Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mekong Day 2

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of heavy rain plummeting mercilessly on the roof. I am one of those who love sleeping to the rhythm of rain. My bliss was broken when the alarm clock rang and Christoph and I jumped out of bed. We peeped through the frosty window to the splendor of the brown, fast moving Mekong River and hoped the rain would ease a little.

Fat chance! It was wet as wet can be. The boys grouped at 8am for breakfast and Angkana drove out to buy us some sumptous local Thai fare of noodles and snacks. It was the start of many acts of kindness from her family.

All of us ate quietly feeling anxious about the thought of riding 110km in the rain to Chiang Khan. It was about 9am and we decided to "Tally Ho" as everyone was getting restless. Ensuring everything was water-proofed, we braved the rain and rode with hope, in our sandals.

I actually enjoyed the gentle rain drops landing on my face as I pedalled out of Sangkom. The cooler weather helped us to ride a bit faster. We had all our lights blinking for better visibility and felt like the top of the world.

I wore a cap inside my helmet to manage the rain from blurring up my vision and it somewhat did the job. TW as usual, took "tail-end Charlie" and we rode tightly as a pack of all-weather bombers on an important mission.

Riding in the wet was interesting. It was like the world was divided into those haves and the have nots - fenders that is. The latter group had their bicycles completely dirty and when grime started to seep into the cables, all sorts of technical problems developed.

Ken C's was both. First, his RD got jammed. Then, his pannier cover started collecting water and soon, he was wondering why his bike was getting heavier and heavier. Dr Mike wanted to do immediate surgery to release the fluids in the huge tumour! Truly, we also discovered once again, the importance of having fenders for touring.

It happened to be the celebration of Buddha's enlightenment and every village we rode past had some kind of dance celebration done by school kids all dressed up in golden costumes and heavily made up. It encouraged us no end to know that we were not the only ones unperturbed by the rain. We stopped to watch and some friendly locals came to explain excitedly about what the hoo ha was all about. It was a pity that we could not snap any pics as it was pouring. Our morning tea was taken at some obscure Ban (village) where we took shelter from the heavy rain. Hot noodle soup never tasted so nice!

Once again, we were overwhelmed by the generousity of the shop owner who gave us complimentary fruits and topped up our water bottles. It is moments like these that really makes our adventures so heartening. There was also a wedding going on, once again, oblivious to the rain.

We arrived at Pak Chom at about 2pm some 65km away looking like drowned rats. But our spirits were still high and Ken C, who in a previous life, taught Physics at Uni, decided to conduct a live experiment on downhill momentum. 3 of us, all differering weights, should coast down the hill at the same speed, according to Newton's theory but it wasnt so. Our simple experiment led us to conclude that the heaviest goes downhill the fastest!

I got the boys to wait for me just outside the local school while Christoph and I went to recce food places. We discovered a small eatery with an elderly lady and hot wok. This was God-sent as our stomachs were rumbling. However, some communication problems got the shepherds seperated from the flock and poor Christoph had to go find the boys. Fortunately, Pak Chom is a small 2 street town and it was not too difficult to spot 6 foldies in psychedelic colours.

A meal of Khao Pad and Pad Thai washed down with bottles of soft drinks refuelled us very nicely. It was then we needed to decide to continue or break here for the night. Angkana's car came very handy in the rain as we went to check out prospective accommodations. We saw 3 all were not suitable save for the last one. At 500B, with clean sheets and a spacious room, it was a done deal.

However, Christoph and I went back to the restaurant to report that we had to press on to Chiang Khan and that got everyone flying to their bikes as we only had 3 hours of daylight left. It was a cruel joke and when we told them the good news, I really copped it! Truly, these guys are the best.

We retired comfortably into our individual bungalows by the Mekong and took the opportunity to wash our bikes so that they can sleep with us, all fresh and clean.

It was also wonderful that the guesthouse could arrange for 3 elderly massuers to come perform the traditional art of Thai massage on us. It was TW's first time and he protested in vain when the strong lady folded him like his Brompton.

Dinner was another lavish affair and we enjoyed great Singa Beer with special Thai dishes ordered by Angkana.

We slept early once again to the sounds of rain. It may be the wettest day many of us have ever experienced but it didnt do one bit to dampen our spirits. Today was another very special and memorable day, rain or no rain!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mekong Day 1

Breakfast was 745am and everyone was up way before that. Tiger prepared a special breakfast - a hybrid of Vietnamese roll with egg, pork and veggies which was the perfect start of the day.

It was still raining a little but that provided for a very cool 9am start. Christoph aka BMW don his special wet weather footwear, all ready to pedal away. Having done countless tours before, this ride was literally a ride in the park for him thus his choice of a simple 3 Speed Dahon Curve!

Our route was to Sri Chiang Mai, some 45km away and then to Sangkom about 90km. The first few kms saw us made a lot of stops as we had to adjust our bicycles - panniers, handlebars, seat height etc but once all that got sorted out, we were making good pace. Following Route 211 was easy as we glided past the magnificent Friendship Bridge to Laos.

