25 April 2009

CYCLING THAILAND- Bangkok to Hua Hin

20th – 22nd April

Modern Bangkok was a bit of a shock, there was no hooting and drivers obeyed the traffic rules, they even stopped to let you cross the road!! After months in India, it came as a bit of a surprise (a pleasant one).

The alleys of Bangkok however never failed to amaze me; here one could buy anything from amulets to secondhand false teeth and bridges! Chinatown with its narrow and crowded pavements offered everything from food to fluffy teddy bears and jewellery.

The river is still a major means of transport and ferries continuously run up and down the river. It was also easy to get around by ferry as one could buy a day pass and just hop on and off at the various jetties.

23nd April
Bangkok – Samut Songkhram

I was itching to get on the road, and it was far less stressful getting out of Bangkok that what it was getting out of any large-ish Indian town. Soon we were on the highway heading South-East. The heat and humidity, I could see, was going to be a major factor. It was boiling hot, even early in the morning, but just the fact that there was a shoulder to the good roads and motorists obeying the traffic rules made it a pleasured being out. We cycled past salt farms, which made me thirsty just looking at it.

We reached Samut Songkhram at around 15h00, and although still early, we decided to stay for the night. We found a room in a hotel with air-con, bar fridge, clean linen and TV!! What luxury!!

24rd April
Samut Songkhram – Puk Tian Beach

Unfortunately, we had to leave out luxury room with its air con and brave the heat again. We turned off the highway soon after we set off and followed a far smaller road along the coast. Ernest being the "highway-man", did not appreciate this but tagged along. Past marshy areas and small villages, until we reached the beachy areas of Thailand. No beaches where one could lie in hammocks yet (which I have envisaged).

Finding food was a bigger problem than I had expected. Being vegetarian is not a concept that the Thai’s understand. Cooked veg is considered a salad and a salad is not the usual green salad which I’m used to, but rather a lightly steamed crispy veg and noodles (chilli & sugar is added to most dishes, and if you say “no sugar” they look at you in amazement). Add to that the problem that we are now often out of the touristy areas, langauge becomes a real problem. (Ernest enjoys the food, with all sorts of meat and seafood in the dishes – sometimes a surprise or even a mystery).

Puk Tian Beach village we found a nice little bungalow, a block away from the beach. We went out for T/A food, but as expected Ernest had more success in this venture than what I did.

25th April
Puk Tian Beach – Hua Hin

We were slow in leaving Puk Tian Beach, but eventually we got under way. Along the way we passed the resort town of Cha-Am where the locals were in full swing enjoying the Saturday morning at the seaside. We decided to carry on, and soon we reached the large holiday town of Hua Hin. It looked far too good a beach to pass by, so we found a guesthouse on stilts in the touristy area overlooking the ocean. There are not really any waves, but the breeze brings up a swell which laps under the wooden deck of the building.

The beach is lined with deck chairs where one can sit and sip a beer with the ocean at your feet. Hua Hin is also famous for its night food markets, where one can eat to your heart’s delight (again not for vegetarians).

11 April 2009

CYCLING NEPAL - Lumbini to Katmandu

24th Match
Gorakhpur, India - Bhairawa, Nepal

After a good breakfast of Poori and curry veg I set off on my last leg in India. High time as well, seeing that I’ve been there more than 6 months. The border crossing at Sunauli was ever so chaotic, but as everything in India, it’s working chaos, and appeared to be working just fine. On the Napali side I got a 1-month visa for $40 (a 3-month visa was $100, and I did not have enough money on me). 4km Further north was the small village of Bhairawa, where I found a room in the Mt Everest Hotel. What a surprise!! The room was clean!! There was even a shower (instead of just a bucket) and the water was warm!

I took a walk to the ATM to get some Nepalese money and a new sim card for my phone. What a rigmarole that was! Fingerprinted and all! At last, I got the sim, but once in my room I discovered that, although it seems to be working, I could not send any SMS messages.

25th March
Bhairawa – Lumbini

After breakfast I tried again to get my phone fixed, but to no avail (language is also a bit of a problem). As Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha) was just a short ride away, I decided to make the deviation and see what it entails. What a pleasant surprise Lumbini was! One would think that the birthplace of Buddha, and a major pilgrimage place, would be a hectic town. Instead, it was one of the most peaceful pilgrimage sites I have visited. The area has been declared a world heritage site and is more of a peace park than anything else.

26th March
Lumbini – Butwal

The road was still flat, hot and dusty and so was the town of Butwal. Butwal sits at a major junction so I decided to stay and make up my mind which way to go. I could go north, but once I laid eyes on what is known as the “hills”, I decided to go east past the Chitwan National Park. I was only delaying the inevitable, as eventually I would have to cross the hills to get to Katmandu.

I also needed a room where I could charge my many electrical devices, as the power in Nepal seems to be even more erratic that in India. They have 16 hours of no electricity a day! The times vary from day to day, and town to town, but the previous two nights the power came on from 24h00 to 06h00!! Who needs that!

