Thursday, January 30, 2014

If I Were a Man on The Loong Way Home……

I don’t think I’d get the same sort of treatment if I were a solo man out here on the roads as I do riding, a solo young lady. Today I spent a good portion of my ride just laughing out loud at all the funny experiences I have had, mostly because I’m a solo female rider. I’m sure guys have a lot of funny tales to share as well, but with male cyclists, there doesn’t seem to be as much of the surprise element that I experience.  Of course I’m not a guy, so I can’t compare, but I can’t tell you how many eyebrows I’ve seen raise and jaws drop as I answer again, and again,….YES! I’m riding alone, YES, just me, YES, no friend!  I’m sure solo male tour cyclists get that question, but without the facial expressions that follow.  Cyclists get honked at all over the world, I know this, but if I were really to record the statistics here in SE Asia, I’m pretty sure 9 out of every 10 trucks that passes me honks, in addition to a hand waving out the window or a thumb that goes up.  The statistics are just as high for male motor scooter drivers who pass me.  I can get a smile and a wave out of a woman, but usually I have to initiate this greeting! I’m not sexists, nor am I a feminist, but I just can’t imagine my trip would be as entertaining if I were a guy on my own.  Recently I’ve had the red carpet treatment by a lot of charming men and I can’t help but think, if I were a solo male cyclist, would a woman interact this way with a man riding?

Georgetown, Penang Town Hall

Last week when I was leaving Georgetown Penang, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing before I crossed back over to mainland.  I found the colonial buildings, took a few pictures, then went up to the town hall to see if I could go in and visit.  The doors were all closed, but there was a guard there, who, without hesitating had me lock up my bike outside and took me in.  Heman was his name, a fun, carefree, and delightful older Indian man who was born and raised in Penang and very proud of his city.  He showed me all around the inside of the Town Hall and the gardens for about half an hour, gave me a bit of history, and his perspective on life in Penang.  He let me take pictures of the stage and backdrop for the film festival that was happening in the evening, and right before I left his colleague took a picture of us together. We posed with the film backdrop, as if we were at the Grammy’s for the first photo, and for the second photo, all of a sudden I got a nice strong squeeze around my waist, and I just had to laugh,….a bit too close for comfort, but hey, was I really surprised?!?

Here's the first shot

And the awkward squeeze!

At the time I didn’t realize I was getting a VIP tour from Heman, but when I left a young male tourist came walking up to inquire about the building.  Heman didn’t answer, so I spoke up and told him it was the colonial town hall.  He proceeded by asking if he could go in and Heman cut him off and refused his entrance in a cold voice.  When he had left, Heman looked at me and said, “Melissa, you are very special, not everyone gets a tour!”  Then he added, “Come back and visit me Melissa…..I will take you to the heavens!”  A big smile came across my face and I couldn’t help but crack up as I rode away.  No one has ever offered to take me to the heavens before! Ha!  Would Heman have squeezed a young man in that last picture on stage?!?!

Later that same evening I met Din, also an older Indian man, very humble, who I found as I rode into town.  I asked Din for a hotel in town and a supermarket.  He was dressed in all different shades of yellow and was waiting to pull out of a driveway on his small motor scooter. I thought he would just point in a direction like most people do, but he told me to follow him and escorted me to the supermarket first.  He followed me through the aisles and insisted on carrying my groceries. I didn’t feel like going out for dinner that night and bought a few quick snacks and items for breakfast the following day. He kept repeating over and over again, “don’t worry, no problem,” as his arms became more and more full.  He even held the grocery bag on his scooter as we approached the hotel.  Din took me to a little Muslim budget hotel and went upstairs to find out the price and availability and later brought all my bags upstairs.

At this point I was convinced Din was being so kind because he wanted me to pay for his services or at least tip him.  I was so tired from my ride and appreciative of his help I gave him some money.  He insisted he didn’t want money.  He was fascinated that I was riding my bike and wanted to help me.  He told me that he would come back after I showered to show me the way to the road I needed to take tomorrow.  I knew where the road was, but I could see he was delighted to have company, and so was I, so I took him up on the offer.  We snapped a quick photo (no squeezing from Din) but he had one look at the photo, saw his stomach too pouchy and made me take another!  What a funny man. 

Second shot sucking in our stomachs on Din's request
A half hour went by and Din wasn’t down stairs.  I thought I had been stood up, silly me to think he was actually going to come back, so I explored town on my own. On my way back to the hotel, I heard someone say my name. I turned around and it was Din.  He said he had been looking for me in town and was worried.  He still wanted to show me the road for tomorrow, so I got on his moto.  I had my own little tour of town, followed by Roti Canai and tea, at a local restaurant. Din had these eyes that really caught your attention.  There was something special about them, about him.  He kept telling me he was a good man, a nice guy who I could trust.  Usually that would make me feel skeptical, but in fact there was something special about Din.  When we went to leave the restaurant, I tried to pay and he wouldn’t let me, but he also didn’t pay.  He said, “You see Melissa, everyone here knows I’m a good man, they know me very well!”  But it wasn’t just in town where they knew him. He was adamant about escorting me the first 25 kilometers of my ride the following morning.  At 25 kilometers we stopped to have breakfast in another town and again, the same thing happened. I went to pay but the two men at the table next to us ended up paying for our breakfast.  I asked Din about his job, thinking, maybe I’m with a famous local politician or the town doctor, but that wasn’t the case either.  Din titled himself a “Sweeper”, he spends his days doing a little bit of this and that around here and there!  Who Din really was, I don’t know, but what a thoughtful man, the first to escort me a good 25 kilometers! 

Eating Roti Canai in good company
My next encounter was also on a moto scooter.  I was close to my town of arrival when all of a sudden a motor cyclist rides up next to me and starts with the same typical questions…..What’s your name? Where are you going? And of course my favorite, are you alone?  He gave me instruction for finding a hotel, and asked me to dinner.  He told me he would meet me at the hotel he’d just mentioned.  This conversation all happened in motion and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t even understand the name of the hotel he was telling me about, and knew I wasn’t going to be able to find it.  I just said yes to everything to be polite.  Riding into town, I started following signs to the first hotel sign I see and wouldn’t you know, the motorcyclist reappeared.  Gan was his name.  I hadn’t gone to the hotel he recommended, and so I followed him around the block to his.  He helped me bring my bags upstairs, translated for me, and told me he’d be back at 8:30 to go to dinner.  I was intending to trip plan, but hey, that could wait.  No I wasn’t interested in anything romantic with Gan, but dinner company is almost always welcomed.

Delicious dinner, nice company
Gan picked me up at 8:30.  He had changed and gotten all cleaned up, wearing some white Addidas pants and matching white shoes and a shiny black, fake leather jacket.  We walked to a park where there were several restaurants and sat outside.  Everyone was starring at us.  He kept leading the conversation towards boyfriends, marriage, my age, and wanting me to come back and visit him.  I kept asking him questions about his culture, religion, and family to show him I wasn’t interested in anything else.  By the end of the night, he had offered me a ring and his t-shirt so I wouldn’t forget him.  He told me he was going to spend his days praying to Allah so I would become Muslim and could come back and marry him.  I think I’m a pretty optimistic person, but Gan puts me to shame!

