Pedalnam….Biking  Vietnam Part 2

As I sit on the shores of Cambodia’s beaches watching the waves lazily slap the shores, the sweat and fatigue of the last month seem like a distant memory….I almost have to pinch myself to remember what we put ourselves through during our 28 day traverse down the length of Vietnam on two (not entirely trusty) wheels.

But indeed, we did it.  As we turned down the small alley in Vietnam’s southern metropolis that hid our hotel, we dismounted and realized, that was it.  No more early mornings.  No more stinky gear, no more pedalling.  We had set out to get as far down the length of Vietnam as our bikes would allow, and they had indeed taken us the whole way. Twenty eight days and 1800kms after pulling out of Hanoi, we arrived in Saigon.  

While I hope my life will contain many more, this will forever remain on the list of our ‘trips of a lifetime’.  Byron and I both strive for and seek out challenges, enjoying that which pushes us both physically and mentally, and this trip was no exception.  Day in and day out, we got up, put on our often rather repulsive smelling jerseys and shorts, and aimed for a spot on the map a relative good distance south from us.  As we got stronger we found we could average about 100kms a day, but that often varied depending on the terrain and distance to the next town  where we may or may not find a guest house (fortunately we always did).  On our slowest, and probably most difficult day going over the mountain pass to Dak Glei in Vietnam’s central interior, we managed to grind out only 58kms, all of which were uphill.  Other days, when the wind was at our back and the road seemed to always slope away under our tires, we rode as far as 132kms.  It seemed that luck was on our side for much of the way with weather as well; we left Hanoi just as the winter weather was setting in, and were able to keep it behind us for most of the way.  We met a system in Hue that kept us over an extra day as the city was deluged in a continual downpour, but for the most part we rode through only mild showers, which left us no more drenched then we already were in our own sweat.  At the top of the pass on our slowest day we donned our jackets and stopped for a hot coffee; the first time we specifically requested it.  We chuckled about how acclimatized we had become and kept the jackets on until we reached the warm valley bottom below.  

With a hardy constitution, an open mind, and a little bit of spirit I would recommend this trip to anyone.  Vietnam is a beautifully diverse country, both naturally and culturally.  As mentioned in my last post, it’s difficult to go more than a kilometer or two without a joyfully shouted ‘hello!’ from a stranger, or a wave and honk from a passing vehicle.  Vietnam can also break your heart in the same instance it lifts it though; as you pass through a village that consists of nothing more than a few poor farmer’s shacks, or you swerve your bike through the garbage and stray dogs lining the streets you realize culture, education and economics have not yet allowed for the same standards we are so fortunate to enjoy at home. 

But travelling is one of the best reminders that we are all different, and life plays out in many different ways for us all on earth.  It gives one reason to examine and reflect on your own life and habits, and perhaps better understand not only humanity, but your own self as well.  As we continue our travels through South East Asia I can only hope we stumble upon more crazy adventures and experiences like we found in Vietnam, and continue to learn and grow along the way.

xo Alison and Byron

*For those of you who are thinking of embarking on a bike trip through Vietnam, I can only say;  DO IT!  You wont’t regret it, and as Byron and I figured, if the bikes break down beyond repair you can always thrown them in the ditch and catch the next bus to the city.  You never know till you try! 
   

  
  

Breakfast time  

 

  

  The double chair, all day everyday

  

  
  

Coffee time
  
  

  

  

  

  

 

 
  

  
  

   

 
 
  

Four Wheels and a Scheme…Biking Vietnam Part 1

Well, against all odds we found two bicycles and bags that would fit our (excessive) gear, and made it out of the city of Hanoi alive.  Our crazy scheme came to fruition and our legs were only starting to realize what they were in for as we pedalled out of the city at 6am 22 days ago, with little to no idea what was in store for us.  It all started out so simple.. I came across A Cruising Couple’s blog post while we were still finishing up our time in Laos, and it sounded like a great idea; buy some bikes in Hanoi, pedal roughly 1600kms to Ho Chi Minh City, sell the bikes, and call it a day.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think either of us were under any illusion that this was going to be easy; but we figured we’re both pretty fit, we enjoy biking, and we were looking for a new means of travel through Vietnam, so how hard could it be?  As we sit a little under 400kms from Ho Chi Minh City though, I realize this has been the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life.  But it has also been one of the most rewarding.  After we stopped for a water break at the top of a series of never-ending hills the other day, Byron turned to ask me if I would ever consider doing this again, knowing what I know now.  And I said absolutely.  There have been moments where I have cursed myself for coming up with this idea, cursed Byron for being stronger and faster, cursed the wind for blowing in my face and not at my back, and cursed the sun for not spending enough time behind the clouds during the heat of the day.  But each time my mind turned sour, it would only be a matter of minutes before the vista of green jungle would remind me of the beauty surrounding us, or a sharp ‘hello!’ would come crying from the depths of a house we were passing by, as the delighted and humoured Vietnamese would see us and shout out a greeting. I swear if we were counting, there may be a hello for every kilometer we’ve pedalled.

