Asia. Blimey, what a journey!

20 October 2019

When we look back at our journey so far we see Northern Europe as our long-distance cycling training ground and once we got into Poland our stabilisers were metaphorically taken off! The rest of Eastern and Southern Europe were consolidation for what was to come…

In our minds it was in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar where we properly cut our teeth and by the time we got into Northern Thailand we’d earned our cycling and travelling stripes so-to-speak.

India (5,773km cycled) in particular, with its male-dominated culture, was really tough and to be honest we never really got used to it.

The continual intense interest in two white cyclists was, at time, almost too much and I can’t say that we enjoyed all of our time there.  Saying that we still have some fantastic memories, especially of our time spent with local hosts.

We’d expected Bangladesh (835km cycled) to be a continuation of India, but it absolutely wasn’t and although we also found the people to still be intense, it was different, and in calmer way. Bangladesh was an unexpected and positive revelation to us.

Eastern India (489km) was beautiful, tough, wild and remote and the people very different from those we’d met in Central India and in some ways we felt we were already in South-East Asia. We only spent a short time there but would love to go back.

Some people in the online cycling community criticised us for going through Myanmar (1,385km cycled) as spending our money there was supposedly supporting a tyrannical regime. We spent our money at small, local places and found the man (and women and children) throughout the country were absolutely fantastic, so we don’t feel at all guilty about going there.

There is no doubt that we found the six months we spent in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar difficult – both physically and mentally. They have changed us as travellers in what we believe is a good way, and though neither of us would necessarily want to redo our journey we also wouldn’t change it for the world. We are glad that we did it as we have.

Going into Northern Thailand (835km cycled) from Myanmar was a complete shock as it is so modern in comparison, so when we got to Laos (646km) we almost felt relieved to return to somewhere less developed.

The decision to head north in Laos and into Vietnam (2,828km cycled) was most definitely influenced by other cyclists and we are glad we took their advice. At times this was some of the best cycling we have done.  Hanoi is perhaps our favourite city so far and we could easily go back there again in the future. We’d been told that the coastal route south in Vietnam wasn’t that good, but we disagree and are glad that we went that way.  Plus it was great to see the ocean again after a long time away.

For a country with such a turbulent recent past, Cambodia (702km cycled) was a delight. There really isn’t much more for us to say other than its charm is absolutely down to the wonderful people we met there.

Our preconceived ideas of Bangkok and Southern Thailand (903km cycled) were completely wrong with the former being cleaner and much more interesting and the latter being more rural and much less touristy than we expected – which is the way we like it. We stuck to the less-travelled east coast and would definitely recommend it as a place to visit.

As we were nearing the end of our journey in Asia when we crossed from Thailand into Malaysia (983km cycled) it would have been easy to just race through and almost wish our time away. However, Malaysia quickly grew on us and we are so glad that we spent a decent amount of time there.

Unfortunately we were in Singapore (54km cycled!) for such a short period of time, but it completely changed our appreciation of it. We’d been one before, but only stuck to the tourist trail then. This time we stayed in a local neighbourhood and met our local cycling buddy, SK, and found that we really liked what we saw.

Since arriving in Delhi on 1 Dec 18, in total we have cycled just under 15,500km in Asia, visiting 9 countries (11 if you count that we were in India and Thailand twice) and 9 capitals.

