Monthly Archives: February 2015

Five Months Cycle Touring in SE Asia

A reflection of what we’ve learned and places we’ve loved.

“Can you believe we’re in Bali? Can you believe what we’ve done?” Eric stated more as an exclamation than a question last night popping open a can of Bintang beer.

We were sitting in our current lodging, a small studio apartment complete with our first kitchen in almost five months. We’ve cycled almost 6500 kilometers. For both of us, reaching Bali is both an end to a journey that, frankly, we were not sure we would actually complete or enjoy, and a beginning to the next stage of our travels, New Zealand.

The calm and peacefulness of Bali gives us the time to synthesize the frenzy, fear, and fun of the past four countries and reflect on that experience.

Here is a summary of what we learned and loved in each country.

Malaysia

View from a temple in Penang, Malaysia
View from a temple in Penang, Malaysia

We learned “never trust the bicycle Garmin”, contrary to one of my earliest, naive blog posts. We got the most lost “in our own backyard of Perak, Malaysia, where we throughout we knew the roads. But, we ignored our common sense and let Garmin lead. I know understand Garmin is a computer programmed to direct us to the smallest roads, ox-cart paths, and trails used by Neanderthals 10,000 years ago. Therefore, it’s not conducive to logical route planning.

I loved our tour guide Rickey Lee showing us hidden gems in Penang like riding the vehicular up Penang Hill and eating dim sum with his family before heading north from Malaysia.

Eric loved the Red Garden hawker stall in Penang for dinner.

Thailand

This cave is found on the southeastern coastal road of Thailand. The views are great and the road is relatively flat.
This cave is found on the southeastern coastal road of Thailand. The views are great and the road is relatively flat.

We learned to check elevations and grades of hill climbs before taking local cyclists’ advice about route planning. When we hear the words, “It’s looks like a great ride but I’ve never actually done it on a touring bike with 50 lbs of gear” we’d better do our research. Two people pushing one bicycle up steep hills in the hot sun miles from water is not my idea of fun.

I loved living like a local for four days in Chaing Mai with a warm showers host and eating a local hangouts, taking a leisurely Sunday ride with a group, and meet locals. I also loved putting our our bicycles on a river boat down the Mekong River.

Eric loved riding the south eastern coastal route because it was fairly flat and lodging was easy to find. Both the smooth ride and access to lodging took of that stress while he learned to cope with the heat and humidity. He also liked learning about WWII and the construction of the Burmese Railroad at Hell’s Pass.

Laos

Kids everywhere stopped to say saw bai dee.
Kids everywhere stopped to say saw bai dee.

We learned the “150 meter elevation climb and take a rest” idea for breaking up long hill climbs from fellow cycle tourists Thorsten and Sabine. This concept has helped us successfully tackle many large hill climbs since then. It also introduced early the concept of smaller goals to break the day up into manageable parts and gave us a formula for thinking about how long a ride might take.

I loved the scenery of the mountain pass between Luang Prebang and Vang Vieng where the village children living along the highway would run alongside waving and and shouting “saw bai dee” (hello) everywhere we rode. I also loved the companionship of two other cycle touring couples: Sabine and Thorsten, and Lauren and Matthew.

Eric loved the food in Luang Prebang, a fusion of French and Laos food. We can remember both meals in town because the settings were elegant and the food was prepared and served as well as anything we’d had in Paris. This was a strong contrast to the primitiveness we’d just encountered for several weeks prior.

Vietnam

Both the coastline and mountains are beautiful in Vietnam.
Both the coastline and mountains are beautiful in Vietnam.

We learned that Vietnam is a beautiful, cooler (less hot), friendly, easy-to-cycle country and probably one of our favorite countries and could easily return. We saw how welcoming, hard-working and productive a country can be.

I loved, even though it was hard, the 15 hour, 130 km ride between Nha Trang and Dalat with fellow cyclist Manfred. It was one of the most physically and mentally taxing rides I’ve ever done but the feeling of accomplishment, the amazing scenery, and the reward of the delightful city of Dalat at the end made it worthwhile.

