On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in Southeast Asia

By Anne Poe

 

 

  

 

 “A lifelong passion for adventure travel gave rise to the exotic idea. The time was right; go before the East became too like the West and while we were still young and eager. We went with our two Specialized Rock Hopper mountain bikes, two T-shirts, two pairs of riding shorts, one long pant for modesty, a 35 mm camera, 100 rolls of film, and six Lonely Planet phrase books (one for each strange language we would have to learn to communicate). We flourished, floundered, and challenged our physical and emotional stamina as we intermingled in the daily lives of the local populations. On Our Own tells the tales of our reactions to and interactions with the varied people and the intriguing cultures we encountered along the way: spirit worshipping Balinese who wore their culture proudly through the streets; hard working Javanese pressured into a meager life by over-population and competition; over-zealous Sumatrans screaming hello, chasing  us and pulling us off our bikes; reserved Thais always ready with a helping hand; gracious Vietnamese plodding against heavy odds into a brighter future; enigmatic Chinese, pushing the western concept of honesty to the brink of extinction.
      On Our Own’s stories rise out of everyday ordinary experiences made extraordinary by place, culture, custom and language. Join us on this remarkable journey.  Enjoy the photographs and stories in our book and on these pages.

 


 

Bicycling Bali Indonesia

 

Bicycling Bali-There are many temples in Bali, Indonesia

 

There are many temples in Bali.

It is easy to visit them while bicycling Bali as they are situated on the local, quiet roads. Local temples are like the community hall. It is a gathering place for celebration, worship, and social events among neighbors.

 

Bicycling Bali-Wooden figurines in Bali Indonesia

 

Hand Carved Wooden Figurines

We saw many of these figures while bicycling Bali. The Balinese decorate their yards with different styles of figurines but we never found out the meaning of these particular ones.

 

Bicycling Bali-Bali Indonesia Temple Celebration

 

Temple Celebration

Ladies prepare large platters of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat that they bring to the temples to feed the gods. As we were bicycling Bali, we would pass these ladies on the local back roads.

 

Bicycling Bali-Offerings to the gods Bali, Indonesia

 

Offerings to the gods

These carefully woven bamboo plates are filled with tiny bits of food and placed on the streets, in window sills and many small niches around the village. Just in case the gods are too busy to make it to the temple feast! Yet, dogs scarfed up the food as soon as the plates hit the ground!

 

Bicycling Bali-Funeral Procession Bali, Indonesia

 

Funeral Procession

Funerals are a community affair. The corpse will be placed inside the bull for burning at the cremation site. Tourists are encourage to participate in the celebrations.

“The people of Bali seemed to be skillful at balancing tourism with their cultural heritage. As tourists, we felt welcomed into their traditional ways; they encouraged us to absorb their lifestyle as they continued to strengthen their cultural touchstones.”

 

 Bicycling Bali-Cremation Ceremony Bali, Indonesia

 

Cremation Ceremony

The cremation releases the spirit into a new life. It was a joyous celebration with family and community. Vendors sold their wares as the bull continued to consume the body.

 

Bicycling Bali-Bali, Indonesia Typical lodging in pleasant gardens

 

Typical lodging in pleasant gardens

Homes and public lodging are treated equally. Beauty in one’s surroundings is an important part of living in harmony with the earth.

 

 

After four days preparation and recovery from jet lag, our journey tugged at us to get moving.

On Our Own-Bali

On Our Own-Bali

I spied our Specialized Rock Hopper Mountain bikes, as they stood in the corner of our room like proud steeds eager to challenge all comers and prove themselves the all-around champions they dreamed they could be. It was time to prepare them to meet their destiny. Born in 1996, they were shiny, scratch less, new, youthfully spirited, but barely tested. A few trial runs around the home track boasted their potential, but they were too quickly incarcerated in boxes, flown to Bali as part of our baggage, bumped and thrown about with careless abandon before being set free in our room. After such an arduous journey and before another could begin, they needed special attention.

        We chose Triple crank sets with granny gears to help my 53-year-old legs pump up all the hills in their future. Thumb and first finger shifters replaced the rotator style that under bumpy conditions and endless hours of riding aggravated my wrists. Though we would be traveling south to north, against the prevailing winds, we kept the mountain bike style handlebars so my back could remain upright and even added extensions that allowed us to change our hand and arm positions throughout long cycling days.

Then we padded the handlebars with black slip-on, extra thick foam grips and attached a bell to ring pedestrians out of harm’s way as well as adjustable handlebar mirrors to help us stay out of harm’s way.

