37 degrees and rising

We are currently in a quiet and cool guesthouse next to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport, getting some extra sleep and preparing for our midnight flight to Fukuoka, Japan.

It is surreal to be here, ready to jump to our last destination, and to think that we came this far by bicycle. This realisation will take some time to sink in. It is one thing to say ‘We are going to cycle to Tokyo!’ and another thing to actually be so close to the goal we set out for almost a year ago. The other day we were looking through our photos from the trip and it is hard to comprehend just how much we have seen and done. This past year has not been one huge trip, but many trips-of-a-lifetime in succession. Europe was one journey, as was Georgia and Armenia. Iran was it’s own story, followed by Central Asia. You could travel forever in China and discover more and more, it’s a world on its own. Then Southeast Asia. Our next trip starts soon, as we suspect that Japan will be a whole new bicycle adventure.

We are going to try a new packing trick for the bicycles: wrapping them in 6om of cling film. Fingers crossed Thai Airways will accept this and our steel babies will come out ok on the other end.

37 degrees and rising

During our week in Chiang Mai we realise our mistake in assuming that Myanmar has a different climate from Thailand. Our border crossing simply coincided with the start of a new and bloody hot season. The heat we experienced in Myanmar has also arrived in Thailand. After picking up the Chinese visum we hop on a bus to Phitsanulok and we start cycling South towards Bangkok. The roads are excellent and flat as a pancake so we average 90km per day. The heat however is huge challenge, and we feel that as soon as the temperature hits 37 degrees it starts to feel unhealthy and we head for the shade to sleep until it cools down to manageable levels. At night it is still more than 25 degrees. I am also plagued by yet another stomach bug which doesn’t help. Luckily Thailand is an extremely easy country to travel in so every night we treat ourselves to a cheap room in a motel-like resort with airco and a shower. With soaring temperatures and a feisty belly this is no excessive luxury. We were really looking forward to camp but the tent will have to wait until we are in Japan where it will be a lot cooler and a lot more expensive.

Still, as always we love being back on the bicycle again after a period of enforced laziness. Our week in Chiang Mai was spent in limbo, waiting for my Chinese visum to come through. Being on the move again feels good and we enjoy the long days on the road. Once again we are completely in the moment, sweating out the kilometers as we are pedalling South.

Chinese red tape: the colour of good luck

I was scared my Chinese visum application might be rejected because of all the muslim country stamps in my passport. Especially authority-endearing: my rather grim t3rr0r1st-like Iranian visum photo. Unsmiling face, tightly wrapped hijab, staring eyes. The Chinese are touchy about muslim visitors because of the Uighur tensions in Xinjiang and people have had their visum applications rejected before because of previous visits to Turkey. No problem this time however. I did get interrogated by a very nice lady who wanted to know why I was going back for another three months. By bicycle? Alone? How very brave. I give you three months. So, my plan to move to Kunming is becoming a reality. I contacted my friends over there and booked a ticket from Tokyo to Chengdu. I’m preparing by doing a TEFL course and talking to other foreign English teachers about their experiences. I expect to hit the ground running.

Ayutthaya

Our last two stops before we ride into Bangkok give us a couple of beautiful insights about Thailand. We arrive in Ayutthaya, together with Sukhothai one of the grand historical Thai capitals, we adore the elephants at the royal kraal and spend one morning exploring the temple ruins.

We then meet up with Jo, our warmshowers host for one night. He and his wife Mhoo are avid cyclists. They both work as engineers for Philips, a Dutch company, so he is excited to host us. We are his first Dutch guests.

Dutch and Japanese traces in Thailand

Together we cycle off the island that is ancient Ayutthaya, and just South of the old town we come by two former foreign trading posts. Around 1600 the Dutch and the Japanese settled here in two villages of which traces remain. Both settlements now have a museum. It is quite special to visit a bit of The Netherlands and a bit of Japan in Thailand, the countries of departure and destination of this trip. Baan Hollanda has a beautiful exhibition detailing the life in the settlement and we enjoy a chat with a Thai lady who speaks really good Dutch. They even have frikandellen on the menu.

The Japanese village also has an interesting display about the multicultural society of Ayutthaya. Just like Amsterdam Ayutthaya welcomed foreigners who were prosecuted for their beliefs in their own country. Thus the settlement was populated by Japanese Christians, who arrived after Japan prohibited the religion.

The reasons for this multiculturalism were of course hardly ideological but rather pragmatic: Ayutthaya greatly benefited from its position as an international centre of trade. The city thrived until it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767. There are still about 60.000 people living here today (down from 1 million in its heyday) and the population is still very diverse. There is large muslim population and we see signs of Chinese culture as well.

We stay one night with Jo and Mhoo, enjoying dinner together. As always it is great to meet fellow cycling community member through the warmshowers network, and we feel we have made another friend, even if we only spend one afternoon sightseeing and share a home cooked dinner together.

Bangkok

We had planned to ride to the Northernmost ferry stop on the river Chao Phraya, take a boat into central Bangkok from there and skip 25km of congested and polluted city riding. No such luck: at the ferry stop of Pak Kret we find out the ferry only goes on weekdays. There is a weekend ferry stop 10km further South, but when we get there we discover they won’t take bicycles on board. Luckily the Sunday traffic in Bangkok is a few degrees less than horrendous so we make it to our hostel in one piece and without too much swearing.

And here we are, in Bangkok. We came here by bicycle. And shortly we fly to Japan. Bye bye Thailand, we love you longtime!

The Myanmar highlights of Inle Lake and Bagan

Now online: our Myanmar pictures, including some snaps by our friend Janneke Verhagen.

We quickly settle into our Nyaung Shwe home. It is an amazing place, simple, spacious and light. We have our first home cooked European breakfast extravaganza since forever which makes us feel like kids playing house, set table and toasted bread and all. We even like doing the dishes. The house is a couple of kilometers from Nyaung Shwe centre, set in a quiet village-like surroundings with herds of cows plodding by our sand path in the early morning and at sunset. A sweet Nepali family lives on the grounds and friends of Patrick help us out with settling in and finding our way around. Home.

Boating Inle Lake

One friend of Patrick is Zaw, aka Mr. Sugar. He takes us on a two day tour of Inle Lake. We settle into a couple of big comfortable chairs in a large longboat and veer out onto the gigantic lake. Seeing the landscape glide by without having to make any physical effort is quite a treat. Mr. Sugar tells us a lot about life on and around the lake, and takes us to see a village where his grandfather used to live.

Traditional Inle Lake house on stilts
Traditional Inle Lake house on stilts

It is a touristy place but traditional life goes on as it has for the last few centuries, with fishermen and craftsmen working and bringing their wares to the markets around the lake by boat.

With a surface of 116km2 Inle lake is large but shallow, with a maximum depth of less than 4m in the dry season, and only 1,5m more in the wet season. It is a busy place with longboats motoring to and fro, transporting Intha villagers, tourists and goods. There are fishermen who use small shallow boats, not much bigger than a surfboard, with one oar. They have an incredible technique where they balance on one leg on the stern of the boat, curl the other leg around the oar to navigate the boat and simultaneously throw their nets in.

Inle Lake fisherman
Inle Lake fisherman

Other lake labourers are harvesters who drag up weeds to use as fertilizer for the floating gardens. There are many different crafts being practiced around the lake; we visit blacksmiths, silk and lotus weavers, cheroot makers and small village factories where crispy rice pancakes are made. We visit a market where hill tribe women are selling their vegetables. Zaw tells us how king Alaungsithu founded the Hpaung Daw U pagoda by the lake and transported craftsmen and -women from the coast to here, so they could produce all that was needed to keep the monks in robes and the pagoda with all its rituals functioning.

Shan hill tribe market lady
Shan hill tribe market lady

We visit a few notable Buddhist sites. One is the Hpaung Daw U pagoda, home to five venerated Buddha images that have been so thickly covered in gold leaf they now resemble five big golden boulders. When we are there it is not just Buddhists who are covering the images but also many tourists, scrambling to get close to the action with their cameras. Later on we visit an older and much more serene monastery, with beautiful 16th century Buddha statues.

Another impressive place is Indein. This is a large collection of stupas, first commissioned by King Narapathisithu in the 12th century CE. They are in various states, some crumbling but many heavily restored by private donors from all over the world. The mix is nice, historical ruin as well as a very much alive religious site.

Indein
Indein

The floating gardens are very impressive, banks of green held in place by bamboo poles and being tended to by farmers on boats, producing tomatoes and rice for the surrounding villages. When I read up on it I discover this is actually not a very sustainable practice, as the floating gardens eventually solidify and reduce the lake surface ever further. The fertilizers encourage weed growth, and all around us we see the water hyacinth encroaching on the lake. Other environmental issues are for instance the lack of proper sanitation in the stilt houses, with toilets dumping directly into the lake. Another issue is excess run off from the surrounding mountains into the rivers that feed the lake, due to lumber felling and slash and burn farming, causing the lake to become even more susceptible to weeds and fill up with silt.

Boating Inle Lake with Mr Sugar
Boating Inle Lake with Mr Sugar

Our guide is one of the local people concerned with environmental issues and sustainability of life of around the lake. He supports poor students in a neighbouring village and wants to do something about all the plastic strewn around. It will be difficult to effect much change when the primary interest of the military leadership is not so much in the people and the environment as protecting their own interests. Let’s hope that the change symbolized by Aung San Su Kyi will happen, slowly but surely. Later on we meet another concerned Burmese who tells us about his ideals, his dreams for the country, and what he does to effect local change. We get the impression that many people are doing what they can to help each other in these politically difficult circumstances, possibly motivated by Buddhism which encourages merit making.

Burmese Buddha
Burmese Buddha

Despite the environmental concerns the lake is incredible and we enjoy spending two days out and about on a boat with Mr. Sugar. We wander around the market, smoke an aniseed cheroot and have lunch in a restaurant built on stilts in the lake. The Golden Kite restaurant is owned by Patricks friends and later on in the week they invite us for a delicious dinner. As everywhere in Myanmar the people are the biggest draw, waving and smiling at us from passing boats or lake houses.

The rest of our days in Nyaung Shwe we spend in supremely lazy languor. We meet up again with Janneke, who made it all the way up North by bicycle. She did run into the police multiple times and got escorted back and forth to places where she was allowed to stay, but she also got a real personal insight in everyday Burmese life, invited into the home of people, staying in temples and far away from the tourist trail. An epic journey. She is a great photographer, you can find her work here and we have included some of her pictures from the days we cycled together in our collection of photos from Myanmar.

Bagan

We rent a couple of wobbly wheels to explore Bagan by bicycle but we miss our own rock solid work horses on the sandy tracks.

Riding Burmese roads
Riding Burmese roads

We had high expectations of Bagan and we are not disappointed. It is difficult not to make a comparison with Angkor Wat but the sites are really quite different. Where Angkor has beautifully preserved temples which are each a gem on their own, Bagans beauty lies in the overall view of the landscape, with thousands of pagoda spires rising above the dusty plain. Funnily enough here mass tourism has enhanced rather than destroyed the beauty. Every morning hot air balloons glide over the plain, a beautiful and romantic sight, silent apart from the burners throwing flames every now and again.

Balloons over Bagan
Balloons over Bagan

Bagan was the capital of the Pagan kingdom between the 9th and 13th century. In its heyday 10.000 pagodas were built on the plain, but many were devastated by earthquakes. A big one hit in 1975, 8 on the Richter scale, and destroyed much. Still, much remains and even if the individual temples are not in a great state or not well restored the overall view of the stupa-dotted plain is wonderful. One morning we get up at around 4am and cycle out into the dark to look for a spot to witness the sunrise. Unfortunately many of the 2229 remaining temples are in repair, enveloped in scaffolding and not accessible due to a 2016 earthquake. We therefor miss out on a temple top sunrise but we find a small knoll and watch the hot air balloons floating by.