Eric loved the easy start of our journey in Vinh with the bell hop at our first hotel taking his afternoon off to show us the city. We were both in awe of the beautiful surrounding 50 kilometers green rice paddies, clean villages, and lovely churches and temples.

Indonesia

View of Mt. Bromo at sunrise.
View of Mt. Bromo at sunrise.

We learned about and witnessed the negative consequences of corruption at the lowest levels of society. Payoffs to local “police officers” have been blatant and, from what we can see, damages incentive, development, and progress making cycling very difficult. We also learned to heed other people’s advice when they say the traffic is bad.

I loved everything about Mt. Bromo: the 4WD up the mountain, the hike to the crater, and the 40 km bicycle ride downhill. I also loved visiting the hidden temples and sights around Yogyakarta with a local Warmshowers cyclist, Anto.

Eric loved Mt. Bromo and thoroughly enjoyed the 4WD rice.

Bali

Garmin found this little gem of a peaceful bungalow down a rocky, dirt path.
Garmin found this little gem of a peaceful bungalow down a rocky, dirt path.

We learned that the “find lodging” feature on the Garmin 810 works pretty darn well. This is one place where we started the morning in Java without a real plan and, somehow, ending up in Bali in the late afternoon in a rainstorm. We had a back-up plan but using the Garmin saved my cell phone from rain damage and saved time because we didn’t have to stop and hope for 3G. I’m embarrassed to admit, however, that I’m a slow learner because a fellow cyclist, Dell, had suggested I try the “find lodging” feature over 6 weeks ago.

I love everything so far: the calm and peacefulness, the road conditions, the people, the hellos from the children, the long braids of the school girls (reminds me of a much younger me.)

Eric loves the easy cycling roads. I also think he loves our lodging – an apartment with a kitchen, table, comfortable bed, nice bathroom, a hose for bicycle maintenance, and space to cull through his bags to shed some weight before New Zealand.

The two themes that are common in most of our favorites are the people and the scenery. We have nothing but gratitude for the wonderful people we’ve met so far. And we have nothing but awe for the amazing scenery.

Oh, and one of the nicest parts of this whole experience is that Eric said his very favorite is just being with together with me. Together we have learned that we can enjoy retirement on a bicycle.

Doing the Small Things

“You don’t have to be rich with money to do goodness.” Ankuntano Widyantono

Anto sitting on top of a temple that legends say is on top of a pile of gold.
Anto sitting on top of a temple that legends say is rests on top of a pile of gold.

How one guy’s love of cycling is making a difference in his country.

Eric and I has the pleasure of cycling with Akuntanu Widyantono, or Anto as he likes to be called, a twenty-somthing cyclist/explorer/writer/blogger in Jogyakarta. The more I got to know him, the more impressed I became with the simple things he is doing to promote cycling and camping in his country. He calls himself “just a normal guy” but his simple approach to cycling and writing about his experiences are having a big impact on the younger generation.

We met Anto through Warmshowers, a group for cycling enthusiasts to share lodging and a love for a common sport. Although we did not stay with Anto, we had the pleasure of local expertise to tour some local sights: an old bridge that was a relic of the Dutch colonization, an obscure Hindu temple, another temple, and some caves built by the Japanese to hide munitions during WWII.

Anto explaining about the bridge build by the Dutch. The salt water stream below is a mystery that flows to the sea.
Anto explaining about the bridge build by the Dutch. The salt water stream below is a mystery that flows to the sea.

The sites are very interesting and off the radar screen of the regular tourist paths. But even more interesting to me is how Anto finds these places and what he does once he find them.

Several times a week Anto starts off on his bicycle with no particular destination in mind. He just rides and takes the paths not well traveled. Often he gets lost and carries an old-fashioned compass, in case GPS signals are not working, and makes his way somewhere. More often than not, he stumbles across waterfalls, mud bridges, hidden caves, beautiful lookouts at the top of hills, or old temples covered with trash or graffiti. Then he wanders into the nearest village, finds an older person in the village and asks for the history or folklore about the place. For destinations farther away from home, he might also ask for permission to camp.