I put the most important piece of equipment on next. I had bought a tie-on gel pad seat designed to pressure contour around individual buttocks; it provided protection for my sciatic nerve. Adjustable strap toe clips gave us the option of replacing worn shoes as needed and st ill permitted good foot to pedal contact. Mike bolted two water bottle racks on each down tube and a single heavy chain with internal lock system to the front fork. We adjusted the front and rear derailleur and bolted on the pannier racks. All that remained was to unpack our baggage and sort it into piles for re-packing into panniers. That became a day’s job by our adopted Bali time. 

       

We had hauled six pounds of spare parts and tools through South America and never needed to use them. For this trip, we decided to rely on the local’s inventiveness and take only three spare tubes and one spare tire for the both of us

(we rode Kevlar reinforced 2.75 road tires), a handful of nuts and bolts, wrenches, patch kit and pump. I took only rear panniers and a waterproof sea kayak bag for the rear rack. Mike took front panniers as well to balance the bigger load he would carry, but we were determined to keep our gear to the minimum. That meant no camping equipment. We would depend on finding guesthouses, hotels and restaurants.

       

I pared down my camera equipment to one body and lens system: my Canon A2 with Tamron 28-200mm zoom lens, an extender, a close up lens set, one polarizer, cloudy-bright, and neutral density filter. Fifty rolls of a mix of Sensia 100, 200, 400, and Velvia 50 in a waterproof bag weighted down one side of Mike’s front panniers. I did not expect to be able to buy such film along our route.

I pre-paid the development by buying mailers and sent the exposed film direct to Fuji in Phoenix. I have never lost a roll of film that I have sent OUT of the Third World though I would never again have unexposed film mailed IN. I rigged a waterproof hard case Pelican Camera box to the top of my front rack using bungee cords through holes I drilled in the wings of the box. I had instant access to my well-padded camera and could quickly remove the box at night. I also carried a Galen Rowell “Photoflex” soft-fanny pac for walking-around photography.

       

Travel guides, maps and language books posed the biggest weight problem. We needed information and language help for five different countries.

In South America, experience taught us that even in capital cities travel maps and books were not available. We did not want to chance the same occurrence in Asia so we purchased all the guides, phrase books and maps before leaving. They filled Mike’s other front pannier. Of course, while traveling, we found them in every major tourist enclave we visited! Two pairs of riding shorts (the baggy kind so as not to attract more attention than already was inevitable), two T-shirts and two sleeveless shirts for excessive humidity, a pair of long pants for modesty in Muslim areas, three pairs of socks, a pair of sandals, stiff sport shoes for pedaling, a bathing suit all fit into one rear pannier. If we needed more clothes or replacements, we would buy them along the way.

        Toilet paper (never leave home without it!) toothbrush, sunscreen and basic toiletries, vitamins and some electrolyte drinks to help me adjust to the heat, spare reading glasses, small gifts of cigarette lighters, needles, thread, buttons, handmade silk flowers to give in appreciation to people along the way, spare tubes and pannier rain covers all went into the other rear baggage.

We did not take raincoats for ourselves. We hoped the rain would be warm enough to appreciate. It was.

Traveler’s checks, visa card, passports, map and guidebook went into Mike’s front pelican box. We planned to wear a money belt only when walking about towns. It was too hot and sweaty to wear riding.

       

The piles disappeared off the bed into the bike baggage as planned. It was a light load as cycle touring goes. We carried no camping gear, no heavy clothes and minimal spare parts, but the books, film and mailers made up the difference. Mike’s bags weighed in at fifty pounds. Mine came to thirty.

        It was time. All the dreams, all the planning, the preparation had no place further to go. Our steeds, saddled and pawing anxiously, knew their momentous journey waited outside the gates.

Tomorrow the portals would open and a road would lead us somewhere we had never been; exultation, fear, amazement, uncertainty would tap us on the shoulder and demand we acknowledge their presence. Our steeds would take us so slowly along this road we would taste, smell and touch and be touched by its variety. We would smile and be smiled at, frown and be frowned at; we would learn something of ourselves and of others along the way. Let it begin.”

  

Excerpt from On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

By Anne & Mike Poe

 

Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali, Indonesia Bronze zylophoneSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali- Indonesia BaksoSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-passing by vegetable stand
Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali-see many sacred monkeysSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-we saw many men gathering crops by hand Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali-into crater of Batur VolcanoSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Indonesia young family women
Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Indonesia bicycle transportationSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-VolcanoesSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-One of the pleasures of bicycling Bali is meeting the locals
Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Indonesia outdoor bathroomsSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Farmers in Bali use Oxen to plow the fieldsSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-View verdant fields of rice while bicycling BaliSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Indonesia hiking

Mount Agung

Home to Besakih Temple

 

 

Bicycling Bali-Besakih Temple

Besakih Temple Bali Indonesia

 “Besaki Temple is a splendid residence for the gods. Sixty temples, slender black pagodas like fingers pointing to the heavens, rise towards the sky on successive terraces. The peak of Mount Agung stands dead center in the view. The ceremonial promenade draws a straight line through the complex to the peak. Worshiper’s eyes are instantly drawn upward.”

