Summary thoughts and other random notes

(written by Dave but with many additions and edits by Nancy)

It is hard to know where to start when trying to summarize a 19 month, 26 country, 22,000k bicycle trip.  For us, the trip feels more like four distinct trips than one big long trip.  When we think back on the trip or talk about it with others we generally break it up into legs – Australia, SE Asia, study in Nice and riding again in Europe.  Each of these legs were so different from the others for various reasons and the experiences in each were so all-consuming at the time that we had a tendency to forget what had occurred in the prior legs.  Thankfully we had the blog and pictures to look back on – we would surely have forgotten many of the experiences had we not written them down.

I was at a barber last week and mentioned that we’d been travelling.  The barber naturally asked, “where ya been?”   Though we get asked that frequently, even that question was hard to answer.  How far back should I go with my answer?  I was certainly thinking in terms of the entire trip but these days I only need a clipper cut, which was nowhere near enough time to tell him about all 26 countries that we’ve visited, much less the full story about the blade shave I was given by a young Indian fellow in Georgetown, Malaysia.

Hair cut in Malaysia

There is also the question of “how has the trip changed you?”  We also get this a lot.  This is another question that is really hard to answer.  We’d travelled a lot before this trip so we didn’t expect to be surprised all that often.  But much of our travel in the past was either business travel or quick trips on well-worn tourist routes.  This trip forced us to slow down, forced us off the beaten path and put us at eye level, day in and day out, with true locals.  We didn’t have a bus to escape to, or a local guide to help decipher what we were seeing, eating or stepping in.  That forced us to interact more with the locals and use our own skills to figure out what to do, where to go and what to see.  And, as the trip went on these things were often not the “must-see” tourist destinations but were instead places where we could experience the ordinary life of the people who lived in that country.  While we often felt like we were being watched by the locals we didn’t mind, as people-watching became one of our favourite activities – we watched the locals while the locals watched us watching them.  Funny, when you think about it but it often led to conversations, invitations and a greater understanding of the locals and how they lived.

Spot the weird costumes – who’s watching who?

The flexibility to change our route on a whim to see an interesting site or a place recommended by a local, to stay an extra day somewhere because it felt comfortable, or to skip a “famous” tourist destination (there are an unlimited number of these) played a huge role in how much we enjoyed our trip.  We did, of course, see many of the “famous” sites in the countries we visited and they were some of the most amazing sites of the trip – Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Grossglockner High Alpine Road in Austria to name but a few.  But we quickly learned not to feel bad if we didn’t make it to the some of the well-known destinations, even those that happened to be nearby, because we found experiences all around us, even in the most ordinary activities like buying a cup of coffee or stopping for a rest or a snack on the side of the road.

Angkor Wat on the tourist trail

Both of us agree that the single most difficult thing that we had to figure out nearly every day was where we were going to sleep.  Though it was difficult and some of us worried about it more than others, it always worked out.  Some places were not as nice as others but we were never left without a safe place to sleep.  On past trips, lodging was almost always worked out well in advance.  If nothing else, we have much greater appreciation of the effort it takes to organize tour groups.

Local Loas kids – happy to see us

So, did it change us?  Probably.  We certainly see the world differently.  It’s a little cliché but people really are the same everywhere.  Most people are good-hearted and happy to engage with strangers, to tell us about their country and anxious to offer help when needed.  Our ability to find food and lodging often depended on our ability to connect with locals.  While travelling by bicycle may have made us more vulnerable, we also perceived that it made us less threatening or foreign.  We encountered very little begging and really no threatening behaviour that made us fear for our safety.  The bicycles probably put us more on the level of the locals.  If you pull up at a roadside rest area in Laos in a tour bus or SUV, the locals often surround the vehicle, treating it like a rolling ATM.  Pull up sweaty on a bicycle and the locals are more likely to offer you cold water or a chai.  Until our next long bicycle trip, we’ll go back to our old way of travel.  Except now we might just find ourselves wandering a few more of the back alleys that the tour guides might otherwise avoid.

There is one change from the trip that we notice more than anything else – our desire for stuff.  When you live out of two bags for a year and half, you learn to get by with less.  No shopping trips means you are not enticed by the things you might see but don’t really need.  Pictures and memories became our souvenirs rather than things that we could not fit into our panniers.  As we work our way back into “normal” life it seems clear that we have way too much stuff – and we are only in Oregon at our mountain cabin.  I’m sure we’ll feel more of this when we get to Sydney and start to unpack our life there – too much stuff!  Though, we both admit it is nice to have more than one pair of pants and a few pairs of underwear.

