VIETNAM BY YAMAHA TTR600 & MINSK 125!

Rory Elliott tells the sorry tale of a trip he took through Vietnam a few years ago...

I guess like every story I should start from the beginning. However starting at the beginning is a little difficult, as I’m not really sure when it all started. Was it two years previously whilst walking down a mountain in South America with Clive Greenhough (he from Mondo Enduro fame), and having one of those “that sounds too simple, I will do it on a bicycle”  moments? (I changed my mind about the bicycle as I thought it would make it more difficult to pick up Swedish backpackers whilst dressed head to foot in Lycra).  Or was the beginning when I found out I was being posted to Mongolia to help run an expedition: (hmmmm squeezing my 6ft 4in frame into a tiny Air china seat for 14 hours didn’t sound like much fun).

To be honest it could start in a lot of places but I guess the trip only really galvanized in my mind after I met a tall dwarf stranger - Chris ‘Wonky’ Colling - a year before setting off. You may know Chris as one of the directors of Adventure, but at the time he was a sound technician for a northern ballet company. Together we set up ‘Run From The Sun’  a trip from Beijing back to London via South Eastern Asia, raising money for children’s charity SOS. Warning, this is not a how to guide…

Chinese Wall

So having dusted off the yak hairs and got the taste of mutton and fermented horse milk out of my system after travels in Mongolia, it was with great expectations that I met up with Chris (AKA Wonky)  at Beijing Airport. The joy and elation lasted some time - though in hindsight I should have realised that things were starting to go wrong even as we left the airport. Because instead of our bikes being in Beijing with us (we had crated them up in the UK some three weeks earlier),  they were in fact in a customs yard in… Dubai!

‘Chris’,  I asked him, ‘you did write “China” on the side of the two massive wooden boxes we packed a month ago, didn’t you?’

‘I am pretty sure I did’  he replied, ‘but it was a very busy time’  Wonky said through gritted teeth. Showing his distain for me clearing off a month early and leaving him with all the last minute details to finalise.

Upon checking our shipping receipts we decided that the shipping company were to blame, so in order to get us back on track we figured we’d get them to FedEx our bikes to us in Hong Kong - a big and friendly port and more importantly they assured us they definitely had a map of HK and knew exactly where it was…

Fast forward to HK a week later and we were finally in possession of our two kickstart Yamaha TTR600s - purchased secondhand for about a grand each in the UK - which had some interesting money saving additions. Racks built free by a friend of Wonky in Leeds who makes cast iron bed heads, aluminum telescopic top boxes sourced from an Army surplus store for a fiver, ammunition boxes bolted onto the bash plate holding our tools - again gratis. And two 10L aluminum jerry cans hooked on to a cheaply made rack that protected the clutch plate on one side and ignition on the other. Obviously these provided us with plenty more fuel capacity which together with the aftermarket 20+L Acerbis tank (about 225 miles worth in a tank)  would be capable of getting us most places.

There were bigger padded seats hemmed together by a chair upholsterer in Bradford for about £30, Dave Lambeth of the glorious Dave Lambeth Rally and Overland supplied us with four sets of Ultra-Heavy Duty inner tubes, smaller rear sprockets, heavy duty wheel bearings, neoprene fork gaiters, Acerbis Rally handguards, a load of spokes and assorted special washers… Not free, but worth every penny, oh and we used the magnificent Continental TKC80 tyres.

My favourite modification was a pair of bottle holders pulled off a couple of mountain bikes and attached to the top of the forks - one to hold extra oil, and one to hold hot tea - though it was important that you never muddled them up. I did once and the taste stayed with me for days. In terms of kit, well we had far too much as you might expect. Karrimor provided us with a couple of specially made pannier bags and a whole load of camping equipment and kit. Most importantly I had about 20 detailed maps from Stanfords, notes on routes, wallet, a Leatherman and a torch.

We had an interesting few days in Hong Kong before leaving, as we managed to drum up a bit of support from Yamaha Hong Kong who arranged a press event for us at their premises on the island. Journalists from three of Hong Kong's online bike mags turned up to take photos and quiz us about our trip.