Bicycling Bali Indonesia-Besakih Temple

Street leading to Besakih Temple is lined with bamboo arches

 

 

 

“To the right of the promenade, on the lowest terrace level, a temple courtyard exploded with sound and color. Balinese dancers were telling the sixteen-hour long Hindu story of Ramayana (Prince Rama’s expedition to rescue his wife Siva from the kidnapper demon-prince Rawana). Dance in Bali is an expression of worship and

appeasement as well as entertainment. The Balinese believe the god Indra, Lord of the Heavens, mandated earthly dancing when he created heavenly nymphs to dance for the pleasure of the gods.”

 

Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali Indonesia- Besakih Temple Dancer
Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Temple dancerSoutheast Asia-Bicycling Bali-Besakih Temple puppeteer

“Less a story of good verses evil, the Ramayana highlights that to follow a path to virtue, one must be compassionate and humble. Rama, perceived as the ideal human, danced with nobility and refinement; a grace flowed in his body that brought peace to the soul. Rawana, wearing a furious red mask with angry glaring eyes, strutted with sharp angles and jerks, every step a threat. Arms rose up and out from the body; fingers curved back towards the wrist; even the raised foot with toes pointed upwards seemed double-jointed. Moveme nt was wide, unhampered by gravity, charged with energy ~ especially the eyes, a distinct Balinese adaptation. Agape, darting back and forth, high and low, they burst with largeness. The dancers, lost in the intricate rhythms and movements, seemed inexhaustible. The gamelan orchestra swung from wild and clanging to light and ethereal. Worshipers milled about within the complex; tourists clung to the chest high rock surround like flies on a wall, eyes bulging, cameras clicking.”

Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali Indonesia-Besakih Temple
Southeast Asia-Besakih Temple-Bicycling Bali Indonesia Southeast Asia-Bicycling Bali Indonesia-Temple worshiper

 

“A bigger temple with bigger courtyard occupied the second level terrace. A high priest sat cross-legged in the shade of an elaborately carved pavilion. His sarong, blouse, and turban-like hat were white as fresh snow. A slightly off-white fragile beard drooped on his chest. Incense spiraled about his meditative figure as fog kisses the morning air.  He blessed a bowl of water with an upward wave of his hand through the incense and transformed the liquid’s worldly nature to holy. He rang a tiny silver bell in his left hand for each lotus blossom that he took from a tray on his right. The bell tinkled again as he dipped each blossom in the holy water. A mantra flowed from his lips like a slow meandering river. Pilgrims dipped flowers petals in the holy water and offered prayers to the gods. They stuck rice grains dipped in the holy water to their foreheads and around their eyes. The glue-like starch held the grains in place for days.”

 

 

We spent a month bicycling Bali

Enchanted by the people and the joyous culture, we savored each day as special…never hurrying…but flowing within the current of everyday Balinese life. It was to be the most peaceful experience of our entire journey. When we arrived in Gilimanuk and boarded the ferry to Java, the tenor of our trip changed from peaceful contemplation to challenging mayhem.

 

Bicycling Bali-Bali Bicycle Route Map

 

Our route Bicycling Bali

 

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

Amazon Kindle & Print Editions in B&W
On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

Digital Store-PDF Version in Color
Southeast Asia- A new language: difficult to pronounce; impossible to read

Bicycling Thailand

The Southern Peninsula

“Thailand’s immigration officials dispatched us through Krabi with welcoming smiles. Off we pedaled into the excitement of a new land, new customs and a new language. Back to square one.”

Excerpts from On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

by Anne & Mike Poe

      ” Southern Thailand burned under the tropical sun: dry, brittle and brown. Like a bony finger, it pointed its desolate way through the cool-blue world of the Andaman Sea and the temperate, moist Gulf of Thailand. Rolling hills, camouflaged under acres of dead and dying brush, flexed and braced against a rocky central spine. The wide ribbon smooth road wound carefully up, down and around through giant limestone-karsts sentinels.”

“Traffic rolled by in country-time; horns remained confined to emergency use only, or peeked out just long enough to say a quick “hello.” Then, for long interludes, we would have the smooth black ribbon to ourselves.”

