The Best and Worst Awards

The best and worst awards for our motorcycle expedition across Africa, Europe and Asia.

Whilst the two of us are in agreement, we realize that many may disagree and so we welcome any comments.

MOST ENJOYABLE COUNTRY AWARD

AFRICA – TANZANIA

Tanzania just eclipses Kenya, Namibia and South Africa as our favourite country in Africa. Good infrastructure, decent roads, amazing scenery, friendly people, and abundant wildlife.  

The highlights:

  • the snow capped peaks of Kilimanjaro;
  • the glorious plains and wildlife of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater;
  • spicy and exotic Zanzibar;
  • our second favourite African city, Dar Es Salaam (Cape Town being our first);
  • a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Tanga on the east coast;
  • and our all time favourite camping spot on our whole trip, Lake Charla.

Riding towards Ngorogoro Crater

Snow peaked mountains in Tanzania

Lake Charla … elephants at the water hole

Lake Charla

Taking a ride on a Dhow in Zanzibar

Lake Charla with foothills of Kilimajaro in the background…

 

EUROPE – SCOTLAND (to be more precise West Scotland on a sunny day)

Many people are already aware of the amazing places to see in Turkey, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Greece etc…and we were privileged to do the European grand tour and take in many of the sights.

Italy was absolutely fascinating, superb architecture, rich history, good food and wine,  but not the easiest place to motorcycle in due to local driving conditions. . Good, but not great.

France was our biggest surprise. It is Britain’s next door neighbour and often maligned by Americans for being, well French, and by the English for old rivalries and wars over the centuries. However, we found it to be a stunning country and a motorcycling heaven. The Alps, Provence, the Southern coast, Loire valley, the wine-lands of Burgundy, pretty Brittany, the battle fields of Normandy and the many charming villages and towns we rode through. So much to see and we were treated very well by everyone we met… even by the Gendarmes.

However, taking the best motorcycling country in Europe award is Scotland…. especially western Scotland (see UK revisited chapter).

Pretty Scottish villages on west coast. An incredibly beautiful part of the world

Pretty Scottish villages on west coast. An incredibly beautiful part of the world

 

Due to the Gulf Stream that course up the west of the British Isles some parts of northern Scotland that are not far from the Arctic Circle are quite mild. It is, however, safe to say that the weather isn't always as glorious and when I was there and can be decidedly wet and blowy.

Due to the Gulf Stream that course up the west of the British Isles some parts of northern Scotland that are not far from the Arctic Circle are quite mild. It is, however, safe to say that the weather isn’t always as glorious and when I was there and can be decidedly wet and blowy.

 

Its gets even more like Tibet ... mountains and big hairy things in the road.

Its gets even more like Tibet … mountains and big hairy things in the road.

 

WORST COUNTRY AWARD 

There were no countries we did not enjoy to one degree or another.

Ethiopia,  undoubtedly rich in history and resplendent in natural beauty is a bit of a tragedy on the human side.

The country, especially the cities seems to have been left to rot and stagnate.  Ethiopians, a handsome lot as people go, appeared to be incredibly needy and nearly always had their hand out stretched begging for money. They often leaped out at us or grabbed our arms whilst shouting… ‘You, You, You…Money, Money, Money’.

It was tiresome, annoying and ever so slightly sad.

Meeting fellow bikers heading south at Ethiopian/ Sudan border

The former and now derelict train station in Addis Ababa

Cute little things .. but they always had their hand outstretched begging for money

Fanny surrounded by little friends in north west Ethiopia

Having been robbed blind by FTI Consulting,  I need to earn a crust somehow… so when in Ethiopia do as the Ethiopians do…

 

 

CHINA is a country on a continental scale and by far the most varied and diverse country we went to.

There were impressive and well planned super cities like Chengdu, Nanchang, Beijing and Shanghai, and prettier tourist towns like Lijiang, Yangshuo and Dali. We also rode through some of the most charming and idyllic countryside I have ever seen. Some rural areas have remained as they have been for centuries, despite the rapid pace of development going on around them.

But in China there are also some of the worst and most polluted places I have ever seen. Environmental plunder, architectural vandalism, motoring misery and pitiful squalour on an unprecedented scale. Quite a shock.

Some of the second and third tier Chinese cities were absolute shockers. Polluted and crowded beyond belief, bad roads and atrocious traffic jams, ridiculously bad urban planning and blighted by hideous buildings as far as the eye could see. Hong Kong and China seem to have a fatal attraction with adorning the outsides of their ugly concrete boxes with cheap toilet tiles.

Whether fascinating or depressing; ugly or stunningly beautiful; our experience riding over 13,000 kilometers through China was hugely rewarding and something we will never forget.

 

BIGGEST SURPRISE AWARD – SUDAN.

Sudan was our biggest surprise and we thoroughly recommend visiting.

It was a complete re-write of everything I had previously thought about its people and their culture. The kindness, politeness and gentleness of many of the people we met was incredible and we are very grateful to the hospitality extended to Fanny and I by many of the people we encountered.

That said, a cold beer in the scorching heat would be nice, as would a bacon sarnie with HP sauce, but I guess you can’t have everything. Treat it as a liver detox!

Kindness and hospitality given to Fanny and I in the middle of the Nubian desert in Sudan. Its strange that those with so little always offered us so much … and the converse!

Long sand roads .. and scorching heat in Sudan

Very friendly people

Replacing the starter relay in the middle of the Nubian desert in 50+ degrees heat.

Our kind host Mohammed and his children on banks of the River Nile in Sudan

Fanny with the guys who helped us repair her bike

Yes… there are pyramids in Sudan too

 

 

 

 

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Pyramids in Sudan

 

 

WORST EXPERIENCES 

We never really had any very bad experiences.

We managed to cross Africa without being eaten by wild animals, without having to pay a bribe, without being infected by deadly diseases, nor kidnapped by pirates or Jihadi nutters.

Our KTM 990 Adventure motorcycles have been superb, a joy to ride and very reliable.

The vast majority of people we encountered on the expedition have been wonderful and treated us very well…  the only exception being a few excitable types in Ethiopia who threw stones at us or lashed out as we were riding by with whips and sticks. Most of the border crossings and tourist locations attracted annoying touts, “shiftas” and fraudsters who were keen to relieve us of the few possessions we had. They were all unsuccessful.

A particular low was early on in the expedition when Fanny lost control of her motorcycle in the Namib Desert and came off at speed.

Fortunately, Fanny and her KTM motorcycle are a tough team and in no time were back together charging through the desert, albeit with a few scrapes and bruises.

In Europe our experience in Switzerland was not great, Fanny got arrested for involvement in an accident that wasn’t her fault, everything always seemed to be closed, everything was expensive, and we could hardly describe the Swiss as the friendliest people we met on our 53,800 kilometer ride around the world.

That said Switzerland is a very pretty country and we enjoyed riding through the Alps and up and down the many meandering passes.

In China/Asia I think the worst experience was just outside Chongqing City when a traffic official threw a traffic cone at Fanny while she was riding on the highway and knocked her off her bike. Anywhere else in the world this would be considered a serious criminal offence and front page news, but in China abuse of power by the authorities is common place and the “people” can’t do much about it. Fanny was injured slightly and very upset by the incident, but she managed to get back on her motorcycle and carry on.

Not being allowed to ride in certain Chinese cities and on most of the Chinese highway network is also pretty annoying and downright unnecessary in modern China on a modern motorcycle.

Apart from these incidents, and of course me getting stopped by the police at every single road block in Tibet, we had a really great adventure in China and had the chance to see places that very few people even know about, let alone visit.

USA?  Its a continent sized and a very well developed country that most non-Americans will know well enough through the ubiquitous TV shows and movies. Big, amazing wilderness, beautiful scenery,  wealthy,  but with a dark and sinister underbelly, especially in the inner cities.

To to be honest we still have a lot of riding to be done and places to see in the USA.

So far we have explored Washington, Oregon, Montana, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado in the west, and New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Ohio in the east. The south and the center remains to be explored.

From what I’ve seen of the rest of world, America sits in the middle ground. Its easy to get around, everything is super convenient, there is not a great deal of culture or history, the roads are far too straight and dull, and its not as “great” as Americans think it is. Nothing really interesting, and nothing really bad, except the food which is on the whole….a mixture of sugar and lard with a sprig of rocket.

I am afraid to so that Fanny doesn’t like America, but then she is a pinko commie!

South America?   That remains an adventure for the future.

A fussy unfocused picture of one of the officials. My hands were shaking with rage.

A fuzzy unfocused picture of one of the officials who threw a traffic cone at Fanny and knocked her off her motorcycle. My hands were shaking with rage but I resisted the urge to administer some summary justice and so we got back on our motorcycles and carried on.

 

These police in Hubei were very friendly and kind... in fact with a couple of exceptions that we write about in the diary, the authorities in China treated us well.

These police in Hubei were very friendly and kind… in fact with a couple of exceptions that we write about in the diary, the authorities in China treated us well.

