Still looking for that Penang Curry

After completing the dive course, and having a few more days lazing about on Ko Tao, we finally got moving again, getting a boat to Chumphon, and an overnight train through to Butterworth, Malaysia, where we could get a ferry to Penang Island. I’m back here to search for the Penang Curry that eluded me the last time I was here.

It was good to be back on mainland Thailand, in a town that’s not really aimed at tourists. Rather than every restaurant having the same menu of banana pancakes and mango shakes, it was good to be wandering around the night market, eating local foods, aimed squarely at the locals – the odd tourist was just a bit of bonus income.

Upon arrival at the station, an old lady saw Sally’s bicycle, and promptly came over with her bike, presenting the two flat tyres to me. Ah – no problem, I’ll pump them up. And of course the favour was returned – we could then leave the bike and our luggage at her shop at the station for the few hours that we had to kill before our train arrived.

The train was a sleeper, much more comfortable than a bus. Early the next morning we crossed over the border into Malaysia. They had a rather amusing sign there, detailing how to identify someone with hippy characteristics. What made it especially amusing was that right behind us in the line was a hippy couple, who matched pretty much every characteristic. Dreadlocks, waistcoats (with nothing underneath or on top of it), sandals, poor condition silk pants…it was like looking at a hippy stereotype, beamed in from the 60s. Good thing we were leaving Thailand I guess, although they don’t seem to worry too much about that anymore.

So it’s back to Penang for a couple of days, before doing an all day train down to Singapore. I’m going to make a concerted effort tonight to track down a Penang curry – but I’m sure that I’ll be able to get one outside Malaysia, should I desire one.

Prices were looking a bit high for a flight to Darwin…do I have an excuse to stay in Asia a bit longer?

Adventures Off the Bike, and Underwater

Just a quick note – the beach is calling – but have to tell you that I have now completed my PADI Open Water course! I came back up to Koh Tao by plane from Singapore, and signed up for the Open Water course with Easy Divers. My cycling friend Sally also joined me.

A couple of mornings of classroom sessions, two confined water dives, and four open water dives later, and we’re done! Took a while equalising my ears, but once I got that sorted, it was pretty cool looking at the huge amounts of tropical fish in the water here. Rays, Moray Eels, Barracuda, Nemo, etc. Plus every shape of coral you could imagine.

That done, we’ll have a few more days on the beach, and then I’ll think about getting back on the bike again.

In further good news, I passed my CCNP/CCDP recertification exam. Not sure what it says more about – me or the exams – but I managed to get back into the swing of it fairly quickly, after a year of doing this other nonsense instead. Perhaps there is hope yet of me being employable in future.

First Anniversary

February 17th marked one year on the road since leaving London on that glorious late winter morning. One year, 24,000km, two passports, seven chains, six sets of tyres, three saddles, four pairs of shorts, I don’t know how many punctures, and somewhere approaching twice my bodyweight in Snickers bars. This was what I looked like back then, all my gear nice and shiny, bags still waterproof, way too much luggage, and not much of a clue. Fitness was only so-so, and I was nice and pasty white from an English winter. At that point I still hadn’t really worked out how I was going to cross France. although I thought I knew what my route across Central Asia would be.

And this is what I look like now. Third from the right, in case you couldn’t work it out. Tanned, fit, carrying far less gear than when I started – but still too much. Surprisingly my bodyweight hasn’t really changed much, only a few kg down. Around about 78-79kg now, I was only a little over 80 when I started. But what has changed? Well, I’m a bit older, and better at reading maps I suppose. I don’t worry too much about exactly where I’m going to end up each day, as I’ve found that things always seem to work out OK.

I still don’t plan too far ahead – I have a rough idea of where I’m going, but I don’t worry too much about the specifics. Just look at the event horizon – worry about the most immediate concerns, if you think too far ahead it all just seems too much. I’ve had a lot of time to think, but that doesn’t make mean I’m any wiser. Maybe I have sorted out a few things in my head, but it doesn’t mean I’m any sort of new age guru, so don’t bother asking for advice. I’ll leave that sort of thing for Jan “Mystic” Slatter. All I’ll say is don’t be afraid of change, accept things, it makes life much easier.

How hard was it? Harder or easier than I thought it would be? Not really sure. At times it was damn hard, especially on long hot dull days in the desert, when you’re trying to eat up the miles. It’s easy to kill time, but only riding kills distance. Or so Al Humphreys says, and he would know. It’s tough when you’re sick, and lying in a scummy hotel room, hoping to get better, so you can get back on the road, and feel the wind in your hair again.

But then at other times it’s all too easy. People are by and large friendly and helpful, and when you’re on a bike, people tend to feel sorry for you, and want to help you, give you directions, food, water, vodka, a bed. You’ll be stuck in some town trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language and getting nowhere – and so they go running off and find the one person in town who does speak your language, or at least another one that you know. How many people in English-speaking countries would go to the effort of trying to find a Chinese speaker? How many people in small-town New Zealand would even speak Hungarian?