The point of me sharing these stories is because I strongly believe that if I were a guy, I would blend in more.  People here don’t see tour cyclists everyday, but I don’t think they have ever seen a female cyclist on her own.  At least that is the impression they give me with their facial expressions and the way they treat me with their hospitality.  It makes for funny memories, that is for sure, but sometime I get tired of always standing out.  In Barcelona, I had similar experiences because there were so few women cyclists, especially ones with blonde curly hair sticking out of the helmet who spoke Catalan with a funny Oregon accent.  In fact if happened quite often when I was out on a ride on my own and a guy rider comes along and he knows who I am either because of a race I was in recently or because he saw me riding with my club last weekend….The conversation usually starts something like this, “You are Melissa…..Melissa Pritchard, the girl who……”

You might think the attention is nice, but to tell you the truth, I would rather there be millions of Melissa Pritchard’s out there, more women on the road to accompany me so that there isn’t such a shock element with seeing a young lady on her bike, on her own. As my SE Asia route comes to a close and I get ready to head to New Zealand and Australia, I am excited to explore what is known as an outdoor haven.  New Zealand, a place where female cyclists are out riding the roads just as often as men! I don’t think I will see any jaws drop there or horns honking at me there, right?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Malaysia: Truly Asia

Here I am in The Restoran Tong Juan digesting my stuffed crab, fried rice, and mixed vegetables that I washed down with the first beer I’ve had since I stepped foot in Malaysia. Next to me there are two tables full of Indians getting their hands dirty with seafood, drinking beer as well. Behind them a few Chinese families eating dinner with a pot of green tea, and a delightfully friendly young Muslim waitress hustling and bustling around serving everyone.  Back in my hotel room run by a Muslim family, there is a Chinese calendar on the wall with a picture of the Vatican.  Now that is Malaysia, truly Asia (it's the government's cheesy tourism slogan, not mine)!
Have to try the local specialties even though crab isn't my favorite.
Malaysia; It’s a fascinating country!  They are getting ready to celebrate The Chinese New Year in a few days and there are Chinese lanterns and lights decorating all the bigger towns I come across.  In the background I can hear call to prayer on the speakers of one of the many Masjids in town and along the roads.  Malaysia mosques are everywhere, like the car washes I came across in Vietnam and the “Volcanizers” in Bosnia.  There are 3 radically different cultures that peacefully share this country called Malaysia.
Chinatown in Georgetown, Penang

Around the corner from Little India

Across the street from Colonial buildings......

Signs here are in Malay and English predominantly but sometimes they will be written in three or four languages, including Chinese and Arabic as well.  People are bilingual and trilingual naturally, but English is commonly spoken acting as a “liason language” between the distinct cultures.  At most restaurants you can find local Malay food, Chinese noodle, soup, and rice dishes, Indian curries, and even Thai and Indonesian specialties.  Muslims don’t drink coffee, but they serve it at all their restaurants along with milk tea, unfortunately the same isn’t true for alcohol (you have to go to a Chinese or Indian restaurant for that)!

You have to try Roti Canai, especially if a local is treating you!

Imagine a country that has Indian and Chinese temples intermixed, and mosques and their minarets can be found in all directions.  Yes, they observe all the sacred holidays for each of the religions, making for, A LOT of public holidays! For Muslims, Friday is the religious day, yet in some towns I still saw kids at school on Friday.  In other towns, school was in session on a Sunday, making it hard to decipher which day of the week it actually is?!?! In Georgetown, Penang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chinatown runs into Little India as Bollywood music can be heard from the doors of the Chinese temple nearby, which is across the street from the old British colonial town and city hall.  Fascinating!!!  In Penang, the geograhpy is just as diverse as the culture, simulating a mini-Malaysia.  You have dense rainforest jungles and tall peaks in the interior and pristine white sandy beaches lining the entire perimeter of the island.  Three hours away by ferry is Langkawi, a beach resort paradise, that still isn't too overrun with tourism.

Sunset on the beach where I camped in Langkawi

In the end, I decided to cycle down the eastern side of Malaysia hoping it would be less developed and transited.  This country has plenty of coastline and flat plains.  About 60% of the peninsula is below 100 meters, so I had to go out and find that 40% above and crossed the mountains 100% of the way to arrive on the eastern side of the country. I’m thankful I made the effort and grueling climb to come over because there aren’t as many big cities on this side, which makes for less traffic, although the cultural diversity is lacking compared to the west.  Muslims populate the eastern coast more than other cultures and most of the little villages scattered along the coast are fishing villages.  In the few and far between bigger towns you find more Chinese and Indians, resembling the mix that I found in Penang.  The white sandy beaches lined with palm trees go on for kilometers without a single inhabitant.  Last night I watched the sunset from the terrace of my guesthouse that backed up to the beach and there wasn’t anyone else around enjoying the same splendid sight.  I feel a lot less uncomfortable taking a dip in these ocean waters with my cyclist tan lines than elsewhere. 

Small Muslim fishing village on Malaysia's east coast
Cities are hardly cities over here on the east coast, if you compare them to the hustle and bustle on Penang or Kuala Lumpur (although I didn’t cycle through the latter), yet they have everything a cyclists needs: local day and night markets, food stalls and restaurants, and basic hotels. I had a hard time figuring out the hotels in Malaysia.  They advertise “homestays”, “guesthouses”, and “chalets” on the side of the road, yet when you roll up they are deserted.  I was getting excited to stay with a local family for the night, but I realized they aren’t homestays as westerns would think. Homestays are equivalent to our vacation rentals that usually need reserving in advance.  Hotels in general are more expensive here, but they haven’t gotten any nicer!  That is really my only complaint with this country, the lack of decent budget accommodations that you find in other SE Asian countries.  Unfortunately and obviously, you don’t have the hourly Nga Nghis that were so frequent in Vietnam.  Yesterday my eyes lit up with joy as I saw signs for Rose’s Bed & Breakfast.  I searched high and low in the neighborhood and couldn’t find anything that resembled a B&B.  I went to a restaurant nearby, and the men there all looked baffled and pointed in different directions.  Then one invited me to stay with his brother,…I passed on that option.

I can’t believe I only have 4 days left in Malaysia and a week in SE Asia.  There are so many places I’d still love to see and delicious food to try.  Just yesterday I discovered ABC’s, now that is an easy name to remember.  Iced coffees don’t cut it here, but this is a substitute and along with their milk tea.  I’m still loving the beverages at my pit stops.

An ABC,...don't konw where the name comes from it is shaved iced with all sorts of jelly goodies, syrup, condensed milk and sweet corn,.....basically pure sugar!!!!
I’ve just added Penang to my list.  What list, you might ask?!?!  You’ll have to wait for another blog where I shed light on the places I could see myself living after I finish this loong journey home.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Public Vow

Yesterday clocked in as the hardest day ever on my trip.  I still can’t believe the route I took.  I don’t know if I would have done the same ride on my normal road bike without the weight had I known what I was in for.  I wasn’t trying for a new record or anything, I just didn’t have many choice for accommodations along the way and I thought I would “push through”…..famous last words!