We are staying in Nyaung Oo, the budget friendly village a few kilometers from Old Bagan which is more upmarket. Here we meet three German and Swiss cyclists and have a great evening sharing inspiration. Andreas is a young guy from Switzerland who made a spontaneous decision to do a bike tour in Bangkok. He bought a $200 bicycle (way too small for his size) and fitted it out with two simple wire baskets acting as rear panniers with his backpack on top. He made it all the way to Myanmar and picked our brain for future bike travels. I really loved his low budget set-up, proving bike touring is accessible for everybody and any kind of budget. German Katharina and Lukas are now in turmoil because they never thought about going to China and now, because of our enthusiastic stories, they are tempted to include it in their travel plan. It was great to see their poor brains swirling with all the possibilities.. so many places to go, so much to see!

Andreas' low budget bike touring set-up
Andreas’ low budget bike touring set-up

In Nyaung Oo we also met Pipyo, the owner of Leo, a great little restaurant. He told us a lot about nature and traditions in Myanmar and his dreams for the future. He is from a small village where traditions are still observed and he told us all about the upcoming full moon festivities, with special candy being made and shared by everybody in the village.

New directions

From Nyaung Oo we set off on an epic three day bus journey which takes us back to our bicycles in Bago, across the border to Mae Sot in Thailand and up to Chiang Mai. Here we will stay for almost a week, waiting for a new Chinese visum for Vera.

Yes, I am going back to China. This is not what we planned when we left, but unfortunately our relationship has stranded, and we are making new plans for the future. This happened a good few weeks ago so we have had some time to process this and share with family and close friends. We are fine and have decided to continue traveling together as friends. We will finish the trip together as we planned, in Tokyo. After that we will go our own way. I will move to Kunming to work as an English teacher and to focus on my writing practice. Cyril will cycle back via Korea, Rome, Corsica and Sardinia, crossing the Alps into Switzerland and eventually back home to The Netherlands, visiting old and new friends in Europe.

It is hard at this point in the trip to be in the moment, as we were before when we were just rolling along and experiencing day by day. We haven’t cycled for a few weeks now and we sorely miss the freedom of camping and cooking our own breakfast. While we are waiting in Chiang Mai we are planning ahead, booking flights, looking at whatever lies beyond the end of the trip. On 30 March we will fly to Japan, to start 6 weeks of cycling in Kyushu and Hokkaido before traveling into Tokyo, our final destination. We are eager to satisfy our cycling addiction one more time, and super excited about Japan. It is the last country on our list, and possibly the most alluring.

Our first haircut in 7 months - exciting stuff
Our first haircut in 7 months – exciting stuff

Solo & Moto

After nine months on the road, spending 24/7 together, we decide to travel solo for a week. Thailand is well developed, geared towards foreign tourists, an easy country to travel around in. A perfect place for lone cyclists. We opt for skipping the obvious tourist attraction of the beaches and head North instead, towards the mountainous province of Mae Hong Son.

Solo cycling: Velo Vera

Thus I venture South, skirting the big hills of Khao Ko national park before heading North. Cyril heads straight North, opting for less kilometres but more climbing on the way to Chiang Mai. Central Thailand consists of some long North-South ridges and those will have to be crossed if you want to get anywhere, but further South they are a bit less challenging.

It is strange to cycle alone after such a long time together. Since I have a new phone I can listen to music again. I make longer cycling days because there is little incentive to hang around the tent or in a restaurant on your own. I break my personal longest distance per day record: 150km in fierce sunshine and on hot tarmac. I miss Cyril but I get a kick out of being a strong and independent solo cycling woman. Thai people are the smiliest people in the world so I never feel very lonely. People wave, give a big thumbs up, shout hello, and some even hand me water or powerdrinks as they are whizzing by on their mopeds. One night I camp next to the house of a lovely family. They let me use their shower and offer me food. I feel snug and safe alone in the tent. The only time I feel lonely is when I am in super touristy Sukhotai, surrounded by others farangs but not really connecting with them.

Sukhotai is one of the old capitals of Thailand. Today it is a beautiful park dotted with ruins of wats, buddha statues, walls and moats. A very pleasant place to cycle around in, especially in the early morning.