Yesterday we came across the first bikers we’ve crossed paths with so far on our journey; it was like we found the only other fish left in the sea, we were so excited to stop and share our stories with each other.  And they said something interesting that stuck with me; of all of the countries they’ve pedalled through so far (Vietnam is their fifth!), Vietnam has been their favourite for one simple reason: the people.  And it couldn’t be more true; whether they’re laughing at or with us or offering a helping hand, the Vietnamese people have warmed our hearts and given us a boost whenever we’ve needed it most.

So for now I’ll leave our story at that and wait until we’ve pedalled our last kilometer into Ho Chi Minh City to write about this jouney at length.  But I will also recommend that if you’ve got a harebrained idea up your sleeve and you’re not sure if it’s going to work, go for it.  You never know where the road will take you, and you can be sure you’ll at least get a few ‘hellos’! along the way. 🙂

ps – check out Tan and Aleu’s blog and facebook page on their biking journey so far…they make us look like amateurs over here!

xo Alison and Byron

A Little Laos

    From the beauty of Chiang Mai, Thailand, we left heading north then east, bound for a border and river journey into the heart of Laos. With new friends by our side we stocked up on a few essentials and prepared for the cruise that would take two days down the Mekong, stopping only to spend the night in a remote village perched on the edge of the swift moving muddy water. The trip down the river was beautiful; with time on our side we were afforded scenes of towering limestone peaks jutting up out of the landscape like lost teeth, remote villages reached only by boat, and slowly spiralling whirlpools our captain kept only faintly out of reach. After many hands of cards, chapters of our books and stories later, we arrived at Luang Prabang in the heart of Laos. Once under French colonial rule, the heart of this old city still holds on to many architectural pieces influenced by the time, and is now recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. We spent our days touring around the city and then its surrounding countryside, enjoying waterfalls and swimming holes by day and the food, culture and people by night. With hidden bars tucked over the river, colonial architecture, croissants and sprawling night markets, the city offers a beautiful blend of old and new as two cultures mesh into one unique urban atmosphere. It was a warm welcome to the country, and definitely a city we’d return to in a heartbeat.      

    Since we had run out of river boat options, we were left with limited options to head south to Vang Vieng and ended up on one of the more harrowing bus rides of the trip thus far. Unfortunately, as a local later explained, corruption runs rampant in the road building industry in Laos, and more often than not the funds allocated to the winning contractor end up being used for only half of the agreed upon work; the other half is used to pay off those that helped said contractor secure the work in the first place. Unfortunately those that suffer the worst of the consequences of these backdrop deals are the likes of us, and any other motorist on the road. It’s a wonder that the bus had any shocks left in it at all by the time we finally reached our destination. 

  A very touristy town which has built its reputation renting inner tubes and hot air balloon rides, Vang Vieng thrives on churning the tourists through the natural wonders and beauty that surrounds the small town. Unfortunately as the hours creep on into the evening and the drinks keep getting poured, some of the less admirable traits of travellers come out, and at times, you aren’t sure if you’ve been transported to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or an LA nightclub. With a good set of earplugs and a reminder that you can act over the age of 21 however, Vang Vieng is still a glorious spot worth the stop on your travels through Laos. We spent our two days there biking through rice fields to azure blue swimming holes, floating casually down the river, exploring stunning caves with hidden temples and enjoying all of the local treats the street vendors had to offer.

    With a growing idea of what our next adventure might be we made way for Vientiane, Laos’ capital city in the South. Plane tickets in hand for Hanoi two days later, we spent our last days in Laos exploring the city and learning a little more about the country’s history. Although we had read snippets of stories in our travel guide and rumours of the problems the country’s people still face today, we had no idea for what was in store for us when we visited the COPE center, a facility created by a not-for-profit dedicated to the manufacturing, education and distribution of prosthetic limbs for those affected by both the Vietnam and Secret War between 1964 and 1973. During those years, the Americans completed more than 580,000 bombing missions, making Laos the more heavily bombed country in the world per capita. Over 2 million tons of ordinances were dropped on the country, many of them cluster bombs containing dozens of smaller ‘bombies’ inside, set to detonate either upon impact, or through a variety of either trip-wire or time clock mechanisms. With only a 70% detonation success rate, approximately 80 million of these ‘bombies’ remained undetonated throughout the countryside following the war. More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordinances incidences in the post war period between 1974-2011, and today approximately 100 new casualties occur annually. COPE has done an amazing job in the country thus far to help rehabilitate those affected by these ordinances, and to educate the population on proper recognition and reporting of those remaining in the field. While Canada has never used cluster munitions, they are still available and used in war around the globe today. Warfare is a powerful and indiscriminate means to an end, and it was eye opening and powerful to see a country still in the recovery stages of a battle largely unknown to us both.

