And we Bid Thailand Adieu — with a lot of Nostalgia

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We’re not sure when we will be back here and so the trip, at this point, has taken on some heavy nostalgia for me. I came to Thailand the first time around 30 years ago. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been back but it is somewhere around 15 visits. Despite some trouble with my health this time my by now familiar fondness for Thailand remains undiminished despite all the changes that have taken place here. With new territory to explore thanks to our European base we think we may not be back for awhile and as a result I am very happy we have decided to stay at the Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok for our last few days.

The Atlanta Hotel was built in 1952. The King (deceased) and Queen used to dine here in the restaurant. Back then it was called the Continental and was a bit more posh (!)…The hotel owners, eccentric as they come, have watched the neighborhood deteriorate in some unfortunate ways; we are very close to some of Bangkok’s most infamous bargirl establishments and as a result the hotel has developed a strict set of rules for its guests, the top one being no sex tourism. The hotel itself went through a major decline in the 70s and when it was rescued a decision was made to invest in the art deco lobby but to just make the rooms habitable without major refurbishment. As a result, the rates remain amazingly low for a comfortable hotel with a pool and garden and some amazing art deco décor in the very heart of busy, crazy Bangkok.

We arrived in Bangkok by train from Prachuap Kirikhan the day before yesterday. We took a third-class train (the only way to get our bikes in a baggage car) and as it turns out we rode in the baggage car with the bikes, along with motorcycles and food sellers and bags of produce headed for various markets along the route. For seven hours, we sat on hard plastic benches and joked with our fellow passenger, whose name I never learned, who is from around Milan and has spent his whole life travelling with no home base. He was full of information and stories about living on 5000 euros a year…but also had a lot to say about the superiority of Italian food and wine (over French)…all in good fun.

We arrived at the Thonburi station around 12 kms from our hotel. I decided to skip cycling in Friday evening rush hour Bangkok traffic (!) so took a tuk tuk with my bike strapped to the back (adventurous enough in my opinion) while my adventure junkie husband put on his helmet and merged his bike into the chaos.

I enjoyed my ride and reminisced on my own as my tuk tuk driver, skillfully avoiding the worst of the traffic jams, took me on a tour of downtown Bangkok. Reunited a couple of hours later, Ian and I compared notes here at the hotel restaurant where nostalgia is also heavy on the menu (he had chicken a la king, fondly remembered from our previous stay here in 2008 and his childhood).

And so as we wrap up our trip, which has not really been about cycling since we stopped at Prachuap Kirikhan a week or so ago, I am in the mood to wander Bangkok streets and old neighborhoods and think about all the changes I’ve seen this trip.

The first of course is that the King died in October 2016. He was much loved and respected and Thailand is still observing a mourning period. There are billboards everywhere with a picture of the King on a black background and black and white ribbon and bunting adorn every public building. Civil servants and some businesses observed the period with a change of wardrobe, trading in pink or yellow golf shirts for black ones. The result, respectful as planned and I’m sure unexpectedly is quite chic. I’ve also noticed coffee bars everywhere – here in a country where you once had trouble finding nescafe in a jar. These Starbucks like (and perhaps inspired by) places have all the favourite caffeinated treats and are full of twenty somethings in skinny jeans and retro-fashionable tops (only grandmas wear sarongs anymore) playing on their smart phones. We also saw many many more Thai tourists and shared many a resort with them on our travels, where we were always a minority and often the only westerners in a hotel. I can’t say how happy I am to see this as globalization here as meant an increased standard of living for many people and after years of seeing mainly old white men exploiting young Thai women it is very satisfying to watch Thais enjoy their own country.

But the old Thailand still remains in the markets and in the crazy entrepreneurship of the Thais (what can’t you carry on a motorcycle is the question, or maybe what can’t you sell from the back of a motorcycle is a better question). The cheap but amazing food sold by the street hawkers is just as plentiful as it always was and the outdoor very social life of the Thais has not diminished with development.

As we make plans to get back home to our lovely village and lovely friends (and cat!) I leave Bangkok amazed that I have now have fond memories going back 30 years. Whew. Where does the time go…

Adieu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Ups and Downs: Cycling Southern Thailand

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Pak Meng to Krabi 50 kms
Krabit to Ao Luek 47 kms
Ao Luek to Phang Nga 60 kms (Ian only; I took a songthaew with bike in back)
Phang Nga to Khao Lak 50 kms (Ian only; I took a songthaew with bike in back)
Khao Lak to Li Guesthouse (110 kms from Khao Lak Ian only; I took a mini bus)
Li Guesthouse to Ranong (98 kms Ian only; I took a mini bus)
Ranong to KraBuri (25 kms Sue; 60s km Ian — I hitchhiked part way)
KraBuri to Chumpon (60 kms (Ian only)
Chumpon to Sara Resort 45 kms (near Chumphon airport)
Sara Resort to Ban Boek 55 kms

Perhaps I jinxed myself on the last post with my ‘wonderful day in Thailand.’ The cold that Ian caught jumped over to me and I ended up with bronchitis. Both Ian and I were in denial and made the crucial mistake of thinking I’d get better with a day of rest and sure enough, I did not recover in one day and cycling in the heat after that while ill made me even sicker. Eventually we hit a clinic and after two sessions of intravenous antibiotics over two days I began to improve. I then took the two weeks off the bike I should have taken in the first place and I am now back on my feet and cycling although not with my normal stamina.

That being said, if I had to get sick on this trip I’m glad it was Thailand (not Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam). The medical care was very good and comforting. For the most part the accommodation here is plentiful and inexpensive and generally nice. It is easy to arrange transportation, even with a bike. The one time I hitchhiked I was picked up by the second car (which happened to be a pick up truck) that came by. There is usually wifi around and that kept me somewhat occupied when Ian was on the road and I was hotel bound (although all Thai resort staff let their kids use the hotel internet and so the wifi quality is worse now than it was four years ago when we were last here. Proof? It generally works well in the middle of the night when all the rug rats are sleeping and is crap when they are awake – that and every kid I see around any resort is glued to a computer or ipad.)

The other issue now is heat as we are approaching the hottest time of the year. Last time I was here my cutoff was around 35 degrees. I rode when it was close to 40 one day and really struggled. The same is true now although maybe a comfortable cutoff is closer to 32. Yesterday I rode at 36 and although I managed on the flats the few climbs I did were a nightmare where I had to walk the last few hundred meters and found myself short of breath, heart pounding and body generally suffering from extreme heat. On the last climb, also the steepest of the day, I dug into a bag of ice I had bought 15 kms earlier and put an icepack on my head for 5 minutes. I also doused my body with ice water as I slugged up the hill…I think I saved myself from heatstroke by doing so.

The lesson is we should really be up at 6 and on the road by 6:30 and finished by 10:30. But my husband likes to sleep in and even when we get up early it seems to take forever to get on the road! Ian does not suffer from the heat…

Despite all that I highly recommend southern Thailand for cycling. I have seen beautiful scenery a lot of the way – from karst formations to mountain jungle and ocean views with beachside roads. We have generally had lots of choice for good accommodation – I’ve noticed that in the four years since our last cycling trip here that standards are up. There is often air conditioning, almost always hot water, and western style bathrooms. We’ve been very lucky (ok staying slightly higher budget than last trip) with finding hotels and guesthouses with pools.

The roads are in good shape and there is usually a paved shoulder. We are now cycling the “Royal Coast Route” and it has a marked cycling lane.

The food is fantastic and plentiful. This has always been true in Thailand as the Thais love to eat out. We eat at Thai hawker stands (chicken satay, pad thai, soup, chicken and rice, green curry, fried basil leaves and pork) and there are now a lot of road-side restaurants. We see a lot more Thais travelling on holiday by car (a big growth in terms of the middle class here) and I think this is why there are more restaurants and Thai resorts.

Late yesterday afternoon we pulled into Bang Boet, a small stretch of beach that has a few cheap resorts (collection of very basic bungalows) and is mostly a fishing village. It feels like Thailand 30 years ago and is rough and rugged but very charming. We are the only people staying at the ‘resort’ and the only non-Thais in the village.

After such a hot day it was a great treat to discover a very new looking pool. I shared it with three Thai boys who spent their time trying to drown each other and cannonballing right next to me and giggling with every splash. (An adult came out and I guess he told them to cut it out for my sake although I really didn’t mind but couldn’t communicate because of language.) Nevertheless, when Ian joined us in the pool they lent him one of their snorkeling masks and we all became friends, giving each other the thumbs up as we got out of the pool.

The woman running the resort doesn’t speak a lot of English but is as usual with Thais in these kinds of places amazingly accommodating. I managed to say we were hungry (as the resort restaurant did not look open) and after a bit of charades and me pulling out a few Thai food words (gai – chicken, khao –rice), she was off on her motorbike and came back with chicken and rice for two and four chang beer. We ate seaside and shared the remains with three of the resort cats who all decided to hang out with us on our little picnic bench under a thatched roof by the sea. We watched the Thai fishermen get their small wooden boats ready to go out for the night’s fishing. And then we watched Thai kids taking a last dip in the ocean and the few that were out of the water playing tag with a Thai beach dog.

And then we decided to stay another day.

It’s a Wonderful Day in Thailand

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Satun to La Ngu 56.17 kms
Lan Ng to Ban Thung Yao 54.05 kms
Ban Thung Yao to Kantang 56 kms
Kantang to Pak Meng 46 kms

It’s a wonderful day in Thailand.

I know I’ve been a bit verbose on the political side of things lately so I thought about this title as I cycled along the day before yesterday. So I’ll just get this one thing off my chest and we will move onto wonderful, I promise. We need to be very vigilant as we are living in dangerous times…in addition to voting for non-maniacs when you can, please take political action this year more than once…fund the real media, fund a refugee help organization, fund planned parenthood and feminist organizations, fight fake news…help the right politician win using social media. Read outside your comfort zone. Be open to new opinions. Back up your arguments with facts.

Ok done and back to wonderful.

It was a wonderful day of cycling in Thailand the day before yesterday so I will give you a synopsis of the day.

7:30 am (awake and up — astonishing for us…well for Ian…he has a cold so he went to bed at 8:30 the night before).

8:30 am. Out of our motel in Kantang (even more astonishing with our panniers packed, helmets, sunglasses, and bike gloves on and for me bandana tied around my neck so I can wipe away sweat and when it is very hot I pull it up over my nose protect myself from fumes and sunburn – I look like a bank robber). I enjoy the cool morning air (morning being a novelty) as we ride out of the Kantang Park Hotel which was actually what we would call a motel. Although it was a bit worn at the heels and decorated (by western standards) in brothel pink, it was clean and had air con and cost 15 dollars Canadian for the night.

8:35 am decide to ride along down to the river and see if there really is a ferry (as per my map.me Thailand map which is now downloaded on my ipad). We can’t find the pier and based on feedback from a Canadian couple we met on the ferry from Langkawi to Satun and with whom we have been traveling with for a few days there probably isn’t a ferry anyway.

8:45 make the pleasant discovery that we are somewhat accidentally on the back road that will take us over the bridge and en route to our Pak Meng destination. We see a small grocery store that has a stone table and benches in front of it and we decide to stop for breakfast. The Thai owners seem happy to see us. We survey the shelves and decide on some pastry with mystery filling, two cans of cold nescafe and two orange juices. An elderly Thai woman comes to the front of the store and the owner comes out to talk to her. The woman is very thin and has no teeth. She is dressed immaculately in a pink crocheted short sleeve blouse and a sarong. She has two wicker baskets neatly lined with paper and she shows the owner the contents. The owner chooses a few pastries and then gestures for me to have a look. We don’t know what’s inside (more mystery pastry) but I figure its probably good so I nod yes. The owner kindly opens the pastry so I can see what it is – one has corn niblets the other some kind of bean paste…or maybe its tuna. We nod yes and she sells us two and then and this is so Thai generous…gives us two. Ian and I share the corn one and although it is a bit weird as it is a sweet pastry it is actually very good. We give the thumbs up to the old lady who made them. Ian suddenly remembers the word for delicious in Thai (it is aroy). We both start saying aroy, aroy and she is tickled pink and goes into the store to tell the owners (we hear her repeating aroy aroy).

