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January 18, 2015 by David

a night train and a perfect day

The second instalment of the exploration our Northeast Vietnam tour.
Cycling the hills of northern vietnam

 Back in the summer of 2011 Phong and I set put to explore a route for a new tour in NE Vietnam, a ride that turned out to be one of the best cycling journeys I have been on. The following is from my blog at the the time.

Try as I might I couldn’t get back to sleep; the pleasing green glow of my watch told me that we should arrive in Lao Cai station in half an hour anyway, so donning my shorts I jumped down from my upper bunk to great the day. I peered from the window, “It’s raining” I said little disgruntled. “Oh yes, it’s the raining season” said Phong enthusiasticly. The journey had been quite splendid. We had a cosy AC sleeper compartment that slept four; Phong and I, and a pair of Vietnamese businessmen who provided seemingly convivial conversation for Phong and occasional close company for me as the chap in the bunk opposite to mine scrambled and flayed alarmingly as he tried to get to and from his bed, and, during the turmoil generally ended up clambering around my bunk for a while before apologising profusely and commencing some interesting acrobatics as he tried once again to access his own bed.

We clambered down from the train, “it’s cold” I said, “oh yes” said Phong, it’s the rain season”.

The rain ceased within an hour and we made our way along a lovely narrow winding road, all but devoid of traffic. The road climbed and fell through plantations of rubber, banana, cinnamon, and fig as well as tapioca, which I thought, until Phong informed me I was a fool, was marijuana.

We lunched at a convivial little spot where, it would appear from his popularity with the jovial hostess and her family, Phong dines regularly. We sat for a while after lunch digesting and observing the increase in temperature and the lack of decrees in humidity. The sun was by now having a look at the day and was encouraging the recent rain to evaporate, turning Vietnam into a sauna. It took quite some cajoling and encouraging, as well as a few prods with a small stick to get Phong away from the fan and onto his bike. “How hot is it do you think?” he asked as he threw a leg over his bike. I checked, it was thirty nine degrees.

cycling the hills of northern vietnam

cooling of at a road side fountain

I find that below 35ºC I function quite normally, above I begin to feel warm, a tad sweaty, and somewhat lethargic. Fortunately as the altitude increased the temperature dropped. 37, 36, 35. When it reached 34º I became concerned about the clothing I had with me. I was travelling with just summer clothes and started to lament not bringing a couple of layers of marino wool. “I could buy something” I told myself, and then I realised that it was still 34ºC and that hyperthermia was unlikely.

The following day dawned cool and overcast, I know that is how it dawned because my companion had expressed a keenness to leave early and, being the considerate soul I am, I did all I could to accommodate and consequently very nearly witnessed the day dawn. Not only did it dawn convivially for cycling it also proved to be one of the finest days cycling I have had for………well, one of the finest days cycling I have had. It was steep and rough and rural. Most of the ride was on unsealed tracks close to the Chinese border, trough scenery that, at the risk of using overworked cliches was fairy tale like, Lord of the Rings-esque, beautiful, stunning, remote and, well, it was just wonderful.

As you may have gathered, I am enjoying this ride, and very much looking forward to whatever may lay ahead.

vietnamese rural fuel pump

a rural petrol station

The way was populated by minority people. In the beginning we had Flowery Hmong, so called because they are Hmong and unlike the Black Hmong who favour black, they wear bright multi coloured skirts and colourful hats. There were Blue Tay who were distinguishable from the Green Tay, with whom they seemed to get along very well, by their blue skirts and hats. There are many minority peoples in Lao and Vietnam and China, and in general so far as I can ascertain the only difference between them is the colour of the ladies hats and shirts and skirts, all that is except for the Dzao People who are distinguishable by their overwhelming lack of beauty. It strikes me as quite astonishing that in a country populated by the most remarkable abundance of remarkably beautiful women there should be one small group of people who are so visually unappealing. There was a comic when I was a lad called The Eagle that in one story featured a race of aliens (weather goodies or baddies I cannot recall for sure, baddies I suspect though) who had the most incredibly huge foreheads, and as a result were rather un-hansom. Whenever I see the Dzao people it is these aliens that spring to mind. I mentioned this to Phong and he assures me that their foreheads are no bigger than normal and they too are beautiful, their’s is a look that is cultured and cherished and amongst themselves is considered the hight of visual agreeability. The look is created apparently with over zealous use of a razor, and I, apparently, am an ‘uncultured philistine’

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Unpaved trails

The ride was, as I have mentioned, quite wonderful. Like many wonderful things though it did not come without a little effort, or what at some stages we considered to be considerable effort. The tracks were in places quite rough and rocky, and the climbs were of a gradient where putting enough power through the peddles to chivy the bicycle into motion was enough to have a chap quickly sitting on the ground behind his bicycle wondering quite how he had got there.

