Thailand to Singapore – grief cycle

We have 11 days to cycle 1250km.

On the evening before we left Koh Samui I spoke to my dad. The virus that had taken my stepmother’s eyesight had finally been identified. We understood now that it might be fatal, and if not the damage that had been done was irreparable. The one possibility was a treatment that might help her fight it off.

The news was bad.

For the next 11 days Jamie and I cycle between 110 – 150kms a day. I spend the first days thinking up plans to make Pua’s sightlessness less difficult.
When she gets better we could do this or that… I will go and help out… I google tech and services and support.
However, as the days pass, and her symptoms worsen, Pua decides she has had enough.

No more tests. No more fighting. She’s ready to die.

My sister and my father look after her day and night. Friends are told and start visiting to say their goodbyes. I ride further and further away not knowing what else to do, caught up in a conundrum of whether to dash home, to finish my trip, to carry on… what each would mean for me, for Jamie, for Pua, for dad and for all my siblings.

One morning I find myself bawling as I cycle down the road, a hole opening up inside me. Compelled to meet our deadline, I feel unable to just stop and feel the agony of what is going on.
Realising I’m a liability on the road, I carefully sellotape up the gaping hole in the centre of my chest and carry on cycling.

However the bike provides its own counselling and during the hours in the saddle I begin to come to terms with the situation.
I conjure up some of our times together, I imagine telling her all the things she meant to me.
I make promises and I make apologies.
I begin the process of reinterpeting my memories of our life together into stories imbued with meaning.

Remember that time I asked you to teach me to dance, and instead you taught me to listen…

I spend minutes off the bike trying to form words into sentences to write or read to Pua, but then the most profound moment comes as I the realise that I don’t need to write or say anything. That Pua has loved me without question for most of my life, and I her, and that this had never been in question for either of us.
The chasm of grief opens wider.
Round and round go the thoughts, the pedals, the wheels, the emotions.

Nothing resolved. Nothing fixed. But we slowly edge towards our destination.

Meanwhile, Jamie and I are cycling the east coast of the peninsula down to Singapore, through Thailand and Malaysia. We’d heard that this coast was less developed than the west coast – particularly in Malaysia.

We pass endless sandy beaches, unfortunately contoured with lines of rubbish washed ashore. Plastic bottles, straws, plastic wrappers and so many flip flops…

For a day I become obsessed with spotting and counting single flip flops, half an eye scanning the verge for abandoned ones. I count 27 in one day before I order myself to stop.
I still don’t understand how so many people can be so careless with their shoes…

We stop for an hour each day after lunch in the shade.
I fall asleep almost instantly.
Jamie has to encourage me back on the bike again every afternoon with promises of better times to come.

My saddle sores are still incredibly problematic, and to make things worse the (factor 90) sun cream we bought turned out to be utterly useless leaving us horrendously scorched.

In the last few days of Thailand the population becomes majority Muslim, and we see mosques in every town and the call to prayer begins to punctuate our days again.

Most of the women wear headscarves and long loose clothing. They smile conspiratorially with me, and I feel genuinely welcome despite my foreigness. This area seems far from the normal tourist trail, and we seem to be as unusual sight.

Sometimes the younger women find us utterly hysterical – unable to serve us for laughing. They hide behind piles of produce and send someone else out to deal with us.

The mosques amplify different members of the community reading and singing prayers and verses from the Quran throughout the day, and it isn’t unusual to hear a woman read. We are pretty certain we hear a couple of female muezzin too – something I’ve never come across before.

We’d been warned against travelling in this area, against the problematic Muslims. I don’t know the history and whether that view is or was justified, but we are very impressed by the communities we passed through.

We leave Thailand by boat, boarding a small car ferry with a load of locals early one Friday morning.

We disembark in Malaysia and are almost immediately surprised by a huge lizard, over a meter long. During the following week we see more of these, as well as troupes of macaques on the roadside. I have a terrifying moment with a bright green snake on the road which – distracted by news from home – I almost run over and then panic as I think it has got caught in my wheel and is about to bite my calves. Jamie runs in to the back of me as I slam on the brakes – the snake wriggles off unscathed, laughing to himself. We don’t see elephants or tapia though the warning road signs get our hopes up.

The food in Malaysia is great. Roadside stalls selling hot fried things with bags of sweet chilli sauce or huge containers of iced chocolate milk. Night markets selling roti, noodles, grilled chicken. Fruit stalls overflowing with exotic fruit – mangosteen, rambutan, mata kuching, langsat, alongside more common pineapples, durian, apples and pears.

The riding remains a challenge – nothing technical, just the heat, the wind, the saddle sores, the unrelenting need to keep moving. We attempt some bigger days to give us time for a day off, but the nightly calculations keep telling us we need to do 112km every day to get to Singapore in time.

