Slovenia Part 1:. The West and Lubljana

I remember distinctly when we crossed the border into Slovenia for the first time. We were on a dirt road cutting through a corn field and figured it out when the road signs were no longer in Italian. I also remember not realizing we passed back and forth between Italy and Slovenia three times until we looked at the map later. Our worries about an immigration checkpoint were unecessary.

We first read about Slovenia (and honestly discovered that it existed) a few years ago in an issue of Adventure Cycling magazine. I remember dreaming about the possibility of spending two weeks exploring another country on a bicycle and how impossible that sounded. Now here we were, over a month into a three month trip and finally crossing into the unfamiliar land we longed to see for so long.

We started the route by joining a published bikepacking route that Cass Gilbert, one of my favorite bikepacking bloggers created. We rode up steep hills and passed mountain vinyards with spectacular views. The excitement of finally getting into the backwoods and mountains and doing some real off-road bikepacking was exhilerating. We stuck with Cass’ route for a few days then eventually branched off and got back onto our own track. It never fails that when we try to follow someone else’s published route, we end up miserable becuase we’ve got our own style and no one else seems to plan the way we do. The route was great, but included a lot of unnecessary climbs.  That is fine if you are on a loop for a few days trying to maximize scenic views and exercise, we however were trying to get somewhere.  I’m writing this in Slovakia and at this point as a grizzled veteran of this trip, I barely plan a day ahead most of the time because our mood that day and seeing the actual mountains in person instead of on a map determines where we go a lot of the time. I’ll get around to writing a “Plan on the go” guide someday but for now, back to Slovenia.

As I said, we knew next to nothing about this country with such a rich heritage. It didn’t even exist until 1991 when Yugoslavia broke up and I got the sense they were still carving out their identity. Initally, the Western mountains felt a lot like Italy. There were vinyards everywhere and the architecture looked very similar. It was so interesting riding a bicycle and every day noticing the subtle changes in everything from the houses to the way roads were maintained and built. We stopped at a few landmarks, there was a WWI monument that turned out to be in Italy and we didn’t know until we read some plaques in Italian. It was sobering to see all the names of soldiers who died on the walls and think of all the lives impacted.

We had a helluva climb up to a church and cemetary on top of a mountain which drained us both physically. We celebrated our victory with boiled potatoes and a zooming downhill ride afterwards. Our legs and lungs certainly took a beating after the flat farmlands that is Northern Italy. The mountains kicked our asses! Our average distance was cut by two thirds and my arthritis in my knees started rearing its ugly head. This sent me down the rabbit hole (Remember I was reading Alice in Wonderland?) of saddle adjustments which is about as fun as trying to get a piece of popcorn out of your teeth with no toothpick.

The scenery was gorgeous and we gradually got our mountain legs up to snuff. We met so many lovely friendly people and enjoyed camping in the forest again. Our path took us East until we finally hit the Capital city of Lubjliana. As far as cities go, this one was like hitting the easy button!  We rolled into the outskirts following farm roads and Lauren took the chance to befriend some four legged comrads.  

Once we neared the metro area there was an endless bikelane. It eventually turned into an intricate system of bike highways that sprawled all over the city like arteries and veins. Every car was aware of and followed the right of way rules with bikes. It was brilliant!

Yep, a vending machine for bike tubes!

We had a few maintenance issues with the bikes so we tried to find a shop to remedy them and also kept up our tradition of drinking the local brews. In this case that meant Lasko, a beer named for the town it was made in, but more on that later. 

 To make a long story longer, we ended up staying in the center of the city because the campground wanted 37 Euros a night to tent cap.  I wanted to say, “Lady, you realize we are in a tent right? All we need is 10 square feet of grass and a cold shower.”  Instead I said I was going to go check with my wife, then we rode back into the city.  For nearly the same price we found a nice hostel in the center of the city.  The next few days were grand.  There were burgers, beers, chinese food, and me performing noisy bike maintenence in the basement of the hostel much to the chagrin of the counterperson who no one told I was down there. 

During our celebration of my 1 year anniversary of leaving the Air Force, we were startled by an impromptu firewords celebration coming from the castle just for me. I didn’t remember sending the email to the chamber of commerce but was glad they remembered. Obviously we celebrated with drinks and great food.

Yes, I was that idiot taking pictures of fireworks.

That evening we coordinated to meet with the crazy Scotsman Graeme that we met in Italy and we ended up shutting down several pubs with his Slovenian friend.  We sampled local beers and viljamovka (pear brandy) and learned a bit more Slovenian from his friend and our waitress.  We found out later that Graeme got lost on the way home when his phone battery died and rode about aimlessly unitl 4:30 AM until he found his camping spot.  I’m sure the viljamovka had nothing to do with it.

After a prolonged wandering session looking for a reputable bike shop, I got my cassette fixed and we headed East the next day to find more mountains. On the way out of the city, we climbed the hill to check out the castle and were not diappointed. Lubjliana was without a doubt, the best city we had seen. We both remarked about how we would love to live there sometime and try out “city life”. There was just the right amount of modern city with history and culture. The locals were friendly and the food was amazing. It is absolutely a place you must visit if you come to Europe and want to get off the beaten path. Lubjliana is a truly magical place.

