Sabaidee, Xin Chow or just a simple smile, it was fun to be back in the organised chaos of South East Asia. The smells, sounds and intensity were all still there - 4 years on from my last visit. This time I was in search of roads new and old.
With my summer empty of commitments I once again packed my life onto a bike and ventured across the world to South East Asia, in particular Thailand, Laos & Vietnam.
For this trip I had a very loose plan and no schedule. It needed to be the complete opposite to my Rhino Run adventure last October in Africa. I wanted lots of sleep, plenty of breaks and no urgency. So, with no return flight booked, I flew off to Bangkok. For the next 6 weeks I had nowhere to be yet everywhere to go, a blank canvas of adventure and two wheels to travel on.
My tour ended up covering 3500 km, heading north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the Mae Hong Song region of Thailand. A short dash across Laos, then a final explore of Northern Vietnam and the Ha Giang region. Having been to these countries 4 years ago I wanted to explore the corners I’d missed but also revisit some of the towns, roads and places I’d ridden before as a young 19 year old on my round the world cycle trip.
The ride between Bangkok and Chiang Mai wasn’t anything to phone home about. It felt like an 800 km commute to get to the good stuff in the north - the good stuff being mountains and forests. In saying that, it was still a fun ride - immersed in the Thai culture, the villagers' day-to-day unfolding around me and being passed by a million scooters. Only in Asia.
Once in Chiang Mai the trip really took off. Northern Thailand and the Mae Hong Son loop were my big-ticket items - the pocket of Thailand I had heard so much about but yet never seen. I can tell you now with passion that the loop did not disappoint. The place is magic - although you’re going to want to enjoy climbing because there isn’t a kilometre of flat road out there.
From the fields of Pai to the hill tribes of Ban Rak Thai it was a culture rich adventure with views that brought goose bumps to my skin. All of which were connected by some of the steepest, curviest and most exciting passes imaginable.
But what goes up must come down hey? Whist you’re the slowest thing on the road going up these 1000 vertical metre plus passes, there is no doubt that you’re the fastest thing going down. When you then throw scooters, buses and all sorts of wildlife into the mix, ripping down the descents felt like a real life game of Mario Cart. So much fun. It’s one of those places you just need to go ride to understand, words and photos don’t quite do it justice.
From northern Thailand I ventured towards Laos. On entering Laos you cross the Mekong River, one of THE rivers of the world that in itself is a special experience. Instead of hopping on the long boat down the river I kept on riding, up and over the stunning Laos landscape, watching sunsets from mountain sides and finding myself in villages that felt more remote then ever.
If you’ve read my blogs before or heard me speak you’ll know about my love for a simple smile. It’s the international language, more universal than any word, yet it speaks more than any word could. It’s in these corners of the world where that truly shines through. Riding into these remote hillside villages is a pocket of joy. I realised that no matter what mood I was in, it was impossible to not end up smiling on the other side. Endless waves and laughter were sent my way in volume. It didn’t take long to remember why Laos is the country I loved so much 4 years ago. It was also here that I rejoined my world ride route. That was special.
It’s crazy how memory works. A certain building, restaurant, sign or even corner would send waves of recollection and emotion. Spotting the little shelters and riverbanks where I camped or sitting in the exact spot at a restaurant I was in 4 years ago was wild. I was appalled at some of the places I camped and the things I remember doing. I guess we were all a bit ignorant and foolish at 19!
One of the more special moments came in Muang Xia, a central city in Laos. I cycled down an alleyway to a restaurant based out of someone's home and it instantly clicked that I’d been there before. The memories of that place were so vivid because there was a young girl who sat next to me smiling and laughing throughout the entire meal. She must have been only 5 or 6 at the time. Four years on as I walk through the garden there she is, the same smile instantly recognisable.
I sat down - probably ate the same meal in the same seat - and dug deep into the photo album on my phone. As I left I showed the grandmother and the now 10ish-year-old girl a photo of us. That was special, as special as it gets really. I gave them a final wave and promised to see them again in another four years. I'm already looking forward to that.
Vietnam was the third and final country of my SE Asian tour and the Ha Giang Loop was my main objective The loop is popular with backpacker tourists on motorbikes however I still think a push bike is the way to go. I’m probably biased though…
The Ha Giang landscape is like nowhere else I’ve been so to be back again was a special treat. It feels like the moon in places but with raw rocky peaks and impossible roads where they border the sky. Epic.
Whilst the roads and landscape of Vietnam are incredible, the chaos was a bit much for me. Maybe I’m getting old but I don’t remember the frantic noise getting to me like it did this time. Throw in Lunar New Year with everything closed and everyone on holiday and I became quite overwhelmed. I was ready for some peace, quiet and respite from the bustle, hard to find in Vietnam. Clearly I was ready for home. I booked a flight and a few days later was flying out of Hanoi back to Australia.
With my life packed away onto my bike you might be wondering what was packed in my bags. Here’s a run down…
Curve GMX+ Ti.
29” Curve Carbon Dirt hoops with DT 350 hubs and 2.25” Vittoria Terreno tyres.
55cm Curve Walmer bars.
SRAM Force ETap mullet drivetrain (32-10/50).
3 x bottle cages.
Treadlite frame bag; Sol Seeker handlebar gag, top tube bag & feed bags.