29 December 2009

CYCLING MALAYSIA - Hat Yai to Kuala Perlis and Langkawi

26 December - Hat Yai – Malaysia border – Kuala Perlis - 110km - day 999

Mission accomplished and not a day too soon!! It was only 60km to the border where we crossed into Malaysia, got a 3 month visa at no cost (I just love this country already).

Immediately the difference was clearly visible, Buddhist monasteries were replaced with mosques and women go around fully clothed and always with a headscarf.

I felt that I was already in the jungle as it was hot, humid and wet! We headed straight for the coast to the small village of Kuala Perlis in the far North-Western corner of Malaysia, where one can get a ferry to the nearby island of Langkawi.

I was a bit shocked at the prices of things in Malaysia and the quality of the rooms! Ooo we were so spoilt in China and Thailand!

27/28 December 2009 - Kuala Perlis – Langkawi - By ferry (plus 26 k’s cycling) day 1000 - 1001

At last we can take a break so it was straight to the nearest island. Wow, it was so scenic, straight out of out a tourist brochure, unfortunately so were the prices. We cycled a short way along the coast until we found a real beachy area, but once again it was pricy, touristy and not really what I had in mind. No beach hut, as I imagined, but unfortunately only a cheap room at a backpacker place way across the road from the beach.

26 December 2009

CYCLING THAILAND - Chiang Khong to Hat Yai

5 December - Houie Xia – Thoeng Thailand - 84 km - day 978

What was a rather quick visit to Laos came to an end when we crossed the Mekong River. We took the car ferry, or rather a barge across the river and soon found ourselves in Chiang Khong, Thailand.

The visa at the border is for free, but at the land borders one only gets a 15-day visa, which is way too little for Thailand. A plan will have to be made at a later stage.

I had already forgotten how lush and green Thailand was and how obsessed they are with the Royal family. Each and every school, hospital, government building and hotel has a huge photo of the king and queen outside the building. It was a great day on the road; the weather was perfect and the road without any mountain passes, what more can I ask for.

We cycled past numerous small villages and elaborately decorated Thai temples until we reached the small village of Thoeng. Just outside the town we found some roadside bungalows, which suited us well for the night. After a meal of instant noodles it was time for bed as one can only watch so much Thai TV constantly telling you how great Thailand is and how wonderful the king is! OK it was the Kings birthday but on all 130 channels!!??

6 December - Thoeng – Phayao - 101 km - day 979

What a good time of the year it is to be in Northern Thailand. The weather is absolutely perfect, quite warm in the day, no rain, and the humidity is much more bearable than when we were last here in summer. All this makes it great camping weather and perfect for cycling. The scenery is still however, lush and green with dense forest covering the mountain sides and hills.

We cycled past more temples and stupas and, of course, thousands of Thai, Buddhist and Royal flags decorating each and every conceivable place. With 95% of the population being Buddhist the yellow Buddhist flag is seen just about everywhere.

Markets dotted the road and one can shop for almost everything along the way. I had to buy a hammock, as how can one be in Thailand and not have your own personal hammock.

Midday we stopped for a noodle soup lunch next to the road and then carried on cycling until it was time to set up camp. With all the Buddhist monasteries and temples along the road, there is no shortage of camping place. We found a temple with big grounds, and asked to camp, which they had no problem with. We cooked up a mean noodle dish with vegetables cooked in coconut cream and chillies, man was that good.
7 December - Phayao to Rong Kwang - 122 km - day 980

It was fairly late by the time we had all our stuff packed and were ready to go again. We waved the monks goodbye and set off on another scenic day. The road took us over a little mountain (not to steep, but very scenic). The interesting thing is that on every mountain top there is a Buddhist temple, complete with statue, shrines, and all the necessary decorations and paraphernalia. Each and every vehicle passing the spot will give a hoot as they go by. (Definitely not a good place to camp).

That night we found a really good petrol station with good clean toilets, a shop and a grassy patch to pitch a tent. We later found that is must be quite a common thing to do as more than one vehicle pulled up, took out their food and got ready for the night. We cooked up our noodles and added some vegetables to give it some flavour. It’s by far the cheapest thing to eat around here – although Ernest brought a big bag full of the good Chinese noodles with him.

8 December - Rong Kwang to Uttaradit - 101 km - day 981

It is the dry season in Northern Thailand and almost everywhere people are busy harvesting rice, mostly by hand. What a job that must be. Thailand is also a place where wood is still used extensively and they don’t only have the most beautiful wooden houses and temples but very elaborate wooden furniture. All along the road one can find exquisite wood carvings (none done on a small scale either). I saw the largest table I’ve ever seen made out of a solid piece of wood, just wondered where one can put it??

Although the road was hilly it was a breeze compared to the mountains in China, we sailed up the hills without even breaking into a sweat. At the scenic spots there’s always food aplenty and Ernest could not resist testing some of the meaty nibbles.

