Blokes on their spokes – a journey through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam…….
1) I’ve always loved the thrill of travel. Anywhere will do, whether it’s a weekend in France or a year long trip to South America, the thrill never leaves me. I doubt it ever will.
It’s not just the trip itself, it’s the anticipation, the planning, the expectation. Each trip, taken outside one’s comfort zone is one that will eventually broaden that zone, at least that’s what I believe. Each trip gives the traveller a different experience to the next person. Each trip makes and takes memories that, hopefully, will be remembered fondly by the adventurer for the rest of their life.
I’ve never taken life as seriously as perhaps I should have done, but I do take my travelling seriously. In my 31 year police career, I took my job seriously, when I really needed to, that is. I could never really apply my heart and soul into reporting ‘offenders’ for trivial ‘offences’. I recall reporting motorists for speeding, perhaps five miles over the speed limit and thinking, “Is this really what life is all about?”
It wasn’t what life was all about, of course, and my first sojourns into the world of travel only confirmed what I knew all along. Life is about much more than being a successful businessman, a senior ranking officer or a CEO of an organisation. It’s about appreciating how beautiful this world is, and understanding other people and their cultures from other parts of it. What a pitiful waste of a life it would be to become one of the above and not to have any real understanding of our role as individuals on earth. Indeed, so much can be learnt from the different cultures of the world and it would be little more than a distant dream to truly understand any more than a few of them.
So, why this trip?
In late June, 2014, I returned, with my wife and two daughters, from a four year stay in Australia. An interesting time, but not awe inspiring enough to truly capture my heart and soul. I longed for home, Oxford, England, and my friends and family. Anyway, I digress.
My wife wanted a holiday on the way home. I did not. I wanted an adventure, another trip outside the comfort zone.
We arrived, via a one night stay in Kuala Lumpar, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The tiny airport took what felt like an eternity to pass through. I was eager to get outside the airport explore what was for me, a ‘new’ country.
After emerging into the small dusty car park outside and being met by two ‘tuk tuk’ drivers (who, I’m ashamed to say, I treated with suspicion!), we were driven along dusty roads to our hotel. So began two of the happiest and most enlightening months of my life (so far).
I fell in love with Indochina. I believe in love at first sight. This was my second time I’d experienced it (first time was my wife, of course!).
Following my return to England, I spent the following months and years longing to return to Indochina. As I write, I still have those feelings of excitement and anticipation. I know I’m going back. I can’t wait.
2) Hatching the plan.
April 2017 was an interesting time for me. Not in a good way. I was in a dull, boring, driving job that gave me no real job satisfaction at all. Life was becoming a little tedious and I recognised something within me that I found slightly disturbing. I have always looked on the bright side of life, as the song goes, but in early 2017, I was struggling to do so. I was listening to the news on the radio all day and quite frankly, the news was depressing. Literally. North Korea, terrorism, Syria, political instability…..it just went on and on…
My family were in New Zealand visiting family and the solitude, both in my van and at home, was not conducive with a fun lifestyle or indeed, a healthy attitude to life in general.
Fortunately my knights in shining armour were much closer than I realised. The week prior to my family returning from New Zealand, I had organised a cycling trip in Provence with two great friends, Chris and Matt.
We spent a night in an awful hotel close to Luton airport prior to the early morning flight to Avignon.
It took around twenty four hours for me to start feeling more like ‘my old self’. My feet were again being planted back on planet earth by these two great friends. The exercise helped, of course, but at the conclusion of the trip, I felt like a completely different person to the one who had met the lads a week before.
Our last night in Provence was spent in Nimes. We had left our hired bikes (Cannondale road bikes) in Avignon. We all had a touch of the ‘last night on holiday’ blues. We left the hotel in search of a bar and restaurant to drown our sorrows and reminisce about the previous seven days. A great trip it was, too.
We ended the evening in a Vietnamese restaurant near the Nimes colliseum. The talk soon turned to where the next trip was going to be. I looked at the place mat on the table and suggested that the next trip should be a big one. A cycling trip in France is one thing, but a longer trip to somewhere exotic would be quite another.
I borrowed the waiter’s pen and drew a map on my napkin.
‘How about it?” I said after suggesting a crazy trip around Laos, Cambodia and ending in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Hugging the Mekong river and it’s tributaries most of the way. Homesteads, cheap hostels and hotels. Wherever our bikes may lead us.
I suspected that Chris and Matt would be stepping out of their comfort zone. Well, that would make three of us.
