Finding social engagement in Cambodia

When you cross the border from Thailand into Cambodia, you immediately feel it: this is a poorer country. The roads are bumpy and dusty, the shops are smaller and installed in someone’s shed, garage or even on a scooter, there are more people by foot or bicycle, and the local currency goes up to notes of 20.000. But you also feel this country is in full development. The people are positive and the kids are the cutest. The population overall feels young and active. And all are creative in how they make a living and what they can transport on one simple scooter (from 5 persons to 3 pigs).

– rice farming is the principal agriculture in Cambodia –

typical street view in Cambodia, an agrimotor doubles up as a truck to transport/sell any kind of product while driving on the street –

Cambodia has become a mid-economy country over the last decade. But if you look more in detail, it’s mainly the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor. Never ever have I seen so many luxury SUV’s driving around. And although you might say it’s because of the bumpy roads, I don’t think an average hotel assistant with a 300$ salary could afford.

In this country, where a lot of social projects have been cut over the last years (because official data says it’s going well with the country), the need remains high. The dark days of the Khmer Rouge have only recently ended, but the after effects will be visible for many more decades. As an example: the whole intellectual elite and schooling system has been completely wiped out less than 40 years ago. It takes time to get your teachers and universities up to a good level again. And hence the level of every student.

We were happy to discover however many socially engaged projects along the way, many more than in any other country we’ve seen before. And we also discovered this interests us actually more than Cambodia’s temples 🤭

Some of our favourites:

Socially responsible dining

My colleague Ellen suggested us to eat at a restaurant of the Tree Alliance. They have 7 restaurants, spread over Cambodia and Laos, where they train street youth and marginalised youngsters in hospitality. And it was pretty delicious too!

And you see many other restaurants (I must say, mainly in touristic areas) sharing their profit with their staff or a social project. Not bad for us food lovers, that all our eating also support the good cause!

Socially responsible shopping

We discovered different shops dedicated to a specific social project, selling beautiful products handmade by woman at home so while looking after the kids they can make a living and increase the family income and living conditions. The profit also goes back to support the local communities of these women with scholarships, microcredit to start their own business, health training etc. Many of these projects have been around for over 25 years and became big professional organisations with an impact of reasonable size! Check out these websites for more information or maybe some shopping: Mekong Quilts and Friends ‘n stuff

Socially responsible business

In Kampong we visited La Plantation, a pepper farm (not the red chili one, but the black and white ones). A belgian/french couple invested a lot in re-establishing the pepper industry that too was wiped by the Khmer Rouge. What sounds like any kind of business, was developped with total respect to local culture, offering work to the local community and supporting the local school. It’s a beautiful place and it shows that any kind of business can create a positive impact on the local people.

It’s definitely much better than what we have seen and heard about Chinese business development in this country …

Humanity & Inclusion

Thanks to my work at IKEA, I had the chance to meet with different (inter)national NGO’s over the last years, and get to know their activities better. But the field work is something else than a meeting in Brussels, so I felt very privileged to visit a project of H&I (formerly known as Handicap International, but recently evolved into Humanity & Inclusion). They have their roots in Cambodia, where the founder (a French physiotherapist) wanted to help the numerous unrightfull victims of land mines, left behind after the war.

The Physical Rehabilitation Centre in a province north of Phnom Penh is the last one that is still run by H&I. They treat patients with physical disabilities as from 1 week old in order to allow them an as ‘normal’ life as possible and become full part of society. It consists of physiotherapy, casting, walking devices (crotches, wheelchairs, prosthetics), trainings for health carers (mainly mothers and family) and social support. It’s impressive to see how much impact they can have on individuals ànd their family with their limited resources.

And the need for these kinds of organisation is still very present, with governmental healthcare definitely having its limitations (the Cambodians who can afford all prefer to go to the hospital in Thailand or Vietnam) while new patients keep coming in (whether because of limited prenatal care or the rising number of road accidents).

So… In case you still have a Christmas present to figure out, or if you have received an end-of-year bonus and you can spare some of it, you can’t do wrong with supporting one of these organisations. They all deserve a little help!

– Christmas decoration on a backdrop of the Angkor Wat temples in a Cambodian restaurant really feels a little out of tune –

We ended our chapter in Cambodia by realising that

1. Cambodia is not the best cycling country in the world;

2. We have (found the confirmation of) a more than average interest in these social entrepreneurial matters. So whatever we will do after all this cycling, we definitely want to create a positive impact on people’s lives too! And we have a few more months to figure out what that means specifically…

To travel by bicycle is quite different

Thailand is the only country we’ll visit this year where I’ve been to before. Initially I wasn’t too keen on revisiting (why go somewhere twice if there are so many other places to discover?), but Dave hasn’t been in Thailand yet, and it just happens to be in the middle of the region we wanted to go. So we cycled a part of Thailand. And it has given me a good understanding of how different travel by bicycle is compared to the more common way of traveling around.

