Friday, 14 December 2018

Cycling Southeast Asia : 3

I continue to follow route 101 south, it's flat and easy going, there is a bit of traffic though so when I get the chance I turn off onto a minor road.  It is nice and quiet, I ride through plantations of rubber trees, each with a strip of bark cut away and a bowl attached to catch the sap.  Back to the highway, I climb up to reach a high point, the border between Naan and Prae provinces.  Checking my GPS, it reckons the nearest hotel is in Prae the city, that would be a very long day, I am glad to find one thirty kilometres earlier, it even has a nice bar attached.
I make it a lazy day to Prae, why not, this gives me time to visit the Miuang Pii forest park on the way, an interesting place where the various types of volcanic rock have eroded to form tall columns - the name means, 'city of ghosts'.  I have plenty of time for sightseeing in Prae too, it's another nice, unspoilt place with a pleasant walking trail along the city wall, many old teak houses, and a lot of museums too.  One next to my hotel is dedicated to the Free Thai movement, the resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War Two. Pretty dead in the evening here mind you, though after some wandering I find a restaurant, by the bus station.
I keep on south, route 101 has got pretty busy, but I find some minor roads leading up into the hills, I seem to be stronger now and manage to keep pedalling.  I leave Prae province, into Uttaradit, if it sounds Indian that is because like many names here it is derived from Sanskrit.  Once again the provincial capital has the same name, and seems a good place to stop - it's a bit of a letdown after Naan and Prae though, straight streets lined with modern(ish) buildings, many shops at ground level, all shut at night of course.  Nonetheless I find a bar, and eat some tasty Tom Yam Gung.
I seem to have left the mountains behind, the way ahead looks flat, so I can do a long day, over a hundred kilometres to Sukhothai.  I find a route away from the main road, this makes for nice cycling between the paddy fields, with various bird species fishing in them. I make good time to Sukhothai, the first capital of Thailand, they say - to be honest a somewhat dubious claim, it was just one of many city states in the region, and the story of legendary king Ramkhamhaeng inventing Thai script can be taken with a pinch of salt.  The old city is twelve kilometres away, it sounds very impressive, so I decide to take two days off to explore, and find a slightly down at heel hotel - but no matter, there is food and beer nearby.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Cycling Southeast Asia : 2

Day four of my trip turns out to be a hell of a day, so many hills, all day I am going up and down, sometimes so steep I can barely push up, and I am testing the brakes on the way down too.  There are some lovely views at least, but it takes some ten hours to reach my destination, Chiang Klaang... I have my own little flat today, courtesy of a nice Norwegian chap named Tomas - he even gives me his dinner to eat and goes to buy me beer while I shower.  And I get to watch Arsenal destroy Tottenham, can't be bad.  A slight downside, Tomas reckons the Laos border police won't let me take my bike through - we shall see...
Of course the last bit of Thailand - hopefully - involves more crazy hills, but it is only sixty kilometres, and I reach the Laos border at 3:30pm.  And indeed, Laos border control tell me I can leave my bike and walk in if I want to, but I can't take the bike without papers from a tour company.  I suspect they are worried that lone travellers will be attacked by bandits!  A kafkaesque process ensues, I push the bike up the large hill that sits between the Thai and Laos checkpoints, only to be told I have to go back again and buy a Laos visa, just so that I can get back into Thailand...  This is all a little bit annoying, not least, my GPS reckons there are many hotels a mile or so into Laos, back in Thailand there is maybe, one.  It turns out to be a... half built military museum?  But, I chat to an army cadet who is hanging about, and he shows me a nice little, brand new house I can stay in, the price being a donation, amount 'up to me'.  Good thing I knew that phrase.
So, no real choice but to head back the way I came, it is still very pretty, and at least more down than up in this direction.  I stay on route 101, the main highway in these parts, for eighty kilometres or so, as far as the small town of Pua.  I am just in time for a pleasant stroll around the lake opposite my hotel as the sun sets, and the locals enjoy a bit of Zumba!  Searching the internet for 'bar Pua' is a bad idea it seems, but I find a nice one anyway.
From here it's a short, easy run to Naan, the provincial capital, time for day off I think.  Kind of unspoilt here, plenty of Thai tourists, but no farang apart from me.  Good to have a day of sight seeing, I climb a big hill with a fine view of town, and visit many temples, one of which has the famous 'Hak Naan', that is, 'Naan whisper' - part of a large mural, it depicts a heavily tattooed gentleman making what I am sure is an entirely proper suggestion to a traditionally dressed young lady.  There are no bars here!  My first night, I end up in a restaurant by the river where I am only customer, a bit awkward to be honest.  On the second night I do rather better, finding a no frills little place that going by the posters and indeed video they have playing, is run by local celeb, chef Uthai.  He even comes out for a chat, and compliments me on my Thai!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Cycling Southeast Asia : 1