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Drying rice grains in the sun

“Peaceful. Different from Sumatra. Very different. We did not feel the heat of glaring eyes, nor cower from face-to-face invasions of our space. We traveled with heads high, able to observe rather than be observed. “

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Local families invited us into their homes for refreshments
Southeast Asia- -Bicycling Thailand

“Three hundred-fifty miles to Bangkok, all of it was under construction. The two old southbound lanes, masticated into bits and pieces by giant mechanical jaws, lay buried under fresh piles of coarse gravel awaiting their destiny. Billowing clouds of concrete dust, blowing de-stabilized earth and acrid black diesel emissions set flying by the fierce gale winds, choked the two remaining lanes relegated to transporting both directions of traffic. Nose to ass, eager buses and trucks strained against their forced containment like cattle stuffed in a chute. Not a hair’s breadth could squeeze between the impatient vehicles and the sharp edge of the road. Bicycling was out of the question.”

Our one week bicycling Thailand came to an abrupt end, at Surat Thani. The highway all the way north to Bangkok was under construction. Dirt, dust, congestion, prostrating heat and blaring horns clogged the only route north. We decided to take the bus! What we thought was the Express turned out to be the local bus. It was a long, miserable ride in suffering heat and no air conditioning.

 Bangkok

A Change in Attitude

“We arrived in Bangkok at 3 AM at a junction of crowded freeways and no sidewalks. No tourist information, no maps, no lighted streets. Three hours later we stumbled upon a hotel district. The kindly nature of the Thai people did not shine upon us. No one would rent us a room because we had bicycles! On we stumbled until we reached Khao San Road…THE TOURIST ZONE WHERE EVERYTHING GOES including politeness and a bit of basic honesty.

The station did not show on our city map. After thirty minutes checking out the surrounding neighborhood, all hope of finding a nearby hotel faded with the setting sun. Darkness and confusion led to indecision. High-speed commuter traffic roared by bumper to bumper. Finally, we chose the safety of the narrow sidewalks and rode up, down and around looking for clues to our whereabouts: street names we could read, a friendly English-speaking rescuer we could ask.

        “Very far!” He answered. “Maybe five mile. Other side city. Khao San Road.”

        “OK,” Mike said. “Now we know we are not near the hotel area. Which way do you want to go for five miles?”

        I picked the biggest road with the heaviest traffic. “That way! It has to lead into the city center.”

        Nothing “has” to do anything. Desperation makes it easy to believe it. We went “that way”, negotiating broken sidewalks littered with sidewalk-businesses, single-minded shoppers and silk-wrapped prostitutes displaying their wares. As we neared the brighter lights and taller buildings, more indifference acknowledged our questions.

        “Khao San Road?” we asked. Shoulders shrugged. Faces turned away. We moved on toward the lights, until we reached the river. All roads led to one giant arching bridge. Traffic snarled and snapped impatiently. Our sidewalk disappeared; the surging flood of vehicles usurped its space.  “There it is!” Mike pointed. “Over there!”

               Our sidewalk hung in the air, four flights up! We coaxed our heavily burdened bikes up the countless steps. Reeking urine readily absorbed by the concrete railing companioned our efforts. Dripping humidity carved sweat rivulets down our backs; Bangkok’s chemical thick air stung our panting lungs. The price of progress! The other side of the bridge deposited us into the bright lights of Bangkok’s tourist district.”

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Pollution in BangkokSoutheast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Khao San Road

A “Must Do” activity while in Bangkok is a visit to any of the many beautiful Buddhist Temples in the city. But beware of the scam artists.

“Why don’t you go Tuk Tuk? One hour. See temples. I can arrange.”

        As I wanted to see some temples  I invited the stranger to continue with his offer. Mike withdrew to stare patiently at the sky. He had heard such approaches before and could sense the wolf in shepherd’s clothing. A hungry eagerness grabbed the tourist map from my hand.

       

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Bangkok temples
Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Bangkok Temple detail

“You go Wat here.” He circled a spot on the map with his marking pen parked conveniently in his lapel pocket. “Then this Wat with biggest standing Buddha in all Thailand.” Another black circle captured a spot on the map. “Then go Marble Wat. Take one hour. Tuk Tuk only twenty baht!”

        Twenty baht ($1.00) was a ridiculously low price for one hour in a Tuk Tuk. I knew that he had more up his sleeve, but he was waiting for me to make the next move.       

We won’t go to any shops!” I said firmly.

        “Shops! No, no … no shops!” he stammered unconvincingly. I had hit the punch line before him. He needed a moment to regroup. Still, he seemed well prepared for difficulties.

        “No problem … no shopping. You only go Trade Center.”

He circled another spot on the map, all the way on the other side of town.

        “Today only! Special promotion. You understand special promotion?”

        “Yes.”