Rainforest everywhere

I left Penang the previous day, later than I intended, but happy to do a morning school visit and a bit of sight seeing around Georgetown.  However, I didn’t get as far as I intended, but found a simple hotel in a small town at the start of the East-West road across the north of Malaysia.  I knew I had mountains to cross the following day in order to reach the East side of the country, but since I haven’t done a lot of climbing recently, I forgot what positive elevation feels like.  Really, I haven’t done any serious climbing since northern Vietnam and Laos and I think my legs are out of shape when it comes to mountainous terrain. Two days prior I climbed 13 kilometers up to 900 meters from sea level to the highest point in Langkawi. It was short and steep, but doable. 

I didn’t do my research on the climb that awaited me to go East.  Naively, I knew there were mountains, and thought, how bad can they be,….I’m no longer in northern Vietnam!?!?!  Google Maps showed 177 kilometers from where I was staying to the next “big” town with a hotel.  People had told me there was a nice resort somewhere in between, but definitely not one that fit in my budget price range.  My plan was to stop and camp on the side of the road, either by finding a gas station or rest stop to put up my tent, or asking a family.  It wasn’t my intention to ride all the way through, I thought that was impossible although the idea lingered in my head the entire day.

I set out early in the morning.  The sun rises here in Malaysia at about 7:30 and sets twelve hours later.  In reality, that makes for about 10 hours of riding time, if I needed them all, but with about five and a half or six, I usually call it a day.  I should have known after the first 15 kilometers, I was in for a difficult climb.  The road went up constantly, at a steady 7 or 8% from the first kilometer.  My average calculations of about 20 kilometers in an hour was not going to be accurate with this terrain, so I went down to about 15 kilometers an hour to gauge my progress.  I stopped to have breakfast at the first town I found and happened to witness some sort of Islamic parade going through town.  It lifted my spirits after the first section of climbing and off I went again.  The climbing subsided and turned into rolling terrain, which I gladly welcomed.  The second town was another 40 kilometers down the road.  Again, a pit stop with plenty of options for food.  It made me wonder just how few services I would actually find on the road, there seemed to be plenty?

Random, a local parade going through town entertained me for breakfast

Too bad they didn't march by my side the whole day 

I got back on my bike and continued to pedal, entering a national park.  The road went up, so did the temperatures, and my legs just kept going.  I was in the middle of an immense rainforest.  It sounded like I was in one of those stores that plays the CD with all the bird calls and jungle sounds to relax their customers.  There was every shade of green around me you could imagine, from short grass and shrubs to banana trees and mangroves, up to really tall trees shooting high above in the canopy.  I should have stopped more often to take pictures, but sometimes it is harder to get started afterwards when you have an uphill awaiting! Pedaling and pedaling, I reached the resort that was in the middle of a huge lake in the park.  At this point it was a little after 1pm and I was about 75 kilometers into my route.  Was I really going to stop this early and pay the steep prices at this resort (later I found out this resort was rather cheap, wish I knew that earlier)?  Of course not, that wouldn’t be very Melissalike to stop so early in the day, so I kept pedaling, accepting the fact that I would probably end up camping.  The idea of making it to Jeli, the town on the other side of the national park was in the back of my mind, but I still thought it was out of the question as my destination for the night.

Awas is caution, with an exclamation, well,....even more!

I should have stopped at the resort at least for some food, because 5 kilometers down the road my stomach started growling and there was no food around.  By now, I was starting to over heat although I had plenty of water to drink.  It was about 38 Celsius, and I was going up with constant slopes anywhere from 8 to 13%.  I was taken completely off guard by these mountains.  I had underestimated the climb and thought nothing could be as tough as what I had been up in the Ha Giang region of Vietnam.  I tried to use that as motivation to encourage myself, but it didn’t make the terrain any easier.  I even got plenty of honks from cars and truck drivers, but their support made no difference, the mountains were getting the best of me!

It would have made my day to actually see an elephant crossing

As the day went on, I could start understanding the road signs in Malay.  My worst enemy became the sign that informed me a passing lane was coming soon.  For a cyclist this means, caution, major climb ahead!  “Awas” and caution signs were everywhere for the sharp turns, narrow shoulders, and steep grades.  There were also crossing signs to warn for elephants and anteaters.  I didn’t see an elephant, but I did spot a few unique road kill, one an anteater and the other a crocodile.  Both were enough to make me question the wild camping option, not to mention the amount of monkeys I could see playing in the trees on the side of the road.

Luckily I saw a water hose on the side of a road at a truck pull off.  There were two trucks washing down their vehicles. I used the water to wash down myself jumping right under the hose as if it were a cold-water shower.  Delightful!  I asked the drivers the distance to the next restaurant and was finally filled with optimism when they told me it was only 5 kilometers up the road.  I made it to that restaurant and couldn’t stop drinking.  It reminded me of my days touring with Ed, when we had about 3 drinks apiece on the table.  I downed a can of juice, a liter of water, an iced tea, and a new fascinating sweet syrup and milk drink.  I got some sticky banana rice for energy did some quick planning.  Looking back on it, I probably didn’t have enough oxygen flowing to my brain to make a rational choice.  It was 3:30pm, I had cycled 100 kilometers and the owner of the restaurant told me the road went up for another 20 km and then down for 40km,….and there was another 15km to account for in there somewhere.  If I could do the 20 km in 2 hours, I would have a little over an hour of downhill, which meant I would arrive in Jeli as the sun set. 

discovering new beverages along the way

I try to blame it on the oxygen, but I don’t really know what possessed me to make the decision to keep riding. I suppose I wanted a bit of down time to myself, and if I camped at a restaurant or behind the house of a local, I would be in constant company and have to socialize.  I wasn’t in the mood.  Wild camping was out of the question as there was no place next to the road unless I penetrated the thick rainforest filled with all sorts of jungle creatures. No way! 

Cycling to Jeli it was, another 70 kilometers to go!  The road continued to go up and up for almost 20 km.  Every time I saw a passing lane sign I got frustrated, yet every time I came across a little hut where a family lived, I discarded the idea to camp.  I’m stubborn, I know!  I was soon going down, but unfortunately it wasn’t a true downhill as I imagined.  After every 5 kilometers down, it went back up hill until finally I reached a much-needed long continuous downhill of about 30 kilometers.  However, the hours of daylight were coming to an end.  It was about 6:30pm but the dense vegetation of the rainforest made it feel later.  Now I was determined to make it to Jeli!  I kept an eye out for a hotel as I came out of the rainforest and passed through small villages, but there didn’t seem to be any.  I pulled over to put on all my lights and continued cycling. 

