Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black belt in Karaoke!

Like most people, I hate publicly humiliating myself, so consequently, I hate karaoke. I'm not much of a singer and after watching a video of my high school musical a while ago, I am convinced that the world does not need to hear me sing. This can be a bit of a problem in Asia as most people love karaoke.

On the team's last night in Thailand, everyone was keen to head to a local bar for some drinks and karaoke. With around 20 people there, I figured I could just hide in the masses and let everyone else do the singing. There was one small problem. The bar was owned by a European gentleman who had a large collection of English and Thai speaking karaoke songs. For some, this meant that there was very little to choose from. First up was one of the team managers who sang a duet in her native tongue of Chinese.



With no one in the team able to speak Thai, this meant we were left with English songs only so I slunk into my chair aloing with the other Australian, hoping that no one would ask us to sing. Unfortunately, this was not going to happen. As Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' began to play the microphone was pushed into my face. I batted it away and claimed that I didn't know the words as I contemplated what my next move was. I didn't have a choice. I was going to have to sing.

As others attempted to sing songs in English, I went straight to the bar. If I was going to sing in public, I needed some courage. I ordered a bottle of rum and some coke (a bottle of rum in Thailand is only AU$3.50 so it wasn't an expensive evening).
 
After one glass, I searched the karaoke machine for a song that didn't really require a good voice, then drank another glass. One song and another rum and coke later, my song came on and with a lot of encouragement, I belted out the best rendition of Queen's 'Bohemien Rhapsody' that anyone had ever heard.

Eventually, the social lubrication kicked in and I sang around a half a dozen songs. I can't remember what they all were but apparently I was okay. I just hope that there is no video evidence floating around out there!!

And by the way... the other Aussie was too embarrassed to sing a song so he just sat there and refused!! I should have taken that approach.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

China in Thailand

Why is China Town always considered a bit of a tourist attraction in which ever city you are in? I travelled all the way to Thailand just to end up going to check out China Town!!! Despite the endless amount of Thai culture around, I stumbled into an area that is purely there to mimick another country!

Nonetheless, I walked around and took photos of all of the Chinese buildings and architecture, fully aware of the fact that there is an almost exact replica 10km from my home in the China Town in Brisbane.

Yet, do I go and take photos there??? Of course not. China Town in Brisbane is where you go if you want to buy some crazy spice or pick up some treats from the Chinese bakery. You don't go there to take photos of buildings and Chinese culture.

Then why did I do it in another country???

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wheelchair Scooter!

In Australia, if you are in a wheelchair your vehicular mode of choice, I assume, would have to be a car. (well, I can't really say but i am yet to see any other options anyways)

However, in Thailand, they have found a fantastic alternative. Scooters are used by everyone and for just about everything, so it is only fitting that those in a wheel chair get the same opportunity.


Whilst roaming the streets, we stumbled across this contraption for a person to roll their wheelchair up, strap themselves in and ride away.

The handlebars where offset with a couple of bars welded together with some hinges.


Ingenious.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The iPhone has ruined other computers for me!

When I am travelling, the iPhone is my best friend followed very closely by free WiFi. It has everything I need; email, skype, instant messaging, web browsing, youtube, games, translators, music, movies, file storage and a camera!! All in one conveniently sized package (this is starting to sound like an apple plug).
I spend alot of time on my iPhone and I mean ALOT! So much so, that whenever I use another computer, I forget that it is not a touch screen. Just this morning I tried to zoom in on the screen of an ATM by using two fingers. It took about three swipes before i realised.

Whenever I use another device with a small screen such as a camera, someone else's phone, netbook or mp3 player I always assume it is a touch screen and tap away frantically getting more frustrated as it does nothing. Anyone that has an iPhone will know what I am talking about and would have done this at least once.

There are some downsides to using my iPhone so much... Staring at such a small screen for extended periods of time can result in your long distance vision going a little blurry. It is usually at this point when I think to myself, 'Damn, I need a break!'

I am not the only one on the team who feels this way about their electronic device and free WiFi. Everyone on the team has a WiFi enabled mobile phone and usually a laptop as well. This causes some major problems at night when 20 people are trying to connect to the same network and everyone complains about how slow it is! Eventually, you resort to finding a cafe somewhere that will let you mooch off their free wifi.