In Uttaradit we found the local market and did the usual shopping for green leaves and some vegetables. Just past the town we found another petrol station with shop, toilets and a grassy patch. We are just so lucky! I could, however, do with a shower but a little wipe with a damp cloth had to do the trick.

That night my supper was not noodles but rice (bought at the market already cooked) and vegetables in coconut cream, yummy.

9/10 December - Uttaradit - Phitsanulok - 107 km - day 982/983

This day all the wooden furniture and other types of markets along the road were gone but were replaced with fruit stalls, also selling watermelons, which we could not resist. Along the way we ate up a whole sweet watermelon, delicious in the warm weather (getting warmer as we go south).

The whole day on the road I was looking forward to a room with a shower in the next town. In Phitsanulok we found the “London Hotel", which was cheap at R150 baht a room. Although there were only shared showers and no hot water, the rooms and showers were spick and span and the water not freezing cold. I could not care much as I was in desperate need of a shower after 4 days on the road in the same outfit. Our cold weather days are definitely over as now rooms all come with fans and no blankets, gone are the days of electric blankets and thick duvets. Amazing how quickly things change!

After a good scrubbing I set off to the street stalls looking for some food, and there was plenty to be had. The local food market was packed with people and the stalls offered the most delicious looking dishes (never shop when you’re hungry they say). I bought loads of stuff, of which half turned out to be meaty stuff again so I passed it on to Ernest who had not been to the market yet.

After doing my laundry I checked the internet to find that I had a very reasonable offer on my house in Cape Town. So time to think (Uhmmm what’s that again?) what to do, what to do? I must admit it’s all very tempting, as it will keep me cycling for a good few years more.

I stayed in Pitsanulok the following day as well in order to print, scan, fax and sign documents. My, oh, my, it reminded me of work!!

11 December - Phitsanulok – Nakhon Sawan - 146 km - day 984

What a change things were from just a few weeks before, where I struggled up steep mountain passes and nearly froze my butt off in the high mountains in China. Now it was hot and humid and the road good and flat as a pan. We made good distance although it was fairly hot, past rice paddies, temples and stalls selling colourful noodles (what’s with the colored noodles I wonder).

There is always something wrong, now I’m suffering from a heat rash and I’m covered from head to toe in mosquito bites!! We set up camp on the lawns next to a petrol station, just as the mozzies came out and they had a royal time feasting on us. (It often happens that at around dusk when we are exposed while trying to wash out of the pot, the mozzie dinner bell rings).
12 December - Nakhon Sawan to Chaiyo - 125 km - day 985

We flew along on a flat good road until the sun started setting. Again the road side was littered with all kinds of markets. I just love the spirit houses, which is in big demand, as every house has one. Some are quite humble and others resemble a fancy doll’s house. These houses are normally displayed in a prominent place in the garden in order for the spirits to live independently from the family but close enough to protect them (on poles, almost like bird-houses).

When it got late we camped at a petrol station on a cement slab between some scrap truck trailers. Well not all campsites are equally scenic but one takes what one gets when the sun starts setting. At least there was a shop, toilets and drinking water. Oo what I won’t give for a shower!

13 December - Chaiyo – Ayutthaya - 50 km - day 986

What a surprise of a day it was. Not only did I find grilled mongoose along the way but also the town of Ayutthaya. We turned off the main road for Ayutthaya, just to see what it was all about. Ayutthaya, once the capital of Siam, but destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Old ruins are scattered throughout the old section of the city. The more I walked around, the more ruins seemed to pop out from around every corner and behind every bush. And to think I didn’t even know that this place existed. I was blown away, to such an extent that I clean forgot about doing my laundry, which was standing up by itself in the room.

14 December - Ayutthaya to Bangkok - 83 km - day 987

We arrived in Bangkok in good time, through the heavy traffic and madness of Bangkok we managed to find the touristy area of Banglumpu where we’d previously stayed. We even managed to find a really cheap room in a nice central guest house (a rare thing in Bangkok).

I haven’t seen so many weird people in a long time (I feel quite at home) tattooed, pierced and dreadlocked travelers are everywhere. What a crazy place, bars and go-go girls, neon lights and ladyboys!! Food stalls, curios and stalls selling fake ID’s, diving cards, student cards, driving licenses, press cards, name it, line the streets and alleys.
15 - 17 December - Bangkok - day 988 - 990

What a frustrating day it was. In the process of trying to extend our visas we first had to take a river ferry, then the sky train, then a taxi and all that just to find out that there offices moved location! After that it was back on the sky train and back on another bus to the new location. It was a rather lengthy process and all they gave me was a mere 7 days (and that at a cost of 1900 baht! – about 500 SA Rand). Then it was back on the bus, back on the sky train and back on the boat before reaching the room again after dark. Definitely time for a beer.

