Monday, 28 March 2011

A Breath of Fresh Air

Bangkok – Chumphon

Our good friend Nick had come out from the UK to join forces with us for our first week’s cycling in Thailand. Being married to a Thai girl, he lived in Bangkok for a few years but had never cycled in Thailand, so we were all keen to explore Thailand from the seat of a bicycle.

We waved goodbye to Aom, Nick’s wife, as we pulled out of the parking bay to join Bangkok’s rush hour traffic. The road that had looked like a minor road on our map turned out to be a six lane highway. Thankfully Bangkok drivers were respectful and there was enough space for everyone. We endured the traffic a further 50km, and as soon as we had cleared Bangkok’s suburbs, were able to join a small lane winding through fertile rice fields and coconut plantations.||

Our stomachs rumbled indicating it was time for a snack so we pulled into one of the many eateries that line the roads in Thailand. The eateries are makeshift kitchens with a scattering of tables and plastic stools. It’s low key and best of all the food is fast, fresh and tasty. Nick was quick to take charge and translated our orders into Thai as we relaxed. We felt lazy leaving it all to Nick but it was so nice to let someone else take charge.

The lush tropical vegetation soon gave way to extensive salt farms in various stages of production. Stopping for some pictures outside a farm we were invited to come in for a closer inspection. Nick got chatting to a sweet old guy who took delight in viewing the pictures we had taken of his workplace. It seemed they both shared a fondness for unusual hat wear!

Salt farm   Nick and a salt farm worker

After learning all there is to know about salt farms we pushed through the hot afternoon stopping regularly to fuel up on iced coffees and eventually arrived in the small town of Samut Songkhram. We had just pulled over to ponder our accommodation options when a police man in smart uniform donned with Raybans pulled up on a motorbike. “Hotel? Follow me”, he motioned as he gunned his motorbike palming the oncoming traffic to stop and pulled away at speed. Chasing him down through the city streets it was clear he was the law as we pulled various illegal manoeuvres to arrive at a comfortable looking hotel. Before we could thank him properly he was off, the sound of his motorcycle roaring through the streets.

Once we had washed we went out in search of food. Glancing around the streets there seemed to be an eatery on every corner and with no menu and little in the way of identifiable foods, we were lost. From a glance the makeshift kitchens edged on street corners and perched in the front of shop fronts all looked pretty similar. But to the trained eye, the placement of condiments, a hanging chicken or a display of veg all have very distinct messages indicating the food on offer. Nick showed us how to read the street food stall language as we passed from stall to stall, squatting in little plastic chairs and devouring the various delicacies on offer, from steamed chicken to fish balls, stir fried noodles, roti with condensed milk and iced tea.

The following morning, we weaved our way to the coastal town of Cha-Am following minor roads and passing through sleepy fishing villages. Nick is naturally very sporty and a keen cyclist, but he had convinced himself that we had somehow become superhuman during the last 10 months and that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with us. Therefore he had decided to go ultralight, travelling on a road bike with only a handlebar bag to hold his possessions. Our hearts sunk when we heard of his plan, and sure enough, Nick was easily coasting along while we huffed and puffed to keep up!

Nick freestyling

At the slightly tacky beach resort town of Cha-Am, we found a hotel with huge air-conditioned rooms. It was there that we encountered the sweetest security guard of all time. After we negotiated to take the bikes up to the room the nice chap with big brown eyes and shaggy black hair insisted on carrying one of the 15kg bikes up the three flights of stairs. With an awkward grip on the bike he threw himself at the first flight of stars with real gusto, marching ahead of us. On the first landing, a mere 10 steps up he had put he bike down and looked uneasy and was soaking wet. We assumed he had got caught in the rain earlier. We indicated this was not our floor, we had another two to go. The same thing happened on the next landing, he was going no further, but we insisted it was still up, what was the reason for the delay? Then it clicked, he was completely out of breath, exhausted, sweating from head to toe! As he stooped over the railing gasping heavily, we tried not to look and busied ourselves in some meaningless conversation. After what felt like an eternity he gritted his teeth, let out an almighty groan and made one last push to the final landing. The poor chap nearly collapsed for his efforts but he couldn’t help hide his delight as he beamed at us from ear to ear. We couldn’t thank him enough, no one has ever gone to so much effort, what a great man.

Due to the heat, we had agreed on an early start (something we are not known for), so we were a little peeved when we got up extra early and it was raining hard. The rain was quite unexpected during the dry season, and it rained all day on and off. Initially we found it quite refreshing, but by the end of the day when we were soaked through we actually started to feel the chills. Thankfully we had a nice tail wind and were flying along.

We were coasting along comfortably with a lovely tail wind and smooth roads when our GPS suddenly indicated a turn off the main road to a suspect looking smaller dirt road. Sticking with our philosophy of road-less-travelled we went for it. The track weaved through muddy villages until it became wetter and wetter until we were cycling in 20cm of murky water. We trudged through this desperately trying to avoid putting our feet down and having wet shoes for the remainder of the day. Ahead we could see a tarmac road but to get to it we had to push our bikes through a rubbish dump – the glamour’s of cycle touring!