 

 

BEST CITY AWARD

AFRICA – DAR ES SALAAM 

When riding a motorcycle through Africa the last places you really want to see are the cities. The joy of riding through Africa is the beautiful countryside, meeting its people, and enjoying the amazing African flora and fauna. However, if pressed to pick an African city I would say Dar Es Salaam because it is a very interesting and lively city, friendly people, good food,  and one of the few cities in Africa I could live in outside South Africa. Traffic is quite bad though, but nothing two bikers from Shanghai can’t handle.

A dhow in Zanzibar

Having a coffee in a street in Zanzibar

Dar es Salem from the ferry

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EUROPE – Istanbul

It is a difficult call to decide on the best city award for Europe. We enjoyed many. Lucca, Rome, Florence and Pompei in Italy;  Saint Lo in France; St. Sebastian in the Basque Country; Barcelona in Spain; Saltzburg and Vienna in Austria; and Old Town Rhodes in Greece. We thoroughly enjoyed them all.

However, if we are pushed to choose one then Istanbul takes the award. Its got it all… great food, wonderful art, kind friendly people, fascinating history, amazing architecture, the east meets west straits between Black Sea and Marmara Sea, and yet its very much a first world city, things work and it feels very welcoming and exciting to be there.

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Fanny wandering along the streets of Taksin in Istanbul… a super city.

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Enjoying the cafes of Istanbul

 

 

 

ASIA/China – LHASA (followed by CHENGDU) 

I am not even going to consult Fanny because she will say Shanghai. It’s like asking a panda what its favourite food is.  I thought our ride through China was absolutely fascinating. There are hundreds of cities in China with populations over a million people… many are over 20 million and therefore bigger than many countries in the world.

Each city is diverse with the richest and poorest, ugliest and prettiest and tastiest and revolting all in one place. Cities to mention are Beijing where I went to university and have a special fondness for, colourful and spicy Chengdu in Sichuan (and prettiest women!), exotic Dali in Yunnan, the amazing “Red City” of  Nanchang in Jiangxi, so called because its the home of the “red” revolution.

However, our ride through Tibet is probably one of the highlights and so therefore Lhasa, its provincial capital stands out as the best city to see in respect to scenery, architecture, history and “never seen before” general interest.

I lost my trainers and so I klomped about Lhasa in my riding boots... which got looks of admiring looks and comments from the Tibetans.

Me outside the most sacred temple in Lhasa

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Fanny and I high up on the Tibet/Qinghai Plateau… the world’s highest.

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Just outside Lhasa in Tibet

 

An interesting picture on many levels

Fanny and Si Ba (a Lama friend we made on the road) walking down the high street in Lhasa

WORST CITY

Africa – Addis Ababa  … 

We were looking forward to Addis Ababa, a name that conjured up exotic images formed from school days for me. However, when we got there we found it to be a complete karsi. The decrepit and forlorn looking train station from a bygone era pretty much sums up Addis Ababa ‘s decline into squalour and poverty.

Bus station in Addis Ababa

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Again corruption and inability to use a condom are to blame. Aggressive touts, annoying kids, unfriendly and hostile looking soldiers and policeman, and crumbling and decaying infrastructure. Its a big disappointment.

Fortunately we found refuge in a little oasis in the middle of this complete dog nest called “Wim’s Holland House”. Not the greatest backpackers in Africa, but the Dutch owner, Wim runs a decent hostel that serves more than the Ethiopian staple dish of  Tibis and sour pancakes and has a well stocked English pub-like bar that serves draft St.George’s beer.

ASIA – CHINA 

China is basically a large continent and currently going through the biggest phase of development any country has been through…ever,  and so some of its second and third tier cities (or lower) can easily qualify for worst, ugliest, most polluted, most corrupt, most congested, unhealthiest city anywhere on the planet.

Take your pick.

However the human inhabitants have no consideration or care for the environment, and like much of China and Taiwan throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, outside their homes and anywhere except a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing.

Many people in China and Taiwan throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, or just outside their homes ….anywhere except a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing. Hidden industrial pollution is off the scale.

Urban off roading

As with other parts of China, the average worker busts his hump and toils away seven days a week for hours on end for very little compensation. Throughout all of China we saw the poverty and the day to day struggle by many people just to survive and make a living. Putting up with conditions no one in the west would ever put up with.

A lot of China looks like this… a dusty, muddy, grey construction site on the cheap.

Really.... just unlucky ... could happen to anyone

An articulated lorry on its side in a dusty China street… quite normal

 

EUROPE – LUTON Picking a worst city in Europe is a difficult one.

Athens promised so much and delivered so little. We did wander around to see the sights of Ancient Greece, but the modern day city was depressing and the economic gloom palpable.

The city of my birth, London, is a mixed bag. A disappointment on many levels, can no longer be considered “English”,  but still an iconic and interesting city if you focus on the positives such as history, art and culture.

However, if I have to pick a candidate for worst city in Europe then I am going to say Luton or Slough in the United Kingdom.

Sorry Luton and Slough…… someone has to come last …..and you made no effort not to. 

 

WORST FLEAS, TICKS & LICEETHIOPIA

The mangey cats and dogs throughout Ethiopia are covered in them, as are most of the carpets, furniture and bedding. The lush grassland, especially after the rainy season is also home to ticks. As we were camping we had to remove quite a few of these little blood suckers that somehow found their way into various nooks and “fannys”.

“No” Best Flea Award….unsurprisingly!

 

BEST DRIVING STANDARD AWARDS –

Africa …South Africa (Western Cape)

Europe … Germany

China … umm?  Let’s say Hong Kong  … the standard is so incredibly poor.

Asia …  Japan

 

WORST DRIVING AWARDS –

Africa ….Egypt

Europe …. Italy

The World …. everywhere in China, followed very closely by Egypt and Bangkok in Thailand which is dangerous on a bike.

 

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Sri Lanka … driving standard is also pretty ropey … but at least its slow.

Tanzanian bus and truck drivers could take some kind of bad driving award judging by how many we saw overtaking dangerously or wrecked by the side of the road, but Egypt takes the “worst driving” award in Africa by a mile.

They are absolute shockers. Maybe  its because everyone is too busy shouting into their mobile phones all the time, or perhaps because everyone employs millimetre collision avoidance techniques, sometimes with success and sometimes without.  I saw a taxi mount a curb as the driver attempted to tackle a roundabout with one arm twisted around the wheel and the other holding a phone to his ear.

Rather than put his mobile phone down and use both arms to turn the wheel he preferred to carry on talking, veer off the road and mow down some pedestrians.

Me and my KTM at the Great Pyramids

 

Tahrir Square with the building we have to get our visas from at the top left hand side

Tahrir Square, in cairo with the government building we had to go to in order to extend our visas at the top left hand side. The Spring revolution was in full swing when we arrived in Cairo and so it was an interesting time.

 

BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION –

Africa …..Namibia/Tanzania

We have a difference of opinion due to our different levels of riding experience. Fanny goes for Tanzania for the same reasons (above) as for best country and I go for Namibia, to my mind the most awesome motorcycling country… anywhere.

Challenging, technical in parts, mind blowing scenery and importantly very few people and other vehicles. Its got sand, gravel, rocks, hills, deserts, salt pans, seascape, bush, wild animals, birds and fresh air…. AND no road blocks, no speed bumps, no police and no speed cameras.  I also really liked the Nubian deserts of Sudan. Clean, beautiful and spectacular.

Fanny cruising along the gravel roads in the Namib desert

 

left or right?

Left or right?  Freedom to do whatever.

 

BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION _ EUROPE …. Western Scotland (in the sun) followed by France

Scotland was a big surprise. In Jubilee year, 2012 when Fanny and I arrived in the UK we planned to ride to Scotland, but the weather was absolutely atrocious. A year later during what everyone was calling “The Summer of 2013”  the weather was absolutely glorious and western Scotland gave me some of the best riding I have ever experienced. Not to take anything away from Scotland, my KTM 990 Supermoto T I was riding was one of best motorcycles I have ever ridden. I have to say it was an awesome ride and Great Britain was truly “great”.

Now we are talking. The ride now moves up to a new quantum level of beautiful. Fanny and I have ridden around the world and been privileged to see the Himalayas, Pyrenees, Alps, Guilin, Rift Valley, Qinghai Cederberg, Atlas etc... but West Scotland on a good day is second to none.

West Scotland

 

This is what motorcycling is all about. Peace, fresh air, beautiful scenery and in the seat of perhaps the best road bike I have ever ridden... the

This is what motorcycling is all about. Peace, fresh air, beautiful scenery and in the seat of perhaps the best road bike I have ever ridden… the

 

ASIA …. Tibet and Cardomom mountains in Cambodia

Who, being given the chance, is not going to vote Tibet as one of the best motorcycling destinations on the planet?  Not me.

Also, Cardomom mountains in Cambodia are very interesting and enjoyable on a bike.

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Namib desert

"Yeah! - Go On... slap me on the arse and see what happens"

Yak 1000 Adventure

 USA – Valley of Gods, Utah

The best adventure motorcycling I have come across so far in the USA is probably the unearthly Valley of Gods in southern Utah. I have ridden all over the USA on various machines over the year, but there is still a lot for me to see and explore and so there may be better places, but the Valley of Gods, although quite small is a superb ride.