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Gondola rides and old friends

As I sit here in the woods somewhere in Hungary trying to remember what happened in Italy, it feels like a year ago even though it’s been maybe a month. We’ve been seeing and doing so much that I haven’t had the time to write. I guess that is a good thing, we have been so busy living that I don’t have the time to document it… What a problem to have.

Riding through Northern Italy became somewhat of a routine and did not offer a lot of opporunities for true bikepacking. We rode dirt roads and we camped when we could, but usually it was just cutting through farms and setting up a tent in an acre of trees, then leaving early in the morning before anyone knew we were there. It was a lot of cornfields and we joked that it felt surprisingly a lot like Kansas. We remembered how excited Lauren was when we saw the first cornfield in Italy as we rode out of the mountains, little did we know we’d have a solid two weeks of nothing but them.

We eventually made it to the coast of the Adriatic. As we rolled into the outskirts of a small coastal town called Chioggia, we were exhausted and still had a few kilometers to the coast. We needed calories and did the unthinkable. We ate McDonalds! It was delicious until literally the last bite, then we both immediately regretted it. We got our calories though and struggled on to the hotel with burps of regret all the way there. The town was nice enough, it was the kind of small beach town where the locals went for the weekend.  It reminded me of the Jersey shore a little bit. I’m talking about the place of course and not that awful TV show! We spent a rest day there then caught the ferry to the chain of small islands that led North to Venice. We leap-frogged ferrys and riding until we got to Lido then as we were purchasing our tickets for the ferry to Venice we found out that bicycles are not allowed in Venice… AT ALL! My frustration and disbelief did not amuse the ticket lady, so we set off to figure out a plan B. We tried leaving the bikes at a bike shop in Lido but none of the shop owners were having it. We considered wild camping in the forest or stashing the bikes in the woods but they are not cheap bicycles and our whole lives are strapped to them. Eventually we settled on a little campground North of town and decided to just do a day trip to Venice.  What a day it was!

We arrived in the morning and after spending 30 minutes looking for a bathroom that didn’t cost money to use, we inadvertantly found ourselves exactly where we were trying to get. St. Barnabus Cathedral is a small relatively unremarkable church as far as Venice goes, but it also happens to be the site that acted as the Library from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You know the scene where he smashes a hole in the floor while the librarian is stamping books?  It was the only thing I wanted to see in Venice.

We sat down and had a prosecco in the square out front. We considered going to see some other sights but instead the glass turned into a bottle. Then we figured, “Well this place is really nice so maybe we should just have another bottle since they’ll be serving lunch in 30 minutes.” It was a lovely morning.

We eventually got off our asses and onto our not so stable legs and decided to wander a bit. We crossed bridges, went down alleys and explored Venice aimlessly. We decided to stay away from the big attractions and never regretted our decision for a minute. Everyone told us how busy Venice was with all the tourists, but we learned a valuable lesson. Stay away from the big ticket attractions and you can have a nice quiet afternoon in any city.

We debated on the gondola ride for most of the day, especially considering the ridiculous 80 Euro price tag. However the prosecco and the charming gondoleer convinced us. Also, there is no way I’m going to be in Venice with my beautiful wife and not take her on a gondola ride, price be damned! We were happy we did, as we popped the cork on the third bottle we were serenaded and treated to a quiet romantic cruise down the canals that were built so long ago. It sounds corny, but it was incredibly romantic and we were so happy we went.

As we arrived back at the dock it was nearing dinner time so we did what you do in Venice. We ate Ethiopian food! It was delicious to say the least and we had our last wine of the eveneing. Afterwards, we caught the ferry back to our island campground and slept soundly with a new destination in the morning, Aviano Air Force Base.

The base was definately out of the way but the few days we spent there were absolutely worth it. As we left Venice we were greeted with more cornfields for about half a day then the vineyards started again. With mountains on the horizon and a meeting with some old friends to look forward to, we were ready to ride.  The first afternoon, we were cruising along a country road and passed a driveway next to a vineyard with two bicycles that were made into signs. We saw “restaurant” and “winery” so we turned in. At first it was a little weird, we couldn’t tell who the employees were and who were customers. Eventually a woman came up to us and we asked for menus. She said she didn’t have menus but she’d bring us food and wine. We had one of the best bottles of wine either of us had ever had and were treated to a four course meal. There was fresh tomatoes and mozerella, pasta, a ribeye steak and a myriad of other tasters that were all phenomenal. Our lunch stop turned into a two hour smorgasboard and we indulged in every aspect of it. When we left we commented to the proprietor how much we loved the wine and left with three bottles strapped to our handlebars! It was an afternoon to remember. 

