No trip is complete without books and music and internets… here’s a selection of what we read, watched, used and listened to over the three months:
Books (in chronological order):
Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Northern Thailand (Lonely Planet, Aug 2014, £16.99) Sure, losers plan it, but this book was really useful both for planning and when we were there. We couldn’t really ask for a more up to date edition, covering the exact area we were planning to go to, although by the time we got there some things had already changed from their description in the book. That’s time for you, always moving forward… Only criticism is that too many of the food and accommodation options were way out of our budget range – Southeast Asia on a Shoestring this is not.
Stephen Lord: Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook (Trailblazer, 2012, £14.99) Really useful cycle touring guide book, with information on how to do it, what sort of bike to look for, and some popular places to ride. Also features some great first-hand accounts, including one from my work colleague Tim Brewer, who cycled from the UK to Australia.
Dervla Murphy: Full Tilt – Ireland to India with a Bicycle (Eland, 2010, £12.99) Another pre-trip book, this was an inspirational read, detailing the eccentric and daring traveler’s first major trip on a bicycle, from her hometown in Ireland all the way to India.
Dervla Murphy: One Foot in Laos (John Murray, 1999, from local library) Also a fascinating pre-trip read as this time Dervla, now in her 60s, travels around Laos by bike, bus and on foot, offering her unique style of insight into a country on the brink of profound change.
Southeast Asia Phrasebook and Dictionary (Lonely Planet, Sept 2013, £4.99) Bought in a bit of a panic in Luang Prubang when it dawned on us that we didn’t know a word of Laotian!
Juliet Lac: War Child – A Vietnamese Girl’s Story of Survival and Hope Across Three Continents (Mainstream Publishing, 2009, 90,000 Dong) Bought in Vietnam, this book provided some insight into what this war-ravaged country was like in the late 1970s, and the terrible risks and feats of endurance people went through to try and escape for a better life overseas.
Nguyen Huy Thiep: The General Retires and Other Stories (Oxford University Press, 1992, 180,000 Dong) A collection of original short stories and the first to be published in English since the Vietnam War. The stories were sometimes quirky, sometimes mystical, but all helped paint a picture of Vietnamese customs, traditions, culture and past-times.
Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father (Harper Perennial, 2006, 50,000 Dong) This account of the Khmer Rouge’s savage rule over Cambodia, told from the point of view of a young girl and based on Ung’s own harrowing memories, was almost unbelievably savage at times, but was fascinating to read while travelling through the country.
Chum Mey: Survivor (Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2012, US$10) A short memoir by one of the few survivors of the notorious Tuol Slong prison, detailing his incarceration there by the Khmer Rouge. It’s not well written, but after visiting the prison and seeing Chum Mey selling his book in person, we wanted to support him in any way we could. The ridiculously complicated and overwrought ‘confession’ he was tortured into signing makes fascinating reading, revealing much about the paranoia and insecurities of the Khmer Rouge cadres who fabricated it.
Somaly Man: The Road of Lost Innocence (Virago, 2008, US$3) Perhaps the most disturbing book we read because it investigates and reveals the shocking and horrific trade in young girls that goes on in Cambodia even today; and with it the deep-rooted corruption that rots right to the core of Cambodian society (including the police and judiciary) and allows the pimps to continue to get away with it. A truly shocking account, written by a woman who survived the experience and then did all she could to help thousands of women and girls sold into prostitution – often by their own parents.
Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques: Ancient Angkor (River Books, 2013, US$7) Bought from one of the many on-site vendors at Angkor, this book proved to be a useful guide while we wandered around the ancient ruins.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. Other books we read included, er, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Slaughterhouse Five by that old rogue Kurt Vonnegut, the J.D. Salinger classic Franny and Zooey, and Charlotte Brontë’s first ever novel, The Professor.
