Day 6:  Hua Hin to Kui Buri, via the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park

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Today ended with a 2km moonlit walk, hand in hand, along a stunningly beautiful and totally deserted beach. It may get better – but it is hard to see how. We were walking back from the General Store where we had bought food for supper after an exhausting day’s cycling, walking and sightseeing. As I type this, Bernie is cooking outside our room in the otherwise deserted “Pink Power Beach” complex of tiny huts – we have no idea what normally goes on here because it is not on any website, and we are the only guests – but at £15 a night who could complain.

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We started at 6am, just as the light was emerging. Alarm at 5.15am and then pack up, breakfast (porridge with bananas and oranges and coffee). The routine is coming back to us and we were on the road in under an hour. The cool of the morning is a lovely time to cycle – and when the government puts on a cycle lane it gets even better. It lasted about 10km off the side of the main A4 road and was well used by Thai cyclists. If you want to do a quick 30km for your health, 6am is the time to do it.

The scenery was (as we went south) flat scrubland leading down to the beach to the East and increasing outcrops of rocks to the West, rising up like dollops of ice cream on a flat pancake.

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After 35km we got to the entrance to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, and then went down to a little cove known as Wat Bang Pu, which gives access to the Tham Phraya Nakhon caves. Memories of the fictional Marabar Caves in EM Forster’s Passage to India came to mind as we walked up the cliff walk. We were too mean to pay £10 each for the boat ride to avoid the cliff walk and, in any event, the views were spectacular.

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The climb up to the caves was steep – and took a good half an hour or more – even in the relative cool of 9.30am. Loads of seriously unfit people were struggling to walk up the shiny stone steps – rubbed clean by countless feet over the centuries. When we finally got there, the caves were well worth the effort – although they are not “caves” in the traditional sense but massive rock caverns with massive stalactites and stalagmites, but largely in the open air as part of the rock ceilings had collapsed in both caves.

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There was a Buddhist shrine in the far-most cave – and we arrived just as the sun caught the roof. The pictures do not do credit to this magical place but we hope they convey some of the wonder.

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We ambled back to the cove and debated what to do. By this time it was noon and very hot – maybe 37 degrees C – and the sharp southerly wind we battled against yesterday had returned. We had a potential warmshowers stop about 60km south but, after 45km and 3 hours walking, Bernie was unsure if we would make it. We had some food, and then read and set off about 2pm to see how far we got and, after a few hundred yards, met up with a lovely, young Aussie couple who were cycle touring from Singapore northwards, and aim to be in Europe in about 2 years time. They were well equipped – Brooks saddles and Ortlieb panniers – and we chatted about the routes we both had taken and hoped to take. If they are reading this – please give us your contact details and we’ll host you in England.

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The heat was still intense and the wind was sapping. We managed 80km and stopped at a beachside village that does not merit any reference in the Guidebooks, Kui Buri. There are several major hotels here ($100 per night plus and some lots more), but we passed the Pink Power Beach complex (it was definitely very pink) and tried our luck – and our luck was in. We gesticulated in our best Thai, miming sleeping, and a room was opened up. Sort of AC, no problems brewing up and otherwise empty.

There was a wedding going on across the street with loud ‘muzac’ but it stopped when dusk fell – then the monks started amplified chanting – but that lasted less time and was a far more congenial and calming end to the day.

Day 5.  Phetchaburi to Hua Hin. 82km.

Today we were determined to beat the heat as much as possible so the alarm went off at 5.15 and we were off soon after 6, just as the light was beginning. It is always worth getting up early and it is our favourite time of day. The air was cool (relatively – only 25 degrees) and there was no wind. It seemed early to us but the market was in full swing as we cycled through it on our way out of town. As the town gave way to fields we had our first sunrise of the holiday and the fabulous early morning light across a rural landscape interspersed with palm trees.