They questioned us: ‘So how you getting into China?’  they asked.

‘There is a bridge, I think’  I replied, trying to look all Steve McQueen.

‘Wha documen you use?’  asked the steely-eyed hack, anxious to find out more.

‘The ones we got from Beijing’  I said trying to sound confident, though my voice was beginning to waver now.

‘No good here. Beijing bribe policeman’  they told us.

I felt my world start to crumble.

Wonky and I knew we were very lucky to get passage through China on Western plated bikes without a $100 a day escort. China does not normally allow this, but with a combination of supporting letters from the British High Commission (free), a large Chinese production firm and law firm acting as our sponsors (free), well connected but very dubious friends in ‘military equipment’  and another the Head of Chinese sales for a rather large tobacco company, we managed to pull some strings, though it now meant we owed a lot of people a lot of beer. And we were still stuck.

What Wonkey and I had both been ignoring was how did the change in departure date affect the permission we’d been granted? The answer to the question as it turns out was ‘quite a bit’.  Well… in fairness, ‘totally’  would be more realistic. In the same way that the budget airlines charge you if you want to change a name for a flight, or traffic wardens don’t have the ‘I just nipped in to the chemist to buy some life saving medication for my child’  excuse in their reasons to be human rule book, the Chinese border control had us by the short ‘n’ curlies.

The thought passed through my mind that as we were doing this trip for charity, perhaps the Chinese would love ‘the good PR’  once we’d spoken to the right guys and ironed it all out. Needless to say I quickly discovered, China doesn’t DO PR!

So we spent a couple of days lying in bushes with a pair of binoculars, scouting the border - notepad, stopwatch and camcorder in hand, trying to find a smuggling route across.

The lorries seemed to pass the checkpoints without stopping - or so we thought. But on closer inspection we discovered that this border crossing had to be the most sophisticated in the world with huge X-ray machines checking every lorry that passes.

We did get a very good offer from a guy with one arm. He would be prepared to sail us and our bikes from HK and dump us on the beach in the dead of night… for $900. Did we know, he told us, that when the Chinese shoot you for trespassing or showing your support to Tibetan folk they charge your next of kin the price of the bullet?

We decided that death by bullet wasn’t our idea of adventure travel, so passed up his offer and instead shipped the bikes to Hai Phong North East Vietnam for a couple of hundred dollars. Vietnam was sure to bring its own problems - not the least of which was that they had a blanket ban on any bike over 175cc entering the country. Not having the option of driving through China and going on to nearby and big-cc friendly Lao if turned away from ‘Nam under the ‘không thông qua’  ruling, we headed off nervously.

The bus journey to Hanoi, well several bus journeys through China took 23 hours, or one day quicker than the train. The bus was great the seats were like dominos all gently overlapping each other so you could lie back completely flat and actually sleep, the only issue I had was being about a foot and a half too tall, once at our destination I ended up walking like I had very bad polio.

Our shipping agent, Claudia, her son Mr Rich and local businessman Mr Duc Tho (whose wedding Chris and I bizarrely sang at later that week), started helping us with the preparation of the imminent arrival of our bikes. Within a week it looked like we had it sorted with a little money, support from SOS Vietnam (the charity we had raised money for and intended to visit along our trip),  and Mr Tho's business/government contacts it looked like we would become the first guys to bike through Vietnam on anything over 175cc! 

Overnight however, our chances of getting the licenses went from 95% to just 5%. The Traffic police would grant us license plates if we had a document signed and stamped by the Prime Minister of Vietnam. I found out his address from the internet, but he wasn’t taking visitors. The paper trail seemed endless with well over 1000 pages of documents to examine, and eight government/police departments to talk to, non of which communicated with each other, so getting to the Prime Minister seemed like a tall order.

At first we thought it would be a good idea to decamp to the port town called Hai Phong (an international port famous for Jeremy Clarkson having launched a scooter boat off the docs), that way we’d be in a good position to put pressure on the customs officials to give us our bike back. ‘Pressure’ in this case being endless nights entertaining them at karaoke bars and other less reputable establishments.