All the while news from home, pulling me a different way. What to do…?

Do I even want to go to Singapore, or New Zealand? What will Jamie do if I don’t come?

I don’t know, so the safest thing seems to be to carry on. Get the bikes to New Zealand, work it out from there.

We arrive in Singapore and stay with a delightful family who are outrageously generous. After a half day exploring the city we spend the rest of the time scrubbing and cleaning all our belongings in preparation for New Zealand’s strict biosecurity screening.

And so somehow, still reeling and unsure of whether I am going in the right direction, but unable to do anything but follow along, we board our flight to New Zealand.

A moment’s silence

** the following was written in February in New Zealand, but I didn’t feel able to post it – or anything else – till now**

It’s been a long time since I posted.

I apologise for the silence, I just haven’t had the words or the will to find them until recently.

But because things are the way they are, I can’t write about what’s been happening here without talking briefly about what’s been happening at home too.

On Christmas day I phoned my family. I caught my Dad, his wife Pua and my sister Gallia as they arrived at Roslyn for a pre-lunch walk. The brief video-call let me see them, though Pua by this point could see little more than colours. It would be the last time I saw her. We knew she was ill, we knew it was getting worse but we had no idea how bad it would get.

In June last year she was diagnosed with a fairly innocuous cancer, and apparently unrelated had some issues with her eyes. Eventually we would discover that the vision issues were due to a virus ravaging her brain, her overstrained immune system unable to fight it off.

A few days ago, our family and friends gathered to bury her in Scotland.

My sister and father looked after her day and night through an immensely difficult time, first hoping she would make a recovery, then helping her to find comfort in her last days.

I wasn’t there.
I wasn’t really here.
I’m not sure whether I can forgive myself for either absence.

Thousands of miles away, I’ve felt pulled in two directions. Continue south and finish the journey with Jamie, or fly home and be physically near to my family? I remain unsure.

Either way Pua’s illness, her death and my own and my family’s grief have become – and will continue to be – a part of this journey.

It’s still raw, so please forgive that.

Back in Thailand

The tailwind keeps us sailing towards Bangkok at a pretty pace.

We receive a message from cyclist Sue.

Where are you guys? I’m in Bangkok.
No way! See you there soon.

We work out it’s the 8th time we’ve met up with her on this trip.

We spend the day exploring the city, wandering the canal paths and we take a thrilling canal boat trip across town. The boats rev their engines and speed along the narrow canals. The waves crashing against the canal walls causing more turbulence for the boat to navigate. The conductor, walking along the gunnels , has to hang on as the boat tips wildly from side to side, threatening to tip him in.

Jamie’s phone has given up and so Jamie has taken to ‘looking after’ our single phone. We think Bangkok might be a good place to buy a second hand one so we attempt the rambunctious phone marketplace in one of the massive shopping centres. It’s chaos. We make a circuit and become so baffled by all the real and fake phones on offer that we have to go outside to take stock. Thinking we’ve made a decision we go back in and immediately get side tracked and almost talked in to buying what becomes apparent is a knock-off Samsung s9.

Eventually we give up and leave empty handed.

Saying goodbye again to Sue, we leave Bangkok by train, having decided to take a few days ‘off’ to learn diving on one of the islands.

Koh Tao is not really the sort of place we usually hang out. Full of beautiful young foreigners teaching or learning to dive but run – apparently – by a couple of families referred to in some places as the local mafia.

The beaches are picture perfect, the sunsets stunning. Scantily clad beauties everywhere. I’m painfully aware of my luminous tan lines, which in no way match up with my swimwear.

… yeah well, I mutter to myself, they may look absurd but these legs cycled here…

The pep talk doesn’t stop my insecurities kicking in.

It’s a beautiful island and the marine life even more stunning. But with over a hundred dive shops on the island it’s not exactly idyllic.

I manage to get on a four day dive course starting the evening we arrive. Jamie, who’s already qualified, books on to a couple of dives separately.

The course is good. The fish are great. I am not a natural diver – more than once someone has to grab me as I absentmindly take a deep breath and shoot upwards add I lose control of my buoyancy.

It’s an extraordinary experience though.

It’s almost as wonderful, and less stressful, hiring snorkels for the afternoon and exploring the rocks close to the beach.

We catch a glimpse of a darker side of life here one night as we cycle back to our hut: a woman screams as a man – her husband – holds her by the throat in the gutter by their house. We intervene – rightly or wrongly – and convince the guy to ride off, but not before she rouses enough to heave a huge rock at his motorbike. She’s pretty shaken. We leave her in the care of two young men who stop by, who seem fairly bemused that we bothered to stop at all. It’s Thailand, they say.