This trip has been on our “bucket list” for so many years that it feels a bit odd to think that it is now over.  The thought of doing this trip helped get us through many periods of being desk-bound and overworked.  But we know that we want to do more so rather than considering it over this trip has become, in our mind, just one instalment of hopefully many more miles on the road in the future – there is a lot more world out there to discover.  Equally important, we know now that we can do it and have a pretty good time throughout.  We’ve got our eyes on the Pan-American Highway.  Nancy is warming to the idea but is still not sure about the bears.  This trip is several years off, probably after we really retire.  Maybe there will be a bear proof tent on the market by then…

While there is some desire to keep searching for deep meaning in our trip, deep meanings seem elusive.  For a computer geek (me, Dave) and list maker (Nancy), stats and charts are another way to rationalize the trip.  The table below shows all 26 countries that we visited, the distance and time we spent in each of them.  Just picking a way to sort the table was hard.  Should we sort in order of countries visited, miles ridden by country, days in country or something really silly like best breakfasts?  We eventually settled on miles ridden because we had to pick something.

Miles K’s Riding Days Total Days R or L drive
Australia 3422 5509 70 101 L
Thailand 1973 3177 38 66 L
Turkey 1648 2653 35 60 R
Malaysia 926 1491 23 56 L
Laos 701 1129 15 20 R
England 679 1093 19 31 L
Scotland 524 843 12 14 L
Italy 520 837 11 16 R
Croatia 401 645 10 14 R
Cambodia 357 575 6 18 R
Germany 329 530 7 9 R
Austria 329 529 8 12 R
Macedonia 277 447 5 7 R
Bulgaria 238 383 7 9 R
Czech Republic 220 354 4 7 R
Slovenia 186 299 4 5 R
France 161 260 10 80 R
Greece 161 259 3 6 R
Albania 114 183 2 2 R
Montenegro 97 156 2 3 R
Wales 31 50 2 2 L
Singapore 12 19 1 5 L
Poland 4 6 1 1 R
Sweden 3 5 2 15 R
Denmark 3 5 1 1 R
Monaco 2 3 1 1 R
Totals 13317 21441 299 561

Flags of most countries we visited

You’ll note that we kept track of left and right hand driving in the list above.  This will explain why it looks like we are riding on the “wrong” side of the road in some photos.  Wrong that is, if you are from the “other” side of the road.  The table below breaks down totals for left and right hand riding.

Miles K’s
Left-hand riding 7567 12183
Right-hand riding 5750 9258
Total 13317 21441

“Wrong” side of the road Nancy

We got good use of our tent on this trip.  We were even starting to worry about its long-term viability in Scotland.  We talked to a factory trained sales guy who pointed out that the tent is really designed for people who normally get out 10 to 12 nights per year, making it about a 100 night, 10 year tent.  We spent around 120 nights in the tent on this trip.  It still has some life in it but knowing that we are near the designed limits makes us less concerned that we are seeing some wear.  The table below shows where we spent our nights over the last year in a half.  Tent nights are noted.

SLEEPING SUMMARY Nights Tent nights
Hotel / Guesthouse / B&B 306
Caravan Park 100 X
Long-term Apartment 69
Private home 24
Hostel 17
Warmshowers 15
Caravan Park – cabin 7
National park 7 X
City park 5 X
Ferry 3
Bush camp 3 X
Pub 2
Showgrounds 1 X
Train 1
Maize maze 1 X

Home sweet home

The table is a little surprising in that we expected to camp more and stay in hotels less.  The six months in SE Asia were 100% in guesthouses and our time in Nice was of course in an apartment – these were big contributors to tenting less.  We also thought that we would free camp more but only did this three times, all while we were in Australia.  Free camping is one way that a lot of other bicycle tourists extend funds and thus extend trips.  Along the way, we decided that we’d rather have a little shorter trip, with a shower at the end of the day, so we opted for more rooms and less free camps.  That’s not to say we lived like royals.  More often than not we searched out the lowest priced room in town and frankly camping would have been easier.  We were travelling about as far from 5-star as you can get while still having a roof, except when Nancy’s “5-star” travelling sister joined us.  Gretchen joined us on three separate occasions, each time significantly upgrading our sleeping conditions.