27th March
Butwal – Narayangarh

It’s 2 years on the road today. I wonder how many people have actually cycled from Cape Town to Nepal; it will be interesting to know.

I was ready to leave at my normal time (around 8h30) but there was a strike going on as well as a curfew. Tires were burning in the road and there were loads of police around. Eventually I left at around 10h30. I had the road all to myself, what a pleasure! Due to the strike, no vehicles were allowed on the road, so it was only pedestrians and bicycles. About 30km from Butwal I had my first taste of the “hills”, the road just kept going up and up for the next 15km, but where there’s an up there’s normally a down on the other side. I reached Narayangarh and was happy to find a room right on the road, The Royal Rest House. It was not so Royal but it had a generator and an outside window.

I ordered food from the restaurant and received two full meals! What were they thinking? (Usually that happens when there are 2 of us, and only one orders food).

28th March
Narayangarh – Sauraha

I short ride again to Royal Chitwan National park. Even although this is the main highway in Nepal, road signs are non-existent, to such an extent that I went past the turnoff twice! In Sauraha, the village just outside the park, I found loads of accommodation. Most of it was really nice, with cottages set in a nice garden area. Due to the political unrest, tourist numbers have not yet returned in full to this part of Nepal, so one could pick and choose the best place. Big discounts were also on offer at most places and so I found a really nice cottage opposite the park entrance for Rp 300.

The rest of the town is rather touristy and priced far higher than I had expected, Nepal is actually more expensive than India and my money is not lasting. Many things, I’ve noticed, are imported form India.

Elephants are a common sight so close to the park and one can see “pahits” (a person who works with the same elephant all this life) walking their elephants between the park and the river. Every day the elephants are bathed in the river.

29th March

What a great day I had! First, I took an elephant safari into the park. What a way to see the park! The deer and other animals seemed unperturbed by the elephants strolling around. There was just time for a bite to eat and as the permit for the park is valid for the whole day I took a canoe ride down the river for about an hour and then walked back, which took about 3 hours. It was great to be in nature and although there was not a lot of wildlife to be spotted, it was great just to walk in the jungle. I did however see plenty of bird life, some deer and the famous march mugger and some rhinos. In South Africa, a walk in a nature reserve definitely entails a guide with a gun, but here the guides were only armed with a stick! I just hoped that we would not run into any tigers or other dangerous animals.

That evening, back at my room, I was lucky to observe a local tribal dance, which was held for a group of guests staying at the same resort.

30th March
Sauraha – Royal Beach Camp

What a day! At last, it felt that I was in real Nepal. I cycled along with high mountains in the foreground, along a river gorge with teahouses clinging to the cliff side and prayer flags blowing in the wind. At Mugling, I turned right towards Katmandu, and once again followed the river. The road was everything but flat, but I did not really gain any height as it was mostly up and down. I followed the road, until I spotted a river rafting camp with a beautiful setting and beach huts. Right there and then I decided to stay with them for the night and what a good choice it was. We sat around, had a beer and some food and just chilled out.

31 March
Royal Beach Camp – Kathmandu

I was informed that I had a 1500m climb ahead of me, so after a good breakfast of the most delicious pancakes I set off. They were not wrong. The day mostly climbed up the mountainside (still next to the river) but most of the altitude gain was in a short stretch of about 10 – 15km. A zigzag path led up the mountain and one could see the trucks snaking way up the mountainside. Not something, I wanted to see. I switched to my smallest gear and put my head down. Eventually I reached the top and then had a long downhill ride into Kathmandu. Unfortunately, it started bucketing down so by the time I got to central Katmandu I was freezing and soaked to the bone. I took the first hotel I could find and settled in. There was no way I was going to look for the tourist suburb of Thamel in peak hour traffic and in the pouring rain. That could wait for the next morning.

The next morning I discovered that I was actually in Thamel, so I just moved to a cheaper room. Thamel is very touristy, with loads of accommodation, souvenir shops, and trekking/adventure businesses lining the narrow alleys. I also met up with Ernest who’d arrived in Katmandu ahead of me after taking a shortcut over the mountains from the Indian border (he never received his spares in Patna, after waiting there for 2 days – he did, however, find a replacement for his broken axle here in Kathmandu). That night we went out on the town to some of the places I used to frequent when I was here in Kathmandu during my trekking expedition to Anapurna.

CYCLING INDIA - Patna to Gorakpur via Varanasi

15th March
Patna - Ara

Whatever I suggested was not good enough, and in the end Ernest took off though the traffic to Varanasi with me in tow. Somewhere during the day he was bumped off the road by a truck, but fortunately there was some runoff space and he managed to keep the bike under control. It was a short, but hectic day on the road before we found a room in a fairly fancy hotel in Ara. However, we had a rather interesting time getting there, as we took the wrong turnoff and entered this large town from the back end.

