Posts tagged ‘Motorbike’

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences

In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.

Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the  most basic of things? Hardly.

As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.

10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.

9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.

8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…

7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.

6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.

5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves  by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.

4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.

3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.

2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.

1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery


April 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

You don’t know man, you weren’t there. Nha Trang to Dalat, Vietnam, BlogSherpa

I’m not really sure how, but I have somehow found myself wedged between two surly Vietnamese business men in the back of a jeep. In the baking heat of the day I am sweating profusely in my tank top and hotpants, flinching every time they eye up my legs and hugging my now-redundant motorbike helmet to my bare chest. In the front two more well-heeled men are alternating between giggling hysterically and speaking in rapid Vietnamese. They ask me if I have any idea what they are talking about and I tell them that I have a reasonable idea that it has something to do with one of them marrying me. They laugh heartily before confirming that yes indeed, the driver does intend to make me his third wife. Would that, they ask, be okay with my boyfriend or would it be better for them to take care of him first? I laugh and accept their offer because I think they are joking and because I am utterly alone in their packed car somewhere on the top of a mountain 80km away from the nearest town. And I have no phone reception.

I hope they are joking.

Around 15km into our drive they pull over on the side of the road and two of them jump out and run off into the forest. A third one holds the door open and tells me to get out of the car while the fourth sleeps peacefully in the passenger seat. Stepping gingerly out of the jeep I can’t help but notice that this is the perfect plot for a new Rippley film. While motorbiking around Vietnam a western girl (incidentally a backpacker) breaks down. Lucky for her, a car full of local men on their way to a business meeting pull over and offer to help. They load her bike into the back of their jeep and speed off up the fog enshrouded mountain. For a while her friends try to keep pace but with the road in such a bad condition and with the fog so thick that they can barely see their front wheels, they eventually loose the jeep, cursing themselves for not getting the registration number and for letting her go in the first place. “It should have been me!” screams her boyfriend internally, over and over again.

Meanwhile the girl is sensing a chill in the jeep. Not sure whether it is due to a sudden drop of 30 degrees celcius in the air temperature or to a pervading air of menace, she starts to shiver. The driver, ever the gentleman, offers her his coat before ordering her out of the car and dragging her by the hair to a nearby forest cabin where he and his friends rape and mutilate her beyond recognition. For months the girl’s friends search high and low for her but with only a vague description of the men and no idea of the colour, make or model of the jeep they are forced to return to their respective countries empty handed. By now though, the girl’s college sweetheart is wracked with guilt and both his sleeping and waking hours are filled to bursting with thouse five poisonous words. It should have been me.

While all of this was playing out in my head the driver (Nguyen) and his friend had returned to the car with a length of wire they had borrowed from a friend who lived nearby and were dutifully strapping my motorbike more securely to the back of the truck. “That should hold it!” said Nguyen. “I was so worried about it coming down those mountains. They are so dangerous. Make sure and call your friends and tell them to drive as slowly and carefully as they can, I would feel so guilty if they got hurt because I was driving too fast. And zip up that coat so you don’t get cold. You can keep it. Now we will drive you to Dalat and we will find someone to fix your bike and I will book a hotel for you and your friends. I just hope they get their safe.”

And just like that all my dreams of meeting a dramatic and newsworthy end on a winding, fog enshrouded mountain somewhere in rural Vietnam were lost. As promised my four knights in shining armour drove me to the nearest bike repair shop, keeping me amused all the while with offers of marraige and descriptions of Vietnamese culture. Just as they unloaded my bike and sorted me out with some delicious coffee and hot tea (out of their own pockets of course) and haggled the shop owner down to local prices, I got a text from Joe. “Stuck on top of mountain with Gary. Bike is totally broken. No way of getting down. Send help.” Oh bugger.

Noticing the loss of colour in my face Cassanova and his band of merry men valiantly offered to do the hour long round trip again, forfeiting all of their business meetings and leisurely plans to save yet another hapless westerner. As they were leaving Xavier, Simon and Dave (who had the misfortune of being a passenger for the ill-fated day) rolled into town and Xav and Si hopped in the jeep to go back and help.

