Posts Tagged ‘Thailand’

Fugitive faces

Cambodia and The Lake Clinic

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please? We have reached the office where we will all get our VISAs to Cambodia’

‘Scam!’ crooned someone from the front seats on the bus bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

‘It’s not a scam!’ the man beseeched us. ‘Scam! Scam! Scam!’ The shouts ricocheted around the bus, each one a whip crack to our disparaged guide. With a final hangdog sigh, he sat down and our bus moved off, gangway untrammeled.

Our ‘guide’ was not savy enough to know that scores of forums, books and blogs all take pains to explain the routine: a representative of the bus company will try to get the passengers to pay for an unneeded, expensive VISA well before the actual border. It’s a bare-faced pretense that helped the epithet ‘Scambodia’ do the rounds, and we were all hip to the jive.

I left my bike in Bangkok for this fleeting side trip to Cambodia. From Siem Reap my plan was to visit a floating medical clinic on the Tonle Sap Lake and the temples at Ankor Wat before hightailing it back into Thailand and riding into Burma, chasing the clock as my Indian VISA marches on, and assailed by monsoon rains.

At the border I looked out from the vantage point of my bus seat to the bumpy terrain of tops of heads cut by trains of rickshaws and hand-pedalled carts with raggedy kids gripped to the sides, and chickens under free arms; a TV camera crew filmed the melee. An estimated 200,000 illegal workers from Cambodia were fleeing the country in the wake of the Thai military coup, fearing arrest.

Siem Reap, the launching point for tours of the world’s largest temple complex at Ankor Wat, is a vast muddle of tourists, haranguing tuk tuk drivers (slash drug dealers) and well-primped transexual masseuses, a pair of which grabbed me by the arms. ‘Massage! Massage!’ I slipped the grip of one, ducked, side stepped, tugged my arm away from the other but her grip was more determined than I imagined and the effect was to drag her brutally down the street which made a cluster of backpackers giggle wickedly.

There are several sureties that come with visiting any of the world’s most popular tourist attractions and Ankor Wat was no different to the Pyramids, Petra or Machu Picchu. Someone will usually try to convince you that a more authentic experience means arriving on the back of a large mammal. The British will get miffed because for those of other nations, forming an orderly queue is not such a venerable pastime. There are always people too skinflint to pay for their own tour guide who glide around the margins of tour groups, their deceit half-cloaked by the unfurled maps and newspapers they feign to study. And someone will perform an indecent act with one of the religious statues to the glee of their friends – this may include high fiving Buddha, picking an imaginary bugga from the trunk of Ganesha, or riding bareback on the Virgin Mary.

‘Dr Fabes!’ John stood up, festooned in a billowing Hawaiian shirt, a crop of silver hair tinged red; his voice spiced with the subtle twang of his Rhode Island roots.

John is a self-proclaimed ‘problem-solver’, and with obvious and abundant talent for it – he founded the Paediatric Hospital in Siem Reap and once managed psychiatric wards amongst a fleet of other varied endevours. He is also the man in charge of the Lake Clinic which serves the people who live in floating houses on the lake and river systems of the Tonle Sap.

Years before John had been drifting on a boat down the Tonle Sap, in tranquil admiration for the beauty of it: the swatches of water hyacinth amidst the glimmering water, the house-boats in gentle sway. But he took a closer look: at the houses, eight bodies a piece; at the murky margins of the image in his camera viewfinder; and there they were – scores of people washing, drinking and defecating in the same frame. It was that moment that he vowed to help, take up the slack, and the first spark that would later emerge as the Lake Clinic was cast into the black.

My journey to see the project for myself began at the staging post of Kampong Khleang, a village set on the banks of the river. I was encompassed by a host of stilted houses, but not for another six months would the wind-rushed wavelets of the lake water slap against their floor boards – now the lake drains into the Mekong, though when the direction of flow switches, as happens twice a year, the water will back up, filling the lake anew and swelling it’s area five-fold.

A clutter of long boats rocked near the bank as men loaded petrol and watermelons onto the out-going vessels and buckets of fish were claimed from the incoming ones. Nine of us packed into the boat and we set off, growling through the muddy water and sending a spray like erupting lava out behind us. Soon a thin layer of land on each side of us was all that divided the lake from the sky.

After three hours we turned into a river, past a slew of fishermen, the air rank with fish, and pulled up in front of a low-slung blue hut: The Lake Clinic, one of four floating clinics on the Tonle Sap, the water too low this time of year for the pontoons beneath to be of use. We debarked as clumps of green water hyacinth drifted by as easily as swans. Three hours on a boat helped explain why the people here might need the clinic, but it opened up a question too: why do so many people live in such isolation?

Life is cheap on the Tonle Sap. The path to a rickety floating home, far from cities and roads, might start with some small event, explained John, a sick child perhaps the first domino to fall. To cover medical costs the family might sell their cow: domino two tumbles. No cow to plough the fields? Then you sell your land, and so on, until deep in debt they drag what they have left to the lake and set out on a life of subsistence and for many, struggle. Some of the old timers have a different tale – after the war, fresh from the forced labour camps, they returned to their old homes only to discover new occupants. Often these intruders would have some document from the Khmer Rouge which supported their claim to ownership, some others may have a six-chambered and rather more persuasive argument.

The setting is sumptuous, a backcountry Venice and the very essence of serenity. Somewhere a radio speiled, a hammer concussed, the voices of gabbing neighbours carried. Thick armed men brandishing long wooden poles propelled their boats through the water. Wood smoke corkscrewed through the purple haze that lingered after the sunset.

Next morning the waiting room was soon well stocked with wriggling children and their wet coughs, women in loose patterned clothes, a few men: sun-wizened and blinking. They brought with them the scent of wood smoke, which hung from their clothes.