Rubbish dump   Cycling through a minor river

We were planning to take a day off at Dolphin Beach, situated near Khao Sam Roi Yot national park. We found a nice little place with bungalows to stay in, but unfortunately the weather was not on our side. On our rest day it was still raining hard, windy and about 16°C – very cold for Thailand, particularly as life takes place outdoors, so we were sitting in the outdoor restaurant with our rain coats and two pairs of socks on!

Guy and Nick were undeterred by the weather and the look on the resort owners face as they asked for the paddles to go sea kayaking. Standing on the beach with the wind howling and white caps blowing Guy was reconsidering the option. He turned around to discuss it with Nick but he was already bounding full steam for the water towing a bright pink 3 manner vessel that looked more like a canal barge than a sea kayak. Splashing and crashing Nick managed to crash it through the swell and return to the shore with vigour. Guy took out the one man kayak but soon tired and watched Nick who seemed to have endless bounds of energy.

Somehow Nick convinced Guy to come out in the barge and moments later he found himself at the front of the 3 person kayak heading full throttle through the break with Nick motoring from the back seat. The swell seemed to be growing steadily stronger as they bashed their way out. As they tipped the crescent of the waves the drop was so sharp that the Kayak was falling fast, leaving Guy flailing in mid air only to be reunited with his seat in a crashing thud. As the intensity and frequency of this serious ass beating picked up Guy found himself numb with laughter essentially draining him off all remaining strength and leaving the vessel at the mercy of the waves. The final nail in the coffin was when they hit the mother of all waves shooting Guy so sky high that he landed one whole seat position back in the middle of the Kayak. Well this was too much to handle and soon the Kayak turned and flipped leaving Guy, Nick and the pink barge washed up on the beach, a very classy finale.

Dolphin Beach   Nick in his pink kayak 

After our day off, the weather improved and we decided to make a quick detour to visit a cave in the national park. “We can cycle there, and then we just have to climb up a little bit”, said Nick who had already been to the cave previously.

Well, we can attest to the fact that more than just a little bit of climbing was involved. We parked the bikes and then scrambled up to the cave over a rocky path for the next 40 minutes. We were the first visitors of the day to Tham Phraya Nakhon cave – there was nobody around and it was quiet and serene. A Thai king had discovered the cave during a storm and built a small pavillion, which was bathed in morning sunlight streaming in from above when we arrived. It was just amazing and made us forget our aching legs as we marvelled at our surroundings.

Phraya Nakhon cave

When we made it back to the bottom and had lunch at the restaurant there, Guy suddenly realised he had forgotten his mobile phone back at the beach resort. A 10km detour was not what we had in mind, seeing that our legs were tired from the hiking and we still had 70km to cycle that afternoon, but Nick solved our dilemma by volunteering to get the phone. On his road bike, the detour wouldn’t take too long, and it was a good opportunity for him to “stretch his legs” rather than cycling at a reduced speed so that we could keep up with him. It also meant we could sit in the restaurant and sip iced coffee.

The road through the national park was beautiful and flat but with scenic hills in the background. The only blip in the scenery were the ever present prawn farms, which had taken over parts of the national park.

Freddie and Nick   Eucalypt plantation

Our destination for the night was Prachuap Khiri Khan, a small town by the sea. According to our guide book, if we blurred our eyes a little, we could imagine we were in the South of France. While that was maybe a bit far fetched, we did find a lovely little French run guest house, and we decided to treat ourselves to a huge fish dinner. Portion sizes in Thailand are pretty small, so we often end up ordering double portions to provide the calories we need for cycling, much to the confusion of the waiters.

Leaving Prachuap Khiri Khan the following morning, we cycled into a national park alongside the coast. Again, our map let us down (could you believe it!) and the only road we could find turned out to be a tiny overgrown track. It looked like a bit of an adventure so we wheeled our bikes on over fallen trees and through the thorny undergrowth, but eventually the track all but disappeared so we gave up and went back to the road waiting for the imminent signs of punctures to emerge – thankfully none.

Having spent a few hours picking our way through the dirt roads of the national park, we were starving. Unfortunately we only passed through very small villages with no restaurants. Eventually, we came past what looked like a restaurant set up for a celebration. We stopped to ask and found out that it was a wedding celebration, and the “restaurant” was in fact a family home. The sister of the groom immediately invited us in.

Benz was very friendly – she and her boyfriend both had a Master in English, so we were able to communicate well. Despite our sweaty, grubby appearance we were made to feel very welcome. Immediately, rice, noodles, fried fish and various curries were brought out, and we were even given a sweet coconut soup as dessert as we sat in the courtyard of their lovely home edged only a few feet away from the glistening blue sea. They kindly offered for us to stay for the evening celebration but we had to kick on as it was getting late.