Highlights of a country

When planning a holiday within 1 country, you typically choose a few major destinations (the highlights) and try to connect them as quickly as possible. With a bus, a boat or a domestic flight.

When cycling around, you see where you’ll start (or enter a country) and where you’ll finish (exit the country). You try to find a fluid line between the places of your interest, but you quickly understand that they’re not necessarily close to each other. And a detour of 500km is taking you at least 1 week extra, so you’ll have to make choices and you’re very likely to miss out on some of the country’s highlights. (Unless you have an enormous amount of time of course, like the people from bicyclethailand.com who cycled 9000km in Thailand alone!)

Our ‘limited’ tour of 3 weeks in the south of Thailand. No time to go to Bangkok, River Kwai, the golden triangle in the North, … – more details here

After 3 weeks in Thailand, we can confirm that the prettiest parts we’ve seen were developped for tourism. So travelling around the normal way does show you the best/most impressive locations.

Khao Sok National Park, also a tourist destination and absolutely worth it!

But then, on a bicycle, you get to see more shades of a country. You have time to stop in the middle of the small village, go to the local restaurant and you’ll eat truly local. You potentially see weddings being prepared and experience a local dinner party. You’ll see people doing their laundry and hear kids playing during their lunch break at school. You’ll wander around vast areas of agriculture and learn how people make a living. You’ll see the big fancy houses and you’ll see the simple wooden ones. You’ll experience the heartiness of the locals. You’ll end up celebrating local religious festivities. And you will not have to share these moments with tons of other tourists.

This lady passed us on her motorcycle, went to buy cold drinks, and gave it to us on the side of the road. She didn’t speak a word of English. Haven’t seen this happening yet in touristic areas 😉

Big contrast

We find the contrast between touristic areas and non touristic areas huge! You can taste it in your coffee (instant coffee vs trendy coffee bars), you feel it in all your conversations (outside tourist areas it’s hard to find a Thai who does speak some English, not even in a hotel. Thank you Google Translate for your offline Thai!) and you see it in the people you encounter (for days in a row we only saw friendly Thai smiles).

After a while we could recognise a hotel by the number 24 on the signage – meaning there is a reception that is open 24h/day

You easily recognise a tourist area when hotel signs start to be written in English again and you see other western people (who don’t cheer to you like the rural Thai do 😉

We like the variation

When cycling through a country, you get the best of both. Some days we want to enjoy the perks of a touristic area. But then after a few days we get fed up with the commerciality it comes with, and we’re happy to leave again. But then after a few days in rural areas, being lost in translation, we’re looking forward to a good coffee and an understandeable menu again.

But we also have to admit: 3 weeks in Thailand learned us that cycle touring can be a little boring too. Landscapes don’t change every hour, not even every day. You can be surprised by small unexpected discoveries, but they don’t happen all the time.

One day, the only exciting thing we saw was a siamese banana 🤪

The nice thing however is, that you can daydream (if the road conditions are good enough – in Thailand they were perfect). You can use the time to overthink certain topics, let ideas grow, reflect over the past, and make plans for the future. So to conclude: travelling by bicycle is really ideal for a midlifetrip 😉

Island hopping from Malaysia to Thailand

OK, we’re having bicycles with us, but that doesn’t mean we have to cycle every kilometer. Especially if other (better?) alternatives are available to get around! So to get from Malaysia to Thailand, we discovered a nice route via the islands in the Andaman sea!

It all started with some research on the rainy season. Dave has always been interested in the meteo, and at home I often call him Frank (Deboosere – Belgian weather guru). He digged deeper into how the monsoon is travelling around South East Asia and it was coming down from Thailand to Malaysia, while we were going up. Our best chances to avoid it, was to travel via the west coast.

Luckily, on that west coast lies the Andaman sea, where you can find pretty islands so why not island hop our way up north!

Island 1: Penang

Just a 20 minute transfer from mainland Malaysia and easy to get to on your bicycle alongside the scooters on the big ferry. And it only costs a few Malaysian Ringgits. There’s also a bridge connecting Penang to the mainland, but it’s a highway (with toll) so not that recommended by bicycle.

Ferry from the mainland to Penang

Penang doesn’t really feel like a tropical island with all the skyscrapers. Its main city George Town is big and bustling, and has a pretty Unesco protected old town and some streets where you’ll feel like you’re in China or India. But the rest of the island is one big contruction site. On the north side of the island, you can find a few beaches, but most of them are connected to a big beach resort (again skyscrapers).

Island 2: Langkawi

2 times a day, you can take the boat from Penang to Langkawi. Only the one in the afternoon allows you to take bicycles (as in the morning, some other goods are transported on the boat.) It’s a reasonable sized boat and your bicycles are stored on the roof. Best give some fasterners to the boat crew who will take care of your stuff. Price: 60 + 30 Ringgits for the bicycle per person (about 20€) and it takes approx. 3 hours to arrive in the south harbour of Langkawi: Kuah Jetty.