8:50 We fill up our water bottles and hit the road after I take a few pictures of the spirit house outside the store (the store owners would have erected this when the store was built. It is an old animist practise that is mixed with Buddhism now…often there are wee buddhas in the shrines. They are everywhere in Thailand). I notice what I think is a small cemetery beside the store and take a few shots of that.

9:00 – 10:00 am We are over the bridge and I see a lot of Thai fishing boats painted in bright primary colours in the river below but I am enjoying the ride and decide not to get off the bike to take photos. A little while later we see a guy on a motorcycle attached to a side cart and attached to the side cart is a water buffalo. They are moving very slowly! A few moments later I see a family in the same kind of metal side car and they pass me. The road has a good shoulder and the traffic is light. There are a few hills but they are minor and rolling (and when they roll you can scoot down one and get most of the way up the next one on momentum alone). We stop for a drink at a coffee place. It is very neat and tidy and a bit girly with lots of ceramic flowers and hearts. Sure enough it is run by two Thai women in their twenties. We enjoy a couple of iced coffees. Ian sees two cyclists ride by and runs out after them. He’s recognized them – our new cycling friends. We’ve been meeting up with them in the evenings since then as they typically get up earlier than we do (surprise surprise) but today, for once, we are on the road earlier than they are. They stop for coffee and we figure out a plan to meet up later in the day.

10:00 to 12:00 The last ten kms of our 45 km ride is along the ocean where we see our first karst formations. The view is gorgeous. We stop at a restaurant and order curries and pineapple juice and enjoy the view. We pack up and get to our ‘resort’ which turns out to be a bunch of bungalows at the north end of the beach. Although it is overpriced (a bit run down for what they are charging) it is very quiet and our balcony looks out over a lovely garden.

1:00 to 5:00 We rest up, check email, stock up on some beer, read.

6:00 pm to 10 pm. We meet our cycling friends at 6 for a few chang beers on our terrace and then eat at the local restaurant and are pleasantly surprised with very good green curry and chicken with cashew nut. One of the local cats joins us at the head of our table (jumping up onto a chair) and Robyn feeds her prawn bits.

10:30 Its lights out.

The Road to Butterworth and the Georgetown Break

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Teluk Batik to Pantai Remis 47 km
Pantai Remis to Simpang 50 km
Simpang to Sungai Jawi 56 km
Sungai Jawi to Butterworth 38 km
(Butterworth is the city on the mainland where ferry to Penang is caught)

It is the last day of our five day ‘rest’ in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia and the end of our Malaysia ride.

We head to Langkawi (Malaysia) by ferry tomorrow morning and probably directly to Satun, Thailand the same day if we can manage it.

We’re not sure we would do the whole Malaysia ride again or recommend it but we don’t regret it either. These kind of epic cycling trips are really pilgrimages for cyclists…there’s some sense of accomplishment in seeing a whole country or a whole stretch of country and the only way you can really do that is to hike it or bike it. And we do see things no other tourists see…We talk to locals, we talk to their children, we see how they make a living running little side of the road businesses in front of their houses. They talk to us because they study English in school and they are happy to practise and happy to see us. They don’t see a lot of foreigners in the places we stop…in fact we didn’t see any tourists or westerners for days at a time. We make it a point to be friendly and smile…we are ambassadors from the west…

It is also a kind of meditation. Both Ian and I feel the need to leave where we live on a regular basis as it provides perspective. It is also a way of forcing a certain level of physical activity I find hard to achieve at home. Once you are out there on the road you have to keep going…that becomes the focus of the day, everything else disappears.

I think about all kinds of things as I cycle along, changes to the book I am writing; how I think one of the resorts we stayed at would make an amazing yoga retreat. I spent a whole 50 kms thinking about how that might work from a business perspective.

And of course I reflect on where I am. Malaysia has become very developed since I was last here and because we stick to major roads (it is very difficult to navigate side roads and manage any real distances) we see the worst of the western lifestyle being adopted by Malaysians and see how it is destroying the environment. There’s a lot of plastic garbage, ugly architecture and traffic fumes. But given the west has created the consumer lifestyle that creates all this stuff, and some of that stuff can make you very comfortable, and some of that stuff gives you status, we can’t criticize because we all indulge in the same things. We can only recognize that it is not sustainable…

Of course if you cherry pick your destinations and only go to five star resorts you will catch glimpses of the old Malaysia from the comfort of your teak verandah where you will probably drink alcohol, watch the sunset, and perhaps see a monkey or two. But if you are riding your bike you will pick whatever hotel or homestay is handy when your legs start giving up for the day. That might mean a Chinese-run side-of–the-highway motel in a strip mall or it may be a whole house that is rented out by a Malaysian family. We stayed in both in the last days leading up to Georgetown. Sometimes there is a restaurant nearby…sometimes there isn’t. We stock up on granola bars, bags of peanuts and yogurt at the 7/11 when we find them and we are always able to make due if we need to.

As I ride along I am never that far from the jungle. I see it in the mountains behind the strip mall developments. I hear it – birds and cicadas and monkeys on the quieter stretches. I also see dead turtles, dead monitor lizards and dead snakes as I cycle the highway…

On other trips like this I have appreciated the generosity of the people (and for the most part have experienced that again here) and I have held out hope that as the more developed countries learn about climate change we will set examples and help other countries to recognize the issue and work together to create strategies, including economic policy that helps us all create a global economy that is sustainable.

Of course that was very optimistic even before Donald Trump was elected.

These last two weeks his insane behavior has overshadowed that hope and left me melancholy at times as I cycle along…

So here we are in Georgetown, Panang. Georgetown is an old British port (Panang is an island). It has been a wonderful place to take a rest and I would put it on my list of possible longish-term expat winter escapes for future.

It is wonderfully multicultural and as a UNESCO heritage site the old houses in the old town are being refurbished or have been restored. We have visited Chinese temples, and walked by the beautiful main mosque everyday and enjoyed the Indian temples and street life in the neighborhood known as Little India. There are a lot of tourists but it is still a functioning town with great food and easy to walk around. We visited the old British fort, a mansion that was owned by a Chinese family and which has been restored and furbished with antiques and art from the period.