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The first hour’s ride took us through little villages until we hit the coast.  We were amazed to find a wide, newly paved bike path over the next 20km or so and although the road was quiet at that time of day, it meant we could ride side by side, which we are rarely able to do.  The road was a few hundred meters inland.  We passed several ‘view points’ – which in this flat as a pancake landscape meant a brief glimpse of the sea, far across scrubby land.

After 45 km we reached the main resort of Cha-Am.  It was still not 9 o’clock and was time for our “second breakfast”, a concept unknown outside cycling holidays (and would be disastrous to the waistline at all other times). The advantage of a real tourist spot was that there was a great coffee shop with proper coffee and breakfast of eggs benedict!  We chatted to a man there –he was from Hong Kong but his wife is Thai and he spends half the year in each place.  The Covid-19 outbreak had resulted in Thailand bringing in an enforced 2-week quarantine for everyone coming in from Hong Kong.  As a result, his booking.com hotel reservation was promptly cancelled.  As he was having breakfast whilst his wife and children were asleep at the hotel, we assumed he rebooked the hotel in his wife’s name so that the booking originated from Thailand and not Hong Kong!  But that small story was symptomatic as to how the virus seems to already to be having a massive effect on tourism.

The next stage involved taking a parallel road to the main north-south busy highway.  Oddly it turned into a dual carriageway – although it was virtually empty of traffic!  Even so we still had our own bike path!  The road was rather boring and featureless and the day got hotter, but at least we got the km done and by 75km we had reached the resort of Hua Hin.  This was about a 15km strip of built up beach and allegedly the first proper beach resort in Thailand.  It is certainly no longer the fishing village it used to be.  It has numerous, fairly mundane high rise concrete buildings – mostly hotels.  Not our sort of place at all but we had resolved to cycle between 6 and 1am and so we found a hotel on ‘Agoda’ at the furthest end to the south, booked it and cycled the last 7km there.   Agonda is a substitute here for booking.com – but is now owned by – you guessed it – booking.com.

Between 1 and 3.30pm we rested and hid from the sun in our room reading our books. We then strolled the 100m to the beach. A pleasant enough bay, not particularly beautiful but a warm sea with big waves that battered our bodies.  Very invigorating and good for our muscles I’m sure.  Who needs a Thai massage! We then had a gentler swim in the hotel swimming pool before going out for a meal.

Again the disadvantage of a big resort was they seemed to dumb down the food for Europeans so no lovely spices and herbs that we had come to both love and expect.  The restaurant was on an old boat though and quite atmospheric as the sun went down so that made up for it (almost).

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Very much a day of two halves – felt like we had had two holidays today.

Day 4:  Samut Songkram to Phetchaburi: 46 km

The challenges of relaxing from a 100mph professional role to a travelling dude should not be underestimated. One day I am under immense pressure – whether as a advocate in the High Court or a Judge – and the next my out of office tells people that I am largely uncontactable for 7 weeks as we stroll around South East Asia on our bikes.

It all caught up with me last night – with the result I did not sleep. Apologies to our readers who do not have a law degree (i.e. the sensible ones) but the only sanitised thing that came out of it was a strong feeling that Judges should not decide cases first and then work out the legal logic to follow their decision. I have recently been appointed a Judge and several much more experienced Judges have, more or less, advised me to do this. Can I gently beg to differ for 3 reasons. First, the oath that Judges take requires them to apply the law in a fearless way. That means following the logic of the legal process to the end, wherever it leads. Deciding the case by any other set of standards does not seem to me to be in accordance with the spirit of the oath.

Secondly, we know far too much about unconscious bias to think that any decision making method which is not ruthlessly analytical will not introduce a serious risk of unconscious bias – favouring those who are like us without realising it.

Thirdly, I have started writing too many legal advices over the years after reading the papers thinking that the result is X and, after ruthlessly looking at the issues from all angles, finding that “not-X” is the right answer. If it can happen – slow time – with lawyers who have the luxury of greater deliberation time than for many Judges, it can happen with court cases.

Not all Judges do this. I had a case before a High Court Judge who I will not name who was kind enough to say in his judgment that he had changed his mind after thinking through the case after the hearing (when he was totally foul to me and my client in court even though he ended up finding for the client).