TV and film:
The Mekong River with Sue Perkins: A four part BBC series which aired in Nov/Dec 2014, perfect timing for our trip and covering some of the places we went on to visit. This series was funny and informative and sometimes touching, and totally got us geared up and excited about our trip. Looking back now, our big regret is not making it to one of the ‘floating villages’ like the one Sue visited on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia; in the end we just ran out of time.
The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984): We watched this film the evening before visiting the Killing Fields for real. While it provided some background about the horrors that took place, and the extreme lengths some people went to to try and escape Cambodia (of whom only a few made it out alive), it quite rightly asks more questions about the Cold War geo-politics that allowed the genocide to take place in the first place than it answers.
When not adding blogs to this site, or uploading pictures to Instagram, we were often to be found researching the next leg of our journey. For this, we almost always turned to the excellent Crazy Guy on a Bike website first, which collates thousands of cycle touring blogs in one searchable directory. It proved to be an invaluable resource, and we’ll be adding our trip to the site when we get time.
A couple of other sites well worth a mention are Travelling Two, which we read a lot before the trip (including their excellent Bike Touring Survival Guide ebook), and Mr Pumpy, which is a fun if slightly dated read.
On the Android Fairphone, we used Maps.me much more extensively than we did Google Maps, largely because Maps.me allows you to download map and route info for a whole country, and then work offline – perfect for when you’re on the road – but with GPS.
We downloaded and tried various route tracking apps, including Map My Ride, Ride with GPS, and My Tracks, but found that none of them successfully tracked our rides accurately. Not sure if this was because we weren’t using 3G, or because GPS can be a bit hit and miss but, either way, we were getting some pretty odd results so gave up on them and stuck with the reliable Cat’s Eye data instead.
To make up for the lack of an altimeter on the Cat’s Eye, I installed Travel Altimeter, a free tool that gives you your height and longitude/latitude coordinates, based on GPS. Not sure how accurate it is but it was fun watching it change as we drove in the minivan through some of the more crazy Laos mountain ranges.
On both the tablet and the phone, we used Google’s Keep app to make notes, write draft blog posts, etc, and share them easily across devices, and WordPress on both devices to do the blog. Often, poor wifi signals made it hard to upload (images especially) but we got there in the end. Images from the phone were shared seamlessly onto the tablet via the Google Drive auto backup service.
Met Office and BBC Weather apps were good for weather forecasts, even if most days it was just more sunshine. Although they gave basically the same info, it was useful to have two as sometimes one wouldn’t work or update properly.
To stay in touch with news back home, we had BBC News, The Guardian and The Independent apps, all of which have their pros and cons but, combined, kept us in the loop with news back home.
Over the three months, we tried lots of different language apps, with varying degrees of success. The best ones, like Learn Vietnamese, provided a few basic words and phrases and included audio to help with pronunciation, others were basically just Google Translate, which needs to be online to be of any use.
Other useful apps we used included HostelWorld and AirBnB for arranging or researching accommodation, TripAdvisor for accommodation, offline maps, and things to do (it provided lots of good leads!), Skype for the occasional call, Adobe Reader to read PDFs, a Currency Convertor to check we weren’t getting ripped off, Arseblog to stay in touch with Arsenal, and talkSPORT for the occasional streamed football commentary (yes, I am that sad and I know sport isn’t really news).
We also downloaded the warmshowers (not to be confused with golden showers) app. This is a tool for cycle tourers to connect with potential accommodation hosts. We used it a couple of times to make contact with potential hosts, but never actually stayed with any of them. Simple enough to use though.
Saving the best until last, I’m not sure I’d have survived the trip without downloading Classic Words Solo – basically Scrabble against the computer. So far I’ve played 35 games (mostly on ‘very hard’ mode), winning 27 of them, with an average score per move of 18.23, a best final score of 375 and a best word Quartz, for 86. Yes, I am also a geek. So good for those moments when you just need to be distracted and kill some time though!
We wouldn’t have survived without music, and it’s a regret that we didn’t preload the phone with a few more songs and, especially, full albums, to get us through some of those long days when it’s just you versus the road. Also, sometimes we found it motivational to play a song or two in the morning to get us out of bed and on the road.
