Japanese atmospheres

Following its reputation, Japan has enchanted us as it is full of mystical facets, endearing people and harmonious landscapes. Here are some atmospheres gleaned by Cléa to try to convey the flavors of our many Japanese discoveries.

As soon as we arrive in Kyoto, we visit the covered market of Nishiki, very different from those encountered in Southeast Asia, animated by commercial announcements and exchanges between employees across the shelves. In addition to the ubiquitous plastic packaging and typical Japanese meals (suchis, bentos, skewers…), it is above all the sounds of the place that immediately put us in the mood!

Nishiki Market in Kyoto

Very quickly we leave the urban areas towards the forests. There, among the huge resinous and their Arachnean tenants, only the chimes of villages, the wind and the streams pierce the silence.

In forests in the Japanese Alps

In Suwa, we discover the hot springs and the associated public bath. A geyser installed behind the tourist building just a stone’s throw from the lake, spits out every hour and a half its water in front of onlookers.

Announcement and show of the geyser at Lake Suwa

While we have often camped in the open countryside, we have also ventured into the city. At least to try local bars that broadcast the Rugby World Cup! Like this Japan-Samoa, on October 5th…

Japan rugby match, with a win!

The train, as in every country where we have been able to use it, is also of a special sound character. The villages are announced regularly but we still need time to locate ourselves. Fortunately the controller, very attentive, checks our destination and tells us the fare that will have to be paid at the arrival station!

On board the Minobu Express

Finally, of course, the temples that are innumerable all over Japan. Their architecture is splendid and the rituals that take place there are also impressive. Here is a ceremony that we attend by chance during our visit to Fujinomiya.

Ceremony at Fujisan Sengen Temple in Fujinomiya

Xe Dap is not dead!

After 100 days of travel from Singapore, 4130km of pedaling and a good thousand by train or bus, we arrived in Hanoi on September 26 🙂 So many paths and so many great moments in the head on bicycles!

Since we entered Vietnam 15 days ago, we have had a few more great moments on our bikes. On the small roads of Ninh Binh, its canals adjoined by ducks and its hypnotic hills surrounded by rice paddies, with the friends Caro and Vianney. In Cat Ba too, where the hilly coastal road has plunged us back into the maritime atmosphere of Indonesia or Thailand.

Cat Ba Coastal Road

But let us be frank, and careful for those who would read us with the aim of crisscrossing Vietnam on two wheels (non-motorized): the country, or at least its north-central part, is far from being a paradise for cyclo-travellers. Motor vehicles, especially trucks, honk their horns for nothing, double without any visibility, even if they fall back on our wheels, while scooters insert themselves with anarchy on the main road, consult their smartphone while driving or stop unexpectedly…

Bikes stored in the alleys of Ninh Binh

Of course the volume of vehicles is the main cause but we still see a clear difference with the previous countries: the risk is everywhere and the Vietnamese are tough on the road.

We especially regret that the bicycle, which has long been used by sellers [1], has became so minor. The electric scooter is fashionable but does not solve congestion or danger. In Ninh Binh, Sabine our host explained to us: motorbikes are a sign of richness, the bike of poverty. So it disappears from the urban landscape. However, there are still a few shops that would allow everyone to equip or maintain their bike: they repaired Sylvain’s pedal box in 1/4 hour for 8 euros!

Bike shops in Hanoi

As for the collective bus in Hanoi, yet cheap (0.3 euros per ride) and quite reliable, it is far from being full except during rush hour.

In short, here we regret more than ever our European bike paths and the cycling rights acquired in pain by the French associations. About this topic, there is still time to fill the bike barometer of the FUB [2]. Let’s fight to conserve and extend rights, perhaps such beautiful countries like Vietnam will take inspiration from its to give the little queen a place of choice in an ultra-motorized urban landscape.

[1] See about the beautiful exhibition: “Street vendors and the cries of the street in Hanoi” at the French Institute

[2] Public inquiry of the French Federation of Bicycle Users, open until 30 November 2019

Remembering Cat Ba

Cat Ba is the gateway to the famous Halong Bay and its wildest little sister Lan Ha. It is therefore a tourist hotspot, with all its contrasts and excesses. While the surroundings are wild, mountainous and populated by the last langurs monkeys, the city and its waterfront look more like Canet-en-Roussillon, with its ugly hotel buildings and its uncharming bars.

In the harbour, the boats wet while waiting for a next trip between the karst islets.

Thanks to Charles for this illustration!

Soundscapes of Laos and Vietnam

Update – 18 September 2019

In the mazes of the colonial alleys of Luang Prabang hide primary schools where children give themselves to heart 🙂

It’s recess at Luang Prabang School

In Luang Prabang always, it’s a day of celebration! Not everyone is interested in boat racing, some prefer to share a meal with friends or family.