Ferry from Penang to Langkawi

This is still Malaysia but it’s a completely different island that Penang. Lots of lush green nature, only low-rise buildings and many different beaches. And a lot of activities, both on water (parasailing, banana boats, snorkling, …) as on land (wildlife, bungee, waterfalls, a sky bridge, horse riding, …) to keep you busy. It’s also a tax-free island so if you’ re interested in alcohol and cigarettes, you can have a good and cheap time too! We stayed 3 nights in the very south near Pantai Tengah beach, a very quiet area with many good options in accomodation and food. I could definitely imagine staying here longer!

Island 3: Koh Lipe

Just a little northwest of Langkawi lies the sea border with Thailand. The first island you come accross is tiny Koh Lipe, part of the Koh Tarutao National Park and Thailand’s most southern inhabited island. In Langkawi you can take a boat from Telaga Harbour Marina or Kuah Jetty. We preferred the first one as it was smaller (more relaxed to handle the transport of our bicycles) and a shorter boat trip. It costs about 30€ per person incl. bicycle, and during low season the boat goes once a day. Before departure you still have to pass by Malaysian immigration and hand over your passport to the captain, but that process went really smooth. We were a little stressed about our bicycles as Koh Lipe doesn’t have a real harbour/pier and everything has to be moved on a longtail boat to arrive on land. Let’s see how that goes…

2 hours later, you arrive on one of the 3 beaches of Koh Lipe. We saw our bicycles being carried from the boat to the longtails to the beach. Just relax and let the boat crew take care of it! The Thai immigration office is by far to most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever seen. Feet in the sand, a friendly smile, a stamp, and you’re 30 days allowed into Thailand!

Happy to arrive on the beach in Koh Lipe

Koh Lipe is tropical paradise! Touristic, but paradise. 3 pristine beaches on walking distance of each other. Sunrise beach in the east, sunset beach in the west, and 1 Walking street in between where you can find everything you need. For us this mainly meant: delicious banana pancakes and a snorkling trip. But you can also find the typical thai massaaaaaaaage. Maybe it’s because of low season, but it was great to share the island, the beaches, the water, … with only a few other tourists (just enough to have it cosy iso empty). But unlike Langkawi, not a lot of cycling opportunities.

Island 4: Koh Lanta

Best stop before going back to the mainland! You can get to all the Andaman islands with a speedboat, but we choose Koh Lanta because it was warmly recommended by our friends, and because it is connected to the mainland with a bridge and a short ferry (5 hours on a speed boat for approx 40€ incl. bicycle per person.) This would be (for now) the last boat adventure for us and our bicycles!

‘Pier’ in Koh Lipe

We spent only 1 night on Koh Lanta. We were too eager to start cycling again! And we already had some beach bum time in Langkawi and Koh Lipe. A quick ride by Ko Lanta’s old town and then to the mainland, up north!

Our tactics worked! We didn’t had a drop of rain while we were on the islands. Best proof was that it started raining (only small drips, but still) as soon as we checked in our first hotel after Koh Lanta. And we definitely got to see a very pretty part of South Thailand!

But even when we were island hopping in low season, it’s all very touristy though. We look forward again to see some more rural parts, this time of Thailand. To get to know the ‘real’ Thai way of living, the Thai people and the countryside!

!! Tip for when you spent quite some time on a boat: eat something fatty. Like banana pancakes. With chocolate sauce! Always keep you stomack full, putting a thin layer of fat on the inside. It will make you feel good instead of seasick!

Pleasantly surprised by Malaysia

“If you don’t expect anything, you will always be pleasantly surprised.”

I heard this phrase about 2 years ago when going to a toilet in Jordan, and asking our guide whether there would be toilet paper. This was her answer and it was one of those phrases that stick. It’s also very appropiate to describe our second country.

Malaysia has never been on our dream destination list. After Nepal we just wanted a smooth country with smooth roads, preferably with a direct connected flight from Kathmandu, and into the direction of Thailand. After a little reseach, Malaysia seemed to tick those boxes and we just booked the ticket. After 2 weeks in Malaysia I can defenitely say it was the best decision! We didn’t have any knowledge nor expectations towards the country, and just discovered it on the go.

First stop: Kuala Lumpur! A great mix of modern skyscrapers, Indian areas and Chinese streets, a melting pot of cultures with 60% being muslims, but you have hindu temples, christian churches and chinese buddhist temples in the same street. A city of contrast and diversity, and it seems to work well together!

We finally started cycling, like real cycling. It took a while to leave the vast city of over 8 million inhabitants where still a lot of construction and expansion is taking place. Direction: the sea. Because this is a tropical destination so the beaches should be scenic. This one expectation I had, proved to be wrong as mainland Malaysia’s coastland on merely used for fishery. For the nice beaches, you need to be on the surrounding islands. So that’s were we headed! North, through the immense green lush nature and palm plantations.