And so off we go to Thailand where we expect to ride between beaches to a certain extent as we head north for Bangkok.

I am doing my best to try and not think too hard about what’s going on in America or the upcoming French elections but it is a challenge. Even from here…Fingers crossed that the Marine Le Pen propaganda machine is not as successful as Trump’s and the Brexit machines were and that every intelligent, global-thinking French person gets out there and votes so that the populist protest vote doesn’t destroy Europe.

I don’t know what to say about America. Let’s hope he’s impeached before he does an further damage?

How about let’s hope he doesn’t start a war.

The Malaysia Meander

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Malacca to Kuala Sungai Baru 48 km
Kuala Sungai Baru to Port Dickson 51
Port Dickson cab to Kuala Selangor NO CYCLING 150 km
Kuala Selangor to Sungai Besar 55
Sungai Besar to 10 km past Sabak 58
10 kms past Sabak on highway 5 to Teluk Batik 55

We are making our way slowly north on the bikes. We’re stopping frequently for rest days and site seeing and generally meandering our way towards Thailand.

On our way to Port Dickson, our second day out on the bikes, we met a man who had cycled from London. He was on his way to Hong Kong to celebrate Chinese New Year with his partner who lives there. He’d been on the road for about 8 months having ridden south from London and then overland where he could, including a large chunk of India. He described some tough rides and times and said he told himself if he had five bad days in a row he would stop. But that hadn’t happened yet.

The point is of course that when you are on a long trip there will be good days and bad days just as there are when you are at home. The thing is though, when you are on a bike and it all goes wrong it can be really uncomfortable. We’ve had some of that this trip: a couple of pretty hot days (over 34 and humid); a very rainy day which I think was worse especially along the highway with truck spray and big puddles in the shoulders of the road; I’ve had my ass pinched while I was cycling and this is the first time that has ever happened; I’ve had minor stomach trouble which was a bit of a drag on one of our rides.

But things do have a way of balancing out. The day of the rainstorm and the ass pinch we ended up at the Dorani Bayu Resort which turned out to be a very large room with a balcony sitting on stilts over the ocean. At low tide we were over a tidal mud flat and we watched all kinds of seabirds fishing for dinner – herons, great egrets, sandpipers. There was no restaurant but there was a road nearby with market and hawker stalls and we found some amazing chicken satay and the best peanut sauce I have ever had. The man who sold it to me was happy to see me as a repeat customer the next day (we took a rest day) and so gave me three skewers for free and an extra bag of peanut sauce. My hawker man and the many Malaysians who gave us thumbs up as we rode along did a lot to help me recover from my anger at the ass pincher.

We’ve cycled about 260 kilometres now, and we only have another 150 or so to go before we are finished cycling Malaysia. We’ve enjoyed many parts of it but expect we will prefer Thailand unless things have changed a lot in four years. The Malaysian countryside is not really set up for western tourists. The resorts cater to large groups of Malaysians. We discovered a lot of hotels and resorts that were clearly built to western standards but then allowed to decay because people don’t understand how to maintain them (or the need to perhaps). Restaurants are advertised but not open. Beer is not very available. We don’t mind when the price is right but occasionally, as we found in India, the prices are aimed at westerners but the level of service is just not there.

However, we have enjoyed the jungle…it is everywhere and ready to creep back in and take over all the development going on here. I enjoyed my trip to the nature reserve where we escaped the concrete jungle for a lovely green one where we were followed by monkeys high in the canopy and where we walked a boardwalk through the mangrove.

The development is for the most part ugly unfortunately. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing the jungle take over. Outside of KL where the architects try to outshine each other and have managed some iconic and unique buildings, the rest of the development here is based on the ugly North American strip mall model and big resorts that don’t have staff able to maintain them. Bye bye teak wood houses, hello mouldering in green gunk concrete.

We have not seen any western tourists outside of Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. Although we have seen a few other cyclists, we are still something of a novelty and people have fussed over us at roadside stalls and in the hotels along the way. The attention is nice and the people are friendly but we will be happier when we are not such a minority in a religious place. I swam today in my ‘burkini’ — it is a rule here although the management at this resort is trying so hard to be helpful here I’m sure they’d ignore complaints if I swam in my swimsuit (I would be the only woman not in a burkini though). It isn’t great to swim with clothes on but hey in France we are making women wear bathing suits so I guess I will respect the rules here even if I don’t agree with them. And I don’t agree with the restrictions on the burkini in France either.

All that being said it will be good to be in Thailand where religion isn’t such a dominating force.  As anyone who knows me already knows…I am not a fan of organized religion of any sort  — but I believe passionately that people should have the right to practise whatever religion it is that they believe in as long as church and state are separate.

So all in all, all is well. We are taking it very slowly…the most we’ve ridden on any day is 60 km. We are taking another long break once we get to Panang (probably two or three days to get there by bike) and then we are on the ferry to Langkawi which is our last stop in Malaysia.

Don’t Mess with Malacca

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The marketing message de jour here seems to be “Don’t Mess with Malacca”. You see it on tourist information boards and t-shirts and bumper stickers. It could be interpreted as vaguely threatening but after a few days in Malaysia you come to realize that it was probably chosen by a marketing guy tuned into western messaging (well sort of) and to his ears it sounds hip.

Being hip and shopping a lot are very important values here.

I’m sure our driver “Dragon” – the one who drove us and our bikes from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca would agree. He’s in his 40s and showed up with a rasta cap on (although black – not the rainbow variety) and a t-shirt emblazoned with Amsterdam in large gold letters and a huge picture of a pot leaf. I spent five minutes with him while Ian was gathering luggage and then very happily volunteered for the back seat for the two-hour drive. Dragon spoke about two decibels above what was required and whenever the silence in the car lasted too long he’d laugh out loud and yell Relaxxxx man. Relaxxxxxx is gooooood. Time to relaxxxxxxxx. He told us Muslims aren’t supposed to drink beer but well….His son is in a rock band and the girls love him….Yes indeedy a very hip and cool (and loud) driver.

