Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 267: Leaving ...... ready or not

Grant Johnson, world traveller and founder of Horizons Unlimited, famously shortened the handles on his wife’s tooth brush and razor in order to save unnecessary weight. Times have changed and what back in the 1990’s seemed like an incredibly radical act is now the absolute minimum that some people will do. It’s no longer enough to simply chop off the handles because if you're really serious about travelling, you also have to drill out the remaining stems. Failing that, you could always buy a pre-prepared titanium model from those lovely people at Touratech.

Each to their own, but personally I think it’s a load of old bollocks. No matter how well prepared you are for a big bike journey, you’ll always end up with double the amount of kit that you really need and only half the amount of money. Poor Circulation wasn’t exactly the ’Blueprint’ for adventure planning, but we managed to get everything that we needed onto the bikes, including the kitchen sink. Yes folks, we took the kitchen sink. A 15 litre collapsible plastic affair that really didn’t see too much action in the washing-up department, but it worked really well as a foot bath. I certainly wouldn’t recommend any would-be traveller to rush out and buy one, but at least when people looked at the Tigers and made the inevitable comment, we could reply in all honesty that 'Yes .. we’ve got that as well'

Last week I mentioned that there was no longer a plan for South East Asia, and there still isn‘t. I fly out next week and from Bangkok I’ll take a bus to Pattaya in Chon Buri, where I’ll hire myself a bike. The thing is, I hate Pattaya. I’ve been there twice, once back in the 80’s when it was bearable and once in the 00’s when it wasn’t. Pattaya is everything that the cynics believe Thailand to be. It’s brash, it’s vulgar and it smacks you in the face on every street corner. While it‘s easy to avoid the seedier side of life in Bangkok, in Pattaya it’s as unavoidable as the humidity. So, why the hell am I going to Pattaya?

In Bangkok 2008, I rented a Honda Phantom from a rather strange and seemingly reclusive guy called Mr Moriarty. Since then, he seems to have become even more reclusive. Emails are returned and his telephone is unobtainable, the mysterious Mr Moriarty has vanished. As Mr Moriarty was seemingly the only provider of rental bikes in Bangkok, that unfortunately leaves me with Pattaya. Assuming that I can pick up a decent bike there, it’s then a question of North or South?

I’m travelling light, and because I’ll probably end up riding a ’Break-Back Scooter’, that’s probably the only way to go. Everything that I’m taking, apart from my laptop and crash helmet, fit’s neatly into my old Krauser Topbox. I know that everything fits into it because that’s what I’ll be using as my suitcase. Sure, it looks a little odd when you’re walking through airport terminals, but it should fit neatly onto the back of any bike that I find and hopefully it's secure enough to stop any chancers from making off with my things.

On Tuesday morning, a courier delivered a package to my door and inside of the envelope was Dakar Duck. Apparently, and probably not surprisingly, he’s done far more travelling than I in the past year. He’s completed the 'Dawn to Dusk' 24-Hour Enduro and spent some quality time ‘off-roading’ with Austin Vince and Lois Pryce down in Spain. Add in a few trips to Wales and a treasure hunt in the Pyrenees and all in all, he’s had quite a busy year. He’s looking quite grubby, but I honestly haven’t got the heart to clean him and he'll just have to come along as he is. I’m not entirely sure what he’s got to look forward to, but hopefully it’ll be a rewarding mystery tour for both of us.

Post 266: Balancing Budgets

Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and ask yourself the simple question …. ‘Who the hell am I trying to kid?’. Thankfully you don’t have to ask it too often, but when the need arises it’s probably best to remove your head from your arse and answer the question honestly. It’s not really rocket science, if the money isn’t there then the miles simply aren’t going to happen. Alastair Darling would probably analyse my budget and itinerary before announcing to Parliament that now was the time for some “difficult choices”. Of course, the term “difficult choices” is the prescribed euphemism for cut-backs and unfortunately, nobody is immune.

The planning for the SE Asia journey started almost a year ago and with the benefit of hindsight, I now know that starting so early was a huge mistake. When you’re asking people for support and they need to give you an immediate answer, everybody knows exactly where they stand. The majority will inevitably say ’No’, but the few who say ’Yes’ make the adventure possible. Unfortunately when you contact people a year in advance, it’s easy to confuse their initial enthusiasm with a gilt-edged offer of assistance. With less than three weeks to departure, the early promises of assistance have disappeared faster than the January snow. With the exception of a little help with a flexible airline ticket from Etihad Airways and The Riders Digest allocation of several column inches, the freebie cabinet is looking decidedly bare. I kid you not, even the charity ‘SOS Children’s Villages’ have gone silent on me.

The starting point of the journey was always going to be Thailand, because that’s where the Etihad Airways ticket would take me, but the beginning and end of the actual ride would be the city of Hanoi in Northern Vietnam. I’d arrive in Hanoi from Bangkok, find a suitable Minsk and then have it officially registered in my name. Easy. However, I hadn’t considered how long that registration process would take to complete. A week, two weeks or possibly even three? I’m still not sure, but what I do know is that kicking your heels for three weeks is not the best way to conserve an already overly tight budget. I could always ride the Minsk away without waiting for the papers to arrive, but the whole point of buying the Minsk in Vietnam was so that I could officially cross the other international borders. No papers, No access, No circulation, No point.