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a beautiful rural road

Vietnamese mountain biker and water buffaloes

Biker and buffaloes

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gravel road NE Vietnam

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cycling past rice terraces north Vietnam

Rice terraces north Vietnam

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me on a train

 

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January 14, 2015 by David

From the archives: the story of our northeast vietnam tour exploration

Three and a half years ago I was feeling disillusioned, a little lost and more than a tad jaded. It was my old chum Phong who came to the rescue when he insisted we head north and explore a region we had been talking about cycling through together ever since we first met a few years earlier. And so it was that I first visited the fairytale like hills, valleys, and plateaus of Northeastern Vietnam. It was a journey that revived my passion for adventure cycling and put me back on the right track, a track I have happily back on ever since. And with our next Northeast Vietnam tour due to begin on March the 8th I thought it might be timely to re-publish the original blog posts from that exploration of South East Asia’s best kept cycling secret.

So without further ado the first post from the middle of the rain season in the summer of 2011.

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A mischievous countenance flickered across his face with eyes twinkling and the faint grin of a naughty schoolboy playing across his lips. I am used to seeing this when he is explaining to a beautiful Vietnamese girl just why it is that she would be the luckies girl to ever have been born if she were to become my wife, or at least, that is what he explains to me that he is telling her as she looks me up and down doubtfully. On this occasion though the only beautiful ladies are whizzing past on motor-scooters, there are only the two of us in the bar, or to be more precise sitting on ankle high stools at a shin high table on a pavement that masquerades as a bar. I drain my beer and order two more. “you mean to tell me that it could well rain all the time?” “Oh yes” says Phong by now having dropped the subtlety of the flickering boyish grin and fallen into a high degree of mirth at my state of dismay, “and lots of mud, last week it began to rain one day in Hanoi and it didn’t stop for a week, it is the rain season you know”.

Having spent the past eleven years living in the tropics I have come to take the rain season with a pinch of salt. For sure you are likely to have rain in the rain season, it would be a travesty of a moniker for a season were there not a drop of rain, but rain all the time. “You could have mentioned this before” I tell him flicking beer at him, he laughs, “then I would not be about to set out on an adventure with this good friend of my grandfather” he says through a frantic spate of laughter.

Whenever one reads tales or sees films of high adventure the protagonist, always a rugged handsome masculine sort of a chap of high intellect and an unrivalled knowledge of far of places, never seems to be troubled by extremes of weather. He will endure weeks of endless rain in dreadful cold and muddy conditions as though he hasn’t even noticed that he is anywhere other than a beach in the South of France during the most agreeable part of July. He crosses desserts in blistering heat and never suffers sunburn, dehydration, or the misery of having thrown all his clothes away only to be shocked to find that the temperature plummets hideously soon after sunset. He can wander knee deep through snow all day and never once complain that his feet are causing him misery of biblical proportions and that snow has found its way into the upper reaches of his long-johns. I, on the other hand, make a poor adventurer. I dislike discomfort with a passion. Come day’s end I am far keener to retire on a comfy bed following a hearty restaurant meal and a medicinal glass or two of red than settle down on the floor of a cave, or shelter from a deluge beneath a rhinoceros, or sleep on a string bed having dined on leaves and larva courtesy of a jolly and hospitable peasant family in the back end of beyond.

 

We return our attention to the map and Phong goes back to explaining potential routes,  The plan is to take a night train to the Chinese border and spend two weeks cycling in the Central and North East Highlands, areas that, if my understanding of the shading on my map is anywhere near correct, well deserve their names, “This will be a very tough day” he tells me, again. I am becoming disturbed, we are on day five and five times now Phong has told me that ‘this will be a tough day’. I tell him this and he explains “oh yes, two very big passes to cross on this day”. “Ah, so two long down hills then?” I ask with optimism “yes, and two long up hills. This will be fine for me as I am young, but for you you poor old friend of my grandfather, I have a rope to tow you, you are an old man”.