Long time readers will know that Nancy is not a big fan of boats.  Ferries, being boats, would not be her preferred mode of transport.  Having said that, ferries are infinitely better than airplanes.  Her only “seasick” moment actually came on the flight to Nice, funnily enough when we had been upgraded to business class – I guess we were just not used to all that luxury anymore!  With a judicious use of wristbands, Dramamine and ginger candy, Nancy survived 34 ferries in 19 months of travel.  There were a few ferry close calls, especially on the torpedo shaped passenger ferries in SE Asia and on our last ferry, a rough crossing of the English Channel.  Overall, ferries worked out well.  The best thing about ferries was not having to disassemble the bikes (as we do to fly).  Car ferries were great as we could just wheel the bikes on.  One very pleasant ferry surprise was the overnight ferries.  Both of us slept well on all three of our overnight sailings.  Below is the complete list of ferries that we rode (I know, exciting):

Ferry Single/Return Almost seasick
Sydney to Manly 1
Palm Beach to Ettalong 1
Newcastle to Stockton 1
Nelson Bay to Tea Gardens 1
Mandorah to Darwin 1 X
Singapore to Malaysia 1
Pankor Island Malaysia 2
Penang island Malaysia 1
Penang to Langkawi 1 X
Langkawi to Satun, Thailand 1 X
Ancona, Italy to Patras, Greece 1
Entering Athens 2
Athens to Chios 1
Chios, Greece to Cesme, Turkey 1
Bodrum to Datca 1
Oberic to Korcula 1
Vela Luka to Split 1
Mainland to Rab 1
Rab to Kirk 1
Kirk to Cres 1
Cres to mainland Croatia 1
Kamp to Karmin (Usedom Island) 1
Swinoujscie local ferry 1
Swinoujscie to Ystaad 1
Stockholm to Skansan 1
Skansan to Stockholm 1
Denmark to Harwich, UK 1
Dunoon to Greenock Scotland 1
Plymouth Ferry UK 1
Fowey Ferry UK 1
King Harry Ferry UK 1
Poole to Cherbourg 1 X
Totals 34

Nancy and her bands – on a ferry

We posted earlier about food.  It became a point of great discussion, just about every day.  We averaged about 45 miles / 72 k per riding day.  That may not sound like a lot to the serious cyclists out there but you have to remember that we had 55kg bikes. That means burning a lot of calories on riding days and fast metabolisms on no-bike days.  We ate a lot.  In our one year summary post we made note of some food favourites.  I’ve added to that table, changed a few and included it below.

Best new food find – Turkey Lahmacun – sometimes called Turkish pizza – always served with a massive pile of fresh veggies.  Cheep and cheerful personified.
Best new food find – Malaysia Nasi Lemak – the first one was right off a street cart and still one of the most memorable
Best coffee in SE Asia Tie – Amazon coffee at the Petronas stations and properly prepared Laos coffee
Biggest coffee surprise Turkish coffee was something we were really looking forward to trying.  Well, it was hard to find.  It seems that it is more of a tourist drink and not many places sell it.  And when you couldn’t get a Turkish coffee, they served instant.  They even interchangeably used “coffee” and “Nescafe” when they offered coffee.
Best new hot drink that is not coffee Turkish Çay (chai) – served in funky hourglass shaped shot glasses – one sugar – just the right amount of tea and a nice shape in your hand.  It is not just a drink, it’s a reason to start a conversation, new friendship and perhaps sell a carpet or two.  Our record of roadside chai stops taken when offered while we rode past was 5 in one day.  We could have had more as we were always being offered “chai” as we peddled past.
Best bakeries We don’t agree here.  Nancy gives the nod to France.  I’m happy in either Greece or Italy.  Both of us agree that more baking is needed in SE Asia.
Best breads Germany/Austria – we thought that it was good in Laos, then we found France and thought it was better, then we rolled into central Europe and really hit the mother lode.  Great, hearty, seed and grain breads.  Heavy and crush proof, perfect for the panniers.  Though, Sweden had great bread too.
Best new pastry – Sweden Cardamom pastries – similar to cinnamon twist pretzels but they use cardamom instead.  A surprisingly tasty treat.
Best new pastry – Greece Cheese or potato filled pastries in Greece – they came in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes you would not know what it was until the first bite, they were always tasty.  We rediscovered these in Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Croissants eaten 200 each – Estimating one per day in France, Italy and Laos – though some days we did eat two [Dave ate two, not me] and in both Italy and Laos they call a French pain au chocolate a chocolate croissant – so we are not sure how to count them. [totals adjusted for return to France]
Baguettes eaten 100 – Estimating one per day in France and Laos – here again we have some trouble counting as France calls some baguettes banettes and we did try some of the fancy breads that are also not technically baguettes.  [totals adjusted for return to France]
Best Indian curries Malaysia – this was our favourite food in Malaysia – we ate it every time we needed a good feed and sometimes when we felt the need for comfort food.  UK has a large Indian population and many such options but they put too much tomato sauce in their curries for our tastes.
Best free foods Roadkill sweet potatoes in Australia
Wild cherries off roadside trees in Czech Republic
Wild black berries picked off the hedgerows in the UK
Pad Thai noodles eaten 45 each – again, this is not 100% scientific but this was our safe food in Thailand – when there was no common language you could always order pad thai gai (chicken)
Best new food find – Laos Laos Laap – tried with fish, chicken, buffalo, beef and pork – but passed on the rat on a stick version
Egg and Bacon rolls consumed Close to 100 each (Australia ones are the only one worth counting) – exact totals are not known though we found an E&B roll made great energy food on arrival in town, just before starting the accommodation search.  Plus they were rest day staples.
Weirdest things eaten Dave only – silk worms (boiled in Cambodia, fried in Thailand), grasshoppers (fried in Thailand)
Best thing eaten that should not be eaten Creamed teas in Devonshire and Cornwall – the tea, scones and fresh preserves are ok to eat but the accompanying clotted cream is artery clogging goo that should be avoided at all costs. Once you’ve had the first taste you can’t stop.
Best new brekkie Roti Canai – anywhere India food is served.  Not as good as an egg and bacon roll but when the roti maker is frying up roti on the curb side grill, it is hard to ride past.
Worst new brekkie idea Thailand and Malaysia – a hotdog like thing, not sure it was meat and it never tasted right.  They tried to play it off as “western” food but they really didn’t know what they were making – hats off to the local hotdog salesman as he tricked many an inn keeper.
Best “ah” moment meal Swedish meatballs in Stockholm, Sweden with three Peterson girls and Dave.
Best eating tip Jump in and eat local in SE Asia.  The western food options were almost always inedible.  You may have to ignore a few dirty corners or tolerate a couple outside hawker stalls, but your tastebud will be happier.  And more than likely, you won’t get sick – worked for us anyway – most of the time.