Extra K's

When ever you get a new bike there are a lot of adjustments to be made. Unfortunately it's not as simple as taking the measurements from your old bike and applying them to your new one. Every manufacturer has different geometries for their frames so there are always small differences.

For me, I don't really care too much. Put the seat up, lower the bars and away you go. Adjust as needed but purely by feel.

Others are different. Simon, one of the team's hong kong riders, is slightly more pedantic. So much so, that every day he rides for around 1hr longer than everyone else. Going around in circles on the street making millimeter adjustments to seat height, handlebar position etc etc etc.

To make matters worse, to accompany his new bike, he also bought new pedals and shoes which, admittedly, take some getting used to but he took it to a whole new level.

After a six hour ride on one particular day, he spent a further 3hrs riding in circles making tiny changes. By the time he came inside, everyone was ready for bed!

Even After ten solid days of riding and adjusting he still wasn't happy and I am sure he is at home right now fixing something on his bike.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Death of the fanny pack.

When you plan a long journey, especially a trip overseas, for some strange reason (now be honest with yourself here), you contemplate the need to get a fanny pack. You ponder its convenience, the added security of your valuables being right there at your fingertips. Then you realise, fanny packs or bum bags, are just plain ugly and out of fashion.

Sure, in the mid-90's you would have been cool and placed your fanny pack along side your mobile phone belt holder (if you were fortunate enough to have a mobile phone back then) but not anymore. The only people I see with a fanny pack are those older, more seasoned travellers and even their fanny packs are starting to look a little old and worn.

Some still cling on to the hope that fanny packs will one day be cool again and wear it over their shoulder in an attempt to make it look like their fanny pack is, in fact, not a fanny pack. But their is no disguise. Every now and then, a young traveller will pass me with a fanny pack on and I can only think two things... Their parents made them get one because they used one when they travelled and they probably have a money belt strapped to them as well.

Fanny packs can be convenient. You can put your phone, passport and wallet in it but hey, a pocket will do the same thing. Fanny packs are a thing of the past, let it die. They should stay where they belong; with carnies and ticket inspectors.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Return Trip...

Today I began my long journey home from Thailand. Due to my original stopover at Singapore on my way to Hong Kong, my return trip was going to be a long one. From Chiangmai, I had a 1.5hr flight to Bangkok where I arrived at middight and had an 8hr stopover. I had a hotel room booked so that I could get some shut eye and refresh. Unfortunately, thanks to a delayed flight and the need to check-in 2hrs before the flight, my time was very limited.

After checking in at 12.40am, I managed to get about 3hrs sleep before checking out at 4.30am and heading back to the airport. This made my total time in the hotel 3hrs50min; the least amount of time I have ever checked into a hotel. Normally, when you hear about paying for a hotel room by the hour, it is a very different type of hotel, but this was thankfully not one of those hotels.

On the bright side, the whole thing including transfers to and from the airport only cost USD$25!!! When you are travelling, you take any chance you can to freshen up so the small amount of time I had at the hotel was worthwhile.

I am currently sitting in the Singapore Termingal for another 4hrs before my final leg of the journey. I am pretty sure i have around 2hrs before I start to smell... time for a change of clothes. Can't wait to arrive in Brisbane at 1am!!!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Taxi vs Tuk Tuk

In Australia, when you catch a taxi somewhere, you never really know how much it is going to cost. There are a multitude of factors that can affect how long your journey is going to be and how much it is going to cost. Traffic, road works, traffic lights and even the time of the day can add $$$ to an already expensive trip. And let's face it; taxis in Australia really aren't that cheap. Well, not in my expreience anyway.

This can cause some problems, especially if you are a drunk uni student trying to get home at 3am after a night out on the last few $$$ in your wallet. Not only do you have to stay awake to watch the meter, but also so the driver doesn't take you on the extended route.

Yesterday I experienced a better form of public transport. Instead of getting into a taxi and the driver telling you how much you have to pay once you arrive at your destination, you decide on a price before you leave. In Thailand, the tuk tuk's all use this system. You tell the driver where you want to go or in our case, point to it on a map and he tells you how much it will cost. The best part is, you can barter the price. No surprises, no change in price, no guessing.

We had four groups travelling from Chiangmai back to the resort. The first group caught a taxi and paid 600 baht when they arrived. The next group caught a tuk tuk and got the price down to 400 baht. I was with 3 others and we managed to get a tuk tuk for 350 baht but the last group played hardball and bartered their trip down to only 300 baht; half the price of the taxi!

Sure, the trip takes longer in a tuk tuk, the seats are not as comfortable, you can barely fit four people in and the tuk tuk feels like it is going to roll over evertime you turn a corner but it is worth it. The wind is in your hair, you can take the small back streets and if you are lucky, you can get a pimped out tuk tuk with a stereo and flashing lights!

Sight Seeing and Eating

After 10 days of solid training, we were lucky enough to get a rest day to do whatever we desired, so we decided we would finally get out and do some sight-seeing.

The resort bus dropped us off in the heart of Chiangmai, were we went straight into a McDonalds for a Big Mac & fries. I never thought I would see the day when I said I was sick of Thai food but here it was. Back home, Thai food is something you went out for and savoured but on this day, I was looking forward to a burger.

We then ventured behind the walls of the old city of Chiangmai. We all started snapping away with our cameras at the traditional temples and buildings but 3 cafe stops and 8 temples later, it dawned on me... Unless you are into getting drunk very cheaply or getting a traditional Thai 'massage', there is not really much to do in the city.

Every ten metres was an advertisement for 'massage' or a bar but that was about it. Eventually, all of the temples looked the same and I was beginning to get a little disheartened by our trip.

We walked around for about 3hrs and finally stumbled on some more family friendly attractions. We found the flower markets which was hundreds of stalls selling fresh flowers and then some fruit markets with every fruit you could imagine for sale. Here, I ditched the cavendish banana for her more sweeter cousin, the lady finger. Better still, is the battered and deep fried version from the stalls in the street.

We moved on to lunch in a market place that made your mouth water as soon as you walked in. BBQ meat, fresh donuts, fried chicken, noodles and custard filled pancakes. I was in heaven. The best part of it was... for about $10 Australian, you could eat until you vomit.

In Australia, eating out is somewhat of a luxury as you could make the same meal at home for less than half the price you would pay in a restaurant. In Thailand, it is quite the opposite. There is no way that you could buy fresh ingredients and prepare a meal for less than what you would pay at a stall or restaurant so you are much better off eating out. This suited me just fine.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Uncomfortable Dining

Last night we went to a 'traditional' Thai restaurant and show where you ate 'traditional' Thai food and watched 'traditional' Thai dance and music. I use the term, 'traditional' loosely, as it also included a 'traditional' Thai light/lazer show and a musician was using a 'traditional' Thai bass guitar. It was blatently obvious that it was designed for tourists but we all knew it and went along with it. Everything that you can think of that is a Thai cliche was there, and we were all happily posing and taking photos of each other.


When we entered the eating area, everyone had to remove their shoes, which is custom in Thailand. We placed our shoes in one of several large racks with nothing stopping you from coming back out and taking any pair of shoes that you desired. I was happy knowing that my shoes were unlikely to be taken as they are two sizes bigger than the average thai persons' foot. (In one shoe store, they had only two pairs of shoes in the entire store that were big enough for me but that is another story.)

As we were ushered into the eating area, we immediately noticed that there were no tables. Everyone sat on the ground (as is the tradition) on small individual mats with a small back rest. At first, I thought this was fantastic; a chance to enjoy real Thai dining. Then it hit me...

Thanks to many long hours exercising and very little stretching, I cannot sit with my legs crossed. Scoff if you will, but I am not the only one. Several riders on the team are so inflexible, that they physically cannot sit with their legs crossed. This caused some major problems when trying to sit down for dinner.

Personally, I hate being uncomfortable while I eat. In fact, it boggles me that people will sit red-faced and covered in sweat while their mouth is on fire from eating a hot curry. Why not just have the same taste without the spicey heat??? Eating is an enjoyable and relaxing past time, it is not supposed to be tedious. And this is exactly how I felt while I sat in some weird new yoga position while I ate. It ruined the whole experience for me.

Many of the others sat and enjoyed the meal and the entertainment while I shifted and squirmed on my mat, trying to find a position remotely comfortable. Eventually, those less flexible, including myself, were sprawled around the dining area as if we were at home laying in a bean bag in front of the television. It may not have been very pretty, but dammit, I was comfortable.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

RrRrRrRrRrRrR...

There are two Estonians on the team and they both speak English very well. They do, however, have a distinctive accent. Most distinctive is the fact that they roll their 'R's and in fact, can't stop it. This is both extremely difficult to explain and even more difficult to symbolise with letters but if you make an extended 'rrrrrrrrrr' sound and let your tongue flap up and down you get an 'rRrRrRrRrRr' sound. (My entire story is founded on this sound so I hope you know what I am talking about!)
Recently, myself, another Aussie and the two Estonians were staying in a hotel in Hong Kong for a race. The name of the hotel was the Regal Riverside Hotel. (You can see where this is going already, can't you?)
We all took a walk but managed to get ourselves a little lost so we decided to jump in a taxi and get a lift back to the hotel. The taxi driver was little old man who clearly spoke little English. One of the Estonians told him where we wanted to go...

'The RrRregal RrRriverside Hotel please' The driver did not understand.
'The RrRrRrRregal RrRrRrRriverside Hotel' Still nothing
'RrRrRrRregal RrRrRrRrRriverside Hotel'

This went on for a fair while, much to the amusement of myself and the other Aussie.
In the end, the taxi driver finally gave up and called his English speaking friend on his mobile phone to translate for him.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Scootermania!

In Thailand, the scooter serves as a major mode of transport. This is not just for ducking to the corner store to pick up milk or wearing a leather jacket, scarf and aviators as you ride through The Valley like in Brisbane either. In Thailand, the scooter can be used for just about everything.

People rig up trailers, baskets, carriages and even entire kitchens to their scooter. The entire left lane is a constant stream of mopeds, bikes and scooters as they duck and weave around the cars. This is fantastic when you ride a bike because you virtually get a whole lane free of cars to use.

The other thing that I love about the scooters is the fact that there appears to be almost no laws governing their use!

Firstly, wearing a helmet is not required so very few people do. Generally, the only people wearing helmets are tourists on hire bikes (and you can tell them apart from the locals because they are usually wearing aviators).

There doesn't appear to be an age limit for riding a scooter. In the afternoon, it is not uncommon to see primary school kids giving their friends a lift home on a 100cc scooter.

There is no restriction on what you can carry on a scooter. If you can hold your load together, it's allowed. This seems to be so even if what you are carrying obstructs your view.

You can use a mobile phone whilst on a scooter. But you can only use your left hand.

There is no limit to the number of passengers. The record I have seen so far is 5 on a single normal scooter. Two adults and a child on the seat. A small child standing between the legs of the driver and mum holding a baby. It seems that the scooter can replace the family wagon.
There is no speed limit for scooters. One scooter will go past at 120kph whilst another trickles along at jogging pace because the rider doesn't what his cigarette to blow away.

You can park a scooter wherever you want. Although, this rule seems to apply to cars as well.
In light of the lax road rules for scooters, we thought we would take advantage. We managed to fit four grown men (if you can call a cyclist that) onto one scooter- three on the seat and one sitting backwards on the front mudguard holding on in a monkey like position.

We managed to go a couple of hundred meters like this but there were two major problems...
1. The person on the front mudguard made it difficult to steer.
2. The person on the front mudguard made it difficult to see.

So we ditched one passenger to make it three. The scooter we were on also had a fair bit of go, so we went for the three person on a scooter speed record. After three attempts, we managed to squint our way to 98kph going down a hill before we hit terminal velocity. All with no helmet, no safety gear and no aviators

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lucky Bushfires...

To kick off the year, the team held it's first training camp in Thailand.

We are shacked up in a little resort in the north of Thailand just outside of Chiangmai. The resort has some fantastic facilities so it is difficult to remember that we are here to train and not as tourists.