16th March
Ara – Buxar

In the morning TV and newspaper reporters were waiting for us downstairs as we were preparing to leave. After a long interview and some filming along the road, we were finally on our way. It was a laborious task for me to be cycling along a busy narrow road, to a place I didn’t even want to go to. The best part of the day was finding the Tourist Bungalow in Buxar, a friendly place with good clean rooms. The rooms even had a little balcony providing both air and light. What a pleasure the room was, I could even handle the loud chanting from somewhere nearby which carried on all night. This was either a holy man chanting or a wedding taking place - but whatever it was, the event will definitely NOT be remembered for the singer’s melodical voice!

17th March
Buxar - Varanasi

We cycled on in near silence, as we were not really on speaking terms. The busy road and poor road condition did not do much for my already dark mood. We reached Varanasi late, and what chaos it was. It’s a large and busy town with narrow and confusing alleys (fortunately Ernest had been here before). Just to add to my bad mood we managed to get a room in a guesthouse without any external windows, making it rather stuffy. The whole place was like a jail with very steep stairs leading to the upper rooms and bars across the windows and no natural light. On the bright side, the room was ridiculously cheap.

We stayed in Varanasi for a good few days as both Ernest and I had picked up a cold. During that time I also managed to see some if the sites, including a row-boat ride on the Ganges along the river ghats.

22nd March
Varanasi – Mau

At last we left Varanasi, we got away fairy early (that means before 9.30). Ernest and I cycled together to Ghazipur where I headed North to Nepal and Ernest East - back to Patna to pick up his parcel from the Post Office. I suggested that we head straight towards Nepal, and he could take a bus to fetch the parcel. However, he was set on cycling back to Patna.

Being on one’s own brings a completely new set of circumstances. People seem to be even more interested in what I’m up to, and often they’re more helpful. One of the problems is always to keep the crowd out of your room - every now and again someone knocks on the door with an excuse, and then there’s half a dozen faces staring in.

23rd March
Mau – Gorakpur

A short but tiring ride, as the road was in real bad condition and very bumpy. A real pain in the ass! On reaching Gorakpur I managed to find a hotel. The best option is usually to go to the bus or train station, where there are cheap hotels and eateries. The room I found was not the cleanest, but at least it was cheap.

CYCLING INDIA- Bundu to Patna

7th March
Bundu – Ranchi

The day started with a prediction of a large hill looming ahead. The predictions varied between it being between 1km to 10km long. In the end, it was approximately 13km from Bundu and about 2km long. A truck driver (who clearly had some of the local liquor) insisted on having a photo with us. The scary thing is that few of these drivers have driving licenses, add to that poor road conditions, a little liquor and very narrow roads, it is a miracle that we made it to Ranchi without any incidence.

Once in Ranchi it was with great difficulty that we found a room. There were loads of hotels all along Main Road and Station Road, but none seemed to be willing to take foreigners. Eventually we found a rather over priced room and decided to stay for 2 days, in order to give Ernest time to recover from his upset stomach.

9th March
Ranchi – Hazaribag

The day promised to be a climb up to the Hazaribagh Plateau, but none of it materialized, instead, we had a massive downhill. The road was nothing short of hair-raising, being fairly narrow and with loads of trucks flying past at high speeds. The area is known for coal mining and the black dust clung to our sweaty limbs. All this made for a rather stressful day and, I for one, was happy to reach Hazaribag (black face and all), where we managed to find a room at the first place we enquired.

10th March
Hazaribag – Bodh Gaya

Another stressful day, and I must admit, a rather awful day on the road. After 20 k’s we came across a victim of a hit and run accident. In passing we noticed an unconscious man in spasms lying next to the road, his broken motorbike and bags all over the place. We waved down a passing motorcyclist who fortunately had a cell phone to call for help. We could do little, as the person was unconscious and obviously seriously injured. It made me realized just how fortunate we are to arrive safely at our destination every night. We reached Bodh Gaya in good time, found a good room and retired for the night.

Bodh Gaya, where Buddha reached enlightenment, is a very peaceful place. The entire village is set around the Old Temple built at the site where Buddha sat under the tree. The original tree is long gone, but a sapling of that tree is planted in its place – which is also now a large old tree. We also spent the following day wondering around the various temples and gardens. It was “Holi” day (Hindu day), a national holiday in India, and children were running around the village painting everyone with coloured powder and spraying red and green water at everyone.

13th March
Bodh Gaya – Patna

Another hectic day on the road, cars just pull into the road without looking left or right. As I overtook a stationary car, it pulled into the road, fortunately it only knocked one of the panniers off the bike and then still proceeded to nearly drive over it. Entering Patna was just as hectic with heavy traffic but eventually we found the city centre and a room. We enquired at many places before finding a budget hotel which accepts foreigners.

We stayed two nights, as Ernest had to pick up the parcel with spares which my sister Amanda had sent. Only 1 of the 2 parcels had arrived but with too many of some things and other things missing.

A major disagreement took place between Ernest and myself, with him not wanting to wait in Patna for the next parcel - instead he suggested that we cycle to Varanasi and back again (a distance of over 500km). I’d had enough off the heavy traffic and preferred to stay put and wait for the second parcel.