I began counting down the kilometers to Jeli and it continued to get darker and darker.  Luckily drivers here are used to small vehicles with little light, as motor scooters are frequent on the shoulder of the road at all hours of the day.   I continued to get a few honks, although at this time of day I think they were warning me rather than encouraging me.  I made it to the turn off for Jeli and had about 4 kilometers to go.  I never really came across an actual town.  I could see a few signs for hotels, but they were still 8 or 10 kilometers ahead, further than the town itself.  I couldn’t make sense of where my “saviour” town actually was.  I passed a fire station and almost pulled over on the verge of tears to ask them if I could camp behind their station, but didn’t.  I did pull over to ask a man for a hotel, but when he tried to initiate small talk, I got impatient and rode off, something I would NEVER do had I not just had the longest day on my bike! 

Clouds rolled in as it started to get dark 

Here I had made it to Jeli, it was 8pm, and I couldn’t actually find the center of town or a hotel.  With tears in my eyes, I pulled over at a grocery store to ask the clerk for a hotel.  She pointed around the corner.   I went around the corner and saw nothing.  I went back to her and asked again.  This time a customer must have realized how desperate I was and walked me over to the guesthouse.  It was right next door, but it was closed.  There happened to be another 200 meters away, and he guided me there.  This one was open.  It was a bit sketchy with tinted windows and advertised as a 24 hour hotel, but for tonight, it would have to do.

I had pushed myself to my limits and I couldn’t walk another 10 meters.  I was done….completely destroyed!  I wheeled my bike in my room and thought that if I didn’t go get food before I showered, I wouldn’t make it out again.  My punishment was the fact that no restaurants were open in this odd “ghost” town.  At the mini-market I found crackers and tuna fish, and called that dinner.  Oddly I wasn’t hungry,….my appetite wouldn’t come back until tomorrow morning when I woke up and visited the local market.  The ride had made me nauseous.  I had done too much, something I will hardly ever admit: 177 kilometers, 2,500 meters of climbing, and just shy of 11 hours on my bike.  I’m not proud about this ride, that is why I have to make this vow public! 

Three weeks ago I did set out intentionally to see just how far I could ride in one day on fairly flat terrain.  I needed a challenge and I wanted to change things up for a day.  I was inspired and motivated to do a loong ride crossing into Thailand from Battambang, Cambodia.  There were plenty of towns along the way in case I needed to stop early.  This was a fun challenge.  Yesterday was different, it was more out of need than desire and never again to be repeated, especially with mountainous terrain!  100 to 110 kilometers is ideal with fairly flat terrain.  140 if I really have to,….but NEVER, will I ever ride 177 kilometers in one day with 35 kg of weight strapped to my bike on a road with limited services and lots of climbing, it just isn’t fun!  So there, I said it out loud, you have to hold me to this!  You are responsible.....

Oh, so there is just one day coming up in March when I’ll have to modify this vow. I’ll be in Australia and doing a Gran Fondo race with some Thomson Bike Tour clients. However, this doesn’t really count because I will ditch the weight but still have the racks on my touring bike,…..what a sight that will be!


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Alor Setar, Where in the World is That?

Zoo, Ani, and Radzi, my hots in front of their bike shop
What?!?! Where is that?!?! Is that the name of a city? Indeed it is! I wouldn’t have even considered stopping here if it hadn’t been for a Warmshowers listing and the fact that it was the perfect distance from the Thai-Malaysia border the day I crossed.  You won’t find Alor Setar in any guidebooks, but for me it will always be a memorable stop on my Malaysia route.

I had contacted Muhamed prior to my visit.  In his profile, it showed he was a new to the cyclist network.  He had joined the 30th of December 2013.  He owned a bike shop and when I wrote him, he mentioned he had already been visited by his first guest. It turns out his first guest, Max, was the reason why he had signed up for Warmshowers.  Max was a young Dutch tour cyclist who found his shop and was in desperate need of a new wheel set for his bike.  However, he needed to wait for it to be shipped from Holland from his sponsors and so he ended up staying in Alor Setar for 2 weeks with this kind, wonderful family.  I heard so much about Max, that I feel like I know him personally and I actually emailed him to thank him for getting them to sign up for Warm Showers.

One of my many delicious homecooked meals by Ani

It turns out my host, wasn’t named Muhamed, but Radzi.  In Muslim culture the last name goes first.  Radzi and his son “Zoo” run a great little bike shop with all European brands. Radzi’s wife Ani, or “Kaka” is at the shop frequently as well.  In fact, the family spends the majority of the day at the shop, and Zoo actually sleeps at the shop at night. 

I rolled up on Saturday afternoon and my intention was to stay one night and then head on south to Penang and see Georgetown.  Little did I know what was in store for me in Alor Setar.  In my first couple of hours I learned about the history of the shop.  Radzi also gave me a brief overview of the history of Malaysia, particularly his region and the confluence of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures and the mix of their three very distinct religions.  It was truly fascinating to learn about the region.  I had already picked up on the diversity as I could see plenty of Chinese and Arabic writing and noticed veiled and unveiled women.  Radzi helped me make a basic cheat sheet for my necessary vocabulary and phrases in Malay. Just before dinner time, he asked if I needed any bike maintenance.  I was so enthralled in our other conversation, I had forgotten all about getting my bike looked at by the pros. 

Zoo taking extra good care of my bike

I had switched out my bottom bracket just before entering Bangkok, but since the city was on “shutdown” I couldn’t get my hubs replaced.  I didn’t think it was such a big deal, as I didn’t notice anything in particular as I pedaled.  However, he had one look at them and was appalled by their poor condition.  The bearings were incredibly worn and the whole hub needed to be replaced.  The problem was that tomorrow was an official government holiday and the wholesale warehouse with all the bike parts for area retailers was closed.  But that didn’t stop Zoo and Radzhi from coming up with a solution.  They would have to polish the bearings and clean the hubs and change out the cassette and chain as well.  It meant I would have to stay an extra day, but that didn’t bother me, I knew I was in good hands and so was my bike!

That evening Zoo took me around town on the back of his moto.  I felt like I got a lot of stares behind him.  There are plenty of unveiled women in Alor Setar with the Indian and Chinese population, but not too many with blonde curly hair and short shorts that reveal a funny bike tan line!  We brought me to delicious Malay food which appeals to me more than Thai because it isn’t so spicy. Zoo was so patient as he went through each of the pots full of food and pointed to the ones that were definitely spicy and identified what was in each. In Thailand I had a few “not so spicy” dishes to choose from, but here, it seemed that almost everything was pretty mild.  Even if my lips started to burn, I soothed them with the delicious iced milk tea, which still exists in this country along with coffee and milk.  I think I’ll be switching to tea and milk here as all three cultures drink more tea than coffee.  Zoo also brought me to the local night market where we bought durians, my substitute for jackfruit in this country.  They are much more smelly, but ohh so good!!! 

Can't get enough of these Durians

We made it back to the shop around 11pm where Radzi and Ani awaited our arrival with their teenage daughter. She was going to stay in the shop with me that night rather than Zoo.  Radzhi and Ani apologized profusely for not inviting me into their home.  They said their house was half the size of their small shop and half of that space was occupied with bikes.  I kept assuring me that a small space on the floor in their bike shop was more than enough for me. They had a bathroom in the back, and fans to keep me cool, what more could I ask for? Not to mention I was spending the night in a bike shop.  Kids dream of getting locked in a toy store over night, and for a cyclist geek like me, spending the night in a bike shop is sort of the same.  Although, I didn’t have much desire to stay up all night playing with the bikes, I just enjoyed their beauty by my side. 