Many patients came with ailments that were bound to their lifestyle and habits on the lake – a fish smoker with a cough, babies with diarrhea, and spindly boys with skin and eye infections. There was the usual gamut of patients that might rock up to any family practice, bright looking teenagers with acne and arthritic older ladies, though I didn’t count any patient much over 60. Every third patient would respond to ‘what’s wrong?’ by pointing to their upper abdomen. Gastritis, driven by diet and perhaps by parasites, is rife.

But there are others, too. A small grubby boy, sunken-eyed, body lost inside a Man United top, hopped onto the chair; aside him his mum, her face a road map of wrinkles etched into caramel-coloured skin. She looked forlorn, uneasy and very poor. The boy was weighed and it was roundly agreed – 15kg is far from the ideal in light of his nine years. ‘Skinny, dirty…’ said the doctor to me, and I wondered whether she trailed off with thoughts of the relative futility of a few vitamin pills when there were forces at work were well beyond our ability to set right. They left with a prescription, hand in hand, incanting blessings in Khmer.

For the men, a visit to the Lake Clinic means time off fishing, and so I quickly started to steal myself as we examined the ones who did show up, their ailments so often long-standing and severe. One man complained of a lump in his neck. A long term smoker with a new raspy edge to his voice and a tennis ball sized lump would cause even the most green medical student alarm, but with no possibility of imaging the tumour, let alone treating cancer, it would have to remain the realm of gloomy guesswork. He didn’t seem disappointed when it was explained there was little that could be done, just stone-faced, but then perhaps he’d never courted much hope, only the relative privilege of life away from poverty and the lake begets those kinds of expectations. Or perhaps he was considering next the traditional healer, the revered traders and tappers of hope. All too often, the doctor tells me, the aftermath of the widespread local treatments reveal themselves – patients with small circular burns made by traditional healers, sometimes infected. Another common practice is to spit into wounds – and suddenly the inexorable bloom of tuberculosis began to make sense.

The Tonle Sap is the source of so much for the people that bob and drift on its waters: it’s their culture, their sustenance, their profit and their world. But the lake is a two-faced mistress and its gifts are not always as desirable, within the ripples gather disease, and the isolation it foists on the people who live here breeds an unrelenting cycle of poverty. The Lake Clinic helps with a fraction of these burdens, a true lifeline for a few and a boon to many.

Andrea, a Swiss doc

Western Thailand

I looked over my worn out Brooks saddle like an adolescent appraises a groin rash. I was reticent to deal with it – my old saddle, Bernard, had been a long and constant companion; moulded to me, dented by sit bones, splayed and bum-ready. So for months I’d just shot the thing an occasional doleful glance before shoving it again to the dregs of my to-do list, beyond the motivational wastelands of ‘sew pants’ and ‘find old to do list’ – a job that features on almost every one of my to-do lists. Bangkok though was the logical place for swapsies, and my arse stealed itself for a thrashing the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Kent.

The west of Thailand was laced by myriad small roads which coursed through chartreuse rice paddies as evenly hued as golf greens. In Bangkok I watched what seemed to be every single person in a frenzy of technology where only selfies were worthy interruptions to facebook – I didn’t anticipate the same in rural Thailand. An effete old man approached me though as I peered at my map; he was shabbily ragged, unshaven, grizzled. He towed a battered cart behind him past toward the ramshackle hut he called home.

‘No GPS then?’ he enquired


‘You don’t have a GPS?’

‘Um, no’

‘No Iphone either?’ He was mildly startled now. I shook my head.

‘But you must have a satellite phone?’

A few days after leaving the city behind the mountains peeked up over the horizon, as sudden as a bend in a race track. Chieng, a young tall Chinese biker on his first national exodus, rode with me for a day. He had a hunger for the road I envied a little now that it seems more ordinary; his face filled with joy as he told me of a free coffee he was given at a police station, pausing then to let me absorb the shock of it, and I smiled at the simple things that mean so much when you’ve pedaled 150 km and run countless laps in your own head. His mum calls him every day on his cell phone to persuade him to return home. ‘I want to cycle around the world too’ he said, dreamily. ‘Chinese parents…’ he lamented ‘they don’t understand’.

I climbed over the Tanontongchai Range to a market where women from the hilltribes in loose green robes sold me the best lychees I have ever tasted, as fat as satsumas, and then I finally arrived at Mae Sot. Since the 70’s the border between Thailand and Burma has seen a mass of refugees who are now settled in camps near the town. I had planned to visit one of these camps and to give a presentation to the students, but the Thai army took over command the day I planned to visit, evicting foreigners, ordering searches on the pretext of ‘drugs’ (which likely meant ‘uncertified people’). This was worrying to say the least, especially set against the backdrop of military rule in Thailand with no government to answer to.

Instead I paid a visit to SMRU, medics treating migrant workers and refugees along the border, (story to come in a later blog post) and also gave a presentation to some refugees who had been taken by an NGO into higher education in the border town. In my presentation I often share my perception of people the world over as munificent and good-natured – I want to counter the all too common belief that the world is a terrifying place replete with boogie men. Sometimes though, I feel like I’ve been conned. Bicycle travel doesn’t offer the warts and all vision of the world I had hoped for. Most days I am treated to a roadside of mad grins and shining eyes, I’m gifted food and sometimes a bed, I’m treated almost always with nothing but deference. It breeds a kind of naive and unchecked optimism: I have to remind myself I’m only a surface traveler, usually immune to the violence and mistreatment the malignant forces around the globe dole out to their own people beyond the ken of the passers-by. I spoke to these Burmese students of how lovely Planet Earth is, forgetting then that the very fact that they live in a foreign land was because the military junta at home has persecuted and abused their own people for decades. Afterwards, I felt a bit of a dick.