But – at 4am when the world looked bleak – this struck me as something that I should avoid and felt I was entitled to be a little aggravated when I came across it in cases.

So – after not sleeping much as I ruminated the night away – I slept past the 6am wake up call and we did not get on the road until about 9. By then the heat of the day was beckoning and we knew it would be a shortish day.

We had plotted a “Kamoot route” to Phetchaburi. These are cycling routes which take one – as much as possible – on side roads. For more details see www.kamoot.com but we are fans.

Despite its aim of a route along minor roads, the route started by going down to the motorway. It had to do this to cross the estuary as there is only one bridge, and no other roads for 8 km. After playing “chicken” with the lorries we turned off and found ourselves on a scenic route, specially designed for bikes.

It was delightful – flat, a good surface and little traffic. We passed salt flats and pools where they breed prawns and shrimps. Next time I get an M & S prawn mayo sandwich, I will think of these extensive pools, egrits flying in flocks overhead and workmen and women toiling away in the heat.

We passed some coastal fishing villages with schooners tied up between trips. Thai fishermen are legendary and featured large (for good and bad) in the tales of fleeing Vietnamese Boat People (with whom my elder brother worked after university 35 years ago).

After passing through some lovely villages, we entered the town of Phetchaburi just before lunchtime. This is an ancient town with numerous Buddhist temples that date back hundreds of years. There are few hotels because, despite being a tourist “hot spot” it is treated as a day trip from either Bangkok or the beach resorts slightly south of here. But we found a little hotel and recovered from the 40+ degrees heat.

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Later in the afternoon, as it began to cool, we ambled around 3 fascinating and hugely impressive “Wats” – Buddhist temple complexes.

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The pictures tell the story so I will let you reach your own conclusions.

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Dinner was at a tiny restaurant on the banks of the river in an old wooden house with wooden shutters opening directly onto the river. Bernie had the local speciality – sweet palm curry – a bit like a Korma but with much more punch (she ordered medium spice but suspect it was a ‘very mild’ for a Thai person). We met a solo traveller from Ruislip who was celebrating an early retirement package. What better way to do so.

Day 3. 4th March. First day out of Bangkok to Samut Songkhran. Flat but HOT. 90km.

Jet lag is fading but still giving us weird nights. None the less we woke with the alarm for our first day’s cycling. We fell back into the routine of packing and were on the road at about 7. It was warm – not surprising as the nights don’t fall below about 27 degrees – but reasonably pleasant. The first part of the route took us winding through small alleyways until we reached a more main road and soon we were cruising westwards on a wide straight road out of Bangkok and through the suburbs. After beetling around Bangkok on the bikes yesterday we had to adjust to being fully loaded but soon had the measure of the bikes. The traffic was fine and as we found last year, the drivers were polite and not aggressive. So all in all a step up from cycling in London!

After about 20km we stopped for a coffee and when we emerged from the little air-conditioned café it definitely felt as if it was hotting up. A little further on and we had to merge onto the 3 lane main road westwards. As we had to cross several large rivers and there were few bridges there was no other option. There was a wide shoulder but it wasn’t exactly pleasant riding. 45km and the heat was getting to us, so another stop in an air-conditioned café to cool down.

Soon after, at last we were able to turn off the ‘motorway’. Trouble was how to get across the Thai equivalent of a busy M25 because the little road we wanted was on the other side and was not at an official turn off. Luckily there was a footbridge coming up, which seemed the safer option than crossing 6 lanes of lorries, cars and other traffic (thus proving we do have some residual sense after all). Getting up the steps to the bridge was quite a palaver with the loaded bikes. The steps were steep and we had to unload everything to get the bikes and panniers up and over then again to get them down the other side.

It was worth it as it was a relief to get onto a quiet side road-but bizarrely it seemed even hotter. The landscape was flat and featureless and what I initially took to be paddy fields were in fact salt flats.

