It wasn’t hard to make an early start, as we’d both spent a restless night back in conditions we’d forgotten about. We were awake at dawn anyway.
Just outside of town we were about to go up our first real climb and my chain snapped. When Sam looked at he couldn’t believe how distorted the broken link was. It took over an hour to use spare pieces of chain to fix the chain as the links around it had also been bent out of shape. Not the start to the day we were hoping for, but after that, each moment of the day was like riding through a postcard. The villages, mountains, lakes and rivers were so picturesque – we were stopping all day to take photos.
At one stop a man on a motorcycle stopped to ask us in a kiwi accent if we spoke English and when we responded yes he stopped to chat. He was headed the same way as us, Vang Vieng, and we would see him a couple more times during the day to take photos at the same spot or at a crossroads wondering which way to go.
After an incredible day of cycling we arrived in the town that surprised us both. We didn’t know much about it, and were surprised to find a tourist metropolis in the middle of rural Laos. There were westerners everywhere. It seemed the whole town was either a guesthouse or restaurant. Luckily we found a quiet hotel outside the main centre but could easily walk in for food. We had an incredible Indian feast, and realized that we missed the food from Malaysia. Food in Thailand just hadn’t been as good.
Over dinner we talked about what to do next. We really wanted to see the Plain of Jars, but it was a long way out of our way and we were so short on time in Laos. Eventually we decided to catch a mini-bus to Ponsovan (the town closest to the Plain of Jars) and then ride to Luang Probang. So we booked our bus tickets for the next morning and went back to get a good night sleep (after the ritualistic mosquito massacre).
When the Atlanta Hotel turned us away with our bikes (the only place so far to do that) we ended up in the nice and spacious Omni Apartments, where bicycles were welcome (even on the 26th floor), the pool was shabby but clean, the gym had lots of equipment and the breakfast was free and delicious. It was very centrally located to the tourist attractions and public transport, so we didn't need to bring the bikes down until it was time to leave.
The apartment was also centrally located to western bars and massage parlours, and it seemed as though every single (we hope), overweight, 50+ year old, British man was staying in our street (Soi 4) to take advantage of the local hospitality. And the girls (and also lady boys, which we saw many of) were eager to make everyone feel welcome and loved in Bangkok.
We didn't like the city. It was dirty and made of concrete. I am sure there are some nice parks and pockets of beauty... but overall it is not an attractive place. And it seemed as though everyone was trying to get money out of us.
Internet is very expensive. Even the hotels and coffee shops that would normally have free wifi were charging high rates. The taxi and tuktuk drivers refuse to use the meter and if you won't pay them more than the locals they don't want to take you.
We took a taxi to the bike shop and the driver agreed to use the meter, but only if we went to a tailor and looked around for 5 minutes while he got his fuel voucher for bringing them Western tourists. He explained times were tough - tourist numbers were down with the protests and all - so we agreed to go to his tailor. It was WAY out of our way - in the opposite direction - and then we got caught in traffic. But we wanted to help him out so we didn't complain. But then when we got near the bike shop he kept driving around (even though he'd talked to the shop on the phone and knew where it was) to get the meter up. When we yelled at him to stop and let us out, he didn't give us enough change. We'd gone into the pushy, tailor shop to help him and he tried to rort us.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise though. When he'd first mentioned tourist numbers being down we asked him if he was a red shirt, which he admitted he was, and that he attended local meetings every day. We asked if there would be any fighting and he said no, only talking. He said they were very angry and wanted elections, because they loved the ousted leader Thaksin, who has been declared guilty in court of stealing billions from the Thai economy. When we questioned the driver about why he supported a thief who was corrupt he didn't seem phased, in fact he laughed and just said Thaksin looked after the poor people and they still loved him. It seems that most poor people don't care that the man embezzled billions, because as the driver said 'he would have done the same if given the opportunity.'
There were however some highlights of Bangkok - including Ocean World at the Siam Paragon shopping centre, particularly the little fish that eat the skin off your feet (they loved Sam!) and the sharks - everyone loves sharks (when they are behind very thick glass). The shopping centre also had a selection of prestige cars which was a definite highlight for Sam, not so much for Shanna. And we watched How to train your dragon on Imax 3D - not only a cute movie, but amazing in that cinema.
To keep the journey moving we went to a Cannondale bike shop to stock up on supplies like anti-friction cream, lube, tubes and patches. And Sam spent half a day putting new chains on both bikes (he is so clever) in preparation for the limited supplies and rough conditions of China.
Once we'd done all we needed, we quite happily went back to the station and caught a train out of Bangkok, to Ayutthaya.
We arrived in Singapore in the mid-afternoon, relieved to once again be on dry land after a bumpy ride over a windblown ocean on a small ferry from Bintan.