We rode in 2 groups for safety reasons as traffic was still apparent. Riding with the great Mekong river on our right, our task was to follow it 200km northwards. As simple as that. TW had the role of sweeper cum lensman and he was excellent!

69 yo Uncle Ken was by far the friskiest rider and we had to put a leash on the "young" man.

The scenery improved slowly as we left the town of Nong Khai and entered the agricultural centre of Issan. Rich green rice fields, fruit trees and small Bans (villages) where friendly people waved us on.

Our morning tea break was at Ban Tha Bo, where routes 211 and 2020 intersected. We sheltered under huge umbrellas, slurping away hot noodle soups and provided lots of entertainment to the locals.

The weather couldn't be more perfect - dark clouds but no rain resulting in very cool weather.
We continued our journey and took the quieter backroads, led by Christoph who did this few years ago. It was serene and tranquil as we moved quietly, stopping from time to time to soak in the sights.

We made Sri Chiang Mai just pass noon and stumbled upon a small eatery that served the best Pad Thai (fried noodles) ever. That was supplemented with more food from Christoph as he wandered out to return with grilled chicken, fish and the famous papaya salad. We gorged ourselves silly and that made it hard to get back on the saddle.

It didn't help that the sun was starting to blaze down on us but we persevered. Riding under lush green trees gave us a much needed relief and we enjoyed being in the canopy of leaves.

We took the backroads as far as possible until the roads became too broken and rough. Here, I was very glad I had fattish 2.1 touring tires that made it a breeze compared to those using skinny road tires.

Back to the main road, it started to go inland a bit and hills started appearing. I was told that it was a flattish ride but it was not something that was too much of a problem. What goes up must come down eventually so we enjoyed whizzing downhill at top speed to gain momentum for the next hill. I managed to hold on to a farm tractor up one hill and enjoyed the unexpected assistance. That was great fun talking to the farmer's kids and dog!

Unfortunately at 25km before Sangkom, poor Joshua lost control when he was flying downhill and crashed. I was coming downhill and saw a couple of foldies parked at the side of the road. His front wheel has somehow wobbled and he went down hard. Joshua took a beating on his helmet which cracked and the left part of his face was bruised. Mike gave him immediate first aid but the crash shocked him and we had to get him to the next town.

A tuk tuk stopped but tried to profit from the accident by asking a princely sum. Fortunately, a kind pickup truck stopped and ferried both Joshua and Mike to the hospital. The rest of us continued the ride feeling a little solemn and worried. But we had lots of hills to overcome and that was energy sapping. One particular hill saw us pushing our bikes but I barely struggled up on my BF Expedition with the help of granny.

Sangkom finally appeared and it was a beautiful town. We met with the two doctors at a riverside restaurant, relieved that Joshua's injury was not too bad. Mike and Joshua were raving at how pretty the Thai nurses were and Joshua wished he could be warded. We drank buckets and ate like a horse to replenish our bodies.

We were pretty spent with the heat and the hills. Christoph's family joined us in their wagon and we checked into a beautiful hotel 2km south of town. The Poo Pae Resort is highly recommended with newish buildings and priceless riverside location. It helped too that the staff were quite friendly and that they had bicycles hung on the ceiling as decoration pieces.

It was wonderful to enjoy a nice warm shower and get into fresh clothes. Both Rod and I immediately had a therapeutic massage which invigorated us to no end.

Dinner was a grand affair and we slept like babies, with wonderful views of the Mekong River flowing lazily by. It couldn't have been a better start to our adventure, especially knowing that Joshua was well enough to continue the next day.

Mekong Day 0

Pic by TW

We met at Budget Terminal Changi precisely 1015 in the highest spirits. It was wonderful to see everyone finally, some for the first time after months of planning. We weighed each bag carefully to make sure we all made the 20kg weight limit and we did.

The flight to Bangkok was smooth and it was so exciting to meet up with our 8th member, Christoph to catch our connecting flight to Udon Thani. The gang was complete! Udon Thani used to be a US Airforce base during the Vietnam war and we felt like soldiers on a mission when we landed.

Pic by TW

2 Isuzu pick-ups came to take us and our bagged foldies to a boutique hotel in Nong Khai.

The heavens opened and we wondered if this was one wet ride awaiting us in the coming days. Our cowboy drivers cruised at 120kmh in the rain, and my driver was not wearing his seat belt. Welcome to rural Thailand!

The reception team at Sofa Gallery of Tiger and Max went beyond our expectations. They welcomed us with drinks and whisked all our luggage from the pouring monsoon. Max started to wipe dry all our bags and we knew we were going to enjoy our time here. Dinner was lavish with delectable Isaan fare and although we were supposed to fix up our bikes after dinner, all of us couldn't wait. It was real team work when everyone just gave each other a hand and the task was done in no time.