When I was here 25 years ago I remember drivers in button up men’s short-sleeved shirts and ironed trousers and lace-up leather shoes. They called you sir and madam…

I have to say I would have sat in the front seat with that driver…And its not that I would want to go back in time to a more conservative time or god forbid a more-buttoned down Muslim Malaysia, but it just demonstrates how an Islamic country that practices sharia law (enforced for Muslims only) ultimately has little control over western cultural influences as long as it remains somewhat of a democracy and wants open trade. It will remain somewhat of a democracy thanks to wealthy Chinese who own a lot of the wealth and are only interested in a government that remains secular, at least for non-Muslims.

Of course there are radical Islamic elements here (as there are anywhere nowadays) and there are soldiers patrolling the streets. Pity I couldn’t paint this contrast of a non-threatening Muslim culture and the terrorists who call themselves Muslim for all those bigots we now know exist in the UK and the US. I was on a right-wing facebook page the other day (trying to understand who voted for Trump) and as I read a war of words over Hollywood’s refusal to celebrate the upcoming inauguration I found some terrible anti-Islam stuff including a charming story that went something like this “there was a woman in full burka who gave me a dirty look at our supermarket (in West Virginia). Her husband asked me if the package of sausage he was holding contained pork. I told him it didn’t even though it did. Does anyone know what happens to Muslims if they eat pork?” Yeah you guessed it – she was a Trump supporter. I thought of her today in the mall and wished I could show her what I was seeing. But that kind of American doesn’t travel and so remains ignorant.

So here we are in Malacca, once part of the sultanate of Malacca and then a one-time Portuguese trading post that was eventually controlled by the Dutch and then the British. There is a bit of the original Portuguese fort left but not much as the British destroyed it in their quest to make Panang the trading capital. However, a lot of heritage buildings have been maintained and despite the rather touristy nature of the stores that they house the overall impression is of colonial Malaysia.

I am enjoying both the laid back architecture of the old city as well as being in a small city.

We are staying at the Jonker’s Boutique Hotel, a heritage building on the edge of Chinatown. It is an upscale three days for us with a king-size bed and a bathtub. I am a happy camper and think I will now be ready to head up the coast day after tomorrow on my bike. I think I may finally be winning the health war – in the end I believe I was suffering from a major allergic reaction (I ended up going to a pharmacy and getting over the counter antihistamines and this has proven to be the answer rather than all the stuff the ear nose and throat guy gave me).

The streets are decked out for Chinese New Year – the year of the Rooster. There are gold roosters and red posters everywhere – the streets are full of lanterns and the shopping malls (yes we hit two again on a quest for detailed maps) are full of gifts wrapped in red paper for the big day.

Speaking of marketing, I guess it is time to hit the tub and contemplate Theresa May’s Don’t Mess with Me speech (I am trying to understand what her threat actually means…feel free to comment retainers and leavers alike…she talks about the UK becoming a tax haven — that’s the threat. Now, wouldn’t this cost the UK in corporate tax revenue? …who will fund the NHS if taxes are lowered to attract corporations who keep doing business with the UK despite trade barriers with the EU only because they don’t have to pay much in tax. I think the answer is the middle class. Tighten your belts Brexiters.)

Housekeeping in Kuala Lumpur

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Having done a number of long-distance cycling trips in other countries, Ian and I have worked out something of a routine. There is always a bit of housekeeping to do at the beginning of a long trip.

There are a list of chores before we go (and I will include my packing list at the bottom of this post as I have learned that one of our friends is as list obsessed as I am!) and then a list of things to do once we have arrived (usually route plan, buy maps, assemble bikes but it varies a bit).

We always give ourselves at least four days in our port of arrival, which happens to be Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this time. Although we will make a point of seeing a few of the bigger tourist destinations here, most of our time has and will be spent simply experiencing living here while enjoying the exoticness of the destination which makes the chores interesting for us. We also allow ourselves this time to get over jetlag and acclimatize to the warm temperatures (32 degrees today).

We are staying in the Thousand Miles Hotel – a small budget hotel that has a guesthouse feel (29 Euros a night). The map says we’re on the edge of Little India and Chinatown but it feels like we’re in the middle of Little India. Most of the restaurants are Indian and there are lots of gold jewelry stores and tailoring shops. (Malaysia is a multi-cultural society with three main ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian.)Despite the fact that there are quite a few budget hotels the place is not crawling with backpackers. In fact, we have been the only westerners in a local restaurant we have decided is our local – a place that serves Indian and Malay food (tandoori chicken, nasa goreng, roti with three sauces, four watermelon drinks 7 euros). The staff have been very friendly with us as we are something of a novelty. The lack of backpackers does not mean there are no tourists – but a lot of them stay in more upbudget hotels and they give this area a miss except for a few of the main sites in Chinatown. The Malaysian government has chosen to develop tourism so as to attract the middle class rather than backpackers — there is no real backpacker scene like there is in Bangkok.

Yesterday’s chores took us to a place popular with tourists and locals alike, a huge shopping mall, appropriately named the Mid-Valley mega mall. I was feeling breathless and worrying a bit about it (I’ve been plagued with colds these last few months) so I decided to go see a doctor and see if I could get to the bottom of it. I looked online and found a healthcare clinic called iHeal and was able to choose an Ear Nose and Throat specialist. I emailed him and he asked me to make my appointment with WhatsApp. Everyone has a smartphone of some sort here! I had to explain I only have email at the moment (buying a cheap phone and sim card is one of the chores on the list) so we made do with my limited technology and I booked an appointment for a few hours later on a skype call with Dr. Tan.

With some effort we hailed a cab and made our way out to the mall. It took a half hour to go a few kilometres as KL traffic is a problem. For 15 ringitt (5 euros) we got to see what the suburbs look like: we passed a beautiful mosque, some very green and verdant jungle, and we passed countless modern condo complexes — towers of green glass, just like Vancouver.

The mall was bustling with locals and foreigners and we walked past a lot of kiosks set up for Chinese New Year, selling loads of gifts wrapped in red paper and red and gold decorations.