An example of signage built after Anto wrote the government about the Hinu temple in disrepair.
An example of signage built after Anto wrote the government about the Hinu temple in disrepair.
A hindu temple of fertility.
A hindu temple of fertility.

When he gets home, he write details about that day’s ride including the history of the place and how to find it. He has an active blog that gets over 4500 visits per month. And, from what we witnessed, people are using his suggestions about local attractions to plan their free time.

Caves built during the Japanese occupation to house munitions. The signs are new.
Caves built during the Japanese occupation to house munitions. The signs are new.

What really sets him apart from other bloggers is that he takes some of his “finds” to the government to help promote tourism by the local residents. For example, recently he round a hidden Hindi temple that was filled with trash and being used by local teenagers at the “hangout and party” place. After he learned the history of the temple from some local villagers, he wrote to the government and asked them if they want to let their national treasures be destroyed and lost to future generations.

These school children rode their bicycles to the temple with their teachers.
These school children rode their bicycles to the temple with their teachers.

Within a week, the temple was “found” and cleaned up. The relics were labeled and catalogued. Signs were placed on the nearby roads to direct people to the temple. Signs were placed at the site explaining the meaning of the carvings. Today there was a school group of about 30 students who had ridden their bicycles with their teachers to the temple for a small field trip. They were enjoying the ride and the different location of the “classroom.”

The bridge that Anto rediscovered and wrote about in his blog has become so popular that a small parking lot has been built. Many locals come to this bridge for wedding photographs and to enjoy the salt water flowing over the lava formations below.

The temple mound at the top of a small mountain was another discovery. Today there were many groups enjoying the 360 degree view and taking lovely photos. There were mountain bikers using the path for a challenging training loop. The villagers below were enjoying the increased traffic to the ancient temple and had opened up small food and beverage stalls and a way to earn some money.

Anto would like to see more people ride bicycles to enjoy the local scenery. But he is concerned about the obstacles. There is a anti-bicycle culture that we’ve seen in many SE Asia countries – the perception that bicycle riding is for the poor. Status is achieved by buying motorcycles and cars. The motorcycle manufacturers have made it very easy for Indonesians to buy new motorcycles with very little cash and it’s common to see families where each child has his or her own motorcycle.

He’s had people comment that their bicycle isn’t good enough for these short journeys to the countryside. He tries to convince them to ride whatever bicycle they have laying around. He even has a small repair shop in his home to help get people back on their “working” bicycles.

Aside from Anto’s encouraging cycling and camping, he’s educating about pollution – no small feat in a country where throwing rubbish anywhere and everywhere is common practice and old engines from motorcycles, cars, trucks, and buses fill the air with black smoke all the time.

Anto says, “Don’t be affraid with what other people thinking about you (sic), your life is not just to impress others but doing your life in a positive way (and of course you like it) sooner people(s) from everywhere will appreciate and get inspired because of you .”

As I’ve mentioned before, Indonesia has been a difficult country for us to visit because of the infrastructure, pollution, and hesitation on the part of the locals to interact or smile at strangers. But meeting and cycling with Anto, a “regular guy” with a vision for the future of his country, has made our pedals spin easier and our smiles much bigger.

The Java Everyone Raves About

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Beautiful peaceful roads today.

 

We arrived in Indonesia on Jan. 24th. We’ve cycled over 700 kilometers across Java. We’ve met some nice people and eaten some delicious food and even gotten glimpses of some beautiful scenery. But there is also a lot of traffic, pollution, noise, dangerous roads and hot temperatures. We hadn’t really been enjoying the ride or the country. We’ve even made plans to take the train part of the way to avoid some of the roads. But, today was different. We found lush, green, peaceful, beautiful java.

I wish I had the vocabulary to describe the green.
I wish I had the vocabulary to describe the green.

This morning we let Garmin 810, our bicycle GPS, find us a route to the ancient Hindu temple of Prambanan “the tallest and most beautiful Hindu temple in the world”, according to the English Version of the UNESCO World Heritage Site park brochure, located about 20 kilometers northwest of our hotel. Sometimes Garmin leads us astray and finds routes that don’t even exist, but today he was successful at finding us small, single lane village roads that meandered through rice fields, along streams and canals and through tiny neighborhoods. We shared the road with children riding to or from school, motorcycles laden with rice bags full of freshly cut grass for the milk cow at home, and an occasional motorcycle-truck ( a small motorcycle in front with a flat bed trailer mounted on the rear).