  We enjoyed our visit in Laos, but if we returned we would do it different. I think this spectacular country has a lot to offer if you wander off the beaten track, which is unfortunately what we failed to do. But with a little bit of luck we’re going to try and avoid making the same mistake again; once we land in Hanoi we’re setting out to find bicycles, and if all goes well we’ll set off what should be the most challenging adventure of our trip so far as we  attempt to bike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a distance of over 1600kms. With too much gear and not a lot of money to spend on bikes, no matter the outcome I know it will be a journey we’ll never forget. 🙂

Until next time, 

xo Alison and Byron

Our trusty riverboat that guided us down the Mekong

 

Our view over Vang Vieng

  

A sun bear surveys his domain at the bear sanctuary outside of Luang Prabang, where those seized from paochers and illegal traders are brought

  

On the streets of Luang Prabang

A hot air ballon catches the last of the sunset over Vang Vieng

 

Through the rice paddies on our way to the swimming hole outside of Vang Vieng

     
  
 

Kuang Si waterfalls, Luang Prabang

       

Exploring the caves, Vang Vieng

    

Being a tourist and loving every minute of it…

 

Found a rope swing!!


 
   
  
    

But it’s good to know everyone enjoys the water just the same 🙂

  

Prosthetic legs collected and exchanged for newer models hang on display in the COPE education center, Vientiane

  

Mae Hong Son Motorcycle Loop

The easy life in Chiang Mai is hard to leave, but after 6 days in and around the city we figured it was time to strike out and see the countryside, and a motorcycle seemed like the best way to do it. With some self-awareness and assertiveness the roads and traffic are reasonably easy to navigate in Thailand, especially when bikes and scooters flow like pebbles around boulders to the front of the line at a traffic light, assuring a safe start in front of the larger vehicles on the road. Our steed of choice for the trip was a 200cc Honda Phantom, a popular bike styled after the more muscular cruiser bikes of America. A decent bike, it was no problem for getting around the flat city streets, although we did find it to be slightly overloaded and underpowered for the remainder of the trip. But if time is on your side, who cares?

They claim there are 762 curves over the 140km distance from Chaing Mai to Pai, which sounds like a dream on 2 wheels unless those 762 curves are under construction. The road from Dong Palan (where you leave the main road) and Pai was an absolute disaster. Without warning two lanes turn to one, huge potholes appeared, gravel was everywhere, construction occurred without traffic control…you name it and we rode around, or through it. Stopping half way we questioned our sanity and judgment, but kept quiet any suggestion of terminating the trip. Three hours later we pulled into Pai, a small town in the middle of a broad lush green valley with a lazy river snaking its way through town and a large white Buddha statue sitting on the mountain side, presiding over it all. After the ride we’d just been through, it was a very peaceful place to pull into. We found a little guesthouse along the river and sat down to relax with a well earned drink. Pai has become a very popular destination with the backpacker crowd as of recent, and many of those who found it have never left. The town has a developed a very hippy feeling to it, unfortunately it’s a bit of a western one.

We both weren’t ready to get back on the motorbike given the previous day’s experience, so we decided to hang around town and explore. The area around Pai is dotted with farms, rural guesthouses and best of all, waterfalls. We rode the Phantom out to a popular waterfall where the cascading water has smoothed out the rocks, creating a great natural set of waterslides. The cool crisp water was a refreshing break as we splashed with the locals and visitors alike, soaking up the afternoon sun, playing and relaxing all afternoon. 

The next day, relaxed and refreshed, we hit the road. Thankfully we had made it through the majority of construction on the road, and the rest of the trip would see us alone on beautiful smooth blacktop. After some time on the road we stopped to explore a series of caves which have been carved into the limestone mountains, many of them popular tourist destinations, while others lie hidden, yet to be found. The largest and most accessible cave in the region is called Nam Lod, where a river has carved a path straight through the side of the mountain, leaving kilometres of caverns to be explored. A local guide (manditory) and a bamboo raft are the best way to explore this large cave, and for $18 you can spend several hours being guided both on foot and by boat. The main chamber of the cave is an impressive 100 feet high and features numerous stalactites and stalagmites, as well as hundreds of swallows and bats swooping and shrieking their way about the darkness, high above you. The third cavern we were shown by our guide was both fascinating and eerie; the remains of several teak coffins have been discovered and left on display for visitors, thought to be carved by the Lawa tribespeople some two thousand years ago.

