Monday, August 21, 2017

Mekong Ride MR2 Day 1 - A plane, 2 trains and 11 bicycles to Laos.

2 Bike Fridays and our gear - all ready to go!

Some full size tourers hoping to board the train too. But their bikes had to ride in the luggage carriage unlike us foldies!

He came to convert the seats to beds with fresh smelling sheets! Kup khoon kup.

Our lovely LTF ladies!

You don't want to fool around with this stern Railway Officer!

I slept poorly! Blame it on the great anticipation of a wonderful tour which day had finally arrived. LTF Team Members came from Australia, Malaysia and various parts of Singapore to meet at Changi T2 at 10am for our flight to Bangkok. It was so good to see everyone finally and we exchanged the warmest of hellos! Checking in our bike boxes was a breeze with typical Spore efficiency and a quick meal at the T2 staff canteen to catch up is a must do.

Our Tiger flight to Bangkok took off a little later due to heavy traffic and we were glad when we finally were in the air. It took less than 2 hours before we arrived at Swarmbunny Airport (ok - the actual name is Suvarnabhumi but how do you pronounce that???) and as expected, it was literally swarmed with so many tourists. We took awhile to clear immigration but that was ok as our train to Nong Khai was not leaving till 8pm and we had 6 long hours ahead of us.

Unfortunately, our arranged van transfer to Hua Lampong Railway Station was nowhere to be seen! They were supposed to be at the arrival gates with a sign but ... A kind Thai lady helped me call them and we were soon on our way into the heart of Bangkok in 2 vans. In all my years travelling to Bangkok, I have somehow never visited the historical train station and I was excited to see the magnificent 101 year old building in all its spendour.

It was great that our 10 bike boxes were taken care off by the porter who initially told us that we could not bring them on board the trains. But when shown our First Class tickets, our precious steeds were given VIP treatment, and all for 200B. 

We were supposed to meet our 11th member Carolen in the station at the Information Counter but when I got there, she was nowhere to be found until I heard her familiar voice and looked down towards the floor. There she was, chatting with the locals and sprawled comfortably on the floor like a "refugee" and indeed, that was what we all did as we awaited our train.

VT our Chief Food Officer went on the prowl for a suitable dinner venue and came back successful. The rest of us did errands like getting a SIM card, buying snacks and you know who went for a nicotine fix. Though we had to wait nearly 4 hours, the time flew by quickly somehow as we kept busy with so many things. Celia took the opportunity to make sure her patient Sue was in tip top condition as she had a shoulder injury earlier in the year and was certified good to tour!

Dinner was just across the station at a very warm and inviting Thai restaurant and the food was "aroy" or delicious as expected. VT ordered very well indeed! The bill too came up to only about $5 per head and that was the pleasant trend for most part of our tour. 

Boarding the train was exciting as we have all seen the photos and videos of this beautiful first class cabin and in reality, it was even better! A nice surprise was our very efficient porter actually loaded all the bikes into our cabins and we expressed our appreciation with well deserved tips. 

It was quite a fiasco sorting out the right box to the rightful owners and with other passengers coming through the narrow corridors as well, it got rather messy.  But we all took it in good stride and before we knew it, we were comfortably settled into our private cabin and on our way to Nong Khai.

We were truly like school kids on our first excursion as it took forever to settle down as we darted in and out of each others cabins, laughed, chatted, explored etc. It was also very nice to be provided with thick full size towels so we could have a much needed shower and that was something that we all truly appreciated. Nothing like a warm shower before bed but with the bobbing of the train, it was a truly interesting and challenging experience. What impressed was how clean and spanking new everything was.

Some of the team went to bed early while I went to have supper with Sue and Carolen in the dining carriage. Walking through the 2nd class sleepers, we were quite impressed with it too but the extra 40-50% for first class was worth every baht. 