Pic by TW

We retired early into our beautifully decorated rooms, tired but excited about tomorrow morning's first ride. Hopefully, the weather would clear.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Definition of ANTICIPATION

a : a prior action that takes into account or forestalls a later actionb : the act of looking forward; especially : pleasurable expectation

Its always exciting to go for a ride adventure. I feel the best part of it is actually the planning and preparation. Our trip to Mekong next week was initiated as early as 6 months ago after much research about where is the best place to ride, given limited time. They say that the wise folks learn from experience, but the wiser folks learn from the experience of others.

One fountain of great information is Crazyguyonabike. It is a journal where thousands of adventure cyclists pen their journeys across the world and this was where I discovered the Chiang Khan to Nong Khai part of the Mekong River. Of course it helped that my ride buddy CW has done it before as well as Christoph, who will be joining us on this trip.

It means pouring over many hours of reading on the net but I get to learn so much. Once the destination is decided, then getting there is the other issue.

In Asia, we are blessed with so many budget airlines and our trip involves taking 4 different flights on Tiger, Air Asia and Jetstar starting from Singapore. With early booking, it came out to only US$260 in total. Its truly a case of the early bird catches the worm when it comes to budget air.

That settled, next is to find out where to stay. Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum are good places to start. With email and internet payments, bookings are relatively easy. However, I do like to allow some flexibility and usually book just the first and last night. We are confirmed at a beautiful boutique 5 room hotel, The Sofa Gallery. Our nights in between will be touch and go as the guesthouses along the small towns of the Mekong have not yet caught up with technology, which is not a bad thing.

Where to eat is also important and being a foodie, I love to know the great eating places of each destination. Trip Advisor once again is helpful. Then, there are other things - the must do and must see of that area. It is also good to read up about the history and culture of the area and learning some of the local language can also be very helpful.

I think I have this trip all stitched up but one never knows what lies ahead. That makes it fun! We have part one where we ride the Mekong from Nong Khai, Sang Khom, Chiang Khan and return by public transport to NK. Then, part two where we fly to the sunny island of Phuket to enjoy some cycling and sea sports. We are planning to do some night kayaking this time.

So it will be 8 of us foldies (from 5 different countries), spending 8 days together on the saddle. I can't wait! Anticipation, the best part ya?

Carly Simon's song captures the exciting wait for her lover but you get the point.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hillarys calling

Variety is the spice of life and indeed, this applies for bike rides as well. Today, we decided to go beyond our usual Point Walter towards Fremantle, and head northwards all the way to Hillarys Boat Harbour.

It was 7am when I got an unexpected knock on my kitchen window while I was preparing breakfast. Lo and behold, it was Uncle Ken. His bright smile lighted up the gloomy and dark morning. Temperature check - 4c! I gobbled my food and we scampered towards our usual rendezvous point, just in time to see Rod sailing in. After last week's 70km long ride to Mandurah, we all were getting fitter. We arrived at PW in a record time of 50 mins. It was Kenneth C's first foray beyond PW and its great that he always has a marvellous sense for adventure. The bright sun did help warm things up just a little, but as soon as we went under the shade of trees, the bitter cold laid siege on us again.

Passing through Fremantle was not pleasant with all the big container trucks roaring rudely but once we hit the coast, we entered a brand new world. There is something special about the smell of fresh sea breezes, the rhythmatic sound of waves crashing and the unobstructed view of beautiful blue skies meeting the sea far out in yonder. We stopped at the grounds of the famous Indiana Tea House, Cottesloe for our morning tea. Although the debate for the best beach in Australia has been going on ad nauseam, Cottesloe is always in the running and its easy to see why.

Uncle Ken shared his birthday present with us, caramel macadamias from MacNuts WA, and we greedily savoured every sweet piece of his generousity.

As expected, the pesky seagulls hovered around waiting for a quick snack and we disappointed them. Going to the beach has a magical effect on us oldies and it turned Grandpa Rod into a little boy once again - doing a cheeky seagull stance (check out last part of video)!

We had to mosey along as Patrick was going to meet us at City Beach, 8km northwards at 1030. Sure enough, a muscular guy in black on a red Bike Friday showed up.

We have not seen Pat for several months and it was so nice to shake his hand. He is always up to something new and his latest interest is barefoot running. Pat knows this area like the back of his hand. We stopped at the famous Peter's-by-the-sea at Scarborough and enjoyed their magnificent kebabs.

When Alan Bond was buying up every shop for his multi-mega development, good old Peter stood his ground and that earned him a bit of a hero status.

After such a satisfying meal with priceless view and even more priceless conversations, it was hard to muster up the saddle. But we had to. Passing Trigg, we stopped at the Life Saving Club where Pat and his family are volunteer life savers there.

The stretch between Trigg and Marmion must surely be one of the prettiest beach views in the whole of Australia and I was very glad we could soak all that in this morning. For some reason, my legs started to get soft and I was tail-end Charlie till we finally reached Hillarys Boat Harbour, some 50km away from my home.

We have answered the call of Hillarys and felt very satisfied indeed. We headed inland and rode another 5km to catch the train back home from Greenwood Station. It was certainly one of our best rides ever, spent in the company of great friends. A bit of variety can certainly greatly spice up our riding days here in beautiful Perth.

Friendship - “knowing the heart of another and sharing one’s heart with another”