Neighbours’ Day Version Laos

In the evening it is a completely different melody that one hears as you listen to the temples.

Buddhist prayers at nightfall in Luang Prabang

Music accompanies us everywhere on our bike ride. Sometimes in karaoke or just in the background of restaurants, but always kitsch!

Big sound in a roadside restaurant

As we approach the villages, we slow down and enjoy the scenes of life under the bewildered eyes of the locals.

A village crossing on Highway 1c

On September 7, we arrive in Vieng Xai. 45 years ago, the town was the stronghold of the Pathet Lao, a communist paramilitary organization fighting the Americans alongside the Viet Minh from 1964 to 1973. The city is surrounded by multiple cellars where the inhabitants took refuge during the bombings. During the visit to the cellar of Mr Kaysone Phomvihane (Secretary-General of the Party, who later became President), our guide recounts:

“In here, special, we have “air tight bomb shelter room” … So this room was used sometimes when the Americans used to[drop bombs] onto Vieng Xai. Mr Kaysone with his family came to stay here, crossing the door but he can’t open it. He used this air pump to [bring the air inside and this filter for dust and chemical]…”

Explanations of the guide in an anti-bombing cellar of Vieng Xai

Arriving in Vietnam, in Mai Chau, we discover the festival of mid-Autumn and its parades of dragons in the schools and shops of the city. Every year, it coincides with the end of the rice harvest.

Dragon dance on mai Chau’s main street

Finally, further north in Moc Chau, we visit huge tea fields. Here, dozens of women hand-pick the precious leaves while chatting!

Tea picking at Moc Chau

Nung, Song, Sam…

For this last article about Laos, we wanted to present some numbers that have marked us or symbolize our passage:

0 like…

… the number of punctures on roads that do not have a good reputation. If potholes are a real permanent danger (we warn each other when they approach), we were pleasantly surprised by the condition of the existing bitumen. And/or the quality of our 4 new Schwalbe tires!

29 as…

… years since the country was officially opened to tourism. Yes, it was not until 1990 that the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos opened its doors to foreigners, after more than 50 years of French protectorate, a Japanese invasion, 9 years of secret war with the United States (1964-1973) and 15 years of strict communism. So inevitably, Laos has kept an authenticity, a raw and spontaneous character that made us fall under its charm. By bicycle, we crossed dozens of traditional villages, with raised wooden houses so atypical open on the main street, looms curled in a recess and countless gallinaceans. All of this devoid of frills for foreign visitors (supermarkets, distributors, bars…), it is rare and appreciable in 2019.

Traditional bamboo house

44 as…

… the number of rowers per boat at the Luang Prabang Boat Festival. We had the chance to attend: this race takes place every year at the end of the monsoon. Each village on the Nam Kha River, a tributary of the Mekong River, participates in the competition. The boats are made during 1 year in Buddhist monasteries, if possible from a single tree. It is above all a great popular festival where beer Lao flows afloat!

120 like…

… the longest distance travelled in one day by bike, from Luang Prabang to Muang Nambak. Let’s be honest, it was a nice buse, especially since China is building in this area a huge hydroelectric dam synonymous with many trucks on the road. But it is sometimes the “game” by cyclo-hiking to find a nice village-stage for the night, join a beautiful road (the fabulous 1c that we highly recommend) or avoid bad weather.

Chinese dam under construction

365 as…

… the number of Laotians who die per year still today as a result of the explosion of a cluster bomb. These bombs, dropped in complete dysproportion by the United States during the Vietnam War, are sought and demined daily by various associations such as Humanity-Inclusion (formerly Handicap International). COPE works to ensure a future for the many injured and amputees.

Bomb crater in Vieng Xai

660 as…

… the kilometres of buses travelled at night between Paksé and the capital Vientiane. With a little apprehension for our frames in the hold, the ride finally went very well for them as for us.

800 like…

… our budget on the spot in euros for 1 month and for two.

1000 and 1 like…

… the amount of “Sabaidee” (Hello) chanted with smiles by the children on the road. In a country with a tormented recent history, it is a real joy to see the new generation so curious!

Generations of Lao women

1100 as…

… the total of the kilometers cycled on the territory, in the province of Champassak to the south, from Vientiane to Louang Prabang (the famous Route 4c), then to the northeast towards Vietnam. Vertiginous roads that allowed us to fully appreciate the local landscapes. Terrace rice fields, banana groves and above all bamboo forests have followed one another, all in extraordinary shades of green characteristic of the rainy season.