Chiang Mai & the North

Thailand’s Adventure Tourist Destination

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Hill tribes

We did not have the time to cycle to Chiang Mai in the far north. We decided to take the train up and back and instead spend our time there exploring the Hill Tribe areas. This was the Thailand we came to see.

Foreign travelers flock to Chiang Mai, the sentimental capital of Thai and mountain tribal culture, to immerse themselves in all that they can find different from their home environment. Chiang Mai explodes with authentic cultural variety through food, dress, belief, language, lifestyle and art. To the seasoned and new traveler alike, Chiang Mai is the journey.

We unloaded from the train and rode our bikes into the old city.

Bicycling Thailand School children

That’s when Mike saw them. A yard full of red Honda 90 cc motorbikes. He had long desired to motorcycle around a strange country. These bikes were too tempting. At $1 per day per bike, we could hardly pass up the fun.

We loaded a few belongings and instead of cranking the pedals, we simply twisted the wrist! Wow, what a feeling of power!

Off we went on a loop route through the mountains along the Burmese border, through Chiang Rai then back to Chiang Mai in 10 days.

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand On a Honda 90 around the north
Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Thai gas station
Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand

The great influx of tribal peoples from southern China into northern Thailand began around 1800. Persecuted by the Han Chinese for centuries, Hmong, Lahu, Lisu and Karen migrated steadily southward much as the Thai did, and spread throughout northern Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Distinctly different from each other and from the Thai, they now make up the cultural spice that is northern Thailand. We headed into their country with no specific plans or destinations, no guide or tourist package. We preferred to discover on our own.
Local lodging and eateries were easy to come by; there were tourist lodges as well. Nothing was expensive; everything was clean and sanitary. We dabbled in all the hidden, magical places we could find.

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Lisu woman

“Since we did not arrive in the village by the normal route, we were a little unexpected. We startled a Karen mother giving her two tiny sons a bath in a washtub. Her clothing astounded us. Though going about menial chores, she wore the most elegant jet-black skirt with a garden of colorful flowers woven all around. Her black long sleeved tunic with brilliant red cuffs and neckline set off her olive skin. Her rich black hair showed briefly from under a long red and green turban that reached to the ground.
Our unannounced entrance brought the village men to question our intentions They scurried over from all directions. I felt we might have committed an offensive gesture by approaching this woman in lieu of asking permission to enter the village. Since we were tongue tied by both Thai and Karen, we stood there feeling helpless and ridiculous. I felt, at that precise moment, like the ultimate tourist intruder.
The rushing men skidded to a stop and formed a circle around us.
Silence erupted.

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Karen VillageSoutheast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Karen Village

Mike stuck out his hand and offered a smile. A middle-aged man, built like a brick ~ compact, solid, hard ~ stepped forward and extended his grizzled hand to meet Mike’s.
Their eyes met. Each wondering about the other; each searching for a way to communicate as their hands remained locked in a mutual vice-like grip.
“Can you ask permission to visit the village?” Mike queried me without releasing his hand or gaze.
“I haven’t found any phrase like that,” I replied in frustration. “Maybe this is why tourists hire guides!”
“Can you ask him about hiring an elephant ride?” Mike was searching for a way to show our friendly intentions.
“The book doesn’t have the word for elephant! Try English.”
Mike broke the vice-grip handshake and made his arm into an upward curving trunk.
“Ele-phant,” he said slowly, clearly.
The men’s stares moved from one to another. A young boy broke ranks and fled up the dusty street. Mike improved on his elephant by adding ears and a roar. The circle of men new by now we were daft!

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Elephant rideSoutheast Asia- Bicycling Thailand elephant ride

A half hour later, we broke out of the forest into a dry and brittle slash and burn opening. About an acre in size, it supported the remnants of a meager corn crop and fifteen or so ramshackle huts.
“Refugees from fighting in Myanmar,” Kit explained. All Longneck Karen people. Must pay to go inside.”
“Must pay!” We did not understand.
“Thai Government want to stop poppy crop. Set up villages for people, charge money to tourist to photograph. Big business. Make much money for people.”
It cost ten dollars U.S. per person to go in. Such high fees have paved many roads into remote villages, built schools, houses and water systems. We paid for the tick ets to go in. Our contribution to progress and betterment? It hardly seemed that way. We felt like we were perpetuating the degradation of a people to life in a zoo, but we were not Longneck Karen refugees fleeing from the despotism of Myanmar’s military dictatorship. We tried to pry open our pre-conceptions and perhaps discover a different point of view. 

