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!

Mingalaba Myanmar!

Right in the middle of the Moei river, the border between Thailand and Myanmar, the traffic has to switch sides. We swerve across and ride into Myanmar on the right hand side of the road. Entering Myanmar is a blast, a real rollercoaster ride. Switching the side of the road we ride on is only the start, as everything is radically different from Thailand. We experience one of our biggest culture shocks to date, in the best possible way I must add. From the very moment we cross the border I have a crush, and immediately fall in love with this country.

First Myanmar impressions

The process of leaving Thailand and entering Myanmar is fast enough. The Burmese official who stamps our passport constantly and confusingly telling the ingele in his office to change seats. It is musical chairs, with a Burmese music video providing the tune. He is patting the sweat from his face. Still, he is courteous and within minutes we are on our way into Myanmar. This is the first visit for both of us. A whole new country! This has us very excited and we jump right in. Traffic is mayhem. A hot and honking, smoking, swerving tide of tuk-tuks, taxis, bicycles, colourful trucks and mopeds rolls off the Myanmar side of the bridge, squeezes onto a pockmarked two-lane ‘highway’ and through the small border town of Myawaddy.

Mingling with the locals

The Myanmar people are very different from the Thai. We see many dark faces, closer to Indian or Bangladeshi looking than the light skinned Thai. People here look taller and sturdier than their Thai neighbours and they carry themselves beautifully, upright and elegant. They are cheerful and inquisitive, shouting and smiling and honking at us. The exuberant vibe is infectious and we cycle on with a big happy grin on our face. Some people wear the conical Tai Yai hat. Everybody, men and women alike wear the longyi. Women wear their colourfully patterned ankle-length wrap with a discrete tuck on the side and the men wear theirs, dark coloured and minimally checkered, with a big knot in the middle. Many people are chewing betel and the man who guards the cash machine grins at me with bright red betel teeth.

All women have adorned their face with thanaka, a traditional Burmese beauty product that protects the skin against the sun. The women make different patterns on their face with the yellowish paste made from ground tree bark. I try it too over the next few days and I really like it, it is cooling, non-greasy and indeed very effective against the sun.

I also try chewing betel but I’m not a big fan of the bitter astringent taste and the rivers of red saliva it produces. The effect is mild and pleasant, but the prospect of red and decaying teeth and gums puts me off for life. For a lot of people this is no deterrent though, and betel is after alchohol, coffee and tobacco the world’s most popular stimulant. It has been used for thousands of years, from India to China, by emperors and peasants alike.

All these different looks and sounds and smells make Myanmar exotic and exhilarating. Every sensation here seems amplified. Some people say that Myanmar is a ‘light’ version of India, or India for beginners. Strangely enough even the weather is different across the border, and over the next few days we experience our hottest cycling days yet.

Big friendly brother

We get a wad of kyat out of the cash machine of Myawaddy and start cycling on the main road towards Kawkareik, a small town 50km away. Myanmars army tightly controls the country, and we cross quite a few army check-points. The guards are very friendly and polite, and the only nuisance so far is the fact that we are only allowed to stay in designated and overpriced hotels for foreigners. These hotels have to pay a hefty tax for their foreign guests which goes straight to the army. It is strictly prohibited to stealth camp or stay with locals so we don’t even try this, although we have heard from other cyclists it is possible to do this if you keep well out of sight and away from the main road.

Meeting like-minded people

Kawkareik is a small town with a fabulous warmshowers host. Susu is not allowed to host cyclists in her own house but loves to meet up with everybody cycling through. She helps out with info about guesthouses along the way, explains Myanmar culture and teaches us our first Burmese words. We enjoy dinner together at her place and team up with Janneke Verhagen, another cyclist who has just arrived in Myanmar.