Overgrown track  Wedding crashers

In the late afternoon, we came past a Wat perched high on a forested headland gazing out over the shimmering coastline below. The climb up was sharp and steep but the stunning views and most beautiful Wat we have seen made it all worth while.

Hill top Wat    Views from Wat

Later in the afternoon, we followed a road directly along the beach and stayed in a beach bungalow for the night. Thailand really has far more than its fair share of beautiful white sandy beaches and we really loved the ease of pulling into a beach bungalow and heading straight for the tropical beach just metres from the doorstep.

Suddenly a week had gone by and it was already our last day with Nick. We had a long day ahead as Nick had booked a train from Chumphon (110km away) in the evening to get back to Bangkok. It was quite hot and hilly, and to top it off Nick was having trouble with the local wildlife as a bee managed to find his way into his cycling shorts.

In the late afternoon we ended up in another beach village not far from Chumphon, where we were planning to spend the night. We had one last iced coffee with Nick before he cycled on to the station to catch his train.

Nick charming a dead snake   Another day another beach  

After 10 months of being on the road and being in a country we had already visited before, we weren’t feeling the pangs of excitement that we had felt in previous countries. However with Nick on board we had a bit of a re-awakening. All those little things that we already took for granted - a friendly wave from a passing motorbike, a nonchalant chat with a shop keeper, a giggly wave from a child on the way to school, all felt good again. Nick brought a fresh perspective to our travels and reminded us to appreciate every moment of our trip. Thanks mate, we’ll miss you and your Jacko gloves.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

11,000km Photo

A couple of days out of Bangkok, we were cycling on a minor road near the Thai coast, enjoying the lush tropical landscape. The photo was taken by our friend Nick.

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Thursday, 24 March 2011

Bangkok

Three hours after our rushed departure from Chennai we landed in Bangkok (the reason we flew is because it is not possible to cycle through Myanmar at the moment). Relieved to be reunited with our bikes and luggage, we caught an airport bus to Khao San Road, the bustling street many backpacker’s lives revolve around in Bangkok. It was still early and we had breakfast at a little cafe while we put our bikes back together in the muggy morning air.||

On the recommendation of Tara and Tyler from Going Slowly we had booked a guest house about 2km north of Khao San Road, a little removed from the tourist area. We had been in contact with Tara and Tyler for the last year or so, ever since we asked them for some advice to help us plan our trip. They have been on the road for two years, cycling across Europe, driving through Russia and Mongolia and then cycling around South East Asia, and were planning to finish their trip in Bangkok.

Bangkok was the only common place on our routes where we could have possibly met up, and by chance Tara and Tyler rolled into Bangkok on the same day as us!

As we pulled into Shanti Lodge, their bikes were already there, waiting to be unloaded. We spotted them busily working away on their laptops in the restaurant. It was great to finally catch up in person after following their incredible daily blog for so long.

Tyler and Tara   Chao Praya river boat

Shanti Lodge had a comfortable, leafy restaurant and chill-out area downstairs, with free Wifi. As our room was quite small, we generally hung out there and enjoyed the beauty of our surroundings. Being in Thailand, we suddenly realised how tough India had been at times. This was easy: there was a great menu with delicious food, our orders arrived quickly, everything was so clean and orderly. This was also the first time for 6 months that we were in a country where women were treated equally to men. Our interactions with women in Turkey, Iran and India (and to an extent the UAE) had been very limited, and pretty much all restaurant and hotel staff were male. Here, the whole guest house was run by women.

We also spotted a few more touring bikes in Shanti Lodge, one of which belonged to Mel, an American girl who had travelled around South East Asia and was now bound for Turkey. The other two bikes belonged to a Belgian couple who had come through Europe and China. All of us had dinner together on our first night, and Mel presented us with a humorous little cycling guide to South East Asia that she had just finished writing and illustrating. By the end of the evening, our heads were spinning from the social interactions. We had just met more touring cyclists in one day than we had met in the whole of India!

Whilst we were not planning to do much sightseeing in Bangkok as we had covered the important Wats and palaces during our last visit, Freddie had signed up for a cooking class at May Kaidee’s vegetarian restaurant. We used to go to this restaurant a lot when we backpacked around South East Asia in 2003, and Freddie had been determined to do a cooking class there should she ever return to Bangkok. As Tara is also into cooking, she decided to join Freddie. May graciously invited Guy and Tyler to come along too – they had the important task of taking pictures and testing the food we cooked.

"Thai ladies" at the market   Fruit seller

First, we visited the market where we learned about the local vegetables and tested various street foods. The girls had been loaned some traditional Thai umbrellas and a wicker basket to make the visit feel a little more nostalgic.

All the ingredients for the recipes had been prepared earlier, so we had no chopping to do and quickly completed 10 different dishes whilst singing the Thai songs May and her team taught us. “Sop sop sop sop soooong!” Guy and Tyler took their taste testing duties seriously and ate everything that was presented to them, from green curry to fried tofu veggies and spring rolls. A fun morning ended with May teaching us some Thai dancing, and we took away a little cook book to help us reproduce her delicious creations in our own kitchens.