After leaving the cave complex we headed south, paralleling the mountain range that makes up the Thai – Burmese border. Two very scenic hours later we reached our destination for the night and the namesake of our loop, Mae Hong Son. A tranquil village centred around a large lake, our guesthouse overlooked a temple and the evening market which surrounded the calm waters. We relaxed in the shade and then headed out for an authentic Thai dining experience, collecting dishes to try by pointing and laughing with the various food cart operators as the rural/tourist language gap was too large to bridge. Bellies full, we fell soundly asleep in the quiet peace of rural Thailand.

Continuing south the following day we bombed down rural roads, flying through shady forests and past endless green rice paddies. There are two different options to complete the loop to Chiang Mai once you leave Mae Hong Son; the longer route continues south until Mae Sarieng before heading east, while the shorter but less travelled route takes you east through Mae Chaem and over Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon. As is our nature, we chose the latter route

Up and down, up and down would be the theme for the days of travel through small farming villages and past fields of banana, rice and corn. Our third day was an amazing one on the bike where we felt entirely alone in the world, only passing the occasional overloaded pickup truck delivering produce to market. After we passed the small village of Mae Na Chon, we stumbled into the Hot Coffee guesthouse, a great little spot which offers quiet private bungalows beside the river. it was only 2pm, but the temptation of a cool swim in the river and a cold beer on the deck was all we need to stop for the night. Our night at Hot Coffee will go down as the most comfortable so far in Thailand; you couldn’t ask for better accommodations or a more welcoming host. As it turns out we weren’t the only ones who thought so, and found ourselves confronted with familiar faces from the downhill mountain bike race we had been at only days before. A father/son duo from the US who now live in Hong Kong were completing the same loop as us only on dirt bikes and the backroads, but after some navigational difficulties with the other members of their group and a flat tire, they found themselves at Hot Coffee for the night. We laughed to think how small this big world truly is, and spent the evening with their group swapping road stories and tales.

Friday morning marked out our last day on the road, and return to the Chiang Mai. Just a easy trip over the highest peak in the land, and hey, we’d be drinking beer by the moat in no time. The day started out cool, and while the bike struggled a bit with the altitude, it was nothing more than we had made it suffer through for the past four days. At the top, we joined the locals in donning our jackets, where 16 degree felt practically chilly after several weeks of much warmer weather. The ride down the other side was a breeze; the road widened out as we rejoined traffic on the freeway and the throttle was opened up, the familiar heat of the valley surrounding us yet again. About 50km out of Chaing Mai we stopped for a cold drink in the shade and a stretch of our legs, the end of our journey in sight.

Now I’ve previously failed to mention in the story so far the issues with the Phantom, our trusty steed that it turned out wasn’t actually all that trusty. We quickly discovered that she refused to start everyday once it got hot; I refused to take issue with it though as there was usually a hill or stretch of road around, and I could pull a fast one on her and get her going every time in second gear, circling back around to pick up Alison after the bike had stubbornly roared to life. So when we mounted the bike for the final ride into town, we were not surprised when it failed to turnover. A push start was initiated with negative results. More push starts were attempted with the same results. The Phantom unfortunately, had appeared to have given up the ghost. We tried and tried to get it going, but to no avail. Our final attempts were made in exasperation in the parking lot of a service station, where a group of employees soon gathered to help us in our quest, pushing me around the parking lot in a futile attempt at motorcycle resuscitation. Now even the Thais were sweating, and Alison and I were a hot mess, our situation beginning to look bad. I rolled the bike into the shade, and we contemplated what to do. While we were cooling down the Thais continued to try and help solve our problem. Soon, some rudimentary tools were located, and every man present to the situation had gathered around, offering advice, already contemplating which piece of the bike to pull apart first. With the group gathered around, the spark plug was checked, the oil was checked, and a few people even scoped out the gas tank situation. All of this still left the phantom spiritless. After a phone call to the rental shop and some use of Google translate, it was settled that we’d take the bike down the road to the local repair shop. After the spark plugs, the oil, and gas were again checked, further discussion with our rental shop decided a truck would take the bike and ourselves to town, where we would be relieved of the beast and their mechanics would be left to solve the riddle of her demise.