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Valley of Gods on Honda Africa Twin (BDR Utah)

 

WORST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION AWARDS

All African and Chinese inner cities (except Cape Town and Windhoek)

Riding through any of the African Capital cities was  tiresome, annoying, stressful and decidedly dangerous… in particular Cairo, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. It was no problem technically for either of us, we come from Shanghai after all where the traffic is atrocious and ride our bicycles everyday, but the appalling driving standards, poor urban planning and ever increasing traffic volume made riding less fun than it should be.

Whilst we rode on appalling roads and surfaces, such as the road from Marsabit to Moyale in north Kenya, they presented the  sort of challenges bikers relish and we confronted and overcame them with a huge sense of 成就感  and enjoyment.

Worst Motorcycling Experience in Europe … again the inner cities of Italy and England spring to mind…. but no where near as bad as China or Egypt.

In England the speed cameras ruin motorcycling and in Italy the narrow medieval roads through the towns, and aggressive and poor driving standard by Italians make riding a bit stressful, but not too bad.

In London, there are feral “non indigenous” teenagers who ride scooters, terrorize people, and steal with impunity because the police do nothing. These thugs also spray acid into people’s faces from squeezy bottles or attack people with hammers and angle grinders ….and get away with it because the ethnic majority have voted for treacherous politicians like Khan and Abbott who support these hooligans because they think the indigenous English deserve it.

The police, courts and authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place and so they are largely impotent. They stick to arresting soft targets like 1970s DJs, non contentious traffic offences and local middle class people for Orwellian “thoughtcrimes”.

When I was a police officer in London in the 1980s it was urban chaos then, lots of race riots, inner city anomie, and quite dangerous. However, you did your job, your colleagues and bosses supported you, and you got promoted or advanced to more interesting jobs based on merit and ability. Now in politically correct and easily offended Britain its the opposite and so basically the police have given up and much of London is a “no go” ghetto.

By comparison, when we were riding in north Kenya, borders with Somalia, east Ethiopia, central and north Sinai and the western Sahara ISIS were just starting to take hold and there was a real possibility of running into a pickup truck of crazy Islamists. However, there were lots of armed police and army, local Bedouins were friendly and helpful, we were on fast powerful motorcycles, able and allowed to defend and look after ourselves, and so the odds were even.

Our advice is don’t ride into London. Ride around it, or park outside and take public transport into the tourist areas, see the changing of the guard, the museums, art galleries, theaters, cafes and shops and then get out as quick as possible.

In fact, best to avoid all English cities and head to the beautiful Cotswolds, Peak District, Devon and Cornwall, the Jurassic coast, the Fens, the Lake District, Scotland or Wales and a nice rural pub.

 

BEST CAMPSITES:

1. Lake Charla – Tanzania –  What a gem. perfect climate, stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro, hundreds of elephants, Colobus monkeys, unspoiled bush, a spectacular volcanic crater lake, great bar, friendly hosts, and of course the famous roasted goat dinner.

 

2. Makuzi – Malawi. Peaceful paradise on the shores of Lake Malawi.

 

3. Mountain Rock – Kenya.  A lush enjoyable grassy campsite next to a trout filled river on the equator in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

 

Europe ….Scotland   no camp sites in the whole of Europe were on the same scale of the three above in Africa. Camping in Europe, regardless of whether its next to stunning scenery like Mont Blanc or near a historical town like Lucca in Italy has a whiff of concentration camp about it.  France has simple and clean municipal campsites that were great value. Italy had some decent places but they were expensive. Wales was quite good. England just doesn’t have any and the few there are are awful, with a few exceptions. Our worst experience on the whole expedition was at Crystal Palace in London where we were interrogated and abused by gestapo like camp wardens. Hobson’s choice because London is so expensive, in fact the most expensive anywhere, and so camping was the only alternative to paying over 100 pounds for a small room for a night.

Scotland however has no trespass laws and so provided you show respect for the owners property and leave the site in the condition you found it in you can free camp where you like. Its also a gloriously pretty and interesting country and so the best European camping award easily goes to Scotland, followed by France and Wales. 

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North west point of Scotland at 11pm in the evening.

 

Camping on Skye

Camping on Skye

 

China – Nan Tso (Tibet). 

China is a great country to back pack across (I have done it) and as such has great youth hostels and cheap accommodation in all cities and towns.  As for camping, China is, on the whole, a safe country (apart from driving standards). However, despite its enormous size there is not a great deal of spare land that is not farmed on or developed… until you get into the remote western provinces of Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang and Qinghai. We were very fortunate to camp in two stunning locations.

One with Lamas on the banks of a river in the Himalayas and another in the middle of Tibet at over 5000 meters next to the shores of Tibet’s most sacred lake, Nam Tso with 7,000 meter + peaks surrounding us.

USA – Needles, Utah

Campsites in the USA are basic by African and European standards. They are clean, tidy, averagely cheap, have friendly elderly attendants, but usually lack ablutions and the facilities you get in continental European campsites and most African lodges.

Apart from free camping, which I did a lot and prefer, the best organised campsite I found was at Needles in Utah, just south of Moab. In other States the campsites are pretty gruesome, far too expensive and generally geared towards caravans and RVs, and so free camping with a tent is the best option, and easy to do.

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Camping with lamas in east Tibet

 

Camping at Nam Tso.

Camping on the shores of Nam Tso, Tibet

 

WORST CAMPSITES .

We never stayed at any really bad campsites. To our mind the simpler the better and there should be more like the good ones we saw in Africa.  Whilst Sudan allows free camping,  Egypt is heavily controlled by the military and police and our attempts to free camp were fruitless. We were chased off seemingly remote places in the desert and along the Red Sea by police, army and security people.

Being unable to camp in certain places, we did stay in some rather ropey (because they were cheap) hotels in Sudan and Ethiopia but you get what you pay for and we didn’t pay very much. The Kilpatra hotel in Wadi Halfa had the worst lavatory and shower outside China… a true shocker.

Of course, Europe is the land of the caravan. Rarely seen in Africa or Asia, these boxes on wheels are seen everywhere in western Europe, blocking the country lanes and oblivious or uncaring to the traffic mayhem they cause around them. To a biker they are annoying enough, but we can whizz pass them more often than not. To another car driver stuck behind one on a road in Cornwall I hate to think.

No wonder they are targets of Top Gear persecution and derision. Once they eventually get to their “beauty spot” they position themselves cheek by jowl and then the occupants immediately position themselves outside on deckchairs, guarding their plot with disapproving territorial expressions on their faces.

Actually, these caravan clubers are not a bad bunch when you get to know them and are often passionate about their caravaning lifestyles and can wax lyrical about chemical toilets and lace curtains.

I have to say caravaners, with their impressive tea making facilities and well stocked biscuit tins, who brew up on the hour every hour are always welcome next to our tent.

BEST FOOD AWARD

Africa ….  Egypt

Apart from the Chinese food we had in various places, Egypt probably just surpasses South Africa as the country with the best food in Africa. Fresh seafood, spicy curries, kebabs and falafel, roti, dates, fruit, salads, tasty bread… and good beer.

Lots of great street food in Egypt and Sudan

Back streets of Cairo

Lunch in Hurgharda

The food in Sudan is also pretty good and the Nile fish breakfast in Wadi Halfa is a special treat, especially with Bedouin coffee or tea. Again icy fruit juices are a specialty and very welcome when the temperature is scorching hot.

 

Europe … Turkey 

The best food we ate in Europe was in Turkey.  This was a big surprise as we don’t think either of us have been to a Turkish restaurant in our lives. Whilst in Istanbul and Mersin we were treated to some excellent local feasts by our new Turkish friends. The street food was also cheap and delicious, a bit like in Egypt.

Further along through Europe we had delicious cakes and pastries, especially in Austria, Italy and France, but the classic Italian and French fine cuisine famous throughout the World was not available to us because of the cost. I am sure its delicious, its just we couldn’t afford any.

We were fortunate to be in Italy during Easter and were treated to a delicious traditional Italian lunch with our friends Nick and Paola and her family near Rome. We also had some great home cooking with family and friends while we were in England and Wales.

I know there is good food about in Britain, but can you find it when you are hungry, or afford to eat decently in, say, London? No. Ubiquitous sandwich shops, junk food, petrol station food, and processed food is the tourists’ lot. Best you can get is a good cardiac arrest “fry up” breakfast at a roadside lay-by or fish and chips for dinner.

Even the so called ethnic food we had in the UK, like Indian or Thai was awful. So, unless you are lucky to be invited to eat at a “Master Chef” finalists’ house, have relatives and friends who are good cooks or win the lottery and have the chance to try out a Michelin starred restaurant you are going to be disappointed on the food front in the UK.

We met many tourists, especially Chinese who were on the verge of tour group mutiny in the UK because they disliked the food so much.