I have met many interesting people on this trip, some of them in the real world, others I only know via email. You have all brightened my life in some way, and for that I thank you. Messages from friends and family do make a difference, when you’re feeling a long way from home, and the support means a lot to me. Sometimes it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in this, and forget that everyone out there has their own challenges and difficulties too. I might not always find the time to send messages to people, but trust me, you are in my thoughts frequently.

I’m about to cross into Malaysia, and from there head to Singapore, and the last big leg, Australia. I should make it to NZ in three months or so, insh’allah. Will that be the end? I’m not sure. Perhaps it will be, or maybe it will just be a break, before heading off to do something else. Or will I settle down and do the house/dog/white picket fence thing? We’ll see.

You know tourists aren’t common…

When a bunch of tattooed teenagers wearing “Iron Maiden” T-shirts accost you in a public toilet…and want to get their photo taken with you. To be clear though, all parties were fully dressed at the time, and no-one was taking part in any toilet business. They all wanted to shake hands too, luckily I had observed them just washing their hands.

I’m in Nakhon Si Thammarat, a nice, non-touristy town in southern Thailand. We’re stopping here for a rest day, partly to see some of the touristy things, but partly just to have some kick-back time. With the “Thai Hotel” providing nice twin rooms with satellite TV with English channels, and extras like a wall-mounted bottle opener in the bathroom, all at a good price, I’m happy to just relax. Especially with a huge Carrefour nearby providing all the essentials.

Getting a ferry from Ko Tao to Surat Thani proved a bit trickier than expected. Rather than a direct boat, we had to get two tickets, the first to Ko Samui (another island), and the next from Ko Samui to Surat Thani. Problem was that the piers on Ko Samui were 20km apart, resulting in an unplanned ride in the middle of the day. The ferry companies did provide vans between the piers, but that didn’t help us much. However things turned out well, as the ferry companies go from Ko Samui to Don Sak, then bus passengers to Surat Thani – but just getting off at Don Sak worked out better for us to come down the east coast.

We had two nights of staying at resorts where we were the only guests – one resort set in the bush, another brand new one by the beach. It’s a bit weird when you’re well outnumbered by staff all watching you eat your meal, ready to run across and top up your glass every time you have a mouthful.

My biking shorts are in tatters after being worn every riding day for over six months, and had to get some emergency repairs. Dave is bringing replacements over, from NZO, but the current ones were in danger of falling off. I didn’t think the locals needed to look at my underpants any more, so I found a nice old man to stitch them up – classic Singer treadle table sewing machine, all original stuff. Cheap too, and now they should be able to make it a few more days until Dave gets here.

From here we’re heading over to the west coast, to head south into Malaysia. That should avoid the current troublespots in southeastern Thailand.

Travels with my Sister

Just a short blog entry today, to let you know I’m still alive and well. Nicola joined me at Bangkok airport, and after a few days taking part in the Khao San circus, we moved on south. Traffic in Bangkok is considerate, but heavy, so I thought it better for us to get a train, rather than Nic having to deal with it all first up. Turned out to take all day on the train – I could have ridden to Phetchaburi in 5 hours. But no matter.

After looking at the monkeys in Phetchaburi – and again later in Prachuap Khiri Khan – we headed south. The roads are smooth, the shoulder is wide, and there are great services stops every 10km. Just a bit too much traffic, but it could be a lot worse. We went down via various beach places, with the highlight being Bang Saphan. Archetypal beach bungalows and bars, almost no-one there. Fantastic. The riding highlight was when Nicola rode over a 5 foot snake, gave a big scream, and rode off faster than I thought possible. The snake was already dead, but she wasn’t looking back to see that. I was just too busy laughing.

We then came over to Ko Tao, an island with great diving all around. In a weird moment, I met a Swiss girl whom I last met in Uzbekistan in June, at Bahodir’s in Samarkand. We looked at each other for a minute, then both said “Aren’t you…?” Small world. We had a great day today on a boat cruise around the island, stopping off at various points to go snorkelling. The first stop had a bunch of reef sharks swimming around. Pretty cool. Good thing that none of them were too big though.

We’ll probably head back to the mainland tomorrow, and keep meandering down south, to meet Dave, Nic’s husband, for more riding down into Malaysia. I should get organised and upload some photos, but…I think I’ll head back to the beach bar now.

Bangkok or Bust

As some of you know, I’ve been covering a fair bit of ground quickly over the last few weeks, to get to Bangkok by the end of January. This is to meet my favourite sister, who is joining me for a month, riding around Thailand. While the time/distance was certainly achievable, it did mean I was riding just a little more than I might have liked, with fewer rest days. In a big push over the last few days, I have made it to Bangkok, Venice of the East, with a day to spare.

