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August 16, 2018

Embracing the CYCLE of life

Anshuman Mohan lets loose on a cycling odyssey from Singapore to Hanoi

Anshuman Mohan

THE Seasoned Budget Traveller is a funny specimen. She understands, almost instinctively, how much money to exchange and where cheap hostels are. Experience has also made her wary: She doesn’t tell the shady taxi driver her real destination, hides her money in three different places, and refuses offers of pre-cut fruit with a certain firm politeness.

Interestingly, I discovered the joy of occasionally shunning this well-worn caution a few years ago, when three friends and I cycled 3,700km from Singapore to Hanoi in 78 days. One of my biggest moments of personal growth came from embracing, baring, and celebrating my vulnerability when on the road.

Bicycle touring is exactly what it sounds like. We needed to get from A to B with our bikes, with nothing but the two bags that we had each strapped onto our vehicles; no route markers, no support cars or crew waiting at the next pit stop.

Vulnerability, then, was a constant and harrowing theme of our trip. Unlike, say, a backpacker who falls ill in rural Thailand, we couldn’t just hop onto the next lorry with a promise of payment in the next big town. If one of our bikes broke down on the highway in the baking heat, there was nothing to do but stop, pull out our tools, and start taking the bike apart. If someone drove up and offered us a lift, we had to say no because they couldn’t fit us all even if they weren’t trying to rob us.

We had never felt so exposed. Any stranger could see just how tired, lost, and unresourceful we were. In the best case, this would all make a great story for a grandchild, but what would we do if things got really bad? Sit on the road and cry? As it happens, it was this very helplessness that evolved into something quite beautiful and came to define large parts of our trip.

I don’t know what inspired us to lower our guard in the second half of our journey.

It was certainly not a rational decision. The truth is that being vigilant and guarded is, simply, exhausting. I suspect the four of us just got tired and sloppy.

Instead of hiding our vulnerability behind a facade of maps and sunscreen, we adopted a new strategy — walk up to the first little provision store we would spot, buy a little something, and then explain to the nice proprietor that we were tired, lost and unresourceful. “Phisau, is it okay if we sit outside your store, lean our bikes on that wall, and wait for the sun to go down?” The answer: Always an enthusiastic yes. We had used the Thai word for elder sister.

The phisaus and their families would join us in the shade, ask to see our tan lines, and tell us how many kilometres it was to the next town.

We would show them our cuts and bruises and malaria pills, and all the different ways that our bikes were threatening to fall apart. Sometimes we would pull out our ukulele, fashion a drum kit from tables and stools, and have a little jam session.

It would begin to get dark and questions would arise: “Is anyone expecting you at the next big town? Why don’t you just spend the night in this village? We have a spare room and two of you would even have a mattress!” The Seasoned Budget Traveller knows that the only correct answer to such a question is a white lie. “Yes, we’re meeting friends in the next town who will worry and may call the police. We must really get going.” We didn’t say that. Instead, we laughed and said: “Well, actually, we’re so lost that you’re the only people in the world who know where we are. And yes, of course we’ll stay, provided you let us help with dinner.” 

The catharsis was exquisite.

I’m not saying that we should all start prancing through rural Laos and Thailand with a passport, a hundred dollars, and a smile. The world has only so many kindly provision shop owners, and, sooner or later, we will meet someone who is desperate, opportunistic, or poor enough to rob us blind.

But despite all the times we got into trouble, that summer was the most significant journey of my life, and I know it was so special only because we opened up to more people than we ever should have. There is a balance we must strike here, and regardless of how and where and how often we travel, we need to think carefully about where our personal scale tips. Sometimes the wariness that smoothens our travels actually gets in the way of our journeys.


TIPS FOR PLANNING A LONG DISTANCE CYCLING TRIP

1. If this is your first tour, start off slow. Consider travelling for only a few days, biking to a town around 20km away in the morning and then resting and exploring on foot for the rest of the day. Eventually you will be comfortable with longer distances, in the range of 100km per day.

2. It is important to be  flexible in your plans, but, at the same time, well-versed about the important stuff: Mark out where you plan to cross borders and check on the weather (when biking through north-eastern Vietnam, we read about a typhoon coming our way from Hainan, so we made sure we would be in a relatively larger and better-equipped town when it struck). Also, keep an eye on the news — the 2014 Thai military coup started two days after we entered Thailand and ended a week before we left. We adjusted our route to avoid politically charged cities and modified our daily routine to meet the curfew hours.

3. Stay healthy. Nothing ruins a trip like a bout of malaria. Take your pills, pay attention to food hygiene, and don’t forget to hydrate. If you do fall ill, stop biking immediately and treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

4. On a day-to-day basis, aim to stop at larger towns that will likely have accommodation for you. We had no reservations, but gave ourselves ample daylight time to find a hostel or hotel. Sometimes, we would even visit the local Buddhist monastery and request to sleep there.

5. Learn some of the language and customs of the places you are travelling through. Because you will be cycling, you will be accessing small villages that tourists almost never make it to. It is unreasonable to expect people to know the English word for “toilet” or “vegetarian”.

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