The young fleeing boy returned on the heels of a man dressed in Thai pants and western shirt. How many times (I could not count) have our inadequacies been rescued by native peoples who have made the effort to learn OUR language.
“My name is Kit,” the just arrived man said as he offered his hand to Mike. “How may we help you?”
Suddenly transported from dimwits to intelligent appearing human beings, we latched onto Kit’s English abilities like a drowning man to a lifeguard. It felt good to stand on firm ground.
“We would like very much to hire an elephant ride,” Mike said to Kit. “Would that be possible?”
“Elephants working now in log camp,” Kit replied. “But two in our village now must go back to Longneck Karen village one hour from here. If you like, we can go by elephant, return walking.”
We arranged a price with Kit. He would be the elephant’s mahout and our guide.
“The Karen people thank you,” Kit said thoughtfully as Mike counted the money into his hand.

Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand ElephantsSoutheast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Longneck Karen Woman
Southeast Asia- Bicycling Thailand Longneck Karen women

Native dress was the only tradition the people in this village were able to keep. From infant to grandmother, Longneck Karen women wore a spiraling necklace of plated gold that sat upon their shoulder blades and corkscrewed upwards to their ears. Each birthday added a new ring and new length to their necks. No one seemed to know how the tradition got started. The most oft heard explanation we heard was a beautification process.

And so, we left Thailand,

taking the train back to Bangkok

and flying to Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City.

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

Amazon Kindle & Print Editions in B&W
On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

Digital Store-PDF Version in Color
Southeast Asia-

Bicycling Vietnam

“Although other western countries had already normalized relations, it was not until 1993 that American political and economical policy did a 180-degree turnabout and the doors were opened in “friendship.”  American tourists were however, required to stay in government hotels. In 1997, the communist regime finally permitted tourists to travel and lodge themselves independently. We were some of the first Americans traveling in Vietnam to have such freedom of movement. The fact that we traveled on our own by bicycle, not by bus or on a tour, guaranteed we would meet Vietnam at the grass roots level. We spent seven weeks cycling from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Hue, the revered ancient capital of South Vietnam, near the old, contested border with the north. Of our entire journey through South East Asia, this seven weeks was the most gratifying, for as Americans, we were still in need of healing from the wounds of a terrible war.”

Ho Chi Minh City

Southeast Asia- Bicycle taxiSoutheast Asia- Meeting the people face to face

“Saigon snapped, crackled and popped; it hustled and bustled; it was on the move. Energy, creative and free flowing, pulsated. “We are moving forward,” screamed its message from every pore. The drive to improve one’s future permeated the air, the streets, the eyes, the ears with determination. No regrets, no looking back. “Welcome to Saigon,” they waved. Our initial fear of being American was wiped away by smiles and hardy handshakes. We pushed aside our guilt and fears and prepared to meet Vietnam.”

Southeast Asia- More bicycles than cars
Southeast Asia- Negotiating traffic in Saigon

“It’s hard to believe what travelers have said about Vietnam,” Mike said.
“How’s that?” I questioned.
“Well, I don’t understand how the Vietnamese could just forget about the past. I mean, we did abandon the South”
I felt the same unrequited guilt. Although I was joyous when our soldiers returned home, I could not reconcile our government’s course of action: arms support for the French colonialists, financial, military and moral backing of a dictatorial, hated Saigon regime, bombing of civilians, American youth sent to fight in an undeclared, secretive war. We had fulfilled our role as supreme world leader with might and power instead of winning the hearts of the people. How could they forget?
The loudspeaker announced our approach to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. Soon we would meet our former allies’ and enemies’ true feelings face to face.”

Southeast Asia- Young ladies on bicyclesSoutheast Asia- Bicycle taxi drivers are often men who lost their jobs to northern soldiers

Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Thai and Chinese. The major difference, however, is that the written language does not look like a pile of pick up sticks. The letters are Romanized, even if you can’t pronounce them properly. I spent a week in Saigon with a private tutor who came to our hotel for an hour each day. Although I brushed aside the mandatory 3 months of tonal instruction, he was successful in helping me to with essential phrases that would carry us through the countryside. Yes, many South Vietnamese do speak English, a remnant of the war years. But finding lodging, buying water, going to toilet, and getting something to eat we did not want to leave to chance. Distances were long, roads were in various stages of rough to difficult, lodging uncertain, tourism was still a fledgling enterprise. When we left Saigon, we left our Teddy Bear behind.
Our first long distance goal was Dalat, the honeymoon capital of Vietnam nestled in the mountains to the northwest.