Our journey should take us a couple of weeks and will, by all accounts, be hilly. Much of the route is very close to the Chinese border, a sensitive area of remote villages and traditional tribal folks who no doubt dine on leaves and larvae, and as all minority people do, wear odd hats.

We set out this evening on the night train to Sapa, or thereabouts. Best I get on and assemble my bicycle.

 

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Phong considers the route

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Looks hilly to me

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Ready for dinner

B&W beer barely in Hanoi

Bia hoi, the local light beer at 3 pints for a pound

B&W photo noodle soup Vietnam

breakfast

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A street hawker

B&W of Hanoi railway street scene

The central Hanoi railway runs right past people homes

B&W Hanoi street scene of railway and houses

I mean right past the houses

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November 4, 2014 by David

South Thailand Round Up

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I now sit aboard a flight bound for Colombo, from where I intend to set out once again looking over possibilities for a new PaintedRoads cycling tour in Sri Lanka.
The airport I have just watched disappear below wispy white clouds is Phuket, where a very pleasant month of Thailand tours drew to a timely conclusion. I have already rambled on about the success of our inaugural North Thailand tour, and so will trouble you no more with tales of just how much fun riding through the beautiful countryside that borders Burma and Lao is. Instead I would like to quickly say just how much fun the beachside riding in the south has been. As is the norm in Thailand these days the weather was a mix of clear sky and cloudy days, with lots of those big fluffy clouds that look so beautiful from the ground but cause your wine to spill over your britches if your airline pilot doesn’t notice them in time.

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New for this tour was a foray deeper into the Kao Sok Park than usual. We have always visit the beautiful lake created by Ratchaprhapa Dam, but passing the park without going further in has been niggling away at me for a while, and with a wonderful jungle resort built on the side of a natural amphitheatre not so far off of our route I finally decided to see how it would work as part of the tour – “absolutely stunning, do you think we can have two nights here please?” Was how Marry from near Oxford summed it up. So that’s that decide then, an extra night incorporated into a tour that is constantly evolving and improving; as Natt and I discussed, this tour had never been the same twice. What’s new for next time? A rather stunning new resort and, for February only, a special offer for those wishing to join both the North and the South tours, more of which soon. For now, Sri Lanka time.

Cheerio for now

D

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October 19, 2014 by David

Cycling North Thailand – a splendid inaugural tour

cycle tourists on dirt road and razor wire fence

Following the Burmese border en-route to the Lao border

A Brand New Tour – Northern Thailand

There has been much interest in PaintedRoads’ brand-new tour through Northern Thailand. It is a beautiful tour that was lots of fun to put together, but as always with a first tour it is not until a group of keen cyclists have tried the ride out and given feedback that a proper appraisal can be made. For this first ride the the experience ranged from Carol and Pete from West Coast USA to PaintedRoads very own cycling lab-rat Kevin, from the home town of the Venerable Bard of Avon, Stratford.

bicycle tourist hilly road north thailand

One of the finest cycling roads in Thailand gently undulates along a beautiful ridge loosing a thousand metres of altitude over forty kilometres, a fun road was the verdictt.

light touring bike in bike-packing mode hills of north thailand

The climb to Pu Chi Fa offers some stunning views and is an official transfer on the ride, when you see the gradients you will understand why.

The tour according to the US adventurers:

Carol, who for three years was president of America’s Adventure Cycling Asociation, and her husband Pete know me from a Tibet tour a few years since.  Now retired they generally spend the autumn, or fall as they like to term it, on a cycling expedition somewhere in the world. This year they plumped for a multi nation exploration of SE Asia, and I am honoured to say that they chose PaintedRoads to organise the first three legs of their epic foray through the region that has become my adopted home. As veterans of Tibet and Patagonia I was left wondering if they would find the ride challenging enough. As it turned out there was no need for concern as they lapped up the beauty of the scenery, the diversity of cultures, the mixture of cycling terrain, the delicious Thai food and the ever present chuckles when Natt and I took a wrong turn.

cycling off road in thailand

Pete and Carol exploring the byways of North Thailand

The tour according to our very own lab-rat:

I first met Kevin a few years back when he joined a brand new tour I had created between Bangkok and Phuket. He must have enjoyed the experience as he keeps coming back for more and has now done more firsts with me than anyone else – first South Thailand, first South Vietnam, and now first Northern Thailand – a list of firsts that earns the dear and jovial fellow the coveted moniker of Lab-rat. Now Kevin knows a lot of PaintedRoads regulars and so, when people asked ‘how is the tour?’ I replied, best we wait for the word according to Kevin. And so it was that Kevin became, for a while, as important to bicycle tours asThe Man From Del Monte was to tinned fruit, and come tour’s end, the Man From Stratford, he said ‘YES!’

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Kevin, The Man From Stratford, he says “yes!” Cheers Kevin

Is it for you?

For anyone familiar with PaintedRoads’ cycling tours of Southern Thailand and Southern Vietnam the general opinion is that the physical demand of the North Thailand tour is similar, assuming of course that you take the transfers for the mind bogglingly daft ascents to Mai Salong and Pu Chi Fa. That is to say it is a fun ride offering some fine days cycling without the demands of the protracted climbs found in North Vietnam, Lao, and China’s Yunnan Province.

If you are interested in a great winter escape PaintedRoads’ next North Thailand Tour is during the first two weeks on February 2015, and if you have the time to stay on in Asia why not maximise your time and join the South Thailand tour directly afterwards and get twice the fun from your long haul flight? For further details please email me.

As always Natt takes care of the tour with a constant smile, merriment and good will

two men on a thai elephant near chiang rai

Swapping the bikes for an elephant we visit a Karen village…

two bicycle on a river boat on the meakok river

and then back on the bikes ’till the road runs out, at which point we take to the river for the final hour of the day’s journey

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We manage to find some roads along the way that are rather light of traffic

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October 3, 2014 by David

A Wonderful Tour of Northeast Vietnam

beautiful views over north east vietnam mountains

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“Wow, you have really understated the beauty and drama of this region, this is stunning” was just one of many comments that I was very happy to hear on what was an absolutely marvellous tour of Northeast Vietnam last month. The new section of the tour that takes us up onto a high plateau close very close to the Chinese border was, as is always the case with introducing a new element to a tour, something about which I was a little apprehensive. So when David, a very experienced traveler who has cycled all over the world said to me “this is the best days cycling I have had” I was as pleased as Punch.

The whole tour was such a pleasure, with a wonderful group of nine people who gelled wonderfully were a delight to be with and I am very much looking forward to seeing again.

For now a final few words those who were there and a few pics from the tour:

Jan from Oz:

NE Vietnam is a very special place,  and I can’t imagine doing it any other way than on a bicycle – with Painted Roads of course.  I was so sorry it was over. Could have done it all over again! So thank you for making it such a memorable trip.  Great organisation,  great fun,  but also great care and concern when some of us were wilting in the extreme heat. And thanks to Phong,  Mr Thang and Mr Chung. What a team. Looking forward to the next one!”

Phil from London:

“A wonderful trip and a fantastic way to get a glimpse into the lives of the local peoples whilst enjoying great cycling amongst the most stunning scenery imaginable. Expertly run by David whose inexhaustible supply of good humour, energy and beer, in conjunction with Phong and his local team, meant even the toughest days were superb fun. And, astonishingly, Mr Tang’s chips lived up to the hype”.

Cycling Tam Son North Vietnam

Cycling across the rice fields

Valley near Don Vang

Winding through valleys, over passes and across plateaus, it’s all beautiful cycling

three cyclists riding through northeast Vietnam

A final climb then it’s down hill all the way to a well deserved beer.

cycling the final 9 kilometre climb before our mammoth 27 KM downhill

A misty start to the final day’s cycling as Typhoon Kalmaegi passes by a little way off. The sun was out though for the 27 kilometre down hill that follows this little climb

cycling through a deep Vietnamese valley

A lone cyclist waves as he passes through this deep valley that is home to the Hmong people

Looking out over the high plateau bordering China

“The best day’s cycling ever” was just one of the very positive comments delivered with an ear to ear smile about the new section used for the first time this tour.

Vietnamese cyclist

Mr Phong resplendent in his bright new cycling hat

bia hoi, Hanoi's fresh local beer

The group rehydrates, cheers all!