We had some phenomenal lodging that evening that turned into two nights because Lauren had a bad wheel bearing and a hub that was destroyed. Romano at the Bike Air in Pordenone was awesome, he actually machined a new axel at his house on a lathe and refitted new bearings in less than 12 hours. We ate pizza delivery for every meal because that’s all there was and we relaxed and enjoyed a nice cozy bed for 2 days.

After departing in the morning, we kept on a Northerly heading and camped out in the forest near the town where our friends Danny and Betsy live. We had our first campfire of the trip and revelled in the primal glory of staring at a fire in the woods with your best friend at your side. 

The next day we went to their house and had an amazing weekend full of laughs, drinks, and fond memories from our old squadron in the Air Force. They took us to all the local shops in Polcenego and we even hit up the farmer’s market. It was really refreshing to see them fully embrace the Italian lifestyle for their assignment. Betsy helped us out by driving us into town (in a car!!!) so we could get some supplies from a sporting goods store. On the way we stopped at the end of the runway and got to watch several Vipers (F-16s) that we thought were Danny takeoff right over our heads. It was an awesome experience and although I miss flying jets, I’m not sure I would change anything if I could. There are definately aspects of my previous life that I miss… Mostly the flying, and comraderie but this new gig suits me much better.

We met up with a few other friends from our old squadron, Brent and Leah and there little guy. The six and a half of us went to dinner, rode into the mountains for a hike and had an incredible weekend that we will never forget. There was homemade gin from the bar across the street, and a festival in the villiage complete with performers hanging from harnesses and dancing on the side of a building! We had gelato and espresso and lived it up in Polcenego. Our hosts were incredible and we can’t thank them enough. By the way we did all this while Betsy was 8 months pregnant! What a trooper.

Unfortunately we had to get back ont the road, so we said our goodbyes on Sunday morning and started towards what would end up being a true bikepacking adventure.

Swiss Family Reunion

“I want to see mountains again Gandalf, mountains!”

-Bilbo Baggins

If there is a polar opposite country to Thailand, it might just be Switzerland. Our first 5 minutes on the streets of Zurich were culture shock to say the least. It was best exemplified when we tried to cross the street the first time. We stood at a crosswalk on a relatively calm street when a Mercedes came speeding our way. We patiently waited for it to pass and were taken aback when the car abruptly stopped and waited for us to cross the crosswalk. Coming from nearly 6 months in Thailand, where crossing the street is up there on the danger meter with skydiving or the luge, we realized we were no longer in the land with no rules.

It might seem a bit strange that we decided to leave Thailand after the last post, as we were so happy. The circumstances for this trip were special though. Lauren’s family had planned a trip to Switzerland for vacation for their first trip outside the US. We agreed to meet them and decided since we were flying that far, we might as well get our plane ticket’s worth and stay in Europe for a few months.

We left Koh Tao kicking and screaming albeit excited to see family.  We had a wonderful sendoff and are looking forward to going back to the island in the fall. The turnout at Goodtime for our impromptu going away sunset was humbling as all of our friends gathered to send us off. We grabbed some dinner and then hit up the Beer Mason’s for some craft brews with those still standing. We said our goodbyes and woke up the next day to catch our ferry to Koh Samui.

Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” and describes not just the sea life, but also the pace of life for the people on land. After being used to this slow pace of a 13 sq. km island for so long, Koh Samui traffic was a circus! We rode the bikes from the pier to the hotel near the airport and then the scavenger hunt began. The packing tape had been no problem, but three bicycle sized cardboard boxes and bubble wrap were not easy things to track down at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon in Koh Samui! We rented a scooter and spent two days rounding up the necessary supplies. The island itself was a tourist trap to say the least so we were not sad to leave. We had trouble at the airport terminal when Lauren’s name was paged and we had to hitch a ride to the baggage terminal because you can not fly with power bank batteries in your checked luggage. We politely fished them out of our bags. As I plucked the third one out, I caught a glimpse of our fuel canister which most definitely was still at least half full of gasoline. It made it through security with no problem!

The flight to Bangkok was pleasant with fish and rice for breakfast on the plane. We transferred to Swiss air in Bangkok and had a lovely flight to Zurich. We finally watched “The Last Jedi”, relaxed and slept. As we flew over a part of the world full of so much turmoil, I couldn’t help but think about how good it felt to be on our way to see family and explore this amazing planet some more.

Which brings us back to Zurich. We landed and took a 30 minute cab from the airport to our hotel for the cost of 3 days living expenses in Thailand. Lauren cooked a delicious pork chop dinner, we assembled the bikes and set off on our journey into the alps. The first day was gorgeous. We got out of town and into the hills and were treated to beautiful deciduous trees, lovely weather and secluded roads. We pulled off on a path and set up our tent for a great night’s sleep.

Seriously… WTF?

The next day we awoke to freezing cold rain and snails everywhere along with the realization that we were not prepared for May in Switzerland. We literally had no pants! We froze our asses off the next day wet and cold and had a challenging day of constant climbs with little respite. At the end of the day, we were exhausted and had to resort to getting a hotel despite it being way out of our budget because we were soaked to the bone.