Solo cycling: Cyclo Cyril

It is truly weird to see the person you’ve been cycling and traveling with ride off in another direction. After the initial shock I start enyoing my time alone. All of a sudden you decide everything yourself instead of discussing it. Where to eat, what to eat, when to eat for example. So yes it is easier in some respects, but I am not sure if I enjoy it more. My route takes me over several ranges that gradually get higher and higher.

On the third morning of my solo adventure I decide to take a short cut. My trusty maps.me app shows a dirt path heading in the direction I want to go, it should save about 25 kilometres of climbing. Two things I don’t check well enough: the gradient of my shortcut and the condition of the path. At one point my ‘road’ disappears into a cornfield. As it is going downhill I just slowly roll on until I get to a thick jungle at the edge of the field. My ‘road’ should just be a few metres further, but all I see is big trees and unpenetrable bushes.

There is only one way back: up that steep hill, through the cornfield. It is one of these moments where you curse the 20 kilos of luggage on your steel bicycle. After an hour or so struggling through the field I find my path. A few super steep parts further and I arrive at the last hurdle: a small stream where according to the map a bridge will take me to the other side. Of course the bridge is gone. In its place is a rickety construction made of bamboo and old tree stumps. Bag by bag I balance across to safety, saving my bike for last. In true cyclocross style I shimmy over the ‘bridge’, step by small step. Relief and pride fill me when I finally see tarmac again.

During my solo week I visit Phrae, Lampang and other smaller towns. The heartland of Thailand sees few travellers and has a very laidback atmosphere. Just like Vera I experience many acts of hospitality and friendliness. A couple of Thai I have never met before take me out for dinner. Reaching Lamphun means I will see Vera again. The last climb I am flying, eager to meet her again and continue together.

Lamphun, a city built by a queen

After our solo week we meet up again in Lamphun, a charming but surprisingly untouristy town just South of Chiang Mai. The town was the capital of the Haripunchai kingdom and built by queen Chama Thevi. As I am strolling around the old town I find a troupe of young girls in traditional wear performing a temple dance in her honour.

There is a revered wat with a beautiful golden stupa. Devout Thais slowly circumnavigate the stupa, chanting and carrying flower offerings.

Lamphun is small but has some other interesting sights such as a well preserved city wall and moat, old teak houses and a food market. Most of all I love how it is undeveloped and as yet not discovered by mass-tourism.

Chiang Mai

From Lamphun it is a short ride to Chiang Mai, the former capital of the mighty Lanna kingdom from around 1300 to 1800. We take the old main road, a narrow two-way lane flanked by giant hardwood trees adorned with yellow and orange ribbons. All over Thailand we find these trees, with multicoloured sashes, little ghost houses and offerings of water, rice and incense around them. This indicates that the Thai believe these particular trees are inhabited by spirits.

Chiang Mai was an independent princedom until it became formally part of Thailand in 1939. Just South of the modern city centre we explore some ruins of an older version of the city. Until halfway through the last century Chiang Mai was only accessible by a long journey through the jungle by elephant or ox cart. Now of course there are highways and train lines, making it the capital of the North and the second most important city of Thailand after Bangkok. In recent years the number of tourists has exploded, growing 10% every year since 2010. I do not recognize the city I visited 16 years ago, apart from the night market which is still selling the same souvenir tat, some of it quite nice.

Thailand has a long running royal programme, initiated by the late king, that aimed to help developing communities in rural areas. This so-called OTOP programme (One Tambon, One Product) stimulated high-quality production of typical handmade goods such as textiles, silverware and basket weaving. Every village specializes in one kind of handmade wares. This ensures that traditional hilltribe skills and cultures survive and the villagers earn extra income by bringing these products to touristy places where they are sold for a decent price, like the Chiang Mai night market.

Moto: tackling the 1000 bends of the Mae Hong Son loop

Close to Chiang Mai is Thailands Northernost Mae Hong Son province. It is famous for its steep hills and diverse and remote hilltribes, including Tai Yai, Lawa, Shan and the famous long-neck Karen people. One very hilly road loops from Chiang Mai right around this province, closely following the Myanmar border. We leave our bicycles in Chiang Mai for some tender loving care at the fabulous Triple Cats bike shop and rent a couple of motorbikes. We tackle the ‘1000 bends’ of the Mae Hong Son loop powered by gasoline instead of musclepower, heading North towards Pai for an anti-clockwise tour of the 800km loop.