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August 8, 2014 by David

Cycling Sri Lanka – a small island of amazing contrast

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The sun, still low in the early morning sky flashes through the gaps in the hedgerows as with a song on my lips and a childish joy in my soul I sweep effortlessly through the smooth curves of this most beautiful of descents. I stop and removed my gilet, as with each kilometre of downhill and every minute into the new day the air warms. I check my watch, I have lost 900 metres in a little over 20KMS. The green of the tea plantations is now replaced by the the even more vivid green of rice fields. I ride on, now crossing the undulations of a wide straight road leading south. I enjoy being able to stretch my legs cycling on a smooth rolling highway, and in what seems like just a few moments another twenty kilometres is behind me. I turn west on a small bumpy byway and friendly folks wave from their porches and from the dirt trails leading across parched savannah.

A group of young monks play in the grounds of their temple and I pull over the great them Excited by the arrival of an adventurous stranger on touring on a bicycle they leave their play and grab for their monastic robes so as to be properly dressed to great me. As the monks gown up the robes below in the wind and the bright sun, now high in the sky, lights up the bright orange cloth adding beautiful dashes of colour to the lovely monastery grounds.

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Moving along I skirt around the National Park where this new Painted Roads cycling tour will over night in a safari camp. As I cruise along the bank of the lake a wild elephant wanders to the boundary fence, eyeing the passing stranger’s bicycle with the same fascination that this rider admires this huge beast.

In just a few short hours of cycling I have passed from the cool fertile green hills of the high country, with its beautiful colonial architecture and aged tea factories, to the heat and arid land of the low country. Another 60KMS will see me on the coast with its rugged rocky coves and long sandy beaches. Sri Lanka is proving to be every bit as wonderful a cycling destination as I had hoped. Now to polish the route and finalise the tour and we should be good to go next summer.

tea plantations around ella sri lanka

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wild elephant sri lanka cycling tour

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July 30, 2014 by David

Wheeling Through The Tea Country – a ride through Sri Lanka’s hills

bicycle touring though Sri Lanka

Through the forest – descending from Horton Plains

Sitting on my balcony drinking stout from a pint glass filled me with a cozy sense of familiarity. That the air was chilly and I was watching the mist roll over the hills and the town below left me with the nostalgic feeling of sojourning in the English Lake District of a summer. At nearly 2000 metres above sea level Nuwera Eliya was a favourite haunt for the colonial British escaping the heat of the plains, and with such an English feel to the climate it comes as little surprise. A boating lake and race course, the smell of vegetable gardens, country clubs and lost in time hotels from the days of the Raj all combine to provide a wonderful flavour of a time gone by.

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Even monks need a phone, direct line to nirvana perhaps

Leaving Nuwera Eliya I drop through the mist into glorious sunshine through a series of sweeping corners on a pristine road surface. Turing off I am soon cycling along a narrow lane with a surface of colonial vintage that leads through fragrant tea plantations up and up through the sweet sent of pine trees. At small lost in time railway stations no one huries or bustles as people wait lazily for a slowly chugging train that will arrive, eventual, and leave when it is good and ready. Friesian cows graze and in small hamlets that have grown up around the station’s friendly shop keepers smile as they greet me with a friendly wave or a cheery “good morning sir”. I wheel on to Horton Plains where, at nearly 2200 metres, there is the eerie silence that always accompanies rolling mist. A tailwind takes hold of me and blows my machine and me swiftly across the moor, and when the mist parts I am treated to flashes of sunlight on the hills far below. And then to the descent – I drop down on a single lane byway below the mist, and thought the eucalyptus trees are glimpses of the plains far far below, bathing in sunshine and stretching off to the south coast.

My days cycling through Sri Lanka’s Hill Country have been rather wonderful, now to the plains and on to the coast.

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Cycling company from some local lads

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Horton Plains rest stop

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Dramatic scenes on Horton Plains

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July 25, 2014 by David

Sri Lanka – A New Tour Is Brewing

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Knuckles Range, at 1100 metres my fist foray into the hills

The Land of Smiles, a moniker oft used to describe Thailand, but if every there was a land of smiles it must surly be here in Sri Lanka. Wherever I go I am never far from a beaming smile and an oh so polite “good morning sir”. And there is another beauty of this land, the language – English is very widely spoken meaning that getting an insight into the culture is far easier and more direct than in many other Asian Countries, a positive boon for sure.