I slept 10 straight hours the first night and probably would have slept another 10 if it wouldn’t have been for the fact that they had to open up shop and here I was on the floor.  Poor Zoo had to sleep at home the 2 nights I was there because according to Muslim law, an unmarried man and woman aren’t allowed to sleep under the same roof.  I can’t believe they offered their bike store to me for the two nights as I took over Zoo’s bachelor pad.  Not only did they confide in a total stranger, but they treated me like I was part of the family.  I had to be careful with what I told them.  If I mentioned how much I loved a certain food or wanted to try a particular dish, the next time they showed up to the shop, Ani had with her that food or dish for me to try, plus something else.  For breakfast Radzi arrived with 4 different tupperwares full of food and a pitcher of tea.  For lunch, came another 4 tupperwares, along with all sorts of snacks for me to try.

Simple, clean, and comfy!

Loved my basic bathroom set-up

My second day in Alor Setar was an unplanned day off for me and truly delightful!  I spent hours talking with Radzi and Ani.  She shared some recipes with me and I learned a lot about bikes from the two men. Zoo spent a good amount of time polishing my bearings, which would hold me over until Singapore along with a few other minor tweaks.  Radzhi and I used google maps and his Malaysian atlas to plan the rest of my route down south to Singapore.  I even managed to have a Skype date with the CC Gracia bike Club in Barcelona who were together with at their annual presentation of the season’s rides and upcoming events. 

Before I knew it, it was 7pm and I hadn’t stepped out of the small bike shop the entire day!  That night, again Zoo and I went to cruise the town on moto, run errands, get dinner, and pick up another Durian or two on the way back to the shop. Radzi and Ani were waiting for us again, with more little gifts and presents to take along with me tomorrow on the ferry to Langkawi.

Radzi, myself, and Ani

It’s people like Radzhi, Ani, and zoo that make warmshowers such an amazing network for tour cyclists and make my trip so memorable   I’m miles and miles away from home yet I feel like you’ve been adopted by a family for a night or two.  They took such good care of me, as if I was their daughter. The morning of my departure, again, Ani made the most amazing breakfast and even brought food for me to take along to Langkawi.  She gave me a typical sari, and the contact information of her brother who lived on Langkawi in case I needed any help.  Zoo, then rode on his moto by my side (giving me an occasional push)12 kilometers to the ferry terminal and made sure I boarded without any problems!

Kind, generous, hospitable, loving, humble, genuine, and sincere…..the list goes on and on for adjectives I could use to describe this incredible family in Alor Setar.  It makes me angry that the majority of people in the western world associate the Muslim culture with terrorists.  All we know, usually, it what the media wants us to see, and we use this to form a general opinion about this culture.  It is a shame because that is the last thing that now comes to my mind regarding Muslims!  Some of the most hospitable families on my trip have been Muslims and the truth is, it makes me want to visit more Muslim countries and experience their culture even more. 

I don’t know how I will ever repay Radzi, Ani, and Zoo for all their kindness, and all the other hosts who have invited me into their home for a night or two and taken such good care of me.  Someday when I settle down and have a place of my own, again, I will hopefully be able to take care of warmshowers guests and other travelers with the same hospitality that others have taken care of me! 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Where Oh Where Will I Be Tonight?!?!?!

The golf course greens
Part of the adventure of tour cycling is the fact that no two days are ever the same.  Yes, I have my daily routine: pedal, eat, pedal, eat, pedal, eat…..and I have a vague idea where I want to stop, but I never really know where I’ll end up at the end of every day.  In fact, I haven’t made a single hotel reservation during my entire trip.  I had a rule that I wasn’t allowed to stop at the first hotel or guest house I saw, but, basically I did away with that one long ago.  When I’m tired, and done with pedaling for the day, I will basically take anything now for an accommodation.  Usually they ask me if I want to see the room, and I don’t even do that anymore! I’m pretty easy going these days,...Ok, my standards have gone down considerably, I guess you could say.  But really, I'm appreciative and happy just about anywhere and everywhere.

Heather Naro & family close to Chonburi, Thailand

Take this week for example.  On Thursday night I visited a teacher friend-friend-of-a-friend in the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand, 120 kilometers south of Bangkok.  I followed the directions I was given and headed into a golf club and resort, which is where the teacher housing for the school was located.  WOW!!!! I felt like I was in Palm Springs or somewhere similar in the states.  My hosts was a very nice Canadian/American family who had been living there in Thailand for 9 years.  I can understand why after seeing their set-up.  Their backyard was the gulf course, their house was huge with great views out of every window.  If you wanted to golf,…you stepped out your front door, going for a run,….you could follow the 3 kilometer circuit of the golf course, and there were roads galore for cycling.  They had a western BBQ for me and I stuffed my face with delicious chips and dip, hamburgers, and yummy salads.  I was in heaven!  Each family member had his or her own golf cart to get around the complex.  At night the two kids took me for a ride.  I asked them if they missed North America and wanted to live back there.  You can imagine their answer.

The following night I had a unique experience staying at an Eco Farm run by an American about 90 kilometers away from Bangkok.  On his farm he had an alternative school with about 15 students.  The school and farm are based on the philosophy of permaculture, meaning that they integrate ecology and holistic education through hands-on learning.  Is spent the day visiting the school and participated in the events related to the celebration of Thailand’s Children’s Day.  At night I slept under a mosquito net in a very basic but comfortable set-up with a lot of the local farm workers.  It was definitely no golf course resort, but an equally interesting and enjoyable experience!

Circle time at The Mosaic School, Chonburi, Thailand
The following day I was off to Bangkok to stay with the sister of a colleague from Barcelona.  Her husband works for Chevron and they had been sent to Bangkok,….not a bad place to be stationed with all the perks they had.  They lived in an amazing luxurious apartment on the main drag in the center of Bangkok with a huge park and playground on the ground floor for the kids, a large swim pool and indoor play room on the 6th floor, and a huge workout facility as well.  Again, I had my own room and bathroom here.  Their  building was so safe they never locked the door, their kids were in heaven with all the on site entertainment, and they had a driver who took me to run some errands.  What a treat!  We went out for a delicious dinner followed by drinks with the ladies, and the following morning I was the guest of honor at their company brunch at the Bangkok Grande Sheraton Hotel.  It brought back memories of the Marriott Istanbul and the Park Hyatt Ho Chi Minh.  What a restful and enjoyable stay I had there and a delightful family.  If it wouldn’t have been for the shutdown and protests, I would have stayed longer.

Living the life in Bangkok with great company & delicious food

How many times did I hit up the buffet? I stopped counting after plate #5.....