And we loved it! The roads were pure bliss. Smooth asphalt, a little hilly and curvy so you never get bored. This country has some serious race bike potential!! You often get to see animals on the side of the road (monkeys, turtles and a sporadic lizard/varaan). Some monkeys were pretty cheeky so they made us pedal a bit faster from time to time.

And the people are the kindest! We read somewhere that Malaysians find cyclist cute, and indeed, we received plenty of encouring honks, thumbs ups and waves. Almost every where we stopped we had a friendly chat and often got offered a drink or a meal. Sometimes it made us wonder if it was because we created some animo or because we just looked so sweaty and piteous.

at a stoplight we received this bag of delicious duku’s from a stranger, and he rode off before we even could say thank you.

I’ve never seen so many palm trees together in my life. The country is filled with palm plantations, so it’s good to read that the Malaysian government has decided to stop that expansion and keep at least half of the territory as unspoiled nature. Palm oil has a bad social and environmental reputation. But reading myself a little into the topic, it’s not all that bad and many initiatives are taken to make it more sustainable, like keeping wildlife in the plantations (have you already seen a lot of wildlife on our potato fields ?) and giving good working conditions and a decent life standard to the local people. For sure we could limit the amount of palm oil in our food and cosmetics, but the alternative is not better or more planet friendly (did you know that coconut oil, that also could be used in e.g. tooth paste, takes 10 to 20 times more territory to deliver the same amount of oil?). It kept my mind a little busy while cycling these magnificent green plantations…

We also discovered some new food in Malaysia: Roti pisang and Thosai for breakfast. Fresh sugarcane juice and coconuts during the day. And Indian or Chinese for diner. Overall we prefer the Indian cuisine, but regularly went to a Chinese eatery because in the rural areas, that’s the only places that serve a refreshing beer (which we definitely prefer over the sweet milk tea you get served everywhere else!). The restaurants had the most funny names, and almost all off them had a buffet – not so our favourite as it stands in the sun all day. They have other food hygiene standards here I guess!

A short ferry ride and we arrived on our first island: Penang. Still many skyscrapers and a lot of construction, like a booming economy. It’s main city George Town is Unesco world heritage because of its pretty architecture, that protects it from vertical expansion. Great, because the houses are really cute and there’s a lot of street art adding a a certain coolness to the city.

We decided to keep islandhopping our way up to Thailand. First Langkawi (still Malaysia), then Koh Lipe (a tiny Thai island) and then up north. Maybe we can try to avoid the rainy season that way, that is currently coming down from Thailand and mainly active on the east coast. Fingers crossed!

Getting to know Nepal, getting to know yourself

We’ve just spent 5 weeks in Nepal, its cities, its mountains and its countryside. And although we haven’t crossed the entire country, I think we had enough time to get to know it a little bit. And we also got to know ourselves a little better!

Getting around

Nepal is not the easiest country to cycle. It’s not even easy to drive a car or bus, since the roads are in a horrible state. Even the main highway between the 2 biggest cities (Kathmandu and Pokhara) is best driven with a sturdy 4-wheel drive and a lot of patience. Nepal is really struggling with it’s road system: most roads lie in steep valleys making them very vulnerable for landslides. China and India come over and help out sometimes to put roads in places of their interest (mainly connected to temples/stupas the Chinese and Indian tourists come to visit). Many other roads and bridges are damaged even before being finished. All this results in poor public transport where it takes a bus on average 13 hours to cross 150km.

Choosing Nepal as our first country to cycle was not that smart after all. We have spanking new bicycles, still eager to keep them in good shape and not break them in 2 pieces on these rocky roads. Cycling on dusty roads while breathing smog is not what we had in mind. And having 600km on the meter in one month time, doesn’t really feel like your getting somewhere.

What we’ve learned: We definitely feel we’d like to move on quicker. We definitely still choose to travel with bicycle iso travelling with a bus. But we prefer to cycle on better roads with better air, and to really cycle iso walking next to our bicycle.

The people

Besides all of them spitting on the street, the Nepali are just great. We felt so safe here in Nepal. You can just put your bicycle and bags wherever you want and it will not be touched. They always have time for a smile, a wave, and if their English is good enough, a friendly chat.

They are by far the most hospitable people. They trust you in their house, even when they’re not around. They trust you will pay the bill. They are always helpfull and extremely relax. They exhale a kind of calmness that is contagious. And they really don’t care if your clothes are dirty and your hair is messy.

But you also see that the Nepali are struggling. They’re still busy meeting their basic needs. This is one of the poorest country in the world and you see it. And it’s hard to see, because they just don’t have all the chances we have (and find absolutely normal: food in the fridge, kids at school, a dustfree home, …)

What we’ve learned: We can become a lot better at giving trust to strangers and getting trust back. By opening up our houses and by having time for others. By staying calm, even if the situation is far from calming. But we also got hit harder (harder than I thought) seeing them struggling. We would like to help, but the challenges are so big we don’t see where to start. And that’s pretty frustrating.

The nature

Aaahhhh the mountains, they are just simply amazing! I could keep watching those for days! In 1 small country you can go from tropical jungle up to +8000m and that’s just extra-ordinary! It’s logical that the whole world is coming over for a hike.

But nature is suffering too. Sherpa’s told us that they have seen so many glaciers dissapear over the last 20 years. What used to be covered in snow whole year round, is now a dry rocky tip. Landslides appear more often because of the big cement industry down in the valleys. Rivers are running dry, and if not, become a stinky dumping ground.

If this continues, there might not be a drop of snow on Annapurna in let’s say 50 years. The world’s water ressources are running dry. And it’s sad to hear that ‘global warming’ is pretty well known, but very little is done. As said before, the Nepali are still struggling with basic needs. They’re not really busy sorting their waste but throw it on the street instead. And owning a car/motorcycle and/or eating more meat is still what they dream of and pursue.

What we’ve learned: If we ever come back, it’s to be in these magnificent mountains. Or to help the people. Because it really makes us pessimistic with regards to Climate Change.

The cities

We’ve spent quite some days in Pokhara (recovering from the Annapurna trip) and Kathmandu (planning the next step of our journey). It probably was a little too long, but is allowed us to get outside of the tourist zones and get a completer view of the cities.

Some people described Kathmandu as a cosy city, and I guess 20 years ago it probably was. Now, with over 1 million people living in the capital, the whole valley is one big dusty smoggy suburb. Kathmandu is the 7th most polluted city in the world, and they were happy to announce it had improved as they were 6th last year.

But it’s not all bad. There are some cool places to discover like Bouddhanat area and Lazimpat. We were happy to observe the Dashain (local Xmas) shopping maddness, cultural festivities and at the same time glad to find little hidden gems like a Social Cafe who donates part of its turnover to a local good cause and even a Food truck park.

What we’ve learned: Even if we are city lovers, citytripping is not the best reason to come to Nepal. But when in the city, it’s always worthwhile to get out of the tourist areas like Thamel or Lakeside, as that’s where you’ll get the tastiest food and the best overall city feeling.

The conclusion after 5 weeks in Nepal

We wanted adventure and we got it. We went seriously out of the comfort zone. We have experienced amazing things, pushed our limits and have felt alive every single day.

But now we want things to be a little easier on us for a while. And that’s why we decided to fly to Malaysia instead of continuing towards India and Bangladesh.

What we’ve learned: even if I thought I would like to be amazed and challenged every single day, I learned to admit that that might just be a little too much and a little closer to my comfort zone from time to time does me well too. And luckily I have a great husband who learned this too 😉

What we’ve learned too: 5 weeks into our gap year, we still have approx. 45 more weeks to go. And having all this time is just an amazing feeling! We might not have the luxury these days that come from having stuff or a warm house to call your home, but we already feel very spoiled because we have plenty of time.

Cycling Annapurna

3 weeks ago we arrived in lovely Pokhara, Nepal’s second biggest city and the doorstep towards the Annapurna’s. There are severals treks possible in the Annapurna Conservation Area, and we decided to go for the big one, the Circuit Trek, since we have plenty of time and crossing the 5416m Thorung La Pass sounded like a great challenge. We found some pictures and stories online of people cycling the Circuit Trek (we even found a picture of a tandem on top of the pass!), so we felt confident to go for it.

Long story short, don’t ever think of cycling the Annapurna Circuit, unless you are completely crazy 😉

Don’t get me wrong. The Annapurna Circuit Trek is amazing! You get world class views on the full Annapurna range. You start from low altitude in a more tropical environment and work your way up with views that change day by day. You get pretty close to all these mountains that are above 7000m, and you’ll feel so small. But it took (a little) blood, (a lot of) sweat, and (also some) tears to get to the pass with our bicycles.

Leg 1: get to the start of the trek in Besisahar: 106 km
It took us 2 days on our bicylces to get there. We tried once more the scenic route (white roads in Google maps), but regretted it pretty soon due to… bad road conditions, that take a lot of your energy and slow you down enormously.

Leg 2: uphill from Besisahar to Thorung La Pass: 110 km
The first part untill Tal is in a very narrow valley and subject to many many landslides. The roads were in a terrible state, so we pushed our bicycles most of the time. But… this gave us plenty of time to enjoy the green lush nature and numerous lovely waterfalls.

Between Tal and Manang the valley opens up and the roads get a little better. Here we could cycle more than half of the time! And you start to be rewarded with views on the high Annapurna range!