“It was 175 miles from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to the old French mountain retreat of Dalat. Throngs of the rejected, the survivors, the Diaspora, the educated, the opinionated ~ fled to this corridor to start life over again. In the four days it took us to cycle the dilapidated road, we l ived in a time warp and tasted the raw, coarse, bitter sweet, optimistic side of life through an area that has been intentionally forgotten by its country.
With hand shovels, rakes and hoes, instruments born from servitude, a crew of men and boys tossed and spread endless piles of gravel into the countless gaping potholes that beleaguered the road. We labored, pedaling like frogs through a grass choked swamp, always uphill, against this handmade road ~ all the way to Dalat. Twelve liters of water a day evaporated away as if my body was perforated with strainer holes. I never had to stop to pee.”

Southeast Asia- Local bus

“Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles spilled into every nook and cranny of space not consumed by motorcycle cabs weaving in and out of a sea of jaywalkers. Bicycles outnumbered motorized transportation two hundred to one. Bicycles, bicycles carrying conical shaped wire cages on the rider’s knees: imprisoned within each ~ a full grown pig squealing in protest; snout, legs and fatty parts pushing out through the octagonal holes ~ reaching, begging for freedom.”

Southeast Asia- Hand made roads were brutal to ride

“Our hand built road carried a proud and determined flood of people and their trade goods from village to village. Short and stubby Citroen buses left by the French coughed and sputtered in protest. They should have died years ago, victims of worn out fuel pumps, choking carburetors, sheared pistons, frozen axles ~ but somehow, a transplant here, a splint job there and it would be back on the job ~ coughing, protesting, hauling bundles and people on the roof and stuffed inside like too many fish in a net.”

Southeast Asia- Bicycles carry everything!

“Though my heart soared with the spirit of the people around me, my body deserted me. Throughout the second day the heat, the jarring sticky road, the endless uphill, and a constant head wind drained my stamina. I labored all day harder than I thought I should and it flustered me. A stubborn lethargy overtook my rapidly tiring quads as my determination floundered in the very company that replenished it.
Mike unveiled the reason. My rear wheel, though fixed as well as I could have hoped after the red Honda crashed into me, wobbled like a drunken sailor. It was so out of true, the brakes rubbed the tire on every revolution ~ testing, challenging, picking away like an ice pick at my resolve.
Within minutes of fading for good, I felt a grinding in my crank that frightened my heart out of despondency. It sounded like my pedal shaft was dining on the bearings. When the front rack sheared in two as I clobbered the wheel into a major pothole, my mental fortitude totally collapsed. We creaked and staggered into Dinh Quan, found a hotel and sank into blessed oblivion by 7:30.
“I can’t do another day like this,” I told Mike before passing out. “We’ve got to get the bike fixed first thing tomorrow morning.”
I knew the Vietnamese words for a bike shop. When I asked the hotel manager for one the next morning, his reply was easy to understand. He shook his head, pointed south and said, “Ho Chi Minh!”
“There are thousands of bicycles on these streets. Somebody here must repair them,” Mike cried out in disbelief.
We cruised the streets. Finally, I spotted the right sign: Tiem Su’a Xe Dap. One of the typical ten-by-ten wooden shacks displaying rusted fenders, worn out tubes, corroded frames ~ cans of nuts and bolts. 
With such parts and tools, the young owner fixed my wheel and rack. I never had a problem with either again. He charged us the equivalent of $1.50. We bought three stuffed French Baguettes and shared with our young entrepreneur.”

Southeast Asia- Local bicycle shop

Dalat

Southeast Asia- Dalat cuisineSoutheast Asia- Dalat cuisineSoutheast Asia- Young Dalat entrepreneur

Le petit Paris became Dalat’s affectionate nickname. Founded by Frenchman Dr. Alexander Yersin in 1897, by 1912 it became the popular French retreat from the heat of Vietnam’s coastal and delta regions. Over 2,500 French colonial villas still graced the hillsides around Dalat. After the Vietnamese drove the French colonialists out of Vietnam at the battle of Dienbienphu, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam (temporarily it was agreed) into two countries.

 

Both north and south Vietnamese claimed Dalat. Their mutual love for the city spared it from the ravages of the war to follow. Dalat became a retreat for Communist and southern military higher-ups. They declared Dalat off limits for the war. Small shops and cafes flooded onto the one-person wide sidewalks. French wine, French cheese, French mineral water crowded the shelves.

 

“Bon jour Madame” was the Vietnamese shopkeepers’ greeting of choice. Fresh baked French pastries ~ delicate layers of airy dough filled with custard, jam or ripened fruit ~ chocolate éclairs, vegetable quiche, and raspberry tarts held strollers bound to the display cart, imprisoned by their own indecisions.

Southeast Asia-Dalat

Coastal Highway 1

Historical, and scenically rich coastal Highway 1 is the spinal chord that runs the south-north length of the country. After leaving Dalat, we joined this famous road in Nha Trang, a destination beach resort where Vietnamese and foreigners alike enjoy the natural treasures of Vietnam’s magnificent coast.