With departure date approaching, my current plan is simple, it’s to have no real plan at all. Thailand will happen, hopefully the mountains around Chang Mai and the Golden Triangle into Laos. Cambodia, or more importantly Angkor Wat is a place that I’ve always wanted to visit and hopefully, the budget will at least take me there. Vietnam is the only country where I would need to apply for a visa prior to arrival, and as I haven’t applied for one, then baring any last minute miracles, it’s unlikely to feature. Apart from that …. we’ll all just have to wait and see.

Post 265: Return of Dakar Duck

Last weeks arranged talk at the BMW Owners Group in Sussex was cancelled .... snow stopped play. Then, as the snow finally cleared and the roads once more became safe for bikes, I succumbed to a very serious case of Tiger-Flu. “H1-N955“, it’s quite similar to Swine-Flu ... but just a little more snotty.

Housebound with a lethal and highly contagious illness, I’ve used the time to clear out my unwanted junk and brush up on my diminishing language skills. It’s quite amazing, but when I arrived at my current address, I had a loaded motorbike and two world-weary suitcases .... the sum total of my worldly goods. I’ve just spent the last two days clearing out crap and I‘ve still got far more than I arrived with. if only I could do the same thing with money. Where the hell did it all come from? And, when I refer to it as ‘carp’ I really do mean ‘crap’. In the past 12-months it seems that I haven't thrown anything away. I’ve turned into my Dad .... I‘m a bloody magpie. Thankfully, I’ve been able to arrange storage for the things that I want to keep, and hopefully this time they’ll be in a place that’s slightly less flammable than Sailing Grove proved to be.

One item that I need to take with me is as I write, working it’s way across London. ‘Dakar Duck’ will once again be joining me. ‘Milk’s‘, his permanent keeper, is despatching him by special courier and he’ll wallow in my hand-luggage until I can attach him to the mighty Minsk in Hanoi. It’ll be good to see him again, share a few beers, recall some happy memories and generally catch-up with what each of us has been doing.

This week I’ll hopefully sort out my visas, start planning a more detailed route and no doubt begin realising just how woefully unprepared I am. As for my language skills, well ….. Pom rian-nang-seu Thai, poot mai ngaan-kian. Pom bpen-jao-kong aa-jaan Tassaneeya, gap Internet ‘‘. Gaan-pat-at-naa chaa, pom giat seuk-saa. .... That might look quite impressive, but only if you don’t speak Thai. If you’ve ever opened one of those ’Dearest Friend’ eMail requests from a Nigerian Brigadier General with an unreasonably large charitable donation … 'same same' my Thai.

What it should say: I’m learning Thai, spoken not written. I have a great teacher in Tassaneeya, together with the Internet site ’thai2english’. Progress is slow, but only because I’m an idle student.

Post 264: Asian Preparations

We’re one week into 2010 and for the last five days, the Tiger hasn’t moved an inch. The main roads are clear of snow, but getting to them on a bike like the Tiger just isn‘t going to happen. OK, it's probably got a lot more to do with me being a knob than the Tiger being unsuitable, but even if I did have the balls to ride it in the snow, those balls would be resting a few inches higher if I ever had to pick it up after a fall. Even if I was brave enough to do it, I’m no longer a fan of riding in crappy weather and to be honest, I’ve given up any thoughts of being back on 2-wheels until I’m out in SE Asia.

I’ve managed to track down a selection of previously enjoyed Minsk’s in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and so getting hold of one shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I’ll probably end up paying around £250.00 for a working example with official papers, which sounds like a bit of a bargain. However, at around 7,500,000 VND (seven and a half milion Vietnamese Dong) it really sounds quite expensive. At least when I arrive in Vietnam, I'll feel like a millionaire for a few days. After the journey, if I sell the Minsk in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) rather than Hanoi, then I’ll get most of my money back, probably in a wheelbarrow. It’s a question of ’Supply and Demand’. Most of the Minsk’s are located in the North, but the people in the South are developing a taste for something that’s a little bit different to the break-back Honda’s and Yamaha Fino’s that they usually ride. On the other hand, I could always try and ride the Minsk back to Blighty?

In terms of preparation, my body and mind are still a few weeks behind the paperwork, but I’m doing my best to catch up. It’ not easy, but I’ve set myself a gruelling regime of physical and mental exercises. Physically, on January 1st I stopped drinking my usual pints of beer and to be honest, it hasn’t been as difficult as I’d imagined. In the more remote parts of SE Asia, draught beer is quite scarce and to account for this, I’ve had to acclimatise to drinking my beer from bottles. Bottles tend to be smaller and while making double the number of visits to the bar is really quite tedious, the extra exercise avoids any real need to start jogging.