Burmese Daze

I sprawled my map over the bed – Burma looked up at me, daringly. The border crossing I would use had been open only seven months, and crossing the country into India had been the mission of only a half dozen or so intrepid bikers since the rules were relaxed. Rarely had the prospect of a new frontier felt so thrilling.

I rolled under the golden arch which declared ‘The Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ thinking about how debatable those terms are: Republic, Union, and even Myanmar.

I rode on, the inside of every passing truck was thick with bodies, their eyes ablaze amid the shadows of their neighbours, full of astonishment as they peeked at me. Bare-chested men, red-mouthed from chewing betel net, wearing lungis riding up to their naval, and with dragon tattoos from shoulder blade to small of back, nodded hello from the shade of teak leaf-roofed huts. I didn’t mind the steep hills, the mashed up tarmac, the tails of stench that trailed from trucks chocker with chickens. The scenery, the smiles, the exoticism – all more than a fair trade.

That night I found a hostel in a town of dust and nervous dogs. The plywood paneled room was only just big enough for the bed, and I lay down, watching mosquitoes dance on the ceiling, listening to the sounds of this new land.

Burma proved not to be as behind the times as I had expected, ATMs and Internet exist outside the capital despite what Lonely Planet says; change is afoot, and guidebooks are out of date as they are published. I stopped for food – the girl who served me instructed her friend to ready her camera phone and then she jumped into the frame with me, hand draped over my shoulder. A few minutes after fiddling with the device, she showed me her handiwork – on the screen the image of us was now surrounded by a pink, heart shaped frame, like a wedding photo.

A motorbike raged past, it’s driver had swiveled 180 degrees to assure himself the best possible gawk at me whilst his un-chauffeured machine rallied off on a tangent to the direction of the road, eventually satisfied he turned back to the road to find himself almost upon the forest, and he jerked to the left, turned to me again, grinned insanely, wordlessly saying ‘hey, check that out!’ and disappeared.

A mother and then daughter walked past, the first demure and expressionless, the younger smiling widely. I thought about what might be behind that grin. I’m a novelty here, and perhaps it’s just that, but change is upon Burma, perhaps not the upheaval many desire, but change nonetheless. Tourists are a clear stigmata of that fact, and maybe not always smile-worthy in themselves, but because they remind of future promise. Or perhaps I just looked idiotic, as I often do, and Occam’s razor prevails.

I cycled past sudden outcrops of rock, and gold pagodas which studded every hill. Burmese roads offered a conveyor belt of arresting sights – a cow in a rickshaw, drunk soldiers, beautiful flower sellers with heart-fluttering smiles, a mad man in conversation with himself, bands of monks in their burgundy cowls claiming free food from eateries and teams of local people, not workmen, repairing the roads – the forced labour human rights groups so oppose. 

A mum and her son. Burmese put Thanaka on their faces – a cosmetic paste made from ground bark

One night I stayed in a hotel and locked my bike in the downstairs restaurant for the night, the next day though it had been propped up unlocked on the street on the opposite side of the road, anyone could have wheeled off my entire life, luckily theft is rare here. It is illegal for local people to host foreigners in Burma, but I didn’t resort to hotels every night and sought refuge once in a tin roofed derelict building, listening nervously to voices that sliced the night, playing hide and seek against the world.

On many buildings were adverts, on huge plastic drapes, for Grand Royal and High Class whiskey, with their taglines: ‘enjoy life!’ and ‘taste of life!’, which given the state of the people I saw drinking the stuff is ironic indeed. I got to Yangon via a back road that journeyed past tumbledown shacks steeped in a swamp and reachable by four-strong bridges of bamboo poles. I’m staying with Al and Jess – a pair of brilliant teachers who work at the International School. So far I have scored a permit for travel north, presented to the lively school kids and gave an interview for national TV.

Burma must be amongst the most electrifying places I have traveled, and I can’t help remember Ethiopia, a country about which I felt a similar buzz. But with these destinations comes an uncomfortable truth – the exoticism of Burma lies in the same ‘apartness’ I saw in Ethiopia, and it’s this separation that has dealt such a blow to the people who live here. The world is becoming ever more interconnected and cooperative, and good – the less apart we are the better – but the result is that we slide towards an ever more homogenised planet.

My plan is a blur of pedal strokes to Bagan, and then if the soldiers at the road block let me pass, an adventure through the wilds of Chin state, eventually arriving in the border town of Tamu, hopefully before an expired VISA, and then I’ll cross into India.

Producer, Anchor, man with hair on his face, and Herb The Chicken

‘Dig beneath exotic surfaces to find something even truer and more troubling, go beyond the postcard vistas and tourist shots to a sense of how places can not only surround you, but transform you’ 
– Pico Iyer, Tropical Classical.

Thank yous aplenty this month – shouts out to Al and Jess, the SMRU crew: Steph and Anne, Francois, Mellie, the Bangkok crew: Elena and Mim, The Cambodia crew: John Morgan, Ian Fergusson and Jess, Tobi and Andrea, the teachers and pupils at Horizons School and Moses and all those at MITV.

Dogs in fridges

Dengue fever doesn’t feature in the advertising campaigns of Thailand’s ministry of tourism. They don’t produce brochures scattered with photos of pallid, sweaty westerners with handlebar-ribs and bleeding gums and the words ‘Come to Thailand – land of smiles, white-sand beaches, and devastating tropical disease.’ And whilst malaria is on the down worldwide, dengue has blossomed. A graph of dengue over time has the look of a ski jump. Since my own bout everyone I meet seems to have had it, or knows someone who has. Nobody, as far as I know, was lured to the experience by a brochure.