The next day we found a thrift store, bought some pants and more appropriate cold weather gear and continued on our way. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve much for the next week and a half, but we made the best of it.

Switzerland is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery is spectacular. After the second day, we literally ran out of adjectives to describe our surroundings. Also, it is one of the most bicycle friendly places we’ve ever seen. Everyone rides bicycles so the tiny cars are very courteous to cyclists.

As we progressed, I kept joking that Switzerland was the land of rules… and for some unknown reason, everyone there actually follows them… All of them! One of my big issues in the military was having to follow rules that I deemed stupid so this obviously presented a slight problem for me. I coped with little rebellions like jumping curbs and blasting through roundabouts the wrong way when no one was around just to make myself feel better. I was constantly humming “Signs” by Tesla because there were signs everywhere telling you what to do. Fortunately or unfortunately we couldn’t read them. Also, the people didn’t seem quite as welcoming to visitors as we had hoped. We ran into more than a few servers who scoffed when they found out we didn’t speak Swiss German. We learned basic phrases but it was not enough to please some people. 

Some signs made us happy!

On the other hand, we met some fabulous individuals who showed us so much kindness it offset the bad apples. One afternoon we were fumbling around a village trying to find some information about a yodeling concert that was supposed to be that night. We got a lot of weird looks until a nice young man yelled across the road and asked if we needed help. He and his friends invited us to have a beer with them in the yard and we chatted about our trip and their lives in Switzerland. It was funny to hear them mildly complaining about their government in a seemingly perfect country with no litter, where everyone dives either a bicycle or a brand new car.  We thanked them for their hospitality and ended up skipping the yodeling concert because the crowd was dressed in suits and ties. We pressed on and found camping for the night at the nicest (and most expensive) campgrounds we had ever seen.

Things continued this way as we made our way south towards Murren. At one point, my poor route planning left us on a trail we thought was for bikes but it ended up being a challenging hiking path. It turned out to be a pilgrimage path with stations of the cross every few hundred meters. The terrain was steep and at one point as Lauren was struggling to lift her bike up onto a ledge on the path, a kind old woman in her 70’s appeared out of nowhere and started giving her a push. It was a hilarious scene and we laughed as we thanked her profusely in broken German. A few minutes later the path turned rough again and another even older gentleman came by and did the same. Towards the top of the path, we found a ledger for those making the pilgrimage and signed our names with pride.

We made it over pass after pass and continued on, subsiding on Baguette, Salami, Rugen Brau beer and swiss mountain cheese. If it hasn’t become apparent yet, Switzerland is really expensive and our budget was stretched pretty thin.

How much you wanna make a bet i can throw a football over them mountains?
Never did see the bird, but apparently this is good luck.

We finally arrived in Interlaken which is a beautiful city placed between two gorgeous lakes… Get it? Interlaken? They also had the only other incline train I’d ever seen outside of Pittsburgh. We were lucky enough to have a response on warmshowers and our host Matthius was very kind. We waited for him in the park drinking wine and watching paragliders landing. He met us at a cycling cafe after work and rode with us to his village a few miles away. We were treated to a much needed shower and some lovely meats and cheeses. The later of which was from his family’s cow! We shared stories of traveling and looked at maps of the world together talking about the places we’ve lived, visited and wanted to see. At the end of the night, he brought out a book with his villiage’s history dating back to the middle ages. It was complete with family sigils and drawings of the old farming methods used in the mountains. He explained his families sigil to us and pointed out that the star in the corner meant that someone in the family had been a knight. He said the remnants of the castle on the nearby hill were still standing. It was an amazing evening and reinforced that the best part of traveling is interacting with the local people. We forgot to get a picture together but we did get a few in his awesome hundred year old house.

Somehow we always manage to match…  Nerds!

We left Interlaken and still had a day to kill before Lauren’s family arrived in Murren. We rode through a beautiful valley to Lauderbrunnen where we froze huddled under a bike parking area outside of a convenience store for a few hours. We debated riding up the mountain in the sleet but instead stopped at a bar which happened to have a hotel upstairs. The next day, we elected to take a cable car instead of climbing the mountain in the freezing rain. We arrived in Murren and while it was incredibly touristy, we enjoyed riding through the streets on our way towards our lovely camping spot. We set up shop in a shack on the side of the road and slept soundly although a bit cold. The next day, we killed time drinking beer and wine on a bench and playing gin rummy waiting for her family’s train to arrive. When they did, we upgraded from a pathside shack with three walls to a beautiful Swiss Chalet for 7 days. It was a welcome change to have hot water and warm food.

Saw a sticker from Catalina brewing in Tucson

We spent the week with Lauren’s family checking out the local tourist attractions and playing Settlers of Catan and other board games at night. I tried going mountain biking one afternoon, but the trail was downhill Redbull style so I ended up walking down most of it. We ate well and had good company although the time was too short. Before we knew it, they were off on their way back to America and we were heading south for Warmer Climes and all the Wines in Italy!

So, I guess we kinda live here now.

“Some people never find it. Some only pretend. But I just want to live happily ever after, now and then.” – Jimmy Buffett

The plan was to stop on Koh Tao (a very small island in the Gulf of Thailand) for a week or two. We were going to try scuba diving, enjoy the beach, then get back on the road heading North for Chiang Mai. That did not happen.

Instead, our week or two is now at about six and we don’t have any plans for leaving any time soon. When we started the trip we always talked about scouting out places we really liked for when we wanted to take a break from traveling for a few months. We didn’t think we would end up staying on an island and training for new careers… sort of.

The first two weeks here were great. The weather was beautiful and the beach was fantastic. We swam and enjoyed all the Western and Thai food on the island. I got my open water scuba certification and we were just hanging out with no cares. We stayed up late, woke up whenever we wanted and generally relaxed. Lauren got food poisoning which was not fun at all, and the weather turned bad for about 5 days due to the remnants of a typhoon, but we were really enjoying it here. Our Visas were going to expire and we debated on what to do.

We considered a standard boat/van visa run to leave the country then come right back or maybe taking a boat to the mainland and riding the bikes to Burma and back. We thought about riding to Burma then just continuing up the Eastern coast. Finally we thought about just heading up to Cambodia. We debated for days and ultimately decided to just do a visa run and stay on the island.

We had an interesting mini-adventure for the visa run. We took the night ferry from Koh Tao to Chumpon and slept in bunks on the boat.

We arrived bright and early on a seemingly abandoned port at 5:30 AM and looked around confused. We waited with the other westerners and eventually a guy in a van showed up and started coralling us around. We ended up in a van, then switched to another van, then finally got on the road. What a road it was! The drive took us up and over the mountains toward Ranong. It was the same highway we had so desparately avoided on the bikes on the way down. Being in a car in and of itself was novel and the driver was downright insane. The road was a series of windy blind curves for miles. We spent at least 30% of the time on the wrong side of the road. Basically, there are lines painted on the road in Thailand, but they are purely for decoration. The other side of the road and both shoulders are all fair game. Passing on a blind curve just requires a simple toot of the horn and off you go.

It was about a two or three hour trip before we arrived at Ranong. We were shuffled to a place that copied our passports then stood in line to get exit stamps. We jumped on a boat that could only be boarded with crisp new ten dollar bills from the US for some reason.

The boat was a traditional longtail and we thought we had made it to Burma after a short trip. It turned out, this was the immigration checkpoint #1 of 3. The next thing we knew they were handing us life jackets as we laughed until we realized why. We had to cross a big gap of no-shit ocean to get to Burma. The boat was maybe 25 feet long and the waves were not small. We were splashed and rocked around for 40 minutes as we crossed the sea to Burma. “You may know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

We spent a grand total of 20 minutes getting our passports stamped, then immediately left to come back to Thailand. The return journey was just as fun and re-entering was pretty easy. One gal in our group had a bit of trouble, she had done this several times before and the immigration officials basically told her she couldn’t come back into Thailand. Our guide stepped up and had some words with them and somehow it was magically resolved in ten minutes. +1 for booking through an agency and not trying to do it yourself. On the ride back, we got to know Cecilia from Argentina and had wonderful conversation about the island, diving, travelling and life in general. After the van ride for some reason we stopped to swap vehicles again and another gal in our group became beligerant. “If she missed the ferry, she was going to flip her shit!” she informed everyone over and over. We, along with Cecilia thought it was amusing and were glad that “shit flipper” ended up in a different van for the remainder of the trip. During the last leg which was a high speed chase to catch the ferry that involved dropping off a random Thai lady at a restaurant we chatted about how nice it feels to leave emotions like that behind. I proclaimed that if we missed the ferry the first round was on me and I knew a great seafood place at the pier. We laughed and decided we didn’t really care if we made it or not.

As luck would have it we showed up a few minutes late and they hadn’t even started boarding. That didn’t stop old shit flipper from cutting the line and ensuring she was among the first to be on the ferry so she could wait 30 minutes for everyone else to board. The whole thing was a great lesson in how far attitude can get you in life. Here is one person who is worried so much about something she has absolutely no control over. Additionally, the worst case scenario was that we miss a boat and take the next one. She was worried sick, embarassing herselft as she acted like an asshole. She was verbally abusive to the driver who was just doing his job and stressing out about missing a fricken boat! So much for the island attitude! On the other hand, Cecilia, Lauren, and I, took the oportunity to make new friends. We shared stories about how we might have reacted similarly in our previous lives, but have since learned that most of the time, it’s not worth it to get upset. The whole experience was a great reinforcement of all the decisions we made that brought us to that point.