Massaman curry   Tara and Freddie in the kitchen

Happy times, and not just because we were having fun in Bangkok. At the airport in Chennai, Freddie had received a call saying her sister was in hospital, and during our first day in Bangkok our little nephew, Felix, was born. We were very proud to become an aunt and uncle. In fact, so proud that we are planning a little excursion to Germany for a week to see Felix and catch up with Freddie’s family. As we are moving to Australia, Freddie may not see her family for a while once we are busy finding jobs and settling down. The flights are much more affordable from Malaysia than from Australia, and we will finally be reunited with Boris, our tent (on holiday in Germany at the moment), who will be an important part of the team once we reach Australia and cross the 3,800km of Outback that separates Darwin from our destination, Melbourne.

Our flight to Darwin will be from Singapore, a 2,400km ride from Bangkok. To help us on our way, our friends Nick and Aom  came over from the UK to meet us. Guy had met Nick whilst hiking in the Indian Himalayas 8 years ago. Nick, who is from the UK, was living in Bangkok at the time and met his wife Aom there. They later moved to the UK where we regularly caught up and did some weekend cycling trips together. Nick is planning to cycle with us for a week or so, while Aom catches up with her family in Bangkok.

We met Aom for dinner as she had arrived a few days before Nick, and once Nick had landed, they invited us for a very posh breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the number one address in Bangkok where celebrities, politicians and writers hang out. We were able to catch a riverboat there from near our guest house and arrived in style at the pier of the Mandarin Oriental. Waiting in the lobby, we felt a little underdressed in our khakis and cycling shoes, but we soon settled in on the terrace overlooking the Chao Praya river and enjoyed our delicious breakfast – a huge egg-white omelette for Guy, a salmon bagel for Freddie, and various pastries. The service was outstanding, in fact world class to the extent that they remember details like the side of the bed you get out of and which fruits you prefer in order to enhance your future visits. It was a fantastic breakfast treat on our last day in Bangkok. Thank you!

At the Mandarin Oriental with Nick and Aom

Having spent a few lovely days hanging out with Tara and Tyler and comparing notes on cycle touring, IT questions and life goals in general, we took them out for dinner to thank them for their advice and inspiration over the last year. We had a few challenges getting to the restaurant, which was on the other side of a large demonstration by 30,000 anti-government protesters, but eventually we found our way and had a fun night. We also had dinner together in the guest house on our last night and as we prepared to say goodbye, Tara and Tyler decided they were going to get up at 6am the next morning to see us off!

True to their word, they were there as we loaded up the bikes, got us iced coffees to help us wake up, and took some photos as we took off. We were very touched by this sweet gesture. Thanks guys, it was great to spend some time with you!

Half an hour later, we rendezvoused with Aom and Nick and his bicycle beside a 6 lane highway. Whilst we merged into the busy morning Bangkok traffic we hoped we could live up to our promise and return Aom’s husband in one piece.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

10 Tips for Cycling South India

Over 2.5 months, we cycled 2,400km in South India. Starting from Goa, we made our way south, via the hill stations of Ooty and Munnar, down to the tip of the subcontinent and back up again on the East side, finishing in Chennai. Although we had some trepedation about cycling in India, it’s actually a fantastic country for cycling. Here are our top 10 tips to enjoy your cycle tour in South India. ||

1. Get off the main roads. Route choice is critical in India. Luckily India is so heavily populated that there are plenty of small, quiet tarmac roads linking villages and often running parallel to the main road. However, they are often poorly signposted. Asking for directions is a good way to meet the locals. But if you’d rather know where you are going, a GPS device can help immensely.

2. Choose tires with good grip. There can be dirt stretches on roads and you might end up on sandy shoulders if a bus comes your way or you need to swerve for a cow. The good grip on our Schwalbe Marathon XRs saved us from sliding many times.

3. Get a mirror and a loud horn. You can get them cheaply in many Indian bike shops. On busy Indian roads, 360° vision is critical as lanes and traffic rules are not generally respected, and buses may not always be willing to slow down or swerve to avoid a cyclist. People often pull into the road without looking – that’s when you’ll need your horn! On the plus side, most people drive fairly slowly and are used to two wheelers on the roads.

4. Learn some words in the local language. In India, there are 18 official languages and you’ll have to relearn basic words in each new state. Make an effort to learn some local greetings and phrases – people will love it!

5. Bring some coins from your home country. Collecting coins is a popular passtime in India, and many people asked us to show them coins from our home countries. They are small and can make nice presents, especially if you present the coin missing from their collection!

6. Learn the fine art of the head waggle. Waggling your head from side to side can mean yes, ok, no problem, thank you, hello or goodbye. It’s a positive gesture you’ll see in India every day. Nodding your head to say “yes” may be met with confused looks, so learn to waggle instead.

