With two months still remaining of the summer following my trip to Scandinavia I flew out to Bangkok to spend the next eight weeks with an unplanned trip through South East Asia.
With nine days by myself before James and Robbie flew out I had to find something to occupy myself with. I decided to take a train up to Chaing Mai, rent a bicycle and attempt the 600km Mae Hong Son Loop in six days. Doing this loop by bicycle, as opposed to the more common motorbike, is not one for the faint hearted or weak legged. It summits Doi Ithanon, Thailand's highest mountain at 2565m, and seemingly climbs every hill possible on its way through Thailand's most "remote province". Escaping the tourist hotspot of Chiang Mai with its elephant rides and tiger stroking trips was my main priority, and the Loop provided this escape. The time of year that I was there (early Aug) tourism was negligible, only seeing 3 other 'farangs' who were all on motorbikes. As such, locals seemed particularly welcoming to a sweaty solo cyclist. After 60km of what appeared to be the Thai version of a motorway, but with traffic coming in all directions, you begin the ascent of Doi Ithanon. The 50km climb at daft gradients could have provided spectacular views however the dense fog at the summit limited me to only taking a summit selfie. Although the biggest climb was out of the way, each day seemed to follow the same agenda of never being flat, so having a low gear set is essential. Although I was there during monsoon, the skies were generally clear save for the afternoon rain storms which provided a welcomed respite from the heat and humidity. However, the heavy rains had caused some landsliding and so some of the roads unfortunately required a short push on. The landscape was spectacular, the rusty red earth stood in stark contrast to the light blue skies and vivid greens of the dense foliage. Valleys bottoms were a patchwork of yellow paddy fields shimmering in the midday sun with solitary farmers tending to their crop. I felt like I was seeing the real Thailand, a distant mirage from the full-moon parties and "gap-yah" atmosphere that Thailand has unfortunately become synonymous with for people my age. Each night I would find a small guesthouse to stay in, usually no more than a couple of dollars. As with all SE Asian villages there was always an abundance of little shacks and restaurants to find some food, and a handful of times a massage parlour to relieve my aching legs! Although physically very difficult given the terrain and humidity, I thoroughly recommend for those who want a challenge doing the Mae Hong Son Loop by bicycle. The route was free from tourism (at least at the time of year I went in early August 2013) and provided a great introduction to Thailand for myself. Although there are no doubt a couple of companies who run and organise such bicycle tours, I would encourage you to simply pick up a map and rent a bicycle (I used Cacti Bikes in Chiang Mai) and set off. There are enough villages along the route with cheap guest accommodation to ensure that there will always be somewhere to stay.
With the bike tour finished I returned to Bangkok to meet Robbie and Jam (James). Together we went to the Burmese embassy to begin our visa application. Despite warnings of difficulties in obtaining a visa we had no such troubles and were even able to get ours with one-day processing. With the three week visa stamped into our passports we broke the unwritten travellers' rule that one should never get a plane and booked a return flight from Bangkok to Yangon via Air Asia (overland crossings into Myanmar are prohibited).
There seems to be a well trodden route around Myanmar for tourists taking in the sites of Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan due to restrictions placed on foreign visitors to other areas. We headed north from Yangon to Mandalay on an overnight train before hitching a lift in the back of a small truck into the hills of the Shan state. The hilltop towns were scattered with remnants of Myanmar's colonial history, grand victorian houses standing sentinel above the open high streets and clock towers. However, these buildings no longer appeared embedded within their surroundings as they were now simply crumbling shells serving as bitter reminders to Myanmar's troubled history.
After a few days spent walking in the hills we moved onto Bagan, arguably Myanmar's most iconic and photogenic place. Bagan is an expansive flat plain located on the banks of the Ayerwaddy River which contains approximately 2,200 temples and stupahs which scatter the arable pasture. It was simply spectacular, and we even managed to spend a night under the stars atop one of the larger temples which, although forbidden, was unforgettable and something I highly recommend. However, the sense that we were simply following a trodden tourist trail hung over us, and unfortunately detracted from the experience slightly. We did manage to grasp a snippet of free travel and a return to a sense of adventure when we managed to negotiate with a boat owner to drive us down to the river. After a few hours we spotted a small unassuming village on the opposite bank of the river and asked the driver to take us there. It turned out this village was only accessible by boat and had little interaction with the tourist centre of Bagan on the other side of the Ayerwaddy. We were welcomed into the village and treated to food and a swim in the river before being invited to spend the night in the village monastery. However, the Myanmar's authoritarian regime still permeated into this small isolated place when the head of the village had to use the only phone to 'register' our whereabouts with the local government. Although we were made to feel very welcomed we felt like an imposition onto this community, and thus our ideas of similar experiences in Myanmar were knocked on the head. Myanmar really was a special place to visit, and we really did feel lucky to be able to visit it at a time when the borders have opened up slightly, but the western world has yet to jam its foot in the door. However, for three young men wanting to have a personal adventure Myanmar didn't quite tick all the boxes, and so on a spur of the moment decision we decided that the Yunnan Province of China was to be our next destination. With zero planning or knowledge of the country we boarded our outbound flight back to Bangkok and headed for the Chinese Embassy.
