner really wide. No wonder so many people are supposed die here on the roads. People of course receive little or no training and knowing where the dangers are is not always obvious until you meet them.

Not a great deal unusual happened on my biking adventure, and as I said, it was more about the thrill of riding a great bike in some beautiful mountains, which is very hard to write about. One memorable occasion was being out on a mountain road, it was raining with thunder and lighting, which added to the drama that it had just got dark. Because of the poor road conditions the next town with accommodation was still two hours away. But I was not really phased by it. There were villages everywhere and I was equipped with a special water proof. It is a poncho with two head holes and a clear piece of plastic in the front. This gave me the opportunity to hire a guide for the rear seat and a lookout for the front. Seriously, though, it was a dramatic environment, but when I decided it was time to give up I simply asked at a restaurant for somewhere to sleep and they offered me a bed.

At first it sounded like a good offer and they provided me with rice, locally caught river fish that I was amazed how good it tasted and a beer - all for just $1 equivalent. Then, when it was obviously too late to continue my journey they announced that the bed, which consisted of a wooden platform and mat that I had to share with another man, would cost me $10. I laughed and drew them a picture, trying to explain that a hotel with shower, TV soft bed and air conditioning would be worth $10, but not their half open air shelter. I didn't wait to bargain because I no longer felt I could trust them, so I collected my things and headed back out into the darkness. I had not gone 20 meters before I was stopped by a local who had heard I was looking for accommodation and he offered me a nicer bed (still no mattress) but in a proper stilt house for $2.50. These guys I felt I could trust and I didn't worry about my things while I played a game of pool with them on a table that had a habit of collecting all the balls in the centre. That night I slept well and was refreshed and ready at sun rise for an enjoyable 10 hours on the bike.

Another memorable moment was waiting on a mountain pass for explosives to be detonated where they were widening the road. I didn't realise that the site was literally just around the corner and was taken by surprise by the sound and the force of the pressure wave that hit my chest. I thought of all the people who had experienced such an explosion in a city. Immediately afterwards we were allowed to continue. The road was strewn with rubble, but being on an off-road bike I had no difficulty in passing and was the first to ride across.

Not all of my trip was by road. At one point I found myself on a track going over the mountains which was marked in the wrong place on my google maps. I was making very slow progress because there were many unmarked turnings and few people to ask for directions. Eventually I was overtaken by three French men on a guided tour on Minsk motorcycles and they kindly let me follow them through the winding mountain pass. My engine struggled more than theirs, but save for a couple of times where I had to get off to push I was easily able to keep up. This pass wound very high with dramatic views of the valley below and the track was sometimes a mere path cut into a steep mountain slope with nothing to stop you from slipping over the edge. I was glad then to have some company as having an accident there would have been difficult to get out of alone. After reaching tarmac I rode on ahead as they had not slept well and were taking it very slowly and I had ambitious plans to make it halfway back to Ha Noi.

My motorbike adventures took me on probably about a 1000 km loop, but I can't be sure because I had no speedometer. From Ha Noi I headed west into the mountains, passed through Sa Pa and a bit further to and along the Chinese boarder, down again to Ha Long Bay and back again to Ha Noi. Sa Pa and back took me about five days. I read that going to Sa Pa in 3 days was suicidal but I don't think that is really the case if you are alone as riding by yourself you have little for company other than your motorbike and from India I was used to riding all day.

Ha Noi traffic
Back in Ha Noi, riding is a different experience. Someone used to highly regulated traffic, such as in the UK, might think that it is chaotic and confusing. However, I very much doubt that the 40 or so road deaths that are supposed to occur in Ha Noi every day happen in the centre where the traffic is busiest. I suspect most deaths happen on the dual carriage ways that look like they are designed for higher speeds but still allow people people to filter through at right angles to the traffic. Speed and filtering don't mix. In the centre of Ha Noi maxim speeds are about 15 mph. At such speeds you have plenty of time to monitor the traffic around you, adjust your speed to slip behind someone crossing your path, or, which shouldn't be necessary if you were looking, slam on your breaks in any uncontrolled manor. At these speeds you are unlikely to damage much, so relax and do it like the locals do it - just keep your eyes open and you automatically adjust your speed and position like a fish in a school or a bird in a flock. When an object such as a motorbike or person intersects the flow you pass around the object like water, but always provide enough space in front of the object so that it can continue moving slowly onwards. I found riding in Ha Noi a rewarding experience!

I don't think that the scooters people ride are best suited for such ballet though. I was certainly a lot more nimble on a bicycle and could easily keep up with the traffic. However, I admit I did get somewhat sweaty in the humid heat. When they are more affordable I see electric bicycles or lighter electric motorbikes ruling such city centres. I hear they are already becoming popular in China.

I am now in Siemreap, Cambodia. The train to Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon, as the locals call it was surprisingly pleasant apart from my company who was a little too friendly and had no concept of personal space or manners. I got used to my wooden seat and had a good nights sleep on the floor. I think I slept eight hours!

I noticed that there are many more cars on the road in the south of Vietnam and even more so in the Cambodian capital, Phnum Penh. Just a few of the clumsy monsters bring everything to a frustrating crawl. To me it is obvious that cars should be taxed out of city centres. There is no space for them they are simply too clumsy to play the game of dodgems.

Here in Siemreap the main attraction is Ankor Wat. However, on a typical daily budget of less than $10 per day I found the government's asking price of $20 to see an old ruin a bit excessive. Partly in protest I decided not to pay, suspecting that the money will either be used to make a few people rich or spoil the surrounding area or temples themselves with more tourist infrastructure. I decided instead to rent a bike for $1 and see what I could see without a ticket. Each temple was closely guarded to make sure you could not enter without paying and apparently slipping past could have risked being fined $100. However, no one stopped me from cycling through the main complex where I could see temple after temple on either side of the road and what I saw was well worth my dollar. Perhaps I will return one day when I am more wealthy like other tourists here seem to be and explore it properly.

Next stop Bangkok and then hopefully India.

  • Railway into Ha Noi - I wish I had taken a photo of the train passing so close to the shop.
  • Firing a water pistol on my rented bike at new years in Chiang Mai.
  • My Thai motorbike on the dirt track to Pai. Sorry not a particularly interesting shot but I had to include a picture of the bike. :)
  • A long neck. I didn't actually take this photo but it was taken with my camera.
  • Slow boats used to ferry tourists down the Mekong river into Laos.
  • Not a very impressive picture of the waterfalls at Luang Prabang but a great one of my hat. Unfortunately I left it in Ha Noi.
  • Me on a Shineray.
  • My Minsk.
  • Me on my Minsk.
  • Terracing. I had never covering the tops of hills before. I assume that this is something new with the in introduction of powerful water pumps.
  • Colourfully clad women of the Vietnamese north-west mountains.
  • A busy junction in Saigon, Vietnam. I regret not taking a picture of the Hanoi traffic with only motorbikes.
  • A temple at Siem Reap.


  1. Angelica Reeve29 May 2010 at 06:45

    Hey Chris,

    You have to go to Ankor Wat. It is the best attraction in South East Asia!!!!! I've been but it wasn't so touristy when I was there.

  2. Oh well, too late now. I saw some of it. I expect I'll be back in this part of the world again so I can see it properly if I feel I have missed out.