In order to train my mind, I’m doing all of the obvious things like refusing to do anything on-time and asking for discounts in the supermarket. No success in Tesco yet, but I’m working on my technique. When I go to the Post Office or Bank and they ask me "What can we help you with today?", my new response is "Up to you". This seems to confuse the crap out of them, but if anybody has ever spent more than a few weeks in SE Asia, then they’ll know exactly why I‘m doing it. Logic stands on it’s head and there’s absolutely no point in fighting against it. I’ve just got to get used to going with the flow … ’mai pen rai’.

On the Vietnamese Embassy website, it states that as the price of visas is constantly changing, I should telephone the Embassy for the current visa price before writing the cheque and mailing my application. When telephoning the Vietnamese Embassy, they of course refer me back to the website. In the end, I might have to drag the Tiger from it's snowy nest and ride into London rather than just using the mail. It's a not so merry merry-go-round but it's probably just a sign of things to come ... 'mai pen rai'.

Talking about the Post Office, or more precisely ’Royal Mail’, why is it that Estate Agents and Fitness Centres can slide massive brochures effortlessly through my letterbox, but if it’s anything larger than a postcard, the Royal Mail claim that it’s oversized and ask me to collect it from the bloody Post Office? Continuing with this little rant, ‘Parcel Force’ really ought to change their name to ‘Postcard Farce‘. I’m beginning to think that they don’t really deliver parcels. They probably don't even have any delivery vans, just an army of kid’s who ride around on bicycles silently delivering ’Sorry you were out’ cards while you're obviously 'In'. I’ve never spent as much time in the Post Office as I have done in the past two weeks. Unfortunately, my local Post Office isn’t quite as ‘local’ as it used to be and it’s quite a long walk to get there. This is probably quite good for my fitness regime, but while waiting in the inevitable queues, I’ve learned far more than I’ll ever need to know about Winter Fuel Payments, WRVS Menus and Bunions. If the Post Office employed a loyalty card system then I’d be swimming in an ocean of points. But they don’t, ...... so I’m not .... 'mai pen rai'

Post 263: Minnie The Minsk

Well .... a Happy New Year to everyone. We're into January and the bureaucratic travel game has begun. Officially speaking, for the next journey, Vietnam is the only country where I need to obtain a visa before I arrive there. I'd initially thought that like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, I'd just rely upon my good fortune of being British and receive my visa on arrival at the airport in Hanoi. Sadly, I hadn't read the 'small print' and in December discovered that in order to qualify for 'Visa on Arrival', you actually have to apply in advance. Oh ... is that really 'Visa on Arrival?'

Not a problem, I'll apply for my 90 day multiple entry visa in London and everything will be rosy. But, I'm not sure of the dates that I'll be there and I have to specify them on the application form. Unfortunately, the visa will start ticking as soon as it reaches the specified 'Entry Date' whether I'm in Vietnam or not. So, to be on the safe side, I'll apply for a 180 day multiple entry visa instead. Problem solved.

So I'll fly to Thailand, collect everything that I need for the journey and then travel on to Hanoi, buy the Minsk and begin. Oh, another problem. Thailand might let me into their amazing country, but none of the Airlines will fly me there. Unfortunately I've got a very short memory. In 2008, China Airlines refused to fly me to the USA because I didn't have an onwards ticket or an existing visa to enter America. I've now got the same problem with Thailand. I'd initially decided on a one-way ticket. Not because I'm not coming back, though that would be nice, but because I've no idea exactly when I'll be coming back. So, I now need either a visa for Thailand, or a return ticket with a home leg that will never be used. I'm still holding out for a free ticket from my favourite airline and so decided that the visa was the best way to proceed.

Normally when a UK Citizen arrives at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, you receive a 30 Day Tourist Visa when you pass through immigration control. That's fine, but in January 2009 they changed the rules for crossing land borders. When crossing into Thailand via a land border, you now only receive a 14 Day Tourist Visa. Unfortunately, when I ride the Minsk from Cambodia into Thailand, I'll need an awful lot more than 14 Days. So, I'll have to apply for a Thai visa that I'll use for that particular crossing. That's fine, but it doesn't really help me to get into Thailand in the first place. So, if I've already got a perfectly good 90 Day Thai visa sitting in my passport when I first arrive in Bangkok, will they still give me the usual 30 Day Tourist Visa on Arrival? Normally it wouldn't matter because 90 Days is ample, but once I exit Thailand for the first time, the Thai visa will automatically expire.

These are not 'Huge Problems', especially when you consider the hurdles that a Thai National has to leap over in order to obtain a simple Tourist Visa into Blighty, but it's still a pain the arse to arrange. On the other hand, at least I'm not returning to work behind a desk at the end of the Christmas holidays, so I'm not bloody complaining. As things stand, I'm hoping to receive a return 'London-Bangkok-London' ticket from the Airline, with a return date that can be easily changed. Of course, in the first instance I could have bought such a ticket and avoided the initial Thai visa problems, but such a ticket costs three times more than a cheap 'Bucket Shop' ticket that has set travel dates. So, assuming that the Airline Ticket arrives, then I'll get my free 30 Day Tourist Visa on arrival in Bangkok and then apply for my next Thai visa at the embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I'll let you know what the outcome is, but it looks like I'll be heading East at the beginning of February and returning to Blighty in May.

Happy New Year