Some overall observations from our time there…

  • Shops are everywhere – this might sound like a bizarre statement, but nearly every house opens a set of shutters for people to sell all sorts of things.
  • If their house doesn’t open onto a street then Asians will sell something from a stall or barrow.
  • But the big boys are coming! Every country in Asia is still fantastically unique, but we have seen evidence everywhere that multi-national companies are starting to make their mark. We have seen international brands such as Starbucks, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Tesco, etc just about everywhere. No matter where we were, no matter how remote, we could buy a mobile phone if we wanted to! Let’s hope it’s a long time before these countries become more homogeneous like the west.
  • Maybe one of the signs that international brands and western food culture are already making an impact is in the size of the people. In Thailand and Malaysia where it’s more developed, there are a lot of chubby people.
  • Take-away meals are generally more expensive throughout Asia than eating on premises as you have to pay for the packaging.
  • The introduction of scooters and motorcycles is probably another factor contributing to Asian people putting on weight – there are literally millions of them throughout the continent. But Asians obviously have a very different perception of danger and risk to us westerners as we saw more people not wearing helmets than wearing them.  Small children (some of which are very young babies) can be seen standing up on the seats of scooters whilst their parents drive – none of them wearing any protective clothing. For us this is madness!
  • Walking on pavements in every town and city is almost impossible. If there is actually a pavement it will inevitably be full of scooters parked up.
  • Many people in the east want to be as white as possible.  We particularly noticed this in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam. As an example, in Bangladesh, for men especially, being pale is supposedly more attractive to women.
  • A lot of people, mainly in Thailand and Vietnam, wear surgical face masks when outdoors. We see this sometimes in London and it’s always someone from the Far East wearing them. We assume that this is to protect against pollution.
  • It is uncommon to see women on construction sites and road works in the west unless they are in an engineering role. It is, however, very common to see women labourers in Asia.
  • We had heard from lots of cyclists that border officials at many of the land crossings in Asia are corrupt and will try to squeeze money out of every passing traveller. Maybe we just don’t look like we had any money because we’ve had absolutely no problems crossing borders – we even managed to get into Laos without having to pay a tuk-tuk driver to ‘escort’ us across the Mekong river, which we feel particularly proud of!
  • There is a very unassuming, beige-coloured gecko, which grows to no more than 10cm long that is found all over Asia. Though it is small it more than makes up for its size by being very noisy and to us when it’s making its call it sounds like it’s shouting ‘f**k you’! We called it the “f**k you gecko”.
  • When we were in Mizoram our multi-adaptor went kaput and we had to buy another one which was two-pin to fit Indian sockets. As we were very close to the Myanmar at the time we had no idea if it would work when we crossed the border. Little did we know that it would work right through South East Asia until we got to Malaysia where they have three-pin sockets. What a bargain!
  • We cycled through much of the rainy season, but to be honest it didn’t affected us very much. We’d expected day-after-day of rain, but in reality it generally rained for a period each afternoon/evening and that’s it. In Penang, for example, we could almost set our watches by the thunderstorm that would happen every day at 4:30pm! It has been particularly hot this year and there’s hasn’t been as much rain as usual, which was great for us but not for the locals.
  • We saw almost no washing machines in India and Bangladesh – washing is all done by hand. In South East Asia, however, they are just about everywhere.
  • In Myanmar we believe that some websites are blocked – we couldn’t get onto the BBC news website whilst we were there, but as soon as we crossed into Thailand we could. We didn’t notice this restriction anywhere else.
  • Of all the countries we visited in Asia, Thailand was the ONLY one that wasn’t colonised.

And finally, our favourite word from Asia is ‘chello’, which means ‘let’s go’ in the Maruti language from central India.

So, for now chello, but Asia we will be back….

3 comments

  1. Comment by Bruce Lellman

    Bruce Lellman Reply 27 October 2019 at 9:18 am

    Great Asia wrap-up. Thank you for taking us along.

    I just have to say one thing about going to Myanmar. Anyone thinking it is wrong to spend money in such a place is ignorant to the fact that the governments of every single one of the S.E. Asian countries, including Malaysia and Vietnam, are some of the most corrupt and dictatorial governments in the world. It’s hard to say which one is the worst but I’d probably have to say Cambodia’s is. I’ve been to Myanmar many times and I know for a fact that the government gets very little to nothing from me but the people not only get much needed cash but information as well. It’s good to show up and talk with people and that is worth more than anything to them.

    • Comment by Nigel

      Nigel Reply 4 November 2019 at 12:25 pm

      Hi Bruce, we totally agree and it surprised us how fantastic the people on the street are in all of those countries

  2. Comment by lani

    lani Reply 20 October 2019 at 8:32 pm

    what a great interesting and educational journey you have had. i look frwd to your further enjoyments of adventuring. thanx for sharing all

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