The ‘forecast’ may have been for 35 degrees but that does not equate to a hot tarmac road with no shade at midday. David later told me the temperature maxed at 43 degrees!

This was our first day with minimal acclimatisation! We were drinking like crazy and pouring the rest of the water over our heads – though the water was also 40 degrees and so was not as cooling as hoped for. Luckily there was some breeze and we managed the next 10 km to our destination. We had wondered whether we would get further than Samut, but both had that dizzy feeling and were overheated, we stuck to plan A and found the first air conditioned hotel we could. We were wiped out!

However a shower, lots to drink, some shut eye on the bed and a couple of hours later we were revived. Samut Songkram had little to say for itself so we decided to peddle the 10km down to the coast to Dan Hoi Lat, where we were promised seafood a plenty. Setting out again at 4pm without luggage and the temperature ‘only ‘ 32 degrees felt a doddle, even with a strong wind against us.

I have to say the guidebook was generous with its description of Dan Hoi Lat and it is probably not the prettiest bit of coast in Thailand (at least I hope it isn’t). Still we sat and sipped beer as we sat in a very breezy and empty café looking out over the mudflats and the river estuary and were then blow back to the town as the red sun began to set.

We went out for food in the evening and found the town humming. Loads of small stalls sold food, and many Thai people mainly eat out rather than cooking at home. The first place we stopped offered us what looked like mushrooms, but turned out of be jellified offal – and it tasted offal! 72 baht wasted – £1.50 in UK money. But we then had soup with vegetables and various additions that was delicious. We ate it sitting on stools at small metal tables, in the shadow of a Buddhism monastery. Back to the hotel feeling full and contented.

Tuesday  3 March:  An acclimatising and preparing day in Bangkok.

This was a day of getting over jetlag, acclimatising to the heat and humidity and getting the last few bits to prepare for the start of the cycling ahead.

First, acclimatisation. It is mid 30s degrees C here – well into the 90s for those still working in old money. That is a tad warmer than England, and there is less driving rain and storms (at least as yet). And it is quite humid. So it takes a bit of getting used to, to say the least. When we were in our late 20s we cycled across the Baha desert in temperatures of well over 40 – but that was over 30 years ago and I qualify for a seniors rail card in a few months! So getting used to the conditions will take some time. We started today and sweated a bit (or a bit more than a bit) as we cycled across parts of the city. But we will have to start slowly (or early – or both) tomorrow.

Then preparation. There was a few things to buy here – like food. With the bikes, we were right up against the 60kg weight limit on the plane so a few kgs of porridge, etc would have taken us over. There is a chain of 7-11s and Tescos in Thailand, so we could stock up a bit. Mostly we will eat street food as we go along – trying to remember to follow Ant’s sage words that we should eat and drink every hour or so (but normally forgetting of course).

But before we did anything sensible, we were tourists for a morning, looking around the wonderful Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan, commonly known as the Wat Arun. It is also known as the “Temple of Dawn”. We were there early at this Buddhist temple, but not quite at dawn.

It is on the Thonburi west bank of the Chao Phraya River. The temple derives its name from the Hindu god Aruna, often personified as the radiations of the rising sun which is a delightful mixing of religions. Even when we went, well after dawn, the light reflects off the surface of the temple with pearly iridescence. Although the temple had existed since at least the seventeenth century, its distinctive prang (spires) were built in the early nineteenth century during the reign of King Rama II. There is an extensive complex of temples with monks in attendance adjacent to the formal temple, and we sat and watched as a devout couple made offerings and then received chanted blessings and sprays of holy water in exchange. Every religion has its rituals, and they usually involve the devoted giving money to the professionals. It was both charming and familiar as an exchange.

We have noticed a real absence of tourists in Bangkok so far. The Wat is a major tourist draw but there were relatively few other visitors. The restaurants are not full and we are the only guests in our hotel (as far as we can see). I am not sure if this is westerners not travelling due to the climate crisis, fears of Coronovirus (and there are no hoards of Chinese tourists like last year) or just the end of the season. No doubt we will find out as we go south.