Note: we never used headphones, we just had music playing from the phone speaker as it sat in the crossbar bag, and we tended to only listen to music when we were away from villages and towns and the roads were pretty quiet.
These are the few albums we did have downloaded; they helped us clock up the miles without halving to talk to each other for a while…!
Arcade Fire: Reflektor (disc 1) / The Suburbs: Arcade Fire are good for cycling to because their songs have momentum; once they start they just keep on going. They were the soundtrack to some gruelling sections when our energy was flagging, cycling into a headwind at the end of a long day.
Belle and Sebastian: Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance. We payed for and downloaded this in Phonsovan at the precise moment we realised we didn’t have enough music to see us through the remaining two and a bit months. The new album was great for cycling, and the first track, Nobody’s Empire, became our song of the trip, and possible new fave B&S track, ever! Later, we added some tracks from The Boy with the Arab Strap too.
Cate Le Bon: Cryk 2. A bit quiet for cycling to, but a bit of Welsh weirdness can sometimes make for a good start to the day.
Euros Childs: Summer Special. One of our faves on the road, this mostly upbeat album – sample track titles: Be Be High, That’s Better, Roogie Boogie, Good Feeling – is perfect for singing along to and perplexing the locals even more. We also enjoyed converting the Euros Childs / Norman Blake classic Which Witch is Which? into the more culturally appropriate What Wat is What?
James Yorkston: The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society (CRAWS) Ok, not the most upbeat of albums but, with his amazing December gig still fresh in our minds, this great record got a lot of love over the course of the trip.
King Creosote: From Scotland With Love. Another slightly maudlin record but there were some lovely moments on it, and the line about being “the finest catch that you’ll land” was one of the ear-worms of the entire trip.
Kurt Vile: Walking on a Pretty Daze. This hazy, laconic record complete with slacker lyrics and extended guitar solos soundtracked more than a couple of afternoon hill slogs, and at least one beautiful sunset.
Randolph’s Leap: Clumsy Knot. When we needed something upbeat and silly this record, on Johnny ‘Pictish Trail’ Lynch’s Lost Map label, was our default choice. We discovered the band on the Isle of Eigg last summer, and by now know most of the words to tracks like Hermit, Isle of Love, and I Can’t Dance to This Music Anymore. If you sing along when there’s no-one listening, can anyone hear you?
Slow Club: Complete Surrender and Paradise. Packed with loads of sing-along tracks and more than a hint of Motown stomp on the new album, it was just a pain we had to keep on skipping the boring slow ones that Charles sings! If We’re Still Alive from Paradise was also a bit of an anthem by the end of the trip.
Teleman: Breakfast. One of our fave albums from 2014, this soundtracked everything from morning slogs up mountains to hanging out the washing in the evening. A versatile record indeed!
Veronica Falls: Waiting for Something to Happen. A bit of a slow burner, but sometimes indie-pop and cycling go surprisingly well together.
Wooden Shjips: Back to Land. Like with the Kurt Vile record, sometimes you just want to mong out a bit on the bike and listen to some really long, repetitive tracks. This did the trick.
Canned Heat – On the Road Again. An obvious joke, but still pretty funny to start the day with this song, day after day…
Bill Callahan – The Sing. Includes the line “I only said two words today: ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’.” This became our evening beer toast and a running in-joke.
Allo Darlin – Capricornia / Europe / Some People Say. Foolishly only downloaded a few of their tracks onto the phone, but we really enjoyed them and were left wanting more.
David Bowie – Where Are We Now? Played exclusively when crossing borders, in the no-man’s land between national border checkpoints. Man, we’re hilarious.
Pulp – Sunrise. Downloaded especially for sunrise at Angkor Wat, obviously.
The Stone Roses – I Wanna Be Adored. Single-handedly got us up at least one Vietnam mountain.