We relay this incident to a couple of people who suggest it may have been unwise to get involved. You don’t want to piss off the wrong people on the island.

The next day she’s sitting outside her house and recognises me as I stop. She’s bruised but looks pleased. Via sign-language she tells me one of them has left the other (I wasn’t clear which). She seems genuinely grateful for our help.

We leave Koh Tao and boat over (expensively) to the neighbouring island of Koh Samui. We’re visiting an old school friend of Jamie’s who’s made his home here. Alex and his wife Muoy treat us royally, we stay in one of the apartments he’s developed and he takes us to see some of the highlights of the island. I overindulge and spend a luxurious morning in bed with a raging hangover.

It’s great to hang out with Alex and Muoy but their lives are worlds apart from ours at the moment. In fact both adventures on the islands are a little bewildering and we’re happy to get back on our bikes and back to living simply again.

Unfortunately, living simply is sometimes an annoyance. Mere kilometres from Alex’s door Jamie gets a puncture, which requires a new inner tube that we don’t have. Our wonderful plan to leave before it got hot is thwarted. We finally get the boat off the island early afternoon and manage a few hours of cycling along the coast before setting up the tent looking over the sea.


Scorched land stretching to both sides of the road. The ground black. The few remaining trees charred or dead.

The first few days of Cambodia are difficult and a little shocking.

Slash and burn.
A term I learned in school once upon a time but never really imagined the reality of.

We see pillars of black smoke on the horizon from time to time, and soon enough find ourselves cycling through the smoke, pieces of ash and soot adhering to our skin.

Closer still we pass a tiny village, engulfed in smoke. There are masses of birds wheeling around in distress. A woman emerges carrying an infant, other children surrounding her. We see their wooden hut on its high stilts set back off the road. The fire is dangerously close but noone seems to be panicking.

Jamie explains that the climate is such that regrowth happens so quickly the farmers find it easier to burn the growth to clear the land for planting rather than hack through it. I can understand that, it is hot and sticky and we’re still at least three months away from the rainy season, before which the temperatures will only climb. I can’t imagine working the land in these conditions.

There is no shade. The ground is dusty. The heat makes the dogs and the cockerels and occasionally the people fight.

I try to improve my understanding of the land we’re in. I learn about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian genocides. Here anyone a little older than I lived through the extreme and horrific years of the Khmer Rouge – mass executions, forced labour, malnutrition, starvation and disease – resulting in the death of 24% of the population. I’m a little shaken by the details, and a little more wary of my own politically left leanings.

In all this there are good moments too.

Our ailments improve and our cycling capacity returns. We meet a quartet of French cyclists at a hostel and with them go out to dinner where we are honoured by the presence of Cambodia’s number one heartthrob – a pretty young man named Jerm.

The morning markets make me smile, we sit sipping the addictively sweet Cambodian coffee, made with a generous glug of condensed milk.
And we find friendly people, who smile genuine smiles, even as they charge us what we come to term ‘white man price’ (including the extra $5 we were required to pay for our visa).

After a few days we find ourselves amongst the temples of Angkor Wat. The epitimous temple is by far the largest, grandest and best preserved, but beyond there are countless others.

Some are smaller versions of Ankhor Wat temple, in varying states of disrepair. Some are very different. All have individual traits which makes them worth exploring over a couple of days without too much fear of temple fatigue.

Covering an area of 400 acres the temples and a few waterways are the surviving pieces of what was a truly vast city, estimates put numbers at about a million inhabitants. Only non-secular buildings were built of stone, so the other buildings have been lost.
The temples were originally Hindu temples, Angor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu. They later became Buddhist temples as the country converted to, or amalgamated, Buddhism.

The forest has been allowed to flourish here and the flora has taken what it can. In the luscious shade we clamber amongst semi-ruins, held together and destroyed by enormous groping tree roots. I love to see the forest reclaiming the stones.

As you may expect, such a famous monument draws huge crowds. Most tourists are ferried around by tuk tuks, but we happily pedal our unladen bikes through the woods from site to site. We chance upon a surprising piece of singletrack winding through the woods behind the massive lakes1 surrounding one of the temples.

On the second day we manage to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat temple for the obligatory sunrise/silhouette/reflection shot. We opt out of the crush and sit on the library steps and enjoy the view IRL.

We chat to a women nearby who works for an NGO in Cambodia teaching teachers. She explains a little about the education system, how it works (or not) and about the current population boom.
She’s with a dozen Australian teenagers who have been raising money for the cause, and who have been helping build a school in one of the villages. I bite my tongue and don’t ask the cynical questions that spring to mind. Voluntourism.