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ater we also found a bike shop so we could pump the tyres up to full pressure of 70 psi – only really possible with a foot pump. I have only ever seen one person touring with a foot pump – the wonderful Wil and Wilma from Amsterdam, who are on the way to Vientiane in Laos as I type this. Their plan is to cycle Southwards along the Mekong in the direction of Pakxe – see a comment on the blog yesterday. We wish them well on their travels – complete with foot pump.

We also struggled across town to find a mobile phone shop, to get a Thai Sim card for our travels. It was in a shopping centre that was just like Bluewater or the new Bull ring. The only difference was that everyone at this centre appeared to be immaculately turned out (other than us of course).

After cycling back to the hotel and realising that my headset was loose, it was time for a bit of bike maintenance. I managed it without phoning Malcolm Garner or Mark Young so either (a) it was easy or (b) I did it wrong. Time will tell.

We finished the day with a lovely evening amble on the bikes into the tourist bit of town and a fantastic Thai meal on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the river. The tour boats ply their trade up and down the river – with cargos of passengers from the massive cruise liners that dock in the bay. So all that some of these passengers see of the wonderful old town is a view from a river boat – entertained by a band and someone singing out cover numbers. We get the smells, the chaos and the smiles on our bikes. It is a privilege to be on 2 wheels and self-propelled.

Let’s see what tomorrow has to offer.

Sunday/Monday 1st/2nd March.  On the road again, back to Bangkok.

It seems a long, long year since we had to abruptly finish our last cycling trip in the middle on Vietnam because of a family bereavement, and make our way hurriedly home in the middle of the Chinese New Year holiday. The sadness of funerals was leavened by 85th and 90th birthdays of David’s and Bernie’s mums respectively but the pall of Brexit  and the generally toxic nature of UK politics seemed to overshadow the whole year.

The gross inaction by governments across the world in regard to the climate emergency added to our sense of gloom and foreboding – we will all have to act on climate change and the longer we wait, the tougher it will be. It was therefore with a tinge of guilt that we booked our long haul flights back to Bangkok (inadequately assuaged by carbon offset) but also with enormous excitement. This time the plan is to head south through southern Thailand and Malaysia and down to Singapore.  Covid-19 (coronavirus) made the whole trip uncertain. Daily perusal of the numbers for Thailand and Malaysia have shown small rises but now on a par with numbers in the UK and once the numbers exploded in Italy it seemed safer to be on our bikes in the fresh air in Thailand than getting on the tube in London.

We left Birmingham at the tail end of storm Jorge.  The third storm in quick succession, leaving Bewdley (our home town) and many areas of the country (almost) flooded – with the river barriers just doing their job.  17 hours later we emerged from the plane into 33degree sultry heat and we were in an entirely different world; switching back into our travelling mindset and the glory of leaving all those problems behind us for a few weeks.

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We reached our pleasant little hotel in a little backstreet on the non-touristy side of Bangkok.  Plants and potted trees and brightly painted wall a pleasant haven, just back from a busy road with its impressive if frighteningly complex maze street cables, just above the pedestrians .  Although we seem to be the only guests…is this a sign of things to come?  Certainly the lack of Chinese tourists will make a big dent in the tourist economy.  While Bernie languished in the air-conditioned room catching up on the missed nights sleep on the plane, David had a fit of activity and had soon rebuilt our bikes. We had arrived and were ready for our next adventure20200302_183306

 

Happy Christmas and news of our next trip

Our last trip ended in sadness because my brother, Peter, a wonderful musician, devoted Dad and much loved brother died on 3 February 2019.  He was a traveller who loved this part of the world and was responding with wit and perceptive comments to photos we sent to him by WhatApp up to a few days before he died. We all miss him greatly.

But Peter would have wanted us to carry on and so, over the Christmas break, we are planning the next leg of this amazing journey.  At the moment we are planning to leave the UK on the 29th February for about 7 weeks, with a provisional plan to cycle from Bangkok to Singapore.