A wonderful lunch (into dinner) amongst the citrus groves at a superb restaurant in Mersin, Turkey. With our very kind hosts Metin and Sylvia who run the local KTMshop 。 

A wonderful lunch (into dinner) among the citrus groves at a superb restaurant in Mersin, Turkey. With our very kind hosts Metin and Sylvia who run the local KTM garage。

 

China – overall winner by a long way…..

Nothing beats the food in China for variety, freshness, health, flavour, texture, low cost, accessibility, colour, exoticness, pure joy and of course taste. Spicy Hunan and Sichuan, sweet and sour Shanghainese, salty and savoury Dong Bei, roasted meat from Xinjiang and seafood from Guangdong …..and it goes on with each province and each region within a province having their own specialties and traditions .

We all need food and everywhere we went in the world the people took pride in their local cuisine, but to our mind nothing beats Chinese food.

We and 1.4 billion others think so anyway..

Best Chinese Restaurant outside ChinaXiao Long (Laughing Dragon) – Livingstone, Zambia. On par with the Sichuan and Hunan food we have in China,  but I suspect only if you insist on the genuine stuff… in Mandarin ….and have a Chinese companion who does a thorough inspection of the kitchen, the ingredients and interrogates all the staff.

Worst Chinese Restaurant outside ChinaThe Panda – Mosi, Tanzania (The lovely girl, Cheng Yuan Yuan, who was left in charge of the restaurant while the owner went back to China admitted she couldn’t cook and neither could the chef). In the end one of the Chinese guests went in the kitchen and cooked a few dishes which we shared.

Would you believe it? Fanny eating again. Chengdu is famous for Xiao Chi (lit.. little eats) Snacks if you will.

Sichuan street food

I am like a dog in China. I get fed once a day, complete strangers come up and stroke the blonde hairs on my arms, in my presence I get spoken about in the third person, certain hotels wont let me in, and I have no idea what people are saying to me all the time. Woof Woof.

Yunnan food

Chatting with locals selling lianzi (lotus seeds) next to huge fields of lianhua (lotus)

Its exotic and specialties appeared on street corners and by the side of fields as we rode across the country . Here chatting with locals selling lianzi (lotus seeds) next to huge fields of lianhua (lotus)

WORST FOOD AWARDS

Worst food in Africa – Malawi

The lakeside resorts run by foreignors had pretty good food, but unless you like eating a diet consisting of 99% cassava (which has the nutritional value and taste of a flip flop) you will starve in the rest of the country as indeed a lot of the people are doing.  There is no excuse for this as Malawi has fresh water,  untapped natural resources and shares nearly the same geology and agricultural potential as Tanzania which grows coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables in abundance.

The problem, as with too many places in Africa, lies with the government who are greedy, corrupt and incompetent …and the people who put up with such tyrants who keep them in the stone age.

The other crop that grows pretty freely in Malawi is marijuana , so if you like you can spend your days in Malawi stoned out of your skull in a blue haze, however when you get the munchies don’t expect to see much in the fridge.

Worst food in Europe – the UK. If you have the money, or live with an excellent cook you will eat as well as anywhere in the world.

However for any visitor to the UK the food on the street is pretty dire. The healthy option, if so inclined, is a salad with a bit of meat or fish in a plastic box. Still hungry? .. of course you are … so a tub of lard for pudding. You can tell by the unhealty disposition and obesity of most English people that there is little nutrition in many peoples diet.

In England the day starts off well with a variety of decent breakfasts and then goes downhill thereon.

Worst food in China Tibet. If we are to be picky, a diet that consists of a thousand ways to eat yak and yak’s milk might be pushing the limits… so local Tibetan food, whilst pretty OK, is at bottom of of the list as there is some amazing food to be eaten in every province across China.

All this being said the upside of increasing migration of more Han Chinese into Tibet is that good food from other provinces can be found in the main cities in Tibet. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Its a good thing when you’re hungry.

Also, I have to mention the province of Guangxi and Chinese provinces bordering Laos and Vietnam for their fondness for dog, rat, pangolin, civet cat, and other furry, feathered and scaly creatures and their insides… nope…. not my cup of nai cha, nor Fanny’s.

BEST BEER AWARDS

Africa – Namibia – Windhoek beer.

Windhoek

 

 

Europe – English bitter (in particular Marston’s Pedigree from Burton Upon Trent)

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Marston’s Pedigree – from Burton on Trent

China – Tsingdao beer  青岛啤酒)

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Tsing Dao from Qingdao, China

 

WORST BEER AWARDS  – of course there is no worst beer award, but perhaps Sudan should get a mention for not allowing beer at all.  In fact the punishment for any alcohol possession in Sudan is 40 lashes.

Ouch!

BEST GAME PARK  AWARDS

1. Masai Mara (Kenya) (in late August)

We had an awesome time in Masai Mara. Great guides, reasonable entry fees (compared to Tanzania), and when we were there the great wildebeest migration was in residence and stretched across the grassy plains as far as the eye could see. It was true Lion King country and we had a terrific motorcycle ride to get there along cattle tracks and through Masai villages.

2. South Luangwa (Zambia).

South Luangwa National Park is possibly one of the prettiest and diverse game reserves in Africa. Certainly one of my favourite. Unfortunately, while I was there the last rhino had been poached in collusion with corrupt security guards who for their evil part were paid a fraction of what the horns were eventually sold for in Asia.

Whilst the 150 kilometer road from Chipata to the national park was too technical for Fanny at that particular stage of our expedition (not now of course), I had been there on a previous motorcycle trip across Africa and on the way bumped into the Long Way Down TV show motorcycles on their way to Lusaka. They had also decided against going to Luangwa because the road was too tough for Mr. and Mrs. McGregor, although easy for Charlie Boorman and the cameraman, Claudio I expect, who turned out to be decent guys and true motorcycle enthusiasts.

With the help of my Zambian cousin I managed to ride right into the game park along a locally used two track sand road and ride right up to many of the African animals and through the stunning bush of the Valley, but trying to keep a decent distance from creatures that might like a KTM sandwich. However, I inadvertently rode into a herd elephants and was mock charged by a young male which was quite exciting. They do not like the sound or sight of motorcycles at all, especially with loud Akropovik exhausts.

 

BEST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD

Ras Mohammed, Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt.

I do not care for diving particularly having been put off  when I did a CT selection course when I was in the Royal Hong Kong police,  but due to putting down roots in Dahab by the beautiful Red Sea I had little to do while Fanny was windsurfing and so I have now completed the PADI open water and advanced scuba course with H2O Divers.

http://www.facebook.com/H2ODiversDahab

Dahab is 90 Kms away from Sharm El Sheikh in the Gulf of  Aqaba (Red Sea) and enjoys amazing marine life and is a very popular destination for kite surfing, wind surfing and diving. As well as scuba diving with an aqua lung, I also learnt to free dive and practised nearly everyday at the famous Blue Hole, or just off the coral reefs at Eel Garden, The Caves or Lighthouse. Amazing places. Fanny on the other hand learnt to windsurf in the lagoon with Planet Windsurf and is now a very competent sailor.

http://www.planetwindsurfholidays.com/resorts/egypt/dahab/

The Red Sea in Egypt, especially along the Sinai peninsular is absolutely spectacular. I have been fortunate to have traveled around most of South East Asia, but the Red Sea is to my mind better. Crystal clear warm waters, amazing tropical fish and coral reefs and pretty decent infrastructure to support it all. The Sinai desert mountains create an awesome backdrop to the coastal towns of Nuweiba, Taba and especially Dahab, and the desert itself is quite possibly the prettiest in the world, especially at sunset and sunrise.  That said, the whole tourism thing could be done so so much better, but then the Egyptian tourist industry is reeling from the Arab Spring revolution, the world economic downturn and the negative effects of blowing up tourists with fire-bombs.

WORST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD

Any open water in East or South China. Polluted and disgusting.

BEST MOUNTAINS & VALLEYS

Africa – Ethiopia and Lesotho

Whilst we thought Ethiopia was spoiled a bit by some of its annoying stone throwing feral inhabitants and decaying cities, it does have spectacular natural beauty with mountains, rivers, pastures, lakes and valleys that looks a bit like those in Switzerland, Scotland or Austria.  The roads are also for the large part extremely good, although as I have said often crowded with people and animals.

Lesotho, which is bordered completely by South Africa, is also a very mountainous country and is an excellent place to visit, albeit a bit chilly to ride through in winter.

Ethiopia’s proximity to some very dodgy African countries, short visa restrictions and some very wet weather while we were there prevented us from exploring the amazing Danakil depression and Afar region in the east of the country which are said to be spectacular.

Not many regrets on the expedition, but not venturing to this amazing part of the world that features in the January 2012 edition of National Geographic magazine.

We did go to Lalibela to see the rock hewn churches, and they were fairly interesting. But unless you are an archaeologist or Christian pilgrim you’d be better off visiting Salisbury Cathedral, and indeed any Norman church in England as they are older, far more impressive and have less fleas. The ride there was fun though and took us  “off road” for a few hundred kilometers through valleys and across rivers and streams.