I left Ao Nang after ten days that brimmed with frustration and lassitude.With dengue, you don’t really feel like eating, and for bicycle travel that’s kind of a requisite. On day one, those anorexic days showed in every laboured mile, but the next day I woke feeling a world better, my cadence returned, and I clocked up 140 km by nightfall. On a rural back road three South Africans on bikes pulled over. Cycle touring for them had been a spur-of-the-moment call, spelt out in their makeshift racks, tacked on to local mountain bike frames. They’d fudged what they needed using string and tape. A kickstand was a piece of wood. Things flapped and jutted. I was inspired by their invention: They were a visual statement of the fact that there are no obstacles to ambition.

The north of Thailand and Laos are inviting places to ride, awash with great scenery, food and things to stop and see. But I was a little uninspired by the thought of months in the more visited realms of SE Asia, the breezy bits, so I formulated a new plan. I wanted to instill some sense of purpose into my journey again, and I yearned for more of an adventure. To those ends I set up visits to medical clinics, one for refugees on the Burmese border and another set in an isolated part of Cambodia. And I changed my route. Anachronistic Burma fits the adventure mandate, despite the growing taste for tourism, so this comes next. Then I’ll be following in the track marks of a few intrepid bikers who have recently crossed into the Indian province of Nagaland via the tightly controlled border with Burma, one that requires permits. More permits will be required for the adventurous terrain of Arunachal Pradesh. I’ve even set my sights on Bhutan, though the VISA remains a long shot. The Indian and Nepalese Himalayas come next (perhaps even riding the Annapurna circuit), then through Pakistan, over the Khunjerab pass before it closes for the winter. Central Asia will be a bitter challenge in mid-winter with temperatures dropping to perhaps to minus 30 or minus 40, but a challenge is what I need so I’ll get kitted out in Kathmandu. Spring in the Caucuses, chased by summer in Europe, will be the prize. Home, very tentatively, planned for September 2015.

I pedalled hard up the west of Thailand pulling long days, chowing down Pad Thai in my short breaks and hammering through until dusk. Wooden shacks selling pineapple and mango and papaya were arrayed on the roadsides, in their shadows cable-thin kids stewed in hammocks, stirring only to the whistle of a customer. The heat was stifling, the air curdled. Afternoons were a fuzzy-headed fight against heat that dared me to stop and rest every half hour. Snakes of searing green lay dead on the road, like scattered twine. Old women kept alive that old Thai cliché, ‘the Land of Smiles’, through their sudden, brown-toothed grins. Here and there I rolled past the hum and jostle of local markets, cooks and sellers perched behind stalls hoping to lasso me with offers I couldn’t understand. The air was perfumed with barbecued meat, a drifting promise of the weight I’d lost to dengue fever.

Sitting in a restaurant, puzzling over a poster in which coca cola purported to be official sponsors of Ramadan, or something, a breeze of murmurs lifted from the huddle of bodies around the TV. A message read ‘following the implementation of martial law, the following are appointed… ‘ and continued with a list of military personnel and details of a nationwide curfew. This was then replaced by the words ‘National Peace and Order Maintaining Council’. Take that, Orwell. Though martial law had been declared, General Prayuth Chan-ocha reassured everyone that this was not a coup, only to change his mind two days later ‘yeah sorry, did I say it wasn’t a coup? I meant it is a coup, definitely a coup’. According to some western media outlets though, whether or not there was mass blood-letting was neither here nor there; what really mattered was how this was going to affect the travel plans of all those virtuous tourists so far from home. Sex tourism never had it so tough.

The Thai Government had been widely charged with large scale corruption, amongst other things they had bought votes by offering farmers deals too good to be true. Most Thais I spoke to considered the coup a good thing for Thailand, and most Thais accepted the military power-grabbing with an easy calm. I had to wonder why – was this simply because they supported the opposition, or was it apathy, or the quintessentially East Asian reticence to rocking the boat, or a fear of repression? There was some dissent, but it was tepid. Students gave out sandwiches announcing ‘sandwiches for democracy’ on the streets of the capital; others clustered in silent readings from 1984, or made three finger salutes (a gesture borrowed from The Hunger Games.)

This is run of the mill in Thailand, there have been 19 attempts at coups since 1932, most have been successful. A coup rolls around only slight less often than an election. This one even began with an apology to the government ‘I’m sorry’ said General Prayuth Chan-ocha ‘but I have to seize power’, before swiftly detaining known activists, journalists and ousted politicians. Justification for the curtailing of the media was that ‘if you let people talk now, they will be critical’ – a cast-iron defence, obviously. After US condemnation of the coup, a widely viewed video on youtube (dubbed ‘a letter to Jon Kerry and the world’) showed soldiers holding not just guns but bouquets of flowers and posing for photos with passersby. ‘Martial-law selfies’, as one newspaper described them, had actually become a thing. The Thai army then began a surreal campaign of ‘bringing happiness’ to Thailand which involved festivals, free food and health checks, which in place of a democratically elected government, is not a great trade. Ironically it was populist manoeuvres of the former government that were sited as a defence of the coup in the first place.  I imagine gathered protesters screaming ‘ARMY OUT! ARMY OUT! ARMY… wait, is that a free hamburger?’

The highway north to Bangkok was an oppressive mess of parked and rushing trucks, edged by electric cables and scattered junk. Thailand’s back roads beckoned. My map though might have been sketched from the memory of a cartographer who was too busy to bother with any research. Every time I got lost I spent minutes gawking at the signposts trying to decode the script, which looked like a row of medieval instruments of torture, some broken horseshoes and small rodents. Locals directed me back to the highway, sure that was what I was searching for, so on it went, looping my way vaguely northwards. Luckily rural Thailand is lovely.