We took an elevator from the mall, 7 floors up to the The iHeal medical center. This was a snazzy joint that included a surgical ward, consultation rooms, and a waiting area with a bar that sold healthy snacks and juices and lots of beautiful orchids decorating a glossy waiting area.

Malaysia does have universal health care but they also have private clinics. I got the feeling that there was some prestige and status involved in being able to afford a private clinic.

I probably would have had a much less expensive experience if I had simply found a general practioner…however, 135 euros later Ian and I had been treated to a large screen view of the insides of both nostrils, checked out my uvula and watched my esphogagus open and shut. Dr. Tan figured I was still struggling with the last vestiges of the colds I’ve been suffering from so prescribed some antibiotics. He thought perhaps acid reflux might be an issue and prescribed something for that too. He told me to keep snorting the nasal decongestant the French doctor gave me and believes I have allergies. He invited both Ian and I to do an at home sleep test for apnea as he figures that’s an issue for both of us. (We declined as we don’t want to stay in KL for another two weeks). He kindly threw in a prescription for some antibiotics for Ian’s infected tooth (Ian did try to make an appointment with a dentist before we left France but couldn’t get in anywhere because of Christmas holidays.)

Yep, dealing with health issues becomes one of the chores on the list when you get old and insist on bicycle touring in developing countries!

We had noodles with beef and chinese spinach and porkballs for lunch in a Chinese noodle joint in the mall – very suburban with high chairs for babies and a ‘do it yourself’ menu where you pick your own ingredients for your noodle soup.

If it hadn’t been for our chores (we also found a book store with maps and a book on cycling Malaysia we’d read about) we would probably never experience this big part of Malaysian tourism – the middle class tourist zone with its shops and restaurants. For shoppers, KL is a piece of paradise and middle class tourists here can experience exotic KL from high-end highrise hotels that are connected directly to the mall.

Back in backpacker land Ian has now put together one of our bikes and fixed my computer (which I dropped on the floor. Oops). I have taken pictures of all the documentation and filled out the paperwork we need to work on getting some compensation from KLM for the disaster of a trip we had getting over here (two nights in hotels in two different cities we never planned on visiting and a bit of a lost luggage adventure to add insult to injury).

We have done some initial route planning and see that getting a train to Malacca isn’t that easy with the bike, nor is getting the bikes on a bus. I believe because the standard of living is generally high in Malaysia (relative to other Asian countries) there isn’t the same bevy of people around willing to transport bikes. It is also because the country, a little like Singapore, is more highly regulated. However, we believe with some effort we will find someone with a minivan who will drive us and our assembled bikes to Malacca (on the coast and south of here) which will be our starting point for our cycle to Bangkok.

Ok off to see some KL’s iconic architecture by night…the topic for another blog.

 PS..For list lovers… see below to see what will sustain me for three months on my bike here (we are cycling Malacca to Bangkok). All of the items below fit into two panniers, a handlebar bag and a knapsack. The contents of the panniers fit into a dufflebag for flying. (On the plane, the empty panniers fit in my bike box as well as my helmet and handle bar bag and spare tire). The shoulder bag I carry when we aren’t cycling contains my wallet, passport, glasses, camera, handkerchief and this all gets transferred to my handlebar bag. The duffle bag with the pannier contents weighs approx 10 kilos. I will probably be carrying about 15 to 20 kilos on the bike altogether.

3 pairs of bike shorts

2 pairs of biking capris (can also be used as pants on non-biking days)

5 non-biking tops

3 bike tops

2 pairs of sandals (both I can walk a lot in and also ride in)

1 pair of trainers (for long walks)

2 pairs of bike socks (I normally ride in sandals)

1 pair of long socks (for the plane)

1 pair of capris pants (non cycling)

1 pair of very light trousers (non cycling)

3 bras

7 pairs of underwear

compression straps (for strapping knapsack to back rack) and also for attaching bike to railcars, ferries, tops of busses and cars.

Computer (mac air book)

Ipad

Camera

Smart phone (without data roaming or a local sim card)

Sketch pencils

Trip journal

Tiny tiny bottle of perfume

Face soap

Body soap

Shampoo

Conditioner

Hair dye touch up kit (thanks to Paula)

One pair of earrings

Eyeliner

Mascara

Sunscreen

Bike computer

Bag of adapters, cord to charge and connect devices

Nailpolish

Hair elastics

Baby wipes (good for washing face and other delicate bits)

Travel towel

Wash cloth

Large cotton scarf

Small cotton hankerchief

Extra tire

Extra tubes (2)

Extra cables

Bathing suit

Nightgown

Skirt and

Matching headscarf

Matching tunic style top

Ibuprofen

Antibiotics

Band aids and gauze

Small sewing kit

Two pairs of reading glasses

Immodium

Rehydration powder

And this trip extra cold remedies: prednezone, throat lozenges, dollypran, nose spray, fevrex (light powdered cold remedy night time drink)

Nail clippers

Tweezers

Tigerbalm

Sunscreen

Body lotion

razors

Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok or Bust

And we’re off again. Or almost. It is Boxing Day and with Christmas over I am headlong into trip preparation. We fly out January 9: Toulouse Istanbul Kuala Lumpur. We plan to cycle from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, at a leisurely pace with lots of beach stops and then fly back to France from Bangkok April 4.

Nosh and Nostalgia — Last Days in India

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Cycling Stats
Panjiim to Povorim 7 km
Panjiim to Vasco De Gama 25 km
Day trips around Goa beaches 25 km
Train Station to Hotel in Bangalore 5 km

As planned, we haven’t done much cycling since we put our bikes on the roof rack of the big white taxi. And that’s ok – we needed to spend some non-road time in India and did not want to do a lot more beach time.

We found the solution in Panjiim (capital of Goa) where we stayed for ten days at two separate guesthouses broken up by a week at Angel’s Resort, in Povarim (only 5 or so km from Panjiim). Panjiim was a great way to get a city fix, where we walked around in the old section (the latin quarter) looking at the old Portuguese architecture. We took in a city-wide street photography exhibit and rejoiced in finding a pedestrian friendly (relatively speaking) Indian city with lots of restaurants (Goan, Indian and western) and ate back any possible weight loss. With gusto — as we usually do (oh sigh).