7. Get used to curious locals fiddling with your bike. The concept of personal space and belongings is not defined as narrowly as in the West. When people are curious, they don’t hesitate to have a good look at you or even fiddle with your bike. They are generally harmless and we always let it go, though we do recommend taking valuables with you when you leave your bikes out of sight, and keeping an eye on the “fiddlers”.

8. Find alternatives if you’ve overdosed on curries. We love the amazingly complex flavours of Indian cuisine but struggled with the local breakfast consisting of deep-fried savoury items. In the end, we carried cereal and milk powder for breakfast and supplemented this with parotha flatbread (ordered at a restaurant ther night before) and bananas. For a break from spicy food, you can order Chinese style fried noodles or fried rice in almost every restaurant. Make sure you choose popular restaurants to avoid nasty stomach bugs.

9. Carry a spoon or fork with you. Maybe you enjoy that earthy feeling of eating with your hands, but we got over the novelty factor quite quickly and preferred to take our own forks along. In many restaurants you can ask for a spoon, but in small village eateries they may not have any available.

10. Surrender. India can be intense and in-your-face. Try to go with the flow, leave expectations at home and don’t forget your sense of humour ;-)

Map of our route through South India

India cycle route map

Here’s a link to all our India blog posts.

P.S. We have also finally put together some tips for cycling in Turkey and Iran.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Goodbye India: An Abrupt Finale

Chidambaram – Pondicherry – Chennai

Leaving Chidambaram, we had no option but to stay on the busy coastal road to Pondicherry. As soon as we arrived, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was so nice and quiet, with wide, tree lined streets and a seaside promenade. Pondicherry had been a French colony for centuries and retains a distinctly French feel. There were lots of French tourists, bakeries selling baguettes and croissants, and cafés serving Croque Monsieur. In other words, heaven!

We now had only one day’s cycling left in India and still had more than a week before our flight from Chennai to Bangkok, so we decided to stay in Pondicherry for a while and catch up on our blogs, website work and some other projects. With the help of a local recommendation we found a lovely place to stay, in a small guest house, La Ville Créole, run by Famille Corneille in the Rue Labourdonnais (yes, even the street names have French names here!), with a kitchen, communal sitting area and hot water in the shower. To top it off, there was a posh cafe with free Wifi just down the road. ||

French boutique in Pondicherry   Fruit and ice cream on the promenade

However, being in India, guilt-free enjoyment of these pleasures was not without its pitfalls. Down the road from our guest house, a group of people had made their home on the pavement, complete with pillows and an armchair. Other pavement dwellers, some with small children had set up their “home” next to a French bakery, so whenever we went to get some Pain au Chocolat, we would feel pangs of guilt walking out with a bag full of expensive pastries. Several mothers forced their children to beg from tourists (thus denying them the opportunity to go to school), which was quite heart breaking at times. It can be hard but we think it’s important to see poverty up close and personal. As Guy said, “in India, you have to face the facts - you can’t just throw the Oxfam brochure in the bin and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

After a week in Pondicherry, it was time to move on. We had expected a quiet lane through fishing villages to get to the beach town of Mamallapuram, 100km away, but the road had recently been upgraded and was now the main road to Chennai. It was quite busy and not that interesting, going through prawn hatcheries, rice fields and small towns. 

Mamallapuram was listed in our guide book as “the only beach hangout in Tamil Nadu”. When we arrived, we found a fairly typical Indian small town, but with a profusion of guest houses and tourist restaurants. The beach was nothing special – fairly dirty and crowded with fishing boats, not really the place for a beach holiday. The town had been devastated by the 2004 tsunami but had been rebuilt in a flurry to tempt the tourists back.

The most interesting aspect of the town was its long history of stone masonry. In the 7th century, some impressive temples were carved by the Pallava dynasty, and they are now Unesco World Heritage sites. Nowadays, the tradition of stone masonry lives on in the 200 active stone masons in the town who create amazing sculptures made of marble or granite. Some of the work was very intricate and beautiful, having taken up to 9 months to complete. We eyed off some of the beautiful Buddha statues, but coming in at over 80kg it wasn’t such a bike friendly option so we were content with a small statue of the dancing elephant-headed Ghanesh, made of granite and adding about a kilo to our luggage.

 Our little Ghanesh statue Mamallapuram temple

On our last day, we cleaned the bikes and planned our cycle route to Chennai airport, 50km away. We had decided not to box the bikes for this flight. The decision was mainly driven by our laziness: we were unwilling to spend a couple of days hunting down bits of cardboard and cobbling together two bike boxes. We also knew that our bikes are strong, we have no exposed derailer that can get easily knocked and we figured if the baggage guys see a bike they are more likely to treat it like a bike. The flight was the following evening around midnight, but we were going to leave in the morning anyway to take no chances.

In the late afternoon, we walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. Sitting on a fishing canoe, a few young guys from Hyderabad approached us for a chat. Their English was good and they were planning to go to Australia for their Master’s degree, so we spoke to them for about an hour. They had come to Chennai for a wedding and decided to spend a day on the beach in Mamallapuram. Some of them had never seen the sea before and were amazed to discover how salty it was.