Europe – you are probably going the expect me to say The Alps, Pyrenees or the Dolomites, maybe the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia in Wales and indeed they are spectacular, but I am going to have to pick the mountains and valleys I enjoyed riding through the most and so I will say The Highlands of Scotland.

West coast of Scotland

West coast of Scotland

 

China –  is a very mountainous part of the world and along our 13,000 kilometer ride through the middle kingdom we navigated over, around and often through many mountain ranges. Chinese history is steeped in legend about mountains and have been the subject of pilgrimages by emperors and philosophers throughout the ages.  We were lucky to see some of the wuyue 五岳 – sacred five and the Buddhist and Taoist fours. But for me and Fanny seeing (and riding through) the greatest mountain range on the planet with the highest peaks, the Himalayas was one of the highlights of the expedition.

After all the awful roads we get to cruise on the awesome S201 through Guangxi 广西。

Guangxi 广西。

These are the mountains that turn the Yellow River ... yellow

These are the mountains that turn the Yellow River … yellow

Tibet and the Himalayas from space

Tibet and the Himalayas from space

The Himalayas... what can you say?

The Himalayas… what can you say?

 

BEST BORDER CROSSING –

Africa – South Africa. Quite simply modern, efficient, quick and fair.

Europeall easy

Chinano border crossings.. although riding through the road blocks in Tibet was “interesting”.

WORST BORDER CROSSING 

1st Egypt and 2nd Sudan.

The opposite of modern, efficient, quick, or fair. The further north in Africa we went the worse the border crossings became.

LEAST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS

Africa – Botswana

Europe – Austria

Asia – Singapore (its not going to be China is it?)

MOST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS

Africa – Egypt

Europe – Italy

Asia – China

Most countries we went through in Africa could very fairly be described as corrupt. Some more than others. Unfortunately, there are countries we simply couldn’t risk traveling through because they are so corrupt and dangerous, such as the DRC, Chad, Nigeria etc.. Even the famous Dakar Rally no longer races through the Sahara to Dakar and has moved to Argentina and Chile in South America.

An anecdote from our first day in Egypt:

Having spent considerable time and parted with a huge amount of cash at customs and immigration at the Egyptian border in Aswan, we were stopped 50 meters away at a road block, the first of hundreds, by a policeman with an AK47 variant of assault rifle who looked us up and down and asked, ‘Where you come from?’

Me (clearly thinking this is stupid question at the Egypt/Sudan border) ‘ Sudan’

Policeman ‘What in bag?’

Me ‘ Our things’

Policeman ‘ Open up’

Me ‘OK’…. ‘It’ll take a bit of time… hang on a bit’

As I was getting off my bike to open the panniers the policeman said ‘ Ah.. no need, haha…  anything nice for me?’

Me ‘ I don’t pay bribes’ (eye to eye), and continued,  ‘Actually I used to be a policeman and think policemen like you are an insult to the cloth, you make the job of honest, conscientious policemen more difficult and more dangerous’ rant rant…

Policeman (grinning like an imbecile and waving me on) ‘ haha .. you can go’

Policeman to Fanny ‘Where you come from?’

Fanny ‘China’

Policeman to Fanny ‘ You got present for me?’

I turned around and shouted ‘ HEY! – I TOLD YOU’

Policeman ‘Haha.. OK you go’   and so we went.

On each occasion the authorities even suggested a bribe I stood my ground or played my “I used to be a policeman” trump card and they all gave up.

Some of Fanny’s friends, a Chinese expedition starting from South Africa and riding Jin Chiang motorcycle and side-cars, gave up in Tanzania after running out of money, spirit and heart after paying bribe after bribe and being messed about at every single border crossing.

I guess the Africans thought that Chinese are accustomed to paying bribes. Maybe they are, and maybe they are also as fed up as everyone else.

 

NOISIEST COUNTRY AWARDS  – Sudan followed by China and Egypt.

Sudan is a strictly Islamic country and so requires its Muslim population to pray five times a day among other noisy rituals. The density of mosques and minarets in Sudan is very high and the call to prayers starts at 4-5 am which is rather early and without doubt a very loud wake -up alarm call where ever you are.

I vaguely remember bell ringing on Sunday mornings from the church in the village, Abbots Bromley, I grew up in England, and even that annoyed me after a few peels.

As a Roaming Catholic of the lapsed kind I am a firm believer that anyone can believe in what they like provided it causes no harm to others, but object to people inflicting their superstitions, religion and beliefs on other people.

My helpful suggestion that calls to prayer be made using mobile phones on vibrate mode was not met enthusiastically by anyone I met, nor was the suggestion that  “All Things Bright and Beautiful” might be more cheerful.

China?

There are 1.4 billion Chinese, the streets are crowded, and they absolutely love noise and any excuse to make some is welcomed and encouraged.

Megaphones, public announcements, promotions, advertisements, car horns, traffic, construction noise, warning signals, conversations, music, talking in restaurants etc etc… DO IT LOUDLY!. T

There are four tones in Mandarin and to make sure the other person understands clearly its best to SHOUT. In Cantonese there are nine tones and so the Hong Kongers SHOUT EVEN LOUDER ……..AAAH MAAAA. 噪音太大。!!!!

 

MOST PEACEFUL COUNTRY AWARD – Namibia

To the motorcyclists who like a bit of technical off road riding, stunning scenery, quiet roads, good camping sites, African animals and birds, decent petrol and getting close to unspoiled nature then Namibia is the country to go and disturb the peace with your Akropovik or Leo Vince exhausts!

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A long way from anywhere…. The Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Pictures at http://www.facebook.com/bigbiketrip

Chapter 31 – Vietnam and Cambodia

So what do two adventure bikers do for their Christmas holidays?

Of course, go on another motorcycle adventure, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Lots of temples in the Cambodian forests… some like this very isolated

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Riding through The Cardomon mountains, Cambodia on a Honda Transalp 650

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Coffee and noodles and more coffee in Hanoi.

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Riding around Hanoi

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Our Honda and a hat

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Hanoi

Flying directly into Phnom Penh from Hong Kong was expensive and so we decided to fly into Hanoi first, have a look around and then take a local flight to Cambodia where we would pick up a Honda Africa Twin and spend two weeks over the holidays touring the country, and perhaps include a few days relaxing on the southern coast.

I have been to Ho Chi Minh a few times, but neither Fanny or I had been to Hanoi and we had been planning to go there for some time.   Originally our plan was to ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong, inspired by the famous “Top Gear Special”, but we didn’t really have enough time to do a big trip in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, Fanny was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery to her knee and she did not want to ride a bike herself, and so we decided to spend the majority of our time in Cambodia as we could share a larger adventure motorbike. It seems Vietnam only hires out small scooters and mopeds, which are perfectly OK for scooting about the city, but a bit challenging for an countrywide tour in a few days.

Hanoi is a really interesting and bustling city with French and Chinese style architecture reflecting its rather complicated heritage. We liked it very much. There are tens of thousands of scooters riding about in a seemingly chaotic manner, but after a while you realize, despite universal none adherence to any traffic laws whatsoever, that carnage, death and destruction is actually quite rare. In fact, everyone just manages to avoid colliding into everyone else.

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When in Hanoi….

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Lots of markets and hawkers stalls

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School kids visiting the Hanoi War Museum…

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And serving soldier …

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A B52 …once

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And Fanny . and B52 wreckage in a very small pond.

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Riding into restaurant in Hanoi

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Exploring around the narrow streets… perfect on a moped

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Look at her happy face… anyone would think she had found authentic Vietnamese beef noodles for a dollar

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And more…

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I believe this is a called a “take a picture of your self” or something like that.

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Fanny and I hiking around Hanoi

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Before…..

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After… !

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Zoom…. kids and all

Crossing the road on foot does take a leap of faith, if not courage, and yet the bikes and cars just seem to slide by, dodge and side step you, employing well practiced collision avoidance techniques. Accidents do happen of course, and like their Thai neighbours the Vietnamese take enormous pleasure in publishing the graphic images of squashed and smashed up human being in newspapers and specialist magazines. Everyone’s got to have a hobby I suppose.

Finding accommodation in Hanoi was easy and we stayed at a superb hotel in the old town called Oriental Suites. A colonial looking and very well managed mid sized hotel right in the heart of the old town. Great coffee and very obsequious staff… just how we like it.

http://www.orientalsuiteshotel.com/en-us/hotels/home.html

We decide to hire a scooter to get around and explore the city and at first were given a “last thing you’ll ever ride” piece of junk clearly belonging to one of the hotel staff.  After an 18.5 second test drive I returned and gave the hotel manager a full and frank appraisal of his “Vamporetta” or whatever it was. The traffic was bad enough in Hanoi, but without any brakes, steering bearings gone, and an engine that stalled all the time… I don’t think so.  So, we were given one of the ubiquitous Honda 110 mopeds and it was perfectly fine and off we went.