Friends and family also need to be reminded of this as photos often give an indication to the latter. Don't get me wrong, we still do a lot of touristy things, we just do them on a bike or when we get some down time. The rest of the time is spent eating, sleeping and riding.

As part of the start to the new year, it is tradition to light giant lanterns and release them into the sky to bring good luck. When I say 'light' lanterns, I don't mean flick a switch, but literally light on fire giant lanterns that in turn, act like hot air balloons and take off into the sky and float into the distance.

This is a tradition that I would love to bring back to Australia but there is one small problem. I don't know where the flaming lanterns go. They just disappear into the night sky.

I have a feeling that the fire authorities in Australia may frown on this. And there would be a few more random bush fires every summer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What????

The Champion System team is officially a Hong Kong registered team, however, it is very much an international mixture.

There are two Australians, four Hong Kongese (is that even how you say it?), two Estonians, two Germans, two Austrians, and three from Switzerland (of which, two speak French and one speaks Swiss-German).

This mix of nationalities makes for some very interesting conversations with most being able to speak English, but ranging from fluently to very poorly.

This means that conversations rarely happen in pairs. You try to make sure that someone is there to translate or at least assist in the conversation. Otherwise, you quite often reach a language stalemate where neither person really knows what is going on and you both just smile and nod awkwardly.

Eventually, you find yourself speaking in some sort of weird Asian-euro accent using very simple words like you are talking to a six year old and waving your hands around in gestures that possibly make it harder to understand.

When you get home or talk to loved ones on the phone, you forget that they can understand your native tongue and continue with your crazy accent. Not only do you sound like an idiot to them, but you also insult their intelligence by speaking to them in very basic words.

It is a hard habit to break.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Unrelax

I almost never have a massage. However, when I do, I always imagine a relaxing experience that leaves you limber and loose. This never happens.

Due to long hours of exercise and very little stretching, my body is in a constant state of equilibrium. The slightest bump or pressure on my legs causes pain and discomfort. This brings great pleasure to my wife who uses this knowledge to get me to do things or just straight out hurt me. But it does not make a relaxing massage.

Yesterday, I had my 3rd massage ever and I wanted to cry. The only thing preventing me from screaming for mercy was the fact that I didn't want to look soft in front of everyone. There was no relaxing music or aroma candles, just me gripping the legs of the massage table and fighting back the tears.

Today, everything is sore. My legs throb with every pedal stroke. They tell me that a sports massage is supposed to hurt a little. The sad thing is, my massage was only a relaxation massage!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Checking in...

Hong Kong is the head quarters of champion systems clothing, the major sponsor of the team I will be riding for this year. Consequently, it is only fitting that the team assemble here first to meet everyone and to collect all the equipment for the year before flying to Chiangmai in Thailand for the team's first training camp. (And to avoid import tax if all the equipment was sent directly to Thailand)

Each rider was told to bring only the bare essentials, as the team gear was close to the weight limits for the airline. Every rider received a back pack with a helmet, sunnies and water bottles in it, a small suitcase with casual clothes, a massive suitcase with 6 months worth of cycling gear for every condition you could imagine, a bike with spare race wheels and a bike bag for the bike.

This already sounds like a lot of stuff, but picture 20 people, each with the above luggage, trying to check in for the same flight at the same time.

Needless to say, we caused some scenes at the airport. 20 people all dressed in the same clothes pushing a trolley stacked with the same bags. We formed our own line at the check-in and used some sneaky tactics to ensure we were under the weight limit. Such as:

  • Pack as much as you can into your carry on luggage including the heavy items.
  • Don't take your carry on luggage with you to the check in counter. They can't weigh it if you don't have it.
  • Each person takes the same bag up when they check in- the lightest bag - but present the heaviest bag to be tagged. The bags all look the same, they will never know.
  • Swap heavier items into already checked in bags.

Despite these tactics, the team still managed to be 30kg overweight. Fretting the extra weight charges, we had no choice but to pay the fees. In Australia this would usually attract a fee of around AU$200, however, Asian airlines seem to be considerably cheaper, as the excess luggage fee was a measly AU$15!!!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Western Connection

In Asia, westerners are the minority and in many parts, you may see hardly any 'Whities'.