As we sat in a shady corner of the shop on some old car seats it became apparent that the truck that would take us to town was currently beside us on the hoist, a Songthaew, which was being frantically repaired before our eyes. A couple hours passed, and after returning from a successful test drive we and the disabled bike were loaded into the freshly repaired truck, heading for town. There are many forms of transport in Thailand, and the Songthaew is one of the many brilliant options of a modern-day vehicle converted for local transportation needs. With two bench seats in the back and a cover for shade, these colourful little trucks rip around town, delivering riders and their loads to and from destinations with enthusiastic efficiency.  

The breeze felt good as we rolled towards town and the driver (and shop mechanic) seemed happy to make an extra buck off of our delivery, in the truck we couldn’t be quite sure was his, or just a customer of his shop’s which he was moonlighting for our purpose. Suddenly the truck slowed, and as it sputtered to a halt on the side of the highway, it became apparent that their quick fix in the shop might not have done the trick. We were now 0 for 2 on transporation. With the hood up, our driver worked to figure and fix. Not surprisingly a crowd gathered, and soon tools were brought out, and everyone went to work. This time however, the result of the communal effort was a success; with a puff of black smoke our truck rumbled to life, and we were off again. We flew into town, and were greeted by a crowd at Mr. Mechanic, our rental agency who through all of this mess had done everything they could to get us back to town at no expense of our own. They were indeed very helpful and apologetic, and after some laughs and reassurance that we weren’t mad, we retired back to the old town of Chiang Mai to sit and laugh over the day, passports and cold beer back in hand.

Our plan for now is to spend the remainder of the weekend relaxing in Chiang Mai, and catch the bus to Laos on Monday. once we arrive in Laos we will take the slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, and from there, who knows!  

Until then

Byron and Alison
Tips for Mae Hong Son Loop by bike:

Rent from Mr Mechanic or a shop with insurance. Although our bike did break down, their response and help was excellent and didn’t cost us extra. They were great to deal with

Get the map ‘The Mae Hong Son Loop’ by Golden Triangle Rider, it’s very helpful and detailed for the journey..

Tour around the towns for guesthouses and shop around for best price; most towns have a lot of options and the prices vary for basically the same thing. 

In Pai we stayed at Golden Hut, in Mae Hong Son we stayed at Johnny guesthouse and outside Mae Na Chon Hot Coffee guesthouse. I recommend all of these places as they are all clean, comfortable and quiet.

Fuel is plentiful along the trip.

The road between Dong Palan and Pai is awful, but when construction is complete it will be an amazing journey. 

There is a cool guest house beside the Nam Lod cave called Cave House, we didn’t stay there because of timing but I would recommend it rather than staying two nights in Pai.

   
  
  

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Chiang Mai

Stepping off the train from Bangkok we were greeted by a cool breeze and a lone pickup truck set to take us and our fellow travellers into town. Surrounded by mountains, Chaing Mai is considered the capitial of northern Thailand, a green landscape of forested mountain peaks and lush farms set in the valley bottom below. In the  heart of Chaing Mai is the old city, a collection of temples and guesthouses spread throughout a web of narrow streets filled with cafes and markets. The sleepy old city is separated from the frantic modern Chaing Mai by a moat, built over 700 years ago to protect its residents against invading Burmese. We booked ourselves into one of the many liittle guesthouses tucked within the old city walls, excited to spend the next few days exploring the city and its surrounding area.   By that evening, we had discovered that one of the old city’s best kept secrets; the Talat Pratu Chaing Mai; a large open air food market where vendors spread along the roaside against the moat and you can  eat to your heart’s content.  We couldn’t think of a better place to eat and drink with new friends, and spent the next few nights doing just that. The only thing better than the warm hospitality of the Thai people is their food, and after a week of eating our way north we decided it was time for a work out. 

             You can do anything you want in Chaing Mai to get your heart rate up, but hiking and mountain biking seem to be the most popular and heavily advertised at all but a few of the tour operator stands you walk by. After sussing out our options we figured we would try something new, and signed up for an afternoon of  Muay Thai lessons. Our estemed trainer Kru Pong stood at best 5’6″,  and picked us up in his hello kitty adorned car.  We were quickly reminded however that looks can be decieving.  Soon after we arrived at the gym and  unloaded the 10 gallons of water Kru brought for us, we got to work. The session started with a full body tiger balm rub down and questions from the trainer for Alison inquiring when she was going to produce a child he could train to fight. After these early pleasantries, Kru proceeded to punish us in the afternoon heat. Although his english was limited, he seemed to have a mastery of numbers above 10, which he frequently used when giving orders of excercises we were to do to for warm up.  He always claimed it was the last set, but it never was. The three hour session was beyond hard for both of us but very rewarding, and by the end of the session Kru wanted Alison to stay for a month so he could turn her into a fighter. 