On one afternoon mountainous black clouds clustered over the ragged saw of the Burmese peaks to my west, and the building wind whispered of the coming rain. I took a double take at a temple. Could I ask to stay? As I wheeled my bike inside dogs stirred into charges, yapping. The orange robed monks swished in and out of the temple, like drunk bees about a hive. One approached as I dawdled, ashamed and tentative, in the car park. I did my best ‘International Symbol of Sleep’ – palm to palm, hands placed under my tilted head. He considered me over his glasses and swung around in a whip of orange cloth. I trailed him, assailed by the eyes of the other monks, until he swung open the door of a wooden hut to reveal a small mat splayed on the ground, my own bedroom.

Local people cooked for the monks and themselves at the rear of the temple. Breakfast was epic – rice noodles, chicken broth, curries, sauces, and as we gorged a scattering of children ran figure eights around our feet. As someone who takes breakfast very seriously indeed, this was impressive. Stuffed, a huge silver vat arrived. The man next to me clasped his hands together and said something in Thai I didn’t understand but later realised must have been ‘Great! Here’s the ice cream’. It was not yet 8 am, but time of course is no barrier to ice-cream. Outside I saddled up but noticed that a small procession was snaking out of the temple, dense with wailing women and baskets of flowers, and I was sucked into the ferment.

Prachuap Kiri Khan is a coastal town, presided over by a small hill to the north where a troop of monkeys mooch through the streets, as insouciant as the fishermen. Weekends are dominated by the quay side market which is a tumult of diners, drinkers, breakdancing kids, and women doing aerobics. At night the harbour is stringed by the green lights of squid fisherman. It was here I planned to meet Andrew X Pham, to give him his proper title. Andrew once cycled the west coast of the States and Japan, but it was his journey through Vietnam that came to be the main focus of his subsequent book, Catfish and Mandala, lauded as a triumph of travel writing and memoir. He’s Vietnamese-American, and when a French lady we met turned to him and said ‘Your English is very good’ thinking him a local, I had to laugh.

In Andrew I saw a kindred tendency to obsession – he’d launched himself from one passion to the next, like a freight-hopper – at once an engineer, a cycle tourer, a respected author, who along the way has taught himself to fly ultralights, lived on a sailing boat for two years, and built a farm. We lounged on beaches, drank beer with deadpan Aussies, ‘old soaks’ I believe is the term, with moustaches as big as carrots, and who said, after hearing of my journey ‘well mate, you got bigger balls than me, and I got some big fucking balls’. I met Andrew’s wife and friends, including a Dutchman who years before had arrived in Thailand by bicycle after pedalling from Europe. He married, built a farm despite some vague local discouragement, and when we met he was herding a troop of goats amongst palm trees. I have added ‘goat herder’ to the list of possible consequences of this bike ride around the world, it comes just after pearl diver, shaman and hopeless vagabond.

From Prachuap I followed a canal heading north, eyed by egrets and other birds of almost every hue. Fields of pineapple and sugarcane spanned the vista. At Phetchaburi I asked some roadside fruit vendors for a cheap hotel but an entrepreneur in the pride led me instead to a property he owned which was available and we debated a price. That night I headed out to gorge on Pad Thai, stopping at a convenience store on the busy main road for a soft drink. Inside the fridge I saw what looked like dogs nestled beside the Pepsi and mineral water, two of them. I stalled. Must be toys, I decided. I peered closer only to see wet noses and veiny ears. Shocked I opened the door slowly and they stirred and peered up at me, so I reached behind them for a Pepsi and closed the fridge door. I later confided this story to a European friend who lives in Thailand, who said simply ‘Well, Thai people can be very practical’.

Dogs in the fridge reminded me that Bangkok is the hottest major city in the world (in terms of annual averages). It’s also thick with traffic. I decided to get the train in and resolved to get a train out, back to the same station, so that my journey still feels unbroken. Bangkok is not a city designed for pedestrians, in fact it feels much like the designer of Bangkok was once, as a child, walking hand in hand with his cherished grandmother when she was grappled from behind and pummelled to death by a mad pedestrian. Now, he’s getting his own back. These streets are for driving. I yearn for the days when cars are banished from city centres, when public transport and bike lanes and pavements reign supreme.

The adverts that come via flat screen TVs on the sky train are a good window into the lusts and likes of the Bangkok natives – they are either for cosmetics or some new technology, and looking around every heavily painted Thai woman and girl were face down in their Iphones.

The Thai greeting, known as the wai – a slight bow with hands palm to palm in prayer-like fashion, clicks perfectly with the polite, pleasant air of the people, though it’s origins are less convivial. One theory goes that the wai developed because it was a way of demonstrating that the people meeting weren’t carrying weapons. Its not just a greeting of course, but a farewell too, an apology, a sign of gratitude, even a piece of marketing – posters of a half dozen Manchester United players, hands palm to palm, adorned the wall of one restaurant I visited, and outside MacDonald’s a man-sized plastic Ronald MacDonald is mid-wai, stripping it completely of its innocence and warmth, a corporate smack-down. The higher the hands and lower the bow, the more respect is shown, as the begging mother in Bangkok who cradled an adult son with just stumps for arms and legs, demonstrated.

In Bangkok I stayed with an Italian girl, Elena, a friend of a friend and we roamed the city, hanging out with the many hipsters here and eating, of course. I applied for my Burmese and Indian VISAs and spent days writing and reading. Oh God, what to see in Bangkok. Overwhelmed by the ‘must see, must do’ lists on every website and every guidebook, I decided instead to simply take a boat down the river, peek briefly at the Khaosan road and then visit a macabre museum. I knew I was entering the orbit of the Khaosan road because the trousers, more accurately, the pantaloons, of fellow travellers were becoming increasingly dramatic. In the end, the famed ‘backpacker zoo’ was not what I had hoped for. An explosion of signs greets you, coming in from the side of every building like the outstretched arms of beggars, or prisoners behind bars. Soon it becomes apparent it’s just a commercial hub of t-shirt vendors selling the same singlets, and heckling tuk tuk drivers. Being footloose and aimless is not a quality to be encouraged on the Khaosan Road and every two minutes I was forced to defend my purposelessness ‘what you want? Where you wanna go?’ Nobody ushered me down a side street and offered to sell me a litre of cobra blood or invited me for a foursome with three lady-boys. So instead I went shopping for second hand books. There’s genuine rapture in the promise of a good book hiding amidst a hundred dull ones. I can spend hours inside. In the past I have stolen from the better book exchanges and then given, without taking, to those less endowed with the pearlers. I liken myself to the Robin Hood of literature.