After one particularly gin soaked evening someone from the hotel let themselves in to our room whilst we were sleeping and stole Wonky’s phone and travellers cheques. The hotel manager didn't seem to care too much, so we got the police involved. Two days after the theft we had six policemen visit us. Unfortunately we were not expecting such an early visit by the boys in blue, and after a night of more Anglo/Vietnamese negotiations, our statement were blurred at best.

The excitement started when the police visited the crime scene (our room) not too sure of what they were hoping to discover, but Wonky and I looked on willingly hoping that perhaps they could spot some clues. Instead we noticed that a very new and particularly essential camcorder appeared to have disappeared from a bag as well. It was there when we went to bed. Suddenly there was mayhem, the hotel manager who we suspected all along taunted us with his non-plussed and aloof attitude. And it was at that point I think that the weight of the last few weeks came to the fore and we decided to vent.

A relentless torrent of accusations aimed at our evil hotel manager spewed forth, he tried to run but couldn't hide because Wonky and I were pinning him up against the wall whilst we pleaded with the police to arrest him. The police ran away from the scene never to be heard of again. Despondent we returned to the room to see what else had been stolen. And what did we discover in our bedside cabinet - our camcorder. Ah, turned out we’d only misplaced it after all, though the phone and travellers cheques were still missing!

After being asked to replace the hotel wheelbarrow we had used as a chariot for two government officials and ourselves the night before, we were thrown out of the place. My grandmother was right ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. Time to focus.

Of course it would be silly to sit around for a few weeks and wait for things to sort themselves out, so Wonky and I spent the time exploring what Northern Vietnam had to offer. Man was it beautiful. Our journey took us east to the Cat Ba Islands and Halong Bay, thousands of tear-drop shaped mounds sticking out of the clear blue sea (007 ‘Man With the Golden Gun’ fame). The bays were still recovering from the typhoon that had hit earlier that week which penned us into our hostel as we were surrounded by floodwater, so not so many tourists. A good thing when we seem to be repeating our story of ill-fated attempts to get started.

Back to Hanoi and after consultation with the owner of Highway4 a great little eatery in the old town, run by local celebrity and tobacco pipe junkie Mr Dan, we hired two Russian 125cc (two-stroke) Minsks with a plan to head north up to Sa Pa. We’d heard about this place in the mountains that was meant to be breath taking and a chance to hone our off-roading was irresistible

The round trip was about 1000km spread over five days. We left fully prepared with one t-shirt each two tins of peaches and a bottle of water and the wonderlust for adventure. The first day was off road to Duang Ho just south of a huge lake, the trail was about 120km long and ranged from rocky inclines to single path walkways. The bikes were pretty basic and ropey, even severe engine damage was quickly fixed by skilled and creative locals and helped by British finger pointing. First time for a while we had a constant smile on our faces, the feel of riding was making us really miss our own bikes that were still in the same box we had packed them up nearly two weeks previously.

A lot of people we had met travelling around SE Asia had told us that they found the Vietnamese unfriendly people, and I suppose coming from places like Thailand where they always carry huge smiles on their faces, they can seem that way. But the people we passed on our trip were fantastic. High fiving kids stood on the side of every road waving at everyone going by. Wonky complained of a sore wrist because of all the waving he had been doing all day. I collected a bruised hand from high-fiving a seven year old whilst doing about 30mph, the poor kid was left pirouetting on the side of the road like a spinning top. Life seemed a lot calmer than the manic breakneck speed of Hanoi, and I guess people just had more time on their hands to take notice.

After a great second day we climbed up to Sa Pa which is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, 350km north-west of Hanoi, and close to the border with China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district and made for some amazing riding even if our bikes didn’t always go the way we pointed them. We were basically at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas, and the range includes Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, at a height of 3142m.

We arrived mid afternoon and settled into a hostel called ‘Pink Floyd’ where they played The Wall, Dark side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here on a continuous loop. Now I love Pink Floyd, but I imagine it must have been deeply depressing for the staff who heard it day-in, day-out and couldn’t get away.