The menu was surprisingly quite good with various types of coffees, sandwiches and even Thai rice dishes. Nice tables with comfortable chairs meant a very conducive ambience to watch the world zoom by on our rails (esp at dusk) while we enjoy a nice chat over hot drinks in airconditioned comfort. 

When I finally was ready for bed, it was nearly midnight and hitting the sack never got easier with such a comfortable bed with the gentle rocking of the train. The bonus of course was that I had my honey bunny with me. The lullaby Rock-A-Bye-Baby came to mind but we knew with the reliability and engineering of this fine train, and God's amazing grace, nothing will break and none of us will fall, except fall into a deep deep sleep... unlike my sleep the night before. 

*some pics borrowed fm KC

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can you count on a mount?

If anything that has revolutionized the last 5 years, it is the Apps on our smart phone. This technology is absolutely amazing and boundless. It has been an unimaginable useful tool in everyday life from weather, taxis, communications and of course, bicycle touring. There are many Apps for maps but I supposed the most popular one is Google Map.

While all this is wonderful, try navigating through a busy street in an unfamiliar city using one hand holding your phone while the other your handlebar. Needless to say, this can be rather disconcerting and somewhat dangerous and I speak from experience, with some hairy situations encountered.

I spotted this gadget the "Easy Bike Mount" on my last trip in Kaoshiung Taiwan. While it is certainly not top of the line, at 99NT or S$4.50, there isn't much to complain. What I like is that it has added security to make sure your precious phone stays on the mount through 2 secure rubber bands. Of course the temptation is to loose focus so be warned and keep your eyes on the road. Getting distracted with incoming Whats App, Facebook messages etc will get you into big trouble so please do not do that.

Will be putting this through a full test in our upcoming Mekong Ride Adventure next week so stay tune.

Love to hear any questions or concerns... 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Joyful Anticipation

They say that one of the best parts of an adventure actually is not the trip per se, but the waiting for it to happen. Next week, 11 of us will embark on a similar ride adventure which I did 6 years ago in 2011, where we rode 230km along the Mekong River from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan.  We hail from Singapore, Australia and Malaysia.

The planning of this trip began as early as last Dec, some 8 months ago and all reservations and transportation arrangements have been stitched up. The choice to cycle in August is questionable as it is the rainy season. However, I much prefer the cool intermittent rains to the hot blazing sun which gives me a migraine literally.

This stretch of the Mekong is particularly beautiful because most of the route hugs along the mighty Mekong River and opposite, is Laos. It is relatively flat and passes through green rice fields  one one side and the river on the other side. Cruising past quaint small towns are special too as they are relatively tourist free which is good, as I prefer to be far far away from the maddening crowd if possible.

The difference this time is that we shall be taking the brand new train from Bangkok to Nong Khai. We flew there last time. There is a certain romance about travelling by overnight train and Thai Railways recently commissioned impressive China made carriages. Our good friend Prim in Bangkok helped us booked fully appointed luxury First Class cabins and we are so excited. It took a lot of effort to get these tickets as they are opened for booking only 2 months in advance and gets snapped up rather quickly.

Do check the amazing new trains of the Thai Railways!

We shall also be crossing the river through the Friendship Bridge into Laos and spending a night in the romantic French colonial capital city of Vientiane. Most likely, we shall be taking the train for this 10 min journey from Thailand to Laos as bicycles are generally not allowed through the bridge, not with 11 of us at least. I have ridden across with 2 people but as far as I know, it's a touch and go affair.

The missus and I will be using Bike Fridays, she the very fast Pocket Sport and I, my trusty touring Tikit with the new Ergotech Space handlebar. I shall be travelling light using only the Topeak Saddle Bag. As this trip requires multi-modal travelling, all 11 of us will be on foldies -3 BFs , 2 KHS, 1 Brompton, 3 Terns and 2 Dahons. As the roads are relatively smooth, 16" foldies are actually the best choice especially when travelling with bikes are involved.

One of the lessons learned from the last trip riding in the rain is that mudguards are very essential if you don't want 5 days of rear wheel spray of sand and muck up your back. Also, a Da Brim helmet visor with shower cap is very helpful as it helps for visibility in the rain.