Don’t rush through Manang. It’s a small but lovely village, and perfect location for some rest and acclimatisation. We took 1 day to walk up to Ice Lake (4610m) where my winter/open water swimmer husband enjoyed a swim-with-a-view. And we added 1 extra day to recover from that walk up to the lake, and stack up some extra calories by eating plenty of delicious yak cheese sandwiches.

From Manang on, the scenery becomes more impressive with every turn you take. Unfortunately for us however, the road turns into a hiking trail, so very little cycling was possible. Back to pushing the bicycle!

The high altitude kicks in, and you have to breath at least twice as much as you’re used to. Every 10 steps, I gasped for air for about 20 seconds. Again, you’ll get plenty of time to enjoy the views that way!

We took 4 days to go from Manang to the Pass. That’s a lot, but we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t suffer from the high altitude and sticked to the recommended elevation on max. 500m per day. This also means you have the afternoons free to rest and enjoy the views.

We started from High Camp to conquer Thorung La Pass, so we had plenty of time to get up, enjoy, and still have enough time to get to Muktinath, a solid 1600m descend. And my god, we made it! I couldn’t help but feeling emotionial the final meters towards the pass (and it was great that those final meters were flat enough to cycle!)

Leg 3: downhill after the Pass
After pushing the bicycle up the pass, we hoped to be rewarded with a nice and smooth descend. Unfortunately the way down to Muktinath we walked again next to our bicycles instead of sitting in the saddle. The hiking path was just too narrow, too steep, too rocky.

After a night in Muktinath, we did get an 11km reward: the best stretch of road in Nepal is to be found deep in the mountains with amazing views on the Mustang area, a much dryer valley with dramatic scenery! Unfortunately it was followed by kilometers of rocks and dust and headwind. By the time we reached Marpha, I was completely done.

Leg 4: local bus back to Pokhara

150km left to reach our luggage and a clean guesthouse in Pokhara. We decided to book a jeep to bring us and our bicycles there. But the bicycles didn’t fit the top of the jeep so we were forced to swap to a local bus. Another adventure: 13 hours of bumpy roads and trying to control the content of our stomach. But also amazing to see how the chauffeur and his team managed to drive these awful roads and stay calm. Must be buddhists!

We made it safely up the pass.

We made it safely back to Pokhara.

But I think this is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve reached and surpassed so many of my limits that I need a few days to recover. On the other hand, I’ll never forget in my lifetime the views of those mountains!

Some tips for those crazy ones still considering cycling up the Thorung La Pass after reading untill here:

    Opt for a good mountainbike with thick tires, big relief and a very small gear.
    Don’t go unless you’re skilled in mountainbiking. It will make a big difference between cycling and walking next to your bicycle.
    Travel light. We only took a 35l backpack and added a sleeping bag on our rear rack. I personally think the sleeping bag is essential since it’s really cold up there. But we met other people in the lodges who just slept in the blankets of the lodge.
    Be mentally prepared for low levels of comfort. It’s good to know that there are many small villages with lodges and guesthouses on the way. But the higher you go, the more basic the accomodation. I mean really basic.
    Take enough cash money with you. The higher you go, the higher the prices to eat and drink. Lodging is very cheap and sometimes even for free as long as you eat in the restaurant. But if all supplies have to be brought up with a donkey it’s logic that you’ll pay 250 roupies for a bottle of water in High Camp, compared to 20 roupies in the supermarket in Pokhara. And you’ll be hungry, so you’ll want to eat a lot!
    Take a bus/jeep to the start in Besisahar or you’ll be tired even before you start.
    Take a book or playing cards to kill the time in the afternoon, even if you’ll meet plenty of other great adventurous travellers in the guesthouses to chat with.
    Try to have some buffer in your timing. For us it felt really like a little luxury to know we had plenty of time. So we could take 1 extra rest day. Or wait for the weather to be clear on the pass.
    And finally, reconsider if you really want to cycle. Hiking is a really good option 😉

Strong first impressions

1 week down our adventure and oh my, what an adventure this is. Although we thought we left well prepared, we were not up to what we have experienced so far. So many impressions in so few days, so different from the life we know. Our head is exploding…

About the cycling:

We planned on mounting our bicycles at the airport and drive into town. We had a hotel booked and a gps to bring us there, so that should work out fine right? And I must say we did a good job, blending in with the crazy traffic, the honking, the driving on the left, the cows on the street, the dust, the smog and the assertiveness of all local drivers. We reached the hotel without any damage. We simply survived our first km’s in Nepal, ouf.

2 days later, we left Kathmandu towards the midlands. Leaving the city during peak hour was mindblowing. People and cars and motorbikes and rikshaws simply everywhere. Dust, smog, traffic jams, driving via temples and through slums. It took over 1 hour to cross the 7km to leave the city and we were exhausted.

The road conditions in general are mediocre here in Nepal. Sometimes you have kilometers full of asphalt, then all of the sudden you would need a 4-wheel drive. It’s good to be wearing a sports bra I can tell you!