It made me think of some of the guys I had grown up with in Yorkshire. I was tempted to give my friend Cobley a call - as he was a huge Pink Floyd fan - but got distracted by more excellent food and friendly people. Like the scenery the locals were welcoming, it did seem that the women are much happier to talk and have fun than the men who work half as hard and are normally to be found at the back of the shop/cafe/hostel dozing on a sleeping mat.

Apparently there were 54 different ethnic groups in the mountains I don't know how many we met but it seemed each village had a very different feel from each other. In Hanoi their direct translation for mountain people is 'savages', though they are anything but.

The journey back took on a feel of driving through the foothills of Peru with huge green mountains and scars from landslides every 5km or so. The roads we chose were free of tourists and more importantly, mad bus drivers tearing around the tiny roads on the wrong side. The trip back to Hanoi was going well until we hit the rush hour traffic on the west of the city. Everyone drives scooters in Hanoi. Ask anyone who has tried crossing the road in Hanoi at rush hour, it is comparable to wading through a river full of fast flowing fish that are about 180 kilos each! The trick is just to go for it, let them envelop you, as long as you carry on walking at a normal pace they will swerve elegantly around you. However any sudden movements or pauses and you are dust. It’s the only place in the world where you want to be blind and deaf to cross the road.

Back to rush hour we were in a scooter jam for three solid hours, we probably moved less than a kilometre in that time, it was chaos. The traffic police who had had a hand in fashioning the carnage had given up directing traffic and spent their afternoon watching from the sidelines as the anarchy ensued. By pure coincidence or more like fate, out of the tens of thousands of bikers we bumped into Mrs Hanh our guardian angel who gave us the news we had been waiting for… The prime minister of Vietnam had signed and stamped our documents allowing us to travel freely through his country. Top bloke!

Three cheers for the PM, SOS Vietnam, Claudia, Mrs Hanh, the power of Karaoke and Ho Chi Minh, God rest his soul. In fact Ho Chi Minh (dead)  was actually on a state visit to Russia, removed from his tomb and taken on a tour of Mother Russia. We weren’t quite sure why a departed leader should want to travel this world, when there was so much of the other world to discover. A little known fact about Ho Chi Minh is that he was a pastry chef in west Ealing between 1913 and 1917 - a little time before he established the communist-governed Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, and went on the defeat the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. He lost political power in the late 1950s, but remained as the highly visible figurehead president until his death.

We were both in great spirits leaving the outskirts of Hai Phong, the motorbike section of the trip had started, however there is more to a journey than its destination or its vehicle. We called in to the SOS orphanage in Hanoi for our official (third)  start; SOS runs very cool orphanages all over the world, their working model is very simple. They take groups of seven to ten children (less in the developed world)  and put them together with a permanent resident SOS mother to make a family for life. They group a dozen or so SOS families like this together in a village and then work out from this centre to try to help the wider community with the facilities needed. If there is no adequate medical care, they provide it, if no school they build one, if there are families on the edge nearby (child headed families etc)  SOS support them.

The children - aged between three and six - met us at the gates to their village with dozens of red roses that got planted all over our bikes. Wonky somehow got more than me which was a little hurtful, anyway we spent a couple of hours playing with the kids and letting them sit on our bikes. The ‘mothers’ of the orphans, of which there were 14, were fantastic and a pleasure to talk to, as were the staff/directors who had been an enormous help to us since we had arrived. It was with a lump in our throats that we left, our plans were to head south to the Cambodian border via Da Lat where we were had another meeting planned with more SOS children, four days and 1,400km away. 

Highway Stars

We had decided to head inland down the Ho Chi Minh Highway for a few reasons, firstly we wanted some jungle action and to leave the busy costal tourist trail alone. Secondly, the amount of road deaths they have. Every year in Vietnam, over 24,000 people don’t make it home, and we didn’t want to be added to their number.

The road was fantastic, totally empty as it was still under construction, so we were riding on graded sand and grit I suspect it is a huge duel carriageway now, but at the time it was our own long distance trail. The first days ride was great - a bit of off-roading and a chance encounter with an elephant, who stole and ate our newly acquired roses - fat head.