Tandori platter – a trip staple

Lastly, are we writing a book?  We get this a lot from regular readers.  The short answer is probably not.  I read somewhere a quote that went something like “I like having written, I hate to write”.  This describes both of us to some extent.  Writing the blog nearly every day was hard but to now have nearly daily notes from our trip is a lifelong treasure.  We have re-read several sections and find reliving the trip quite enjoyable.

The thought of organizing 500+ posts and random notes into a book is very daunting.  And if we wrote a book, I’m not sure that there would be a big market for the end product.  There are plenty of travel books out there and we just don’t know what our “hook” would be.  Neither of us had to use a Leatherman to hack off an arm, we never slept in a high altitude death zone [some guesthouse we renamed “death zone” but for other reasons], we didn’t have to wrestle wild animals or really, do anything overly marketable in an “epic” adventure travel way.  We just rode our bikes, met nice people, ate some good food and then got up the next day and did it all over again.  We may change this tune if we can’t find work back in Sydney, but for now, that’s the plan with regard to a book.

Anyway, it was a great trip.  Adventures in Midlife were definitely had by all.  Thanks for reading and coming along for the ride.  And, if there were times along the way when you were reading and thought “I wish I could do that” we’d say go for it – getting out your front door is the hardest part.  After that it is really just a day riding your bike, one day after the other.  Planning is important, but it is also important not to let yourself get overwhelmed by all of the details – something we had to continuously work on.  There are no right or wrong ways to go on a bike tour, despite what others may tell you.  Things work out one way or the other and whatever way it works out it is an experience to call your own.

The road ahead perhaps…

We will post our thoughts on what gear worked well for us and perhaps add a few more posts as we try to integrate into a post-ride world.  So, stay tuned!

9 thoughts on “Summary thoughts and other random notes

  1. I know that many people followed you daily, with the number growing month by month. You don’t have to put all that into a book; it was well-read already in your blog and we, too, can go back and read it if we need to have your adventures again! Thanks for all the effort it took to write almost daily for almost a year and a half! Wow!

  2. Nancy and Dave,

    We have bin in Thailand Cycling to Cambodia. 2.000 km. Just back home and have a look on your blog. Pity your tour is over. Dreaming what you have seen and done.

    Kindly regards,

    Lieneke and Hans From Holland

    • Yes…. back to the real world.

      We still have the memories though… We certainly enjoyed our time picking coffee with you guys. In fact, the whole Bolaven Plateau experience was a trip highlight for us. And dinner at Mamas, ah, can hardly wait to get back out there! Dave Ertel


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