We found lots of great restaurants, cafes, noodle shops, and market stalls, most of which were selling a huge array of Christmas decorations and junk nobody really needs in life. The street food was very good and it seems the Vietnamese, like the southern Chinese they share a border, will eat absolutely anything. There were a lot of roasted pooches looking rather sad for themselves in heated glass display cases at various street hawker stalls. Evidently, the locals are perfectly aware that their taste in cuisine isn’t appreciated by the vast majority of tourists, including many Chinese from the more civilized cities and northern provinces, and so they were sensitive to people like Fanny and I taking pictures of poached pug and char grilled collie. But we did anyway.

Hanoi, along with the same parts of China that regularly eat dog, i.e. Guangxi and Guangdong, are also the markets for rhino horn although I never saw any evidence of this devastating trade in endangered animal parts. Not surprising since gram for gram rhino horn its more valuable than gold. Wont last for long though as there wont be a rhino left on the planet within a generation.

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Harley Bikers in Hanoi

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Biker Cafe

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Lots of captured US aircraft

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US aircraft sculpture ….

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The winners flag flying above their captured aircraft

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Bit mad on roads in day and night

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Hanoi shop

Anyway, we explored the back streets, drank lots of excellent coffee, went to a small lake with the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber still in it, and really enjoyed our visit to the Hanoi War Museum that was full of US warplanes and helicopters, as well as large displays of medieval warfare techniques and home made weapons used against the French troops during the 1950s. Despite nearly everyone being half the size of Fanny, the Vietnamese seem like very tough people… they certainly have a high tolerance for discomfort and hardship.

A day or so later we took a Vietnamese flight via Vientiane in Laos to Phnom Penh and breezed through immigration very quickly as we had applied for our visas in advance. We avoided the taxis and hired a “tut tut” on the main highway to take us to our hotel, the Grande Palaise, near the central market.

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Phnom Penh

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In a tut tut on way to pick up our bike

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Cambodia-physical-map

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The Grande Palaise, Phnom Penh… looks nice until you have to flush a lavatory.

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Ahh… no guests at breakfast… wonder why?

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The GDP of a country is inversely proportional to the length of their leader’s motorcade.

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If you see this dog …. hand him over to the Cambodian police … not the Vietnamese police…unless you are fond of pug stew.

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An amazing looking colonial hotel in keeping with its name, but the devils in the detail and its seems Cambodian attention to detail and good grouting is en par with that in Hong Kong.  The hotel had been converted from an old colonial cinema and it was also clear that they had done a pretty crap job of it. The electric was shocking, the plumbing was appalling, and the bed was lumpy. Judging by the expression on the faces of two snooty looking French guests at breakfast the next morning we were not the only people to think so.

The next day we navigated around a seemingly endless motorcade of Vietnamese and Cambodian officials in blacked out limos, army trucks and police officers in SUVs as they raced back and forth across the city.  Cars and pedestrians alike were forced to stop by hundreds of police officers as this officialdom went about what ever it was doing. Eventually there was a window of opportunity to move about and we got another tut tut to our motorcycle hire shop.

The Bike Shop is run by a Frenchman and his Cambodian partner and we rented a decent looking, but rather old 2001 Honda Transalp 650. I was a bit disappointed that the Africa Twin 750 we had booked online had been given to a French couple, but in the end the Transalp was absolutely faultless and was to prove the ideal bike for some very demanding riding later on. I really grew to like the Transalp.

http://www.motorcyclecambodia.com

We had intended to ride south to the coastal resort town of Kep, but decided instead to ride north west towards Siem Reap where the world heritage temples of Angkor Wat are located. For those not familiar with Cambodia, and that included me before this trip, there is a huge lake in the middle of the country and you have no choice but to ride around it.  No bridges span it and during the rainy season it expands greatly in size and pretty much the whole country is under water.

As it was late December we were traveling in the dry season and so we rode along unsurfaced, potholed and dusty construction roads for several hundred kilometers to Kampong Thom. The Honda, although 14 years old, was extremely well maintained and I could tell from the briefing about checking oil, general maintenance and spare parts that the company we hired it from really looked after their bikes and cared about them. We were also given soft panniers and I have to say if ever I ride around the world or do a significant motorcycle adventure again I will use some sort of soft pannier system rather than the  hugely expensive aluminum square “Touratech” boxes we had on our KTMs for our ride through Africa and Europe.

Because the roads and traffic were so bad we didn’t make the progress we thought we’d make. Also, I was by now really fed up riding on a so called national highway made of holes, dirt and more holes with thick dust being thrown up by trucks and speeding SUVs and so at Kampong Thom we turned off the highway and headed north towards Preah Vihear where we were told there were some interesting temples in the hills at the northern border with Thailand and Laos.

A great decision. The roads were now virtually empty, the scenery was very rural and beautiful, and the road surface was excellent. After about 40 kilometers we saw a sign indicating that there was a resort nearby and since it was getting late and we were tired we headed off along a narrow road through endless fields full of cows, water buffalo and horses and between expanses of rainforest and large deciduous trees.  At around 6pm the light faded noticeably and we had still been unable to find the “resort”, but we did find the ruins of an ancient temple complex. Quite a sight to find in the middle of a forest as the sun was going down.

There was no one around except for a young man on a scooter by a small wooden booth. We stopped to ask him about the “resort”.  ‘This is it”, he told us in perfect English.  Huh!  Apparently the resort was the ruins of the stunning Khmer temples and there was, in fact, no “hotel with a swimming pool and a restaurant” type resort that Fanny and I had envisaged in our minds.

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One of many temples we found

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Fanny and the young Cambodian guy who brought us back to his homestay

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Restaurant where we had our dinner and evening shower in a cow paddock behind restaurant

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Just Fanny and I exploring a site full of temples in the forest

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early morning light

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Prasat Yeay Poeun

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Our homestay

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Morning fire at our homestay…

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Morning wash

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Inside one of the temples

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Sandy roads

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2001 Honda

We had no tent, no sleeping bags and actually very little in the way of luggage at all. Certainly no food. Neither of us were too fussed. It wasn’t raining, the temperature was a perfect 24 degrees and we could perhaps kip with the ghosts in one of the many thousand year old ruins.

‘You can stay at a homestay’, the young man told us. ‘No problem’.

Apparently for 6 dollars for the two of us we could stay at a local home, and that is what we did. But first, food hunting. We were told there was a village nearby and we could find something to eat. Result.

We rode into a charming little farming village and found a small stall selling a very limited selection of local food, including something that looked like papaya salad with dried river prawns. As we drew up on the Honda the whole village stopped and stared at us as if we had landed in a flying saucer. The lady owner looked us up and down and we were covered from head to toe in red dust. I was wearing shorts and my light weight motorcycle jacket and my legs were absolutely caked in filth.

Would I like a shower?  Yes, I would and so I was taken into the cow paddock behind the restaurant where there was a well, a plastic bowl, a hand pump, and a bar of soap right in the middle of the field.

I looked around pondering whether I should just wash my hands and face or have a full shower, and if so am I expected to stand in the field stark bollock naked or wear a sarong or something?  I started stripping off and nobody seemed to take any notice and so I had a proper wash and then wandered back to the restaurant absolutely refreshed and in great spirits.

‘You gotta have a shower’, I told Fanny, as I described the washing facilities, ‘ Its great’.

I chatted as best I could with the owner and her extended family while Fanny had a more modest shower in a field in the middle of Cambodia. Fanny came back all refreshed and tucked into some rather chewy and gamey prawns, and I decided that dinner would be a fried egg and three bottles of Angkor beer.

After we left the restaurant, bade our farewells and were riding through the pitch blackness of where ever it was, I suddenly realized that all the farm houses looked exactly the same and could not remember which was the one we agreed we would stay in. They were all virtually identical wooden structures on stilts and it was pitch dark except for a few lights that were powered by small electric generators or oil lamps. Luckily Fanny came to the rescue and remembered that the only distinguishing feature was that “our” farm house had two doors on the outside bog. And indeed it did.

We parked the Transalp under the farm house, right next to the young man who introduced the homestay in the first place, who was resting in a hammock. Aha! It was his families house. We were shown up the wooden stairs, found our little space on the wooden floor with two mats covered by a mosquito net, lit a candle and settled down.

I had bought a Cambodian sim card for US$5 at the airport the day before and it had unlimited 4G internet connection for one month, and low and behold it actually worked and so Fanny and I did some research and realized that we were in the middle of the pre-Angkorian temple complex called Sambor Pre Kuk.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambor_Prei_Kuk

I slept absolutely soundly and very comfortably. It was pretty much like camping. I woke up as the sun was rising thanks to several hundred cockerels and the rest of the farm yard dawn chorus engaging in a rendition of “Old MacDonald had a farm”. We had a quick wash from a bucket, a warm up by the fire and then packed our few things up.

Would we like to see the temples?  Yes please.  Our young saviour who found us somewhere to stay and guarded our bike over night was also the ticket issuing official to the temple complex. US$5 dollars later we were riding along sand tracks through an 8th century world heritage site with not another soul in sight. The morning light streaming through the tree canopy gave the temple ruins a surreal appearance and we spent several hours exploring. Simply amazing.