When we got back we tried a new scuba shop called Goodtime Adventures, they also do rock climbing and flying trapeeze. The vibe at this place was exactly what we were looking for: stress free, laid back and focused on fun. I decided to keep pushing further with scuba and started my training to become a professional divemaster. I’d always thought scuba diving would be a great second career (if you can call it that) and Koh Tao is known for being one of the most beautiful (and cheapest) scuba destinations in the world. Lauren gave scuba a few more tries and decided it really wasn’t her thing so she started a climbing course to become a rockmaster. Like me with scuba, it is something she has always wanted to learn. She has fallen in love with climbing and comes back every day covered in bruises, calluses and smiles.

We’ve made such great new friends on the island, and it’s starting to feel like home. It feels good to have a purpose for awhile. We are absolutely going to get on the road again at some point, but for now we are living cheap and doing what we love on a tropical island… Why would we leave?

The last few weeks have been interesting. We’ve settled into a bit of a routine and our training kinda feels like work… But in a good way. Lauren is already guiding beginner climbers and I’m close to finishing up my divemaster training. She’s seen some amazing views from atop the island and I’ve dove with whale sharks twice! The bonus is once we complete our training we might even be able to make some extra money doing something we and a lot of other people are paying to do for fun.

I’ve fallen in love with the underwater world in the same way I love flying. The silence and serenity are unexplainable unless you’ve done it. I’ve blown a fair amount of money on scuba gear and training, but somehow justified it by the fact that I will be able to work anywhere in the tropics forever if I so choose. The long hair, no shirt and wearing flip flops to work style is fitting me a little better than a buzzcut and a prompt military schedule. The best part is that Lauren is climbing out of the same shop I’m diving at. We share lunch most days and go out to dinner every evening. It’s been busy, but once we finish the training we plan on settling into a part time work schedule and slowing down again.

I think we’re “supposed” to be on a bicycle trip, but I guess this chapter is a little more spontaneous and a little less spinning. In the meantime, we’ve got the two most expensive clothes hangers in all of Asia!

*Underwater photos courtesy of Logan Brown.

*Whale shark videos courtesy of some girl with a go pro who was on the same boat as me.

Prachuap Khiri Khan to Koh Tao

“Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him.  We, the people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them.  We speak of them only to children.  Later, we simply let life proceed, in it’s own direction, toward it’s own fate.  But unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them – the path to their personal legends, and to happiness.  Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out indeed to be a threatening place.”

– Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist”

Our stay in Prachuap Khiri Khan (PKK) was relaxing and we had some good times taking a load off on the coast.  As beautiful as the beachside view was, we learned that it was not swimable.  Our first hint should have been the fact that no one else was walking on the beach or swimming.  We were wondering why for a few days and figured it out when walking the beach with Betty and Mark.  All of the sudden, the water felt really warm and smelled horrible, then a quick look to the left revealed the secret of PKK’s beach.  The sewers were draining right into the ocean!  Not THOSE kind of sewers, but it was definitely run-off from the streets and not pleasant.  When we got home, we thouroughly washed our legs and decided we’d stick to the sidewalk that ran along the water.

On the last afternoon, we took a trip to the Thai Air Force Base that was in PKK to check out the swimming beach and the monkeys.  Unfortunately the monkeys were sleeping so we hit the beach and while it was beautiful, there were a lot of people there.  Once we got in the water, it was wonderful and we played like a couple of kids splashing and jumping in the waves.  We drank a few beers on the beach and were entertained by a little girl who was rolling around in the wet sand and surf and giggling like a literal schoolgirl.  We and her parents were very entertained.  During lunch we met Gerhardt, a cyclist from Austria who was riding a KTM bicyle.  We chatted for awhile and recommended our guest house to him.

​​We met Gerhardt again that evening and talked bicycles for hours.  We shared some pizza from Mr. Bong’s and had a lovely evening.  Sometimes it is easy to forget just how much of a niche we are a part of when it comes to cycling.  Gerhardt was very much an athlete.  He rode long days to cover tons of distance and stuck to the highways in order to take the most direct route possible.  He was travelling on roads we wouldn’t even consdier taking unless we had an emergency and needed to get to a town ASAP.  The world of bike touring has so many varieties even in such a small niche.  There are skinny tires, fat tires, paniers, bikepacks, athletic achievers, trail blazers, racers, challenge seekers and tons more.  I haden’t thought much about where we fall on the spectrum until we met someone who is doing essentially the same thing as us but in such a dramatically different fashion.  Neither is right or wrong, just different.  First there are cyclists, then touring cyclists, then bikepackers, then fat tires, then finally (and we may be the only ones) cyclists who ride less than 50km per day and don’t plan their trip, stop all the time for afternoon beers on the road and wander about on back roads taking the most inefficient route possible for the sake of exploring the tracks that everyone else doesn’t see.  Right now we are sitting on Koh Tao, an island off the Eastern Coast of Thailand and are considering staying here for a few weeks, or maybe a month, or maybe six.  

The luxury of time and no possesions at home is awesome.  We realize at least once a week that wherever we are is our home and everything we’ve got fits on our bikes!  Also, we’ve been compiling a list of problems that we face day to day.  Here are a few from the list:

Deciding which island we should visit.
Having to constantly clean my sunglasses because of the sea spray.
And the greatest problem in the world to have…  What day is it?  Oh wait, it doesn’t matter!