On the beaten track

After Kawkareik we venture off the busy main road and onto a small road. This much quieter road quickly turns into a rutted dirt track, traversing rubber plantations and later on dry fields and marshy patches. Every now and again we see a limestone cliff rise up over the shimmering plains, usually topped with one or more golden stupas. It looks magical. Along the way are tiny villages full of friendly faces but not many restaurants or shops. It is great to be able to get off the highway and (in this case quite literally) on to the beaten track so quickly and we enjoy the silence and emptiness. A wooden cart pulled by two oxen passes us when we are enjoying a short break in the shade. It is traveling at about 3kmph, with three smiling ladies in the back. Life is slow here and nothing much happens.

Yet even without the busy traffic and no climbing the heat and the bad road surface make it a hard slog. By the time we roll into Hpa An it is getting dark and we are covered in a rusty red cake of sweat, sunscreen, insect repellent and dust. We need two rounds of scrubbing under the shower to get completely clean. From Hpa An we make it to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Kyaiktiyo in two days. After our overnight stop in the small and friendly town of Thaton a perfectly paved and gently rolling secondary road with zero traffic takes us all the way to Kyaiktiyo where we spend two days. This road is lined by palm forests and cute little villages.

A pilgrimage to the golden rock

There are a lot of tourists in Kyaiktiyo, and most of them are Burmese pilgrims. If there is one similarity between Myanmar and Thailand it would have to be religion. Myanmar has a very diverse population but the majority is devoutly Theravada Buddhist, although we have already seen Hindu temples, churches and a mosque as well. The big draw of Kyaiktiyo is a big boulder, precariously perched on the edge of a cliff face. Lore has it that two hairs of the Buddha balance the rock and keep it from falling down (although last year it was surrounded by scaffolding so there is some human help in maintaining the balance). The rock is covered in gold leaf, which is applied daily by the visiting (male only!) pilgrims.

It is prohibited to cycle so we join the other pilgrims for a breathtaking ride up to the rock. Sturdy little trucks are converted into people carriers with little benches and once they are crammed to the brim they race the 12 kilometer up the super steep single road. The ride is a rollercoaster, including enthusiastically puking and cheering people. We arrive at the top just before sunset and we have a quick look around before we catch the last truck down. The rock is indeed impressive, and the religious fairground around it is quite entertaining. Men carry rich and lazy or infirm people up in sedan chairs, porters run by with an impossibly huge stack of suitcases on their back. Families and monks peruse the shops that sell anything from mini golden rock replicas to food. The atmosphere is more village fest than religious solemnity but this is one of the most holy places in Myanmar. It is possible to stay up at Kyaiktiyo and spend the night outside, to picnic and snooze together with the Burmese families. We would definitely have done this if we had known before.

Religion in Myanmar is fully intertwined with the everyday life of almost everybody, something that no longer exists in Europe. We see this every morning when monks walk in line along the road through the villages, collecting alms from the people. It can also be witnessed in the little Buddhist altars in houses and shops and in big new golden stupas being erected all over the country. One day we witness a procession with horses, flower offerings and a long line of beautifully dressed people going through town, celebrating little boys who are entering the monastery as novices. Many monasteries that we pass by on the bicycles have a speech or mantras or music blaring from their sound systems.

Bago

In the morning we say goodbye to Janneke who is heroic enough to tackle the small roads up North. She later tells us her stories of wild camping and even staying with a family, which is definitely possible if you keep away from the main roads.

We do a long day along ever smaller tracks through small villages full of surprised people. At one point we have wandered so far off the main road that the villages can only be reached by moped or ox cart. We reach the point where the river delta melts into the Andaman sea. This is the first time we see the sea since Turkey! The land here is flat as a pancake and hot as hell. The tracks we follow are so rocky or sandy it is hard to make good progress. After 110km we make it to our hotel, just before it is fully dark.