As for ponchos and rain coats, I have found that the best wet weather gear is just getting wet. A good rain coat is just too hot and sweaty.  I would bring a highly visible light outer layer just for warmth and safety. For footwear, the best is not socks and shoes but rather, the humble crocs. Make sure it has toe coverings for safety though. 

Our hotels are a mix of 2-3 stars but they are all chosen for some special and unique features. The costs average about 800B, slightly more in the bigger and touristy towns. Food in Thailand is a given as they are so delicious and it is hard to go wrong with any Thai dish but this region is Isaan and the food here is especially aroy mak mak!

Of course one key plus of any adventure through Thailand is the Thai Traditional Massage - where every kink and fibre of your body will be stretch, pressed or cracked. This is like the art of appreciating Kimchi - the first few times can be rather unpleasant but after a while, it is sweet! $8 or 200Baht for an hour of "bliss".

Taiwoon, co-founder of LCSG going through the Thai torture rack!

So it is still a week before we go and the anticipation is killing me. Still quite a few things to do, packing the bike, panniers, tools, changing money, etc but the thought of riding through this beautiful strip of Thailand with great mates on our machineries of joy truly is what makes the life God gives us worth living!

Check out this musical video as it beautifully captures a bit of our joy...    

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Abang Adek Adventure to Songkhla, Thailand - Final Day

Pic KC

Pic KC

Pic KC

Pic KC

This morning it was KC's turn to wake up early and go for a dawn walkabout while I was enjoying a longer than usual snooze, all tucked in. We didn't have to rush as the agenda was to get back to Hat Yai to Tyro Bike, an easy 34km away at 10am and we gave ourselves 2 hours for this.

For those who know me, I do not like repeats especially in my meals and hence, yesterday's decent breakfast at Club Tree became somewhat boring as it was almost the same today.  I didn't eat very much but enjoyed my Kao Tom (pork porridge) and I wish I wasn't fussy seeing how KC was enjoying himself.

That said, it was hard to leave this beautiful hotel especially to say goodbye to my new rather stiff friend, Ginger the dog. I have the feeling he will be in the same position for many years to come.

Continuing on the tradition of not wanting repeats as far as possible, we rode out of Songkhla a longer but different way, this time through the Highway 407 passing by the airport and Thaksin University. At first I thought that this uni was named after the controversial PM Thaksin Shinawatra who was and still is very popular in the North but Thaksin simply means Southern. 

Traffic was surprisingly quite heavy in town and many policemen were stationed to manage it. Surprisingly when one considers Songkhla a rather small town. We had to wait for ages at this lights and look at the queue behind me!

The ride down Highway 407 is flat as a pancake and offers a nice wide shoulder for cyclists. I believe this is a great beginner's tour as the 30+km distance is very manageable, traffic is light and no hills.

After about 16km, it was time for a little break and my eye caught sign of the famous yellow Shell station. We enjoyed a beautiful cafe yesterday at a Shell station and bingo, there was one too in front of our eyes. It seems to be a trend to put beautiful cafes in Shell stations and that can only be a good thing. Coffee De'Sunrise was not as flash as yesterday's but still, very nice. 

The interior was decorated with bright colours and I wanted to plonk myself on the nice red sofa except that with all my sweat and grime, it just would not be good manners and a wee bit inconsiderate! We settled for normal chairs, much to the relief of the counter staff, and enjoyed a lovely cuppa of Cha Ron. An added bonus was the addition of a pot of Chinese tea a a chaser, and that was really a nice gesture.

It is always hard to get back on the saddle after too comfortable a break and this time, for reasons I cannot explain, it was hard to get back into rhythm. Perhaps it was going from cold aircon back to the dense humidity, or a stomach full of liquids, or that I simply didn't want the adventure to end so quickly. But I believe that God always knows me intimately and as I was huffing and puffing, a big yellow tractor came from nowhere and overtook KC and I!  Immediately like a wild dog, I gave chase. It was hard as I was cruising at about 18-20km/h and the tractor was at least 30km/h and a bit more.

