Friday, 13 April 2018

BACK ON THE ROAD

Yes, it is time that I hopped on my bike (The Sledgehammer), and hit the road again. This deed has to be done before I bacome too fat and lazy to move on. Have had a good rest here in Pattaya, thanks Leana. Had my birthday here, and thanks to all who sent me birthday wishes. Not sure where I am going now North, South, or East? I leave my computer here at Leana's condo in Pattaya (Jomtien), so I will only update the blog after I return.

Monday, 2 April 2018

NORTH WEST THAI AND LAOS

It was time to cycle out of Thailand on a visa run again. These trips have become my usual excursions around SE Asia in the past 2 years. I have spent a lot of time in Thailand lately, so for a new Thai visa I mostly cycle to Laos (capital Vientiane, the easiest and cheapest option, also Malaysia and Cambodia). I still dream of making one more trip to China, in order to complete my route from the China/Pakistan border to the China/Laos border. There is only a little bit over 1000 km to do, but due to time restrictions I would (as I did before), need to use a somewhat costly rigmarole of transport to reach my cycling start point, and then again to leave China from where I finish. As I say, it is a dream but perhaps I could find a sponsor to that effect.
I now have a new bike, and I was looking forward to this trip. I would be traveling lighter than usual, as I could leave unnecessary items at Leana’s condo where I had been relaxing for 3 weeks. Bye-the-way, the new bike with different saddle gave me some serious "backside problems". So I have named this bike Sledgehammer. These problems reached a point where I stole an old leather spring saddle off an abandoned bike at a police station where I was camping. (It did ease my rear-end distress somewhat, but the damage had been done).
In order to avoid the awkward traffic of the infamous Sukumvhit Road into Bangkok, I decided to take the train instead of cycling. So on a Sunday morning towards the end of January I said goodbye to Leana and headed off to the terminal train station 40 km South of Pattaya (more time at a terminal station to load my bike and bags on the train, and then go in search of my seat). To my disappointment I found that the train did not run on weekends, so I headed for Bangkok by bike. I camped at a lake that night, only about 10 km up the road from where I had started off that morning. Then I picked up a bug which made me very ill for a few days. Just to add insult to injury, one one of these sleepless nights a tent pole snapped for no reason (I have to say, in 4 years this is the first breakage on this tent - I guess everything does eventually wear out). So, still rather ill, I swam into Bangkok city on THAT flooded and traffic-jammed Sukumvhit Rd in the pouring rain. Within a few hours I had taken a train out to the former Siam capital, Ayuttaya. From there I could comfortably head for Chang Mai city in the NW of Thai, where I have been only briefly before.
I then experienced some troubles with this new Sledghehammer bicycle. The NW of Thailand is a hilly area, and on a big downhill the rear spokes started to snap one after the other. By the time I crept into Lampang city the following day, I was practically pushing the bike with 6 broken spokes and a bucled wheel dragging against the frame. It was a Sunday, but I found a decent bike shop who had my size spokes at a reasonable price. A few km out of town I inhabited a bus stop kiosk where I could do repairs and spend the night (conveniently close to a big petrol station - for water, washing, toilet, etc).
Broken spokes were not my only bike problems (11 broken by the time I had returned to Thai). The rear gear changer sometimes worked, and sometimes not at all. (Later in this trip I cycled more than 1000 km with only 3 useful gears on the back wheel). Fortunately by that stage the terrain was not particularly hilly.
My intention had been to cross from Thailand to Laos in the NW of Thai. That route involves plenty of big hills on the way to the capital, Vientiane, where I was headed for the new Thai visa. But, with the gear problems, I instead crossed Northern Thailand towards the East, via Phurua and the Loei districts. I did struggle a bit over there, as it is also quite a hilly route, but the roads are in better condition than the NW Lao roads. But, that is a beautiful area where I have not been before.
Then, early one morning a beautiful bird with expensive taste gave me a peck on my grubby cheek. (No, this is not what you are thinking!). As I was packing up at a jungle Temple one morning, a colourful parrot landed on my back and proceeded to ride around on my shoulder while I was busy. Before I knew it, that parrot had removed the diamond from my ear ring, and swallowed it! Sorry about the way I look in the picture, I probably had a rough night (but the bird makes up for that).
I then crossed the Mekong River into Laos. I had to go to the capital, Vientiane, for a new Thailand visa. From there I first cycled North, then East, and then South through Laos to Savannaket, where I crossed the Mekong back to Thailand. Looking East from Laos one can see the barrier mountains which form the border with Vietnam. A rather imposing sight when you are traveling on a heavily loaded bicycle.