Suddenly, a fisherman aggressively approached our group. Ranting and raving at one of the Hyderabad guys in Hindi, he demanded them to leave us alone. They were not supposed to “bother” tourists, otherwise we might complain to the police, and the word might get out to other tourists which in turn impacts on tourism in that area that the fishermen depend upon.

They were eye balling each other snarling and it looked close to fisticuffs. In an attempt to defuse the situation Guy slithered his way in between the two acting as a buffer. Up close and personal it was evident from his putrid alcohol breath and blood shot eyes that the fisherman was in an altered state of mind. Nonetheless Guy pushed on.

“Brother, we appreciate your concern, but these guys are doing us no harm,” insisted Guy.

The Angry Fisherman showed little reaction, his eyes fixed on some distant object. Guy turned around to see half a dozen bulky fisherman making their way towards our group.

As they got closer it was clear that they weren’t in the mood for a fight, so after a few more words from The Angry Fisherman the crowd dispersed. The Hyderabad boys were a little shaken but we soon had a bit of a laugh as we said our goodbyes.

Back at the hotel we finished cleaning the bikes and were about to go out for our final Indian dinner when Freddie booted up her laptop to write down the flight confirmation number. As she glanced at the flight times, a shocking truth suddenly dawned on her: The flight was today, not tomorrow. Even though she had remembered the correct date, and that the flight was around midnight, she hadn’t realised that the flight was actually at 00:15 – it was very early in the morning instead of very late at night!

It was 7pm. The airport was a 2 hour drive away. We hadn’t packed, and one of the bikes was taken apart, tools strewn around everywhere. We didn’t have enough money to pay for our room, as we had been planning to get cash out later that night. Thai Airways had told us we might have to disinfect the bikes, which we expected might take some extra time at the airport. Needless to say, panic ensued.

By chance we had the phone number of the only taxi in town with a roof rack. We called and the taxi driver appeared 10 minutes later. Freddie ran to the ATM, jumped a queue of 7 men and came back with the cash. We threw all our stuff in the bags, strapped the bikes on the roof and off we went.

Around 9:30pm we arrived at the airport. We took the pedals off the bikes, turned the handlebars, protected the gear cables with cardboard and deflated the tires. We packed all of our checkin luggage into two large plastic beach bags and crammed as much heavy stuff as possible in our rack bags to take as hand luggage. We knew we were about 25kg over the weight limit and would have to cough up for excess luggage.

At checkin, the bikes were weighed and rolled onto the conveyor belt. “Have a nice flight”, the checkin lady said when she handed us our tickets. Disbelieving, we hastily gathered our belongings and left the checkin area as fast a possible without arising suspicion. Not only had we not been asked to disinfect the bikes, we also hadn’t paid a cent for our excess luggage!

Just as we thought we had got away with it a security guard stopped us. “You won’t be able to take your bike helmets on board,” he said. “Errr, why not?” we enquired. “Because it is a weapon,” he stated. We tried to envision holding up a plane with a bike helmet. We informed him that a bike helmet is made of styrofoam and is designed to crack on impact. Surely a shoe would be just as dangerous. The security guard wasn’t convinced, but we told him we were willing to take the risk at the security check. We were happy he hadn’t noticed our 30cm solid steel D-Lock lying at the bottom of Guys bag, which in our haste we had forgotten to check in.

The immigration officer was concerned about Freddie’s visa. “Next time you must get a business visa,” he stated gruffly. “Marketing is not allowed on a tourist visa.” After Freddie protested that, although Marketing was her occupation, she hadn’t done any marketing in India, he seemed satisfied and let us go, not before questioning us in detail about our travel budget.

We arrived at the gate just a few minutes before boarding time. When we sat on the plane and saw the lights of Chennai and the Indian coast disappear below us, we took a sigh of relief, we could not believe our luck. If Freddie had realised half an hour later, if the taxi driver hadn’t shown up, or if we had to disinfect the bikes we probably would have missed our flight.

Having spent 11 weeks in India and cycled 2,370km (our longest time and longest distance in any country so far) we felt ready for a change in scene and were really looking forward to Thailand and spending time with our friends Nic and Aom who have flown out from the UK to meet us in Bangkok.

Despite all the horror stories we had heard about India (potholed roads, crazy drivers, excessive rubbish and extreme poverty), we had a brilliant ride and were really glad we came. India's varied scenery, amazing wildlife, quiet rural roads, fascinating/quirky culture (how many countries do you know have retirement homes for cows?!) and colourful people have been a real highlight of our trip.

Most of all we loved the freedom that you feel in India, it holds a very special place in our hearts and we look forward to coming back and exploring more of this incredible country.