We stopped for lots of photos. We enjoyed the shade of large trees dividing the farms. We let our minds wander rather than concentrate on the traffic.

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The ride was a reward itself but the second reward was the destination. The Prambanan temples are pretty darn spectacular. I think the little 1×2 photo of Prambanan that I remember from a 6th Grade World History text book just don’t do these temples justice. They are huge, ornately carved, and in pretty good shape in spite of massive damage from an earthquake in 2006.

Today, the temples were swarming with school students on field trips which made the visit even more fun. There was a group of middle school students that were crazy about having their photos taken with foreigners. My guess is one of two reasons: 1) Their teacher told them to practice their English and give proof with a photo. 2) They had never seen Westerners before. In any case, pictures of Eric and I will be in many photos albums around Java.

Middle school girls on a school field trip.
Middle school girls on a school field trip.

Amy favorite part was being free to climb all over the ruins. I kept thinking that if these 8th century beauties were located in the United States, concerns about liability from falls or damage to the structures would limit visitors to photos from a distance or a close-up views from coin operated binoculars located miles away.

The ride back to our hotel was a little hotter and choked with a lot more traffic. But neither dampened our spirits. I’m relaxing after a swim in the hotel pool. And, I’m hoping that Eric is planning the route to our next destination, Mt. Bromo, another East Java favorite.

Singing Karaoke After Lunch

 

Bebek is duck, sop buntut is oxtail soup, ayam goreng is grilled chicken.
Bebek is duck, sop buntut is oxtail soup, ayam goreng is grilled chicken.

Eric and I stopped for lunch at a place that had been advertising  food every kilometer for the past 10 kilometers. I could even translate some of the dishes from Bahasa Indonesian to English: oxtail soup, fried duck, grilled carp (goldfish is what I call them). We pulled off the highway and out of the midday sun. We chose a table outside because the noise from the traffic seemed less than the music blaring from the television inside.

We ordered our lunches – oxtail soup for me and grilled duck for Eric. Soup is turning out to be a good choice because it is served very hot so we hope the germs have been killed. Eric, on the other hand, was not so lucky. His grilled duck was stone cold so he spit out the first bite and shared mine.

After our noonday meal, Eric usual settles down for a nap and I pull out my book. But today our rest time was interrupted by a very long, very loud, very unmelodic prayer call streaming into our left hear. I think one of the prerequisites for Imams in Indonesia is to be tone deaf.

Pouring into our right hear was very loud, very slow, overly dramatic love songs from what I thought was a show like “Indonesian Idol” if there is such a thing.

An Indonesian pop singer on the television.
An Indonesian pop singer on the television.

I looked at the television inside and noticed a middle-aged woman holding a microphone and singing karaoke (in a very lovely voice I might add) along with the TV. Laying on the table was a spare microphone. She motioned me to come in and join her.

“Why not?” I thought. “I might learn some pronunciation even if I don’t know what I’m singing.”

We had a nice time "singing" together.
We had a nice time “singing” together.

I walked over, sat down, grabbed a microphone and tried to follow along. I listened to her while the words flashed across the screen. I listened to the sound of the Indonesian Pop which has similar riffs and beats to American country rock.. The songs followed a very specific pattern: Refrain, verse, refrain, verse, instrumental interlude, modulation to a higher key, refrain, verse, long retardant (slow down) at the end. The used of only 4 chords made it quite easy to follow/guess where the song was going and to harmonize.

I didn’t want to detract from her pleasant voice, so I never did actually turn on my mic, but I did sing along for about five songs. She could hear me even if the large, mostly empty restaurant could not. I wish I could have asked her to repeat a song, because then I could have sung the whole thing with her and we might have sounded like professionals….professional karaoke singers, that is.

I enjoyed this musical interlude today. I felt rested and relaxed and ready for more traffic, pollution, and bumpy roads.