But the thing that is most new to us is the endless honking. In Belgium, drivers honk mainly because they’re highly annoyed. Here all cars honk all the time, just to say they’re coming by, or to say hello. On busy streets it can get really loud!

– An ordinary crossing in Kathmandu –

Where we are sleeping:

Besides the one night in a hotel we booked in Kathmandu, nothing was planned. Already on the plane we decided to make it 2 nights, to recover from the flight and have time to adjust. That proved to be a really good idea.

The next accomodations were very different. We slept one night in a Buddhist Monestary since it was the first hotel we found after a heavy first day of cycling. It was over budget but we had no energy left to look further. The guided tour in the monestary, seeing kid monks learning how to meditate, made it a very special experience.

The third night we unexpectedly ended up in our tent. There were just no hotels or guestrooms in the village we ended up, and the next village was too far away. After some negotations with the local restaurant holder we managed to get a flat spot of land near the main road. Sweaty and smelly, we ended up in our sleeping bags around 7pm since the sun was down and nothing left to do. In the night it started raining, so all is proved to be waterproof now.

The next days we take the hotels we can find. There’s not a lot of choice since we’re in non touristic areas, but we indulge the airco/fan, and mainly the shower to rinse of the sweat and dust and strong impressions from the road.

We look forward to be back in the tent, as soon as the setting is more appropriate!

What we are eating:

Curry, dal, potatoes, rice, noodles, momos. In the morning, at lunch and in the evening. Yes, also curry in the morning. It tastes pretty good actually!

We prefer the local restaurants: because they are super cheap, and because they are super tasty (if you like your share of spice). At least half of the places we’ve been to hasn’t had a european guest ever. Don’t look too much to the interior, and don’t expect professional kitchen equipment. The good taste doesn’t depend on that. The smell is something different however; we haven’t dared to go to the toilet in one of these restaurants yet, and plan to postpone that for as long as we can!

– chicken momos –

– breakfast with curry and chai –

What we are seeing:

We didn’t want to only do the classic sightseeing. We wanted to take a deep dive into local life. And we did. Before we realised well, we left the city centre and cycled through rural Nepal. Where kids go to school to about 13 years old. Then start working to earn a little roupi for the family. Where houses are shabby and tiny. Where water comes from a big barrel in front of the house instead of a tap. Where man and woman spit on the ground. Where streets neither houses are paved. Where laundry hangs in front of the house so all neighbours can see. Where man and women are sitting in front of their small shop or restaurant, waiting the full day for the few customers that come. Where litter is litteraly everywhere. Where little to no English is spoken.

But also where almost everybody smiles when you pass, where kids wave or say namaste. Where you can have really nice chats with those who do speak English. Where all the kids smile. Where it’s safe to park your bicycle outside the restaurant without any worry. Where all the kids smile. Where woman just dance in front of their store. Where all the kids smile. Where the carwash is simply driving next to the river and start splashing. Where all the kids smile. Where hindu ladies look magnificent in the colourfull sari’s and nothing is grey/black. Where all the kids smile. Where you cycle through green valleys and can freshen up by its waterfall. Where all the kids smile.

1 week down our adventure and we’re definitely out of our comfort zone. So far that we wonder if we decided well to start so far away from home. There is a thing or two to say about starting such a trip from your own doorstep, learning and growing in all these areas step by step.

But then again, if we wanted life to be easy, we should have stayed in front of the television. And the good news is, as from yesterday, we start to feel a little bit more at ease.

Saying goodbye

While being on the plane to Nepal, we had some time to reflect over our last days at home and saying goodbye to our loved ones…

Why we hate saying goodbye:

What I least looked forward to was the goodbye thing, but of course it’s unavoidable so better make it as nice as possible! We arranged several moments to have a last chat, drink or meal with the most important people in our lives, hoping to have one more good memory before we had to miss it/them. It included quite some tears for me (to be expected), but what I hadn’t given any tought, was that it was also quite emotional for the others. What looked like a decision that (mainly) has a huge impact on our own lives, we undeliberately also impact other people’s lives. And it wasn’t a nice tought since they didn’t choose for it at all. So sorry but not sorry but sorry!

Why we like saying goodbye:

Still there is also a nice side on saying goodbye. It’s when you realize you won’t see each other for a while, that we can show more easily how we feel about the other. The hugs are stronger, the words are with more meaning, and the looks are more intense. Maybe it’s a pity that it takes a tour out in the world to speak out how you feel about the other. But we look at it as the best goodbye gift!

(Some goodbye moments)

How we prepared for this gap year

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One more week and we – finally – get started. And it’s about time! We’ve decided to take this gap year early last summer, so it’s been over a year of preparation. And that’s definitely long enough!

We started off by dreaming away of all the things we could do. And also – being a practical human being – by making a retroplanning of what should best be done by when. Here’s the different topics we arranged before being ready to go, in the order we tackled them:

1. The financial part: let’s first figure out if we can afford this!

We created a budget file, split into 3 big phases: before, during and after.