I’m saved by a savvy monkey who tries to take on Jamie for our breakfast.

Jamie wins and the monkey stalks off to harass a more hapless tourist.

By 4pm we’re knackered. Over our two days off we’ve managed to cycle over 80km, climb – literally in some cases – dozens of steep and crumbling staircases and walk round and up and over dozens of temples. We’re done in but really pleased we made the trip.

We leave Siam Reap early the next morning, catching a tailwind which has us sailing over the border to Thailand 150km away in time to catch the sunset.


The festive season in Laos left me feeling a little flat. We started well on Christmas Eve, leaving Luang Prabang to visit the magnificent waterfall Kuang Si. We spent a few hours there, indulging in some very un-Christmasy outdoor bathing, before heading along a dirt track beside the Mekong.

Christmas day, however had us back on the tarmac sweating up a gruelling 1800m climb. We sustained ourselves on the last of the Christmas cake that Sue had brought us from home.

That evening we managed to find a cheap room, made the obligatory calls home, and then went out to forage for our own Christmas dinner. Unfortunately there were no restaurants in town and the local shops had very little in the way of produce. We managed to scrape together a passable Thai curry, but had I known I’d be cooking our Christmas tea I’d have been more prepared.

Another couple of days landed us in Vientiane, the approach painfully dusty. My sore throat turned in to a disgusting phlemy cold and I felt pretty darn miserable. We spent a day refueling and exploring the capital – it’s a strange place. Ex-colonial, very run down, I sort of liked it. But with New Years Eve impending we decided not to linger.

2018, a year full of wonderful adventure, marvelous sights and the most epic adventure of my life, drew to a close very anticlimacticly.

I woke in a dingy motel room to the sound of fireworks outside, and I had a little cry as I imagined my friends and family having a wonderful time, all together, far, far away.
Jamie slept through it all.

Luckily, as these things do, my melancholy subsided the further away from the ‘festive season’ we got, and by the time all my friends were bemoaning going back to work I was out of my slump.

We headed south along the Mekong and the heat and humidity began to rocket.

The land is flat and mostly dry brown rice paddies, waiting to be planted. Occasionally we’d pass a sea of new growth – astonishing green – and in the distance see the farmers stooping to tend the field, iconic triangular grass hats perched on their heads.

We crossed over the Mekong to visit the ancient site of Vat Phou, with its phallic columns standing or slumping to attention, and stairs brutally steep and splattered with fallen temple flowers.

Continuing down the west side of the river we followed the track through a string of hamlets hugging the river. The locals, taken by surprise to see us, would shriek and laugh and shout as we rattled by on the dusty tracks.

Eventually we popped out at the end of a spit of land and were hollered at from the other side of the river. An elderly woman climbed on her tiny ferry and pulled the boat over the tributary using a rope strung from one side to the other.  She ferried us back across, then stood cross armed looking thunderous at us, as if she thought we weren’t going to pay.

We paid up and disembarked on to one of the Four Thousand Islands of the Mekong.

We spent the rest of the day weaving down the islands, catching ferries between them – motored this time – until we landed on the shores of the sleepy tourist hotspot Don Det. There’s no cars on the island, not many roads either – one down each side lined with bungalows facing the water. Early risers take the sunrise side, while the party crowd prefer the bars and eateries of the sunset side.

We stayed for a day, exploring the neighbouring island and waterfalls of Don Khon. On the way home we got lost following a track through the forest, discovering some of the bridges had  collapsed and the detours unmarked. We fought our way through the forest for a bit before giving up and heading back the way we came.

The following morning we took the ferry back to the mainland and headed for the notorious Laos – Cambodia border.

For some reason I assumed I would love Laos, and while I did enjoy it it wasn’t as extraordinary as I expected. In retrospect I think there were a few factors.

Not least, I was in a lot of pain.

The hot humid climate, combined with deadline to meet, brought on horrendous saddle sores. This came as an unpleasant surprise having got away without them more or less for the preceding 8 months. Each day would start with an optimistic hour where I would think “ah maybe they are not too bad today”,  then would continue with another four or five hours desperate to stop.

This, and the festive season, contributed to some pretty erratic emotions. I felt painfully far from home.

On the other hand, the people were lovely – particularly outside of the touristy areas. The Laos way of life is pretty chilled – epitomised (or stereotyped) by a tuk-tuk driver half-heartedly offering us a ride as he lay in his hammock strung up in the back of the tuk-tuk. He seemed appreciative of our refusal.

The food was great – and cheap – I was a big fan of the noodle soup available at every roadside stall. I managed it four meals in a row while I had the flu. The stunning sections were really stunning- I’ve never seen a waterfall as spectacular as the one at Kuang Si.