Our motto in Provence had been ‘Toutes pour un, un pour tous’. All for one, one for all.
The decision was made. Now it was time to plan.
That was eight months ago. We shall depart these shores bound for Bangkok in twelve months time. Time will fly, before we do.
3) The Bike
Well, the day came and went. I went into Oxford to collect my new bike, selected after hundreds of hours of careful thought and deliberation. I’m usually good at decision making, but this was a big one for me. Bike zone in Oxford city centre matched a 15% off offer and I agreed to purchase. A weight off my shoulders. No more checking every day to see if the Cube Cross EXC was for sale anywhere in the UK for less than the RRP of £1399.
Upon collection I checked the beast over. Not a beast, but a beauty. To me at least. She wasn’t a new girlfriend, or a rival for my my wife, but I was going to be spending many romantic hours with her in the coming months and years….hopefully. I wasn’t too sure about the tyres. Mountain bike type tyres, a bit knobbly and not my preferred choice. More on them shortly. As for the pedals, well, why oh why such a good bike has such average pedals is beyond me. I changed the pedals before I bought it for some Shimano clip-in pedals. They are the ‘clip in’ on one side, ordinary flat on the other. Personally, I like clip-in pedals, but they are not for everybody. I bought these particular pedals because if, a big if, your cleats bend or worse still, get damaged on a long ride, or, as Matt C found in Provence, your shoe gets locked onto the cleat, it can be a major issue. These pedals are familiar to me. I have them on my Ridgeback and they are superb.
I put my pin number in the bank card machine and walked out of the shop into St Michael Street. My first issue was after just 5 yards. The auto lock for the forks just didn’t work. Minor adjustment back in the shop and I was on my way home. It felt exhilarating, cycling home on my new companion. It handled well. I knew that I could have the bike checked thoroughly after six weeks of use. I intend to put a few miles on it by then.
The gears and brakes are all good. Only comment at this stage is that when the disc brakes get wet, they do sound like a thousand klaxon horns at a Germany football match when next applied. When Germany are winning, that is. I am hopeful there is a solution to this, hopefully it’s a ‘user error’ rather than a permanent feature. The gears are not just good. They are superb. The riding position is excellent, although the seat feels like you are sitting on a razor blade. Thick padding on the lycra shorts is a must or I will be walking like John Wayne in 12 months time.
A week later, Matt C and I cycled into Oxford to visit the premises of ‘Broken Spoke’, a cycle repair business run by real cycling enthusiasts who know their stuff. It’s in Pembroke Street. There was a warm welcome by the leading mechanic, Ella (?) who greeted us with enthusiasm about our forthcoming venture. We are going to need knowledge about our bikes, for although I have some limited cycling experience, I am aware it is nowhere near enough to take on ‘the trip’. I have never owned a bike with disc brakes. I have only limited experience of front suspension (all negative experiences, I’m afraid) and gear adjustment has for me, been a trial and error experience. We need to learn. Chris couldn’t come with us, but he will need to. He’s clever bloke and can turn his hand to anything. He’ll pick it up easily. Matt was an officer in the Royal Engineers and fought at Rorkes Drift. Or so he told us. Well, he certainly was an engineer in the army. He’s an annoying chap to those of us that don’t possess his creativity and ingenuity. He can turn his hand to anything. Painting, writing, constructing and sometimes bluffing himself into creating some quite brilliant ‘things’. Some of them may have you reaching for the Yellow Pages ‘psychiatrists’ section. Others leave you in bewilderment. Some may mock or laugh. Some just scratch their heads in amazement and begrudging admiration. I know which camp I’m in. I’ve got a very itchy scalp.
It was a good visit. Very informative and we will be regular visitors in the days, weeks and months to come.
Matt then whisked me off for a well earned beer. The best plans are always made in the pub. At least I think that’s the expression.