We took the overnight train (15 hours) from Panjiim to Bangalore the night before last and we’re now getting bike boxes, packing up and arranging transport to Chennai.

The last few days of a trip are always marked with nostalgia for me, largely I think because we travel for so long our time away becomes large episodes in our lives. This morning Ian and I braved the Bangalore traffic to walk to a bike store for our bike boxes and as we negotiated our way home through the cows, goats and auto rickshaws I felt a huge affection for Ian as I recalled other similar walks, struggling to walk with the empty bike box, in many cities around the world. I feel grateful that we are both so happy to be going home to France and our friends there.

Today that nostalgic feeling is particularly poignant because last night I met up with Anu, the documentation manager that displaced me and the Vancouver-based technical writers I managed for Pivotal back in 2003. During that tumultuous time, Anu spent three month in Vancouver and then I spent three weeks in Bangalore, setting up the ‘remote office’ which eventually, unknown to Anu and I at the time, was to displace the Vancouver office entirely. (There was an astonishing lack of integrity happening at the executive/board level where Vancouver employees were given endless assurances so they would keep working while in reality the board’s only concern was ensuring that the company was well positioned for sale so that majority shareholders could maintain their places in the 1% — (people who earn over 300,000 a year) at the expense of the entire Vancouver team.)

I can’t say I am not bitter about the experience, but I never blamed the Indian team or Anu. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about seeing her again, but having worked that closely with her, I had gotten to know her very well and liked her. I’m happy to say that it was wonderful to meet up with her last night — she lived up to my memories of her. She was the same Anu I had remembered: smart, kind, highly ethical. Her integrity particularly struck me last night as it is in such contrast to the people who were pulling our puppet strings behind the scenes back in the day.

So last night she met Ian for the first time and then took us on a Bangalore romp to a favourite store of mine that specializes in Indian fabric (a favourite from my stay here so many years ago) and to a wonderful fast food Indian stall with terrific coffee and dosas, a favourite neighborhood market of hers, and then to a brew pub for some real beer. We talked about how crazy Bangalore had become in the last decade, her mixed feelings about it – on the one hand there is great opportunity for her daughter here – on the other – it has become expensive and is now a rat race for her and her husband as they work to pay off the mortgage. Now that India has become more expensive for outsourcing, the high tech sector here is no longer immune to the swings in the global economy and most middle managers can now add being laid off at some point to their career experience.

And we joked and reminisced and walked away vowing to keep in touch.

Yep, it is such a small world.

In Panjiim, we headed out of our guesthouse which was situated in the ‘latin quarter,’ a whole neighborhood of old Portuguese houses, many of which have been renovated, and ran into Ulrike, a woman Ian knew back in Vancouver. She was about to deliver a talk on cycling in Goa at a near-by venue and invited us to join her. We spent a fun-filled hour listening to Ulrike talk about her cycling experiences around the world, to an audience of Indian women who were intrigued by the cycling and I think especially, the freedom of her lifestyle (no marriage, no children, lots of travel). We then headed out for a night on the town, cycling to a couple of bars and restaurants. We had a great sharing of stories about cycling trips around the world as well as learning about Ulrike’s most recent project, editing the memoirs of her Goan uncle. Her uncle is from a Goan family that moved to Burma to work for the colonials before World War ll and this is where her father was born. Ulrike is housesitting for her uncle (who lives in Bombay) and having been in Goa for a number of months was a great bike tour guide, taking us a long a number of beach roads so we could get the flavor of Goan beaches.

And so it all comes to an end the day after tomorrow when we hunker down in the car for 8 hours to get to Chennai. Then its 12 hours on Saudi Airlines to Paris (with a stop in Jeddah) and then an 8 hour drive to Lauzun. A bit of a marathon….

In the end, I can’t say India is my favourite place although I think that may be the result of our having bitten off more than we could comfortably chew in terms of roughing it for as long as we did. Despite taking cars a few times, we did end up cycling 1000 kilometres and there is a great feeling of accomplishment around that. We also enjoyed cycling the back roads in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and I am grateful that we ran into Ulrike who gave us a chance to experience that again in Goa, giving us some nice cycling experience at the end of our trip. We also enjoyed Goa, the beaches and backwaters of Kerala and our short time here in Bangalore. We have seen huge slices of Indian life most tourists never see and when I see a map of India in the future I will feel intimately acquainted with the whole southern coast.

The trip has also given me a lot of time to think about globalization and how it has been a big force in my life in the last decade. I’m feeling inspired to take on a writing project with globalization as a central theme and have some ideas about how to redesign this blog and the French blog I have been writing – expansions and new directions. When I come home from a trip that has inspired any writing or other creative project I feel its been time well spent and so I’m happy to say this is the case with India despite the ups and downs along the way.

And so, I guess that would be a wrap (or a maybe a dosa ):-).

Big White Taxi

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Cycling Stats

Kochi to Cherai Beach 26
Cherai Beach to Guruvayur 61.68
Guruvayur to Tirur 59
Tirur to Calicut 57
Calicut to Thottaya beach 89
Thottada beach to payyanur 51
Big white tax to Gokarnum Beach 353

We’ve been at Om Beach for eight days now, chilling out at the Nirvana Café. Yep, really, I’m not making up these names. The beach is lovely. Someone picks up the garbage everyday and aside from cigarette butts, cow and dog shit, it is pristine. Remember this is India…Our hippie hut is very reasonable for the price, the restaurant is good by hippie hut beach standards and the geography is outstanding. Plus we have seen dolphins everyday and have enjoyed making friends with the beach dogs, including the one that insists on stealing people’s towels. (He likes to play chase. Stealing towels works.)

It has been a great way to unwind from our cycling adventure that has now come to an end after 900 kilometres.

The honking horns and kamikaze buses are now a distant memory. There were many good bits though: the back roads through Tamil Nadu rice fields and the back roads in Kerala that took us along the beach and through small villages and coconut groves. And there was the lovely man who invited us to his home somewhere in northern Kerala where his wife made us a local drink – buttermilk and herbs — and we met their kids and their new baby goats. This would not have happened if we hadn’t been on our bikes.