18 December - Bangkok – Puktian Beach -151 km - day 991

We made it out of Bangkok OK, after all we’ve done that before! Heading SE through the suburbs towns the wind was fortunately from behind and we made good time. After turning off to the South down the gulf coast we had a side / head wind, but we still managed to reach the bungalows at Puktian Beach where we’d stayed before eight months ago.

19 December - Puktian Beach – Prachuap Khiri Khan - 146 km - day 992

We flew along with the wind, the road was flat as a pancake again, we cycled past swampy areas (complete with alligators), and fishing villages. Ernest had a flat tyre which he fixed with the usual onlookers. We even stopped to do a bit of bike spares shopping and I popped into the computer shop to see if I could find a new charger for my notebook, but to no avail. The poor notebook is taking strain and I’m totally lost without it. I’m sure I’ll find a new charger somewhere it’s just a matter of time.

We reached Prachuap Khiri Khan in good time and there was plenty time to still go to the local market and do the usual shopping. Then it was off to Ao Noi Beach where we found the same real rickety bungalows where we’d stayed before, and I mean rickety!! One had to walk very carefully as the whole bamboo construction rocked and swayed as one moved around. It was however a place to lay one’s head down and have a (cold) shower.

20 December - Prachuap Khiri Khan – Bang Saphan - 101 km - day 993

It was just a short little ride to one of the best beaches in Thailand (we’d also been here before). We stopped at a market along the way to stock up with some food stuff for the night, Ernest bought some vegs as well as some meat for himself and I stocked up on some instant noodles and Coconut cream. We were lucky to find space at Lola bungalows, where we’ve also stayed before. Ernest still managed to cook up a storm (space or no space) at least the stilted wooden bungalow did not go up in flames in the process. I sat in the breeze listening to the sound of the waves, what a pleasure.

21 December - Bang Saphan – Chumphon - 118 km - day 994

It was good to wake up with the sound of the ocean in your ears. Not such a long day but I felt quite tired. It was not as flat as the previous days, slightly more hilly. The scenery was good again with loads of palm trees, beaches, small villages and colorful temples. We peddled along until we reached Chumphon were we found a room at the Farang Bar (where we’ve stayed before).

I looked in vain for a computer shop as my notebook has finally packed up, but it appears that I will have to wait until I get to Kuala Lampur before I can have it fixed again. What a pain I got so used to having it that I feel quite lost without it.
22 December - Chumphon – Chayo - 142km - day 995

We left late again and only got away around 10h00. At least the wind was mainly from behind and the road flat and in good condition, so we flew along. There was little time for stopping or exploring as we rushed towards the border. We met 2 French cyclists along the road; at least they were more clever than us and took the bus from Bangkok to Chumphon. They must have thought us quite mad racing like that. The entire day it looked like it was going to rain, but although it was wet in places we escaped the rain. The threatening clouds at least gave us some cover from the sun.

By the time we reached our destination my backside and hands were quite sore and I was happy to be out the saddle. The bungalow we rented along the road was very expensive, but I needed a shower and a bed (we’d also stayed here before). The lady running the place was very friendly and provided us with some veggies which we could chuck in with the noodles.

23 December - Chaya –Chawang - 146 km - day 996

What a hard day on the road it was. I was already tired at the start but we had to push on. At least the wind was in our favor again and we had some cloud cover. The scenery was lush and green with many rivers and dense forests. We pedaled on regardless and after 140km started looking for a good roadside camp. We found a real good petrol station with an area under cover, showers and toilets, bingo!! What more can I ask for (maybe a new saddle!)

24 December - Roadside camp – Phatthalung - 125 km - day 997

The further South we moved the more tropical things became. More rainy, cloudy weather, more mosquitoes and more dense forests. It was a relatively short day, which I was happy about. Ernest took the lead as we encountered a slight head wind and sitting behind someone makes life just so much easier. We took a room and I could not wait to shower and rinse my cycling clothes (what was that 7 days in the same outfit?) That night it was instant noodles again!! Gee I need something else for a change.
25 December - Phatthalung – Hat Yai - 107 km - day 998

We woke and had a treat of bread and cheese, albeit processed slices that not even resemble cheese, it was something different for a change. Then straight on the bikes, heads down and pedal, pedal, pedal again.

In Hat Yai we took a room, went looking for food and then straight to bed for me.

05 December 2009

CYCLING LAO - Na Teuy to Houei Xai

28 November - Jing Hong, China – Na Teuy, Laos (by bus)

I was still not well, and as I’d previously cycled the route on the way North I decided to take the bus further to LaoS. So, that morning I set off for the regional bus station in search of a bus heading to the Laos border. This time I was lucky again and easily found a bus that would take me and the bike. It was another long and tiring day on the bus.