Time for another cycling adventure!  I am back in Chiang Mai, having spent a month brushing up on my Thai, but my visa is about to run out so I need to leave the country.  My plan then is to make virtue from necessity, and ride over the border into Laos, and then on to Vietnam.  What can go wrong?
I start by heading out of town on Highway 118, it is flat and arrow straight, so easy enough for the first thirty kilometres or so.  But then I hit mountains, this is hard going, a climb up to three thousand five hundred feet, and it doesn't help that they are rebuilding the road, slogging up a gravel surface is not great.  Still, I can often ride or push on the packed dirt of the new road, avoiding the traffic.  And it sure is nice to stop along the way for a paddle in a cool mountain stream....  On the other side of the hill I find hot springs, huge fountains of sulphurous water, most cool - well, actually hot, so hot people are boiling eggs!  Next to the springs there is an amazing Angkor Wat themed resort, half built then abandoned...  A little further is my hotel, turns out the 'room' is little wooden house in traditional Thai style, no restaurant though so I head back to the hot springs for pad Thai.
There's more up and down the next day, worth it for the beautiful mountain scenery, including an impressive waterfall at my lunch stop.  I consume som tam, allegedly made with a single chilli - if so it was a big one.  It's a long push to high point, then a fun freewheel for ten kilometres or so, and then not far to my destination for the day, Phayao, a decent sized place nicely located by a lake.  My hotel here is a bit of a change, it has all mod cons, and I also find a rather classy restaurant with music, where I think I confuse them by eating two persons worth of food - barring all the salted egg anyway.
Next morning I take time to visit the lake, take a photo or two, and make like the Thai tourists and feed the fish - no western tourists here.  Then an easy day of cycling across a flat flood plain, stopping for lunch in Jum, guay tiaw luuk chin muu, that is noodles with pork balls.  I reach Chiang Kam before 3pm, it's not much of a place, but I find a nice hotel for only three hundred Baht, and a bar withheld good food, plus shouty Thai men.  It turns out they are the band, the music is good, if loud.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

France - Belgium - Holland Cycling : 7

Distance this section : 329km
Distance completed : 2,162km

Tower on the outskirts of Den Haag.
I follow a familiar route from Amsterdam, through Haarlem then down the coast, this is the way that I went on a rather shorter trip a few years ago - it seemed a long way to cycle at the time.  Now it doesn't seem too far, which is good as the weather has turned, it rains on and off, and there seems to be a strong wind against me the whole way, this makes for hard riding for all that it is totally flat.  It's good to get on the ferry, which doesn't depart until 10pm, but they let me board at seven, time for dinner, beer, and sleep then.

Back in England, I found canals to ride along here too.
Not enough sleep mind you, this is not a long crossing so I need to get up early, breakfast is welcome anyway.  Not so welcome is making a cold start through a constant drizzle of rain, my feet quickly go numb, this is really not terribly pleasant.  The going is flat enough through Essex, but English cycle paths are a bit of a shock to the system after the smooth tarmac I enjoyed on the continent.  One long off road section is the Flitch Way, yet another old railway line, and mostly not too bad, but some sections are horrible rutted mud.  I ride through the exotic environs of Colchester, Braintree, Bishops Stortford, and on to Stevenage, to spend a pleasant evening with my Aunt and Cousins, being back in England I can have a proper roast Sunday dinner, yay.

Avoiding English roads by any means necessary.
One last section to do, I really need a rest now.  England feels very built up, I cross many motorways, my route is mostly off road though, there is more old rail line, and plenty of canal tow path too - the paths are still terrible compared to France and the Low Countries, sometimes more like a muddy, rutted farm track than anything else.  Unsurprisingly I get a puncture, and progress is slow, this route seems longer than the ninety-nine kilometres I thought it was.  It's getting dark by the time I cross the Thames, my lights go on, I'm riding on roads now and there is scary traffic, English drivers often making no allowance for my presence.  I make it as far as my brothers place, I was planning to just pop in and say hi, and indeed they say they're tired after a weekend away and will have an early night, but this suits me just fine, I'm sure they are happy to have an unexpected guest for the night.  Then the following morning I just have another half hour to ride, albeit on a very unpleasant road, to mum and dads and that is the end of the trip.

Millenium milepost - one thing they don't have on the continent.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

France - Belgium - Holland Cycling : 6

Distance this section : 279km
Distance completed : 1833km

In the tunnel.
I follow a cycle path alongside a railway line from Ghent as far as Antwerp, it is very flat.  In fact all the land here is flat, no sign of hills, the horizon is not far away, it does make this country feel kind of small.  Barring my way to Antwerp is the Sheldt, somehow much bigger here than in Ghent - how to get across?  The answer turns out to be a tunnel, quite exciting with its funicular style lifts.  Antwerp is a big, busy port city - I do glimpse some historic looking bits, no time to stop though.  Along a canal to the wonderfully named Sint Job in 't Goor, where I camp and obtain pizza, and yes, more yummy beer.

I ride into Holland without noticing, it is also very flat, but seems to have more trees than Belgium.  There are lots of other bikes here, all going faster than me, though I do notice many of them seem to be electric - can't help but feel this is cheating.  I ride along the top of dikes and past windmills, then through Dordrecht, a large and industrial seeming place.  A little to the north of the city I find a rather expensive campsite, but at least have a cheap meal of tent pasta.

Much water, very wet.
More Dutch scenery follows, I ride through polders, narrow rectangles of cultivated land between parallel drainage ditches.  Then through the outskirts of Rotterdam and back into the countryside - Holland is really very wet, my path is often a little strip of land with substantial bodies of water to either side.  Getting into the afternoon, I ride alongside the river Amstel, this is turning into a long day, finally I make it into Amsterdam, and then out the other side to camp at Durgerdam.  This is a familiar spot, it is still very nice with the little wooden houses on one side of the dike, and houseboats moored up on the other.  Seems I am here just in time for the weather to change, I take a day off during which it rains a fair bit, so I mainly sit around in Amsterdam and drink beer, then back to the campsite - last night's burger was good, and so, it turns out, is the spätzl.


Friday, 21 September 2018

France - Belgium - Holland Cycling : 5

Distance this section : 243
Distance completed : 1554

Missing of the Somme Monument.
I continue along the Veloroute Memoriale as far as Arras, passing many WW1 cemeteries and indeed monuments - a notable one being to the Missing of the Somme, some seventy thousand names engraved on it, just those whose bodies were never found, in this one region, and in fact just from the English and South African forces.  A little further on is the  Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge, here the ground is a mass of craters, and there are restored trenches for me to walk through, wondering about the huge sacrifices made a hundred years ago, for so little.

At the Belgian border.
My route takes me into the Pas de Calais, a populous region it seems, and there are massive slag heaps showing the mining history around here.  This, the canals, and brick houses makes it all feel quite English.  I ride through the suburbs of Lille, a very big place, big enough to have actual young people, and also beggars.. then a bit of countryside, and I am into Belgium without ceremony.  Not far to my first Belgian campsite at Tournai, a nice place with cobbled streets, and a substantial triangular 'square' hung with guild banners.  I get a pizza and some Leffe, well I am in Belgium now.

In Sint-Baafskathedraal, with whale skeleton.
I follow the river Scheldt out of Tournai, very easy and flat cycling this.  On through Oudenaarde, where some sort of horse festival is happening, there are all sorts from tiny ponies to big draught animals.  I make excellent time to Ghent, which turns out to be a really nice place to take a day off, there is much to see, such as the splendid medieval castle.  I visit the Cathedral and at least look at a copy of its famous altarpiece, the 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' - there is also an unexpected whale skeleton.  And my friend Chris has come to visit, much consumption of the wonderful Belgian beer ensues.

The Castle of the Counts.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

France - Belgium - Holland Cycling : 4

Distance this section : 253km
Distance completed : 1311km

Crossing the Seine.
From Brionne, I follow a pleasant cycle route as far as Évreux, where I need to detour to Decathlon to buy some gas for cooking - it seems to be the only French stockist for standard threaded canisters.  I cross the Seine at Vernon, then ride into Giverny, where there are lots of tourists, day trippers from Paris it seems, drawn by a parade of gardens and art galleries.  A little further and I find myself on a familiar route, the Avenue Verte from London to Paris, indeed tonight I am heading back to Dangu, my first campsite in France back in 2016.  Good to get there, it has been a long day, sadly this time though there is no peacock.

Camping at Dangu again.
The next morning I ride a little further along the Avenue Verte, then a decent road route for most of day.  This seems to be chalk country, I see little quarries, and chunks of flint in the fields, it feels very English.  There are lots of other cyclists, generally (even!) older than me, they have better bikes though.  Mind you, I don't think their racers would be suited to the last fifteen kilometres or so of my route, the 'Coulée Verte' is another old rail line, but the 'verte' bit is right - much of the surface being grass.  Camp is at Loeuilly, not a lot here but it is no problem to ride a couple of kilometres back to Conty for beer and merguez.

On the Coulée Verte.
From Loeuilly, the Coulée Verte continues a little way, then I ride into Amiens, a substantial place which takes a while to get through, though much of it on riverside paths, so nice and flat.  Indeed I'm now alongside the 'Somme Navigable', and I am starting to pass World War 1 cemeteries - this will be a theme of the next few days.  But a short day today, good as I am tired, need to rest and do some washing.  Camp is in a proper town, Albert, so I treat myself to a fine dinner, there is ficelle picarde, it is good.

Relics of war in Albert.