It was April 2011 when last I cycled in Sri Lanka and I knew then it was a beautiful country for a cycling tour, only I did not have a medium through which to offer such a tour to the many people I know very well will enjoy wheeling thought this beautiful little island on a bicycle. So as soon as PaintedRoads was conceived Sri Lanka was very high on my list of tour destinations, and now, with a little time spare before my summer sojourn in England I am on my first of two visits to Ceylon, this time to get an overview, next time to finalise tour details. For now a few pics from the road – more to come soon.

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Quite what possessed my when I packed the Salsa Vaya this time I can’t being to wonder, but I ma carrying far more than needed for a trip through such a compact island

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Anuradaphura in the Cultural Triangle is a fitting stat point for a tour of Sri lanka
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Our friendly tuk-tuk driver who showed us around town

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This canal side trail was a wonderful way to amble across Sri Lanka’s lowlands

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Red roads, reminds me of Thailand

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June 16, 2014 by David

From Saigon

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The Mekong River, it’s rather large you know

It’s been a busy month here at PaintedRoads. We’ve had two tours in the past five weeks sharing great journeys with 23 guests through two Asian nations.

Last month’s tour of Yunnan Province was a runaway success, well received and thoroughly enjoyed by all on board.

The first half of June saw Phong and I supported by our regular driver Sa and new top trump crew member Lee take a group os Aussies out of Saigon to explore the maze of inland waterways that make up Vietnam’s fascinating Mekong Delta Region.

Many of those on this tour had previously cycled the Southern Thailand tour with me so it was interesting to hear their thoughts on this Vietnamese tour that was inspired by our Thailand classic. The general consensus of opinion was that yes, it is fairly similar to the Thai tour physically, but the overall atmosphere of this tour is more about the culture and the people whereas Thailand is more about riding through beautiful countryside – as one veteran of both tours put it, the two tours complement to each other, if they were too alike it would be dull, the differences are what makes it well worth doing both tours; a comment that made my day.

Thanks to Angela, Michael, Sue, Paul and Paul, and The Fat Boys; Terry, Ken, Mike and Peter – hope to see you all again before too long.

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Awaiting one of many first cross Mekong ferries…

All aboard The Skylark

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The tour is full of rural trails such as this

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out in the wilderness where tourists seldom tread

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Ah, the jubilance of crossing a bridge

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Waiting for the boat

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Our new Mechanic Lee turned out to be worth far more than his weight in gold. Medic, mechanic, masseur, carer and all round brilliant bloke, Lee is a top team member.

Somehow I just can’t shake of this fellow. Cheers Space Man!

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The group, cheers all!

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May 30, 2014 by David

a few more pics from Yunnan

Bicycle tour Yunnan China Shangri-la to Dali

Crossing a high plateau before the long descent through stunning scenery and fragrant pine forests to Baishuaitai

I have been asked by several people just recently for some more images from China, and why not? It is after all a very beautiful tour. But rather than check out the small images on this blog I think it time to introduce the little gallery of tours that I am slowly working on. it is still a work in progress but should you wish to have a look at more images of PaintedRoads rather beautiful tour destinations please check out the PaintedRoads Images gallery. For further images of Yunnan I recommend a quick click here.

Next tour is Vietnam’s Mekong Delta a lovely tour where I will be travelling plenty of old riding friends and a few new. Hopefully there will be time to post a few words and pics from that tour very soon.

Cheerio for now

D

Bicycle tour yunnan china street photography sunrise star burst

The small streets of the hillside town of Shigu are a wonderful venue for a per breakfast stroll

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One of China’s multitude of stunning bridges

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This old fellow found me highly amusing and was quite convinced I was lost – what no one seemed to realise is that I was

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There are plenty of wonderful rural roads in Yunnan

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The ride from Baishuaitai to Dali is a splendid way to start the day

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Echo organising breakfast…

spicy breakfast

noodle soup…

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steamed buns stuffed with meat and tea boiled eggs…

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A bewildered Chinaman observing a group of eccentric strangers and their and their odd breakfast ritual

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A clear sky and the open road

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some of the group, waiting for a boat

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