While surfing on Facebook, I saw great pictures of mountains in Laos on of one of my friends’ profiles. After reading his notes and his diary, I immediately want to talk to him about his magnificent 3000 km of cycling through Indochina. So I contacted him on his return to Canada via Skype to learn more about this extraordinary adventure.
Interviewed January 29, 2011 with Frédéric Germain.
A: It is an old dream that I have had since 7-8 years ago when I graduated from the program of adventure tourism program at college Merici in Quebec City. That was when doors opened. I started working for an agency called http://www.detournature.com/l-equipe-269/l-equipe-348.html, there were trips by bike and I fell in love with biking with people who had experiences making many long trips. I started to travel for a weekend, for a week and later with all the experience of « backpacking » I had, I was thinking I could merge it into bags and be autonomous in bicycle. It is also an advantage to have met cyclists while I was with my backpack. Backpacking in bike does not depend on trains or buses like I have done a lot. It was the next logical step in the adventure of travel.
A: There are various preparations to overcome culture shock and destinations for anyone who does not have much experience. However, that was already settled for me. I had already travelled to Asia. It was more of the technical and mechanical aspect. Even though it was a couple of years since I have bike travelled, I was taking an advanced mechanics course during an intensive weekend with Cycle Technique (http://www.technocycle.ca). We took out our bracket, we removed our gear cables, brake, and we dismantled our hubs. I had a peace of mind with my bike because it is with this one that I’m doing my course. For physical preparation, I was already in shape. But anyone can get fit at the start of travel. You start by doing 30 to 40 miles a day. No need to kill yourself at work.
Did you get any special equipment or you used what you already own?
A: I’m already well-equipped, for working in the field of adventure travel. Instead, I « upgraded » my bike and bought waterproof bags, because I went there during the monsoon. It’s like bags of canoe camping. That is simply amazing because I spent some time in water holes where I had water up to pedal. The bags soaked in water, but it was not a problem.
A: I’d say it’s a dream that dates back to before I am with my current girlfriend. I had not put enough money aside. I told myself it’ll be a shorter trip to Latin America, Mexico and Central America. No matter to take the bus to the USA border and then ride to Mexico. It will come.
A: Yes, I delayed my project just because my girlfriend said she missed Asia, I said « Me too for sure I miss Asia!” It may delay the project a bit and it will be financially possible. In addition to my job I will ask for a sabbatical. After that, the question was, but where in Asia? There are also issues of temperature, if you spoke of Vietnam; the monsoon is more intense than in northern Laos. Laos is also a place I really wanted to visit. I already went to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos and I felt like I was missing something. With all the « feedback » I had from friends and from the job, I absolutely wanted to go there.
What did you miss the most when you were outside your comfort zone? Is there something to what you said to yourself: « I’d really like to have it?
A: It’s pretty hard to say. I felt pretty good about myself (laughter)! I am happy to have nothing on my mind. I was glad to not have an apartment to manage, not have 56 family and friends requests (even if often enjoyable, because I have good relationships around me). It feels good to « pull the plug ». Travel where I missed something that was more trips of a year or more. 3 ½ months when you have travelled a lot, it’s the equivalent of two weeks’ vacation for « Monsieur Madame entire world » without being pejorative.
A: Yes, even more than essential, because I knew very well that I could travel there without camping and be autonomous in terms of food. I still bring the smallest tent available, a small hostel sheet and a small stove for cooking, but it was really all things miniature and I did not even used it ; not even once. But it allowed me to see small pieces of countryside where I told myself that if I did not find accommodation and no food, it will not matter. I always found something. I do not know if it’s because I am turning 40, but honestly after a day of biking at 30-35 degrees, I was glad to have a shower.
A: No, the fact of going through Bangkok and other cities you can find everything you need. I’d say that my laptop, I would have liked to have it sometimes, especially seeing all the people who travel with a computer. However, I had a kind of small smartphone that I could still connect to WiFi when I was in big cities. Now with the beautiful little 10-inch laptops, next time I’ll bring one.
A:An Internet café may not always be ideal to write. Sometimes you want to be on a terrace and then do your own writing alone.
A: Not wait too many years before leaving. I am trying to reorganize my career so as to not have a job of 50 weeks per year, where at best you get four weeks of vacation per year if you stayed long enough in one place. I want to work from 6 to 9 months per year, because every year I want to have a « trip off with kayaking, biking or hiking. Because that’s life.
A: I have no children, I have no plans to have by choice. It is certain that it may change someday, but I still have a couple of years to be autonomous and independent.
A: The experience on the boat to cross from Thailand to China was simply amazing. I love sailing. Travel by boat has always been there. I read that was possible to take a boat on the Mekong River to go directly from Thailand to China. When I got there, it was a sort of tourist project that was not in progress and especially during monsoon. It was doubtful for the departure confirmation.