If anyone reading this has experience of cycling this route, we would love to hear from you.  All tips, routes and information about places that must be visited (or must be avoided) would be most welcome.

It seems prescient to start the trip again on 29th February, the leap day of a leap year, and we will start the blog again as we lead up to our departure.

Happy Christmas to anyone reading this and our very best wishes for 2020.

David and Bernie

 

Saturday 2 February 2019 : Pong D’Rang to Che Se : 98km and 850m of climbing

At some point today, Bernie (who was cycling in front of me) said “makes you think all this cycling”. Makes you think what I wondered – but the answer is that it just makes you think. There are lots of times of the day when the road looks much the same as it did for the last hour, and will look much the same for the next hour. Traffic was light, the surface was good and there were not too many kamikaze motor bikers doing 60kph on the wrong side of the road just to prove they were invincible. We duly got out of the way of the few who did – thus proving they were right, of course.

The “main” road we followed all day

We learned today the sad news that one of my favourite comedians, Jeremy Hardy, had died of cancer. It also would have been have been my father’s birthday today – he died 16 years ago. If he had lived, he would have been 94 – which would have been a far better age than the age when he was taken from us all so young. Jeremey Hardy was a year younger than me, at just 57. I met him about 18 months ago at a legal charity dinner; he was as funny, genuine and engaged in person as he appeared on the radio. Both were sad losses and died far too young.

So back to cycling – why do we do it? I recall a cyclist in Scotland who referred to cyclists as “coffin cheaters” which is part of the reason – though there are other ways that are probably more effective.

Other than that, going up hills is easier on a motorbike but fewer children wave excitedly at motor bikers but we get waves en route all the time. Going slowly on a bike also means that life happens in slow motion around us – markets are full of people and bustle; but we slide through on our bikes with few observers (other than the children). We get fit I suppose but that is a side product – like losing weight – but is not the main reason we cycle. I suppose I still think there is something magical about having travelled 2,500km in a month under our own steam, seeing a country at slow motion and being a “tourist-lite”. There are sights we see, smells we experience, and people we meet that add up to things we would never have got any other way.

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Take Viet for example. A fantastic young man who was cycling home to his family from Danang (where he worked) to BMT (see yesterday for an explanation of where this is). He was cycling the opposite direction today and we stopped for a chat – and it filled us both with great feelings of joy. Happy New Year to him and his family.

Then there are the times when things go wrong – such as today when 2 gear change cables snapped. We only have 2 spare cables and both are used up. It took me over an hour to work out why the first (and second) ones failed and then gingerly put the last one in place hoping it would hold (it did). Job for tomorrow in a city – replace spare gear cables. I know Malcolm would have been far better at sorting it out but, honestly, where is Malcolm when you need him in a crisis? I just hope the last cable will last until we get to Pleiku (about 50 km) tomorrow. But perhaps solving a problem such as a broken gear cable can be just as satisfying as a great view.

So back to Bernie and the fact that cycling makes us think. She is right – it does. There is plenty of time to reflect on what makes us tick, what is important, whether we live our values, considering past decisions about things that are important and things we have got wrong. In my case there is plenty of material for the last category but somehow the rhythm of the road means that, instead of destructive thoughts, the thought pattern is to accept where things have gone wrong, gently accept the delusion (or otherwise) that this does not make me a totally bad person, and try to learn the lessons from things that have not gone as well as they could. I have no idea why this process is better undertaken on a bike, but it is. So as long as the gradient is not more than about 5%, the mind is in overdrive. Of course if the slope is steep, all energy is focused on turning the pedals and cursing the climb. Not much profound thinking gets done when the slope is 7%.