James made a video of our journey through Myanmar which can be found here
After a very stressful day jumping through all the Chinese embassy hoops in Bangkok, we spent seven days travelling through Thailand and Laos on route to the Chinese border. Unfortunately, arriving there in the middle of the night meant a short sleep on the floor of an unoccupied restaurant before walking the couple of kilometres to the border. We had decided that we wanted to return a sense of self-determinism into our travel, rather than simply paying a fare and climbing aboard a bus, and hoped to hitch-hike our way through the province. The first day's hitching was a mix of success and failure, but after spending all morning and early afternoon travelling no further than 50 km, we decided that at this level of progress we would never reach the Greater Himalayas before our visas expired. Instead we took get a bus and a train and then another bus to Shangri-La, the gateway town to the Greater Himalayas and the road to Tibet. Shangri-La, originally named Zhongdian until the Chinese state decided to rename the town after James Hilton's fictionalised utopia, is nestled within a large mountain plateau containing numerous Tibetan villages and settlements and the Tibetan culture still remains outside of the major towns. From here we headed further into the Shangri-La county and spent an incredible week hitching our way to the Tibetan border before being turned away by the border officials as we didn't have any visas for entrance. This week felt much more like the adventure we were after, and in stark contrast to our time spent elsewhere. Short on money, language, clothing and wit we bumbled our way through the week sleeping in abandoned huts, the back of open trailers and on hillsides beneath the twinkling sky. Thankfully a couple of bottles of cheap rum which had travelled with us from Mandalay in Myanmar helped us sleep whilst the generous leftovers given to us by concerned locals kept our stomachs on the right side of hungry.
The road to the Tibetan border was a simple out and back route and so we found ourselves back in Shangri-La once more. Here we did a little bit of googling in an internet cafe and came across Haba Xueshan, a 5,396m mountain a day's bus journey away and overlooking the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Still with only our gear that we'd brought for the hot sweaty climes of SE Asia, save for a cheap fleece and knock off down jacket, we thought we'd give the mountain a go.... We arrived in the small village of Haba, positioned precariously beneath the mountain overlooking an enormous valley, in the middle of the afternoon and approached what seemed to be a small climber's hostel. We went inside and motioned as best we could that we wanted to climb the mountain and whether it was possible to hire some equipment and a map. After around an hour of the landlady trying to persuade us that we wouldn't make it up to the little hut half way up before nightfall, we set off with some crampons, an ice axe, a pair of ill-fitting boots and a set of hat and gloves at as fast a pace as possible. With instructions that the ascent to the hut would take 6 hours, we guessed that at a fast pace after 4 hours we would be in its vicinity. Up we went through the thick forest following what we hoped to be the right path. Unfortunately the landlady didn't own or know of any maps for the mountains, and instead insisted the route was easy enough to find as long as we just kept going "up, up, up", but did at least point us in the direction of the right path. However, as the 4 hours elapsed, the sun set in the sky and the darkness crept into the forest the hut remained illusive. We had to admit that we were hopelessly lost. To add insult to injury the path had run out. After a couple of hours of scrambling around in the dark, convincing ourselves that the hut would be somewhere nearby, we resigned ourselves to not finding it. Luckily we came upon a small derelict wooden shack with a half covered roof and a small central area for a fire. We lay down in all our clothes (we didn't have any sleeping bags!) and snatched a couple of hours sleep before the 4am alarm would sound marking the start of our push to the summit.
We awoke in the morning to thick fog and complete darkness and blindly began walking up the enormous valley we had spent the night in. It quickly turned into more of a scramble as we began climbing a 50 degree rock slab, still with no idea where we were and no idea what was ahead. Blindly we pushed on and as the dark fog around us slowly began to lighten we chanced that it may lift to reveal our route. This was unfortunately not the case and just after mid day we accepted that we weren't going to be making any summit pushes! Instead, we tried to savour what little there was left of our pride by climbing to a small col in between two steep rock faces before descending/sliding back down to the derelict wooden hut. It turns out that we had been walking at too fast a pace the previous day and so had completely overshot the turn off to the 'base camp' hut. We had therefore continued round the mountain and went up a different valley and thus a different approach to the summit. Ah well we thought, we had a laugh and at least it counted as the 'adventure' that we were hoping to find.
With only a few days left on our Chinese visa we hitched our way through Yunnan to Kunming, the state capital where we got on a bus headed for the Vietnamese border.
Once again James made a video of our hitch-hike through China which can be found here
With little over a week left before our return flight back home from Hanoi, Vietnam was going to have to be short and sweet. We crossed into Vietnam just as the border was opening up and absolutely famished we went in search of some food. As we sat down to eat on SE Asia's ubiquitous small plastic chairs two locals sat nearby were knocking back shots of clear liquid that was bottled on each table. Rice wine!! They quickly encouraged us to join in with them and so, after a few early morning slammers we left the border town in very merry spirits indeed. This seemed to set the course that our week there would follow. We took a bus to the town of Sapa from where we rented some motorbikes and went on a five day ride through the northern Vietnamese mountains. I hadn't really thought much about Vietnam throughout the trip, only that it was providing us with a cheap plane ticket back home, however the tour through the northern region was spectacular. Enormous limestone cliffs plummeting into flat valley bottoms, and all around life was bustling. These sensory explosions were equally met by the enjoyment of touring under your own transport, but without the hardships of having to power it yourself! Put simply it was a hell of a lot of fun, and the late afternoon beers and rice wine evenings gave the whole tour a perfect end of holiday feel to it. Although only seeing a snap shot of Vietnam, it strikes me as an incredibly energetic country full of vibrant people and landscapes, somewhere that I hope to be able to visit for a longer period in the future.