Our two India photo galleries are live here. India West covers Mumbai – Munnar, and India South East covers Kochi – Chennai.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Templed Out

Madurai – Chidambaram

For over two thousand years, the site of Madurai’s central temple has been hosting an annual festival in honour of the fertility Goddess Sri Meenakshi. Most details of the festival have not changed since the Greek ambassador Menasthenes visited Madurai during his travels on the Spice Route in the 3rd century BC. Hundreds of generations of South Indians have asked the Goddess to give them children, walking for days from their villages to witness the holy festival. To this day, the images of the Goddess and her husband, Lord Sundareshvara, are placed in a private bed chamber every night so that they can make love (even the Goddess’s nose ring is removed as to not interfer with the love making) – an act that apparently preserves and regenerates the universe. ||

Gopuram in Madurai   Top of Gopuram

We had missed this year’s festival by a week or so but were excited to visit the temple. Madurai’s chaotic city centre is dominated by the 12 Gopurams towering over the temple. Each Gopuram is up to 50m high and covered in man-sized images of Hindu deities and gurus. Looking from a distance, the Gopurams just look like colourful towers, but standing up close the amount of detail and variation in the figures is mindboggling. 

Multi-armed deity statue   Deity statue

Having left our shoes at a shoe counter, we entered the womb of the temple – a dark hall with many pillars and an intricately decorated ceiling. We had been looking forward to seeing the image of Meenakshi, but unfortunately non-Hindus were not allowed into the inner sanctum. We did, however, visit the temple elephant and the white temple buffalo. The elephant’s head was painted with white and orange colours, and her task was to take donations of coins from the visitors and then bless them by tapping her trunk on their heads. The novelty factor led to more donations being made, and we also couldn’t help but pass some coins to the elephant in exchange for a gentle tap on the head. The poor buffalo wasn’t quite as popular as he lacked party tricks, but there were many statues of buffaloes around the temple, which pilgrims covered in flowers, grass and chalk powder.

Temple elephant   Yogi with piggy

In the heart of the temple area, tacky souvenirs were sold by dozens of market stalls. The only place of peace and quiet were the steps of the empty temple tank – other than that, the temple was a hive of activity. Pilgrims, standing in front of the image of the deity, had to say their prayers within seconds before being pushed aside by the next person in line. While we find the Hindu religion fascinating, it can be overwhelming to the outsider with its profusion of different gods and goddesses and the sheer excitement and energy that goes with the never ending religious festivals, a stark contrast to the tranquil, meditative spaces of the mosques in the Middle East.

Tranquility can be hard to find at times in India, there are few parks or quiet areas in towns and when they do exist they are often crowded. Madurai is a testament to this; we had to lock ourselves away in our room just for some peace and quiet, and even then we could still hear the relentless hustle and bustle of city life outside our window. Just as the temple festival hasn’t changed for thousands of years, the city’s dirt roads also hadn’t been upgraded to the current level of traffic. When on our bicycles we move with the traffic flow, but walking is exhausting as there are no foot paths so you have to share the ever congested road with everyone and everthing from cars and motorbikes to cows and bullock carts.

After a couple of days we had enough and were on our way again. Not long after leaving the city we soon found ourselves coasting along on a quiet road flanked by a meandering river on one side and bright green rice fields on the other. The locals were beaming smiles and waving at us, we felt calm and relaxed again, we were off the beaten track and out of guide book range. The road was very quiet, a little hilly and with good tarmac. Surprisingly, there was also no headwind, so we flew along through the fields and shrubland, framed by gentle hills in the background. As there are so many towns and villages in India, there are many small roads, which are usually sealed and make it easy to avoid the main roads. Cycling India’s back roads is a real pleasure, certainly some of the best cycing we have done to date.

Rural scenery

Passing through a small village, we started chatting to an elderly man who was hitching a lift on the back of his son’s bicycle, sitting side saddle on the rear rack. He invited us for a cup of tea at a village chai stall. He had never seen foreigners in his village before, though we are sure the odd cycle tourer must have passed through unnoticed.

We didn’t come through any larger towns during the day so had to subsist on the snacks we could find in village shops. Having cycled 100km, we reached the small town we were intending to stay in. Asking the locals for a hotel resulted in a lot of head shaking and frowning, until they finally agreed to show us the town’s only establishment, consisting of only 4 small rooms. Our room was very dark, hot and damp. The power was only switched on between 6pm and 6am, so we couldn’t use the ceiling fan or lights at other times, and there were many open slits where mosquitoes came through. To top it off, we didn’t manage to find dinner – the only restaurant we found was only serving snacks.

After a hungry night, feeling sorry for ourselves, we got a reality check (just one of the many you get on a daily basis in India) when we stopped at a road side tea stall the following morning for tea and omelette. We got chatting to a local truck driver who told us he was dreaming of cycling up to Kashmir. However, he had had to abandon his cycle tour after a few days because his budget was only 250 Rupees per day (we spend 750 each…), which barely covered his food, so he had to sleep outside on the ground, fighting off mosquitoes… Surely he would have been more grateful than us for the hotel room we stayed in last night.