We had a good day today – single road but at times a ridge with views on both sides. The overall feel of the country is definitely “pre-holiday” – like Britain feels on 20th December. Lots of people loaded onto motorbikes going home to loved ones for the new year. Some packing was better than others – and some came apart at the side of the road. But it was soon repacked and on the way – all to add to families reunited
Strange to think that this delightful, peaceful and (becoming) prosperous country was the site of a bloody war less than 30 years ago as the west fought to stop the spread of communism. The pointlessness of that loss of life on all sides is now clear but was clearly obscured at the time. If today’s Vietnam is communism today (which it sort of is and sort of isn’t – just like China) then there are things to be said in its favour as well as the obvious things to say against it. This is a country with private businesses competing for customers, funded by capital and with some people who wealthy and many who are doing OK. Corruption is problem (so we are told) but its GDP has grown by over 6% per year on average for the past 10 years, The population (97M) was growing at 3% per year in 1070 but is now growing at 1% a year. So economic progress results in a sustainable population growth – once again.

All gives us much to ponder as we cycle along.

Friday 1st February. Ho Lak to Pong D’Rang. 92km. 850m climbing.

We have had some tough days since HCM City so decided to give ourselves an easier day today. Having splashed out an extra #1.50 for a “VIP room” with a huge picture window overlooking the lake we had a lie in (ie did not set the alarm for 5.15am and opened my eyes at 6 as it was getting light). We had coffee and breakfast in bed looking at the early morning light on the lake. We slowly packed up but were still on the road soon after 7.30am.

The first 10km were glorious as we rode round the lake and across the valley. Yellow light, green paddy fields and stunning surrounding hills. However the best laid plans do not always work and things soon changed after we had climbed a small ridge and wound through a few hills when we found ourselves in a different world – the world of modern Vietnam.

Buffalo on their way into the fields for the day
And the buffalo minder..

Busy roads and almost continuous development for the next 35km as we followed the road into the large city of Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced Boon me Tote or Burn my Tart or “BMT” as we referred to it as we could not cope with the full pronunciation).

Coming into the city we found ourselves on a large dual carriage way (not too busy) but, as the city is billed as the coffee capital of Vietnam, finding a coffee shop had to be our first port of call. We soon found a small coffee shop where we had an excellent cup of freshly brewed coffee. In Vietnam coffee shops only sell drinks but no food so the next hunt was for food. As a rarity there seemed to be a distinct lack of food shops or restaurants. However, aided once again by google maps we found a ‘mega supermarket’ just off our route. The shop could have been a large supermarket in Kidderminster – with very many of the same brands. Only a tiny proportion of the population shop at such places at the moment (and I refused to pay 50,000 dong for 1kg of bananas when we get them for 10,000 dong/kilo from street stalls and they are nicer) but, it was useful to stock up on some bits and pieces.

We then cycled out of the city along leafy tree lined boulevards – much nicer than our way in. However, we then hit our main problem of the day – WIND. We had a strong side wind most of the morning but were now changing direction into the teeth of the wind. The weather forecast said the winds were 17km/hr with gusts of 22km/hr. It seemed more ‘gust’ than anything and was tough going. We had taken a more minor road to avoid the heavy traffic out of the city but then had a triple whammy of strong headwind, poor road surface and a continuous 300m climb. I was finding it particularly difficult as the gusts would drive me back, so David took more of my weight from my panniers.

It may not look like it – but this road went uphill at 2% for 15km – and the quality of the surface was pretty terrible!

The km slowly ticked off passing coffee and pepper and a large rubber plantation (which provided a brief windbreak). We were glad to stop as planned where our road met the main road again. Our ‘easy’ day had also accumulated 850m of climbing so although not as much as the last few days, that and the wind left us with heavy legs.

Rubber trees with cups to capture the sap

We soon revived. It did not take long to look round our environs – the busy main road and a few side roads with the usual busy market of fresh produce. As much ‘real’ Vietnam as anywhere else but a world away from where we had started the day.

Thursday 31 January : Dinh Van to Lat Ho (Ho Lake): 112km and 1200m of climbing

Bernie woke coughing at 4am and I was awake soon after. We pottered around but it was still 6.15 before we were ready to leave. The town’s lake – surrounded by flower stalls – looked lovely in the early morning light.