The first couple days we find all the creature comforts a glampacker could possibly need. A funky hipster coffee place here, a hippy pad-thai restaurant there, American breakfasts, bamboo huts for rent in the stoner backpacker vortex of Pai and excellent camping places next to some beautiful waterfalls. We tackle about 500 of the 1000 bends in the steep climbs and descends around Pai and we are really happy not to be doing this with a fully loaded bicycle. Some of the inclines in the sharp bends approach 30% which is frankly insane.
After Pai the road and scenery become more rural and less touristy. We visit the remote Ban Rak Thai village. The name tranlates as ‘the village that loves Thailand’ but it is in fact inhabited by Chinese. Kuomintang Chinese fled to this corner of Thailand after the communists gained power, and much of their Chinese culture remains. They grow excellent Oolong tea, serve Chinese food and live in Chinese houses with flying eaves. An odd place, even in this multicultural corner of Thailand.

The provincial capital Mae Hong Son is a sleepy town where we only stop for lunch. We opt to spend half a day and the night at the nearby Tai Yai village of Pha Bong. Here is a hotspring and some ladies give us a great massage before we end up in the hot pool. In the evening the villagers flock to the pool to socialize and wash together.

There happens to be a small village fest and I am invited to join the ladies on stage to dance. The steps of the circle dancing are not that complicated but I cannot match their graceful bendy hand gestures with my inflexible European hands. Still, they have fun at the sight of a farang who is at least trying and I enjoy the dance and the music as well. We camp right next to the pool and early in the morning we swim in the warm water, surrounded by mist rising from the hot spring.
Another interesting and unexpected stopover is in the village of Khun Yuam. This place played an important role in the second world war, when it was a base for Japanese soldiers traveling to fight in Burma. Thailand was a Japanese ally and the villagers were therefor treated well, and a lasting friendship between the Khun Yuam people and the Japanese developed. There is an excellent museum that tells the story of this relationship and of the different hilltribe cultures and customs in the region. It is unbelievable to realize that less than a hundred years ago this place was only accessible by bamboo raft, ox cart or elephant. Roads were not built until around 1950 and the use of elephants was only phased out around 1970.

The small town of Mae Sariang is the Southernmost corner of the loop, and from here we take an alternative road, a shortcut away from the main loop. We climb to the 2560m summit of Thailands highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, and spend another night camping near a waterfall.

All along the Burmese border we find beautiful wooden Tai Yai temples with stacked angular roofs adorned with hammered metal filigree borders. They are very different from the Central Thai temples with steep roofs, mirrored tiles and naga (snakes) figures along the roof edges. One such Tai Yai temple can be reached by crossing a long and meandering bridge made of woven bamboo matting. When we get there local kids are practicing their performance, banging drums and getting into a dragon dance. They try to scare me but can’t stay in their dragon role long enough, and the dragon soon breaks apart into two little boys. A girl is dressed up as a peacock, with an elaborate tail fanning out from her back.

Our shortcut via Doi Inthanon takes us through small villages where people are still very surprised to see farangs, even if we are less than 100km from super touristy Chiang Mai. We have one totally random surprise meetup with some SE Asia Rapha people who are doing a recce of the Mae Hong Son loop for an upcoming ride.

After 7 days, more than 800 kilometres and definitely more than a thousand bends we are back in Chiang Mai where we get to hang out with our cycling friends Eric and Cathy and Sanjay, ‘the worlds fastest Indian’. We pick up our bicycles. My Rohloff hub is whirring along nicely after a much needed oil change. We liked the motorbikes but prefer the bicycle: we love the silence, we love the pace, we have to focus less on the road and can pay more attention to the surroundings, there is no need for gasoline, it’s easier to stop, look around and take pictures or talk to people.

We are currently preparing for the ride down to Mae Sot, from where we will cross into our next country: Myanmar! Tomorrow we will set off, very happy to be reunited with our bicycles.