After leaving Laos, I entered Cambodia, and rode direct to Siemreap, which is surrounded by a massive complex of temples, the most famous being Angkor Wat. I had a couple of long days touring around the various temples, covering around 70km. And this was supposed to be time off the bike! It is such a huge area, that I could only see a limited number of temples. To be fair though, after a long hot day of looking at ruins in the jungle, you do get a bit “templed-out.” Looking at the jungle strangling what were once vast complexes, you do start thinking of Ozymandias.

I also had a couple of days off, doing basically not much, and enjoying the range of international cuisine available. I like eating the local food generally, but it’s nice to have a bit of a change. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to local people that while their food is great, you’re used to eating at least four different cuisine styles each week. Still, the local food is always cheaper and usually better quality than various attempts at copying other styles.

The roads in Cambodia were generally pretty good, especially the first couple of days south from Laos – good new roads, with basically no traffic. On the third day, I decided to take a shortcut from Kratie, to try and save some time. When Jan had done it, he’d more or less followed the Mekong the whole way, travelling mostly on dirt roads. I’d met an American couple travelling on a tandem, who’d shown me another way, that meant around 30km of dirt, then a decent road, away from the Mekong. As ever, I was reminded that you should only take advice on roads from cyclists or truck drivers. The guy at the guesthouse told me “it was a good road all the way.” I was about 2km out of town when I hit the dirt. At least I knew it was coming up.

But that wasn’t much compared to the state of the road between Siemreap and the Thai border. This was the busiest road I rode on in Cambodia, and a critical road for tourism and trade. Yet it’s in an appalling state, supposedly being worked on. Over 120km of more or less dirt – the signs say that the upgrade project has been running for over 2 years, and it is due to run until October 2008. There appeared to be a total of about 11 people, equipped with one shovel and a tractor, working on the road. I can’t see them finishing it on time.

I could have split things up into a couple of days, but I wanted to make it to Thailand in one day. This meant a pretty long day, but I finally made it to the gorgeous silky smooth roads of Thailand late in the day. As I was crossing the no-man’s land between border posts, I was vaguely wondering why I exited Cambodia on the right, then seemed to have to move over to the left to enter Thailand. I’d also been wondering about the high number of right hand drive vehicles I’d seen in Cambodia, but I hadn’t quite managed to put two and two together. I thought maybe it was like Kyrgyzstan, where they got second hand Japanese imports. Sigh. It was a bit like that ad that used to be on NZ TV – the old guy driving the wrong way down the motorway gets a call from his wife, warning that she’s heard on the radio about a madman driving the wrong way down the motorway. His reply “There’s not just one – there’s hundreds of them!” It turns out that the Thai drive on the left hand side of the road. Woops, didn’t realise that. Not that it takes that long to get sorted out. Of course, in these countries, riding on the wrong side of the road doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

Smooth roads meant a very fast day the following day, getting closer to Bangkok. I then had a short day navigating into Bangkok, which actually proved to be pretty easy. I thought it might have been a bit tricky, and there was a lot of traffic to deal with, but it really wasn’t too bad. Drivers are pretty nice here, and remarkably hardly ever seem to use their horn. Quite a change from China and Vietnam. I’m not sure that I would want to be riding in this if I’d come direct from a Western country, but for someone like me, after the places I’ve been, it’s not really that big a deal.

I decided to head for the tourist slum around Khao San Road. It’s just a weird experience. So many Westerners concentrated in one area, lots of dreadlocks, tattoos and banana pancakes. British men were out in force, shirts removed at the first sight of the sun, drinking on the street. Early in the morning. I guess if you’d come direct from a Western country, it would all be a crazy new out-there experience, but it’s a bit strange for me. It does make life very easy though, as there are lots of places to eat whatever you want, plenty of guesthouses, places selling the sorts of things I might want to buy, etc.

Tracking down a guesthouse with rooms was a bit trickier than I thought it might be though – lots of places were full, or they only had air-con rooms. I don’t mind air-con, but I can’t be bothered paying for it. I managed to track down a room that could be charitably described as a cell. It does have windows – two even – but they just look at a small gap across to another window. A narrow iron frame single bed in the corner, a bare table and chair. A fan and a fluorescent strip, not even a power point. Shared cold-water bathroom. Ah well, it was cheap – relatively. Because Thailand is an expensive country, especially given the decline in the dollar. My room is around $5, which in Cambodia would have gotten me a nice room with a TV and bathroom.

I guess it’s the whole development/costs thing – this is a quite developed country, and with that comes higher prices. Nice smooth roads come at a price it seems. Having been in China, where the yuan is still held down, and Cambodia where you can spend dollars anywhere, it makes it cheap to travel if your money isn’t in USD. Here it’s a bit different when the USD is only worth 32 baht now – down from 45. However, it is rather nice to see a wide variety of products for sale in the stores – and the range of books!

Of course if I was going to stay in the tourist slum, I needed to make the most of it – so I went out for the full experience, drinking on the street with other random travellers, roaring around Bangkok in a tuk-tuk at 3:30am, trying to find a slightly suspect nightclub, and finally getting to bed sometime after 5:00. I was feeling a bit humble after all that though…