In an earlier post on this blog I did mention a bridge built by the Soviets and dedicated to Juri Gagarin. Well, I crossed that bridge again, and this time I took some pictures from the other side of the bridge. That area is one of the places in Laos which is still plagued by unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam war.
After a long hot day on the bike I was probably a bit clumsy, and literally burnt my fingers. As I was preparing my dinner I spilt a pot of boiling water over my hand. Anyway, that hand has now thankfully healed.
Again, as often before, I camped at the Budhist Temples (Watts). But this time I also stayed over at various other places such as petrol stations and police stations.
As sometimes happens, when camping at the temples I get offered breakfast. The monks also gave me various gifts, and a favourite is laundry powder, soap, and a toothbrush (this must have something to do with my appearance!).
Certain temples are monasteries (or schools) where there are teenaged monks (called Novices). At times they are put to work, washing temple vehicles, or even re-decorating Buddha statues.
Initially I had planned to cross from Thailand to Laos at Chang Khong (but due to the gear problems I changed my plans). Three years ago I had stayed in Chang Khong at "THE HUB" pub, hostel, and bicycle museum - operated by Alan Bate and his Thai partner May. As a fellow cyclist Alan had been very kind to me, offering me free camping on the premises. But now I had to change my route, and therefore I was not able to visit them again. On my return to Pattaya from the NE I had to cross a range of hills, and Pa Kham town is in that region, about 4 days by bike from my destination. So, passing through town somebody called to me, but I just waved and carried on up the slope. Then my curiosity overwhelmed my cycling determination, I turned around to investigate, and HUGE surprise! - it was Alan Bate, in a roadside pub, had not recognised me until I had gone back to see what the fuss was about. (Apparently he had written something just the week before, where he mentioned me from 3 years before). This is a very remarkable co-incidence. He had sold up in Chang Khong 2 years earlier, and him and May and their 9-year-old son now live on her family farm 1200 km from where I expected them to be. I stayed with them for 3 days, enjoying the rare company and eating them out of their house. Bye-the-way, Alan is not just some old slogging cyclist like myself - in 2010 he broke the Guinnes record for the fastest "Around the World Bicycle ride" (that record has since been broken). He was also a professional cyclist in his former home town Liverpool (UK), and a pro cycling team manager. (So I am in illustrious company here). Alan has about 50 bicycles in his shed (many from his former bicycle museum). He is hard in training at the moment, and one of his worn-out training bikes has gears which match the broken ones on my bike (so I just swapped the whole handlebar - changers, levers, and all - thanks Alan).
I have also had some ATM bank problems on this ride. In Vientiane I tried to draw cash at various ATM's, no money was given, but it was deducted from my bank balance (more than a month and nothing repaid - and I do not know which bank is the culprit). At a remote roadside ATM, the day before I arrived back in Pattaya, the machine swallowed my card (a week and a half later it was returned - and I was very hungry by that time).
Now I am back at Leana's condo in Jomtien Beach, Pattaya. In almost 2 months I have cycled 4004 km, and arrived back here fairly unscathed, and with plenty of good experiences. Leana is not yet back home, having taken Janice and Chris on a bike tour. Daily distances cycled on this excursion have been as follows:- Pong 76 km; Chonburi 72 km; Samut Prakan 45 km; Bangkok 55 km; (Ayuttaya by train); Tha Chang 78 km; Uthai Thani 88 km; Nakhon Sawan 51 km; Khampaeng Phet 123 km; Tak 94 km; Hilltop temple 81 km; Lampang 79 km; Chang Mai 121 km; Doi Kaeo 54 km; Bo Haeo 68 km; Han Nam Mo 108 km; Wang Phrokot 76 km; Nam Lao 116 km; Kok Bok 89 km; Thep Kiri 73 km; Udon Thani 87 km; Vientianne (Crossed border from Thailand to Laos) 124 km; District Villages 81 km; Phonhong 112 km; Vang Vieng 104 km; Viengmay 99 km; Namcheng 109 km; Vang Vieng (return) 101 km; Nagna 98 km; Khok Noy 110 km; Pao 94 km; Nongkeun 65 km; Pakkadan 52 km; Ban Na-In 76 km; Namdik 67 km; Nakhon Thong 63 km; Seno 74 km; Savannaket (and surrounds) 73 km; (Crossed back into Thailand at Mukdahan); Kuchinarai 96 km; Roi Et 69 km; Tatum 101 km; Surin 73 km; Nang Rong 98 km; Pa Kham (Alan & Mae) 41 km; Aranyaprathet 101 km; Phanom Sarakham 115 km; Chonburi 97 km; and Pattaya (Jomtien) 76 km. The total distance cycled in these 11 years is 155 614 km.
Thai people revere their Royalty, and tributes are everywhere (such as these pics of the past and present kings).