We took off from PKK on our way to Chumpon and the first day started off great.  We were greeted by kids on the backs of scooters smiling and yelling HAALOW all morning.  A few kilometers in we hit a roadbloack.  The detour took us past an aquarium, and as we rode past the gates, the guard smiled and motioned us in.  Who were we to argue?  We rode up to the front and as we were locking the bikes up a swarm of people started forming around us.  It was a man with a bunch of kids and they all wanted to practice their English.  We smiled a lot and tried to explain our trip.  Lauren was able to practice some Thai with them as well. They asked for pictures so we all posed together in front of the bikes and snapped a few for ourselves.  It was a charming experience and we were very glad we stopped.  We said our goodbyes and made our way into the aquarium.  The A/C felt great and it was the perfect afternoon stop.  The translations for the fish were amusing and we had a nice little tour.  

One afternoon, we passed a place called “Rocky Point,” which was the same name for the beach we visited in Mexico with friends last summer, so naturally we had to stop for a beer.  It felt good to get out of the sun and we took a bit of an afternoon break.  We used the wifi to do some research on possible islands to visit and I somehow ended up on the lonely planet forums…  Don’t go there!  It’s a combination of everything wrong with the backpacker community plus the internet.

Along the road we saw a few signs that were anti-European Union and the locals definitely were not fans of Westerners.  I couldn’t blame them at all.  There were resorts everywhere catering to rich retired Europeans and they were pushing the fishermen out of their villages and taking over the coast.  We felt guilty and frustrated.  At the risk of sounding like a bleeding heart hippie, I started thinking about our trip and our motives.  On the spectrum of travelers I like to think we fall somewhere far from the condescending self-righteous douchebags who are wearing rice paddy style hats walking around town insulting locals and acting like drunk idiots.  On the other end are the rich tourists who are pampered at a resort they never leave. We genuinely want to spend time getting to know the places we travel and interact with the people.  To each his own I suppose.

In a serindipidous turn of events, as soon as we left the town we were hungry and decided to stop at a shack at an intersection on the road for some lunch.  Under the roof was a middle aged Thai Woman cooking on a propane stove with no electricity.  Also, there were two young guys enjoying their lunch.  We rode by and decided to immediately turn around for some lunch.  The looks on their faces were priceless.  We had a short conversation introducing ourselves and ordered via the tried and true, “I’ll have what he’s having” method.  We were treated to rice and pork “Mu pad prik” as we were instructed.  We were thankful for our language practice because “Mai pet krap” (Not spicy please) definitely came in handy when I saw the heaping spoonfull of chili powder she was about to dump in the dish.  The food was delicious and the company was great.  A few giant gusts of wind came by and it felt like the shack might blow away, we were all laughing and playing charades to talk about the wind.  When we got up to pay we couldn’t believe it was only 60 baht for both of us. (about 2 USD)  We thanked her profusely and jumped back on the bikes.  We never have pictures from these kinds of stories because pulling a camera out just feels wrong. Instead, here is a picture of a cow.

With about 8 km to go that afternoon, we decided to add a little adventure to the route.  The open source map we use has tons of dotted lines that represent dirt roads and paths.  I spotted a small two mile loop that was generally heading in our direction so we checked it out.  Finally, a little bit of mountain biking!  We started up a steep sloped washed out path and before long found ourselves in a thick jungle.  The path was rough and sloppy and we had a blast.  The navigation was a lot of guessing and turning around but we felt like we were deep in the jungle on an expedition of sorts.  In reality we were probably never more than a few km from the road.  The small detour was worth it and we felt like we were properly on our way.  

That night things took a turn.  I paid the price for the roadside shack pork.  I woke up in the middle of the night and let’s just say food poisoning sucks.  I was violently ill for several hours and the evening was not fun.  To top it off, the bathroom in our hotel had a strange odor when we checked in that later turned into an intolerable sewer stench.  Not a good thing when you are spending the entire night in said bathroom.  We decided to check out the next day.  Getting the bikes down the stairs with the strength of an infant was a challenge and the 2 km ride felt like the tour de France.  Somehow we made it to another hotel and I spent the next day recovering and waiting to be able to eat something.  We stayed 2 days just to make sure I was back in good shape then hit the road again.  The ride in the morning was incredible!  The road was right along the beach with hardly any traffic.  We chatted merrily and solved all the world’s problems as we rode.  As we ventured further, the local attitude changed again.  We saw a bunch more anti-EU signs and no one seemed to smile or even acknowledge our presence.  We concluded that someone was buying up all the land in the town and forcing the fishermen out.  We kept pedaling and tried to avoid feeling guilty.

That afternoon, we took a slight detour to Ban Saphon Noi, a small inland town.  We were looking for some AC and a spot for lunch.  Riding through the small town was a cool experience and it was obvious that not many cyclists come this way.  We had chips and Pepsi in the park and decided on our lodging for the evening.  We were off again and made it to a charming B&B on the coast.