Meanwhile, back on the mountain, Joe and Gary had given up all hope of ever being rescued and had resolved on finding their own way down. After trying unsuccessfully to flag a car (the only person who did stop to help them had a clueless root around the bike to find the problem, located the working spark plug – now one of the only working parts of Joe’s bike – ripped it out and then hopped back in his car and left without a word) they tied the bikes together with bungee chords and Gary tried to tow Joe up the mountain. Half an hour and a couple of metres later, Samantha Mumba (as Gary’s bike is called because she’s black) started to cough and splutter like a chain smoker, threatening to pack it all in and head back to Dublin if they didn’t unload her fast. Some more strenuous pushing ensued and just as they were discussing what kind of physical barriers should apply for two men spending a long, cold, wet night on a mountain (after all, if Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal can do it…), the Vietnamese rode over the horizon like big, smiling Power Rangers.

Unfortunately Joe’s bike was utterly buggered so while he hitched a ride as far as Dalat, where our heroes hooked him up with the MacGyver of mechanics and a resonably priced accomodation, we ploughed on through mountain passes for the last 60km of the drive – racing through precarious roads against the rain, the setting sun and the vicious kamikazee mosquitoes.

Landing in Dalat eventually, we met Joe and the Vietnamese for dinner and a few rums (which they refused to let us pay for) and we reminisced over the wonderful day we had had. Sure, two of our bikes had broken down and four had needed repairs but there had been a lot of positives too. Having wandered off the right road early in the day, our morning drive had taken us through a variety of back roads until we reached a point where there weren’t even back roads any more. Then we had taken to a bumpy, dusty dirt track where we zipped past pens full of squeeling piglets and roads choked with runaway chickens (thankfully Gladice controlled her blood lust this time round) before we stopped to put our raincoats on in the holy grail of villages.

Well off the beaten track the village consisted of little over a dozen wooden huts between a construction site and a valley. Pretending to be coy at the start, the villagers peeked out of windows and children hid behind trees and rocks. The longer we stayed though, the bolder they got and eventually half-clothed and completely naked toddlers began to approach us to have their photo taken while their parents crowded in open doorways, smiling at us and gratefully accepting offers of cigarettes and good will.

Granted it wasn’t a perfect day but what with all the naked children, wild animals and meeting four of the kindest, most generous men in Vietnam, we were all pretty happy to call it a ‘good day’ as we settled into our warm, low-lying beds for some well-earned sleep.

More pictures from Dalat are available in the gallery

January 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

Continued – Sunburn, squoodles and splattered chickens. Hoi An to Nha Trang, Vietnam (Day 2)

It’s difficult not to get annoyed when every single car, truck and motorbike that passes beeps at you. This counts doubley in the morning when you have just woken up, have not yet eaten and are facing a 10 hour ride on the rock solid seat of a bike which is smoking as if it could explode at any second. After two days of this we were getting a little fed up – everyone flashing us, slamming on their horns and shouting out their windows. Why us? What does that strange clicking jiberish mean?

Some time around 11am the penny dropped though as it escalated and motorbikes pulled up alongside us to talk, bicyclists strained their quads to keep up with us and drivers wound down their windows to wave and smile. The sleeper buses brought most of the tourist through here in the middle of the night on their non-stop trip to Nha Trang so we were the first westerners many of them had seen in years.

When we pulled over at villages for water and breadrolls, people stopped eating and beckoned to us to join them, children crowded at a distance screaming “What is your name?” and whenever we slowed our bikes women came to stroke our arms and necks and run their fingers through our hair. One quick stop to reapply suncream attracted a gaggle of locals with outstretched arms. They thought we were using skin whitener and, concluding that whatever we were using must be the best stuff, they were desperate for a sample.