 

 

Southeast Asia- Meeting the locals on Nha Trang Beach

We bicycled Highway 1  all the way north to the sentimental capital of Hue. Along the way, we met the people of Vietnam. They welcomed us as long lost family; they told us their stories; we witnessed their fortitude and resolution to move forward, their optimism, and kindness.

Southeast Asia- Nha Trang
Southeast Asia- Highway 1 and the scenic coast
Southeast Asia- Former English teacher is now a shop keeper

“One old lady carried her traditional pole baskets laden with little pieces of firewood. She shuffled along with her burden with the same bounce and delight a full-blooded American male demonstrates when a gorgeous chick catches his eye. She came up to Mike and me, lowered her pole to the ground and took our hands in hers. The black stains of betel nut appeared behind her widening smile. She said nothing. Her face said it all.”

Southeast Asia- Hoi an woman

“And what do you think of our country?” Truong wanted to know.
“I think I have never seen a country in all my travels like Vietnam. There is energy in the Vietnamese people that I have not felt anywhere else in Asia. I see courage and determination. I see a happy spirit. I will not forget you Truong.”

Southeast Asia- What do you think of our country?

“I am a lucky man,” Thanh said his smile revealing rotted teeth. “I inherited this house from my parents when they died. Many people do not have a house.”
“But with your English skills, couldn’t you get a really good job in a tourist city?” Mike asked.
“Good paying jobs go to North Vietnamese. I was a soldier for the Republic of Vietnam. They do not allow me to teach English. If I moved to another city, I would not have a house.”


“Excuse me, Madame. My name is Truong. I make very beautiful silk clothing. I would like to invite you to my shop.”

I still have the silk pants and vest they made for me. Of all the silks we found in Asia, this Vietnamese silk was the finest and most comfortable.

Southeast Asia- Truong and her family own this sewing shopSoutheast Asia- Families invited us into their homesSoutheast Asia- Families invited us into their homesSoutheast Asia- This young woman captains a tourist boatSoutheast Asia- This woman sold fresh shrimp on the beach

Bicycling Vietnam-Scenes Along Highway 1

Southeast Asia- Bringing fresh chickens to market!Southeast Asia- Boat transportation to a local shrineSoutheast Asia- Dia Lahn harborSoutheast Asia- Bicycles everywhere
Southeast Asia- Dia Lahn fishing village

“Highway 1 climbed above Dia Lanh bay, turning the close-up experience of the crowded village into a Van Gogh canvas. The red and blue striped boats of the fishing fleet had returned from the lurching, dark green sea into the calm safety of its turquoise harbor. The little round bottomed bamboo boats bobbed from fleet to shore like individual lily pads in a pond. All the village women and children, brightly colored pajamas reflecting against the rising sun, clustered on the beach like a field of swaying wildflowers. After only five minutes of cycling, my camera snapped memories for 30 minutes: wide-angle scenes, telephoto close-ups. This was a photographer’s gallery waiting for exposure. There were many more to come. We would end up measuring our cycling progress for the day by the number of film rolls used.”

Southeast Asia- Preferred transportation
Southeast Asia- Heavy cart pulled by women
Southeast Asia- Highway 1

“On the downstream side of the bridge, an old grandfather worked his disobedient flock of two hundred ducks. His long stick with a white flag tied to one end tried to herd the quacking protesters into the river’s left channel. Half sped off to the right. Down came the stick with a loud slap on the ground behind the wrongdoers. They flapped and scurried back to the left like a single wave ~ dividing the waiting, gossiping ducks into two diverging subgroups. The farmer had seen this tactic before. He cut them off and with a big swoosh of his stick turned the rout into a single advance ~ into the left channel. Deed accomplished, he turned to wave at our applause. Another photographic gallery.”

Southeast Asia- Duck Management!
Bicycling Vietnam Historic city of Hue

“Hue seemed poised for a stunning future. As the sentimental ancient Imperial capital of Vietnam, survivor of occupations and liberations, it stood alone in the hearts of South Vietnamese as an expression of their very souls. When in March of 1975, South Vietnam’s president Thieu ordered his troops to retreat and leave Hue to the Communists, it broke the spirit and the morale of the South Vietnamese people. They were prepared to defend their beloved city. To walk away without a fight was akin to the sin of not paying worship to your ancestors. The loss of Pleiku and the highlands could have been reconciled, but the loss of Hue triggered a mass distrust and hatred of their Saigon-based government and stood as the single most important event that led to the entire downfall of South Vietnam. So how could its future seem so bright? That was what the Vietnamese were going to teach us about Hue.”

Southeast Asia- Map of our route
On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

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