The following night I found myself on the night train to a city 400 kilometers south of Bangkok,….something I’d never do if it hadn’t been for the fact that I rode the exact same route last year and it was the smart way to high tail it out of town quickly with the protests.  I knew I was tired enough I could sleep on the train, but I wasn’t expecting to have to put up a fight just to get on.  You see they told me my bike could go in the cargo car, no problem, I’ve done it before.  What they didn’t tell me was that they sold me a ticket on an express train that didn’t have cargo, so the bike wasn’t allowed.  I played “innocent” tourist and boarded with my bike, and basically wasn’t going to get off that train.  The inspector was livid with me and it took a lot of negotiating before he finally agreed to let me stay.  Once we found a place for my bike, I sat down next to my lovely seat mates, a bunch of young “blokes” who had just flown in to Bangkok from London/  They’d been here long enough to make a trip to the super market and realize that beer was so cheap they loaded up on two grocery bags full for the train ride south… delightful, is not the word I’d use to describe that night of sleep, but with the sleeping pill at least I got some rest.

Great shared bungalows with Pascal, Pascal, & Jer

That same day I cycled 100 kilometers when I came across 3 French cyclists: a couple and a solo guy, who they had met the day before.  It was perfect timing because they were looking for bungalows and so was I.  With 4 people, we had more leverage for bargaining a good price.  Poor Pascal, my roommate for that night.  Before even saying bonjour or nice to meet you, I laid down the rules and expectations for sharing a room…..Experience on this trip has taught me, men will be men, even on a bike (yes, I’ve left out some key details in prior posts about my experience with my riding companions)!

Unbelievaby hospitable Warmshowers hosts in Nakhon, Thailand

Last night I stayed with an amazing warm showers Thai family.  Toon and Keo have been on Warmshowers for about 2 years and they have rave reviews from all their guests.  I knew I was going to be treated well when Toon and his brother met me on the road and escorted me home, where they had a cold beer waiting for me, lychees, and JACKFRUIT!  Keo, his wife prepared a delicious meal with various types of fish and rice and after dinner they took me sight seeing in Nakhon, one of Thailand’s most historical town.  We went for tea and banana pancakes as well before heading home.  It was great to talk with local people and learn about their culture.  Toon eventually wants to build a guest room at his house for the warmshower guests, but for now, they convert their kitchen and dining room into a sleeping quarter and I slept like a log on my air mattress.

Couldn't ask for anything more: a mosquito net and my air matress 

Tonight,….where will I be?  Who knows?!?!  Whether I stay in a luxury resort or the most basic accommodations, with locals or ex-pats, each experience is unique and enjoyable and makes for good memories.  I’ve learned to appreciate each day as it comes, making few plans. 

I have a little challenge going for myself to avoid hotels at all costs for the rest of my stay in SE Asia.  I feel so incredibly safe and comfortable in the south and there are ideal places to camp all along the way. I want to use my tent as much as possible for my remaining time in SE Asia, especially since my route follows the more remote Eastern coastline in both Thailand and Malaysia.  Toon has written sentences in Thai for me to ask people if I can camp.  To establish some trust, I will ask people to pitch my tent in their yard or behind their restaurant.  The people are so incredibly kind and open-minded here, I think I could even approach the police station and ask if I could pitch my tent behind and they’d be fine.  I would love to try a temple as well, especially since no one can give me a clear answer on whether or not women are allowed to use the temple quarters for sleeping.  So I go back to the question I started with…..Where oh where will I be tonight?!?!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Upcoming Route

View from my host's apartment, all seem calm now......

Bangkok & Southern Thailand
As you might have heard there are some serious protests planned in Bangkok starting this coming Monday and continuing on through the week.  My luck of course….It happens to be the exact time when I planned to be here?!?!?  I wouldn’t be worried except now I have been warned by too many people to be careful and avoid the city at all cost.  My plan?  I will cancel my school visits, as they are closing down as well for a few days and head south as soon as possible. I needed some bike maintenance in the city and was looking forward to just relaxing but with the situation as is, I don’t think it will be relaxing at all!  I spent an extra day down south and got my bike all serviced, visited a school, and made some new plans taking into consideration the Bangkok protests.

Planned protest areas in Bangkok for Monday

I’m also working on my route through the southern part of Thailand and trying to avoid the last three South Eastern provinces.  Again, a lot of local Thais have warned me about the Muslim extremists down there and advise me to avoid those areas as well.  I do have a couple of route options depending on the situation the further I head south.  I would like to cycle down the Eastern side of Malaysia because it isn’t so developed, but again, it might mean taking the Loong way to get there!

Click here for more information regarding the protests

I’m starting to think about the next continent I will be cycling shortly and spread the word to friends for support.  I’m looking for hosts in New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia, as well as schools to visits.  Yes, those are huge countries, so to give you a better idea of my route, here is a brief description of my itineraries.  I will fly into Christchurch and make a loop of the south island, counterclockwise direction.  Then I will fly to Melbourne and ride out on the Great Coastal Road for about 300 kilometers and come back through the interior to Melbourne.  From there I head to Tasmania and do a circular loop for about three weeks.  At the end of March, I head up to Sydney where I will fly to San Fransisco, mid-April. 

I am hoping to do a get-together with friends and Thomson Bike Tour clients in both Melbourne and Sydney, where I already have a lot of people who have graciously offered me a place to stay.  I’m excited to start using my camping gear again, but would also love to be hosted from time to time if you know of anyone along the described routes.  Also, if you have friends or family who teach at schools in any of these areas, I would love contacts here as well.  My school visits have been few and far between in Asia due to the holidays and the longer distances.

Thanks so much for all your support, I hope 2014 is off to a good start!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thailand: Heaven on Earth

I was sooo excited to get to Thailand, I cycled an all time record of 173 kilometers from Battambang, Cambodia to Chantburi, Thailand in one day.  I know, crazy, right?  I wanted to see if I could do it..... a little challenge to change things up on my trip.  I left bright and early at 6:30am and stopped 2 times to fuel up before reaching the Thai border. You see the day before I had a true day off.  I was stuck on a ferry for 10 hours so my legs were well rested.  Imagine how far I could ride if I were to take two days off in a row……

I was so excited to get to Thailand, I didn’t even stop at the Cambodian side to stamp out of their country. I didn’t see their border crossing because I was so focused on Thailand.  A Cambodian border officer had to chase me down on his motor bike and escort me back to Cambodia to get my departure stamp. I was laughing, he wasn’t.

I'm pointing to the border  control sign, my photographer left it out of the picture
For the first 2 kilometers in Tahiland, I road on the right side of the road, before it dawned on me that all the cars were coming head on and getting awfully close to me on the shoulder.  From then on, during my first two days in Thailand, I sang a little song that I invented and call “Stay on the Left”, that goes to the tune of the Adam’s family soundtrack.  So far it has worked!