What we need for preparing the year:
It’s not that we were already well equipped, so we needed to buy quite some gear (mainly bikes and camping gear, but also new digital stuff) and we wanted it to be qualitative things so it comes with a price tag. We also took a decent travel insurance on top of what we already have. In total we have estimated ànd spent over 9.000€ on this.

What we need during the year:
Do we take a lot of planes and have big transportation costs? What does it cost to sleep somewhere? Maybe we can sleep in a tent from time to time to save on accommodation? And what does it cost to eat and drink and eventually buy/do something extra.

On the www you can find travelers going from 3€/day to 100€/day depending on your comfort level and destinations (e.g. Europe or big cities being more expensive than Asian countryside). We finally decided to go for :

  • A daily eat & sleep budget of 55€ for the 2 of us *;
  • A separate budget for the intercontinental flights;
  • A spare envelope for local transport, visa, expeditions etc of 3000€ *;
  • A buffer budget for unforeseen circumstances, mainly meaning we can afford to take the first flight back home, whatever the price.

We’ve also listed the fixed costs at home: insurances, taxes, … that whether you’re around or not will keep coming.

What we want to have left after we come back:
Since we’re at a certain age, we don’t want to get started all over again when we’re back, so we don’t want to spend our last dime here.

* We’ll let you know in 1 year time if all above was realistic 😉

2. The work area: how do we arrange this time off with our workplace.

We both work for a boss (not independent consultants or having our own company) so we started up the discussion with our company pretty early on. I have the luck to be allowed unpaid leave for the whole year while Dave stops his current job and will look for another one once we’re back.

For both of us, it was good to have this cleared out well before we started the rest of the preparation. It just gave us peace of mind being open about the fact that we’d leave the workplace (temporarily) and it gives the company the time to look for good replacement.

It also allows you to share with your colleagues what’s keeping you busy day and night!

3. The itinerary: finally the fun part!

Of course you start dreaming of all the places you could go and things you could be doing, but we only decided on our full itinerary about 5 months ago.

You often see or read stories of people travelling that have had this specific idea or plan since years e.g. cycling the Silk Route or cycling from home to family/friends in a faraway destination. We did not, so the whole world was an option. That was probably the reason why it took us months (!) of going back and forth and back, before we could pin it down!

Finally we decided for this route. And although Dave dreams of starting to cycle from our doorstep and/or finishing at home, I think we have plenty more years and short holidays left to explore Europe after next year…

4. The home: what to do while we’re sleeping in a tent.

Part of the financial picture of this year is to rent out our apartment since we still have a mortgage. It’s also better if a house is lived in, heated, cleaned, … Besides that it’s very very convenient if you can rent it out fully furbished so you don’t need to move all your stuff out. On top of that I wanted a solution that would give me peace of mind while we’re away, nothing to arrange or worry about while out on the bicycle. As we won’t (want to) be online the whole time, it needed to be a self-sufficient solution.

We explored 4 options: rent it out to someone for the full period, rent it out temporarily and full service via an expat agency, turn it into an air-bnb or leave it empty. In the end we found a nice man who will live in our home while we’re off. But since this man only came last minute, it was good to know that we could afford to leave even if the apartment would have stayed empty.

5. The gear needed: researching and getting all the stuff needed.

Final step is to get all your material, which is also depending on where you go (cfr. weather). You can get really good advice from specialised cycle (De Geus Berchem!) and camping stores (De Kampeerder!), experienced travelers online (pedalpromise, bicyclejunkies, vakantiefietser, …) or experienced travelers offline (book and inspirational talk from Nicole & Ingrid, adventurous travel/cycle fairs, …)

I’m really happy we had a lot of the new gear in time so we could test and fine-tune before taking off. In June we made a 5 day test-trip in Belgium with our new bikes and camping gear, and it was really useful (and fun!).

A more detailed post will follow on what gear we’ve chosen, why, and our evaluation after we tested it a little longer!

14 months of preparing. It feels more than enough, and I’m sure you can do it in a much shorter timeframe. It’s time to go now. The only thing between now and departure is saying goodbye, something I’m not looking forward to…

Inspiration galore

It’s truly amazing how much information and inspiration you can find with a simple Google search! There’s a huge community of travelers out there, who are so kind to share experiences, good and bad, about any topic; from how to budget, how to choose your gear & route, and how to cross borders, to staying stylish on a bicycle, how to travel ànd survive as a couple, and specific tips for women and their periods. Really ANY topic!

The most inspiring video for us was this one. It also explains that having kids should not keep you from leaving – a feedback we receive very often: “sure you can do this, you don’t have kids”. Well, have a look and get inspired:

Familia Ciclista from Dan Clark on Vimeo.

— UPDATE —

Just found another great one that I can’t keep for myself 😉