The museum of forensic pathology probably should be more controversial than it is. Death-porn is the only way to describe it. A line of photos unveils some of the city’s unfortunates – a man decapitated in a train wreck, his severed head plopped inches above his torso on the bed. Then the aftermath of murders by multiple stab wound and by bullet. I learned what a hammer attack might look like, and the bloody consequences of a hand grenade. One sign read ‘throat cut by beer bottle’, another simply ‘suicide’, but how the man managed to cut not just his wrist but his entire hand off requires some contemplation. In another room are still born infants with deformities, in another the mummified remains of a select few of the cities rapists and murderers. There is a parasite room too, centre stage, and the prize exhibit, is the half metre wide scrotum of a man with elephantiasis. The line can be blurred between what’s distasteful voyeurism and what’s the stuff of genuine scientific interest. For me the photos for one go beyond the safe side of that line. For the curators though only a photo depicting a woman who was beaten and stabbed to death by a dildo was deemed overkill (pun intended) and has recently been removed.

Many of the exhibits featured victims that have succumbed in one way or another to city’s heavy traffic, and in retrospect, given that to get to Elena’s house I was reliant on the city’s motorbike taxis, this wasn’t the most choice viewing. As my driver skimmed at light speed through a moving alleyway of metal I now had two things to worry about – the statistics (Thailand having one of the worst rates of road accident in the world) and the images to go with them, etched forever on the inside of my retinas. ‘Lacerated liver’ and ‘tire tread marks’ came back to haunt me.

You would need a lot of Semtex to get through the red tape that surrounds the process of getting an Indian VISA in Bangkok.

This is the protocol, lifted directly from the Indian Embassy website…

  • When filling in your VISA application form please write clearly, in block capitals. Please also write only in the ancient language of Aramaic, using a 15th century Ottoman quill and the fresh blood of an albino.
  • Please print 77 copies of your application form and submit between the minutes of 5.11 am and 5.22 am. The VISA department is open every second Sunday, except on the national holidays of every country in the northern hemisphere and Fiji.
  • Please attach 17 character references, a lock of hair, photos of your parents before the year 1963 and a pencil sketch of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  • Photos must accompany the application. They should be on a magenta background and must include your naval. Additionally the photo subject should feign an expression of ennui, other emotions will render your application invalid. At least one photo should feature a pair of maracas.
  • Business VISA applicants must bring their own fax machine and petrol powered generator to the embassy when submitting their application
  • All signatures should be chiseled into an igneous rock (though basalt is not accepted) and tethered to your application form. Bring your own chisel.
  • Those with blood group B or with degrees in horticulture will be refused VISAs
  • A new biometric test has been adopted by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok. The Indian government will keep your corneas and a sample of your bone marrow – these will be returned to you on departure. For 700 US dollars.
  • You will also be required to give a performance of a Bollywood hit song which will be recorded on video. To prove your identity whilst in India you may be required by officials to replicate this performance.
  • The visa fee is 1425 US dollars per day for your planned stay in India. This fee must be converted and paid in precious gem stones or Zambian Kwacha.
  • Please detail how you plan to arrive in India. Please also note that it is forbidden to arrive by land or air. You may arrive by teleporter, or by sea, though those found to be using a vessel of any kind will be deported to their country of origin.
  • Spelling mistakes are punishable by firing squad
  • Passports are not required

So did I get my Indian VISA? Well yes, but only after parting with almost 100 quid, and then finding out that they have changed the rules and now only issue three month VISAs instead of the coveted six, perhaps because a new administration has come in, or because the albino I chose to venesect was slightly anaemic. The three months you are allowed begins immediately instead of when crossing the border, meaning I have to make short work of north-west Thailand, the whole of Burma and eastern India in order to clock out, as it were, in Nepal. Better get motoring then.

Thank yous – Andrew, Elena, my old mate Emma and Jennifer.

Dear Iron Rider

The first clue that the Tree In Lodge Hostel in Singapore is a kind of sanctuary for roving cycle tourers is the front door, which has been fitted with a bicycle crank arm for a handle. Inside a scuffed touring bicycle dangles from the ceiling, old photos of those bikers who had once made their temporary home here takes up one wall, looking variously earnest, triumphant and knackered. Downstairs people traipse about in the last of their clean spandex amid unfurled maps. Beards and caps are ubiquitous, and somebody is always eating.

The place belongs to SK, a Malaysian dude who himself cycled from Finland to Singapore which means he knows what bikers want, half price room rates included. So with the help of Singapore’s top go-to man, and Andy, another trans-continental rider, the hostel became the base-camp where I could plan for the mountain of Asia.

Before I set off from Singapore I said an emotional goodbye to Claire who set out for Japan. I then took advantage of the hostel kit swap pile since the other day, when putting on my trousers, I put my leg through a hole in the crotch instead of the leg hole. My entire leg, that’s how bad things are.