A: I requested for my visa before leaving Chiang Mai in Thailand. I asked the woman who took care of the tickets: « Do you know a private boat or anyone with whom I could go with?” She said that maybe someone could go with me to the port. Then a guy comes in and we make the tour of the boats. He says « This boat if you’re willing to pay a small amount ». I remember, but it was cheaper than the official boat. It was a small Chinese cargo. I’m going to a grocery store and I am preparing myself to sleep on bags of rice. Not at all… they made me share the cab of the cook and I ate like a king during the 5 days I was on the boat. That was a crew of five Chinese who did not speak a word of English. Somewhat difficult to understand. It was pretty intense. At one point we stopped at Myanmar because they were unloading the goods as the Chinese do not pay port charges. We spent three days there. I did not know what happened … It was quite an experience.
Which country did you like the most in your trip
A: Yes, once in particular when I was to travel on this new road that was still under construction. Something I wanted to do in 2 days, but it only allowed me one day. The road began deteriorate … hazardous! I tried to gesture to workers to explain where I was going, in the language of symbols showing them a map. I backed on my steps and went around. They told me no,the road will get better as you move along .
So there I was with « mud » to the pedal. It was 35 degrees. I get to a point where it was not improving. There were no more vehicles, a sort of work camp with a tarp. I was told to forget it!
There was a landslide as I have seen a lot in China. Dude you have to go back on board … I was back in all the « shit » I had spent … I even stopped in a river for an hour « cleaning » my bike. All components were full of mud. The mud was like clay. It stuck onto the tires, it drove back into the fenders and the wheels blocked. I tried to get help, but all was laughing at me … It was incredible!
When you returned home do you see life differently ?
A: Just like every trip returned, I’ll tell you more because I was self-cycling, we really live « in cotton wool » in North America. We complain so much about nothing. This is a classic, we hear so often. Everyone who comes back from travel, it’s good to put it back in your face every time. Health care … Haaaa health care … Damn, take a look outside a bit, then the waiting time to emergency here is like peanuts. We always compared to our neighbours … more you have, the more you want.
A: here the subject of the hour is the problem of credit and debt. So screw a little less on credit and live at the present, you can make trips. People tell me « How did you do it? 3 months travelling?” It’s your car right? How did you pay it? 5-6 thousand dollars? Me, with that, I can travel for 6 months.
How do you sleep and go to the bathroom?
A: Cycling is mostly on road circuits, apart from the road under construction that I mentioned earlier. That day was more « jungle style, » but in general it’s not isolated like when you go sea kayaking or trekking. Road bike for me is a comfortable journey.
A: I could not get lost or be in deep trouble. Once I had a major bike problem in Cambodia . I stopped a tractor that took me to the next village. There was no hotel and no official bicycle repairman. It’s a small family who repair scooter and bicycles for village people who have it repaired and that hosted me.
A: I’m really a big turning professional, I spoke of earlier of work that will make me busy for 6 to 9 months per year. I go to a seasonal, for sure I give myself a year to make another trip. There’s sailing that begins to tease. I make every effort to get away from navigation. Next summer I’ll try to make training and sailing certification so it’s for later in time.
A: The adventure in Cambodia was really big help that I was not thinking when I asked the guy if the tractor had a hotel or guesthouse. He started laughing. At worst I will camp and repair the bicycle myself. It was late afternoon and was getting dark. « You can sleep at our house and my brother will fix it » he said. That’s when I saw a big difference. Without prejudice, in China, I would not have had much luck.
A: I went to China to make peace with the Chinese. Malaysia and Indonesia, compared to all my travels, the place where I had the most difficulty in this journey was with the Chinese. I must go in this country see how they work that I’m saying to myself. I’m happy because I met so many lovely people. With the Chinese youth, all the old guard who are in politics now will be replaced by a new generation. There really is hope with this people, but there lot of job to do …
A: No, should I really am indebted to the ears and naked outside in the street to consider me poor. I’m probably in the highest percentage of poor Canadians. I have small needs. There are some who have a big house and both work, but they must calculate before going to the movies this weekend …
A: That’s what hit me the most … on pride because I knew what I was getting in the north of Laos and China I had to forget English. But we are always not preparing enough. Before going on sabbatical, I worked like crazy. I had no free time. Sure linguistically I must put more emphasis on my preparation before go. It’s funny all the time to communicate with your little « phrasebook ». This is also something that I really used a lot this little book. Be more independent on the language is pretty important.
A: Thailand, it remains a paradise for food, and even though I prefer Laos and Cambodia as a culture. I am a vegetarian and even vegan, but when I travel I do not eat just that. You need protein when you ride your bike. Thailand, how they cook, with plenty of vegetables, it’s wonderful. Often in poorer countries like Laos, it will be a noodle soup with meat ball. But in Thailand there will be lots of vegetables.