Tiered rice fields along Highway 1c

About bamboo, we discovered its importance in local life and the multiplicity of uses of the plant: baskets, clons and braided walls of houses, tube for cooking with the egg,breathing tube, musical instrument, food… That’s crazy! We recommend this short video of the French Development Agency whose action we discovered in Vientiane and which works precisely in the region of Houaphan on the sustainability of bamboo forests:

4c in the lead!

With a title like this, one would expect a bad climbing article. In the lead? 4c? Usually this rating is synonymous with first experience of rock climbing rather than exploit. But in Laos, road 4c from Kasi to Pong-Dong is not equipped with spits or ropes. Rather asphalt, a lot of gravels and as climbers pick-up trucks, white minivans of tourists, overloaded trucks and… two bicycles!

23rd of August 2019, in good mood and playful by the incredible environment of the region, we decide to tackle the road bis. No, no, not Highway 13 supposed to allow the drivers most in a hurry to reach Louang Prabang without a hitch. The other, 4c. Yan and Brieke, our wonderful Dutch Warmshowers hosts from Vientiane, had advised us, for its wonderful pass, so let’s go!

Rice fields, at the foot of the mountains

We start smoothly, in the middle of green rice fields and crossing two or three peaceful villages. In the distance, the future Vientiane-Kunming highway (understand: the local pharaonic Chinese construction site) escapes into the heart of the mountain. Its tunnels are barely dug and workers are numerous on the edge of its roadway under construction. On our side, we begin to meander to the village of Ban Thong Muead. Curves are rare and our 15 kilos of luggage combined with a slope close to 10% require us to create laces. We laugh, we keep our spirits up and we climb like snails. The rain, at first just a fog, begins to fall massively. The day before, we had met a fellow Spanish cyclist who, clumsily, asked us: “And you? Are you
in holidays?” Hell no, cycling isn’t just a vacation 😉

Waterfall and fog

It took us 4 hours to overcome the 20km and 1500m elevation. It’s so far from the stratospheric speeds of carbon bikes on alpine roads. But no matter the records, it’s a completely different accomplishment to reach the pass with our “shell”, so far from home and together!

Holy view at the pass!

We make a break for lunch : noodles and soda (for want of better) at the pass and start a magnificent descent, punctuated by some impromptu hills that end up consuming our thighs. The valley reopens, the sky too and we reach Namuang Gnai at 4pm, the brakes warm and head full of landscapes! The Guesthouse is simple but green and welcoming, tomorrow we still have 65km of falling bumps to arrive in Luang Prabang.

Laotian mountain snake

Tired but happy, I reread these lines of Paul Fournel (“Besoin de vélo”, Seuil, 2001): “There is an animal relationship on the bike to the world: the mountains that we see are to climb, the valleys are to be descended, the shadows are made to hide and to rest. To be in the landscape, in its heat, in its rain, in its wind, is to see it with other eyes, it is to permeate it in itself in an instinctive and profound way. The mountain that stands before me is not a mountain, it is first of all a hill to climb, an ordeal, a doubt, a worry, sometimes. At the top, it is a conquest, a lightness.”

A journey in Don Khone

Here we are in Laos:) To acclimatize, we decide to go for a little trip on the 4000 islands, an archipelago that evolves according to the level of the Mekong. We stop in Don Khone for three days. Here are some shots!

On Khmers lands

At the entrance of Cambodia on July 26, we had only a blurry picture of our bike route in the country and of the shape that would take this part of the trip. The ugly border of Poipet passed, we reach Sisophon on a dusty road and then Svay Chek further north. The landscapes are arid, almost desert, it is far from the cliché of shimmering rice fields during the monsoon season. There, like an oasis, stands proudly the Farm OrganiKH and its hectare of permacultural greenery, held by a Franco-Cambodian couple Olivier and Darin for already 6 years.

One of the many plots of OrganiKH Farm

We put our bags there for a nice week of volunteering, punctuated by the collection of butterfly flowers each morning, weeding, transplanting, watering plants such as lemongrass or roselle during the day, other various tasks (compost, construction of brick plots of land, etc.) and evenings in the large and atypical common room. We meet beautiful people (3 French agrology students in internship here for several weeks, 2 Anglo-Saxon HelpX volunteers and a slew of Scouts), enjoy Darin’s exquisite mets and a healthy and pleasant setting to recharge, meditate and “work.”

Epilogue to a new beautiful week HelpX

On August 3rd we head back to the big town of Siem Reap, a few kilometres from Angkor. In a (sporty!) day of bike-visits, we tour the thousand-year-old temples, banners of the past power of the Khmers, slalom between drops and tourists and especially appreciate the anarchic vegetation that sublimates architectural ruins. Unesco obliges, the place is expensive and very busy (at least Angkor Wat) but still worth it.