But as we cycled further north we began to run out of back roads and the traffic seemed heavier. The ride to Calicut was a tough one, mostly on the national highway. As we got close to the city we were increasingly frustrated by terrible drivers (Indians are the worst drivers in the world – absolutely no question about it.) I gave into a kind of cycling psychotic road rage that had me yelling a running commentary on the drivers around me (‘brilliant move asshole’ as I watched an auto rickshaw pass a stopped school bus, narrowly avoiding hitting children and cutting me off in the process) and which sometimes just deteriorated into me yelling fuck off at the top of my lungs to a bus, two inches from my mirror and honking as though he was trying deafen me. Of course no one could hear me above the din and they couldn’t understand me if they did…when Ian started experiencing the same psychosis we realized we might be coming to the end of our time on the road.

We left Calicut and did our longest day, 90 kilometres. We ended up at a lovely beach (Thottada) and stayed at a homestay (really a guesthouse) for four days, recuperating from the road. We miscalculated the distance ahead of us, thinking we were closer to Goa than we actually were. When we realized we might have to ride another five days in crazy traffic staying in crappy Indian hotels in crappy Indian towns we re-evaluated.

Our tolerance for Indian towns had already begun to deteriorate before Calicut but it took a big dive there, perhaps because we had higher expectations of it than the countless number of smaller cities and towns we had stayed in and it disappointed us. We kept hoping that we might find an Indian town that had a few street cafes or restaurants that looked out onto a street, or a park with a few picnic tables and a guy selling pop. We have learned finally that this kind of street life only exists in towns or cities where there are foreigners. We’ve learned that Indians, regardless of what religion they practice, are quite conservative by western standards and there seems to be little social life that does not involve family. This is particularly true for women – we never see them out at night on their own and when we do see them out and about they are shopping.

This was driven home to us when we stayed at the Beach Hotel in Calicut. The hotel was built in 1890 as a British club and the Indian owners have kept up the Victorian buildings that make up the hotel and its three restaurants and bar. The first night, thrilled with our room (the best value so far on the trip and lovely) we anticipated a cold beer (I actually hoped for a gin and tonic) in the hotel bar as we got out of our street weary and dirty bike clothes and luxuriated in a cold shower (well apparently there is never hot water even when you pay 60 bucks a night). We imagined a bar with big ceiling fans and hardwood furniture and a view looking out onto the small garden and courtyard just outside the bar. We walked in and noticed that although the place was full there were no women. All the blinds were pulled down and the lighting dim. It brought back descriptions of Canadian taverns in the fifties when women could only enter some bars with escorts and drinking in public was a dirty sin.

So we walked into the city center, yelling over the honking horns so we could hear each other, sidestepping garbage, and carefully picking our way to avoid broken sidewalks and motorcycles parked in all the pedestrian areas. We looked for charm but any old buildings that might have had something architecturally pleasant were run down and covered in shop signs. We finally found a park and sat on a bench — there was no café or picnic table — and wondered how many more Indian towns we really wanted to see.

Payyanur was the last straw. Another dirty town with no street life, noisy traffic, bad drivers and another hotel restaurant with dirty walls where a guy delivers thali on a metal plate and then slops sambar (a kind of breakfast vegetable curry made with tamarind) out of a big metal pail with a soup ladle. Sigh. (Although we do like dosas and sambar and ate kilos of both at places just like this.) At dinner we tried to do better and walked about until we found a posh (ish) looking hotel. They advertised a ‘family restaurant’ aka no booze and women are welcomed. It turned out there wasn’t one. There was a bar with food…we peaked in…The room was clean and modern with imitation leather upholstered chairs in good shape. But all heads turned when we opened the door, and they were all male and they were all getting loaded. We found a less posh family restaurant and were happy to get an English menu. The friendly enthusiastic owner asked us how we liked India, and with some guilt we lied. Lovely we said. Wonderful people (well that’s true for the most part). Very beautiful (read it might be if you guys would quit throwing garbage everywhere and pay even the remotest attention to architecture and regulating building signs and possibly reserving a little green space and understanding that ultimately urban living means more than women staying at home with the kids while men go out and get pissed in dark caverns).

Ok that’s all probably very culturally biased and spoiled westerner but that’s how I feel after cycling 900 kilometres. However, I’m glad we have done it because it has given me a view of India I couldn’t possibly have seen if we had cherry picked each destination, only choosing the ones that cater to westerners. We think this is how most tourists survive India. It has been interesting in a lot of ways and really we are just burned out which is not that unusual. We’ve heard of many people who get tired of India and fly to Thailand for a break…

So, it has been interesting to see how most of the world’s population lives. I read a Forbes report while I was here that said that 90% of the world’s population has less than 10,000 dollars in assets. In India that means almost a billion people as the middle class is around 400 million (so I assume they are not part of the 90%) and then of course there is the 1% (people who make over 300,000 dollars a year). Why is this important? Because we always think we don’t have enough. I know people in the 1% who insist they could not live on less than 120,000 dollars a year – that’s their poverty standard. Once we have convinced ourselves that we can’t live on less, then we feel we are entitled to it and we become self-centered and start making political choices based on what we think we are entitled to. This is why the 1% keeps getting richer… and the gap keeps widening. So, yes, it is good to be reminded about what it really means to be wealthy and what it really means to be poor. Stable, safe and productive democratic societies ultimately depend on us making educated political choices that are not completely selfish.

It has also been interesting watching a society that is still very gender-segregated. I don’t expect India can realize its great potential until women have the same freedom as men. It seems to me that family values, in the west as well, always seems to mean that women get to work and look after the house while men are free to go out with their friends, drink too much and act like little boys. In my experience, in the west, where men and women can drink in the same bars, I see less drunkenness and less leering. This is at least partly because everyone has a better chance of meeting a potential romantic partner when they aren’t leering like lewd idiots and getting shit-faced – it’s just not an attractive look…

So, the cycling in India and visiting crap Indian towns is now a wrap. From now on we will be cherry picking our Indian destinations from the comfort of our big white taxi.

On to Goa!