I rode for another 30 kilometers after crossing the border to find a town that had an ATM machine so I could actually buy some of my favorite Thai treats.  My intentions were to withdraw $100 from the ATM in Thai Baht, but somehow, I calculated wrong and I accidentally got $650.  How did I do that?  It’s times like these where I wonder if I’m really a Pritchard?!?!  I come from a family of math whizzes, accountants, and economic oriented people.  The most dreaded dinnertime conversation growing up in my family were when our Dad quizzed us on math problems.  Every other Pritchard sibling is blessed with the "Pritchard Math Gene", but for some reason I could never successfully balance my checkbook when I lived in the states.  I will just go ahead and attribute the mistake to the fact that my brain is fried converting so many foreign currencies to dollars or/and or euros.  At least now I can buy all the iced teas and coffees I want, without worrying about having enough money.  After all, they are only 40 cents!

But actually, I think Thailand has that "honeymoon type" effect on people.  Not that I’ve ever been married, but you are just off in Lala land taking it all in, fascinated. My mind can’t help but relax and turns off.   Everything is so easy and comfortable here and not as intense, so my guard is down.  You see, in my opinion, this Southeast Asian country has it all!

Front row joe parking on the beach, I look for the empty beaches..... the tan lines
Thailand…..The climate is unbeatable: sunny and warm.  Actually it is a bit too warm and humid for cycling.  I get a lot of stares with all the sweat on my shirt, people look at me as if they’ve never seen sweat marks on anyone since they walk around in long sleeves and pants all day long. Who should be sweating! Today I hit an all time record high, 39.5C (103).  Therefore I’ve added a new routine to my day: frequent beach breaks.  I find the roads that follow the ocean shore, ride along the water, stop when I get hot and hop in!  I have to work on the changing in to the bathing suit bottom technique as I can’t seem to do it without getting a ton of sand in my bike shorts, which defeats the purpose of a chamois.  As of now, I my route through Thailand and Malaysia is right along the coast for about 1,700 kilometers, so I have a lot of swimming breaks to look forward to!

Going to have to start keeping track of my beach breaks and compare them to my coffee breaks

The people are incredibly kind and pleasant.   Not that I haven’t found that in the other countries, but here, they seem completely stress-free, always have a smile on their face, and go out of their way to help me.  Every time I stop at a local market even if I buy a pineapple, they always make a little place for me to rest, fill my water bottle, and give me a towel to clean my hands when I finish.  More than the other countries, they want to know where I’ve come from and where I’m going, and they have a good sense of Asian geography.  Before when I repeated the words Hong Kong and Singapore, I usually got a blank stare.  Now I say those two words to the vendor and in 30 seconds all the vendors in a 50 meter radius are talking about my bike trip and giving me thumbs up and have a big smile on their face, while the words Hong Kong and Singapore echo in the background.
Don't know if that was really a bench or a display but they let me to take shelter from the heat here to enjoy my coconut

Thailand is Asian “Tapas” at it’s best.  Other countries had day markets and night markets and local restaurants, but in Thailand, they have even more variety and the choices are endless!  If Bosnia had “Vulcanizers” ever 500 meters, and Vietnam had motorbike repair shops every 200 meters, in any one small Thai town, there can be a handful of markets all in a 300 meter vicinity with a selection of sweet and savory treats.  You never go hungry here and the prices are cheap, cheap, cheap, unless I’m doing the wrong conversion!  After my 173 kilometer day, dinner #1 cost $2, and dinner number #2, $3, plus a meager another $2 for desserts, juices, and beer.  You can’t beat that!

"Tour Cycling" size iced coffee and tea in Thailand
I know I said Vietnam was coffee paradise, Thailand has just beaten them as I’ve discovered the “Tour Cycling” to-go cups.  When I got my first iced coffee I thought she had mistaken my order with the family next to me because she handed me this huge bag filled with coffee.  It was so big, I couldn’t finished it, so I filled my water bottle with what remained, a brilliant new idea!  I carefully examined the lady make my first coffee… wonder they are so delicious.  In every cup of coffee there is about a half cup of sugar, a third cup of condensed milk, and the Thai secret, a dollop of coconut cream.  Upon arrival.  It’s no wonder I had energy to push through the 173 kilometers! 

My fuel for the morning kilometers......

Jackfruit is everywhere in Thailand.  I honestly think I could live off of iced coffee and Jackfruit until my teeth root.  Here in Thailand, it is a relatively inexpensive fruit and it comes entirely cleaned, pitted, and prepared to eat.  I’ve had to start enforcing a daily limit of 1 kilo, if not, I won’t have a balanced diet!

The roads are divine!  On google maps there is a huge network of roads and even the faintest grey line is a paved road with a decent shoulder.  If I’m lucky the road will even have a marked bike path.  Thailand has excellent rural roads and there is little traffic. It’s no wonder why I’ve seen more recreational cyclists here in the last two days than I’ve seen in all the other SE Asian countries combined in the last 2 months. There is so much selection I have to be careful not to get lost.  In other countries there were so few roads, sometimes I had to search long and hard to get from Point A to Point B, and then many times it wasn’t paved.

No comment, roads couldn't be better!
The little Thai I learned last year has come back to me and I can easily communicate the basics: Hello, thank you, no spice, Sweet? Savory, and how much?  The latter is really pointless because they tell me a number and they all sound the same to me with a long exasperated Baaaahhhht at the end.  However, nothing ever seems to be over a 100 Baht that I buy!  I’m going to have to try really hard to spend all that money I got out at the ATM before I leave Thailand.

The plan is to ride up to Bangkok tomorrow and then head south next week, down the eastern side of the coast as to not repeat the route I did last winter. I have a good two weeks of riding here and I can’t wait!  What a fabulous country for bike touring!

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year's Deja Veux

Last year, in 2012, for New Years Eve, I was in Southern Thailand on a bike tour.  It was my “test trip”.  If I could manage a SE Asian foreign country for 3 weeks, I was set to go for a year in any country, or at least that was my thinking.  For New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t stay awake until midnight.  I woke up to the fireworks, figured it was 2013, and went back to bed.  The next morning I was off on a guided tour to see Phang Nga Bay, where the famous “James Bond Rock” is located.  I enjoyed my half-day tour very much, and in the style of Melissa, I wanted to get some riding in afterwards.  I set off at about 3pm and my guide told me I would find a hotel about 2 or 3 hours down the road.  Sounds familiar, right?

I pedaled and pedaled, as fast as I could, knowing that I was taking a chance with the my limited hours of light.  I pedaled to the next town about 2,5 hours away and didn’t find a single hotel or bungalow.  I was getting nervous, so I pulled over at what looked like a market and asked the first person I saw.  Wouldn’t you know, this person spoke perfect English, and even more ironic, they went to go get their friend, who was a young guy from the states, on vacation visiting his “host family” from when he was a high school exchange student.  He was waiting for a bus to go back to Bangkok to fly home.  I was lucky they did speak perfect English, but unfortunately they couldn’t think of a hotel in the next 10 kilometers.  They talked and talked and finally the younger girl in the family said, “Come stay at our house for the night, you can have Nick’s room.”  They were my saviors! I couldn’t believe how lucky I had gotten.  I didn’t hesitate in saying yes, as the only other option was to wait for a bus to come by and take me another 50 kilometers or so. 