As things go, border rules change all the time. As I approached the visa office I noticed a new sign on the window listing all the countries that cannot get visas at the border any more (these were mostly African countries). It was with sigh of relief that I did not spot South Africa’s name amongst them. (what a time to tell you, as by now you have already been stamped out of China but can not enter Laos, what do they want you to do? Camp in no mans land for the rest of your life?). It reminded me of how important it is to always check the border crossing details before I head out. The crossing into Lao was, however, very easy, just a case of filling in a form, presenting them with a mug shot, paying your money and a few minutes later you had your visa. I only arrived at the first small town in Laos at 17h00.

It was good to be back in Laos, the difference was immediately visible. Chickens were sold next to the road in woven baskets. Wooden houses on stilts, children, ducks and goats wandering across the road. In general things are just a lot less organized than in China. I found a room and prepared myself for the long cycle south to Bangkok.

29 November - Na Teuy – Luang Nam Tha - 38km - day 972

It was a cool misty morning as I left. I took route 3, which is a fairly new road and was in a good condition. It was mostly downhill to Luang Nam Tha and much closer than what I had expected.

Typical Laos, friendly kids come running as soon as they spot a foreigner, constantly shouting “Sabai Dee, falang” and waving – or they just stare in amazement at the crazy woman on a bike.

I arrived early in Luang Nam Tha. As I wanted to do a short walk in the Nam Ha National Park I took a room and booked myself on a one-day trek into the park for the following day.

Luang Nam Tha is a real sleepy village with a handful of shops, loads of back-packer type guesthouses and restaurants, a bank and post office. The night market, as usual, sold cheap eats and was a good place to pick up a bite before going to bed.

30 November - Luang Nam Tha - day 973

The 3-day hike would have been rather nice but it was a bit pricy and I settled for the 1-day walk. It was a small group of 4 who set off in a tuk-tuk to the start of the hike.

It was wonderful to walk in the forest with steep downs and steep ups, past waterfalls and through thick indigenous forests. We were even given a traditional lunch of sticky rice and vegetables. The hike ended in a small hilltop village where we had some tea and some of the famous Lao Whiskey (moonshine) - it truly took your breath away!
1 December - Luang Nam Tha – Vieng Phoukha - 61km - day 974

The morning mist lay thick in the valley as I left. It was a short but scenic road with mountains on both sides of the road, covered in thick dense forest. Most of the way was downhill so all in all a very enjoyable ride. Along the way a met another female cyclist on a 2 month cycling holiday in South East Asia. After a short chat we went our separate ways again.

Along the way I spotted a cave and decided to explore a bit, the cave had a “Keeper” who collected a fee for guiding me through the cave. Good thing as well, as it was black as night in there and at least the keeper had a torch (albeit a bit weak).

I arrived in Vieng Phoukha at around lunch time and found a wonderful Guest House right on the river with wooden bungalows on stilts overlooking the river. It was so peaceful and the landlady was so friendly that I decided to stay for the night.

I ordered a vegetable soup from her humble kitchen and what a meal that was! That evening I ordered more food, this time vegetables (mostly water spinach fried in a wok with soy bean sauce, garlic and chillies) and sticky rice. Now sticky rice is the main stable in Lao and eaten with virtually anything. It is so sticky that one has to tear it apart, roll it in a ball and then dip it in your food. It’s served in a woven basket or wrapped in a banana leaf, very filling and very chewy.

- day 975
2 December - Vieng Phouka to Houei Xai - 122km

I knew it was going to be a long slow day so I got going fairly early, at least by my standards. First I was given breakfast and then I was on my way. After the early morning mist burnt off, it became the most beautiful sunny day. There were a few nasty hills along the way and the road deteriorated and became gravel in parts, making it rather dusty. I pushed on regardless as I wanted to reach the border town of Houei Xai that afternoon.

I met 3 more cyclist heading north, we chatted for a while and then, after wishing each other Godspeed, we went our respective ways. The road was scenic again (like all of Lao) and it was a pleasure to be out on the bike. I cycled past numerous villages, rivers and valleys. Rivers are the main bathing spot in villages and in early afternoon it’s a noisy affair with kids laughing and squealing as the whole village is there to take their daily bath.

I arrived in Houei Xai at around 17h00, sweaty and dusty and found the fist room available. I was fairly tired and did little else but get some food, shower and relax on the bed.

3 December - Houei Xai - day 976

Houei Xai is a rather small village with just about one street, filled with guest houses and street food stalls. I handed in my laundry and spent the day strolling along the Mekong River. That evening Ernest eventually caught up to me - hot, dusty and sweaty after a long day on the bike.

4 December - Houei Xai - day 977

Another day in little Houei Xai, not much to do but watch the sun set over the Mekong River.