We then continued north to Preah Vihear through a truly idyllic rural setting. It was like taking a ride in a time machine and going back several hundred years to a purely agricultural pre-industrial era. Like an oriental version of Constable’s Hay Wain painting, there were beautiful trees and flowers, paddy fields with oxen pulling wooden ploughs, farm labourers toiling in the fields, strange looking long legged white cows with frilly necks, water buffalo wallowing in paddies, and typical Asian skinny mongrel dogs skulking about.

As we got further north the topography became more hilly, but not particularly mountainous as we thought it would. Again we found more amazing Khmer temple ruins, but we were a bit templed out and wanted to press on to Siem Reap and find a place to rest and so we headed south west along very rural and narrow roads. None very direct. Fanny was navigating from the pillion seat using my Samsung phone and a map app, but like parts of west China we rode through the maps were clearly not very accurate.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preah_Vihear_Temple

We did a lot of riding that day and I had the beginnings of a sore bottom, as did Fanny. In fact, riding pillion is more tiring on your lower back and bum than actually riding because you are not supported by the handlebars. The scenery and riding was amazing, but the Honda Transalp seat was not the most comfortable I have ever sat on. I had forgotten to bring my sheep skin seat cover and was regretting it.

We approached Angkor Wat from the north along very rural roads, and for about 5 kilometers actually rode along a very narrow canal embankment, through local villages and then suddenly we were inside the Angkor Wat complex via a rather unorthodox route.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

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Not something you see everyday

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An amazing place .. and we could ride our motorcycle freely between the temples.. Not Angkor Wat, but the other one nearby.

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Riding towards Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat complex

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Wow!  Templed out or not, fond of history or not, this is a spectacular place to see and experience.  On par with the Taj Mahal and Giza pyramids, the symmetry and beauty of these Cambodian temples is astonishing. As with the other man made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is something most people are familiar with and yet its a strange feeling to actually see the buildings in the flesh, so to speak. The scale was larger than I was expecting and there were a lot more temple complexes, statues and structures. Whilst we could ride right up to many of the ruins and structures, the actual Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge symmetrical square moat and you can only get to it by crossing a foot bridge.

Not as old as the temples we had seen so far, its undoubtedly the most spectacular. Originally Hindu and later Buddhist, its supposed to be the largest religious complex in the world and like the pyramids, and indeed Stonehenge, the architectural skill and engineering involved in its construction is almost inconceivable.

We had started early that day and we were feeling tired, but the early evening light and amazing architecture was mesmerizing.  As expected there were a lot of tourists from all over the world which contrasted with the virtual empty temples we had seen earlier in the day.

After seeing as much as we could, we rode a few kilometers south into the busy city of Siem Reap and found a very pleasant hotel to stay in called Horizons Cambodia.  Given it was one of best B&Bs in the town and it was peak season we were lucky to just rock up and find a vacancy. In fact. they also gave us a really nice suite and allowed us to park our motorcycle in the garden behind locked gates. A result.

It was Christmas Eve and we wandered into the old part of the town and found a very decent restaurant serving local delicious local food.  My bum was still really sore and I could barely sit down, but what a great day.

The next morning we had a big choice to make. As there is a huge expanse of water called Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap and right in the middle of the country, we could either go clockwise around it, ride the truly awful national highway again back to Phnom Penh and then further on to the south coast, or take a much longer anti clockwise ride around the lake towards Battambang and then south across the Cardamon Mountains towards Koh Kong on the south west coast of Cambodia.  This is very near to Koh Chang in Thailand which I toured a few months earlier (previous chapter).

Fanny and I wanted to see the Cardamon mountains as they are off the tourist route, remote, and home to some of the last expanses of Asian rainforest.  However it would take two to three days, I was not sure where we would stay, and we would probably have to ride on gravel tracks and trails.

I prefer to stand up on foot pegs when riding off road, partly because of balance and centre of gravity, and partly to take the load off my bum. With a  pillion rider you have to sit down all the time, and for the pillion rider they are also going to have a rough old ride balancing on the back seat. Fanny was game on anyway, and so we set off west towards the western border with Thailand and by lunchtime swung around the lake and were heading south east towards Battambang.

Whilst filling with petrol at a gas station and studying the map I realized that going forward navigation was going to be a bit tricky. We were told by locals there were some new gravel roads built by Chinese contractors to serve hydro electric dams up in the mountains, but these were not marked on our maps. In fact, as far as this remote south western part of Cambodia was concerned none of the maps reconciled at all.

Oh well, go for it.

As we turned off a fairly busy highway between Battambang and Posat we still had about five hours of daylight left. Within a few kilometers, the road narrowed and we were on a single trail just elevated above the paddy fields and within fifteen kilometers it turned into the classic gravel type track we were very familiar with in southern Africa.

I could see a range of medium sized mountains in the distance and knew that there were several peaks around two  thousand meters in height that we would have to navigate around. I was estimating that as the crow flies we had about 250 kilometers to reach Koh Kang, but the roads indicated on both our hard and soft copy maps meandered about and often faded out completely.  I know logically that locals over the years would move between villages and there should be some sort of access, even if only using small tracks.

As we rode along Fanny suddenly told me that our position on the cellphone map indicated we were in the middle of a field, and yet we were still on the road. Strange. We had similar problems in remote locations in Sudan and Egypt from time to time, but then we were using a GPS with loaded maps, rather than a cellphone that uploaded maps from the 3G internet signal.

We carried on for a while, but we were going more and more off course, or so it appeared. After a while I doubled back to the point it deviated and could see no sign of another road and so we turned around yet again and carried on again.  After about 40 minutes we arrived at a small village where I could see a cell phone repeater mast on a nearby hill. However, the Samsung still showed we were in the middle of nowhere and our hard copy map tended to indicate we had gone too far west.

Time to ask someone, but we were really struggling with the language and through repeated attempts I realized the locals would just nod and shake there heads, point in any direction and agree to anything you said just to get rid of you and save face. I am pretty sure “I don’t know” is not in a Cambodian’s vocabulary.

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Riding around on sand roads in the forest looking for temples

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A lot of gravel roads in Cambodia

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Crossing one of the Chinese bridges across the dams for the hydro electric stations in Cardamom mountains

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me

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Nice bit of concrete near dams… only last a few kilometers and then back to gravel and sand

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This is pretty much only picture we have of the rough roads as I had to concentrate on riding and Fanny was holding on for grim life. Usual obstacle course …. quite steep here and deciding which route to take. Good fun really

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Mostly we were on our own all day… rarely saw any other people

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Is it a road or a stream? … both apparently

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Water to cross

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Reservoirs for hydro electric dams

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One of many bridges crossing the dammed river in the Cardamom mountains

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Fanny

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If its takes a car .. it’ll take us

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Eventually someone pointed to a road that by the position of the sun seemed to be heading south and that to my mind was all the corroboration I needed and so we started riding down an increasingly narrow and eroded trail.  Within half an hour the road turned into an obstacle course of rocks, deeply rutted hardened mud and occasional ponds and swollen streams. I was sweating profusely as we battled along for an hour, making what I guess was less than 10 kilometers in progress. The track went up, down, left, right, through jungles, over ridges and across streets and rivers. Often the vegetation was so think, or a branch so low I would have to get off the bike and walk it through while ducking.

We stopped for a water break, looked around, studied my lying maps, and then I looked at Fanny for some feedback.  I was a bit concerned she was not enjoying her “Christmas Day lost in the jungle adventure”, but actually she was in pretty good spirits and seemed to be enjoying herself.  Of course, as an adventure rider I do not like to say that I am lost, rather I am not where I thought I should be. Nevertheless I hadn’t a fucking clue where we were.

Occasionally the track or river bed was so bad that Fanny had to get off and walk as a tackled some particularly rutted patches or wade the bike through a river or stream, or worse a river that I didn’t know what the depth actually was. I have to say that the Transalp was superb though…. handling like a modern 250 enduro.  I was a bit nervous that I was giving the 14 year old veteran too much of a work out as the long suspension fattened out and the belly pan scraped over logs and rocks. But it seemed fine, the engine, gear box, clutch all purring along doing what its meant to do. Only the suspension was showing its age, but then it was carrying two big chunky humans over a surface that resembled a trials bike course.

A one stage there was a dark and particularly still expanse of water in the jungle where the trail suddenly just stopped and so we got off and prodded around a bit, trying to gauge how deep the water was.  The dark pond seemed to continued into the darkness of the jungle and I couldn’t see the other side from where we were.

With no other vehicles to observe going through the water Fanny decided to get off and take a jungle trek around and I took a leap of faith and plunged into the water and sludge and to my relief emerged out the other side. I was a bit alarmed to catch sight of a large snake dashing for safety as I hurtled towards it. If I lost momentum the bike would undoubtedly fall over and get stuck in the sludge, so out my way Sid, I’m coming through.

Trucks clearly used the trail, possibly as a short cut, or maybe there was no other way through. I just couldn’t tell. But during the recent rainy season the trucks had carved out two to three foot deep troughs in the mud that had now hardened and were like an obstacle course and quite difficult to ride across. Often there was no sign of consensus for the two wheeled traffic and the motorcycle tracks weaved about and went in all directions.