This is the point where we stopped going eastward and started going north. So we struck off north on the QL27 – which is a Vietnamese “B” road. It was paved (in places) and was not too busy. We knew from the maps that we started the day with a 500m climb from the town at 840m to the top at about 1340m. It was steady but not too steep. The road passed numerous villages and the morning rush hour was in full swing, with motorbikes, stalls, buses and the occasional animal all constricting the carriageway.

We manoeuvred our bikes through the melee, and managed not to knock anyone over. Both of us were feeling a bit weary from our efforts yesterday and the enforced early morning, but fitness kicked in and we ambled up the hills.

The valleys were cultivated right to the top. This was not remote mountain scenery or jungle, despite being higher than anywhere before on this trip. Coffee and cassava seemed the dominant crops, but there were also planted pine forests and crops we could not identify.

The surface deteriorated as we got higher, and was particularly bad on the steep descent. A mountain bike would have been better in places.

We stopped at a cafe that advertised coffee. They had fresh coffee but our efforts to get black, brewed coffee without sugar were pretty unsuccessful. It came in a micro-cafetiere, but the process did not really work and we ended up spilling it and having coffee to drink with granules in it. It was unclear if the equipment or us were the problem – probably a mixture of the 2.

These are the mountains we descended from

Next we struggled along the valley on very poor roads, with the track going up and down. This was a populated area but significantly poorer than some of the places close to HCMC. Then we started another descent and, miraculously, the surface was smooth and new. We swung down from about 1000m to 500m in jungle with wonderful bends to swoop around. Half way down we met a (grumpy) German wearing flip-flops and wheeling his bike on his own up the hill. He was only going to the top but seemed to have given up trying to cycle. A bit further down we met a Dutch couple who were cycling without helmets and he carried a guitar on the back of his bike. They were on the way to Dalat to try to get a new back wheel for his mountain bike (to support the guitar). We chatted for a few minutes, swapped route information and then said our good byes. These chance encounters with other touring cyclists on the road are part of the fun of travelling.
The day was heating up and the poor surface meant we were making slow progress. We stopped for lunch – the inevitable but welcome Pho – after 70km at a small town. There is a great deal of eating out in Vietnam – as there is in Thailand (less in Cambodia). It can be cheaper to eat out than to buy food and prepare oneself and many Thai homes are now built without a kitchen (a bit like apartments in New York). It was good and we were refreshed.

On we went through the fields and scrubland, and eventually crossed the river at the head of Lake which has no name on the map (or on googlemaps come to that). But there were floating houses in the lake and children playing in the water. We knew this was the beginning of the last climb of the day, but it was slightly frustrating. We climbed 70m, then the road bobbled about and dropped back almost to the altitude we had started at, and then we climbed again. It was about 250m of climbing to go up from 500m to 650m – but the scenery was pretty good and, by now, the heat of the day had started to fall off. There appeared to be a lot more peasant farming with small simple houses with a few paddy felds and maybe some pigs and cattle.
Then our second glorious descent of the day – also on good roads. We overtook motorbikes as we navigated the bends, just touching the brakes from time to time to keep everything in control. The final 12 km along the valley was tough as, by that stage, we were knackered. But we were determined to reach Lake Ho, which had such a good write up in the guidebook. We passed more rural scenes with emerald green paddy fields stretching across the valley floor, cattle and buffalo.

By the time we got to the Lake– about 3.30 – we were wiped out. But tea with lemon and a shower revived us. Lake Ho is the largest natural lake in Central Vietnam. There are bigger reservoirs but this lake has supported fishing communities for generations. They belong to a minority tribe and live in long houses, which we saw on an early evening stroll. Unfortunately, by the time we had recovered, the wind had got up and was blowing a gale and it was overcast. It made the lake look pretty uninviting, with only brave souls venturing out on boats into the wavy waters. However I can see that, on a calm summer’s evening, it must be delightful.
So, all in all, a good but tiring day, mainly due to poor road surfaces (lots of unpaved sections and juddering on the hands, arm and necks) and due to being tired from the previous day. But it sets us up well to explore the central section of Vietnam, heading towards Kon Tum.