The B&B seemed like it’s glory days were a decade ago and we felt like we had the place to ourselves.  There was a young Thai couple that did the cooking and upkeep and did not speak a word of English.  We took a dip in the ocean with no other people on the beach for literally as far as the eye could see.  Dinner was good and we met another cycling couple from Germany.  Ironically, they had spent the previous night at the same hotel as us.  We chatted them up and were inspired to find out they were 69 years old!  Their recurring holiday was to cycle Thailand for a month every year.  We felt empowered and excited, realizing this is only the beginning and we’ve got decades of traveling the world ahead of us!

We started late the next day due to a laundry miscommunication and paid the price physically.  The mercury was rising high and when the sun was not blocked by the clouds it was like an oven.  We took several pit stops along the road at what turned out to be community pavillions.  They reminded me of the ones you see out behind the American Legion back home.  Visions of high school graduation parties went through my mind as we sipped our water and waited for the clouds.  An interesting conversation came up:  “What would our teenage selves think about what we are doing right now?”  It’s an interesting thought no matter what you are doing with your life.  As I sit here writing this, I’m thinking perhaps the better question is, “What would my 90 year old self think about the life I’ve led?”  

The next part of the trip was a lot of pavement due to the close proximity of the mountains to the sea, and there were not a lot of North-South back roads to choose from.  Our choice to ride along the coast again paid off and we had some beautiful scenery.  In particular, the sand dunes North of Chumpon were beautiful.  If we had known about them ahead of time, we would have stocked up on food and water and stayed a few days.  The road was a fully paved coastal road that was completely abandoned.  We could have stayed for weeks with no one bothering us.  We had islands on our mind though and couldn’t wait to get to Koh Tao.

That evening we stayed at a small guest house.  When we arrived, the power was out so we hung out on the porch with the owners who were enjoying the weather and seeing to their newborn baby.  There was an adorable dog living out back and plenty of geckos in the room to keep us company.  It started pouring down rain and town was at least 1km away so we broke out our trusty camp stove and had rice noodles with chicken bouillon and canned tuna.  It was surprisingly good.  Cooking out of the doorway while it was pouring rain reminded us of camping in Colorado.  It seems like years ago although it’s only been a few short months.

At this point we were roughly 60km from Chumpon where the ferry for the island left from.  We decided we’d ride until we were tired and if made it, great.  If not, that was ok too.  It was a good day for back roads!  We had a blast splashing through puddles and a few flooded stream crossings.  Thank god for fat tires!  The sand was a non-issue for us where regular mountain bike tires would have led to an abrupt stop and two soaking wet Americans.  Once again we were on the inefficient route zig-zagging through coconut and rubber plantations surprising the locals.  We took our time and rode when the clouds were out, stopping for the sun.  It was a wonderful relaxing day and turned out to be our longest distance yet.  At one point we stopped at a small roadside market and woke up a sweet older woman who was having her siesta in the afternoon heat.  She was so happy to see us and insisted we take a load off to enjoy our bottles of water and strange gatorade-like drink.  We quickly exhausted our Thai and sat quietly smiling at each other.  We thanked her and said our goodbyes, happy to be on our way again.  The road we chose turned to follow a river which offered beautiful scenery and plenty of kind faces.  We decided not to eat fish in the area after seeing the water that some of the fishermen were tossing nets into.  We decided to stop for lunch at a small store where we loaded up on cookies, pop and salty treats.  The family who lived there was very nice and we did our best to explain our trip in Thai.  As we were packing up to go, they got a truck stuck in the mud.  We both trotted over and five of us together pushed and rocked the truck to get it out of the hole.  There were smiles all around and as we left the dad joked with the little girl that she should join us on her tricycle.  We waved goodbye and headed off again.

The last several miles were closer to the city and the road was a little busy for our taste.  As we weaved through the market, we got plenty of stares.  One woman yelled “OOOH Strong!”  and there were more than a few thumbs up.  We eventually made our way to the pier where the ferry left and had some delicious Tom Yum Gung soup on the water.  There were fishermen in the water up to their shoulders manually dragging their giant nets scooping up fish for the restaurant that we were eating at.  We found lodging right on the pier and slept well, ready for a bright and early 7 AM departure.

The ferry was relatively busy and filled with backpackers from all over the world.  It was candy bars and beer for breakfast, which suited us just fine.  The water was gorgeous and the sunrise was spectacular.  In a little under three hours, we could see land again!  On the boat ride I finished the book I’d been reading, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.  I don’t think, there is a more fitting read for someone on a journey around the world…  Thanks David!

The first few hours on the island were chaotic.  We were bombarded by taxi drivers and people promoting hotels and selling all kinds of stuff.  We kept our heads down and headed towards the dive shop to schedule our open water SCUBA diving course and find somewhere to stay.  The water is beautiful and the island is just what we needed.  We don’t know how long we’ll be here.  Maybe a week, maybe a few months, we are going to let the wind decide.

Video: Bikepacking Southern Thailand Part 1