           After a day of recovery from our training session with Kru, we wandered the town in search of our next adventure.  Curious to see what the local mountain biking scene was like, we popped into Trailhead Tours, one of Chian Mai’s newest bike shops.  There we met Nui, one of Trailhead’s proficient guides and an active participant in the local race scene.   Although we declined a tour, Nui invited us to join him that Sunday to watch one of the national races happening just outside of town.  Due to a broken collarbone which he had aquired only a few days prior he wouldn’t be competing, but he was eager to watch others he knew and happy to have us along for the ride. 

The lush green mountains surrounding Chaing Mai are all protected by some form of park or reserve designation, providing the perfect trail building environment for local riders. The Thailand Gravity series is part of a circuit of downhill races in northwest Thailand which attracts riders from across the country  and as far away as Austrialia and New Zealand. We arrived early enough that Alison and I were able to hike the course while watching riders take advantage of last minute practice runs. The course was everything you’d want; some steep technical terrain, followed by some fast flow leading into the big air for the crowd at the finish. After sweating in the jungle heat slogging to the top of the course we decided the large jump was the best spot to watch, and joined the crowd to cheer on the riders and they (mostly sucessfully) aired it out to everyone’s delight and cheers.  After the race the crowd moved to the finish area to enjoy a cold beer and a riding skills display put on by some of the riders. I found it exciting to be around so many people who loved their sport and their community, the energy was contagious and won’t soon be forgotten.  Alison and I decided then and there that Chiang Mai was definitely going on the list of places to return in the future, but next time with bikes in tow.

   

  

   
    
    
 
   

   
 
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Tuk Tuks and Trains

We landed in Bangkok Saturday morning around 11am. Having managed to convince our bodies to sleep in an only mildly reclined position for 9 hours on the plane over from Los Angeles, we were both determined to make the best of the day and fight off any jet lag until later that evening. After making our way to the end of the skytrain line we jumped aboard a tuk-tuk, the equivalent of a gas-powered rickshaw so colourfully decorated you would think it had just come from the disco.

Unfortunately, there are moments when you look as fresh off the boat as you truly are. After quite a few city blocks I attracted the keen eyes of a motorcycle-mounted pair of purse thieves who clearly saw the weight of my burden and decided to relieve me of some of it. One close pass from behind and a snatch from my chest and they were off into oncoming traffic. Good-bye $15 Bently purse….
After tears, a bout of fuming silence, many choice curse words and some time to cool off, we confirmed that there was nothing I couldn’t live without that was in that cheap little sucker of a purse, and that the most the thieves got away with were my debit, visa and nexus cards, hand sanitizer and lotion, and a pair of ear buds I was rather attached to. So if you happen to be in Bangkok reading this and you run into a set of Thai men on a motorcycle with suspiciously clean, soft hands, punch them for me would you? While the city redeemed itself in the following days, there is nothing more violating or infuriating than having something stolen from you, and it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth having only just arrived in the country. On the bright side though, I got to go purse shopping that night.  

After changing out of the clothes we had been occupying for far too long we headed off into the streets, hungry for some food and beers in the streets of Bangkok. Our hotel was situated in the Banglamphu district, not far from Khao San road where backpackers and vendors crowd the streets and you can find everything from pad-thai to knock-off designer purses and the latest trend in Thai tourist tshirts. We wandered for hours, making our way eventually to a little hole-in-the-wall soup joint that seemed quite popular with the locals. As with everything we ate over the next few days, it did not dissapoint. From red curry to meat-on-a-stick to padthai, we tried whatever we could find. We made it until about 9 o’clock that night, then promptly crashed, excited to do it all over again the next day.

The next day we made for the Chatuchak weekend market, an open-air market that boasts to be the largest in the world (250,000 people and counting attend each weekend). From puppies to vintage clothing to art, you can bet you’ll find it at the weekend market.

For hours we wandered, in awe of everything you could buy. Byron noted that a traveller really didn’t need to pack a bag when heading for Bangkok. One just has to be sure to arrive on the weekend and head straight for the market; within a few hours you’ll have everything you could possibly need.

From the market we made our way back into the heart of the city and headed to Wat Pho, one of the city’s many temples which showcases and displays the Buddha idol. Wat Pho itself houses the longest reclining Buddha, which measures at a stunning 50m long and 15 meters high. Although not well versed in the Buddhist religion, I have always enjoyed the idol and couldn’t help but feel a warm and peaceful glow standing in admiration of this massive form. With intricately decorated and adorned stupas lining the grounds as well (commemorating the first four Chakri kings), it is easy to understand why architecture is held as one of the highest forms of art in the country.