Consequently, when you do see a fellow tourist, you feel compelled to acknowledge them and perhaps, find out if they are from the same country as you.
 
When walking around, you can spot a 'Whitie' from about one hundred meters away like a milk bottle in a coke fridge. (this is also made easy by the fact that you are 2 feet taller than everyone around you).
 
Usually, you make eye contact at the same time and each person's eyes light up as they think the same thing... 'Hey, another Whitie!'
Then you look away cause you don't want to seem to eager and contemplate talking to them.

You both look back up at the same time and give the token head nod but that is as far as it goes. You never want to be the one that looks like the needy tourist that misses home.

As u get closer, you look at each other out of the corner of your eye, hoping they will say something and you can pick up on their Aussie accent and reminisce about home.

But alas, you both keep walking and pass each other wondering where they were from until you see the next 'Whitie'.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hong Kong HQ

When you travel alone, you can't help but look around at the check in and pick people that you hope you are sitting next to. Or, in some cases, not sitting next to.

As you get closer to your seat row number, you eye off the possible empty seats and pray that yours isn't the one next to the lady with the baby or the guy that you could smell in the boarding gate.

For me, it always ends in disappointment. Despite getting and aisle seat, for the first leg of my journey, I was stuck next to a chair arm hogger with a cold. Not only was I jammed into one corner of my seat but all I could think about was catching some strange new foreign strain of the bird flu.

To cap it off, inclement weather meant that there was a large amount of turbulence, so the service of coffee was cancelled for safety reasons. And when the attendant forgot my croissant for breakfast I resided to the fact that it wasn't going to be the best trip I've had.

For those that have been to Singapore airport, you'll know that there are 4 terminals. One awesome 'all you could ever need' terminal, two 'comfy chairs and restaurants' terminals and one scummy 'you are standing for 3hrs' terminal. My 2nd flight left from the latter, aptly named the 'Budget' terminal, thanks to the cheaper airlines that depart from there.

The budget terminal itself baffles me. There are huge amounts of room but only a few seats for you to wait in. It's like the titanic of airport terminals- huge, but if everyone needed a place to sit and wait, most would be left stranded.

After 4hrs waiting around, I finally got to check in for my tiger airways flight to hong kong. 'budget' is a bit of an overstatement for these guys. Getting into one of their planes is like getting into someone's first car- 2nd hand, well used head rests and still smells like the previous owner. The only thing that consoles me is that when you look at the plane from the outside, the person in the 8th window doesn't realize that their face is looking directly out of where the tiger's arse is in the giant tiger airways logo.

After 4 more cramped hours, I finally landed in Hong Kong. Flying, above the clouds before landing made the weather look promising with the sun shining. Below the clouds was a different story though. Cold, wet and windy. Great.

In the beginning...

Ten years ago, I thought that the farthest a bike could take me was to the corner shop to buy another packet of cigarettes. And even then I'd struggle. Competitive sport was a thing of the past for me as I enjoyed my party years at University. That all changed one day thanks to my now wife.

We sat in front of the television one Saturday morn watching a triathlon (which one of my house mates at the time was in to) and as Australian triathlete, Courtney Atkinson, emerged from the water, she was quick to remark how 'fit' he was. Sure, he had rippled abs, tanned body and could hold his own in a pair of budgie smugglers but could he drink an entire bottle of rum in one sitting without passing out???

I was not going to be out-done by this guy. "I could do that.", I stated. And with those four words began the demise of 'fat me'. Within a month I had sold my pride and joy V8 country bumpkin ute, quit smoking and bought my first ever road bike.

I have a montage of stories, both successful and unsuccessful, of my journey to fitness but I won't bore you with the details. Eventually I gave up running and swimming to focus on cycling and have not looked back since.

All that is relevant, is that almost 10 years on - to the day - I am about to step on to a plane to begin a year of riding for a Continental cycling team throughout Asia and Europe.

This blog will record my experiences and ramblings for the next twelve months. It won't all be about the bike, as you will soon see, but without it, I'd probably still be sitting on the couch in front of the television.

And if you were wondering... Here is a 'before' picture of myself, back in my prime;)