I won’t delve into the detail of my thoughts about the route across Asia lest it take up this entire post, but suffice to say planning the continent isn’t easy. Tibet closed to independent travel several years ago, three month visas to china are harder and harder to land, getting through Burma to India requires permits, Pakistan requires an expensive VISA that must be scored in your home country, Iran just recently closed its borders to independent travellers from the UK, the ‘stans and the caucuses – who knows by the time I get there, but five piddly days on your VISA for Turkmenistan is considered a win.

I crossed the border into Malaysia, and by the evening time drenching rain threatened and fork lightning etched the sky so I booked into the beguilingly entitled Impress Star hotel. The long lists of rules and mandates embossed on the wall of my room sounded fairly reasonable.

‘1. No explosives in rooms please (no animals too)’

‘12. Do not play with fire extinguishers without permission – fine 50 rg per extinguisher’.

There was no note of who to ask for this permission but the fine per extinguisher seemed to suggest that maybe they would let me play with several of them at once.

‘27. The following are not to be taken from the room as ‘souvenirs’ – television, water heater, lamp.’

It’s a little worrying that they need to be this specific. It makes you feel a little sorry for the management and the sort of rabble that take advantage of them.
‘Hi, I’d like to check out’
‘Sir, is that a home cinema system under your coat? And what’s that? Sir? Is that the maid?
‘She’s just a souvenir.’

On the other wall was an advertisement for a woman’s health product from Codi Belle –

‘Meet Farah, hormone problem. After two doses of Codi Belle her menstrual cycle is now regular and she has perfect husband-wife relationship.’

‘Meet Nisa. Accident and unable to walk without a stick. After Codi Belle she can walk like normal!’ 

So it was a strange place but the staff were nice and in the quite literal thirty seconds I used to get the wifi code from the reception a mysterious note appeared on my door, I never discovered who left it.

If Indonesia was a rugby match, Malaysia was the languorous sponge bath afterwards. I enjoyed the sense of freedom, gone was the Indonesian habit of heckling and the pillaging of personal space. Lots of people spoke English too and mornings began with a feast of Roti Canai –  a flat bread made by twirling a thin piece of dough, and eaten with a curry sauce which as far as I’m concerned is the best way to start any day.

‘You have strong constitution – mind and body! I admire you’ said a smart middle aged man at a roadside café in a Muslim prayer hat.‘Let me pay for your breakfast!’ I refused but to no avail. On two further occasions as I pushed north I tried to settle my bill only to find that some cunning Malaysian had paid and disappeared! This made for a strange situation where I would take my seat, order food and then eye those around me with deep suspicion, trying to work out which one of these pathologically generous Malaysians was going to try and pay for me and how to stop the devious philanthropists.

It’s fortunate that Malaysians are such note-leaving, bill-paying wonders because the land itself in the south of the country is not just uninspiring and dull, it’s a touch tragic. For most of the last century Malaysia was the world’s greatest palm oil producer (just now surpassed by Indonesia). With world demand erupting for palm oil (now estimated to be found in 50% of supermarket foods) Malaysia cleared vast areas of forest and as I cycled past the miles and miles of palms, broken only by huge tracts of barren wasteland bristled by the dead nubs of cut palms, and as trucks heavy with freshly cut hard wood timber rallied past, I felt a real sense of dismay. It’s easy for me though with my western back-to-nature sensibilities, conveniently ignoring the fact that my own country felled most of it’s natural woodland centuries ago, but I worry about the increase in demand and the misinformation being propagated by those with a financial interest in palm oil. As well as in food, palm oil is being used increasingly for biofuels – you know, the environmentally friendly alternative to petrol, made by ripping down primary forest, burning peat bogs to grow palms, thus paradoxically releasing more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels. Its basically like a pharmaceutical company developing a cure for HIV which in 100% of patients has a side effect of AIDS.

Oil palm plantations do make half decent rough camping sites though, and each night I pedalled down a side-road deeper into the plantation and made a home. Monitor lizards, bats and rodents shared the gloom, and I heard them scraping and scuttling at night. After three days of palms finally a jungle teaser – macaques scampered across railway line and overhead cables, a sign warned for tapir, monitor lizards sprinted across the road.

One night I camped out in the rubber trees, it was hot and humid, and I knew the night ahead would be like the others – like passing out face down in someone’s arm pit. ‘Sweat-time’ is as a necessary part of my nightly routine as setting up my tent or eating dinner and for twenty minutes I lay still inside my tent listening to the wall of malaria buzzing outside, and could do nothing more than dribble onto my sleeping mat, because any other action would have invoked a gush of sweat and use of the ‘sweat-towel’ which if it gets any sweatier will actually open up a porthole to hell. Inside my tent though, I was not alone. A cricket bounced about, a spider flickered in and out of nylon creases, beatles roamed, weaving by caterpillars on expeditions. The rug of dead arthropods inside would have to be added to, but there are priorities, only mosquito murder trumps ‘sweat-time’. Also I had to review my sorry legs which were both branded by a rash I was trying to get to the bottom of. There had been the stinging plant I brushed against two days ago, that, combined with sweat rash would do it. Of course the combined effort of the mosquitoes, horse flies and fire-ants definitely deserves some of the glory. Some sunburn, probably. Perhaps also now infection. In fact the only thing I was relatively confident was not contributing was smallpox, though I couldn’t completely rule it out. There comes a time when you just have to start ignoring things like this.

I had a plan to counter the fever of the Malaysian tropics – a new road up from Sungai Koyan through jungle to the less sweaty, less malarial, less rash-provoking Cameron Highlands, and then dropping down the other side to the historical town of Ipoh and on to Penang and my next days off. The road up was broad and tranquil, knifing through sweeping jungle, dense with vines and creepers, droning with insects. At times entire sections of the road were elevated, enough so that my eye line fell onto the forest canopy and a breeze licked at me as I peered out over a wealth of tree species in a motley of greens.