A few days later I took the ‘beauty’ off for a circuit around Kidlington. Hampton Poyle, Bletchingdon and Bunkers Hill onto the canal towpath and home. Not too far, but a beautiful therapeutic de-stressing ride. Well, back to those tyres. Nice little nobbles that give a decent grip on mud and grit. However, they are next to useless on a towpath that has recently been trimmed to ensure a clear path. For walking, that is. Not great for cyclists, though. As I enjoyed the frosty morning air I was thinking, ‘this bike even has hidden rear suspension’. Fantastic, I thought, until I looked down and saw the rapidly deflating rear tyre. I stopped and started the long walk to the nearest road. Some passing walkers were most impressed with the polite cyclist getting off his bike to let them walk past. I informed them of the real reason I had alighted, and the male walker remarked that the front tyre had also “quite a low pressure as well”. I also saw that the front tyre was a low pressure, too. Yes, two punctures in a few minutes. The thorny prickly branches strewn across the towpath made a cycle journey on it almost impossible. Rather than revert to a rant using Anglo saxon phrases, I immediately realised that this was a very valuable lesson. Change the tyres! I then bought two new ‘Schwalbe Marathon’ tyres at half price, online, as soon as I got home. There are countless tyres on the market and they are all different. Some are better quality than others. I hadn’t really understood the differences in some of them. They look similar, after all. I have a better understanding now. Learning by experience is no doubt something I will be doing a lot of in the coming months.
The dream team met up on 18th January 2018 for a ‘pre-trip planning’ lunch at The Black Prince, Woodstock. We had each travelled on our bikes. One of them even had shiny new tyres. There will be many more lunches to follow in the coming months but several important topics arose.
Matt the engineer presented some baggage carrying gadgets for our perusal. Chris and I looked them over and showed polite interest. I want to travel as light as possible. I know there will be times I need to carry it all, for example to and from the airport. Matts new bike for the tour, a Trek DS4 is slowly acquiring some ingenious additions to its frame for Matt to carry his toys. In all honesty, they all make perfect sense but of course I won’t tell him.
I presented Matt and Chris with a late Christmas present (for the team). It was, at great expense, a balloon modelling kit. A strange gift? Why that? What for?
Well, back in 1991, I was a passenger on a tediously long bus journey in Chile. When the bus stopped at a small town plaza, an elderly (about 58) backpacker sat down on a bench and started blowing up balloons and hey presto, he was producing rabbits, dogs, swords and the like. Within ten minutes, what seemed like the whole town had gathered to watch him and receive their inflated pets and other amazing creations. Balloon sword fights took place all around the square by squealing delighted children. A beautiful memory etched strongly in my memory. I’ve unashamedly stolen that idea. We will be cycling through very poor, very isolated villages and towns and I think it’s important to display immediate friendliness and approachability. Otherwise we may go hungry or occasionally sleep on a bench getting savaged by mosquitoes. I believe this is an excellent way to try to avoid that possibility. I hope it’s good investment.
So, Matt made an annoyingly good ‘dog’. So good it was presented to a delighted fellow customer in the pub. I made a passable bee that was placed on the medieval suit of armour that adorns the entrance to the pub. Chris made, um, a rather strange swan resembling a rather tangled display of sausages in a butchers shop widow. The ending of the ugly duckling came to mind. “Me, a swan?” Well, no it wasn’t a beautiful swan, but it certainly made a few people laugh. A great beer drinking activity!
I raised the issue of insurance. It’s a very important subject that needs to be considered in all trips of this length and nature. I discussed a particular annual insurance scheme that includes trips of up to 65 days, which will be roughly the anticipated length of our trip.
Both Matt’s then enquired about Chris’s commitments to both Liz’s horse and his plans for moving house. We were assured both would be put aside for the venture. Chris is, compared to me, an entrepreneur, and his coffee selling business would also need to be run in his absence. He is confident that all contingency plans will be in place in twelve months time. The minor bombshell he dropped on us was that Liz, his partner, is blissfully unaware that we are going to be gone for ten weeks. We know Chris is as excited as Matt and I about this trip, so I know the conversation will soon take place.
The first four nights of our trip are taking shape. First night, on the plane. Second and third nights, relaxing in Bangkok, at theTwin Towers Hotel. Fourth night on the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, arriving early morning. Then, the same day, we will load our bikes onto a minibus for the 3-4 hour journey to Chiang Rai. We will arrive in Chiang Rai tired. The next day will be the actual start of the trip that will, God willing, be treasured in our memories for the rest of our lives. Less than twelve moths to go.
4) Not long, now.
Well, another meeting to discuss our plans, most of which have already been formulated. We think, and hope that we have thought of everything and we feel ‘ready to go’. We still have a few weeks yet.
I spent six days in Bavaria in September cycling up some beautiful alpine routes and testing my stamina for our upcoming challenges. Northern Laos will present similar challenges, there are some very high mountains there, too. I felt as strong as a lion when I came home, unfortunately it doesn’t last long. At least I feel confident that I will cope. Time will tell.
We’re all in good spirits. Life’s good.