Bago is pretty mental traffic-wise. The main road to Yangon runs right through the city centre and is used by trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, bicycle taxis, cows and pedestrians alike. There is not much to see. A reconstruction of a historical royal palace, a gigantic reclining Buddha and Myanmars biggest stupa. Officially the Shwedagon stupa in Yangon is the biggest one, but in reality the stupa of Bago can claim this nr. 1 spot. We are daunted by the busy traffic on the highway that intersects this city and a bit depressed by the living standards of the people here. The city appears quite poor, with bad roads, plastic rubbish in the rivers and simple shacks or ruinous colonial buildings for houses, more so than any other place we have seen so far. The poverty is in stark contrast with the standard of living enjoyed by the tourists, who can stay at swish resorts, eat lavish breakfast buffest and get carted around by airco minivan. We indulge in this as well as there is little alternative but we don’t really enjoy it. Staying in Bago is almost unavoidable as it is an important connection for trains and roads.

Midnight not-so-express

We decide to leave the bicycles in Bago to avoid the hassle of train and bus travel with all of our gear. Then we set off on an epic 24 hour train journey to Nyaungshwe by Inle lake. Buying the tickets is an adventure in itself and involves showing up in the early morning and hanging around in the ancient ticket office with a few friendly betel-chewing railway employees and a lot of mice. A couple of frantic phone calls are made to Yangon to find out if there is a sleeper car. Eventually a handwritten ticket materializes. Alas, there is no sleeper car, so we opt for the upper class seat instead, with enough legroom to accommodate a three meter tall Ingele.

The journey is split in two parts: a pretty comfortable flat track to Thazi, in a new-ish Chinese train with air suspension. We witness a stunning sunset over the hazy flatlands while eating our take-away dinner. After another few hours of fitful sleep we arrive at 2am in Thazi to find out our connection to Shwenyaung doesn’t leave until 7am. There is nothing to do but lie down amongst the other waiting people and make ourselves comfortable on the platform, to get some sleep in before the most spectacular part of the journey starts.

An old train rocks and sways over a 1300m mountain pass, covering the steep inclines by making a few ingenious switchbacks up the mountain flank. Our train neighbours are a Buddhist nun and her two grandchildren. One is a mini monk, the other one a little rockstar with a tasseled leather jacket. When we make a stop little shops with fruit and snacks float by our windows, carried along on big dishes on the head of village women. The views are wide and mostly forested once we start climbing. The scenery is not very green however as everything is very dry and dusty in this season. We pass by the highest point Kalaw, a former colonial hill station and tea plantation.

Getting close to home

After months of continuous travel we are immensely looking forward to settling into a real home for a week. Our friend Patrick has generously offered us the use of his house, and as we are slowly trundling towards Nyaungshwe we are excited to get to his place. It is the first time since our forced two-week stop in Chengdu that we have the opportunity to unpack and relax for a while. I’m most excited about the kitchen. We will be able to make our own breakfast, at home! As we are getting closer to the end date of the trip we are both quite happily anticipating settling down in one place again. Our stay in Nyaungshwe will be a sweet little taste of this luxury: having a place to call home.

(sorry, no pictures. Internet says no)

The speed of life

Since leaving Chengdu we have cycled about 900km and climbed almost 7000m. We have another 650km to go before we reach the Lao border, meaning we are finally clocking up some proper bike touring distances. In our first two months in China we have done a lot of train travel, sight-seeing and exploring cities, but these last couple of weeks in Yunnan province are all about bike travel in the countryside, apart from a visit to the capital Kunming. Less touristy = more riding.

Riding in Sichuan
Riding in Sichuan

The speed of life

We are into a steady rhythm of getting up around 7am, then faffing about for about two hours before we start our cycling day. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if we are camping or in a hotel. To get going always takes a long time, despite us being seasoned bike travellers by now. It doesn’t really matter. There is no rush and the mild winter weather allows us to ride all day. We kick off our day by cooking a first breakfast of hot porridge and espresso outside our tent or in our hotel room. Then we pack up the tent, get into our cycling clothes, load up the bicycles and off we go. Usually we stop soon for a second breakfast of steaming jiaozi (dumplings) with a hot and sour dip.