From the temple we made our way over to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of further stimulus for our culture-hungry minds (and possibly a bite to eat while we were at it). Whether it was a special occasion or a nightly occurrence we never found out, but as we entered the streets we were greeted with fireworks and a parade, complete with dancing dragons and crashing symbols. We sat down to dinner at one of the many crowded street food vendor gatherings, and were soon sweating profusely as our dinner was cooked in a pile of searing flames only meters from our table. Again, the food did not disappoint, and we ended the night with happy bellies and full minds at all the city had shown us.

Knowing we would be leaving the city the next day, the following morning we made way for the train station to purchase our tickets, and then on to the Tropical Disease hospital, where on the good advice of our Canadian doctor we skipped getting the Japanese Encephalitis shot until we made it here, where the vaccine was a tenth of the price of what we would have paid back home. Two sore arms later, we were back out on the streets, taking in our last day of sights in the city.

And now, four days later, we have made our way north on the train, heading for Chiang Mai where the mountains, temples and elephants (!!!) await us. After we have our fill of the region we’ll head east into Laos and Cambodia, and who knows where from there. We’re only just getting started! 

xo Alison & Byron
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
 

The Coles Notes:

Here’s to those of you who may be heading to, or are currently in Bangkok

1. Try and take tuk-tuks with netting or webbing on the side to protect your stuff from theives. Be diligent; It’s a big city and a small bag or purse can be ripped right off your chest if you’re not careful and it’s got cheap straps

2. Bring an unlocked cell phone from home. You can pick up a cheap sim card right at the airport (ours was 30days, talk and text, 4G of data for $20CAD)

3. Negotiate or confirm price of transportation before you go

4. Go to the Chatuchak weekend market if you can; you won’t be dissapointed

5. Eat street meat at the busy stalls, and try as much as you’re brave enough to

6. Banglamphu has the cheapest beers we could find (60baht for a tall Chang); anywhere along the river had the most expensive (130baht for a small Chang)

7. Head to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases for a cheap ($25 CAD) Japanese Encephalitis shot if you need it

8. Dried sardines are not that good. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

9. Buy tickets at the train station (at least one day in advance) for any trips; don’t buy them from an agent or side-street shop

10. The A/C cabs on the train can be ridiculously cold; get ready to wear all of your warm clothes on the trip.

Baja Bound

We left the north with dog in tow, heading south for the first time all summer with visions of beaches, palm trees and tropical waters in our heads.  Partly as an excuse to travel to one of our favorite places, and partly because it was a place to park the Delica and swap our dog-sitter for a new one (thank you parents, you’re awesome!), we made Castillo de Arena our destination and jumping point for our soon-to-be travels overseas.

Because we had done this drive twice, we wanted to take a new route and stop and see some family along the way.  Leaving Calgary and Canada after a great time home with family, we headed south through Waterton National Park and the adjacent Glacier National Park across the US border where clear skies afforded us spectacular views of this stunning cross-border park system.  On good family and friend advice we made way for the ‘Highway to the Sun’, a spectacular 85km (53 mile) road that traverses the entirety of Glacier National Park from east to west, allowing visitors to experience the spectacular mountain vistas and wildlife without even leaving their vehicle. (This seems to be a theme in American National Parks.  I can only hope this fosters a greater appreciation for parks nation-wide.)  We were blown away by the scenery, and while not as plentiful as Denali, we had some great wildlife viewing moments that showcased the wilderness that resides in the parks, and why it is so important that we protect them across all borders.

After a couple of cool morning in Montana we looked for a place on the map that would take us off the beaten track; so enter Burgdorf Hot Springs. Tucked up in the hills of Idaho, we were hopeful that the warm waters would pacify the cooler air surrounding us that evening at 7000 feet.  Unfortunately, fires burning in the area delayed us from climbing the northern pass to the springs that evening, and by the time we made our way up into the hills they were closed and we had to make due with a warm dinner instead.  As we soon would discover, dry hot conditions would become the theme of the trip down the eastern California, where fires plagued the hillsides and water levels have been dropping for several years. Docks that once graced lakeshores now sit meters above the water, mocking the boats who only now can dream of docking on their planks.