We were only about 80km south of Hanoi but after a 4:00am start and bolting our bikes together from the boxes we had sealed them in weeks before, we were ready for something to eat. The food is amazing. Like at many times throughout the trip we ate at little shacks, makeshift kitchens on the side of the road. Vietnamese cuisine can be basically divided into three categories, each pertaining to a distinct geographical region. With northern Vietnam being the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, many of Vietnam's most notable dishes can trace their origin to the north.

Northern cuisine is more traditional and less diverse in choosing spices and ingredients. The food in central Vietnam to where we were heading was quite different from both the northern and southern regions - a bit like tapas, you get lots of small side dishes and it’s more spicy. For a while the country was ruled from Hue in Central Vietnam, so that most of the dishes were made small and dedicated to the kings. Food in south Vietnam has been influenced by the influx of southern Chinese immigrants, French colonists and other nationalities. They prefer sweet flavours in many dishes and a larger variety of herbs. Whatever you eat it costs about $1, maybe $2 if you are a greedy pig like me.

Day two was epic, from the map it looked like we could make De Lat in the South within four days, but when we were told the road hadn't quite been opened yet we figured a formality or a ribbon cutting ceremony was all that stood from commercial traffic using the route, not (as we actually found) 40km of road that hadn't actually been built yet! The mud came up past our thighs in some places and we lost count of how many times we wiped out. We looked like a pair of swamp creatures.

Wonky is now a very proficient off-road rider, however back then we didn’t have that much experience of off roading (I had only got my license three months previously). After a particularly difficult section that involved a lot of picking the bikes out of the mud only to drop them 10ft up the road, we were welcomed into a local man's house to have a drink and a bite to eat (we were still about 30km away from the nearest town, Cam Thuy), a real relief from the 40 degree heat and the exhaustion of the day.

Unbeknown to us we had stepped into a madman's house, a guy so intent on getting us wrecked and making us stay that I still have the marks on my arms from him pinching me and wrestling me to the floor, whilst his family looked on in mild amusement (I don't think it was the first time they had seen their father behave like a lunatic).  We were force-fed rice wine - well when I say wine - the only resemblance it bears to wine is that it comes in a bottle and is wet. After nine shots of this stuff we were drunk and were in real danger of staying here for the rest of our lives (which I’ve no doubt would have been cut short in the middle of the night by a machete-wielding Vietcong)

The past three shots had been flung over my shoulder through the open window, Wonky was not as fortunate as me in his seating arrangements and his eyes were beginning to focus on his nose. this couldn't last, the crazy man had cottoned on to what I was doing and was watching me drink this stuff, which now had pickled wasps in it. Wonky ate his wasp merrily, whilst grinning and sticking his tongue in and out like a frog. I grabbed the bottle and threw the whole lot out the window, not the best thing to do when you are a guest but we were out of options. 

Unperturbed our host grabbed a microphone and started singing Karaoke. I kept him entertained whilst Wonky sneaked off unsteadily and got his bike ready. Phase one of our escape was complete after 40 minutes of the very drunk and increasingly violent man screaming Vietnamese love ballads and leaping around accompanied by my loud, but incoherent attempts to sing along in Vietnamese. I escaped too, but not before he had turned my engine off three times and dug his nails in to a few more unprotected fleshy parts of my arm and bitten my chin.

As we were leaving, Chris found out from a less insane family member that our host was the area’s chief of police. We didn't get very far that afternoon, we don’t recommend drink driving but the mud did seem to take on a whole different texture - almost like gravy - there were less spills and Wonkys mental-mud-block had disappeared. I enjoyed sliding through it, though my mind wondered away to important things like where the hell were we, how many spokes did I have on my front wheel, how far can monkeys jump?

We made camp at the bottom of a gravy hill with a huge truck blocking the path; it was two hours before a cement mixer eventually pulled it out with an excavator pushing it. We had the company of what seemed to be three lost construction workers and a fire. With a belly full of noodles we slept in our tent, bang-smack in the middle of the Ho Chi Minh highway, satisfied, exhausted and drunk.