Jiaozi - or Second Breakfast
Jiaozi – or Second Breakfast

Then we’ll have an early lunch: a big bowl of spicy noodles in simple roadside restaurant.

Noodles with Mao
Noodles with Mao

An early dinner of noodles or fried rice and vegetables and a beer in the place where we will stop for the night. We will look at the route for the day after and do a bit of reading but we are usually in bed by 7pm and sound asleep not long after. Bike, eat, sleep, and repeat. We love this rhythm, it feels healthy and it gives us everything we need. The speed of bike travel is the perfect speed of life.

Yunnan

A few days ago we crossed from Sichuan province into Yunnan, China’s southernmost province. The change in scenery is subtle but immediate, starting right at the top of the mountain range that defines the border. Yunnan is less developed and less densely populated than Sichuan. As we cross the border and descend towards Kunming we can see endless forests on the hills around us. This means we can camp more, as there is more undeveloped land. Still, it’s a challenge to find an even spot for our tent in this hilly province. One night we sleep in the bend of a hairpin, halfway up a 2500m mountain pass.

Camping with a view
Camping with a view

Another night park rangers allow us to camp on a beautiful beach on Dianchi lake, South of Kunming.

Beach bums
Beach bums

We cycle through villages and towns that are on no tourists’ itinerary because there is nothing in particular to see. We see village markets, hill tribe people, kids going to school, everybody going about their everyday business. It’s lovely precisely because it is so mundane.

Only one town is at first sight a real disappointment. Panzhihua is ugly, dirty and dusty and we have a hard time cycling into town with the busy traffic. It was founded only 50 years ago and is thriving because of a giant mine, one of the largest in the country. After our initial dislike of the place however we find that people, as in most places, are really nice and they are curious about our bikes and gear. I am fascinated by the fact that it is possible to stamp a whole city out of the ground and make it such a lively place in such a short time. The same thing happened when new land was created in the Netherlands but in China everything happens on a much larger scale and much faster, because the government can realise their plans without having to go through procedures with planning and environmental commissions etc.

Meeting the locals
Meeting the locals

Kunming

Our first destination in Yunnan is the capital Kunming. It’s a relative backwater by Chinese standards, with ‘only’ 5 million inhabitants. During the communist heyday it was considered some sort of Siberia, with party officials who were falling out of favour being sent here. One huge difference with Siberia: the climate here is very moderate, earning Kunming the title of Spring City. As the city is close to the Tropic of Cancer and is located at a 1900m altitude plateau it has year-round pleasant weather and very little pollution. When we arrive it is in the low twenties during the day and around 10 degrees at night. Perfect for cycling.

Roads like these
Roads like these

Kunming is less developed than Chengdu, and the pace of life here is different. It is decidedly more Southern and we enjoy the laid-backness for a couple of days. We meet some great English speaking locals and have some good conversations about life in China and in Europe, art, politics, the future, cycling, embarrassing toilet moments, everything under the sun.

New noodle friends
New noodle friends

We learn the Kung Fu tea ceremony from our all-round wonderful warmshowers host Lin and celebrate our three year anniversary together with a vegetarian feast with TCG Nordica art gallery director Luo Fei and his colleague Wei Bang. After a couple of weeks where we could only talk to each other it’s refreshing to share ideas and dreams with other people. It’s also refreshing to find out how well-educated Chinese people see their own country and culture and their place in the world. Just like everywhere else, there is no one set definition of China and the Chinese people and we appreciate discovering all the subtle nuances and varieties in opinion. We have made new friends here and we’d love to come back one day.

With Lin and Alicia
With Lin and Alicia

But first we will cycle a bit more. We have picked a route that will take us away from the highway and the towns. The S218 is a much smaller road that leads through hill tribe villages along the Lao border. More cycling, more camping, more of this simple speed of life.