Koontida's family where I ended up New Years Day 2013. Her grandfather just passed away this Christmas

For my Southern Thailand tour, I wasn’t using Warmshower hosts, so to see the life of the locals for one night was a true treat.  Koontida, and her family were incredibly hospitable, fed me, took me on a tour of their land, introduced me to all their family including their 100 year old grandfather, who had me sign his guestbook that he kept of everyone he’d met in his later life.  I was thrilled to meet them and spend an evening with this Thai family.  The next morning, January 2, 2013, I cycled off and continued on my way, cherishing the unique manner in which I started off the New Year.  I’m not religious, but I do think that night was a sign of how the 2013 year would go, filled with spontaneous adventures, caring people, and trust.

January 1, 2014 started off in a similar manner.  I was going to do a full rest day in Phnom Penh, after Ed left.  However, I was itching to get on my bike and get out of the big chaotic city.  The city had been built up for a good 20 kilometers coming into town from the south, so I figured it would be the same way up north.  I would ride two hours or so and stop at a guesthouse along the main road.  A brilliant plan that would make reaching Angkor Wat more doable in 2,5 days.  Getting out of Phnom Penh wasn’t as difficult as I imagined, but the roads were in terrible condition once again.  Luckily I spotted a small little road parallel to the main highway and the Mekong River, that was paved and basically only used by motos.  I rode on that for a good 30 kilometers until dark approached and headed for the main road to find a hotel. 

The view of the Mekong from the peaceful road I found heading north from Phnom Penh
I could hardly see 20 meters ahead of my front wheel on the main road because of all the dust being picked up by the trucks and cars.  There seemed to be a paved surface at some points, but the dust and dirt was unavoidable.  I stopped at a gas station to ask for a guesthouse because my choices looked slim.  They told me “oh,…very very far!” But when I threw out some numbers, it seemed it was only another 10 kilometers.  I pedaled and pedaled and reached 10 kilometers.  No guesthouse.  I stopped once again to ask for the nearest guesthouse, this time right by a pagoda, thinking I could also ask them if I could sleep there. 

Ly Peng, my host, calling the police to get the "Ok" to have a foreigner at his house

It was then that I realized a year ago to this day, I was doing the same thing in Sothern Thailand.  I had managed to ride to an area with no accommodations and it was getting dark when I met Nick, Koontida and her family.  I don’t know how I got so lucky, but there standing on the side of the road was a teenage boy, Ly Peng, with two other girls.  Ly Peng spoke really good English and told me there was a guesthouse 5 kilometers away but didn't advise cycling on at this time and with the road conditions as they were.  The pagoda wasn’t an option either as he said they don’t like foreigners because they don’t trust them for the entire night.  Instead he invited me to stay with his family, he told me they have foreigners with them frequently.  This town was nothing more than 150 meters of little shops and stands on the dusty main road, 40 kilometers north of Pnhom Penh.  How and why on earth would other foreigners stop here, and more unusual, how would they ever find Ly Peng? 

Ly Peng's aunt's house, his was tucked under off to the left.  I slept upstairs.

I knew I could have kept pedaling 5 kilometers and found the guesthouse, but for some reason, the sound of staying with a local Cambodian family sounded so appealing.  I think I needed a little bit of family loving!  To my surprise, we first had to clear my “visit” with the local police.  They had closed for the day, but Ly Peng called them and they were quick to arrive at his house.   They were enthralled with all the stamps in my passport and must have taken about 20 pictures of it and sent it to all sorts of different local authorities.  In the end, they gave me the "ok" to stay.  Ly Peng was 17 years old, the second oldest of 6 in his family, the youngest was 3 who he took by the hand anywhere he went.  His parents were out working at a factory in another town and wouldn’t be home until tomorrow.  The guys all slept in a small little house tucked under their aunt's huge house on stilts.  In his aunt’s house, there were at least 6 other family members, including a 70-year-old grandmother and a one month only newborn.  In each house, all the members slept together on a long mattress covered with mosquito nets, all but Ly Peng’s older sister who slept upstairs alone.  She had just lost her husband in a motorcycle accident and was needed her own space.  That is where I slept, upstairs with her. She was very pleasant and spoke good English as well.

Simple but comfy sleeping

Ly Peng's grandma, 70 years old living in a house with now 4 generations of family

I had a refreshing cold bucket bath, and believe me, it was refreshing after the heat from the day and the dust that covered me.  Neither family eats at their house.  They have a small little restaurant where I pulled over on the main road and this is where they all go for all their meals.  The middle sister runs the place and also sleeps there with some of the other girls in the family.  But as Ly Peng told me, most days they don’t eat very much, as they don’t have a lot of food. Today, however, being the New Year, was a special day.  Ly Peng and I were the only ones to eat except one of the siblings.  The others watched TV, us, and just hung out.  The grandmother was busy bringing us more dishes and swatting flies and mosquitoes. 

Ly Peng with some of his siblings

After dinner we headed back to Ly Peng’s house where he entertained his siblings with his laptop computer and a few DVD’s, a DreamWorks movie in English.  Even his grandmother gathered around the laptop to see the entertainment and brought us bananas for dessert.  I learned a lot from Ly Peng that evening as he explained his life in Cambodia.  He went to a language school, which is why he spoke such good English.  He wanted to study IT at the university, but he didn’t have enough money to pay for the degree.  In the IT field, he could make about $400 a month, compared to about $80 to $100 in a garment factory, which is what most people in the area do for work.  He kept insisting his friends were “more clever” than him but with his big heart and open mind, I know he’ll go far in life.

Factory workers at a shift change at a factory on the main road.  There were handfuls of trucks like this one and people lining the road

While talking with Ly Peng and learning about the daily life of Cambodians, I couldn’t help but feel ridiculous thinking of where I had spent my last week on the road.  On New Year's Eve, I was at a luxurious hotel in Phnom Penh sleeping in an air-conditioned room and tonight I was sharing a mattress under a mosquito net with no fan or air conditioning.  What more did I need? Was I safe, in good company, comfortable, indeed I was.  Ly Peng’s family didn't even have electricity during hte day.  They can only turn on the light and appliances from 6 to 11 pm every night.  With the money I blew in a week, Ly Peng and his family probably could have lived comfortably for about 2 or 3 months.  Talk about gaining perspective on life, I was in disbelief. 

I slept great that night. I must have been really tired as I went to bed with dogs howling and woke up to the roosters crowing at 5am.  Oh how I missed my meager, simple, and local lifestyle on the road!  What an experience staying with Ly Peng’s family.  Every one was up at the crack of dawn and I was ready to ride at 6:30 am.  We went for an iced coffee at the restaurant first, and then I set out at 7am. 

Ly Peng, a young boy with a big heart

I left Ly Peng’s house with a familiar sensation inside, similar to how I felt when I left Koontida and her family in Southern Thailand, exactly one year ago.  I had a little leap of faith and trusted the random local people on the side of the road and let them take care of me for a night. 2014, I’m certain it will be filled with a lot of unexpected positive experiences and adventures, random acts of kindness from strangers, and joined in the company of caring people.  I can't wait!