After the mud we hit the rain, we were heading to Khe Sahn, home of what was the biggest American Marine base in the Vietnam war in 1968. The rain was so heavy it was bouncing two foot off the tarmac but at least we were back on the trail - even if we could only see a few metres in front of the mud soaked lead knobbly. The rain was so heavy we couldn't find the base and slept in a very leaky rustic hostel instead.

Three days of heavy rain was not good and we passed by massive areas of conflict from thirty odd years previously. Places like Hamburger Hill - ‘Where men became mincemeat’,  The Glory Zone and Rocket Ridge, without being able to see much except the occasional low flying chicken/pig/child out of the canopy of the jungle. Only coming to a complete halt for massive mudslides and wandering Buffalo, we were averaging about eight hours a day in the saddle on the increasingly gooey track, which was taking its toll.

Having lost about three stone whilst in Mongolia, I never really got it back leaving me with no bum, I even ended up stuffing my travel pillow down my trousers, to cope with the pain of the 180 degree turns we were making on every corner through the mountains.

It was the night before our arrival to Da Lat so we touched base with SOS by phone, then I touched my own ‘base’,  and discovered a terrible, terrible thing: grapes, farmer Giles… Hemorrhoids… dreadful piles! Or to be more accurate, a singular pile. My diligence on the first aid kit had paid off (the 5 P's - Proper Preparation Prevents Painful Piles)  and a handy tube of Anusol came into play, so did lying on my front. It was at this point I began to wonder what might happen to my bottom over the next 23,000km, this being only day six.

Wonky as any true friend would, laughed and laughed. In fact he laughed a lot, deep belly laughter rang out from the tent that evening. I wasn’t going to ask, and Wonky certainly wasn’t going to volunteer to check out the damage, so I decided the best way to get a good look was to take a few pics on my camera, a few artistic shots of undercarriage and upside-down face in the background I was satisfied it wasn’t too bad and once the rain stopped and I dried my sodden things it would heal up nicely.

Arriving in Da Lat was breathtaking, the French history in this part of Vietnam poured out of the surrounding scenery and architecture. Like in the alps or Pyrenees, the road snakes its way up through alpine forests, amazing colourful flora and forna, majestic waterfalls finally led us into a very pretty town. We were greeted by a guy who told us the route we had taken was closed to tourists and some locals because of 'trouble's'.

After being quite impressed with ourselves for our intrepid ways, we realised he was only trying to butter us up for a stay in his hostel, so we moved on. You cant help but be impressed by the huge Da Lat Palace Hotel overlooking a lake and manicured golf course (yes, we were still in Vietnam).  I made it my aim to scrub up somehow, so put my least wet and muddy items of clothing on (swim shorts, black boots and black T-shirt)  and go for a large gin and tonic and maybe some cake.

I duly arrived at the reception desk of a five star hotel looking like an out of place goth. Expecting to be ushered quickly off the premises I devised a cunning plan. Armed with my camcorder and camera I let the receptionist know I was here to speak to the manager. With a very puzzled look but a very courteous approach the manager of the hotel greeted me in a spotless linen suit, slicked back hair and small moustache, one of the most French looking Frenchmen I have ever seen.

‘Bonjour’ I said ‘my name is Rory, I am a travel journalist for a number of leading publications in the country I come from… er and others… a bit’  I lied.

His French eyebrow rose to a perfectly formed boomerang shape.

Carrying on more determinedly this time I ploughed on:

‘I would like to try out your gin and tonics, and maybe a bit of cake… Er please’ I blurted out.

Whilst it wasn’t a performance De Niro would’ve been proud of, it was enough. I think he probably decided to err on the side of caution, just in case I turned out to be who I said I was. After a nice tour and history lesson of the area I was given a very comfortable seat on a sunny balcony overlooking beautiful Da Lat. An iced Gin and Tonic to hand and carrot cake on the way I was happy, we had nearly travelled through Vietnam, the bikes had performed beyond our expectations and I was happy. I wondered glibly if I should have asked Wonky to come but ignored the thought without a pause. It was a bit like being married, periodically we found that having time apart was crucial to keep your sanity. At that very blissful moment a tall elegant, fragrant and very, very beautiful young woman pulled up a chair next to me.