Ta Nei, our favourite among the temples of Angkor
Birdsongs at Ta Phrom Temple

The urban comfort of Siem Reap is a trap that we want to avoid, so we are moving back to the east quite quickly, on the “rive” north of Lake Tonle Sap that we will unfortunately not see given the exceptional drought. We reach Kampong Thom after 150km. From there, we make the decision not to go down to the capital Phnom Phen and to spend more time in the North. So we’re on our way to Kratié, the sky is pouring a few capricious rains and the rice fields are starting to look great, the heart of the country seems more irrigated than the North East. The proximity of the houses also allows us to glimpse the local life, quiet and rural, between dogs, chickens, pigs and oxen. “Hello! Suo sadai!” are chanted as we pass by the countless children.

Atmosphere on our bikes!

It’s heartwarming, we try to answer every time and cross children gazes.

Sunset on the Mekong, the local children also enjoy!

On August 8th we arrive on the banks of the majestic Mekong. Between him and us, we will have to learn to live together for more than a month until Yunnan in China! We explore on foot the small island of Koh Trong, mainly populated by grapefruit, and then head back to Laos, 250km from Kratie.

In the ferry to Koh Trong

Attracted by the banks of the river, we take the road not carossable thinking to arrive slowly but surely to Stung Treng, 150km further. But our GPS and our Maps.me maps play us a trick and we end up getting lost in the dense and wet weather… cycling the muddy terrain quickly becomes terrific.

Lost?

Fortunately we turn back before night and manage to explain our “dismay” to the teacher of the nearest village who offers us to stay overnight in his home. He also tells us the way forward the next day. We accept and end up neither one nor two to share a chicken rice (freshly killed …) with our host, his wife, his parents, children and all the local pet shop. It’s great to live the daily life of a Khmer family for an evening!

The next day we finally reach Stung Treng after multiple river crossings and some showers…

Is the rain coming? Don’t panic, we’re taking refuge in a shop!

Finally, on August 12, we connect the remaining 62km to the Laos border. Ready for 4000 islands!

Thailand, B-side

On Friday, July 19th, we leave Bangkok by the same way than we entered: train, with our bikes on board to Ayutthaya. This flea jump towards the former stronghold of the kingdom of Siam promises us a definite change of scenery, as the temples contrast with the modernism of the
present capital. On site, we take advantage of the few bike paths and the small scale of the area to buzz.

Famous Ayutthaya scene

We appreciate the vegetated ruins, the alternation of bricks and stucctu, the Buddhas and the timeless atmosphere of the sunset on the remaining stupas despite the destruction of the city by the Burmese in 1767. For the rest, tourism is a little too invasive not to mention the unethical tours on elephants backs …

It’s like Indiana Jones:)

The weekend is over, we’re back on our bicycles heading to Khao Yai National Park. 180km in 2 days, under the heat and above all, new challengr, with 800m of vertical drop! Not always easy to choose the right route, we find ourselves first on a little stewing highway. We almost climb shoulder to shoulder with huge trucks that struggle as much as we do.

Unexpected meeting with a cycling farmer

Fortunately, we end up with beautiful laces in the park’s primary forest to the sounds of locusts and birds, with harmless macaques crossing here and there. The place is worth a visit: the forests are sublime, rain trees, vines, thick trunks and foliages of the canopy are home to countless butterflies, gibbons and other fantastic animals. The famous Asian elephants, sometimes visible in the grasslands, have remained well hidden and unfortunately we have only seen their poos! Not to mention the leeches that particularly affect Cléa’s ankles…

Khao Yai Park grasslands

At the campsite, we meet some porcupines, wild deers and mischievous monkeys (goodbye bread!). Both Thai and French tourists are very curious to see us cycling in this remote place full of pick-up trucks and the discussions are therefore very open. We finally take advantage of our gas stove to cook after having searched it in Singapore in vain and then in Bangkok to find the right cartridge.

Porcupines crossing the campsite

On July 23, we leave Khao Yai and begin a beautiful descent before reaching the plain. We are finally in Sa Kaeo after a terrific day on bikes: 130km under continuous rain and truck mud splashes… The dream…

Ironically, tonight we are staying at the “Sun Resort”, perfect for recharging batteries and dry. Thank you, buddies, tonight we’re using the “Comfort Hotel” travel prize pool:)

We’re tired, but still thirsty for discoveries. Tomorrow, already, if all goes well, we will cross the border of Cambodia for new adventures!