I don’t drop my bike often but on one particularly nasty stretch I hesitated on a high ridge with Fanny on the back and as there was a four foot drop on either side there was nowhere to put my feet and so I called out to Fanny that we were going over and in very slow motion that is exactly what happened.  Fanny jumped off, but I didn’t want to damage the hired Honda and so it fell on top of me. No Alpinestar enduro boots, no enduro gear.. just shorts and trainers and so I was pinned into the hardened mud with 200kg of motorcycle on top of me. It hurt a bit but I was basically uninjured and the bike was completely undamaged having had a soft landing.

Adventure bikers will know that once pinned under a heavy adventure bike its near on impossible to get it off. However, Fanny has a black belt in picking up motorbikes and despite the uneven surface she lifted the bike sufficiently for me to wriggle out from underneath it. Once free we could easily right the bike, push it to a place we could get back on again and carry on.

It was a stupid fall caused because I was faffing about and because I was tired near the end of a very long day of riding.  Riding off road is a head game and requires being focused, being balanced, using proper throttle control and riding assertively. If you lose momentum on a slope or uneven ground you will fall down. If the front wheel washes out or don’t use proper throttle to keep up a forward momentum you will fall down. And if you are wearing shorts and trainers instead of enduro boots and riding gear, you stand a good chance of hurting yourself.

We crossed a few more rivers and I was starting to think we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew. On one tricky and very rutted section Fanny said she would prefer to get off and walk and so I powered the very capable Honda along the twisty and ploughed up trail, until the surface improved a bit and there were less streams to cross and then waited for Fanny. After a while I decided to park up the bike and hike back the way I came to find her and share some water.

As I was hiking back I could hear the unmistakeable whine of a 100cc moped and then I saw it appear out of the murkiness of the jungle canopy, with an old man riding and Fanny waving and laughing on the back. As it approached I noticed the old man only had one leg.

‘I have been rescued by a real biker who knows what he’s doing’, Fanny said laughing.  Well you can’t argue with that.

We thanked to old man who then he soldiered on into the jungle again and we watched until the putt putt sound of the moped disappeared. I am quite sure he knew the route much better than me, but was humbled by his riding skill and endurance, especially given the fact that he had only one leg and was about 70 years old.

We had spent a good deal of the afternoon battling along the trail and did seem to be getting nearer to a visible cross roads near the Pursat River that looked like it might be habitable and we might find somewhere to stay. And then almost suddenly we were in pitch blackness. For some strange reason that only Cambodian’s will understand, you are not allowed to put your headlights on while riding in the daytime.  This safety feature is reserved only of the government. In most parts of the world the headlights on a motorcycle are always on… for safety so you can be seen. Not so in Cambodia and so now it was officially dark I could turn them on.

Riding in the dark is not so bad,  you can see the road clearly enough, you just can’t seen anything else.  After a while we came off the trail and joined a more substantial gravel track and within about 30 kilometers we were at the cross road marked on the map which in reality was a roundabout with a statue of an elephant in the middle. Not only did we find a hotel, but also a pretty decent roadside restaurant.

The hotel wasn’t very nice, but it was cheap, had a sort of shower thing, and we could ride the bike into the hotel building and park it outside our room. Again we were filthy, but after a scrub down and some food were out for the count.

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Out of jungle into an open space … time for a water break

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Rest break…. dense forest behind which we rode through on second day in Cardamom mountains

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Plaque showing Chinese Civil Engineering Company who build hydro electric plants, bridges and dams etc…

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Gravel roads and trails

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Good bit of gravel road meandering through Cardamom mountains

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Have to stand up a bit… bum too sore and road to rough

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Fanny doing the elephant sign motorcyclist pose … we all have to.

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Our Honda Transalp 650 on a good stretch of gravel road in the Cardamom mountains, SW Cambodia.

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Similar to picture I took of Nick Dobson in Namibia’s Skeleton Coast in 2009

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After you….

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Fanny playing volleyball for first time after her ACL operation with some locals in Kep

The next day the weather was perfect. The bike started which was a relief and we set off up into the mountains and subsequently along some of the best trails I have ever ridden. The only sign of humans were when we got close to a hydro electric dam and the road turned to concrete, but quickly reverted back to gravel and sand after a few kilometers. There were many lakes and quite a few impressive bridges and dams.  We passed through some very basic villages that reminded us very much of Africa and meandered around lake shores, rivers and contour trails around hills.

Strangely, considering the natural beauty of the rainforest we were riding through, there were no animals and birds. I expected this area to be teeming with life, like a tropical paradise, but it was unnaturally barren and very quiet apart from a few insects and butterflies. Had the Cambodians eaten the place clean during the war? Perhaps.

By mid afternoon I could tell by signs of human activity and signs of electric pylons etc… we were getting nearer to Koh Kong, and as we descended out of the mountains we could see the sea, a huge river delta, mangroves swamps, bridges and the buildings of the coastal town that border with Thailand.

We stayed at Oasis Resort, a very lucky find indeed given it was peak season, and a thoroughly relaxing place to re-charge the batteries for a couple of days. A lovely location next to the river and mangroves, great value for money, big clean and well appointed room, top notch bar and restaurant and a superb “infinity style” swimming pool. Jason, an Englishman from Southampton, had built it from scratch over a decade ago and over the years built one of the best places we have stayed at.  Jason is starting a new project in Sri Lanka and so this place will be up for sale. Very tempting.

http://oasisresort.netkhmer.com/p/blog-page_30.html

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Riding down towards Koh Kong

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More water to cross

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Chilli crab on beach at Koh Kong

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Riding along elevated trail roads above mangrove swamps in Koh Kong

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Oasis Resort in Kep

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Jason at his resort called Oasis in Koh Kong…. Highly recommended.

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Oasis infinity pool, Koh Kong

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Oasis Resort, Koh Kong

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Exploring the magrove swamps around Koh Kong

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Koh Kong …. next to Chilli Crab restaurant.

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Koh Kong

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Fanny concentrating on chilli crab

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Our hotel in Kep

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Kep

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Relaxing at our French owned resort in Kep

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How many glasses of rosie can one drink in the afternoon before falling asleep? Six allegedly.

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Kep beach

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Not too shabby…. our hotel for New Years Eve in Kep

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Our evening dinner spot…. Kep

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15 seconds after this photograph was taken the cow took exception to Fanny and tried to head butt here… luckily it was tethered

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Hiking around Kep

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Seafood market in kep

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Kep coastline where we went sailing

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Really good bike ….

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Ummm…I think it was a good move to get a Honda Transalp instead of a Honda Africa Twin… maybe.. perhaps… probably.

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New Years Eve in Kep, Cambodia

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Kep…. relaxing at Yacht Club with a sundowner

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Fanny and our trust stead

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Never stop exploring

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Another year gone by….

After exploring Koh Kong, eating chilli crabs, drinking Angkor beer on the beach, swimming, serious idling about and yarning with Jason we set off back into the mountains, but this time on a good road through Boulum Sakor National Park, with elevated views across the forests towards Kep.  We passed the turning to Sihanouk which was described by some people we met as a tourist resort for “common people with nasty kids” and into Kampot which is famous for pepper plantations. We didn’t stay, but it looked a pretty nice place, and continued to Kep.

At first, I didn’t care for Kep too much, but I grew to really like it.  Quiet, relaxed, very nice resorts and excellent food. Just what we wanted for a few days over the new year. We hired a hobby cat and sailed around until Fanny got seasick, tried out a few French owned resorts that actually had some vacancies as we hadn’t booked ahead, did some hiking and exploring, ate a lot and saw in the New Year at a party at the Yacht Club.  Well, “saw in” is a bit of an exaggeration as we both fell asleep at 10 pm … which was just as well as we had to ride back to Phnom Penh the next day to return the Honda before midday, which we did.

As we had some time to kill before our flight to Hanoi we decided to visit the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum

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Whilst we should all be aware of what real shits human beings can be when push comes to shove, I wish I never went. It was thoroughly depressing and disturbing. Its unimaginable what the Cambodians did to each other in the killing fields and torture chambers just a few decades ago, until of course its thrust in your face at such a hell hole as this.  With the ungodly atrocities being committed at this moment by ISIL, Jihadis and Boko Haram… carrying on where the Maoists, Rwandans, Japanese and Nazis left off, do we really need it? Maybe, maybe not.  I just wish I hadn’t gone.

We caught the evening flight back to Hanoi, stayed at the same hotel in the old town as before, and the next day took another short flight and were back in Hong Kong with yet another motorcycling adventure added to the list.

The Honda Transalp was a superb bike for an old girl, and hauled the two of us all over Cambodia with ease. Its fired up my interest to take a look at the Honda CRF 1000 Africa Twin when it comes out in 2015.  Or do we stick with KTM and try out the new lightweight 800 Adventure?  Decisions decisions…..

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Next … we off to the Isle of Man TT and Ireland on our KTM 990 SMT……