“Bonjour, ca va?” she said, whilst seductively placing a cigarette in her mouth. Sean Connery style or maybe a bit more cheesy like Roger Moore, I offered her a light…

‘Oui, bon’ I said wondering if that made sense and trying to remember all the French words I learnt at school nearly 15 years previously. My education failed me but hers did not, she spoke flawless English as well as three other European languages

The afternoon went on and Michelle (I discovered)  was on a silk buying trip for a top fashion house in Paris. We got on very well. She loved motorbikes, and spoke authoratatively on a host of subjects. I had very little to say as I was completely lost in her amazing eyes. And the strong gin. The connection was there, that spark, the danger, the romance, the setting… it all came together for one second, we kissed tentatively then passionately.

‘Pardon moi’ I said, whilst excusing myself from the table for a short visit to the Gents. Everything in my being wanted to jump and skip to the loo, but I somehow managed to remain grounded. I left Michelle with a full drink and gave her some of my cake. Five minutes later I returned to a very different situation. Frosty would be putting it mildly, she seemed to be trembling with rage as I sat down, immediately she sprang up “Goodbye” she said firmly and walked away. Confused I stood scratching my head,

How did it all go so wrong, I thought to myself, what happ..e..n..e..d there?

Then I saw it - my camera - resting on the seat next to where she’d been sitting and the fog lifted. It became cringingly clear what had happened next. Whilst waiting for me to return, Michelle had obviously decided to have a quick look at my snaps. I imagine she’d flicked through five or six of them taken that day of our arrival; pics of the lake, a man on a buffalo, a waterfall or two. And then she would have come across the… um, self portrait shots I’d taken the night before. I imagine it took a couple of seconds for her to work out what she was looking at, and then into background focus would have come the sight of my ruddied, upside down face, beaming out from between my legs - my exposed assets in the foreground probably wasn’t the image she was looking for at the start of a far-flung love affair.

Dejected, I stuffed the cake into my mouth that Michelle had left, slung my ‘Judas’ camera over my shoulder and left, careful not to make eye contact with anyone, ever again.

The following morning was a new and beautiful day, Wonky and I rolled up to the orphanage on newly jet-washed bikes to be met by a dragon, several clowns, three four year olds in pink shirts and dickey bows, six girls dressed as kings, one princess, two clouds and two suns.

I stalled my bike and dropped my helmet making our impressive big entrance. We sang some songs played some games (which neither of us could figure out the rules to),  then danced for 80 kids in a dragon outfit - all within the first 20 minutes.

We were then ushered into a small hall for lots of speeches and more singing and dancing. It was overwhelming, the amount of preparation and effort the children had gone to, to welcome the two British bikers. Every single performance was fantastic and I felt like a proud parent watching their child in a school play. Wonky and I did a rendition of ‘Turnip Fish’ by The Sultans of Ping which went well, then Wonky decided to show them how to rave and the whole thing ended in a huge conga.

We found out a lot about the kids and the life that SOS provides for them. They are all without exception wonderfully happy, cheerful and hardworking kids. It was easy to forget what circumstances led them to be living here, but with amazing care and support they are having the childhood any child their age deserves. Speaking to one small boy he said it was sad that I only had one sister, he had 38! I agreed briefly then imagined growing up with 38 of MY sisters.

John Steinbeck once said ‘A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.’  The past month had shown us many things, but essentially setbacks are all part of the journey, and however well planned you are, there will be issues, especially the further from home you get.

I suspect the perfect traveller would have no fixed plans and no intent of arriving anywhere in particular. However we were due home in seven months’ time. Oh well, just 20-or-so countries and 23,000km to go. Valid Carnets at the ready, we were off to see what Cambodia would bring. With the largest collection of unexploded and hidden roadside landmines in Asia, very little tarmac, and a reputation of gun happy gangsters protecting a booming sex and drugs trade, we were expecting few more bumps in the road to come along yet…

A huge thank you to Mr Co the director of the SOS village, Mrs Won secretary/translator, and Anna from SOS Kinderdorf International in Austria. If you wish to find out more about the organisation, or would like to donate to this most worthy of causes, you can find more details at www.sos-childrensvillages.org

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