Suddenly all the annoying honking noises sounded a lot friendlier and, waving and shouting “Hello! Hello!”, we sped through what was to be our best day on the bikes. The run up to Nha Trang was the most spectacular stretch of palm groves, smooth road elevated above lush forests and the most impressive mountain passes we had ever seen. The first few passes were pretty quiet so we had the snaking roads to more or less to ourselves. Uphill labours (which I spent talking to my bike, making empty promises to change her broken tail light and get her an oil change if she would only just get me up this one last hill) were rewarded by sprawling views and steep downhill nosedives that flung us from the top of the world to sparkling blue water, rocking fishing boats and hammocks swinging on pastel porches. With the width of road at our disposal, we flew headlong into spirals and jarring hairpins, certain at every second that we couldn’t possibly get any closer to the bay below us without falling in.

Of course life on the road could never be as wonderful as that all the time so we knew there were hardships to come and sure enough they did, in the form of Joe’s bike Gladice. Pretty popular when she was first released some time around 1940, Gladice was growing tired of her workhorse life; tired of always being overlooked in favour of younger, prettier models; tired of being jolted this way and that into oncoming traffic; and tired of being ridden senseless by fat, lazy, sweaty men. She used to be top of the pile, beloved by the masses and well able to hold her own on the road. Now though, everywhere she looked she saw herself – filty, beaten down and broken. Now she was angry, indignant, tired and reckless. Until now, Joe had overlooked her flaws, shelling out 500,000 dong in hush money when she rammed a younger bike in a carpark in a fit of hysterical jealously. He had been patient but today Gladice took it too far. Today Gladice took an innocent young life.

“I was just driving down the road and she was running fine,” said Joe when he spoke to police later in the day. “And there was this tiny little chick on the road but I’m pretty used to seeing livestock on Vietnamese roads so I didn’t take any notice of it. I mean, just today we passed a water buffalo tied down in the middle of the highway and we all know that chickens have a bit of a road fetish so no big deal right? Well the rest is a bit of a blur. Maybe she was jealous of the chicken’s youth or maybe she’s bloodthirsty but Gladice suddenly veered straight for the chick and mowed it down like a woman possessed. The chick tried to run but he had no hope – all that was left after she had done with him were a few feathers floating in her exhaust smoke. I think I heard her laugh then and I’m positive she revved her engine but we’ll never really know will we? Maybe I should just have her scrapped. It might be kinder at this stage…”

Mourning our fallen feathered comrade we pushed on, battling kamikazee mosquitos which collected in our tear ducts, spattered against our tshirts and dove between our teeth as we raced the falling light to the beach resort of Doc Let. We also got our fill of mountain passes as that night’s tourist sleeper buses raced in either direction, choking narrow roads in their quest to overttake each other ten, twenty, thirty times before the journey’s close. I can honestly say that there is nothing more terrifying than approaching a corner on a struggling morotbike to see two huge buses filling the breadth of a narrow pass, honking and swearing at you to get out of their way. Desperately you search for an escape route only to find no ditches. You contemplate veering off the side of the road and sailing through the air to the beach 50m below but then you remember the metal barrier placed ‘for your safety’. You slam on your horn, slow down and cling to the side of the road, closing your eyes and gritting your teeth in preparation for the impact. Then just as it looks like your days are numbered (or would look if you could see through closed eyelids), one bus falls back, allowing the other to overtake and they zoom past you, waving and smiling as if they didn’t just almost kill you.

After such a day its not surprising that everything after it was a bit bland. Doc Let was nice but nothing to write home about and the 30km drive to Nha Trang the following morning was dull enough, apart from one wonderful stretch of completely empty Grand Prix track which wound its way up and down a mountain in a series of tight, smooth turns which climbed up the walls at parts and made us feel like we were in a video game. Finally, around 600km after leaving Hué, we hit our halfway point filthy, exhausted and gagging for hot shower and a cold bottle of Tiger beer.

More pictures from the road to Nha Trang are available in the gallery

January 23, 2010 at 11:35 am 1 comment


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