As I reached the Cameron Highlands black-gassing Land Rovers chugged past, greenhouses blistered the hills. Impressively resplendent tea plantations festooned the crumpled land like a novelty haircut. I took a day off but travel burnout got the better of me and I didn’t muster the ambition to get involved in any of the activities everyone else was here for, the journey to get here was enough. Instead I hung out in the hostel run by a guy so morose he would have made an actual ogre appear quite chipper. Over breakfast the next day I got chatting to a barefoot French guy who was dressed in an enormous crooked wizards hat, 2/3 length multihued pantaloons that made me hum ‘you can’t touch this’ and two entirely functionless sashes from hip to shoulder. His eyes lurched around in their sockets like spinning eight balls, he grinned wildly and spieled about a techno party he had organised in a field in Cambodia when he lived with an eco-community there. Eventually  immigration stopped letting him back into the country on his regular border runs, though why he didn’t conjure up a magical VISA I don’t know.

Tea plantations, Cameron Highlands
I whipped down from the highlands through more jungle until evening sunlight played on the limestone hills near Ipoh. Two days later I fetched up in Penang via the ferry from the mainland and checked into The Love Lane Inn, a place even seedier than it sounds, if that’s possible. It was the second cheapest fleapit in the city, the cheapest was directly opposite and was an actual brothel. Come 11pm prostitutes, at least a couple of whom were over 50, minced around the pavement outside, occasionally dashing inside when the police swung by, who I’m guessing weren’t there for the good of the public.

The manager of the Love Lane Inn looked like Ozzy Ozbourne, if Black Sabbath had never split up and Ozzy had grown his affinity for heroin. He had matchstick arms, an insalubrious pallor and when he moved it was only ever by slinking. On my second morning I woke covered in myriad bites so I showed Ozzy and moaned to him about the mosquitoes.

‘No no no’ he said ‘it’s not the mosquitoes, it’s the bed bugs’
‘Bed bugs?’
‘Yep, we have a lot’
‘Well can I change beds?’
‘Well you can, but most of our beds have the bed bugs. They’re everywhere.’

It was almost admirable, that level of honesty and hard-boiled apathy.

The problem was that skinflint travelers would check in at the brothel, check out again bringing the bed begs with them to other hostels like the Love Lane Inn. I found scores of the blighters in the wood of my bed and so I then joined the gaggle of travelers sat outside, itching themselves sullenly.

Georgetown is all about the food so I struck out for one of the night markets which was arranged on each side of a busy road so that you queue for food amid a ferment of wending motorcycles, rickshaws and cars. The vendors are all a one-man-band of the culinary craft – tossing, throwing, frying, chopping so fast that it often seems simultaneous. Puffs of steam grey the night air, behind it they look like emerging magicians. Women caw instructions to the table runners. I ordered noodles and ate carefully – two days before in Ipoh, not an expert yet with chopsticks, I dropped a dumpling into the chili sauce, a splash of which reached my right eye. I had to leave the restaurant half blind and in severe pain, and also hoping nobody would notice.

Thailand, according to cycle tourers crossing Asia, was a cinch – plenty of flat roads and great food served by a folksy band of smiling, bowing Nice People. I was planning big distances, cruising past lush forest and golden Buddha statues, stopping only for green curry and tea. The border town was the usual gaudy, thrumming staging post, and I was cooking. I had sweated so much I looked fresh from a nautical disaster, so I stood by a giant fan which was turned on two guards and pretended to browse through my passport until I was dry again.

In Thailand, much like Malaysia, the gratuitous generosity continued. Twice I was treated to free food and water on my up to Krabi. There is always the map test – open a map on the road in a new country and see how long until someone slides over to your rescue. I haven’t tried this in Thailand yet though, I’m worried there might be screeching of brakes and a rapidly forming queue with people saying things like ‘Take my GPS!’ or ‘Have you met my sister, Miss Thailand 2014? Let me get you acquainted’.

When I arrived into Ao Nang near Krabi I met Martin, another cycle tourer, who had been in touch by email. That night I felt well and went to bed. I woke up in the night with the headache to end all headaches goading my fever-fuddled brain. By morning a rash had developed over my abdomen, my temperature was consistently topping 39 and everything hurt, not everything I hear you say – yes, everything. I knew it had to be something nasty and my hunch was dengue fever as SE Asia is a particular hotspot. If it was, it would be a long recovery, even without the complications.

I ventured out to the nearest clinic for blood tests. The doctor agreed – this was dengue, a disease that has always sounded particularly threatening to me, but because the name is too inert for some, it has also been dubbed ‘break-bone fever’ and now I know why. Each day I managed a 100 yard mournful shuffle to some food outlet where I ordered something, took a mouthful and binned it. It might have been wasteful but I wanted to know that I could go out and get food even if my body then rejected it. A half-victory.

I didn’t eat at all for three and a half days and my white cell count and platelet count both took a plunge (2.1 and 70 for the medics interested). Only on the 4th day did the fever break but I still felt terrible. It all helped forge the opinion that dengue really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It flattened me, and 8 days after its onset I still feel two-dimensional. In the medical textbooks dengue has a long list of symptoms of which I had a full house, bar the hemorrhagic complications, plus I had others that are definitely symptoms of dengue but must have been accidentally omitted from the texts – one such symptom of dengue is the desire to tell everyone that you have dengue. I had this one, but nobody was very interested. I holed up in a cheap hostel, and I’m still here waiting impatiently for my appetite to return and my body to stop aching so I can get moving, north to Bangkok.

Thank yous – The Garths, SK, Andy and Wayling, David, Anne and Philip – for the insurance which arrived just in time, Ian Humble, Tom Wingfield and the mystery people who bought me breakfast and left notes on my door.

And to the mosquito that gave me dengue – it’s war. Your brethren will suffer for this. Mark my words.