At noon we arrived in the city of Trichy. We had trouble finding a hotel – most were booked out by wedding parties as we had happened to arrive on one of the best days of the year to get married, and Trichy is a popular wedding destination. Eventually we came past a slightly crumbling colonial style hotel which had room. The hotel was a relic of British colonial times when families would come here for the weekend. It had a nice atmosphere and a lovely courtyard, but unfortunately the charm in our room had checked out some time ago.

We were sure 80 years ago in our very bed, on our very mattress, was sleeping a British Colonel and his wife as the mattress was so ridiculous soft coupled with a spring bed that when you lay down you slumped into such an exteme U shape your feet nearly touched your forehead. To make matters worse we had some kind of anti-fan in the room as it seemed to keep the warm air down and the cool air away. According to the hotel manager (with a hint of glee in his eyes) he told us it was “over 80 years old”, and “still going”! After suffering from extreme heat exhaustion we opted to move to a more modern room which had as much charm as a bowl of porridge but featured a non colonial and very effective fan.

Trichy is famous for its Rock Fort temple, which is perched on an 83m high rock in the centre of town. Climbing up the rock along with throngs of Indian pilgrims was fun, and the views from the top rewarding, but the temple itself was nothing to write home about. We also visited the larger Sri Rangan temple, which was interesting as we had to enter through several Gopurams and then several walls to get to the inner sanctum (which we were sadly not allowed to enter).

Drawing of a Kolam to attract the Gods   View from Rock Fort temple in Trichy

Leaving Trichy, we found a quiet lane between two rivers which are part of the huge Cauvery river delta. Turning onto a rural road, we were amazed to see actual modern farming machinery from crop harvesters to big John Deer tractors. Obviously they do exist in India but this was the first time we had seen such commercial machinery. In this area, most villagers live in quite basic huts made of mud, concrete or palm fronds, with thatched roofs. It was wonderfully cool and cloudy, and much to our surprise we even had some rain! It was over four months ago in northern Iran that we experienced our last rainfall. It was really lovely and refreshing to cycle with the cooling rain soaking us through.

At lunchtime, we pulled into a small town but couldn’t find a restaurant. When we asked a local man, he walked us to a seemingly hidden restaurant that we had actually cycled past without noticing. We tried to invite him for food or a tea, but he refused all our offers, sat down at a nearby table and watched over us. We felt a little uncomfortable at first with him sitting there watching us eat but  relaxed when we figured he just wanted to make sure we were okay. He made sure the waiters kept the food and drinks coming and even advised Freddie to push up her shirt sleeves so they wouldn’t get dirty!

In the afternoon, we suddenly felt as if we had entered the Middle Ages. We were slapped in the face by India’s reality when, within the space of an hour, we passed several people with pretty horrific deformations. First, we saw a sadhu hobbling through a village, with one leg swollen to elephantine proportions, his huge foot covered in boils and looking like a giant cauliflower. Then we came past a man with a huge cyst like an aubergine hanging off the back of his head. Shortly afterwards, we passed a lady with severe acid burns disfiguring her bold head and face. We had actually expected to see a lot more of this in India, but mercifully it has been very rare outside of Mumbai. We felt pangs of guilt knowing that our worldwide medical cover would wisk us away in a flash to some private foreign clinic whilst these people receive little or no medical help.

To top it all off, we then cycled past a naked man, sprawled out on a bridge in a half-coma (drugs? alcohol?) as we rolled into Kumbakonam, our destination for the day. We found a good hotel but with an annoying room boy. Since Madurai, more and more people expect tips from us – in the rest of India, room boys were often positively surprised when we tipped them for bringing our bags up, but here everyone expects tips: Room boys, security guards, restaurant staff, cleaning ladies…

The room boy half-heartedly helped us with our luggage, so we gave him a tip, doubling what we would normally give as he helped us with the bikes. Obviously he was still unhappy as he then demanded a 50% increase! As we understand it, the nature of a tip is that it’s voluntary and we decide how much we want to give. In the end we grudgingly agreed to his demands, but it was not enough. The following morning, he gave us back our deposit but kept some money behind, saying it was a “tax”. Seeing that we had already paid the taxes on the room, it was blatent tourist extortion. Guy who had already woken up on the wrong side of bed had a few choice words to say, to the astonishment of the hotel boy who quickly returned the “tax”.

We passed an uneventful day cycling on a slightly busier road to Chidambaram, which is known for its Shiva temple. The state of Tamil Nadu is famous for its temples, and indeed every town we pass through seems to have a famous, must-see temple. We don’t have much stamina when it comes to temple sightseeing and were starting to feel a little templed out. However, we did decide to have a quick look at the temple in Chidambaram and were pleasantly surprised as it was not so crowded yet just as impressive as some of the other temples we had visited.

After over 2 months of cycling in India and 2300km covered, we now only had a couple more days cycling left. With some time to kill before our flight from Chennai to Bangkok we were planning to take a break once we hit the east coast and work on a few up and coming projects.