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

RETURN TO THAI

Hello, I am eventually back on line (this is ME, ERNEST, in case you have forgotten). I have been on the road for almost 2 months, riding the new "Horse". He is rather hard on my backside, therefore I have named him "SLEDGE-HAMMER". On this ride I have cycled some "new" routes, as well as places where I have cycled before. After 11 broken spokes, MAJOR gear problems, NO punctures, and 4004 km, I am back in Thailand. (Yes, I am still POORER than a CHURCH MOUSE). Please bear with me, as I am busy working on an update for this blog.
And I am somewhat obsessed by the Mekong, one of the great rivers of the world.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

NEW HORSE ON THE BLOCK

Well then, I won't mince words. I have a new horse (bicycle). Old Saartjie has "HIT THE FAN". It worked out too expensive to replace all the parts needed to get the Poor Old Nag up to standard. However, She served me well, clocking up over 150 000 km in almost eleven years.
Thanks to a GOOD SAMARITAN who took pity on this poor bedraggled traveler, I thankfully now have a new (2nd hand) bicycle. No name yet, so let's just call it "The Horse" for now. It is time for me to get on the road again, now still at Leana's place in Pattaya. Good bye till next time.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

BACK IN SIAM - ONCE AGAIN

On a rainy Monday morning, 18 December 2017 (exactly a month after entering Malaysia) I left the country via the river bridge from Rantau Panjang to Sungai Kolok in Thailand.
As is often the case, people on both sides of a country border are fairly similar regarding their culture. In this case, this region of Thailand is very Muslem (the rest of Thailand is very Buddhist). The Thai police patrol the roads in order to quell any Muslim uprising (there were bombs in Bangkok and HuaHin about a year ago). Apparently these people want a separate Muslem state from Thailand. It was raining all the time on the road here, as in Malaysia. The police escorted me for some time, to protect me from Islam I guess. (The police even gave me water and juice, and took pics of me, etc). Late PM my escort was lax, chatting to their mates at a check point, and I ducked into a mosque where I stayed comfortably for the night.
On another evening I was looking out for an overnight spot, and I saw something. I turned in there and that "something" turned out to be where all the police were camping. Building work was still in progress, but it seems the place is intended to be some sort of livestock loading facility. Fine, these guys were very friendly. I already had my own dinner, but they gave me breakfast (different sections were competing to see who could cook the best breakfast).
Then I got to Hat Yai on 21 December. I wanted to take the train that day because I had promised Pannee I would be back on the farm in Ubon by Xmas. After riding in the rain and smelling like a rat, I arrived at the Hat Yai train station about one hour before departure. I had to settle for 3rd class bench to Bangkok (20 hr), and another 3rd class onward to Ubon Ratchathani (12 hr). And then cycle to the farm close to Ban Trakan village in Ubon province, where I would re-unite with Pannee. Yes, it was a happy re-union for about one day. I had misgivings about going back, although Pannee did not know about that. But unfortunately I had to end this relationship, and I did. Reasons? Unfair to her that I could not support her and her children while she was on unpaid leave to be with me at the farm every time - I cannot properly support myself, even just on the bike!. I still love her, so this separation was hard for me to do. Pannee also did not accept it easily - anyway, I will spare you all the drama.
Distances cycled since crossing from Malaysia back to Thailand have been:- Sai Buri 113 km; Pattani 83 km; Village Watt 74 km; Hat Yai 35 km; (2 days train via Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani); Ban Trakan (Pannee Farm) 55 km. Total cycled thus far is 150 798 km.
On Xmas day, 25 December 2017, I was back on the road again. I was in very low spirits, and did not cycle very far each day for the next few days. Then I realised that I may actually feel better if I DO put in a bit more effort!
The road was very busy (New Year), and even the fancy truck drivers would rather create an exhibit than to sit in that traffic.
So I was on the road between Xmas and New Year. Thailand is Buddhist, so why all the Xmas rush?!! Also, Thai New Year is only in a couple of months?!! Anyway, Thai people like any kind of festival or celebration I guess.
This is one of the temples where they did not want me to stay. The "boss" monk was away, and above all, there were "female monks" (or Nuns?). I had come up a very steep hill on my "broken" bike after a long day, and I camped outside the Watt gate (I could still get water, and use toilet inside!!?). Later a superior did come apologise and invite me inside, but no point to move then).
So I made it to Leana's condo in Pattaya. Ok, Jomtien suburb if you do not like the name "Pattaya". Very nice place, and I am having a nice rest. Leana is not home - still on her way back from taking a client on a tour to Malaysia. My bike is a mess, and again my sister Olga has offered to sponsor the things I need most desperately (actually everything!).
Therefore, more daily distances since leaving Pannee in Ubon. Not much to start with due to low spirits, etc. Here we go:- Lao Sua Kok (where I had a bad accident in Sept 2016); 40 km; Ubon village 59 km; Ban Nong Kok 39 km; Samrong Thap 65 km; Surin 57 km; Prakhon Chai 84 km; Choc Chai 103 km; Thai Samakki 75 km; Phanom Sarakham 95 km; Nho Samet 71 km; Khao Mai Kaeo 86 km; and Jomtien (Pattaya) 39 km. Total distance cycled to this point is 151 611 km.