After leaving Glacier, we made our way south along the mountains as far as we could until turning inland to cross over Idaho for Bend, Oregon, where one of Byron’s cousin’s has recently relocated and we were excited to visit.  Bend (or Bend’Or, as the locals call it) did not disappoint. This is a town where most locals pride themselves in the number of outdoor activities they participate in, and the number of breweries that have sprung up to support their drinking habits after said activities have been accomplished.  Sean, our host (you rock Sean, thanks again for your amazing hospitality!), showed us the best of all sides of Bend.  Not only did we get a chance to check out the local dirt in both their biking and hiking trails, but we spent many nights checking out the local bevvies and entertainment the town has to offer as well.  Byron and I both said it; if there was one place in America we could move to immediately, it would be Bend(‘Or).

Finally though after stealing Sean away from his work commitments for several days, it was time for us to continue our journey south.  From Bend we made our way down through Crater Lake National Park (nothing has ever looked so blue), heading for the towering granite peaks of Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite is a behemoth and mecca for climbers and hikers alike.  As one of the United States’ oldest national parks (established in 1890), its towering granite faces have held climbers and hikers in a trance for decades, beckoning them to ascend its lofty peaks.  Byron and I spent two nights and one day in the park, climbing to the top of the Park’s namesake falls, which, unfortunately, were running dry by this time so late in the season (this surprisingly isn’t a drought factor, the falls usually dry up in the fall due to the limit of the lake which feeds it the majority of the year).  Although the hike offered none of the treasons the climbers experience when ascending its peaks,  the view from the top was spectacular, betraying dizzying heights as you stood leaning over the fence perched on the edge of the peak, wondering just how grounded the support cables were strung into the ground.

From the towering heights we continued to make our way south into the forests of Sequoia National Forest, where equally immense trees awaited our arrival.  Byron and I were both left mesmerized by these trees; what started out as a three hour trek one afternoon ended after 500 meters and too many photos to count; we laughed in the mutual understanding that neither of us was going to make it very far down any trail that day, or any to come; the trees were just too magnificent and overwhelming to allow us to pass with only a short glance.  Each one deserved at least several minutes of awe and admiration for the years it has withstood history, and the conquest of humanity itself.  The oldest tree in the world stands in this park, and it outdates the birth of Christ himself. When one starts to think of everything these trees have withstood, and stood by, you can’t help but stand by and be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it all.  A timespan like that holds no relevance in the human mind.

Once we managed to pull ourselves away from the timber giants, we quickly made tracks for the Mexicali border crossing, eager to feel the sand beneath our toes and hot Baja sun on our faces.  Since we have done the drive a few times and there are a finite number of roads to traverse, we made haste for Dad and Mom’s place, only spending a few nights to enjoying the solitude of Baja southern California before arriving in the casa we so dearly call one of our homes.  Travelling south in the Delica was a treat though; not only were we able to sleep with the back hatch open to let in the warm salty air at night, we could keep our sandy dog outside long into the evening hours to ensure she had ridden herself free of as much sand as possible before joining us in the cab.  The drive down is always warm, fun and exciting in the senses that one feels at home when returning to a place well known.  The Baja holds a magic where it is always the same and yet the subtle negotiations with the land and people are forever changing, challenging, and fun. Nothing is as it was before.  It is a land of love.  And with an open heart and mind, you can always make it out for the better.

And so here we sit, on the last day before our departure, ready for the next phase of our adventure.  With our bellies and our hearts filled, we are ready for the long trek that will take us overseas to Bangkok, and then on to lands unknown.  Unfortunately our original plans to head to Kathmandu were thwarted by political instability and jet fuel shortage, so working with the benefit of time and agenda flexibility we will head where the winds will take us.  First stop is South East Asia, and then possibly India after that.  But who knows!  Here’s to luck, love, and a little bit of adventure.  We’ll see you overseas!

Xo Alison and Byron

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Glacier National Park; elk bugling in the morning and spectacular mountain vistas all day!

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Beautiful morning mist on the lake

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The wooden bridge that would lead us to beautiful Idaho mountain scenery! We were definitely a little nervous crossing it…

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Winter enjoying the sights of ‘dog town USA’ (aka Bend’or)

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We equally enjoyed the sights (and dirt!) or Bend!

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Hiking with our awesome host Sean in the mountains behind Bend.

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Crater Lake National Park (the blue-est of all blues)

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From the top; the Yosemite Valley at its finest.

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That’s a mighty long ways down.

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Just for perspective. See him? Remember, the guy’s 6″5″.

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Winter also seemed to enjoy the bounties of the forest…

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Southern California, USA

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We made it! After months of pants in the north, I could finally bust out the shorts.

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All that sand. She never seems to get rid of it until she’s back in the van……       DSC_0480 

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And then the green appeared! After a few months of summer rain the countryside resembled Hawaii more than Baja…