A: What I ate more disgusting, and I’m quite open about the food, I tasted everything, I’d say it’s in China. There was a kind of meat was served to me … it would probably be « abbat ». It’s not bad, I had already eaten in France, but they have the touch they serve it in a thick sauce … For a vegetarian, eating offal is pretty extreme …
A: The worst case, I remember, was in Thailand before crossing into Laos. There is a kind of Mekong catfish, which is very popular. It’s a fresh catch and they have a way of preparing it and it is very very salty. It’s a sticky red fish … That … I cannot. I ate snake in Indonesia, lamb balls in Jordan, insects in Thailand, but that this catfish there, I worked hard …
A: Yuanyang rice fields in China … surreal. It was bright shades of green depending on time of day, in waterlogged rice fields. The mountains of northern Laos was pretty top too.
A: Always remain calm and cold blooded. Especially in Buddhist culture, if you lose your temper you are a poor unfortunate. You have to work your character, you must be patient, sociable, tolerant, accepting the misfortunes and seeds when they arrive. Avoid losing your temper and be patient.
A: The peaceful and calm side of the Lao people. The Laotians are so serene. In fact, their philosophy is centred on fun. If you do not have fun, you better drop it. Even if they are in difficult financial situations, whether they work or they are exploited, underpaid and unhappy, they’ll get out of this situation even if they have no plan « b ». Or they will find a way to smile and have fun.
A: It was with the Chinese. I’m happy because I dropped some prejudices I had. I came to a conclusion … is that the average Chinese does not burst out laughing regularly! It`s like that. If you want to share laughter and tears, going to Nepal, go to Laos, but is less in China than you will expect.
A: The country where I was warmly welcomed as is the Muslim countries.
A: Yes, it rocks all the bad reputation that the media give to certain countries. Obviously this is not about to be opened, but within a few years if things are settled I would go to Afghanistan for example. Countries that have passed through many difficulties and wars, when they see a foreigner that has an open mind to go there, they welcome you with open arms. Iran and Syria are the countries that have the strongest level of warmth and love of the people … when you say that to someone … he falls off his chair!
A: I would tell you that I have so much curiosity and a pleasure to travel there is none. China, go back, I’d be more selective about the places I would visit. I’ve been in India for sure that it is a country where I’m going to set foot one day.
A: There is a barrier for adaptation at the beginning to overcome, then after that when you want to go to India you go ahead. It’s so huge, the south is quieter and less populated, I mix it with a trip to Myanmar, because this time I could not go because of delays to get a visa with the elections approaching. Myanmar would really like that!
What you brought for electronic gadget?
R: A smartphone and a watch with an altimeter. It’s a gift that I had from my job when I started working because I was going to Karavaniers guide in Nepal at altitude. I could have a GPS, but I did not bring it. In Thailand I had a local SIM card in my smartphone to make calls, and on my bike an odometer to calculate my distance.
A: You can make an approximation of 3000 km, it is sure that this is not huge for 3 and half months..
A: I really spent periods stopped. I do meditation retreats (www.dhamma.org) on an annual basis as possible, and when I was in Asia, I am offered two in Thailand, one in the beginning of the journey and at the end. That for me, retreats for 10 days, is part of the best experiences of my trip. Even if it’s something completely different. It may seem surreal, but it’s something that changed my life in Nepal, that’s almost ten years ago. When I travel to places where I can make these retreats far in Buddhist countries, I do it.
A: It put values to ‘right place!
A: Absolutely. I try to encourage people to travel by bicycle. It’s like you say, at their level. It’s easy to say I’m not fit enough! Take this opportunity to get in shape! If you’re not into camping and adventure too, Europe has the means someone who can travel to Bed and Breakfast very comfortable. Or agencies for which I worked before? (Www.detournature.com and www.surlaroute.ca). And making small distances, like 40 miles a day, you will be in shape before you know it. 100 km of bike in a day that is easily spread over 6-8 hours ..
A: Yes, that’s it. There are destinations where you can easily rent a bike in the long term. I saw a small family, a couple with 2 children. They bought bikes in Bangkok and bags. They left with this, when there had too much hills or too much distance, they boarded the bikes on the bus. It was the first time they had a long bike trip, since they have children. They do not buy bikes to break everything. You do not have to have a $2000 bike!
I remember … you have a friend like that who left Quebec with an old bicycle and 10 dollars … He told his friends « I just join you in Vancouver » (on the other side of Canada, more than 4000 km away). Two months later he was knocking at the door. He arrived with his crappy bike and his $ 10. There is nothing impossible. Thank you again, maybe it’ll give our readers a taste of what it’s like to travel a little less comfortable and go exploring. Greeting my friend, pleasure to speak again.