KC tried to whisk out his camera and as he did so, he was too far behind to catch him but at least he got a shot. As for me, I found new legs and pedaled furiously and managed to finally catch up. Once behind the tractor, it was so easy as the huge vehicle blocked off all wind and cycling at 30km/h felt like 18km/h. As I enjoyed the blessing of drafting, poor KC was no where in sight. I must have got a free ride for at least 3-4km until Abang Besar decided to turn off. 

Pic KC

It seemed ages as I pulled back and crawled before KC appeared, all jolly and well as he always was. By this time, we were nearly at the turn-off from Highway 407 and we made a left turn and cycled into Hat Yai through the smaller country roads, which is always the better choice for so many reasons. 

The quieter roads were literally a breath of fresh air as traffic was nearly non existent. Gliding through villages and minor roads, it was wonderful to see how the locals lived. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in Hat Yai proper and arrived at Tyro Bike 5 mins before schedule.

Pic KC

It was great to be the first customers and we were received warmly, even given 2 cold drinks. They were expecting us - 2 mad cyclists all the way from Singapore to collect 6 handlebars. But then again, these were not just ordinary handlebars but German designed Ergotech Space bars, a sort of riser touring bars. 

Tyro is not just a bicycle shop but a bicycle lifestyle shop, filled with all sorts of goodies that easily fulfills Madonna's call to,  "Express yourself"... 

KC took the opportunity to check out all the latest fashion gear and decided that this bag would best express himself, style wise!

We took this opportunity to do a mini-service of our Fridays where my RD needed some adjustments and KC's Llama needed a rear hub service. I decided too to get my brand new Ergotec bar fitted on my Tikit in Tyro's most professional aircon workshop.

While that was being done, I got out of my smelly clothes and had a shower in their bike friendly facilities. How many bike shops do you know have shower facilities? Tyro Bike really rocks!

I managed to take the Tikit with the brand new Space bar out for a test run and first impressions are very good. The stability seems to improve and I was able to cycle hands free. The riding position is also more upright which can be a good thing while touring but I will test it further in the upcoming Mekong Ride Adventure in August. Meanwhile, KC took it for a spin and liked it in an uppity sort of way.

It was great of Tyro to provide me with a Dahon bike box so that I could pack my Tikit in, ready for my 230pm flight to Singapore. One advantage of travelling with the Tikit is that it is so easy to prepare for travel, with very little parts to dissemble. I only needed to remove the handlebar and that was all! The other Ergotech bars could also fit in as there were tonnes of room.

Lunch was a simple affair near Tyro and just rice and egg. 2 of those with drinks costs only 100B, a new record low. It was wonderful too that I managed to meet up with Khun Antz, the owner of Tyro who is a remarkable young lady with a flair for design. She rides a Dahon Boardwalk Anniversary model among many many other bikes. The perks of owning a bike shop!

The lovely staff of Tyro arranged a taxi for me to go to the airport for only 250B and I was pleasantly pleased to be picked up in a brand new Toyota Prius Hybrid, a most green vehicle. Turned out the taxi driver was also a cyclist, a MTB to be precise and we got along very well.

Checking in the small bike box was easy enough and when I arrived at Changi, I expected the box to pop out at the odd-size luggage. However, it came out on the regular belt and that goes to prove how easy it is to travel with a foldy.

It was good to be back in Singapore and my mission had officially ended. However, KC's adventure part 2 continued where he rode from Hat Yai to Satun the next day, ferried to Langkawi to meet our friend, Sandra Loh, author of Peddling around the Peninsula, then off to Penang, Malacca and as I write this blog post, KC had just returned from his adventure.

Thank you for following Abang and Adek and we hope it inspired you to pay a visit to Songkhla, a most beautiful destination.

Pic KC