Now that we knew Sam's spoke was broken there was no way he could ride it with all the gear. So how we would get out of the ferry terminal? We'd arranged to stay for two nights at the home of a Frenchman working in Singapore - Arnaud - who we contacted through Couchsurfing. We had his phone number and address and planned to go to his house for the afternoon, and take the bikes to the shop in the morning.
Outside the terminal we considered the MRT train system, but the nearest station was about 6km away and Sam couldn't ride his bike. Maybe we could get a taxi to take Sam and his bike and gear to MRT station and Shanna could ride? Then we saw bigger taxis, vans, that had a sign saying they would take you anywhere for $40 (about Aus $30). Shanna talked Sam into taking this easy option straight to Arnaud's place.
On the way Shanna tried calling Arnaud to make sure he was home. The last email we had from him had his phone number so we could call when we arrived. It took some work, because we only had an Indonesian SIM card and needed to work out how to call a Singaporian number. Then once we worked it out the phone was off. We arrived at the address, a secure apartment complex, and tried his buzzer. No-one home.
We sat outside for the next three hours. Shanna went to some shops around the corner to try a pay phone... but his phone was definitely off. Shanna rode her bike around trying to find an internet cafe to check our couchsurfing messages, but couldn't find one. Eventually at 5.30 we got a text to say he was on his way home from work.
We were still trying to recover from our illnesses and felt pretty tired, so when after a short chat Arnaud went to meet friends for squash, we opted to just walk around the corner to the local food court for some dinner (after Sam was able to finally relieve himself of some rather unpleasant pressure in his bowels...) , rather than trying to make our way to the city. After a 'western' meal of fish and chips and rice and chicken we went back to the place for a swim. Arnaud had explained that his complex had a pool, but we weren't prepared for four pools! Including a big 30m lap pool. It was a beautiful complex and we felt like we were swimming at a resort.
Before 10 we decided to head up for an early night. Arnaud came home and we talked some more. He showed us some photos from his many travels and we talked about Indonesia (which is, of course, the only place we'd been).
In the morning we had a little sleep in, before tackling the idea of taking the bikes to the bike shop. The shop was on the other side of the country, about 25km away. But luckily Arnaud lived near the MRT and the shop was not too far from a station. The plan was to take the bikes (in order to avoid Sam having to ride with 2 broken spokes), then catch the train to the city for the afternoon. So at about 10am we gingerly rode less than 1km to the station and bought our tickets. As we were wheeling the bikes through the gate we were stopped - no bikes allowed on the MRT. We talked to them, explained our situation with the wheel being broken, but there was no relenting. Bikes were not allowed, ever, under any circumstances.
Outside the station we talked about our options. A taxi was an expense we didn't need, but we had no idea which way to ride. We needed a map. On our way to finding a map Shanna somehow lost Sam and 40 mins was wasted as we waited in different locations for the other to 'turn up'. Once we were happily reunited, Sam went to buy a map. He returned with a street directory and a man named Tiow who had lived near Perth for 10 years and so could speak to us in wonderful English. Another 30 minutes or so passed as we tried to work out the best way to get there, avoiding the highways. Eventually, armed with a map and directions, we rode off in the searing sun towards the bike shop on the other side of the country.
When we finally found the address they'd given us in an email we couldn't find it. We rode up and down the street, before eventually being told by a security guard that they'd moved. But, apparently it was nearby, just behind this street. After another 30 mins of riding around we called the shop and got the new address. We looked it up in our street directory and finally made it there. At 2pm. By the time we talked to them and left instructions for the bike it was 3pm. Time was seemed to be slipping through our fingers.
When we missed out on going to the waterpark at Surabaya we reassured ourselves that we would go to the one in Singapore. Our street directory funnily enough came with a two-for-one voucher for the waterpark, plus it was in the same part of the country as where we were, so it seemed that we could easily go there for the afternoon, instead of the city. Plus the waterpark was only open in the afternoons, and we had to pick up our bikes the next afternoon so couldn't go the next day. Wild Wild Wet was a small park compared to the ones on the Gold Coast, but we had fun.
The experience was somewhat marred though by the fact that Sam got scrapes under his arm from one of the floating tubes, and as the afternoon went on they became swolen and worsened in pain. By the time we were eating dinner he was in a lot of pain so Shanna went to a small pharmacy-type store to see about some cream. They said it was probably a friction burn and recommended aloe vera. Shanna was VERY sunburnt from the day so aloe vera seemed to solve both problems. But when Sam put it on the pain became excrutiating. It was all he could do not to scream out. Shanna pulled a bottle of water from the bag and Sam splashed it on. The pain subsided enough to make it tolerable, but now it was really swollen and he needed real cream. Back at the chemist we found a suitable one without the help of the assistants.
The train ride home was long and cold. Shanna was coughing and kept blowing snot out of her nose. Sam was in pain and his stomach was playing up again. Despite wanting to just sleep, we put a load of washing on (the washing machine was a luxury Arnaud insisted we take advantage of) and chatted some more with our friendly and interesting host. Around midnight we fell into bed, exhausted.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia