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Phnom Penh, September 5th 1999

Hi There!

Bangkok is a weird experience for me. After having been among people with whom I had some sort of problem, cultural or otherwise, for so long, it feels liberating. Among the Thai I feel very much at ease. Many things are modern again; things of acceptable quality. In the subcontinent everything looks like it can fall apart any time, in China everything does fall apart but it does shine. Here in Bangkok it is once again possible to buy Shimano bike parts, I can get money from ATMs with my Dutch bank card and the cars are of acceptable quality. The only drawback is that they are crazy about huge exhaust pipes. So, although there are good cars, there's still a lot of traffic noise. For guys like us - Lars, Melvin and me - the most interesting thing about Bangkok is the nightlife. Oh yes, the temples and the Royal Palace are gorgeous and finished to the last detail. But in two days we've seen it. The nightlife takes a bit longer. Patpong is the red light district for tourists. There are different ways to pick up one of the Thai ladies. One is in the meat market. On a stage there's a handful of girls with a number. You take a good look, walk to the bar and say: 'Number 30'. If you pay enough she'll go with you after that. A little cheaper are the so called sex shows. The showgirls are amazing. They manage to open coke bottles between their legs or shoot darts from their crotch to balloons... If a man alone enters a place like that within seconds he'll get company from a way too small bathing suit with a little hand attached to it which will land in his crotch. Immediately a voice will whisper romantically in your ear: 'One coke for me please?' If you agree you'll start negotiations. There are also normal Thai but these hardly appear in Patpong; they go to RCA. Royal City avenue is the party street for Thai youngsters; Loud music, dancing people, and for foreigners no prostitutes.

Lars, Melvin and I throw ourselves into the nightlife; when the sun is up for an hour or more it is time to go to bed. We all three have a more or less serious romance with a Thai girl. Therefore it is quite difficult to leave Bangkok. One by one we apply for one or more days delay. One morning we do manage to get into a train together. The highways in and around Bangkok don't really appeal to us. Fifty kilometers and three hours later we get out again and meet the non-capital traffic. The roads are Iranian style (with a wide asphalt shoulder) and of Dutch quality. The traffic may seem suicidal to someone who came straight from the west, but I find it lovely well organized. People hardly hunk their horns, keep a distance from each other. These are roads for a recumbent bicycle and before I know it Lars and Melvin are out of sight - behind me. We get split up this way and I arrive a day sooner at the island of Koh Chang. After hectic Bangkok this island is beautifully relax. Taking it easy at the beach, swimming in a lovely cool waterfall and eating in the Muk Hut, a restaurant run by a Brit.

When Lars and Melvin have shown up and the three of us have discovered this island we go by boat back to the mainland. From here we follow the road along the coast to the Cambodian border. Just across the border I have a unique experience. Before I left Holland I had a list of no-go countries; countries that had too bad a reputation. Afghanistan was on it and so was Cambodia. And suddenly I'm on my bicycle on a Cambodian road. The first 100 kms are on a very boring speedboat because the road in the south east part of the country is impassable in the monsoon. But after that it runs over a fairly flat tropical landscape that doesn't look like there are 6 odd million landmines buried here. The huge amount of people missing a leg is the only evidence we see so far of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

After a 50 kms ride over a very good road - built with American money - we take a turn in an attempt to see something of the countryside, to the town of Kampot. That works out pretty fine. Even though the first 25 kms is of horrible quality. I know pretty well to handle my recumbent, because I manage to get across this unpaved road. Only once (not counting the exploded tire) I have to put my feet at the ground, due to knee deep mud. People who have gone along this road during the second half of 2003 have reported that the road is being paved. And so we ride through heavy rainstorms and bright sunshine over slowly improving roads to the capital. The traffic is more chaotic than in Thailand, but by far not as bad as in India, because there are a lot fewer cars. Before I can write something about Phom Penh I should know it a little better, so until the next letter...

Bangkok, October 24th 1999

Hi There!

Then finally here's my promise to describe Phnom Penh. It is a dirty, quite badly maintained city. Here and there arises a modern building, but much higher than 5 or 6 stories they don't build. The tourist attractions of which S-21, the state prison of Pol Pot, is the most impressive are possible to visit in one long day. When I walk around S-21 and over The Killing Fields of Chuoeng Ek I get the feeling that the Holocaust in Europe - in itself a nightmare - was pretty mild. Pol Pot killed in 4 years time 2 out of 7 million people randomly from his population! What are very impressive are the 'security regulations'. Rule six says: 'While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.' Rule 10 states: 'If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge'. In other words, they liked to keep themselves busy... On the Killing Fields I take a long silent break at a ten meters high tower in which thousands of skulls are piled, sorted by gender and age; and they are not even half of the people who died here! And still, after all of this horror, the Cambodians are very warm and friendly people. It is however unsure for how long they will treat western tourists with the friendliness they do now. A not so good thing about tourism is developing in Cambodia. In order to get out of their financial misery the villagers send their beautiful - and less beautiful - daughters to Phnom Penh. And that attracts the most sick fat westerners who can get laid here for 10 or 15 US$. One day I have a short chat with a guy who, within 5 minutes, starts bragging about what he had done with 12 year old girls. That made me so upset and sad that I cut the talk short and prayed never to meet someone like him again!

Lars and Melvin don't feel like 300 kms bumpy road without any interesting sites and want to go by boat to Siem Reap, a city back towards Thailand. I don't feel like paying twenty bucks for that so I mount my bicycle and leave Phnom Penh two days ahead of them. The first 160 kms the road is actually very good. That only takes me one day! The landscape is flat as Holland and except for some half collapsed bridges there are hardly any serious obstacles. The only thing that makes me wonder is that this is THE highway between Phnom Penh to Thailand... I didn't know it would get very much worse!

The rest - some 140 kms - the road is awful. For the most part it seems like it used to be Asphalt; which by now has turned into loose sharp stones. From 8 am till 5 pm I hump and bump my way over 75kms! Exhausted I give up in a village and ask if I can borrow someone's roof. In broken English I am invited by an English teacher in his classroom. By his and his parents hospitality, with whom I enjoy the dinner, I feel totally at ease. Exhausted as I was I lay my head down early; not a worry in the world. A few hours later I wake up shocked. I hear suspicious sounds from the corner where his bed is: apparently he has invited his boyfriend in bed! Fortunately they don't force me to join!

The next morning - still not raped - I get up early. More or less involuntarily because before sunset all the doors of the classroom open so that the entire village can see me wake up. A few kilometers onwards the road starts getting worse; but as a paradox that makes cycling easier as even the last remains of the asphalt disappear. It slows the few cars that take this route, but for me it's just a matter of zigzagging around the holes and pools. As long as I keep this up - and a recumbent isn't made for semi off road cycling, so it's hard work - the stretch I ride is windy but very flat.

That evening I reunite with Lars and Melvin and the next morning we cycle without luggage (that's weird!) to Angkor Wat. Siem Reap itself is quite an uninteresting town; still it gets a lot of tourists. This is because of the nearby world heritage monuments of Angkor. From this place some 1000 to 500 years ago a powerful Khmer empire was reigned. This empire stretched over most of what is now known as South East Asia. An empire like this needed a very imposing capital and the remains of this are still very impressive. I have never seen anything like it. The Khmers were obviously very rich! Many buildings were obviously made to be beautiful. It has never been a very well defendable city; the walls are too pretty for that! The Angkor complex is huge. We cycle for three days over this place in three different loops seeing about two thirds of the buildings which takes us 100 kms. And than suddenly my visa is running out; two more days. So we have to get to the border. Another 150 kms.

The first 50 kms, still on the highway between Phnom Penh and Thailand are really unbelievable! I have never seen such a road; it will be hard to impress me with a road quality in the future. After 35 kms Melvin is fastest on his full suspension mountain bike; he's about 20 minutes ahead of me on my recumbent. Huge parts of the road look like someone has thrown bombs all over the road! Six foot potholes through which all the traffic has to maneuver. Going off the road won't work because then you have big chance to hit a landmine. A little further on it gets even more exciting: a small river crossing the road but no bridge. Just a hundred meter long mud bath. So to the flat landscape it hardly runs; it is more mud than water. We are very lucky: there is a little plank bridge for pedestrians; and also for lunatic cyclists. Trucks disappear till high above the axles in the mud. One after the other gets stuck; there are three tractors chained together ready to pull them out. Over here the road is a little wider because the traffic has to avoid a tilted truck which load is being taken by a truck which is stuck by itself now... Not even in my weirdest dreams had I ever imagined a road this bad!

Crossing the border with Thailand is as if we walk from a messy attic into a very luxurious - tidy - villa. Cambodia was very much fun and adventurous but here and there an air conditioner and especially the good tarmac roads are a relief to me. Added to that I have spent all my dollars so it is good that I can use ATMs again.

And then we hit the road; gain some speed. In five days we cycle over 600 kms to the Laos border. In this part of Thailand there are not so many things to see (and the things that are worth seeing we miss not knowing). And we want to start the next project: Laos. We can do Thailand extensively after that.

The third day we meet a Dutch guy. Peter thought that after his divorce he had run around long enough and left Holland and is living now happily here in Isan (north east Thailand). If it is up to me he has chosen the best country in the world - of what I have seen of course. Jealous but still bitten by the travelbug I cycle on, on the fantastic Thai roads, once again faster than Lars and Melvin towards the border. And suddenly, 45 kms before the border, disaster strikes: My front rim cracks. Nothing can be done about it. I manage to stop a car and hitch-hike to Mukdaharn, the border town. While the driver finishes the ice-cream I bough him, I put my bicycle in a hotel and search the first bicycle shops for a new wheel. The next day the three of us strip all bike shops in town but there is no wheel available that possibly fits. A very bitter disappointment for me. In order not to throw my Lao visa into the Mekong river entirely I cross the river into Savannakhet to see Laos for a day anyway. There is a beautiful temple and the light happens to be superb from a cloudless sky. Especially Lars goes berserk taking pictures. He shoots only two films.

I don't like taking a long time for saying goodbye; that only makes traveling difficult. But after having traveled together for some three months, being alone is something weird. Using the first available night bus I head for Bangkok where I expect my cousin who was already bringing a new wheel - among other things.

While I wait for his arrival I pay a 10 day visit to my uncle in South Korea. This is such a big detour on my trip that I won't and can't tell too much about it. It was very conviviable meeting him, very much so. And I have never known so exactly to stand on a border; we paid a visit to the demarcation line between North and South which impressed me deeply. This is a sort of flash visit to a country for me. Apart from seeing some impressive things - such as one of the largest shipyards in the world and a very beautiful Tempe complex - I have not have the chance to really experience something of the country itself.

Vientianne, November 29th, 1999

Hi There!

Instead of by bicycle I travel together with a lovely Thai girl by train. We both enjoy the very high quality Thai first class train - two people one compartment; all the way to Chang Mai. Complete with 'room service' and breakfast in the morning a 14 hour train ride has never seemed so short!

I don't see a lot of Chiang Mai the first days I stay there... We leave our hotel only to get something to eat. Only when She returns to Bangkok, I start exploring town. My cousin Michiel is also in Chang Mai and together with him I spent a very pleasant day. But it is finally time to cycle once again, that's what my sponsors pay me for! Although I already before I left the city counted the days that I would be back in Bangkok, I still set off for Laos.

First three days south. Via Si Satchanalai to an ancient capital of Siam (Thailand) named Sukothai. The second day I notice that I have lost quite a bit of the cycling routine. Not that I am unable to cycle all of a sudden, I make 144 kms, but because I forget to protect myself sufficiently from the sun. Only after some 60 kms, when my face starts hurting, I remember what I've forgotten: Sun cream! And then it is too late. At a street restaurant I wash the worst sweat and dust from my body and grease my skin. But the following night, sleeping is painful!

Close to Si Satchanalai (60 kms north of Sukothai) there are a handful of ruins which are not so famous as their southern neighbours. The place is not swarming with tourists. I think that they deserve more attention as they seem better preserved. Sukothai disappoints me. Perhaps it is because it is scaffolded in preparation of the coming festival Loi Krathong. During this festival the Buddhists thank the woman who lives in the rivers for everything She has given, and ask forgiveness for their sins. They offer her waters floating floral tributes. If the bouquet doesn't sink within sight of the sender the wish he/she made will come true. Especially young lovers take those flowers to the river. This festival takes a week in Sukothai; only the last day of that week it's a national holiday. When I find this out, I have a second reason to stay in Thailand; Laos won't run away! So I cycle to Suwannaphum, where I park my bike with Peter; remember the Dutch guy I met with Lars and Melvin? Then I head for Bangkok - where else? - by bus to celebrate Loi Krathong. That night it is extremely busy along the riverside. Thousands of people want to put their flowers with wishes in the water. Some take a boat onto the river and set their little flower-boats, often decorated with some money, out there. Some hundred meters downstream from the busiest 'wish places', showing no shame at all, a bunch of boats with probably poorer Thai people catch most of the flower-tributes and pick the money off.

The day after I head for the immigration for a visa extension. Many people get twice 10 days extension, but the refuse that to me. And so, because my first visa extension is almost passed I have to run for the border. The next 48 hours I travel next to non-stop to the border. There is one bus all the way up, which is a lot faster than that, but I have to go to Suwannaphum in order to pick my bike up at Peters. Because I have to leave so suddenly I promise Peter to stay somewhat longer some later day. Changing bus another three times and cycling 32 kms I arrive with two days overstay in Vientianne, the Laos capital. I have high expectations of Laos. Every single person who has been there is very excited: friendly people and dirt cheap. Vientianne (before the French misunderstood it, it was called Wieng Chang) disappoints me very much. Rooms are expensive and the delicious breakfasts people talk about - croissants with coconut and chocolate) I didn't see. I did spend some enjoyable time with the stepdaughter of the Indonesian ambassador walking and talking over markets and along some of the things (not) worth seeing in Vientianne. There isn't much in this huge village; there is next to nothing to do except for waiting for the sunset over the Mekong river. They say it's fantastic if you're stoned, but I haven't tried that.

Suphanburi, January 16th, 2000

Hi There!

The Laos adventure doesn't take long for several reasons but after all it was worthwhile. After waiting in boring and expensive Vientianne for my new Thai visa, I finally head north. It's been a while but it turns out well. My initial plan I overshoot with 40 kms, after which I secretly put up my tent somewhere in the Laos hills. I've been clever enough to buy some noodles to eat, but I realise when I'm cleaning river water with my filter that I don't have matches or a lighter. So dinner and breakfast are dry noodles. Not really tasty, but I'm not on a diet... Not far from the next town Vang Vieng my grip-shift gives up. Now I have only 7 gears left. That is not so much of a problem in the flat southern part of Laos, but further north it gets pretty mountainous. Lars has been there, and I've spoken to others too. From their reports I don't feel like cycling on with only 7 gears. I continue to Vang Vieng where I stay a couple of days. It is a beautiful town with some of the most fantastic scenery; some people call it the most beautiful town in Laos. But it is already pretty spoiled by what I call terrourists. Those are very ignorant travelers; the ones that come here for the cheap grass and beer (and perhaps women), ignore all the local culture and cultural rules, make a horrible mess of themselves and get angry if the locals don't treat them with the utmost respect. These backpackers - most of whom feel themselves better than tourists - are the ones who really destroy a country. Prices for foreigners are rising fast; prices for locals are dropping! Especially on transport. One day, after breakfast, I head back for my hotel room to change into swimming clothes when I see familiar faces. Suddenly I realize where I met them: Calcutta. Nick and Yvonne, two Dutch people are now, totally unexpected in Laos. We spend an entire day talking about our experiences and the next day we go for a nice swimming spot somewhere into the country. After that it is time again to cycle.

With only seven gears I decide against cycling to Louang Prabang; this town will have to wait for a next visit, God knows when. Another night I spend in my tent, washing in the river, cooking on a small campfire - in Vang Vieng I bought a lighter! and watching the stars till late night. To reach this perfect spot I have to carry my bicycle across the river. The next night I spend in Nong Khai, back in Thailand as I am sick of Vientianne. On the morning of December 5th, the Kings birthday in Thailand, I get back to Bangkok. The next time I spend in Bangkok, I really get to know the place, and like it more and more. Some day I will live here!

It is time after time again hard for me to leave Bangkok. There was a reason though that I read The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho); life is full of signs to direct you to the right path, and this book was one of them. If I don't continue my trip I will regret it; but how much will I regret leaving? However, cycling gives me the feeling to do the right thing. January 15th I got on my bicycle heading north through Bangkok. In Ayutdhaya, on of the ancient capitals north of Bangkok, I spend a night. I don't really enjoy the ruins there; partly because I haven't emotionally left Bangkok yet, partly because I've already seen so many piles of old stone. Now I'm in Suphanburi on my way to Kanchanaburi where the Japanese built a bridge over the River Kwai. I wonder what will await me there...

Kuala Lumpur, February 15th 2000

Hi There!

From Suphanburi I did indeed cycle to Kanchanaburi without any problem. The landscape is flat as a pancake, on both sides there are rice fields, the sun burns on my head and the wind comes from the front. A slight longing for Bangkok slows me down too. I think that everybody has heard about the bridge over the river Kwai; if not from the movie, then for real. In the second world war this bridge was built close to Kanchanaburi, but due to the hordes of tourists who come here to try to get an impression of what life was like around the second world war with a beerin the hand and an aircon hotel room, the bridge now is IN Kanchanaburi.

To complete the story: At this bridge, together with the so-called death-railway, a few hundred thousand South East Asians and a couple of thousand Europeans died for its construction. Of course the most important memorials are dedicated to the Europeans. Not that those shouldn't be here, but why did they skip the South East Asians?

After a day of doing next to nothing I mount my bicycle again. This time I leave all my luggage behind because I'm making a day tour to a reputedly beautiful waterfall 'somewhere in the neighbourhood'. This 'in the neighbourhood' is slightly disappointing. It turns out to be another 70 kms. I park my bicycle between the motorcycles and walk the last bit to the Erewan waterfall. Sometimes, on calendars for example, one can see pictures of a waterfall that makes you think: this isn't real. Well, it turns out to be real. The drop isn't huge, but it's so pretty, so playfully carved out of rocks; like someone with a superior brain designed it. It's a waterfall of seven steps over a length of about 2.5 kms. Every step provides fantastic swimming in lovely clear water. And because I enjoy swimming very much, I leave late. Six weeks of resting in Bangkok wasn't very good for my muscles. I don't manage to ride 70 kms in two hours after already quite an active day. Even without luggage I, I have to cycle the last 20 kms after sunset. Which means in this part of the world, in the dark. There's barely 15 minutes of twilight.

After Kanchanaburi I head south. First through the backcountry where well-wishing Thai time after time direct me to the highway. As I don't read Thai it is near impossible for me to find my way around here; my map turns out not to be very good. In theory only 110 kms, I ride 170 until Ratburi. After that I head further south until Hua Hin - a spoiled beach resort, spoiled by package tourism - from where I take the train further south. From here until about Hat Yai there is only one highway for some 800 kms through a fairly boring part of Thailand. And as this is the only land connection between the north and the south of South East Asia, this road is annoyingly busy. In Hat Yai I get out of the train and pick up my old cycling routine, which although I had a long break I haven't forgotten. Pack up in the morning, take breakfast, get on my bicycle till I either feel bored or tired and at night find a suitable hotel, take a shower, do my short term planning (only using my map), eat and sleep. Under way there is not a lot to see. I clearly notice that I get more south (higher humidity without rain) and here and there I spot the sea. But for the rest I am not impressed.

I cross the Malay border in Kota Bahru where I stay a couple of days to do some long term planning. What will I do here in Malaysia? To the outsider this planning may seem like doing nothing. On my bed I spend hours with my nose either in my Lonely Planet or over my map. I virtually explore all possible routes and roads. I know where I will start. But that's all. Me and my bicycle are a little shy for the rain, so in February I prefer not to stay around the east coast; I found out here in Kota Bahru that it is monsoon in February. After a while only one for me possible route starts to form. Because a big part of this route is according to my map unpaved I decide to practice on a parallel bit of road. After a day of real highway I take a turn left on my 'test road' where I decide to camp shortly after.

Camping out in the jungle requires a more strict discipline than on 'ordinary' terrain. Here it is difficult to keep unwanted little animals on a distance. After filtering new water in the river nearby I burn a freshly filled leech off my foot. The next morning I continue my ride along route 66; no, I'm not yet in the USA. The road is good untill 'the' turnoff to Gua Musang. After that it is in places near impossible to cycle. First it is just unpaved. Afterwards it is a tiny concrete road along the railway and after another turn it is party time: mudporidge,2 feet deep. It doesn't take a long time until I'm till over my knees covered in mud. Not long after I realise this my rear wheel slides away and with this the mud comes behind - and in? - my ears. A couple of kilograms of mud block my brakes. Somewhere along this misery I fulfill my 20.000st kilometer.

A good reason to celebrate which I do that night. Freshly washed, in front of my tent I celebrate with a self-made meal consisting of Noodle soup. The fourth meal with the same ingredients in two days. That night the local hunter comes and has a chat with me. He tells me that two days ago wild elephants have destroyed his harvest. He also warns me for tigers... I don't know what has come over me, but after a breakfast of noodle soup I turn east; instead of the highway south I turn to the Cameron Highlands, on my map the real bad part of the road... The quality is a pleasant surprise. For one or the other reason it doesn't rain as much on this road so it is far from as muddy. It's still unpaved, but that isn't a disaster. Soon however the road starts to climb (the Cameron Highlands are on about 1500 meters). Slowly the road gets steeper and steeper. Approximately the last hour of the day I am forced to walk. Again I eat a meal of noodle soup and get into my tent. Halfway through the night I wake up because something big slides past my tent. My heart beat goes a notch faster. Is it a tiger? I don't go outside to check... Only next morning I see that a split hoofed animal has passed my tent.

It turns out that I have camped almost at the top of the first ridge. After a few kms slightly up the road dives into a valley. Some ten kms downhill along a very steep road. But back up out of the valley, that was a problem! Immediately after the bridge across the river it is steep up. So steep that I need nearly all the strength I have in me not to move back down. Going forward is very slow. If it wasn't to steep to cycle - due to physical strength - then it would be impossible due to gradient. My bike would fall over its back. And it lasts and lasts... If I would climb like this for 100 kms I'd be in heaven! No, heaven isn't physically that close, but I pass so few rivers that in this heat would die of thirst before that time. I feel like being under a warm shower all the time; it's the sweat that drips off my body. After two hours pushing (and four kilometers!) the salt crystals are visible in my T-shirt. After another two hours I reach a small flat piece of ground. I take a sort break and see ten meters away from me a black spitting cobra crossing the road. Just when I, still shaking from the delivered exercise, want to get back on my bike I hear the sound of a car from behind. It is the first human being I see today, and for more than one reason I've never been more happy with that sound. Later it turns out that if I would have continued on this road on my own energy I wouldn't have made it; I would have died of thirst and hunger. But fortunately that car takes me to the Cameron Highlands; and that night I put up my tent at Fathers Guest House in Tanah Rata, the biggest village in the Cameron Highlands. Here I feel like being in Darjeeling. Also here it is cool due to the altitude; also here it is conviviable with foreigners; also here they grow tea and also here I'm happy with a hot shower. My body, used to the heat of the lowlands, has problems with the cold climate up here. But being among travelers again turns out to be so pleasant that I find it worth the effort.

The descent towards the Malasian west coast is a real pleasure. A winding road takes me almost all the way downhill. For some sixty kilometers I only need to use my pedals when I need some extra speed to take over on cars and trucks. Curves are plenty and sharp, so I rarely go faster than 60 kph. But after only an hour and a half I'm back at the ranges feet, back into the heat. I find it a pleasure; the 20 degrees Celsius up hill were too cold. The range does indeed keep the monsoon away from the east coast. The next day, 250 kms further, I am heavily sun burnt. That evening, I am at the bottom of the - for now - tallest buildings in the world; the Petronas Twin Towers.

For this part of the world, Kuala Lumpur (KL) is quite a modern city. The subway doesn't have a driver anymore - it still runs anyway! In the so called golden triangle are the most modern shopping centers which would be too modern for Amsterdam. The 'golden triangle' has its name due to the high land price. When I happen to go into one of the coffee shops in one of those centers a cup of coffee appears to cost 4 US$!! In the relaxed 'clean' atmosphere of KL I manage to really relax. Every day again I let myself be surprised by the high level of westernisation here. This in strong contrast with the jungle I was fighting my way through only a couple of days ago!

Here it's once again time to interrupt my story for a little side-track. Long after my journey, from somewhere deep in my memory, I dug out the first thing I heard about Thailand. This was back in Istanbul, where I met some backpackers who'd told me that their planned stay of two weeks in Thailand had been shortened to three days. They'd hated it! Why? Well, they'd arrived in the country, completely unprepared for this:

April 14th, 2000

Hi There!

Where and when I don't exactly remember. Somewhere during my travels somebody spoke badly about Thailand. "All the time they were throwing with water! We couldn't come out of our hotel without getting soaked!" They hated Thailand because of that. They stayed for only three days and now live in the illusion that this is comon practice here. Now I know which time of year they were in Thailand...

The Thai New Year used to start with Songkhran. The calender is now on the year 2544. The new year starts in the hottest and driest season. To ease the pain of the heat and drought they organise a national waterfight. In a book on Thai culture I read that they believe that plenty attracts more. So when you're almost out of water you show the spirits that you'll have plenty so they'll give up drying you out and let it rain; splashing water in the hope of an early monsoon. A lot of water on the street brings more from the skies. This year it actually seems to work. Today - the third day of the four day festival - it has rained all morning and early afternoon.

Water'fight' is too harsh a word. True, everyone will get wet, whether he likes it or not. Despite warnings from the police someone even dared spraying water at the mayor. But there is no sense of hostility whatsoever; other like in India with the Holi festival. The comparison does work however. Most important is the water, but also some chalk is spread among the crowd. The only little drawback is that some people but some use Prickly Heat powder, which has some skin cooling stuff in it. The next person who sprays you with a super soaker - or bigger - will put the the biting skin coolant in your eyes... But that's not so often.

Apart from that it is great. The heaviest peacefull waterbattle zone is around Khao San Road, the backpackers resort. The whole street is packed with people. From a balkony of a guest house some foreigners throw buckets of water down. On an empty oilbarrel Jodi is dancing - and the center of the crowd. Jody is the most infamous ladyboy of Khao San. The rest of the people change into little kids and celebrate the war. Laughing out loud you shoot somebody; at the same instant somebody else empties a bottle of icewater in your neck. You turn arround and start the chase. He runs ahead towards a group of supersoakercommando's who kill you with the same icewater. But by then you're already so soaked that you don't care anymore. All ages join. Managers who decide during the week about milions of Baht change this week into little kids with a watergun and join the fight in good spirits; but also the hippies who bargain half an hour about 1 baht difference on a bottle of water...

Outside Banglamphoo - the Khao San area, a lot of youngsters drive around with the readily available pick up trucks with in the back big barrels of water with which they attack people at busstops - and eachother.

Sawatdee Pii Mai - or in English: Happy New Year.

The only ones who don't want to join are the few tourists who don't (want to) understand; tourists like the peopl I described above. Many of those actually get angry if they get wet. Some even lash out or otherwise show that they want to fight. With the friendly Thai! Only from those tourists there's some hostility... What makes them the most challenging targets for many a westerner. On Songkhran it is impossible to stay dry. Live to the saying: If you can't beat them, join them and you'll have the most fantastic days of your life! Please don't complain about getting wet; I warned you!

Sungai Kolok, April 5th 2000

Hi There!

Cumulus clouds slowly drift over my head. In the sun it is 35 degrees, in the shadow 34,9. I'm sitting on a concrete railwaystation bench waiting for the rare sigh of wind.

I've just finished a 22 hour train ride and I'm preparing for another 22 hours return. Because the Thai New Years is coming up, all the trains are booked out and I'm stuck in third class. That means, sharing a wagon with another 120 people. with roughly 80 seats. Someone who does this voluntarily is some sort of masochist; I do this only partly voluntarily. My minidisk player brings me Doe Maar - a Dutch band from the 80s, every now and again a drop of sweat falls from my nose. Ideal opportunity to tell you what has happened since KL.

KL was good. Very picturesque although I forget to make one important shot; the one of me on my bicycle in front of the Twin Towers. Talking to Bibi - whom I've met before in Chiang Mai - was very conviviable and the owners of the guesthouse where I live (The Travelers Station in the (old) railway station) turn out to be very unfriendly. One day they really go too far and I mount, very frustrated and unprepared my bicycle. The signs to Seremban all direct me to the highway. Small motorcycles are allowed so I just pretend like I'm simple and pedal past the toll offices. Nobody stops me.

In Seremban I end up in a small hotel with an extremely friendly owner. With the little English that he speaks he (tries to) explain(s) me everything that is there to see in Seremban for tourists (which isn't very much). Without encountering anything that really impresses me, I ride all the way to Melaka - the next day. Somewhere in the outskirts of this town I loose all my sense of direction and I manage to see almost all roads of this former Dutch town before I find the city center. Suddenly I'm in front of the Stadthuys ('town hall' in Dutch)! Somewhere I must have taken a wrong turn... Or haven't I?

Looking for a guest house I zigzag through the surroundings of this old Dutch looking building. The first guest house that seems affordable is Tony's Guest House (for his guest houses' address see under Links!). Fabulously clean, nice atmosphere and just over 4 Euros a night. Tony is the proud owner who has a stationary on the ground floor. All together this is definitely one of the best guest houses I've ever stayed in! This is what you call value for money... And the rest of Melaka? The old colonialist part is nice to see; so I find a couple of old Dutch street names and houses. One museum after the other shows the history of the day that the Sumatran prince in exile started a town here.

Back again on my bicycle for the last two days to Singapore, my first big goal for this trip. Already in 1995 I started thinking about this trip. And back then it was especially meant as an environmentally friendly way to get to Irian Jaya. Because Island hopping with a bicycle didn't really appeal to me - which I now disagree with - I put Singapore as a goal. And on February 22nd of the year 2000 I ride the last 163 kms to this goal. But the welcome isn't particularly warm; not for this area!

As soon as I turn onto the last unavoidable 8 lanes highway just before Johor Bharu - which I have to cross first without any traffic light aid - it starts to rain. First just a few fat drops but soon enough I wonder which idiot got the idea to replace the Niagara falls straight above this road!? Within five minutes I don't have a dry piece of clothing on my body and another 5 minutes later a white water river runs from my head over my belly to my crotch. Fortunately the border has a roof. The rain makes me change my plan to check all my luggage before the border for anything illegal someone else may have put in. But the Singaporean customs seem to have gone on strike. I don't see any person thinking of checking my luggage. The rain continues. Just across the border a car comes driving beside me. The window opens and a man inside informs me: 'Sir, it is raining!' I thank him for the information; I hadn't noticed...

This is about as exciting as can happen in Singapore. It appears to be a hopelessly boring city. It is too well organised, too clean, too perfect. The thing that makes life interesting - the unexpected - doesn't seem to happen here. In the beginning I don't even dare to fart for fear they will fine me! Singapore is a fine city; 500 dollars fine for smoking, 500 dollars fine for eating and drinking... All the while I have the feeling that someone follows me with a broom to swipe away the tracks I made. Even the trees seem to have been washed, but I wouldn't know how they do that. Singapore appears to be one huge hospital; and I'm not really fond of those.

Rarely I have been this happy to leave a city. After another two days of cycling over a road like the one before Istanbul - up and down and up and down forever - I reach the east coast of Malaysia. The following 500 kms is quite a boring landscape. To my right I have the see, beach and palms, in front of me a nice black road, and to my left the jungle and above me a clear blue sky with a nice sun. Five hundred kilometers. Swimming, camping at a rocks foot, staring into a campfire till late at night. Before breakfast next morning a wakeup swim. Fantastic this lifestyle. Five hundred kms isn't a very long distance in a flat landscape. So it doesn't take very long before I make it to Sungai Kolok for the first time. Unfortunately my new Thai visa is only valid for 30 days. I don't get more at the border. That is why I write this on a concrete railway station bench. Only in May I am expected in Indonesia, and I hope you forgive me for not waiting in Singapore, but in Bangkok. The head of the platform rings the bell, that means that the train is about to leave and that it is time I head for wagon 10, chair 40. Fortunately I have a seat. There are some people who have to stand for the full 1400 kms (22 hours)!!

Almost back in Bangkok I am in awe of a couple of young children in my wagon. The have been there since Sungai Kolok and I don't believe they're on drugs. Only the youngest one (I estimate about 3 years old) has cried for about 30 minutes of the full 22 hour ride. Sitting still between 120 other people. I really find this hard to believe, but I've seen it with my own eyes.

Banding Agung, 14 May 2000

Hi There!

Stiff and broken I came back to Bangkok. But the human body is a true miracle: all damage done by 44 hours uncomfortable travel recovers automatically in not more than a day. And then life in Bangkok continues as it did before my visa run.

Until April 27th. That day is the start of a very special month to me. I leave my bicycle in Bangkok and start a month of holiday together with Basia - my sister in laws sister; island hopping in Indonesia. As good travelers we change our plans three times during the first week. And because Basia is bored pretty easily - or is it very hard to bore me? - we add more and more to our plans. We start in Jakarta. After almost 2 years of Asia to me it's just another huge city. I can't suppress a small smile when Basia motivates her request to skip Irian Jaya: "I thought of Jakarta as a normal (European) city, but than warm and with palm trees. I wanted to go to Irian Jaya because I wanted to see something really different, something wild. But Jakarta is wild enough already."

From Jakarta we go by train to Yogyakarta. In Singapore we met someone who told us some wild east stories about this train ride so we decide to pay for first class. This way we both catch a cold; the air-conditioning inside the train has been turned on 'north pole temperature'. In Yogyakarta we find a very nice hotel which has hardly increased its prices since the huge inflation in '97. Yokyakarta turns out to be quite a laid back town with a very nice palace and a couple of batik tourist traps. The quality varies very much; the worst quality is called 'Coca Cola Batik' because of the colour of the water after you wash it once.

Next we pay a short visit to Bali. Here I have my first experience on a surfboard; fortunately for me there is not much of a swell... We also get ripped off by some money changers, but a noisy discussion makes them pay what they should. The next couple of nights we spend in Ubud, a 'traditional' village in the center of Bali; well, it is kept traditional for the hordes of tourists. Here we go crazy because of the people trying to sell us their transport: 'Hello, transport?' 'Yes please, to Amsterdam.' 'Ok, 10.000 Rupees' (less than 1 US$). But apart from that Ubud is worth the trip. Especially the local palace where every night the 'Ramayana' is performed. Accompanied by traditional music without bar lines the dancers dance in gorgeous outfits on the red carpet. It leaves quite an impression. The movements are trained till perfection. Even the movement of the eyes is prescribed! The story by the way doesn't have anything to do with the Ramayana as it is remembered in Janakpur (Nepal). People talking about the Ramayana over there mean the marriage of Rama, a male Hindugod. Here it's about a girl who loves one and has to marry the other. The one she admires starts a battle with her future husband and dies. The fight itself isn't shown on stage.

The following two days consist of next to nothing but travel. At night we do stay at a hotel, but the second day we race in a van to Danau Ranau, a beautiful mountain lake in the south of Sumatra. In the shore town where we are now, we are the attraction. Followed by an enormous group of children we walk past the lake and enjoy the beautiful nature. We also see something of the real traditional Sumatran life, with a hand operated petrol station and a bumpy but playable volleyball field...

We go to bed early, because as of tomorrow we'll be in a buses and boats for some 25 hours on our way to Melaka, Malaysia. The Indonesians and especially the Sumatrans start to work on our nerves. And before we start to hate them, we'd rather leave. They remind me a bit of Indians; Sumatra is a mild version of India, but I do not mind a little hurry to get off the island.

Bangkok, June 20th, 2000

Hi There!

The food I have gathered tonight is quite varied. 'Gathered' sounds like I've got into a time machine back to the time where each of us had to hunt for his own food. But that is not the case. Not many people in Bangkok make their own dinner. This is because - or the cause for this is, I don't know which - on every street corner there are a couple of restaurants on wheels. Fortunately at the corner of my street there's a bank where there is something that was originally meant as a parking lot. So quite a number of carts gather here; even one that is immovable! I walk to my street corner and start deciding what I feel like tonight. There is choice of 4 or 5 different styles of Noodle soup, fried noodles with fish and other seafood, different styles of rice with different kinds of meat, fish and vegetables. And there are the barbeques, the juice makers and the desert makers. The North East Thai cart with extremely spicy salad, fried chicken and sticky rice. Except for the salad I eat the last often for breakfast (those restaurants appear at 5.30 in the morning. Tonight I have chosen for fried rice with chicken, egg, bamboo and vegetables. While that was being prepared, I bought - elsewhere - four sticks of minced meatballs and a egg pancake for desert. Also I buy some sweets and a bottle to drink for while I'm writing this letter. This way I come inside the 7-eleven where I put some mustard with the minced meat. After that I go back to the place where they're preparing my fried rice. All together I have a very nice meal for under 2 US$. And another page to write about, otherwise this letter would be too short.

After Danau Ranau Basia and I haven't had too many adventures worth mentioning here. We have been in buses and boats for some 25 hours in order to get to Melaka. Indonesia was fun, but we were both quite happy to return into civilization. Malaysia was a pleasant change but still as boring as before. We went to Melaka, KL and the Cameron Highlands but I've written about that before. The only places new - for me - we went to is Penang - to me just a boring island city - and Krabi, a southern Thai town. The town itself is nothing at all. The night market is nice, but I've seen much more pleasant ones. The sad thing is that the outside of the Karaoke bars betray that the girls inside weren't hired for their beautiful voices... Sad, but true. Still, before we see anything of the Krabi surroundings Basia tells me: "The Thai seem so happy and joyful. There's always someone smiling or laughing..." I had tried to explain to her what it was that made me like Thailand so much; I couldn't put it any better.

The Krabi surroundings are gorgeous. Very much so. A very slowly into the sea descending landscape out of which here and there a couple of hundred meters high rock sticks out. Lot's of walls and cliffs to try your mountaineering skills. There are many caves with in many of them Buddhist temples. There are also some rubber plantation; finally I know why chewing gum is white. And then of course there is the sand and the sea in which I don't see a single jellyfish, but Basia gets stung by one. This landscape goes on below sea level as well. That means that there are hundreds of tiny rocky islands in front of the coast. Some really small, some slightly bigger. One was though suitable to shoot the James Bond picture 'The man with the Golden dun'. Secretly I'm a little jealous. He didn't have to stick to his tour group; he could get lost in these fantastic mangroves on his own. So far Basia has wanted a picture of herself and an exotic tree on every island we've been on; but these she can't stand next to... Too bad for her.

After Krabi we both start our trip home. First I drop Basia off across the border of Malaysia to make sure that she has a bus to Singapore. Then it takes me another 36 hours back home - i.e. to Bangkok. And another 36 hours later I'm teaching English to Thai primary school children. And that is what I've been doing till now. Lars has returned to Bangkok too and together we will make the last preparations for the big step to the new continent. The Asian part of my trip is finally over. The Thai dream is over too and finally I start doing what I went for back in '98...